Archive for the ‘1950s’ Category

The Crab-Apple Tree by Richard Church ~ 1959. This edition: Heinemann, 1959. Hardcover. 238 pages.

Throbbing with symbolism, as might be expected from a novel written by a poet.

The crab-apple tree of the title represents the life passages of an elderly ex-seaman who has returned to his old home in the fertile farmland of Kent. He has known and loved the tree in childhood, and returns to see it blossom and fruit one more time.

At this point stood a large crab-apple tree in full bloom. It had a bridal look under the bright sunlight. A hum of bee-music filled it, and the marauders in their thousands kept the blossom trembling, shaking out the rosy perfume as if it were bell-music.

“So there you be!” exclaimed the old man, eyeing the tree fondly. He was so enamoured that he did not notice the general decay around it: the tumbled fence the tangled mass of last year’s skeleton grasses and umbels knee-high up to the rotting boards of the house; the blind windows stuffed with sacking; the nailed-up central door with the brick steps crumbled into a heap; the loose slates accumulated in and over the guttering.

Yes, Jim Bright has returned from sea at long last, but he hadn’t expected to find his old family cottage empty and neglected. His aged mother had died, and he knew that, but where was his younger brother Tom? And why are all of his old neighbours so unwelcoming?

This novel is not a static portrait of a village Eden as one might expect – oh, no! – but instead a moving picture crammed full of all of the human emotions – incidents of love and kindness are challenged by jealousy and core-deep hatreds; lust walks the country lanes. Lust for power, for land, for money, for plain old sex – and the most lustful of all of the residents watching Jim with deep suspicion is prosperous farmer Jim Bellaby, who has a long-standing grudge against the Bright family, and a strong urge to indulge his taste for grinding people down who dare to stand up against his brutal personality.

Enter Maggie Jones, a young Welsh widow, baby at breast, sent to seek refuge with Jim by an old friend, and then the return of brother Tom, a man with many troubles, not least of which is a warped and damaged mind.

Jim Bellamy sees Maggie and his desire to take her over for himself surges hot within him, and all through the coming summer he relentlessly courts her, while she is torn between her anguished love for her dead husband, her devotion to her young son, her growing love for the two elderly men whom she is now keeping house for, and her own physical desires which increasingly refuse to be ignored.

Yes, things are getting complicated; not much simple life in this part of the country!

Tragedy and violence inevitably strike, but are tempered by the responses of a few good people, and the strangely unexpected transformation of an angry man who seems set to find some sort of personal redemption through love.

While the author of The Crab-Apple Tree seems to have been held in esteem by his peers as an accomplished poet, his fictions are slightly less well-known; I could find only a few cursory reviews online, and none for this particular novel, which rather surprises me. It’s absolutely lyrical in places, beautifully written as a whole, and quite up to standard compared with other similar novels of its era. Perhaps its moods are a bit too troubled for happy reading? It’s not really a “literary” book, not quite a “popular” type novel, either, so maybe it falls unnoticed between those two camps.

I quite liked this novel, though it left me feeling rather melancholy. Not exactly a hidden gem, but a rewarding sort of discovery nonetheless.

I’d absolutely read another novel by Richard Church if it came into my hands. I’m now downright curious about his poetry, and his highly regarded three-volume autobiography. A name to add to my “look out for” list, though I don’t think I’ll expend a lot of effort deliberately tracking him down.

My rating: 6.5/10.

Are any of you familiar with this writer and his works?

 

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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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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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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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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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The Visitors by Mary McMinnies ~ 1958. This edition: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1958. Hardcover. 576 pages.

Breaking my recent life-is-stupid-busy silence to give a resoundingly positive shout-out to like-minded vintage novel aficionados regarding this stellar 1958 novel, a hidden gem if there ever was one.

10-carat diamond quality, people, 24-carat gold. This is very good stuff indeed.

It took me a good ten days to work my way through The Visitors, which is mostly a reflection of my very limited reading time, but I dove into it every chance I had, five minutes here, ten minutes there, not wanting to miss a sentence. It was positively addictive.

Nothing much actually happens in this novel. It’s a slow, intense, smouldering sort of thing, and the characters are allowed ample time to display their unique characteristics; we know them very well indeed by our journey’s end.

Publisher’s flyleaf blurbs generally err on the side of overenthusiasm for the contents within; not so in this case. Every word is true. My next step this morning after posting this will be to scour ABE for The Flying Fox, McMinnies’s first novel. She only seems to have published the two. What a disappointment.

Anyone else familiar with this writer? Why haven’t I heard of her before? Maybe it’s the only-two-books thing. This sort of find gives me such pleasure, for who knows what else I may stumble upon in my journey through the immense and rewarding forest of vintage reading!

My rating: 10/10. (That was easy.)

And oh, yes, that rather funky, green-tinted cover illustration.

When I picked this up from the jumbled heap of old hardcovers at a recent charity book sale, I had an instant vision of this perhaps being one of those over-written 1960s drug-culture dramas, obviously concerning hallucinogenic mushrooms: the woman’s half-closed eyes and rather addled expression, the focus on the prize (as it were), the sinister lurker in the shadows.

It turned out to be much more innocent (?) than that. The mushroom incident is a wonderfully metaphoric excursion into an Eastern European forest, the fungi providing the purpose for the excursion being the strictly culinary kind. And the lurker is not as sinister as he appears to be.

While life is slowing down just a bit, time is still in short supply, even on a peaceful Mother’s Day Sunday morning, so I’ll cheat on the personal review aspect and instead give you the flyleaf scans and the back cover author biography to be going on with.

I should really include some excerpts from the book. I’ve earmarked a few particularly stellar passages, places where I stopped and backed up and re-read with ever-increasing joy at how McMinnies handled her words. I might return to this post and add those in future. Perhaps the next time I read this novel? For it is decidedly a keeper.

 

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The Land God Gave to Cain by Hammond Innes ~ 1958. This edition: Collins, 1958. Hardcover. 255 pages.

Oh, golly.

This earnest adventure novel, which I’d been looking forward to reading with some anticipation – raw and gritty Canadian setting, meticulously researched in person by the far-travelling Innes – turned out to be something of a dud, a rather “dull thud”, as my mother used to say when finishing off a disappointing novel.

Harsh, aren’t I?

Kind of like that brutal Labradorian setting, which is quite possibly the best thing about this logically unlikely effort by the otherwise careful Innes.

Herein we have a young Scottish engineer, Ian Ferguson, a charmingly fresh and enthusiastic twenty-something-year-old, son of an over-anxious mother and a crippled and brain-damaged army veteran, who stumbles upon a family secret while attempting to vindicate his father’s dying claim of having intercepted a crucial radio transmission on a shortwave radio, an improbable 2000 miles away from its alleged source in the wilds of northern Canada.

For much more detail and an ambitious analysis of the plot I will pass you over to the Books & Boots post of fellow blogger Simon, who has delved into the finer points of Hammond Innes’ many macho adventure tales, with intriguing conclusions.

I must say I am in total agreement with all that Simon says there, in particular his accurate assessment of Innes’ “formula”:

Innes’ novels are very strong on setting and atmosphere, but I’ve come to realise a central characteristic is that the reader spots what’s going on, or sees the danger signals, way before the central protagonist. There are two aspects of this: the protagonist is slow to the point of being dim; and a key figure who knows the secret of the riddle at the centre of the plot just obstinately refuses to reveal it, unnecessarily prolonging the agony (and the text).

Bingo. He’s got it.

Well researched though it may be, The Land God Gave to Cain is riddled with glaring inconsistencies of logic, not least in that Innes fails to take into consideration (or deliberately ignores) the real results of bodies left lying about in the Canadian wilderness.

For example, a perfectly preserved two-week-old (or thereabouts) corpse is found lying out in the open, sightless eyes staring at the sky (or something to that effect.) Well, sorry to be gruesome, but it begs the question: are there no crows/ravens/bears/other scavengers in the wilds of Labrador? It beggars this country dweller’s belief that a dead thing of any species would lie utterly undisturbed for any length of time, though Innes’ version is convenient of course to his narrative, and less harrowing to the squeamish reader.

The Land God Gave to Cain is very readable, as are all of Hammond Innes’ books, but it was also deeply frustrating in its eventual disintegration of already sketchy plot into pure melodrama, with a perfectly preserved scene of (possible) crime, and impossibly perfect clues such as handfuls of gold nuggets strewn about in telling locations, all ready for our amateur sleuth to find in his ultimate “aha!” moment.

Now for the rating. From what I’ve said above you’re doubtless expecting a dismal grade here, but I’m going to step back and be charitable, for I knew (to some degree) what I was getting into when I started this book, having a long experience with Hammond Innes and a fondness for his work possibly due more to nostalgia (his books were well represented in my teenage reading years) than to stellar literary merit.

Let’s see now…how about a generous 6.5/10, because I read it end to end without pause (if you don’t count my many muttered “Oh, really, Hammond!” asides), and the fact that despite my persistent annoyance with this writer his novel still very much a keeper, joining his many others on the re-read shelf.

 

 

 

 

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