Archive for September, 2018

Down the Garden Path by Beverley Nichols ~ 1932. This edition: Doubleday, 1932. Decorations by Rex Whistler. Hardcover. 303 pages.

It’s rather nasty outside today, with a too-early cold snap blowing in, nipping the last flowers with frost, and whisking snowflakes around our chilly ears, so I have used this hopefully temporary weather event as an excuse to step away from my outdoor occupations and spend a lazy Sunday puttering about in the house.

I’ve been tracking down all of the various books I read this summer during my non-posting spell, with the idea of zipping off some reviews and helping my Century of Books project along. I bailed out on it last year; I have the idea that successfully completing it this year will be grand for my sometimes troubled morale.

Of course it is taking much longer than I thought to get my book thoughts into writing – I find myself re-reading all the best bits and flipping through things to reacquaint myself with what it was exactly that I wanted to highlight.

Bear with me over the next few weeks, as I hope to throw a number of these catch-up posts up at random as I steal the time to work them out.

Starting right here, with this happy offering from early on in Beverley Nichols’ four decade stint as a documentarian of the joys and tribulations of domestic and garden life in the four decades of the 1930s through the 1960s.

The only thing better than Beverley Nichols’ more than slightly pithy, sometimes precious prose in this delicious account of moving to a neglected country cottage and re-establishing a seriously ambitious garden is the inclusion of a whole slew of delightful Rex Whistler illustrations.

Anyone who is already familiar with Beverley Nichol’s style will know that it doesn’t matter what he writes about; he is readable in any key. He definitely comes across as thinking quite highly of his own intelligence, wit and charm, but just when you think he’s tooting his own horn a bit too loudly he throws in some humbling episode and undertakes to poke fun at himself, and all is forgiven.

In a nutshell, Beverley Nichols is inspired by memories of an idyllic visit to an acquaintance’s country cottage and garden. Seeing notice of this person’s obituary, our writer impulsively sends of an offer-to-purchase the cottage from the owner’s heirs; it is immediately accepted, and Nichols finds himself possessed not of the rose-smothered cottage of that summer day, but a neglected and dreary weed-infested mess. How he brings it back to beauty with the help of a number of paid and voluntary helpers and advisors makes up the framework of the tale, with numerous departures into character portraits of neighbours and visitors, and vivid descriptions of his own moods throughout.

It’s not all la-di-da and nice-nice-nice; there’s a fair bit of snark in Beverley Nichols’ nature, and it comes through loud and clear here, but it’s a funny sort of bitchiness, balanced by abundant sweet-natured enthusiasms.

Is this essentially a book for gardeners? No! Not at all, though if one is of that particular persuasion, one will find much to relate to in the descriptions of just how Mr Nichols and his various garden helpers went about the cultivation of their plot.

For more detail, I refer you to a post by Heavenali from earlier in 2018.

My rating: 8.5/10 for the prose, 10/10 for the pictures. Good stuff.

A modest country estate – Beverley Nichols’ cottage and grounds, circa 1932.

 

 

 

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The Lady and the Unicorn by Rumer Godden ~ 1938. This edition: Penguin, 1982. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-00-5523-1. 189 pages.

This was Rumer Godden’s second published book, appearing only a year or so after her first novel, the perhaps deservedly obscure Chinese Puzzle, which concerns reincarnation and Pekingese dogs. (More on that one at some future date. I own a copy, acquired long ago in the interests of indulging my completist tendencies in regards to favorite writers. An unusual first novel, to be sure.)

The Lady and the Unicorn follows a more traditional path, being generally a linear narrative tale, but it contains numerous elements which Godden was to use time and time again in her later, better known works.

There are flashback sequences, ghostly visitations, an emotionally complex child character, brilliantly observed descriptive passages utilizing all five senses, great swaths of irony, and a sharp-eyed examination of the social mores of its time and setting, all wrapped up in a fatalistic what-happens-happens sort of shroud. To my secret delight, there is also a short reference to J.W. Dunne’s Theory of Time, which fascinated Godden all of her life and played a major role in two later novels, Take Three Tenses and China Court.

Everything which comes later in Godden’s work is already here, serving to justify my opinion that Rumer Godden essentially wrote the same thing over and over throughout her long writing career, though her creative genius fleshed out the familiar skeleton of her One Big Idea to a varying but always lifelike form in each succesive novel.

So. This story.

The feckless Lemarchant family, consisting of a widowed father, twin teenage sisters Belle and Rosa, little sister Blanche, and a maternal aunt, live in a decayed European-built mansion in an Eurasian district of 1930s’ Calcutta. Father is “Anglo”, Mother was Indian, and their offspring exist in a sort of societal limbo, being betwixt and between their two ancestral cultures while belonging to neither.

When seventeen-year-old Belle, in the full throes of her burgeoning sexuality, makes eyes at the Catholic priest who has known her since babyhood, the twins are asked to leave their school. Father Ghezzi, trying to explain why he feels he must send them away for fear of their corrupting their peers, makes a passionate statement as to the difficulties facing those youth of mixed-race in India.

“I don’t know which is it that is worse to have in this country, Mr Lemarchant, boys or girls., sons or daughters. With the sons it is one thing; they cannot get work, the Indians squeeze them out from below, the English from above, so -” He brought his clenched hands together as if he were crushing a poor little man to death. “They cannot get work; before they begin they are failures. And with the girls it is another thing, they are too successful. Yes. There is always success for these girls, so smart, so nimble, so empty-headed. They take even the jobs that the boys might have; they go into offices, shops, and what happens? They get money, they get ideas, they are taken up by men – men in Calcutta society, faugh! – and then when they are in trouble they are flung back on their people; on those boys whose place they have taken, boys for whom they have now no use, and who could not marry them if they have.”

Prophetic words, as Belle goes on to become the mistress of a wealthy dilettante, and Rosa in her turn falls in love with a newly arrived Englishman, a relationship which dooms her to disaster when his family catches scent of a potential complication in their son’s life and sends his childhood sweetheart out to India to entice him away from the apparently wicked half-caste girl of his latest infatuation.

Ironically named Blanche, the dark-skinned “throwback” of the family, watches all of this from the shadows, while going through her own agonies of love and loss.

An intriguing small novel, beautifully written and deeply poignant. I am not sure why it isn’t more widely known; it is as good as anything which comes after it, and so deserves a full place in this iconic writer’s canon.

Here is the link to another review from Kat at Mirabile Dictu, which provides more details of the plot.

My rating: 8/10

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Appointment with Venus by Jerrard Tickell ~ 1951. This edition: The Reprint Society, 1953. Hardcover. 256 pages.

This spur-of-the-moment purchase from the ever-rewarding second-hand book emporium Baker’s Books in Hope, B.C. turned out to be a little bit different from what I had anticipated on the strength of my quickie browse. From the few paragraphs I read before adding it to the book pile, I expected it to be an engagingly written “war novel”, and so it was, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the importance of the cow!

Appointment with Venus turned out to be a mixed-emotion sort of story, its farcical premise shot through with brutal realism, being set in 1940 as German troops occupy a small Channel Island.

The island in question, Armorel, is fictional, though based on the real island of Sark, where the German occupation did happen, as apparently did the removal of pedigree cattle from under German noses.

The rest of the tale is pure conjecture, presented by an inventive novelist with a strong dependence on the literary device of coincidence, and occasional lapses into bathos. Despite moments of “Really, dear writer?” it mostly worked, and I am more than willing to follow up on the other works of this Irish author, assuming from my experience here that they will be readable if not quite plausible.

Here’s the gist of this particular story.

In 1940, immediately post-Dunkirk, German troops arrive on the fictional Channel Island of Armorel, to be greeted by a delegation of island officials led by the Provost, nominal head of state of the island since the departure of its youthful hereditary leader, the Suzerain, to fight for Great Britain at the outbreak of the war.

Under orders from Germany, the occupation is to a great degree a “soft” one, the velvet glove over the iron fist of the occupiers being well padded, and life goes on for the islanders relatively normally, though an underground communication network immediately springs up to counter the German seizure of all radios and such.

Meanwhile, back in England, the occupation is greeted with quiet consternation, in particular in the offices of the Ministry of Agriculture, where it is suddenly found that a prize cow rejoicing in the name of Venus, bred to a majestically pedigreed but  ill-fated bull named Mars, is pregnant and due to give birth under the Nazi flag.

The offspring of this bovine union is anticipated to be something ultra-special in the way of British cattle breeding, and there is no way in which the combination of maternal and paternal lines can be repeated, Mars having fatally stepped on a land mine shortly after his dalliance with Venus.

What else to do than mount a clandestine rescue mission, to snatch the pregnant Venus from under the very noses of her Teutonic captors, striking a dual blow for England in mortifying the enemy and furthering the development of British super cows.

Unfortunately for this plan, the head of the German forces on Armorel was, in his past civilian life, an accomplished cattle breeder, and he has already seen and fallen in love with Venus, and has made arrangements for her immediate departure to the Fatherland, in order that her offspring be born on German soil, to the furtherance of German bovine superiority.

The clock’s a-ticking…

First edition dust jacket, Hodder and Stoughton, 1951.

A rescue mission is mounted, consisting of a fearless young English major rejoicing in the name of Valentine Morland, and the beautiful sister of the absent Suzerain of Armorel, one Nicola Falaise of the A.T.S.  There are some side players, to be sure, but we won’t go into that here, except to say that one of them is the stock winsomely clever small boy, and another a gruffly sea captainish type.

On the island resides key figure number three, Nicola’s cousin Lionel, dedicated pacifist and tormented artist, who is drawn into the plot once Valentine and Nicola land to undertake their mission of disguise and bovine abduction. (We add a love triangle to the busy plot.)

Complications and drama ensue. There is abundant farce, and, to balance this, episodes of poignancy and tragedy. Of course the Brits eventually come out ahead, though one of them undertakes the ultimate sacrifice in order for the undertaking to succeed.

This oddly enticing concoction of a tale comes very close to the ridiculous, but it is well written enough to remain engaging throughout.

My rating: 6.5/10.

Appointment with Venus caught the attention of British screenwriters immediately upon its publication, with a 1951 film version starring David Niven and Glynis Johns as Valentine and Nicola being a respectable box office success. The 1962 Danish “war comedy” film, Venus fra Vestø, was also based on Tickell’s tale. A four-part radio play version of Appointment with Venus was produced and broadcast by the BBC in 1992.

The novel seems to be the best-known of Jerrard Tickell’s books, but he also wrote several non-fiction war books, and a respectable number of light fictions, which I fully intend to dip into if and when opportunity allows. Check out this tantalizing list, full of imagination-catching titles, courtesy Wikipedia.

Non-fiction:

  • Odette: The Story of a British Agent (1949)
  • Moon Squadron (1956)
  • Ascalon: The Story of Sir Winston Churchill’s Wartime Flights from 1943 to 1945 (1964)

Novels:

  • Yolan of the Plains (1928)
  • See How They Run (1936)
  • Fly Away Blackbird (1936)
  • Silk Purse (1937)
  • Jill Fell Down (1938)
  • Gentlewomen Aim to Please (1938)
  • At Dusk All Cats Are Grey (1940)
  • Soldier from the Wars Returning (1942)
  • Appointment with Venus (1951)
  • The Hand and Flower (1952)
  • Dark Adventure (1952)
  • The Dart Players (1953)
  • The Hero of Saint Roger (1954)
  • Miss May: The Story of an Englishwoman (1958)
  • Whither Do You Wander? (1959)
  • The Hunt for Richard Thorpe (1960)
  • Villa Mimosa (1960)
  • Hussar Honeymoon (1963)
  • High Water at Four (1965)

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We were out visiting yesterday, and we stopped on the one-lane country bridge at Alexis Creek, B.C. to look down at the turquoise blue water of the rushing Chilcotin River. We do live in a lovely part of the world!

September 26, 2018 ~ Chilcotin River at Alexis Creek, B.C.

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The Whistling Shadow by Mabel Seeley ~ 1954. This edition: Doubleday, 1954. Hardcover. 219 pages.

First, a personal note, to answer those who have so kindly inquired as to my extended absence from the blogosphere these past months. I could give a detailed account of this so-strange summer we’ve been having, but I won’t, because honestly it’s been decidedly frenetic in so many ways and really not worthy of revisiting.

Suffice it to say that we are keeping our heads above water (figuratively speaking) and that all is quite reasonably well. Ridiculously busy, but in the non-concrete sort of way where we have not much to show for it.

Reading time is confined to just-before-bedtime, and much of what I’ve read recently is rather blurry round the edges. So much stuff going on!

Still hoping to make a decent showing on the Century of Books project, so maybe the fast and basic book post is the key?

Like this one.

The Whistling Shadow is a compulsively readable noir novel, and I have to admit that I didn’t twig to the villain of the piece at all, though I did have qualms about the co-villain right from the get-go. As I was probably supposed to; Mabel Seeley seemed to be in full control of her narrative from start to finish.

Middle-aged Gail Kiskadden, widowed fifteen years earlier, mourns the drunk driving death of her twenty-year-old son Johnny by sitting in her darkened house playing solitaire all day and most of every night. Her grief has taken over her life; she can’t find a way forward.

Then one of her son’s friends comes with a piece of unexpected news: Johnny was secretly married while away serving on his Army detail. His widow was last heard of in Columbus, Georgia.

Gail sets out to find the mysterious Sherry Lee, and succeeds without much difficulty, and of course what she has both hoped and feared is evident: a grandchild is on the way.

Sherry Lee is delicately beautiful but intellectually not quite up to what Gail had expected of a partner of clever Johnny’s, and she also displays a sullen disinterest in meeting Gail halfway in regards to commiseration of their shared loss, but her apparently troubled financial position leads her to agreeing to accompany Gail back to Minneapolis to await the birth of her child.

It soon becomes apparent that Sherry Lee is a woman with a deeply complicated past, which follows her to Minneapolis. Death threats by hand-delivered letter, furtive midnight whistlings, ventriloquist’s dummies left in unexpected places: the plot thickens.

The threats increase as the months go by, culminating in the kidnapping of Gail’s baby grandson and further developments with the secret threatener, who proves to be a very real person with a distinct fondness for knives…

Seeley winds up the tension until the breaking point and a bit beyond, before bringing her strong female lead into a place of peace, albeit a fragile sort of respite as new complications have arisen in the revelation of a killer’s identity.

Good (dark) stuff.

This was Mabel Seeley’s last suspense novel of only ten published between 1938 and 1954. The Whistling Shadow is my first experience with Seeley; I hope it will not be my last.

My rating: 8.5/10

 

 

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Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt ~ 1966. Follett Publishing, circa 1970s. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-695-49009-5. 192 pages.

Here we have that familiar creature, the vintage bildungsroman. A fine example, to be sure, but a member of a vast common flock.

There are numerous other titles of this ilk still to be found on high school library shelves everywhere; this is not a condemnation, merely an observation.

Somewhere in the United States – midwest? New England? – seven-year-old Julie has just lost her mother to an unspecified illness which they both have shared. Youngest of a sibling group of three – older sister Laura is seventeen, brother Chris the middle child – Julie is sent off to the nearby country home of her mother’s unmarried sister, Aunt Cordelia, a stern and highly regarded teacher at a rural school.

The novel follows Julie along as she navigates her way through the usual childhood and adolescent experiences of someone growing up in the American small-town world of the mid-20th Century. (We never get a firm date as to when this all happens, though clues point to it taking place in the 1940s or 50s. Possibly earlier?)

Young Julie has been an indulged small child with all of the expected attitudes and mannerisms thereof; her aunt strives to mold her young charge into responsible and thoughtful personhood. She succeeds, though it takes ten years. We leave teenage Julie as a younger version of Aunt Cordelia, albeit with a happier love affair in hand than Cordelia experienced in her previous turn.

In the course of this well-presented, gently paced micro-saga (there is a major clue in the title, that “Slowly” is most apt), our heroine comes to terms with her inner flaws and weaknesses, and grows into a likeable young woman of some accomplishment.

Bumps in young Julie’s personal road have included that early traumatic loss of her beloved mother, her older sister’s departure into happy married life with diminished focus on a younger sister, a mildly ne’er-do-well alcoholic uncle living in close proximity to her aunt’s house, an episode of dealing with a mentally challenged and uncared for classmate, and a deeply regrettable boyfriend in high school, who eventually gets one of Julie’s peers pregnant.

Luckily true love is waiting for our heroine, in the person of childhood friend Danny, who sticks around and comes through when most needed. Happy married life beckons, once the two of them finish college, etcetera. One wonders if Julie’s writing ambitions (for of course this book is chockfull of what may well be autobiographical verisimilitude) will be eclipsed by her embrace of her upcoming traditionally housewifely role?

Who knows. Perhaps she’ll have it all…

Well-written in general, with a few far reaches as plot threads are neatly gathered together. An engaging read, but nothing to cross the road for, as it were. Enough complexity for an “adult” read; the “young adult” intended audience likely accounts for the occasional stutters in the plotline as things are tweaked to provide moral teachings.

The biggest drawback to me was that there was absolutely no real sense of time or place; the setting is blandly generic. It’s a moderately engaging character study from first to last, but it doesn’t go deep enough for true memorability.

My rating: 6.5/10

Up a Road Slowly did win the Newbery Medal in 1967, and Irene Hunt was a well-respected writer of teen-targetted novels, her most well-known being the Civil War coming of age story of a young man, Across Five Aprils, 1964, which was a Newbery Honor Book (runner-up) in 1965. Six other YA novels published between 1968 and 1985 are well-regarded but not as well-known as the two Newbery recipients.

 

 

 

 

 

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