“Well, Mom, are you going to make your deadline? Why aren’t you off typing?” inquired my daughter just a little while ago, and with her encouragement (“Get in there!”) here I am, tap-tappity-tap-tapping.
So – five more books to write something about and tick off the Century of Books project list.
Here goes with four of them.
Best one first.
A Kid For Two Farthings by Wolf Mankowitz ~ 1953. This edition: Bloomsbury, 2010. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-60819-048-5. 128 pages.
My rating: 9.5/10
What an absolute sparkler of a little book. Probably more properly a long short story, or maybe, with allowances, a novella. Whatever it is, it’s a winner. I’ve seen it referred to as “robustly sentimental”, and that description is absolutely bang-on.
6-year-old Joe lives on Fashion Street in Spitalfields in London’s East End, as did the author as a child, so one must assume that the abundant local colour here is taken straight from life. The time period is not specified, but as the writer was born in 1924 and the story is full of firsthand observations, one would assume it takes place in the late 1920s/early 1930s timeframe. It has a between-the-wars feel and the references seem to fit that period.
Joe and his mother have been left behind while the man of the family heads off to Africa where he’s involved in the garment trade, having something to do with selling clothes and boots to soldiers and such. Joe desperately wants to join him there but as every penny his mother makes as a piecework-basis hat trimmer goes to rent and groceries their tickets to Africa are not coming anytime soon.
Anyway, Joe spends a lot of time downstairs with his landlord, Mr Kandinsky the trouser-maker, and Mr Kandinsky’s apprentice Schmule, who, when he isn’t working, is deeply involved in body-building, having not-so-secret dreams of one day being Mr Europe, or even Mr World or – dare he raise his eyes so high? – Mr Universe. In the meantime Schmule is involved in serious wrestling, working his way through the ranks in order to win enough bouts to earn some prize money to buy his fiancé of two years a proper ring, so her fellow workers at the Gay-Day Blouses factory will stop teasing her about her no-good boyfriend.
Mr Kandinsky wants to buy a proper steam-pressing outfit, so he can run a more efficient business and not be always fighting with old fashioned flatirons, but in the meantime he gets on as best he can, clothing the neighbourhood’s men and trying to live up to the standard set be his late father, who was an accomplished jacket maker, no less.
Three sets of wishes, such small ones in the great scheme of things (well, aside from Schmule’s Mr Universe dreams, perhaps), but so out of reach. But when Joe learns from Mr Kandinsky that unicorns – now extinct in England but still to be found in other places of the world, such as, well, maybe Africa? – have the power to grant wishes, off he sets to the animal market to see if he can acquire a unicorn for himself and his friends.
What Joe finds is a small, white animal, looking something like a goat kid, but wait! – there is a telltale single horn bud – can it possibly be…?
Mr Kandinsky assures Joe that he has indeed found his heart’s desire and so Africana, as the mysterious creature is named, joins the household. He’s a quiet little creature, not much good at walking, and he doesn’t seem to grow very fast, but Joe has faith that Africana’s magic is just waiting for the right time to develop…
This is an adult fairytale, so along with the attainment of hearts’ desires you know there lurks a certain amount of heartbreak to keep things balanced, and if you expect something tragic to happen at the end of all this, you’re sort of prepared for what occurs. But sad though that something is, everything ultimately works itself out, and we walk away smiling. A bit ruefully, but well content.
This was made into quite a successful 1955 film, which I haven’t seen but which appears to have a strong fan base among vintage movie buffs.
Family Money by Nina Bawden ~ 1991. This edition: Virago Press, 1992. Paperback. ISBN: 1-85381-486-5. 250 pages.
My rating: 7.5/10
Liked it at the start, hated it here and there in the middle bits, liked it again as it drew to a close. Ended up with a great big question mark regarding the fate of the main character, and I actually cared, so I guess it was a success, hence the final very decent rating.
Widowed Fanny Pye, heading into old age unencumbered financially and owning a now-rather-valuable London house, worries her children. Mother shouldn’t be living alone, they say to each other with furrowed brows, for what if she should, say, fall down those stairs? Or be violently burgled? Or…well…you know…attract the wrong sort of man, out to romance her for her money? And that lovely house is now worth a lot of money, and we’re going to inherit it anyway, and we could really use the cash now….
Fanny knows what they’re thinking, and lets it all slide by, for she knows her children love her and only want what’s best for everyone, but the status quo is about to change dramatically. Fanny witnesses a fatal assault, and in the melee is knocked down and concussed, with resultant temporary amnesia, and her whole world changes. Never before fearful – or having reason to be – Fanny is now well aware that she may be the only witness to the circumstances of a young man’s death. The police have given up questioning her, but she has a niggling idea that there is something troublingly familiar about a young man she now seems to be encountering everywhere…and details of that awful night are slowly surfacing in her healing brain…
Here’s a good précis, courtesy of Kirkus:
Bawden (examines) the concerns of middle-aged children for their mother, who has, violently and abruptly, become a problem to be solved–while the mother battles through a thicket of difficulties, alone. There is love, but also sprouting amid the children’s loyalty are telltale tendrils of greed and a monstrous self-pity. Fanny Pye, 60-ish widow of a career diplomat, confronted three young toughs who had beaten another man senseless on a London street, and was herself knocked unconscious. Lying in the hospital, with children Isobel and Harry standing by in shock, Fanny can’t remember the incident (“memory had its own logic; a code which was hard to break sometimes”) – but she returns to her substantial home (all her husband left her) to reclaim it and herself. Her children worry about a companion. Memory, however – “a dimly seen cloud” – holds a surprise, as eventually floating up from Fanny’s store of buried nightmares is a chance remark revealing a nasty crime. Meanwhile, Fanny has been making decisions that give the children shivers. Will she sell the house and give the money to a friend? And what of her single contemporary Tom, who seems to be a permanent fixture? After all, Fanny’s house, both children agree, represents “family money,” and therefore is not Fanny’s to dispose of. (Among friends and neighbors there are echoes of such trans-generational conflicts – with the middle-aged frustrated and harried, and the old careening off in their own way.) Fanny is almost defeated by her secret knowledge of a murder and by her own panic, but she conquers fear, and, in an amusing close, flies off on a holiday plane leaving Harry bothered, bemused, self-deceived, and drawing the wrong conclusions…
Deeply, darkly funny, as fictional tales which hit close to truthful home can be, and the ending was something of a quiet gasper, leaving us as it does literally up in the air.
Flawed, but the merits cancel out the iffy bits. Best for appreciators of Pym and Brookner, I think.
Under the Hammer by John Mortimer ~ 1994. This edition: Penguin, 1994. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-023656-2. 253 pages.
My rating: 6/10
I found this collection of episodes in the life of “Klinsky’s of London” auction house art experts Ben Glazier and Maggie Perowne just a little too light on plotting and character development to be worthy of my high expectations from its writer. It reads like a series of episodes for a television production.
Oh, wait. That’s exactly what it is! No word on whether it was written up before, after, or in conjunction with the screenplay for the Meridian Broadcasting 7-episode series.
So here we have a semi-elderly man in partnership, in friendship and in unrequited love with a younger woman. Ben and Maggie work together in the Old Masters section – Maggie is Ben’s boss – and have a complex personal relationship which is nevertheless entirely a thing of clichéd innuendo. Though Maggie dallies with handsome young men, bedding them with casual enjoyment while Ben, off in the wings, studiously thinks of other things, the two strike obvious sparks when they’re together, and though they keep things mostly platonic the partnership seethes with romantic possibility – will they? won’t they? ah! not this time around…
The book contains six self-contained chapters, each concerning a questionable art antiquity – much of the work of the department is in proving provenance and exposing clever forgeries. We have a possible Bronzini, a fabulously valuable Russian icon, and a possible unknown Dickens manuscript, as well as case lots of vintage wine, a maybe-Titian, and a questionable piece of modern art.
All good for a lot of romping about and educational bits of dialogue regarding the art thing in question. It reminded me strongly of Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy books (concerning a promiscuous antique dealer who is constantly mixed up with forgeries, good and bad deals, amorous adventures, and an astounding amount of murder), though Mortimer has a much stronger grasp on linear plot structure than Gash does. That television-episode-screenplay thing rearing its head versus a full-length novel which can go hither and yon before its at-length conclusion, of course.
Under the Hammer is acceptably clever and adequately readable and ultimately light as a feather. Good for holiday reading and times when one doesn’t want to think too hard. The writing is good if not great, and the characters manage to entertain more often than annoy, though occasional too-farcical moments had me grumbling a bit to myself.
I’d hoped for more, particularly as I read it soon after the much better Dunster, but it is what it is, and lightweight is okay too.
The Maze in the Heart of the Castle by Dorothy Gilman ~ 1983. This edition: Doubleday, 1983. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-385-17817-4. 230 pages.
My rating: 3.5/10
Oh dear. This was really pretty rotten. Even allowing for its intended grade school/teenage audience.
It’s been lurking on our “juvenile fiction” shelves for years, and I remember trying to foist it off on both of my children with little success, but I’d not read it cover-to-cover till now. I would have quit with it midway through except it did fit in with a missing century year and it was a slight thing (with nice large print, thank goodness) and soon over.
Here we have an allegorical tale concerning the importance of staying true to oneself or something like that. Or maybe it was about being in control of one’s own destiny, and the importance of letting go of bad stuff to make room for good. I think that was it.
The publisher’s promotional write-up reads like this:
He Was Only Sixteen When Tragedy Struck….
His name was Colin, and although he still couldn’t believe it, his parents were gone, both dead from the plague. Scared, confused, and angry, he sought out a monk who told him about a haunted castle on Rheembeck Mountain — and the old, strange wizard who lived there. Perhaps there Colin would find a way to stop his pain….
But instead of answers, the wizard showed him a locked oak door. Beyond it lay an ancient stone maze that led to a mystical land, a place where bandits roamed freely, where people lived within dark caves, afraid of the light, where cruelty was the way of the world, and where beautiful girls were not always what they seemed.
The wizard opened the oak door and invited Colin to enter. If Colin came through this strange place alive, he might indeed be able to ease the pain in his heart. But once inside, there could be no going back….
Okay, there’s a backstory to this thing. Happens that Dorothy Gilman (yes, the same person who wrote the Mrs Pollifax mysteries, which I could never get into so my dislike for TMATHOTC is perhaps predestined) wrote a novel in 1979 called The Tightrope Walker, a mystery-suspense-coming of age tale in which the heroine constantly references a meaningful book read in childhood which saves her sanity in adulthood after her mother’s suicide and a bunch of other traumatic experiences. The book in question being named The Maze in the Heart of the Castle. So several years later Gilman decides to actually write the fictional book she fictionally referenced. Some of the work was already done, because she’s apparently included lots of quotes from the non-book in The Tightrope Walker, so she built the real book around those and voila! – inspirational allegorical tale.
Our Hero Colin enters the Maze, immediately figures out a way out – over the surrounding wall – leaving behind everyone else who is afraid to venture into the unknown, preferring the bleak familiar land of entrapment. He has numerous adventures and cleverly thinks his way out of all of his tight spots, is seduced and abandoned by a heartless bad girl, and eventually finds a true friend, a true love, and the way into the safety of the kingdom he set out to seek, the key to which was really inside himself all the time.
I thought this was a waste of paper. But lots of people like it – see Goodreads for confirmation – so I will quietly step aside and leave them to admire in peace.