Archive for the ‘Read in 2012’ Category

hans frost dj hugh walpoleHans Frost by Hugh Walpole ~1929. This edition: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1929. Stated First Edition. Hardcover. 356 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10.

*****

No one perhaps in the United Kingdom was quite so frightened as was Nathalie Swan on the third day of November, 1924, sitting in a third-class carriage about quarter to five of a cold, windy, darkening afternoon. Her train was drawing her into Paddington Station, and how she wished that she were dead!

She sat in a corner on the hard, dusty seat, her hands clenched, her heart beating with hot, thick, hammering throbs. She wished that she were dead. She was an orphan. No one in the world needed her. The Proudies whom she was abandoning had been very, very good to her, but certainly did not need her. The famous Mrs. Frost to whom she was going would almost surely not be good to her–and as to needing her . . .

Open upon her lap was a number of that shiny geographically illustrated paper the London News, and among other portraits was one of Hans Frost, and under it was written:

Mr. Hans Frost, whose Seventieth Birthday occurs on November 3. His friends and admirers are marking the occasion with a suitable presentation.

She had had this face in front of her, framed in a neat black frame for the last six years, had carried it with her everywhere, had had it always in her bedroom wherever she might be. For was he not her uncle, her famous, marvellous uncle whom she had never seen but had made her hero, her conception of God, indeed, ever since she could remember?

Nineteen-year-old Nathalie arrives at her Aunt Ruth’s and Uncle Hans’ house, only to find that this is the night of that gala 70th birthday dinner. She’s tremendously relieved that she isn’t expected to attend, and after she is shown to her room, finally breaks down into tears of homesickness and apprehension, after her bags have been unpacked and her dinner delivered on a tray.

Meanwhile Hans Frost, the great writer, has received his guests and graciously accepted the wonderful gift his admirers have pooled together to purchase for him:

And it was a lovely thing! It was a very small oil painting and the artist was Manet.

The picture had for its subject two ladies and a gentleman outside a print shop in Paris. One lady wore a blue crinoline and the other a white; there was a little fuzzy white dog, the glass windows shone in the afternoon light, and beyond the pearl-grey wall of the old house there was a sky of broken blue and swollen white cloud. It was a very lovely little Manet. . . .

“Oh!” cried Hans Frost … He saw only the picture. He had always adored Manet, a painter closer to his soul than any other. He entered into the heart of a Manet at once, as though it had been painted for himself alone. He could be critical about everything else in the world (and was so), but not about Manet. When he was depressed or troubled by his liver he went and looked at Manet. . . . And now he would have a Manet all of his own, his very own–that deep and tender beauty, that blue crinoline, that fuzzy little dog, that white cloud against the gentle blue; these were his forever.

The dinner has been given, kind words have been spoken, Ruth has been a spectacular hostess – as always – but tonight an essential something has changed in Hans Frost’s world. He has unexpectedly met his niece, for, hearing her crying, he has gone into her room and comforted her – something of a surprise to both of them, especially Hans as he had not even known she was coming. The unexpected meeting has affected him strangely, triggering deep within him one of the creative impulses which have in the past led to the some of his best fictional creations. Hans feels like something is about to happen, an immense upheaval of his predictable, comfortable world, and of course, this being a novel, he is completely correct!

Hans, much to Ruth’s dismay, takes Nathalie under his wing and squires her about town. Ruth is deeply jealous of this new interest, this infatuation with the lovely young niece. She had assumed Nathalie would be far below Hans’ notice, and she immediately fears the worst, that the affection Hans feels for Nathalie is romantic, possible even sexual, though Hans has long since laid aside that part of his life, at least as far as Ruth is aware. But the relationship that has sprung into existence is something even more dangerous to Ruth’s peace of mind. Nathalie and Hans find they are true kindred spirits, and an idealized father-daughter, or rather, meeting-of-two-minds-as-equals friendship is quickly evolving.

Hans introduces Nathalie into the rather messy world of the striving writers, musicians and artists which Ruth has always scorned – at least until success and renown add a stamp of respectability to the untidy bohemians. Nathalie soon falls in love with a Russian refugee – London in 1924 is packed with “orphans of the storm” from the recent revolution – and Hans finds himself acting as benevolent advisor and rather bemused sponsor to the young lovers. Meanwhile, his own marriage is in deep trouble, as he decides that the only way he can return to a semblance of his former creativity as a writer is to break away from his comfortable life and his socially ambitious wife and retreat to some place of solitude to await the return of his muse.

Hans and Nathalie solve their respective dilemmas, but not before much drama, most of it involving an offended and officious Ruth. The ending of the story is delicately poignant and emotionally satisfying, and the author has a few surprises for his readers in how he tidies up all his many loose ends.

An engaging story, which I have enjoyed with renewed appreciation each time I’ve read it. Very much a period piece, but of a superior type, in that the modern reader can fully enter into and embrace the world that the author has created and captured for those of us willing to experience it almost a century later.

The author has a well-developed sense of the absurd, which he uses to create satirical observations of the more outrageous characters and habits of the time he’s portraying, all the while maintaining a rather sentimental tone regarding his sympathetic protaganists, while setting up his antagonists for their eventual rout. Walpole maintains a good balance throughout, showing the internal struggles which make even the least likeable characters very understandably human, and worthy of at least a morsel of our sympathy.

I wish I could express in words the special quality of Hugh Walpole’s writing in this novel, and why I find it so appealing, but I won’t bother with over-analysis for fear of destroying my affection for it by too much probing. No deep messages or life-and-death dramas, merely an entertaining tale, competently told, focussing on various human relationships. Not much more – but in this case that is quite enough.

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the lonely life bette davis 001The Lonely Life by Bette Davis ~ 1962. This edition: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1962. Hardcover. 254 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10.

*****

I’m not a particularly dedicated fan of Bette Davis, though I’ve liked what I’ve seen of her acting – films I can remember watching are Dark Victory, Now, Voyager, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Death on the Nile, and of course, most memorably, that glorious 1950s classic, All About Eve. Probably a few others over the years. But I do like a good autobiography, no matter who it’s about, and this one passed the browse test recently and found its way home.

I’d wavered a bit on it, because of the price (let’s just say “not cheap”) but the bookseller kindly gave my a nice discount – without my asking, because I very seldom dicker, figuring most people in the used book business aren’t exactly getting rich. I already had a generous collection assembled on the front counter, and this particular chap believes in encouraging his repeat customers. (The Final Chapter, downtown on George Street, the block between 4th and 5th Avenue, if you’re ever in Prince George, B.C. Cheerful, chatty owner – a self-confessed “non-reader” <gasp!> – his store has a quite decent selection, affordably priced for the most part. I’ve found some prizes there.)

Back to the bio.

*****

Bette Davis comes across in this tell-all much as she does on the screen – confident, outspoken and decidedly unapologetic. She fixes her eye on the goal, and powers ahead until she gets here, quite happily stepping on as many toes as need be.

The quality of writing is quite good, if a bit choppy in style – lots of short sentences. There often seems to be an assumption that the reader will have prior knowledge of whatever’s being discussed. Fair enough, coming from such a celebrity; this memoir was published at a time when most people reading it would have been fans, with intimate knowledge of the career of this prominent movie star.

Bette Davis was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis in 1908, famously during a thunderstorm, as she relates in The Lonely Life:

I happened between a clap of thunder and a streak of lightning. It almost hit the house and destroyed a tree out front. As a child I fancied that the Finger of God was directing the attention of the world to me … I always felt special – part of a wonderful secret. I was always going to be somebody. I didn’t know exactly what at first … but when my dream became clear, I followed it.

Bette, her younger sister Bobby, and their mother Ruth – “Ruthie” – were deserted by their father and husband when Bette was seven years old. Her mother refused to wallow in self-pity, but set herself to make a successful and prosperous life for herself and her daughters. Ruthie took on a wide variety of jobs, sending the girls to good boarding schools, and always arranging to spend vacation times together in interesting locations.

Bette received an unorthodox but adequate education; she was a great reader, and took singing, piano and dance lessons, apparently excelling at all of these pursuits. At some point she decided that her Great Big Goal was a theatrical career, and several seasons of New England theatre made up Bette’s dramatic apprenticeship.

As we all know, Bette eventually made the jump from dusty New York theatres to California sound stages. Roundly criticized as being homely in appearance and with zero sex appeal, there was paradoxically a certain something about Bette that came across as mesmerizing when she took on a dramatic role, and of course, there were those beautiful eyes.

Bette was never meek or humble. From a very early age she was tremendously focussed and not afraid to set her sights high, though she often fell afoul of fellow actors and her employers for her outspoken ways. She wasn’t afraid to take on unpopular characters, or to look less than glamorous if the role called for it – another characteristic which shocked many in “the business” was her insistence on realism over “pretty”. And though she full well knew what people were saying about her, she brazenly professed not to care.

If you aim high, the pygmies will jump on your back and tug at your skirts.The people who call you a driving female will come along for the ride. If they weigh you down, you will fight them off. It is then that you are called a bitch.

I do not regret one professional enemy I have made. Any actor who doesn’t dare to make an enemy should get out of the business. I worked for my career and I’ll protect it as I would my children – every inch of the way. I do not regret the dust I kicked up.

Speaking of those children, it is very obvious from this book that Bette’s dedication to her family matched her ambition. Frankly and with bitter regret, Bette reports that her first husband convinced her to have an abortion, fearing that a baby would damage her career. Years later, with husband number three, Bette did at last have a child. Barbara Davis Sherry – “B.D.” – was born in 1947, when Bette was 39. Under doctor’s orders to avoid further pregnancies, Bette and her fourth husband later adopted two more children, Michael and Margot. Margot was later found to have been brain-damaged at birth, and after being diagnosed as severely mentally handicapped, was then institutionalized, though she continued to spend much time with her family, and appears prominently in Bette Davis’s family publicity photos.

Bette’s personal life was predictably tumultuous; she was married four times, divorced from three of those husbands, and widowed tragically when her “true love”, her second husband, died suddenly of a blood clot in his brain after collapsing while walking down the street.

The Lonely Life was written in 1961, the year after Bette’s divorce from her fourth and final husband, actor Gary Merrill, her co-star and screen husband in the iconic All About Eve.

The Lonely Life, Bette says, refers to her resolution to live without a man in her life. She’s had rotten luck with husbands; better to go it alone.

After 1962 Bette had a number of career ups and downs and come-backs; she never really retired, never rested on her considerable laurels.

Several other memoirs followed The Lonely Life. Mother Goddam (1974) and This ‘n’ That (1987), continue the tale. Bette Davis died in 1989 from breast cancer, at the age of 81.

bette davis back cover the lonely life 001

Here she is on the back cover of The Lonely Life, aged 54.

I wondered how much of The Lonely Life was actually written by Bette herself; it did have an authentic-sounding ring to it. The dedication gives the answer to this question:

I attribute the enormous research, the persistence of putting together the pieces of this very “crossed”-word puzzle which comprises my life, to Sandford Dody.

Without him this book could never have been! His understanding of my reluctance to face the past was his most valuable contribution. We were collaborators in every sense of the world.

-Bette Davis

March 8, 1962

Sandford Dody was an aspiring actor-turned-writer who ghost-wrote a number of Hollywood memoirs. His own story seems worthy of a follow-up, and my attention was caught by his 2009 obituary in the Washington Post.  Dody’s version of his own life, Giving Up the Ghost (1980), is now on my wish list of future Hollywood memoirs to read.

The Lonely Life was a fast-paced and engaging, once I found my way into the choppy rhythm of the writing style. I particularly enjoyed the  well-depicted childhood and young adulthood reminiscences. My interest faded a bit in the later parts, when Bette Davis talks about her film career and the encounters with studio owners, directors, and fellow stars – lots of name-dropping, and assumptions that we know what she’s going on about. Much of the time it made sense – the names were mostly very recognizable – but occasionally I felt out of the loop.

While Bette is gracious about most of the people in her life – loyalty to her chosen friends is one of her positive traits – it is obvious that there was also a substantial baggage of animosity and bitterness in some of her working and personal relationships.

I don’t necessarily like Bette Davis any more after reading this personal saga, but I did feel like I understood her, and appreciated what she had to say, and why she said it. She was frequently too strident in her self-justification for me to feel that I could really relate to the egoism of the “star” aspect of her personality, but I did feel that she came across as worthy of admiration and respect for her many accomplishments.

The perfectionist little girl with the lofty goals did achieve her ambitious destiny. She stood up for her ideals of artistic integrity her entire career. She was literate, thoughtful and highly intelligent and articulate, and she was a darned hard worker.

I put down this book with the strong inclination to seek out and watch some more of Bette Davis’s films – the ones she spoke favourably of, among the vast array of B-movies she also appeared in – so you may take this as a pleased-with-the-read recommendation.

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What an easy list to put together, after all! The hardest part was ranking them.

I simply scanned over my book reviews index, and these titles popped right out at me. Memorable for the most compelling reason I read – pure and simple enjoyment. My long-time favourites which I reviewed this year and which should really be included were left off the list, because if I noted those down there’d be no room for the marvelous new-to-me reads I discovered in 2012.

*****

BEST NEW-TO-ME READS 2012

Who could rank them?! Well, I’ll try.

A classic countdown, ending with the best of the best – the ones joining the favourites already resident on the “treasures” bookshelves.

Unapologetically “middlebrow”, most of my choices, I realize.

The jig is up. Barb is an unsophisticated reader at heart!

*****

10. Mother Mason (1916)

by Bess Streeter Aldrich

I know, I know – two titles by Aldrich are on my “Most Disappointing” list. But Mother Mason was marvelous, and I loved her. Molly Mason, happily married and with a normal, well-functioning, healthy, active family, is feeling jaded. So she runs away. But without telling anyone that that’s what she’s doing, and covering her tracks wonderfully well. She returns refreshed, to turn the narrative over to the rest of her family, though she remains in the picture, sending her family members off into the world and receiving them back with love, good humour and anything else they need when they return. A very sweet book; a happy hymn to domesticity at its best, with enough occasional real life angst to provide counterpoint. Nice.

9. Death and Resurrection (2011)

by R.A. MacAvoy

I deeply enjoy MacAvoy’s rather odd thrillers/sci fi/time shift/alternative reality/fantasy novels, and was thrilled to get my hands on this latest book, the first full-length new work the author has published in almost 20 years – she’s been otherwise occupied by dealing with some serious health issues, now happily manageable enough for a return to writing. MacAvoy’s new book is just as wonderfully off-key as her previous creations. I love how her mind works, though I experience quite a few “What did I just read?” moments when reading her stuff. Makes me pay attention!

Ewen Young is a pacifist Buddhist with a satisfying career as a painter, and absorbing side interests such as perfecting his kung fu technique and working with his twin sister’s psychiatric patients, and at a hospice for the terminally ill. When Ewen is inadvertently faced with a violent encounter with the murderers of his uncle, strange powers he never realized he had begin to develop. Factor  in a new friend and eventual love interest, veterinarian Susan Sundown, and her remarkable corpse-finding dog, Resurrection, and some decidedly dramatic encounters with the spirit world, and you have all the ingredients for a surreally mystical adventure. Friendship, love, and the importance of ancestors and family join death and resurrection as themes in this most unusual tale. Welcome back, Roberta Ann.

8. Parnassus on Wheels (1917)

by Christopher Morley

Another escaping homemaker, this one thirty-nine year old spinster Helen McGill, who decides to turn the tables on her rambling writer of a brother, much to his indignant dismay. A boisterous open road adventure with bookish interludes, and a most satisfactory ending for all concerned.

7. Fire and Hemlock (1985)

by Diana Wynne Jones

An intriguing reworking of the Tam Lin legend. Polly realizes she has two sets of memories, and that both of them are “real”.  DWJ at her strangely brilliant best.

And while we’re on the subject of Diana Wynne Jones, I’m going to add in another of hers as a sort of Honourable Mention: Archer’s Goon (1984). Gloriously funny. Don’t waste these on the younger set – read them yourselves, dear adults. Well, you could share. But don’t let their home on the Youth shelf at the library hinder your discovery of these perfectly strange and strangely attractive fantastic tales. Think of Neil Gaiman without the (occasionally) graphic sex and violence. Same sort of kinked sense of humour and weird appeal.

6. Miss Bun, the Baker’s Daughter (1939)

 and

Shoulder the Sky (1951)

by D.E. Stevenson

Two which tied for my so-far favourites (I’ve only sampled a few of her many books) by this new-to-me in 2012 by this vintage light romantic fiction writer. Both coincidentally have artistic backgrounds and sub-plots.

In Miss Bun, Sue Pringle takes on a job against her family’s wishes as a housekeeper to an artist and his wife; immediately upon Sue’s arrival the wife departs, leaving Sue in a rather compromising position, living alone with a married man. She refuses to abandon the most unworldly John Darnay, who is so focussed on his painting that he forgets that bills need to eventually be paid, let alone considering what the gossips may be whispering about his personal life. An unusual but perfectly satisfying romance ensues.

Shoulder the Sky takes place shortly after the ending of World War II. Newlyweds Rhoda and James Johnstone settle into an isolated farmhouse in Scotland to try their hand at sheep farming. Rhoda, a successful professional painter, is struggling with the dilemma of compromising her artistic calling with the new duties of wifehood. Her husband never puts a foot wrong, leaving Rhoda to work her priorities out for herself. Though things came together a little too smoothly at the end, I was left feeling that this was a most satisfactory novel, one which I can look forward to reading again.

5. All Passion Spent (1931)

by Vita Sackville-West

Elderly Lady Slane determines to spend her last days doing exactly as she pleases, in solitude in a rented house (well, she does keep her also-elderly maid), thereby setting her family in an uproar by her 11th hour stand for self-determination. This short episode ends in Lady Slane’s death, but it is not at all tragic; the escape allowed Lady Slane to find her place of peace with herself, and it also served as a catalyst for some similar actions by others. Definitely unusual, full of humour, and beautifully written.

4. A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep (1987)

by Rumer Godden

A brilliant autobiography which reads like one of Godden’s novel, only way better, because she’s in full share-the-personal-details mode here, and there are pictures. Beautifully written and absolutely fascinating. Reading this breathed new appreciation into my reading of Godden’s fiction. Followed by a second volume, A House With Four Rooms (1989), but the first installment is head-and-shoulder above the other – much the best.

3. The Benefactress (1901)

by Elizabeth von Arnim.

Anna Estcourt, “on the shelf” as an unmarried young lady at the advanced age of twenty-five, unexpectedly inherits an uncle’s estate in Germany. Full of noble ideas, and relieved at being able to escape her life as a dependent and portionless poor relation – orphaned Anna lives with her elder brother and his high-strung and managing wife – Anna visits the estate and decides to stay there, to build a new life for herself, and to share her good fortune with some deserving ladies who have fallen on hard times. Needless to say, things do not go as planned. A quite wonderful book, clever and observant and often very funny; serious just when needed, too. Excellent.

2. The Proper Place (1926)

The Day of Small Things (1930)

 Jane’s Parlour (1937)

by O. Douglas

These novels about the Scottish Rutherfurd family belong together on the shelf. Of these The Proper Place is my definite favourite, but the others are also must-reads if one has become engrossed with the world of the stories, rural Scotland between the two world wars. What a pleasure to follow the quiet ways of  likeable protagonist Nicole Rutherfurd, her mother, the serene Lady Jane, and Nicole’s perennially dissatisfied cousin Barbara. At the beginning of The Proper Place the Rutherfurds are leaving their ancestral home; Lord Rutherfurd has died, and the family’s sons were lost in the war; it has become impossible for the surviving women to make ends meet as things are. So off they go to a smaller residence in a seaside town, where they create a new life for themselves, shaping themselves uncomplainingly to their diminished circumstances, except for Barbara, who connives to set herself back into the world she feels she deserves. Many “days of small things” make up these stories. I can’t put my finger on the “why” of their deep appeal – not much dramatic ever happens – but there it is – a perfectly believable world lovingly created and peopled by very human characters.

1.  The Flowering Thorn (1933)

 Four Gardens (1935)

by Margery Sharp

These were my decided winners – the ones which will remain on my shelves to be read and re-read over and over again through the years to come. The Flowering Thorn is the stronger work, but Four Gardens has that extra special something, too.

In The Flowering Thorn, twenty-nine-year-old socialite Lesley Frewen is starting to wonder if perhaps she is not a lovable person; she has plenty of acquaintances, and is often enough pursued by young men professing love, but those she views as emotional and intellectual equals treat her with perfect politeness and fall for other women. Acting on a strange impulse, Lesley one day offers to adopt a small orphaned boy, and then moves to the country with him, in order to reduce her expenses – her London budget, though perfectly managed, will not stretch to a second mouth to feed, and her elegant flat is in an adult-only enclave. Quickly dropped by her shallow city friends, Lesley sets herself to fulfill the silent bargain she has made with herself, to bring up young Patrick to independence and to preserve her personal standards. But as we all know, sometimes the way to find your heart’s desire is to stop searching for it, and Lesley’s stoicism is eventually rewarded in a number of deeply satisfying ways. An unsentimental tale about self-respect, and about love.

Caroline Smith has Four Gardens in her life. The first is the gone-to-seed wilderness surrounding a vacant estate house, where she finds romance for the first time. The next two are the gardens of her married life; the small backyard plot of her early married years, and the much grander grounds surrounding the country house which her husband purchases for her with the proceeds of his successful business planning. The fourth garden is the smallest and most makeshift – a few flowerpots on a rooftop, as Caroline’s circumstances become reduced after her husband’s death, and her fortunes turn full circle. A beautiful and unsentimental story about a woman’s progress throughout the inevitable changes and stages of her life – daughter-wife-mother-grandmother-widow. Clever and often amusing, with serious overtones that are never sad or depressing.

Margery Sharp was in absolutely perfect form with these two now almost unremembered books.

This is why I love “vintage”. I wish I owned a printing press – I’d love to share books like these with other readers who appreciate writerly craftsmanship, a well-turned phrase, and a quietly clever story. They don’t deserve the obscurity they’ve inevitably fallen into through the passage of time.

*****

So there we are – I’ve made it to midnight – the only one still awake in my house. I’m going to hit “Post”, then off to bed with me as well.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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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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Best books lists, sensation of the year music lists, top news events lists, cutest YouTube video lists – you name it, all I’ve been seeing are lists, lists, LISTS! They’re everywhere this week. I wasn’t going to personally play this game, but there’s something about the dawn of a new year that demands a look back at the ups and downs, highs and lows, bests and worsts of the 12 months previous.

So I’ve caved in to temptation to add to the plethora of lists. Musing about the books of the last year and which ones really stood out, for various reasons, I hereby offer the first of three “Top Ten” book lists from the Leaves & Pages blog for 2012.

It’s not a full year’s worth of reading, as I only started blogging in April 2012, but I did manage to post something about almost all of the books I read in those eight and a half months. Some are on hold because I just didn’t get around to putting in the time their reviews deserved; at this point I may need to re-read these ones before reviewing them, so I may just bump them over to the 2013 list.

So this Most Unexpected 2012 list, and the two to follow, Most Disappointing 2012 and Personal Favourites 2012, will be drawn from only those books I reviewed for the blog.

It was much easier than I had expected to pick out the books in these three categories – the choices jumped right out at me, though order of preference has been a tough one, which I’ll avoid, at least with this first list.

*****

MOST UNEXPECTED READS 2012

In order of publication.

These are all “keepers”.

*****

1. An American Girl in London (1891)

by Sara Jeannette Duncan

Miss Mamie Wick heads to England on a solitary holiday, where she enthusiastically tourists and hob nobs with the high and mighty, even capturing the romantic interest of a lordship. We are all surprised by the twist at the end – well, the lordship and his relations and society chums perhaps more so than the reader, who has been gaining a great appreciation of innocently friendly but far from naïve Miss Wick while happily following her through this gently satirical travelogue.

2. The Jasmine Farm (1934)

by Elizabeth von Arnim

A social satire concerning the fabulously wealthy and sexually “pure” Lady Midhurst and what happens when her apparently virginal daughter quite calmly announces that she has been carrying on a most physically passionate affair for the past seven years with Lady Midhurst’s trusted financial adviser. Many emotional walls come tumbling down, with unexpected results. Some decidedly sophisticated characters and situations; I was just a little shocked by the author’s boldness in this one – check out the publication date!

3. Bedelia (1945)

by Vera Caspary

Vera Caspary has written a study of a psychopath as fluffy as eiderdown, a kitten whose claws were steel.

Bedelia was everything to please a man – and she pleased many. She was small, cuddly; she smelled nice. She never argued or lost her temper. Her house, like her hair, was shining, her food delicious. She loved to cook, and she adored the gadgets of housekeeping. How strange that a passion for percolators and copper pans should help solve the curious riddle of her past!

A femme fatale meets her matrimonial match. Mer-ow! An odd little thriller, a bit stiff in style, as I’ve noted in the review, but surprisingly memorable. Definitely unexpected.

4. Guard Your Daughters (1953)

by Diana Tutton

I wasn’t quite sure how I’d react to this family saga concerning the five Harvey sisters, their successful mystery-writer father, and their very odd mother. Some reviewers found it a charming and quixotic tale; others focussed on the darker, more disturbing elements.  I’d hoped to be charmed, but while I could definitely see what attracted so many to this sharply humorous and occasionally poignant story of a family of self-admitted eccentrics, I ended up seeing more of the underlying shadow than the surface shine. An interesting read, for itself and to compare notes with other reviewers. I’d like to read more by this author, and I’ll definitely read this one again, to see if my first impression holds true.

5. The Martha Trilogy

The Eye of Love (1957)

Martha in Paris (1962)

Martha, Eric and George (1964)

by Margery Sharp

‘Why should it always be the woman,’ asked Martha, ‘who’s landed with the little illegit?’

Putting principle into practice, she thus deposited a two-weeks-old infant on the paternal door-step and returned carefree to her proper business of painting masterpieces: vanishing so successfully, indeed, from the lives of both lover and son, that ten years elapsed before the consequences of her misbehaviour caught up with her…

Martha is one of the most verbally stoic, goal-oriented, and single-minded heroines I have ever met among the fictional pages. Martha wants one thing from early childhood onward: to paint pictures. How she succeeds most magnificently is the thread that binds these three unusual romances together. The infant referred to appears some way along in Martha’s personal journey; before we meet young George we make the acquaintance of numerous other unique individuals, cleverly set out for our amusement by Margery Sharp’s exceedingly well crafted word pictures. A rather strange and consistently amusing narrative, with a decided sting in its tail. Not what I’d expected, but a very welcome surprise.

6. Mexico Unknown (1962)

by Lorna Whishaw

On October 4, the day of the sputnik, we left the sanitary tranquility of the American way of life, and in total ignorance of things Mexican we plunged into the uneasy atmosphere where anything goes, where yes and no are as high as the sky and as deep as hell, and where nothing you can conceive of is impossible.

A fictionalized autobiography of a mother and her young daughter’s journey by car from their home in Canada to surprise their mining engineer husband and father working somewhere in the Sierra Madre wilderness. They find the mine, and for a while join in the lives of the miners and their families, adjusting their standards to meet the no-standards of the primitive living conditions, until disastrous events force a move southwards further into Mexico and into central America. Absolutely fascinating. An unusual traveller’s tale told in a very individual voice.

7. The Long Winter (1962)

by John Christopher

A dystopian post-apocalyptic love story-thriller-social satire. This one gives John Wyndham’s similarly themed novels a run for their money. Fifty years old, and could have been written yesterday, if one were to swap our current preoccupation with rising sea levels for 1962’s “new ice age”.

When the end came to him, in however strange and incalculable a form, it would be irrelevant, as irrelevant as the pneumonia or heart attack or cancer which would otherwise have rendered his seat vacant. Soon all the seats would be vacant together until, as must happen, marauders broke in to rip up the wood and carry away the books that were left for fuel. Some of the rarest books had already gone, to the libraries in Cairo and Accra, in Lagos and Johannesburg, and more would go in the next few weeks; but there would still be enough to draw the mob. The people reading here were not so foolish as to expect a reprieve – for the library or for themselves.

8. Let’s Kill Uncle (1963)

by Rohan O’Grady

This was a weird little book – heaven help the innocent reader who thought they were picking up a mild children’s tale! Nothing innocent here; chock full of the darkest human flaws and emotions; the humour (of which there is a lot, all intentional) shades from gray to ebony black.

An orphaned 10 year-old-boy, a misleadingly frail 10-year-old girl, a one-eared outlaw cougar, and a very wicked uncle are the key characters of this exceedingly unusual tale set among te ferns and cedars of a British Columbia Gulf Island.

9. When the snow comes, they will take you away (1971)

by Eric Newby

We were captured off the east coast of Sicily on the morning of the twelfth of August, 1942, about four miles out of the Bay of Catania. It was a beautiful morning. As the sun rose I could see Etna, a truncated cone with a plume of smoke over it like the quill of a pen stuck in a pewter ink-pot, rising out of the haze to the north of where I was treading water.

British Special Forces officer Eric Newby’s autobiographical account of his WW II months in rural Italy after a submarine and kayak sabotage mission against a German airfield near Sicily went very wrong. A mass exodus from a prison camp was followed by a series of temporary hiding places as the Italian villagers and peasant-farmers hid, fed and assisted the British escapees as they sought to evade capture by German forces. Eric’s travels were complicated by a broken ankle, but greatly aided by a lovely Slovenian woman, Wanda, who became Eric’s wife after the war was over. An unusual and moving memoir.

10. The Complete Knowledge of Sally Fry (1983)

by Sylvia Murphy

Oh, what a fine kettle of fish is this very funny, poignant, sarcastic and exceedingly unusual story of Sally Fry: single mother, behavioural therapist and college lecturer. All she wants is to get her PhD thesis finished, but ex-lovers and the people all around her, most notably her family and their assorted hangers-on, keep derailing her precarious train of thought. There are dictionary-style autobiographical snippets throughout – absolutely marvelous. What a happy and most unexpected find.

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looking for anne irene gammelLooking for Anne: How Lucy Maud Montgomery Dreamed Up a Literary Classic by Irene Gammel ~ 2008. This edition: Key Porter, 2008. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-55263-985-6. 312 pages.

My rating: 4.5/10. I certainly wanted to like this book, and I picked it up with optimistic anticipation. Sadly I ended up feeling less than thrilled with my reading experience.

I did like bits and pieces – the factual bits and pieces – and I learned a few things about Lucy Maud Montgomery I didn’t know before, but the disjointed presentation and the frequent “It could have been like this” and “She must have felt like that” and the “I am certain that x was influenced by y, even though I have no proof” soon put me off.

While Irene Gammel is obviously a dedicated researcher and undoubtedly a well-informed Lucy Maud Montgomery scholar, I feel that her presentation of her theories in this book come across as unprofessional because of her continual admitted fabrications and assumptions.

Is it better if she admits it? Here’s a thought – why not stick to the facts? Or else drop the flowery, gushing, pseudo-Lucy Maud “voice”, which served merely to annoy rather than bewitch this particular reader.

*****

The questions Irene Gammel pose as the thesis statements for this book go something like this: What is the mystery behind the writing of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s magnum opus and incredibly successful book, Anne of Green Gables? Why did LMM not document the process of writing Anne much more thoroughly, and, while we’re on the topic, who actually inspired the red-haired heroine?

(Because of course it must have been a real person! There’s no way an author could just dream up a character out of her own head!)

Well, I must admit that such questions have never personally troubled me regarding Anne of Green Gables, a piece of entertaining fiction which I do indeed like a whole lot and which I re-read with deep pleasure every few years. I have always happily accepted that LMM just struck a lucky chord with this one, and that the character Anne was likely an amalgam of various personalities LMM knew in her daily life, with a good dash of artistic creativity rounding out the details.

Does it really matter if we don’t know the exact details of Anne’s origins? Well, it obviously bothered Irene Gammel enough so that she went ahead and assembled a vast array of evidence to support her own theories. Sometimes her enthusiasm carried her away. While the factual passages of this ambitious book are fascinating reading, they all too often degenerate into speculation. The author readily identifies her frequent forays into the imaginary, but they do detract from the value of the research.

evelyn nesbitGammel theorizes that Anne’s key ancestor was young photographer’s model Evelyn Nesbit, identified many years after the publication of Anne of Green Gables as “the face of Anne” in one of LMM’s journals. I’m including the photo in question for your edification – see left.

Gammel then goes on to speculate about a vast number of other celebrities, acquaintances and fictional characters who might have added their characteristics to embryo Anne as her creator formed her and defined her in writing.

Fair enough, but these are all speculation, as the Gammel admits over and over. She throws out a daunting array of possibilities and mulls each one over in detail, before admitting that she just can’t quite be sure. I ended up feeling like the writing of this book, much like my reading of it, was a bit of an exercise in futility.

I think I’ll end with this. I could go on and share all sorts of annoying examples from the text – as well as some quite lovely and informative passages concerned LMM which are actually documented and provable by genuine references – but I’m full up to here with this one, so this is all my enthusiasm amounts to.

As usual, Goodreads – Looking for Anne has a wide selection of interesting reviews. I am quite relieved to find that I am not alone in my somewhat faint enthusiasm – others appear to feel the same, though there are some fans.

And if you are a serious LMM fan, by all means go ahead and tackle this ambitious personal project – it’s certainly interesting enough, if one can keep focussed – but keep the salt-cellar handy!

On the plus side: Some unusual LMM photographs are included, and the biographer does manage to give a wide-ranging picture of the time in which LMM was working on the book, and the artistic, literary and cultural mood of the era.

Oh – and a little heads-up – speculation as to LMM’s sexual proclivities abound in this one, though Gammel doesn’t come right out and say the “L-word” except to paradoxically refute the insinuation which she herself seems to make. Many salacious references to Sapphic friendships!

Now, to be quite honest, it doesn’t matter to me one whit what LMM’s sexual orientation was, but obviously it matters a whole lot to Gammel, as she teasingly parades this theme throughout the book. It got tiresome.

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rowan farm margot benary-isbertRowan Farm by Margot Benary-Isbert ~ 1954. This edition: Peter Smith, 1990. Translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-8446-6475-8. 277 pages.

My rating: 10/10. A sequel/companion piece to The Ark.

A more mature, less “sentimental” book than the also very excellent The Ark, and a classic example of a bildungsroman – a “coming of age” story – set in 1948 and centered on 16-year-old Margret but involving many other characters as well as they react and adjust to their changing situations and the challenges of the immediate post-WW II world of defeated Germany.

*****

Rowan Farm continues the story of the Lechow family, war refugees from Pomerania who have settled into an abandoned and renovated railway carriage located on a rural farm in the Hesse region of Germany (near Frankfurt). The family’s father has made the long journey from the prison camp in Siberia where he has been interned, and the joy of the family’s reunification is still strong, though shadowed by the wartime death of one of the sons, and the emotional and physical damage Dr. Lechow is recovering from.

Other returning soldiers are finding their way home all over Germany, though for many there are literally no homes to return to. An unprecedenting readjustment of the entire population is taking place, as refugees seek a place to settle and get on with their lives, while those fortunate enough to still have their properties often grimly resent the official mandate that they must share their resources and often their homes and land with the incomers.

Bernd Almut, son of matriarch Anni Almut of Rowan Farm, has found his own way home, and having regained some of his physical strength is now trying to fit himself back into the farm life which his mother has capably managed without him for so many years. The eldest Lechow children, 17 year old Matthias and 16 year old Margret, are now integral members of the Rowan Farm hierarchy, Matthias working on the land, with Margret caring for the livestock and the sadly diminished breeding kennel of Great Danes which Rowan Farm was long famous for. Bernd and Matthias have become good friends, but that relationship founders when both become infatuated with lovely Anitra, a city girl on holiday from her studies at Franfurt University.  Margret is nurturing some romantic feelings of her own towards Bernd, and he had apparently returned them until flirtatious Anitra (who can’t be all so fluffy as she looks – she is a Mathematics major) shows up. Margret deeply feels her own intellectual shortcomings; because of the war she has had to leave school some years ago, and no longer even thinks of returning to the world of studies; life has taken her a very different direction, into practical labour with her hands.

Multiple subplots abound in this novel. 11-year-old Andrea is academically gifted and is fortunate enough to be a scholarship student in the Catholic Lyceum in the nearby town; her parents are hoping that she of all of their children will be able to attend university, but Andrea has been bitten by the stage bug and has her heart set on becoming an actress. 8-year-old Joey and now-adopted “twin” brother Hans Ulrich are involved in many boyish pursuits, including raising a family of prized Angora rabbits, and running wild through the countryside every chance they get; a favourite stop is the cottage of solitary and eccentric “bee-witch” Marri, who always has a slice of bread and honey for her young visitors. Marri’s war has been a tragic one. She is the widowed mother of a lone son, a gentle and pacifistic boy; upon conscription he had willingly put on the soldier’s uniform as was his duty, but he ultimately was unable to follow orders to shoot another person, and was court-martialled and executed. Marri’s grief has brought her to the edge of madness. Fearing for her sanity, the Almuts and Lechows have tried to refocus her interest by asking her to take in a returned veteran who has himself lost his wife in a bombing raid, and who is desperately searching for his baby son, who would now be a toddler of three, if he is still alive.

There is also a young, one-armed, returned war veteran schoolmaster who falls afoul of the village mayor by involving his students in establishing a refuge for homeless soldiers; an outspoken and controversial journalist who visits the soldiers’ home and turns out to be a very unexpected individual; a American Quaker aid worker who is interested in both the Great Danes Rowan Farm raises and in the possiblilities of sponsoring the young kennel maid for emigration to the U.S.A.; a gang of black market dealers stealing local livestock; a rescued Shetland pony mare which Margret and her father nurse back to health; and two young ex-soldiers who stay for a short time until suddenly moving on, with tragic results. Musical Dieter and his band of Cellar Rats come and go, bringing a breath of the city with them as they play for the village dances and help with the haying.

Re-reading this story as an adult, I was most impressed by how delicately the author portrayed the difficulties of the returning soldiers such as Dr. Lechow. Parted from his family in the very early days of the war when he was conscripted to serve as a military doctor; finding his beloved family home in Pomerania has been lost forever; losing one of his sons – Margret’s twin brother Christian – all of these are things he takes to heart. His delicate (in his view) wife and helpless (in his mind) children have survived work camps and refugee camps and untold dangers and hardships while he himself has been incarcerated in a brutal Siberian prison camp. He finds his family at last and once he has healed enough to take an interest in their affairs, he is slightly shocked to realize that they have been functioning exceedingly well without him. His occasional attempts to regain his “beneficient patriarch” status, and his wife’s tactful handling of his delicately bruised ego and his confusion at the “new normal” he finds himself coming back to is realistically portrayed.

This story, and its predecessor The Ark, are paeans to the steadfast strength of women throughout and after the war. The men leave, usually not by choice, and either fail to return or come back terribly altered physically and emotionally. The mothers, grandmothers, wives, daughters and girlfriends who have been viewed as secondary citizens – especially in patriarchial Germany – remember that this is the land and the time of the woman’s role being defined as Kinder, Küche, Kirche – children, kitchen, church – have had to take on traditionally male tasks and for the most part have managed exceedingly well. The horrors of the war are more openly referred to in this story, including references to the death camps, and there is very much an atmosphere of both acknowledging what has happened and hoping that the future will be a more just and positive time for the survivors from all segments of German society.

All in all, a sensitive and moving story for older children (possibly 10 and up?) and adults both, inspired by the personal experiences of the author. Very highly recommended. It should follow The Ark for best effect, but can also be read alone.

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