Archive for the ‘1950s’ Category

First edition dust jacket, illustration by the author. As well as being a writer, Frances Faviell was a professional portrait artist. Side note: the girl in the picture is not, as one might expect, the eponymous Thalia, but is instead the novel’s narrator, the fledgling artist, Rachel.

Thalia by Frances Faviell ~ 1957. This edition: Cassell & Company, 1957. Hardcover (re-bound). 288 pages.

When the car was approaching the docks I looked at my aunt and it seemed to me that this – a profile – was all we ever knew of anyone. We can never know all the aspects but merely those which are shown to us. Was she as lonely as I was? She appeared suddenly such a small person and one at whom I had never really looked…

This story is set in the mid-1930s, from the perspective of the narrator looking back some twenty years later at a life-altering segment of time.

Eighteen-year-old Rachel – mother dead, father off on his own business – has been living with her aunt while studying art at the Slade. After disgracing herself by painting an unflatteringly caricatured portrait of the vicar who is her aunt’s dear friend, Rachel is being packed off to France to act as an unpaid companion to the teenage daughter of a family friend, while her aunt, accompanied by the vicar of the portrait, goes off on an excursion to Egypt.

Arriving in the seaside Brittany village of Dinard, home to a thriving Anglo-American community of penny-pinching expatriates resident in a collection of rental villas, Rachel is prepared to make the best of her experience, though she is uneasy as to how she will fit into the household which consists of her charges, fifteen-year-old Thalia and six-year-old Claude, and their beautiful and indolent mother, Cynthia. The Pembertons have settled in Dinard while the father of the family, Colonel Tom Pemberton, returns to India, where he is engaged in a dangerous military operation on the volatile North-West frontier.

Thalia is in the full throes of an awkward and unattractive adolescence. Mousy haired, sulky faced, inflicted with a skin covered by masses of brown, patchy freckles, Thalia is well aware of her mother’s distaste for her.

Cynthia openly rejects and callously neglects her cuckoo’s-child daughter, concentrating all of her maternal instincts onto her beautiful young son. Golden-haired Claude is lovely to look at, but a demanding and obnoxiously spoiled child, every whim pandered to by his mother in her attempt to avoid his tantrums.

Cynthia lives in self-protective seclusion from the real world, nursing her reputed “heart ailment”, drifting in a sleeping-pill induced haze and seldom leaving her bedroom until noon. When she emerges, she wafts off to ill-afforded bridge-playing afternoons, and ill-concealed dalliances with an old lover, Terence Mourne, ex-compatriot of Colonel Pemberton’s, who has resigned his commission due to a disgrace in which young Thalia has had a leading hand.

The household help is a young Frenchwoman of reputed loose morals, much to the enjoyment of the local permanent residents, who view the English and American residents of Dinard as a constantly changing real-life dramatic ensemble, good for a chuckle as they inevitably flout unwritten rules of etiquette, and good as well for a constant low-key fleecing at the hands of their French employees.

Thalia focusses immediately on Rachel, pouring out all her unrequited affection in an attempt to win attention to herself. Rachel, feeling sympathy for Thalia’s status as the unwanted, coldly rejected child of her mother (though not her now-absent father), reciprocates as much as she feels herself able to, though Thalia’s fixation on Rachel takes on an obsessive tone.

When Rachel falls in love with a young Frenchman, Armand, Thalia’s jealousy unleashes her full potential for secretive revenge plots, and the already deeply unhealthy situation at the Pemberton villa deteriorates in a grand and ultimately tragic manner.

Not what one would call a happy book – oh, no! – but enthralling in its depiction of late-adolescent angst – Rachel’s as much as Thalia’s – and of people making a series of bad decisions and finding themselves overwhelmed by the consequences thereof.

Frances Faviell writes her scenes with meticulous attention to telling detail, something I noted in Faviell’s autobiographical account of living through the London Blitz of 1940-41 , A Chelsea Concerto. Her painter’s eye transposes perfectly into her writer’s voice, and the combination is a winning one.

There is almost a clinical feel to Rachel’s unemotional telling of what happened during those months in France which occasionally feels chilled and tamped down, until one reminds oneself that the story is being told from several decades away in time, with the reflection of an adult Rachel attempting to explain the impulsive actions of the teenage Rachel put into a situation very much out of her depth to competently deal with.

A dark, frequently melodramatic bildungsroman of a book, which I found enthralling from start to finish.

My rating: 9.5/10

The half point keeping it from being a full-out “10” is for the main protagonist’s switch of loyalties as the tale winds down; I found that I couldn’t quite believe in her emotional development in this particular way, though as the novel progresses Rachel becomes more and more what we might term an unreliable narrator, and this may well be a deliberate move on the author’s part.

If I could name a perfect shelfmate to Thalia, it would have to be The Greengage Summer, by Rumer Godden. Similar high standard of writing, similar settings, similar themes, and, most of all, similar takeaway that growing up can be a deeply bitter process, full of betrayal by and of people once beloved.

 

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I am the owner of a sort of mixed bag of a vanity project by the estimable (though occasional uneven) J.B. Priestley.

The book, published in 1951, is called Delight, and it is comprised of short vignettes – one hundred and fourteen of them – of things which gave Mr. Priestley deep (and often secret) joy.

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Occasionally, when in need of a reminder of how many such delightful things the most ho-hum life contains, I dip into this book and read about Fountains and Cosy Planning and Orchestras Tuning Up and Waking to Smell Bacon, etc., and rejoice in my turn in those small goodnesses.

Here’s one I know we can all relate to, apropos of nothing in particular, as it isn’t currently storming – though it is a bit chilly outside – and once I venture out one last time to fill the greenhouse woodstove chock full of the biggest logs I can manhandle into it, my warm bed and a good book await me.

I hope your collective evenings contain a similar pleasure.

Enjoy!

Fifty-One

There is a peculiar delight, which I can still experience though I knew it best as a boy, in cosily reading about foul weather when equally foul weather is beating hard against the windows, when one is securely poised between the wind and rain and sleet outside and the wind and rain and sleet that leap from the page into the mind.

The old romancers must have been aware of this odd little bonus of pleasure for the reader, and probably that is why so many of their narratives, to give them a friendly start, began with solitary horsemen, cloaked to the eyebrows, riding through the night on urgent business for the Duke, sustained by nothing more than an occasional and dubious ragout or pasty and a gulp or two of sour wine (always fetched by surly innkeepers or their scowling slatterns), on side-roads deep in mire, with wind, rain, thunder-and-lightning, sleet, hail, snow, all turned on at the full.

With the windows rattling away and hailstones drumming at the paper in the fireplace, snug in bed save for one cold elbow, I have travelled thousands and thousands of mucky miles with these fellows, braving the foulest nights, together crying ‘Bah!’

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foolish-immortals-paul-gallicoThe Foolish Immortals by Paul Gallico ~ 1953. This edition: Michael Joseph, Mermaid edition, 1956. Stiff card covers. 223 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

Paul Gallico was an author who loved himself a plotful gimmick – charwoman longs for and acquires a Paris couturier gown in Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris; young boy transforms into a cat in Jennie; a group of disparate (and desperate) characters are trapped inside an upside down luxury liner after it is submerged in the vortex caused by an undersea earthquake in The Poseidon Adventure – just to give a few examples.

In The Foolish Immortals the gimmick is that old quest trope, the search for the Fountain of Youth, or, as Gallico madly invents here, the wholly imaginary “Village of the Patriarchs” in Palestine-recently-turned-Israel (check out the date of writing) where the locals apparently live to fantastic ages, due to their consumption of a fungus which they cultivate in hidden caves.

Our shady hero is one Joe Sears, one-time high school football star of his hometown, Ventura, California, and now a middle-aged failure of a man, down to his last few dollars for the umpteenth time. Joe is what one might call averse to boringly honest work; he’s something of a con artist, if truth be told, always on the lookout for a profitable mark.

Joe twigs to the potential scam-worthiness of an American millionairess, one Hannah Bascombe, 75 years old and not very happy with the rapid march of time. Inspired by his random encounter with an evangelical preacher reciting the immense ages of the Old Testament patriarchs, Joe has an epiphany. How about he spin Mrs. Bascombe a tale of a secret to, if not eternal, then significantly longer life, to be found in the hills of the Holy Land? He’ll mount an expedition to be financed by the Bascombe millions, skimming the dollars as they go along. Joe’s not quite sure how he’ll end the project, but anticipates that he will be able to slip away quietly with well-lined pockets when Mrs Bascombe loses interest in what is bound to be a fruitless expedition.

Joe is aided and abetted by a youthful-looking ex-Commando, one Levi Ben-Isaac (yes, he just might be Jewish, and his heritage is crucial to the tale), who has a tragic wartime back story and a quest of his own. Ben-Isaac agrees to team up with Joe for the wooing of the elderly millionairess, though things are complicated for both men by the watchfulness of a sharp-witted young woman, niece (and potential heiress) to the rather-sharp-herself old lady.

Midway through, The Foolish Immortals turns into a rather decent road trip novel – gratuitous gun battle aside – with Gallico waxing eloquent about the scenic beauties of the bits of Israel they travel through, throwing in oodles of Biblical references and not a little spiritual-religious philosophizing. Both of which – the impressions of the Holy Land on Americans raised on the King James Version of The Bible, plus some thought-provoking debates on the nature of God and personal belief systems – are in all honesty, probably the best elements of what is otherwise a bit of a dud of a book.

Mrs Bascombe finds, if not exactly what she was looking for, an acceptable (or better?) subsitute for it. As do all of the other characters, ragged ends all neatly tied up, emotional issues all salved and soothed by each person’s personal encounters with God (or some reasonable facsimile thereof) while on their trek.

Paul Gallico’s A-list is a nebulous sort of construct at the best of times; I would hesitate to endanger it with the addition of The Foolish Immortals, so I’m going to gently deposit this one on top of the B-list pile.

He comes so very close to being very good indeed, does Paul Gallico. And I keep reading him, hoping he’ll transcend his inevitable banality, his tendency to weak and frequently mawkish endings. So close, but yet so far…

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chelsea-concerto-front-cover-frances-faviellA Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell ~ 1959. This edition: Dean Street Press, 2016. Introduction by Virginia Nicholson. Softcover. ISBN: 978-911413-77-6. 236 pages.

My rating: 11/10

A stunning memoir.

I set this book gently down after my mesmerized reading, feeling emotionally battered, deeply moved, sorrowful and joyful at the same time, the last for what it revealed of abundant grace under extraordinary pressure.

Olivia Frances Faviell (Frances Faviell was her pen name) was a successful portrait artist living in London’s Chelsea District when the Second World War started. She had a pleasant flat in a lovely house, with a good view of the Thames through three long front windows, congenial neighbours in the upstairs apartment, and all amenities – shopping, restaurants, entertainment – within easy walking distance. Friends came in and out at all hours, for Frances kept open house, and her prior world travels had made her many acquaintances from various walks of life, many literary and artistic as she was herself.

No one was more awake to her good fortune as was Frances, particularly as she was also very much aware of the gathering clouds of war. Frances had been living in Shanghai in 1937 when the Japanese army invaded, and the influx of wounded soldiers and civilians and the panicked crowds of refugees seeking passage out of the battle area were still fresh in her mind as now, in 1938, European refugees in their turn crowded into England. Many of them, coming into Frances’ particular circle, were Jewish intellectuals and artists deemed personae non gratae in their homelands by the ever-more-powerful Nazi and Fascist regimes.

A year of “phony war” later, in 1939, everyone was just a bit dismissive of all of the preparatory fuss still being made, of the First Aid training and rehearsals, the rather rickety bomb shelters hastily erected in gardens and public parks, of the rumours of food shortages looming on the horizon. Many of the London children evacuated in panicked hurry into the country in 1938 had quietly returned to their homes as the bombs failed to materialize, and a vaguely ominous “normal” prevailed.

All this changed upon the night of September 7, 1940, when the German “blitzkrieg” – The Blitz – began, a relentless 8-month-long bombing of London carried out mostly at night (at first), and, later, almost 24 hours of the day. Though no region of the city was unscathed, Chelsea and its neighbouring districts were particularly hard hit, perhaps because of their location in the very heart of London, and relatively near the seat of government at Westminster.

Frances Faviell had volunteered for Red Cross duties during the build-up to the war, and she undertook first aid training, hoping to qualify as a Registered Nurse, and, though repeatedly turned down as a full-time nurse trainee because of health issues, she was deeply involved in refugee care, first aid response, and, to her dismay, in being assigned the task of piecing together dismembered bodies so they could be sewn into shrouds before burial. The bits and pieces didn’t necessarily have to belong to each other, but the general instruction was to make reasonably complete packets of what was left after explosions and subsequent building collapses.

Frances relates her experiences in a hyper-detailed, clinically accurate tone, but there is an underlying, very appealing, very human passion to her reminiscences of this concentrated and horrific episode of British wartime history.

As much as it is an unflinching recording of shared community experience – it is, as evidenced by its title, a very Chelsea-centric account – A Chelsea Concerto also gives a vivid portrait of the writer herself, her private thoughts and feelings, and those of the eclectic assortment of people in her wartime life.

Frances married her second husband, Richard Parker, in 1940. Her brief account of their wedding day is both poignant and humorous. Due to a sudden daylight raid, none of the guests nor – more importantly! – neither of the witnesses showed up for the ceremony. Out into the street Frances and Richard went, finding two stalwart taxi drivers, who cheerfully acted as signatories to the marriage documents, and then tossed a coin to see who would be the one to drive the newlyweds through the rubble-littered streets to the club where their wedding breakfast was to be held. The air raid having by then tapered off, most of the guest showed up for that, though some of their wedding finery was a bit battered and dusty from hasty passage through the besieged areas.

At a later point in the book, Frances rather casually mentions that she is now pregnant, though it doesn’t seem to affect her continuous activity much, for, in common with so many of the women of the time in similar circumstances, personal discomfort was stoically borne as more urgent activities took precedence.

This is a compelling book, and, I believe, a tremendously important one, for the detailed descriptions it gives of life under bombardment.

Check your squeamishness at the door, fellow readers, for Frances Faviell is not much for euphemisms, and the blood, guts, stench and filth of being on the receiving end of bombs is described in some detail, though never needlessly so; the author never wallows in the horrors, but as they are increasingly ubiquitous to the time and circumstances, they are a crucial element of this memoir.

If I can leave you with a final thought, it is that though this is a deeply sad book – so many people die, or go through heart-rending extremities of loss – it is also a supremely likeable memoir. Frances Faviell, along with her precise and analytical artist’s eye, possessed a strong if slightly caustic sense of humour, and also a certain understanding kindness of observation of her fellow-man which makes A Chelsea Concerto something a little bit extra in its class.

Very highly recommended.

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Back cover, Dean Street Press re-issue. I received this book as a review copy in 2016, and had been waiting to read it for a time when I could give it my full attention. I’m sorry it took me so long. Due to my profound admiration for what I found within A Chelsea Concerto‘s covers, I have just ordered (on my own dime), the other four titles by this author which DSP also released last year.

 

 

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requiem-for-a-wren-reprint-society-1955-1956-nevil-shuteRequiem for a Wren by Nevil Shute ~ 1955. This edition: The Reprint Society, 1956. Alternative American title: The Breaking Wave. Hardcover. 250 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Nevil Shute has something personal to say in each and every one of his novels, and the essence of this one is that war, for some, can be very good indeed. The high point, in fact, of one’s life, encompassing as it were the greatest intensity of emotional and physical experience. In fact, Shute is credited with the following quotation, from a 1943 interview: “War is an activity both exciting and fulfilling, if you survive.”

This might seem to be deeply ironic in regard to this novel, as the entire plot of Requiem for a Wren turns on the emotional breakdowns of two members the British armed forces, due to their experiences during the build-up to the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944.

But that is all gone into with sincere eloquence near the end of this very moving novel, which is otherwise told in Shute’s slightly flat and deeply earnest style.

Australian Alan Duncan had a reasonably good war, all things considered. At least until the fighter plane crash which resulted in the loss of both of his feet, and which turned him from being an important cog in the R.A.F. machinery to a mere bystander and user-up of precious resources.

After his recovery from the crash, with prosthetic feet more or less figured out, Alan goes through much personal turmoil as to what his new role in life should be, a position of choice made possible due to his family’s wealth, which makes it possible for him to wallow (his own term) in angst-ridden self-examination without the everyday concerns about actually earning a living.

***Having just re-read this post and realizing that I’ve discussed in some detail the main mystery of the plot, I’ve whited out the spoiler paragraphs. Mouse over the big white gap below to read, or just go ahead and pass over – your choice! Apologies. By the way, the suicide thing – it’s all there in Chapter One, so I’m leaving part that alone.

Alan’s brother Bill has not been so fortunate as Alan; he was killed in a hush-hush wartime operation involving underwater derring-do. Bill leaves behind his lover/potential fiancée, Janet Prentice, an Ordinance WREN who, due to a…(***potential spoiler section starts)… natural skill in marksmanship, has had a remarkable and disturbing experience, being directly responsible for the deaths of seven people who may or may not have been enemy combatants.

Portrait of our WREN Janet, from the first edition dust jacket illustration by Val Biro.

Portrait of our WREN Janet, from the first edition dust jacket illustration by Val Biro.

With the combined deaths of her lover, her father, and – final straw – Bill’s pet dog which he had bequeathed to her – the hitherto deeply pragmatic and competent Janet has a complete emotional breakdown, during which she comes to the conclusion that her killing of the seven alien airmen was a sin which could only be expiated by seven deaths affecting her personally, the final one being her own.

Yes, she commits suicide, in the spare bedroom of the Duncan family’s Australian manor house, in which she is living under an assumed name.

Which brings us to the very beginning of the story, as Alan walks in to that bedroom, and realizes that this seemingly anonymous dead girl is the key to his own desperate seeking for life-meaning after his personal wartime losses.

This is one of Shute’s “full circle” novels, in which he tosses us in at the ending, and then works us backwards through what brought his characters to that starting point. It’s a plot device which can get a little tiresome if encountered too often, but in this case it works very well indeed.

Recommended, emphatically, for Shute fans, and, speculatively, for those new to this author, who might appreciate a slightly simplistic but thought-provoking view of the effects of war on its participants, by a man who lived much of what he wrote about.

Those of you who’ve read this, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts about Shute’s assertion that war is a desirable state for the young to truly “find themselves”. I thought it a troubling concept, but with a ring of truth. “Desirable” only for the survivors, of course!

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bath-tangle-001Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer ~1955. This edition: Heinemann, 1955. Hardcover. 327 pages.

My rating: 7/10

This post is absolutely singing to the choir of Heyerites of whom I know there are many in my circle of fellow like-minded readers. You others, feel free to click away.

I picked up this handsome Heinemann edition of this new-to-me novel a week or so ago, and I’ve just finished reading it.

(And while we’re still at the cover point, don’t you love these Heinemann dust jacket illustrations? Far and away the best of the lot. Impeccably period correct, and so crisp and detailed, with hardly a glimpse of the determined frou frou which the cover art of the many later editions is overloaded with.)

I find my immediate response to the text behind that cover is love-hate, shades of the key troubled romance which drives this completely predictable bit of diverting froth.

I mean, I guessed every single one of the eventual matchups as soon as the characters in question stormed, crept, flounced, swanned, artlessly frolicked etc. their way onto the stage. Too, too easy – the suspense was zero. (But we’re used to that with Georgette Heyer, aren’t we? No prizes for guessing the match-ups!)

Starting things off with the funeral and will-reading of a wealthy nobleman sets the scene quite nicely. Subsequently two of the main female characters are in mourning the whole way through, which drives some of the complications soon ensuing, as our characters mustn’t cross the etiquette line which rigidly defines just what a bereaved widow/daughter can or can’t do in the months following the death.

Fanny is the very young widow; Serena is the somewhat older stepdaughter by a previous wife of the dearly departed; the two confound expectations by being very best of friends, though their personalities couldn’t be more different. Serena is proud and willful, Fanny meek and mild. Each defers to the other, though, and their affections for each other are genuine, which is a lovely touch. United they stand, covering for each other as needed, with varying degrees of talent and success.

Serena’s father has left his widow very well provided for, but he has pulled a bit of a rotten trick on his daughter, leaving her portion of the massive family fortune tied up in a trust administered by – get this! – Serena’s previously jilted ex-fiance.

As can be expected, sparks immediately fly.

Throw in a generous handful of star-crossed lovers, a comically “vulgar” grandmother figure, an overbearing and ambitious mum, and a whole peanut gallery of gossiping upper class observers.

Stir well.

Stand back.

When the mixture stops moving, everyone is where they should be, and the one superfluous suitor has quit the scene, gone off to heal his wounded heart elsewhere.

This is basically the Beatrice and Benedick storyline, with a few tweaks here and there. The chief lovers spend every meeting moment sparring, more or less equally, until manly forcefulness drives the final scene, wherein the proud lady goes all over swoonish and apologizes all round for her wilful ways, though we note that she doesn’t vow to permanently change.

Pleasant enough reading for a rainy autumn evening, of which we’ve had our fair share lately.

I haven’t even come close to tracking down Heyer’s entire Regency oeuvre, but compared to those I’ve bumped up against, I’d have to place this one smack dab in the center of the pack. I liked it quite a lot, but ultimately didn’t love it.

Luckily there are lots more to choose from, and the re-reading value is high across the board. I find myself mulling over a return to one of the top-end Heyers. Perhaps The Quiet Gentleman, one of my favourites so far, to luxuriate in a bit of harmless daydreaming about the anti-Ivo therein portrayed!

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A commentor has just referred to this grand travel memoir which I first read and wrote about in 2012. Re-posting, because it is an enthralling account, as unique as the woman who lived it and wrote about it.

As Far As You’ll Take Me by Lorna Whishaw ~ 1958. This edition: Hammond, Hammond & Co., 1959. Hardcover. 222 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

One summer in the 1950s, while her geologist husband was off an a 3-month, “no wives allowed” prospecting trip, Lorna Whishaw left her Kootenay Lake farm and her 10-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son in the care of a neighbour’s retired ex-nanny mother and hitch-hiked to Alaska and back. This is the account of that journey, and of some of the people Lorna met.

Her husband, apologetic that Lorna could not accompany him on this trip as she had on many others, suggested that she go on an adventure of her own, until the time of his return when they could go off on a family trip together. She mulled over his suggestion, and went so far as to engage the efficient Mrs. Clements (to whom the book is dedicated), but then dreams the weeks away until…

One morning, as I lay watching the dawn on the mountains, I knew that the time had come. And that it had to be a hiking trip. Naturally, I was unprepared. I had expected to take weeks making plans and packing, but suddenly it was time to go and I had not even been into town to the bank.

I scoured the house for money until I had collected thirty-six dollars, mostly from winter pockets. I filled a packboard and a huge sack with all sorts of unsuitable effects. Anything, in fact, I could lay hands on without waking Mrs. Clements. In the end I had collected: two pairs of jeans, one pair of faded blues and some shorts, two cotton shirts, two short-sleeved sweaters, one fisherman’s sweater, three pairs of woollen socks, some crimson skijamas, three changes of underwear, a short fisherman’s slicker and four coloured kerchiefs to tie around the neck.

From the kitchen I stole a small Revere saucepan and frying pan, a silver spoon and fork, an aluminum pie plate, a plastic mug, two pounds of coffee, two pounds of rice, some bacon, salt, pepper and a huge chunk of cheese.

On top of this I stuffed in my sleeping bag, which weighed as much as the cheese, and a ground sheet…

After bidding goodbye to Mrs. Clements, and peeking in on her still-sleeping children, Lorna heads down the road, picking up a ride almost immediately with a well-wisher who warns Lorna about the dangers of the road, but ends with a “Wish I was going with you!” good luck parting. Into the line-up for the Kootenay Lake ferry, and Lorna picks up her first real ride, with a trucker headed to Vancouver. He gets her as far as the MacLeod junction, giving her tips on truck driver-passenger etiquette which will stand her in good stead her whole trip. Past the point of no return, Lorna mulls over her next move.

I turned northward, up the long straight road which seemed to touch the horizon and climb into the pink evening sky. Till that moment I had not really given much thought to the direction I would take. For many years I had dreamed of the far north. It was a dream which I had never allowed to take hold, but it was always with me. Standing in the golden sunset at the start of the flat grey road, I felt an overwhelming desire to go north. I had the time and I had thirty-six dollars. With luck I might actually realize my dream – Alaska and the Yukon!

And, by golly, she does indeed realize her dream. Cadging a series of rides with truckers and tourists and farmers and other good-hearted souls, she makes it all the way to Alaska, where she finds further adventure in trips into the wilderness through the kindness of strangers who quickly become friends. It is not all fun and laughter; many of her drivers and hosts have tragic pasts and difficult presents; Lorna herself has several brushes with disaster and makes some very poor decisions, which she pays for in real danger and frequent discomfort. She always pushes through, though, with a combination of luck and bull-headed resolve.

This was an understated but nicely written road trip saga. I found myself fully engaged and reluctant to put the book down, reading far into the night until my eyes closed on their own. Lorna’s voice is cool, calm and collected, and her dry sense of humour is apparent throughout. I am so glad I stumbled upon this memoir; this is my second reading of it and it is even better the second time around, as I found I slowed down in my reading and really savoured her descriptions and impressions of the country she was travelling through.

Lorna herself must have been as much of a unique character as any of the long-distance truck drivers, game wardens, and Yukon and Alaskan prospectors, lodge owners and fellow adventurers she met. According to scant but intriguing biographical information I tracked down, Lorna Hall was born in 1912 in Riga, Latvia, to British diplomatic corps parents. She grew up in England, but travelled widely, marrying pilot and mining engineer Quentin Whishaw and living in many countries, including South Africa, where she apparently worked on behalf of the civil rights movement, and also as a linguist for the “secret service”, according to her son Ian’s biographical notes. Lorna spoke six languages, and had degrees in French, English and Philosophy.

She moved to the Kootenay Lake region of British Columbia with her family in 1947, and lived in Windermere until her death in 1999. Apparently she only wrote two books, both travel memoirs: As Far As You’ll Take Me in 1958, and Mexico Unknown, in 1962. A real shame; I wish she had published more of her memoirs; from the glimpses of her life she shares in As Far As You’ll Take Me she is definitely a person whom I’d like to hear more from.

There were a few copies of both books on ABE, most quite reasonably priced the last time I checked. If you see a copy of either travel memoir in a second-hand bookshop, I would recommend you grab it, if you think you might enjoy reading of the solo travels of a strong, independent woman with a deep appreciation of other people and the natural world.

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seven steps east ben benson 1959 001Seven Steps East by Ben Benson ~ 1959. This edition: M.S. Mill Co., 1959. Hardcover. 189 pages.

My rating: 5/10*

Nice cover, isn’t it?

Summertime, and the reading is easy.

This reasonably diverting police procedural is my first encounter with this writer, and I’d cheerfully pick up another if it showed up in front of me. It worked well for kick-back time yesterday. Enough puzzle element and moral dilemma discussion going on to keep it from being too black and white, and characters with enough personality to keep them straight in one’s head for the time needed to polish off this slender and more than slightly unlikely mystery.

Seven Steps East is the last title by Ben Benson, who started writing as therapy after spending three years in hospital due to war injuries sustained during his 1943-45 U.S. Army stint of active combat. He wrote something like 17 mystery novels between 1951 and his death at the too-young age of forty-four in 1959, sharing the key investigative roles between two fictional members of the Massachusetts State Police: Trooper Ralph Lindsey and Detective Inspector Wade Paris.

In brief, our main character Ralph Lindsey is given leave to investigate the disappearance of one of his star students, Kirk Chanslor – coincidentally a childhood acquaintance now engaged to be married to Lindsey’s ex-girlfriend – when the young man fails to return from a weekend’s leave from the State Police Training Academy where Lindsey is a part-time instructor.

An anonymous phone call leads Lindsey to Kirk Chanslor’s body, hidden beneath a pile of leaves in the forest, and the hunt is on for the killer.

Benson quickly takes us through the steps of a murder investigation, giving a willing nod to each member of the homicide team. Surprisingly for the genre, Ralph Linsey apparently gets along just fine with everyone in his department; there are no internal feuds or personality conflicts; everyone cooperates wonderfully, united in their goal to nail the bad people of their precinct. No question as to which side the cops are on – they hang out with the angels from start to finish.

Chasing down leads among hotel waitresses and bellboys, the investigation has Lindsey making himself unpopular with a powerful ex-gangster-turned-hotelier. Illegal gambling and a highly successful con-artist – someone who can change their eye colour at will, according to the one clue Kirk Chanslor has left behind – hold the key to the solution.

I guessed the gambling con early on, but the actual killer was a bit tougher to pin down, though when the big reveal came I wasn’t at all surprised.

All in all, a workmanlike piece of writing, with moments of flair and the promise of an interesting development for Trooper Lindsey’s future. A shame this turned out to be Ben Benson’s last book.

*The lowish rating reflects that while the book is readable enough, it is nowhere close to the top of the high standard set by the best in the mystery-thriller genre of its era. Raymond Chandler, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Rex Stout, among so many others.

seven steps east ben benson back cover bio 1959 001

 

 

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The books I have read the past ten days of 2016 are already disappearing from my desk quicker than I can consider writing about them. I blame my husband, who is in his wintertime mode of reading the long evenings away, as it is too dark and cold for his other-three-seasons outside occupations. He’s hot on my heels reading-wise this time of year, as I am spending much of my inside “free” time parked at the computer, working on twin time-consuming projects – our plant nursery website, and our upcoming regional performing arts festival, of which I am registrar and program director. No winter doldrums here!

But I’ve looked in all of the obvious spots, and have re-gathered the January books-to-date. I doubt I’ll be writing at length about much this coming year – it promises to be fully as hectic as 2015 – so I am going to try instead to pull off some mini-reviews as I go along.

christmas with the savages mary cliveChristmas with the Savages by Mary Clive ~ 1955. This edition: Puffin, 2015. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-141-36112-3. 186 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Ordered in late November from England, this one arrived a few days too late for pre-Christmas reading, but it turned out not to really matter, as its time frame covered the extended after-Christmas weeks as well, and it felt most timely for a seasonal New Year’s read.

This slim book is based on the childhood experiences of the author – Lady Mary Katherine Packenham as she was christened in 1907 – as an attempt to share with her grandchildren a vanished way of life. I had assumed its depiction of a rather spoiled, prim and proper solitary child going off to spend Christmas with a boisterous house full of other children was autobiographical, but as it turns out, the narrator “Evelyn” of Christmas with the Savages is a fictional creation, though all of the children are based on real-life models – Mary, her own brothers and sisters, and assorted cousins.

Though marketed by Puffin as a “sweetly charming” juvenile Christmas story, this wasn’t that at all, being rather a gloves-off depiction of the true nature of children by a writer with little use for mawkish sentiment.

Young Evelyn is quite a horrible prig of a child – she treats her governess and nursery maid with snobbish disdain, looks askance at the rowdy crowd of upper class brats she is expected to mingle with, and assiduously courts the company of the mostly disinterested grownups who live their parallel silk-lined lives alongside the slightly grotty sub-world of the nursery.

This is quite a grand little book in its way, and though it wasn’t the “cosy” I assumed at first that it would be, it does have a dash or two of youthful joy, with Mary Clive’s unsentimental depiction of the world of Edwardian upper class childhood including many pleasurable events and the occasional thoughtful moment.

Mary Clive wrote several other memoirs for adult readers, and I am now dead keen to get my hands on them, in particular Brought Out and Brought Up, her 1938 account of her season as a debutante in 1926.

Mistress-Mashams-Repose-by-TH-WhiteMistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White ~ 1946. This edition: Putnam, 1946. Illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg. Hardcover. 255 pages.

My rating: 9/10

This gloriously involved juvenile by the brilliant T.H. White is one I’ve read and re-read with great pleasure over the years, though somehow I never did read it aloud to my own children. Indeed, I rather wonder what the 21st century child would make of its arcane references to art, architecture, history and literature. I suspect a fair bit of what makes this tale so deeply funny would sail right over the heads of the present crop of youngsters, though an interested child could certainly find a lot of scope for click-research!

Orphaned ten-year-old Maria, last of her noble and once fantastically wealthy family, resides in a tiny corner of the crumbling Great House of the Malplaquet estate, attended to only by a solitary old family retainer, and under the sadistic “protection” of her malicious governess and her official guardian, a wicked vicar.

One day, while out exploring the ornamental lake in a leaky punt, Maria decides to visit the tiny manmade island which is crowned by a now-decayed ornate ornamental temple, known as Mistress Masham’s Repose. What she stumbles upon there is a thriving population of Lilliputian people, descendents of escapees from those brought to England by the scheming but bumbling Captain Biddle, who displayed them as sideshow oddities in order to earn money to indulge in his drinking habit, way back in 1700-and-something.

What happens when Maria decides to take on a philanthropist’s role to her discovery – and when her overseers inevitably discover the tiny people – makes for a lively, occasionally philosophically meandering, deeply appealing adventure tale.

Good stuff. This one may well get a proper long post one day, full of quotes and samples of Eichenberg’s brilliantly detailed illustrations.

what maisie knew henry jamesWhat Maisie Knew by Henry James ~ 1897. This edition: Anchor Books, 1954. Paperback. 280 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Ah, Henry James. Master of the densely written social examination. In small doses, I rather enjoy him, though I am beyond grateful I’ve never had to approach his work in any sort of scholarly capacity.

What Maise Knew should be subtitled Adults Behaving Badly, as it portrays some of the least likeable parents imaginable.

Wee Maisie is the focus of her parent’s divorce trial, with each vying for possession of her small person in order to punish the other. A compromise is reached, six months per household, and Maisie shuttlecocks between mother and father, acquiring in the course of affairs two governesses, who shall feature strongly in her subsequent life.

In a few years, Maisie’s terms of residence turn from being maneuvered for to being something to be avoided; now the parental game is to see how long each can force the other to care for the increasingly unwelcome child. In the course of things, Governess Number One becomes Maisie’s stepmother, while Governess Number Two tries to imbue the child with at least a semblance of moral sense, while giving her a modicum of steadfast love and stability in a brutally uncaring world.

Parental partners come and go, until at last Maisie is disowned by both birth parents and ends up as the charge of two step parents, the kind but weak Sir Claude who has married and then been abandoned by Maisie’s mother, and the newly “freed” second wife of Maisie’s father.

Complicated doesn’t begin to describe the relationships in this morbidly fascinating concoction, thought be some critics to be Henry James masterwork. I found it hard to look away, while at the same time struggling with the bogging-down complexities of James’ über-wordy prose.

Pleasure reading?  Well, sort of. It felt like something of an accomplishment merely to make it to its odd and only vaguely optimistic (in my opinion) end.

And what did Maisie “know”? A heck of a lot, as it turns out. As a depiction of how an unwanted child remakes herself into a survivor, this is a telling little tale.

mermaids on the golf course patricia highsmithMermaids on the Golf Course by Patricia Highsmith ~ 1985. This edition: Penguin, 1986. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-008790-7. 233 pages.

My rating: 5/10

A collection of eleven rather grim, sometimes macabre, only occasionally – and then only faintly – humorous short stories. Not really what I was in the mood for, as Highsmith here portrays her characters in the least positive light possible, and I just got sadder and sadder as I worked my way through these, hoping that the next one would strike short story gold. It wasn’t to be.

This rather twisted moodiness was something Highsmith made rather a thing of in her novels as well, come to think of it. Mr. Ripley being what he was, for one example.

Several of the stories end in suicide, and one of the most subtly disturbing concerns a Down’s Syndrome child’s secretly resentful father and a brutally random murder.

People in these gloomy tales generally wander about with festering grievances which precipitate the plot lines. Endings fade into grey, and most of them left me feeling a bit suspended in space, as if I’d missed that last step – but with no subsequent bang! of a landing. Just floating down, landing with a suppressed whimper.

Not a collection I’d whole heartedly recommend, though there are compensations in Highsmith’s more than competent styling.

TheYearTheYankeesLostThePennantThe Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglass Wallop ~1954. This edition: Norton, 1954. Hardcover. 250 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Now this was an unexpected pleasure. A happily romping fantasy concerning a middle-aged real estate salesman’s inadvertent pact with the devil, and his transformation into a younger baseball superstar who comes out of nowhere (literally!) in order to assist his favourite but dismally unsuccessful baseball team, the Washington Senators, break the clockwork-precise New York Yankees’ long winning streak.

Now, I’m not at all a baseball fan, but one doesn’t have to be to appreciate this cheerfully light tale.

Will our hero Joe be able to hold the devil to his bargain? And what of the middle-aged wife so staunchly dealing with her sudden loss of a husband with good natured stoicism? And then there is the most beautiful woman in the world, who falls in love with the reinvented Joe, and who has a Faustian dilemma of her own to work out.

This is the best-selling novel behind the successful musical Damn Yankees, which I must confess to never having seen. But now I want to!

bill bryson road to little dribbling 2015The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson ~ 2015. This edition: Doubleday, 2015. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-385-68571-9. 384 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Do I need to talk about this one? Surely not, for those interested will likely already have read it, and the internet will of course be rife with reviews, though I haven’t actually checked to see, having purchased the book as a Christmas gift to my husband merely on spec, seeing as how we have enjoyed (to various degrees) everything else the author has ever written.

Bill Bryson delivers the goods as expected, though this redux of the earlier Notes from a Small Island shows American-by-birth Mr. Bryson in full curmudgeon mode, versus his earlier honestly appreciative if frequently critical take on his adopted country, Great Britain.

Basically, England is going to hell in a handbasket, and our Bill is both mournful and moved to righteous annoyance. Occasionally he finds something to appreciate, and is honestly fulsome in his praise. I laughed out loud here and there, but I also occasionally cringed, because the author’s tone is so harshly judgmental. Well, generally with good reason, but still…

It was more than okay, but not one of his best. Has the Bryson bucket gone to the travel memoir well one time too many? I wonder.

*****

And I bailed out on two books. Just couldn’t get into them, though I may try again one day.

Iris Murdoch’s The Green Knight defeated me at page 80, after a long rambling set-up filled with the complicated back stories of way too many characters. Weird things going on with phrasing and punctuation, too, which had me stopping in confusion and re-reading whole paragraphs to see if I was missing something. I wasn’t, but the editor certainly was. Browsing ahead, there are some intriguing passages, and I hope to return one day to enjoy them. Perhaps.

One Winter in the Wilderness by Pat Cary Peek sounded extremely promising, being presented as the diary of Peek and her wildlife biologist husband one isolated winter in the Idaho back country at the Taylor Ranch Field Station. It might have picked up steam farther along, but the first few sections were just the tiniest bit plodding, as if the writer were trying a mite too hard – and mostly unsuccessfully – to turn her repetitious diary entries into something more literary. Apparently the Idaho Book of the Year in 1998. Fair enough. Back on the shelf, perhaps even into the giveaway box, for someone else to take a go at.

 

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