Archive for the ‘Lynne Reid Banks’ 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 Backward Shadow by Lynne Reid Banks ~ 1970. This edition: Simon & Shuster, 1970. Hardcover. 246 pages.

This is a failed review; a non-review; an unreview. I have been trying and trying to finish this book, but have found myself at a dead stop in interest level. Maybe during another time in my life? I need to get this off my desk, and off my conscience, so I’m going to shelve it now, along with its prequel, The L-Shaped Room (which I did manage to read and review, hence the presence of the sequel on my to-read list), and with all the sombre Margaret Atwoods et al which I also have trouble getting thrilled about at this point. Life changes; our reading choice ebb and flow and evolve. Someday, perhaps, “Jane Graham’s” tale will be of interest to me, but certainly not now.

It’s not that it’s a “bad” book; there is a certain style and flow to Banks’ writing that is decidedly appealing, and I can see that her heroine might be someone whom the reader could make friends with, if the reader is in that place in their life where they can identify and sympathize with Jane and her endeavours.

In the meantime, here is the flyleaf description, for the record. I fully agree with the facts of this blurb (okay, maybe not the “glowing achievment” bit, but I agree in general), but just can’t get past my personal annoyance at Jane’s irritatingly navel-gazingish personna; I know constant self-examination is a good thing and all, but this gal takes it to a high level. I’m just one person, though – others feel much more enthusiastic! You’ll have to try it for yourself.

Here’s a link to the Goodreads page:

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1916493.The_Backward_Shadow

And from the flyleaf:

From the author of the memorable The L-Shaped Room comes this powerful, disturbing, bittersweet sequel – a complete novel by itself, which continues the story of Jane, now living in an English country cottage with her illegitimate child, determined to forge a viable, independent future. She still loves Toby, her past lover but not the father of her child, but she has an obstinate conviction that she must not burden is writing career by saddling him with her situation.

Tough and resilient though Jane is in many respects, the intensity with which she loves her child is not enough to conceal from her the recognition of her essential loneliness in her isolated country life. She resolves to meet the challenges in her own way and, as readers of The L-Shaped Room will remember fondly, Jane’s way is one of honesty, humor, and unsentimental insight.

Rarely in fiction does the sequel to a celebrated novel measure up to its predecessor in impact and originality, but The Backward Shadow is in every way as glowing an achievement as Lynne Reid Bank’s first book…

And here is the Kirkus Reviews take, from 1970:

This is an extension of The L-Shaped Room (better remembered as a film?) in which unwed mother Jane has retired to Surrey with her infant, David, and is still in love with Toby (not his father). Toby comes down from London to see her now and again before he gets attached elsewhere and Jane learns too late that being an independent woman (not in the current sense) has a premium. With Dottie, an old friend, she starts a gift shop which is subsidized by Henry, Dottie’s contact. Before they’re through “the backward shadow” has darkened all their lives: Dottie’s is loneliness; Jane’s is the problem of getting along and bringing up David; Henry’s is “dying well”–which he does, although Jane and Dottie cry a great deal. . . . Essentially it’s a soft-shelled woman’s story–a term which has been discredited rather than the fact. There will be readers.

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The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks ~ 1960. This edition: Penguin, 1983. ISBN: 0-14-00-1913-8. Paperback. 269 pages.

My rating: 5/10. Just barely. It had a few good moments, but I generally did not care for this one.

Widely touted as a ground-breaking, pro-feminist, must-read novel of the early Sixties.

Lynne Reid Banks, born in 1929, and part of the post-war wave of  newly “liberated” women entering the professional workplace in droves, initially pursued a career as a stage actress, then as a television journalist, and, following a demotion, as a television scriptwriter. She took revenge by writing the first draft of this novel “on a company typewriter, on a company paper, on company time.”

http://www.lynnereidbanks.com/interview.html

The novel became an almost instant bestseller, and, with some plot changes to allow for the French accent of the starring actress,  was made into a successful 1962 movie featuring Leslie Caron.

Written very much in the first person, this is the story of twenty-seven-year-old Jane Graham, an ex-aspiring stage actress, who has moved back to her father’s house and is working as an assistant to a London hotel manager. Feeling jaded and dissatisfied with her life, Jane seeks out an old flame, with the idea of consummating their unfulfilled prior romance. The relationship doesn’t take, and, much to her surprise, Jane finds herself pregnant after the single sexual encounter (her first) which doomed the dying romance to its ultimate death.

Jane immediately decides she will keep and raise the baby, without telling her ex-lover, as she feels this is strictly her own affair, and she wants the child to completely belong to her. She is offered an opportunity for an abortion by the doctor whom she consults to confirm her pregnancy, but with high moral purpose, Jane indignantly turns the suggestion down.

She breaks the news to her staid and conservative father, who, in a state of shock and dismay, orders her to leave his house at once. Off Jane goes in a fit of pique, to find herself the most squalid room possible in a slummish part of town. This is the “L-shaped room” of the title, and it is located on the top floor of a decaying boarding house. The other residents are her contradictory landlady Doris; ex-wardobe mistress Mavis (who spies relentlessly on all comings and goings); Toby Coleman, a young writer; West Indian Negro jazz musician John; and two prostitutes in the basement, another Jane and a Hungarian refugee, Sonia.

Jane hides her pregnancy (she thinks) very well from those around her, feeling that to avoid the discussion at all is better somehow than lying about it. Jane eventually loses her job when her condition becomes too obvious to further ignore, but she finds solace in her growing friendships with her fellow tenants, and in a blossoming love affair with Toby.

Though I appreciate that there is some very fine writing in this story, and that it was much more forthright about taboo subjects than others of its era (first sexual encounters, the morality and reality of abortion, unwed motherhood, the physical rigours of pregnancy, sexual and racial prejudice, among others), I cannot say that I particularly enjoyed my reading of it.

Jane’s character, as revealed by our literal reading of her innermost thoughts, is self-centered, supremely egotistical, openly prejudiced against Jews, blacks and homosexuals, and almost offensively “honest”. Though she appears to inspire instant love and dedication in many of those she encounters, I could never quite believe in her widespread attraction to so many disparate people. I sometimes wondered during my reading of the novel, if some of Jane’s convictions of how others viewed her were rather delusions; she continually comments on how she has impressed others with her superiour taste, wit and knowledge.

Perhaps some of my reluctance to fully embrace this story has something to do with the style of the writing, often very much “statement of fact”; almost wooden at times. But mostly I just did not find Jane as worthy of sincere interest and affection as I would have liked; this sort of story, to work for me, has to have a much more deserving-of-my-regard protagonist. I often felt that the fictional Jane created many of her own problems, then moped about stewing in her resultant misery, before being bailed out by various strangely willing “white knights” – her supervisor James, Toby and John, her father (who almost immediately after telling her to leave writes begging her to return), and, most improbably of all,  her eccentric Aunt Addy, who appears out of the blue, after never being previously mentioned, offering succour at the most opportune moment.

Jane carries on a continual internal monologue at how strange and disgusting other people, places and objects are to her. I wondered if author Banks has an ultra-sensitive sense of smell; there are many mentions of offensive odours throughout, including the “strong Negro smell” of John, the cloying perfumes of Mavis and the prostitute Jane, the “bug-infested” odour of the house in general and Jane’s room in particular … over and over Jane makes mention of these, and her frequent nausea and disgust.

On the credit side, Jane does grow somewhat as a person as the story progresses; I found myself wondering if the author made Jane’s inner voice so critical and offensive to highlight how far she had to travel to approach a more tolerant and accepting point-of-view. She hassn’t quite gotten there by the end of the novel, though. Perhaps she progresses more in the next two books of the trilogy?

Improbably pat resolutions to some of the characters’ most pressing issues also jarred my sensibilities. Lots of loose ends tidily tucked away, many more so than would happen in the real world, I felt.

There is no doubt that Lynne Reid Banks has a writing talent of a high degree; as a first novel this shows an advanced ability and voice. Banks went on to write nine more adult novels, including two sequels to L-Shaped Room: The Backward Shadow and Two is Lonely; as well as numerous children’s’ books, most notably The Indian in the Cupboard (1980) and its several sequels.

There are many glowing reviews of The L-Shaped Room; mine, sadly, can not be one of them. I would still recommend the novel, with reservations, as an interesting period piece and for cultural literacy purposes for those interested in popular and/or feminist fiction of the mid-twentieth century. My most serious reservation concerns the continual overt racist comments (whether or not they reflect the author’s true views or are merely, as I rather suspect, an attention-catching plot device).  I felt there were some serious weaknesses in the probabilities of the plot itself.

I have also acquired a copy of the next book in the Jane Graham trilogy, The Backward Shadow, and, glancing through it, I see that the style appears much the same. I am going to read it soon, out of curiousity to see how (and if) Jane becomes more understanding and tolerant of others, and, also, in fairness to this still-popular and often highly regarded author, to give me another chance to try to more deeply appreciate her work.

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