Archive for the ‘Phyllis A. Whitney’ Category

Dear Phyllis A. Whitney: I’ve given you so three good chances, with Seven Tears For Apollo (1963), Sea Jade (1964) and Columbella (1966), and I must say I have found you lacking. One last chance was a just-abandoned attempt to read 1991’s Woman Without a Past, with me thinking that perhaps several more decades of writing experience might result in something more to my taste.

I regret to say that this hasn’t proven to be the case. I made it to mid-way in the book, but was at last defeated by the psychic cat (“Miss Kitty” – how blandly lame is that?!), the old black “servant” (described as such by P.A.W.) speaking the author’s conception of “black person Southern dialect” (while all the white Southerners appear to be speaking “normal” English), the secret letter hidden behind the tail of the wooden rocking horse (what an appropriate place, I caught myself thinking, because the plot was fast degenerating into, well, you know…), and the absolutely flatness of the writing. Fingernails on the chalkboard of my mind. Screeeeech.

That’s it. Phyllis is being top-shelfed. And possibly set to be purged, despite sentimental feelings about ridding myself of my late mother’s books. Rosamund Pilcher is on the probation shelf, too, as is Maeve Binchy. And Catherine Cookson. Helen Forrester should be getting worried, too. Joanna Trollope, you might want to keep a lowish profile; the last few of yours I read left me thinking you’ve worn out all of your best Aga Saga scenarios.

My husband says that Miss Read should join these others in exile, but I have an inexplicably deep affection for Dora Saint’s pleasantly innocuous stories, so those aren’t even up for debate.

Absolutely sacred.

So there.

Darling.

Where was I?

Oh, yes. Norah Lofts.

Because while I was trying to read Phyllis Whitney, I was concurrently actually reading and hugely enjoying yet another gorgeously dark domestic drama by Norah Lofts. (See The Little Wax Doll  (1960) and Lovers All Untrue (1970).)

Norah writes big, shiny, sparkling rings around plodding Phyllis.

Sorry, Phyllis.

You lose.

charlotte norah lofts out of the dark 1972Charlotte by Norah Lofts ~ 1972. American title: Out of the Dark. This edition: Coronet, 1973. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-17826-4. 254 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

The author notes that this story was inspired by the notorious real life situation of an English teenager, 16-year-old Constance Kent, who in 1860 was accused of the brutal murder of her young stepbrother.

Though the scenario in the first section of the book borrows heavily from the historical case, Norah Lofts states in her beginning Author’s Note that:

The characters…are my own; and whereas those who write factually about a crime – especially one never satisfactorily solved – can only speculate about the motives and, indeed, the identity of the murderer, the writer of fiction, dealing in a more plastic medium, is able to say: This is how it happened.

Part Two owes nothing to the Case of Constance Kent. Incredible as it may seem, it is based on a first-hand account of a school in which my sister once tried to teach, a mere forty years ago. Here again the characters are my own; but I did not invent the oil-stove that was carried up and down…

This is a dark little tale, of deep injustice done to the innocent by those who should have been the most concerned with their protection. Our author puts her titular heroine through a grueling ordeal which stretches on for years, before allowing a resolution (of sorts) which (possibly) rewards her (and our) quietly righteous perseverance.

How much should I tell about the plot? My impulse is to keep it fairly quiet, as this sort of story rewards readerly discovery. I’ve already given out some of the major points, which are indeed no secret, and are revealed very early on.

16-year-old Charlotte Cornwall, her younger brother Thomas, and older twin sisters Adelaide and Victoria live with their father, stepmother and young half-brother Vincent in outwardly respectable but secretly straitened circumstances. The first Mrs. Cornwall was possessed of a large private income; this came to a halt upon her tragic (and questionably natural) death some years earlier; the twins and Charlotte are to inherit their mother’s money when they each turn 21, under the terms of their maternal grandfather’s will.

Money concerns are just part of the unspoken tension in the Cornwall household; the second Mrs. Cornwall, who was previously the children’s nanny, is deeply jealous of her gentle predecessor’s lasting influence. Her own small son is the apple of her maternal eye, and she is again pregnant, leading to a situation of history repeating itself as Mr. Cornwall’s attention is caught by the latest nursemaid who has replaced her mistress in the household hierarchy in more ways than one.

When four-year-old Vincent is discovered gruesomely murdered, his body hidden in the muck heap in the stable yard, suspicion is directed at a nebulous night time prowler, but soon evidence comes to light which leads back into the heart of the family, and ultimately straight to Charlotte. But several people in the household know the real story of what happened that dreadful night. Surely the truth will come out; surely the culprit or culprits will confess, to save an innocent who is being wrongly accused…

Nope. Charlotte is completely sold up the creek, and by a person (or persons) who should have been willing to protect her at their own expense.

Charlotte’s youth and social status and some inconsistencies in the evidence lead to her acquittal, but her trials aren’t yet over. Not by a long shot. Seeking to escape a situation made increasingly unbearable by the dark stain on her name and her stepmother’s increasing hatred, Charlotte takes a position in a country girl’s school as an assistant mistress, a situation which at first appears to be a welcome refuge, but which soon puts her into still more nightmarish situation, as the school’s headmistress exploits her knowledge of Charlotte’s past to her own advantage…

Just when things are darkest, a gleam of hope appears, and our heroine at last has a chance to clear her name. But will she turn against the real murderer(s), once she discovers the true story of her betrayal?

Well, I guess you’ll just have to read it yourself to find out.

Multiple characters, multiple story strands, all beautifully handled and full of fabulous period detail. What I’ve divulged above is the briefest overview of this richly written noir tale.

Charlotte is most competently plotted and presented; a deeply engaging read of the chillingly almost-plausible sort. Abundant wry humour, too. Despite its grim theme, this is not at all a depressing read; I frequently found myself chuckling quietly to myself as the author sends up various stereotypes and scenarios with perfect comic timing, and without quite crossing the line into farce.

Thank you, Norah.

You had me just a tiny bit worried for most of the book; I wasn’t sure where we were going for quite some time there. Good job on stringing the reader along!

Oh – the half point docked was for several not very veiled homosexual side stories. Those felt possibly just the tiniest bit mean-spirited, just vaguely “off”. But possibly they weren’t meant to be, and were intended more in the nature of ironic natural revenge? Maybe? However, I felt these were a bit too similar to the Sudden Evil Lesbian who shows up to wield retribution in Lovers All Untrue – too unnaturally manufactured; even in such a highly fictionalized thing such as Charlotte turns out to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Installment 3 in the 2013 Round-Up takes a melancholy look at some books which just didn’t do it for me.

Still to come, Installment 4 highlighting some books which really hit the spot: Personal Favourites of 2013.

*****

MOST DISAPPOINTING READS ~ 2013

In absolutely random order.

*****

the chamomile lawn mary wesley1. The Chamomile Lawn 

by Mary Wesley ~ 1984

The Chamomile Lawn became a bestseller when it was first published in the 1980s, and much was made of the fact that the author, Mary Wesley, who apparently based much of the wartime narrative on her own experiences, was over seventy when it was released. A popular television mini-series broadcast in 1992 brought the novel to a much wider notoriety.

I can understand the popularity of the novel, as it does have an ambitious scope, a tangled, soap-opera-like storyline, and a generous enough amount of sexual goings-on to pique the interest of the most reluctant and jaded of readers, but I’m afraid I did not embrace it fully. This might be partly editorial, as the phrasing often seemed awkward to me, and I never entered fully into the story, remaining very much an onlooker as the author soberly and without much flair matter-of-factly related the action with an abundance of smutty detail which couldn’t help but leave me squirming – and not in a good way. A complicated and vaguely incestuous (cousins all over each other) picture of lust, yearning and self-indulgence. The period details weren’t enough to make up for the unsavoury plot and stylistic deficits.

sea jade phyllis a whitney 0012. Phyllis A. Whitney’s Gosh-Awful Bodice Rippers

Sea Jade and Columbella 

by Phyllis A. Whitney ~ 1964 and 1966

Just to prove that I sometimes show desperately poor judgement in my reading choices, I willingly read not one, not two, but three books by the very prolific romance writer Phyllis A. Whitney this year. One of these, Seven Tears for Apollo, was reasonably decent, but these other two were absolute stinkers.

Sea Jade was a desperately gothic romance set in post-Civil War New England. Here’s our heroine.

I know how I must have looked that day when I first set foot in the little New England town where my father, my mother, and I were born. Since I am no longer so tenderly, so disarmingly young, I can recall the look of that youthful Miranda Heath as if she were someone else. Slight and slender she was, with fair tendrils of hair, soft and fine, curling across her forehead beneath the peak of her bonnet. Her eyes were tawny brown, with quirked, flyaway brows above them. The wind undoubtedly added to the illusion of her flyaway look; the look of a fey, winged creature straight out of a make-believe world where love and pampering were taken for granted. A creature unaware that she was about to stray into dark regions for which nothing had prepared her…

Breathless, gushing, suddenly orphaned Miranda goes on to have all the stock adventures of a gothic genre heroine. As soon as she seeks refuge with her late father’s old friend Captain Bascombe, she’s immediately forced into an unwelcome marriage with his widowed son. There are all sorts of family secrets, and of course her husband hates her and wants nothing to do with her, having married her under extreme duress. Dramatic deathbed scenes and mysterious Chinese wives and exotic swords and ill-begotten fortunes feature in the scenario. And there’s an intially-hateful-yet-ultimately-winsome child, a huge black dog named (of course) Lucifer, an unexpected will, a mysterious murder (or two)… In other words, the formula as usual.

Points in favour were a certain amount of creativity in the historical bits involving the tea trade and the brief glory of the Yankee clipper ships. And also because the author used every cliché in the romance writer’s book, completely (I’m quite sure) without irony. One of those “so bad it makes everything else look good by contrast” reading experiences – a necessary thing in every reader’s life. Occasionally.

columbella phyllis a whitney 001Columbella  was salvaged very slightly by its nicely described setting, that of the St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Shell collecting, jewel thieves, love triangles, heaving bosoms all round. A throbbingly broody love interest named Kingdon should have tipped me off, but I squelched those misgivings down, because I so wanted this to be better than it turned out to be. More clues to its sheer over-the-top-ness which I willfully ignored can be found on the front flyleaf:

That was a night of gold and red, with torches flaming on the hilltop and the lights of Charlotte Amalie fanning out around the harbor below. A night of water lily and sweet-smelling cereus. The night of the shell…

Jessica Abbott, fleeing her own past, finds herself the center of a whirlpool of conflict at Hampden House, high on its cliff in the Virgin Islands. She is confronted by Catherine Drew, a woman whose sole purpose is to torment and destroy. Catherine is the wife of a vital, driven man, Kingdon Drew-toward whom Jessica is irresistible drawn. Jessica must defy the beautiful, self-indulgent Catherine, who likes to affect the name of a shell – Columbella. She must fight for the very future of another woman’s child. Above all, she must find the strength to help the man she loves escape the trap Catherine has set for him. Yet each day Catherine seems to mock her in a new way – and win. Until the night of the shell…

Always, the brilliant island sun shines over Hampden House in St. Thomas and over Caprice, the plantation in St. Croix that is crumbling to eerie ruin, guarded by its unicorns. Always the threat of a hurricane looms over this exotic setting, where the past still affects the present.

And so on. Read at your own peril!

one happy moment dj louise riley 0013. One Happy Moment

by Louise Riley ~ 1951

Much less gushing and emotional than Phyllis A. Whitney’s tortured heroines is this home-grown Canadian gal. Deborah Blair, a young librarian from Montreal, disembarks from a train at a remote way station in the Rocky Mountains near Lake Louise. The first thing she does is when the train pulls away is to strip off her city clothes, change into country duds, and pitch her suitcase and dress suit into the lake. Then she sets off on the 9-mile hike to the mountain holiday camp where she has secretly booked herself a holiday.

Oh, hurray! Tell me more, I thought. But sadly that was about as good as it got. Deborah is fleeing from both an overbearing mother and a rotten, already-married lover, and both track her down to her mountain hideaway, but not before she has found enough self-fulfillment among the lofty peaks and has gained a certain amount of self confidence due to the appreciative embraces of several of her fellow (male) guests to tell them both (mother and lover) to go take a hike.

Not a horrible book at all, and it had some good things to say about female self determination, but clunky styling, the plainest of prose, and an increasingly awkward plot kept it from reaching significant heights. A keeper because of its vintage appeal and enthusiastically described Alberta setting, but disappointing because it could have been so much better with tighter editing, an expanded vocabulary, and less wooden characterizations.

 unlikely pilgrimage of harold fry rachel joyce4. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

by Rachel Joyce ~ 2012

This recent bestseller started off with some promise. Recently retired Harold, stuck aimlessly at home with his sour wife, receives a letter from an old colleague which tells him that she is terminally ill. Harold hems and haws and eventually writes a rather pathetic letter of condolence. He sets off to walk to the mail box to send the letter, but is overwhelmed by a sudden urge to walk to see the doomed Queenie and deliver his message in person. While he’s walking, she can’t die, is his sudden superstitious thought. The catch is that she is ensconced in a nursing home some 600 miles away. But he trudges along in his light summer jacket and golf shoes, for days and days and days, compelled by an inner urge to make at least this one thing right in his rather gone-wrong life.

Sadly, very soon into Harold’s walk, the plot went all mawkish and droopy and all directions of highly unlikely as meaningful encounters with troubled but helpful people start to occur in quick succession, until at last an assortment of odd pedestrians start walking along with Harold in some sort of copy-cat pilgrimage having nothing to do with poor dying Queenie.

I’m all into magical reality if it’s convincingly well done, but this one demanded more of my suspension of disbelief than I could possibly give.  And the Big Sad Secret which was revealed at the end was so terribly boring, and the “life affirming” ending was so stereotyped that I was tempted to give the thing the toss-across-the-room treatment. It was only saved by the fact that it was a library book. Sorry about my rude dismissal, those of you who loved this one, but my dislike for the way this deteriorated from its early promise is savage and sincere.

And checking out the one-star reviews on Goodreads showed that while I am part of  a serious minority, I was not alone in my annoyed dislike. Long-listed for the 2012 Booker Prize? Was it really?! Oh. My. Gosh. Though I see (I checked) that it didn’t get to short-list status. Thank you, gods of literature, for that small mercy.

letter from peking pearl s buck5. Letter from Peking 

by Pearl S. Buck ~ 1957

I hate it when I quite like an author but then he/she turns out not just one or two but a whole string of sub-par throw-away books. Pearl S. Buck is a classic case of this, and I have long had a love-hate relationship with her work. When she’s good, she very, very good, but when she gets sloppy, she’s dire. Guess which category this novel – long novella(?) – falls into?

It has an interesting premise, but the characters are all so smug and unlikeable that any sympathy for their situation I might have had soon evaporated.  Here’s the plot. An American woman, happily married for twenty years to a half-Chinese, half-American man, leaves China with her twelve-year-old son at the start of the Communist government takeover. Her husband, due to an extreme sense of duty, remains behind in his job. The woman settles into her family home in rural Vermont, complete with faithful hired man. Communication is sporadic with China; years pass quietly. A letter arrives. Her husband has been pressured to take on a Chinese wife, to prove his loyalty to his country. The woman puts off answering it. The (mature teenage) son runs into issues with his mixed race ethnicity. The woman vapors about, meddles in son’s romantic affairs. She continually demonstrates extreme snobbism, and not-so-secretly rejoices that son’s fiancé is orphaned so she (the mother) will not have to interact with them. During all of this not one but two prospective suitors to the mother materialize. “Divorce your husband and marry again!” Oh, what to do, what to do???!

By the time it all sort of resolved itself (sort of) I no longer cared. Meh. A very carelessly put together book, from a writer who can do much better.

 6. in pious memory margery sharp 001In Pious Memory 

by Margery Sharp ~ 1967

Those of you who are aware of my strong infatuation with the glorious Margery Sharp will be surprised to see her on the Most Disappointing list, but sadly, this book let me down. It’s not rotten, but it’s not up to par either. The plot – never admittedly a very strong point with this author – seems more befuddled than usual, and the characters did not engender any sort of a sympathetic response in my readerly heart. I didn’t really like any one of them, but neither could I work up a strong feeling of dislike. There they just kind of were, moving about randomly in fictional limbo.

The plot description sounds better than the story turns out to be. Mr and Mrs Prelude are in a plane crash; Mrs Prelude walks away, but Mr Prelude perishes. Or does he? Convinced that she has possibly made a horrible mistake when viewing her husband’s body, Mrs Prelude theorizes that perhaps he is still alone, wandering in the Swiss mountains. The 16-year-old Prelude daughter decides to go and investigate for herself. A rather limp farce which doesn’t, like the ill-fated plane, quite make its destination.

OK, I’ll repeat, it’s not a horrid book, and there are quite a number of wickedly funny moments. It’s a keeper, and I fully intend to re-read it and try to drum up some more affection for its good elements, but at this point I’d hate to recommend it as any sort of prime example of this accomplished author’s greater body of work.

rochester's wife hc dj d.e. stevenson7. Rochester’s Wife  

by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1940

Here’s another writer whom I like quite a lot, but who sometimes lets me down. I don’t read these sorts of books for their hyper-realism – they are “cozies”, after all – but one does require some standard of verisimilitude. In Rochester’s Wife, with its strong reliance on insanity as a key plot point, one can’t help but feel that the author didn’t do her research.

A young doctor decides to settle down in England after travelling about the world. There is much romance, none of it particularly appealing to read about, all forbidden love and rather limp yearnings. The already-referred-to episode of insanity is handled in a very bizarre manner by the author as well as the several doctors in the case. Even in 1940 I am sure the British medical establishment was more capable of treating psychoses in more effective ways than they appear to do here! One of the weakest of this author’s books I’ve read to date.

8.Mary Stewart’s B List

Wildfire at Midnight and Thunder on the Right 

by Mary Stewart ~ 1956 and 1957

Well, while I’m on something of a roll panning tales by authors I really, truly like, let’s spend a few minutes with Mary Stewart. I’ve read quite a few of her romantic-suspense novels this year, and have found my responses to be mixed. While I really do sympathise with her very capable and likeable heroines, and enjoy her detailed descriptions of settings, the de rigueur action sequences of many of the books, described in frame-by-frame photographic detail, drive me slightly mad. Panic-stricken girl in high heels etcetera manages to dodge ex-secret service trained killer etcetera while negotiating crumbling cliff/tiled castle roof/squelching Scottish bog/etcetera. Yup. Of course.

Well, those sequences are really the whole point of the books, aren’t they? The menace keeps building until something has to give. And in most of the books I’ve read I’ve happily played along, rolling my eyes but taking it as part of the package deal. But these two pushed past my tolerance level for willing suspension of disbelief.

Wildfire at Midnight - dust jacket illustration, first edition, 1956.

In Wildfire at Midnight, a gorgeous London model, separated from her husband, is maneuvered by her parents into taking a holiday on the Isle of Skye, ostensibly to escape the chaos of the Coronation festivities. Immediately upon arrival, who should lovely Gianetta meet but her estranged husband, who is ostensibly on Skye for a mountain climbing holiday. The two keep their prior acquaintanceship a secret from their fellow guests, which makes things quite awkward when a series of grisly murders puts the holiday-makers and rock-climbers at the remote country inn under strong suspicion.

Gianetta (or Janet, as she prefers to be called) shows no common sense at all, continually wandering about either all by herself or with one or another of the chief suspects. One day she goes for a walk at just the wrong time…

Bizarre and unlikely motive for the killings, continual stupidity of the heroine, and unlikeable love interest rather ruined this one for me, even before the mountain crag/quivering bog/Scottish mist chase scene.

Salvaged by gorgeous descriptions of the settings and atmospheres of London and Skye, and the period verisimilitude of the characters crowding around the radio every evening in order to follow both the progress of Coronation festivities and Edmund Hillary’s attempt to climb Mount Everest, of particular interest to all of the rock climbers in the story. Nicely done, those bits.

Beware the nun! An older paperback cover which captures the mood so very well.

With my panning of Thunder on the Right I’m in good company. This was apparently the author’s least favourite of her novels, and I can see why. Here are her own words, courtesy of the excellent Mary Stewart Novels website:

From Contemporary Authors, Vol. 1, 1967

Ms. Stewart once claimed Thunder on the Right as her least favorite novel. “I detest that book. I’m ashamed of it, and I’d like to see it drowned beyond recovery. It’s overwritten. It was actually the second book I wrote, and for some strange reason I went overboard, splurged with adjectives, all colored purple.”

So what’s this one all about? Let’s see if I can sum it up briefly. A gorgeous young lady is in France and hopes to have a reunion with her older, recently-widowed cousin, who is apparently undergoing a retreat in a nunnery prefatory to taking vows. When the heroine arrives at said nunnery, she is told her cousin is dead and has been buried in the garden. “Something” tells the heroine that this is untrue, and that her cousin is alive. Luckily there is a handsome and rather brooding young man handy to aid the heroine in her search for the truth – and, by golly! – he is conveniently an old flame of the heroine’s, there in a remote corner of France by sheerest authorial hand-of-God. Evil nuns, a handsome local boy on a rampant stallion, a wicked smuggler, escaping criminals and much too much coincidence unite in making this one my own least favourite of Mary Stewart’s improbable (but usually highly enjoyable) romantic-suspense novels.

 

the living earth sheila mackay russell 29. The Living Earth

by Sheila Mackay Russell ~ 1954

I became interested in this book due to my prior discovery of the author’s semi-autobiographical novel A Lamp is Heavy, concerning a young nurse’s experiences as probationer in a North American city teaching hospital in the early 1940s. I was pleased to find out that Sheila Mackay Russell was an Albertan nurse/writer, who had a modest success with A Lamp is Heavy, and who went on to publish another novel, The Living Earth, also with a nurse as a main character. With some trouble I managed to acquire a copy of The Living Earth, and settled down to a happily anticipated read.

The story started out quite well, with a young nurse travelling by train to her posting in a remote northern Alberta community, “Mud Creek”. On the train is a fellow traveller, another young woman heading for the same community, to her posting as a school teacher. The two set up house together, and proceed to have all sorts of rather sordid experiences. Both attract rather unsavory lovers (married, alcoholic, manic-depressive, abusive etcetera) and much heart-rending ensues.

This novel is of the hyper-realistic genre, and it could have been quite decent but for its rather awkward phrasing throughout, and its insistence on dragging out every single episode to the utmost of its interest level and then a little bit beyond. It’s also dreadfully bleak. And melodramatic. Bleakly melodramatic, in fact! I am not surprised that there is no third novel from this writer, though The Living Earth went through a number of printings which argues a certain success. She did produce a number of short stories which were printed in the Canadian women’s periodical Chateleine, according to one of this blog’s readers.

I never did write a review of this novel, because it so deeply disappointed me, despite its author’s undoubted good intentions of creating a true-to-life dramatic novel with a regional setting. I think that her motivation was praiseworthy, but sadly it didn’t quite come off. Possibly of interest to anyone studying womens’ experiences in northern Alberta in the 1940s/50s, but beware the fictional elements, which seemed to me to be many.

I could not find any other reviews of this now-obscure Canadian novel.

1982 jian ghomeshi10. 1982 

by Jian Ghomeshi ~ 2012

And here we have a truly Canadian memoir, this time by the popular C.B.C. radio personality and ex-Moxy Früvous drummer, Jian Ghomeshi. I had such wonderfully high hopes for this book, as I usually enjoy Jian’s interviewing style on his weekday pop culture talk-and-music program on the C.B.C., “Q.” He’s an interesting-sounding personality himself, and his frequent references to his own background as a child of Iranian immigrant parents growing up in Ontario in the 70s and 80s make him both relatable and slightly exotic, a public persona he nourishes with obvious care.

But this memoir. Boring, boring, boring.

It wasn’t that Jian didn’t have an interesting teenage life. He did, in a tame sort of middle-class, upwardly mobile, successful immigrant family sort of way. In 1982, the year more or less profiled in this “creative autobiography”, Jian turned fifteen. He was in the throes of young love, was hanging out with a bunch of good friends, and was playing drums in a band – okay, it was the community band, but still… He was listening to all sorts of cool new music, had reinvented himself as a New Wave wannabe, and was having quite a time experimenting with hair dye and styling gel and eyeliner and dressing all in black. He had a loving and supportive family, abundant parental funding, and oodles of positive reinforcement from his teachers and the other adults in his life. He did stuff. He went places. He got into a few interesting situations, and made it through them in one piece. Easily enough stuff to write a memoir about.

A short memoir. A novella-length memoir. Not the almost-300 page thing that this turned out to be.  Jian ran every single little incident of that year completely to death. And though it was interesting in bits here and there, ultimately I just couldn’t care.

shadows robin mckinley11. Shadows

by Robin McKinley ~ 2013

Much as I hate to do this, I need to add a “bonus” to this list.

Shadows is the recently published “kind of like Sunshine, but for teens” fantasy by the iconic writer, and I had high hopes for it. Sounded good in the pre-publication discussions, and the early reviews were mostly favorable, though in retrospect I realize there were quite a few “buts” in some of those reviews.

17-year-old Maggie lives in a world where magic is forbidden, and when it sporadically shows up it is immediately squelched by squads of specially trained soldiers. People with magic in their genes are “cleaned” and re-released into the population; science takes care of everything in this world, thank you very much.

So when it becomes apparent that there is a massive outbreak of the magic bulges called cobeys threatening to overflow into Newworld, Maggie is shocked to discover that she has some latent powers which work to contain the bad vibes.

The author doesn’t bother explaining why magic is so nasty, and what will happen if it breaks through. She tells us it’s a really bad thing, and leaves it at that. But suddenly all of the “good” characters start showing varying degrees of magic powers which are obviously going to save the day. From, umm, something.

Extra Disappointing points for the annoying first person narrating heroine and her endless rambling on about how wonderful she is to understand all the nice little animals she loves so very much and how thick the adults in her life are and how hard algebra is and how amazing her origami skills are and how cute and clever her pop culture Japanese slang is.

Please forgive me, those of you who liked this book. I’m a long-time McKinley fan too, and I hate to slam her work, but this one wasn’t quite ready to see the light of day, in my opinion.

 

 

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???????????????????????????????I’m not sure what’s going on with my reading this spring; I seem to have gotten stuck among the crinolines, as it were (though only one of the books I’ve read has actually had crinolines in it, this being the just-post-Civil-War Sea Jade), what with my newly discovered fondness for Georgette Heyer’s Regency heroines, and now these two similar but oh-so-different “American gothic” vintage romances. Maybe it’s just that I’ve run out of D.E. Stevensons, which made admirable escape reading through much of March.

April – unbelievable that it’s so close to over already! – has brought its usual share of real life busy-ness, what with being in the plant nursery business, and still providing taxi service to the dancer, and a mountain of paperwork relating to taxes, and even a little bit of lambing, though we’re presently down to a tiny vestige of our former flock, and sometimes I almost forget that they’re out there, what with the more-than-competent teens running things in the barnyard these days.

Spring does seem to have arrived, after dragging her heels rather reluctantly this year, and yesterday brought us a warm wind and the overnight emergence of leaves on the cottonwood trees down by the river – with associated heavenly aroma; the colloquial name for these trees is “Balm of Gilead”, and the fragrance of the sticky sap is indescribably spicy and fresh and green and evocative of every good thing about spring in the country. Our venerable (and almost completely non-productive) apricot tree has blessed us with blossoms this year and yesterday was alive with bees, and (hurray!) the hummingbirds are back. The harbinger of what will become a lively and prolific horde, a lone male Rufous, buzzed through the garden, hovered low to visit the first opening Pulmonaria blooms, and danced in front of the kitchen window, an action which brings forth the lady with the sugar syrup every year.

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Amazing that such tiny scraps of feathers and attitude make such long journeys twice a year on their migratory travels, and every year I wonder just how long each individual can survive for. I know we have some of the same birds year to year; how else to explain their immediate presence at the traditional feeder sites before I get the sugar water out, and the buzzing at the one window next to the door where I always emerge with the top-ups through the months when we host our demanding little visitors?

The mosquitoes are here as well, and this less welcome sign of spring was in evidence yesterday. Slapping mosquitoes with potting soil encrusted hands leads to embarrassing smudges on the face and dirt in the hair; luckily I had no human visitors to comment on my disarray! In the evening we built a fire out in the stone ring by our favourite sitting spot on the lawn and ate our supper in a cloud of smoke (welcome because it discouraged the mosquitoes), kept company by the two dogs, the two “barn” cats – big joke, that designation – they are in the house more than occasionally – plus the three “real” house cats, who are glorying in the present situation of open windows unblocked by screens. In and out at will all day long without needing a human hand on the doorknob – feline nirvana!

The teens, careless as only those in the second decade of life can be to the quiet joy of sitting out on a spring evening, were firmly planted in front of their laptops, cruising Facebook and doing whatever else it is that they do when enjoying their non-school-related screen time, though they did remember their filial duties enough (once reminded by loud calls from the father figure) to bring their parents a welcome cup of tea. (It wasn’t that warm out there, even with the fire.)

We sat and read until it was too dark to see the words, and I powered through the book I’d grabbed from the “recent acquisitions” pile in the porch, where I’d been going through them and making up a box full for my housebound elderly mother. Mom enjoys the occasional Phyllis A. Whitney, and I’d found an older one with a gorgeously gothic cover illustration, Sea Jade, which didn’t ring a bell as one she’d already read. “I should really try this,” I thought to myself. “Perhaps, like Heyer, Whitney is one of those authors I’ve ignored for too long. Perhaps she too has hidden qualities I’ve foolishly been depriving myself of…”

Short answer: nope.

I almost quit on Sea Jade very early in, but was too lazy to get up and go search for something else; and after a while the sheer awfulness exerted a hypnotizing effect, and I was driven to keep reading by the desire to see how many of the stock gothic romance situations the author was going to put her breathless heroine through. (I lost count.)

Which had me musing this morning on what makes a book a “good” read. Why two such books as these I’ve just read can have so many similarities in plot and character and setting, and why one can be so enjoyable, and one such a blatant mistake. Author’s voice is all I can come up with.

Well, if you made it this far, I’m about to get back on track and discuss some books. Both are vintage gothic romances, with American settings, and both are by accomplished and prolific authors. I found it rather interesting that my favourite was by the lesser-known and less popular author. Margaret Bell Houston is virtually unknown now, while Phyllis A. Whitney is still very much in evidence, both in online discussions and on the shelves of used book stores.

Houston’s gothic was very good indeed; Whitney’s was not. Rather disappointing, as I wanted to like Sea Jade so very much… there are so many Whitneys out there, and she’s so easy to acquire, while Houston’s titles, aside from the book I read, Yonder, are much more elusive.

yonder margaret bell houstonYonder by Margaret Bell Houston ~ 1955. This edition: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1955. Hardcover. 242 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

This was one of those rewarding random acquisitions. I was attracted by the eye-catching dust jacket illustration by Paul Galdone, which led me initially to believe that this was a juvenile/teen book. It’s not. (Though any nowadays teen wouldn’t turn a hair at some of the content, which has a decidedly adult theme. Sex and illegitimate babies and so on, not to mention crimes of passion and plenty of psychological drama.)

Olive York, twenty-two years old and recently orphaned by the deaths of her beloved parents in a plane crash on their way to a church convention in California – Olive’s father was a parson – is at a rough point in her life. Her long-time friend-turned-romantic-interest, Dane Carrington, has just married another woman, and, though Olive is a sensible enough girl and does not believe her life is over or anything dramatic like that, she’s looking for a way to move on.

When she’s offered a job as a companion to an emotionally troubled relative of the Carringtons, she’s intrigued both by the vague explanation of Zoé Croome’s “insanity”, and by the descriptions of the Croome family’s estate on a remote Florida key, Yonder Island.

Arriving in an almost-hurricane, the setting is all Proper Gothic Romance, and when we meet the Croome family and their assorted associates, we recognize immediately that here is a group of people with more than a few deep dark secrets. Watch out, Olive!

There’s the immense, handsome, stone-faced and monosyllabic black houseman, Ezra; the white-uniformed nurse Nannine; Judge Croome, family patriarch, forceful and intense but obviously getting rather tired of life; the elder Croome daughter, Joanna, wheelchair bound, even more intense than her father and in charge of the operation of the household and Yonder Island citrus groves; and of course Zoé Croome herself.

Thirty years ago something happened, something that isn’t discussed within the bosom of the family, but which is speculated on by the rest of the neighbourhood at large. Whatever It was has affected Zoé so strongly that her mind has stayed locked in time; she speaks and acts as a young woman, repeating the days of her youth over and over again. “This is the day!” she greets every morning, emphasis on “the” day; obviously a day when something marvelous is about to happen. But what could it possibly be?

Not only is her mind stuck in its groove, but her body is as well. Though a woman of fifty, Zoé looks like a young woman – unaged and of an ethereal beauty. She is “crazy, but not violent”, and a delicate hand is needed in her management. She is constantly looking or someone or something, and if she is locked up she goes wild with self-destructive passion; her bedroom windows are barred to prevent her throwing herself out, as she once attempted to. Olive’s primary job will be to accompany Zoé on her daily meanderings down to the beach, where Zoé collects seashells and gazes longingly at the boats passing by. Occasionally she runs into the waves…

Of course Olive, being a typically forward-thinking person as gothic romance heroines frequently are, is keen to get to the bottom of the many mysteries of Yonder Key, and she is certain she can help Zoé move forward in time and find some sort of personal peace. In this she is strictly forbidden by bossy Joanna to “meddle”, and Ezra threateningly shadows Olive’s every move. Despite this discouragement, Olive persists in putting together Zoé’s back-story, with the increasingly interested assistance of Richard Lowrie, who lives alone in a little house across the island. Richard is working on one of his best-selling books about discoveries made while sailing the world’s seas in his one-man yacht. Richard is a long-time Croome family friend, hence his permission to inhabit his quiet corner of the Key, and is a confidante of both Judge Croome and, in her more lucid moments, Zoé. (Joanna keeps her distance.)

And of course, as Olive starts to investigate and ask awkward questions, things begin to happen.

This was an excellent read. Olive’s voice (the story is told in first person narration) is rather stoic and matter-of-fact, but that was a strength, rather than a weakness; the fantastical elements of the story are rather more believable when presented so dispassionately.  Olive paints vivid pictures of both the world of her own past, and of her new life on Yonder Key. The author has, in general, done well by her heroine in this story, allowing her scope to go about her clichéd path from mystery to resolution with reasonable motivations for everything she does. The romantic interests in Olive’s personal life are very well handled, and, as we discover the secrets of the Croomes, there is a certain plausibility to the tale which allows us to suspend our disbelief in the dramatic scenario which eventually unfolds.

Without going into spoiler mode, because this is a great little book and one which I’d recommend for further investigation to those of you who like a good du Maurier-like suspense novel – and yes, this one deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the works of Dame Daphne – it is very well done, in a minor key of the genre – I’ll share with you my satisfaction in the ending. The Yonder mystery is solved, and both Zoé and Olive find places of peace after their trials and travails.

I’ll be re-reading this one, I know, as well as looking for other books by the author.

Oh yes, the author. She is (was) Margaret Bell Houston, granddaughter (as every mention of her I can find emphasizes) of Texas soldier and politician Sam Houston, who famously led the state to independence from Mexico in 1836. (“Remember the Alamo”, and namesake of the city of Houston, Texas, etcetera, etcetera.)

Margaret was born in Texas in 1877, and was a published poet at an early age, winning numerous awards for her verse throughout her lifetime. She went on to write short stories, and something like thirteen novels, some of them bestsellers. The one most often mentioned is this one, Yonder, and its more than decent quality makes me immensely curious to explore more of her work. If Yonder is the best thing she produced – it was published in 1955, when the author was 78 years old, and nearing the end of her long life – she died in 1966, at the age of 89 – it must have come from somewhere, and I’m thinking her earlier works would show a similar quality. Yonder is not “high literature” in any sense of the term, but it is a good American light novel.

Is anyone familiar with this author, or any of her other works?

Well, after my satisfaction with Yonder, I picked up Sea Jade with high anticipation. Sadly, I was doomed to disappointment. “Gothic” it was; “good” it was not.

Sea Jade by Phyllis A. Whitney ~ 1964. This edition: Fawcett Crest, 1966. Paperback. Library of Congress Number: 65-12605. 224 pages.sea jade phyllis a whitney 001

My rating: 3/10.

Phyllis A. Whitney. I read her occasionally while in high school, though I can’t remember a thing about any of the books. Seven Tears for Apollo is one that comes to mind; I’ve had that tattered paperback kicking around for a good thirty years, though I haven’t read it recently – for at least twenty of those years. My general impression, when I stop to think about it, is favorable. My mom likes it, and has read it a few times since I’ve been in charge of her reading material; I’ve picked up other Whitney novels – they’re quite  easy to come by – and she’s read them without comment and with every appearance of enjoyment.

But if Sea Jade is typical of Whitney’s work, I think I’ve perhaps personally outgrown this author.

Sea Jade is set in post-Civil War New England, on the shores of the crashing Atlantic, an ocean-side setting it shares with Yonder to some extent. There’s a similiar situation of massive family mansion inhabited by people with secrets, and the heroines of both enter the scene seeking physical and emotional refuge of sorts. In the accepted tradition of the Gothic Tale, both books even start with storms.

The heroine of Sea Jade, young, innocent and oh-so-lovely Miranda Heath, is uddenly desperately poor after the death of her lone surviving parent, a retired sea-captain. Despite an apparent deathbed warning by her father to avoid the Bascomb enclave, Miranda decides to seek help from her father’s old partner, wealthy Captain Bascomb, whom she’s heard so many romantic stories about, and whom she just knows will be happy to act as a surrogate father in her time of need.

It was fitting that I had my first glimpse of the house at Bascomb’s Point during the flash and fury of a violent thunderstorm.

The storm had not yet broken when my train from New York  stopped at the Scots Harbor station. As the conductor helped me to the platform, a gusty October wind whipped at my skirts and mantle. I clasped my portmanteau in one hand and stood looking about me – eagerly and without fear.

My father’s warnings had touched me not at all and my mind was filled with a romantic dream that I fully expected to become a reality. Since my father’s death some months before, the state of ny fortunes had grown very nearly desperate. Unless I threw myself on the charity of friends, I had nowhere to turn. Only Obadiah Bascomb could help me know. He had written to me in response to an appeal of my own, and I had come running, given wings by a sense of adventure, of expectancy, eager to meet the life counterpart of a legend with which I had grown up.

I know how I must have looked that day when I first set foot in the little New England town where my father, my mother, and I were born. Since I am no longer so tenderly, so disarmingly young, I can recall the look of that youthful Miranda Heath as if she were someone else. Slight and slender she was, with fair tendrils of hair, soft and fine, curling across her forehead beneath the peak of her bonnet. Her eyes were tawny brown, with quirked, flyaway brows above them. The wind undoubtedly added to the illusion of her flyaway look; the look of a fey, winged creature straight out of a make-believe world where love and pampering were taken for granted. A creature unaware that she was about to stray into dark regions for which nothing had prepared her…

That’s page one. I’m not sure why I even turned it to page two, but I did, to find much more of the same. Breathless, gushing Miranda goes on to have all the stock adventures of a gothic genre heroine. She’s immediately forced into an unwelcome marriage with the widowed son of Captain Bascombe, in circumstances which completely beggar belief. There are all sorts of family secrets, and of course her husband hates her and wants nothing to do with her, having married her under extreme duress. Dramatic deathbed scenes and mysterious Chinese wives and exotic swords and ill-begotten fortunes feature in the scenario. And there’s an intially-hateful-yet-ultimately-winsome child, a huge black dog named (of course) Lucifer, an unexpected will, a mysterious murder (or two)… In other words, the formula as usual.

The family secret is discovered and the villain is unmasked, and there is a last-minute rescue as the hero snatches the heroine from certain death; his arrival on a clipper ship with all sails set in time to rescue her from a fiery doom is improbable in the utmost. Luckily by the time we’ve made it this far we’re used to the author’s complete lack of attention to detail, and are taking her at her word that it’s all possible. Because she says so, right there in black and white.

Ha. This tale is so silly. Be warned!

The points I left this with were for a certain amount of creativity in the historical bits involving the tea trade and the brief glory of the Yankee clipper ships. And also because the author used every cliché in the romance writer’s book, completely (I’m quite sure) without irony. One of those “so bad it makes everything else look good by contrast” reading experiences – a necessary thing in every reader’s life. Occasionally.

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