Archive for August, 2014

Queen Anne's Lace - end of summer - two years ago at White Rock, B.C.

Queen Anne’s Lace – end of summer – two years ago at White Rock Beach, B.C. Seems like that particular road trip happened only just yesterday… insert desired cliché about the ever-more-swift passage of time here…only four more months of this particular year left now – where did it go?!


This second completed decade in my 2014 Century of Books Project consists of books which are, predictably because of the era, either directly concerned with World War II, or refer to it as an off-stage plot element. Only two make no reference to it at all, namely Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County (published in 1940 as pulp magazine serial – pure entertainment), and Miles Franklin’s My Career Goes Bung (written several decades before its 1946 publication.)

There were so many books to choose from in reading for this decade; the difficulty was not in finding likely candidates but in deciding which ones to set aside. As it is I have doubled up (and in some cases tripled and quadrupled) on many of the years; I have had to say firmly to myself: “No more!”

Digression alert! Regarding the ratings out of 10 – these are merely a reflection of my personal response to what I am reading, and how satisfying an experience it turns out to be for me. The ratings in no way represent “literary merit”, for Hugh Walpole’s novel The Blind Man’s House, rated below at 5.5, is decidedly superior in every literary sense to D.E. Stevenson’s The English Air (9) and Crooked Adam (6.5). But I expected more from Walpole, and his relatively lesser rating means merely that I didn’t feel that my readerly desires were fully satisfied compared to how well they they could have been from a writer of his calibre. Not meaning to pick on Hugh Walpole, and to audaciously celebrate D.E. Stevenson – merely using them for examples as they are handily first on the list.

Now we may proceed. 🙂

I’ve again highlighted a few as worthy of extra notice – scroll down to the bottom for another award lists.


And here they are, in their (mostly) tattered and well-read glory.

1940 ~ The English Air by D.E. Stevenson ~ A half-German, half-English young man visits England in the year before the start of World War II. Is his visit strictly social, or something more sinister? A rather low-key storyline compared to 1942’s super-dramatic Crooked Adam, but quite lovely in its character portraits. (9/10)

1941 ~ The Blind Man’s House by Hugh Walpole ~ A complex psychological drama concerning the effects of the blindness of  Sir Julius Cromwell on his wife, his friend, and the many characters who make up the Cromwell household and social circle. I thought it reminiscent of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, though – I hasten to add – without the “John Thomas” scenes. Walpole’s Ladyship doesn’t indulge in such extra-marital escapades. (5.5/10)

1942 ~ Crooked Adam by D.E. Stevenson ~ Schoolmaster Adam Southey, refused entry into the Services due to a childhood injury, instead proves his patriotism by chasing down Nazi spies in the wilds of Scotland. Highly contrived, and hugely unlikely, but a good example of a “Hurray for our side!” wartime entertainment. (6.5/10)

1943 ~ Lady in Waiting by Rory Gallagher ~ A frothy and light satire about an upper-middle-class American pregnancy, with few of the details spared. Vintage Mommy-Lit, in other words, and really rather fun in its own way, though the relentlessly chirpy voice of the narrator occasionally has me wanting to (temporarily, not fatally) smother her with one of her voluminous pregnancy smocks. (6.5/10)

1944 ~ Yours is the Earth by Margaret Vail ~ Non-fiction/personal account. A sober yet impassioned personal account of an American woman’s wartime experience in France. Married to a member of the French upper class and left alone to care for their young daughter and the family estates when he is interned by the German forces, Margaret must decide for herself how to proceed, which she does with steadfast resolve and an immense contempt for the enemy race. (10/10)

1945 ~ The Gilded Ladder by Laura Conway ~ A formulaic historical fiction/domestic drama about a social climbing Victorian and her musically adept young niece. By the prolific author Dorothy Phoebe Ansle, who published 100 novels between the 1920s and 1980s, under various pseudonyms including Laura Conway and Hebe Elsna. Well-written for its genre but ultimately forgettable. (5/10)

1946 ~ My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin ~ Another version of My Brilliant Career’s Sybylla rants against the misunderstanding her teenage bestseller has attracted, as she finds her way into and out of Sydney literary society. Published several decades after its completion, and a bit dated in its references, but nonetheless a diverting read with a gloriously full-of-herself heroine. (9/10)

1947 ~ The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding ~ A cleanly written noir novel centered on a devoted mother’s protection of her teenage daughter from a blackmailer after an inconvenient man turns up very dead. (9.5/10)

1948 ~ North Face by Mary Renault ~ A gloomy post-World War II novel concerning the emotional traumas of Neil and Ellen, and their coming to terms with their tragic pasts and gleam-of-hope futures. A rock climbing theme prevails, all Freudian and symbolic. (6/10)

1949 ~ The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams ~ Non-fiction/personal account. A clever and dangerous escape from Stalag Luft III is described by one of the participants. Enthralling! (8.5/10)

And the “bonus” books:

1940 ~ The Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County by Edgar Rice Burroughs ~ The epitome of pulp “western” fiction, by the creator of the immortal Tarzan. Wrongly accused of the murder of his romantic interest’s father, rancher/deputy sheriff Buck Mason seeks the real killer while visiting a dude ranch disguised as an Eastern polo player. He sorts everything out, nails the real villains, and finds true love. Did we ever doubt the outcome?! (4/10)

1941 ~ Above Suspicion by Helen MacInnes ~ An Oxford don and his wife undertake a secret spying mission in Europe as the clouds of war gather overhead. (8.5/10)

1942 ~ Assignment in Brittany by Helen MacInnes ~ An English officer is sent to Brittany on a spying mission, with the lucky coincidence of being able to masquerade as a convenient double who was evacuated to England at Dunkirk. Much drama and a fair bit of bloodshed. (9/10)

1942 ~ Pied Piper by Nevil Shute ~ Shute’s fast-moving and exceedingly likeable propaganda novel, starring a stoic elderly Englishman rescuing an eclectic group of endangered children from Nazi-occupied France in the early years of World War II. Not very believable, perhaps, but a good yarn nonetheless. (9.5/10)

1942 ~ The Sea-Gull Cry by Robert Nathan ~ An über-light novella concerning a winsome pair of Anglo-Polish war refugees shoehorned into a dreadfully upbeat formula romance between the eldest sibling, 19-year-old Louisa, and a middle-aged history professor, Smith. The 7-year-old brother Jeri provides cuteness and pathos. (3/10)

1942 ~ West with the Night by Beryl Markham ~ A slightly uneven but overall excellent memoir telling of the author’s youth in Africa and her experiences training racehorses and later learning to fly small planes. Beryl eventually became the first person to solo-fly the Atlantic from East to West. An amazing woman; a very readable personal account of her earlier days. (9.5/10)

1945 ~ Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood ~ A series of linked episodes gleaned from Isherwood’s own experiences in mid-wars Berlin, 1930-33. Utterly chilling from our historical perspective; utterly fascinating for the character portraits the author produces. This is the “I am a camera book”, and one of those character portraits is off the now-ubiquitous Sally Bowles. (Made famous by Liza Minnelli, and now a staple turn in every small town triple-threat dreamer’s stage-struck repertoire.) (10/10)

 1946 ~ The Sudden Guest by Christopher La Farge ~ A bitter, deeply egotistical elderly woman copes with a rising hurricane at her Rhode Island summer home and mulls over the differences between now and the last great storm only a few years earlier. Perhaps a metaphor for American and her stance regarding world politics of the time? (7/10)

 1948 ~ Beowulf by Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman) ~ A London teashop in the Blitz is at the heart of this linked series of vignettes and character portraits. This is fantastic, in a beautifully subfusc way. A writer to explore further. (9.5/10)

1949 ~ The Black Opal by Dorothy Maywood Bird ~ A sweetly charming period piece aimed at the teen girl set of its day. Laurel heads off to co-ed college and mixes her studies with a full social life, the acquisition of a beau, and the solving of an old murder mystery. Pure fluff; great fun! (6/10)

1949 ~ Because of the Lockwoods by Dorothy Whipple ~ The tale of two families and their unequal relationship, due in large part to a secret wrong perpetrated by the father of one family upon the widowed mother of the other. (9/10)

1949 ~ Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski ~ Verging just the tiniest bit on bathos is this suspenseful tale of an English officer returning to France immediately after the end of WW II to seek for the little boy he saw only once as a newborn baby, child of a tragically brief wartime marriage with a French Resistance worker. (7.5/10)

1949 ~ My Heart Shall Not Fear by Josephine Lawrence ~ A complicated domestic drama following a number of characters through times of challenge in post-World War II America. Domesticity and the roles of women are key features here. The writing is nothing special, but acceptable; the plot has moments of interest but the author tends to over-emphasize her key points, driving them home with a sledgehammer – a certain lack of finesse. (5/10)

 Most Beautiful Writing Award:

  1. West with the Night by Beryl Markham ~ 1942
  2. Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood  ~ 1945

Marshmallow Award (for purest fluff):

  1. The Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County by Edgar Rice Burroughs ~ 1940
  2. The Black Opal by Dorothy Maywood Bird ~ 1949
  3. Lady in Waiting by Rory Gallagher ~ 1943

Don’t-Expect-Many-Smiles Award:

  1. The Sudden Guest by Christopher La Farge  ~ 1946
  2. The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding ~ 1947
  3. North Face by Mary Renault ~ 1948

Sturdy British Manhood (Fictional) Award:

  1. Crooked Adam by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1942

Karma-is-Grand Award:

  1. Because of the Lockwoods by Dorothy Whipple ~ 1949

Waste-of-Precious-Reading-Time Award:

  1. The Sea-Gull Cry by Robert Nathan  ~ 1942

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dear dodie valerie grove 1996 001Dear Dodie: The Life of Dodie Smith by Valerie Grove ~ 1996. This edition: Chatto & Windus, 1996. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7011-5753-4. 339 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

I wonder if I can be truly fair to this biography, reading it as I did back-to-back with the subject’s own long and detailed discourse on her life?

For though Valerie Grove had complete access to the complete archive of Dodie Smith’s personal papers, the outline of Dodie’s life and the anecdotes she shared are merely repeated ad lib from Dodie Smith’s own four volumes of memoir in the first three-quarters or so of the book. Here and there Valerie Grove gives clarification and snippets of background information, but in essence what I felt I was reading was a brief condensation of the original memoir, minus the personal touches and the strongly “I” point-of-view which brought Dodie’s much longer work to life.

I was eager to get to the years not covered by Dodie’s own memoirs, the years after her return to England after her long American hiatus (1938 to 1953) originally inspired by partner Alec Beesley’s conscientious objector convictions and their apprehension about how he would be treated as England entered into the war years.

Valerie Grove did fill in the blanks here, as she was able to glean many of her facts from the completed manuscript of Dodie Smith’s fifth and unpublished volume of memoir, as well as from personal interviews with those who knew Dodie Smith well in her final years.

It is rather tragic that each successive volume of memoir had a harder time finding a publisher, as Dodie’s literary and theatrical star status waned with each succeeding decade and the predictable shift in public tastes and the ongoing hype around fresh young talents, such as Dodie herself was way back in the 1930s with her play-writing successes starting with Autumn Crocus and ending (to all intents and purposes, as she never after this wrote another really successful play) with Dear Octopus, and, to a secondary extent, with her two successful literary efforts, I Capture the Castle, and The Hundred and One Dalmatians. While her other titles had respectable sales, due in great part to the reputation of Dodie Smith’s “great” books, none were anything like as successful as those first two forays into mainstream and juvenile fiction writing.

Grove provides more details of Dodie and Alec’s rather unique-for-the-time household – the relationship, formalized by a 1938 marriage ceremony, was a perfect example of role reversal, Dodie being the breadwinner and Alec the support system and domestic homemaker. Neither Dodie nor Alec expressed any desire to have children, though both reportedly enjoyed the company of other people’s offspring; their affections were concentrated on each other and on their beloved pets.

Alec was tremendously handsome, in a matinee idol sort of way, and though occasionally encouraged to consider taking a screen test, he calmly declined any attempt to share the limelight with Dodie, living what seems by all accounts to be a rather self-contained and contented life. There was speculation among their peers (and I must admit to this as well) whether Alec Beesley was in fact gay, as it was public knowledge that he and the 7-years-older Dodie had separate bedrooms, and were intimate friends with a number of rather openly gay or bisexual men, most prominently perhaps the writer Christopher Isherwood.

dodie smith alec beesley christopher isherwood dec 25 1945 calif 001

Dodie, Alec, and Christopher Isherwood – California, December 25, 1945.

Grove agrees with the contention that Alec was indeed “straight” in regards to sexual matters, and utterly faithful to Dodie. She herself, after a young womanhood filled with sexual exploits, also seemed content to spend her later years in happy monogamy, stating at one point that her sexual urges seemed to have almost completely disappeared after the indulgences of her earlier days.

Dodie’s return to England in the early 1950s was at first marked by her exhilaration at being back home – her years in the United States were never completely happy, as she suffered from continual homesickness and guilt at abandoning her home country in time of war – and then by a rising sense of anguish at the realization that her plays, which she continued to write and attempt to promote, were no longer to the public taste. From “Dodie Smith” being a name to pique keen interest with theatrical managements, her name on a play was now a detriment, as the trend was now to bleak hyper-realism versus Dodie’s domestic “cozies”.

Further attempts at fiction writing after the stellar success of I Capture the Castle were not very successful; two more children’s stories following the also-stunningly-successful The Hundred and One Dalmatians also failed to capture the public imagination. Dodie and Alec, always living well up to their substantial income, started having serious money concerns. Royalties from the successful Disney adaptation of Dalmatians were to prove their most reliable source of steady revenue, though this declined as the years passed.

Dodie and Alec spent their last years in virtual seclusion in their country cottage, Dodie obsessively working on her memoirs, and Alec devoting himself to gardening. As age began to take its physical toll, things became increasingly difficult. Money worries, difficulties finding domestic help, and a succession of illnesses and injuries began to take precedence over Dodie’s creative efforts, though she remained remarkably lucid and articulate to the end, giving occasional interviews and writing letters and editing her journals and manuscripts.

One last Dalmatian, Charley, was Dodie’s constant companion, becoming even more important to her psychological well-being after Alec’s sudden death in 1987. Dodie had always assumed that Alec would outlive her; she was cut adrift to a great degree by his loss, suddenly having to deal with the multitude of small household and managerial tasks which he had always sheltered her from. Boisterous Charley gave Dodie an outlet for her affections, but was actually something of a challenge to care for; reports by those who knew her in her last years remarked on how bumptious he was, and how he would continually knock tiny, increasingly frail Dodie down. But she loved him unconditionally, setting aside a sum of money in her will for his care in the event of her death.

dodie smith charley 1986 001

90-year-old Dodie Smith and Charley, 1986.

Living alone in her cottage, now bedridden and increasingly fragile, Dodie protested against leaving, hoping that she could die in her own bed with Charley by her side. Her doctor insisted upon her entry into a nursing home, as it was becoming impossible to provide the needed care at home. Dodie Smith died in that nursing home in November of 1990. Charley, left at the cottage with daily visits by a caretaker to feed him, went into a decline, and died three weeks after Dodie’s departure.

Dodie Smith’s life was in some senses stranger than the fiction she made out of it; the “best bits” in her successes were taken directly from her life. A most unusual personality, admired greatly by many, loved deeply by some, and despised as well by those she fell afoul of. Dodie Smith had a very substantial ego; she had a stout faith in her own creative abilities, and though she occasional poked rueful fun at herself, one feels that she never really believed that she could possibly be wrong.

Valerie Grove has written a biography which shows all of the facets of Dodie’s personality. Borrowing heavily from Dodie’s own memoirs, its one major flaw in my opinion is that it is too dependent on these and on the continual quotations from the Look Back with… books. Having just read the books, much of what Grove wrote was very repetitive. Where she did cover new ground, there was occasionally a lack of context, as it seemed as though Valerie Grove was speaking to herself rather than to her audience.

Dodie Smith’s memoirs are very strong stuff. She has a distinctive voice which overwhelms the reader and draws one in and makes it hard to break away. I wonder if Valerie Grove felt the same way, which might account for the occasional flatness of the bits which diverge from Dodie’s account.

While one feels that Grove truly admires Dodie’s accomplishments, she is also just the smallest bit sour towards her subject. She seems to delight in pointing out the oddities of Dodie’s personal appearance, and continual physical descriptions of Dodie in her very old age seem a mite mean-spirited – “a wizened prune in a mink coat”, “a squeaky-voiced gnome”, “her stomach stuck out, possibly making up for her behind which had disappeared altogether” – and these are just a few of the many references throughout the biography to Dodie’s “odd” physique.

By all means read this biography; it does give a good overview of the life of Dodie Smith. But if at all possible, one should balance it by reading the subject’s own description of her life, because after reading Dodie’s memoirs I liked her an awful lot – she rather won me over with her balance of supreme ego and self-deprecating irony – and after reading Valerie Grove’s study I detected a certain sourness regarding her subject which tinged the writer’s expressed admiration with just a shade of doubt as to Grove’s real feelings regarding Dodie Smith.

Dodie Smith was a terrifically complex woman inspiring equally complex emotions even after her demise, is my very final summation of this biography which caps off my own readerly examination of this remarkable (and remarkably individualistic) woman’s life.

All in all, a worthwhile read. Recommended.

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Dodie Smith in 1921, aged 25.

Dodie Smith in 1921, aged 25.

Coming to the surface after blissfully submerging myself this past week in the massive memoir of one Dodie Smith: failed actress, reasonably competent department store saleswoman (and eventual mistress of the store owner), astonishingly successful playwright, bestselling novelist, Dalmatian dog lover, and all-around fascinating character.

I have just read something over one thousand pages of autobiography in all, if one adds up the pages counts of her four volumes: Look Back with Love, Look Back with Mixed Feelings, Look Back with Astonishment, and Look Back with Gratitude. A fifth installment was in the works, but never published, and I find that I am sorely disappointed – I would read it with great joy.

So – Dodie Smith. Where does one start?

Perhaps I’ll merely recommend that anyone who has read and enjoyed the first volume of her memoirs, Look Back with Love, immediately go on a quest to beg, borrow or (at daunting cost – these were the Great Big Splurge of this summer’s book hunting) perhaps even steel oneself to buy the rest of the books. They are absolutely excellent.

I am personally not terribly familiar with the 1930s and 40s London and New York theatre scenes, or the Hollywood of the 1940s and early 50s, and many of the big names referenced were quite vague to me, but it didn’t matter a bit: Dodie brought these various worlds to life.

I am glad I came to these memoirs after reading a number of Dodie Smith’s novels, as my familiarity with her fictions helped me center myself in her recollections. I was intrigued and surprised to find out how many of the incidents in these fictions came from Dodie’s own life. In her case, truth is frequently much stranger than fiction; the most outrageous incidents come from life.

The bits I’d jibbed at the most in The New Moon with the Old and The Town in Bloom suddenly clicked. I’d wondered where the author was coming from with her dramatically-minded, stage-struck, teenage heroines just aching to dispense with their virginity to older (sometimes much older) gentlemen, and now I know. They are echoes of Dodie herself, though she (reluctantly) kept her “purity” until the advanced age of twenty-five, at which point she decided to take a friend’s advice and bestow it on a slightly bemused man-about town of her acquaintance. (The advice was that if one wasn’t married by twenty-five, one should feel oneself obligated to embark upon an affair, to keep one from becoming a curdled old virgin. Or something to that effect. 😉 )

All of this talk about sex makes it sound like these memoirs are rather risqué, but in truth they aren’t. Dodie is so matter-of-fact and so willing to share not just reports of her actions but abundant self-analysis of why she did what she did, looking back on her youth from the perspective of her eighties, that the potential salaciousness of these frank remembrances is disarmingly diffused.

Dodie wrote an astounding quantity of journal entries – thousands of pages and millions of words over her lifetime – and she mined out the most fascinating nuggets to embellish her memoirs, which are easy reading, words flowing smooth as silk. No doubt Dodie took endless pains to make them so, as she references a favourite tag of Sheridan’s – “Easy writing’s vile hard reading” – and states that the opposite also holds true.

She should know.

Dodie Smith, aged 14, at which point this volume of memoir begins, picking up where "Look Back with Love" ends.

Dodie Smith, aged 14, at which point this volume of memoir begins, picking up where “Look Back with Love” ends.

Look Back with Mixed Feelings: Volume Two of an Autobiography by Dodie Smith ~ 1978. This edition: W.H. Allen, 1978. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-491-02073-2. 277 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Fair warning: These will all be rated 10/10. Grand reading experience; better than anticipated. I mean, 4 volumes of autobiography – surely one will get tired of this introspection at some point and long to put these down?


Super-condensed recap:

The 14-year-old Dodie moves from Manchester to London with her mother and new stepfather. Stepfather proves to be unsatisfactory, emotionally abusing Dodie’s mother and squandering her small fortune. Heartbreaking turn of events as Dodie’s mother falls ill and slowly dies of breast cancer; Dodie nurses her and is present at her deathbed.

With support of her aunts and uncles, Dodie embarks upon dramatic training in London at the Academy of Dramatic Arts (later the RADA) and then on to a concerted attempt to build a career as an actress. Though she does rather better than many others, she finds a pattern emerging in which she is able to talk herself into parts, only to not be able to sustain them. Many end ignobly – Dodie refers to herself as “the most fired actress in London”.

She finds a certain amount of solace and a relief of creative yearnings in her private writing; she works on a number of plays, writes much in her journals, and dabbles in poetry.

Writing of this period in her life, 1914 to 1922, Dodie references quite frequently her later novel, The Town in Bloom, in which she includes numerous from-life experiences of herself (“Mouse” in the novel) and her friends and fellow striving actresses. The “giving up virginity” scene is apparently also drawn from personal experience, as are the other romantic and sexual goings-on of the girls in the novel. As in the novel, this volume of memoir focusses as strongly on the yearnings of a young Dodie for love and romance as much as for a theatrical career.

Gloriously funny throughout; I laughed out loud at some of the anecdotes. Wonderful descriptions of, well, everything, really. Especially of clothing. Dodie put a lot of effort into her personal appearance, dressing for effect whenever possible. Heads up, Moira, if you haven’t already dipped into this one – the descriptions are brilliantly detailed and just begging to be illustrated! (Even better than in The Town in Bloom.)

The volume ends with Dodie down on her luck, finally accepting her failure as an actress, and preparing to enter into the “civilian” workforce, as a shopgirl at the esteemed London household furnishings emporium Heal and Sons. The saga ends abruptly and rather cliff-hanger-ishly (as does Look Back with Love) – one is left poised to go on, and yearning for the next installment. And luckily, here it is, published just one year later:

look back with astonishment dodie smith 001

Dodie Smith, circa 1932, in one of her most successful and beloved outfits to date, a grey hat and coat (with matching shoes and handbag) by “Gwen of Devon”

Look Back with Astonishment by Dodie Smith ~ 1979. This edition: W.H. Allen, 1979. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-491-02198-4. 273 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Picking up exactly where Look Back with Mixed Feelings leaves off, with Dodie stepping into Heal’s through the imposing glass entrance doors and taking on what would prove to be a respectably long stint in the retail trade – 1923 to 1931.

Dodie finds life as a working girl pulling the regular 9-to-6 shift five days a week (plus 9-to-1 on Saturdays) something of a change, but she grits her teeth and gets down to it. She has been engaged as Number Five Assistant to the section manager – a situation which rankles – Dodie must initial all of her transactions with the manager’s initials and “5” representing herself as an anonymous cog in the works – and which she soon manages to finagle herself out of, partly by intelligent grasp of her duties and promotion, and partly because (this bit is not in the memoir, but is added in by me from the accounts of others, most notably Valerie Grove in her biography Dear Dodie) Dodie has managed to secretly seduce the store owner, Ambrose Heal.

Ambrose is referred to in LBWA as “Oliver”; Dodie does a rather nice job of obscuring his identity, though when one is fully aware of the scenario many veiled references click perfectly into place. Ambrose is married, and he also already has a long-time mistress, Prudence Maufe, who is well up in the hierarchy of Heal’s. Dodie assures Ambrose/Oliver that she will be happy with “crumbs from the table”, as it were, and the two remain occasional lovers for the next 15 years or so, when Dodie makes a final break with Ambrose upon her departure for the United States on the brink of World War II. (They will remain lifelong friends and dedicated correspondents.)

Marvelous details of the workings of Heal’s; much discussion and description of the era’s domestic architecture. Dodie eventually becomes the toy buyer for Heal’s, and is sent to Leipzig Fair in Germany to view and order stock for the coming Christmas season. A side trip to Austria proves to have astonishing consequences, as Dodie there stays in a small mountain inn maintained by a harp-playing innkeeper.

Inspired by the mountain setting and the cheerful eccentricities of the innkeeper, Dodie, who has been churning out reams of dramatic manuscript and plays in her meager free time, translates her experience into what will become her astoundingly successful play Autumn Crocus, the smash hit of the 1931 London theatre season (“Shopgirl Writes Play!”) and the rest is history.

Look Back with Astonishment goes on to describe Dodie’s entry into the next phase of her life, that of a successful playwright. She was to go onto have an unheard-of six financially successful plays in a row: Autumn Crocus, Service, Touch Wood, Call It a Day, Bonnet Over the Windmill, and Dear Octopus. The quality of these varied, with Dear Octopus popularly declared to be her very best, but Dodie poured heart and soul into each and every one, and her descriptions of casting, staging, rehearsing and dealing with various actors, actresses and directors makes for fascinating reading.

Dodie’s private life has not been stagnating these years either. As well as continuing with her secret relationship with her boss, Dodie has developed another romantic partnership, one which will ultimately see her through to the end of her days.

Seven years younger than Dodie, and marvellously handsome and personable, Alec Beesley had led a life as dramatically complicated as anything Dodie could have dreamed up, and after a most difficult adolescence with a hateful stepmother had gone off to North America where he worked at a variety of jobs from section ganger on a railway in Alaska to cashiering in a Vancouver bank. Back in England, Alec has taken on the job of Advertising Manager at Heal’s, where he and Dodie meet frequently. (Often, to much eventual 3-way heart stirring, in Ambrose Heal’s office.) Com-pli-cat-ed!

Alec and Dodie eventually set up parallel households in adjoining flats; no one is quite sure what their exact relationship is, but Dodie makes mention of the happiness of both their sexual and emotional compatibility, and they do eventually marry (details in Volume 4, Look Back with Gratitude) though neither feels as though any fuss needs to be made regarding the legalization of what was long an established marriage in everything but the eyes of the public and the law.

As Look Back with Astonishment draws to a close, Alec and Dodie, along with Dodie’s beloved Dalmatian dog Pongo – yes, the inspiration for that Pongo, with much more concerning Dalmatians to follow in Volume 4 – are settling themselves into their accommodations on the ocean liner Manhattan, beginning what will prove to be a long self-imposed exile from their beloved England, due to Alec’s long and deeply held convictions as a conscientious objector and Britain’s coming entry into what will prove to be World War II. It is 1938.

I have left so much out; there is a lot in this volume! But I must move along, to the fourth and final installment:

Dodie, Alec, Folly, Buzz and Dandy (I'm not sure which of the canines is which - all these spotted dogs looking rather alike to me) in California, circa 1944

Dodie, Alec, Folly, Buzz and Dandy (I’m not sure which of the canines is which – all these spotted dogs looking rather alike to me) in California, circa 1944

Look Back with Gratitude by Dodie Smith ~ 1985. This edition: Muller, Blond & White, 1985. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-584-11124-X. 272 pages.


My rating: 10/10

Brutally condensing here, though I could go on and on and on.

Dodie and Alec and Pongo set up house in New York and then cross the continent to California. They spend the war years engaged in various theatre and film projects; Dodie’s list of new acquaintances is a Who’s Who of the entertainment and literary world of the time. The most wonderful, for all concerned, is her finding of deeply kindred spirit and forever-more close friend Christopher Isherwood.

Pongo expires; Dodie acquires two more Dalmatians, Folly and Buzz. Folly at one point produces an astonishing 15 puppies (anything familiar here? – yes – this shows up in print down the road) of which litter Dandy is kept to make a boisterous trio.

Dodie turns her attention from playwriting and screenplays to conventional fiction, and spends three years working on what will become her first novel and what many consider her lifetime magnaum opus. That would be – drumroll please – I Capture the Castle, published in 1949 and an instant bestseller in England, once it is released there after its respectable but not stunning debut in the United States.

Much detail of crossing the continent numerous times; the agonizing internal conflict of abandoning England in wartime, the feeling of bitter homesickness and exile which never really goes away, the temporary return to England and the production of several not-very-successful plays, much agonizing on “next steps”, the long gestation and glorious birth of Castle, and much, much more.

This volume ends with Alec and Dodie returning to England for good in 1953; we leave Dodie gazing at the receding horizon of New York City through her stateroom porthole on the Queen Elizabeth.

A fifth volume was planned and apparently mostly written, but never published. I am bitterly disappointed; there is much more to tell and Dodie is by far the very best person to tell it.

I am better than half way through Valerie Grove’s 1996 biography of Dodie Smith, Dear Dodie, and though there are snippets here and there of things not included in the original memoir, it is so far merely a repeat of what I have already heard from the subject’s own lips, as it were. I am looking forward to Grove’s coverage of the years Dodie didn’t get to, being most curious as to the circumstances surrounding the writing and publication of The Hundred and One Dalmatians, as well as the her subsequent adult novels – The New Moon with the Old, The Town in Bloom, It Ends with Revelations, A Tale of Two Families, The Girl in the Candle-lit Bath –   and two more children’s books – The Starlight Barking and The Midnight Kittens.

Dodie Smith died in England at the most respectable age of 94, in 1990. Her beloved Alec predeceased her by three years. Her last Dalmatian, Charley, pined after Dodie’s death, and died a mere three months later.

Dodie Smith never produced anything which could be considered high literature; her plays, though popularly successful, were slight things, mere entertainments for the masses. Yet the best of her work lives on today and continues to appeal to a succession of new readers and audiences. Not such a shabby legacy.

Dodie Smith was a truly unique character, a complex heroine of her long personal era, and a tireless documenter of the times she lived in.

Need I add, these volumes of memoir are very highly recommended?






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I’m pushing forward with the Century of Books project and am attempting to clear the decks  – or would that be the desk? – for the next four and a half months’ strategic reading and reviewing, so these four books from the last month or two are getting the mini-review treatment. All deserve full posts of their own; I may well revisit them in future years. Though in the case of the three most well-known, Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, Beryl Markham’s West with the Night, and Marganita Laski’s Little Boy Lost, there has already been abundant discussion regarding their merits and literary and historical context. I might just concentrate my future efforts on the most obscure of these particular four, Christopher La Farge’s The Sudden Guest, which I have earmarked for a definite re-read.

west with the night beryl markham 1942West With the Night by Beryl Markham ~ 1942. This edition: Penguin, 1988. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-011539-0. 257 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

In a word: Lyrical

Beryl Markham was born in England and moved to Kenya with her parents when she was 4 years old. Her mother soon had enough of colonial life and returned to England. Small Beryl remained with her father, and grew up in a largely masculine atmosphere made up of her father’s aristocratic compatriots, visiting big game hunters, and the native farm workers and independent tribesmen.

A highly skilled horsewoman, Beryl became a licensed racehorse trainer in Nairobi at the age of 17, after her father’s farm was wiped out during a severe drought, and he gave her the choice of accompanying him to South America for a fresh start, or staying in Africa to go it alone.

Beryl chose Africa, this time and, ultimately, forever more, dying there in 1986 at the age of 84, still staunchly independent, still very much on her game.

Beryl Markham was introduced to flying by her friend and mentor Tom Black, and took to the air with the same innate skill as she dealt with horses. She eventually concentrated strictly on flying, working as a contract pilot in East Africa, and hobnobbing with the famous (notorious?) aristocratic expatriates making homes and lives in Kenya during the 1920s and 30s, including Karen Blixen, Karen’s lover Denys Finch-Hatton (whom Beryl had her own affair with), Baron Blixen himself (Beryl was his pilot during scouting trips for wild game), and others of that large-living “set”.

In 1936 Beryl set out to attempt a solo flight over the Atlantic, from England to New York. She only just made it across, as an iced-up fuel line forced her crash landing in a bog on Cape Breton. The semi-successful attempt brought Beryl Markham much fame; she continued on with her flying career, though she ended her days once again training African racehorses.

In 1942 West with the Night was published, to much acclaim. It is a memoir made up of chapter-length vignettes of Beryl’s childhood and her experiences with horses, and, most beautifully described, her experiences in the air, including an account of the Atlantic flight. The language is both elegant and heartfelt; I used the term “lyrical” to sum up this book, and that is exactly what this is. Really a stellar piece of work.

There has been much speculation as to who really wrote this book. Many have theorized that Beryl had at least some help with it. Her third husband, Raoul Schumacher, was a journalist who also worked as a ghostwriter; the noted aviator and writer Antoine de Saint Exupéry, another of Beryl’s lovers, had a similar writing style. No one knows for sure, as Beryl firmly maintained that the work was completely her own, though her compatriots were stunned when the book came out as they had never known Beryl to be anything of a writer, and she never produced anything after 1942’s West with the Night.

No matter. This is an elegant bit of memoir, well worth reading for the beauty of its prose, and for the portrait it paints of its twin subjects: the truly unique Beryl Markham and her lifelong strongest love, Africa.

sudden guest christopher la farge 1946 001The Sudden Guest by Christopher La Farge ~ 1946. This edition: Coward-McCann, 1946. Hardcover. 250 pages.

My rating: 7/10 for this first encounter, quite likely to be raised on a re-read.

In a phrase: Bitter musings of a self-centered spinster

Oh, golly, where to start with this one. I can’t quite remember where I got it; likely from Baker Books in Hope, B.C. I remember leafing through it in a bookstore, hesitating, and then deciding it was worth a gamble. Another small triumph of bookish good luck, as it is an intriguing thing, and well worth reading.

It is autumn of 1944, and sixty-year-old Miss Leckton maintains a summer house on the  Rhode Island shore; her primary home is her New York apartment. Living alone except for a middle-aged married couple who caretake for her, and a daily housekeeper, Miss Leckton has much time to spend in introspection, and what a lot of self-centered opinions she has assembled, to be sure.

Miss Leckton is supremely selfish and egotistical. She has cast off her closest relative, her niece Leah, due to Leah’s engagement to a young Jewish man. For Miss Leckton hates the Jews. (She muses that Hitler, for all his undoubted faults, has the right idea about suppressing them.)  She doesn’t think much of the Negroes, either, which makes thing a tiny bit awkward as her resident married couple, the Potters, are black. The local Rhode Islanders are beneath her notice, mere country bumpkins. One actually has a hard time identifying whom exactly Miss Leckton identifies with herself; she is that uncommon creature, “an island unto herself”, to paraphrase John Donne, who doesn’t appear to want or need anyone, and is steadfast in her self-superiority to everyone around her.

Now a hurricane is reported to be blowing in , and Miss Leckton is reluctantly preparing to batten down the hatches, so to speak, though she persists in thinking that the radio reports are over-hysterical. For hasn’t Rhode Island just barely recovered from a brutal storm, the hurricane of 1938? Another just wouldn’t be fair…

I will turn you over to the Kirkus review of 1946, which is quite a good summation of the style of The Sudden Guest, though the comparison to Rumer Godden’s Take Three Tenses is not entirely accurate, in my opinion. There are enough similarities in technique to let it stand, though.

An absorbing and compelling story — a psychological study of a selfish, ingrown old woman, who has to live through two hurricanes on the Rhode Island shore to learn that life demands human participation. La Farge has done a superb tour de force-it isn’t really a novel, though it has the ingredients, and he has used the technique of Rumer Godden’s Take Three Tenses – the story is told as a fugue. With the two storms (1938 and 1944) as protagonists, he telescopes two experiences, as Miss Leckton, vainly attempting to preserve a way of life that has no validity today, relives the invasion of uninvited guests in the earlier storm, in bitter contrast to her utter aloneness in this one. The thread of personalities that hold the pattern is her conflict with her young niece, who forces her out of her outmoded approach to life into a real world. There is a muted quality of suspended action in the present in strong contrast to the pace of memory in the past, with the motif of the storms accenting the drama.

I searched online for more mention of this unusual and well-written novel and found a really good review, including a creative analysis of what Christopher La Farge was really going on about – the American isolationism prior to the U.S.A.’s entry into World War II, and, to a lesser degree, Miss Leckton’s denial of her own “homoerotic feelings”. Check it out, at Relative Esoterica.

Check out this vintage cover: "Bohemian Life in a Wicked City"

Check out this vintage cover: “Bohemian Life in a Wicked City”

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood ~ 1945. This edition: Signet, 1956. Paperback. 168 pages.

My rating: 10/10

A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930)

From my window, the deep solemn massive street. Cellar-shops where the lamps burn all day, under the shadow of top-heavy balconied façades, dirty plaster frontages embossed with scrollwork and heraldic devices. The whole district is like this: street leading into street of houses like shabby monumental safes crammed with tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle class.

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed…

Oh gosh. This was so good. So very, very good.

Why haven’t I read this before?

Perhaps because I have always associated it with the stage and film musicals titled, variously, I am a Camera and Cabaret (cue Liza Minnelli) which were inspired by the book, or rather by one episode early on featuring teenage not-very-good nightclub singer Sally Bowles and her apparent intention of sleeping with every man she comes across whom she thinks might possibly become a permanent patron.

But this book goes far beyond the tale of Sally Bowles, memorable though she is with her young-old jaded naivety and her chipped green nail polish and her heart-rending abortion scene.

Christopher Isherwood has fictionalized his own experience as an aspiring writer in 1930s’ Germany, where he made a sketchy sort of living teaching English to respectable young ladies while spending his free time hanging out with (and observing and recording the goings-on of) the artsy crowd and the cabaret performers and patrons of Berlin’s hectically gay (in every sense of both words) theatre and entertainment district.

Goodbye to Berlin is superbly written, deeply melancholy at its core, and only occasionally sexy. It’s a rather cerebral thing, thoughtful as well as charming and deeply disturbing, picturing as it does Berlin between the wars and the numerous characters doomed to all sorts of sad fates – at their own  hands as much as through falling afoul of the Nazi street patrollers.

Am I making Goodbye to Berlin seem gloomy? I hope not, because it isn’t. It is poignant, it is funny, it is occasionally tragic, but it is never dull, never gloomy. And Isherwood’s Sally Bowles – who is really something of a bit player in Goodbye to Berlin, appearing only in one episode of these linked vignettes – is a much different creature than that portrayed on stage and film.

The internet is seething with reviews of Goodbye to Berlin, if this very meager description makes you curious for more.

Christopher Isherwood, I apologize for my previous neglect. And I’m going to read much more by you in the future. This was excellent.

A must-read.

(Says me.)

little boy lost marghanita laski 1949 001Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski ~ 1949. This edition: Persephone Books, 2001. Afterword by Anne Sebba. Softcover. ISBN: 1-903155-177. 230 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

My feeling after reading: Conflicted

I had such high hopes for this novel, and for the most part they were met, but there was just a little something that didn’t sit quite right. Perhaps it was the ending, which I will not foreclose, merely to say that I thought the author could have held back the final episode which provides “proof” of the identity/non-identity of the lost child. It felt superfluous, as if Laski did not trust the reader decide for oneself what the “truth” was. Or, perhaps, to go forward not quite sure of that identity. Knowing one way or the other changed everything, to me, and oddly lessened the impact of what had gone on before.

Most mysterious I am sure this musing seems to those of you who have not already read this novel; those who have will know what I am going on about.

In the early days of World War II a British officer marries a Frenchwoman. A child is born, the Englishman must leave; the child and his mother stay in France. In 1942 the child’s mother, who is working with the Resistance, is killed by the Gestapo. The child is supposed to have been taken to safety by another young woman; on Christmas Day of 1943 the father learns that his son has been somehow lost; no one knows where the baby has been taken.

In 1945, with the war finally over, the father returns to France to seek out his child, whom he remembers only as a newborn infant. A child has been located who may be the lost John – “Jean” – but how can one be sure?

Well written, with nicely-maintained suspense and enough verisimilitude in the reactions of would-be father and might-be son to keep one fully engaged. I will need to re-read this one; perhaps I will come to feel that the author’s approach to the ending is artistically good, though my response this first time round was wary.

Interesting review here, at Stuck-in-a-Book; be sure to read the comments. No spoilers, which is beautifully courteous of everyone. 🙂 I must admit that my own easily-suppressed tears were those of annoyance at the last few lines, as I thought they weakened what had gone before.

But on the other hand…

You will just have to read it for yourself. And you really don’t want to know the ending before you read it; the suspense is what makes this one work so well.


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yours is the earth margaret vail 1944 dj front 001Yours is the Earth by Margaret Vail ~ 1944. This edition: Lippincott, 1944. Hardcover. 287 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Provenance: The Final Chapter, 1157A 3rd Ave., Prince George, B.C. – I have never walked out of this smallish but well-organized, eclectically stocked, jam-packed used book store empty-handed. If you’re ever in P.G., it’s very much worth a visit and a browse.

Yours is the Earth was a last-minute impulse buy earlier this year, a small triumph of instinct and luck over economy. As you can see, the cover isn’t terribly compelling – the “ringing, unforgettable testament of courage” and “Nazi hordes” references leading one to think that this may not be particularly well written, and perhaps slightly overwrought in tone.

If you think that (as I did) you’d be wrong; this is a remarkable work. It is very competently written for this sort of personal account, and though the author is exceedingly opinionated; she is never, ever hysterical or mawkish.

A compelling document of its time; very highly recommended for those interested in World War II and the German occupation of France. Yours is the Earth gives a unique perspective to what it was like to live in occupied France from a person of relative wealth, high social standing and, due to her American citizenship, considerable privilege with the German forces in the early war years, before the United States entered the conflict.

Margaret Vail was an American married to an aristocratic French landowner, Robert de Launay (“de Vigny” in the memoir; pseudonyms are used throughout, as the book was published while the war was still going on), and Margaret and Robert’s courtship and marriage is a fascinating story all on its own which is detailed in the early part of this book.

Robert was interned early in the German invasion; Margaret’s single-minded goals in the subsequent years were to secure the release and repatriation of her husband, to keep herself and her small daughter safe, and to preserve the family estates in as good a condition as possible. These last two were successful; the first never attained, which no doubt accounts for the occasionally bitter tone which permeates this memoir.

The memoir ends with several years of war yet to go; Robert is still in prison camp in Germany, and Margaret and her four-year-old daughter do leave France via a heroic alpine trek across the Pyrenees, as she has left her departure too late to be able to cross the French border in safety; American troops have been sent to participate in the invasion of North Africa and Americans still remaining in occupied France are being interned. Margaret and small Rose-Hélène spent the remaining war years in the United States, where Margaret wrote and published Yours is the Earth.

Here is an excerpt from Yours is the Earth. (Click on the image to enlarge it for reading.)

yours is the earth excerpt margaret vail 1944 001

Margaret’s hatred of the German race as a whole is utterly implacable, and this comes through loud and clear, though she does give the tiniest nod of grace to a German doctor who has occasion to treat her at one point.

The reader can frequently see the writer making what feels like a conscious effort to maintain an even-handed tone, making this something of a deliberately unemotional account, with Margaret reporting on her own harrowed feelings with analytical coolness and distance. This, to me, is the book’s one slight weakness. On the few occasions where she unbends and lets herself go she became a much more sympathetic narrator, and I cared much more deeply for her personal tribulations and her worries for her family.

I was very curious as to what the eventual outcome of Robert’s internment was to be, and I did find a snippet of information concerning the family’s post-war situation on the blog of a woman who corresponded with Margaret Vail for some years. Lindsley Rinard’s blog Literature and Life has several posts, here and here, concerning Margaret Vail’s memoir and Robert’s return.

Robert was released after five years in prison camp. Margaret and Rose-Hélène returned to France in time to greet him upon his return, and the family settled down on the family estate to put their lives back in order after the terrible disruption of the war.

In the great scheme of things and in comparison of what many others went through, one feels that these people were in general rather fortunate. As I have already said, this is a unique perspective not often seen, an account of someone who was placed in a rather good way to deal with the occupation of one’s homeland by a hostile force. Margaret Vail seized every advantage she could identify in her efforts to keep herself and her loved ones secure, though she never resorted to anything like “collaboration”, as so many others were moved by circumstances to do.

yours is the earth margaret vail 1944 back cover war bonds appea 001

From the back cover of the dust jacket of “Yours is the Earth”, a War Bonds appeal.



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the american flags kathleen norris 1936

First edition Doubleday dust jacket illustration from 1936. (Not my copy, which is the 1937 Sun Dial Press edition.) The illustration emphasizes the “we Flaggs are united in our happy prosperity” in comparison to Miss Fitzpercy’s solitary advancement.

The American Flaggs by Kathleen Norris ~ 1936. This edition: The Sun Dial Press, 1937. Hardcover. 403 pages.

My rating: Parts of this were an easy 10, but other parts not so much. This might change on further mulling over, but right now I think a 6.5/10 is a fair assessment of the reading experience as a whole.

A beautiful young woman with a troubling family background (deserted by father, mother a not very successful writer/poetess, three siblings who moon about wasting their days and ignoring the squalor of their shabby rented bungalow situated in a subdivided California orchard on the outskirts of San Francisco) makes the acquaintance of a wealthy local family, the Flaggs.

The Flagg way of living is gracious to the extreme, and our heroine, Penelope Fitzpercy, who has come to see if she can sell an heirloom embroidery sampler to the family matriarch, is treated with unexpected courtesy and grace. She catches the eye of handsome and impulsive Jeff Flagg, who proceeds to woo Penelope with overwhelming enthusiasm. Much to her own surprise, she resists Jeff’s advances, out of a combination of pride in knowing that the Flaggs suspect her of having her eye on a rich husband and honest reluctance to marry someone she doesn’t truly love.

Back and forth the romance goes, until one tragic night in which Jeff almost dies in an accident, and Penelope is begged by the Flagg family members gathered around Jeff’s bed of pain to marry him, so he can die in peace at having attained his heart’s desire.

Needless to say Jeff makes a stunning recovery, and Penelope is trapped in a marriage which she never wanted. A chance for an annulment is secretly offered to her by Jeff’s grandmother, but Penelope refuses, mostly because she is too proud to back down from the promise she made to Jeff upon their hasty midnight marriage.

Jeff is a most definitely spoiled rich kid; he proceeds to squander his parents’ generous allowance, and becomes caught up in drink and gambling, while Penelope feebly wrings her hands in despair. When Jeff carelessly abandons her on the night of their baby’s birth, Penelope is rescued and comforted by Jeff’s cousin Tom, and the two, already friendly, enter into an emotional relationship which is emotionally if not physically a breaking of Penelope’s marriage vows.

When Penelope and Tom announce that they wish to marry after Penelope divorces Jeff, the rest of the family joins together in an agitated plea that Penelope give Jeff yet another chance, until the family matriarch unexpectedly speaks out in Penelope’s support.

What follows is an agony of indecision by Penelope, who thought she knew what she wanted…

I picked this up recently in one of my favourite used book shops, The Final Chapter in Prince George, thinking from my brief browse that it was something of a family comedy, a humorous romp, albeit a rather sustained one, at 400 pages plus. This initial assessment turned out not to be the case; this novel is at heart a serious sort of thing, and I closed it feeling like I’d just been subjected to an mesmerizingly earnest sermon by a preacher with a fine way with words but very little sense of humour.

Let me elaborate.

The finest thing about this book by the super-prolific Kathleen Thompson Norris (80-some books published from 1911 to 1959, according to her Wikipedia biography) is that it is decidedly readable, at least in the set-up phase, which takes up the first few hundred pages. (The last few hundred suffer from a certain amount of repetition and going on and on and on, rather like this post is starting to do! Must be catching…)

The author sets a wonderfully detailed scene, and her characters are, for the most part, believably flawed and therefore human enough to hold our interest, though as the tale progresses we note that many stay completely one-dimensional, while others – the very obviously “chosen” ones – are allowed an extreme degree of personal development, to support and justify author’s increasingly obvious point-of-view.

There is a goodish dose of melodrama early on, quite nicely handled; this was a point in favour.

What I didn’t care for was the way in which the author fast-forwarded her ending, taking us from agonizing, hyper-detailed moral dilemma to it’s-all-better-now without providing much in the way of explanation. She merely asks us to take on faith the idea that everyone has been able to pull themselves together and reach a higher moral plane, once the “correct” decisions have been made.

“A happy life is a reward for correct moral behaviour.”  I feel like a real heel sneering at this noble ideal, but in this case it just felt too easy, and rather ruined the last part of the book for me.

Though I must say that I quite liked the final scene which was an unexpected reconciliation between the heroine and her high-principled but perhaps not quite-so-perfect-as-once-assumed grandmother-in-law.

Would I read another Kathleen Norris book?

I do believe I would, though from the plot descriptions of several others which I’ve just discovered and from quick browses through the Project Gutenberg offerings by the author, I see a strong similarity of theme: Young woman decides to seek happiness over old-fashioned moral duty, has a spiritual awakening, and realizes that the old ways are the best.

There were a few places here and there in The American Flaggs where the chiming of church bells came through loud and clear, though they quickly subsided; the preaching was more implied than open, but it was definitely there.

For a portrait of a particular time and place, California just after the turn of the 20th Century, this was a fascinating snapshot, and I hugely enjoyed the details of the setting, as well as the author’s pull-no-punches descriptions of the Fitzpercy family’s lazy housekeeping and messy, messy lives.

Period snobbishness is evident throughout as well, and a version of a feudal class system. There are servants in abundance in the Flagg enclave, going about their duties meekly and modestly, and they are accepted as part of the background support system, with only a very few – the butler, the housekeeper – being named and given speaking roles.

Even the indigent Fitzpercys hold that they are somehow higher than servant class. Early on Penelope bemoans the fact that though she and her mother and sisters are of a higher social status than those who stoop to menial labour they are much worse at keeping their surroundings clean and neat, but this thought doesn’t seem to inspire a prolonged effort to raise the standard of living by washing a few dishes and sweeping the floor.

Towards the end of the story, after Penelope has her epiphany and her chance at a remade life, her humbling herself is made obvious by the mention that she is now on almost equal terms with her Mexican cook-housekeeper, though she retains an edge of unquestioned social superiority.

A rather decent discussion on what it is to be American takes place near the end of the book, balancing the theoretical rejection of “American values” by some of the more outspoken Fitzpercys and their bohemian friends early on. The Flaggs are held up to scorn for their strong patriotism and holding to tradition, but events go to show (and here is the author obviously trotting out her own pet theory) that the melting pot of America and the moral American standard upheld by the united Flaggs is more truly good than any nonsense of “communism” coming from Russia, or of the ways of those troublesome Italians and Germans making headlines in the newspapers.

Grand stuff in a highly opinionated period-appropriate sort of way!

I’d never heard of this author before, but I’m sure I’ll be noticing her in future, much as I now see Gene Stratton-Porter and Frances Hodgson Burnett and Mary Roberts Rinehart here, there and everywhere. She shares qualities with these others who were her contemporaries, a mix of (generally) positive and (occasionally) negative which makes for an unusual and vaguely unsettling reading experience. Not a great writer, but decidedly an accomplished one in this particular genre.



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the deputy sheriff of comanche county ace paperback edgar rice b 001The Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County by Edgar Rice Burroughs ~ 1940. This edition: Ace, circa 1970. Paperback. 312 pages.

My rating: 3/10. Hmm, nope, I’d better revise that, because its camp value makes it paradoxically enjoyable, in an so-bad-you-can’t-look-away way. So how about a 4/10. (I’m feeling very generous today.)

Provenance: Total impulse buy, 25 cents at the Williams Lake Sally Ann just a few days ago. Picked it up, put it down, turned away, and then, as I was leaving, my hand reached out of its own volition and snatched it quickly. (Couldn’t leave empty-handed, could I? Gave the clerk a loonie for it, too, because a quarter just seemed so cheap somehow. So I guess it really cost a whole dollar.)

A few blazingly hot afternoons ago, I joined my husband for a mid-day lunch and reading break out under the shady apple tree, and he glanced over at my book and did a complete double take.

What are you reading now?! And why? Is that another one of those Century things?”

Well, that would be a western pulp novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Yes, the Tarzan guy. And no, it’s not really a Century book, because its year, 1940, is already filled with D.E. Stevenson’s The English Air, but hey! – an extra book isn’t such a bad thing, and this one is short and not at all demanding on the readerly intellect. And if Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage receives representation among my Century reads for its cultural significance to American popular literature, can’t I make the same argument in favour the at-least-just-as-culturally-significant Burroughs?

Of course I can.

Who killed Ole Gunderstrom? The evidence seemed to point to Buck Mason. And when Buck went into hiding soon after, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind. But Buck knew he was innocent- now he was going to have to prove it.

Gunderstrom lay asleep on a cot against one of the cabin walls. A man was crossing the room stealthily with a long-barreled Colt in his hands.

The intruder could see the cot and the outlines of the blur that was the sleeper upon it: but he did not see the boot in his path, and half stumbled as he stepped on it.

Gunderstrom awoke and sat up. “‘Buck Mason! ” he exclaimed. A t the same time he reached for the gun beside him. There was a flash in the dark; the silence was split by the report of a pistol and Ole Gunderstrom slumped back upon his blanket.

Poor Ole is dead, a bullet in his head, and for no apparent reason – his shack is not disarranged as if robbery were the motive, though Ole is filthy rich and lives in squalid simplicity merely through personal eccentricity. Rumour has it that he has gold buried here and there in his several dwelling places, but no one appears to have stopped to look either before or after plugging the old curmudgeon.

Then the sheriff’s office receives a mysterious phone call accusing the deputy sheriff – one Buck Mason – of the crime, and local gossip soon finds several motives. Wasn’t Buck deeply in love with Ole’s lovely daughter Olga, and didn’t Ole send her off to an Eastern boarding school to remove her from the rough company of the local cowboys? And wasn’t there a property dispute, with Ole having fenced in a hundred acres of Buck’s land, and didn’t Buck state his intentions of reclaiming it and planting it to alfalfa? And wasn’t Buck seen leaving Ole’s shack the evening before the discovery of Ole’s body?

So when Buck vanishes after performing his own forensic examination of the crime scene, it doesn’t look good for the innocence of the deputy, and a warrant is made out for his arrest.

Meanwhile, on a dude ranch in Arizona, a bumbling, over-dressed, claiming-to-be-a-polo-player fellow shows up suddenly, to the annoyance of the ranch’s owner, the surly Cory Blaine. Cory and his cowboys have a lot of fun sneering at the clothing and deportment of “Bruce Marvel”; but the female guests take a second look, for my goodness! – isn’t Bruce quite a hunk of manflesh, tight English riding breeches showing off his muscular thighs and all.

First edition cover of "The Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County"

First edition cover of “The Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County”

Cutting to the chase: Bruce is Buck in disguise. He suspects Cory of the murder of Ole and is collecting evidence to prove it, which Cory obligingly supplies, having completely blown off “Bruce” as a lightweight posturer. But when Bruce/Buck transfers his affections from his old love Olga (who also shows up at the ranch – won’t get into detail – too complicated) to one of the lady-dudes, Kay White, Cory sees red, for he has marked beautiful and wealthy Kay as his own, despite her cagy avoidance of his romantic advances.

Much riding about the country then ensues, and a kidnapping and all sorts of he-man shenanigans, ending with Bruce stripping off his Eastern disguise and coming out six-guns a-blazing as his true self: the sharp-shooting, bad-man-killing Buck. He single-handedly rescues lovely Kay from the bad guys, fatally plugs several of them with his trusty pistols, and presents the solution to the crime, which I’m a little vague on even this soon after finishing this wonderfully pulpy tale. Something about double-crossing on a rustled cattle deal or something. Ole was a bit of a slimeball, it appears, and quite possibly deserved his demise at the hands of his erstwhile cohorts.

Oh, I referenced Vogue up in the post heading. I guess I should clarify that. Apparently Buck, way back before Ole’s murder, has set about on a program of self-improvement to bring himself up to the lovely Olga’s social level.

The book that he was reading he had taken from a cupboard, the door of which was secured by a padlock, for the sad truth was that Mason was ashamed of his library and of his reading. He would have hated to have had any of his cronies discover his weakness, for the things that he read were not of the cow country. They included a correspondence course in English, a number of the classics which the course had recommended, magazines devoted to golf, polo, yachting, and a voluminous book on etiquette; but perhaps the thing that caused him the greatest mental perturbation in anticipation of its discovery by his candid, joke-loving friends was a file of the magazine Vogue.

No one knew that Buck Mason pored over these books and magazines whenever he had a leisure moment; in fact, no one suspected that he possessed them; and he would have died rather than to have explained why he did so…

This “not of the cow country” reading program allowed Buck to pull off his Bruce masquerade, and also made him appear as desirably well-cultured in the eyes of luscious Kay, so it was all to the good. I thought it was rather a sweet touch, the rough cowboy seeking to improve himself in secret, and look how wonderfully he was rewarded!

The “notching of the gun” thing is the author’s nod to shoot-’em-up cowboy mythology; Buck adds notches for the fellows he’s killed to the guns he’s inherited from his dad. (Eddie is one of the bad guys, the youngest just-gone-wrong of the gang; Buck spares his life in the end.)

As he (Buck) ceased speaking he drew a large pocket knife from his overalls and opened one of the blades. Then he drew one of his forty-fours, the wooden grip of which bore many notches, the edges of which were rounded and smooth and polished by the use of many years. As Eddie watched him, fascinated, Marvel cut two new notches below the older ones.

“Them’s Bryam and Mart?” asked the prisoner.

Marvel nodded. “And there’s room for some more yet, Eddie,” he said.

“You make all them?” asked Eddie.

“No,” replied Marvel. “These guns were my father’s.”

“He must have been a bad man from way back,” commented Eddie in frank admiration.

“He weren’t nuthin’ of the kind,” replied Bruce. “He was a sheriff’.”

“Oh!” said Eddie.

Burroughs’ style is a thing of joy to the modern reader; he happily references the whole thesaurus and then some in decorating his galloping prose. This was one of my favourite passages. Note the use of “revivify” and ” verdue” (surely that last is meant to be “verdure”?) among the rest.

The horses moved forward eagerly now and with vitality renewed by anticipation of the opportunity of quenching their thirst in the near
future. The change in the spirits of their mounts seemed also to revivify the riders; so that it was with much lighter hearts that the three rode on beneath the pitiless rays of an Arizona sun, Marvel giving Baldy his head in the knowledge that the animal’s instinct would lead it unerringly to the nearest water.

Ahead of them stretched what appeared to be an unbroken expanse of rolling brush land, lying arid and uninviting in the shimmering heat of
the morning.

Presently there broke upon Marvel’s vision the scene for which he had been waiting, the picture of which he had been carrying in his memory since boyhood–a large, bowl-like depression, in the bottom of which green verdue proclaimed the presence of the element that might mean the difference between life and death to them.

Edgar Rice Burroughs was a fascinating literary character. He produced well over a hundred sensational novels, and was one of the first writers to incorporate himself and trademark his name. Famous primarily for his invention of Tarzan, he also dreamt up several sci-fi worlds (namely the John Carter of Mars and Pellucidar series) and branched out into overwrought Westerns such as The Deputy Sheriff. His biography as presented on the website link at the beginning of this paragraph is well worth reading; what a story his own life made!

The Deputy Sheriff Of Comanche County first appeared as a serial in Thrilling Adventures magazine in 1940, under the title The Terrible Tenderfoot.

You may read it yourself here, if you so desire: The Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County on Project Gutenberg


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susan and joanna elizabeth cambridge 1935 001Susan and Joanna by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1935. This edition: Jonathan Cape, 1935. Hardcover. 348 pages.

My rating: 8/10 on a re-read.

When I read Susan and Joanna first time round earlier this year I remember feeling a bit put out by the events of the ending (I thought that the author pulled her punches somewhat and drew back from where she could have gone with it), but upon the re-read, already knowing how the climactic final scene actually ends, I was able to approach the story with a slower reading pace and a more balanced view.

I liked it rather better the second time round; Elizabeth Cambridge packs a lot into her novels; perhaps too much to really absorb in that first eager reading, when one is mostly concerned with finding out what will happen next and reads quickly, passing over the finer points without proper appreciation.

I know I have at least one reader who is keen to peruse a detailed account of this novel; I am wondering how much of the plot I should divulge, because chances of people actually finding this book to read themselves are slim. (Coming back to add – it’s a non-issue now – I’ve found an online version! Link down below, at the end of the post.)

This is a very rare novel by this writer. Her stellar Hostages to Fortune which has been reprinted often enough to remain in broad circulation is much better known and much easier to find. Susan and Joanna is not as compelling a read as HTF, but it is very good in its own way; I think it is a great shame that it is so scarce. Such is too often the way with these older writers; one of their books receives the full reprint and promotion treatment (and usually because it is a very worthwhile representative of the author’s output) while the rest of the titles languish in out-of-print oblivion.

Susan and Joanna is a deeply rural book; a good half of it takes place on a farm, the rest in a small village and in the surrounding countryside. Though the two main locations featured – the farm of Node and the village of Bract – are purely fictional, the setting is of a particular region of England, among the Midland Downs. Though Cambridge does not dwell in an undue degree upon descriptions of the scenery, she manages to portray the physical beauty of the landscape with great sympathy and clarity. One feels that this novel is a tribute to an area she knew very well, and loved very deeply.

Motherless Susan has been raised in the proper fashion – that is, off to boarding school from an early age – by her introvert father, a lawyer who gets through life by arranging things to function with the least possible disturbance to himself. Now Susan is twenty and at last back at home “for good”, but neither she nor her father have yet found their rhythm. They walk delicately around each other, being careful not to raise any subjects which might lead to an excess of emotion or potential household turmoil.

Susan has never been trained for – or indeed shown any inclination for –  an actual job or “career.” She is poised for the next step in her life, but hesitates on the brink. Marriage is an obvious and socially acceptable choice, and Susan has indeed considered marriage to the most suitable local candidate, Garry, nephew of the owner of the large farm Node, Miss Laura Coppen, the village’s aristocratic grande dame. Susan has been friendly with Garry since childhood and their relationship is now ripening into something deeper. Each meeting of the two is imbued with speculation, by Susan and Garry themselves, and by the deeply interested onlookers of this rural microcosm they all reside in.

But there is something which holds her back. Garry is just too easy-going and avoiding-of-trouble; he tends to slip through life allowing others to make his decisions for him. Even his growing conviction that Susan would make a suitable mistress at Node owes something to his grandmother’s approval of Susan’s impeccable manners, good breeding, and undoubted personal charm. Susan senses that Garry’s admiration and easygoing courtship of her is more superficial than deep; Garry doesn’t give it all that much thought himself, until forced to by Susan’s ultimate rejection of his advances.

Bruised by Susan’s unexpected refusal, Garry turns to the third member of their childhood-friends triumvirate, vicarage daughter Joanna. Joanna is emphatically Susan’s opposite in every essential way. Apple of her mother’s eye, Joanna has been encouraged to strive after success from babyhood, and her already self-assured nature combined with hard-won scholastic success makes her thoroughly impatient with wishy-washy Susan. “Naturally bossy” well describes Joanna, and Susan puts up with her patronization with good grace, though she is well aware of how much contempt her erstwhile friend actually holds her in.

Upon Garry’s proposal, something of a rebound impulse triggered by hurt pride, Joanna sets aside her career ambitions and agrees to take on Garry and Node instead, a move inspired not just by affection for Garry, but a sense of one-upmanship towards Susan. Joanna can’t help but feel that she has scored a major point in an unspoken rivalry that has persisted since the two were young.

Susan meanwhile meets and is courted by a rising young pathologist; she marries him and has a child. Upon her husband’s departure on a temporary posting in Canada, Susan moves back to Bract with her baby, and she and Joanna start to rebuild the structure of their never very strong but now sadly deteriorated friendship into something much more mature and mutually rewarding.

Joanna’s marriage to Garry and her new position in the rural hierarchy has led to a certain amount of emotional turmoil and occasional strife as the general local consensus is that the vicarage daughter has gotten rather above herself, putting herself in the shoes of the now-dead Miss Laura. Meanwhile Susan is viewed with benevolent patronage. No one has seen her husband; the unspoken assumption among the majority of the villagers is that she has been abandoned by this mythical man, and has sought unwed-mother refuge in her childhood home.

We follow Susan and Joanna through the first years of their very different marriages fraught with very different challenges. The two women’s lives have diverged greatly but are now running parallel, with life-altering consequences to both of them, and those in their closest circles.

What a richly written novel this rather somber story makes. Elizabeth Cambridge sketches her characters at first with the utmost artistic economy, adding layers of detail as the story progresses, until we fully understand what makes each person tick.

Cambridge’s depiction of the rural atmosphere is also utterly believable, and her observations regarding the animals so pervasive and important in such a setting equal her insights into the minds and motivations of the human inhabitants.

A criticism I read on a recent Persephone forum regarding Elizabeth Cambridge’s style was that nothing much happens in her books; they are merely a series of personal observations and not very dramatic domestic events. Quite true, when one steps back and looks at the format of the novels with an analytical eye. But the events are such that we can completely relate to them from our own mostly not very dramatic lives.

Personal relationships, love affairs, marriage, the birth of children, death, social structures and constantly changing and evolving outside events affecting private lives; these are all viable topics for discussion, and their fictional treatment when well handled – as they are in the case of this writer – can lead one into greater insights of one’s own emotional life and personal responses to the shared everyday human events which never truly change, no matter what the calendar year reads.

What a good writer she was; what a dreadful shame it is that five of her six novels are so very rare.

But look at what I have found!

Here is a scanned complete version of  Susan and Joanna, from Hathi Trust. It may be read online, or downloaded as page by page pdf files, if one is so inclined to do so. (And has hours of time to dedicate to the project!)

Reading from a screen is never quite as conducive to true enjoyment as sitting back with the actual book in one’s hands, but it is certainly better than no access to the material at all; I hope that this link brings pleasure to those others of you who are on a quest for more of Elizabeth Cambridge’s fine yet almost forgotten novels of the 1930s.

First three pages below, by way of being a teaser if you are considering whether you’d like to bother following up on this one.


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My vintage copy is terribly faded. The cover illustration depicts a female figure in long pink gown holding a pink parasol, against the backdrop of a white-columned mansion. (You may need to use your imagination.)

My vintage copy’s cover is terribly faded. The illustration depicts a female figure in long pink gown holding a pink parasol, against the backdrop of a white-columned mansion. (You may need to use your imagination.)

The Little Straw Wife by Margaret Belle Houston ~ 1914. This edition: The H.K. Fly Co., 1914. Illustrated by F. Graham Cootes. Hardcover. 217 pages.

My rating: 6/10

This fluffy vintage romance attracted my attention because it was the very first published novel by a writer I have been keeping an eye out for: Margaret Bell(e) Houston (the “e” of her middle name was dropped on later books), author of a number of romantic-suspense novels such as 1955’s Yonder (scroll way down, I was rather more rambling than usual that day), which I read last year and gave an enthusiastic rating to. (And, oh, look – there’s Phyllis A. Whitney again!)

Houston’s novels are still in a modest sort of circulation, with a number of them available as scanned e-books (see here for TLSW) and as print-on-demand paper books, but the originals are much more interesting to handle and read, especially when they contain illustrations, as this one does, to add to their period charm.

The Little Straw Wife was published in 1914, when the author was 37 years old; a comparatively venerable age for a first novel, it seems to me. (So many published writers seem to start so early, literally in their teens. I wonder what the average age actually is?)

Margaret Belle Houston was to write another dozen or so novels between 1914 and 1958, as well as short stories and poetry. She was something of a local celebrity in her home state of Texas, the partial setting of The Little Straw Wife and most of her other romance/drama/suspense novels.

This novel charges out of the starting gate with a lot of enthusiasm and dash, which is maintained for quite some time, though it gets a mite winded about three-quarters of the way through, and ends up gasping for breath in the final chapters.

We meet our heroine, Zoë, just as she locks herself in her room and kicks off her shoes and plumps herself down on her wedding bouquet. Obviously something is not going well!

Here, read for yourself:

littlestrawwife00housiala_0013littlestrawwife00housiala_0014littlestrawwife00housiala_0015Our heroine is writing this account in her “Honeymoon Diary” – a gift from one of the bridesmaids, a blank book intended to document the joys of the first nuptial excursion. Instead it is being used to record the reasons behind the bride’s refusal to go through with things – albeit just an hour or two later than the usual cold-feet-at-the-altar cut-and-run.

Apparently Zoë feels that she has married her groom under false pretenses, and she can see nothing for it but to call the whole thing off. The upshot of it all is that she begs her groom to go off on the honeymoon voyage all alone, while she herself attempts to establish her independence away from Aunt Emmeline, who has made no secret of the fact that Zoë is no longer welcome under the familial roof.

Then we are treated to a rather nicely done flashback, as our narrator relates her history, and how she came to be in the situation now before us.

So far, quite enjoyable stuff, and as Zoë goes off to make her way in the world, with her cast-off groom lingering benignly(?) in the shadows waiting for her to come to her senses, the tale unfolds intriguingly, as Zoë casts herself on the hospitality of an old school chum and proceeds to attempt to enter the work force.

Once our Zoë, after a number of false starts, is settled into a suitable occupation – social secretary for an ambitious nouveau riche Texas ex-ranch wife – the tale begins to shed some of its charm, as it turns into what can only be described as a mushy romance. It’s still frequently sweet and funny, and the heroine still has us on her side, keeping us smiling at her odd personal decisions and indecisive agonizings to Dear Diary, but an immense tidal wave of coincidence and Had-I-But-Known drenches this initially clever story in utter cliché. The ending made me blush deeply. It was absolutely too good to be true, all over I-love-you-darlings and happy-ever-afters. Oh dear!

Well, for a first novel it shows a decently polished style, and the woes of Zoë in her quest for financial independence are feelingly portrayed. There is a strong vein of humour throughout; some of the diary entries are a comedic joy to read. If it weren’t for those last few romance-novel chapters, this would be such a thing of joy in general.

As it is, it’s still a fun vintage read despite its almost-fatally-flawed degeneration near the end. I’m glad I went to the trouble of tracking down in the paper, as it were, but I can’t give it a terribly enthusiastic recommendation as a must-read, because it is just too much of a period piece in its ultimate clichés to be truly top notch as a modern reading experience.

My advice, if one is interested, is to try this one gratis in its online e-book version. This scanned edition includes all of the Cootes illustrations, and is as close to reading the original as one can get without shelling out one’s hard-earned dollars for the real thing. Probably not a keeper, unless one is intrigued enough by the progress of Margaret Belle Houston to want to have a full set of her works on the shelf.

I have several more of Houston’s later novels waiting to be read: Bride’s Island (1957) and Cottonwoods Grow Tall (1958), both of which were published after the very acceptable Yonder, and both of which appear to have received good reviews in their time.

I am anticipating some enjoyable reading from these, but am waiting for that elusive “right mood” to strike. I am saving them for a treat, I hasten to assure you, so that will tell you how I really view Margaret Bell(e) Houston’s writing from my small experience of her – full of promise and most likely to prove highly diverting.

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Tthe etruscan smile velda johnston 001he Etruscan Smile by Velda Johnston ~ 1977. This edition: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1977. Hardcover. 181 pages.

My rating: 6/10

I had read several of Velda Johnston’s mildly thrilling and sometimes simplistic “novels of suspense” before, so had tempered my expectations for The Etruscan Smile accordingly.

1975’s A Room with Dark Mirrors generally pleased me; the period detail of the heroine’s stewardess career and the doesn’t-miss-a-beat flow of the story kept me engaged enough to award it a thumbs-up and a 5.5 rating.

The Girl on the Beach, 1987, felt rather more awkward in plot and style; the author was a quite venerable 75 years old when it was published, and I theorized that perhaps she feeling rather tired of the whole writing-a-book thing. I panned the Beach Girl badly, mentioned that I was almost ready to cross Velda Johnston off my “light reading” list, and gave her a dismissive rating of 4.

Two years have passed, and the memory of my disappointing second encounter with the author has faded; enough so that when I came across this novel recently I was moved to give her another chance. And I am happy that I did; The Etruscan Smile was nicely done for its sort of thing, and reading it was no hardship at all.

A perfect sort of book for a waiting room sojourn; engaging but not challenging. It rocketed right along, and handed me a few surprises in the way of plotting that I wasn’t expecting, though I’m not quite sure that these worked out story-wise all that well. I did give the writer points for creativity; I could tell where she was going and the big picture she was attempting to embroider, even if she dropped her threads a bit here and there.

Mary Stewart this soundly second-rank writer isn’t, though there are bits here and there which remind me favourably of Stewart’s style. Our heroine is nicely independent and capable; but she does end up in the arms of a man, and one that she hasn’t known terribly long or particularly well – a favourite Mary Stewart closing scenario. Those brushes with death do tend to speed along romantic acquaintanceship, is all I can assume.

And I found this much more readable than anything I’ve experienced by Phyllis A. Whitney (see my last post, wherein I hand poor Phyllis her walking papers out of my personal book collection), though Velda Johnston was nowhere near as prolific or (apparently) as popular. Still, she (Velda) did manage to produce something like 35 romantic suspense novels, and so far out of the three I’ve read two have been acceptable; she’s now back on my list of promising minor writers, though I won’t be searching her out specially or paying more than bargain basement prices for any more of her books that I come across in my travels.

So – the actual storyline of The Etruscan Smile. Here it is, such as it is.

Samantha Develin has flown to Italy from New York, accompanied by her devoted German Shepherd, Caesar. Samantha has just learned that her older sister,  Althea, an accomplished artist who has gained a certain reputation as a painter-to-watch, has unaccountably vanished from the small rented farmhouse she has been living in for the past several years. No one seems to know where Althea has gone; the assumption is that she is off with a man; but Samantha immediately finds some clues that her beloved sister may not have planned her departure in a typical fashion.

A dashing Italian count – an old flame of Althea’s – appears out of the blue and puts himself rather unexpectedly at Samantha’s service. Another of Althea’s ex-lovers, an English archeologist, living close by, makes himself conspicuous by his continued presence, zipping in silently on his bicycle at the oddest hours of day and night.

These two men in particular and, to a lesser degree, everyone else she questions regarding Althea’s recent activities are rather cagy and evasive; everyone obviously knows something that they’re not divulging to Althea’s little sister. But what?

Samantha persists in her quest to track down her sister, and she soon comes to sense that perhaps something rather final has happened to Althea, though there is no evidence to support an act of violence or misadventure. Samantha must revisit her own past to unravel the tangled web which her sister had become bound up in; what she discovers is more bizarre than she (or we) could ever have imagined…

A hidden statue of an ancient Etruscan goddess plays an important role in the quest for Althea and the climactic scene; kudos to the author for not doing the expected with that particular clichéd suspense novel scenario. And kudos as well for not making everything all sunshine and light and picturesque Italian travelogue; there are some darkish situations in this short novel which add a certain depth to what could have been pure fluff. And the dog was a nice touch, and well portrayed. (Total super-dog; too good to be true, really. Hint: one may require a Kleenex near the end.)

An adequately engaging story to while away an hour or two on a summer afternoon; a long lunch hour today was sufficient to polish this one off. I must confess that the strongest impulse I felt upon completion was to revisit one of Mary Stewart’s Greek novels, to enjoy the next level up in this particular cozy-escape-lit genre.


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