Archive for July, 2014

lady molly of scotland yard baroness orczyLady Molly of Scotland Yard by The Baroness Orczy ~ 1910. This edition: Facsimile of the 1912 edition, The Akadine Press, 1999. Softcover. ISBN: 1-888173-97-1. 344 pages.

My rating: Hmmm. Though doubtless a good example of period fiction and an early precursor to the detective-story genre which so abundantly flourished in the decades after Lady Molly’s publication, for actual reading experience the book was not quite as fabulous as I had hoped.

A perhaps overly generous 5/10 is all I can bring myself to award it right now, though it is the sort of thing one might well become fond of on a re-read for reasons quite unrelated to literary (or detective puzzle) merit. (Or then again, maybe not!)

We meet Lady Molly, in The Ninescore Mystery, first chapter of Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, courtesy Project Gutenberg:

Well, you know, some say she is the daughter of a duke, others that she was born in the gutter, and that the handle has been soldered on to her name in order to give her style and influence.

I could say a lot, of course, but “my lips are sealed,” as the poets say. All through her successful career at the Yard she honoured me with her friendship and confidence, but when she took me in partnership, as it were, she made me promise that I would never breathe a word of her private life, and this I swore on my Bible oath–“wish I may die,” and all the rest of it.

Yes, we always called her “my lady,” from the moment that she was put at the head of our section; and the chief called her “Lady Molly” in our presence. We of the Female Department are dreadfully snubbed by the men, though don’t tell me that women have not ten times as much intuition as the blundering and sterner sex; my firm belief is that we shouldn’t have half so many undetected crimes if some of the so-called mysteries were put to the test of feminine investigation.

Do you suppose for a moment, for instance, that the truth about that extraordinary case at Ninescore would ever have come to light if the men alone had had the handling of it? Would any man have taken so bold a risk as Lady Molly did when–But I am anticipating.

Let me go back to that memorable morning when she came into my room in a wild state of agitation.

“The chief says I may go down to Ninescore if I like, Mary,” she said in a voice all a-quiver with excitement.

“You!” I ejaculated. “What for?”

“What for–what for?” she repeated eagerly. “Mary, don’t you understand? It is the chance I have been waiting for–the chance of a lifetime? They are all desperate about the case up at the Yard; the public is furious, and columns of sarcastic letters appear in the daily press. None of our men know what to do; they are at their wits’ end, and so this morning I went to the chief–”

“Yes?” I queried eagerly, for she had suddenly ceased speaking.

“Well, never mind now how I did it–I will tell you all about it on the way, for we have just got time to catch the 11 a.m. down to Canterbury. The chief says I may go, and that I may take whom I like with me. He suggested one of the men, but somehow I feel that this is woman’s work, and I’d rather have you, Mary, than anyone. We will go over the preliminaries of the case together in the train, as I don’t suppose that you have got them at your fingers’ ends yet, and you have only just got time to put a few things together and meet me at Charing Cross booking-office in time for that 11.0 sharp.”

She was off before I could ask her any more questions, and anyhow I was too flabbergasted to say much. A murder case in the hands of the Female Department! Such a thing had been unheard of until now. But I was all excitement, too, and you may be sure I was at the station in good time.

Holmes to Lady Molly’s Watson (the comparison is inevitable and apt) is our narrator Mary, who started out as Lady Molly’s maid in the days-gone-by continually referred to with much innuendo and mysterious “But I mustn’t talk about that!”

Now Mary and Lady Molly are members of the female division of Scotland Yard’s investigative force, though Mary still seems to be fulfilling many of her old duties in regard to her mistress, as well as some new ones. Messy and boring (and possibly dangerous) investigation to be done – well, let’s send Mary! Though to be fair Lady Molly puts herself in discomfort occasionally. (Very occasionally.) Most of her detecting seems to be done Hercule Poirot/Nero Wolfe style, from the comfort of an armchair while exercising her own Great Big Brain.

My biggest beef: the class distinctions so blatantly demonstrated throughout. Lady Molly is exceedingly high handed with her inferiors (that would be just about everyone she meets, works with and “investigates”) and meek Mary obviously feels that this is just the way it should be. And Lady Molly never explains; she merely orders, and her “partners” (usually Mary, but on occasion fawning members of The Force) scuttle off, sure in their belief that Lady Molly’s womanly (and aristocratic) intuition will bring a solution to the problem of the moment.

There is also a secret reason Lady Molly took up her profession at Scotland Yard; the big reveal happens in the last chapter, with Mary at last spilling all the beans she was forbidden to display previously.

Well, this allows me to tick off 1910 in the Century of Books, and also to satisfy my curiosity as to what Lady Molly was all about; I’ve occasionally seen her referenced in discussions of Golden Age women’s detective fiction; I need wonder no more.

Tasha Brandstatter’s Review echoes my feelings.

As does Stewartry – grand review.

The Wikipedia entry discusses the plot of the first few chapters in vivid, spoiler-laden detail.

And here’s the whole thing on Project Gutenberg.

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mercy pity peace and love jon rumer goddenMercy, Pity, Peace and Love: Stories by Rumer and Jon Godden ~ 1989. This edition: Quill, William Morrow, 1989. Paperback. ISBN: 0-688-10965-9. 160 pages. Also published as Indian Dust in the U.K., Macmillan, 1989, with identical format and content.

My rating: I have somewhat mixed feelings about this collection of stories mostly by Rumer, because so many are already included in her 1957 collection, Mooltiki, and reading Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love felt very much like déjà vu all over again. But then I got to the very few (four out of fifteen) stories by Rumer’s sister Jon, and those were good enough to still my pangs of annoyance. To be fair, all of these short stories are actually very good, and if you haven’t read the rather obscure Mooltiki, you will be coming to them with fresh and appreciative eyes.

I think in this case I will award the collection as a whole a most respectable 8/10. (Along with the recycled stories, the two also-repeated poems made me knock it back a half point; Rumer Godden was a much more accomplished prose writer; her poems are just “not quite” for me; something just a bit jarring with the phrasing, I think.)

The intent of the collection is to celebrate the India that the Godden sisters knew and loved; they spent most of their childhood years in India, and significant amounts of their adult lives there as well. Rumer and Jon also collaborated on a beautifully written joint childhood memoir, Two Under the Indian Sun, which I read with pleasure some years ago.

Reader Alert! This is the same book as Indian Dust. Both were published in 1989, but Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love is the American title, from Macmillan, with Indian Dust the British title, from Macmillan. I had recently ordered Indian Dust, thinking it was another collection of stories, and was greatly disappointed to find it was identical to the one I already owned, under the Mercy, Pity title.

  • Bengal River by Rumer Godden – a poem – from Mooltiki. First stanza is the best.
Nothing can mollify the sky,
the river knows
only its weight and solitude, and heat, sun-tempered cold,
and emptiness and birds; a boat; trees; fine white sand,
and deltas of cool mud; porpoises; crocodiles;
and rafts of floating hyacinth; pools and water-whirls
and, nurtured in blue mussel shells, the sunset river pearls…
                                                                                                            … … …
  • Possession – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

The rice field lay farthest from the village, nearest the road. On all sides the plain unrolled in the sun with a pattern of white clouds, white pampas grass in autumn and white paddy birds, and glimpses of sky-reflecting water from the jheels or shallow pools. The sky met the horizon evenly all the way round in the flatness of the plain, an immense weight of sky above the little field, but the old peasant Dhandu did not look at the sky, he looked at his field; he did not know that it was little; to him it was the whole world. He would take his small son Narayan by the wrist and walk with him and say, ‘This field belonged to my grandfather and your great-grandfather; to my father and your grandfather; it is mine, it will be yours.’

But life-plans may go horribly awry; Dhandu’s does not follow its anticipated path; in an ironic ending, which I somehow found reminiscent of W.W. Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw, the field stays with Dhandu but is forever lost to his son.

  • Rahmin – by Rumer Godden – new to this collection.

An anecdote concerning a series of encounters with a minor craftsman, who proves to be representative of a vast class of Indian society balanced on the knife edge of survival.

  • Monkey – by Jon Godden

Another anecdote, this time by Jon, telling of an encounter with a neighbour’s pet monkey, and the chain of events set off by its biting the author. Fascinating glimpse into the pet-owning culture of upper middle class Calcutta, where Jon was part of a mixed Anglo and Indian community.

  • Sister Malone and the Obstinate Manby Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

Sister Malone, the nun in charge of a charity hospital in Calcutta, is unshaken by the horrible sufferings all around her and does great good with her nursing abilities, but her continual effort to share her religious faith with those she heals goes unheeded. One day Sister Malone meets a man who has truly put all of his trust in God, but she cannot reconcile this with her own conception of what faith should be.

  • The Grey Budgerigar – by Jon Godden

Heart-rending short description of a valiant pet bird and its sad fate.

  • Children of Aloysius – by Rumer Godden – new to this collection.

A modest seamstress is offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make her fortune.

  • The Oyster – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

A Bhramini Hindu student, who has travelled abroad to study in England, visits Paris with a friend and is forced to examine the role of compromise in the formation of his own developing character.

  • Kashmiri Winter – by Rumer Godden – a poem – from Mooltiki.
Big Sister, Hungry Sister and the Greedy Dwarf of Ice,
these are forty days of winter, then twenty and then ten…

   … … …

  • The Wild Duck – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

A young Kashmiri hunter, longing for winter to be over, thinks of his time the previous year among the high mountains hunting ibex.

  • The Carpet – by Jon Godden

The long process of acquiring – or rather, being led into buying by a master salesman – a beautiful Persian carpet. Beautifully observed; gently humorous.

  • Red Doe – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

A vignette of a young nomad riding up the mountain to fetch his unseen new wife. Sensitive and poignant.

  • The Little Black Ram – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

An orphan boy,

… a young thief, a bully, noisy, quarrelsome and turbulent, against everyone with everyone against him…

finds his place in the world through his care of a black ram lamb.

  • Miss Passano – by Jon Godden

Miss Passano is disgusted by her fellow humans, and meditates upon a world without them, where only she would remain, in service to the animals she so greatly loves.

  • Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love – by Rumer Godden – new to this collection

Ganesh Dey attempts to write on these concepts – Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love – for his doctoral thesis. A gently ironical and emotionally powerful story, possibly the best of the collection in its summation of the contradictions of human nature and how we actually treat each other versus how we view our relationships and interactions.

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I need to get some of this towering stack of books-to-be-discussed thinned out; my desk is way too crowded; no place to park the teacup! (And my spouse, coming in last night to “borrow” the computer, made comment on the situation and then graciously offered to shelve them for me – which though a sweet gesture is not necessarily a good thing, as he puts things in strange places. Our filing systems differ. 😉 )Time for a few round-up posts, I think.

Where to start? How to group these? Let’s see…

How about this trio of not necessarily bad books, but ones which could have been better. Definitely readable, but not top notch. (My personal responses only, dependent entirely on my mood at the reading moment – yours could be so much different, so please forgive me if I cold-shoulder one of your favourites.)

station wagon in spain frances parkinson keyesStation Wagon in Spain by Frances Parkinson Keyes ~ 1959. This edition: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1959. Hardcover. 224 pages.

My rating: 5/10

I’ve occasionally flirted with Keyes, because her books have such potentially interesting premises, but I invariably come away sighing. And sadly this concoction is no exception. The very best thing about it was the nine-page author’s foreword, in which she relates her own experiences travelling with her friend Kitty in immediately post-war Italy, France and Spain in 1946, with a rickety American station wagon loaded with relief supplies for an evacuated convent of Bendictine nuns.

Utterly fascinating – “Tell me more!” was my response – but no, Keyes blithely dismisses her own experiences and instead embarks on this rather creatively imagined fictional tale, which starts off reasonably well but soon bogs down in a morass of excessive detail and complicated plotting.

In brief(ish):

A young university professor unexpectedly inherits a large fortune, and, while mulling over his sudden change in situation and his deeply elemental boredom with his life to this point, receives a version of the infamous “Spanish Prisoner” letter in the mail. This one is purportedly from a real Spanish prisoner, and – how handy! – Lambert just happens to be a fluent Spanish speaker himself. Knowing full well that the letter is a scam, he feels that a diversion is in order, so he takes a sabbatical year from his teaching job, packs up his newly purchased big red convertible station wagon, says a dismissive good-bye to the young woman who has been scheming (well beknownst to Lambert) to marry him, and heads off to Spain.

The plot thickens, as Lambert immediately falls in with a luscious adventuress and carries on an intense shipboard flirtation. “Coincidences” start to fall together thick and fast. There does, to Lambert’s great glee, appear to be a genuine prisoner of sorts associated with the fabricated scenario – an impoverished Duke incarcerated in a private sanatorium. Who happens to have a lovely, virginal daughter who could not possibly be involved in any nefarious dealings…

The whole thing is rather bogged down in too much detail. There are long pages of explanation on all sorts of side-issues, as if the author is dead keen on the education of her readers as much as on their entertainment. The plottings of the wicked conspirators get rather see-through and slightly ridiculous early on, and the inevitable romance is just too predictable to be satisfying. (A pox on “love at first sight”, I emphatically say. At least in this situation.)

Moments of excellence; chapters of blah blah blah. Rated at 5/10 because I did willingly carry through to the end, despite my ever-increasing feelings of annoyance that the author would make such a messy job of such a promising plot, and turn her quite likeable protagonist into a bit of a blustering egoist. Points off, too, for the sweetly yielding female love interest (the new one in Spain, not the abandoned American, though she also pops up in Europe to add some more kinks to the tale) and the “unspoken communion of two passionate souls.” Ick!

neither five nor three helen macinnes paperback fawcettNeither Five nor Three by Helen MacInnes ~ 1951. This edition: Fawcett Crest, circa late 1960s. Paperback. 320 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Set in post-World War II New York.

I found myself rather taken aback by this story. While many of Helen MacInnes’ books demonstrate her strong stance on capital-C Communism (it’s 100% bad) this one takes that fixation to a whole new level. Instead of clean-cut English/American heroes and heroines flitting about the shadows of war-torn European cities, it’s all about the insidious influence of underground Commies on the home front (in this case America) after World War II, and it comes across as being deeply paranoid, viewed from half a century in the future.

The love story is utterly predicable and really rather sweet; the two lovers are likeable enough and I found myself in general wishing them well; but the anti-Red plotline pushed me past my comfort level into the “Really? Really?” territory. Even taking era-appropriateness into account. So black; so white. Shades of grey are evidence of weakness, on both sides.

MacInnes’ Commies are supremely well organized; they have infiltrated the American publishing industry and are placing their pawns very cleverly in order to slant the perceptions of readers in favour of the political left. Head honchos from the main office (as it were) in Europe undertake clandestine inspirational (and disciplinary) visits to American “party cells”; new recruits are jollied along until they are too deeply enmeshed to easily escape; then the gloves come off and any attempt to back away from participation or to “inform” is punishable by carefully engineered public disgrace, or, just possibly, sudden death. (Cue foreboding music…)

Definitely a Cold War period piece, which was received with warm approval by readers and reviewers of its time.

Excerpted from the March, 1951 Kirkus Review:

This is the most important book Helen MacInnes has done … absorbing and challenging from first page to last, as the devious methods of Communist penetration into the fields of public relations are revealed, and the terrifying network of Communist affiliation is convincingly recorded. Rona Metford is engaged to Scott Ettley, a journalist whose loyalties are torn between his mounting commitment to “the party” and his yearning for a normal course of love and marriage. Into this situation comes Paul Haydn, just returned to New York from a very hush-hush assignment in Europe and finding that his love for Rona, which he thought was a thing of the past, is still very much alive. The checkered course of love is traced against the background of gradually unfolding ramifications of the violence and falsity of Communist activities in the heart of the world they think they know…

I personally found the political bits verging on hysteria, and while there was an occasional authorial attempt made to balance the viewpoints by pondering why Clean Young Americans might be seduced to the Red Side, once they went too far they were brutally written off and became completely expendable, in the most ultimate way.

A precursor to MacInnes’ more “traditional” (i.e., European-set and action-packed) espionage stories which were to follow, blending an ideological plotline with a stereotypical together/torn asunder/together again romantic tale, with vaguely unsatisfying results.

my heart shall not fear josephine lawrenceMy Heart Shall Not Fear by Josephine Lawrence ~ 1949. This edition: Peoples Book Club, 1950. Hardcover. 285 pages.

 
My rating: 5/10

Now on to this much more obscure book, also set, as is Neither Five Nor Three, in immediately post World War II America.

Touted as “inspirational” and a “wholesome depiction of family life” in its back-cover promotional blurbs, this earnest novel left me unsatisfied and vaguely uneasy, mostly because of its troubling (to a reader of today) depiction of women’s societal roles in its era.

If I could pin down one thing which bothered me the most, it would be the author’s apparent insistence that female martyrdom is by and large a good thing, as long as it is carried out in a modest manner. The woman who takes a hit for her family, quietly and uncomplainingly, is to be greatly admired. To be fair, this also applies in a lesser degree to men, but is more strongly expected of the “weaker” sex, the men not being subjected to such ironclad standards of societal behaviour.

There is an ambitious cast of characters, including an older couple who sacrifice their much-deserved peaceful retirement to share their home with three not-long-married sons recently discharged from the armed forces, a young married woman who has recently had a baby and who is eager to leave the hospital and settle into a new apartment (which she can’t really afford, seeing that her husband has borrowed a vast sum of money in order to bail out his own ne’er-do-well father), another new mother who is not married and who resists the good-intentioned bullying of a social aid worker to give her child up for adoption, and a young childless woman who is obviously dying of an unspecified ailment – most likely cancer – but is surrounded by a cloud of silence as no one in her circle dares to put into words the obvious, as well as numerous others.

One of the odder and most troubling scenarios is that of one of the young couples separating. The husband has decided that he has tied himself down to his childhood sweetheart mistakenly, and he announces that he is leaving to “enjoy his freedom” while he is still young. The heartbroken wife refuses to argue or present herself as unfairly forsaken, gives her departing spouse the car that she has worked for and purchased with her own money, and even runs out to purchase new underclothes for her deserter as a gesture of undying wifely devotion.

The husband sneaks into the house to pack when his wife is out, and scorns his mother’s pleas to reconsider his actions. (This is one of the couples living with the elderly parents.) The young wife is left dependent for a home upon her in-laws, who are deeply shamed by their son’s behaviour. The deserted wife, by meekly accepting her bleak fate, is gently pitied and openly admired by the other characters for her forbearance. She herself quietly says that she hopes her man will eventually return. All I could think was, “Hey, sister, take back those car keys and tell that lout you married in good faith to find his own transport to ‘finding himself.’ And don’t you dare be here waiting for him when and if he crawls back home!”

Josephine Lawrence was a highly prolific writer of both children’s books (100-ish)  and adult novels (30+) who was well known and dependably popular in her time. Born in 1889, her work was published from the 1920s through the 1960s. She no doubt struck a chord with woman readers looking for a fictional validation of their own sometimes difficult lives, but if this novel is typical, her work is tremendously dated. Josephine Lawrence seems to be almost forgotten today.

I did enjoy the period detail in this story, and the ease with which the author kept her multiple strands interweaving without tangling. I disliked the pedestrian aspects of her style – it is very workaday prose – and the droning overtone of “womanly nobility is achieved through silent suffering/womanly strength is measured by her fortitude in the face of adversity.” I suppose there is some general merit to this idea as broadly applied to both sexes, but in this case I found it something of a downer when applied so strongly to my particular gender.

I’d gladly read another of Lawrence’s books if it came to me easily, but she is not a writer I will be deliberately seeking out.

A sampling of readers' comments.

A sampling of readers’ comments, My Heart Shall Not Fear.

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ellison wonderland signet 1974 harlan ellison 001Ellison Wonderland by Harlan Ellison ~ 1962. This edition: Signet, 1974. Paperback. 178 pages.

My rating: Collectively, I think maybe 7/10. The individual stories vary in their appeal. In general, I like the dark twisters better than the emotion-tugging ones. Perhaps I’ll stick some ratings on them below.

Tripping back in time to long ago teen reading days when I happily dabbled in science fiction, starting with Ray Bradbury’s fantastical Martian Chronicles – the entry level drug, as it were – and soon moving on to Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and others of its ilk, and, finally, discovering the more than slightly twisted short stories of the ever-angry Harlan Ellison.

Rounding up potential reading for the Century of Books, I pulled this collection of early pulp shorts by Ellison from my son’s bookshelf. He (my son, not Ellison, of course) has taken over my collection of vintage sci-fi, and if I want to time travel the genre I need to make a special effort to go out to the cabin, stand on a rickety old kitchen chair and ascend to the top bunk bed (no ladder – my son and his friends being athletic and bounding types), and, kneeling gingerly amongst the flotsam and jetsam which finds its way to that mostly uninhabited space, go through the book shelves stacked high with a varied collection of  (forgive the lazy stereotype) “guy books” – loads of falling-apart World’s Best Sci-Fi collections, most of Heinlein’s output, John Steinbeck, Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean, Nicholas Monsarrat, John le Carre, Ian Fleming, John Christopher, Bertrand R. Brinley, Robert Ludlum, Michael Crichton – you get the drift.

Leafing through the dusty Harlan Ellison paperbacks, I waffled between Shatterday, Stalking the Nightmare, Gentleman Junkie, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream… and then I settled on this one, as rather less strident than some of the others. The 1974 reissue also has the bonus of introductory commentary by the author to each of the sixteen stories, always a fascinating addition to such collections, adding context to these otherwise rather innocuous “pulp mag” shorts.

When Harlan Ellison is good, he is very, very good, but when he is bad… well, you know the rest of that little nursery rhyme tag. A few of these stories are highly memorable; the rest, maybe not so much. But still something of a must-read collection for the vintage speculative fiction/sci-fi buff.

  • Introduction: The Man on the Mushroom – 1974 – Ellison describes the events surrounding the first publication of this collection in 1962, and the utter financial and emotional destitution attendant upon his migration from Chicago to Hollywood, California, and the exceedingly welcome publisher’s cheque which validated his writerly ambitions.
  • Commuter’s Problem – 1957 – “Thing” was all I could call it, and it had a million tentacles. An ordinary guy living in modest suburbia is vaguely troubled by the not-quite-normal functioning (including the weird garden plant referred to in the first-sentence quote) of the household next door. And then one day the absent-minded morning commute goes on a stop too far. Much too far…  Spoiler: Earth is just a suburb. Good for a chuckle: 7/10
  • Do-It-Yourself – 1961 – Madge retina-printed her identity on the receipt, fished in her apron for a coin, and came up with a thirty-center. It’s amazing what one can purchase by mail order. Like a no-fail, do-it-yourself murder kit. Watch out, loutish husband Carl. (But maybe Carl reads the same back-of-the-magazine ads himself…) Brilliant. This sort of thing is why I keep Harlan on the shelf: 10/10
  • The Silver Corridor – 1956 – “We can’t be responsible for death or disfigurement, you know,” reminded the duelsmaster. Two opinionated academics take their elemental disagreement with each other to the next level, in a literal battle of the minds. Cleverly imagined: 10/10
  • All the Sounds of Fear – 1962 – “Give me some light!” The ultimate Method Actor goes too far. Interesting concept: 5/10
  • Gnomebody – 1956 – Did you ever feel your nose running and you wanted to wipe it, but you couldn’t? A teenage social misfit meets his magical counterpart. Nice twist at ending which I totally didn’t see coming: 7/10
  • The Sky is Burning – 1958 – They came flaming down out of a lemon sky, and the first day, ten thousand died. Intergalactic lemmings, with a bleak message for Earth. Brrr: 7/10
  • Mealtime – 1958 – While the ship Circe burned its way like some eternal Roman Candle  through the surrounding dark of forever… Homo superior? The crew of a far-roving Catalog Ship mapping the planets of unknown stars gets an unnerving comeuppance. This little story has a sting in its tail, but it felt a bit awkward in execution: 5/10
  • The Very Last Day of a Good Woman –  1958 – Finally, he knew the world was going to end. Arthur Fulbright knows the future, and doesn’t want to die a virgin. Multiple things going on here, rather darkly. Kind of icky: 5/10
  • Battlefield – 1958 – The first needle of the “day” came over Copernicus Sector at 0545…and seven seconds. Earthly conflicts are now fought out on the moon, with clinical accuracy of elimination of opponents. The combatants commute to and fro, sharing the same shuttles and getting together to socialize in their downtime, for “peace on Earth” is well-maintained. An eerie tale, all too chillingly possible, one feels: 10/10
  • Deal From the Bottom – 1960 – There was really quite a simple reason for Maxim Hirt’s presence in the death cell. A condemned man sells his soul to the devil for a reprieve. Too bad Maxim has always been a bungler… Okay, I laughed: 7/10
  • The Wind Beyond the Mountains – 1958 – Wummel saw the shining thing come down. The crew of a planetary exploration mission need to find a justification to keep their jobs from being cut. Maybe a live specimen from a strange small planet will help? This one didn’t quite get off the ground, in my opinion, though it had its moments: 4/10
  • Back to the Drawing Boards – 1958 – Perhaps it was inevitable, and perhaps it was only a natural result of the twisted eugenics that produced Leon Packett. Robotics expert Packett is screwed over by his employers. Revenge is inevitable. Beware compound interest! 7/10
  • Nothing for My Noon Meal – 1958 –  There was a patch of Fluhs growing out beyond the spikes, and I tried to cultivate them, and bring them around, but somehow they weren’t drawing enough, and they died off before they could mature. Marooned on a small, barren planet, with his wife’s body entombed in their broken spaceship, a lone man is succoured by oxygen-producing native plants. A chance at escape presents itself; can he bring himself to leave this place he once called Hell? Awkwardly poignant: 4/10
  • Hadj – 1956 – It had taken almost a year to elect Herber. The Masters of the Universe show up and order an envoy from Earth, but at the end of the long journey to the home world, a humiliating slap-down awaits. A four-page snippet of a story, saved from readerly dismissal by being wryly funny: 6/10
  • Rain, Rain, Go Away – 1956 – Sometimes I wish I were a duck, mused Hobert Krouse. Trapped in a dismal job, in a perpetually rain-drenched city, Hobert occasionally intones the childhood incantation, with generally successful results. But then one day it is “the other day”… and Hobert finds himself in a bit of a situation. We leave him surreally floating: 5/10
  • In Lonely Lands – 1958 – Pederson knew night was falling over Sytris Major; blind, still he knew that the Martian night had arrived; the harp crickets had come out. Coming to Mars to live out his few remaining years, Pederson at last finds a kindred spirit who eases his troubled soul. Flirting with the stickily sentimental here, Harlan. Not one of my favourites of this collection; too gosh-darn poignantly sweet: 4/10

 

 

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the houses in between reprint society howard spring 1951 001The Houses in Between by Howard Spring ~ 1951. This edition: The Reprint Society, 1954. Hardcover. 568 pages.

My rating: After some deliberation, I cannot honestly give this less than a 10/10. This ambitious novel certainly has some flaws, but the overall reading experience, to me at this point in my life, was utterly satisfying.

A week or so ago I posted a quick teaser about this novel, and I am happy to report that it more than fulfilled its promise. It took me quite a long time to work my way through it, both because of general busy-ness in my real life, and my reluctance to rush through the book. Fine print, thin pages, and rather intense content made it crucial to be able to really concentrate; it was not a particularly “easy” read, though I did find it completely engaging.

On her third birthday, May 1, 1851, young Sarah Rainborough visits the newly-opened Crystal Palace in London, and the experience so impresses her that it becomes her earliest vivid memory, to be referenced throughout the rest of her long life.

I am not going to share many more plot details than this, as the story was most rewarding to me as I read with no prior knowledge as to where it was all going to go, and there were some surprising developments.

Written in the first person as an autobiography, with Sarah starting to record her life in her later years and the tone very much one of “looking back”, there are of course many references to future events, interweaving Sarah’s past and present and going off into short tangents here and there. Sarah’s fictional life covers ninety-nine years of a history-rich century, and though as a member of the upper middle class our narrator is cushioned from the harshest realities of her time, she is fully aware – at least in retrospect – of what is going on all around her.

The strongest part of the book to my mind was the portion regarding the Great War. The author, using his character’s voice, is bitterly sincere in condemnation of the brutal destruction of an entire generation of the best and brightest of England’s –  and Europe’s – young men, and the impact of their loss on the structure of society as a whole, and on the families and individuals left behind.

Part social commentary and part good old-fashioned family drama – Sarah’s personal life and the lives of her family members are chock full of incident, some spilling over into positive melodrama – the book is by and large very well paced and beautifully balanced between fiction and history.

Here is the author’s foreword, which tells of his intentions. I must say that I thought he pulled it off rather well.

the houses in between howard spring author's foreword 001

Howard Spring made a commendably good job of voicing his narrator; occasionally it felt a tiny bit forced, but in general he drew me in and kept me engaged. The latter chapters, covering Sarah’s extreme old age, were particularly believable, as the narrator is shown to be letting herself go a bit, both in her recording of the current phase of her life, and in her relationships to the people around her, as she deliberately eliminates strong emotional feelings regarding her descendants and looks more and more inward, preserving her energies for herself.

An author whom I shall be exploring in the future. I very much liked what he did here, though no doubt some of the appeal of this book is in that it describes the long life of a rather ordinary woman, and I am myself in a reflective mood regarding the life of my own mother, who died just over a month ago at the venerable age of eighty-nine, a decade less than our fictional Sarah’s, but still impressive, when one considers the societal changes that occurred in her (my mother’s) life as well.

Well done.

For more reviews:

The Goodreads page has several succinct and accurate reviews by readers.

Reading 1900-1950 has a detailed review, with excerpts, as well as links to reviews of several other of the author’s novels.

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This is a re-post of a review written several years ago. I have just re-read the book, due to its mention by a commenter looking for an excerpt. While I was not able to identify the mentioned passage, I did appreciate the quest, as it made me read extra carefully and ponder what I was reading.

I thought I might be moved to revise this older post, and I have indeed gone through it and tweaked it a very little bit, but in general I have to say that my thoughts on MacInnes’ Friends and Lovers haven’t changed this time around. If anything, I found the hero’s angst-ridden inner dialogue even less sympathetic, and the heroine’s pandering to his fixations on her acceptable behaviour even more tiresome.

This time round I was very much on the lookout for character development, to see if young semi-star-crossed lovers David and Penny appreciably matured and grew emotionally through the course of the tale. They did to a degree, but not to the point I would have liked to have seen, all things considered. We are asked by the author to sympathize throughout with the obstacles put in the place of the young lovers, and we do, but I found myself longing for an epiphany of sorts from either or both in regards to the whole “trust” factor. Penny seems in some ways to be able to better deal emotionally with the ongoing separation than David; his agitation at the thought of Penny’s contact with – gasp! – other men (even strictly socially) is rather disturbing.

David seems like he would continue to be jealous, moody and high maintenance as the years further progress; the ending scene, romantic though it was, left me fearing for this fictional couple’s longer term happiness. I wonder how Penny will respond to the feminist consciousness-raising just a few decades down the road. Will she pick up the strands of her life (the talent as an artist, for example) so easily abandoned in the throes of young passionate love when the middle-age years come and those inevitable thoughts of “what might have been” start to float to the surface of the mind?

And what will the war years bring, with the changing and expanding societally-acceptable roles of women?

Ah, well. We’ll never know. Frozen in time these two will have to remain. Interesting to speculate, though.

macinnes friends lovers djFriends and Lovers by Helen MacInnes ~ 1947. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1947. Hardcover. 367 pages.

My rating: 6/10.

*****

I met this author, figuratively speaking, one long, hot teenage summer in the 1970s. With the high school library closed to me and everything else in print in the house already devoured, I was desperate for something new to read. I was half-heartedly digging through boxes of old Reader’s Digests in our sultry attic when I found a stash of  hardcovers packed away in a pile of string-tied cardboard boxes, relics of my mother’s previous life in California before her marriage and relocation to the interior of British Columbia.

Mother was born in 1925, and, as a lifelong avid reader, collected as many titles as she could with her limited budget as a single “working girl”, a career which spanned almost 20 years before a late-for-the-time marriage at age 36.  A browse through her collection was a snapshot of middle class bestsellers of the 1950s and 1960s, when my mother did the majority of her book buying. If I made a list of authors I’ve been introduced to through my mother’s personal library, Helen MacInnes would be solidly on there.

Best known for her suspenseful espionage thrillers set in World War II and the Cold War, Helen MacInnes also wrote several romance novels, Friends and Lovers in 1947, and Rest and Be Thankful in 1949.

The latter title was one on my mother’s shelf, and I read it and quite enjoyed it in a mild way, so when high school resumed in September and I came across another MacInnes title in our well-stocked school library, Above Suspicion, I added it to my sign-out stack. Already a fan of Eric Ambler and John LeCarre,  the political thriller immediately appealed, and Helen MacInnes was added to my mental  “authors to look out for” list.

Over the years I eventually read most of MacInnes’ titles, with varying degrees of interest and enjoyment. At her best she wrote a gripping, fast-paced, suspenseful story that held my interest well; occasionally I found my attention straying. When I recently came across Friends and Lovers, I picked it up and leafed through it, trying to remember if I had previously encountered it. The title was familiar, but darned if I could remember the storyline – never a good sign! When I started reading, I knew immediately that at some point I had read the book, but I had absolutely no memory of the plot. Was this a spy novel? A romance? A few chapters in I concluded that it was a pure romance, albeit one that attempted to address some larger issues.

David Bosworth is an academically brilliant though financially struggling student entering his last year of studies at Oxford in the early 1930s. In Scotland for the summer, employed as a tutor with a wealthy family, he meets 18-year-old Penelope (Penny) Lorrimer and, rather to his dismay, falls in love at first sight. He had always thought that intellect could govern emotion; his feelings for Penny turn this long-held theory on its head, and, when it becomes apparent that Penny has been similarly smitten, a clandestine relationship ensues.

David is the sole prospective support of a troubled family. His widowed father, seriously injured in the Great War, is a helpless invalid on a small pension. His sister Margaret, who has some talent as a pianist, refuses to take on a paying job to help support her father and herself, as she feels her musical training towards a career as a concert pianist is too important to compromise.

David has financed his own university education by attaining a series of scholarships; now with his degree in sight he is agonizing over his future and his family responsibilities. A wife and family of his own have no place in his plans, and Margaret, once she realizes David’s attraction to Penny, is openly resentful of what she sees as a threat to her own future reliance on David’s earning power. David, emotionally fastidious, refuses to entertain the notion of a relationship other than marriage with the woman of his choice; his emotional and sexual frustration are frankly and sympathetically described by MacInnes.

Penny is also faced with family opposition to the relationship. Her well-off, upper-middle-class parents are and suspicious of the designs of a financially struggling university student on their daughter. A romantic entanglement is unthought of; a marriage even more ridiculous to consider – David will obviously be in no position to support a wife of Penny’s background “in the style to which she is accustomed” for quite some years, if ever. The only reason Penny is not out-and-out forbidden to see more of David is that the idea of her seeing anything in him is so ridiculous to her parents that he is dismissed as a momentary indiscretion, not deemed worthy of further notice by Penny as well as themselves.

Penny manages to get to London to study at the Slade Art School; David visits her on his free Sundays and the relationship progresses through its many difficulties to its inevitable conclusion.

Did I like this novel? Yes, and no.

It was very much a period piece in its portrayal of the two main characters. David, to my modern-day sensibilities, is much too chauvinistic and jealous to be admirable; Penny is much too ready to conform to David’s masculine expectations. Stepping back from that knee-jerk reaction to their fictional personalities, I realize it is a bit unfair to judge them by present-day standards. As products of their environment, possibly drawn from real-life characters, (I have read that this may indeed be a semi-autobiographical story, as the two protagonists resemble MacInnes and her husband in many key ways), David and Penny do seem generally believable, if a mite annoying at times, in their stereotypical behaviour.

Their friends and families were never given as much attention in character development throughout as they could have been, a definite flaw in this novel. Things tend to fall into place a little too neatly on occasion; Penny’s throwing off of her family’s protective embrace and her establishment as a gainfully employed London working girl comes out as a bit too pat and good to be true; David is offered opportunity after wonderful opportunity and enjoys a great luxury of choice as to his own working future; one sometimes wonders what all the fuss and angst is about.

A big point in favour is the discussion of attitudes in England towards the Great War veterans. MacInnes lets her very definite political opinions (liberal, anti-fascist) show throughout. The brooding situation of the “Germany problem” is well-portrayed. The story is set in the 1930s but was written and published in the 1940s, so the author’s portrayal of the characters’ apprehensions as to their and their country’s future must certainly have been influenced by the author’s own pre-World War II experiences and thoughts. Overall an interesting glimpse into the time, written by someone who lived what she wrote about.

Absolutely honest personal opinion: One of Helen MacInnes’ weaker novels. I much prefer Rest and Be Thankful, the other of her “pure romances”, which I regularly re-read.  It also discusses the after-effects of war and subsequent political attitudes, and is a stronger, more cohesive story overall with much better character development and a strong vein of humour, something I feel Friends and Lovers generally lacks. Friends and Lovers often feels forced, as if the author were rather abstracted while writing it; given the times it was written in, I will forgive her that but it does show in the final result.

Would I recommend it? Yes, with reservations. I will keep it on my shelves as a re-read, though for far in the future; no hurry! Has merit as a vintage novel, but not a favourite.

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