Archive for January, 2022

The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer ~ 1946. This edition: Arrow Books, 2004. Softcover. 278 pages.

It’s probably not a good sign that as I stare at this blank screen, trying to communicate my thoughts on this Georgette Heyer novel, all I can think of is the “next novel” I’ve just left still-to-be-finished on the night table, David Beaty’s The Four Winds. Giving myself a mental shake, back to Heyer it is.

The Georgette Heyers on my bookshelves have been something of go-to, reliable, comfort reads during these past few years, when our escape literature has taken on new importance what with the generally stressful situation related to the current pandemic and its far-reaching effects on pretty well everything we thought we could take for granted.

My Heyer collection is far from complete. but a recent stint of re-readings of those on hand nudged me to seek out a few more, so off to Thriftbooks I went, and as the wonderful book-shaped parcels trickled in, I figuratively (and yes, perhaps literally) rubbed my hands with glee. New-to-me old-book reads! Such fun!

But I am sad to report that this one has fallen with a (figuratively) damp thump onto the B-list Heyer stack, joining a few others, rarities from an otherwise reliably entertaining writer.

Now, you either know Georgette Heyer or you don’t, and if you don’t I’m not going to try to woo you over to the Regency side, but if you do, I’m guessing you’ll get it when I say this one is pure GH formula, with a few initially intriguing twists.

Condensed as much as I appear to be able to condense things, which is pretty darn long-winded most of the time, here we go.

We’re in the Regency era in England, right in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s. One Elinor Rochdale, a young woman of good family, sadly fallen in her personal circumstances due to her father’s highly unwise financial endeavors and subsequent demise, is now pursuing a career as a governess.

Hopping off her stagecoach at a rural stopping place, appointed rendezvous with a new employer, Miss Rochdale inadvertently hops into the wrong coach, and finds herself embroiled in a complicated and never very lucidly explained scheme which finds her married to a young ne’er-do-well on his deathbed that very night. She’s a widow by morning, sole inheritor of a deeply encumbered estate.

There is a trio of handsome and charming brothers, a large and bumptious dog (something of a Heyer staple), a collection of dedicated family retainers, a dreadfully rundown manor house with a secret staircase, hidden papers, a spy plot, several sudden deaths which we are not terribly perturbed by because obviously the victims “had it coming”, and lots of prattling on about Wellington and the Prince Regent and “Boney” and traitors and collaborators and such. The romantic fates of Miss Rochdale – oops, now Mrs Cheviot – and her masterful second-husband-to-be are telegraphed loud and clear early on and there are ZERO surprises, even when the traitorous “secret” spies are revealed.

This ultimately slight tale had a lot of initial promise, and there are numerous passages of deeply pleasurable Heyerian “piffling” (in the Lord Peter Wimsey sense of the term), but overall, this novel is a bit of a yawn-inducing mess.

One person’s opinion, of course, and I’d be absolutely pleased to hear what others think. “Your mileage may differ!”

My rating: 5.5/10

I almost abandoned The Reluctant Widow to her foretold fate, but I kept plugging along because I hoped so hard she might at some point surprise me.

No such luck.

I’m keeping the book, and it will be shelved with the rest of the Heyers, because no doubt it will get re-read at some future time-of-reading-desperation, and who knows! – maybe my response will be more favorable second time around.

 

 

 

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Jade by Sally Watson ~ 1969. This edition: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1969. Hardcover. 270 pages.

I had the good fortune to be in elementary and high school during the 1970s, when Canadian public school library budgets were generous and the collections vast and varied.

During these formative reading years, I toted home large stacks of books, many of them fated to be read by illicit flashlight after mandatory lights-out time.

Sometimes my flashlight batteries gave out, and I also remember crouching in the hallway outside my bedroom surreptitiously reading by the faint gleam of a plug-in night light. I tried my best to be silent and unnoticeable, but my timing was sometimes off and I occasionally was busted by my dad, who was not particularly impressed by my initiative. My bookwormish ways were inherited directly from him, but he was the adult and I a mere child, with school and chores the next day, and he chose to view my nocturnal reading activitity as an act of rebellion against his preferred status quo, and his rebukes were memorably stern.

Which perhaps might be one of the reasons I felt such a strong kinship with the heroines of Sally Watson. She specialized in well-researched historical fictions with strong, teenage female leads, and perhaps the most memorable of all of these was the unquenchable Melanie Lennox, a.k.a. “Jade”: green-eyed, opinionated and outspoken sixteen-year-old resident of colonial Williamsburg, circa 1721.

Jade gets up to all sorts of unladylike adventures, and anyone familiar with this genre will nod in recognition when I mention that young Jade gloried in the forbidden-for-females actions of rising astride, dressing up in boy’s clothing,  learning fencing on the sly, and, most audaciously in the society and era that she lived in, railing against the evils of slavery.

Jade finally goes too far and is shipped off to Jamaica to reside with her fluttery aunt and stern Prussian uncle. Uncle Augustus is well known for his mastery of horses, slaves and women; he will surely be able to tame one small teenage girl.

Ha!

Jumping over all sorts of detail, I will merely divulge that after some adventuring our Jade finds herself a member of a pirate ship’s crew, eventually plying her skill with a rapier alongside none other than Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

As far as juvenile fiction of the 1960s and 70s went, Sally Watson’s work was pretty darned decent, enough so that I remember in quite vivid detail, some forty years later, episodes from all of her novels.

Sally Watson’s bent was historical fiction, with characters linked in quite creative ways as she passed through the centuries from the 1500s onward. Though Sally Watson was American, born in Seattle in 1924, she had a special fondness for all things Scottish, and at least two of her novels were set in Scotland, with the ancestors of those heroines popping up in other places in her tales.

I started my current reading of Jade with some trepidation, hoping that it would reward me with the thrill that my long-ago twelve-year-old self experienced during those stolen midnight reading hours. Alas! the magic was not quite recaptured, though every word was as familiar as yesterday.

This said, I would be most open to reacquainting myself with the rest of Sally Watson’s long-lost tales. They were snapped up quickly as library shelves were purged during the great school library downsizings of the 1990s and beyond, and hardcover ex-library copies are ridiculously scarce, but a republishing of some titles by Image Cascade has put Sally Watson back into circulation.

I’ve just ordered a copy of Sally Watson’s autobiography, Dance to a Different Piper, published in 2015, and I must say I am looking forward to learning more about this opinionated and multi-talented writer, as the biographical snippets gleaned from the endpapers of her books are most intriguing: a membership in Mensa, extensive traveling, Highland dancing, judo, cats, fencing and gardening are all noted as strong interests of this well-rounded individual.

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The Snake Pit by Mary Jane Ward ~ 1946. This edition: Random House, 1946. Hardcover. 278 pages.

“Do you hear voices?” he asked.

You think I am deaf? “Of course,” she said. “I hear yours.” It was hard to keep on being civil. She was tired and he had been asking questions for such a long time, days and days of incredibly naive questions.

Now he was explaining that she misunderstood; he did not mean real voices. Fantastic. He was speaking, he said, of voices that were not real and yet they were voices he expected her to hear. He seemed determined that she should hear them. He was something of a pest, this man, but she could think of no decent way to get rid of him. You could tell he meant well and so you tried to play the game with him, as if with a fanciful child.

Virginia Cunningham, young writer, cherished wife of a loving husband, has had a terrible breakdown. Overwhelmed with what she feels are unfulfilled family and societal expectations, desperately worried about money and her husband’s apparently casual attitude to a dwindling bank account, Virginia is getting so very tired – she cannot sleep – and she crashes hard: “Robert,” I said, “I think there is something the matter with my head.”

Now Virginia is in a mental hospital – not an insane asylum, as she and the more lucid of her fellow patients assure themselves – they will be getting better, they will be going home – but as the days-weeks-months-years slip by, home seems an ever more elusive concept, and the institution (prison? are we really in a prison? are the nurses wardresses?) becomes the whole world.

As Virginia slips in and out of the fluctuating stages of her mental breakdown, she experiences all of the attempted treatments which mid-20th century medicine has to offer: psychoanalysis, work therapy, regular doses of the hypnotic sedative paraldehyde, electric shock therapy and eventually a course of the dreaded “baths” – a medievalesque program of lukewarm and ice cold baths, with the patient completely immobilized by mummy-like canvas wrappings and subjected to hours and hours of immersion in baths supplied with continuously running water.

Virginia has times of recovery and progresses through the different wards of the institution she is being treated at; she gains ground but slips back frequently into states of deep confusion and memory loss, but then she has something of an epiphany.

She should have, she knew, been frightened and depressed by the newest transfer. She was in a much worse building now and none of the patients she had seen so far struck her as being good risks. And yet the hopelessness that had been hounding her had lessened and for the first time she dared to believe that she might get well…when you realize you aren’t the sickest in your ward, it does something for you…I know where I am and I know I am sick…Shock treatments. Why bother with insulin, metrazol or electricity? Long ago they lowered insane persons into snake pits; they thought than an experience that might drive a sane person out of his wits might send an insane person back into sanity. By design or by accident…a more modern “they” had given V. Cunningham a far more dramatic shock treatment now than Dr.Kik had been able to manage with his clamps and wedges and assistants. They had thrown her into a snake pit and she had been shocked into knowing that she should get well.

We leave Virginia on the verge of stepping back into the world of the sane; she has had a long and terrible journey, and she might not be able to carry things off as a “normal” person without any hitches, but she has achieved a psychological mastery of her own fate, and she is going to try.

The real life version of Virginia, Mary Jane Ward, who wrote this heart-rending yet sometimes funny and optimistic semi-autobiographical novel, did make a successful transition back into “normalcy”, though she did have future episodes of psychiatric illness in later years.

The Snake Pit was an immediate bestseller upon its release in 1946, and it sparked a wider conversation about the institutionalization and treatment of the mentally ill. It was made into an Oscar-awarded film starring Olivia de Havilland. The book remains in print today.

My rating: 9.5/10

A rather disturbing and frequently uncomfortable read in a “They did what?! And why?!” sort of way, but engrossing and engaging.

It struck home in a personal way as well. A beloved elderly aunt of my husband suffered psychiatric episodes from the 1950s into the 1970s and she did undergo an array of the  same treatments as Mary Jane Ward reports, including sessions of shock therapy. By the 1980s, advances in pharmaceutical treatments allowed her a much higher quality of life, and she “functioned” with apparently absolute normalcy, though she was always free and open in referring to “my medications” and also in referencing some of her previous experiences as a “mental” patient.

 

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Transcription by Kate Atkinson ~ 2018. This edition: Back Bay Books, 2019. Paperback. 339 pages.

I missed out on this novel when it was published a few years ago, being instead focused on the pending release of the fifth Jackson Brodie installment, Big Sky, which I happily received as one of my Christmas 2019 books. (Remember December of 2019, with just the faintest hints of a world-changing event? “A new virus has appeared in China…”)

Anyway, Big Sky had my full attention, and Transcription slipped past unnoticed until this Christmas season, when my daughter and I were on a rare “non-essential” visit to the bookshop and she noticed it on a remainder stack and said, “Hey, I don’t think you have this one, do you?” So it came home with us and I have saved it until now, and isn’t it grand to start the new year off with a new book by a favourite writer?

What can one say about a Kate Atkinson novel which many others haven’t already said, and frequently much more eloquently? The answer is “not much”, so I will keep this relatively brief.

London, 1940. Recently orphaned nineteen-year-old Juliet Armstrong is scouted by MI5 and soon finds herself “plucked” (“…More pigeon perhaps than rose…”) from the ranks of minor clerical workers to act as a transcriptionist on a special project, typing out the secretly recorded conversations of a group of British fascist sympathizers. Things go a bit sideways, as they are wont to do in Atkinson inventions, and Juliet – well – Juliet has adventures.

Flash forward to the 1950s, with Juliet now working at the BBC, and a face from the past shows up with complicating consequences. (Is anybody ever really what they seem?)

Trust Kate Atkinson to spin a complex and frequently perplexing tale. This one comes complete with an impressive research bibliography and author’s note.

Frequently funny, in a laconically wry way, and I had one laugh out loud moment early on, when BBC announcer Juliet is thinking of awkward moments when on air.

The cat, a ginger one – they were the worst type of cat, in Juliet’s opinion – had jumped up on the desk and bitten her – quite sharply, so that she couldn’t help but give a little yelp of pain. It then proceeded to roll around on the desk before rubbing its face on the microphone and purring so loudly that anyone listening must have thought there was a panther loose in the studio, one that was very pleased with itself for having killed a woman.

Digression. Could one not create as a quietly diverting side project a felinophile-bibliophile’s trivia file, a collection of brief yet memorable cat references in literature? For example, Grumpy in Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington.

No more cats appear in Transcription, though there are two dogs, one with a bit part, one with much more than that. (Spoiler alert for the animal lovers going “Aw, so sweet…”: the dogs do not get happy endings.) Also memorable plot-wise are a small Mauser revolver, a string of pearls, a unique handbag and a Sèvres teacup.

My rating: 8/10

The Sources afterword has some tempting titles, perhaps most intriguing Human Voices (1980) by Penelope Fitzgerald, One Girl’s War (1945) by Joan Miller, and Mollie Panter-Downes’ London War Notes, 1939-1945 (1971).

 

 

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The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd ~ 1977. This edition: Harper Collins Perennial Classics, 2002. Paperback. 324 pages.

January 1903. Twenty-year-old Mary Mackenzie, a decidedly sheltered Edinburgh Presbyterian brought up in financially challenged upper-middle-class circumstances by a sternly religious widowed mother, is sailing to China to marry her betrothed, an English military attaché she has only met a few times. Mary will be “marrying up”; accepting Richard’s offer is seen as something of a marital coup in her social circle.

As the ship sails through troubled winter seas, Mary writes in her very private journal regarding the sea change occurring in her own attitudes and opinions, as she sheds first her uncomfortable corsets and then some of her previously unquestioned viewpoints on class distinctions and the quiet yet fervent jockeying for position among those seeking to move higher in the ranks.

Marry arrives at her destination, marries her passionless fiancé, bears a baby daughter and tries her best to fit into the rigidly structured community of British and European pseudo-exiles who have drawn ever closer together both physically and emotionally since the bloody Boxer Rebellion just a few years before.

With husband Richard off on a military mission, Mary uncomplainingly carries on with a life much more joyless and circumscribed than she had thought to find herself in. It is perhaps not particularly surprising that she falls into a brief yet passionate affair with a high ranking Japanese nobleman convalescing from injuries received while serving as a military officer in the Russo-Japanese War.

One short week of forbidden love has long-reaching consequences. Mary finds herself pregnant. Scandal ensues. The betrayed Richard casts her off – “puts her out”. The baby daughter will be sent to Richard’s mother back in England, while Mary will be returned to Edinburgh and whatever life she can make for herself under the care of her devastatingly appalled mother.

Then Mary skips out.

Slipping out of the hotel room where Richard has parked her while she awaits her passage “home”, Mary instead travels to Tokyo and sets herself up in a modest little house, all paid for by a previous money-gift from ex-lover Count Kentaro, who apparently feels a certain responsibility towards his Scottish fling, though he demonstrates no intention of otherwise recognizing or continuing their relationship.

A son is born and Mary revels in an unexpectedly joyful experience of second-chance motherhood, until the Count reappears, casually reignites the love affair, inspects the child, likes what he sees and arranges a parental kidnapping, leaving Mary distraught and socially isolated in her adopted homeland, as the British community is now completely closed to her as a result of her wayward ways.

How Mary remakes her life as a stranger in a strange land makes up the remainder of this rather tall tale, which is not quite as melodramatic as this description might make it sound. There is a deep sensitivity and substantial verisimilitude here, very likely formed by the author’s own experience as a son of Scottish missionaries, living in Japan from his birth in 1913 until 1932, when the family returned to Scotland. Wynd returned to Asia in WW II as a member of the British Army Intelligence Corps, and subsequently spent three years as a Japanese prisoner of war in Hokkaido.

Wynd’s timeline does not exactly match that of his heroine in this novel, but the depiction he gives of expatriates living amongst the Chinese and Japanese communities of the early 20th century up until the start of World War II is convincingly depicted and serves as a historically plausible backdrop to fictional Mary’s tale.

As for Mary Mackenzie, we leave her on board another ship in August, 1942, outbound from Japan, returning to the land of her birth and a possible reunion with her long-lost daughter.

This epistolary novel was a very good read, and it has reminded me of my other encounter with Oswald Wynd a few years ago, reading one of his thrillers written under the non-de-plume of Gavin Black. As The Ginger Tree most pleasurably did, The Eyes Around Me kept me absolutely engaged.

I do believe this will be a writer I will quest after in 2022. Most of his books are out of print, but his popularity was such that there are some copies still floating about, and I intend to search out as many as I can reasonably afford. I expect that I will find them very diverting.

My rating: 8.5/10

A point and a half docked because the detail fell off in the later years of Mary’s story, though understandably so. An awful lot of historical and dramatic ground was covered here.

Kudos to the writer for keeping this saga at a modest 324 pages. Some rather clever technique was shown here, hopping us through the story in ever-greater leaps towards the end, but still keeping it (fictionally) very believable.

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Happy turn-of-the-year, my bookish friends!

The last few years have been so…strange…challenging…difficult…add your own adjective here. But despite all of our woes, books continue to provide diversion, solace, amusement and inspiration, and the conversations continue.

I must admit that I have not been an active participant for some time in these conversations, though I’ve dipped in to read what others have to say and have enjoyed my lurker status. However, realizing how much I miss recording my impressions as a reader, I think it’s time to be a bit more active again.

No promises! Life is supremely full of “stuff” at present, with no likelihood of its settling down anytime soon, but let’s see what happens.

I will start with this warm wish to all of you for good things to come in 2022. No matter what this new year brings us, may we all find comfort and companionship in and through books.

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