Archive for November, 2013

the street mordecai richler 001The Street by Mordecai Richler ~ 1969. This edition: Panther Books, 1971. Paperback. 142 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

It’s been a good many years since I’ve read anything by Mordecai Richler, and reading The Street reminded me why: a little goes a long way. And I mean that in the very best way.

The Street was just long enough, at 142 pages, to be a quick one-evening read, a bracingly rude and somewhat startling experience which balanced the well-meant inanity of my other recent reading. The naïve earnestness of D.E. Stevenson’s rather silly Miss Buncle and the good natured ramblings of Georgette Heyer’s handsome dilettantes are decidedly mild pleasures in contrast to Richler’s sly, cheeky, say-anything Montreal ragamuffins and their bluntly outspoken elders. And I find that the mixing of genres here adds piquancy to all, with Richler’s pungent acidity emphasizing the good brown bread and airily sweet meringue of the others.

The Street is a collection of ten linked stories-slash-memoirs – fictionalized memoirs? – mostly following the narrator – Richler himself, one assumes – from childhood to adulthood. The anecdote here is everything, and Richler’s authorial voice is perfectly suited to these short pieces.

From the author’s Foreword:

‘Why do you want to go to university?’ the student counsellor asked me.

Without thinking, I replied, ‘I’m going to be a doctor, I suppose.’

A doctor.

One St. Urbain Street day cribs and diapers were cruelly withdrawn and the next we were scrubbed and carted off to kindergarten. Though we didn’t know it, we were already in pre-med school. School starting age was six, but fiercely competitive mothers would drag protesting four-year-olds to the registrarion desk and say, ‘He’s short for his age.’

‘Birth certificate, please?’

‘Lost in a fire.’

On St. Urbain Street, a head start was all.  Our mothers read us stories from Life about pimply astigmatic fourteen-year-olds who had already graduated from Harvard or who were confounding the professors at M.I.T.  Reading Tip-Top Comics or listening to The Green Hornet on the radio was as good as asking for a whack on the head, sometimes administered with a copy of The Canadian Jewish Eagle, as if that in itself would be nourishing.  We were not supposed to memorise baseball batting averages or dirty limericks.  We were expected to improve our Word Power with the Reader’s Digest and find inspiration in Paul de Kruif’s medical biographies.  If we didn’t make doctors, we were supposed to at least squeeze into dentistry.  School marks didn’t count as much as rank.  One wintry day I came home, nostrils clinging together and ears burning cold, proud of my report.  ‘I came rank two, Maw.’

‘And who came rank one, may I ask?’

The Jewish mothers in The Street fulfill every stereotype, being supremely ambitious for their children, yet never letting them get too full of themselves; chicken soup and sharp cuffs being administered with equal enthusiasm as maternal whim decides. To get ahead, to make good, to get away from St. Urbain Street and its taint of poverty-ridden struggle and the worst lingering despairs of the “Old Country” is what they wish for their children, and their self-imposed self sacrifice is both the bane of their families’ existence and the driving force which propels them all onward. In adulthood the children of those ubiquitous mothers begin at last to understand this and give homage; in childhood they merely endure and dodge the good advice and the blows with equal agility.

These stories are full of a sense of a very particular place and time, Montreal of the early 1940s, captured in microscopic detail of sight, sound and smell in Richler’s steel-trap memory. His boyhood companions are familiar to us from similar narrators and from Richler’s previous works; Duddy Kravitz is present, spouting off his knowing comments, and the author assumes we know who he is, assumes that his readers already know the context and are willing participants in the narrative. And while the scene here is unmistakeably this very small corner of Montreal, it is evocative of similar boyhoods and experiences in New York and London and any of the other key locales in the continual global diaspora and resettling of the Hebrew race.

For this is, above everything else, a very Jewish book, as well as being a Montreal book, and a Canadian book; Richler makes no bones about the uniqueness of this aspect of his own experience and of the importance of it in the scenes he so meticulously describes. His Jewishness is at the core of his very being; everything else is layered on top.

Heads up, gentle readers expecting a mildly humorous memoir, for this author is proud of his outspokenness and his humour has a cutting edge; it is also frequently bawdy, and full of the smuttiness of guffawing enclaves of adolescent boys. That hoary old dirty joke, “Bloomberg’s dead!”, is here on page 23, told with especial glee, and more of the same is scattered liberally throughout.

Mordecai Richler can be terribly rude, but he is also very, very good. I had forgotten quite how good. I do believe it is time for another visit with the one and only Duddy Kravitz.

Here are some other thoughts on The Street.

Kevin from Canada: The Street

Humanities 360: Erin Yorke reviews The Street

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cranford cover elizabeth gaskellCranford by Elizabeth Gaskell (Mrs Gaskell) ~ 1851-53. (It appeared as a serial before being published in book form post-1853.) This edition: Everyman’s Library, 1942. Hardcover. 255 pages.

My rating: 9/10

What a joy this little book was. I cannot believe it has taken me so very long to read it, such an essential part of the “English novel” canon!

Our narrator is one Mary Smith, a young lady of good family, who visits and corresponds with the good ladies of a small (fictional) English village, Cranford, in the early years of the 19th century. Round about the 1830s, to be more exact, from the references to Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers being then newly released in their serial form. King William IV and his Queen, Adelaide, reign over the land, soon to be succeeded by the young Victoria. The ladies of Cranford, though far from London in more ways than distance, keep a keen eye cocked on the doings of high society and the nobility, and form their own society accordingly.

In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women.  If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble, distant only twenty miles on a railroad.  In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford.  What could they do if they were there?  The surgeon has his round of thirty miles, and sleeps at Cranford; but every man cannot be a surgeon.  For keeping the trim gardens full of choice flowers without a weed to speck them; for frightening away little boys who look wistfully at the said flowers through the railings; for rushing out at the geese that occasionally venture in to the gardens if the gates are left open; for deciding all questions of literature and politics without troubling themselves with unnecessary reasons or arguments; for obtaining clear and correct knowledge of everybody’s affairs in the parish; for keeping their neat maid-servants in admirable order; for kindness (somewhat dictatorial) to the poor, and real tender good offices to each other whenever they are in distress, the ladies of Cranford are quite sufficient…

The Amazons referred to are a select group of upper class ladies who rule Cranford’s restricted society. Spinster sisters Miss Deborah and Miss Matilda (Matty) Jenkyns (rather elderly daughters of the some-years-deceased rector), the know-everything Miss Pole, snobbish Mrs Jamieson (sister-in-law to the late Earl of Glenmire, she’ll be happy if you’ll remember), and quiet Mrs Forrester (genteelly poverty stricken but held locally in highest regard due to her familial ties to the aristocracy) – all these ladies take the leading roles in Cranford’s major occasions.

Mary Smith frequently comes to stay with the Jenkyns sisters, and she is able to comment on the occasional village tempests. A certain Captain Brown and his two daughters, Mary and Jessie, settle in Cranford, and Captain Brown’s attendance at the previously all-female tea parties keeps the ladies on their toes, though he deeply offends Miss Deborah by his preference for the up-and-coming young writer Charles Dickens over the stately Dr. Johnson.

As the years slide by, reports from Cranford show us a peacefully microcosm in a gentle state of flux. Several characters move on or pass out of the worldly sphere altogether, several marriages occur, and a birth or two. Lady Glenmire arrives to the initial glee of her hostess, Mrs Jamieson, but soon confounds that lady by demonstrating some rather “low” tastes; nouveau-riche Mrs Fitz-Adam comes into her own at long last; a burglar alarm has the ladies all in a tizzy; and the failure of Miss Matty’s investments rallies the ladies to new heights of beneficent plotting.

It’s all very low key, but it is gloriously funny, and occasionally deeply pathetic (in a traditionally fictional way), and I am looking forward with interest to reading more of Mrs Gaskell, now that I’ve at last made her first-hand acquaintance.

And, last but not least, the Cranford references I continually come upon in my other reading will no longer leave me feeling quite so dreadfully ignorant of the original. Oh, happy day, indeed!

Yes, these women are stuffing a cat into a boot. I shan't tell you why; you will have to read the novel yourself to find out. But I assure you that Kitty comes to no harm, and the "operation" is a decided success! (You'll never guess it; it's a uniquely Cranfordian situation!)

Yes, these women are stuffing a cat into a boot. I shan’t tell you why; you will have to read the novel yourself to find out. But I assure you that Kitty comes to no harm, and that the “operation” is a decided success. (You’ll never guess it; it’s a uniquely Cranfordian situation!)
Illustration is from the 1904 J.M. Dent edition, illustrations by C.E. Brock.


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charity girl georgette heyerCharity Girl by Georgette Heyer ~ 1970. This edition: E.P. Dutton, 1970. Hardcover. 255 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This past Saturday morning which went rather sideways (three hours Good Samaritan detail waiting in a parking lot for BCAA to unlock a neighbour’s vehicle with the keys left inside) was salvaged by a very productive visit to the semi-annual Rotary Club book sale, where I picked up two small-but-packed-full boxes of pleasing finds for a mere $50. And best of all, I had my husband along to help in the search, and to lend strong arms to carry off the finds! (No mutters about “More books, why do we need more books?!” when he is involved in the process himself, and he was right in there with me searching for good things among the heaped tables and boxes of many other people’s cast-off reads.)

George Gissing’s The Odd Women, Antonia White’s Strangers, and Miles Franklin’s My Career Goes Bunk – all three nice unworn Viragos. A pristine Persephone edition of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Several new-to-me Willa Cathers – Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Professor’s House, and The Song of the Lark. A first edition of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Shield Ring, not ex-lib, with perfect dust jacket, in Brodart, yet! And others too numerous to name off. (Well, here are just a few more: Doris Lessing, Sinclair Lewis, Pearl S. Buck, Margaret Bell Houston, Jeanette Winterson, W.P. Kinsella, Rex Stout…what good reading awaits us.)

And then there was this book, a lovely early edition hardcover in only-slightly-worn dust jacket, Georgette Heyer’s Charity Girl. How could I resist? Bumped off the bedside table was Margaret Laurence’s most excellent book of Ghanian-set short stories, The Tomorrow-Tamer, with but two stories left to read, to be temporarily eclipsed by something much more playful – I think “frothy” would describe it well. In the very best way, of course.

Handsome, athletic, witty, kind-hearted, and fantastically wealthy Viscount Desford (Ashley Carrington, to his family and friends) has displeased his gruffly doting father by refusing to settle down and marry the most eligible Henrietta (Hetty) Silverdale. The Silverdales and Carringtons are long-time neighbours and friends, and Desford and Hetty have been happily paired up since childhood, though both confound their respective parents by insisting that things are strictly platonic, and bound to remain so. In the meantime, neither has met anyone they like well enough to marry, though suitors and prospective brides are swarming round both attractive honeypots, to be kindly brushed away in the politest way possible. But the thirties are approaching, and gossips whisper that both are surely bound to settle soon, though with whom is up for abundant debate.

Desford attends a party hosted by the scheming Lady Bugle, who, with five daughters to get off, has hopes that her eldest, the admittedly lovely Lucasta, will snag the prize. But Desford preserves a wisely noncommittal silence, unbending only when he meets the household’s least prominent member, a semi-orphaned neice, one Charity Steane, who goes by the name Cherry, and is as sweet and delectable as that implies. Cherry is properly grateful to her Aunt Bugle, but her position in the household is a lowly one, being something between nursery maid and unpaid companion to the younger girls, and no one hesitates to remind Cherry of her obligations, and the digressions of her parents. (Her late mother, Aunt Bugle’s sister, had eloped with the dodgy Wilfred Steane, a man who has notoriously lived by his clever wits and card-sharping skills, and who has vanished from the scene, permanently, it seems, as all devoutly hope.)

Cherry is overheard spilling her personal story to the interested Desford, and the resulting brouhaha sees her fleeing Lady Bugle’s house in tears and trudging along the road towards London in a forlorn and lonesome state. Desford, on his way home all happily innocent of knowledge of Cherry’s disgrace, stops his curricle and rescues the maiden, and conveys her to London, hoping to settle her with her grandfather, the notoriously crusty skinflint, Lord Nettlecombe. But Lord Nettlecombe appears to be out of town, and no one knows his whereabouts. What to do, then, with the hapless runaway?

In a mood of increasing desperation – the gossips will no doubt already have started the whispers about Desford being seen with an unaccompanied and very lovely young female person of unknown provenance – Desford conveys Cherry to Hetty’s house, setting off a string of events which entangles not only Desford, Hetty and Cherry, but their respective families – including a very-much-not-dead Wilfred Steane – as well as Hetty’s chief suitor, the reliably calm and cool Mr. Nethercott, and Desford’s bumptious younger brother, Simon.

Despite the title, the book is centered around the two Carrington brothers rather than the girl, for once Simon appears he rivals his elder brother in both personal attractiveness and slightly muddled goodwill to the delicious but one-dimensional Cherry, who is of a type to be carried along pell-mell by her tempestuous fate, a very good girl at heart, seeking only to please those who undertake her care, and desperately longing in her simple way for a place to at last call home.

A collection of pleasing characters, all in all, with even the villains having their likeable moments, as the tale tumbles to its easily foreseen conclusion. A light and pleasant read; perfect a few hours escape from gloomy, dark November.

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When Abraham Lincoln was shoveled into the tombs he forgot the copperheads and the assassin . . . in the dust, in the cool tombs.

And Ulysses Grant lost all thought of con men and Wall Street, cash and collateral turned ashes . . . in the dust, in the cool tombs.

Pocahontas’ body, lovely as a poplar, sweet as a red haw in November or a pawpaw in May, did she wonder? does she remember? . . . in the dust, in the cool tombs?

Take any streetful of people buying clothes and groceries, cheering a hero or throwing confetti and blowing tin horns . . . tell me if the lovers are losers . . . tell me if any get more than the lovers . . . in the dust . . . in the cool tombs.

by Carl Sandburg, Cornhuskers, 1918

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seven tears for apollo phyllis a whitneySeven Tears for Apollo by Phyllis A. Whitney ~ 1963. This edition: Fawcett Crest, 1966. Paperback. 224 pages.

My rating: 5/10

Here’s the back cover blurb on my tattered paperback, relic of one of my high school library’s discard sales way back in the 1970s:

Ever since the sudden, tragic death of her husband, pretty Dorcas Brandt lived in fear. Too many frightening, unexplainable things had begun to happen – the fatal accident to a close friend, the mysterious warnings scrawled on her mirror, her room ransacked.

Dorcas fled to Greece in search of sanctuary. But even on the beautiful island of Rhodes she could never escape the shadows of terror.

Was she just imagining it all?

Had the loss of her husband unhinged her mind?

Or was someone really out to destroy her?

Well, which one of those options would you suppose is the correct one?

If you guessed number three, you’d be bang on target. Dorcas is being persecuted, poor girl, and by a collective at that. Anyone she confides in either openly sneers at her allegations, patronizes her, or steps up the pressure. But why, oh why?

Here’s the story. We start out in the U.S.A., in an unspecified location that might just be New York, or possibly some other major eastern city. Some years back, museum curator’s lovely seventeen-year-old daughter Dorcas made a very bad marriage indeed, to sleek, handsome, half-Greek, half-Italian and all-wrong Gino. He turned out to be deceitful, manipulative, and physically violent; when Dorcas attempts to depart the marriage with baby daughter Beth, one of Gino’s mysterious “friends” pursues her and brings her back, warning her that it would be a very bad idea indeed to cross Gino, as what he owns (inferring Dorcas and Beth) he holds on to. Or else.

Gino’s profession as an art dealer is slightly nebulous but apparently profitable. Dorcas suspects that all of Gino’s transactions are not strictly legal, but she has no real proof, just an uneasy feeling which no one else seems to share, as Gino has a wide circle of influential friends in the arts-and-culture world, including matronly Fernanda, a best-selling author of quirky travel books, who has mothered Gino for years and extends her kindly meant but overbearing patronage to his wife and child.

Now nasty Gino has perished in a plane crash, and Dorcas is attempting to move forward in her life. She’s been having some emotional issues; Gino has had her in a facility for psychological treatment for her alleged neuroses, and Fernanda has been overseeing young Beth’s care. Now, since her widowhood and release from psychiatric care, Dorcas is herself living with Fernanda, acting as Fernanda’s secretary-assistant,  and reacquainting herself with four-year-old Beth. An upcoming trip to the Isle of Rhodes seems to be a positive step for everyone. Fernanda will gather material for her latest book; Dorcas will get a chance to experience Greece and see at first hand the sights that her late father could only dream of; Beth will bond with her mother in the bits in between.

As Dorcas stands in front of the museum copy of a statue of Apollo, steeling herself for the emotional journey she is about to embark upon, tears come to her lovely eyes, as she recalls her first meeting with the man that would become her husband – in front of this very statue, only a few months after her beloved father’s death – and Gino’s mysterious pronouncement that she must weep seven times for Apollo before she could shake the bonds that held her – whatever that had meant, if anything.

Dorcas weeps her way through this novel, with – I’ll give her that – abundant good reason. Gino brutalized her and left her physically traumatized and an emotional wreck; Beth has been virtually adopted by well-meaning Fernanda, with Dorcas’s contact with her daughter being held up as reward for good (meaning calm and rational) behaviour; and people – most notably Fernanda – insist on viewing Dorcas as a bereaved widow, when she is in actuality very relieved to be free of her malicious spouse. Everyone thinks Dorcas is a bit of a mess, and she tends to concur – though with slightly different reasoning.

Lately Dorcas has been finding evidence of a mysterious intruder in her room, with her belongings being ransacked, and a strange symbol being soaped on her mirror, or chalked on the floor – two circles, like the eyes of an owl. What could this mean?! And what is the apparent interest in a cryptic letter Gino had received just before his death, which Dorcas has refused to share with Gino’s associates, and which has now disappeared?

The average reader will be quicker off the mark than lovely, confused, jittering Dorcas. Something is definitely up, and Gino was obviously deeply involved. This trip to Rhodes will no doubt trigger all sorts of happenings. Beware, pretty lady!

The set-up of the novel is fairly promising, though the author drops some immensely broad hints as to what is coming up, first and foremost being that Gino is perhaps not quite as dead as he should be. The cryptic letter is obviously a clue of some sort to Gino’s last uncompleted nefarious transaction. Wee Beth is a perfect pawn, and will no doubt be used at some point to gain her mother’s cooperation by the as-yet-unidentified bad guys. Fernanda’s kindness will have a cost. Markos’s widow will hold a key secret to the affair. And there will be a romantic interest popping up soon. Ah yes, here he is. Johnny Orion, handsome young American schoolteacher, employed by Fernanda to squire her about Rhodes.

When we discover upon reaching Rhodes that the local museum is missing a major piece of ancient sculpture – the head of a boy with a tear on his cheek – we put two and two together. Obviously the Big Dark Secret has something to do with art theft! (At first I thought it might be drug running. But I swear that art theft was my second guess!)

Things get more and more hectic as the tale goes on, until the final dramatic dénouement, which sees our heroine weeping for what we hope will be the very last time.

This story was really not that great, being awkwardly plotted out throughout, and chock full of implausible action scenes and poorly written dialogue. It was head and shoulders better than Sea Jade and Columbella, though, hence its relatively high rating on my personal scale. I’m giving it a pass, at 5, because I think the author tried really hard to create an interesting scenario, and I could tell her heart was in the right place. It’s just too bad that others (Mary Stewart!) have done it so very much better.

Here’s an excellent review which goes into much more detail, plus it has lovely pictures. All of the troubling bits this blogger identified, I completely concur with, and the positive bits, too. Check it out.

Romantic Armchair Traveller – Seven Tears for Apollo

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the silver thorn hugh walpoleThe Silver Thorn: A Book of Stories by Hugh Walpole ~ 1928. This edition: Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1928. Hardcover. 333 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

Fifteen short stories by the prolific Hugh Walpole, originally published in various periodicals between 1922 and 1928. An eclectic mix, including several quietly creepy horror stories: The Tiger, The Tarn, Major Wilbraham, and, in my opinion, for its Kafkaesque atmosphere, The Dove.

A more than readable collection, though I didn’t feel that most of these were “top rank” for the short story genre of their era. They share something of a common theme, of yearning for various things, and of regret for decisions made in the past, and of the inexorability of fate and the urges – with varying degrees of success –  to go against it.

A gentle yet pervasively melancholy mood hovers over these stories, though they have a certain degree of humour and occasional happy resolutions, though always with an ironic twist. Shadows of the recent Great War and its effect on the collective psyche are very apparent in this collection; an interesting example of English literature between the 20th Century’s two world wars.

  • The Little Donkeys with the Crimson Saddles – Two lady-friends keep shop together (fancy work and antiquities) in Silverton-on-Sea, but their happy establishment appears to be about to dissolve when the younger receives a proposal of marriage from a very eligible man.
  • The Tiger – Londoner Homer Brown dreams of being hunted by a tiger in the jungle; the dream accompanies him to New York, where it comes inexorably to a shocking climax.
  • No Unkindness Intended – Elderly, slovenly, ineffectual Mr. Hannaway, vicar of a city parish, is offhandedly dismissed from parlour after parlour, and things look dreary indeed until his path crosses that of a similarly situated small dog.
  • Ecstasy – A modestly successful poet who has been musing about his life and his twenty-year-old marriage and wondering where the ecstasy of the younger years has vanished to spends an afternoon with a tramp and regains hold of the key to contentment.
  • A Picture – Two lovers discover their essential differences over opinions of a small oil painting.
  • Old Elizabeth – A Portrait – An unemotional family, habitually unsentimental, are brought to their figurative knees by an elderly servant.
  • The Etching – Bullying Mrs. Gabriel goes too far when her otherwise meek husband discovers and indulges a passion for collecting old etchings.
  • Chinese Horses – This is one of the star stories of the collection, to my mind, elaborating on the theme of the first story, The Little Donkeys. Middle-aged Miss Henrietta Maxwell has nothing in the world but her beloved house, which she is forced to let due to financial difficulties after the war. An opportunity arises to bring her standard of living back to a higher level, but is it worth the compromises required?
  • The Tarn – The second horror story of the collection, and a very effective one at that. Author Fenwick’s life has always been shadowed by the more successful Foster; now the two are together as Foster seeks conciliation for the bitterness Fenwick feels. Fenwick isn’t really interested in making friends with his rival…
  • Major Wilbraham – An unusual story about a retired army major and his personal religious epiphany and its tragic – or is it truly tragic? – result. I am undecided as to whether this is a supernatural tale, or merely an attempt by the author at a religious allegory of sorts.
  • A Silly Old Fool – A chance remark by a patronizing wealthy parishioner changes Canon Morphew’s life, as he becomes aware of the possibility of seeking and attaining romantic love. But striving is not always rewarded with success…
  • The Enemy – Bookseller Harding is annoyed by the insistence of chatty neighbour Tonks to act as though they are close friends. He really just wants to be left alone to go his solitary way. Or does he?
  • The Enemy in Ambush – Stiff and very proper Captain John Ford boards out in Moscow with a family of emotional Russians, with a view to improving his Russian language skills. Cultures clash, with the stiff upper lip taking precedence, until Mrs. Ford shows up to accompany her husband home.
  • The Dove – In the years after the Great War, society seeks to understand the root causes of the recent conflict. One Percy Alderness-Slumber is inspired to go to Germany to investigate the feelings and emotions of the common people, hoping to gain some insight to bring back to England and share. His meekness and well-meaning lead to his ultimate undoing, as he becomes embroiled in a Kafkaesque scenario with his German landlady. A horror story not involving the supernatural realm, and one I know I will remember with a quiet shudder. Looking over the stories in this collection, I’m wondering if The Dove doesn’t rather stand out, along with Chinese Horses, as my most personally memorable.
  • Bachelors – Harry and his ten-tears-older brother Robin live in single happiness in the cathedral town of Polchester, and are well established as local “characters”. But one day Harry proposes to and is accepted to fluffily vivacious Miss Pinsent, and everything goes sideways for Robin. But is it a quiet personal tragedy, or a chance to live his own life at last?

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The Forecast

Perhaps our age has driven us indoors.

We sprawl in the semi-darkness, dreaming sometimes

Of a vague world spinning in the wind.

But we have snapped our locks, pulled down our shades,

Taken all precautions. We shall not be disturbed.

If the earth shakes, it will be on a screen;

And if the prairie wind spills down our streets

And covers us with leaves, the weatherman will tell us.

Dan Jaffe, 1964

From the anthology Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle… and other modern verse

(November, 2013. Apropos the happenings in the wider world of late.)

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thornyhold dj mary stewartThornyhold by Mary Stewart ~ 1988. This edition: Ballantine/Fawcett Crest, 1989. Paperback. ISBN: 0-449-21712-4. 289 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Three-quarters of this romantic suspense novel was absolutely excellent; the promising plot evaporated just a little disappointingly in the concluding chapters, but on reflection my overall impression is favourable. It’s keeper, and it gets a very decent rating of 8/10 on my personal merit scale.

I do believe I am turning into a Mary Stewart fan; I’m feeling rather ashamed of my prior dismissal of this writer; I’m discovering that she is a more than competent writer; she has full control of her words, and I don’t believe I’ve yet to read an awkward phrase. She can write action scenes in vividly cinematic detail – see any of her romantic-suspense novels written between 1954 and 1976 – and accompany those with lyrical descriptions of the places where the action takes place. In a genre which encompasses some disappointingly sub-par stuff – Phyllis A. Whitney springs to mind for some reason, perhaps because I’ve been reading her this year too, and finding her sadly lacking – Stewart’s prose stands out. It’s not high literature, but it is well done, and most enjoyable to read. So I’m adding Mary Stewart to the shelf beside D.E. Stevenson and Georgette Heyer, as ones to track down, read with pleasure, and keep safe for future re-reads. Thank you, fellow internet book people, for giving me the nudge to explore these writers. You were more than right!

Mary Stewart’s heroines are uniformly well-drawn (so far every book I’ve read by her has been focussed on a leading female character), though they do always seem to share some characteristics. They are always good-looking, instantly attractive to men, and much prone to impulsive behaviour, with expected results. Each one of them does have her own personality, though, her own quirks and talents and weaknesses. The heroines are slightly interchangeable, perhaps – a test of a “stock” character is to imagine him or her in another of the author’s books – I could see Stewart’s young ladies managing quite well wherever they were placed within her fictional settings.

The heroine in Thornyhold is no exception, though the action in this low-key novel is confined to occasional verbal sparring. No drawn knives to avoid, no bullets to dodge, no trains to outrace, no rooftops to clamber over – our author at this point was likely ready to take a bit of an action-scene rest; Thornyhold was published in 1988, when Mary Stewart was a most respectable seventy-two.

Young Geillis – Gilly – Ramsay lives a lonely life, with an oddly assorted pair of parents.

I suppose that my mother could have been a witch if she had chosen to. But she met my father, who was a rather saintly clergyman, and he cancelled her out. She dwindled from a potential Morgan le Fay into an English vicar’s wife, and ran the parish, as one could in those days – more than half a century ago – with an iron hand disguised by no glove at all. She retained her dominance, her vivid personality, a hint of cruelty in her complete lack of sympathy for weakness or incompetence. I had, I think, a hard upbringing.

Gilly grows up; her mother dies, and with the natural mourning there is some relief, for her mother was a difficult person to live under. Gilly abandons her University classes and settles in to housekeep for her father; when he dies in his turn, Gilly is twenty-seven, with no resources to fall back on, and no real idea of what her future holds. Then, lo and behold, on her return from her father’s funeral to the vicarage which she will soon have to vacate, she receives a letter informing her that her godmother, (her older cousin, also Geillis, after whom Gilly has been named) has died and has bequeathed to Gilly a small country house and a very small income. Along with the lawyer’s letter is a note to Gilly from Cousin Geillis, telling her that she will find “everything here that you have most wanted.”

Cousin Geillis was something of a pagan, rejecting the outward trappings of Christianity, which made things just the tiniest bit awkward with her uncle-in-law the vicar. Her neighbours in the country regard her as something of a white witch, with her knowledge of herbalism and her sometimes peculiar behaviour, not to mention her large cat – her familiar? – Hodge. Gilly herself has had occasion to note that her cousin has some unique powers, showing up now and then just when most needed to help her young namesake over emotional hurdles in her life, and on one memorable visit providing Gilly a fleeting glimpse into the future, via crystal ball.

So Gilly steps into the life her cousin has left waiting for her. Needless to say there are some twists in store, chief among them being her cousin’s neighbour, Mrs. Trapp, who seems more at home in Geillis’ house than she should be. She brings Gilly meals, and nags her about finding a certain handwritten notebook she claims Geillis would have wanted her to have, and behind her ready smiles Gilly glimpses a steel-trap disposition which is most unnerving.

And, being a romance, there does in due time appear a man. And because it is a Mary Stewart romance, the man in question is preceded by a charming young son, whom Gilly befriends with no idea at all that the friendship will lead to something much, much more.

There is a certain intensity in the first part of the book which was rather heart-rending; one wonders if some of it is autobiographical? Or perhaps it is just cleverly imagined. The lonesome child Gilly is nicely portrayed, though the tone is carefully unemotional; our narrator telling the story is Gilly herself, some seventy years onward, looking back from her (happy) old age.

With the escalating escapades of scheming Mrs. Trapp, the tale turns towards farce, with the ending sequence – concerning, among other things, a love potion gone awry – striking something of a frivolous note after the emotional seriousness of what has come before.

A well-written book in its way, and one I will no doubt return to when I want something not too challenging to pass an hour or two. Good reading for a waiting room or a journey; easy to pick up and put down; the limited number of characters and the straightforward storyline are easy to keep hold of even with frequent interruptions.

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the moon-spinners pb cover mary stewartThe Moon-Spinners by Mary Stewart ~ 1962. This edition: Hodder, 1964. Paperback. 264 pages.

My rating: 9/10

I don’t know what it is – perhaps the snowy weather and the early dark evenings – but this book completely hit the spot with me a few nights ago, following through to the next day as I surreptitiously raced to finish it off in between my proper occupations.

Maybe the appeal comes from the sunny setting – the Isle of Crete at Easter, mountains alive with wildflowers – or possibly just the perfectly adorable love interest of our intelligent heroine – he’s slightly mysterious, rather handsome, charming even on his bed of pain, plus he throws himself wholeheartedly into the fray-of-the-moment, particularly if it’s to avenge damage done to his lady-love.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that The Moon-Spinners is quite beautifully written for its genre, in what I’ve come to realize is Mary Stewart’s trademark detailed travelogue style. It assumes a certain degree of intellectual and general knowledge among its readers, and refuses (for example) to reference in-text literary allusions, assuming our familiarity with them, something I always appreciate when done in an appropriate fashion, as a natural part of the narrator’s voice.

The action scenes were relatively short, though no more believable than any of Stewart’s other escapades, and I found I managed to get through them with only a raised eyebrow, not an outright snort of indignation. Let’s see, now. The heroine is attacked once with a knife and once with a fish spear (the spear episode is while in the water, of course, with the heroine scantily attired in her underthings), and she is present while bullets fly about willy-nilly but ultimately harmlessly, and she manages to bring the chief villain to grief at the very end with a spur of the moment intervention. There are two successful murders (well, perhaps more of the lost-my-temper manslaughter-type murders versus deliberate planning) plus at least one attempted murder, all in just the first few days of what was supposed to be a restful botanizing vacation.

Stewart gets the flowers right, and includes a clever Linnaean word-joke or two which I greatly appreciated, being of the horticultural persuasion myself. The whole novel is packed full of heart-racing action and instant romance, which keeps things clipping right along. The side characters – the heroine’s older cousin, the hero’s local-boy sidekick and charming younger brother – are a fabulous addition to the story, and allow for an abundance of humorous repartee. Even the surviving villains are quite a lot of fun, if you’ll forgive my using “fun” in the same breath as “murderous villain”. One is prone to violent loss of temper, the other tiptoes around anything messy with faint disdain – “Well, I’d hate to have to kill you, but you leave me no choice. Oh, better yet, I’ll leave it up to my brutish sidekick here to deal with you. I just don’t want to know!”  Together they make a diverting team, in every sense of the word. The murderees themselves are unlikable thug types, so we don’t shed too many tears at their demise.

What else can I say? Loved it. The best Mary Stewart I’ve read yet, though My Brother Michael comes close. (Must also post some thoughts on that one, some day.)

So, the story.

It was the egret, flying out of the lemon-grove, that started it. I won’t pretend I saw it straight away as the conventional herald of adventure, the white stag of the fairy-tale, which, bounding from the enchanted thicket, entices the prince away from his followers, and loses him in the forest where danger threatens with the dusk. But, when the big white bird flew suddenly up among the glossy leaves and the lemon-flowers, and wheeled into the mountain, I followed it. What else is there to do when such a thing happens on a brilliant April noonday at the foot of the White Mountains of Crete; when the road is hot and dusty, but the gorge is green, and full of the sound of water, and the white wings, flying ahead, flicker in and out of deep shadow, and the air is full of the scent of lemon-blossom?

Lovely young Nicola comes on holiday to a remote village in Crete. Arriving a day early for a planned rendezvous with her cousin, she wanders into the hills and is assaulted by a knife-wielding Greek; he then takes her to a hut in which she finds a wounded Englishman, Mark. Much swearing to secrecy results; the hiding-out is because Mark’s fifteen-year-old brother has been kidnapped by a gang of thugs, one of whom shot Mark and left him for dead; Mark and Greek pal (Lambis) have realized that killer is now out searching for the not-quite-as-dead-as-thought Mark, to finish him off. A deadly game of cat-and-mouse keeps tension high as the various characters dash (or limp) from nook to cranny to shepherd’s bothy to niche-in-rock-cliff to ancient temple.

After spending the night nursing Mark, Nicola reluctantly goes off down to the village, plays all innocent, and sleuths away like mad. The small hotel where she is booked to stay is run by an oddly assorted partnership. One is a local man, Stratos, returned from years away in England with a nest egg which he is investing in the hotel; the other is his English partner, Tony, a fabulous cook , darling – and also bar-man and waiter and general manager. Tony is much given to gushing extravagances of speech; his dialogue is well-peppered with italics. I wonder rather if Mary Stewart is trying to portray something more than personal eccentricity here; if this novel were a few decades older Tony would be the quintessential “catty gay guy” we see so frequently in contemporary chick lit. As it is there are one or two possibly double entendre references to Tony not being the heroine’s type, and her older cousin Frances, a sophisticated type herself, is quite catty in regards to Tony, calling him “Cedric” after the literary Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Anyway, Nicola snoops about, discovers that all is not as it seems in this peaceful little village, identifies the villains, discovers the fate of the kidnapped boy, foils the nefarious plottings of the gang of villains, and finds true love. This takes several hundred pages, but they are filled with incident and description and clever conversation and in general are a pleasure to read. A good read indeed, completely effortless and a fabulous diversion from the onset of the Canadian winter.

Oh, and the “moon-spinners” of the title. I thought at first this was a reference to the Cretan windmills, as these are a feature of almost every one of this novel’s cover illustrations I’ve seen. You know, round, like the moon; spinning, because they’re windmills. But though a windmill features importantly in the narrative – hence the illustrations – the moon-spinners referred to are something quite different. Here is Nicola, telling their story:

They’re naiads – water nymphs. Sometimes, when you’re deep in the countryside, you meet three girls, walking along the hill tracks in the dusk, spinning. They each have a spindle, and onto these they are spinning their wool, milk-white, like the moonlight. In fact, it is the moonlight, the moon itself, which is why they don’t carry a distaff. They’re not Fates, or anything terrible; they don’t affect the lives of men; all they have to do is to see that the world gets its hours of darkness, and they do this by spinning the moon down out of the sky. Night after night, you can see the moon getting less and less, the ball of light waning, while it grows on the spindles of the maidens. Then, at length, the moon is gone, and the world has darkness, and rest, and the creatures of the hillsides are safe from the hunter, and the tides are still . . .

Then, on the darkest night, the maidens take their spindles down to the sea, to wash their wool. And the wool slips from the spindles into the water, and unravels in long ripples of light from the shore to the horizon, and there is the moon again, rising above the sea, just a thin curved thread, re-appearing in the sky. Only when all the wool is washed, and wound again into a white ball in the sky, can the moon-spinners start their work once more, to make the night safe for hunted things . .

Worth reading the book, just for the bits like that. I’m liking Mary Stewart more and more!

One more note. Disney made a 1964 movie based on this novel, starring Hayley Mills. It sounds like “loosely based” is more accurate; descriptions of the Disney production show that the plot diverges widely from Mary Stewart’s crisp thriller. Apparently no expense was spared in the making of the film, which was filmed on location in Crete, with Disney rebuilding a war-damaged village and engaging local people as background players. I’ve not seen it myself, and from the sounds of the plot changes, would not find the Disneyfied version of the story terribly appealing, but I would like to see the physical setting. Has anyone both read the book and seen the film? If so, would love to hear your thoughts!

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the house on the cliff pb cover d e stevensonThe House on the Cliff by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1966. This edition: Fontana, circa 1960s. Paperback. 224 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

What a blissfully easy read, second time around this year for The House on the Cliff. Looking at my handy-dandy reading list, I see that I first read it way back in March of this year, while in the throes of dance festival season (my teen daughter was a competitive dance troupe member until this autumn) which seems aeons ago now, as we’re as close as touching to mid-November.

And though I still retained a reasonably accurate memory of the plot line, many of the details were completely erased from my brain. Not such a bad thing in a comfort read, I maintain, because much of the charm in those is their re-readability. I see I rated this one quite highly back in March, and I’ll keep it there, for though it is a slight thing, it is very pleasant, and that has merit enough for me.

Young Elfrida Jane Ware – twenty-one-ish, I believe – is having a rough time of it. Elfrida has grown up as a child of the theatre, accompanying her second-rate actor father and third-rate (despite beauty and intelligence) actress-mother-turned-seamstress from posting to posting, knowing only the backstage world as she grew up, until one day her father disappears, leaving Elfrida to eventually scramble into an acting career herself, in order to help support herself and her frail mother. “Dead”, her mother claims; “Run off!” whispers the theatre community; but no matter which is was, Elfrida has been popped in at the deep end. She’s been working bit parts here and there, but she’s not exactly star stuff herself, though she’s managed to snag a key role in a failing comedy, along with theatre star Glen Siddons, whom she has a serious (though, she thinks, hidden) crush on.

Now her ailing mother has quietly died, and through her grief Elfrida gamely soldiers on, until one day when her benevolent landlady shows her an advertisement in the newspaper asking for news of Marjory Thistlewood – her mother’s maiden name. When Elfrida visits the lawyer’s office named in the advert, she is astounded to find that she has inherited her grandparents’ country house, Mountain Cross, a not-so-shabby two-storey stone-built gentleman’s home on a sea cliff in Devonshire.

the house on the cliff dj d e stevenson

Here is someone’s vision of Elfrida’s house. In the book it is surrounded by neglected gardens, which appear to be missing here, though it does have the appropriate stunning view of the sea. At least there are no couples clinching on this dust jacket, or on the Fontana cover above. For this heroine is very good at standing alone, and avoiding passionate advances with firm grace. Some other covers I’ve seen in my internet travels are rather more trashy, showing the heroine in full embrace with an unspecified male companion. (Coming back to add that there is one passionate embrace, but as it is very much a last page sort of thing, it doesn’t necessarily represent the heroine’s usual habits.)

The search for her mother was meant as an attempt at reconciliation from her estranged parents – Marjory had eloped with Elfrida’s father against all parental advice – and since both of Marjory’s parents and Marjory herself are no longer living, Elfrida gets the estate.

Unluckily there is only the tiniest of cash inheritances, but Elfrida decides to go off anyway and try living in her new possession, hoping to scrape by on her meagre inherited income. In this she is encouraged by one of the junior partners in the law firm, one Ronnie Leighton, who knows Mountain Cross well from his own childhood. Ronnie and Elfrida get along like old pals from the first time they meet; the reader may draw what inference they like from this convenient kindred spirithood!

To Mountain Cross goes our heroine, abandoning her life on the stage with only the briefest moment of regret, and that for the glamorous Glen. She falls in love with her ancestral home, and everyone about falls in love with sweet Elfrida, relieved that she is not some flighty actress, but a new version of her gentle mother, whom everyone remembers fondly.

Everything goes most swimmingly, in fact, until the visit of a cousin from Canada, who has lost out on the inheritance through his own carelessness. Walter Whitgreave is on the hunt for a stamp album which he claims is off sentimental value only, but a search is unsuccessful, and Walter wanders away muttering forebodingly. (Cue dramatic music.)

Then who should show up on Elfrida’s doorstep but Glen Siddons himself, along with his eight-year-old son from his tragically ended youthful  marriage. The child, Patrick, has been fostered out since his mother’s death, but Glen has collected him at last. Though Glen is playing the doting father and  promises to take an interest in Patrick at long last, we sense that this is not going as well as it could be.

The cast of characters includes a slightly fantastical married couple who decide to stay on at Mountain Cross for love alone (Elfrida cannot afford their wages), a handsome local bachelor who has checked out his new neighbour and found her most appealing, and various local characters (“characters” in every sense of the word) who bend over backwards to ease Elfrida into country life. What with the three young men (Ronnie, Glen and neighbour Lucius), not to mention the adorable Patrick – also smitten with our heroine – Elfrida’s retreat is becoming rather full of male presence; we know romance is inevitable, but which one will it be?

I’m not telling, though I did drop a rather obvious clue early on. Oh, and the stamp album reappears, with prefect timing. The villains wander away, leaving Elfrida in possession of her house on the cliff, and her happy new life.

(And there are pigs. And a friendly milk cow. Though no ducks. Read the book, and you’ll get the reference to ducks. A minor note, but I’m rather fond of ducks myself, so their mention piqued my interest.)

How very sweet! <happy sigh>

I wonder if some of the appeal in this not-very-complex story is Elfrida’s gallant disposition, her quiet but witty sense of humour, and her refusal to make a complete fool of herself even while enmeshed with forthcoming and handsome young men? One gets the feeling that this young lady knows a lot more than her swains (bar one) give her credit for. We wish Elfrida well from first to last, enjoying with quiet vicarious pleasure her acquisition of lovely house, thoroughly nice new friends, and well-deserved romantic partner.

Shall I read another, or should I go for something a bit more intellectually demanding? It’s been hectic round here lately – all in a good way – just dreadfully busy – so I suspect another easy-on-the-tired-brain D.E.S. may be coming to bed with me tonight. Which one, though? Hmmm…

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