Archive for the ‘1950s’ Category

Out of the Deeps by John Wyndham ~ 1953. This North American edition: Ballantine, 1969. Originally published in Great Britain as The Kraken Wakes. Paperback. 182 pages.

Fellow British science fiction writer Brian Aldiss once sneered at John Wyndam for the lack of desperate drama in his plots – I believe “cozy catastrophes” was the term he used. And I have to say I get what he was saying, and that the snub has some basis.

Wyndham’s “What if?” sci-fi concoctions are disaster novels with the same relation to real life as, say, Agatha Christie’s decorous murder mysteries. Everybody is very, very civilized about everything, even when in situations of utter horror, and while in the throes of deepest emotion.

Restful, in a way, reading these. Subject matter having nothing to do with the overlying tone. Everything’s under control here, move along there, don’t panic.

At the start of this story, 1950-something, post-war England is getting back to its new normal. Social order is as peaceful as it can be, rationing is a thing of a not-so-distant past, conditions in general are not too dreadful on the home front. The Cold War is looming, of course, Russia and the United States are busy trading insults and placing spies and building up their arsenals, but England has her head down and things are plugging along.

In Wyndham’s slightly modified Great Britain, a new radio and television broadcaster has established itself, the E.B.C. – English Broadcasting Corporation – in direct well-behaving competition with the fusty B.B.C. – and Mike and Phyllis Watson, newly married – are both employed there as journalists and story researcher-writers.

They’ve had some interesting experiences working for the E.B.C., the most recent being their witnessing – along with a whole shipful of other people – the strange phenomenon of large red “fireballs” raining down from the sky and landing in the ocean.

Reports of these are coming in from all around the globe, and the odd fighter plane gets a shot off, but no one can identify what these objects are. Scientists get going and do their stuff. A deep-diving “bathyscope” (based on the real-life undersea-exploring Bathysphere manned by William Beebe in the 1920s and 30s) is sent down to the site where some of the fireballs were seen to enter the ocean. Transmission is cut off suddenly – the cable is pulled up melted off (!) – the bathyscope and its two crew members have vanished! (Mike and Phyllis are there for the whole thing.)

And then the fireballs stop coming. And things go quiet for a year or so.

Cue foreboding music…

One day people – and yes, by “people” I mean Mike and Phyllis, and a few percipient others – start noticing an unusual pattern in ships going down with very little notice in various parts of the world’s oceans. And always above the deepest marine trenches, in places where those fireballs were seen splashing down. Trans-oceanic cable-laying ships, fishing boats, a Japanese passenger liner, the Queen Anne, pride of Great Britain’s transatlantic fleet!…and a warship…an American luxury liner… What is going on!?!

Could it be The Russians?

Or something more sinister? Something from…drumroll…OUTER SPACE?

Cutting right through all the drama, I’ll be a big old plot spoiler and tell you that yes, yes it is.

Space Aliens.

Those fireballs were actually transport pods, from one of the gas giant planets, or so the theory goes, hence their attraction to the highest pressure bits of the world’s oceans. They’re absolutely not friendly. They spit back atomic bombs aimed in their general direction, they start sending up very icky “sea tanks” to harvest things (people!) living along the sea shores. But, when the humans figure out how to destroy these, things again go silent.

Another year or two passes. And then, one day someone notices…hey, isn’t that the sea level rising? And there are sure a lot of icebergs about. What is happening to the polar ice caps?!

Yup. The sub-marine aliens are melting the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets, and things are about to get very rough for the land-dwellers of Earth.

But good old Mike and Phyllis rock right along taking everything in stride. Needless to say, they come through everything – a close call by sea tank attack, the inundation of much of Great Britain, the breakdown of civilization as they know it – with flying colours, thanks to their level-headed pre-planning-for-disaster and a few handy connections among the scientist community who slip them the occasional bit of insider info.

I won’t divulge the ending, but it’s looking sort of like humankind might survive after all, thanks to the work of Japanese scientists: “A very ingenious people, the Japs; and in their more sociable moments, a credit to science.”

Uh huh.

Sheer period piece science fiction, and despite my frivolous tone above, it’s actually pretty darned good for its time and genre. Wyndham can write, and though he slides over the trickier bits – no sense slowing down the story with pesky details – he spins a (sometimes) genuinely chilling tale.

Final score: 7/10 for Mike and Phyllis, and the plucky band of true-blue Brits who’ve kept the radio channels running all this time. Not to mention those science-minded “Japs”.

Here’s a little bonus I must share. The original British title of this book is The Kraken Wakes, taken from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1830 poem. Enjoy!

The Kraken Wakes

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge sea-worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

 

 

 

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Twelve Girls in the Garden by Shane Martin ~ 1957. This edition: Morrow, 1957. Hardcover. 216 pages.

This satisfactorily beguiling romp of a mystery novel – final body count four-ish, if I’ve added up correctly – stars an elderly American archaeologist, one Professor Challis – who has a nose for curious situations and an unerring talent for chasing down solutions to said problems in a gently circular way.

The Professor, fresh back from some years in Greece (ancient Minoan civilization his speciality) is engaged in writing up his latest findings at the British Museum. Slightly bored with his incarceration (as it were) in the bustling city versus his beloved sun-baked Greek countryside, Professor Challis wanders into a neighbourhood where he once had close friends.

While peering in the window of a house he once knew well, the Professor is accosted by the current owner – the taciturn Mr. Flett – and is immediately embroiled in a rather bizarre scenario involving a mysteriously missing sculptor who disappeared on the eve of a crucial solo exhibition, said sculptor’s twelve masterful statues of beautiful women (all – or at least the heads of all – modelled from life) displayed about a London garden, a beautiful young woman who bears a strong resemblance to one of those statues, and a number of intriguing male characters, some of whom carry firearms as a matter of course.

Suffice it to say that this is a mystery in which art, love, greed and malice play equal parts, and that Professor Chalice faces some danger to life and limb before all is sorted out, with his crucial assistance.

Not bad at all, for a charcter – and a writer – I hadn’t ever heard of before.

Turns out that Shane Martin is the pseudonym of Australian journalist-writer George H. Johnston, whose fictionalized autobiography My Brother Jack is something of a classic of Australian literature.

Moving to the Greek island of Hydra in the 1950s with his wife, the equally talented writer Charmaine Clift, and their four young children, Johnston took to writing “pot boilers” in between his more serious literary attempts, five such light novels under the name Shane Martin, of which Twelve Girls in the Garden is apparently the easiest to find – the rest having dropped out of sight, being virtually invisible on all of the usual used book sites.

I know this because I looked.

Darn.

Okay, now check this out, fellow readers – especially (perhaps) fellow Canadian readers. Here’s an intriguing connection for you to revel in. George and Charmaine were connected in a most intimate way with the late great Leonard Cohen. Read all about it here!

That was unexpected. Everything is connected, isn’t it? How many degrees of separation between everybody on earth? Ha!

Back to the book – head spinning a bit because of Leonard – I was satisfied in that the mystery at the heart of Twelve Girls is hardish to guess – it took me almost to the denouement to figure out the key twists – and the character of Professor Challis is charmingly delightful. I’d happily follow him through the other four companion books –The Saracen Shadow (1957), The Man Made of Tin (1958), The Myth is Murder (1959), and A Wake for Mourning (1962) – if only I could get my greedy hands on them.

Loved the writing in this one – it danced and rollicked and teased and just generally pleased.

Here’s a vignette from a visit to a junk dealer’s shop:

In no way was it particularly different from any other secondhand dealer’s shop that lies outside the orbit of fashionable patronage. It had that dubious air of muddle and secrecy, with a flavor of ignorant stockpiling, that might lead one quite mistakenly to believe in the possibility of discovering a rare Memlinc or a genuine van Eyck or, at worst, a quite good Byzantine icon underneath its coating of discolored varnish and grime. It followed the usual custom of displaying in its windows and on the pavement outside only the tawdriest of trash – cumbersome pieces of furniture which were either blatantly spavined or suspiciously wormy; chamber pots of impressive size and florid decor but quite lacking in handles; chipped saucers filled with wedding rings, synthetic gems, old coins, and unmatched earrings; cases of medals concerned with forgotten gallantries in campaigns against Kaffir, Boer, and Afridi; mid-Victorian specimen cabinets choked either with geological fragments or brittle moths and insects; a tray of surgical instruments that looked as if they must have been used by Crippen; miscellaneous articles of chinoiserie brought from Foochow in that free-enterprising period when taste had declined in inverse ratio to the prosperity of the English tea trade; a varied but rather damaged selection of Spode, Staffordshire, and Rockingham; the usual china dog and Negro boy; a stuffed owl, solemnly dusty; and a group of hideously colored plaster statuettes of girls in the cloche hats, shingles, and alluring postures of the twenties.

The whole goat’s-nest, Professor Challis suspected, was to mislead the gullible into supposing that since no human being who had not been certified could possibly wish to buy anything from a display so ghastly, it followed that the real treasures must be inside, secreted in some glittering Ali Baba’s cavern to which only the cognoscenti had the key…

Yes, wordy and rambling and slightly, deliberately sarcastic, but with the malice tempered with good humour. It takes some time to get to the point, but the journey is worth the trip.

Here’s a nice enthusiastic  8/10, partly because I hadn’t expected the tale to be so erudite.

What would please me even more is a whole stack of Johnston/Martin’s books to pick through for evening amusement when the everyday needs to be escaped from for a bit.

I don’t think I’m done with this writer – this feels like a first step on a book quest journey, in fact.

Anyone else know of him, and his other works? Is he worth pursuing, do you think?

 

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Tamarac by Margaret Hutchison ~ 1957. This edition: Macmillan, 1957. Hardcover. 282 pages.

A show of hands, please – who has heard of Margaret Hutchison?

I hadn’t, and it saddens me.

This novel was a pleasant surprise, and it appears to be the writer’s only one, though I found a reference to her working on her “next novel” in a snippet of a Margaret Laurence biography I stumbled on online. Apparently Margaret Hutchison – “Hutch” – was mentoring Margaret Laurence in the writerly sense when they both met in Vancouver back in the 1950s.

Intriguing.

Google draws an utter blank, beyond the secondhand copies of Tamarac for sale. And there aren’t too many of those out there, either.

So was there ever a second novel? I am exceedingly curious, because this first one, rather obviously autobiographical in the way of so many first novels, is beautifully written. Margaret Hutchison is comfortable with her words; it’s a smooth, engaging read, even in the most angst-ridden passages. Which takes some doing, doesn’t it?

Note I mentioned the presence of angst. It’s in there, in spades. Well, expectedly so, regarding the subject and its era.

Sometime between the two world wars, young Janet Cameron grows up with her two sisters in an isolated (and fictional) sawmill town named Tamarac located somewhere in the (real) British Columbia Kootenay region. Her childhood was a golden time; she looks back on it with fond nostalgia and true grief for its passing.

For not only has her childhood vanished, the town itself is disappearing. With the advent of the Second World War and the natural attrition of a resource extraction based industry – the loggers have harvested all the available trees and the most prominent town structures are torn down as the sawmill equipment is removed for installation elsewhere – Tamarac is doubly doomed.

Janet, now grown up and working as a schoolteacher, returns to the area to attend her father’s funeral, and the journey back triggers cascades of memory of her life to date: that golden childhood, and then the harsh reality of working for a living in a career she feels forced into, and eventually a brutally disappointing love affair. The mixture as seen so often, in fact.

Margaret Hutchison handles her saga well; it moves along quite briskly most of the time, with occasional slowings-down to dwell on particularly meaningful episodes.

Tamarac is hard on the heels of novels such as those created by Ethel Wilson; there is a similar concentration on the landscape as a crucial influence on the characters’ psyches. Hutchison approaches Wilson’s style without exactly copying it – the two were in fact writing at much the same time – but falls just the slightest bit short. As a developing writer, what might have been her voice in subsequent works?

Hutchison’s strengths as a more-than-competent writer outweigh her occasional lapses as a plot developer. I liked this novel a lot, and I would be thrilled to find that there is more out there from this thoughtful and articulate author. Sadly, I suspect that she may have been a one-book wonder. I wonder what the rest of her personal story was?

To sum up:

  • Not exactly a bildungsroman; our protagonist experiences most of her growing pains as an adult dealing with adult issues – love and loss and all that deep stuff. Her adolescence is challenging in places but is passed over without wallowing in teen sadness; she grows up fast but not because of any particular trauma; much is asked of her early and she steps forward to shoulder her responsibilities.
  • Tamarac is a thoughtful and appreciative evocation of a particular place and time; the author makes it very clear that she has a keen eye for natural surroundings, as well as the human places – and people – which encroach upon the wild.
  • Much of the melancholy of this novel comes from the time of its setting: Great Depression-era rural Canada, and then the bitter onset of what we all know – characters and readers alike – will be another horrible war.
  • The ending is something of an anticlimax, just a little too perfectly rounded. But it works in the greater context of what comes before it in the story, and is on the whole fairly satisfying. We are certain that Janet will calmly find her own way into whatever is coming next for her; she has proven herself tenacious and resilient so far, and we wish her well in her future.
  • My rating: 7.5/10. (Not a perfect novel, but well on its way, and I liked it.)

And here is our mysterious writer. Does anyone know what happened after Tamarac?

 

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Old Herbaceous by Reginald Arkell ~ 1950. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1951. Illustrated by John Minton. Hardcover. 155 pages.

The second book of 2018 was something of a soft landing after my hair-straight-back initiation into the somewhat frenetic world of Elizabeth Bowen.

This next one is as straightforward as it gets; pure narrative of the simpler sort. I hasten to say it has all of the merits of its genre, that of the nostalgia piece, vide Miss Read and her ilk.

Elderly Bert Pinnegar, lifelong gardener at the “Big House” of his quiet English village, sits at his cottage window musing over his past, from humble beginnings through the stages of promotion from garden boy to head gardener, and on into retirement and inevitable physical decline of old age.

It all started so long ago…

Opening her cottage door, on a May morning some eighty-odd years ago, Mrs. Pinnegar, the cowman’s wife, had received a shock, and no mistake. There, on the door-step, wrapped in an old cotton skirt, was a baby, as newly-born as made no difference. Mrs. Pinnegar, a kindly soul, with six children of her own, passed the village maidens in review. Several of them were ‘expecting,’ but Mrs. Pinnegar, unofficial midwife and friend of all families, knew their dates to a nicety and the problem was not so easily solved. There had been no gipsies through the village for weeks. . . . Being a practical woman, the cowman’s wife picked up the parcel the fairies had brought her; christened it Herbert, after an uncle who was killed in the Crimea, and set about her Monday’s wash. When you had six of your own, one more didn’t matter.

Naturally, there was a bit of chatter at the time, but unexpected arrivals never made front-page news in an English village. A rick fire and talk of the Prussians in Paris were much more exciting. Young Herbert settled down in his new home; seasons came and went; the new self-binder started tying the sheaves with string . . .

Still, being picked up on a door-step did take the gilt off the gingerbread a bit; especially when you’d got along in the world and become someone in the village. True, there was nobody left to throw his birth in his teeth. Everybody was dead—every man Jack of them! Old folk went and new folk came, until you couldn’t find a single soul who remembered anything. Very soon he’d go, too, and then there’d be nothing left but houses—and gardens.

Funny, that! You planted a tree; you watched it grow; you picked the fruit and, when you were old, you sat in the shade of it. Then you died and they forgot all about you—just as though you had never been. . . . But the tree went on growing, and everybody took it for granted. It always had been there and it always would be there. . . . Everybody ought to plant a tree, sometime or another—if only to keep them humble in the sight of the Lord.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this gentle story which can’t be imagined from the excerpt above. Arkell rambles along, documenting the highs and lows of his invented countryman’s life. There is some garden lore tucked in here and there, but not enough to take it to anything like a “garden” book. It’s a nostalgia piece, pure and simple, and the author makes no attempt to take it beyond that level.

Pleasant enough in its own way, and I passed an evening with Our Bert in mild enjoyment. Engaging enough to keep one entertained. If you like Miss Read, you’ll like Reginald Arkell.

I think I mentioned something of the same regarding the other of Arkell’s bucolic novels which I read during my 2014 Century of Books, Trumpets Over Merriford. And I believe I used the term “quaint” for that one, and it applies equally aptly to Old Herbaceous.

Looking at my rating of Trumpets Over Merriford, I see I gave it a 6.5 rating. I’m feeling rather more generous regarding the tale of the gardener. Let’s say 7.5/10. Because it’s a nice little thing, relaxing to read in between bouts with the seed catalogues this planning time of year for those of us with horticulture as part of our lives.

 

 

 

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New Canadian Library paoperback, circa 1990. Another inappropriate NCL cover illustration – who the heck was in charge of selecting these? The E.J. Hughes painting depics Shawnigan Lake, on Vancouver Island. Sure, it’s a lake, and it’s even in British Columbia, but it’s a far, far way away from the Kamloops bush and the interior lake where most of the action of Swamp Angel takes place.

Swamp Angel by Ethel Wilson ~ 1954. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1990. Afterword by Georger Bowering. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-8958-9. 216 pages.

Maggie walks away from her deplorable second marriage, and goes to earth at a remote fishing lodge northeast of Kamloops.

Nell, with the help of a small pearl-handled revolver, puts Maggie’s abusive husband absolutely in his place.

Hilda, Nell’s daughter, watches from the sidelines, taking it all in, storing it all up.

And Vera, reluctant resident at the fish camp, sees Maggie both as a saviour and as a very personal devil.

Intrigued? Good.

Find it. Read it. The book is probably Ethel Wilson’s most well-known; copies from its multiple printings are easy as pie to come by, at least in every used book shop I’ve been in here in the writer’s home province.

Grand stuff from the brilliant and not nearly prolific enough British Columbian writer Ethel Wilson. What can I say that hasn’t already been said about this gem of a small novel, this delicate and complex story of suffering and personal redemption? (A quick online search brings an embarrassment of riches in the way of scholarly discussion.)

Maggie Lloyd, our main character in that the story follows her most intimately, is a woman of uncompromising integrity, and though that may sound dull, it’s not, not at all. Her moral sense drives her actions, her intelligence makes those actions generally successful, and her wry sense of humour – well-tamped down for understandable reasons (Maggie’s had more than her share of personal tragedy) but still active – keeps her likeable.

Maggie rescues herself from an unbearable situation, and proceeds to remake her life as a solo operator, making this something of a feminist manifesto. But while most of Swamp Angel’s main characters are women, the men in Ethel Wilson’s cast are memorable, too, whether swinish or heroic or stoic or just plain decent.

Early edition (first edition?) dust jacket. Those who’ve read the novel will know immediately what this depicts; I won’t give it away to those who still have to experience the quiet joys of Ethel Wilson’s little masterpiece of personal redemption.

Wilson paints her word pictures with brushes both broad and finely delicate; her pacing might well be described as variable (uneven sounds like a critique, so I won’t use that term, though it is also apt); her frequent descriptive passages sometimes stray into sentiment; but mostly it all clicks.

As a native British Columbian, I found an extra piquancy in the place descriptions, which Ethel Wilson made something of a specialty of, portraying mood as much as scenery. Very much about genius loci, as I touched on in my recent post on Hetty Dorval. Not sure if these passages will appeal quite so strongly to those not from here, but I am deeply appreciative of this element in her work.

A good strong 9/10.

 

 

 

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A Sunset Touch by Howard Spring ~ 1953. This edition: The Companion Book Club, 1955. Hardcover. 288 pages.

Just when we are safest, there’s a sunset-touch,
A fancy from a flower-bell, some one’s death,
A chorus-ending from Euripides,–
And that’s enough for fifty hopes and fears
As old and new at once as nature’s self,
To rap and knock and enter in our soul,
Take hands and dance there.

Robert Browning ~ Bishop Blougram’s Confession

Middle-aged London bank clerk Roger Menheniot, son of a respectable Cornish cobbler, considers himself the last offshoot of a noble Cornwall family. He stumbled upon knowledge of his ancestry in teenagerhood, and has subsequently spent all of his spare time in researching Menheniot family history, and furnishing his modest rooms in the style of the glory days of Rosemullion, the stately country home of his ancestors. A Sheraton bookcase here, an engraved snuffbox there. The estate itself has fallen on hard times, but Roger dreams of it at night, plotting how he can one day return to it, perhaps in retirement as a tenant of the little lodge at the gates, because he knows there is no way he’ll ever be able to afford the estate itself.

He’s visited Rosemullion, a golden moment of his life, and he’s writing a history of his family, knowing full well it’s not likely to ever see publication. No mind, it’s a true labor of love.

He began by calling it A Cornish Family, but changed that to The Menheniots. He loved the sound of his own name. He loved the look of it as the letters formed under his pen. He liked to turn it over on his tongue in company with other famous names from the county he had never lived in: the Carews, the Elyots, the Killigrews, the Menheniots. He was becoming a crank and a recluse, living with imaginations. He knew it, and he gloried in it. After all, how many men belonged to a family like his?

No: it was not likely that he would ever shake it off now. He had spent too many hours in the Public Record Office and the British Museum, boring like a wood-beetle into the decayed and moldy fabric of the family that had not for a long time lived on ancestral acres and that now, as far as he knew, had no living member but himself. But never had the Menheniots produced a more fanatical Menheniot, a bank clerk by day, Menheniot of Rosemullion by night.

Roger despises his real life; he despises London. Even more so now that it is a city torn by war, for it is 1944, and Roger, shaken out of his fantasy world, has had to take notice of the greater world, and even to take part in civic duties, fire-watching in his neighbourhood as the bombs rain down.

The war changes everything, as it brings into Roger’s miniscule orbit a person whom he had no inkling of at all, an American serviceman who shares his name, and who proves to be another offshoot of the almost-extinct family.

Phillip Menheniot – Phil – is intrigued by his new-found relation, and likes him quite a lot, though he smiles at Roger’s infatuation with their shared ancestry. Over the course of several meetings, the two men become friends, until Phil is swept away by the war, never to be seen again.

Then, in September of 1945, two things happen. The first is that Roger stumbles upon a house-agent’s ad for the estate of Rosemullion. And the very next night he receives a lawyer’s letter, informing him of an unexpected legacy.

Roger and his first love.

Need I tell you what happens next? Yes, Roger’s fantasy is now within his grasp, and he seizes the day. Rosemullion is his!

And with it comes an enlargement of Roger’s life, as he is forced to step outside the comfort zone of his reclusive London life, to move in a wider circle in his new Cornish home. He makes the acquaintance of the local vicar, Henry Savage, an elderly gentleman (in every sense of both words) with a shocking back story, and of young Dr. Littledale, and the doctor’s spinster sister, Kitty.

Kitty and Roger find themselves falling into step, acquaintance ripening to something warmer and deeper, until the shocking day when Kitty attempts to interest Roger in a physical manifestation of their mutual attraction – she kisses him!!! – and Roger, overwhelmed by he’s not quite sure what emotions, finds himself in equal measures repelled by what he sees as her shameful advances, and suddenly aware that the kiss has stirred feelings (yes, those feelings) which he never realized he had within him.

Roger is torn between good girl Kitty and bad girl Bella. What’s a 45-year-old virgin to do?!

While Roger is engaged in the turmoil of his new self-awareness, along comes pretty wanton Bella, and Roger discovers at long last the joy of sex.

What of Kitty, then? Where is she? Waiting in the wings, she is, patiently watching Roger struggle with his metamorphosis into Fully Awakened Manhood. And when Bella comes to grief (poor doomed thing!), Kitty is still there…

Well, well, well.

In my readerly opinion, the early part of the novel was much the most promising, and when Roger heads to Cornwall my curiosity was deep indeed as to what he would make of the rehabilitation of Rosemullion.

Howard Spring instead goes off on a completely different tangent, abandoning the whole scion-of-an-ancient-house theme and instead descending into plain old titillating romance novel territory. It’s more Norah Lofts-style gothic there at the close (we even have a mysterious death), versus Daphne du Maurier-style psychological drama. I found it slightly – okay, more than slightly – disappointing, as our author changed his generical horses in midstream.

If The Houses in Between and Shabby Tiger are A-list examples of what this writer was capable of, A Sunset Touch, while still eminently readable, is one level lower.

My rating: 6/10

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Spanish Gardener by A.J. Cronin ~ 1950. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1950. Hardcover. 263 pages.

A fast, intense read, full of palpable foreboding, which builds to a bitter climax.

An American diplomat, estranged from the mother of his young son, frets in the stagnation of his career as he is continually passed over for promotion, being instead shifted from one backwater European consulate to another. He consoles himself that one day he will be vindicated, when he finds a publisher for his ambitious life-work, a biography of obscure 17th Century French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche, and with misguided anticipation of the resulting fanfare, dreams of being able to retire from his not very stellar career to a life of acclaimed authorship.

Harrington Brande is obsessed by his own standing in the complicated hierarchy of the foreign diplomatic service, and his immense ego is as fragile as it is blind to its possessor’s deep and well-deserved unpopularity with everyone whom he comes in contact with. The one exception is 9-year-old Nicholas – the name no coincidence – who returns his father’s clinging and jealous infatuation with innocently filial love.

The pair fetch up in a quiet coastal Spanish town, and Brande is relieved to find that both his residence and his official offices are in much better condition than some previous postings have led him to fear. An overgrown garden leads to the engagement of a teenage gardener, a young man of poor family but esteemed local reputation due to his intelligence, happy nature, competence at his work, and stature as an accomplished athlete.

Gardener José and semi-invalid Nicholas are deeply attracted to each other in the most purely platonic of ways, and a deep friendship springs up between the two, flourishing until the father notices the son’s gaze turning to José too often. Steps must be taken to break up this most unsuitable of friendships – added to Harrington Brande’s other unlikable personality traits is one of deep snobbishness – and the tighter he clings to his son the more tenuous his position becomes as the sole possessor of Nicholas’s affection.

A sinister chauffeur-butler, an unscrupulous psychiatrist, and Brande himself manufacture a situation in which José finds himself entrapped in a false accusation. Nicholas remains steadfast to his friend, but all pleas for mercy serve merely to intensify the father’s desire for revenge on his supposed supplanter.

There is a strand of sexual frustration and homoerotic obsession running through this dark and disturbing little novel; one can’t help but feel that Nicholas’s mother has done the wise thing by leaving her husband to his own devices. The child is protected by his tender age from understanding the nuances of his father’s self-torturing motivations, but he is growing up, and becoming aware that all is not as it could and should be.

Tragedy inevitably strikes, as we have known it will all along.

The author allows the slightest gleam of redemption in his final scenes, but makes no firm promises.

Though the scenarios are laid out with perfect clarity, I feel that The Spanish Gardener’s narrative strength lies more in nuance than salacious detail. Definitely a work of its time, a sober post-war character portrait and an emotionally involving though rather subfusc drama. I found it impossible to look away from and read it all in one go this cold fall evening.

My rating: 7.5/10.

Initially a qualified doctor who started writing during a long convalescence from illness in 1930, A.J. Cronin was a Scottish writer of novels, novellas and short stories, and his work was both popular and critically acclaimed. His dramatic stories were a natural for film adaptation; Cronin went on to add successful and lucrative careers as a film and television writer to his other accomplishments.

 

 

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A decade ago I hadn’t even heard of D.E. Stevenson, until fellow book bloggers kept nudging me to seek her out. Now I own an almost-complete collection, and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve delved into these delicious little comfort reads. Even the relative flops, of which there are a few. (Yes, Crooked Adam, I’m looking at you. And sibling story Gerald and Elizabeth. Not to mention Rochester’s Wife. Gar! I blushed for the author while reading all of these. But I kept right on reading, and I won’t part with these for anything, fully intending to revisit, groan in dismay at the bloomers, and forge ahead regardless.)

Kudos to ACE, the genre paperback publishing arm of Grosset and Dunlap, for resurrecting D.E. Stevenson back in the early 1970s, because without their editions D.E. Stevenson would be even harder to acquire than she is, but regrets for those goopy “romance” covers – soooo bad. I have to admit I hide these when reading in public.

Well, we’ve had a fraught sort of summer this year, what with the local forest fires and all, and though we’ve come out the other side personally unscathed, we still feel rather rumpled in the mind. Hence the comfort reading. Nevil Shute and D.E. Stevenson have gravitated to the bedside stand, among others. Engaging but not particularly challenging. Easy to take up, easy to put down, patiently waiting for the reader to return and step back into the story.

Most recently the books on hand are the comfortably charming Dering family novels. This is only the second time of reading them through since my introduction to D.E.S., and I enjoyed them even more so this time round than the first, because this time I read them in chronological order and everything clicked ever so nicely into place. I also recognised a number of characters from other books, which must mean I am becoming a genuine Dessie, tracing the strands of the spider-web from book to book to book – a delightful side pleasure of reading this not-quite-forgotten author.

Cribbing from previous posts to put together this overview. I’ve gotten very much out of the blogging habit, much to my regret, so trying to get those rusty cogs a-turning again. A little cheat feels justified, and I did so enjoy these books I thought them worthy of mention once again, even if I don’t have much new to say.

Here we go.

Oh! I guess I should mention that there are spoilers throughout, mainly in the transition in focus from book to book. Each installment’s resolution leads to the opening of the next. If you are brand new to these and want to be surprised (if we can describe D.E.S.’s mild dramas as worthy of such a strong term) you might want to click away and come back once you’ve read them yourself. Collectively I would give this trilogy an 8/10 or thereabouts in my personal rating system (see sidebar), keeping in mind that this is in relation of these books in D.E. Stevenson’s body of work alone.

Cover depicted is from an earlier hardcover edition, not the paperback referred to in the heading.

Vittoria Cottage by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1949. This edition: Collins-Fontana, 1974. Paperback. ISBN: 0-00-613-444-0. 191 pages.

Middle-aged Caroline Dering has just been widowed, and, aside from her genuine and seemly sorrow at the death of someone who has shared her life for many years, she is not at all steeped in sorrow. Her lately departed spouse, Arnold Dering, was of a complaining and perpetually malcontented disposition. While his wife and three children were accepting of his character – Caroline thought that he always meant well, and suspected that at rare moments Arnold recognized and truly regretted his deep pessimism –  they enjoyed themselves much more in his absence.

World War II has been over for several years, but England is still very much in coping and recovery mode. Society is fast changing into some sort of new normal, and though things are steadily improving, there is still food and fuel rationing, and a strong atmosphere of “making do”, which makes for some quite fascinating scenarios as we progress through the book and look over Caroline’s shoulder as she goes about her days.

Another older hardcover edition, this one more accurately depicting the “cottage” which really isn’t.

The scene is set for what is to become a series of three novels by descriptions of the village of Ashbridge and the far from cottage-like Vittoria Cottage, ancestral home of the Derings. Though she has merely “married into” the local family, Caroline fits into the local hierarchy almost immediately, and by and large leads a deeply contented life, caring for her children, volunteering for various worthy causes, keeping house and gardening. The children are all grown up, with James away in Malaya, and lovely but discontented Leda (she takes after her father in full) and boisterous Bobbie making their way out into the larger world from the safe haven of their village nest.

Life in quiet Ashbridge gets suddenly quite interesting with the arrival of the mysterious Mr. Shepperton, who is apparently very reluctant to discuss his past, and who arouses even more suspicion because he appears to have no old belongings or clothing, a real rarity at that place and time, immediately post-war – “everything new!” the village gossips whisper with raised eyebrows.

Caroline’s lovely younger sister Harriet, a successful actress ducking away to her sister’s home for a respite from a difficult and failed recent stage production in London, brings some sophisticated dash and sparkle to village gatherings, and with the unexpectedly sudden return of James from Malaya, and the trials and tribulations of Leda and her fiancé Derek, the local squire’s son, there is plenty of scope for complications, dilemmas, surprises and sometimes unexpected resolutions.

I thought the characters were very well drawn and (mostly) very believable. Caroline is our heroine, but she is not a perfect person by a long shot; her flaws are well on display, but we forgive her them because she is ultimately exceedingly likeable, as is her sister and most of the other players in this excellent domestic drama. It ends quite abruptly, but this served merely to make me keen to get my hands on the next episode in this extended tale.

Cover depicted is from an earlier hardcover edition, not the paperback referred to in the heading.

Music in the Hills by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1950. This edition: Ace Books, circa 1970. Paperback. 282 pages.

Having more or less settled the fates of Caroline Dering and her sister Harriet Fane in the previous novel, Vittoria Cottage, this next installment in the trilogy follows Caroline’s son James, who, at loose ends after his military service and several years spent “chasing terrorists” in Malaya, is looking towards his future.

Deeply in love with his childhood companion Rhoda, he is struggling with her rejection of his marriage proposal. While we suspect that she is in love with James in her own way, Rhoda fears that, as a rising professional painter, marriage would spell the end of her career goals, and that she would be a discontented wife as well as a poorer artist, having to split her focus between two roles, doing neither well.

James takes it very well, all things considered, and hies himself off to the community of Drumburly in Scotland, where he has been invited by his aunt and uncle to reside at the remote Mureth House, a prosperous sheep farm. Jock and Mamie Johnstone have no children of their own, and are hoping that their nephew might be interested enough in farming life to take over Mureth some day.

James has always cherished a desire to be a farmer himself, so the situation looks like a success all around; the story follows some of James’s apprenticeship and details the day-to-day occupations of a hill farmer of mid-20th century Scotland; quite nicely detailed and relatably true in the telling. (I keep sheep, so happily appreciated the ovine interludes.)

We have sheep rustlers and romantic entanglements and, of course, more than a few misunderstandings between various parties, all neatly tidied up as the story progresses, in proper D.E. Stevenson fashion.

Cover depicted is from an earlier hardcover edition, not the paperback referred to in the heading.

Shoulder the Sky: A Story of Winter in the Hills by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1951. Original British title: Winter and Rough Weather. This edition: Ace Books, circa 1971. 275 pages.

Five years after the conclusion of the Second World War, a young, newly married couple, Rhoda and James Dering Johnstone, arrive at their isolated farmhouse near the fictional Scottish village of Drumburly. Rhoda is an accomplished professional painter, and her husband worries, with some reason, as to how she will adjust to a life as a sheep farmer’s wife, far from the stimulating world she has happily abandoned for true love.

Rhoda drifts for a while, mulling over the dilemma of what she sees as a black and white choice between her perceived role as a wife versus personal fulfillment as an artist. The author handled this theme sensitively and sensibly, though I couldn’t help but think that childless Rhoda, overseeing a small house with the help of a live-in cook-general, had a luxury of a “domestic support system” impossible for those of us in a similar societal-economic position to attain today. Rhoda ultimately returns to the studio, and proceeds to paint a portrait which has far-reaching consequences among the local residents.

Add in several on again-off again love affairs, a missing wife, a bullying neighbour, a misunderstood child, and the challenges of winter storms in an isolated locale, and you have a quietly dramatic novel, very occasionally straying into melodrama, but nicely anchored to reality by the author’s pragmatic asides.

There is one glaringly “coincidental” plot twist which I rolled my readerly eyes at, but I forgave it for love of this writer, as we note and yet forgive the foibles of our dearest friends.

The author set this novel up well, and the details she gives both of farm life and the art world read like they come from personal experience. I thought this particular novel was a relatively strong work for this “light romance” author, rather reminiscent of O. Douglas, what with the Scottish setting and the deep moral dilemmas and all.

Deeply affirmative depictions of marriage form this book, in particular the partnership between the older couple, Jock and Mamie Johnstone. D.E. Stevenson is all about the quiet joys of making things work out and the moral and emotional rewards that follow acting well towards each other, though her characters also struggle in a utterly lifelike way with holding it together when faced with uncongenial people and trying situations.

Fellow D.E. Stevenson readers – there is one thing I want to throw out there. In this last installment of the trilogy, doesn’t it strike you as the littlest bit odd that the very wealthy Nestor Heddle absolutely needs his poor befuddled sister as a housekeeper, and that her jumping ship makes his lordly country life impossible? I mean, couldn’t he just hire someone to fulfill that role? (This is the sort of silly little plot hole which niggles away at me when reading D.E.S.!)

 

 

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The Loved and Envied by Enid Bagnold ~ 1951. This edition: Virago Modern Classics (Penguin), 1988. Introduction by Isabel Colgate. ISBN: 0-14-016211-9. 280 pages.

Lady Ruby Maclean, famed beauty, lives with her Scottish husband Gynt at his family’s French estate, the Chateau of Little Pouilly, based on the real-life Chantilly, as Lady Maclean herself is based on Bagnold’s friend, famed society beauty Lady Diana Cooper.

Though the plot of novel is purely fictional, the character portrait is widely accepted to be a true (and flattering) one, to the extent that the Virago cover illustration is a replication of a portrait of Lady Diana on her wedding day.

Not much happens, action wise, in this quietly thought-provoking book, with most of the turmoil being mental and emotional, but once we are hooked it all becomes immensely interesting. I found it to be one of those novels one spent time thinking about while one was off doing other things; the characters became real, and their fears and joys relatable.

The fears tend to predominate, at least superficially, as this is a novel very much concerned with aging and death. Lady Maclean, the “loved and envied” of the title, undeniably coming to the end of middle-age at fifty-three, muses on her status as a great beauty, and what this has meant to her in every aspect of her life so far, and how the inevitable deterioration in her physical appearance has started to affect how others now react to her in the most subtle of ways.

This is a masterfully written book, in a purely technical sense, and, once I figured out the writer’s game, I became a willing co-player. Bagnold takes us back and forth through time, revisiting certain episodes from varying characters’ points of view, bringing in minor characters for a paragraph or a page to allow another aspect of a scene to be verbalized, and weaving all of these at-first over-abundant threads together to create a cohesive picture at the end.

Though Ruby, Lady Maclean, is the key element in the vision that unfolds, Bagnold keeps a juggler’s handful worth of other stories in play as we go along.

We have Ruby’s husband Gynt, a reclusive insomniac pursuing night birds through the French woods, compulsively engaged upon writing a orthinological life-work. Their daughter Miranda, beloved of both parents, but herself deeply resentful of her glamorous mother’s life-long overshadowing. Tuxie, the slippery ne-er-do well who marries Miranda with high expectations and subsequent bitter disappointment; their removal to Jamaica and an eventual tragedy provide a touch of melodrama.

There is famous painter Cora, Ruby’s closest female friend, hideous in appearance but a genius at her art. And Cora’s ex-husband Rudi, a once-popular playwright who has written the same script a few times too many, to the brutal critics’ gleeful delight.

Rose, now-elderly life-long mistress of the Edouard, Vicomte de Bas-Pouilly, is superficially aged but retains her ardently youthful devotion to Edouard, and is in turn faithfully cherished by her aristocratic lover, to the secret fury of his jealous sister.

James, Edouard’s nephew and heir, who is infatuated with the much-older Ruby, until circumstances bring Miranda back to France. (Miranda’s transformation from dowd to siren through the wonders of a genius dressmaker is a play-within-a-play, a delicious glimpse at the clothes of the period, with yet another character added to the cast: Lew Afric, “pederast” and grand couturier.)

The Duca Alberti Marie-Innocence de Roccafergola, physically massive, emotionally sensitive. Ruby’s closest male confidante, Miranda’s beneficient godfather. His long time servant Celestine, who one day expresses a surprising desire to become a duchess by marriage. (Alberti obliges, with complicated results.)

Ruby’s aunt, Ursula, born with a hideous deformation which has taken her around the world in an effort to find a way of concealing  it. A highly successful career as a beautician to the elite women of London follows, and her adoption of her orphaned niece provides her an outlet for love frustrated since her infancy, when those who should have cherished her were instead repelled by her appearance. Ruby owes some of her beauty to Ursula’s care; the two have an intricate bond which transcends the obvious.

By the end of the novel, a number of these key characters are dead, which doesn’t prove as melancholic as it might, much to my relief as a reader. For I myself am well into  the dangerous age, the time of one’s life when one’s own mortality becomes much more than an abstract concept, as one realizes just how many funerals those only a little older – and, more poignantly, of peers – one has been attending…

Fantastic novel. I enjoyed it greatly, though I didn’t much care for it a decade or so ago when I tried it for the first time. Perhaps I was still too young?! This time round I devoured it.

My rating: 9/10. A definite keeper.

And I am going to be keeping my eyes open for Bagnold’s other novels, of which the only one I have read is 1935’s National Velvet. (That one is a decided 10/10 – and I need to say, to those who have so far scorned it, it’s not at all a children’s book, despite its perpetual marketing as such.)

Of these, A Diary Without Dates (1917), The Happy Foreigner (1920) , and The Squire (1938), all appear to by reasonably attainable. (The Squire was republished by Persephone just a few years ago, and is already on my wish list from that most estimable establishment.)

And last but not least, I’ve submitted The Loved and Envied as an entry with The 1951 Club. Another stellar year in books! Keep yours eyes open for a links roundup either here or here. Thank you, Simon and Karen, for setting this up.

 

 

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Death in Cyprus by M.M. Kaye ~ 1956. This edition: Penguin, 1985. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-006405-2. 271 pages.

Amanda Derington, left a war orphan in 1940, has just turned 21, and one of her first actions upon attaining this age of legal freedom is to broaden her personal horizons, for Amanda has been living under the iron rule of her prudish Uncle Oswin, a pompous misogynist with attitudes towards morals typical of the strictest Victorians, and young Amanda has had to adhere to a standard of behaviour long since discarded by her boarding school peers.

Amanda’s twenty-first birthday occurs while she is accompanying her uncle on a leisurely tour of the Derington family business empire in the Mediterranean, and Amanda’s decision to branch off on her own and visit the island of Cyprus has her uncle impotently fuming.

Despite Uncle Oswin’s tantrums,  off Amanda goes, all bright-eyed and open to whatever the world of adulthood has to offer. What immediately happens is that just before her ship reaches Cyprus, Amanda becomes involved in the sudden death – an apparent suicide – of a travelling companion.

But things don’t quite add up, and the odd behaviours of several other shipmates continue even after they all land at the destination and continue with their holidays, with the bereaved widower, Major Alistair Blaine, listlessly moping about and casting shadows on the holiday mood, a ghost at the feast, as it were.

Strangely ominous incidents begin to haunt Amanda, and she starts to wonder if perhaps Julia’s death wasn’t self-inflicted, and if, instead, Amanda were the target of an unknown killer. (Amanda and Julia had switched cabins on board ship; a key point which I didn’t mention.)

Much to-ing and fro-ing goes on, giving the author a chance to enlarge upon the scenic attractions of Cyprus and adding splashes of local colour. (In her author’s note Kaye speaks fondly of her own visits there in 1949, while her military husband was stationed in Egypt.)

I hate to say it, but Death in Cyprus, though readable enough in a mild sort of way, was a bit of a dud as both a thriller and a coming of age tale. The death plot, once revealed, was inanely bizarre versus anything approaching believable.

In the tradition of the most extravagant of the Agatha Christies, the mysterious killer strikes again and again, with various degrees of success, until finally (predictably!) unmasked by Amanda’s brand new (and not-what-he-seems-to-be) romantic interest.

M.M. (Mary Margaret) Kaye was an artist as well as a writer, and she enjoyed success as a writer and illustrator of children’s books and historical fiction – The Far Pavilions, 1978, was very much her star turn – as well as a number of mystery novels, mostly set in exotic locales.

I’d definitely heard of her before, for while used-book shopping for my bedridden, book-a-day reading mother in the last few years of her life, M.M. Kaye titles popped up again and again, and I have quite a little collection put away in the boxes of “Mom books” I haven’t quite yet been able to go through and sort into keeper and give-away piles.

Mom was restrained in her praise of the M.M. Kaye books, “readable but a bit boring” was her description when I asked her if this was a writer she was interested in going on with, and I must say that this novel was just that.

Will I read more M.M. Kaye? Maybe. It wasn’t a bad book. Just not nearly as good as it might have been.

I might give The Far Pavilions a go at some point. Or one of the other historical fictions. They’re not calling out to me in any urgent way, though, based on my reaction to Death in Cyprus.

My rating: 5/10. A keeper, but only just. Something to read when one doesn’t want to be deeply immersed in a book; rather put-down-able, in other words.

Final thought: Mary Stewart did this sort of thing so much better.

 

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