Archive for the ‘Century of Books – 2022’ Category

The Family on the Top Floor by Noel Streatfeild ~ 1964. This edition: Random House, 1965. Hardcover. 248 pages.

Goodness, look at that calendar! Almost March. Well, I’ve been getting in a respectable amount of reading time – it’s still dark in the evenings and we are still snowbound, so outside garden work hasn’t ramped up yet – and the pile of books-I-want-to-talk-about is really stacking up. I likely won’t get to them all, unless I whip off a slew of 100-word micro-posts (now there’s a tempting thought!) but hey, we do what we can.

Suspend your disbelief – and maybe your expectation of quality storytelling – when you crack the pages of this deservedly obscure Streatfeild juvenile.

Malcolm Master is a stunningly successful television personality. The whole of England hangs on his every word, and of course his cleverly produced Christmas Eve broadcast is something extra special. Malcolm stares the camera right in the eye that fateful night, and declares in a voice quivering with apparent sincerity,”Christmas is not Christmas without children. You cannot guess what this old bachelor would give to wake tomorrow morning to the squeals of delighted children opening their stockings.”

Be careful what you ask for, Mister Master. Because guess what appears on his doorstep bright and early Christmas morning, just in time for the milkman to carry inside?

Yup. Four wee babies. Two boys, two girls, all of approximately the same age, and each apparently well fed and cared for and accompanied by anonymous and sadly inane Christmas cards from four different mothers.

I was quite enthralled by this development, thinking to myself, “Aha! Children of our hero’s indiscretions, a la The Whicharts!” (For those unfamiliar with that odd little tale, it’s essentially Ballet Shoes for grownups, with the children landed on the doorstep of their father being the offspring of his ex-lovers.)

Well, this idea was soon put to rest, as these random babies do not get any backstory at all, and no one ever seems to inquire about their origins, and they are immediately absorbed into the household which is conveniently staffed with an assortment of “cottage loaf shaped” mother figures who glom on to the babies and whisk them away to be raised in seclusion on the top floor of Malcolm Master’s stately home.

The children are named after nursery rhyme characters and are raised in a certain degree of luxury, because they soon are introduced to the starstruck nation as Malcolm Master’s “quads”, stars of numerous television commercials advertising a wide range of products with attached sponsorship deals which clothe and feed and house the children with the very products they are used in touting.

Malcolm himself really doesn’t have much to do with the children – they’re very much in the background as he goes about whatever it is he does to keep his own star shining bright, so when disaster strikes in the form of a heart attack brought on by overwork, and a subsequent sea journey to recuperate, the children and their well-meaning pseudo-mothers are left to get on with things as best they can. For Malcolm has inexplicably not had the foresight to arrange for the care and feeding of his many human responsibilities, and money starts to get tight. Oh, dear, what shall we do? Who will care for the children now that the Master money has (apparently) run out? They may have to go to an ORPHANAGE!!!

Um, okay. I can think of quite a few options, but hey! – most of them would be quite sensible and not very exciting, plot wise.

This is essentially the hackneyed Ballet Shoes formula, first trotted out to great success in 1936, transposed to 1964, with the Wonderful World of Television and the Master’s children’s eventual preoccupations and probable future careers – actress, costume designer, cameraman, film engineer – taking the place of the Fossils’ performing arts focus.

There’s so much more I could say, meanly deconstructing this flat little fairy tale episode by episode, but I will leave us right there. A peek at the Goodreads page shows quite a few readers retaining very fond memories of this one, and that’s fair enough. I came to reading Noel Streatfeild as an adult, so there is no childhood nostalgia to temper my reactions to the more far-fetched of her literary efforts.

Her best books – of which there are a respectable number – are very good indeed. Her middle-of-the-pack efforts – very readable in a “light entertainment” sort of way. And some never really get off the ground, and for me this was one of those.

The Children on the Top Floor starts out with oodles of promise, and it could have been charming and quite funny, but unfortunately it soon fizzled out. With 248 pages to work with, it’s not as if there were space constraints, but Streatfeild must have been jaded when she picked up her pencil on this one.

To be fair, an awful lot of 1960s’ and 1970s’ children’s books were pretty dire – it was, after all, the beginning of the incredible proliferation of young audience targeted “themed” and “problem novels” still plaguing us today, churned out with hyper-focus on the chosen topic to the neglect of strong character development and vivid storytelling.

My rating: 3.5/10.

My late mother, book-a-day reader extraordinaire, who always was happy to delve into a quality “children’s book”, would have categorized this one as a “dull thud”, and that’s where I sadly have to put it too.  This writer could do better. If you don’t remember it as a favourite childhood read, perhaps best appreciated by the Streatfeild completest.


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Jumping Off the Donkey by John Barnsley ~ 1983. This edition: Minimax Books, 1983. Hardcover. 191 pages.

Found in the book stacks when doing a spot of spring cleaning the other day. I have no idea where I picked up this obscure autobiography – thrift store? charity book sale? – but it has provided me with a few hours of mild but genuine enjoyment, and that is always pleasing.

From the flyleaf:

John Barnsley is the pen name of a former country solicitor who began working life, after being educated at Derby School and Clifton College, as a journalist on weeklies in Hexham, Jarrow and South Shields.

Leaving journalism John Barnsley became a solicitor’s articled clerk one year before the outbreak of the Second World War. In that war he saw service in England, Egypt, Palestine, Eritrea, Cyprus and the Dodacanese Island where he was Custodian of Enemy Property. After VE day he was sent to Norway where, after a brief spell in charge of a POW camp he was called upon to defend Germans accused in Oslo of war crimes in two celebrated trials.

John Barnsley’s writing style might best be described as tongue-in-cheek with a leaning to the ponderous; one can almost feel his elbow nudging the reader’s figurative ribs on occasion. Not offensively so, though. I am sure Mr. Barnsley would have been a boon to dinner parties post-retirement, when he could let himself go with carefully anonymous tales of some of the characters he encountered throughout those years in the law.

While the law firm anecdotes are generally amusing, the strongest parts of this slender account are the more serious bits – the wartime references and in particular the account of acting as the defense lawyer for several German war criminals.

A bit of an eye opener, that is, and shines a light on a viewpoint not often recognized or discussed – that of the legal counsel speaking for the accused in atrocious crimes.

Criminal law was not Mr. Barnsley’s forte once his military days ended; he returned to civilian life and the workaday business of assisting in settling estates and property transactions and the like.

An interesting find and I am glad to have read it; a good example of this type of “common man” memoir in that it brings a touch of humanity and understanding to one person’s part in our shared society and history.

My rating: I think it deserves a 7.5/10, when considered among other similar minor memoirs. A competent and engaging example of its genre.

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The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein ~ 1951. This edition: Signet, circa 1975. Paperback. 175 pages.

Flashback to the school library rotating paperback rack!

I first read Robert A. Heinlein as a teen in the 1970s. I found some of his more extreme libertarian and offhandedly sexist views a bit problematic way back then, but kept reading because of the storytelling – it was pretty darned good for sci-fi for its time.

How does it travel to 2022?

Hmm. Still problematic. Mostly for his patronizingly chauvinistic views towards women. His ideal female? Built, beautiful, sexually willing, good in the kitchen and very, very quiet.

Misogynistic attitudes possibly put aside – though I’ve met a disturbingly large number of these folks, both male and female, who have vintage 1950s’-type views on the equality of the sexes – today’s “libertarians” seem to have ideological views right on par with Heinlein’s, so I guess you might say he was ahead of his time – or a product of his time? – in regards to his frequently trotted out diatribes on the dangers of socialism.

But on to the story. (Remembering that it was written in 1951, so the action is set some six decades in the future.)

It’s 2007. Flying saucer sightings have recently been reported all over the U.S.A., and one is discovered to be on the ground in the country outside Des Moines, Iowa. Initial radio reports from the scene  indicate that the occupants are alive and … then … silence. When transmission resumes, it’s all very, “Ha ha ha! Just a couple of teenagers pulling off an elaborate hoax! Nothing to see here, folks, nothing to see…”

Scenting danger, a trio of state security secret agents heads for the site of the mystery spaceship, and discovers something exceedingly unsettling. Strange, mollusc-like creatures are parasitizing humans, nestling along their spines and controlling their thoughts and actions. The slugs (as they are soon nicknamed by the humans still not under the influence) seem to be able to replicate quickly, and are very quick to utilize what they are learning from their hosts to further their invasion.

Planetary disaster! The aliens must be stopped! (Save the President!) After some chapters of non-stop action – including a week off for passionate lovemaking between Secret Agents Number Two (a young man of almost superhuman strategy, fighting and survival skills) and Secret Agent Number Three (his female counterpart, with the added bonus of being built, beautiful, willing, silent, etcetera) the weak spot of the slug-creatures is discovered, and invasion mop-up begins.

This plot sounds as goofy as all get out, and it really is, but there is some solid writing for the genre in there too. Heinlein’s consistent popularity through the decades – most of his novels are still in print and selling very well indeed – argues for some twinkles of gold amidst the dross.

This isn’t really much of a review, and I really should head off to bed – morning comes so soon! – so you might want to head over to E. Magill’s excellent post here. Magill also uses the term “problematic”, and his “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” assessments mirror my own, in regards to The Puppet Masters and the other Heinlein works he mentions.

And the reviews on Goodreads are decidedly rewarding.

When Heinlein is good, he is very good, but when he is bad….well, you know the rest of that one.

My rating: Let’s call it a pretty solid 7/10.

Because the parts which are good are very good. And Heinlein’s frequently very funny. And, yes, there’s a nod to personal nostalgia in this rating, too.

Oh – and that paperback cover art by Gene Szafran – that’s a glorious 10/10. Someone should make the Szafran Heinlein covers (there were a few) into posters. Maybe someone has? Good stuff.


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Norwood by Charles Portis ~ 1966. This edition: The Overlook Press, 1999. Softcover. 168 pages.

Trigger warning. I think I need to put this out there in a prominent place – this book has era-expected language, meaning in this case that you will come right up against the n-word, multiple times. It’s generally used in a derogatory way by a key character – not our eponymous protagonist, which was a great relief to me – but one of the unsavories he comes in close contact with.

Reading with 2022 eyes, I have to say I stopped dead when I hit the first occurrence, and thought exceedingly hard about where we’ve come with our current hyper-sensitivity to problematic language.

Which I think is one of the main reasons why we shouldn’t ban or censor books from a time before – we should feel repugnance and we should take time to consider how and why our personal and societal attitudes have changed.

And this is all I will say about that, because I am well aware that opinions on tolerance of and censorship of currently unacceptable language in writings from a prior era will differ. Every reader of vintage fiction is going to have this conversation with themself as things pop up.

If you’re still wanting to stay with me on this one, let’s take a look at this book, this weird and rather fantastic (in every sense of the word) road trip tale. It’s kind of like a stream-of-consciousness fever dream, and it’s brilliant.

Norwood Pratt, just back from Korea, is now an ex-Marine. He’s also now an orphan – his mother is dead, his father has just died – and the feeling back home in Norwood’s current home town (the family’s moved around a lot) of Ralph, Texas is that Norwood needs to come on back home and look after his sister Vernell. She’s taking things hard, and she never really was that viable a specimen even before the latest bereavement, so there’s nothing for it but that Norwood take a hardship discharge and get back into civilian life.

Norwood is on the bus heading back to Texas from Camp Pendleton in California when he realizes that he’s forgotten to collect a debt owed him by one of his Marine buddies. It’s $70, not exactly a fortune, but it’s the principle of the thing, thinks Norwell, and he decides to settle down for a prolonged sulk as the bus rolls eastward.

The sulk doesn’t last long, as Norwood almost immediately befriends a young couple with a baby, transient vegetable pickers heading back to Texas with their California asparagus-season money. He invites them to come and stay for a few days, and our story is on.

Sometime during the night the Remleys decamped, taking with them a television set and a 16-gauge Ithaca Featherweight and two towels. No one could say how they got out of town with all that gear, least of all the night marshal. The day marshal came by and looked at the place where the television set had been. He made notes.

If Norwood has a weakness, it might be that he’s sometimes too trusting. But as subsequent occurrences go to show, he’s far from naive.

Back to his old job at the Nipper Independent Oil Co. Servicenter, Norwood settles down to looking after his still-depressed sister and doing all the cooking and housekeeping.

Sometimes he sat on the back steps wearing a black hat with a Fort Worth crease and played his guitar – just three or four chords really – and sang “Always Late – With Your Kisses,” with his voice breaking like Lefty Frizzell, and “China Doll” like Slim Whitman, whose upper range is hard to match. The guitar wasn’t much. It was a cheap West German model with nylon strings he had bought at the PX. He also put in a lot of time on his car. He had bought a 1947 Fleetline Chevrolet with dirt dobber nests in the heater and radio for fifty dollars. He put in some rings and ground the valves and got it in fair running shape. He loosened the tappets and put up with the noise so as to keep Vernell – who would race a motor – from burning the valves. She burned a connecting rod instead.

Norwood is good hearted and patient, and a darned good brother, but life feels flat to him.

One night he came home from work and said, “I’m tard of working at that station, Vernell.”

“What’s wrong, bubba?”

“Every time you grease a truck stuff falls in your eyes and your hair and down your back. You got it pretty easy yourself yourself. You know that?”

“Why don’t you get a hat?”

“I got plenty of hats, Vernell. I don’t need any more hats. If all I needed was another hat I would be well off.”

“What do you want to do?”

“I want to get on the Louisiana Hayride.”

Yes, Norwood has a secret longing to be a country and western singer, and the prospects are darned poor for that, and he’s starting to get depressed and even a little bit angry. Brooding away about the injustices piling up in his life, he decides to hunt down the debt owed to him by his old army buddy.

So Norwood leaves Ralph, driving an Olds 98 and hitch-pulling a Pontiac Catalina, both gleaming with fresh new paint. He has a commission from one Grady Fring (“the Kredit King”) to deliver the cars (and an unexpected passenger) to New York and return with another car, his payoff a chance to see the country and $50 in driving fees. Works out good, thinks Norwood, for he has a line on his army buddy who him the $70 – the guy was last heard from in New York. Win-win.

Well, things immediately go sideways, and inside out, and upside down. You have to read this yourself to find out all the many details, but I will tell you that during his travels, Norwood hops a freight train, meets a lot of interesting people, including Mr. Peanut, and the world’s smallest perfect fat man. and a beatnik girl who reads him passages from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet but doesn’t commit herself so far as to go to bed with Norwood, which leaves him mildly disappointed but he gets over it. Along the way he loses his precious cowboy boots – thirty-eight dollars, coal-black 14-inchers with steel shanks and low walking heels, red butterflies inset on the insteps – and he never gets on the Hayride, but he gains a few things, too. Including a college-educated chicken and a lady-love. Could be worse.

I will leave you with one of my favourite snippets from this goofy little book. Here’s Norwood in New York, contemplating tattoos.

There was a tattoo parlor and Norwood looked at the dusty samples in the window. He had a $32.50 black panther rampant on his left shoulder, teeth bared and making little red claw marks on his arm. He had never been happy with it. Something about the eyes, they were not fully open, and the big jungle cat seemed to be yawning instead of snarling. Norwood complained at the time and the tattoo man in San Diego said it wouldn’t look that way after it had scabbed over and healed. Once in Korea he sat down with some matches and a pin and tried to fix the eyes but only made them worse. Many times he wished that he had gotten a small globe and anchor with a serpentine banner under it saying U.S. Marines – First to Fight. To have more than one tattoo was foolishness.

Norwood knows what he thinks.

This was Charles Portis’s first published novel, and it was very well received. Very much a product of its free-wheeling time – and one has to wonder if Mr. Portis was indulging in something illicitly mood-enhancing when he rattled this one off, but it comes together just right, in a we’re just along for the ride sort of way. 

I feel like Norwood is very much a dress rehearsal for 1976’s much longer, more complex, but pleasingly similar The Dog of the South, one of my personal secret treasure books.

Now, your own mileage may vary on Charles Portis. My husband, who shares many but not all of my reading tastes, isn’t a huge fan of either Norwood or The Dog of the South, though he laughs along with me at some of the absolutely deadpan humour. Portis can sure nail inner thoughts and dialogue.

No, he (my husband) is something of a traditionalist – he much prefers Portis’s most well-known and likely most popular book, True Grit. (Yes, this is that Charles Portis.)

Me – I like ’em all. Too bad there are so few. Five novels. Not nearly enough.

My rating: 9/10. It would be a 10, but it’s just too short. So many questions left unanswered!

For the record, this novel was made into a 1970 movie starring Glen Campbell as Norwood. Major liberties were apparently taken to Hollywood-ize it – very likely so Campbell could showcase his musical chops. (He also played and sang on the soundtrack.) Full disclosure: I just watched the first ten minutes of this on YouTube. It was…regrettable. Please read the book first. Or better yet, instead of. (Sorry, Glenn.)

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They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple ~ 1943. This edition: Persephone Books, 2020. Afterword by Celia Brayfield. Softcover. 455 pages.

Three sisters, three marriages.

Dorothy Whipple’s novels of fraught family dynamics are compellingly readable, and this one ramps things up a notch over the others; there is some really dark stuff going on here, including but not limited to psychological spousal and child abuse.

Sounds depressing, doesn’t it?

It is, very much so, though it’s so fascinating in its depictions that one cannot ever quite look away.

It is also a story built around the power of love, and, yes, sometimes the powerlessness of love to “make things better” for the loved ones.

In the years before the Great War, three sisters in a middle-class English family lose their mother too soon. Responsible, highly intelligent, seventeen-year-old Lucy leaves her studies – she’s been preparing for Oxford – and takes on the role of mother-figure to her three brothers and two younger sisters, the sweet natured, trusting thirteen-year-old Charlotte, and the headstrong, volatile and exceptionally beautiful eleven-year-old Vera.

The brothers gain independence swiftly, but the young sisters remain on Lucy’s conscience and in her care; she often feels that there is a great divide between them, the too-soon sedate older sister sometimes cut out of confidences by the younger pair. But by and large things go on quite serenely, until the inevitable heart-stirrings of young love strike.

Lucy, “the plain one”, seated among the chaperones at parties and dances, is rather on the shelf, but Charlotte and Vera are very much sought after, and all three sisters ultimately marry. Charlotte to the self-satisfied, go-getter businessman Geoffrey, one of Vera’s cast-offs, Vera to the self-effacing and wealthy Brian, and Lucy to sedate, much older William, whose keen eyes have noted quiet Lucy’s sterling qualities.

As the years go by, these pairings develop in three vastly differing ways. Charlotte and Vera have children; to her quiet grief Lucy is childless; but they keep in touch as the years march on and Lucy remains watchful over her two sisters and then her nieces and nephew, becoming the perpetual aunt, hosting the children on holidays, and trying hard to not interfere when she sees her sisters making some very poor decisions, some deliberate, some thrust upon them by the situations they find themselves in.

Moral failure or spiritual failure or whatever you call it, makes such a vicious circle… It seems as if when we love people and they fall short, we retaliate by falling shorter ourselves. Children are like that. Adults have a fearful responsibility. When they fail to live up to what children expect of them, the children give up themselves. So each generation keeps failing the next.

Geoffrey, to no one’s surprise but Charlotte’s, proves to be a manipulatively cruel domestic tyrant of epic proportions. Brian, despite holding the purse strings in the marriage, is relegated to shadow-husband as Vera fervently pursues self indulgence. William watches it all with a keen eye and hands-off demeanor, giving quiet support to Lucy as she frets over the troubles she finds Charlotte and Vera enmeshed in.

This is as much plot as we are given; it’s very much a novel about relationships versus large happenings. There are dramatic events, but they are of a small, familial nature, kept as much under the rug as possible due to the need to keep up appearances.

When two of the sisters’ marriages go inevitably wrong, the third one quietly carries on, allowing a small semblance of normalcy for some of the damaged children who are ultimately the innocent victims, the collateral damage of their elders’ decisions and actions.

An intense, unputdownable read. Dorothy Whipple, accomplished documentarian of domestic drama, excels herself here.

My rating: 9/10

From the Persephone Books website:

They Were Sisters is a compulsively readable but often harrowing novel by one of Persephone’s best writers, who always manages to make the ordinary extraordinary,’ writes Celia Brayfield. This, the fourth Dorothy Whipple novel we have republished, is, like the others, apparently gentle but has a very strong theme, in this case domestic violence. Three sisters marry very different men and the choices they make determine whether they will flourish, be tamed or be repressed. Lucy’s husband is her beloved companion; Vera’s husband bores her and she turns elsewhere; and Charlotte’s husband is a bully who turns a high-spirited naive young girl into a deeply unhappy woman.

In the Independent on Sunday Charlie Lee-Potter commented that They Were Sisters ‘exerts a menacing tone from start to finish. I eavesdropped on the lives of Lucy, Charlotte and Vera, compelled to go on but with a sense of simmering dread.’ Salley Vickers in the Spectator described ‘the sparkling achievements of this accomplished novelist, not the least of which is the ability – rarer today than it should be – simply to entertain.’ And Elizabeth Day has called it ‘a powerful portrayal of sisterly relationships and an emotionally coercive marriage.’


They Were Sisters was made into a movie in 1945, starring James Mason as the suavely malignant Geoffrey, and Phyllis Calvert as his abused wife. Movie version described in some detail here. The plot appears to have been altered somewhat, but the essentials of the novel appear to remain true to Whipple’s written version.

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My Husband Simon by Mollie Panter-Downes ~ 1931. This edition: The British Library, 2020. Preface by Alison Bailey. Afterword by Simon Thomas. Softcover. 214 pages.

I sometimes wonder, looking back at everything with the experience that four years ought to have brought, whether I would make up my mind quite so precipitously to marry Simon Quinn if I met him for the first time today. There are moods in which I tell myself: ‘Not a hope! Freedom and work are the only important things. My God haven’t four years taught you anything at all, you little fool?’ But at the back of my head I know quite clearly that if it happened all over again I should marry Simon just the same.

In 1926, Nevis Falconer and Simon Quinn married in haste, physical passion overwhelming rational thinking, and now, four years later, their marriage hasn’t ever really evolved beyond the bedroom.

Nevis is a writer, and her second novel has fallen rather flat, a setback after her successful and widely lauded first book, published when she was just leaving her teens. Simon doesn’t much care about Nevis’ angsty struggles to get on with her vocation; he’s a sturdily unapologetic non-intellectual, openly bored by his wife’s literary crowd and dismissive of her emotional swings.

For Simon has his own worries. Second son of an upper middle class family, his preferred pastimes of riding, climbing, shooting, fishing are relegated to rare country weekends and occasional holidays, as the post-Great War slump has forced a great number of young men such as Simon into uncongenial city jobs.

The year after we married he had left the Stock Exchange and gone into the advertising side of a firm that made cigarettes, and seemed to hold out chances of better money. All our friends were in jobs like that – some rather worse. Hugh Ellerby, who had been at Eton with Simon, was traveller for a firm that made electric “Ladies” and “Gentlemen” signs. One of my cousins was trying to get a job as a sort of glorified bellhop at the Savoy. He could speak three languages perfectly and had great charm of manner. . .

Nevis and Simon argue dramatically and constantly, but despite the tumultuous nature of their relationship, there is a deeply genuine love between them, and in the intervals between flashing and sometimes violent quarrels they reach out to each other for comfort and respite from a world that isn’t terribly kind.

Nevis finds herself under increasing pressure from Simon’s family to relegate her writing  to hobby status and to get on with starting a family, something which both Nevis and Simon are not at all keen to do, knowing that their delicately balanced situation will likely not stand up to parenthood. Things are all right as they are, they agree. Not perfect, but all right.

And then Nevis gets an unexpected visit from a partner in her American publisher’s firm. Marcus Chard thinks Nevis has it in her to power through her disappointment regarding her unsatisfactory second novel. She’s been spinning her wheels, bogged down in the minutiae of domestic cares, never getting the uninterrupted writing time she needs to really get on with things, making excuses, letting herself get distracted. Marcus cheerfully bullies her into really getting down to writing that third novel; his visits stimulate and inspire Nevis and help her squash down her abundant self doubts.

They soon become friends, enjoying each other’s company as intellectual equals, while Simon looks on with a cocked eyebrow, appearing relieved that Nevis has found an outlet for her compelling need to talk literature and art and to have her writing viewed as a worthwhile and life-filling venture.

But then, things stray into the danger zone. . .

Beautifully written, and a gripping depiction of London-between-the-wars, the flourishing literary scene of the time, and an increasingly sensitive and passionate portrayal of a loving but frequently incompatible marriage, the people within that marriage, and the way in which things might come apart.

One of the British Library Women Writers series:

(A) curated collection of novels by female authors who enjoyed broad, popular appeal in their day. In a century during which the role of women in society changed radically, their fictional heroines highlight women’s experience of life inside and outside the home through the decades in these ricj, insightful and evocative stories.

Very fast read, almost a novel-without-a-plot, dripping with intellectual snobbery – an aspect addressed by Simon Thomas in the afterword – and I liked it. My rating: 9/10





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Black Fountains by Oswald Wynd ~ 1947. This edition: Doubleday & Company, 1947. Hardcover. 374 pages.

What a mixed response I have to this novel! It’s a definite period piece, a product of a very particular time and place, written by a person with a lot of insider knowledge of his topic, and there are a lot of things going on which influence the narrative.

I had high expectations for readability, having enjoyed the two prior Oswald Wynd novels I’d serendipitously bumped into, The Eyes Around Me and The Ginger Tree. I thought that Black Fountains would meet that standard, in particular since it won a $20,000 literary prize (the Doubleday Prize) in 1947.

Perhaps the novelty of the origins and life experience of the author plus that of his fictional protagonist had something to do with that prize. Wynd was Scottish by heritage but was born in and grew up in Japan as a child of missionaries; the novel was partially written while Wynd was held under the Japanese in a Malayan prison camp in 1944-45. The protagonist of the novel is a young upper-class Japanese woman who has just returned to her homeland after five years of study in the United States. The story takes place between 1938 and 1945.

Here is some of what Kirkus had to say in 1947:

(A)n exceedingly interesting and often revealing book, introducing a new talent, immature and amateurish at times, but fresh and exciting in much of what he has to say. Here – in terms of one American-educated Japanese girl’s reactions, fears, hates, loves, is a Japan we do not know- the Japan that accepted the bonds of belonging while hating what Japan had come to stand for. Wynd was a prisoner of the Japanese; he was able to see both sides. The story opens in the Fall of 1938, as Omi, returning to Japan after five years of freedom, attempts to uproot what holds her to America and to find herself again in a Japan she dreads and fights. She finds within herself conflicts she had not dreamed existed- she resists her parents’ determination to gain submission and acceptance, both of ways of thought and ways of living. Wynd has used a sort of stream of consciousness device to take the reader into the minds of his characters, while paralleling this with narrative, dialogue, description, which forward his story. Omi resists – and then takes on her own terms the plan for marriage with Ishii; she finds unsuspected richness – and equally unplumbed doubts in that marriage . . . one gets the various points of view within Japan itself- the manipulation of propaganda instruments – one has almost a sense of seeing the machinery of their minds in action.

The character of Omi in Black Fountains never really comes to life even to the same degree that of Mary of The Ginger Tree did – and that was one of my observations when I read that book – the characters are just a shade remote. So in this earlier novel we have an attempted depiction of the innermost thoughts and feelings of a Japanese woman being written by a non-Japanese man, a challenge to pull off in any context. It’s an imaginative approach, and we can see where Wynd is going with it early on, but it doesn’t ever really fly. Dramatic and frequently horrible things happen all around and to Omi, but I found myself watching with  a lack of full engagement. It is just too contrived, the author’s “the Japanese are different from the rest of us” bias (he was writing this in prison camp, after all) is very evident from the very first page.

If you pushed me into a corner and asked me to give a two-word summation of Black Fountains, I’d have to say that the term that keeps popping up is “propaganda novel”. It’s quite openly an attempt at analyzing “the Japanese mind” in regards to the occurrences during the war, and the subsequent Allied Occupation, and how accurately Wynd pulls it off is open to question. He frequently slips into lecture mode, exposition falling from Omi’s lips in a way that doesn’t feel quite natural.

Parts of this novel are very well done, in particular the descriptions of the various settings; these truly come to life. It’s obvious that the author has a deep love of what is essentially his native country – he was born in Japan and spent his first eighteen years there – and a deep appreciation of many aspects of the people of the country.

Unfortunately, viewed strictly as a novel without considering the backstory of its writing, this one stumbles.

Worth reading? Yes, I think so, if read with the author’s background kept firmly in mind. Just don’t expect a masterpiece; it’s more of a curiosity piece. A competent enough first novel, but the author has not yet developed his full talents. In my opinion.

My rating: 5/10. A keeper, with the stated reservations.

Click to enlarge these dust jacket images, provided for more context.

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The Finger of Saturn by Victor Canning ~ 1973. This edition: Heinemann, 1973. Hardcover. 271 pages.

Victor Canning has proven to be a reliable source of engaging if generally improbable adventure novels and thrillers. I am slowly working my way through his sixty-one books, written from 1934 till 1987 (his last novel was finished posthumously by his widow and daughter), and, according to my list on Library Thing, I am now at number thirteen. All so far are keepers, so I have much to look forward to, both in the pleasant quest for more of his titles, and the reading of them when found.

I bumped into this latest one when I was hunting down Charles Portis, and added it on to my Thrift Books order as a bonus book. How pleasing to find upon its arrival that it was a pristine first edition hardcover. I have no objection to previously read books; indeed, one of the great pleasures of second hand book reading is mulling over inscriptions and marginal notes and the bus tickets left between the pages and such, but cracking a crisp never-read copy is highly enjoyable, too, especially when one discovers that the book in question (this one) as been shuffled from shelf to shelf for some 49 years, without anyone being inspired to read it.

Ah, well. Some things are mysterious. It’s been read now, and will be again – I’ve just snuck it from my husband’s reading stack in order to write this little review – so its bookish destiny has finally been fulfilled.

What is The Finger of Saturn about?

Well, I’m not really sure. Aliens, maybe? (That’s a hint.)

How many spoilers should I divulge? Maybe I’d do best to keep it vague, but the gloriously loopy plot points really make this one, so I also rather want to skewer them (nicely, of course) and bring them wriggling out into the light. But, in the interests of my usual writing time crunch, I’ll resist.

Robert and Sarah Rolt have been been happily married and living in quite a lot of comfort at Robert’s old family estate of Rolthead in Dorset (in the Rolt family since the 13th Century, we are proudly told by Robert, who narrates this first-person tale) since their impetuous (and strongly opposed by Sarah’s mother) courtship some nine years earlier.

Sarah and Robert came into their marriage as independently wealthy individuals – how nice for them! – and though they share a united personal and emotional life (or do they?) they each retain an independent and private financial life, which is very convenient for Canning’s plot purposes.

So, happily married for seven years, everything is lovely in the Rolthead garden. The only thing missing is an heir to Rolthead up in the manor house nursery. But that’s all right. too, Sarah and Robert have decided to adopt a child to fill that niche. Then right out of the blue, everything comes to a shuddering stop.

Sarah goes out shopping one morning, and completely vanishes.

Two years go by.

Robert has never lost confidence that one day his beloved Sarah will return to him, so he professes to be not-too-surprised when an official from the Foreign Office gets in touch to ask Robert to identify a woman shown in several snippets of surveillance camera footage, collected by the Foreign Office and subsequently shared (cue forboding background music) with the Ministry of Defence.

“She is your wife, you say. She disappeared over two years ago. She could have lost her memory and could have started a new life. From that premise she could well have found herself cultivating an innocent friendship with this man . . . nothing more than that.  The only oddness, coincidence . . . is that it was him. He was a listed man. Not to be touched. Allowed to run because he was small beer. Could turn out to be more valuable to us free than inside. . . That’s why I’m here – under instructions.”

The woman looks, moves and speaks like Sarah, and Robert is convinced that his lost wife has been found. The hunt for the truth behind her disappearance and reappearance (albeit as someone else named Angela Starr) is on.

Robert, with the blessing of the Foreign Office (not that he cares for any bureaucratic permission) travels to see her, and is greeted with polite reserve and a fantastically detailed account of “Angela Starr’s” past two years. It is no secret that Mrs Starr (she’s apparently a widow) has no memory of her past prior to the awakening one day (two years ago) in an amnesiac state, all of her past apparently erased from her mind.

She’s definitely Sarah, though, and Robert eventually convinces her of this, enough so that she agrees to return to Rolthead with him in the hopes that her memory will return, but so many questions are there to be answered, and the sorting out of these and the real truth of Sarah’s origins before her marriage and the explanation of her strange disappearance make up the body of this convoluted thriller.

For thriller it turns out to be, including stock features from the genre such as a conflicted and soul-tortured government agent, an incredibly wealthy business entity serving as a facade for a secret society, close brushes with death for both Robert and Sarah, and various complexities culminating in a car bomb plot and, ultimately, the revelation of the real truth (or is it?) regarding Sarah and her backstory.

I quite enjoy Victor Canning’s thrillers. Great escape reading they are, just contrived enough to keep one fully aware that they are absolutely fictional. Much of Canning’s appeal to me lies in the characters he creates, who are often satisfyingly interesting, even as they carry out their cliched roles and responses. I’m also a sucker for detailed scene setting, and Victor Canning could hammer out descriptive passages with the best.

My rating: 8/10. Better than I had expected it to be, though occasionally worse, too. This rating lost a couple of points for the dramatically groan-inspiring ending – I have to admit I didn’t really see it coming, though I feel like I should have. I think our Victor could have been a bit more creative with the wrap-up, though it is well within the tradition for these sorts of tales.

Oh – what is “the finger of Saturn”? Well, I shan’t divulge, as it’s one of the clues to Sarah’s identity, but if you are really curious, pop over to this great review at Existential Ennui for a teasing explanation and another reader’s assessment of the book.

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Susan Settles Down by Molly Clavering ~ 1936. This edition: Dean Street Press, 2021. Softcover. 236 pages.

Touch Not the Nettle by Molly Clavering ~ 1939. This edition: Dean Street Press, 2021. Softcover. 229 pages.

Molly Clavering is a new-to-me author, brought to my attention by Scott of the always vastly and expensively informative Furrowed Middlebrow blog. (Expensive because a visit to the Furrowed Middlebrow always results in quest-and-purchase episodes!)

Scott, as many of you will already know, has been working with Dean Street Press for the last six years (can it be that long already?!) to bring back into print an ever-growing list of long out-of-print titles by various “middlebrow” female writers of the first six decades of the 20th Century, and one of the authors he has championed is the long out-of-print Molly Clavering, who produced a very respectable number of novels and novellas from the 1920s into the early 1970s.

Clavering is often mentioned in the same breath as D.E. Stevenson, and the comparisons are always positive, and there was, “in real life”, a genuine relationship between the two writers. They met and shared a social circle while living in the same small Lowland Scotland town of Moffat.

Molly Clavering and D.E. Stevenson were by all reports good friends, and one might assume that their shared writing occupations provided a strong bond, for by the time they met post-World War II, each had been successfully writing “light romantic novels” for years, and each had developed their own style, and in D.E. Stevenson’s case, an inter-related web of fictional characters who show up throughout numerous novels.

It does not appear the Molly Clavering used the same characters repeatedly as a general practice, though these two tales are sequential in nature and share the same cast and setting, hence this doubling up by me.

Susan Settles Down ~ 1936

Youngish (late twenties? early thirties?), English brother and sister Oliver and Susan Parsons have unexpectedly inherited a property in Scotland, and have moved from London to the much more rural environs of Muirfoot, to try their hand at being country people. Finances are an issue; the Parsons are far from being well-off, and things are complicated somewhat by Oliver’s physical and emotional challenges, as he is in decidedly unhappy state after an accident which has left him permanently injured. Oliver is a little bit angry at the whole wide world, and he shows it.

Susan copes well with Oliver’s black moods, and by and large keeps him from alienating absolutely everyone he comes into contact with, but it is a challenge, particularly when one is trying to fit in with a brand new lifestyle in a small rural community where everyone knows everyone.

Along with the newcomers, we are introduced to the locals. We’ve met all of these folks before – or others quite like them – the abstracted vicar and his sensible wife, their irrepressibly lively daughter, the successful “young squire” farmer-next-door, an array of just slightly caricatured servants and farm workers and village shopkeepers and members-of-the-parish. 

More than slightly caricatured are a trio of desperately gossipy spinster sisters, and the author is not very kind to these-her-creations and the antics of the Pringle sisters stray into parody zone, but for the most part this is a realistically portrayed, ultimately cheerful sort of tale, easy to read and satisfactorily engrossing. There is tragedy, there is romance, and by the end, well, Susan has settled down. (And Oliver has, too.)

Touch Not the Nettle ~1939

Several years have gone by and we meet again our old friends Susan and Oliver, now fully absorbed into their new lives in Scotland. Things are deeply peaceful, and of course this state of affairs is too good to be true, as nature (and the novelist) abhor a vacuum, and plot lines must be kept moving.

Introduced to Susan’s quietly happy home is a rather reluctant guest. Amanda, a cousin of Susan’s husband, has been sent to the country by her overbearing mother as a sort of “rest cure” while awaiting news of Amanda’s daredevil pilot husband’s fate. He’s gone off on an attempted round-the-world flight and has apparently come to grief as he’s disappeared off the flight charts, but as there’s no sign of his wrecked plane and he could possibly have come down somewhere in the South American jungle so Amanda is stuck in limbo, life on hold, as she wonders if she’ll ever know if she is wife or widow.

As Susan and Oliver were, newcomer Amanda is immediately absorbed into the community of Muirfoot and environs, and soon finds herself without much time to brood upon her current unsettled state and unknown future.

We are presented with some new characters alongside all the familiar cast from Susan Settles Down, most notably the not-so-quietly-bitter Larry Heriot, with a dark secret in his past and a serious drinking habit quite obviously triggered by his attempts to “forget” whatever that secret is, and his angry, mentally ill sister Ruth.

The Pringle sisters reappear, and we get to know them all a bit better and perhaps even develop a tiny bit of sympathy for them, though they retain their parodic roles as domestic and community harpies, poking and prying and making malicious comment on absolutely everything and everybody.

There are perfect understandings and desperate misunderstandings and friendships made and comedy and tragedy and ultimately a bit of romance – all in a village-bound nutshell. The formula as expected, in fact, and very nice it is, too.

Molly Clavering hits the comfort read shelves, next to D.E. Stevenson, neighbours in literature as they were in their real lives.

My rating for both of these charming-with-some depth-and-bite vintage tales: 7.5/10

I have six more of these previously some-eight decades-out-of-print Molly Clavering novels awaiting. (Well, really only five more which are new-to-me, as I did already have, and read some years ago, the American version of Mrs Lorimer’s Quiet Summer, published over here as Mrs Lorimer’s Family.)

Heaven bless the re-publishers; you make my reading life a little bit richer.



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The Four Winds by David Beaty ~ 1954. Originally published as The Heart of the Storm. This edition: William Morrow & Company, 1955. Hardcover. 288 pages.

If you know Nevil Shute, this is essentially more of the same. Flawed heroes, occasional heroines, moral dilemmas, gripping action scenes, and a consistent willingness to kill off key characters.

Ex R.A.F. and commercial airline pilot David Beaty retired and turned writer, and this was his second of what would eventually be twenty or so fiction and non-fiction books, mostly concerned with aviation.

The Four Winds follows several commercial airline pilots as they criss cross vast bodies of water in the early 1950s, moving people and things around, all the while juggling the always complex demands of work and home and colleague relationships.

The first sign that an aircraft is overtaking the south-east quadrant of a storm is often a swell on an otherwise calm sea, which may extend over a thousand miles from the seat of the disturbance. Tufts of cirrus form the windswept ends of a thin haze hanging high over the sky, producing haloes or rings around the sun and the moon…

We start with a hurricane and white knuckle our way through a heroic rescue mission, and though that episode quickly fades into “just another flying incident” its repercussions affect the lives of a widening circle of people – the proverbial “butterfly effect”.

“British Empire Airways” pilot Mark Kelston, stoically enduring an indifferent marriage to the socially-climbing and financially-demanding Veronica back home in England, is perhaps over-ready for the romance that develops during the mid-hurricane stopover in the Azores with the beautiful Czechoslovakian exile Karena, woman-without-a-country.

Kelston’s fellow pilots also have their own complicated personal and romantic lives, and what happens over here affects things over there and vice versa. If this novel has a theme – other than the obvious “men and women of the air” storyline – it would be “everything is connected”.

This novel was a book sale acquisition quite a few years ago, and it’s been shuffled from pile to pile quite a few times, never really reaching out to me, but just intriguing enough on repeated fly-leaf browsings to keep it hanging around. I had lowish expectations, never having heard of David Beaty, but once I started I was happily drawn in and inexorably swept along. It was a good read, in a mid-century, sometimes-a-bit-cringe-worthy, Nevil Shute-ian sort of way. Allowing for the expectedly dated language and attitudes, some passages were very good indeed.

Curious about the author, I had recourse to our old friend Wikipedia, and here is the lowdown on David Beaty.

Another writer to look out for in a casual way when I return to in-person old-book browsing in bricks-and-mortar bookstores. This online questing is all well and good, but hands-on is way better.

My rating: 7/10






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