Archive for December, 2013

Happy New Year!

Just in from celebrating New Year’s Eve with some brightness in the darkness. The sky is full of stars tonight, echoed by the sparks we made down below. I don’t think I’ll make midnight, but I’m sending this message ahead to wish all of you a very happy 2014, full of good stuff, and LOTS of great books.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

New Years Eve 2013 Hill Farm

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This is a most enjoyable post to write, and, as last year, it was quite easy to chose the books on it. They definitely stood out from the crowd. I have only included books which were new to me this year; if I’d included old favourites this list would be a whole lot longer.

Here we go, then. Leaves and Pages’ Top Ten Reads Discovered in 2013.

*****

BEST NEW-TO-ME READS 2013

Ranked more or less in order of “favouritism”, countdown-style, 10 to 1, though the order was just a bit hard to decide.

Except the Number One book. That one was easy as pie!

*****

the innocent traveller ethel wilson10.

The Innocent Traveller

by Ethel Wilson ~ 1947

Every once in a while a book comes along which, unexpectedly, completely delights me. The Innocent Traveller is one such novel.

There’s not much in the way of drama in this joyfully written book, but it struck a chord of shared experience and of common humanity in its delicious narrative of the irrepressible Topaz. Always witty and occasionally poignant, the tale spans a full century of one woman’s life, 1840s to 1940s , and simultaneously gives a lightly drawn but absolutely fascinating portrait of the times she moved through: the fabulous social and scientific changes of the turning of the nineteenth into the twentieth century, through two world wars and the stunning growth of the colonial city of Vancouver. Through change after change after change, Topaz remains the same, endlessly curious, endlessly outspoken, endlessly optimistic and reaching for the next adventure.

Ethel Wilson writes this semi-biographical tale with a very personal touch – she appears just a little over half way in in the person of recently orphaned eight-year-old Rose who joins the household which includes the middle-aged Topaz. Lovingly written, with warm humour and an unsentimentally analytical eye, this is a delicious ode to an individual and a family, and an absolute joy to read.

turtle diary russell hoban 0019.

Turtle Diary 

by Russell Hoban ~ 1975

The only thing better than looking forward to a read with a cozy preconception as to what the story will bring, and being satisfied with your expectation, is to be blanket-tossed up in the air by a book that tightens up and bounces you unexpectedly into a very different direction, leaving you to freewheel for a while, scrambling for a sense of where you’re going, then catching you and returning you, more or less gently, to solid ground. Turtle Diary is that second kind of book.

The plot is easily condensed. Two middle-aged and currently unattached Londoners, William G. and Neaera H., both struggling with a stagnant state of being, visit the Zoo and are, separately, attracted to the sea turtle tank and the stoic inhabitants within. Musing on the cosmic injustice of these far-roaming creatures being confined to a tiny volume of water, William and Neaera each consider the possibility of somehow freeing the turtles back into the sea. As each of them in turn carry on their separate narrations, we see that their thoughts are uncannily similar, both regarding the turtles and other aspects of their solitary existences, and their relationships (or lack thereof) to those around them. Inevitably William and Neaera meet, speak, share their turtle-liberation impulses, and formulate a practical plan to carry it out, helped by the like-minded zookeeper. Can you guess where we’re going from here? Two lonely people, sharing a joint goal, yearning desperately for love…?

Well, abundant blessings to Russell Hoban. He faces up to and jumps the clichés beautifully, and I salute him for it.

extra virgin annie hawes8.

Extra Virgin

by Annie Hawes ~ 2001

I’ve read a whole lot of memoirs this past year, and thoroughly enjoyed all of them, but this one was just a little bit extra-special. It was a quietly intense pleasure from Prologue to reluctantly-turned last page.

Back in the early 1980s, a young Englishwoman, recently turned down as a “poor risk” in her attempt to receive bank financing to buy her own home in England, is at loose ends and feeling rather sour about life in general. Her sister convinces her to come along on a working trip to Italy, grafting roses for a small commercial operation in the Ligurian hills, in the region of the “Italian Riviera”. The two eventually purchase a bargain property in the area, 2000 pounds for a stone house in an olive grove. Of course, it needs a bit of work…

But this is a rather different tale from the usual “we bought a place in a foreign paradise and hired quaint locals to fix it up” lifestyle porn. Written several decades after the purchase, the tone is not at all cutesy and patronizing. The sisters go to and from England and Italy regularly for many years – England for the “real” jobs which earn the funds to return to Italy for the love of the place, and, increasingly, the people.

And, as a bonus, the author can certainly write about food. Amazing descriptions of the wild-crafted, gardening and culinary abundance of Liguria. Well done, Annie Hawes.

monkey beach eden robinson7.

Monkey Beach 

by Eden Robinson ~ 2000

Fabulous writer, this Eden Robinson. Such a strong book, and completely mesmerizing.

Lisamarie Hill is a young woman of mixed Haisla, Heiltsuk, and European heritage, from the Haisla village of Kitamaat, on an island in the Haida Gwaii group off the north coast of British Columbia. Lisamarie’s younger brother Jimmy has been reported as lost at sea, and as she and her family wait for news of the search mission, Lisamarie thinks back to her childhood, and the life she shared with Jimmy growing up in an intricately complex world of tradition and modernity and a mix of cultural influences.

The author flouts our expectations by both detailing some of the bleakness of First Nations life as her protagonist experienced it, and the more frequent deep joy of family and community. The humour is constant throughout, accompanying the most horrible of scenarios, a happily ironic paradox which inexplicably works.

This book almost made my Most Unexpected list, but it was so good that it really belongs over here.

midnight on the desert j b priestley 0016.

Midnight on the Desert 

by J.B. Priestley ~ 1937

Midnight on the Desert is subtitled Chapters of Autobiography, and there is indeed a fair bit of journalizing going on in here. Written while the author was staying in Arizona, much of the content has an American connection; Priestley was very much in love with the physical space he found himself in here; the desert and the natural features such as the Grand Canyon are described with deep feeling.

I had expected this to be a travel book of sorts, and Midnight on the Desert could certainly fall under that classification, but it is also so very much more. It is an articulate examination of what it means to be a writer and an artist; a critique of the state of the world in politics, religion, philosophy, architecture and the performing arts; an ode to nature; a manifesto for seeking the good in the world and overcoming adversity and “doing one’s part”; a record of observation by a keen and analytical observer.

Near the end, Priestley really lets himself go as he mulls over the time theories of J.W. Dunne and P.D. Ouspensky, which are all about time as a fluid entity, which can be compressed, reversed, and experienced as a simultaneous multiple strand. (Novelist Rumer Godden plays with some of these ideas as well, especially in her book Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time. I was fascinated to realize that both Godden and Priestley were playing along the same metaphysical byways, though many of their musings go completely over my head.)

What a fascinating book; what a full book. One to read right through without stopping; one to tackle in small bits, to digest and mull over and agree with and occasionally refute. Not all that much autobiography, despite the tag on the title, but many insights into what went on in the mind of this deeply creative and opinionated man.

The Joyous Season5.

The Joyous Season 

by Patrick Dennis ~ 1964

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

As the story opens, 10-year-old Kerry, 6-year-old Missy, and their nanny Lulu are reluctantly heading out the door from their posh New York apartment  to Gran’s place in East Haddock. Gran is Mom’s mother, and oh boy, is she ever a snooty piece of work! And she’s more or less the reason for the whole darned dilemma Kerry and Missy are in. To condense greatly, on Christmas morning there was a bit of a situation with Mom and Daddy which saw several kinds of shots fired, much broken glass, some physical violence and some exceedingly blunt words spoken. As a result, Kerr and Missy are poised to become Children of Divorce, much to the delight of meddling Gran. Everyone (except Gran, who openly gloats about the come-uppance of her despised soon-to-be-ex son-in-law) has decided to be Very Civilized About It All, and Not To Make The Children Suffer, but suffering they are indeed, though not perhaps in the way one would expect.

Kerry and Missy, despite all of the adult antics going on in their world, are the epitome of well-adjusted, and Kerry’s knowing-naive narrative exposes the follies of the grown ups, and New York upper crust society at large, to our appreciative eyes. As Kerry and Missy navigate their way through their new life, they conspire to bring their beloved parents back together again, with numerous setbacks along the way.

4.

Crewe Train and The World My Wilderness  

by Rose Macaulay ~ 1926 and 1950

Two very different books by always-changing and challenging author, both featuring young heroines on the cusp of entry into their adult lives.

crewe train rose macaulay 3At the start of Crewe Train we are introduced to our sullen 21-year-old heroine, Denham Dobie. She and her widowed father are English expatriates living in attempted seclusion from the world in a small Andorran village; this hasn’t worked out quite as planned as the Reverend Dobie has allowed himself to be married to a local woman, giving Denham a number of unwanted step-siblings. But things are about to change, when a family of visiting English relatives are present when Mr. Dobie suffers a fatal heart attack, and whisk Denham off with them – to her stepmother’s loud relief – to England.

Denham is an unusual example of the innocent abroad – or, rather, the repatriated innocent in the land of her long-ago birth. She looks about not with the wide eyes of amazement, but with the hooded eyes of scorn. So much fuss about everything! Changing one’s clothes several times a day, all this bothersome bathing and personal grooming, and talk, talk, TALK at every meal. People get so worked up about ideas and books and plays and art…

Denham is a true sensualist, living a life of the body and not of the mind, which makes it most interesting when she catches the eye of the intellectual Arnold, a partner in Denham’s uncle’s publishing firm. And then Denham emerges from her prickly shell enough to respond to Arthur’s advances…

Gorgeously funny little book, very quirky and unusual. A great pleasure to read.

the world my wilderness dj rose macaulayThe World My Wilderness is quite different in tone, and much more sober, as befits a post-World War II novel.

I do believe it is one of the most beautifully written of all I’ve read so far this year. Rose Macaulay lets herself go with lushly vivid descriptions of the world just after the war. The bombed-our ruins of London are depicted in detailed clarity, and almost take precedence over the activities of the human characters, who move through their devastated physical habitat in a state of dazed shock from the brutalities they have seen and survived.

This is a bleakly realistic depiction of the aftermath of World War II and its effect on an expatriate teenager and her divided family, split between France and England. It moved me deeply, though the characters frequently acted in obviously fictional ways. What the author has to say about the effects of war on those who survived it is believably real.

17-year-old Barbary Denison is an English girl who has been raised for many years in France under the custody of her divorced mother and French stepfather. Under the confusion of the German Occupation, Barbary has run wild and has not-so-secretly joined up with an adolescent branch of the resistance – she and her younger half-brother have lived the lives of semi-feral children, and have witnessed and taken part in activities much too old for their tender years.

With the war just over, Barbary is unexpectedly sent to live with her father in London, and the culture shock of being suddenly thrust into “civilized” society is more than Barbary can cope with; she creates a secret life for herself which eventually has dire consequences for everyone concerned.

I’ve earlier described this novel as “bleak”, but don’t let that put you off. It’s definitely a worthwhile read, and Rose Macaulay’s satirical wit is in fine working order here. Not at all depressing, because it is so obviously contrived, but a powerfully memorable reading experience.

3.

All the Little Live Things

by Wallace Stegner ~ 1967

all the little live things wallace stegner (2)An intense novel set in the California hills concerning love in all its forms. And death.

Here Wallace Stegner addresses one of the Big Questions of his time, the mid 1960s, which is to say, the great divide between the generations; the wide movement of youth (and relative youth) to reject categorically the ethics, morals and social standards of their elders, and to try to remake the world into a new utopia. We’re talking about hippies, here. And the California setting is the seething nerve centre of this societal battleground, full of lines drawn in the sand and unwitting trespasses and deliberate provocations. Change is in the air, and no one is immune to its effects.

Joe Allston and his wife, two Easterners in their sixties, retire to California in search of peace after the death of their wayward son. Their paradise is invaded by various parasites – not only by the gopher and the rose blight, the king snake and the hawk, but also by a neighbour with a bulldozer, bent on “development.” Jim Peck, a bearded young cultist, builds a treehouse on their property and starts a University of the Free Mind, complete with yoga, marijuana, and free-wheeling sex. Most damaging of all, it is invaded by Marian Catlin, an attractive young wife and mother, affirming all the hope and love that the Allstons believe in, who carries within herself seeds as destructive as any in the malevolent nature that surrounds them.

The relationship between the two couples, the older Allstons and the younger Catlins, is beautifully portrayed, and I felt it was one of the most admirable aspects of the novel. Stegner delicately captures the nuances of friendship, unspoken sexual attraction which does not have to be acted upon, and the balance of power between youth and age. Joe and Marian strike sparks off each other, but the relationship never turns ugly; all four spouses are involved in the relationship and each turns to his or her partner for support and comfort as needed. For the core issue of the story is this: Marian is pregnant, with a much-desired second child. (The Catlin’s first child, a young daughter, is very much loved and wanted, and is a charming girl, nicely handled by the author.) Marian also has terminal cancer, and she has rejected treatment in order that she can bring the pregnancy to term.

A difficult plot to see any happy way out of, isn’t it? I’ll tell you right now: no feel-good miracles occur.

Decidedly one of my most memorable reads of 2013.

hostages to fortune elizabeth cambridge 32.

Hostages to Fortune 

by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1933

He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.

~Francis Bacon

I loved this book on so many levels. Not only is it beautifully written, but the themes of marriage, motherhood and personal fulfillment struck very close to home; I couldn’t help but recognize many parallels with my own experience, which (of course!) is not unique, as Elizabeth Cambridge so eloquently demonstrates.

This is an episodic novel in which “nothing ever happens”, but it is a beautifully observed and documented series of vignettes of family life, with a view to the broader scene in which it is set. It reminded me most strongly of another book that has a similar tone and an equally well-depicted mother, Margery Sharp’s 1935 novel Four Gardens, another hidden gem of a book which I wish would receive the same attention from modern re-publishers of almost-lost small literary treasures.

These women are, of course, more than “just mothers”, but their maternity is an inescapable part of their lives, and though it does not define them, it forms their lives in various unforeseen ways, and their emotional and intellectual responses to their motherhood are well worth considering. Elizabeth Cambridge’s Hostages is said to be semi-autobiographical; Margery Sharp was childless; but both writers have identified and played upon a strong chord of shared experience which resonates with me, a person (and mother) of several generations later, living in a very different time and place.

Hostages to Fortune is extremely readable, frequently very amusing, thoroughly thought-provoking, and occasionally poignant. An excellent book. Other readers agree; I don’t believe I’ve seen a single negative review.

the innocents margery sharp 0011.

The Innocents

by Margery Sharp ~ 1974

I think this may well be my very favourite Margery Sharp, and, as you all may have guessed by now, I am seriously enthusiastic about this author to start with.

This is a very quiet book, one of those minor tales concerning a few people only, with nothing terribly exciting going on within it. But it is a compelling read, and I was completely on the side of the angels right from the get go, though fully cognizant of their failings.

In brief, then.

Just prior to the start of World War II, a middle-aged spinster living in a quiet English village is unexpectedly left in charge of a mentally handicapped toddler whose mother refuses to believe that her child is anything less than “normal”.  The child and her caregiver form a deep and complex bond in the ensuing years before the now-widowed mother returns to collect her daughter and return with her to America, to launch into society, as it were, as a charming sidekick to her fashionable mother.

The reality is much different than the dream, and the subsequent events are absolutely heart-rending. The author lets us all suffer along with the brutally dazed child until bringing things to a rather shocking conclusion, which she has already told us about on the very first page.

Margery Sharp is at her caustic best in this late novel. I absolutely loved it. Hands down, my very best new-to-me read of the year.

 

Happy Reading to Everyone in 2014!

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all the little live things wallace stegnerAll the Little Live Things by Wallace Stegner ~ 1967. This edition: Viking Press, 1967. Hardcover. 248 pages.

My rating: 10/10

This attempted review has been simmering away at the back of my mind for months and months. Getting it posted on New Year’s Eve day takes a great weight off of my conscience, even though I am not doing the novel the credit it deserves by this brief discussion.

Since reading the book way back in March of 2013, I have wondered how best to communicate the special quality it has, and its deep appeal, which is much more fundamental than its (highly engaging) storyline. This is where I bemoan my lack of a formal education in writing literary analysis; I know what I want to say but I don’t have the vocabulary to say it, so I fall back on the easy things: I liked the book. It moved me. Beautifully written. Memorable characters. An evocative picture of a time and a place.

These are things I can say of so many books I am fortunate enough to have encountered over an expansive reading life, but which do not at all illuminate the qualities that make this (or any other) book so special, this writer (or any other) so immediately compelling.

So, a review. Where to even start? How about here, with the front flyleaf material of the first edition, to set the story up, and to give me a lead in adding a very few thoughts of my own.

Why does the older generation feel as it does about what is happening in the world today? Wallace Stegner answers the question, with sympathy and understanding, for one good human individual trying to come to terms with his world while retaining his own integrity. In a novel that probes deeply into this and other aspects of contemporary life, he shows his narrative skill, his great gifts of evocation, and his eloquent intelligence at their mature best.

Fulsome praise indeed, even allowing for a publisher’s bias! But yes, in this case, not overstated. The author is addressing one of the Big Questions of his time, the mid 1960s, which is to say, the great divide between the generations; the wide movement of youth (and relative youth) to reject categorically the ethics, morals and social standards of their elders, and to try to remake the world into a new utopia. We’re talking about hippies, here. And the California setting is the seething nerve centre of this societal battleground, full of lines drawn in the sand and unwitting trespasses and deliberate provocations. Change is in the air, and no one is immune to its effects.

Joe Allston and his wife, two Easterners in their sixties, retire to California in search of peace after the death of their wayward son. Their paradise is invaded by various parasites – not only by the gopher and the rose blight, the king snake and the hawk, but also by a neighbour with a bulldozer, bent on “development.” Jim Peck, a bearded young cultist, builds a treehouse on their property and starts a University of the Free Mind, complete with yoga, marijuana, and free-wheeling sex. Most damaging of all, it is invaded by Marian Catlin, an attractive young wife and mother, affirming all the hope and love that the Allstons believe in, who carries within herself seeds as destructive as any in the malevolent nature that surrounds them.

The relationship between the two couples, the older Allstons and the younger Catlins, is beautifully portrayed, and I felt it was one of the most admirable aspects of the novel. Stegner delicately captures the nuances of friendship, unspoken sexual attraction which does not have to be acted upon, and the balance of power between youth and age. Joe and Marian strike sparks off each other, but the relationship never turns ugly; all four spouses are involved in the relationship and each turns to his or her partner for support and comfort as needed. For the core issue of the story is this: Marian is pregnant, with a much-desired second child. (The Catlin’s first child, a young daughter, is very much loved and wanted, and is a charming girl, nicely handled by the author.) Marian also has terminal cancer, and she has rejected treatment in order that she can bring the pregnancy to term.

A difficult plot to see any happy way out of, isn’t it? I’ll tell you right now: no feel-good miracles occur.

Here’s an admirable review which eloquently puts into words my own elusive thoughts on the novel: Bookslut: All the Little Live Things. Please read.

This is my very first Wallace Stegner, and I know full well it won’t be my last.

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shadows robin mckinleyShadows by Robin McKinley ~ 2013. This edition: Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin), 2013. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-399-16579-5. 356 pages.

My rating: 4/10

I wasn’t going to talk about this book, but then I thought, yes, I have to, because I need to add it to my just-published Most Disappointing Reads of 2013 list. Which is utterly depressing, because I wanted it to be at least good enough to bring back some of my admiration for this can-be-marvelous writer. This is the woman who crafted The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword and Beauty (the first one) and, yes, Sunshine, all of which are gorgeous young adult works with cross-generational appeal set in meticulously detailed alternate worlds.

Shadows tries to get there too, but along the way it crashes and burns, and not in a spectacular blaze but just with a damp, smoky fizzle. What a sloppy book. I am most unhappy about it. So there may be spoilers coming below, because I’m feeling sulky and disappointed and cranky.

From the flyleaf:

The story starts like something out of a fairy tale: I hated my stepfather.

It’s usually stepmothers in fairy tales. Well, equal time for stepfathers.

Maggie knows something’s off about Val, her mom’s new husband. It’s not only that he’s from Oldworld, where they still use magic, and won’t have any tech in his office-shed behind the house. But what are the huge, horrible, jagged, jumpy shadows that follow him around? And why is her dog not bothered by them?

Newworld is all about science – you’re expected to give up fairy tales as soon as you’re old enough to read them for yourself – and magic is illegal. In Newworld the magic-carrying gene was disabled two generations ago – mostly. Maggie’s best friend Jill has some foresight, and Maggie’s great-grandmother was a notable magician. But that was a long time ago.

Then Maggie meets Casimir, the most beautiful boy she has ever seen. He’s from Oldworld too—and he’s heard of Maggie’s stepfather, and has a guess about Val’s shadows. Maggie doesn’t want to know . . . until events force her to depend on Val and his shadows. And perhaps on her own heritage…

So Maggie despises her new stepfather, and shuns his every good-natured attempt to make friends. He’s a weirdly dressed, odd-looking immigrant with a funny accent from a pseudo-Balkan country in Oldworld, where magic is still practised, and even though he has to have been certified “clean” to be allowed to immigrate to Newworld, those multi-legged, wavering, ever-changing, elusive shadows which no one but Maggie seems to be aware of put her off in a huge way. And no matter how happy Val makes Maggie’s widowed mother, Maggie finds it totally, like, pathetic.

Maggie rolls her eyes at the grown-ups in her life and putters along doing typical teenage girl things. Like struggling with algebra, and dodging creepy teachers, and hanging with her friends, and making eyes at the hot new guy at the local pizza joint. Not to mention making super-intricate origami, working at the local animal shelter, and training her amazing-super-fabulous border collie, and monologuing on in über-detail about all of the above.

The first person narration in this gushing fairy tale is so breathless and run-on and stream-of-consciousness discuss-every-nuance (except the really important stuff which might clue the reader in to what the heck the implications actually are of cobeys and silverbugs and what the government guys do with people who practise magic) that when big bad stuff starts to happen I was pretty jaded already. (See, the writing style is catching!)

So anyway, our heroine is a super duper animal lover with amazing communicative abilities regarding the four-legged creatures of her world, which is convenient when she needs to start figuring out the canine elements of Val’s shadows, which suddenly want to get up close and personal with her, and the werewolf tendencies of her old school chum Takahiro.

With the help of her little group of human friends and the imported Oldworld shadows and a whole bunch of animal pals, not to mention her magical algebra book (which is yet another thing never explained at all which I found deeply annoying), Maggie knits up a few bulges of magic trying to break through into Newworld, rescues Val (who is suddenly a good guy, all “creepiness” forgiven) from the bad government guys who have seized him and chained him up in an abandoned army base conveniently staffed only by a few friendly neighbourhood watch-type guards, and they all make it to the family safe haven (“mysteriously” called “Haven”) where everything will be sure to be sorted out, because wow! – Val and Mom and the aunties are all still chock full of magical powers which they’ve cleverly masked from the Newworld government scanners.  Oh, and Maggie finds love. Cute, cuddly, teenage love. Blush, blush.

I can only speculate that this is aimed strictly at the teen girl market, though the family teen girl whose Christmas present this was quit part way through in disgust. “Confusing, and not in a good way. Too much super-girl with the awesome dog training powers – we get it already. And the slang is so contrived and annoying. This is unrelatable. Where’s my new Maggie Stiefvater?”

I plugged through to the end, and though it picked up steam for a bit in the middle, it got tiresome again well before then end, and all I could think was, “Oh, Robin McKinley. Why?”

And where was your editorial advisor when you sent in this apparent first draft which made it into print?

If tightened up this could have been much, much better. In this reader’s opinion. Because I know what Robin McKinley can do; the proof is on the favourites bookshelf.

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Installment 3 in the 2013 Round-Up takes a melancholy look at some books which just didn’t do it for me.

Still to come, Installment 4 highlighting some books which really hit the spot: Personal Favourites of 2013.

*****

MOST DISAPPOINTING READS ~ 2013

In absolutely random order.

*****

the chamomile lawn mary wesley1. The Chamomile Lawn 

by Mary Wesley ~ 1984

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

I can understand the popularity of the novel, as it does have an ambitious scope, a tangled, soap-opera-like storyline, and a generous enough amount of sexual goings-on to pique the interest of the most reluctant and jaded of readers, but I’m afraid I did not embrace it fully. This might be partly editorial, as the phrasing often seemed awkward to me, and I never entered fully into the story, remaining very much an onlooker as the author soberly and without much flair matter-of-factly related the action with an abundance of smutty detail which couldn’t help but leave me squirming – and not in a good way. A complicated and vaguely incestuous (cousins all over each other) picture of lust, yearning and self-indulgence. The period details weren’t enough to make up for the unsavoury plot and stylistic deficits.

sea jade phyllis a whitney 0012. Phyllis A. Whitney’s Gosh-Awful Bodice Rippers

Sea Jade and Columbella 

by Phyllis A. Whitney ~ 1964 and 1966

Just to prove that I sometimes show desperately poor judgement in my reading choices, I willingly read not one, not two, but three books by the very prolific romance writer Phyllis A. Whitney this year. One of these, Seven Tears for Apollo, was reasonably decent, but these other two were absolute stinkers.

Sea Jade was a desperately gothic romance set in post-Civil War New England. Here’s our heroine.

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

Breathless, gushing, suddenly orphaned Miranda goes on to have all the stock adventures of a gothic genre heroine. As soon as she seeks refuge with her late father’s old friend Captain Bascombe, she’s immediately forced into an unwelcome marriage with his widowed son. There are all sorts of family secrets, and of course her husband hates her and wants nothing to do with her, having married her under extreme duress. Dramatic deathbed scenes and mysterious Chinese wives and exotic swords and ill-begotten fortunes feature in the scenario. And there’s an intially-hateful-yet-ultimately-winsome child, a huge black dog named (of course) Lucifer, an unexpected will, a mysterious murder (or two)… In other words, the formula as usual.

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

columbella phyllis a whitney 001Columbella  was salvaged very slightly by its nicely described setting, that of the St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Shell collecting, jewel thieves, love triangles, heaving bosoms all round. A throbbingly broody love interest named Kingdon should have tipped me off, but I squelched those misgivings down, because I so wanted this to be better than it turned out to be. More clues to its sheer over-the-top-ness which I willfully ignored can be found on the front flyleaf:

That was a night of gold and red, with torches flaming on the hilltop and the lights of Charlotte Amalie fanning out around the harbor below. A night of water lily and sweet-smelling cereus. The night of the shell…

Jessica Abbott, fleeing her own past, finds herself the center of a whirlpool of conflict at Hampden House, high on its cliff in the Virgin Islands. She is confronted by Catherine Drew, a woman whose sole purpose is to torment and destroy. Catherine is the wife of a vital, driven man, Kingdon Drew-toward whom Jessica is irresistible drawn. Jessica must defy the beautiful, self-indulgent Catherine, who likes to affect the name of a shell – Columbella. She must fight for the very future of another woman’s child. Above all, she must find the strength to help the man she loves escape the trap Catherine has set for him. Yet each day Catherine seems to mock her in a new way – and win. Until the night of the shell…

Always, the brilliant island sun shines over Hampden House in St. Thomas and over Caprice, the plantation in St. Croix that is crumbling to eerie ruin, guarded by its unicorns. Always the threat of a hurricane looms over this exotic setting, where the past still affects the present.

And so on. Read at your own peril!

one happy moment dj louise riley 0013. One Happy Moment

by Louise Riley ~ 1951

Much less gushing and emotional than Phyllis A. Whitney’s tortured heroines is this home-grown Canadian gal. Deborah Blair, a young librarian from Montreal, disembarks from a train at a remote way station in the Rocky Mountains near Lake Louise. The first thing she does is when the train pulls away is to strip off her city clothes, change into country duds, and pitch her suitcase and dress suit into the lake. Then she sets off on the 9-mile hike to the mountain holiday camp where she has secretly booked herself a holiday.

Oh, hurray! Tell me more, I thought. But sadly that was about as good as it got. Deborah is fleeing from both an overbearing mother and a rotten, already-married lover, and both track her down to her mountain hideaway, but not before she has found enough self-fulfillment among the lofty peaks and has gained a certain amount of self confidence due to the appreciative embraces of several of her fellow (male) guests to tell them both (mother and lover) to go take a hike.

Not a horrible book at all, and it had some good things to say about female self determination, but clunky styling, the plainest of prose, and an increasingly awkward plot kept it from reaching significant heights. A keeper because of its vintage appeal and enthusiastically described Alberta setting, but disappointing because it could have been so much better with tighter editing, an expanded vocabulary, and less wooden characterizations.

 unlikely pilgrimage of harold fry rachel joyce4. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

by Rachel Joyce ~ 2012

This recent bestseller started off with some promise. Recently retired Harold, stuck aimlessly at home with his sour wife, receives a letter from an old colleague which tells him that she is terminally ill. Harold hems and haws and eventually writes a rather pathetic letter of condolence. He sets off to walk to the mail box to send the letter, but is overwhelmed by a sudden urge to walk to see the doomed Queenie and deliver his message in person. While he’s walking, she can’t die, is his sudden superstitious thought. The catch is that she is ensconced in a nursing home some 600 miles away. But he trudges along in his light summer jacket and golf shoes, for days and days and days, compelled by an inner urge to make at least this one thing right in his rather gone-wrong life.

Sadly, very soon into Harold’s walk, the plot went all mawkish and droopy and all directions of highly unlikely as meaningful encounters with troubled but helpful people start to occur in quick succession, until at last an assortment of odd pedestrians start walking along with Harold in some sort of copy-cat pilgrimage having nothing to do with poor dying Queenie.

I’m all into magical reality if it’s convincingly well done, but this one demanded more of my suspension of disbelief than I could possibly give.  And the Big Sad Secret which was revealed at the end was so terribly boring, and the “life affirming” ending was so stereotyped that I was tempted to give the thing the toss-across-the-room treatment. It was only saved by the fact that it was a library book. Sorry about my rude dismissal, those of you who loved this one, but my dislike for the way this deteriorated from its early promise is savage and sincere.

And checking out the one-star reviews on Goodreads showed that while I am part of  a serious minority, I was not alone in my annoyed dislike. Long-listed for the 2012 Booker Prize? Was it really?! Oh. My. Gosh. Though I see (I checked) that it didn’t get to short-list status. Thank you, gods of literature, for that small mercy.

letter from peking pearl s buck5. Letter from Peking 

by Pearl S. Buck ~ 1957

I hate it when I quite like an author but then he/she turns out not just one or two but a whole string of sub-par throw-away books. Pearl S. Buck is a classic case of this, and I have long had a love-hate relationship with her work. When she’s good, she very, very good, but when she gets sloppy, she’s dire. Guess which category this novel – long novella(?) – falls into?

It has an interesting premise, but the characters are all so smug and unlikeable that any sympathy for their situation I might have had soon evaporated.  Here’s the plot. An American woman, happily married for twenty years to a half-Chinese, half-American man, leaves China with her twelve-year-old son at the start of the Communist government takeover. Her husband, due to an extreme sense of duty, remains behind in his job. The woman settles into her family home in rural Vermont, complete with faithful hired man. Communication is sporadic with China; years pass quietly. A letter arrives. Her husband has been pressured to take on a Chinese wife, to prove his loyalty to his country. The woman puts off answering it. The (mature teenage) son runs into issues with his mixed race ethnicity. The woman vapors about, meddles in son’s romantic affairs. She continually demonstrates extreme snobbism, and not-so-secretly rejoices that son’s fiancé is orphaned so she (the mother) will not have to interact with them. During all of this not one but two prospective suitors to the mother materialize. “Divorce your husband and marry again!” Oh, what to do, what to do???!

By the time it all sort of resolved itself (sort of) I no longer cared. Meh. A very carelessly put together book, from a writer who can do much better.

 6. in pious memory margery sharp 001In Pious Memory 

by Margery Sharp ~ 1967

Those of you who are aware of my strong infatuation with the glorious Margery Sharp will be surprised to see her on the Most Disappointing list, but sadly, this book let me down. It’s not rotten, but it’s not up to par either. The plot – never admittedly a very strong point with this author – seems more befuddled than usual, and the characters did not engender any sort of a sympathetic response in my readerly heart. I didn’t really like any one of them, but neither could I work up a strong feeling of dislike. There they just kind of were, moving about randomly in fictional limbo.

The plot description sounds better than the story turns out to be. Mr and Mrs Prelude are in a plane crash; Mrs Prelude walks away, but Mr Prelude perishes. Or does he? Convinced that she has possibly made a horrible mistake when viewing her husband’s body, Mrs Prelude theorizes that perhaps he is still alone, wandering in the Swiss mountains. The 16-year-old Prelude daughter decides to go and investigate for herself. A rather limp farce which doesn’t, like the ill-fated plane, quite make its destination.

OK, I’ll repeat, it’s not a horrid book, and there are quite a number of wickedly funny moments. It’s a keeper, and I fully intend to re-read it and try to drum up some more affection for its good elements, but at this point I’d hate to recommend it as any sort of prime example of this accomplished author’s greater body of work.

rochester's wife hc dj d.e. stevenson7. Rochester’s Wife  

by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1940

Here’s another writer whom I like quite a lot, but who sometimes lets me down. I don’t read these sorts of books for their hyper-realism – they are “cozies”, after all – but one does require some standard of verisimilitude. In Rochester’s Wife, with its strong reliance on insanity as a key plot point, one can’t help but feel that the author didn’t do her research.

A young doctor decides to settle down in England after travelling about the world. There is much romance, none of it particularly appealing to read about, all forbidden love and rather limp yearnings. The already-referred-to episode of insanity is handled in a very bizarre manner by the author as well as the several doctors in the case. Even in 1940 I am sure the British medical establishment was more capable of treating psychoses in more effective ways than they appear to do here! One of the weakest of this author’s books I’ve read to date.

8.Mary Stewart’s B List

Wildfire at Midnight and Thunder on the Right 

by Mary Stewart ~ 1956 and 1957

Well, while I’m on something of a roll panning tales by authors I really, truly like, let’s spend a few minutes with Mary Stewart. I’ve read quite a few of her romantic-suspense novels this year, and have found my responses to be mixed. While I really do sympathise with her very capable and likeable heroines, and enjoy her detailed descriptions of settings, the de rigueur action sequences of many of the books, described in frame-by-frame photographic detail, drive me slightly mad. Panic-stricken girl in high heels etcetera manages to dodge ex-secret service trained killer etcetera while negotiating crumbling cliff/tiled castle roof/squelching Scottish bog/etcetera. Yup. Of course.

Well, those sequences are really the whole point of the books, aren’t they? The menace keeps building until something has to give. And in most of the books I’ve read I’ve happily played along, rolling my eyes but taking it as part of the package deal. But these two pushed past my tolerance level for willing suspension of disbelief.

Wildfire at Midnight - dust jacket illustration, first edition, 1956.

In Wildfire at Midnight, a gorgeous London model, separated from her husband, is maneuvered by her parents into taking a holiday on the Isle of Skye, ostensibly to escape the chaos of the Coronation festivities. Immediately upon arrival, who should lovely Gianetta meet but her estranged husband, who is ostensibly on Skye for a mountain climbing holiday. The two keep their prior acquaintanceship a secret from their fellow guests, which makes things quite awkward when a series of grisly murders puts the holiday-makers and rock-climbers at the remote country inn under strong suspicion.

Gianetta (or Janet, as she prefers to be called) shows no common sense at all, continually wandering about either all by herself or with one or another of the chief suspects. One day she goes for a walk at just the wrong time…

Bizarre and unlikely motive for the killings, continual stupidity of the heroine, and unlikeable love interest rather ruined this one for me, even before the mountain crag/quivering bog/Scottish mist chase scene.

Salvaged by gorgeous descriptions of the settings and atmospheres of London and Skye, and the period verisimilitude of the characters crowding around the radio every evening in order to follow both the progress of Coronation festivities and Edmund Hillary’s attempt to climb Mount Everest, of particular interest to all of the rock climbers in the story. Nicely done, those bits.

Beware the nun! An older paperback cover which captures the mood so very well.

With my panning of Thunder on the Right I’m in good company. This was apparently the author’s least favourite of her novels, and I can see why. Here are her own words, courtesy of the excellent Mary Stewart Novels website:

From Contemporary Authors, Vol. 1, 1967

Ms. Stewart once claimed Thunder on the Right as her least favorite novel. “I detest that book. I’m ashamed of it, and I’d like to see it drowned beyond recovery. It’s overwritten. It was actually the second book I wrote, and for some strange reason I went overboard, splurged with adjectives, all colored purple.”

So what’s this one all about? Let’s see if I can sum it up briefly. A gorgeous young lady is in France and hopes to have a reunion with her older, recently-widowed cousin, who is apparently undergoing a retreat in a nunnery prefatory to taking vows. When the heroine arrives at said nunnery, she is told her cousin is dead and has been buried in the garden. “Something” tells the heroine that this is untrue, and that her cousin is alive. Luckily there is a handsome and rather brooding young man handy to aid the heroine in her search for the truth – and, by golly! – he is conveniently an old flame of the heroine’s, there in a remote corner of France by sheerest authorial hand-of-God. Evil nuns, a handsome local boy on a rampant stallion, a wicked smuggler, escaping criminals and much too much coincidence unite in making this one my own least favourite of Mary Stewart’s improbable (but usually highly enjoyable) romantic-suspense novels.

 

the living earth sheila mackay russell 29. The Living Earth

by Sheila Mackay Russell ~ 1954

I became interested in this book due to my prior discovery of the author’s semi-autobiographical novel A Lamp is Heavy, concerning a young nurse’s experiences as probationer in a North American city teaching hospital in the early 1940s. I was pleased to find out that Sheila Mackay Russell was an Albertan nurse/writer, who had a modest success with A Lamp is Heavy, and who went on to publish another novel, The Living Earth, also with a nurse as a main character. With some trouble I managed to acquire a copy of The Living Earth, and settled down to a happily anticipated read.

The story started out quite well, with a young nurse travelling by train to her posting in a remote northern Alberta community, “Mud Creek”. On the train is a fellow traveller, another young woman heading for the same community, to her posting as a school teacher. The two set up house together, and proceed to have all sorts of rather sordid experiences. Both attract rather unsavory lovers (married, alcoholic, manic-depressive, abusive etcetera) and much heart-rending ensues.

This novel is of the hyper-realistic genre, and it could have been quite decent but for its rather awkward phrasing throughout, and its insistence on dragging out every single episode to the utmost of its interest level and then a little bit beyond. It’s also dreadfully bleak. And melodramatic. Bleakly melodramatic, in fact! I am not surprised that there is no third novel from this writer, though The Living Earth went through a number of printings which argues a certain success. She did produce a number of short stories which were printed in the Canadian women’s periodical Chateleine, according to one of this blog’s readers.

I never did write a review of this novel, because it so deeply disappointed me, despite its author’s undoubted good intentions of creating a true-to-life dramatic novel with a regional setting. I think that her motivation was praiseworthy, but sadly it didn’t quite come off. Possibly of interest to anyone studying womens’ experiences in northern Alberta in the 1940s/50s, but beware the fictional elements, which seemed to me to be many.

I could not find any other reviews of this now-obscure Canadian novel.

1982 jian ghomeshi10. 1982 

by Jian Ghomeshi ~ 2012

And here we have a truly Canadian memoir, this time by the popular C.B.C. radio personality and ex-Moxy Früvous drummer, Jian Ghomeshi. I had such wonderfully high hopes for this book, as I usually enjoy Jian’s interviewing style on his weekday pop culture talk-and-music program on the C.B.C., “Q.” He’s an interesting-sounding personality himself, and his frequent references to his own background as a child of Iranian immigrant parents growing up in Ontario in the 70s and 80s make him both relatable and slightly exotic, a public persona he nourishes with obvious care.

But this memoir. Boring, boring, boring.

It wasn’t that Jian didn’t have an interesting teenage life. He did, in a tame sort of middle-class, upwardly mobile, successful immigrant family sort of way. In 1982, the year more or less profiled in this “creative autobiography”, Jian turned fifteen. He was in the throes of young love, was hanging out with a bunch of good friends, and was playing drums in a band – okay, it was the community band, but still… He was listening to all sorts of cool new music, had reinvented himself as a New Wave wannabe, and was having quite a time experimenting with hair dye and styling gel and eyeliner and dressing all in black. He had a loving and supportive family, abundant parental funding, and oodles of positive reinforcement from his teachers and the other adults in his life. He did stuff. He went places. He got into a few interesting situations, and made it through them in one piece. Easily enough stuff to write a memoir about.

A short memoir. A novella-length memoir. Not the almost-300 page thing that this turned out to be.  Jian ran every single little incident of that year completely to death. And though it was interesting in bits here and there, ultimately I just couldn’t care.

shadows robin mckinley11. Shadows

by Robin McKinley ~ 2013

Much as I hate to do this, I need to add a “bonus” to this list.

Shadows is the recently published “kind of like Sunshine, but for teens” fantasy by the iconic writer, and I had high hopes for it. Sounded good in the pre-publication discussions, and the early reviews were mostly favorable, though in retrospect I realize there were quite a few “buts” in some of those reviews.

17-year-old Maggie lives in a world where magic is forbidden, and when it sporadically shows up it is immediately squelched by squads of specially trained soldiers. People with magic in their genes are “cleaned” and re-released into the population; science takes care of everything in this world, thank you very much.

So when it becomes apparent that there is a massive outbreak of the magic bulges called cobeys threatening to overflow into Newworld, Maggie is shocked to discover that she has some latent powers which work to contain the bad vibes.

The author doesn’t bother explaining why magic is so nasty, and what will happen if it breaks through. She tells us it’s a really bad thing, and leaves it at that. But suddenly all of the “good” characters start showing varying degrees of magic powers which are obviously going to save the day. From, umm, something.

Extra Disappointing points for the annoying first person narrating heroine and her endless rambling on about how wonderful she is to understand all the nice little animals she loves so very much and how thick the adults in her life are and how hard algebra is and how amazing her origami skills are and how cute and clever her pop culture Japanese slang is.

Please forgive me, those of you who liked this book. I’m a long-time McKinley fan too, and I hate to slam her work, but this one wasn’t quite ready to see the light of day, in my opinion.

 

 

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Here’s the second installment in my look back at some of the ups and downs, highs and lows, bests and worsts of my personal 2013 reading year.

Yesterday I picked out 10 books which pleased me. These weren’t necessarily the “best” things I read, but they left me with a sincere sense of pleasure.

Today I think I will highlight 10 books (or maybe one or two more) which surprised me by confounding my preconceived expectations in some way. Most of these choices have already been reviewed on the blog, but there are several which I didn’t get around to, so I’ll see if I can link some more detailed discussions when I get to those.

Without further ado, here is the 2013 Round-Up Part 2, of 10+ Most Unexpected Reads. Still to come, 2013 Round-Up Parts 3 and 4, Most Disappointing and Personal Favourites. 

*****

MOST UNEXPECTED READS 2013

In order of publication.

*****

where the blue begins christopher morley cover 0011. Where the Blue Begins     

by Christopher Morley ~ 1922

Gissing lived alone (except for his Japanese butler) in a little house in the country, in that woodland suburb region called the Canine Estates. He lived comfortably and thoughtfully, as bachelors often do. He came of a respectable family, who had always conducted themselves calmly and without too much argument. They had bequeathed him just enough income to live on cheerfully, without display but without having to do addition and subtraction at the end of the month and then tear up the paper lest Fuji (the butler) should see it.

Here we have a decently prosperous, almost middle-aged bachelor, one Gissing, whose private income is just sufficient to allow him a life of leisure, with a country house staffed by a manservant, and scope for mild entertainment and some local travelling. But comfortable though his life is, Gissing is occasionally disturbed by vague yet compelling yearnings to see and understand his purpose in the world. What’s it all about, and what should we do with it, this thing called “Life”? What’s over the next horizon, “where the blue begins”?

Well, nothing here to raise any eyebrows, and certainly nothing to put this on the Most Unexpected list, except for the twist, which is that this is the world as we know it, but it is peopled entirely with anthropomorphized dogs. They walk on two legs, wear clothes, drive motorcars, dwell in houses, but the canine instinct continually makes itself known. Aromas madden these creatures; they occasionally tear off their clothes and run madly through the countryside, to return apologetically to their dwellings when the mood passes. They snap and snarl when taunted, and the pack instinct is strongly present, as Gissing finds to his discomfort when he falls afoul of the status quo and is hunted by a ravening group of his peers.

It’s beyond weird, this whole conceit, but it works surprisingly well, and Morley is obviously enjoying himself thoroughly the whole way through this very odd book.  Where the Blue Begins was a bestseller in its time, and was produced in numerous editions. And yes, this is the Christopher Morley of The Haunted Bookshop and Parnassus on Wheels, and if I was expecting something along those lines when I first picked up Where the Blue Begins, I was soon shaken out of my complacency.

glimpses of the moon edith wharton 0012. The Glimpses of the Moon 

by Edith Wharton ~ 1922

Susy and Nick, bona-fide beautiful people, live by their wits as hangers-on among the idle rich. Susy gets by on her charming personality alone, while Nick is an aspiring writer, but the last thing either wants is a moneyless marriage, so when they find that they have fallen in love with each other, the relationship seems a non-starter from the beginning. Until Susy comes up with a clever plan to seize at least a year of happiness together before they must part to seek wealthier partners.

A playful and frivolous departure for the generally serious Edith Wharton, and one which I mostly enjoyed, especially in the early chapters where Susy dances precariously on the knife blade of dazzling her more dull-witted but well-heeled sponsors into paying for her honeymoon. Susy is the Jazz Age Lily Bart, though her eventual fate is kinder, as befits this much lighter production by an American literary icon.

 

cheerful weather for the wedding  julia strachey3. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding

by Julia Strachey ~ 1932

An unexpectedly dark, very short, hard-to-analyze novella which got a lot of attention in the blogosphere earlier this year, due to the recent release of a padded-out film version of the story. The humour which many reviewers identified is definitely there, but I found much pathos as well, though it was of the twisted sort, where one is not quite sure if the author is sneering a bit at her readers for being taken in by the obvious and missing the hidden implications. Confusing response? Well, if so, it fits this odd little book perfectly well.

Dolly Thatcham is getting married in a few hours, and upon meeting her in the opening pages of the book we take a deep breath and hold it for the duration. This book is strung out with tension. Something is going to happen. Something more than a mere marriage ceremony, the veiled implication teases us.

It was as if the drawing-room reappeared in the mirror as a familiar room in a dream reappears, ghostly, significant, and wiped free of all signs of humdrum and trivial existence. Two crossed books lying flat, the round top of a table, a carved lizard’s head on a clock, the sofa-top and its arms, shone in the grey light from the sky outside; everything else was in shadow. The transparent ferns that stood massed in the window showed up very brightly and looked fearful. They seemed to have come alive, so to speak. They looked to have just that moment reared up their long backs, arched their jagged and serrated bodies menacingly, twisted and knotted themselves tightly about each other and darted out long forked and ribboning tongues from one to the other; and all as if under some terrible compulsion … they brought to mind travellers’ descriptions of the jungles in the Congo, – of the silent struggles and strangulations that vegetable life there consists in it seems.

To complete the picture, Dolly’s white face, with its thick and heavily curled back lips, above her black speckled wool frock, glimmered palely in front of the ferns, like a phosphorescent orchid blooming alone there in the twilit swamp.

For five or six minutes, the pale and luminous orchid remained stationary, in the centre of the mirror’s dark surface. The strange thing was the way the eyes kept ceaselessly roaming, shifting, ranging, round and round the room. Round and round again … this looked queer – the face so passive and remote seeming, and the eyes so restless.

The light perhaps caught the mirrored eyes at a peculiar angle, and this might have caused them to glitter so uncomfortably, it seemed even so wildly – irresponsibly, – like the glittering eyes of a sick woman who is exhausted, yet feverish.

This is indeed a bride with a back story.

the towers of trebizond 1 rose macaulay4. The Towers of Trebizond

by Rose Macaulay ~ 1956

‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.

No doubt many of you are familiar with this quotation of the first line in this iconic and deeply strange fiction. Presented by publishers and numerous reviewers as a light and humorous travel tale, I found that it was no such thing, though there was certainly some humour and more than a little travel involved.

It took me a very long time – weeks – to work my way through The Towers of Trebizond, because I found it exhausting in what it asked of me as a reader to process. But this in no way put me off; it actually intrigued me and made me more and more eager to come to grips with what the author was doing here.

The narrator, Laurie, of ambiguous gender until the very end of the story, is accompanying an aunt and an Anglican priest on a visit to Turkey, with the joint aims of converting Muslims to Christianity (Father Chantry-Pigg), studying the living conditions of the local female populace (Aunt Dot), and writing a travel book (Laurie). Part way through the trip, Father Chantry-Pigg and Aunt Dot disappear, apparently into Soviet Russia, leaving Laurie stranded in more ways than one.

A Billy Graham Crusade and a group of apocalypse-anticipating Seventh-Day Adventists heading for Mount Ararat add an element of farce to the saga, as does Laurie’s acquisition of an ape which Laurie attempts to lead into a more highly evolved human form, at one point attempting to teach it to drive a car, with the expected results.

The internet is crowded with marvelous reviews of this fantastical tale, and I hesitate to choose one for you, so I will leave it up to you to investigate further. Worth reading, but keep your mind open. This is not at all what it at first seems to be.

people who knock on the door patricia highsmith5. People Who Knock on the Door 

by Patricia Highsmith ~ 1983

A tense, noir, almost-thriller; a can’t-look-away, exceedingly uncomfortable depiction of a dysfunctional family and its twisted disintegration after two of its members embrace an arcane strain of Christian fundamentalism. None of the characters are particularly likeable or completely faultless, including the pseudo-hero Arthur, eldest son of the family in question, who is the closest thing to a chief protagonist in this tense tale.

Despite its date of publication, it seems to be set in the 1950s, and has a decidedly vintage feel to it. This is the first Patricia Highsmith book I’ve ever read, though I’ve seen several of the movie adaptations of her work, Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, and of course the Venetian-set Talented Mr. Ripley, so the dark psychological elements in this were somewhat expected, though the way this one progressed was completely unpredictable to me, hence its inclusion on this list.

dear doctor lily  monica dickens 0016. Dear Doctor Lily

by Monica Dickens ~ 1988

This was one of the last novels of the prolific Monica Dickens, who died in 1992 at the age of 77. Her first book, the best-selling and still in print One Pair of Hands, was published in 1939, and it was followed by at least thirty more, some of which are classics of middlebrow fiction. All of her books are compulsively readable, and Dear Doctor Lily is no exception. I couldn’t look away, much as I occasionally wished to. Its frequent bleakness rather disturbed me; the author definitely has the gloves off here in her vivid descriptions of two very different marriages.

Two English girls meet on a flight to America in the early 1960s. Ida is heading to an American G.I.’s family home; she is going to be married, and her expectations are high that her life will be better than it was in England, even if she has a few inner qualms about her prospective spouse and his true devotion to her. Lily is destined to go a very different direction. She is about to meet the man who will become her lover; her far-off future holds a deeply happy marriage, though she has no inkling of that as yet, just as Ida has no foreboding of her own future abuse at the hands of her brutal spouse, and her desperately squalid future.

This book is all about random encounters, and the inconceivable vagaries of the hand of fate. Rather appropriate from a writer in her seventh decade, come to think of it – Monica Dickens paid attention her whole life to what was going on around her, and Dear Doctor Lily showcases the result of such keenly discriminating observation.

And though I’d love to link a proper  review, I couldn’t find much online beyond the sketchiest of references, so you’ll have to take my word for it that this is a must-read for the Monica Dickens enthusiast, but that it’s definitely not a comfort read. Glimmers of hope and bits of personal redemption keep it out of the totally depressing category, and the writing is, as ever, stellar.

after the falls catherine gildiner7. After the Falls

by Catherine Gildiner ~ 2009

This was a grand year for memoirs, and this one was outstanding and highly unexpected in the direction it went. Toronto psychologist Catherine Gildiner looks back at her adolescence in Buffalo, New York in the 1960s, and her subsequent troubled relationship with a volatile poet and civil rights movement protestor. Outspoken and funny and tragic and compulsively readable. A follow-up to the also-bestselling Too Close to the Falls, which you may already be familiar with, and which is now on my own Must-Read list.

february lisa moore 0018. February

by Lisa Moore ~ 2010

This well researched and absolutely heart-rending historical fiction about Newfoundland’s 1982 Ocean Ranger disaster won this year’s annual C.B.C. Radio Canada Reads contest, and, in my opinion, deserves every bit of praise it got.

February is based on a true Canadian tragedy. On Valentine’s night in 1982, out on the Atlantic Ocean off Newfoundland, the oil drilling rig Ocean Ranger capsized and sank during a violent storm. All eighty-four men on board the rig died in the frigid waters, some apparently within hailing distance of a vessel which was unable to rescue them. The families of the dead learned of the disaster from news accounts on the radio; the oil company made no attempt to notify them. February’s main character Helen O’Mara loses her husband Cal that night. She has three young children and is pregnant with a fourth. Life for all of them becomes indelibly marked by their loss in ways both immediate and not always obvious until many years later.

I generally avoid books which are this desperately emotional, but February surprised me by its enjoyability. Maybe it was the pugnaciously regional voice of the fictional Helen, with its plethora of to-the-point and very funny “Newfie”-isms, or perhaps it was the appealing interviews with the author I was lucky enough to catch on the radio during the Canada Reads debates, but I’m very glad I gave it a chance.

i the suicide's library tim bowling jacket9. In the Suicide’s Library

by Tim Bowling ~ 2010

Is it ever right to steal a book? Tim Bowling, Canadian poet, browsing a university library collection, stumbles upon a copy of poet Wallace Steven’s Ideas of Order, signed on the flyleaf by yet another poet, Weldon Kees, who disappeared mysteriously one day in 1955, with evidence suggesting his suicide by jumping of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

Tim Bowling allows his collector’s lust to suggest certain possibilities to him. Would anyone even notice if he “liberated” such a poet’s treasure from its dusty obscurity in the stacks? In the process or worrying this ethical dilemma out, Bowling spins out a book-length ramble about not only Stevens and Kees, but his own personal life.

This book is nothing if not rambling, and it does go on and on and on, and I absolutely hated Bowling’s final decision regarding the book, which I cannot share here, as it is the whole point of working through this thing. It made me grumpy for days, and still offends me to think about it. But I’m glad I sought this literary oddity out, and I’ll be reading it again, and deep down inside I was pleased to have been challenged by my disagreement with certain of Bowling’s opinions. Forgive the cliché, but this one was absolutely thought-provoking.

the sisters brothers patrick dewitt10. The Sisters Brothers

by Patrick deWitt ~ 2011

I was a little bit leery about this one to begin with. I’d heard all the hype, and seen it on the Big!New!Books! displays in the mall chain bookstores, and I looked at it from a distance and was all snooty, ’cause I don’t do Westerns or cowboy books, and this screamed that from twenty feet away. But then I heard an excerpt read out loud on the C.B.C., and the very next week one of my friendly used book dealers gave me a pristine copy as a bonus to my substantial purchase. Obviously it was meant to be.

Two brothers, Charlie and Eli Sisters, are employed as hit men in the Gold Rush-era “Old West”. Their quest to end the life of one Hermann Kermit Warm leads to many complications and moral examinations, mostly by narrator Eli. Macabre, cold-blooded and unexpectedly, surrealistically funny. Kudos to the author for the ending; it went a different direction than I’d expected, in a very good way. Loved it. Absolutely brilliant. (But not for the squeamish!)

Here’s a fine review, one of many out there: Tipping My Fedora: The Sisters Brothers 

Bonus Choice # 11

Caitlin Moran Lets It All Hang Out

how to be a woman caitlin moranHow to Be a Woman

by Caitlin Moran ~ 2011

moranthology caitlin moranMoranthology

by Caitlin Moran ~ 2012

Swimming into my awareness early in 2013 was British pop culture critic and memoirist Caitlin Moran. Nothing could have prepared me for her, she’s very much of the “have to experience it for yourself” variety of writer. Mostly I enjoyed my hectic time with Ms. Moran; occasionally she completely freaked me out. She always surprised me, though, both by her vividly expressed opinions, her eager willingness to share the most intimate details of her life, and by the excellent quality of her more serious pieces.

How to Be a Woman ~ Absolutely loved some of it; a few bits appalled me. This writer has no self-edit function! Which makes this high speed, profane, too-much-information rant on the business of being female both deeply engaging and just a bit worrisome to those of us functioning on a less high speed plane of “normal”. Very good, and I enjoyed it. But there are episodes and opinions here and there that triggered the “ick!” response! And she swears. A lot.

Moranthology ~ Caitlin Moran looks back at her childhood and adolescence and skewers her younger self as brutally as she does the pop stars she profiles in this outspoken and slashingly funny collection of articles.

 

*****

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It’s hard to believe a whole 12 months have raced by since the last Year-End Round-Up List, but the calendar doesn’t lie, and here we are only a few days from a brand new year. Time for a retrospective, then, to clear the decks for the year to come.

Last year I came up with three very broad categories of outstanding books I had read in the previous year: Most Unexpected, Most Disappointing, and Personal Favourites. I will be using the same categories for the books of 2013, though there was some overlap between Most Unexpected and Personal Favourites. I’ve arbitrarily decided which category best fits each book.

And though last year I included only books I had reviewed in full on the blog, this year some will sneak in which I’ve only briefly mentioned. It was a surprisingly hectic year, and I missed writing quite a number of reviews, though the books themselves are too interesting to leave off these retrospective lists. I will link these to other reviews, either by fellow bloggers, or on Goodreads or someplace similar.

Kicking off this week of lists – a most enjoyable aspect of looking back at the year just passed as we head into the longer days and bright promise of the new year – I am adding a fourth category: Books Which Pleased Me 2013. These are books which, as I peruse my list of things read the past twelve months, don’t really fit into the main categories, and which, for the most part, I didn’t write reviews of, but which I nevertheless feel a warm surge of liking for as I come across their titles. These are books which made me happy.

*****

10+ PLEASING BOOKS ~ 2013

In alphabetical order by author.

*****

a time to love margot benary isbert1. A Time to Love

by Margot Benary-Isbert ~ 1962

An excellent vintage teenage/young adult historical fiction set in the years just prior to and at the start of World War II. Fifteen-year-old Annegret of the earlier books The Blue Mystery and The Shooting Star goes away to boarding school and becomes very aware that the world beyond the sheltering walls of her family home is fast becoming a dark and dangerous place. A rare story told from the German point of view; very much anti-Hitler but also making clear the conflicted positions of many “common” German people in the years leading up to the war. A thoughtful and even-handed book; a lovely and relatable bildungsroman. The author draws heavily upon her own experiences as a German citizen during the war; worth reading for that element alone, though there is much more here to mull over and to enjoy. Goodreads: A Time to Love

but i wouldn't have missed it for the world peg bracken2. But I Wouldn’t Have Missed It For the World

by Peg Bracken ~ 1973

Long before Martha Stewart’s perfectionist homemaker guidebooks, there was Peg Bracken. Unlike Ms. Stewart, Peg was very much “one of us.” (Does anyone remember the slightly subversive 1970s bestsellers The I Hate to Cook Book, and A Window Over the Sink?) Here Peg sets her sights on the highs and lows of travelling, in a humorous collection of musings, meandering and anecdotes. Some real gems amidst the fluff. I read this while travelling myself, and occasionally laughed out loud at the universal experiences I shared with the author. Feather light and deeply charming, albeit in a dated sort of way. I was just a wee bit taken aback by Peg’s enthusiastic promotion of the lavish purchase of souvenirs – one of my own travelling goals is to come back as lightly laden as possible (books excepted, of course) – but to each her own! Goodreads: But I Wouldn’t Have Missed it for the World 

hotel du lac anita brookner3. Hotel du Lac

by Anita Brookner ~ 1984

Shades of Barbara Pym haunt the works of novelist Anita Brookner, whose literary acquaintance I made this year. This subfusc novel of a mysteriously disgraced woman coming to terms with her fate and her future was not exactly Booker Prize material (in my opinion), but it was most readable, and I find myself thinking of its wry heroine, romance novel writer Edith Hope, with real fondness. Blogger Mark Sampson – Free Range Reading: Hotel du Lac – says it well.

paper moon addie pray joe david brown4. Paper Moon

originally published as Addie Pray

by Joe David Brown ~ 1971

Loved it! Read this one way back in high school in the 1970s, and this re-reading stood up marvellously well. An 11-year-old orphan and her maybe-father develop their talents as small-time con artists as they travel around the south-eastern United States in the darkest years of the Great Depression. Funny and heart-warming but never, ever sloppy. Brilliant. Ignore all the “female Huck Finn” and “sassy young heroine” comments on Goodreads – this tallish tale is something quite unique. You may be familiar with the classic Tatum and Ryan O’Neal hit movie; this book it was based on is even betterGoodreads: Paper Moon 

the house that is our own o douglas 0015. The House that is Our Own 

by O. Douglas ~ 1940

Middle-aged, recently-widowed Kitty and independently single, almost-30 Isobel meet at a residential hotel and become firm friends. Their relationship deepens and grows even as they eventually go their separate ways, Kitty to a new flat, and Isobel to a rural Scottish cottage. O. Douglas is always a great pleasure to read, and there is quiet merit in all of her books. Honorable mentions as well to three more O. Douglas books first read in 2013: Pink Sugar (see review), Taken by the Hand, and Eliza for Common. The last two also deserve proper reviews of their own; I know I will be re-reading both in future and hope to expand upon them then.

the grand sophy georgette heyer 26. The Grand Sophy 

by Georgette Heyer ~ 1950

Amazonian Sophy is a surprise visitor to her relations in London, throwing an entire household – aunt, uncle and numerous cousins – into a turmoil it has never known before. Sophy is a born manager of other people for their own good, and here she finds much scope for her personal hobby. By the end of this improbable and frothy Regency tale, set in the early decades of the 19th century, romantic couples are paired off, financial difficulties are sorted out, and Sophy has found true love. What’s not to like? Well, that rather blatantly anti-Semitic moneylender episode, perchance… But dodging that critique with the handy “era correct” excuse, this buoyant tale succeeds at cover-to-cover amusement. Also a lot of fun is another Heyer romance, Devil’s Cub. Pure fluff, but the long dialogue sections are very nicely done with loads of cunning, period-correct language, and much humour. wheels within wheels dervla murphy

7. Wheels Within Wheels

by Dervla Murphy ~ 1979

Irishwoman Dervla Murphy, after leaving school at the age of fourteen to look after her bedridden mother, dreamed of travelling, and cherished her occasional opportunities for solo bicycle trips. In 1963, at the age of 32, the death of her mother freed her at last to embark upon a truly ambitious journey. Dervla cycled, alone and self-supported, from Ireland to India, where she spent five months volunteering in a refugee camp for Tibetans fleeing the Chinese occupation. Wheels Within Wheels details Dervla’s life before the Indian expedition, and describes the personally challenging years in Ireland which led to her future wanderlust.  An excellent memoir by a fascinating woman. Passionate, opinionated, and frequently very funny. Goodreads: Wheels Within Wheels. And for more on Dervla Murphy’s many subsequent travels and her activities up to the present: Dervla Murphy. com

secrets of the gnomes poortvliet huygen 28. Secrets of the Gnomes 

by Rien Poortvliet and Wil Huygen ~ 1981

So much more than just a picture book. An intricately illustrated “travelogue”  about the fantastical world of gnomes. Clever and slyly humorous, with a serious message about caring for our shared world. The artwork is extremely well done. Intriguing and diverting in concept and execution, and decidedly of “adult” interest. Amazon:Secrets of the Gnomes  

amberwell d e stevenson 29. Amberwell

by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1955

Not quite as fluffy as some of D.E. Stevenson’s novels, this may well be my favourite of hers so far. Amberwell is a family saga of awful parents and quite lovely children, set at a Scottish country estate. One for the re-read and write-about pile, but in the meantime a nicely succinct review may be read here: Pining for the West: Amberwell. And neck and neck with Amberwell for D.E.S. favourite status is this recently-read “serious” novel, Charlotte Fairlie (1954).  A girls’ school headmistress attempts to help some of her students cope with difficult personal situations, and finds her own life much changed as a result. Aka Blow the Wind Southerly and The Enchanted Isle.  

laughing gas p g wodehouse10. Laughing Gas

by P.G. Wodehouse ~ 1936

Deeply silly, as only a Wodehouse epic can be. While visiting Hollywood in order to rescue an alcoholic relation from a suspected entanglement with a gold-digging starlet, the ugly but sincere Earl of Havershot and golden-boy cinema idol Joey Cooley exchange bodies in some weirdly out-of-body way while simultaneously under dentists’ anesthetics. Much hilarity ensues before it all gets sorted out. Though it’s not as grand as Jeeves and Wooster, or even Lord Emsworth, it did make me smile. A proper review here: Vintage Novels: Laughing Gas      

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