Archive for the ‘Read in 2013’ Category

charlotte fairlie dj d e stevenson

An early edition dust jacket illustration. I’m not including mine as it is the 1985 reissue and the jacket illustration is a hideous black, pink and white effort which offends the eye greatly. Well, maybe I will include it, but only at the very bottom. Scroll down if you dare!

December 14, 2014. Thinking some more about Christmas-including books, this novel I read and enjoyed exactly a year ago came to mind. It’s definitely not all about Christmas, but I was most intrigued by the title character’s (and presumably the author’s) thoughts on the “paganism” of many of the socially accepted customs of the time (the 1950s), and her religious musings.

For those of you who didn’t catch this the first time around, and to jog the memories of those of you who are already very familiar with D.E. Stevenson’s novels, here it is again.

Charlotte Fairlie by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1954. Also published as Blow the Wind Southerly and The Enchanted Isle. This edition: Collins, 1985. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-00-222108-X. 320 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Casting about on the internet this morning, looking for other opinions, for I wanted to see if my happy reading experience was shared by fellow D.E. Stevenson fans, I was more than a little bemused by the dearth of reviews on this book. I was favourably impressed, and enjoyed it a lot; I assumed others would have as well, and said so. But perhaps I am not looking in quite the right places?

A straightforward plot and a limited cast of characters make for a smooth, fast read. The heroine is a strong-minded, quiet-spoken, wise-beyond-her-years type; I greatly admired her coping skills and judicious use of silence when confronted by difficult situations; a delicious example of letting one’s enemies defeat themselves by running about ever more madly while one remains at the calm eye of the storm saving one’s breath.

Miss Fairlie’s technique reminded me strongly of that of an enigmatic young Dutch man I once spent a summer working under; in his office there hung a small plaque stating: Silence is the only satisfactory substitute for Wisdom. Berndt was both wise and silent; he was one of the most non-committal people I’ve ever come across, but when he had to say something it was always to the point. I think I learned something there, though I seldom put it into practice, being personally of the say-too-much persuasion!

Charlotte Fairlie is a young woman who has made good. Only in her late twenties, she is already the competent headmistress of a respectable girls’ boarding school. She has no family ties but for one disinterested aunt; no romances complicate her emotions. Her one thorn is the senior mathematics teacher at her school, who feels that Miss Fairlie is the devious usurper of a position which should have been her own, and does not hesitate to stir up trouble at every opportunity.

Two of Miss Fairlie’s three hundred students are causing her particular concern. One, Donny Eastwood, stands out as being one of the least bright and most dreamily befuddled children Charlotte has ever had in attendance. Charlotte suspects that there is a hidden intelligence hiding under Donny’s dull façade, and this proves to be the case when Donny perks up greatly upon becoming friends with a new student, one Tessa MacRynne.

Tessa has been living on a secluded Scottish island and having lessons from a governess, rather an anomaly in these times, for the story is set in the early 1950s, and the teaching governess is no longer anything like the norm. Tessa’s lovely, vivacious, American mother has delivered her to the school with something of a regretful attitude; Mrs. MacRynne appears vaguely desirous of confiding something to Miss Fairlie, but in the confusion and business of start-of-term she leaves without divulging, and Charlotte tucks the idea that something is not quite right with the MacRynne household away in the back of her mind.

The Eastwoods and the MacRynnes are decidedly families with “issues”, and Charlotte becomes ever more embroiled in these two students’ personal lives, culminating in a joint visit to Tessa’s island home with Tessa, Donny, and Donny’s two younger brothers, with dramatic consequences for all.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this story. While it was absolutely predicable in many ways, there were serious undertones that I found most moving. Charlotte herself is an exceedingly likeable character; I found I was completely taken with her and most sympathetic to the way she rebuilt her life after her father’s rejection of her after his remarriage in her adolescent years. Her own experiences aid her in understanding the woes of her  students, in particular Donny and Tessa, who themselves are bereft of a beloved parent, though Tessa has a loving father to cling to while Donny’s coldly unemotional, widowed father refuses to pander to his daughter’s desperate desire for parental affection. But Charlotte is also shaken to realize that she is not as perceptive as she should be, when one of the four children is tragically involved in what appears to be a suicide attempt while on their Scottish vacation.

I should leave off here, in order to allow those of you who haven’t yet read this book to discover its charms, and its few twists and turns, for yourself. For though there are some dark themes, it is a thoughtful and hopeful story, with a strong element of good humour throughout. And, reading it in December, I was pleased to find that it described several of Charlotte’s Christmases, spent in very different circumstances.

The first is with Charlotte’s Aunt Lydia, a self-indulgent gadabout of a woman, whose Christmas celebrations Charlotte finds vaguely distasteful.

Charlotte… found herself even more out of tunes with the festivities than usual. She had nothing in common with Aunt Lydia’s friends and it did not amuse her to see a group of middle-aged people pulling crackers and wearing paper hats and kissing coyly beneath the mistletoe. In fact she found it revolting… (S)he thought about it seriously: was there any connection between Aunt Lydia’s parties and the “Christmas Spirit?” Was it priggish to be unable to join in the “fun?” She thought of the noise and the laughter and the feasting…and then she thought of the birth of a little baby in a quiet stable… The more Charlotte thought about it the more she became convinced that the orgies of Aunt Lydia and her friends were not Christian at all, but pagan…

The author obviously has this topic on her mind throughout the story, as she comes down hard against the “paganism” of secular Christmas celebrations again during her description of Charlotte’s second Christmas. This time Charlotte has decided to retreat to the depths of the country and spend Christmas alone in contemplation; it is after the turned-tragic Scottish episode, and Charlotte has much thinking to do.

Staying at a quiet country inn. Charlotte spends the week before Christmas taking walks, visiting the church, occasionally talking to the elderly vicar – in one notable exchange detailing her objections to the use of mistletoe because of its Druidic – pagan! – associations, and convincing the vicar to eliminate it from his decorations, though she will allow him to retain the holly(!)

Of her three hundred Christmas cards – delivered to the great astonishment of the villagers who have no idea that their transient visitor is a school headmistress guaranteed a card from every one of her students’ families –  only a few depict the Christmas story, and this seems to Charlotte to be indicative of the increasing loss of the “real” Christmas spirit, the religious significance of the holiday. She muses on about this for some time, and comes to the conclusion that unless one has children, that Christmas is an empty celebration.

…and then she raised her eyes and saw the little church with its lights shining through the stained-glass windows and she realized that there was one child who belonged to everybody… or at least belonged to everybody who would let Him come in. The cloud upon her spirits lifted and quite suddenly she was happy and at peace.

I felt that in these passages the author’s personal feelings and thoughts were made quite clear; she uses her character to make a point she obviously feels very strongly about, and I came away feeling that I had had a glimpse into D.E. Stevenson’s private world under the guise of acquaintanceship with her fictional creation.

Whether one agrees or not with the author’s opinions regarding the paganism of popular Christmas celebrations, it was refreshing to read such a strongly expressed argument; it added a bit of an edge to what otherwise was a mildly interesting set piece: “Christmas in the village.”

Though it does not get much mention among some of D.E. Stevenson’s more popular tales, I personally enjoyed Charlotte Fairlie greatly. A simple story competently told, with enough darkness here and there to let the bright bits really shine.

And here, as threatened, is the just jacket of the 1985 re-issue. While not as Harlequin-romance-y as the kilted hero and shapely heroine depicted on the earlier edition, this one is a bit too avant garde for the 1950s era contents! (Not to mention its sheer ugliness.)

And here, as threatened, is the dust jacket of the 1985 re-issue. While not as Harlequin-romance-y as the kilted hero and shapely heroine depicted on the earlier edition, this one is just a bit too avant garde, in my opinion, for the 1950s-era contents. (Not to mention its sheer ugliness.)

Read Full Post »

 

This is one of the most lovely book jackets I've ever seen, a wrap-around illustration by Antony Groves-Raines, from my 1965 Doubleday "Book Club Edition".

This is one of the more attractive vintage book jackets I’ve yet seen, a wrap-around illustration by Antony Groves-Raines, from my 1965 Doubleday “Book Club Edition”. This is the front.

And this is the bag. Try to imagine them together. I tried scanning it as one section, but my scanner is just a bit too small for the whole thing.

And this is the back. Try to imagine them together. I wanted to include it as one continuous illustration, but my scanner bed was just a bit too small for the whole thing.

How Far to Bethlehem? by Norah Lofts ~ 1964. This edition: Doubleday, 1965. Hardcover. 246 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

December 9, 2014: Christmas is coming – ready or not! – and in the interests of highlighting some seasonal reading I offer you this post from a year ago. Originally posted in December of 2013, here are my thoughts on Norah Lofts’ creative retelling of the Christmas story. I’m not planning on a re-read this particular December, but it did have its moments, and is worth a look for those of us who rather admire Lofts. When she is good, she is more than decent, but when she bobbles…well…I’ve still read much worse.

*****

I’d decided to try to read some seasonal literature to go with the upcoming Christmas season, and what better way to start, I thought, than with this one, going right back to the source, as it were.

As you can see from my rating, it was an adequate though not an astounding success. I mildly enjoyed Norah Lofts’ attempt, but found that I could not fully enter into this creative re-imagining of the story of the birth of Christ, for reasons touched on below.

The narrative abruptly jumps around from character to character, which, though initially confusing, actually turned out to be a good thing, as the side characters were much the most interesting, with completely invented backstories, unlike Mary and Joseph, who were constrained by the traditional story.

We start out with the young Mary, imagined by Lofts as an enthusiastic lover of both lilies and donkeys – themes which tenaciously follow the girl throughout the tale – and the Annunciation, with the Angel Gabriel appearing to her and then to Joseph. Mary is portrayed as a very lovely, rather dreamy girl, much prone to episodes of introspection when she seems to be communicating with a greater power, which of course she is, if we accept her special status as Mother-of-God-to-be. She accepts the angel’s visit as the nebulous “big thing” she has been waiting for all of her life, and surrenders herself fully to her fate, though she has moments of great inner turmoil when she considers her baby’s eventual torment and death according to the ancient prophesies concerning the Messiah.

And this was were my first moments of readerly disconnect came in, as the author insisted on discussing the popularly accepted details of the end of Christ’s earthly life. It’s been a good many years since I attended a Bible Study class, but I don’t recall that much detail in the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah; it was all rather mysterious in a soothsayers’ sort of way, and didn’t really get in to details such as how long the Messiah would be here on earth for, or the manner of his demise, even that he would be born of a virgin. Mary and Joseph both discuss the role that the coming Messiah will play in sacrificing himself for mankind’s sins; I rather thought that the expectation among the Hebrews of the day was more in the nature of a military leader. Though it is lovely of the author to provide Mary with this insight, it didn’t feel all that convincing. And more was soon to come.

The three wise men/three kings share the spotlight with Mary, and they are imagined in rather untraditional ways, made possible because their mention in the actual Bible narrative is superficial at best, and their place in the Nativity story more folkloric than theologically based. In Lofts’ version, Melchior is a Korean astronomer, Gaspar is a Mongol chieftain, and Balthazar is a runaway African slave, and their coming together and subsequent travels make up the better part of the book. It generally works, and some of their escapades are nice little novellas all on their own.

Highlights toward the end of the book which I thought interesting and well written as the author rather let herself go away from the constraints of clinging to the skeleton of the Biblical framework were a visit by the three “kingly” travellers to Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, and a night at a Roman military barracks; both episodes had some creative detailing which sparked them to life rather more than some of the other vignettes.

The innkeeper at Bethlehem gets his own mini-history as well, some of which was quite enthralling. In Norah’s imagination he is a Greek ex-sailor, and her description of his perilous voyage on a tin ship through the mist-shrouded ocean to the barbarous isles on the other side of the Pillars of Hercules was a fascinating and convincingly written inclusion which had me wanting more.

Her version of the shepherds was less than stellar, though. It felt highly contrived, with the chief shepherd being a grieving father of a son recently crucified by the Romans for a minor infraction; the author just wouldn’t quit with the meaningfulness of all of this, and it was another jarring note; much better if it would have been played a bit softer. Oh, and that very shepherd is represented as being the father of Lazurus, Martha and Mary – key players of an incident some years later in the New Testament narrative, and another glaring coincidence which annoyed the heck out of me by its total improbability. (If one can use “probable” in the context of any of the events in this re-imagined tale!)

Though there was much to like in this ambitious and creative retelling of the Nativity story, I found that the sections which worked well fictionally were overwhelmed by the less frequent but awkward attempts at bringing in Biblical quotations, and in the excessive use of coincidence in the creation of incidents. What might have been an excellent piece of creative fiction instead turned out to be a slightly off-key homage to a story we already know in its earlier form. The King James version very adequately stands alone and I would have been much happier if Norah Lofts had let herself go a little more and not tried to incorporate so much of the Gospel narrative in her own work.

Does that make any sort of sense? I mean, we already know how it goes, so letting the reader do the work in mentally making it click with the original would have worked, and given us the pleasure of the “Aha!” moment, instead of being bludgeoned by the exceedingly obvious “taken from the Bible” parts. And if one isn’t familiar with the original, it would be a more accessible read, and might well lead one to investigate the source. Perhaps?

I’m a bit grumpy about this, because some of this was, as I already said, quite excellent, and I felt cheated in that it all could have been that way.

Norah Lofts appears to be a firm believer in the Biblical versions of the Nativity which inspired her book, and one must respect that. This is an unusual novel, and rather brave in its attempt to fictionalize such an iconic religious tradition, while remaining true to the source. And her writing is always more than competent, and occasionally inspired.

Damning with faint praise, this feels like, but I could not completely give myself over to the tale, and I was fully willing to when I started. I do wonder how much having a previous knowledge of the King James version of the story influenced my reading pleasure, or lack thereof. While it definitely helped me to appreciate the author’s use of narrative nuances and connections between characters, it made me continually stop and try to make Norah Lofts’ version jive with my memory of what was contained in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I did come away with a strongish desire to reread the originals as a sort of refutation to Lofts’ tale, so I’m not quite sure if that is a point in favour or against How Far to Bethlehem?!

But please don’t let my personal response put you off giving this book a whirl. It is much beloved by Norah Lofts’ many dedicated followers for good reason, and it was definitely not at all a chore to read. I easily got over my annoyed moments and followed it through to the end; I will be keeping it around for possible future personal perusal, and because my mother enjoys reading it now and again.

But am I at least more in the Christmas mood now?

Honestly, not really. I think I need to revisit some old favourites, such as the Margot Benary-Isbert stories (The Ark, Rowan Farm and A Time to Love, all set in wartime and post-war Germany) and Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge, for its sweet Christmas-time finalé. And of course Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester, and Rumer Godden’s The Story of Holly and Ivy, from the children’s bookshelf of annual re-reads.

And Heavenali’s post on Christmassy books gives much scope for exploration of some titles I haven’t yet read, and reminded me of a few I’d forgotten, like Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising.

Other Christmas reading suggestions always welcome!

Read Full Post »

Well, now. Some of you will have heard about the recent crash-and-burn of one of Canada’s more prominent radio hosts, Jian Ghomeshi of CBC Radio’s popular “Q” music and pop culture program. I won’t go into any details, except to say that it is a rather grim sex scandal, and centered on Mr. Ghomeshi’s amatory preferences, which at first glance, were very “shrug it off, it’s a free world and I don’t care what he does in the bedroom” stories of CONSENSUAL rough sex.

Which turned out to include sudden punches to the head, choking to the point of unconsciousness, and lots else, which I don’t need to detail because a number of Jian Ghomeshi’s erstwhile partners have. And those partners have, to a woman, maintained that the rough stuff was NOT consensual. And, even more troubling, it now is starting to appear that Mr. Ghomeshi’s managers and co-workers at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation were aware of their star’s habits, and, when they spilled over just a bit into the workplace, advised the women-who-complained to just back away and avoid being alone with the man.

Oh boy.

Anyway, Jian Ghomeshi has been fired, and has countered with a self-defensive letter on his Facebook page and a 50 million dollar wrongful dismissal lawsuit. As woman after woman has spoken out about her bad-date experiences with Jian – I believe nine so far, most asking to remain anonymous – a police investigation has been launched. And in the court of public opinion, Jian Ghomeshi has been judged and found guilty. It’s been an exceedingly sordid week or so in public and social media circles, and who knows where it will all end up.

But it all got me thinking of this book review, from back in January 2013, when Jian Ghomeshi’s star still shone brightly, and he’d just published a highly anticipated memoir, which I eagerly read. That cover image now seems beyond ironic. Something is decidedly broken.

For the record.

Originally posted January 27, 2013:

1982 jian ghomeshi1982 by Jian Ghomeshi ~ 2012. This edition: Viking, 2012. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-670-06648-3. 284 pages.

My rating: 4/10.

Sorry, Jian.

Love the radio show, and you’re a great interviewer, but as far as authoring memoirs goes, well, don’t quit the day job.

*****

Here’s the promotional material that had me all keen to read this memoir by star CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi.

In 1982 the Commodore 64 computer was introduced, Ronald Reagan survived being shot, the Falkland War started and ended, Michael Jackson released Thriller, Canada repatriated its Constitution, and the first compact disc was sold in Germany. And that’s not all. In 1982 I blossomed from a naive fourteen-year-old trying to fit in with the cool kids to something much more: a naive eyeliner-wearing, fifteen-year-old trying to fit in with the cool kids.

So writes Jian Ghomeshi in this, his first book, 1982. It is a memoir told across intertwined stories of the songs and musical moments that changed his life. Obsessed with David Bowie (“I wanted to be Bowie,” he recalls), the adolescent Ghomeshi embarks on a Nick Hornbyesque journey to make music the centre of his life. Acceptance meant being cool, and being cool meant being Bowie. And being Bowie meant pointy black boots, eyeliner, and hair gel. Add to that the essential all-black wardrobe and you have two very confused Iranian parents, busy themselves with gaining acceptance in Canada against the backdrop of the revolution in Iran.

It is a bittersweet, heartfelt book that recalls awkward moments such as Ghomeshi’s performance as the “Ivory” in a school production of Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney’s Ebony and Ivory; a stakeout where Rush was rehearsing for its world tour; and a memorable day at the Police picnic of 1982. Music is the jumping-off place for Ghomeshi to discuss young love, young heartache, conformity, and the nature of cool. At the same time, 1982 is an entertaining cultural history of a crazy era of glam, glitter, and gender-bending fads and fashions. And it is definitely the first rock memoir by a Persian-Canadian new waver.

All excited and looking forward to it – I’m a happy Q listener whenever I get the chance, and I too had (have!) a thing for the Thin White Duke – I requested this book for Christmas, and my family tried their best, but it was sold out at the local bookstore. So I was very happy last week to see it on the 7-day express shelf by the library door. (These are popular books available for one-week loan, no renewals. $1 a day for every day over the week, so there’s definitely an incentive to get them back asap.) My week is up on Tuesday, and I’ve made a concerted effort to push through it, but boy oh boy, it was tough going. (On the bright side, my family saved their $30.)

What’s wrong with it, you ask?

One word: Boring.

Boring, boring, boring.

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

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

Small sample of the prose to follow.

I will sacrifice a chunk of my evening and type this out, so you can read a bit and perhaps save yourself the heartbreak of discovering the banality that dwells within the covers of this book. Or, on the other hand, maybe you’ll love it, and wonder why I’m moaning on about the boringness of 1982. The book, that is. Not the year. Because, that would be, like, really tragic. If you like this kind of thing. And then didn’t read it. Because I was, like, panning it. Really badly. For some reason. Yeah.

Oh. No. It is catching. The prose style. You will see what I mean. In a minute. Uh huh.

Okay. Here’s Jian, describing his teenage Ontario home. Or sprinklers. Or middle-aged men. Or all three.

Thornhill was the quintessential suburb. I’ve never lived in any other suburb, but I imagine they all look like Thornhill, with people who act like they did in Thornhill. It was the kind of place where men watch sprinklers on their lawns. Have you ever noticed that men like to watch sprinklers? They do. Or at least, they did. But I think they probably still do.

When suburban men reach a certain age (let’s say, north of thirty-five), they like to stand at the foot of their front lawns and watch their sprinklers distributing water on them. This seems to be a biological need. It may look like a banal exercise, but men take it very seriously. You might expect that these men are involved in another activity while watching the lawn – like thinking. But I’m not so sure they are. I think they’re not thinking. Watching the lawn is like a middle-class, suburban form of meditation for men. It becomes more common as they age. Their heads are empty and they are just watching sprinklers. Sometimes men will rub their bellies while they watch their lawns. Perhaps these men are so tired from a busy week that this is their respite. Or maybe these men feel a sense of accomplishment and worth by looking at their lawns. Maybe, in the moments when their heads aren’t empty, they’re thinking, “This is MY lawn! Look what I’ve done. I’ve got myself a lawn with a working sprinkler! I don’t have to think. My belly feels good. I am feeling my belly.” Maybe that’s what suburban men are thinking…

This goes on, the sprinkler watching monologue, for three pages. It includes a list.

I have made a short list of the lawn sprinklers that were available in Thornhill in 1982:

  • stationary sprinkler
  • rotary sprinkler
  • oscillating sprinkler
  • pulsating(impulse) sprinkler
  • travelling sprinkler

As you can see, there were distinct and varied types of sprinklers to be utilized in the suburbs in the early ’80s…

There are a lot of lists in this book. Many more lists than there were types of sprinklers in Thornhill in 1982. And reading the lists are about as exciting as standing at the bottom of the lawn watching the grass get wet.

Okay, I guess you’ve twigged that I’m pretty underwhelmed by Jian’s little personal saga.

To be fair, it did have a certain time-travel charm; a certain nostalgia factor for those of us who shared that time on the planet with Jian. Yes, we remember Commodore 64s, and rotary dial phones and twisty phone cords, and some of the more intelligible words from the major AC/DC songs. We remember Boy George, and, yes, definitely David Bowie. But we now know, those of us who’ve read your teen years – oops, year – opus, way too much about what went on in your head, way back during the time span of your fifteenth trip round the sun.

Maybe this book is all avante garde ironic, and I’m just not hip enough to appreciate it. Maybe I’m not in the right demographic. It does seems targetted at a younger set of readers, because most of it is all, “Gee whiz, when I was a kid we didn’t have all these iPods and digital cameras and cell phones and stuff. Here, let me tell you about the pathetic technology of 1982.”

But I can’t imagine anyone younger than, say, thirty-five or forty or thereabouts finding it remotely interesting.

Anyone else read this one? Am I completely out of touch? Is is deeply cool and ironic? Or just deeply boring?

*****

I do forgive you, Jian. Just don’t do it again.

No 1983. Please.

(I still like the radio show.)

More reviews:

Goodreads – 1982 by Jian Ghomeshi

National Post – 1982 by Jian Ghomeshi

Read Full Post »

This is a most enjoyable post to write, and, as last year, it was quite easy to chose the books on it. They definitely stood out from the crowd. I have only included books which were new to me this year; if I’d included old favourites this list would be a whole lot longer.

Here we go, then. Leaves and Pages’ Top Ten Reads Discovered in 2013.

*****

BEST NEW-TO-ME READS 2013

Ranked more or less in order of “favouritism”, countdown-style, 10 to 1, though the order was just a bit hard to decide.

Except the Number One book. That one was easy as pie!

*****

the innocent traveller ethel wilson10.

The Innocent Traveller

by Ethel Wilson ~ 1947

Every once in a while a book comes along which, unexpectedly, completely delights me. The Innocent Traveller is one such novel.

There’s not much in the way of drama in this joyfully written book, but it struck a chord of shared experience and of common humanity in its delicious narrative of the irrepressible Topaz. Always witty and occasionally poignant, the tale spans a full century of one woman’s life, 1840s to 1940s , and simultaneously gives a lightly drawn but absolutely fascinating portrait of the times she moved through: the fabulous social and scientific changes of the turning of the nineteenth into the twentieth century, through two world wars and the stunning growth of the colonial city of Vancouver. Through change after change after change, Topaz remains the same, endlessly curious, endlessly outspoken, endlessly optimistic and reaching for the next adventure.

Ethel Wilson writes this semi-biographical tale with a very personal touch – she appears just a little over half way in in the person of recently orphaned eight-year-old Rose who joins the household which includes the middle-aged Topaz. Lovingly written, with warm humour and an unsentimentally analytical eye, this is a delicious ode to an individual and a family, and an absolute joy to read.

turtle diary russell hoban 0019.

Turtle Diary 

by Russell Hoban ~ 1975

The only thing better than looking forward to a read with a cozy preconception as to what the story will bring, and being satisfied with your expectation, is to be blanket-tossed up in the air by a book that tightens up and bounces you unexpectedly into a very different direction, leaving you to freewheel for a while, scrambling for a sense of where you’re going, then catching you and returning you, more or less gently, to solid ground. Turtle Diary is that second kind of book.

The plot is easily condensed. Two middle-aged and currently unattached Londoners, William G. and Neaera H., both struggling with a stagnant state of being, visit the Zoo and are, separately, attracted to the sea turtle tank and the stoic inhabitants within. Musing on the cosmic injustice of these far-roaming creatures being confined to a tiny volume of water, William and Neaera each consider the possibility of somehow freeing the turtles back into the sea. As each of them in turn carry on their separate narrations, we see that their thoughts are uncannily similar, both regarding the turtles and other aspects of their solitary existences, and their relationships (or lack thereof) to those around them. Inevitably William and Neaera meet, speak, share their turtle-liberation impulses, and formulate a practical plan to carry it out, helped by the like-minded zookeeper. Can you guess where we’re going from here? Two lonely people, sharing a joint goal, yearning desperately for love…?

Well, abundant blessings to Russell Hoban. He faces up to and jumps the clichés beautifully, and I salute him for it.

extra virgin annie hawes8.

Extra Virgin

by Annie Hawes ~ 2001

I’ve read a whole lot of memoirs this past year, and thoroughly enjoyed all of them, but this one was just a little bit extra-special. It was a quietly intense pleasure from Prologue to reluctantly-turned last page.

Back in the early 1980s, a young Englishwoman, recently turned down as a “poor risk” in her attempt to receive bank financing to buy her own home in England, is at loose ends and feeling rather sour about life in general. Her sister convinces her to come along on a working trip to Italy, grafting roses for a small commercial operation in the Ligurian hills, in the region of the “Italian Riviera”. The two eventually purchase a bargain property in the area, 2000 pounds for a stone house in an olive grove. Of course, it needs a bit of work…

But this is a rather different tale from the usual “we bought a place in a foreign paradise and hired quaint locals to fix it up” lifestyle porn. Written several decades after the purchase, the tone is not at all cutesy and patronizing. The sisters go to and from England and Italy regularly for many years – England for the “real” jobs which earn the funds to return to Italy for the love of the place, and, increasingly, the people.

And, as a bonus, the author can certainly write about food. Amazing descriptions of the wild-crafted, gardening and culinary abundance of Liguria. Well done, Annie Hawes.

monkey beach eden robinson7.

Monkey Beach 

by Eden Robinson ~ 2000

Fabulous writer, this Eden Robinson. Such a strong book, and completely mesmerizing.

Lisamarie Hill is a young woman of mixed Haisla, Heiltsuk, and European heritage, from the Haisla village of Kitamaat, on an island in the Haida Gwaii group off the north coast of British Columbia. Lisamarie’s younger brother Jimmy has been reported as lost at sea, and as she and her family wait for news of the search mission, Lisamarie thinks back to her childhood, and the life she shared with Jimmy growing up in an intricately complex world of tradition and modernity and a mix of cultural influences.

The author flouts our expectations by both detailing some of the bleakness of First Nations life as her protagonist experienced it, and the more frequent deep joy of family and community. The humour is constant throughout, accompanying the most horrible of scenarios, a happily ironic paradox which inexplicably works.

This book almost made my Most Unexpected list, but it was so good that it really belongs over here.

midnight on the desert j b priestley 0016.

Midnight on the Desert 

by J.B. Priestley ~ 1937

Midnight on the Desert is subtitled Chapters of Autobiography, and there is indeed a fair bit of journalizing going on in here. Written while the author was staying in Arizona, much of the content has an American connection; Priestley was very much in love with the physical space he found himself in here; the desert and the natural features such as the Grand Canyon are described with deep feeling.

I had expected this to be a travel book of sorts, and Midnight on the Desert could certainly fall under that classification, but it is also so very much more. It is an articulate examination of what it means to be a writer and an artist; a critique of the state of the world in politics, religion, philosophy, architecture and the performing arts; an ode to nature; a manifesto for seeking the good in the world and overcoming adversity and “doing one’s part”; a record of observation by a keen and analytical observer.

Near the end, Priestley really lets himself go as he mulls over the time theories of J.W. Dunne and P.D. Ouspensky, which are all about time as a fluid entity, which can be compressed, reversed, and experienced as a simultaneous multiple strand. (Novelist Rumer Godden plays with some of these ideas as well, especially in her book Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time. I was fascinated to realize that both Godden and Priestley were playing along the same metaphysical byways, though many of their musings go completely over my head.)

What a fascinating book; what a full book. One to read right through without stopping; one to tackle in small bits, to digest and mull over and agree with and occasionally refute. Not all that much autobiography, despite the tag on the title, but many insights into what went on in the mind of this deeply creative and opinionated man.

The Joyous Season5.

The Joyous Season 

by Patrick Dennis ~ 1964

Ten years after penning his highly successful social satire starring the exuberant Mame and her sedate nephew Patrick, author Edward Tanner – writing under the pseudonym Patrick Dennis – came up with this little  comedic gem. I wasn’t sure what to expect, having only ever previously experienced Auntie Mame, but The Joyous Season was absolutely marvelous, and much better than I had anticipated. Such a treat!

As the story opens, 10-year-old Kerry, 6-year-old Missy, and their nanny Lulu are reluctantly heading out the door from their posh New York apartment  to Gran’s place in East Haddock. Gran is Mom’s mother, and oh boy, is she ever a snooty piece of work! And she’s more or less the reason for the whole darned dilemma Kerry and Missy are in. To condense greatly, on Christmas morning there was a bit of a situation with Mom and Daddy which saw several kinds of shots fired, much broken glass, some physical violence and some exceedingly blunt words spoken. As a result, Kerr and Missy are poised to become Children of Divorce, much to the delight of meddling Gran. Everyone (except Gran, who openly gloats about the come-uppance of her despised soon-to-be-ex son-in-law) has decided to be Very Civilized About It All, and Not To Make The Children Suffer, but suffering they are indeed, though not perhaps in the way one would expect.

Kerry and Missy, despite all of the adult antics going on in their world, are the epitome of well-adjusted, and Kerry’s knowing-naive narrative exposes the follies of the grown ups, and New York upper crust society at large, to our appreciative eyes. As Kerry and Missy navigate their way through their new life, they conspire to bring their beloved parents back together again, with numerous setbacks along the way.

4.

Crewe Train and The World My Wilderness  

by Rose Macaulay ~ 1926 and 1950

Two very different books by always-changing and challenging author, both featuring young heroines on the cusp of entry into their adult lives.

crewe train rose macaulay 3At the start of Crewe Train we are introduced to our sullen 21-year-old heroine, Denham Dobie. She and her widowed father are English expatriates living in attempted seclusion from the world in a small Andorran village; this hasn’t worked out quite as planned as the Reverend Dobie has allowed himself to be married to a local woman, giving Denham a number of unwanted step-siblings. But things are about to change, when a family of visiting English relatives are present when Mr. Dobie suffers a fatal heart attack, and whisk Denham off with them – to her stepmother’s loud relief – to England.

Denham is an unusual example of the innocent abroad – or, rather, the repatriated innocent in the land of her long-ago birth. She looks about not with the wide eyes of amazement, but with the hooded eyes of scorn. So much fuss about everything! Changing one’s clothes several times a day, all this bothersome bathing and personal grooming, and talk, talk, TALK at every meal. People get so worked up about ideas and books and plays and art…

Denham is a true sensualist, living a life of the body and not of the mind, which makes it most interesting when she catches the eye of the intellectual Arnold, a partner in Denham’s uncle’s publishing firm. And then Denham emerges from her prickly shell enough to respond to Arthur’s advances…

Gorgeously funny little book, very quirky and unusual. A great pleasure to read.

the world my wilderness dj rose macaulayThe World My Wilderness is quite different in tone, and much more sober, as befits a post-World War II novel.

I do believe it is one of the most beautifully written of all I’ve read so far this year. Rose Macaulay lets herself go with lushly vivid descriptions of the world just after the war. The bombed-our ruins of London are depicted in detailed clarity, and almost take precedence over the activities of the human characters, who move through their devastated physical habitat in a state of dazed shock from the brutalities they have seen and survived.

This is a bleakly realistic depiction of the aftermath of World War II and its effect on an expatriate teenager and her divided family, split between France and England. It moved me deeply, though the characters frequently acted in obviously fictional ways. What the author has to say about the effects of war on those who survived it is believably real.

17-year-old Barbary Denison is an English girl who has been raised for many years in France under the custody of her divorced mother and French stepfather. Under the confusion of the German Occupation, Barbary has run wild and has not-so-secretly joined up with an adolescent branch of the resistance – she and her younger half-brother have lived the lives of semi-feral children, and have witnessed and taken part in activities much too old for their tender years.

With the war just over, Barbary is unexpectedly sent to live with her father in London, and the culture shock of being suddenly thrust into “civilized” society is more than Barbary can cope with; she creates a secret life for herself which eventually has dire consequences for everyone concerned.

I’ve earlier described this novel as “bleak”, but don’t let that put you off. It’s definitely a worthwhile read, and Rose Macaulay’s satirical wit is in fine working order here. Not at all depressing, because it is so obviously contrived, but a powerfully memorable reading experience.

3.

All the Little Live Things

by Wallace Stegner ~ 1967

all the little live things wallace stegner (2)An intense novel set in the California hills concerning love in all its forms. And death.

Here Wallace Stegner addresses one of the Big Questions of his time, the mid 1960s, which is to say, the great divide between the generations; the wide movement of youth (and relative youth) to reject categorically the ethics, morals and social standards of their elders, and to try to remake the world into a new utopia. We’re talking about hippies, here. And the California setting is the seething nerve centre of this societal battleground, full of lines drawn in the sand and unwitting trespasses and deliberate provocations. Change is in the air, and no one is immune to its effects.

Joe Allston and his wife, two Easterners in their sixties, retire to California in search of peace after the death of their wayward son. Their paradise is invaded by various parasites – not only by the gopher and the rose blight, the king snake and the hawk, but also by a neighbour with a bulldozer, bent on “development.” Jim Peck, a bearded young cultist, builds a treehouse on their property and starts a University of the Free Mind, complete with yoga, marijuana, and free-wheeling sex. Most damaging of all, it is invaded by Marian Catlin, an attractive young wife and mother, affirming all the hope and love that the Allstons believe in, who carries within herself seeds as destructive as any in the malevolent nature that surrounds them.

The relationship between the two couples, the older Allstons and the younger Catlins, is beautifully portrayed, and I felt it was one of the most admirable aspects of the novel. Stegner delicately captures the nuances of friendship, unspoken sexual attraction which does not have to be acted upon, and the balance of power between youth and age. Joe and Marian strike sparks off each other, but the relationship never turns ugly; all four spouses are involved in the relationship and each turns to his or her partner for support and comfort as needed. For the core issue of the story is this: Marian is pregnant, with a much-desired second child. (The Catlin’s first child, a young daughter, is very much loved and wanted, and is a charming girl, nicely handled by the author.) Marian also has terminal cancer, and she has rejected treatment in order that she can bring the pregnancy to term.

A difficult plot to see any happy way out of, isn’t it? I’ll tell you right now: no feel-good miracles occur.

Decidedly one of my most memorable reads of 2013.

hostages to fortune elizabeth cambridge 32.

Hostages to Fortune 

by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1933

He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.

~Francis Bacon

I loved this book on so many levels. Not only is it beautifully written, but the themes of marriage, motherhood and personal fulfillment struck very close to home; I couldn’t help but recognize many parallels with my own experience, which (of course!) is not unique, as Elizabeth Cambridge so eloquently demonstrates.

This is an episodic novel in which “nothing ever happens”, but it is a beautifully observed and documented series of vignettes of family life, with a view to the broader scene in which it is set. It reminded me most strongly of another book that has a similar tone and an equally well-depicted mother, Margery Sharp’s 1935 novel Four Gardens, another hidden gem of a book which I wish would receive the same attention from modern re-publishers of almost-lost small literary treasures.

These women are, of course, more than “just mothers”, but their maternity is an inescapable part of their lives, and though it does not define them, it forms their lives in various unforeseen ways, and their emotional and intellectual responses to their motherhood are well worth considering. Elizabeth Cambridge’s Hostages is said to be semi-autobiographical; Margery Sharp was childless; but both writers have identified and played upon a strong chord of shared experience which resonates with me, a person (and mother) of several generations later, living in a very different time and place.

Hostages to Fortune is extremely readable, frequently very amusing, thoroughly thought-provoking, and occasionally poignant. An excellent book. Other readers agree; I don’t believe I’ve seen a single negative review.

the innocents margery sharp 0011.

The Innocents

by Margery Sharp ~ 1974

I think this may well be my very favourite Margery Sharp, and, as you all may have guessed by now, I am seriously enthusiastic about this author to start with.

This is a very quiet book, one of those minor tales concerning a few people only, with nothing terribly exciting going on within it. But it is a compelling read, and I was completely on the side of the angels right from the get go, though fully cognizant of their failings.

In brief, then.

Just prior to the start of World War II, a middle-aged spinster living in a quiet English village is unexpectedly left in charge of a mentally handicapped toddler whose mother refuses to believe that her child is anything less than “normal”.  The child and her caregiver form a deep and complex bond in the ensuing years before the now-widowed mother returns to collect her daughter and return with her to America, to launch into society, as it were, as a charming sidekick to her fashionable mother.

The reality is much different than the dream, and the subsequent events are absolutely heart-rending. The author lets us all suffer along with the brutally dazed child until bringing things to a rather shocking conclusion, which she has already told us about on the very first page.

Margery Sharp is at her caustic best in this late novel. I absolutely loved it. Hands down, my very best new-to-me read of the year.

 

Happy Reading to Everyone in 2014!

Read Full Post »

all the little live things wallace stegnerAll the Little Live Things by Wallace Stegner ~ 1967. This edition: Viking Press, 1967. Hardcover. 248 pages.

My rating: 10/10

This attempted review has been simmering away at the back of my mind for months and months. Getting it posted on New Year’s Eve day takes a great weight off of my conscience, even though I am not doing the novel the credit it deserves by this brief discussion.

Since reading the book way back in March of 2013, I have wondered how best to communicate the special quality it has, and its deep appeal, which is much more fundamental than its (highly engaging) storyline. This is where I bemoan my lack of a formal education in writing literary analysis; I know what I want to say but I don’t have the vocabulary to say it, so I fall back on the easy things: I liked the book. It moved me. Beautifully written. Memorable characters. An evocative picture of a time and a place.

These are things I can say of so many books I am fortunate enough to have encountered over an expansive reading life, but which do not at all illuminate the qualities that make this (or any other) book so special, this writer (or any other) so immediately compelling.

So, a review. Where to even start? How about here, with the front flyleaf material of the first edition, to set the story up, and to give me a lead in adding a very few thoughts of my own.

Why does the older generation feel as it does about what is happening in the world today? Wallace Stegner answers the question, with sympathy and understanding, for one good human individual trying to come to terms with his world while retaining his own integrity. In a novel that probes deeply into this and other aspects of contemporary life, he shows his narrative skill, his great gifts of evocation, and his eloquent intelligence at their mature best.

Fulsome praise indeed, even allowing for a publisher’s bias! But yes, in this case, not overstated. The author is addressing one of the Big Questions of his time, the mid 1960s, which is to say, the great divide between the generations; the wide movement of youth (and relative youth) to reject categorically the ethics, morals and social standards of their elders, and to try to remake the world into a new utopia. We’re talking about hippies, here. And the California setting is the seething nerve centre of this societal battleground, full of lines drawn in the sand and unwitting trespasses and deliberate provocations. Change is in the air, and no one is immune to its effects.

Joe Allston and his wife, two Easterners in their sixties, retire to California in search of peace after the death of their wayward son. Their paradise is invaded by various parasites – not only by the gopher and the rose blight, the king snake and the hawk, but also by a neighbour with a bulldozer, bent on “development.” Jim Peck, a bearded young cultist, builds a treehouse on their property and starts a University of the Free Mind, complete with yoga, marijuana, and free-wheeling sex. Most damaging of all, it is invaded by Marian Catlin, an attractive young wife and mother, affirming all the hope and love that the Allstons believe in, who carries within herself seeds as destructive as any in the malevolent nature that surrounds them.

The relationship between the two couples, the older Allstons and the younger Catlins, is beautifully portrayed, and I felt it was one of the most admirable aspects of the novel. Stegner delicately captures the nuances of friendship, unspoken sexual attraction which does not have to be acted upon, and the balance of power between youth and age. Joe and Marian strike sparks off each other, but the relationship never turns ugly; all four spouses are involved in the relationship and each turns to his or her partner for support and comfort as needed. For the core issue of the story is this: Marian is pregnant, with a much-desired second child. (The Catlin’s first child, a young daughter, is very much loved and wanted, and is a charming girl, nicely handled by the author.) Marian also has terminal cancer, and she has rejected treatment in order that she can bring the pregnancy to term.

A difficult plot to see any happy way out of, isn’t it? I’ll tell you right now: no feel-good miracles occur.

Here’s an admirable review which eloquently puts into words my own elusive thoughts on the novel: Bookslut: All the Little Live Things. Please read.

This is my very first Wallace Stegner, and I know full well it won’t be my last.

Read Full Post »

shadows robin mckinleyShadows by Robin McKinley ~ 2013. This edition: Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin), 2013. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-399-16579-5. 356 pages.

My rating: 4/10

I wasn’t going to talk about this book, but then I thought, yes, I have to, because I need to add it to my just-published Most Disappointing Reads of 2013 list. Which is utterly depressing, because I wanted it to be at least good enough to bring back some of my admiration for this can-be-marvelous writer. This is the woman who crafted The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword and Beauty (the first one) and, yes, Sunshine, all of which are gorgeous young adult works with cross-generational appeal set in meticulously detailed alternate worlds.

Shadows tries to get there too, but along the way it crashes and burns, and not in a spectacular blaze but just with a damp, smoky fizzle. What a sloppy book. I am most unhappy about it. So there may be spoilers coming below, because I’m feeling sulky and disappointed and cranky.

From the flyleaf:

The story starts like something out of a fairy tale: I hated my stepfather.

It’s usually stepmothers in fairy tales. Well, equal time for stepfathers.

Maggie knows something’s off about Val, her mom’s new husband. It’s not only that he’s from Oldworld, where they still use magic, and won’t have any tech in his office-shed behind the house. But what are the huge, horrible, jagged, jumpy shadows that follow him around? And why is her dog not bothered by them?

Newworld is all about science – you’re expected to give up fairy tales as soon as you’re old enough to read them for yourself – and magic is illegal. In Newworld the magic-carrying gene was disabled two generations ago – mostly. Maggie’s best friend Jill has some foresight, and Maggie’s great-grandmother was a notable magician. But that was a long time ago.

Then Maggie meets Casimir, the most beautiful boy she has ever seen. He’s from Oldworld too—and he’s heard of Maggie’s stepfather, and has a guess about Val’s shadows. Maggie doesn’t want to know . . . until events force her to depend on Val and his shadows. And perhaps on her own heritage…

So Maggie despises her new stepfather, and shuns his every good-natured attempt to make friends. He’s a weirdly dressed, odd-looking immigrant with a funny accent from a pseudo-Balkan country in Oldworld, where magic is still practised, and even though he has to have been certified “clean” to be allowed to immigrate to Newworld, those multi-legged, wavering, ever-changing, elusive shadows which no one but Maggie seems to be aware of put her off in a huge way. And no matter how happy Val makes Maggie’s widowed mother, Maggie finds it totally, like, pathetic.

Maggie rolls her eyes at the grown-ups in her life and putters along doing typical teenage girl things. Like struggling with algebra, and dodging creepy teachers, and hanging with her friends, and making eyes at the hot new guy at the local pizza joint. Not to mention making super-intricate origami, working at the local animal shelter, and training her amazing-super-fabulous border collie, and monologuing on in über-detail about all of the above.

The first person narration in this gushing fairy tale is so breathless and run-on and stream-of-consciousness discuss-every-nuance (except the really important stuff which might clue the reader in to what the heck the implications actually are of cobeys and silverbugs and what the government guys do with people who practise magic) that when big bad stuff starts to happen I was pretty jaded already. (See, the writing style is catching!)

So anyway, our heroine is a super duper animal lover with amazing communicative abilities regarding the four-legged creatures of her world, which is convenient when she needs to start figuring out the canine elements of Val’s shadows, which suddenly want to get up close and personal with her, and the werewolf tendencies of her old school chum Takahiro.

With the help of her little group of human friends and the imported Oldworld shadows and a whole bunch of animal pals, not to mention her magical algebra book (which is yet another thing never explained at all which I found deeply annoying), Maggie knits up a few bulges of magic trying to break through into Newworld, rescues Val (who is suddenly a good guy, all “creepiness” forgiven) from the bad government guys who have seized him and chained him up in an abandoned army base conveniently staffed only by a few friendly neighbourhood watch-type guards, and they all make it to the family safe haven (“mysteriously” called “Haven”) where everything will be sure to be sorted out, because wow! – Val and Mom and the aunties are all still chock full of magical powers which they’ve cleverly masked from the Newworld government scanners.  Oh, and Maggie finds love. Cute, cuddly, teenage love. Blush, blush.

I can only speculate that this is aimed strictly at the teen girl market, though the family teen girl whose Christmas present this was quit part way through in disgust. “Confusing, and not in a good way. Too much super-girl with the awesome dog training powers – we get it already. And the slang is so contrived and annoying. This is unrelatable. Where’s my new Maggie Stiefvater?”

I plugged through to the end, and though it picked up steam for a bit in the middle, it got tiresome again well before then end, and all I could think was, “Oh, Robin McKinley. Why?”

And where was your editorial advisor when you sent in this apparent first draft which made it into print?

If tightened up this could have been much, much better. In this reader’s opinion. Because I know what Robin McKinley can do; the proof is on the favourites bookshelf.

Read Full Post »

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

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

*****

MOST DISAPPOINTING READS ~ 2013

In absolutely random order.

*****

the chamomile lawn mary wesley1. The Chamomile Lawn 

by Mary Wesley ~ 1984

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

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

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

Sea Jade and Columbella 

by Phyllis A. Whitney ~ 1964 and 1966

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so on. Read at your own peril!

one happy moment dj louise riley 0013. One Happy Moment

by Louise Riley ~ 1951

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

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

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

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

by Rachel Joyce ~ 2012

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

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

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

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

letter from peking pearl s buck5. Letter from Peking 

by Pearl S. Buck ~ 1957

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

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

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

 6. in pious memory margery sharp 001In Pious Memory 

by Margery Sharp ~ 1967

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

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

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

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

by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1940

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

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

8.Mary Stewart’s B List

Wildfire at Midnight and Thunder on the Right 

by Mary Stewart ~ 1956 and 1957

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Contemporary Authors, Vol. 1, 1967

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

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

 

the living earth sheila mackay russell 29. The Living Earth

by Sheila Mackay Russell ~ 1954

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

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

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

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

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

1982 jian ghomeshi10. 1982 

by Jian Ghomeshi ~ 2012

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

But this memoir. Boring, boring, boring.

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

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

shadows robin mckinley11. Shadows

by Robin McKinley ~ 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »