Archive for the ‘Contemporary Fiction’ Category

dunster john mortimer 1992 001Dunster by John Mortimer ~ 1992. This edition: Penguin, 1993. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-015711-5. 344 pages.

My rating: 9/10

What a sound sort of writer John Mortimer is. Earnest and endlessly competent at presenting his points, but never preachy. Capable of conveying the deep humour of everyday situations, almost to the point of farce, but keeping things completely relatable – we recognize his characters and situations with deep inner glee. (Or occasionally mild embarrassment, if we suddenly see ourselves.)

I went through a Rumpole of the Bailey binge some years ago, and quite possibly overdid things a bit, as I’ve been happy to leave the numerous Rumpole books I had then acquired on the shelf in the “read again someday” section. But non-Rumpole John Mortimers have shown up twice in my reading stack this year, and I have deeply enjoyed them.

The first one was Character Parts, a 1986 book of collected “important people” interviews which the author undertook for the Sunday Times, in which John Mortimer-the-fiction-writer reveals himself to be a marvelous interviewer, effacing himself completely and allowing his subjects to hold forth, nudged now and again by Mortimer’s well-timed queries and leading comments. More on this collection in another post.

The book-of-this-moment is the thoughtfully satiric Dunster, and I mused, as I finished it up late last night, how serendipitously timed my reading was, on the very eve of November 11th, which is Remembrance Day here in Canada, the equivalent of the U.K.’s Armistice Day, and Veterans Day in the U.S.A.

For Dunster has, as a main plot point, an examination of the war experience, and its after-effects on the people who were thrown into its melee, who conducted themselves as best they could at the time, and who, decades later, are asked to examine their actions in light of current-day ethics and morals. John Mortimer wrote Dunster as a diverting bit of fiction, but the core of the book is thought-provokingly serious, and I came away as pensive as I was amused.

I greatly enjoyed this novel for its wry humour, and I appreciated its sardonically portrayed, deeply conflicted narrator, one Philip Progmire, accountant and secretly aspiring actor.

The surface story dips into the serious when it addresses the moral dilemmas people face in wartime, when otherwise good people are told to go out and do bad things, under the blanket societal permission of patriotism-in-wartime. Once the conflict is over, those actions come under the scrutiny of those who didn’t have that experience, and the application of peacetime ethics to wartime actions makes for uneasy consideration of how people can be so very variable when changing times demand it.

Philip Progmire’s lifelong shadow, Richard Dunster, is a fascinating character, and one whom I felt the author intended his readers to relate to, though Dunster’s role in the book is that of a continual moral irritant to mild-mannered Progmire, who just really wants to live a quiet life, trotting along each day to the comfortably salaried 9-to-5 job, coming home each night to wife and child, and indulging in amateur theatricals on weekends.

Dunster is that exceedingly rare thing, an utterly honest man, but as it turns out, honesty is as subject to degrees and shades as any other human trait, and may or may not be a comfortable thing to live with in daily life…

An extra personal-point-in-favour is the setting of the story, against the backdrop of the first Gulf War, in 1990-1991. It hasn’t been that long since that particular military exercise, a mere 25 years or so, and Mortimer has documented the mood of the time well enough to trigger a flood of personal memories. So much has happened since then, but it (“Desert Storm” – remember when that code name was in every newspaper headline?) was something of a starting point to the increasingly tense mood of current times, politically and militarily speaking.

From the back cover, an unavoidably simplified plot summary:

Outrageously outspoken and wildly unpredictable, Dick Dunster is the hero – or villain – in a drama of his own making. Philip Progmire is less heroic. He wants a quiet life with his wife Bethany and his job in the accounts department of the TV company Megapolis. But Dunster, his childhood friend and adversary, dogs his adult life, making him face cruel facts: his lack of acting talent, his wife’s infidelity and the possible involvement of his boss in one of the secret war crimes of the last World War.

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therapy david lodge v2Therapy by David Lodge ~ 1995. This edition: Penguin, 1996. Softcover. ISBN: 0-14-025358-0. 321 pages.

My rating: 7/10

I still do not unreservedly love David Lodge.

In fact, until just a few mornings ago, when I set aside what I should have been doing in order to finish up this book, I was more than a little ambiguous about his work, having previously read Changing Places and Nice Work with no more than mild pleasure and a fair bit of tuning out in the more long-winded bits.

This confession out of the way, I must say that I really like what he has done here. Therapy has struck an appealing chord with me, despite its narrator being of the wallowing sort, mired in his narcissistic bog, gazing pensively at his own reflection even as he continues to sink further and further down into a stinking morass of his own making.

Laurence “Tubby” Passmore, serendipitously successful writer of a long-running sitcom, The People Next Door, is feeling down. Really, really down. There’s no logical reason for it, as he continually reminds himself. He’s making more money than he can spend; his thirty-year-old marriage is placid and his university professor wife is keen on keeping up their sex life; his grown children are well launched; he has an outlet for sharing his thoughts with his platonic “mistress” in London, where he keeps a pleasantly-appointed luxury flat for overnight stays; his rural home is a welcome haven after days spent in the city; his posh silver car (the “Richmobile”, of unspecified Japanese make) is absolutely fabulous; and his various therapists – Miss Wu for acupuncture, Dudley for aromatherapy, Roland for physio, and Alexandra the cognitive behaviour therapist –  are solicitously caring and even somewhat helpful, giving short periods of relief from his overwhelming emotional blah-ness.

To be sure, there is that nasty thing with his knee, those occasional searing twinges of excruciating pain which occur at random and which have defied surgery, but surely that can’t account for the pervasive feeling of gloom which has settled around him, his eternal angst-ridden state, his abstraction which is starting to affect all of his relationships. But at least things are stable on the home front. For, after all, with three decades of marriage one comes to rather rely on one’s loyal spouse for eternal acceptance and understanding…

While mulling over his own personal Existentialist Dread, and doing a bit of research on the topic as a whole, Laurence happens upon the name of Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, and, upon delving into Kierkegaard’s Journal, becomes obsessed with the man, finding – or perhaps more accurately, fabricating – parallels between their two dissimilar lives. As he becomes more and more emotionally involved with the philosopher, Laurence’s grip on his real life loosens even further, which is perhaps why his wife’s calm statement that she is leaving him comes as such an unexpected shock.

Therapy is a lot of fun to read, cringe-worthy narrator and all.

It is divided into four segments, the first being a straightforward, tell-all journal, with Laurence’s musings on the various structures and forms of writing obviously (and most interestingly) reflective of David Lodge’s own thoughts on the topic. The second section of the book is a collection of character portraits of Laurence written by him from the perspective of a number of his intimate associates, followed by a poignant flashback episode to Laurence’s teen years and his first love, the virginal (and staunchly Catholic) Maureen. Here is where the narrative takes an interesting though rather predictable twist, leading into the fourth section, which serves to bring Laurence’s narrative to a conclusion by sending him on a very personal pilgrimage along the road to Santiago de Compostela.

David Lodge is a very engaging writer, being just crude enough in his humour to elicit a certain amount of vulgar snickering, and then soaring away from the muck with some truly poignant bits of prose regarding the human condition and our universal quest for self-knowledge and the eternal why-are-we-here. Occasionally the navel-gazing gets a bit intense, but if one can soldier on one is rewarded by some gloriously funny bits, and some rather terribly true and relatable reminders of the absurdities of interpersonal relationships. (And the actual therapy episodes – of all sorts – are tellingly described and possibly the most deeply humorous bits of the book.)

I found myself mostly in sympathy with Laurence Passmore, despite the ick-factor of Lodge’s detailed descriptions of his sexual woes – for what with Laurence’s age (late fifties), physical condition (not great), and emotional turmoil (excessive), things are getting a bit difficult to, um, sustain in that department – which were kept from being too off-putting by the aforementioned humour of the author. (Though I’ll never be able to look at a bottle of Paul Newman’s Salad Dressing in quite the same innocent way again…)

Laurence/Tubby hits rock bottom, but struggles to his feet, and his redemption, though utterly predictable, left me feeling downright cheerful.

What else? Let’s see…

Grand glimpses of the actual process of creating sit-com episodes; the television studio bits are nicely done.

I rather liked the flashback sequence to Laurence’s teen days and his first love Maureen. Rather sweet, and an interesting excursion into a more innocent(ish) past, teen courtship-wise.

All in all, a decent read in a modern-light-novel sort of way, with the bonus of a mini-course in Kierkegaardian philosophy, delivered quite painlessly.

I do believe I may be reading more of David Lodge in the future, though I will allow a decent interval to pass before tackling him again. Enjoyable as I ultimately found it, I was very ready to be done with this book when I did close the last page; at over 300 pages it was a significant investment of reading time and attention, and there was a certain amount of authorial musing here and there which took some concentration to properly absorb.

 

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incidents in the rue laugier anita brooknerIncidents in the Rue Laugier by Anita Brookner ~ 1995. This edition: Vintage Canada, 1997. Softcover. ISBN: 0-679-30840-7. 233 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

There is no denying that Anita Brookner is a smoothly accomplished writer, for if she wasn’t I suspect I would have quietly laid this novel aside partway through without regret. As it was I had to steadfastly avoid glancing at the many more-tempting books waiting for me on the Century of Books shelves, in order to maintain my focus on this increasingly monotone novel.

The opening chapter sets the stage. An orphaned female narrator (“my parents died years ago…”) muses on the characteristics of her mother which she has started to notice in herself:

My mother read a lot, sighed a lot, and went to bed early…

Maffy, daughter of French Maud and English Edward, goes on to set up the story. She has happened upon a notebook among her late mother’s effects. There are only a few cryptic phrases jotted on the first few pages, but Maffy is inspired by these to create a speculative biography of both of her parents’ lives.

It is a fabrication…one of those by which each of us lives, and as such an enormity, nothing to do with the truth. But perhaps the truth we tell ourselves is worth any number of facts, verifiable or not.  This unrecorded story…is a gesture only, a gesture towards my mother…who told me nothing either of what happened or what failed to happen, and how she came to live with us, so far from home.

Maud grows up in genteel bourgeois poverty, living quietly with her widowed mother and waiting the days away, passively beautiful, awaiting her future without attempting to shape it in any way. This changes when Maud meets the predatory David Tyler, holidaying in France. The two have an affair, and Maud awakens to the possibilities of love just as Tyler has had his fill of her and moves on, dumping Maud on his friend Edward, who has been watching the proceedings with jealous eyes. Edward and Maud end up marrying, and move back to England, where Edward is engaged in resurrecting a musty second-hand book shop he has inherited from a family friend. Maud stays home, keeping their apartment pristine, cooking under-appreciated gourmet meals, and otherwise spending her days reading.

And then nothing else happens. Even the birth of a child nine years into the marriage only serves as a minor blip; Maud goes through a long episode of depression, but Edward provides a nurse who remains with the family for many years, allowing Maud to drift along not really taking much interest in anything, though we realize that she does indeed love her daughter in an undemonstrative way, and that she respects and feels affection for the more passionate Edward, who has never quite forgotten that David Tyler was Maud’s first and deepest love. Anything that Edward gets is very much second best; he is willing to take it but something deep inside rebels, surfacing in his last months of life in a passive-aggressive form of personal neglect which ends in his death.

Maud hangs on four more years, until she too turns her face to the wall and drifts undramatically away.

Maffy is left to ponder the meaning (or lack thereof) of her parents’ lives, and how her own personality has been shaped by her dual heritage.

The End.

Did I like this book?

Well, “like” is perhaps too strong a word in regard to this novel. And no, I didn’t exactly like it, but I did admire it, in a shuddering “Why am I reading this? I know this will leave me feeling completely apathetic” sort of way.

There were moments of strong feeling, but these were isolated and served to emphasize the bleakness of the majority of the characters’ lives. The mood of a sultry French summer in the early 1970s and Maud’s brief sexual awakening is perfectly portrayed, and contrasts severely with the ambitionless futility of the remainder of her life, and her passive submission to everything else which happens to her from the moment David Tyler walks away. (Though farther along she pulls herself together enough to reject his advances when they meet again, showing a kernel of unsuspected pride, which kept me on her side even as she offhandedly absorbed Edward’s love without really attempting to meet him half way; passive acceptance with no overt sign of repulsion doesn’t quite satisfy, as Edward bitterly reflects.)

A beautiful bit of writing, all in shades of muted blush and grey. But not a writer whose novels I could read over and over and back to back. After reading a Brookner one needs something with more vibrancy to shake one out of the enervating trance of hopelessness which immersion in this sort of thing brings on, at least in me.

While some of the novels by Anita Brookner I read this past summer – Hotel du Lac, Brief Lives – reminded me of Barbara Pym in their rather sly wittiness, Incidents in the Rue Laugier was really like nothing I’ve yet read. It reclines in Proustian solitude on its chaise lounge with the drapes drawn against the sun, so very all alone.

Some thoughful reviews:

Roses Over a Cottage Door – Incidents in the Rue Laugier

Bibliolathas – Incidents in the Rue Laugier

Hilary Mantel’s New York Times Review – Incidents in the Rue Laugier

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Three quick reads this past few days ran the gamut from slightly-gosh-awful to thoughtfully-affirmative to poignantly-hilarious. All are deeply imbued with sense of place. Light reading, all three, easy to pick up and put down, though I must confess I read each one straight through. Without further ado, here they are.

one happy moment dj louise riley 001One Happy Moment by Louise Riley ~ 1951.

This edition: Copp Clark, 1951. Hardcover. 212 pages.

My rating: 4.5/10

I’m glad to have read this obscure Canadian novel, for it made me stop and muse on what makes a style of writing either a hit or a miss with a reader. This one felt awkward to me, stylistically and plot-wise, and even its glowing portrayal of a landscape I have personally known well didn’t quite make up for the clunky prose and the rather cardboard characters. I opened it up prepared to enjoy it; I closed it no longer wondering why this was the author’s only adult novel, and why it (apparently) never made it past that first printing.

She lifted her arms and pulled off her grey felt hat, shaking her head like a young horse, freed from his bridle. She ran to the lakeshore and tossed the hat into the lake, laughing at it as it bobbed primly over the ripples. She tore off the jacket of the grey suit and hesitated about throwing it after the hat. Instead she ran back to her suitcase, snapped it open, and took out a pair of plaid pants and a yellow sweater. Taking a last quick look about her, she pulled down the zipper on her skirt and stepped out of it, kicking it aside. Quickly she unbuttoned her grey blouse and took it off, tossing it on top of the skirt. She pulled her slip over her head and, as she stooped to take off her shoes and stockings, the warm sun felt like a caress on her back. She pulled on yellow knitted socks and heavy shoes. When she was dressed in slacks and yellow sweater, with a scarlet handkerchief knotted around her throat, she pulled the pins out of her fair hair, shook it free, and tied it back with a yellow ribbon.

And in case you didn’t quite catch the symbolism, there’s more.

Into the suitcase Deborah shoved the clothes she had taken off, added a few rocks, hauled the suitcase to the shore, and tossed it into the lake. She watched it sink. Her hat had floated several yards away from the shore, and she waved good-bye to it. Then, slinging her rucksack onto her back, she looked for the path up the mountain side.

The young woman so anxious to dispose of her city clothes – and, by inference, her dull, grey, prim and proper former life – is one Deborah Blair, and she’s about to hike nine miles up a trail to a tourist camp somewhere between Lake Louise and Lake O’Hara, on the Alberta side of the Rocky Mountains.

Her first encounter with another person is an old man just up the trail; he pops out of the bush, startling her greatly, and then proceeds to tell her that he knows she is running away from something, and that she is like a young doe, “…frightened…by a hunter, maybe, out of danger now, taking time to be proud of her speed and to taste her freedom, but still wary, remembering her fright…”

But the mountains will give her sanctuary, he goes on to say, and Deborah parts from him, mulling over what he has said, rehearsing her new role in preparation for meeting her fellow guest camp residents.

These are a motley crew indeed. Evangeline Roseberry is her hostess, an uninhibited, provocative and sultry woman of a certain age. Young ranch hand Slim appears to be very close indeed to his employer, and when Slim is not in attendance the male guests are often to be found in “Vangie’s” cozy cabin. Middle-aged Dr. Thornton is holidaying without his wife and apparently finding his hostess a suitable substitute; downtrodden Mr. Nelson is at the beck and call of his own formidable wife, though he glances hopefully at Vangie’s lush charms when Mrs. Nelson’s focussed gaze is elsewhere, and teenage Sue Nelson cherishes a passion for handsome, red-haired, flashing-eyed yet taciturn geologist Ben Kerfoot. In the kitchen brusque Mrs. Horton reigns supreme, dispensing pithy criticisms to all and sundry along with the bacon and eggs.

Deborah gravitates toward avuncular Dr. Thornton, as nosy Mrs Nelson attempts to probe into “Mrs. Blair’s” past, which appears to be decidedly mysterious, especially when an RCMP officer appears asking questions about why a suitcase with the initials D.B. was found floating in the lake at the bottom of the trail. The plot thickens, with heaving bosoms and flashing eyes from the female contingent all round, and lusty glances and/or darkly passionate glares from the men.

One after another, the people from whom Deborah seeks to hide track her down to her mountain fastness, but she gains strength from the purity of the air and the pristine beauty of the surrounding peaks – not to mention Mrs. Horton’s hearty cooking – and stands up for herself at long last.

Though this novel started out promisingly enough, but ultimately didn’t take me where I hoped it would, and most of that was the fault of the writing, and the lack of a cohesive plot.

Deborah’s vaporings are overplayed, and her flip-flopping between men left me bemused. She is decidedly attracted to both Dr. Thornton and Ben-the-geologist, who in turn steal embraces from whichever woman is present and willing, and, when a manipulative cad from her past appears she mulls over throwing her lot in with his, before the mountain breezes blow some sense into her head. An über-controlling mother appears and is finally confounded, and Deborah prepares to set her sights on making her fortune in Vancouver, being as far away across the continent as she can get from her previous life as a meek librarian in Montreal.

The author was a Calgary librarian and storyteller, and her work with children resulted in the naming of a library branch after her in her native city; the wealthy Riley family was well-known for their philanthropy and social conscience, and Louise by all reports was a fervent advocate for childhood literacy.

Four of Louise Riley’s books were published between 1950 and 1960, the juveniles The Mystery Horse, Train for Tiger Lily, and A Spell at Scoggin’s Crossing, as well as her only adult book, One Happy Moment. Though Train for Tiger Lily received the  Canadian Library Association Children’s Book of the Year Award in 1954, a quick glance into my standard go-to children’s literature reference, Sheila Egoff’s Republic of Childhood, finds that perceptive literary critic dismissing Louise Riley’s juveniles as “insipid and contrived”, which I can sympathise with after reading One Happy Moment. Interesting though it may be in a vintage aspect, this is not in any way inspired writing.

Worth taking a look at is the commentary at Lily Oak Books , where I first heard of One Happy Moment. Lee-Anne’s review is well-considered and thoughtful, and she includes some gorgeous pictures.

My copy of the book is going on the probation shelf; I’ll share it with my mom and then decide if it gets to stay or go. The attractive dust jacket will likely tip the balance. As it arrived in fragile shape, I went ahead and put it into Brodart, and its vintage appeal might be too tempting for me to part with, though the words inside the book are not of the highest rank.

a big storm knocked it over laurie colwin 001A Big Storm Knocked It Over by Laurie Colwin ~ 1993.

This edition: Harper Collins, 1993. Softcover. ISBN: 0-06-092546-9. 259 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Moving right along to the other side of the continent and New England, for this gentle yet slyly cunning novel about love and friendship and transcending unhappy childhoods. It’s also about the terrifying act of bringing a child into the world, and an ode to the possibility of happiness, and our right to seek such out in an often unhappy world.

Does that sound impossibly twee and gaggingly chick lit? Well, it isn’t. (Okay, maybe just the tiniest bit. But it’s easy to get past. I liked this book.)

One Happy Moment has a stellar cover and ho-hum contents; A Big Storm Knocked It Over has a dreadful cover and a well-written inside. Ironically, for the protagonist of Big Storm is a graphic designer employed in the book trade, the blandness of the exterior presentation would not normally have received a second glance from me but for my previous encounter with this author. The late Laurie Colwin – she died suddenly in 1992, before this book was published – was a much-loved columnist for Gourmet magazine and  a bestselling cookbook author, novelist and short story writer. Big Storm was her fifth and last novel.

My first acquaintance with her was some twenty years ago, through Goodbye Without Leaving, about a white ex-backup singer for a black pop band – the token “White Ronette” on the tour bus – and her life after music. I read it just after my son was born, and it struck very close to home; Colwin perfectly captured that “now what?” atmosphere of the ultimate personal change of new motherhood and walking away from your past you, and I was comforted by the parallels between her fictional world and my own. It was also very funny.

In Big Storm, Jane Louise has just married her live-in boyfriend Teddy, and is surprised to find that marriage does indeed change things, even if all that is different is a piece of paper and a ring. We are introduced to an ever-widening circle of co-workers, friends and family, and watch with only slightly bated breath as Jane and Teddy find their new groove.

The gist of the novel is that sometimes family is rotten bad, but that you can always choose your friends. And that babies are quite amazing. And yes, life is terrifying, but if you can find someone to love, who also loves you, it still isn’t all shiny sparkly perfect, but it helps.

I don’t know what else to say. It was good. Not great, but definitely good. And there was a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing from the countryside to the city, and a lot of emphasis is placed on where you’re from and ancestral homes and the clannishness of small New England towns, so I figure it counts in my vaguely themed geographical surroundings thing I’ve got going in this post.

Laurie Colwin was an interesting person and a more-than-just-good writer. I still feel sad when I think about her too-soon departure from our world.

mama makes up her mind bailey white 001Mama Makes Up Her Mind, and Other Dangers of Southern Living by Bailey White ~ 1993.

This edition: Addison Wesley, 1993. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-201-63295-o. 230 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

The best is last, and what an unexpected book this turned out to be. I had picked it up along with a random selection of others at the Sally Ann one day, thinking it was a light novel suitable for dropping off with my mom for her entertainment, but not really intending to read it myself. (It reminded me of something by Fannie Flagg, from the title and the cover illustration and the blurbs about “absolute delight” and “like sitting on a porch swing.” Look away! my inner voice chirped, because I have to confess that Fannie Flag leaves me utterly cold, though Mom can handle her in well-spaced intervals.)

My husband was between books, picked it up off the stack by the door and chortled his way through it before pressing it on me. I sat down with it over dinner, and looked up two hours later after having read it through in one continuous session. Easy as picking daisies to prance through, this one was. And I must say a laugh or two escaped me as well.

This turned out to be a collection of short – some very short – anecdotes and vignettes, many centered on White’s mother, the “Mama” of the title, and others more concerned with Bailey White herself. They were originally presented on NPR in the United States, with the author reading her own pieces, but they work exceedingly well in print.

Bailey White was born in 1950 and still lives in her rural family home in Thomasville, Georgia. Until her mother’s death at the age of 80 in 1994, the two were close companions. Their joint adventures as  “a widow and a spinster” are the focus of some of these lively vignettes, but Bailey White’s scope is wide and she draws inspiration from a vast range of experiences. Bailey White worked as a Grade One teacher for over twenty years in the Thomasville school she herself attended as child, after returning to Georgia when her eleven-year-old California marriage ended in 1984.

Between the covers of this delectable smorgasbord of a book you will find tales of an antique spyglass, the best movie ever made (Midnight Cowboy, according to Mama), Road Kill (and how to decide if it’s edible), Pictures Not of Cows, an Armageddon of a storm and how prayer proved not all that useful, feral swans, an alligator which bellowed on cue, snakes lethal and benign, Great Big Spiders, the perfect wildflower meadow, how to travel unmolested by men (involving a maternity dress and a fake wedding ring), D.H. Lawrence as a life-saving substitute for The Holy Bible, and tales from the classroom.

And much, much more. Something like fifty little stories are stuffed into this book, and they are, without exception, quite excellent.

Apparently based on real people and incidents, there is likely a bit of embellishment to some of these; they have the well-polished feel of anecdotes often told, but that in no way lessens their deep charm.

Passionate, deeply revealing, kind, maliciously humorous – all of these can and do describe the author’s voice. Loved this.

And to think I almost missed it!

A great quick read for the bedside table, or to tuck into a pocket for a waiting room stint. Or to read at coffee break, or over a solitary lunch. Watch out for those spontaneous moments of glee, though. You might get some odd looks. (Or even get in trouble with your beverage.)

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the stormy petrel mary stewartThe Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart ~ 1991. This edition: William Morrow & Co., 1991. Hardcover. ISBN:  978-0-688-11035-2. 176 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Short and refreshingly sweet, this pleasant contemporary romance reads like the author was in a confident and relaxed mood when she dashed it off. It’s smooth and seamless, and a fast and effortless read. I enjoyed it.

Twenty-seven-year-old Cambridge don Rose Fenemore is ready for a break from her busy life; as well as lecturing and tutoring, she is a published poet as well as a writer of popular science fiction – the poetry under her own name, the sci fi under a pseudonym. When she sees an ad for an “ivory tower” retreat, a cottage on a remote Scottish island, she is intrigued enough to convince her physician brother to join her there for a holiday. Crispin is an avid bird watcher and photographer in his rare free time, and he and Rose have a marvelous relationship, each allowing the other plenty of space on their trips together, but also happy companionship when their interests merge.

Off to the tiny (and apparently fictional) isle of Moila, then, where Rose finds a small community of welcoming villagers, a recently renovated seaside cottage, and a stunningly beautiful natural world. Steep cliffs, shingle beaches, a few sandy coves, stands of seagrass and wildflowers, tiny rockbound lochs, a ruined Iron Age stronghold (a “broch”), and an abundant population of seabirds, seals and otters all unite to make Moila a very special place indeed. The finest part of this likeable book is Mary Stewart’s very evident delight in describing all of the previous; if Moila is a fictional place, then it must be based on a reality which the author is very familiar with. Her descriptive prose has the authentic ring, from the scent of the sedums growing on the tumbled stones of the broch to the iniquities of the “Defenders of the Highlands”, the vicious clouds of biting midges which swarm in their thousands when the breeze dies down.

But no sooner has Rose settled into her quaint cottage than things begin to go sideways; her peaceful retreat is suddenly a hive of activity. Rose wakens one night to the sound of someone in her kitchen; and stumbling down to welcome her brother – she assumes he has unexpectedly arrived in the night – she finds a handsome and charming young man making tea as if he owns the place. Which, he claims, he does. Or did. The cottage was apparently his foster parents’, and he has no idea that they have moved away, as he himself has been out of touch in an unspecified location for several years. Many apologies and all the rest, but surely Rose will forgive his unwitting intrusion?

No sooner have Rose and the smooth-talking Ewen made tentative friends over tea than another young man tumbles in out of the rain. This arrival claims he is a camper chased out of his tent by the rising wind; he has seen the lights in the cottage and seeks refuge from the storm. He identifies himself as a visiting geologist, John Parsons, but there is something about the cold and calculating glances the two men exchange which suggests something may be up. Rose sensibly retreats to her room, leaving the two young men to make do as best they can on sofa and floor, and when she awakes to find them gone, she thinks she’s seen the last of them.

She hasn’t.

I admired this heroine. She is most sensible and cool as a cucumber when things begin to tumble down around her ears. She deeply appreciates the place she has found herself in, and her rhapsodies on nature are sincere and unsentimental. She is properly cynical regarding the things that require such a view, and her musings on integrity, artistic and otherwise, are well stated and generally spot on.

A slight novel, with little in the way of true suspense; we never really fear for our capable heroine, as emotionally and physically she proves she is able to fend for herself. The romance aspect is low key as well, but comfortably there; we don’t quite know where our characters are all going to end up, but we’re pretty sure at that last page that their futures bode well.

Bonus portrayals of Rose’s two visiting students, and an intriguing glimpse into Crispin’s world and his “his life-her life” marriage. What the author doesn’t follow up is as telling as what she includes.

Nicely done. Thank you, Mary Stewart.

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Here are a few more catch-up reviews from February of 2013.

*****

the elegance of the hedgehog muriel barberyThe Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery ~ 2006

This edition: Europa, 2008. Translated from the French by Alison Anderson. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-9833372-60-0. 325 pages.

My rating: 8/10

I was moved to read this bestseller by the recommendations of respected fellow bloggers; sadly I cannot recall exactly who those were at this point in time! But to them I must say, “Thank you.”  For this was indeed a charming story.

In an exclusive Paris apartment building there dwells, upstairs, a snobbish upper-class family: mother, father, and two daughters. The youngest of the girls, twelve-year-old Paloma, is a strangely precocious child, given to thoughts well beyond her years. In her diary, which makes up half of the book, we learn that she is seriously disillusioned with life, and plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday, unless something occurs to give her faith in the value of existence.

Downstairs is the stout, plain, elderly, and very obviously unintelligent concierge, Renée. Renée stumps around brusquely carrying out the tenants’ orders; she is blatantly uninterested in improving herself, and she carries out her duties with a sullen disrespect for her “betters”. Hers is the other half of the narrative.

Needless to say, for this novel follows the tried and true formula of loners uniting against the bitter world, Paloma and Renée find each other, and a friendship forms between the two social outcasts, who are soon joined by a third, new tenant Ozu, a wealthy Japanese businessman. And it will come as no surprise to readers that Renée is hiding an interior of the purest gold behind her prickly spikes – for she is indeed the hedgehog of the title, a creature of secret refinement, “deceptively indolent, fiercely solitary—and terribly elegant”.

Predictably, tragedy does indeed strike, but from an unexpected direction.

There is also a cat.

Need I say more?

god grew tired of us john bul dauGod Grew Tired of Us by John Bul Dau & Michael Sweeney ~ 2008

This edition: National Geographic, 2008. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-4262-0212-4. 304 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

In 1987 a young Sudanese teenager was forced out of his home by a brutal raid on his village. What followed was a barefoot 1,000 mile trek through Sudan, Ethiopia, and eventually to Kenya, to a haven in a refugee camp. There John Bul Dau joined thousands of other displaced children, the “Lost Boys” of the Sudanese civil war.

Having no way of knowing the fate of his left-behind, possibly slaughtered family, John eventually immigrated to the United States, where he worked tirelessly to educate himself, all the while striving to raise awareness of the tribulations he himself went through, and to bring assistance to those still suffering from the aftermath of the war back in Sudan.

This book and its associated National Geographic film eloquently describe the situation. An earnest and strongly emotional memoir.

through the narrow gate karen armstrong 001Through the Narrow Gate: a memoir of life in and out of the convent by Karen Armstrong ~ 1981

This edition: Vintage Canada, 2005. Softcover. ISBN: 0-676-97709-X. 350 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Intriguing and occasionally bitter memoir of an ex-nun.

In 1962 Karen Armstrong, just seventeen, and child of a not particularly religious family, entered a Roman Catholic convent as a postulant, with the aim of becoming a nun. Seven years later, while attending Oxford under the sponsorship of her order (Armstrong was in training to become a teacher-nun) she realized that she had lost her faith, and she returned fully to the secular world.

Since then, Karen Armstrong has become well known for her writings on religion, and for her outspoken criticism of the Catholic Church’s more archaic practices, and of the confusion brought about by the mandated reforms of Vatican II.

This book, Armstrong’s first, is compelling reading. A very articulate writer.

The Guardian – Profile: Karen Armstrong is well worth reading if you are curious about this now high-profile public character; it references Through the Narrow Gate near the end of the article, with an amusing anecdote from Karen’s sister telling of how the family, after dropping Karen off at the convent for her entrance into her religious life, then went on to watch a production of The Sound of Music. That same sort of dark humour and willingness to smile at oneself is evident in places in this memoir, to leaven its more serious passages.

Sstarting out in the afternoon jill fraynetarting Out in the Afternoon by Jill Frayne ~ 2003

This edition: Vintage Canada, 2003. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-679311-881. 256 pages.

My rating: 4/10

This is an autobiographical memoir of the author’s mid-life crisis, and of the solace she sought and found in communing with nature.

A solo road trip, hiking, biking, camping, sea kayaking and such all help to salve Jill Frayne’s inner pain at the dual blow of both the break up of her long-term romantic relationship back in Ontario, and the moving away of her young adult daughter. Once she begins to gain a degree of competence in her new pursuits, and to feel herself physically comfortable in nature, Frayne begins a deeper exploration of her own emotions.

While I’m sure that this was a marvelous thing for Jill Frayne herself, but sadly I had trouble relating to her angsty navel-gazing, and I felt more and more like I was reading a very private diary. I eventually lost patience with the “me-me-ME” of the author’s inner dialogue; it coloured my reaction to the book as a whole.

I certainly admire the author’s courage as a woman alone going off into challenging territory by herself, and I would have enjoyed this more it had spent more time on the scenery and nuts and bolts of solo travel, and less on the touchy feely bits. But that’s just me; others may embrace the personal narrative and find meaning there which resonates with their own lives.

Back story: the author had an almost fatal accident several years before she set off on her trip; she had been told she would never walk again. She proved everyone wrong. Extra kudos to her, and I do hope the writing of this very personal book brought her comfort and much-needed inner peace.

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the ocean at the end of the lane neil gaimanThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman ~ 2013. This edition: Morrow, 2013. 1st Edition. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-06-225565-5. 181 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

I ration my new books quite severely, for several reasons.

One is that new books are so darned easy. I love the second hand book hunt an awful lot, and relish the finding of literary treasure in all its forms, from the well-known bestsellers of yesterday to the quirky little short-run oddities which pop up now and then, and everything in between. I generally have a wish list of authors I’m currently interested in, but the serendipitous finds are what I keep going back for.

Another vital consideration is price. New books are expensive. Case in point, Gaiman’s latest which I’ll be talking about here. This one set my back $27.99 (Canadian) at my local independent bookstore. Yes, I know I could have purchased it for less through one of the big chain bookstores, or online from the big “A”, but I am trying my hardest to limit new book purchases to the local folks, to do my small part in keeping them in business.

But $28.00 (plus tax) for one book, which, considering Gaiman’s popularity and the size of the print runs, will be readily available for pennies on the dollar in a year or two in the Sally Ann book bins, is a chunk of cash which I need to think about fairly hard before parting with. For that investment I could walk out of even the most lavishly over-priced second hand book store with a handful of volumes, or purchase a true rarity online. Something to think about…

Well, was it worth it? Was my money well spent in purchasing a book because I wanted to read it now, not in a year’s time, or whenever my turn would come in the queue at the public library?

The answer is a resounding “I’m not quite sure…” While the story itself was well up to Gaiman’s best work, it was a slight little thing, quickly devoured and leaving one vaguely unsatisfied and wanting more. Not perhaps such a bad thing, come to think of it. We’ll see how it holds up to a reread in a year or two, once all the hype has faded.

I won’t go into too much detail, as the internet is seething with detailed reviews – over 10,000 (!) on Goodreads alone. I didn’t read any of these before I read the book, but I dipped into them briefly just now, and yes, there’s a lot of words being bandied about, some very thoughtful indeed.

But please, dear fellow reader, read the story cold, if you can, which is what I did. I do feel it is a much better experience, not knowing too much going in.

From the front flyleaf:

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly’s wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.

Not quite sure about that last bit, the “groundbreaking work” part, and the “rare understanding of all that makes us human” puff, but I do agree with the delicate and menacing bits. This was a very creepy story, but in a good way, fictionally speaking.

Lying in bed early this morning, mulling over what to say about the story, a few things stood out for me, and I felt all clever and wise, but glancing through the other online reviews show me that everyone else caught them, too, so I don’t feel quite so special any more.

I saw that it The Ocean at the End of the Lane could be viewed as an allegorical tale much along the same lines as the Narnia books, or any of the oodles of fairy tales and legends preceding that most well-known of story-as-hidden-propaganda-for-a-worldview. Or perhaps “propaganda” is not a fair term. Let’s say “explanation”, then, or something similar. In any event, it’s as old as history, this perhaps-not-so-groundbreaking story line.

In this one, the Maiden-Mother-Crone trinity, the requirement for the protagonist – a feeble creature indeed, standing in nicely for all Mankind, if one continues with the allegory – to act with full faith in their protection, the smug “good will always trump evil” atmosphere of the Hempstock farm, and the pseudo-sacrificial bit at the end, complete with water imagery and resurrection on another plane, all feel very familiar, as they indeed should, as we’ve seen their like before. Many times.

But Gaiman’s interpretation is unique and horrible and beautiful and very well imagined. I enjoyed it thoroughly, as a piece of creative contemporary fiction. Maybe the allegory is all in my head, and the story is just a story. Works either way.

So, asking myself again, was it worth the $27.99 in reading value? I have to say, after more consideration, that the answer is probably “No.” But now I have a nice hardcover copy, still crisp and clean even after being read by everyone in the family, which will look very nice on the shelf until the re-reading impulse strikes in a few years. It’s all right. And I’m hoping that my bookstore got a decent cut!

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