Archive for the ‘Jack Hodgins’ Category

Oh, such high hopes I had for these ones!

Reviews I’d read and the past experiences I’d had with some of these authors led me to believe I’d love these books. But for various reasons, these were the reads that failed to thrill to the expected levels in 2012.

(I’ve read much “worse” books this year, but in all of those cases I had no expectations of excellence, so the disappointment wasn’t so deeply felt.)

*****

MOST DISAPPOINTING READS 2012

In alphabetical order of author’s surname.

*****

1. A White Bird Flying (1931)

and

Miss Bishop (1933) 

by Bess Streeter Aldrich

A double whammy of disappointment from this author, whose mild historical romances I generally quite enjoy. Both of these books started off wonderfully well, but by midway through each I was thoroughly out of sympathy with the heroines, and their every thought and action served only to annoy.

Laura in White Bird Flying seriously over-estimated her artistic abilities, and when she did chuck her not-very-viable dream of becoming a writer (key requirement: you have to be able to write) to marry her long-suffering swain, she rather moped her way through her not-very-exciting married life in much the same way as she’s drooped through college. Perhaps if she’d dreamed less and applied herself more? A bit of a whiner, was Laura, with a strong sense of her own “specialness”.

Ella Bishop, of Miss Bishop, might as well have been walked around with a “kick me” sign taped to her back. Her continual self-sacrifice buys her a few moments of gratification here and there, and a public ovation when she’s turfed from her job at the worst possible moment, but she still ends up a penniless old maid, having given and given and given all her life with no return from her selfish hangers-on. The author seems to approve. I really wanted Miss Bishop to show some selfishness and gratify a few of her own deep down desires, instead of being such a darned good sport all the way through. This whole story just irritated me. Grrr.

2. The L-Shaped Room (1960)

and

The Backward Shadow (1970)

by Lynne Reid Banks

I so wanted to enjoy the story of Jane Graham, a very liberated young woman who forges ahead with her life regardless of the opinions of those around her. I should have liked her, I wanted to like her, but ultimately I came away feeling that she was a morbidly self-centered and stunningly rude little piece of work. I pity her poor kid. I couldn’t make it through the second book of the trilogy, and I can’t even recall the title of the third book. Seems to me it focusses on Jane’s difficulties with her child. No wonder; I’m sure the mother-child relationship is as dismally ill-fated as all of Jane’s other relationships.

Too unspeakably dreary.

(However, Stuck-in-a-book’s Simon liked this one a lot, so don’t take my word for it; please read what he has to say, too. Most of his reviews agreeably jive with my own opinions, but this was a rare exception.)

3. Adventures of a Botanist’s Wife (1952)

by Eleanor Bor

A promising-sounding memoir of travels throughout northern India in the 1930s and 40s. In reality, the writing was a bit flat, and not nearly as interesting as I’d hoped for. The author didn’t include nearly enough detail either about her own thoughts and feelings, or about the botanical and geographical wonders of the areas she was moving through. A chore to finish; I kept expecting it to pick up, but the narrative deteriorated as the book progressed. This one could have been so wonderful; a sad disappointment.

4. Pippa Passes (1994)

and

Cromartie v. The God Shiva Acting Through the Government of India (1997)

by Rumer Godden

A pair of duds from veteran storyteller Godden. Written in the last years of her life, it is apparent that Godden’s stamina is failing in carrying these fictional ideas through to the higher level achieved by many of her earlier books. Moments of lovely writing, but generally not up to the standard I had hoped for from this master storyteller.

Pippa Passes concerns an impossibly gifted young dancer and singer and her trip to Venice with a ballet troupe. Previously sheltered and protected Pippa is ripe for romance – she attracts the amorous attentions of a dashing young gondolier and her lesbian ballet mistress. Unsatisfactory throughout; a sketchy sort of resolution which I cannot even really remember only a few months after my reading. That says it all. Godden was 87 when this one was published; I’m sure she felt tired; the story reads like she couldn’t really be bothered to refine her slight little romantic tale.

Cromartie vs. The God Shiva is also a disappointment, though a more ambitious, better-written story than the forgettable Pippa. A promising premise: a priceless statue of the god Shiva has surfaced in Toronto; it is believed to have been stolen from its niche in a temple alcove in a hotel on the Coromandel coast of India, with a clever replica substituted for the original. Romance, mystery, and tragic sudden death are all elements in this promising but shallow creation, the last published work by the veteran writer, who died shortly after its publication, at the venerable age of 90. Kudos to her for writing until the end, but sadly this last work is not up to the fine quality of many of her earlier novels.

5. The Middle Window (1935) 

by Elizabeth Goudge

One of Goudge’s very earliest published works – it was preceded by a forgettable (and forgotten) book of poetry, and the well-received Island Magic in 1934. The Middle Window is a sort of super-romantic Scottish ghost story, and it just didn’t come off the ground, atmosphere of Highland heather and noble-but-doomed ancestors notwithstanding. Lushly purple prose and terribly stereotypical characters, with a plot both predictable and outrageous in its premise. Some sort of weird reincarnation features strongly. Goudge herself blushingly dismisses this one in her own assessment of her works in her marvelous autobiography, The Joy of the Snow. Interesting only as a comparison to later books, to see how much better she could do once she found her stride. I’d heard it was pretty dire, but I’d hoped the panning comments were over-critical. They weren’t.

6. Mrs. de Winter (1993)

by Susan Hill

Contemporary “dark psychological thriller” writer Susan Hill takes a stab at a sequel to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Some things are best left alone. I wish I could erase this dreary piggyback-on-a-classic tale from my memory. What was I thinking, to read this? What was anyone thinking, to commission this train wreck – er – car crash – of a misguided pseudo-sequel? I hope Daphne puts a ghostly curse on Susan Hill for this defamation of her (du Maurier’s) characters. They might have some issues, but no one, not even fictional characters so firmly in the public domain as Max and his unnamed second wife, deserve to be tampered with like this. Ick.

7. The Honorary Patron (1987)

by Jack Hodgins

Hodgins is a very clever writer, but my own mind couldn’t quite stretch enough to take some of the mental steps needed to fully enter into the spirit of this ponderously gleeful “magical realism” word game. I definitely saw and smiled at the humour, appreciated what Hodgins was getting at with his sly digs and cynical speeches, but found it terribly hard to push my way through to the end. This wasn’t the happy diversion I’d been expecting.  Another time, maybe a deeper appreciation. Perhaps. But in 2012 at least, a personal disappointment.

8. Friends and Lovers (1947)

by Helen MacInnes

One of thriller-espionage-suspense writer MacInnes’s several straightforward romances – no guns, spys or dastardly Soviet plots in sight. I’d read and enjoyed a number of the thrillers, and one of the romances – Rest and be Thankful, so when Friends and Lovers crossed my path I quite eagerly snapped it up, took it home, and settled down for what I thought would be a good vintage read.

Two star-crossed lovers triumph over family roadblocks and challenging personal circumstances to eventually wed. Essentially humourless, this was a disappointing read, and not anywhere close to as entertaining as I’d hoped it would be. The hero was terribly, jealously chauvinistic; the heroine was ultimately spineless where her swain is concerned. I didn’t like or respect either of them by the end of the tale. The author was capable of greater things.

9. Kilmeny of the Orchard (1910)

and

A Tangled Web (1931)

by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Canadian literary icon Lucy Maud Montgomery has written some wonderfully entertaining books, but these two don’t count among them as far as I’m concerned.

Kilmeny presents an unbelievably lovely, incredibly musically talented, but vocally mute innocent country girl who is avidly pursued by the much more worldly Eric. A brooding Italian foster-brother acts as a rival in love. Aside from the rather creepy gleefulness with Eric displays upon his discovery of Kilmeny – “So young, so pure, so innocent – let me at her!” – the hateful prejudice the author displays towards the “tainted by his blood” Neil is exceedingly off-putting, even allowing for the era of the writing.

A Tangled Web concerns the internal struggles of a large family as each individual tries to prove worthy of inheriting a hideous heirloom – an old pottery jug. More dirty linen is displayed than I am interested in seeing; it could have been salvaged by better writing and non-sarcastic humor – both of which I know the author could have pulled off – but it missed the mark on all counts. I tried but couldn’t bring myself to even like most of the characters, and the author throws in a gratuitous racial slur on the last page which dropped this already B-grade novel more than a notch lower in my esteem.

10. The New Moon with the Old (1963)

by Dodie Smith

Yearning after a book of the same quality and deep appeal as my decided favourite read by this author, I Capture the Castle, I was ever so eager to experience some of her other quirky tales. And I was careful to ensure that before turning to the first page, my mind was consciously emptied of preconceptions and expectations, to be able to give New Moon a fair trial unshaded by the brilliant sun of Castle.

Even without a comparison to my favourite, The New Moon with the Old was not what I had hoped for.  Investment consultant (or something of the sort – I can’t quite remember the job description, just that there were clients and large sums of money involved) Rupert Carrington gambles and loses on an ambitious scheme involving his other people’s funds. He goes into hiding to escape prosecution, leaving his four offspring to fend for themselves with only a recently hired housekeeper to keep all of the practical wheels of a luxurious household running. Never having to have worked, and faced with the need to earn money to feed and clothe themselves, the four Carringtons – aged 14 into the early 20s – make forays into the larger world, taking on occupations as diverse as actress, novelist, composer and “mistress to a king”.  While not conventionally “successful”, all four land jam-side-up, being taken under the wings of various wealthy sponsors; swapping Daddy’s protection for the patronage of others.

I wasn’t so much shocked by the sexual/intellectual sellings-of-themselves most of the siblings indulged in, as by the ready acceptance of the father’s betrayal of the trust of his clients. This is never rectified; a skilful lawyer is obtained to get Rupert off the legal hook, and by the end all is looking potentially lovely in the Carrington garden. Cute characters and funny situations didn’t quite sugarcoat this one enough for me to swallow without gagging. Darn.

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The Honorary Patron by Jack Hodgins ~ 1987. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1989. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-4190-X. 413 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10. You’ve got to be in the mood to fully appreciate Hodgin’s rather cumbersome playfulness in this one. I guess I’m not quite in the right frame of mind. It was pretty good, and I smiled my way through, but I can’t see myself picking this one up again any time soon. Still a keeper, for a few years hence. Bottom or top shelf – not in the premium placings.

*****

If you liked Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, or anything by Robertson Davies, you’ll probably look on The Honorary Patron with interest. I think the genre here might be what is termed “magical realism”. Everything is based firmly on solid ground, but the farcical bits go way over the top, tipping the reader off early on that this is not simply an amusing narrative, but something much more playful and far-flying. I get the feeling that Jack Hodgins had a wonderfully self-indulgent time writing this one, and there are more than few cunning digs at his native Vancouver Island and the residents thereof. (Unloading some old baggage, eh, Jack?) But he keeps just this side of spitefulness, so it’s all good.

Not-quite-elderly Professor Jeffrey Crane is settled comfortably into life as a Canadian expatriate in his adopted habitat of Zürich. He has a solid reputation as an accomplished art lecturer, a respectable retirement income from his university teaching days and his still-popular television series, and looks forward to an unbroken future of gentle walks in the park, trips into the countryside to visit his landlady’s family, and long hours spent napping in the sun at his favourite rooftop cafe.

All of this is threatened by the sudden tempestuous arrival of a very-much-alive ghost from the past, his Canadian ex-lover Elizabeth Argent, who bursts in on Jeffrey as he sits up in said cafe, searching frantically for his shoes – which he always kicks off, a running gag throughout the book – so he can escape. He is captured, and thoroughly subdued by vibrant Elizabeth, who has sought Jeffrey out to convince him to come back to Vancouver Island and act as the Honorary Patron of the newly minted Pacific Coast Festival of the Arts. A few speeches, a lot of nodding and smiling, a chance to revisit old haunts, what’s to worry about, Jeffrey?

As it turns out, there are many surprises waiting for the Professor on his long-abandoned home grounds. The coastal rainforest is crawling with old secrets nurtured and embellished, ready for revelation, and unanticipated new situations which Jeffrey, exceedingly unprepared, steps into with bizarre results.

Hodgins paints this picture with a palette brimful of colour and dazzle, using a combination of wildly broad strokes and occasionally the most delicate of detailing where his attention is focussed momentarily.

Does it work? Well, sort of. The Honorary Patron is a bit of a forgotten book, though it did win an award or two – Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book in the Caribbean and Canada, 1988, for starters. Hodgins is a good writer, no quibbles about that, but I wouldn’t recommend this as a place to begin in exploring his body of work. Spit Delaney’s Island would be my personal recommendation, and then see where (and if) you go from there.

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Over 40 in Broken Hill by Jack Hodgins ~ 1992. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1992. Softcover. ISBN: 0-7710-4192-6. 197 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10. Unpretentious and good-humoured, without stooping to farce. Jack can, as needed, poke a bit of fun at himself, but he keeps his self-respect and extends that regard to others.

*****

This is a book without a Great Big Purpose, which is too often rare in a travel book, into which category this work mainly falls. Over 40 is a rather elegantly presented account of two writers on the loose in Australia. One, Australian novelist Roger McDonald, is researching his next book, a non-fiction account of the politics and conflicts between New Zealand and Australian sheep shearers working the vast outback flocks, and the other is our own British Columbian Jack, tagging along with his friends and colleague for the four-week trip.

Jack finds himself taking notes throughout the journey, and ends by writing his own account of the fascinating people and unique places the two encounter. Quirky, often humorous, fair-minded and very readable. I enjoyed this travel memoir.

Jack Hodgins is well-known in B.C. literary circles for his fiction, from his now-iconic short story collection Spit Delaney’s Island in 1976 to his most recent novel, The Master of Happy Endings in 2010. Over 40 in Broken Hill was something of a departure from the fictional norm of this author, but it worked for me.

I’ve read a number of this author’s works over the years, and think very highly of his distinctive style. (He reminds me a bit of Robertson Davies, but without the aura of intellectual snobbery that Davies sometimes projects.) I am not alone in this regard, as Jack Hodgins was awarded an Order of Canada in 2010 for his lifetime contribution to Canadian literature. An author well worth exploring, if you are not already familiar with him.

Side note: The “40” referred to in the title has a double meaning. Think age, and then think degrees Celsius. There is a chapter midway through the book that clarifies the reference most engagingly.

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