Archive for the ‘1960s’ Category

Chocky by John Wyndham ~ 1968. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1968. Hardcover. 184 pages.

This was John Wyndham’s last novel published during his lifetime, though there have been several others pulled from the “not quite ready” pile, dusted off, tidied up and published posthumously.

I wish I could say that this book is brilliant; one of the best; a fitting end to Wyndham’s string of creative and very readable sci-fi almost-disasters.

But it isn’t.

I found it to be a bit of a dud, in fact.

Caveat: the following rantlet is stuffed with spoilers.

Young Matthew, 11, the adopted child of loving parents and the older brother of an exceedingly pert younger sister, Polly, starts exhibiting some unusual behaviour. He talks (apparently) to himself, pausing between comments as if listening to another side of the conversation. He starts asking precocious questions, such as why are there two separate sexes versus a much more efficient hermaphroditic, self-fertile single parent, and where is the earth exactly in relation to everything else in space. He starts to do his math homework in binary code, and makes telling comments regarding the inefficiencies of the internal combustion engine.

A psychiatrist is consulted, for his family is starting to fear that some sort of mental illness is developing – for who knows what his background is, after all? Maybe his biological parents were…you know…subnormal…

Turns out that Matthew isn’t exhibiting schizophrenia at all; the voice inside his head belongs to a being from another planet way out beyond the boundaries of known space, seeing as thoughts/mind communications aren’t bound by pesky restrictions such as speed of light or sound.

Chocky, as Matthew christens his alien mind-friend, turns out to be an advance scout of another civilization, a eco-missionary, in fact, questing mentally across the void of space to find other thinking creatures, and to share a vision of better living (nuclear energy! hydroplanes! solar power!) with them. Matthew has been chosen as a communicant because of his open young mind. Too bad he’s just a naïve child, as his unusual behaviour leads to all sorts of complicated situations.

The popular press gets turned on to something weird happening after Matthew, who can’t swim, miraculously rescues himself and Polly from drowning, Chocky having taken over Matthew’s movements at the critical time and turning him into a superhuman swimmer. A similar plot twist involving artistic skills is floated.

Eventually everyone gets tired of all the press attention; Chocky decides to end the relationship in order to de-complicate Matthew’s life – he/she (Chocky’s sex is vague) has been allowing himself/herself to get too emotionally involved with the subject, not at all scientific, you know.

And that is pretty well that.

Potentially creative premise, which went absolutely nowhere.

I kept waiting for things to get properly interesting; they never did. This might have made a better short story than a novel, and it turns out that that’s close to the actual background of Chocky. First published as a novella, it was padded out to novel size the following year, no doubt in order to take advantage of the well-selling Wyndham name.

Points off for lame plotline which drops the ball early on, and more points off for the sexism which is absolutely overt in this novel, with some very sketchy attempts by the author to explain the weaker-sex complications of the feminine psyche, with all of the female characters – wee sister Polly, Matthew’s adoptive mother, his aunts, his art teacher – being depicted as silly, meddlesome, frequently foolishly moody and/or hysterical, and definitely lower on the intelligence food chain than the Big Important Men who get all of the plum roles.

Oh, yeah, there’s also a pointless mysterious kidnapping, as some secret “officials” whisk the young lad away and subject him to a series of injections – truth serum? or? – before decanting him onto a street in a faraway city.

Yawn.

4/10. Generous, because despite its poorness (John Wyndham was capable of much better!) I did read it to the end. Luckily it is a shortish book.

Margaret Atwood has a slightly kinder take on Chocky, and Wyndham’s stuff in general, in this 2015 article from Slate.

 

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The Satan Bug by Alistair MacLean ~ 1962. Originally published under the pseudonym Ian Stuart. This edition: Fontana, 1974. Paperback. ISBN: 0-00-612510-7. 223 pages.

A certain small thrift store which is on my book hunting rounds has long had a corner shelf dedicated (as the faded cardboard sign states) to “Men’s Books”, and though I didn’t pick up this particular Alistair MacLean there, I well might have, for this is absolutely a guy’s book, with bells on.

Which is not to say that women don’t read him as well, and with enjoyment, but if one were to mark down the names of those purchasing MacLean’s books over the years, I’ll bet they’re predominantly male.

For this is properly masculine 1960s’ capital-T Thriller, an Action Novel in every sense of the term, full of Manly Passion and not a little Violence; the already damaged hero (“Old war wound acting up, pay it no mind, I’ll be fine…”) gets smacked around severely. He engages in a series of brutal fisticuffs with assorted larger-than-him villains, is pistol-whipped, tortured, thrown down from high places, kicked, stabbed, shot at…pretty well the works.

1962 1st edition U.K. dust jacket, with MacLean’s pseudonym on cover.

But does this stop him? No! Of course not.

Broken ribs strapped up, oozing bandages in place over the rawer body parts, multiple concussions blithely dismissed, Pierre Cavell soldiers on and gives as good as he gets, brandishing his trusty Hanyatti revolver – which I’d never  heard of before, you learn something new every day when reading these old books, and hang on! – Google says that there ain’t no such thing; AM made it up! – so there you go; not much else in this gloriously ridiculous novel is all that plausible but I confess I am disappointed just a little bit to find out that the deadly Hanyatti is mythical, because that’s the sort of trivia that sticks in one’s brain, ready to be dusted off one day in the future to bedazzle in appropriate conversation…oh, heck, I’m digressing madly, where was I? –  to triumph at last in saving the day not just for Britain, but for the entire world.

Take a breath. Excerpt time.

“It’s a gun all right,” I assured him. “A Japanese Hanyatti nine-shot automatic, safety-catch off and indicator, I observe, registering full. Don’t worry about the scotch tape over the mouth of the barrel, that’s only to protect a highly delicate mechanism. The bullet behind will go through it, it’ll go through you, and if you had a twin brother sitting behind you it would go through him also. Your forearms on the table.”

Scotch tape over the barrel? The bit the bullet blazes out of? “To protect the delicate mechanism”? Methinks our author is having some private fun of his own, here.

Not only is our action hero tough, he’s relentlessly witty, quipping his way through the tale much to my easily-amused readerly pleasure, though his fictional comrades occasionally express annoyance at Pierre’s excessive verbal frivolity.

Movie poster, 1965.

So many of Alistair MacLean’s fast-moving and violence-containing thrillers read like ready-made action movie screenplays, and by golly, look here; someone else thought so too. With the scene changed to America versus Britain, and the hero’s stalwart – and stunningly beautiful – wife changed to a girlfriend, and who knows what other tweakings. “Loosely based on” most likely applies; I haven’t seen the movie myself, but can tell from the description that it departs from MacLean’s version in a number of ways, though the key idea remains.

Which is that in a top-secret research facility in rural England, not one but two deadly toxins have been created, based on botulism and polio. One dissipates and loses its virulence over twenty-four hours (Type A, in the red-topped flask), the other (Type B, blue top), is rather more deadly – a saltspoonful has the potential to turn the earth into a barren, people-less planet.

Both toxins are stolen, apparently by a madman intent on using them to enforce his demands for world peace – these things trump the nuclear weapons being brandished between the super powers – but the reality is something rather more prosaic.

Our Pierre sorts it all out, and – was there ever any doubt? – saves the day.

One doesn’t read Alistair MacLean for anything but entertainment, and The Satan Bug is all of that.

8/10, for the unstoppable Pierre Cavell, not to mention his charming spouse, Mary, who plays her part in the drama with appropriate grit and steely resolve, all the while maintaining her lovely looks, even under batterment by the bad guys. (See? That’s supposed to be her on the cover of my Fontana paperback, way up at the top of the post. She’s lost her shoes, it seems…)

Here are a few extras I bumped into while poking around on the internet: The original 1962 dust jacket of the American first edition, and two more 1965 movie posters. Enjoy!

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The Owl Service by Alan Garner ~ 1967. This edition: Collins, 1998. Paperback. ISBN: 0-00-675401-5. 224 pages.

Alan Garner’s melding of Welsh myth and 1960s’ teen angst tale has, over the years, become something of a legend of its own.

Pondered over by literary folklore scholars and a wide range of students from its publication fifty years ago to today, analyzed to the nth degree, filmed in 1969 with immense popular success, this novel just goes on and on.

Here’s the set up.

Teenage English step-siblings Alison and Roger accompany their recently married parents to Alison’s dead father’s house in Wales. It’s technically Alison’s house now, for it was left to her in her father’s will, bypassing her mother to avoid death duties. Roger’s father is divorced from his first wife, who was blatantly unfaithful to her husband; this situation has left Roger with a serious chip on his shoulder.

On site are three Welsh employees: gardener Huw, housekeeper Nancy, and Nancy’s teenage son Gwyn, odd-job boy.

Huw is viewed by the English visitors as something of a half-wit; he tends to do a lot of standing around gazing into the distance, and is continually making strangely phrased pronouncements. (Big Hint: Huw is not the fool he seems. Or at least not in the conventional sense.)

Nancy seems normal enough, if a bit high-strung. She is very much wound up about class distinctions, and warns her son Gwyn about a.) fraternizing with lowly Huw, and b.) getting chummy with upper-class Roger and Alison.

Gwyn pays this no mind, being attracted to all three of the forbidden ones for vastly different reasons, though he is about to run afoul of Roger. (And Roger’s dad. And Alison’s mother. And his own mother. Well, pretty well everybody, really. Except for Huw. This is another Big Hint.)

Shortly after the newly blended family’s arrival at the Welsh country house Alison, in bed with a minor ailment, hears persistent scratching in the ceiling of her room. Gwyn investigates, going up into the attic through a hatch in the ceiling. There  is evidence of rodent activity, but more intriguingly, Gwyn finds a complete set of elaborately decorated china dishes stacked in a corner. He brings a plate down with him to show Alison, and hey, presto! – we’re off.

The plate depicts an arrangement of flowers, but Alison immediately sees that the pattern also forms an owl, and she is mesmerized by it. She decides to trace the pattern onto paper, matching up body and head, and when done cuts the completed paper owl out. Over and over she does this, with some mysterious results: the paper owls disappear overnight, as does the pattern from the plate. Hmm…

Here’s the plate. For real. Seeing this pattern is what set folklorist Alan Garner off on the plot of this novel.

This is where Garner steps in with his retelling of the tragic Blodeuwedd story from the medieval Celtic folklore epic The Mabinogion. In this story, a man is cursed to never have a human wife. His wizard uncle then creates a maiden out of flowers for his nephew; the two wed, but the maiden falls in love with another man, and the two plot to murder the husband. This sets off another curse in which the flower maiden is turned into an owl, doomed to spend eternity replaying the story in each new generation. (Or something to that effect.)

So here we have Alison being possessed by the shade of Blodeuwedd, with Roger and Gwyn taking on the roles of her two lovers. Metaphorically speaking, that is. No actual lovemaking takes place, not on the page, anyway. And not really out of scene, either, from what hints Garner gives us. Though there is no doubt that everyone is thinking about it.

All. The. Time. Teenagers, raging hormones, the whole supernatural replaying of a tragic love triangle. Yeah, it’s a hot, hot summer, in more ways than one.

There’s a load of other stuff all going on concurrently. Alison’s confliction with her attraction to Gwyn (and maybe to Roger?) which her mother fears and forbids. (Interesting side note on the mother: she drives the story from the background; we never see her, though all of the characters refer to her and appear to view her as one who must not be upset or disappointed or crossed in any way.)

Roger’s father, though wealthy, is of a lower social status than his new wife, which is good for some malicious digs from here and there. Also, his divorced wife is notoriously promiscuous, going from man to man (or so rumour has it) with the result that son Roger is a prickly mass of resentment and fear that anyone will mention her to him.

Gwyn is feeling stuck between two worlds himself. Brought up by his mother, father unknown, he has managed to attain a scholarship to a prestigious school, and has flourished there and surpassed his own mother in social standing, which she bitterly resents, though she has wished this for him.

Roger and Gwyn bristle at each other, swapping insult for insult. In between times they go about together in relative harmony. Alison floats about, never committing to anything, tracing and cutting out her paper owls with increasing intensity, and giving by her very presence – all unawakened virginity – a generous dose of sexual tension to the scene.

As the summer goes on, the supernatural echoes from the awakened curse grow louder and louder until things come at last to a dramatic head. The climax is cut short by an unlikely saviour, in a much-too-simple way, and we are left at the end of this sketchy sort of tale wondering what the heck just happened, really.

An interesting novel, this. It really shouldn’t work, but for the most part it does. The ending is utterly inconclusive; the spell is laid much too easily; we know this can’t possibly be the final solution to Blodeuwedd’s reawakening.

Or is it?

This is a tough one to define a numerical rating for. As a novel, it’s hard to really get into, hard to find a conventional narrative thread; it’s all muddled up.

But on the other hand, one can’t quite look away. If you have the background knowlege of the Bloedeuwedd story, things click a lot more readily; later editions have all sorts of forewords and afterwords and author’s notes, but to read it cold (as it were) must have been a bit mind-bending when the book first came out.

Promoted as a “young adult” book, this one is indeed that. Older adults will find it intriguing, too. As might younger readers, though it might well induce a few nightmares. Those claws scratching in the ceiling, those clover flowers made of claws, those vanishing owls…

Brrr.

Okay, then.

7/10.

 

 

 

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Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham ~ 1960. This edition: Penguin, 1995-ish. Paperback. ISBN: 0-140-01986-3. 204 pages.

Okay, let me say this right up front, so you’ll know I’m coming from a place of love in the critique which follows.

  1. I am a John Wyndham fan.
  2. I like science fiction as a genre and at one time read an awful lot of it.
  3. I like science fiction because (a.) it can be a whole lot of fun because it allows for creative world building or alternate histories, and (b.) it has some reliable general rules, first and foremost being that the “science” must be logical in relation to whatever the fantastical world is it is taking place in.

This book drops the ball on that last one. So much so that I have to break down and call this a Very Silly Book, even taking into account its pro-feminist theme, which, as a female reader, I find is always a nice thing to bask in.

Trouble With Lichen begins with a funeral, one attended by vast crowds of mourning women, sobbing out their sorrow at the loss of one of their own. “Our beloved Diana…her unfinished work which she now can never finish…irony of fate…will of the Lord…” intones the presiding bishop, as the choir croons and the distaff masses nod and sigh.

Fourteen years earlier, young Diana Brackley is graduating from high school. Both beautiful and brilliant, she breaks the heart of her mother by deciding to go on to university, following the calling of the biochemistry lab rather than the domestic kitchen.

Newly employed at the prestigious research labs at Darr House, presided over by Francis Saxover, a personable middle-aged scientist with a terminally ill wife and two adolescent children, Diana flourishes in her chosen field.

One day, while working with samples of lichen collected in Manchuria, Diana stumbles upon an intriguing discovery, and divulges it to her boss. His interest takes a nosedive when his wife dies, and Diana continues her investigations after hours, as it were, not wanting to involve Francis in what might be pointless investigation when he is still in the throes of grief.

But Francis is not so devastated as all that. He is also tinkering with the lichen, and he and Diana independently come up with the same conclusion: they may have discovered a natural anti-aging compound – “antigerone”.

The implications are astounding, and require some serious consideration, in particular because the lichen in question exists only in a small geographical area, in a Chinese-held territory close to the Russian frontier. Which means that the production of the antigerone will always have to be extremely limited, unless someone can crack the biological code and replicate the active ingredients in the lichen. In the meantime, the antigerone remains a closely held secret, with only Diana and Francis privy to its effects.

Stuff happens. The years roll by. Diana inherits a small fortune, and quits her employment at Darr House in order to set herself up as the head of a an exclusive beauty salon catering to the female connections of wealthy and powerful British gentlemen.

“Nefertiti” is a posh salon indeed, and as the years go by, its longtime clients look better and better in comparison to their peers. Almost like they are, well, younger. Like time has slowed down for them. Very interesting.

Yup. Diana is dosing herself and her best customers with antigerone. But – get this – without their knowledge. Kind of like the way Francis Saxover has been dosing himself and – secretly, without their knowledge – his two children. But that story is about to break.

Francis confesses all to his now-adult children, who are not as shocked as you would think, merely insisting that their respective partners be given the potion as well. Which gives us one of the most delicious episodes of this goofy novel when Francis’s money-hungry daughter-in-law Jane, bitterly disappointed to find out that she may have to wait a very long time indeed for Francis to die and leave his son a lavish inheritance, pulls a very sneaky trick to gain the secret of the antigerone for her own nefarious and profitable purposes.

Diana then divulges her own plot, which is that she has intended her regiment of life-extended rich ladies to be the leading force of a new world for women, in which they will be able to either defer having children until after they have a career, or to have a full life after their offspring are safely raised. Yes, they can now do everything! Antigerone will buy them the one thing that has stood in the way of female empowerment all these centuries: TIME. (Okay, I can kind of buy into that myself. Wouldn’t it be loverly, to have a twice-as-long lifetime to get it all done in?!)

The sticky point for me was that these particular women are all under-employed already. They fritter their days away, la la la la. Diana insists that once the boredom of a century or so of this really sets in these ladies will set themselves afire with enthusiasm for doing world-changing stuff. Me, I don’t think so. Why aren’t they already hopping to it, seeing as their offspring are well off their hands with nannies and all? Negating that little theory about women wasting their best years in child rearing being what’s stopping them from taking part in real world-changing work.

We then proceed to have press conferences, a riot or two, kidnappings, torture, death threats, and, finally, an assassination of sorts. China finally wakes up and takes notice of the lichen situation and proceeds to slam the door shut for any further harvest. End of story? Well, not quite.

What an utter snob Wyndham comes across as with this concoction. Wives, daughters and mistresses of the elite are worthy of the antigerone; all others in the lower strata, so sorry, but you get to maintain the status quo. Because, well, just because. But that’s okay, because it would be wasted on you anyway, and your menfolk would never stand for it.

This tale is so ridiculously illogical. The science is never adequately explained; Wyndham takes the ring road round the core of that particular city. There are great gaps in the narrative. No one reacts as they would in real life. Everybody’s very, very restrained, so über-British stiff-upper-lip, refusing to get too excited, except for the odd well-behaved mob, easily controlled by a handful of stern bobbies. The men are all very cool with the women getting the good stuff; it takes chapters and chapters before someone says, “Hey! Men might benefit from this thing, too!” You think?! The Chinese caught on right away, once they twigged to what they had on their territory. The Brits – well – took them a while.

Whole thing is silly. Silly, silly, silly.

Points off for absolute failure to think the plot through in all of its potentially intriguing ways, and for failure to apply logic where most needed.

Points back on because it is pretty funny in places, and yeah, it is pretty cool to have the women getting all the perks, and because Diana offhandedly dismisses marriage as something she might do later when she gets around to it. (Though that might be up for debate; her anti-marriage stance might not be as absolutely disinterested as she makes out.)

Point in favour for letting our lady-scientist also be deeply interested in beautiful clothes and cosmetics.

Another point in favour, for a fairly decent “surprise” ending. Which I must say I saw coming with flags flying from quite some way away. (Wyndham likes to tidy things up.)

Still silly.

6/10.

 

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Greensleeves by Eloise Jarvis McGraw ~ 1968. This edition: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. Hardcover. 311 pages.

This vintage “young adult” novel  is a gorgeous bildungsroman concerning the daughter of celebrities who is given a chance to temporarily reinvent herself as a nobody.

As a (once-upon-a-time) homeschooling parent I was already familiar with Eloise Jarvis McGraw from her often-recommended books for slightly younger readers such as The Golden Goblet and The Moorchild, and I generally liked her work.

But I’d never heard of her 1968 novel Greensleeves until bumping into my cyberfriend Jenny’s post, wherein she calls Greensleeves one of her favourite books ever, and goes on to review it in glowing terms.

I was immediately interested, as we share similar tastes in a number of genres, and set off on a quest for a long-out-of-print copy for myself. Rare indeed, this one was, with prices as expected, but I took a deep breath and went for it, and by golly, Jenny was right. This is a charmer.

So I’m going to cheat a bit here, and send you over to read what Jenny says, because she’s pretty convincing:

Jenny’s thoughts on Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s Greensleeves

So if you’ve been and done what I said to do and have read Jenny’s post and then come back here to see what else I have to say, I’ll pad things out a bit.

Our heroine Shannon/Georgetta/Greensleeves is an utter mass of insecurities on the inside, though she presents exceedingly well on the outside, a state of affairs I am sure a lot of us can relate to, right? Even well beyond those brutal teenage years, when we’re trying to figure out who the heck we are, and how to find friends, and the complications of romantic love and the freight train of sexual feelings and how to be true to yourself when you don’t even know what that really means because life is so utterly complicated.

Yes? Of course. Yes.

So all of that aside, the story is absolutely entertaining, as Shannon reinvents herself and puts her new persona across with mixed results to a crowd of new acquaintances. She goes into her new world thinking one thing, finds herself rather mistaken, does a mental flip, and then despite her personal epiphany finds out that people are just going to do what they’re going to do regardless of well-intentioned meddling from outside forces. The only cage door you can open is your own, because the trickiest latch is on the inside, and sometimes the cage is where you need to be. And sometimes not.

Okay, that’s the message, which I seem to be stuck on this morning, despite my intentions of telling more about the actual story.

This is my third time reading this book, and it’s still pure pleasure. It belongs on the same shelf as I Capture the Castle, another of my cherished vintage “teen” reads which defies its ghettoization as a “young adult” book, whatever that is supposed to mean.

I mean, good is good, right? Whether “targetted” for a ten-year-old, sixteen-year-old or fifty-year-old. I don’t think we change all that much inside our heads, no matter what the externals do. Or so I am finding in my own case. Essentially I am the same person I was way-back-then, with of course layers of experience and what I like to think of as wisdom <insert smiley face here> tempering the highs and lows of my emotional range.

Greensleeves is sweet but not mawkish, thoughtful but not preachy, frequently very funny, and also a little bit heart-rending in places. It’s utterly relatable in its essentials, in a vintage sort of way. It is an absolute period piece, and I say that with an approving nod, because it captures elements of its era wonderfully well.

So, if this sort of thing appeals to you, you will be happy to hear that the novel has recently been republished (in 2015) and can now be found both new and used at exceeding reasonable prices. It’s part of the “Nancy Pearl’s Book Crush Rediscoveries” reprint series, with a foreword by the aforementioned Nancy Pearl, who I must confess I have zero familiarity with.

Obviously I’m way out of that loop, but here is what Wikipedia says about Nancy Pearl, and on the strength of that, and of her championship of Greensleeves (among other neglected books) I say “Hurray” for her!

Oh, yes. My rating. 9.5/10.

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The Little Girls by Elizabeth Bowen ~ 1964. This edition: The Reprint Society, 1966. Hardcover. 256 pages.

The verdict is in regarding me and Elizabeth Bowen.

I do believe she gets the nod.

Though I found The Little Girls rather hard going at times, I came out the other side of this sometimes confusingly complex novel a convert. I can see why she’s such a polarizing writer; people seem to either love her or find her needlessly convoluted.

After this particular reading experience, I have to agree with the convolution-critics, but the end result is a rather compelling thing. Memorable in the longer term, I suspect it will be. And definitely one to re-read, if only to come to it with a questing eye to all of the clues the author provides in relation to its nebulous ending.

Dinah Piggott, a comfortably well-off widow in late middle-age, has embarked upon a project to assemble a collection of objects representing the people of her nowaday, to be sealed up in a cave at the bottom of her garden with a view to eventual discovery by a future race, once this one has vanished. Her friends and family are on the whole cooperative in each donating the requested twelve expressive objects, though Dinah has just come to the realization that her amassing collection contains a discouraging number of duplicates: strings of artificial pearls and pairs of nail scissors (some broken) are conspicuous by their frequency.

No matter, she is firm in her resolve to create her message to the future, though when she is confronted with the logistics of actually sealing the cave up and not being able to mull over the objects, she is taken aback by her own feeling of reluctance to let it all go into the dark, never to be seen (by her) again. Which triggers another train of thought, related to the time capsule concept.

Fifty years ago, Dinah – “Dicey” –  was an 11-year-old schoolgirl at St. Agatha’s, and she and her two closest cronies – accomplices? – had, at Dinah’s instigation, buried (in dead of night) a coffer containing a secret personal object from each of them, a collection of animal bones, and a letter in an invented language written in its creator’s blood.

Now Dinah has had a sudden compulsion to reach back into the past, to find her two friends, to engineer a reunion, and to disinter that long-buried coffer together, as a way to recapture the close companionship of their shared youth.

Dinah posts a series of deliberately provocative newspaper advertisements (…”if alive but in hiding, the two should know they have nothing to fear from Dicey, who continues to guard their secret…”) in five different newspapers which have readership throughout England, hoping for a bite.

And yes, indeed, both old friends respond, though with caution rather than full-out enthusiasm. For fifty years have passed since their shared school days; the Great War and the Hitler War have taken place in the meantime, with subsequent societal reorderings. The headstrong and occasionally wicked “little girls” of 1914 are now sedate older women with certain positions to uphold in their respectable social circles. Whatever they were then has not carried through to the now.

Or has it?

The centrepiece of this multi-layered novel is a flashback sequence to those schooldays, when clumsy, imaginative Diana(Dinah/Dicey), talented and indulged dancer Sheila(Sheikie), and academically gifted Clare(Mumbo), were a triumvirate to be watched with slightly horrified caution by their elders as well as their peers.

Dinah was something of the ringleader in schoolgirl exploits, though the others were hardly follow-blindly types; all contributed something vital to their partnership, and none were afraid to bluntly dismiss anything that approached each girl’s definition of “nonsense”.

This is not a gentle tale, though there are episodes of great tenderness. Dinah, for all of her apparent aggressiveness of character, surprises us by the amount of dedicated love she inspires in those she in turn holds dear, though we don’t find this out until the final episode, after an unwitnessed and undescribed near-tragic mishap befalls one of the key characters.

The novel’s ending is ambiguous, though I chose to interpret it as hopeful. Peace, if not entirely made, is seen as becoming ultimately possible between those of our characters most at odds.

The Litte Girls, for all its challenges to the reader – that sentence structure! – is brilliantly written, frequently humorous, occasionally off-putting, and ultimately deeply poignant. Great gaps are left here and there in the narrative, causing the reader a certain amount of discomfort as one struggles to realign the narrative, but it does all fall into place as episode builds upon episode, and those disparate clues I referred to early on show their importance to the whole.

Ah, yes, and there is a garden, wherein some key scenes take place. It is Dinah’s, and it is one of our clues to her particular character. (This passage also serves as an example of Bowen’s writing style. See if you can get through it all in one go, without backing up here and there to try to find where you’ve strayed outside the lines!)

On each side, the path was overflowed by a crowded border. Mauve, puce and cream-pink stock, double, were the most fragrant and most crushingly heavy: more pungent was the blue-bronze straggling profusion of catmint. Magnificently gladioli staggered this way and that – she was an exuberant, loving, confused and not tidy gardener; staking and tying were not her forte. Roses were on enough into their second blooming to be squandering petals over cushions of pansies. Flowers in woolwork or bright chalk, all shades of almost every colour, zinnias competed with one another. And everywhere along the serpentine walk where anything else grew not, dahlias grew: some dwarf, some giant, some corollas like blazons, some close-fluted, some velvet, some porcelain or satin, some darkening, some burning like flame or biting like acid into the faint dusk now being given off by the evening earth.

Gorgeous, yes?

An auspicious way to start of 2018’s reading year.

The personal rating: 8.5/10

 

 

 

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The Removers by Donald Hamilton ~ 1961. This edition: Fawcett Gold Medal Books, 1963. Paperback. 176 pages.

Sometimes pictures are the best shortcut. Here we are then, with all you really need to know.

Oh, you didn’t really think I’d let this go without writing something more, did you?

I’ll keep it ultra-brief.

Think period piece, Cold War era kill-or-be-killed action fiction.

Beautiful women, in various shades of dangerous, dot our hero’s personal landscape.

Russian spies (or are they?), drug dealers, and an atomic sub-plot.

Helm drives an old pickup truck; his current love interest a ladylike shiny-new Mercedes ragtop; his ex-wife’s new man a sweet green Jaguar. Vroom vroom.

Blood flows, lots and often.

Matt Helm adds some interesting scars to his vast collection.

And you’ll never look at an Afghan hound the same way again.

In other words, good manly entertainment, clipping along in top gear speed.

My rating, you ask?

10/10.

Because it was so much better than I expected it to be. (My expectations were admittedly quite low.) Turns out that I couldn’t put it down.

Number three in a series of something like twenty-three. Or is it twenty-seven? Hang on. Twenty-seven. Thank you, Wikipedia.

Next stop, ABE, for the two preceding books, because these build on each other in good serial fiction fashion.

 

 

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