Archive for the ‘1990s’ Category

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling ~ 1997. This edition: Bloomsbury, 1998. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7475-32679-9. 224 pages.

This is the book that started a pop culture empire.

Isn’t it astonishing how certain things capture the collective imagination, and what springs out of what was first a nebulous idea in someone’s brain? The only things I can think of comparable to how the Harry Potter multi-media phenomenon took off are the Star Wars sequence and, to a much lesser extent, The Lord of the Rings.

The social buzz that started with the publication of this first book in what would turn out to be a seemingly endless string of ever-bulkier sequels and spin-off novelty projects was well-deserved; this is indeed a frequently humorous novel with broad appeal, but I must say I personally have dodged the bullet of full-on Harry Potter addiction that so many have succumbed to.

I did read the first three novels in the series with great enjoyment when I had novice readers in the household, so it was rather nostalgic for me to revisit this one with an eye to its entry on the Century of Books list.

In a nutshell, this is your typical school story with a twist, in that it includes a parallel world to the one we inhabit, in which magic is part of the everyday, and there is a certain amount of back and forth between the two cultures. I strongly suspect J.K. Rowling read her fair share of Diana Wynne-Jones, because the parallels are certainly there, though Rowling took things out of the mainly-for-juveniles realm as her series grew and flourished.

A book as popular as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone went on to become needs no extra words from me, but in case you have been living in a secluded cabin in a deep dark forest and have only now been introduced to the internet, here is the publisher’s blurb:

Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy. He lives with his Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia and cousin Dudley, who are mean to him and make him sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. (Dudley, however, has two bedrooms, one to sleep in and one for all his toys and games.) Then Harry starts receiving mysterious letters and his life is changed forever. He is whisked away by a beetle-eyed giant of a man and enrolled at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The reason: Harry Potter is a wizard!

Harry Potter’s story is that of the classic underling who comes into his own.

Orphaned under mysterious and shocking circumstances as a wee baby, Harry experiences a childhood of repression and psychological abuse by his “blood relations” – his mother was Aunt Petunia’s scorned sister – so his initiation into his true place in the magical world is doubly poignant. Harry finds his first true friendships with fellow students Ron and Hermione, and father figures in the school headmaster Dumbledore and school groundskeeper Hagrid. He discovers he has unsuspected athletic abilities, along with innate magical powers, both of which come in handy as he finds himself facing an astoundingly evil figure, Lord Voldemort of “the Dark Side”, the killer of his parents and now the threatener of all the good in Harry’s twin worlds.

The story is fast-moving and engaging, and deserves most of the good things which has been said about it. If you haven’t read it, you probably should, if only for a deeper understanding of all of its pop culture references in our nowadays world.

I suspect you will find it both better and worse than you expect. Better because it is a very competent example of the classic school story and the downtrodden young hero coming into his own, and quite possibly worse because you may then think, as I did and still do, that there are a lot of other similar books out there which quite simply didn’t catch the buzz that this one did.

Dissected, there isn’t a whole lot of new in this one, aside from some imaginative interpretations and enhancements of classic school scenarios. All of Rowling’s ideas are essentially secondhand, but obviously her recreation of what came before has been a stupendously winning one.

My rating: 10/10

 

 

 

 

 

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The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith ~ 1998. This edition: Abacus, 2003. Paperback. ISBN: 0-349-11675-X. 233 pages.

Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill. These were its assets: a tiny white van, two desks, two chairs, a telephone, and an old typewriter. Then there was a teapot, in which Mma Ramotswe – the only lady private detective in Botswana – brewed redbush tea. And three mugs – one for herself, one for her secretary, and one for the client. What else does a detective agency really need? Detective agencies rely on human intuition and intelligence, both of which Mma Ramotswe had in abundance. No inventory could ever include those, of course.

(Is that an Isak Dinesen ripoff in the first line? I’m thinking so.)

Our heroine in this low-key character portrait/detective novel is one Precious Ramotswe, thirty-four years old, once married but long deserted by her handsome but brutal jazz musician husband, beloved daughter and sole heir of the late Obed Ramotswe, who sells her father’s prized herd of cattle (with his prior permission) in order to set herself up in business.

Always an observant sort of person, and provided by nature with a strong moral sense, Mma Ramotswe sets out to solve problems, to right wrongs, and perhaps to lay a few personal ghosts.

This likeable book full of homey snippets of wisdom caught the attention of the reading public – could it have been helped along by its two Booker Judges’ special citations? Its Times Literary Supplement International Book of the Year designation? – and took off like a small but blazing rocket. Seventeen sequels have followed, all of them with long and quirky titles, and all just as charmingly readable as the first.

Or at least so I am assuming; I think I stalled out at number six or seven, vaguely surfeited by the constant good-natured mullings and musings of this small-town wisewoman.

Don’t get me wrong, I fully intend to catch up to Precious and her companions one day. Just not quite yet.

I don’t think I need to get into plot synopsis and suchlike here; this is such a well-known tale that the internet is crowded with all sorts of reviews. Suffice it to say that it was a notable book way back in 1998, and so serves as an ideal Century of Books candidate for its year.

And it was fun to re-read this rainy Canadian Thanksgiving Sunday, as I sit in my comfiest chair and nurse a worsening head cold passed along to me by a friend’s winsome but overly affectionate (at least while contagious) youngsters.

My rating: 8/10.

 

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A Peaceful Retirement by Miss Read (pseudonym of Dora Saint) ~ 1996. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1996. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7181-4123-7. 152 pages.

Poor Miss Read! She has been banished to a dark corner of our bookcases by fiat from my spouse/co-reader – he can’t abide her, which distresses me (mildly) because I quite like these subfusc village dramas. If we can call them dramas; that might indeed by overstating the magnitude of the action here.

I tried once again to stick up for Miss Read when he caught me deep(ish) in this one a few days ago. “I know they’re not exactly exciting,” I said, “but think of it this way: when nothing else seems to click they’re decent place-holders, requiring no effort whatsoever on the reader’s part. They’re not bad books. Maybe a bit priggish occasionally…”

“Aha!” he said. (Or an exclamation to that effect.) “Priggish. Exactly. I think that’s why they annoy me.”

So there you have it. One man’s opinion. But I will still read them, especially when nothing else appeals. So soothing, like vanilla pudding or something equally mild.

This is the last book in the long Fairacre series (20 books), which started back in 1955 with Village School, a fictional account of the observations of headmistress “Miss Read” in a two-room school in the invented village of Fairacre.

Rich with well-observed detail, ex-schoolteacher Dora Saint’s many low-key novels and novellas give a fascinating glimpse into ever-changing rural England over the four decades in which they are set. The narrator in these particular books (there is also another non-school-centered series set in another fictional village, Thrush Green), happily unmarried spinster-by-choice Miss Read, is a woman of stern morals and quiet wit; she observes, records, and only very occasionally makes an out-loud statement on things which pass under her eye. She has learned early on that the schoolmistress inhabits a specific niche in the village hierarchy – slightly above shopkeeper, just below vicar – and woe betide the unwary soul who steps out of place or makes unpopular pronouncements.

In A Peaceful Retirement, our Miss Read has recently suffered several mild strokes. Her doctor has advised leaving her work, which she does with good grace but some regret; she feels like she hasn’t quite finished with that job, but she sets her sights on taking care of herself, fully relinquishing her status and retiring to a small village a short distance away from Fairacre, Beech Green.

Here Miss Read discovers that an apparently free woman still in her capable years is seen to be the natural choice for a vast number of volunteer positions; she must become adept at saying “No!” rather forcefully in order to maintain even a modicum of inoccupation; the “peaceful” of the title is ever so slightly ironic.

So what happens in A Peaceful Retirement? A whole lot, but not much.

Our narrator copes with an old admirer, now unhappily married, who comes to lay out his woes for her advice. Another long-time suitor persists in proposing to her at every meeting; she mulls over the possibility of accepting his suit, but settles for the status quo – frequent drives and teas and dinners – with each returning to one’s own solitary abode each night.

A trip is made to Florence with a friend; nothing in particular happens; it was a pleasant change and gives much scope  for happy reminiscence in the subsequent months. A week’s substitute teaching in her old school brings home to Miss Read how pleasant retirement is; she is rather disturbed to find how tired she is after coping with children all day long; she knows she has made the right decision.

A window of new interest opens up in her life with the commissioning of an update to the local church’s historical write-up; this leads to the keeping of a journal, and, yes, the first chapter in a book about a village school…

This was Dora Saint’s last novel; she was 83 when it was published; time to lay down her own pen and move gently into what one hopes was a happily peaceful retirement, for real.

This book did what it was supposed to do: it satisfied the reading urge, it was amusing, it was restful. Judged for those reasons, and not in comparison with richer fare and stronger stuff, I must give it its due. 8.5/10. (Yes, Miss Read is indeed occasionally priggish; she lost her point-and-a-half for certain unnecessarily  judgemental attitudes here and there.)

 

 

 

 

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No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod ~ 1999. This edition: McClelland and Stuart, 1999. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7710-5567-6. 283 pages.

One of a long tradition of Canadian Family Saga Novels, set, as many of them are, in the ruggeder bits of Eastern Canada. In this case Cape Breton, with discursions into northern Ontario uranium mining country and the meaner streets of Toronto.

The particular (fictional) branch of the MacDonald family which this novel concerns came to Cape Breton from Scotland in 1779, and the tale of their journey is now legend with their descendents. There’s a lot of referencing Bonnie Prince Charlie and the rebellion of 1745 – the MacDonalds were “for” – and Culloden is discussed in the 1950s and 60s as if it happened just last week.

The title of the novel comes from a quote attributed to General Wolfe before the Battle of Quebec on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, that the Highlanders (including those of the MacDonald clan) will be useful in the assault on the French because “they are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall.”

Yes, indeed. And fall MacLeod’s MacDonalds do, in various tragic ways.

Here’s the plot summary from the flyleaf of my 1999 edition:

That was a bit of a cheat, me using the scan versus condensing things myself. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to rehash things, and here’s the reason.

Deep breath.

This is it: No Great Mischief is, for me, something of a dud.

That said, let me back up and sugarcoat that statement by agreeing with its many fans that parts of it are excellent. The opening chapters are brilliant, as are large sections throughout. It’s deeply and lovingly evocative of a very unique place. Life affirming even though brim full of tragic, too-soon deaths. Gloriously funny here and there. And earnest and sincere and sincere and earnest and so blinking repetitive that I kept thinking I’d somehow gone back a chapter or two without noticing. Oops, sugar-coating cracked just there, didn’t it?

I guess my biggest problem with this novel is that the thing just doesn’t convince; the family legends have been told too often; they are approaching facile in how they trip off the tongue of each subsequent teller. It’s the storyteller Alistair MacLeod presenting the tale of the storyteller Alexander MacDonald who is in turn repeating the stories of every generation before him. The material is over-handled. Oh, and every few pages everyone breaks into song. Crooning away in Gaelic, in perfect harmony. How nice, but it lost its effect after the tenth time or so.

The best bits are the contemporary passages, and even those are repeated and repeated, dulling the impact of the perfectly captured moment. I wanted to shout “Stop! Right there! You have me in the palm of your hand! Leave it there!” Nope, wham wham wham, MacLeod keeps driving his point home.

And the ending was ridiculously contrived. A book toss was a near, near thing.

So there we have it.

I wanted to love this novel so much. I came to it open to loving it, eager to embrace it. And then, despite its fine qualities, it ended up repelling me by the time I made it to the end.

Your experience may differ. As might mine on a second reading, if that ever happens.

The rating for right now, then.

Despite my cruel words, I will give No Great Mischief its due. Let’s say 8/10, because it was a good novel much of the time, and came so close to winning me over.  I am truly sad that it was ultimately disappointing, because I had been looking forward to it as a treat-to-myself on the strength of its stellar “Great Can-Lit” reputation, and I thought it would be an easy 10.

 

 

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The Moorchild by Eloise Jarvis McGraw ~ 1996. This edition: Scholastic, 1998. Paperback. ISBN: 0-590-03558-4. 241 pages.

What with my recent reading of Greensleeves, Eloise Jarvis McGraw is on my radar, so when I was bookshelf browsing for my next diversion and noticed The Moorchild tucked away with a bunch of other juveniles too good to dispose of though we have no actual children in residence anymore, I thought, “Aha! It’s meant to be.”

The Moorchild is a book aimed at a rather younger crowd than Greensleeves, in both topic and writing style, though McGraw does her intended audience the grace to assume they are capable of absorbing some non-standard vocabulary terms; the book is stuffed full of what can only be termed dialect.

The novel is Medievalish Britainish in setting, but it’s not meant to be historical fiction or anything approaching it; it’s purely fantastical in theme, drawing heavily from Celtic and Old English folklore. It’s a fairy tale, in fact, in the truest sense of the term.

Young Moql, growing up among the Moorfolk – a race of what would be understood to be old-style fairies, tricksy and malicious versus twinkly and benign – is discovered to be deficient in several important skills; namely in making herself invisible and in shape-shifting.

As the possibility of being seen will endanger the Band as a whole when they venture out into the light of day and forage among the humans, this creates something of a problem, though mostly for Moql, as the Moorfolk are not endowed with anything approaching empathy as the humans know it. (Well, neither are the humans in our tale, as we will find out shortly, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

Turns out that one of the Moorfolk ladies has had a dalliance with a human, and the resulting child – as babies will no matter what the species – shares qualities of both her ancestries. She’s neither this nor that, poor little hybrid, through no fault of her own.

So, what to do with Moql?

Get rid of her, of course, by swapping her with a human baby. Due to time being different inside the Moorfolk’s magical mound, and various powers involved in such exchanges, near-adolescent Moql finds herself trapped in a human infant’s body, surrounded by excruciatingly painful anti-fairy items – salt, rowan wood, various herbs, and in particular iron. Which is really a problem, as her “father” turns out to be the village blacksmith…

Moql, now Saaski (as that was the name of the infant she has replaced) proceeds to make her new parents’ lives sheer hell, until she overhears her “grandmother” putting forth the theory that the baby is indeed a changeling, and that there are some fairly drastic solutions as to getting rid of her.

Saaski mulls this over, there in her confining cradle, and decides that survival is worth adaptation, which forms her basic strategy through the next ten years of her life.

For the humans all around her, with the notable exception of her “parents”, and, eventually, her grandmother (the village herb woman/healer), are not particularly kind to a child with such differences as Saaski soon demonstrates. She’s unusually strong, very fast and agile, her fingers and toes are too long, her skin is dusky and her hair pale blonde, her strangely-set eyes are not blue like those of her parents but a changeable violet in colour. Yup, something’s not right with that one.

You know where this is going, right?

When misfortune strikes the village, Saaski becomes the scapegoat as the superstitious and malicious villagers seek for an easy target for their ire. Luckily she has at least one true friend, and one thing that the Moorfolk want, which turns into a bargaining chip as Saaski, who has slowly become possessed of a conscience and a set of the better human emotions, decides to use it to repay her human foster parents for their own misfortune in losing their true baby and being saddled with Saaski instead.

Being a children’s book, the ending is on a positive note, though with enough mystery to leave the reader wondering what will be happening next with Saaski as she sets out on her greater adventure, cut loose from her ties with both her foster family and her true parents.

This is a well written example of its genre, and it deserves its 1997 Newbery Honor Medal.

I do have a few niggling criticisms, though. I thought that the book bogged down somewhat midstream; it felt like it was coming to its highpoint about half way through, but it took forever for the foregone conclusion to be worked out. For of course Saaski is going to go back into the Moorfolk’s Mound, to retrieve a certain something in exchange for her valuable possession.

What that something is will not be a surprise to anyone even slightly versed in fairy lore and changeling tales, but for quite some time it’s like that problem doesn’t exist, and when it is at last acknowledged we get to breathe a big sigh of relief.

The Moorchild might make a decent Read-Aloud; heads-up to those considering it that the centre section goes on and on and might cause excessive exhaustion in the reader-aloud, though there is enough action that you probably won’t lose your audience.

Bad stuff happens, which is rather the whole point, but good stuff eventually prevails, as long as we don’t think too hard about those intolerant villagers, who get to go on as usual, their gang mentality intact and their target of united malice removed. Can’t help but wonder who they’ll turn on next…

Here’s my rating: 6.5/10.

Probably not a must-read book, though meaty enough for some appeal beyond the junior set. A bit too predictable in its plotting and outcome in my opinion, though that’s not necessarily a demerit in the fairy tale world.

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nore than a rose heather robertson 001More Than a Rose: Prime Ministers, Wives, and Other Women by Heather Robertson ~ 1991. This edition: McClelland Bantam, 1992. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7704-2525-9. 439 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This may well be my one of my shorter book posts of the year, for the best of reasons. More Than a Rose delivers just what it promises on the package, as it were, and very well, too.

The title comes from a passionate statement by the unforgettable Margaret Trudeau back in 1976, when she stated in a newspaper interview that she wanted to be “more than a rose in my husband’s lapel!” Maggie then went on to demonstrate that the quiet seclusion of an Ottawa wife was not for her, becoming increasingly outspoken on all sorts of subjects (and incidentally causing her husband and his political party no end of tense moments) until the marriage irretrievably broke down. Margaret Trudeau is still very much in the news, now as a spokeswoman on mental health issues (she has been very frank about her own bipolar condition in two memoirs), and as the mother of Justin Trudeau, currently poised to take his own run at the Prime Ministership of Canada in the next federal election.

More Than a Rose consists of condensed portraits of many the supporting (and occasionally not-so-supporting) women in Canadian politics, from Isabella Macdonald (wife of Sir John A.) to Mila Mulroney, who was still fulfilling her role as the lavish-living Canadian “First Lady” in 1991, when this book was published. There are a few mistresses, mothers, and female politicians profiled as well, and every vignette offers a deeper glimpse into the world of Canadian politics.

I took this book along as my holiday reading on our recent road trip, and I enjoyed it greatly. It is impeccably referenced, and I found the anecdotes and the words of the subjects – there is much use made of letters and journal entries – quite engrossing.

Isn’t it interesting how the more we read, the more details we discover to enrich our view of history and the world around us? This is one of those books, adding another layer to our country’s story.

Author Heather Robertson had a long and stellar career as a journalist, novelist, and non-fiction writer. Those interested in Canadiana should take note of that name; her writing on any topic is easy reading.

Rated as 7.5 and not higher only because so much had to be left out. Each one of the women profiled would be worthy of a book-length treatment; the constraints of this project must have made editing a challenge.

 

 

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“Well, Mom, are you going to make your deadline? Why aren’t you off typing?” inquired my daughter just a little while ago, and with her encouragement (“Get in there!”) here I am, tap-tappity-tap-tapping.

So – five more books to write something about and tick off the Century of Books project list.

Here goes with four of them.

Best one first.

a kid for two farthings wolf mankowitz 001A Kid For Two Farthings by Wolf Mankowitz ~ 1953. This edition: Bloomsbury, 2010. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-60819-048-5. 128 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

What an absolute sparkler of a little book. Probably more properly a long short story, or maybe, with allowances, a novella. Whatever it is, it’s a winner. I’ve seen it referred to as “robustly sentimental”, and that description is absolutely bang-on.

6-year-old Joe lives on Fashion Street in Spitalfields in London’s East End, as did the author as a child, so one must assume that the abundant local colour here is taken straight from life. The time period is not specified, but as the writer was born in 1924 and the story is full of firsthand observations, one would assume it takes place in the late 1920s/early 1930s timeframe. It has a between-the-wars feel and the references seem to fit that period.

Joe and his mother have been left behind while the man of the family heads off to Africa where he’s involved in the garment trade, having something to do with selling clothes and boots to soldiers and such. Joe desperately wants to join him there but as every penny his mother makes as a piecework-basis hat trimmer goes to rent and groceries their tickets to Africa are not coming anytime soon.

Anyway, Joe spends a lot of time downstairs with his landlord, Mr Kandinsky the trouser-maker, and Mr Kandinsky’s apprentice Schmule, who, when he isn’t working, is deeply involved in body-building, having not-so-secret dreams of one day being Mr Europe, or even Mr World or – dare he raise his eyes so high? – Mr Universe. In the meantime Schmule is involved in serious wrestling, working his way through the ranks in order to win enough bouts to earn some prize money to buy his fiancé of two years a proper ring, so her fellow workers at the Gay-Day Blouses factory will stop teasing her about her no-good boyfriend.

Mr Kandinsky wants to buy a proper steam-pressing outfit, so he can run a more efficient business and not be always fighting with old fashioned flatirons, but in the meantime he gets on as best he can, clothing the neighbourhood’s men and trying to live up to the standard set be his late father, who was an accomplished jacket maker, no less.

Three sets of wishes, such small ones in the great scheme of things (well, aside from Schmule’s Mr Universe dreams, perhaps), but so out of reach. But when Joe learns from Mr Kandinsky that unicorns – now extinct in England but still to be found in other places of the world, such as, well, maybe Africa? – have the power to grant wishes, off he sets to the animal market to see if he can acquire a unicorn for himself and his friends.

What Joe finds is a small, white animal, looking something like a goat kid, but wait! – there is a telltale single horn bud – can it possibly be…?

Mr Kandinsky assures Joe that he has indeed found his heart’s desire and so Africana, as the mysterious creature is named, joins the household. He’s a quiet little creature, not much good at walking, and he doesn’t seem to grow very fast, but Joe has faith that Africana’s magic is just waiting for the right time to develop…

This is an adult fairytale, so along with the attainment of hearts’ desires you know there lurks a certain amount of heartbreak to keep things balanced, and if you expect something tragic to happen at the end of all this, you’re sort of prepared for what occurs. But sad though that something is, everything ultimately works itself out, and we walk away smiling. A bit ruefully, but well content.

This was made into quite a successful 1955 film, which I haven’t seen but which appears to have a strong fan base among vintage movie buffs.

family money nina bawden 001Family Money by Nina Bawden ~ 1991. This edition: Virago Press, 1992. Paperback. ISBN: 1-85381-486-5. 250 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Liked it at the start, hated it here and there in the middle bits, liked it again as it drew to a close. Ended up with a great big question mark regarding the fate of the main character, and I actually cared, so I guess it was a success, hence the final very decent rating.

Widowed Fanny Pye, heading into old age unencumbered financially and owning a now-rather-valuable London house, worries her children. Mother shouldn’t be living alone, they say to each other with furrowed brows, for what if she should, say, fall down those stairs? Or be violently burgled? Or…well…you know…attract the wrong sort of man, out to romance her for her money? And that lovely house is now worth a lot of money, and we’re going to inherit it anyway, and we could really use the cash now….

Fanny knows what they’re thinking, and lets it all slide by, for she knows her children love her and only want what’s best for everyone, but the status quo is about to change dramatically. Fanny witnesses a fatal assault, and in the melee is knocked down and concussed, with resultant temporary amnesia, and her whole world changes. Never before fearful – or having reason to be – Fanny is now well aware that she may be the only witness to the circumstances of a young man’s death. The police have given up questioning her, but she has a niggling idea that there is something troublingly familiar about a young man she now seems to be encountering everywhere…and details of that awful night are slowly surfacing in her healing brain…

Here’s a good précis, courtesy of Kirkus:

Bawden (examines) the concerns of middle-aged children for their mother, who has, violently and abruptly, become a problem to be solved–while the mother battles through a thicket of difficulties, alone. There is love, but also sprouting amid the children’s loyalty are telltale tendrils of greed and a monstrous self-pity. Fanny Pye, 60-ish widow of a career diplomat, confronted three young toughs who had beaten another man senseless on a London street, and was herself knocked unconscious. Lying in the hospital, with children Isobel and Harry standing by in shock, Fanny can’t remember the incident (“memory had its own logic; a code which was hard to break sometimes”) – but she returns to her substantial home (all her husband left her) to reclaim it and herself. Her children worry about a companion. Memory, however – “a dimly seen cloud” – holds a surprise, as eventually floating up from Fanny’s store of buried nightmares is a chance remark revealing a nasty crime. Meanwhile, Fanny has been making decisions that give the children shivers. Will she sell the house and give the money to a friend? And what of her single contemporary Tom, who seems to be a permanent fixture? After all, Fanny’s house, both children agree, represents “family money,” and therefore is not Fanny’s to dispose of. (Among friends and neighbors there are echoes of such trans-generational conflicts – with the middle-aged frustrated and harried, and the old careening off in their own way.) Fanny is almost defeated by her secret knowledge of a murder and by her own panic, but she conquers fear, and, in an amusing close, flies off on a holiday plane leaving Harry bothered, bemused, self-deceived, and drawing the wrong conclusions…

Deeply, darkly funny, as fictional tales which hit close to truthful home can be, and the ending was something of a quiet gasper, leaving us as it does literally up in the air.

Flawed, but the merits cancel out the iffy bits. Best for appreciators of Pym and Brookner, I think.

under the hammer john mortimer 001 (2)Under the Hammer by John Mortimer ~ 1994. This edition: Penguin, 1994. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-023656-2. 253 pages.

My rating: 6/10

I found this collection of episodes in the life of “Klinsky’s of London” auction house art experts Ben Glazier and Maggie Perowne just a little too light on plotting and character development to be worthy of my high expectations from its writer. It reads like a series of episodes for a television production.

Oh, wait. That’s exactly what it is! No word on whether it was written up before, after, or in conjunction with the screenplay for the Meridian Broadcasting 7-episode series.

So here we have a semi-elderly man in partnership, in friendship and in unrequited love with a younger woman. Ben and Maggie work together in the Old Masters section – Maggie is Ben’s boss – and have a complex personal relationship which is nevertheless entirely a thing of clichéd innuendo. Though Maggie dallies with handsome young men, bedding them with casual enjoyment while Ben, off in the wings, studiously thinks of other things, the two strike obvious sparks when they’re together, and though they keep things mostly platonic the partnership seethes with romantic possibility – will they? won’t they? ah! not this time around…

The book contains six self-contained chapters, each concerning a questionable art antiquity – much of the work of the department is in proving provenance and exposing clever forgeries. We have a possible Bronzini, a fabulously valuable Russian icon, and a possible unknown Dickens manuscript, as well as case lots of vintage wine, a maybe-Titian, and a questionable piece of modern art.

All good for a lot of romping about and educational bits of dialogue regarding the art thing in question. It reminded me strongly of Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy books (concerning a promiscuous antique dealer who is constantly mixed up with forgeries, good and bad deals, amorous adventures, and an astounding amount of murder), though Mortimer has a much stronger grasp on linear plot structure than Gash does. That television-episode-screenplay thing rearing its head versus a full-length novel which can go hither and yon before its at-length conclusion, of course.

Under the Hammer is acceptably clever and adequately readable and ultimately light as a feather. Good for holiday reading and times when one doesn’t want to think too hard. The writing is good if not great, and the characters manage to entertain more often than annoy, though occasional too-farcical moments had me grumbling a bit to myself.

I’d hoped for more, particularly as I read it soon after the much better Dunster, but it is what it is, and lightweight is okay too.

the maze in the heart of the castle dorothy gilman 001The Maze in the Heart of the Castle by Dorothy Gilman ~ 1983. This edition: Doubleday, 1983. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-385-17817-4. 230 pages.

My rating: 3.5/10

Oh dear. This was really pretty rotten. Even allowing for its intended grade school/teenage audience.

It’s been lurking on our “juvenile fiction” shelves for years, and I remember trying to foist it off on both of my children with little success, but I’d not read it cover-to-cover till now. I would have quit with it midway through except it did fit in with a missing century year and it was a slight thing (with nice large print, thank goodness) and soon over.

Here we have an allegorical tale concerning the importance of staying true to oneself or something like that. Or maybe it was about being in control of one’s own destiny, and the importance of letting go of bad stuff to make room for good. I think that was it.

The publisher’s promotional write-up reads like this:

He Was Only Sixteen When Tragedy Struck….

His name was Colin, and although he still couldn’t believe it, his parents were gone, both dead from the plague. Scared, confused, and angry, he sought out a monk who told him about a haunted castle on Rheembeck Mountain — and the old, strange wizard who lived there. Perhaps there Colin would find a way to stop his pain….

But instead of answers, the wizard showed him a locked oak door. Beyond it lay an ancient stone maze that led to a mystical land, a place where bandits roamed freely, where people lived within dark caves, afraid of the light, where cruelty was the way of the world, and where beautiful girls were not always what they seemed.

The wizard opened the oak door and invited Colin to enter. If Colin came through this strange place alive, he might indeed be able to ease the pain in his heart. But once inside, there could be no going back….

Okay, there’s a backstory to this thing. Happens that Dorothy Gilman (yes, the same person who wrote the Mrs Pollifax mysteries, which I could never get into so my dislike for TMATHOTC is perhaps predestined) wrote a novel in 1979 called The Tightrope Walker, a mystery-suspense-coming of age tale in which the heroine constantly references a meaningful book read in childhood which saves her sanity in adulthood after her mother’s suicide and a bunch of other traumatic experiences. The book in question being named The Maze in the Heart of the Castle. So several years later Gilman decides to actually write the fictional book she fictionally referenced. Some of the work was already done, because she’s apparently included lots of quotes from the non-book in The Tightrope Walker, so she built the real book around those and voila! – inspirational allegorical tale.

Our Hero Colin enters the Maze, immediately figures out a way out – over the surrounding wall – leaving behind everyone else who is afraid to venture into the unknown, preferring the bleak familiar land of entrapment. He has numerous adventures and cleverly thinks his way out of all of his tight spots, is seduced and abandoned by a heartless bad girl, and eventually finds a true friend, a true love, and the way into the safety of the kingdom he set out to seek, the key to which was really inside himself all the time.

I thought this was a waste of paper. But lots of people like it – see Goodreads for confirmation – so I will quietly step aside and leave them to admire in peace.

 

 

 

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