Archive for October, 2018

Pastoral by Nevil Shute ~ 1944. This edition: Ballantine, 1971. Paperback. ISBN: 345-02275-0-095. 222 pages.

This understated yet powerful novel follows two young officers stationed at an Oxfordshire Royal Air Force base mid way through World War II.

Peter Marshall is a twenty-two-year-old bomber pilot, with more than fifty missions under his belt. He keeps himself sane and centered by going on country walks and fishing on his off time; he’s thoroughly pleased to be stationed in a rural area where he and his like-minded aircrew can pursue their bucolic relaxations. None of them think too hard about the chances of their not coming back next time out; time enough for that when it happens.

Then something else happens.

Peter catches sight of a new face in the radio communication unit, one Section Officer Gervase Robertson of the W.A.A.F. She notices him in turn, and the traditional courtship ritual is on: advances, retreats, pauses, moments of passionate emotion – following its normal course though sudden and violent death stands ever in the wings.

Both young people are serious-minded in their personal attitudes towards their emotional investments in each other and, also, their predictably urgent sexual desires. It becomes apparent almost immediately that a casual romantic fling isn’t even on the table, which leads to certain complications as things between them advance.

Gervase hadn’t thought of marrying quite yet; she’s a mere twenty-one and takes her role in the war effort very seriously indeed. Peter now thinks of nothing else, to the detriment of his hitherto-untroubled sleep and his crucial concentration, leading to the endangerment of himself, his devoted flight crew, and his plane.

1st American edition, 1944

How the two come to an eventual compromise is the strand that runs through this delicately sombre yet optimistically hope-filled tale.

It’s quietly stunning to realize how very young all of these people are. Hardly entered into their full adult lives, they deal with being caught up in a brutal war as matter-of-factly as they wrote their school essays just a few years before. And though it is never stated outright, the thought is ever-present that everyone here, on the side of “right”, is engaged not just in dodging but in dealing out death to others such as themselves, who also merely want to live.

Pastoral is tenderly handled, but never trespasses into over-sentimental. Occasionally it is heart-breaking. The descriptions of base life, bombing missions, rural relaxations and occasional Oxford and London leaves are very well portrayed. In my opinion, one of Nevil Shute’s memorable best.

My rating: 10/10

 

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Bridge on the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle ~ 1952. This edition: Fontana, 1968. Translated from the French by Xan Fielding. Paperback. 189 pages.

This is a spare, terse war novel, based on the French author’s experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war, concerning the fictionalized building of a key bridge on the infamous 250-mile-long “Death Railway” (over 100,000 POWs and local conscripts died in its construction) between Siam and Burma during World War II.

British Colonel Nicholson, a stickler of a stiff upper lipper if ever there was one, insists his men abide by the rules when they are forced to surrender to the Japanese after the fall of Malaya. No one must attempt to escape, and the formal surrender must be done just so, rather to the bemusement of the Japanese invaders, headed by Colonel Saito, himself a strong believer in saving face.

When the “savage” Japs set the Brits to building a rail bridge across the River Kwai, Nicholson’s contempt for their incompetence gets the better of him. To prove British superiority, he convinces Saito to let the prisoners redesign the edifice, and it goes ahead with astonishing speed.

Colonel Nicholson seems to have forgotten that his country is at war, and he unwittingly turns collaborator, which will have tragic consequences when a small, secret team of British saboteurs arrive to knock the bridge out of action on its gala opening day.

This short novel was made into a very successful 1957 movie starring Alec Guinness; it won Best Picture for its year at the Academy Awards, and a whole slew of other prizes.

The tale itself is fictional, though it is based on a number of real scenarios. There was a wartime-built bridge over the River Kwai; it’s still there and very much in use, and apparently quite a tourist attraction. The British Colonel Nicholson was modelled by Boulle upon several of his French superiors during his own time in a Japanese POW camp; the composite portrait is not particularly flattering and led to some rather touchy Anglo-French relations when the book and then the movie achieved their astonishing success.

I found this novel to be a slightly uneven read. Due perhaps to its translation from the original French it was rather stilted at times, but the story was compelling and it was no hardship to follow it through to its rather shocking ending. (Having never seen the movie, I was unprepared for the violent dénouement.)

Heads up to modern readers: this tale is chock full of racial slurs directed mostly at the Japanese. (Not particularly unexpected in a book of this era and of its wartime subject.)

I was also interested to discover that this was not Pierre Boulle’s only bestseller. He also wrote a 1963 sci-fi novel titled La Planète des singes, or, in English, The Planet of the Apes. Anyone heard of that one?!

My rating: 6.5/10

An interesting read.

 

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Fear for Miss Betony by Dorothy Bowers ~ 1941. This edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1947. Hardcover. 310 pages.

The grand books just keep coming. What joy to discover yet another new-to-me writer, and to have another book-search rabbit trail beckoning!

This title was found at Neil Stad’s wonderful Nuggets Used Books in Chilliwack this past weekend, source of a respectable number of  vintage treasures now gracing my crowded shelves.

This time round the writer is Dorothy Bowers, who wrote a meager five mystery novels between 1938 and 1947, of which this one, Fear for Miss Betony, is the fourth. Sadly this writer died of tuberculosis at a tragically young age, leaving who knows what books unwritten.

Retired governess Emma Betony, aged sixty-one, has come to the point of reluctantly seeking refuge in a Home for Decayed Gentlewomen, but instead accepts a surprise offer from an old pupil to take on a position as a part-time tutor at an evacuated girls’ school, as cover for a nebulous investigation into strange goings-on concerning a possible poisoning of one of two elderly ladies living amongst the school girls.

Something deadly is indeed happening, but the target might not be the obvious one…

Delightful character portrait of the extremely sharp and very likeable Miss Betony – shades of Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver and D.L. Sayers’ Miss Climpson. The mystery, on the other hand, seemed needlessly convoluted, incorporating as it does multiple packets of arsenic floating about, an unconcerned (!) doctor, a case of extremely coincidental hidden identity, an evil necromancer type, a rather strange pet shop, and a truly wicked conspiracy targetting our elderly virgin.

As a “fair play” mystery writer the author played just a tiny bit unfair, withholding a key detail of evidence, but all in all this was a very diverting example of Golden Age detection fiction. Two “real” detectives appear in the last few chapters, but Miss Betony does all the heavy lifting, or, rather, takes all the heavy hits.

Well written in general. I enjoyed this book.

My rating: 7.5/10

A short biography of Miss Bowers, courtesy of LibraryThing:

Dorothy Bowers was born in Herefordshire, England, the daughter of a bakery owner, and raised and educated just over the border in Monmouth, Wales. She attended the Monmouth School for Girls and went on to Oxford University, where she read modern history. She later said these years were among the happiest of her life, and she greatly missed the friends she made there.

After graduation, she returned to Monmouth to work as a history teacher, but finding full-time employment was difficult. She tutored private students and held a temporary position teaching history, English, and elocution at a school in Malvern.

She supplemented her income by compiling crossword puzzles for John O’London Weekly from 1936 to 1943 and for Country Life from 1940 to 1946. However, she had hopes of a literary career, and published her first detective novel, Postscript to Poison, in 1938. It received enthusiastic reviews and established her as among the best writers in the genre of literary thrillers.

Fear for Miss Betony (1941), now considered her masterpiece, was hailed by the Times of London as the best mystery of the year. After the outbreak of World War II, she moved to London and worked for the European News Service of the BBC. Her fifth and final book, The Bells at Old Bailey, was published in 1947.

Dorothy Bowers died at age 46 of tuberculosis the following year. She had just been inducted into the prestigious Detection Club, the society of Golden Age mystery writers that included Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton.

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Frontispiece showing Peter, Bobbie and Phyllis waving away at a passing train. The Charles Edmund Brock drawings of the original Edwardian edition are utterly charming, and if seeking out an edition for yourself or for gift-giving, I highly recommend finding one of the numerous “deluxe replica” versions.

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit ~ 1906. This edition:  Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., Ltd., exact date unknown. Illustrated by C.E. Brock. Hardcover. 184 pages.

They were not railway children to begin with. I don’t suppose they had ever thought about railways except as a means of getting to Maskelyne and Cook’s, the Pantomime, Zoological Gardens, and Madame Tussaud’s. They were just ordinary suburban children, and they lived with their Father and Mother in an ordinary red-brick-fronted villa, with coloured glass in the front door, a tiled passage that was called a hall, a bath-room with hot and cold water, electric bells, French windows, and a good deal of white paint, and ‘every modern convenience’, as the house-agents say.

There were three of them. Roberta was the eldest. Of course, Mothers never have favourites, but if their Mother HAD had a favourite, it might have been Roberta. Next came Peter, who wished to be an Engineer when he grew up; and the youngest was Phyllis, who meant extremely well.

When Father mysteriously disappears one evening after a loudly uncomfortable meeting in the drawing-room with two mysterious men, the tamely predictable lives of Roberta (aka Bobbie), Peter and Phyllis are stood upside down. All sorts of dreadful changes take place, culminating in a removal to a country cottage situated close to a busy rail line, “for the time being”, leaving all of the nicest things back in their city house.

Adventures immediately ensue, as the children learn their new surroundings, figure out how best to help Mother with making do, and eventually endear themselves to pretty well everyone they meet, including an elderly and distinguished Gentleman-on-the-Train, which turns out to be a very good development indeed.

I am of two minds regarding this well-beloved tale. On one hand it is dreadfully sentimental, with everything working out much too good to be true. On the other hand, it’s utterly adorable and even reasonably relatable, as our three young protagonists get into all sorts of difficult situations and muddle around quite realistically before getting things sorted out.

Every time I read it – and I find this has happened quite a number of times, which tells you something right there, doesn’t it? – I start out by telling myself it’s all a little too good to be true, and then I abandon myself to the charm and end up at the end all sniffly with emotion.

Because of course there is an absolutely soppy happy ending.

My rating: hmmm…how about a nice 7.5/10?

Because while it’s perhaps one of the best known, subject of who knows how many adaptations and film versions and such, it’s not my absolute favourite E. Nesbit novel. That one is probably Five Children and It, because I do enjoy a nice time travel tale, especially if incorporating a cranky mythical creature. Or possibly The Treasure-Seekers? Well, any of the Bastable family stories, really.

Or?

An expanded E. Nesbit re-read might well be in order. Maybe after Christmas. We’ll see. Or perhaps during the spring busy-season, when the lightest of fares is in order for those few bedtime minutes of reading time before the eyelids drop down.

P.S. This is a post regarding a book read way back in July, so you don’t need to think that I’m reading-reading-reading morning through night lately. Just playing catch-up for the Century project, and working on condensing my posts (somewhat), because so often I do tend to ramble on, and self-editing is a goal which tends to elude me… 🙂

 

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Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett ~ 1902. This edition: Penguin, 1991. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-018015-X. 236 pages.

Nothing else was possible. She who had never failed in duty did not fail then. She who had always submitted and bowed the head, submitted and bowed the head then. She had sucked in with her mother’s milk the profound truth that a woman’s life is always a renunciation, greater or less. Hers by chance was greater.

Anna Tellwright, repressed and reclusive elder daughter of a stern and quietly wealthy Methodist elder who has invested wisely and well in various concerns in the china-making Staffordshire Potteries region of Stoke-on-Trent (commonly known as the Six Towns region; Bennett reduced these to Five Towns in the interests of titular appeal), has just turned twenty-one.

With that milestone passed, things start to happen for Anna all in a swoop.

She is informed by her father that she has just come into the fortune left by her deceased mother, which by his efforts has multiplied stupendously.

She acquires a courter, one Henry Mynors, an up and coming businessman who is attracted to Anna for her virginal purity, her moral worth, her modest but genuine beauty, and her undoubted skill at housewifery. (There is a telling passage in which Henry fulsomely admires Anna’s spotless kitchen and loudly congratulates himself on his upcoming acquisition of such a thrifty and cleanly wife.) The prospect of a handsome dowry adds to Anna’s appeal, though to give Henry credit he isn’t absolutely focussed on that aspect; it’s just a lovely bonus, as it were.

She is confronted by the demands of her religion to make a public avowal of salvation, which she finds impossible to carry through with, being of a deeply private and almost morbidly shy disposition. (Religion – in particular Methodism – plays a large role in this novel.)

She in invited to partake of a holiday trip to the Isle of Man, and leaves her hometown for the very first time in her life. Anna proves herself equal to the demand put upon her to enter into society and to dabble in “normal” life, something up until now beyond her modest comprehension.

She finds the courage to defy her father in redeeming an embezzler who has been driven to that crime by his harsh orders.

She receives and accepts an exceedingly suitable offer of marriage, and shortly thereafter realizes her love for another deeply unsuitable man, who she renounces without a qualm, having already given her word to the prior suitor.

All of this takes place while the rattle, crash and mechanical hum of the Potteries goes on day and night, and the inhabitants of that vast industrial complex scuttle about their various businesses, and the miser broods and berates, and his meek daughters – Anna and small half-sister Agnes – inch their ways towards the modified freedoms of their futures…

Inspired by Balzac’s similarly themed 1833 novel, Eugénie Grandet, Arnold Bennett produces an ambitious and occasionally melodramatic portrait of the people and places he knew very well indeed, being himself a child of the Potteries until his departure for London as a young man and his subsequent establishment as an author.

Bennet described this novel as his “sermon against parental tyranny”, and it is all of that. Though Anna renounces the elusive call of “true love”, she does advance towards an essential form of self-development beyond the restrictions imposed upon her by her emotionally brutal father; we have even higher hopes for her younger sister Agnes, who may just accompany Anna out from under the sternly repressive paternal influence.

The detail in Anna and the Five Towns is rich and engrossing. Its passages are heavy with description, and the thing is loaded with deeper meanings. It serves as a multi-layered depiction of a particular time, place and mindset equal to anything Bennett’s compatriot Thomas Hardy produced.

Perhaps not to everyone’s taste – it is an undoubedtly “dated” sort of novel – but I found a lot to appreciate in this accomplished production of its time.

My rating: 8/10

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Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling ~ 1997. This edition: Bloomsbury, 1998. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7475-32679-9. 224 pages.

This is the book that started a pop culture empire.

Isn’t it astonishing how certain things capture the collective imagination, and what springs out of what was first a nebulous idea in someone’s brain? The only things I can think of comparable to how the Harry Potter multi-media phenomenon took off are the Star Wars sequence and, to a much lesser extent, The Lord of the Rings.

The social buzz that started with the publication of this first book in what would turn out to be a seemingly endless string of ever-bulkier sequels and spin-off novelty projects was well-deserved; this is indeed a frequently humorous novel with broad appeal, but I must say I personally have dodged the bullet of full-on Harry Potter addiction that so many have succumbed to.

I did read the first three novels in the series with great enjoyment when I had novice readers in the household, so it was rather nostalgic for me to revisit this one with an eye to its entry on the Century of Books list.

In a nutshell, this is your typical school story with a twist, in that it includes a parallel world to the one we inhabit, in which magic is part of the everyday, and there is a certain amount of back and forth between the two cultures. I strongly suspect J.K. Rowling read her fair share of Diana Wynne-Jones, because the parallels are certainly there, though Rowling took things out of the mainly-for-juveniles realm as her series grew and flourished.

A book as popular as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone went on to become needs no extra words from me, but in case you have been living in a secluded cabin in a deep dark forest and have only now been introduced to the internet, here is the publisher’s blurb:

Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy. He lives with his Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia and cousin Dudley, who are mean to him and make him sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. (Dudley, however, has two bedrooms, one to sleep in and one for all his toys and games.) Then Harry starts receiving mysterious letters and his life is changed forever. He is whisked away by a beetle-eyed giant of a man and enrolled at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The reason: Harry Potter is a wizard!

Harry Potter’s story is that of the classic underling who comes into his own.

Orphaned under mysterious and shocking circumstances as a wee baby, Harry experiences a childhood of repression and psychological abuse by his “blood relations” – his mother was Aunt Petunia’s scorned sister – so his initiation into his true place in the magical world is doubly poignant. Harry finds his first true friendships with fellow students Ron and Hermione, and father figures in the school headmaster Dumbledore and school groundskeeper Hagrid. He discovers he has unsuspected athletic abilities, along with innate magical powers, both of which come in handy as he finds himself facing an astoundingly evil figure, Lord Voldemort of “the Dark Side”, the killer of his parents and now the threatener of all the good in Harry’s twin worlds.

The story is fast-moving and engaging, and deserves most of the good things which has been said about it. If you haven’t read it, you probably should, if only for a deeper understanding of all of its pop culture references in our nowadays world.

I suspect you will find it both better and worse than you expect. Better because it is a very competent example of the classic school story and the downtrodden young hero coming into his own, and quite possibly worse because you may then think, as I did and still do, that there are a lot of other similar books out there which quite simply didn’t catch the buzz that this one did.

Dissected, there isn’t a whole lot of new in this one, aside from some imaginative interpretations and enhancements of classic school scenarios. All of Rowling’s ideas are essentially secondhand, but obviously her recreation of what came before has been a stupendously winning one.

My rating: 10/10

 

 

 

 

 

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The October Country by Ray Bradbury ~ 1955. This edition: Ballantine, 1971. Paperback. 276 pages.

OCTOBER COUNTRY

. . . that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain . . .

This is a collection of nineteen mainly macabre short stories originally published between 1943 and 1955. Be prepared for queasy feelings as Bradbury graphically depicts mummified corpses and otherworldly autopsies, and paints some dark and brooding scenarios. There are a few light moments, but in general these tales are tinted inky-black.

  • THE DWARF has a strange compulsion to visit and revisit a carnival’s Hall of Mirrors.
  • A married couple visiting a small Mexican town explore a picturesque cemetery in which the burial spots are only temporary. Mummified corpses are stored in a grim mausoleum, leading the nervous wife to speculate who might be THE NEXT IN LINE.
  • THE WATCHFUL POKER CHIP OF H. MATISSE enhances the monocle of one George Garvey, formerly the most boring man alive and cultivated by the avant garde for that sole reason.
  • A hypochondriac becomes aware that inside his body a SKELETON resides, and his consultation with a certain “specialist” solves that particular issue all too well.
  • A farmer visiting a sideshow finds a fascinating item on display and buys it and brings it home. His wife is disgusted with him and his new obsession. So now what’s floating in THE JAR?
  • Long ago two children played on the shores of THE LAKE, until one tragic day. How long do friendships last?
  • A pet dog acts as THE EMISSARY linking a bed-bound boy and an elderly woman.
  • Two men attempt an altruistic act towards a bitter woman which has much different consequences than they had anticipated in TOUCHED WITH FIRE.
  • A new mother has oddly fearful feelings about her baby, which turn out to be justified in THE SMALL ASSASSIN.
  • Onlookers flock to accidents, but who really are the people in THE CROWD?
  • JACK-IN-THE-BOX: A young boy is raised in isolation by his emotionally disturbed mother.
  • A homeless farm family finds a refuge in a rather unusual wheatfield. One day the father realizes that his reaping work with THE SCYTHE has powerful consequences.
  • UNCLE EINAR is a member of a powerful and unusually gifted family. When his gossamer green wings are damaged in a storm, he finds a human wife, and redemption of a sort in his children.
  • A far travelling man has ventured where he shouldn’t have and has fallen afoul of THE WINDS.
  • A young boy living in his grandmother’s boarding house senses something foreboding about THE MAN UPSTAIRS and uses his knowledge gained in watching in the kitchen to counter a deadly threat.
  • THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN who wasn’t quite ready to die, so she pulled a fast one on Death.
  • Two sisters, one man, long years, and many waters swirling in THE CISTERN under the city…
  • THE HOMECOMING: A human child raised in a family of immortal supernaturals comes to terms with his differences and the knowledge that he must one day die.
  • A promising writer announces his stunning retirement and the literary world goes mad. But there is a secret story behind THE WONDERFUL DEATH OF DUDLEY STONE.

For full effect, read these at night. After you turn on some extra lights, and lock the door.

While I must say that while the writing is elegantly daft and as well embroidered as can be, and while some of these tales are up to Bradbury’s best, many of them weren’t to my particular taste, so my overall personal rating for the collection reflects this. Your mileage may differ.

My rating: 6.5/10.

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