Archive for the ‘Read in 2012’ Category

Oh, such high hopes I had for these ones!

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

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

*****

MOST DISAPPOINTING READS 2012

In alphabetical order of author’s surname.

*****

1. A White Bird Flying (1931)

and

Miss Bishop (1933) 

by Bess Streeter Aldrich

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

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

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

2. The L-Shaped Room (1960)

and

The Backward Shadow (1970)

by Lynne Reid Banks

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

Too unspeakably dreary.

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

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

by Eleanor Bor

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

4. Pippa Passes (1994)

and

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

by Rumer Godden

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

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

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

5. The Middle Window (1935) 

by Elizabeth Goudge

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

6. Mrs. de Winter (1993)

by Susan Hill

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

7. The Honorary Patron (1987)

by Jack Hodgins

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

8. Friends and Lovers (1947)

by Helen MacInnes

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

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

9. Kilmeny of the Orchard (1910)

and

A Tangled Web (1931)

by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

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

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

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

10. The New Moon with the Old (1963)

by Dodie Smith

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

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

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

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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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the ark margot benary-isbertThe Ark by Margot Benary-Isbert ~ 1948 (German edition: Die Arche Noah) ~ English edition, 1953. This edition: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., circa 1963. Translated from the German by Clara and Richard Winston. Hardcover. Library of Congress #: 52-13677. 246 pages.

My rating: 10/10. This is an excellent piece of juvenile historical fiction. Actually, that designation is not really correct, as it was written as a piece of “straight fiction”, being written during the time of its setting, but to readers today it is most definitely historical, so I will classify it as that.

While not a deliberately Christmas-themed book, The Ark features two Christmases as it covers a little more than a year in the lives of its characters, and it was one I thought of when I was pondering which fictional Christmases stand out as memorable in my mind.

*****

The Lechow family – Mother, 15-year-old Matthias, 14-year-old Margret, 10-year-old Andrea, and 7-year-old Joey – are apprehensively but optimistically looking forward to their new home. Since being displaced from their village in Pomerania in the early years of the war, they have been separated – Mother and Matthias to work camps and the younger children to various farms – but they are finally together again and have been travelling through Germany seeking some place of refuge amongst the hordes of other homeless, wretched, often-starving people. They had made it to Hamburg, for a brief respite among relatives, but with the city filled with Occupation troops they were unable to get a permit to stay, and were instead assigned to accommodation in a town in Hesse. Yet another boxcar ride, and then nine more months in a refugee barracks, and their turn for a housing assignment has finally come. Number Thirteen Parsley Street – the name sounds like something from a fairy tale, and they hold their breath in anticipation of what they will find there.

And they are looking forward as well to having some sort of permanent address to share with the Red Cross, for the family’s beloved father, a doctor serving with the German army, has last been heard from a year ago with a tattered postcard sent from a Russian prison camp. Every place they’ve stopped the Lechows have registered their names, “dropping breadcrumbs in the forest” like a fairytale tribe of lost children, hoping beyond hope that Father will one day be released, now that the long war is over, and will be able to track them down from the traces they have left behind.

The owner of the Parsley Street house is appalled and offended at having to receive five penniless refugees. Elderly widow Mrs. Verduz has weathered the war reasonably well, though her nerves are “shattered” from the noise of all the bombing. Her street has miraculously stayed mostly undamaged, and though food and fuel is in terribly short supply, she fully appreciates her good fortune in having a roof over her head and all of her beloved possessions around her. She grudgingly shows the Lechows the two attic rooms she has been ordered by the Housing Authority to allot to the Lechows, and muttering in thinly veiled disgust, she raids her well-equipped cupboards for sheets to cover the mattresses she’s had to provide, and a few dented pots and pans and some chipped dishes as well – the Lechows quite literally have nothing but the clothes on their backs and a blanket each.

Once the family is settled in to their new home, things do begin to look up.

Matthias is assigned work as a bricklayer’s flunky working on reconstruction, which, though far from his true interests, astronomy and nursery gardening, at least provides a small income, and the acquaintance of a co-worker – soon to be new friend – the musical Dieter, who lives in the cellar of a bombed-out house with his raggle-taggle refugee companions, who have started an increasingly successful band called “The Cellar Rats”.

Andrea goes to public school, and is fortunate in passing an examination and receiving a scholarship to a private school run by the nuns. Here she meets butcher’s daughter Lenchen, and the two become bosom friends, with Andrea exchanging help with homework for lunchtime sandwiches provided by Lenchen’s grateful mother. Andrea is sternly forbidden to angle for anything more, but the odd morsel falls her way – a boon in these very hungry times.

Young Joey also goes to school, with less enthusiasm than his sister; he reluctantly acquires a smattering of knowledge, but his happiest acquisition is a friend of his own, a perky orphan named Hans Ulrich – last name and birth date unknown, as his only childhood memory is of being bombed, and of his mother dying when they were travelling together in a boxcar in the early years of the war, when Hans was only two or three; he was unable to tell his last name so no family was able to be tracked down; he is a waif in the truest sense, though his foster-mother (who we suspect may be getting by as a prostitute) is kind enough in her careless way.

Mother gratefully settles into the small space she can at last call her own, and immediately sets about creating a home for her brood. She smooths down Mrs. Verduz, helps her with the housework, and begins to take in sewing jobs – she is an accomplished seamstress, and finds that this skill is in high demand as people start to once more have the interest in dressing themselves well, now that the fighting is over, and life is turning to a new normal. New clothes and cloth are impossible to get, but a skilled seamstress can do much with old curtains and various patches and pieces from worn-out garments tucked away in clothes chests. Mrs. Verduz has lent a sewing machine in return for mending work, and the two women are becoming partners in the challenge of keeping everyone clean and clothed and fed. Contrary to Mrs Verduz’s fears, having a family of children in residence is not such a bad thing. Matthias chops firewood and brings home the precious small coal ration, Margret has taken over the tedious job of standing in line for hours to collect food rations, Andrea washes dishes and sweeps the stairs, while Joey brightens her life with his happy disposition.

The only one who is left in limbo in this new life is Margret. She willingly does all that is asked up her, competently handling her many menial and tiresome chores, but she is just too old, at 14, for priority to return to school, and just too young to be assigned to a job, though her mother has suggested that an apprenticeship to a professional seamstress might  be a good next step. Margret is secretly appalled at the thought of spending her life bent over a sewing needle; her true life was left behind back on the Pomeranian farm which is now lost forever. There she was deeply immersed in gardening and in caring for her animals, and in rambling the countryside with her beloved twin brother Christian. A gaping hole in the family, and in Margret’s grieving heart, is carefully veiled over by everyone – Christian was shot and killed by a Russian soldier who broke into their house during the battle which ultimately displaced the family and started their years of wandering.

Christmas comes, and the family celebrates with true joy and gratitude. The Lechow children, Lenchen and Hans Ulrich and Dieter and his band decide to go Christmas carolling into the countryside, hoping for a few morsels of food or a coin or two from the relatively more prosperous farmers living around the outskirts of the town. In the course of their travels that wintry night they come to Rowan Farm, home of the widowed Mrs Almut and her elderly household. Anni Almut is a bit of a character in the neighbourhood. Endlessly energetic and outspoken, she forges ahead with whatever she sets her hand to. She has a few milk cows, raises milk sheep and ponies, and best of all to Margret’s startled recognition, keeps a breeding kennel of Great Danes. The Lechows kept Great Danes as well back in the good old days; Margret’s beloved dog Cosi was shot along with Christian, and that is another unhealed wound in her heart.

One thing leads to another, and six months later both Matthias and Margret are working and living at Rowan Farm. They have fixed up an old railcar on the farm as a dormitory, with bunk beds and a cookstove, and soon begin to fill it with the stray animals which are attracted to Margret as moths to a flame, and their town relations and friends, who are eager to come out to spend a day or two at “Noah’s Ark”, as the rail car has been christened, a refuge from the stormy seas of the outside world.

As this is a children’s book, everything continues to come together for the best, with the lost finding their way home, and old wounds healed, and the future looking positive. But the hardships and horrors of the war, though not detailed, are very much a part of the story, which ultimately celebrates the goodness that people find in the midst of the most terrible situations.

The returning soldiers are physically maimed and emotionally wounded, but they do start to heal; those who are lost are remembered with poignant sadness but not dwelled upon for the most part, as “life must go on”. The dreadful food and living conditions are dealt with creatively and are made the brunt of much humour. Our final impression is of a people and a country looking to the rising sun of a new day with optimism and hope, with a glance back to the horrors they have been involved in and a “never again” resolve.

This is a World War II book which does not reference the Holocaust and the Jewish displacement and slaughter, except by veiled allusions which most young readers will not catch. It does however in no way excuse what has happened. It rather focusses on the other innocent victims of the war, the common people, the small town shop shopkeepers, the peasants and farmers, the families and children of Germany who suffered horribly while the men were off fighting and the bombs exploded all around. People died in horrible ways, and froze and starved to death in the bitter winters even after the official truce was called. This is all in there, in the shadows behind the joy of the Lechow’s story of recovery and a happy ending.

Die Arche Noah was released to great acclaim in Germany in 1948. It caught the attention of American publishers, and was translated and released in an English edition in 1953, and was received with deep appreciation in North America. The author, beginning her writing career at the age of 59 – she was born in 1889 and had lived through the two great wars in Germany – went on to write several more children’s and young adult books, which were also translated and found ready sales overseas. Margot Benary-Isbert, herself having lost her family home and being displaced by the war, immigrated to the U.S.A. in 1952, becoming an American citizen in 1957. Her stories show her great love of both of her countries, the beloved Germany of her birth and the American haven which adopted her so graciously as it did so many other refugees from conflicts worldwide.

The Ark is often deeply sentimental and a bit “old-fashioned” in style and tone to modern ears, but the story is powerful and memorable, and strikes a strong chord with many of its readers. I was ten or eleven when I read it for the first time in my school library. I eagerly searched out the rest of Benary-Isbert’s works – our school libraries were lavishly stocked back in the 1970s – they had everything! – and when I settled into my own home and started building my book collection the Benary-Isbert books were among the first I thought I’d like to track down from my childhood favourites. Sadly they are mostly out of print, and long gone from library shelves, but were so popular in their time that they are still very readily obtainable in the online second-hand book marketplace, which is where you will have to search them out.

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the raven boys maggie steifvaterThe Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater ~ 2012. This edition: Scholastic Press, 2012. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-545-42492-9. 409 pages.

My rating: It’s complicated. I’m giving it a 7/10, pending the next installment. Stiefvater’s a very fine wordsmith, and she’s showing some lovely talent here, but there were some issues I couldn’t ignore which had nothing to do with excellent quality of the prose.

If you want to read a proper review, the internet is alive with them. Goodreads has an abundance – over 7000 ratings and 2000 reviews. The ones I read on the first page alone were very nicely done indeed, so I won’t duplicate those here.

Here’s the blurb from the dustjacket; it’s as good an explanation of the premise of this book as any:

“There are only two reasons a non-seer would see a spirit on St. Mark’s Eve,” Neeve said. “Either you’re his true love . . . or you killed him.”

It is freezing in the churchyard, even before the dead arrive.

Every year, Blue Sargent stands next to her clairvoyant mother as the soon-to-be dead walk past. Blue herself never sees them—not until this year, when a boy emerges from the dark and speaks directly to her.

His name is Gansey, and Blue soon discovers that he is a rich student at Aglionby, the local private school. Blue has a policy of staying away from Aglionby boys. Known as Raven Boys, they can only mean trouble.

But Blue is drawn to Gansey, in a way she can’t entirely explain. He has it all—family money, good looks, devoted friends—but he’s looking for much more than that. He is on a quest that has encompassed three other Raven Boys: Adam, the scholarship student who resents all the privilege around him; Ronan, the fierce soul who ranges from anger to despair; and Noah, the taciturn watcher of the four, who notices many things but says very little.

For as long as she can remember, Blue has been warned that she will cause her true love to die. She never thought this would be a problem. But now, as her life becomes caught up in the strange and sinister world of the Raven Boys, she’s not so sure anymore.

From Maggie Stiefvater, the bestselling and acclaimed author of the Shiver trilogy and The Scorpio Races, comes a spellbinding new series where the inevitability of death and the nature of love lead us to a place we’ve never been before.

*****

And here are some ratings and personal opinions I’m jotting down, because I feel like I have to say something.

I liked this book. I didn’t love it, though. Steifvater’s last book, 2011’s The Scorpio Races – I think I can honestly say I loved that one. So my expectations for The Raven Boys, while high, were reasonable. I figured that this next one would be below the crest of the previous wave, and I was right.

So The Raven Boys was better than I’d really expected, but the author is going off an a totally different tangent here, and it’s a bit soon to see what the end result will be. With a four-book cycle projected, it could either get even better (oh, yes please!) or deteriorate. I can’t call it at this point. But I definitely would recommend The Raven Boys to the YA fantasy/paranormal romance crowd. I’m not in that demographic, though I do enjoy the odd well-crafted tale from the genre, but I appreciated this book enough to spend the better part of Christmas Day very happily power-reading through it.

Opening Chaper: 10/10. Nice set-up. Once a year, on St. Mark’s Eve, the dead-to-be – all those will die in the coming year – are visible as spirit manifestations along the mystical “corpse road”, to those with the psychic powers to penetrate the veil between the spirit and living world.  The members of the extended family of (all female) psychics living together in a rambling old house in Henrietta, Virginia have those powers. All except for a non-gifted daughter, 16-year-old Blue. Blue comes along because her one power is that she “boosts” the psychic powers of the others. In her many years tagging along on St. Mark’s Eve, she’s never seen one of the will-be-deads. Except tonight, when one boy appears to her and names himself – “Gansey.” When Blue finds out that this vision means Gansey is either her true love, or she will be the cause of his death, she files that startling bit of news with her other long-held bit of foreboding knowledge: if she kisses her true love, he will die. Needless to say, this severely cramps Blue’s style romance-wise. Too bad she’s about to meet some very tempting potential lovers – the Raven Boys – a group of four friends from the town’s exclusive boys’ school. One of whom is named, inevitably, Gansey.

Characterizations: 10/10 for the heroic leads – Blue and Raven Boys Gansey and Adam. A meager 6/10 for the villains – Whelk (“Whelk”?! Seriously?) and Adam’s brutal father. Too obviously bad. No shadings. The ones who we’re not sure of – Ronan and Neeve – let’s give them an 8/10. Could go up or down. Raven Ghostly Boy Noah – he started out as a 2 or something like that, crawled up to about a 7 or 8 once he started to de- and re-materialize and his whispers showed his sense of graveyard humour.

Family Stuff: We had the range, from really pretty tight and reasonably awesome (Blue’s, Gansey’s, Noah’s) to dysfunctional but trying hard (Ronan’s) to literally call-the-cops terrible (Adam’s). So I’ll give a 9/10. Lost a point for the convenient but kind of annoying extreme wealth of Ronan’s and Gansey’s tribes. (Sure, it’s just jealousy.) Oh – and the missing father (Blue’s) who I’m sure will turn out to be crucially crucial in a later episode – duly noted that he’s in the mix and will likely show up in person.

The Quest: 4/10. Ley lines and the North American burial-place of a mythically sleeping, potentially wish-granting Welsh King – meh. Cop out, Maggie. I’m a bit jaded with the whole Celtic mythology thing. Couldn’t you make something up? Or use some North American-based folklore?

Neat Little Details: 10/10 – Gansey’s choice of ride, the ’73 Camaro – unexpected. Especially the detail about the car perpetually smelling like gas. They really do. Verisimilitude = perfect points. The helicopter pilot sister – nice and handy. I liked. The warehouse digs. Very cool. Blue’s personal style. The “normal” of the matter-of-fact acceptance of Maura being the “town medium”. The psychic hotline.

The Pacing: 5/10. Pretty darned slow. I know it’s setting up the back story for – get this – THREE more books, but it felt like molasses on a cold January day. (And I’m a fast reader.) I wish this could be cleaned up, tightened up somehow. Less is so often more. (But I know how hard it is to edit – look at the horribly long reviews I write. It’s a definite fault in a professional she-gets-paid-for-it writer, though. Don’t get me started on J.K. Rowling’s too-much-detail verbosity in the later Harry Potter books.)

Sexual Tension: Oh, let’s see. About a 20/10. That should keep the main fan base (teen girls) fully engaged. No kissing allowed because of the whole death thing, so every tiny touch is magnified about a million-fold. Is it hot in here? Why yes, yes, it certainly is. Oh yes.

Annoying Little Things: The Latin-speaking trees. The baby raven – “Chainsaw”. Too cute. The backhoe in the last chapter. Too unlikely – I’m sure someone would notice the inevitable disturbance left by the amateur operator. The whole time-shift thing, because it wasn’t really that well done or, quite frankly, all that believable. The fact that the cops couldn’t seem to find Noah’s car, though you’d think that after they were tipped off to the human remains they’d be doing a fairly wide sweep through the woods. Just maybe? Other stuff I can’t be bothered to type out. So a 3/10 for those bits.

The Ending: Boo, hiss. Not exactly cliffhanger; more like “is a page missing?” Maddening. *** It. Just. Stops. *** C’mon. If it’s a great read, we’ll buy the next book even if you toss us some sort of a wrap-up to the action so far. The Dead Stop feels manipulative and disrespectful to the engaged reader. So a 1/10 for that.

The Actual Writing: It’s good. Very good. Plus it’s frequently very funny. 11/10. I think Stiefvater is already doing well, but I’m betting she can get even better. I’m rather disappointed that she’s doing such an ambitious series, because it feels really rambling already. I think the discipline of the solitary stand-alone novel (yes, like The Scorpio Races) would be a better way for her to refine her already more-than-decent style even more.

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friendly gables hilda van stockum 001Friendly Gables by Hilda van Stockum ~ 1960. This edition: Viking Press, 1960. Hardcover. 186 pages.

My rating: 6/10.

An average to good example of the vintage juvenile “domestic drama” genre. I’ve happily re-read this book a few times, though if it disappeared from the shelves I wouldn’t be heartbroken, just mildly regretful.

*****

Living in a large house in Montreal, shortly after a move from the United States, the six Mitchell children, Joan, Patsy, Peter, Angela, Timmy, and Catherine, ranging in age from fifteen (Joan) to three (Catherine), are joined by twin brothers. Their mother has had a hard time with the birth, and is weak and confined to bed, so a strict English nurse, Miss Thorpe, is engaged to care for the babies and help run the household until Mother can recover enough to take on her usual role.

There are immediate conflicts. Only Joan finds favour in Miss Thorpe’s eyes as she proves herself both willing and very capable in helping with the babies and taking on much of the meal preparation; but the younger five are considered much too selfish, rambunctious, noisy, messy and careless by the strict nurse. Father is busy working and is seldom home; cash flow is definitely an issue in the household; which though comfortably middle-class is far from wealthy. There is nothing left for any extras after paying Miss Thorpe’s wages, and several plot lines focus on the children trying to earn enough money for various crucial things they need or desire.

The American Mitchells are still adjusting to life in French Canada. The children attend Catholic school, and their struggles with learning a second language, getting along with the Québécois children who occasionally toss a scornful “You Yankee!” their way, and trying to conform to the strict standards of the nuns and priests at their schools are nicely depicted.

The story focuses on each child in turn, while giving a broader picture of the inner workings of the family. The only child not given a starring role is young Catherine; each of the others has some sort of adventure. Joan falls in love, and attends her first dance; Patsy loses her glasses and disgraces herself deeply with the nuns at school in numerous ways; Peter falls afoul of a schoolmate and in the resulting fisticuffs knocks down and smashes a large plaster statue given by an important supporter of the school; Angela gets lost while attending a maple sugaring-off party; Timmy becomes infatuated with a girl at nursery school, and attempts to come up with a perfect gift for her.

Mother eventually gets better, the twins appear to be thriving after the month or so that we are in touch with the family, peace is made with Miss Thorpe, and we leave the family celebrating at the christening party.

*****

A pleasant though minor story, from an author who then went on to write several more serious and very well-regarded historical fictions set in Holland during World War II – most notably The Borrowed House and The Winged Watchman. Though there are superficial similarities to Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays, Friendly Gables does not attain the appeal and overall excellence of Enright’s creation, which defines the genre and deserves every word of its frequent praise.

The formula is also much like that of the Eleanor Estes’ Pye Family books in that it mostly relates a family’s daily life, sometimes in microscopic detail. As with the Pyes, the Mitchells are far from perfect, which is pleasantly reassuring to the reader. The morals in Friendly Gables are predictable but not terribly intrusive. And everything always comes out right in the end.

This story does have some lovely vignettes of parent-child and sibling relationships. Something I particularly appreciated was how independent the children were in sorting out their various dilemmas, and how confident the parents were in their children’s abilities to cope. Occasionally a child would go to Mother of Father to report the current happenings, and perhaps ask for assistance or advice (always cheerfully given), but often it was merely to report that the problem was solved, whereupon the parent would basically say “Well done!” and that would be the end of it – no muss, no fuss.

Friendly Gables is the last book in a series of three about the same family, so there are occasional references to off-stage characters and previous happenings, which left me a bit out of the loop, but those would make perfect sense to someone with access to the whole set. It certainly isn’t a big drawback, as the author sketches in enough information to pin it all together.

Friendly Gables is set in urban Montreal, and was preceded by two other novels about the fictional Mitchell family: The Mitchells, published in 1945 and set in Washington, D.C., and Canadian Summer, set in rural Quebec, published in 1948.

These three books are autobiographical, according to both the author and her now-adult children, and were inspired by and record incidents in the very real Marlin family’s life. Hilda van Stockum published her juvenile books and her many illustrations of other authors’ works under her maiden name, but was in her “everyday” life  Hilda Marlin: accomplished painter, U.S. Civil Service wife, and dedicated mother of six children, all of whom subsequently attained rewarding and creative careers of their own.

Hilda was born in 1908, in Rotterdam, Holland, to a Dutch father and an Irish mother, and spent her youth in both Holland and Ireland. She attended art school, where she apparently received much praise for her realistic paintings. Hilda married her brother’s college roommate, American Ervin Ross Marlin, in 1932, and travelled with him to New York. The couple and their steadily increasing family lived in various cities in the U.S.A.. They then spent six years in Canada, before moving to Ireland, and eventually to England, where Hilda died peacefully at the age of 98, still living in her own home, in 2006.

Hilda, child and grandchild of scientists, artists, philosophers, writers and intellectuals, was raised in an atheist household, but she embraced the Anglican faith in her teen years, converting to Catholicism in adulthood. Her devout faith appears in her books, including Friendly Gables, but more as a background to the story than in a “preachy” manner.

Hilda van Stockum’s strong belief in the importance of family also permeates her writings, making her a decided favourite of those seeking “wholesome” books to share with their children. A number of her titles are still in print, some more than seventy years after their first publication, so there are still eager readers. Hilda van Stockum’s works seem to be particularly in favour with “traditional” homeschoolers, which is understandable due to the author’s positive views on “family values” and religion. And “secular” readers – do not fear! These books can be enjoyed by all.

I’m including this book in the Canadian Book Challenge because of the Quebec setting, though the author is not Canadian, but Dutch-American, and the family in the story is American. National identities and prejudices play an important role in Friendly Gables; the author handles the topic very well.

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the enchanted april elizabeth von arnim 001The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim ~ 1922. This edition: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Afterword by Terrence de Vere White. Paperback. ISBN: 0-671-86864-0. 316 pages.

My rating: 6/10. I’ve now read this twice, plus watched the lush 1992 movie. Still my least favourite von Arnim, of the three I’ve read.

The others:

*****

I guess the thing to remember with this one, and the thing I had to keep reminding myself of, was that this fluffy little tale is supposed to be a romantic comedy. Or is it? Away from the comical sunniness there are pockets of dark shadow. The decided element of genuine sadness in the four heroines’ circumstances, especially during the first part of the book, jarred with the eventual descent of the tale into musical comedy style farce.

I honestly could not get a true sense of which goal the author was aiming at. There are certainly times when an author, especially one of proven calibre of Elizabeth von Arnim, can successfully blend serious social commentary, light satire, and downright silliness, but I don’t feel that von Arnim pulled it off in this case.

I realize that this book has a tremendously strong following, and I will temper my criticism to say that it was a decent enough read for its genre, which I’m pegging at romantic comedy. Or perhaps serio-comedy? It wasn’t ultimately at all dark, though there were clues early on that it might go that way. If anything, I wish the author would spent more time in the darkness with her creations. I’d have liked her to maintain the initial tone set with the first sensitive depictions of the emotionally troubled lives of Lotty Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot, which made their yearning for an obligation-free (and husband-less) month in the Italian sun so moving. And the solitary Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline – what were the real back stories there? It didn’t feel like we ever really got a handle on those, making their eventual epiphanies on the terraces of San Salvatore contrived to the extreme.

The Enchanted April felt to me to be just a little bit off; I was never quite able to close my inner critic’s eyes enough to wholeheartedly accept the inconsistencies and silly situations of the plot, though many sections of the book were immensely enjoyable to read, despite the cringe-engendering gushings of Lotty once she’s crossed the Italian border. “Tub of love”? Oh, Elizabeth! I wish you’d spared me that!

*****

It began in a Woman’s Club in London on a February afternoon – an uncomfortable club, and a miserable afternoon – when Mrs. Wilkins, who had come down from Hampstead to shop and had lunched at her club, took up The Times from the table in the smoking-room, and running her listless eye down the Agony Column saw this:

To Those Who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine.  Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let furnished for the month of April.  Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.

That was its conception; yet, as in the case of many another, the conceiver was unaware of it at the moment.

So entirely unaware was Mrs. Wilkins that her April for that year had then and there been settled for her that she dropped the newspaper with a gesture that was both irritated and resigned, and went over to the window and stared drearily out at the dripping street.

Not for her were mediaeval castles, even those that are specially described as small.  Not for her the shores in April of the Mediterranean, and the wisteria and sunshine.  Such delights were only for the rich.  Yet the advertisement had been addressed to persons who appreciate these things, so that it had been, anyhow addressed too to her, for she certainly appreciated them; more than anybody knew; more than she had ever told.  But she was poor.

***

She turned away from the window with the same gesture of mingled irritation and resignation with which she had laid down The Times, and crossed the room towards the door with the intention of getting her mackintosh and umbrella and fighting her way into one of the overcrowded omnibuses and going to Shoolbred’s on her way home and buying some soles for Mellersh’s dinner – Mellersh was difficult with fish and liked only soles, except salmon – when she beheld Mrs. Arbuthnot, a woman she knew by sight as also living in Hampstead and belonging to the club, sitting at the table in the middle of the room on which the newspapers and magazines were kept, absorbed, in her turn, in the first page of The Times.

Mrs. Wilkins stops and strikes up a conversation with Mrs. Arbuthnot, and as they delicately sound each other out on the desirability of an Italian escapade, the small germ of an idea begins to form. Mrs. Wilkins has a small “nest egg” of ninety pounds; Mrs. Arbuthnot, though she doesn’t come right out and say it, is well-supplied with money by her husband, though she feels guilty about spending it on anything but “good works” – Mrs. Arbuthnot is a devotee of charities for the poor. Eventually the two decide to go ahead and contact the castle’s owner; they also advertise for two more women to share in the holiday, and when only two people respond, the party is made up.

So off to the small castle of San Salvatore in Italy go:

  • Mrs. Wilkins (Lotty) – seeking respite from her scornful husband, Mellersh, who feels that his wife has not exactly improved in the years since their marriage, and is becoming more odd and shy by the day, to the detriment to his flourishing occupation as a popular solicitor.
  • Mrs. Arbuthnot (Rose) – privately despairing that the love she and her husband once felt for each other is long gone, as they cannot agree on moral issues. Mr. Arbuthnot is the best-selling author (under a pseudonym) of salacious biographies of kings’ mistresses; Mrs. Arbuthnot is deeply religious and feels that she is being supported by “dirty” money, hence her many charitable works and contributions to the poor, as a form of penance.
  • Mrs. Fisher – an elderly wealthy widow, who is convinced that the world is a much more inferior place now than when she was a girl. Her father was a friend of many great literary men – Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, Tennyson and the like – and she seeks a place of repose where she can sit alone without worrying about household cares, and remember the glorious past.
  • Lady Caroline Dester  – an extremely lovely, not-too-young socialite (though she’s the “baby” of the party, at twenty-eight) whose only current desire is to have a rest for a month far away from the demands of people who all want something from her – to look at her and talk to her, ask her for things and talk to her, and expect some sort of gracious response. Poor jaded Lady Caroline is at a point in her life where she has some serious decisions to make, including whether she is going to accept an important marriage proposal. A month among innocuous women who will not bother her will be a respite from her frantically hectic life.

As the four settle into their temporary holiday home and work out their relationships with their fellow escapees, they find that the glories of lovely San Salvatore are impacting their very souls in ways which no one could have anticipated.

Lotty spontaneously decides to invite her husband to join the party; Mr. Arbuthnot, ardently pursuing Lady Caroline, unexpectedly arrives without realizing his wife is in residence – Lotty and Rose had both been deliberately vague about their destination to their spouses; San Salvatore’s owner, Mr. Briggs, under the misconception that the gentle Mrs. Arbuthnot is a widow, and rather infatuated with her since their meeting to arrange the renting of the castle, decides to drop in for a “casual” visit. Needless to say, things begin to happen.

If you’ve not yet read the book, stop here. The next bit is addressed to those who’ve already experienced The Enchanted April, so if you haven’t you will be lost among the references. There also may be spoilers!

*****

Things I Really Didn’t Like About This Book:

  • The gushing tone once the magic of the romantic setting started doing its work. “Tub of love” – ack! Made me quiver all over, and not in a happy way, people.
  • The parody of the Italian servants. Was that really necessary? It wasn’t that funny.
  • Mellersh’s reason for joining the party was understandable (hoping to get up close and personal to high society Lady Caroline), but it bothered me a whole big bunch that his attitude towards his wife changed so drastically once he saw on what good terms she was with Lady C. Did she have no other qualities than as a “connection” to someone he was wanting to snag as a client? And his “cute” habit of fondly pulling her ears – oh, please. That was just lame. Ugh. Lotty, oh, Lotty – your poor dear thing – words fail me.
  • Frederick (Mr. Arbuthnot) – gee, where to start? He stumbled into the mix because he was pursuing another woman. Ding ding ding – that was more warning bells going off.
  • Mr. Briggs – wow – the epitome of shallow. He was instantly infatuated with Rose way back in London for her Madonna-like aura and appearance; one glimpse at the even more lovely Lady Caroline and he dropped allegiance to Rose in a heartbeat and transferred over to her companion.
  • Lady Caroline herself. Let’s see. Strange man you’ve never met before falls in love with your profile, so you decide to marry him, though one of the main reasons for your month-long Italian retreat is to mull over a proposal from another man, who now gets wiped off the list of spousal possibilities with nary a backward glance. Umm, okay. That was a deeply thought out decision, and a great thing to base your future happiness on. (Don’t lose your looks, Lady C.)
  • My biggest issue was how the author pushed the whole “pairing off” scenario so strongly. The husbands were all impressed by their new, improved wives. In Frederick’s case, I forgive him fairly easily, as Rose was the one being rather unreasonable in their relationship. But Mellersh is still a jerk. And a deep-dyed snob, and manipulative. Why couldn’t he change? And Lady Caroline and Briggs – maybe just a wee bit contrived? Just maybe? I couldn’t really get any sort of reading on why Briggs would be a grand catch, unless  of course you call hereditary castle ownership an accomplishment.

Things I Quite Liked About This Book:

  • The initial premise, about the escape from dreary London to an enchanted Italian castle. This is probably why this book has garnered its fandom. Oh yes, take me with you!
  • The character portraits of the four leading ladies were a lot of fun. Lotty, so shy and repressed, and so quick to respond to the magic of San Salvatore and blossom into confidence and warmth. Rose, so sincerely good, but so quick on the draw to respond to Mrs. Fisher’s bossy way of assuming hostess status. I loved the mealtime scenes with the counter-offers of passing the goodies and pouring the tea. Mrs. Fisher was so selfishly self-assured – her initial snobbish audaciousness was a treat to eavesdrop on. Lady Caroline – oh, poor lady! – so be so continually misunderstood because of the elegant shape of your face and the melodious sounds of your voice! (Though I felt like she perhaps should have been spanked more as a child, or at least told “no” occasionally by her adoring family; it might have improved her entitled attitude.)
  • The word pictures of the settings, from the dreary London women’s club to glorious San Salvatore. I could easily picture the sequence of bloom and the fragrances wafting about the terraced gardens, though I suspect a reader with less horticultural experience might not get the full picture; it’s basically a listing of flowers. Unless you know nicotiana, or jasmine, or stocks, how could you imagine the glories of their evening aromas? It felt very much like the castle bits were written from life, sitting on the terraces and taking notes, which turned out to be the case, according to the afterword. Elizabeth von Arnim based San Salvatore on a very real Portofino castello, which she had rented with a friend as an April of 1921 writer’s retreat.
  • The happy ending. I know, I know – I moaned on about that aspect earlier. But I did appreciate that both of the troubled marriages were given new life. (I’m all for happy marriages, though not for either spouse being continually downtrodden or repressed to “make it work”.) And of course the new Mrs. Briggs can always invite her friends back to the castle for immersion in the Tub of Love when reality sets in too harshly once again!

Well, there’s my take on this most popular and perennially in-print (and on-stage – it’s an exceedingly popular play among amateur theatrical companies, too) von Arnim. I’m still very much looking forward to reading the rest of her novels, an enjoyment which will I anticipate will stretch ahead for the next few years as I slowly track them all down. No library borrowings here; I’m intending to purchase them all sight unseen, because I’m confident that they will be worthy of owning, even if bits of them occasionally annoy!

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just add water and stir pierre berton 001Just Add Water and Stir by Pierre Berton ~ 1959. This edition: McClelland & Stewart, 1966. Paperback. 221 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10.

*****

Here’s another well-read paperback from my late father’s bookshelves, boxed up and brought home six years ago as my just-widowed, elderly mother was preparing to downsize from a huge, rambling three-story house to a much smaller bungalow. Both homes, incidentally, were built in their entirety by my father, who was a foundation-to-roof master carpenter, among his other jack-of-all-trades and master-of-many accomplishments and interests.

One of his interests was books. Dad did love to read, and I like to think that this collection of mostly humorous, often over-the-top satirical, sometimes sincerely thoughtful short essays made him smile as they did me when I finally read this briskly paced book over the course of this potentially dreary day spent recovering from a brief bout with the latest flu bug.

Being a random collection of satirical essays, rude remarks, used anecdotes, thumbnail sketches, ancient wheezes, old nostalgias, wry comments, limp doggerel, intemperate recipes, vagrant opinions and crude drawings …

So says the front page, and it describes the ensuing contents well. Most of these short pieces appeared as columns in the Toronto Daily Star in the 1950s, and they are definitely indicative of the time in which they were written. As a cynically humorous portrait of the era, this book is an excellent little period piece, but it’s an enjoyable read even for those of us not familiar at first hand with the context of some of the references. Berton’s opinionated prose is seldom dull, and the shortness of each entry makes it good for dip-into reading as well. I read the whole thing in one go, and that likely wasn’t such a great idea, as I’m now feeling a bit light-headed, but I’ll blame that on my current bug as much as on the flippant nature of my reading matter.

The book is arranged into groupings of similarly themed articles and essays. These can be read in order, or sampled at will.

Five Modern Fables ~ Pure over-the-top satire starts us off. Berton skewers modern advertising techniques and ploys in his first three fables, lampoons the vicious cycle of competitive Christmas card lists, and ends with a cautionary tale about not heeding the omens and building too close to the volcano.

Seven Men and a Girl ~ Brief character portraits of eight people Berton met and interviewed: Ex-convict John Brown, pianist Glenn Gould, aviator Russ Baker, evangelist-turned-politician Charles Templeton, Canadian Communist Joe Salsberg, poet and writer Robert Service, entertainer Milton Berle, and call girl Jacqueline (no last name given).A Woman of "Vogue"

The Wayward Periodical Press ~ “Six periodical publications deserving of comment” – Vogue, Time, Mayfair, Playboy (and the rest of the Bosom Books), Mad, and Justice. What an interesting combination of companions these are. Vogue is, well, Vogue, and it apparently hasn’t changed much at all.

My favourite magazine, next to Screen Stars and Mad, is Vogue. The day it appears, I rush eagerly to the newsstand and, with the help of a couple of weightlifters, lug it off to my den. For sheer escape reading it beats the old Blue Fairy Book hollow. It chronicles a world so foreign and unreal that I would not believe it existed, if there weren’t photographs to prove it.

The women who grace Vogue’s pages are like no women I have ever known. I have tried to sketch one or two of them here, but my brush does not do them justice for their absolute and utter sexlessness defies reproduction. If they came from a far corner of the solar system they could not be more different than the blousy creatures one finds romping through Esquire and Playboy.

Am I all wet in my theory that a bosom craze is sweeping the country? In Vogue, there isn’t a bosom in a carload. These women are all eyes and cheekbones, and they do something with their necks that I haven’t seen since Leona, the Giraffe Girl, went into retirement.

At the end of the neck one finds a face that has overtones of Buchenwald about it – chalk-white and haggard, Vogue women do not have noses, only nostrils. Their eyes are enormous and decadent, their lips are thin and solemn. Their hair is always quite odd. They are shown thrust forward in inscrutable positions that suggest some curious doe-like animal at feeding time.

Time sets off a passionate diatribe in defense of Canadian content in “Canadian” versions of American magazines; Mayfair is a “high society” periodical seething with anachronistic class consciousness. Playboy and the rest of the “men’s magazines” are investigated as to the number and degrees of exposure of female body parts posed artistically for masculine delectation; Berton claims to be overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

The Cult of the Bosom has now reached its zenith in this continent, as a glance at any newsstand will show. In the seventeen magazines I examined, there were 503 photographs of well-endowed young women displaying their endowments.

In 125 of these photographs, many of them in glowing colour, the young ladies’ torsos were entirely exposed. In the remaining 378 photographs there was a certain roguish attempt at concealment.

I did not bother to count any photographs of women dressed for the street, because there were so few.

I did not bother to count any photographs of flat-chested young women, because here were none.

I did, however, make a count of the numbers of photographs of women with no pants on. There were sixty of them.

Mad magazine receives an enthusiastic nod of approval, for the “sophistication of the humour”, while Justice, an arcane periodical dedicated to the practices of sadomasochism and corporal “discipline”, garners strong words of scorn.

The Broadcasting Arts ~ Television and radio – including the already-venerable C.B.C. – come in for their turn in Berton’s critical spotlight.

Verse, Blank and Otherwise ~ Several parodies in verse of current events of the time. The Sixty-Five Days of Christmas struck a modern chord, though nowadays it would need to be retitled The Ninety Days of Christmas to approach a closer accuracy!

Christmas began last Tuesday
Just three days after Hallowe’en,
By which time the big emporiums,
Having disposed of the comic ghosts and candy pumpkins
And having burned all the second-hand witches,
Replaced them with more seasonal symbols:
A reindeer with a crimson nose,
A talking snowman and a terribly cute bear,
Fifty-seven varieties of Santa Claus,
And here and there, an inconspicuous plastic replica of the Christ-child,
 
Entirely non-denominational.
 

Intemperate Recipes ~ A plea for a return to real cooking versus the pre-packaged growing norm in the titular Just Add Water and Stir, and a heartfelt rant against instant coffee, obviously a newly popular abomination in Berton’s world. Plus four quite decent-sounding recipes – or, more accurately, anecdotal instruction pieces on how to best prepare these Berton standbys – Tomato Soup, Baked Beans, Corned Beef Hash, and Clam Chowder. Pierre Berton in the kitchen – what a grand thought!

The Passing Show ~ A satire from the viewpoint of the future, and musings on the status significance of offices and office furnishing, smoking, and divorce. Shopping for a Coffin is thought-provoking and quite serious, while Several Openings for Novels will make the aspiring writer nod in rueful recognition. A few more observations – paying to be published, the confusion of children’s toy assembly instructions, and a modern Red Riding Hood round out this section.

Certain Vagrant Opinions ~ Full rant mode! On Dick and Jane (Berton is against), On Advertising and the Press, On Racial Origins (none of the government’s business), On Thought Control (shades of Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four), and most passionately, On Flags and Anthem and On Modern Torture (prison reform), which is the most serious piece of the lot, and describes an execution by hanging which Berton was assigned to attend as a young reporter.

Some Old Nostalgias ~ Memoirs, 1927 to 1941, of Berton’s earlier days. Fascinating and charmingly written.

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tip on a dead jockey irwin shaw 001Tip on a Dead Jockey and other stories by Irwin Shaw ~ 1957. This edition: Signet, 1957. Paperback. 176 pages.

My rating: 8/10. Very decent collection of mostly melancholic short stories about jaded Americans in post-war Europe and “back home”.

I found this disintegrating paperback on my dad’s workshop bookshelves when I was going through his papers after his death six years ago. Dad liked his reading straight-serious (think detailed war memoirs and biographies), and satirical-serious (John Steinbeck was a big favourite), and cynically humorous (Wilhelm Busch in the original German was there in a number of editions), and technical and creative (Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, heaps and heaps, dating back to the early 1950s – my son scooped these and they now reside in dusty, well-read, falling apart glory on the cabin bookshelves), and travel and historical (National Geographic, of course, another massive, complete collection. I think these start with the 1961 full year, though there are stray earlier ones.) The dramatic fictional bestsellers of the day were well-represented as well, lots of Irwin Shaw around when I was growing up, though I don’t remember this particular one. Must have been on a really high shelf!

This Shaw collection, from very early in the writer’s career – 1946 to 1957 being the publication dates mentioned on the copyright page – are crisp, clean, often cynically humorous, well written and definitely entertaining. Not all have conclusions, which while a bit cliffhangerish is not necessarily a handicap to appreciation. Good stuff. Thanks, Dad.

I’ve been reading other bloggers’ magnificent and thoughtful posts with great admiration recently, and am feeling decidedly sub-par in this regard tonight – I will not even try to get all deep and meaningful.

Here’s my review: I liked these stories. They were very readable. You may find yourself craving a glass of whiskey (with or without a mixer), or a bottle of harsh red French wine (glass optional). My usual beverage of choice, a “nice cup of tea”, felt rather too granny-ish; I was almost ashamed of myself. No, hang on – two of the stories had tea-drinking in them. Though one couple  added rum. Hm, that sounds fairly foul. Or maybe not?! Worked for the characters, apparently – it was followed by a night of passion!

*****

Tip on a Dead Jockey ~ In post-war Paris, pilot Lloyd Barber is offered a chance at some easy money, just one simple trip, flying a brand-new single-engine Beechcraft, from Egypt to Cannes.

“Alone?” Barber asked, trying to keep all the facts straight.

“Alone, that is,” Smith said, “except for a small box… When you take off from the airport in Cairo, the box is not on board. And when you land at the airport at Cannes, the box is not on board. Isn’t that enough?”

It’s not quite enough, or maybe it’s too much – Barber eventually turns the job down, but not before inadvertently introducing Smith to another pilot friend, the naïve and trusting Jimmy Richardson.

You didn’t have to speculate about Jimmy. If you bought Jimmy a drink, he was your friend for life. For all that he had been through – war and marriage and being a father and living in a foreign country – it had still never occurred to Jimmy that people might not like him or might try to do him harm. When you were enjoying Jimmy, you called it trustfulness. When he was boring you, you called it stupidity.

Choosing not to warn Jimmy about Smith’s “opportunities”, Barber is overwhelmed with guilt and unease when Jimmy’s distraught wife shows up begging for help in finding him; he’s been gone thirty-two days without a word. There’s a little twist in the tail of this tale.

This short story was worked up into a 1957 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie, with loads of added elements; only the author’s original sketchy premise and a few of the names remained the same.

A Wicked Story ~ A wife’s unfounded  jealousy becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the French Style ~ Cynical Walter Beddoes, “career man in the foreign service”, returns to his home base in Paris from two months away in Egypt to find his reliable good time girlfriend has decided to move on to something more permanent. Beddoes had had his chance, but he’d ducked it:

It was lucky he was leaving, if she was moving into that phase. That was the pre-yearning-for-marriage phase, and you had to be on guard against it, especially late at night, in Paris, in darkened rooms where pianists and electric guitars played songs about dead leaves and dead loves and lovers who were separated by wars.

Beddoes had been married once, and he felt, for the time being, that that was enough. Wives had a tendency to produce children, and sulk and take to drink or other men when their husbands were called away to the other side of the earth for three or four months at a time on jobs.

Of course, there are regrets.

Peter Two ~ Thirteen-year-old Peter has a harsh foray into the fickleness of the adult world. This one almost cries out to be included in a high school short story anthology – maybe it has been? – I can imagine how joyfully an earnest teacher would pick it apart and spread out its “discussion points”! Lots of essay material here, oh yes indeed.

It was Saturday night and people were killing each other by the hour on the small screen, Policemen were shot in the line of duty, gangsters were thrown off roofs, and an elderly lady was slowly poisoned for her pearls, and her murderer was brought to justice by a cigarette company after a long series of discussions in the office of a private detective. Brave, unarmed actors leaped at villains holding forty-fives, and ingénues were saved from death by the knife by the quick thinking of various handsome and intrepid young men.

Peter sat in the big chair in front of the screen, his feet up over the arm, eating grapes. His mother wasn’t home, so he ate the seeds and all as he stared critically at the violence before him. When his mother was around, the fear pf appendicitis hung in the air and she watched carefully to see that each seed was neatly extracted and placed in an ashtray. Too, if she were home, there would be irritated little lectures on the quality of television entertainment for the young, and quick-tempered fiddling with the dials to find something that was vaguely defined as educational …

Suddenly, in the hall outside the apartment, a woman screams…

Age of Reason ~ A man’s repeated nightmare highlights uneasy aspects of his marriage, and forebodes a disaster which may or may not come to pass.

The Kiss at Croton Falls ~ Frederick Mull, trolley driver, “a huge rollicking man, with a russet mustache”, a drinking habit, and a supremely jealous wife who sneaks around spying on Mull’s lady passengers, dies at the height of his glory, leaving his wife to convene with his ghost, and his grown-up daughter Clarice to take a good hard look at her own husband. Grand little story, humorous and perfectly crafted.

Then We Were Three ~ American expatriates Munnie, Bert and Martha travel through France enjoying a platonic three-way friendship which lasts one day too long.

The Sunny Banks of the River Lethe ~ A man’s perfect memory dissolves. Irwin’s been reading Kafka.

The Wedding of a Friend ~ Ronny Biddell’s wedding brings back memories of his ill-fated, one-sided, first love affair during the war, with the duplicitous but delicious French Virginie. Light-hearted.

Voyage Out, Voyage Home ~ Lovely young American Constance is taking a quiet, solitary skiing vacation in Switzerland at her father’s expense, to mull over her prospective marriage to a much older man (Daddy doesn’t approve), when she meets the charming, reckless Englishman Pritchard. No surprises, but nicely done – a classic tale of  love and loss.

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