Archive for the ‘Read in 2013’ Category

Here’s the second installment in my look back at some of the ups and downs, highs and lows, bests and worsts of my personal 2013 reading year.

Yesterday I picked out 10 books which pleased me. These weren’t necessarily the “best” things I read, but they left me with a sincere sense of pleasure.

Today I think I will highlight 10 books (or maybe one or two more) which surprised me by confounding my preconceived expectations in some way. Most of these choices have already been reviewed on the blog, but there are several which I didn’t get around to, so I’ll see if I can link some more detailed discussions when I get to those.

Without further ado, here is the 2013 Round-Up Part 2, of 10+ Most Unexpected Reads. Still to come, 2013 Round-Up Parts 3 and 4, Most Disappointing and Personal Favourites. 

*****

MOST UNEXPECTED READS 2013

In order of publication.

*****

where the blue begins christopher morley cover 0011. Where the Blue Begins     

by Christopher Morley ~ 1922

Gissing lived alone (except for his Japanese butler) in a little house in the country, in that woodland suburb region called the Canine Estates. He lived comfortably and thoughtfully, as bachelors often do. He came of a respectable family, who had always conducted themselves calmly and without too much argument. They had bequeathed him just enough income to live on cheerfully, without display but without having to do addition and subtraction at the end of the month and then tear up the paper lest Fuji (the butler) should see it.

Here we have a decently prosperous, almost middle-aged bachelor, one Gissing, whose private income is just sufficient to allow him a life of leisure, with a country house staffed by a manservant, and scope for mild entertainment and some local travelling. But comfortable though his life is, Gissing is occasionally disturbed by vague yet compelling yearnings to see and understand his purpose in the world. What’s it all about, and what should we do with it, this thing called “Life”? What’s over the next horizon, “where the blue begins”?

Well, nothing here to raise any eyebrows, and certainly nothing to put this on the Most Unexpected list, except for the twist, which is that this is the world as we know it, but it is peopled entirely with anthropomorphized dogs. They walk on two legs, wear clothes, drive motorcars, dwell in houses, but the canine instinct continually makes itself known. Aromas madden these creatures; they occasionally tear off their clothes and run madly through the countryside, to return apologetically to their dwellings when the mood passes. They snap and snarl when taunted, and the pack instinct is strongly present, as Gissing finds to his discomfort when he falls afoul of the status quo and is hunted by a ravening group of his peers.

It’s beyond weird, this whole conceit, but it works surprisingly well, and Morley is obviously enjoying himself thoroughly the whole way through this very odd book.  Where the Blue Begins was a bestseller in its time, and was produced in numerous editions. And yes, this is the Christopher Morley of The Haunted Bookshop and Parnassus on Wheels, and if I was expecting something along those lines when I first picked up Where the Blue Begins, I was soon shaken out of my complacency.

glimpses of the moon edith wharton 0012. The Glimpses of the Moon 

by Edith Wharton ~ 1922

Susy and Nick, bona-fide beautiful people, live by their wits as hangers-on among the idle rich. Susy gets by on her charming personality alone, while Nick is an aspiring writer, but the last thing either wants is a moneyless marriage, so when they find that they have fallen in love with each other, the relationship seems a non-starter from the beginning. Until Susy comes up with a clever plan to seize at least a year of happiness together before they must part to seek wealthier partners.

A playful and frivolous departure for the generally serious Edith Wharton, and one which I mostly enjoyed, especially in the early chapters where Susy dances precariously on the knife blade of dazzling her more dull-witted but well-heeled sponsors into paying for her honeymoon. Susy is the Jazz Age Lily Bart, though her eventual fate is kinder, as befits this much lighter production by an American literary icon.

 

cheerful weather for the wedding julia strachey3. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding

by Julia Strachey ~ 1932

An unexpectedly dark, very short, hard-to-analyze novella which got a lot of attention in the blogosphere earlier this year, due to the recent release of a padded-out film version of the story. The humour which many reviewers identified is definitely there, but I found much pathos as well, though it was of the twisted sort, where one is not quite sure if the author is sneering a bit at her readers for being taken in by the obvious and missing the hidden implications. Confusing response? Well, if so, it fits this odd little book perfectly well.

Dolly Thatcham is getting married in a few hours, and upon meeting her in the opening pages of the book we take a deep breath and hold it for the duration. This book is strung out with tension. Something is going to happen. Something more than a mere marriage ceremony, the veiled implication teases us.

It was as if the drawing-room reappeared in the mirror as a familiar room in a dream reappears, ghostly, significant, and wiped free of all signs of humdrum and trivial existence. Two crossed books lying flat, the round top of a table, a carved lizard’s head on a clock, the sofa-top and its arms, shone in the grey light from the sky outside; everything else was in shadow. The transparent ferns that stood massed in the window showed up very brightly and looked fearful. They seemed to have come alive, so to speak. They looked to have just that moment reared up their long backs, arched their jagged and serrated bodies menacingly, twisted and knotted themselves tightly about each other and darted out long forked and ribboning tongues from one to the other; and all as if under some terrible compulsion … they brought to mind travellers’ descriptions of the jungles in the Congo, – of the silent struggles and strangulations that vegetable life there consists in it seems.

To complete the picture, Dolly’s white face, with its thick and heavily curled back lips, above her black speckled wool frock, glimmered palely in front of the ferns, like a phosphorescent orchid blooming alone there in the twilit swamp.

For five or six minutes, the pale and luminous orchid remained stationary, in the centre of the mirror’s dark surface. The strange thing was the way the eyes kept ceaselessly roaming, shifting, ranging, round and round the room. Round and round again … this looked queer – the face so passive and remote seeming, and the eyes so restless.

The light perhaps caught the mirrored eyes at a peculiar angle, and this might have caused them to glitter so uncomfortably, it seemed even so wildly – irresponsibly, – like the glittering eyes of a sick woman who is exhausted, yet feverish.

This is indeed a bride with a back story.

the towers of trebizond 1 rose macaulay4. The Towers of Trebizond

by Rose Macaulay ~ 1956

‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.

No doubt many of you are familiar with this quotation of the first line in this iconic and deeply strange fiction. Presented by publishers and numerous reviewers as a light and humorous travel tale, I found that it was no such thing, though there was certainly some humour and more than a little travel involved.

It took me a very long time – weeks – to work my way through The Towers of Trebizond, because I found it exhausting in what it asked of me as a reader to process. But this in no way put me off; it actually intrigued me and made me more and more eager to come to grips with what the author was doing here.

The narrator, Laurie, of ambiguous gender until the very end of the story, is accompanying an aunt and an Anglican priest on a visit to Turkey, with the joint aims of converting Muslims to Christianity (Father Chantry-Pigg), studying the living conditions of the local female populace (Aunt Dot), and writing a travel book (Laurie). Part way through the trip, Father Chantry-Pigg and Aunt Dot disappear, apparently into Soviet Russia, leaving Laurie stranded in more ways than one.

A Billy Graham Crusade and a group of apocalypse-anticipating Seventh-Day Adventists heading for Mount Ararat add an element of farce to the saga, as does Laurie’s acquisition of an ape which Laurie attempts to lead into a more highly evolved human form, at one point attempting to teach it to drive a car, with the expected results.

The internet is crowded with marvelous reviews of this fantastical tale, and I hesitate to choose one for you, so I will leave it up to you to investigate further. Worth reading, but keep your mind open. This is not at all what it at first seems to be.

people who knock on the door patricia highsmith5. People Who Knock on the Door 

by Patricia Highsmith ~ 1983

A tense, noir, almost-thriller; a can’t-look-away, exceedingly uncomfortable depiction of a dysfunctional family and its twisted disintegration after two of its members embrace an arcane strain of Christian fundamentalism. None of the characters are particularly likeable or completely faultless, including the pseudo-hero Arthur, eldest son of the family in question, who is the closest thing to a chief protagonist in this tense tale.

Despite its date of publication, it seems to be set in the 1950s, and has a decidedly vintage feel to it. This is the first Patricia Highsmith book I’ve ever read, though I’ve seen several of the movie adaptations of her work, Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, and of course the Venetian-set Talented Mr. Ripley, so the dark psychological elements in this were somewhat expected, though the way this one progressed was completely unpredictable to me, hence its inclusion on this list.

dear doctor lily monica dickens 0016. Dear Doctor Lily

by Monica Dickens ~ 1988

This was one of the last novels of the prolific Monica Dickens, who died in 1992 at the age of 77. Her first book, the best-selling and still in print One Pair of Hands, was published in 1939, and it was followed by at least thirty more, some of which are classics of middlebrow fiction. All of her books are compulsively readable, and Dear Doctor Lily is no exception. I couldn’t look away, much as I occasionally wished to. Its frequent bleakness rather disturbed me; the author definitely has the gloves off here in her vivid descriptions of two very different marriages.

Two English girls meet on a flight to America in the early 1960s. Ida is heading to an American G.I.’s family home; she is going to be married, and her expectations are high that her life will be better than it was in England, even if she has a few inner qualms about her prospective spouse and his true devotion to her. Lily is destined to go a very different direction. She is about to meet the man who will become her lover; her far-off future holds a deeply happy marriage, though she has no inkling of that as yet, just as Ida has no foreboding of her own future abuse at the hands of her brutal spouse, and her desperately squalid future.

This book is all about random encounters, and the inconceivable vagaries of the hand of fate. Rather appropriate from a writer in her seventh decade, come to think of it – Monica Dickens paid attention her whole life to what was going on around her, and Dear Doctor Lily showcases the result of such keenly discriminating observation.

And though I’d love to link a proper  review, I couldn’t find much online beyond the sketchiest of references, so you’ll have to take my word for it that this is a must-read for the Monica Dickens enthusiast, but that it’s definitely not a comfort read. Glimmers of hope and bits of personal redemption keep it out of the totally depressing category, and the writing is, as ever, stellar.

after the falls catherine gildiner7. After the Falls

by Catherine Gildiner ~ 2009

This was a grand year for memoirs, and this one was outstanding and highly unexpected in the direction it went. Toronto psychologist Catherine Gildiner looks back at her adolescence in Buffalo, New York in the 1960s, and her subsequent troubled relationship with a volatile poet and civil rights movement protestor. Outspoken and funny and tragic and compulsively readable. A follow-up to the also-bestselling Too Close to the Falls, which you may already be familiar with, and which is now on my own Must-Read list.

february lisa moore 0018. February

by Lisa Moore ~ 2010

This well researched and absolutely heart-rending historical fiction about Newfoundland’s 1982 Ocean Ranger disaster won this year’s annual C.B.C. Radio Canada Reads contest, and, in my opinion, deserves every bit of praise it got.

February is based on a true Canadian tragedy. On Valentine’s night in 1982, out on the Atlantic Ocean off Newfoundland, the oil drilling rig Ocean Ranger capsized and sank during a violent storm. All eighty-four men on board the rig died in the frigid waters, some apparently within hailing distance of a vessel which was unable to rescue them. The families of the dead learned of the disaster from news accounts on the radio; the oil company made no attempt to notify them. February’s main character Helen O’Mara loses her husband Cal that night. She has three young children and is pregnant with a fourth. Life for all of them becomes indelibly marked by their loss in ways both immediate and not always obvious until many years later.

I generally avoid books which are this desperately emotional, but February surprised me by its enjoyability. Maybe it was the pugnaciously regional voice of the fictional Helen, with its plethora of to-the-point and very funny “Newfie”-isms, or perhaps it was the appealing interviews with the author I was lucky enough to catch on the radio during the Canada Reads debates, but I’m very glad I gave it a chance.

i the suicide's library tim bowling jacket9. In the Suicide’s Library

by Tim Bowling ~ 2010

Is it ever right to steal a book? Tim Bowling, Canadian poet, browsing a university library collection, stumbles upon a copy of poet Wallace Steven’s Ideas of Order, signed on the flyleaf by yet another poet, Weldon Kees, who disappeared mysteriously one day in 1955, with evidence suggesting his suicide by jumping of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

Tim Bowling allows his collector’s lust to suggest certain possibilities to him. Would anyone even notice if he “liberated” such a poet’s treasure from its dusty obscurity in the stacks? In the process or worrying this ethical dilemma out, Bowling spins out a book-length ramble about not only Stevens and Kees, but his own personal life.

This book is nothing if not rambling, and it does go on and on and on, and I absolutely hated Bowling’s final decision regarding the book, which I cannot share here, as it is the whole point of working through this thing. It made me grumpy for days, and still offends me to think about it. But I’m glad I sought this literary oddity out, and I’ll be reading it again, and deep down inside I was pleased to have been challenged by my disagreement with certain of Bowling’s opinions. Forgive the cliché, but this one was absolutely thought-provoking.

the sisters brothers patrick dewitt10. The Sisters Brothers

by Patrick deWitt ~ 2011

I was a little bit leery about this one to begin with. I’d heard all the hype, and seen it on the Big!New!Books! displays in the mall chain bookstores, and I looked at it from a distance and was all snooty, ’cause I don’t do Westerns or cowboy books, and this screamed that from twenty feet away. But then I heard an excerpt read out loud on the C.B.C., and the very next week one of my friendly used book dealers gave me a pristine copy as a bonus to my substantial purchase. Obviously it was meant to be.

Two brothers, Charlie and Eli Sisters, are employed as hit men in the Gold Rush-era “Old West”. Their quest to end the life of one Hermann Kermit Warm leads to many complications and moral examinations, mostly by narrator Eli. Macabre, cold-blooded and unexpectedly, surrealistically funny. Kudos to the author for the ending; it went a different direction than I’d expected, in a very good way. Loved it. Absolutely brilliant. (But not for the squeamish!)

Here’s a fine review, one of many out there: Tipping My Fedora: The Sisters Brothers 

Bonus Choice # 11

Caitlin Moran Lets It All Hang Out

how to be a woman caitlin moranHow to Be a Woman

by Caitlin Moran ~ 2011

moranthology caitlin moranMoranthology

by Caitlin Moran ~ 2012

Swimming into my awareness early in 2013 was British pop culture critic and memoirist Caitlin Moran. Nothing could have prepared me for her, she’s very much of the “have to experience it for yourself” variety of writer. Mostly I enjoyed my hectic time with Ms. Moran; occasionally she completely freaked me out. She always surprised me, though, both by her vividly expressed opinions, her eager willingness to share the most intimate details of her life, and by the excellent quality of her more serious pieces.

How to Be a Woman ~ Absolutely loved some of it; a few bits appalled me. This writer has no self-edit function! Which makes this high speed, profane, too-much-information rant on the business of being female both deeply engaging and just a bit worrisome to those of us functioning on a less high speed plane of “normal”. Very good, and I enjoyed it. But there are episodes and opinions here and there that triggered the “ick!” response! And she swears. A lot.

Moranthology ~ Caitlin Moran looks back at her childhood and adolescence and skewers her younger self as brutally as she does the pop stars she profiles in this outspoken and slashingly funny collection of articles.

 

*****

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It’s hard to believe a whole 12 months have raced by since the last Year-End Round-Up List, but the calendar doesn’t lie, and here we are only a few days from a brand new year. Time for a retrospective, then, to clear the decks for the year to come.

Last year I came up with three very broad categories of outstanding books I had read in the previous year: Most Unexpected, Most Disappointing, and Personal Favourites. I will be using the same categories for the books of 2013, though there was some overlap between Most Unexpected and Personal Favourites. I’ve arbitrarily decided which category best fits each book.

And though last year I included only books I had reviewed in full on the blog, this year some will sneak in which I’ve only briefly mentioned. It was a surprisingly hectic year, and I missed writing quite a number of reviews, though the books themselves are too interesting to leave off these retrospective lists. I will link these to other reviews, either by fellow bloggers, or on Goodreads or someplace similar.

Kicking off this week of lists – a most enjoyable aspect of looking back at the year just passed as we head into the longer days and bright promise of the new year – I am adding a fourth category: Books Which Pleased Me 2013. These are books which, as I peruse my list of things read the past twelve months, don’t really fit into the main categories, and which, for the most part, I didn’t write reviews of, but which I nevertheless feel a warm surge of liking for as I come across their titles. These are books which made me happy.

*****

10+ PLEASING BOOKS ~ 2013

In alphabetical order by author.

*****

a time to love margot benary isbert1. A Time to Love

by Margot Benary-Isbert ~ 1962

An excellent vintage teenage/young adult historical fiction set in the years just prior to and at the start of World War II. Fifteen-year-old Annegret of the earlier books The Blue Mystery and The Shooting Star goes away to boarding school and becomes very aware that the world beyond the sheltering walls of her family home is fast becoming a dark and dangerous place. A rare story told from the German point of view; very much anti-Hitler but also making clear the conflicted positions of many “common” German people in the years leading up to the war. A thoughtful and even-handed book; a lovely and relatable bildungsroman. The author draws heavily upon her own experiences as a German citizen during the war; worth reading for that element alone, though there is much more here to mull over and to enjoy. Goodreads: A Time to Love

but i wouldn't have missed it for the world peg bracken2. But I Wouldn’t Have Missed It For the World

by Peg Bracken ~ 1973

Long before Martha Stewart’s perfectionist homemaker guidebooks, there was Peg Bracken. Unlike Ms. Stewart, Peg was very much “one of us.” (Does anyone remember the slightly subversive 1970s bestsellers The I Hate to Cook Book, and A Window Over the Sink?) Here Peg sets her sights on the highs and lows of travelling, in a humorous collection of musings, meandering and anecdotes. Some real gems amidst the fluff. I read this while travelling myself, and occasionally laughed out loud at the universal experiences I shared with the author. Feather light and deeply charming, albeit in a dated sort of way. I was just a wee bit taken aback by Peg’s enthusiastic promotion of the lavish purchase of souvenirs – one of my own travelling goals is to come back as lightly laden as possible (books excepted, of course) – but to each her own! Goodreads: But I Wouldn’t Have Missed it for the World 

hotel du lac anita brookner3. Hotel du Lac

by Anita Brookner ~ 1984

Shades of Barbara Pym haunt the works of novelist Anita Brookner, whose literary acquaintance I made this year. This subfusc novel of a mysteriously disgraced woman coming to terms with her fate and her future was not exactly Booker Prize material (in my opinion), but it was most readable, and I find myself thinking of its wry heroine, romance novel writer Edith Hope, with real fondness. Blogger Mark Sampson – Free Range Reading: Hotel du Lac – says it well.

paper moon addie pray joe david brown4. Paper Moon

originally published as Addie Pray

by Joe David Brown ~ 1971

Loved it! Read this one way back in high school in the 1970s, and this re-reading stood up marvellously well. An 11-year-old orphan and her maybe-father develop their talents as small-time con artists as they travel around the south-eastern United States in the darkest years of the Great Depression. Funny and heart-warming but never, ever sloppy. Brilliant. Ignore all the “female Huck Finn” and “sassy young heroine” comments on Goodreads – this tallish tale is something quite unique. You may be familiar with the classic Tatum and Ryan O’Neal hit movie; this book it was based on is even betterGoodreads: Paper Moon 

the house that is our own o douglas 0015. The House that is Our Own 

by O. Douglas ~ 1940

Middle-aged, recently-widowed Kitty and independently single, almost-30 Isobel meet at a residential hotel and become firm friends. Their relationship deepens and grows even as they eventually go their separate ways, Kitty to a new flat, and Isobel to a rural Scottish cottage. O. Douglas is always a great pleasure to read, and there is quiet merit in all of her books. Honorable mentions as well to three more O. Douglas books first read in 2013: Pink Sugar (see review), Taken by the Hand, and Eliza for Common. The last two also deserve proper reviews of their own; I know I will be re-reading both in future and hope to expand upon them then.

the grand sophy georgette heyer 26. The Grand Sophy 

by Georgette Heyer ~ 1950

Amazonian Sophy is a surprise visitor to her relations in London, throwing an entire household – aunt, uncle and numerous cousins – into a turmoil it has never known before. Sophy is a born manager of other people for their own good, and here she finds much scope for her personal hobby. By the end of this improbable and frothy Regency tale, set in the early decades of the 19th century, romantic couples are paired off, financial difficulties are sorted out, and Sophy has found true love. What’s not to like? Well, that rather blatantly anti-Semitic moneylender episode, perchance… But dodging that critique with the handy “era correct” excuse, this buoyant tale succeeds at cover-to-cover amusement. Also a lot of fun is another Heyer romance, Devil’s Cub. Pure fluff, but the long dialogue sections are very nicely done with loads of cunning, period-correct language, and much humour. wheels within wheels dervla murphy

7. Wheels Within Wheels

by Dervla Murphy ~ 1979

Irishwoman Dervla Murphy, after leaving school at the age of fourteen to look after her bedridden mother, dreamed of travelling, and cherished her occasional opportunities for solo bicycle trips. In 1963, at the age of 32, the death of her mother freed her at last to embark upon a truly ambitious journey. Dervla cycled, alone and self-supported, from Ireland to India, where she spent five months volunteering in a refugee camp for Tibetans fleeing the Chinese occupation. Wheels Within Wheels details Dervla’s life before the Indian expedition, and describes the personally challenging years in Ireland which led to her future wanderlust.  An excellent memoir by a fascinating woman. Passionate, opinionated, and frequently very funny. Goodreads: Wheels Within Wheels. And for more on Dervla Murphy’s many subsequent travels and her activities up to the present: Dervla Murphy. com

secrets of the gnomes poortvliet huygen 28. Secrets of the Gnomes 

by Rien Poortvliet and Wil Huygen ~ 1981

So much more than just a picture book. An intricately illustrated “travelogue”  about the fantastical world of gnomes. Clever and slyly humorous, with a serious message about caring for our shared world. The artwork is extremely well done. Intriguing and diverting in concept and execution, and decidedly of “adult” interest. Amazon:Secrets of the Gnomes  

amberwell d e stevenson 29. Amberwell

by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1955

Not quite as fluffy as some of D.E. Stevenson’s novels, this may well be my favourite of hers so far. Amberwell is a family saga of awful parents and quite lovely children, set at a Scottish country estate. One for the re-read and write-about pile, but in the meantime a nicely succinct review may be read here: Pining for the West: Amberwell. And neck and neck with Amberwell for D.E.S. favourite status is this recently-read “serious” novel, Charlotte Fairlie (1954).  A girls’ school headmistress attempts to help some of her students cope with difficult personal situations, and finds her own life much changed as a result. Aka Blow the Wind Southerly and The Enchanted Isle.  

laughing gas p g wodehouse10. Laughing Gas

by P.G. Wodehouse ~ 1936

Deeply silly, as only a Wodehouse epic can be. While visiting Hollywood in order to rescue an alcoholic relation from a suspected entanglement with a gold-digging starlet, the ugly but sincere Earl of Havershot and golden-boy cinema idol Joey Cooley exchange bodies in some weirdly out-of-body way while simultaneously under dentists’ anesthetics. Much hilarity ensues before it all gets sorted out. Though it’s not as grand as Jeeves and Wooster, or even Lord Emsworth, it did make me smile. A proper review here: Vintage Novels: Laughing Gas      

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rose cottage mary stewartRose Cottage by Mary Stewart ~ 1997. This edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1997. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-340-69560-9. 234 pages.

My rating: Honestly, all I want to give is a 4.5/10, upped to a 5 because it is Mary Stewart, and I will be looking for a copy to purchase and add to my collection of gentle books maintained for my mother’s perusal.

I feel absolutely rotten giving this low of a rating to a writer I have come to greatly enjoy, but it is an honest assessment of my reading experience. Rose Cottage is indeed a lovely story, a nostalgic journey into the past, and I do believe that the author meant it to reflect her own pleasant memories, dedicated as it is

To the gentle shades of Henry, George, Patsy, Nip, Rosy, Maudie and Muffin, and all the other friends whom I meet again in my stroll down Memory Lane.

But it was vaguely unsatisfying, and a bit too – dare I say it – mild, with an anticlimactic happy ending and love and flowers and reconciliatory kisses all round and even a kitten.

And how could one not love a kitten? Well, in this case, the kitten felt superfluous, the one adorable straw which caused this particular camel to sag at the knees and subsequently dock several points off the rating scale. Do I feel like a big old meanie discounting the kitten? Oh, yes, I do indeed. But I can’t, in all honesty, recant. Sorry, George-the-kitten.

And sorry, Mary Stewart. I’ve come to admire you greatly these past few months as I read my way through a selection of your novels. But Rose Cottage, though a sweet thing in its own way, is not representative of your work at its peak. It’s a step down and back, a lessening-off, a gentle coda to round off your life-long symphony of written words.

Looking back down the vista of years, Kathy (Kate) Herrick reminisces about the summer of 1947, when her life took an abrupt turn.

Kate was brought up in a tiny thatched cottage – Rose Cottage – attached to the estate where her mother (Lilias) and grandmother were employed as maid and cook. Kate’s mother lost her position when it was discovered that she had become pregnant; Kate has never been told who her unknown father is. Her grandfather dies, and sternly religious Aunt Betsy comes to stay. Aunt Betsy’s bitter disapproval of Kate’s mother’s “fall” results in Lilias leaving for parts unknown when Kate is only six. Some time later word comes that Lilias has been killed in a bus accident; Kate is effectively left an orphan.

Kate grows up in an atmosphere of combined love (Gran) and puritan repression (Aunt Betsy), and, when the war comes, it is not as much a break as it could be when Kate moves away, and then falls in love and marries a bomber pilot. Their short marriage is happy, but ends tragically when her husband is killed in action. Kate takes this in stride in her quiet way, and goes on to keep herself occupied with an interesting job in a plant nursery, though she has been left well-provided for in her late husband’s will.

Then, out of the blue, Kate gets an urgent phone call. Gran has been ill; she has something important she needs Kate to look after for her. Can Kate please come to Scotland, where Gran’s employers have migrated due to the requisition of their English house during the war, and hear what it’s all about?

Aunt Betsy has since died, and Gran’s old home, Rose Cottage, is due to be renovated and sold, but all of Gran’s things are still there. Could Kate please go and pack up Gran’s furniture and small treasures, including the family’s personal papers and the bits of sentimental jewelry and keepsakes hidden in a small wall safe?

So off Kate goes to her childhood home, where she immediately discovers that there has been a recent intruder. The wall safe, which was papered over and known only to household intimates, has been opened, and the contents are gone. Now who would ever have known the safe was there? And what did it really contain?!

Luckily one of Kate’s old school friends, handsome, still-bachelor Davey Pascoe, is more than happy to renew acquaintance with pretty Kate, and to help her solve the mystery.

Many worrisome coincidences and much foreboding evaporate into a purely domestic situation with a prosaically reasonable explanation, and everything is tied up very tidily indeed by the last page. Definitely a feel-good sort of read, a very meek and tame adventure despite the potential of the early events to be worked into something much more melodramatic.

I can’t help but wish there had been some more dramatic developments, even though those sorts of plot twists in Mary Stewart’s earlier novels sometimes made me roll my eyes with readerly disbelief. But I’ve become used to this sort of thing from this author, and her stepping away from drama left me feeling surprisingly let down.

Still and all, a nicely written and completely sweet story. One to give to one’s own granny for gentle entertainment over a nice cup of tea, if one’s relative is of the type to enjoy a non-challenging sort of tale with a blissfully happy ending.

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the album mary roberts rinehart pb 001The Album by Mary Roberts Rinehart ~ 1933. This edition: Dell, 1971. Paperback. 311 pages.

My rating: 5/10

There was a lot to like about this convoluted domestic drama, but it almost didn’t get its 5, for it just went on for too darned long. The length was redeemed by its passages of quite decent writing, and by the sweet love story of the narrator, which added an aura of hope to a supremely nasty tale.

So, Mary Roberts Rinehart.

She’s always sort of been there on the fringes of my reading consciousness. I have a handful of her murder mysteries (The Yellow Room, The Episode of the Wandering Knife, The Swimming Pool) which, over a period of years, regularly make the trip in to my mom’s place to provide some light reading for my book-a-day elderly parent. I recently read and reviewed one of her early melodramas, “K”, which I enjoyed, and I’ve just sought out and purchased a vintage hardcover version of her very early (1908) murder mystery, The Circular Staircase, the novel which established her career as a phenomenally best-selling mystery writer long before Agatha Christie entered the game. I once had a very handsome early edition of her very first book, 1906’s The Man in Lower Ten, which I gave away in one of those later-regretted merciless shelf purges; as I poke around exploring Rinehart a little deeper I do so wish I’d kept that one around, though I see it’s not as horribly expensive as it could be to replace if I so wish. Now that I’ve finally started paying attention, it seems that MRR is everywhere.

A case in point is this 1971 reissue of a much earlier novel which I happened upon recently at a local charity book sale. The Album is mostly murder mystery, but it is also the tale of a young woman’s emotional awakening, as the horrifying events she becomes embroiled in shock her into an awareness of her own situation and trigger her to defy the convention of her quiet and dismally unfulfilled life.

The Album was first published as an 8-part serial in The Saturday Evening Post in 1933. I could not find a record of what the author received for this work, but a similar serializations of The Wall in 1936 netted her a cool $65,000; not bad at all for the midst of the Depression! Mary Roberts Rinehart is well-known for being the highest paid writer of her era in the United States; she was hugely popular.

The Album is narrated by 28-year-old Louisa (Lou) Hall, a self-proclaimed “hopeless spinster” living with her widowed mother and a number of household servants – including a full-time chauffeur – in a stately house on a secluded side street of a large American city. The other four residences echo the Hall home in architectural detail and in the quiet wealth of the occupants. In the outside world, things are moving at breakneck speed, but the occupants of Crescent Place live in a manner of a generation before. “Out there” women are happily pursuing careers and enjoying their emancipation from staid Victorian roles; in the Crescent time stands still. The house is the sole female focus; the correct technique of ironing of the damask tablecloths and the micro-management of the servants whilst preserving large portions of the day for such peaceful pursuits as taking tea with like-minded neighbours, pasting pictures in albums, and purely decorative sewing has been elevated to a high art. Matriarchs rule in several of the Crescent Place homes, but whereas the men of the households are at least able to daily escape into the real world to pursue their careers and recreations, the daughters are kept well under the collective maternal thumbs. Though the superficial picture is peaceful, the emotions held in check behind the masks of duty are ever closer to eruption.

One afternoon the peace of the Crescent is shattered – forever, though the residents don’t know that quite yet – by the hysterical screaming of Lou’s next door neighbour. Dutiful spinster daughter Emily Lancaster, slave of an elderly invalid mother, has obviously had a severe shock; she collapses insensibly at Lou’s feet. She has just discovered her mother brutally murdered; five blows from a hatchet have suddenly severed Mrs. Lancaster from her iron grip on the household reins. The window of murderous opportunity was narrow. Mrs Lancaster was alone only for a few moments while Emily was in her bedroom changing her dress and feeding her canary; the second Lancaster daughter was showering and out of hearing; elderly Mr Lancaster was out, the servants were in the kitchen together. No stranger has been observed in the neighbourhood – the collective eyes of the Crescent residents, master and servant alike, are keen to any such intruder. Obviously an inside job, by someone familiar with the Lancaster household’s habits. But who could it have been? The discovery that Mrs Lancaster has been hoarding a small fortune in gold bars under her bed adds a sinister twist, especially when the strongbox key the murdered woman habitually wears around her neck proves to be missing.

More murders and attempted murders follow, and as the list of potential suspects shrinks through sheer attrition, the tabloids go wild with speculation, and dark family secrets are reluctantly revealed.

It is inevitable that Mary Roberts Rinehart is compared to her across-the-Atlantic contemporary, Agatha Christie, and the comparison is apt. Both writers liked to mix romance with their crime; both attempted to write “psychological” thrillers on occasion; both were good at fabricating intricately choreographed plots; both were inconsistent in providing clues to their readers; both loved the hidden identity reveal at the last moment, and the implausible motive.

The Album is a very uneven effort, and the narrator’s continual “if I had but known” refrain starts to grate slightly after the first few instances. Clues are mysteriously hinted at; some are proved to be vitally important while others are mentioned once and never again. The residents of the five houses act in the silliest of ways – first locking up their homes against the mysterious axe murderer and then wandering about alone in the night, which is handy for the furthering of the plot, but fatal for several of the key characters. Secret lives and hidden identities abound, and only in some cases are these fully developed; we are left hanging more than once.

On the plus side are some nicely competent policemen who continually just miss being in the right place at the right time – and who are not held up to scorn by the narrator and author, a pleasant change from the usual bumbling officials – and a creative use of truth serum which reveals key plot points.

The prototypically feminist Mary Roberts Rinehart accompanies her mystery with a strong critique of outmoded views on the roles of women. Both the oppressed daughters and their oppressing elders are held up to the light and analyzed and scolded by their creator for being complicit in their state of being. The daughters get the most sympathy, and are provided (in several cases) the opportunity to move away from their oppression into the light of the modern world; there is no question as to what the author thinks her characters should be doing with their lives.

The novel’s main fault (like this review!) is that it was ultimately just a bit too long. It took forever to get through, and I kept having to set it down because the sheer multitude of detail was getting in the way of my keeping the plot(s) straight in my head.

The murderer and the many secrets were revealed at the end, but by that time I was rather blasé about the whole thing; only my interest in the narrator’s romance and the well-deserved thrill she got from casting off her overbearing mother’s oppressive hand kept me engaged; the crimes faded into the background and the most horrifying details left me yawning.

An interesting read, and one that left me thinking favourably of pursuing more of this writer’s work, though it will definitely be a while before I will willingly read this particular title again. It’s going on the pile to go to town to visit Mom today, and it should keep her occupied for at least a day or two – a definite point in favour!

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Three “relationship” novels read this month with varying degrees of enjoyment. All three are much discussed elsewhere, so I feel justified in giving them each what amounts to a very arbitrary micro-review. Of these three I doubt I will be returning to The Mistress of Nothing or Letter from Peking. Miss Pettigrew, however, will immediately be moving onto the keeper shelf.

the mistress of nothing kate pullingerThe Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger ~ 2009.

This edition: McArthur & Co., 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-55278-868-4. 248 pages.

My rating:  6ish/10.  (Mostly for the first half of the book, which was quite engrossing, and the fact that it sent me away curious to learn more about the real Lady Duff Gordon. The last half deteriorated to a 3 or maybe, generously, a 4.)

This book won the 2009 Canadian Governor General’s Award for Fiction, to which I can only say that it must have been a quiet year in publishing.

Somewhere as I did a bit of internet research on the author and the novel, I read that Kate Pullinger worked on this for ten years. I’m assuming that it was very much a peripheral project, though I also saw that she received an Author’s Society grant to travel to Egypt for her research, and a series of Fellowships from the Royal Literary Fund. I personally think that the author should also have spent some time working on how to write a convincing bedroom scene, because the sexy bits in this one were blush inducing for all the wrong reasons, reading as though they’d been grafted into a reasonably serious historical novel from something much more slight and bodice-ripperish.

Based closely on Lady Duff Gordon: Letters From Egypt, edited by Lady Duff Gordon’s mother, Sarah Austin, and daughter, Janet Ross, and published in several volumes between 1865 and 1875, The Mistress of Nothing is, first and foremost, well researched. It is also beautifully written for the most part, making the latter plot and stylistic inconsistencies all the more glaring.

Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon was well known for her beauty and sparkling wit and moved in the highest social circles in England, though she and her husband were, relatively speaking, not all that wealthy. Lady Duff Gordon was a noted scholar, and specialized in translations of German literature. She was also doomed to an early death, for she had at some point contracted tuberculosis, and, soon after the birth of her third child, was told she must leave England for a warmer, dryer climate. Travels to South Africa and then to Egypt brought some respite, and The Mistress of Nothing follows the Egyptian sojourn which ended in Lady Duff Gordon’s death in Cairo in 1869. She was 48.

The Mistress of Nothing provides an intriguing if superficial portrait of Lady Duff Gordon, but the focus of the novel is on another genuine character, her personal maid, Sally Naldrett. Sally accompanied her mistress on her travels, and on the trip to Egypt was Lady Duff Gordon’s sole companion, as limited finances precluded anything resembling an entourage.

When the two women reached Egypt, they were fortunate in acquiring an Egyptian dragoman/factotum, one Omar, who by all reports was a devoted and efficient assistant and of great aid in every way possible. At some point Sally and Omar developed an even closer relationship; Sally became pregnant and gave birth to Omar’s child, a development unrealized by Lady Duff Gordon until the actual birth. Her Ladyship reacted in an extreme manner, refusing to have anything  to do with Sally and stating that the child was to be given to Omar’s family (he was already married to an Egyptian woman) and that Sally was to return to England. Sally ended up marrying Omar – under Muslim law he was permitted multiple wives – but there was no reconciliation between her and her mistress, and Sally disappears from Lady Duff Gordon’s narrative, though she was very much still present at least on the fringes of the household for quite some time before Lady Duff Gordon’s eventual demise. Omar stayed on, and retained his position in the household as well as Lady Duff Gordon’s good graces, being recommended by her to serve in the Prince of Wales’ household after her death.

All of this is true to the historical record, and quite fascinating it is, too. It’s very easy to see why Kate Pullinger decided to elaborate on the real life framework of this dramatic trio of personalities; the story as it stands is enthralling.

Where the fictional treatment starts to unravel is where the real life letters leave off and Pullinger’s pure invention takes over. Once the (fictionalized) virginal Sally discovers the joy of sex with Omar, the narrative changes from an interesting examination of expatriate life in 1860s Egypt to a mushy pastiche of Sally’s (imagined) thoughts and emotions and Pullinger’s inventive fabrication of what Sally gets up to once cut adrift from her once-benevolent employer. Though willing to go along with the tale, I was unwillingly lost along the way, and closed the book with a feeling of deep disappointment. It was so close to being such an excellent read…

Well, I see the above got longer than the promised micro-review, though I really didn’t say too much; it’s a largish topic and there are all sorts of things I could say about the fascinating character of Lady Duff Gordon, and the roles of women in the 19th century, and class distinctions, and the vast gap between mistress and servant despite their years of physical intimacy, and the political situation in Egypt and the whole aristocratic British person living abroad thing. But others will have said it already, so I will (and not a moment too soon – the morning typing time is running out) move on to the next book on my list.

letter from peking pearl s buckLetter From Peking by Pearl S. Buck ~ 1957.

This edition: Cardinal, 1964. Paperback. 218 pages.

My rating: 3/10

Pearl S. Buck was a prolific writer, with a number of excellent novels to her credit – The Good Earth, The Living Reed, Peony – and a whole slew of other stuff. Some of which, sadly, is not very good at all. Like this one, which sounded promising, started out not too badly, and slid downhill fast.

This might have made a decent short story, but Pearl S. Buck, by dint of much repetition and needlessly florid meanderings, padded it out into a novel.

Here’s the gist of it.

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. (He’s the head of a Chinese university; you know already from this that it’s not going to end terribly well, what with the whole Cultural Revolution thing on the horizon.)

Back in America, the woman settles into her family home in rural Vermont, which has been conveniently waiting for her in perfect order all these years, complete with faithful (if gruff) hired man. 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 son runs into issues with his mixed race ethnicity. Much emotion ensues. The woman talks. A lot. Both to herself and to anyone else who will provide a shoulder to cry on. The son decides “enough of this already, Mom’s micromanaging my life. No more confidences.” More tears.

Then the woman, all on a sudden whim, decides to track down her father-in-law, and finds him in the most unlikely circumstance, living in a small shack under the protection of a local big-wheel landowner, having lost his memory but still being cognizant enough of things to insist on dressing himself in Chinese silk gowns, of which he apparently has a whole closet full. (The father-in-law lived in China many years, and left after the death of his Chinese wife – the heroine’s husband’s mother – which was highly unpleasant. She was a revolutionary activist, and was  put up against a wall and shot. Instant martyr stuff.)

Not one but two prospective suitors 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.

Heroine is a deeply unpleasant woman, for all of her heartfelt moanings in this first-person monologue. She is a complete and utter snob, self congratulating herself on her amazing superiority in embracing the Chinese culture of her beautiful husband – long passages on how physically gorgeous mixed-race people are – while those around her are so gosh-darned bigoted. She insists that the good old days in China were absolutely wonderful; the peasants were happy; her servants loved her; her beautiful life was so fulfilling. Why did those nasty Commies have to ruin everything? In the meantime she bosses her son around, patronizes the Vermont people who fulfill all of the roles her Chinese peasants used to, and puts off dealing with her husband’s crucial issue. Eventually she gives permission for him to take on a wife-in-absence, giving her yet another lowly person to mercilessly critique.

By the end I hoped that neither of the suitors ended up with her; they seemed nice fellows. And I wished her new daughter-in-law best of luck, and rejoiced for her sake that the son had decided to move far, far away.

Over the years I’ve read a lot of Pearl S. Buck, and enjoyed most of it. This one, as you may have gathered, not very much.

miss pettigrew lives for a day winifred watson 001Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson~ 1938.

This edition: Persephone Press, 2000. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-906462-02-4. 234 pages.

My rating: 8/10

What a relief to turn to this playfully frivolous novel after Pearl Buck’s dismal thing.

Middle-aged Miss Pettigrew, supremely inefficient governess, is on her uppers. Down to her last shilling, she knocks on the door of one Miss LaFosse, following up a lead from an employment agency.

Miss Pettigrew is welcomed in and definitely proves herself useful, but in a most unanticipated way. Dashing young men, cocktails, nightclubs…ooh, la la! Miss Pettigrew has never experienced such a whirl as she does in this utterly life-changing day.

That’s all I’m going to say. A whole lot of fun, this light and airy novel. If you haven’t already experienced this silly, happy thing, seek it out immediately, and enjoy!

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understood betsy dorothy canfield 001

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield ~ 1916. This edition: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964. Illustrated by Catherine Barnes. Hardcover. 213 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This is a charming juvenile novel written by Dorothy Canfield Fisher after she had become deeply interested in Maria Montessori’s innovative theories of child rearing and education while on a visit to Italy. The Montessori Method stressed self determination and self regulation in all aspects of a child’s life, and operated under the assumption that if given access to a suitable space with appropriate materials, tools, toys and books, a child would develop a high degree of self motivation and a natural sense of order.

Since Dorothy Canfield was already very involved in women’s rights and educational reform, the Montessori philosophy meshed well with her other interests, and Understood Betsy, which can be read simply as an amusing story, can also be interpreted as an enthusiastic promotion of allowing a child to self-educate and self-regulate, while under a benevolent hands-off adult mentorship.

Little Elizabeth Ann is orphaned at the tender age of six months, and is eagerly adopted by an aunt and great-aunt, Frances and Harriet. Younger Aunt Frances in particular becomes completely wrapped up in mothering the child, lavishing all of her vast reserves of unused adoration on Elizabeth Ann’s tiny person.

 As soon as the baby came there to live, Aunt Frances stopped reading novels and magazines, and re-read one book after another which told her how to bring up children. And she joined a Mothers’ Club which met once a week. And she took a correspondence course in mothercraft from a school in Chicago which teaches that business by mail. So you can see that by the time Elizabeth Ann was nine years old Aunt Frances must have known all that anybody can know about how to bring up children. And Elizabeth Ann got the benefit of it all.

She and her Aunt Frances were simply inseparable. Aunt Frances shared in all Elizabeth Ann’s doings and even in all her thoughts. She was especially anxious to share all the little girl’s thoughts, because she felt that the trouble with most children is that they are not understood, and she was determined that she would thoroughly understand Elizabeth Ann down to the bottom of her little mind. Aunt Frances (down in the bottom of her own mind) thought that her mother had never really understood her, and she meant to do better by Elizabeth Ann. She also loved the little girl with all her heart, and longed, above everything in the world, to protect her from all harm and to keep her happy and strong. and well.

Aunt Frances is well meaning, but her technique is more than questionable.

Aunt Frances was afraid of a great many things herself, and she knew how to sympathize with timidity. She was always quick to reassure the little girl with all her might and main whenever there was anything to fear. When they were out walking (Aunt Frances took her out for a walk up one block and down another every single day, no matter how tired the music lessons had made her), the aunt’s eyes were always on the alert to avoid anything which might frighten Elizabeth Ann. If a big dog trotted by, Aunt Frances always said, hastily: “There, there, dear! That’s a nice doggie, I’m sure. I don’t believe he ever bites little girls. … mercy! Elizabeth Ann, don’t go near him! … Here, darling, just get on the other side of Aunt Frances if he scares you so” (by that time Elizabeth Ann was always pretty well scared), “and perhaps we’d better just turn this corner and walk in the other direction.” If by any chance the dog went in that direction too, Aunt Frances became a prodigy of valiant protection, putting the shivering little girl behind her, threatening the animal with her umbrella, and saying in a trembling voice, “Go away, sir! Go away!”

Or if it thundered and lightened, Aunt Frances always dropped everything she might be doing and held Elizabeth Ann tightly in her arms until it was all over. And at night—Elizabeth Ann did not sleep very well—when the little girl woke up screaming with a bad dream, it was always dear Aunt Frances who came to her bedside, a warm wrapper over her nightgown so that she need not hurry back to her own room, a candle lighting up her tired, kind face. She always took the little girl into her thin arms and held her close against her thin breast. “Tell Aunt Frances all about your naughty dream, darling,” she would murmur, “so’s to get it off your mind!”

She had read in her books that you can tell a great deal about children’s inner lives by analyzing their dreams…

Well, as you  can see from this lengthy excerpt, Aunt Frances is well on her way to creating something of a monster, if timid, terrified, hapless Elizabeth Ann could be labelled with such a horrific term. But things are about to change.

Aunt Harriet takes ill; Aunt Frances must accompany her to a warm climate; there will be no time to spare for or a place to keep Elizabeth Ann. So off in haste she is sent to another branch of the family, efficiently turned away – so much fuss, having to suddenly take on an extra child! – and helter-skelter put on a train to remote Vermont, to be cared for by the country family connections at Putney Farm.

Now Elizabeth Ann is well aware that Aunts Harriet and Frances have always held the Putney relations in deep scorn – such common folk, with no understanding for children – and to think that they had originally wanted to adopt her!

But they (Aunt Harriet and Aunt Frances) thought that they chiefly desired to save dear Edward’s child from the other kin, especially from the Putney cousins, who had written down from their Vermont farm that they would be glad to take the little girl into their family. But “anything but the Putneys!” said Aunt Harriet, a great many times. They were related only by marriage to her, and she had her own opinion of them as a stiffnecked, cold-hearted, undemonstrative, and hard set of New Englanders. “I boarded near them one summer when you were a baby, Frances, and I shall never forget the way they were treating some children visiting there! … Oh, no, I don’t mean they abused them or beat them … but such lack of sympathy, such perfect indifference to the sacred sensitiveness of child-life, such a starving of the child-heart … No, I shall never forget it! They had chores to do … as though they had been hired men!”

Aunt Harriet never meant to say any of this when Elizabeth Ann could hear, but the little girl’s ears were as sharp as little girls’ ears always are, and long before she was nine she knew all about the opinion Aunt Harriet had of the Putneys. She did not know, to be sure, what “chores” were, but she took it confidently from Aunt Harriet’s voice that they were something very, very dreadful.

Elizabeth Ann is about to find out what chores are all about.

Needless to say her transformation from wimpy Elizabeth Ann to sturdy, competent Betsy begins at once. She’s not even at the farmhouse yet before Uncle Henry takes her in hand, by giving her the reins of the team and letting her worry out the techniques of guiding the steady farm horses along the quiet road. I need not go into details, only to say that immediately upon arrival at the farm the child learns to dress herself, comb her own hair, cook, milk a cow, and become wonderfully useful to have about, rather than a “charge”. And there are kittens and maple sugaring time and tug-of-wars at her tiny one-room school, best friends and a trip to the fair all of the usual rural delights to go along with the endless round of chores which make up farm life. And then Aunt Frances shows up to collect her former charge…

A sweetly old-fashioned sort of tale, with the lessons very evident but very easy to swallow. Dorothy Canfield treats her readers as if they too are sensible souls, and complicit in the process of salvaging Betsy from her disastrous first nine years of life, while never outright condemning the well-meaning Frances.

There is a lot of quiet humour in this short tale, and it is not at all a chore for an adult to read. In fact, it is a very nice read-aloud, suitable for the younger set, I would think ages up to 9 or 10 or so. (Older children might find it a mite too mild, and the tone just a bit too old-fashioned.) Betsy is a likeable heroine and as we follow her story we rejoice in her happy transformation.

Readers of Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s much more complex and serious adult novels may enjoy this quick side trip into childhood; a visit as crisply refreshing as its nostalgic Vermont country setting.

And here it is at Gutenberg, though it is very easy to find in book form, too, being almost continuously in print for the hundred or so years since its first publication.

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield

The Putney clan - Uncle Henry, Aunt Abigail and Cousin Ann - with Betsy, illustration by Ada C. Williamson, from the Gutenberg transcription.

The Putney clan – Uncle Henry, Aunt Abigail and Cousin Ann – with Betsy, illustration by Ada C. Williamson, from the Gutenberg transcription.

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the little wax doll norah lofts 001The Little Wax Doll by Norah Lofts ~ originally published in 1960, and re-released under this title and author’s name in 1970.  Previously published as The Devil’s Own (1960) and The Witches (1966), under the pseudonym Peter Curtis. This edition: Corgi, 1971. Paperback. ISBN: 0-552-08782-3. 255 pages.

My rating: 9/10

This is definitely not a Christmas-time read. Hallowe’en, oh yes, indeed. But I am so tickled by my discovery of it that I’ve bumped down my review of D.E. Stevenson’s Charlotte Fairlie (which is an appropriate Christmas book for reasons I’ll enlarge on when I return to it) to talk about Norah Lofts’ village-with-dark-secrets instead.

I love these sorts of unexpected developments. Norah Lofts, mistress of the art of historical romance, occasionally let herself go in a very different direction and wrote a number of thrillers under the name Peter Curtis, adopting the pseudonym in order to avoid disappointing fans of the romances who would associate her name with a certain type of story.

I must say I would never have picked up this old paperback if it weren’t for Norah Lofts’ name on it; the cover illustration not being at all indicative of what a great read was hidden inside. I had recently read 1964’s How Far to Bethlehem? (with mixed reactions – good writing, but I had issues with the awkwardness of the Bible tie-in plot) so was tuned in to Lofts’ name, as it were, and a casual flip-through was intriguing enough that I squelched my qualms and brought it home.

Forty-something Miss Mayfield, a teacher by profession, is back in England after twenty years working at a friend’s private mission school in a remote part of Africa. She has had some health issues and a vaguely referenced “breakdown” so was sent back to England in the hopes that this would prove beneficial. Her health is better, but she harbours deep misgivings over her ability to cope with the stresses of her new teaching position at an inner city London school. When Miss Mayfield happens upon an advertisement for a teaching headmistress position at a rural private school she decides to try for it, never dreaming that she would be accepted.

An interview with the school’s benevolent sponsor, Canon Thornby of the village of Walyk, sees Miss Mayfield hired on the spot. Off she goes to the rural wilds, to a place very much out of the bustle of the modern world.

Miss Mayfield might want to watch her words when that friendly cat is hanging about...

Miss Mayfield might want to watch her words when that friendly cat is hanging about…

“Too good to be true,” is Miss Mayfield’s first impression of her new home. Not only is she being paid a generous salary, her position includes a wonderful cottage, an instant position of respect in the village hierarchy, and the society of wealthy Canon Thornby and his aristocratic sister. Miss Mayfield’s fellow teacher is competent and friendly, and the school children are polite, willing, and generally intelligent. The cottage even appears to come with an adorable resident cat, who purrs about with a welcoming attitude, and sleeps at the foot of the bed. Miss Mayfield settles in with a feeling of deep appreciation and relief, and counts her blessings every day.

The first inkling that something may not be all as lovely as it appears is when an anonymous note appears among the books on Miss Mayfield’s desk. “Ethel Rigby’s granny treat her something crool.” This shakes Miss Mayfield enough that she decides to investigate the allegation. Said Ethel Rigby is a well-cared for, meek and mild fourteen-year-old whose primary passion seems to be the care of her pet rabbits, and her granny openly dotes on her, having raised Ethel from babyhood, Ethel’s mother having run off and “gone wrong” in her own teenage years.

Though Ethel stoutly defends her grandmother’s innocence of any abuse, Miss Mayfield thinks that the maiden doth protest too much, and she comes away with the idea that Ethel is lying to protect the informer, who proves to be a school friend who claims to have witnessed Ethel’s grandmother push the girl’s hand deliberately into the rollers of a mangle. And Ethel’s hand is all bandaged up, though she insists her own clumsiness was at fault. And when the informing child falls mysteriously ill, only to recover just as mysteriously, and when Miss Mayfield discovers a little wax effigy of the child wrapped up and bandaged together – “healed” – hidden in Ethel’s school desk, the wheels really begin to turn.

Miss Mayfield decides to play detective and to find out what is going on behind all those brightly painted cottage doors. And what she discovers is most disquieting indeed.

What a marvelous heroine Miss Mayfield proved to be. Middle-aged and resigned to her life of perennial spinsterhood (though not unaware of the other sex, and recipient of at least one man’s interested advances) Miss Mayfield is unashamedly dowdy, choosing to focus her energies on doing her job well to the utmost of her ability. She fearlessly delves into the dark secrets of Walyk, is clever and creative in her investigative forays, and even after being brutally sidelined by an “accident” which results in a serious head injury and loss of memory, returns tenaciously to her original goal, which is to protect virginal Ethel from an unpleasant fate at the hands of Walyk’s wicked coven of witches.

The cover illustration of this 2008 reissue is just a wee bit misleading. I pity the poor teen who picks this one up expecting something Twightish, and instead finds herself sedately accompanying Miss Marple-ish Miss Mayfield on her earnest investigations!

The cover illustration of this 2008 reissue is just a wee bit misleading. I pity the poor teen who picks this one up expecting something Twilightish, and instead finds herself sedately accompanying Miss Marple-ish Miss Mayfield on her earnest investigations!

I was most pleased at the quiet humour throughout; the author appears to be enjoying herself thoroughly as she dashes this melodrama off.

Miss Mayfield, though primly proper even in her innermost thoughts, is not what one could call “prudish” – she is well aware of all elements of human nature, though she chooses to remain aloof from some of those aspects herself.  Even upon witnessing the penultimate scene of a full-blown witch’s Sabbath she mildly wishes that she could just close her eyes and avoid seeing the depravities of her neighbours, but she is not so much shocked as disgusted at their lack of proper dignity, and we never fear that this experience will shake her somewhat frail psyche. If anything, it strengthens her resolve to sort things out and bring everyone back into some semblance of decency, to protect the innocents, and to nobble future abuses and murders. Miss Mayfield’s inner dialogue proves that she is capable of appreciating the ridiculous aspects of the situation she has allowed herself to become embroiled in; we never fear for her sanity, but instead come away feeling that her future will be ever more assured. And as for Ethel, well, let’s just say that she appears well able to look after herself from this point forward!

There is also a perfect little twist at the very end.

This is an enjoyable “entertainment” read, rather nasty plot developments and all. If “Peter Curtis” did as well with “his” other three thrillers, I’m definitely keen to acquire them. Despite the absolutely stereotypical “black magic” theme, the author kept me engaged throughout, guessing a goodish bit of the time, and rather surprised here and there; very nicely done indeed.

In 1966 the book was turned into a horror-suspense thriller, starring none other than Joan Fontaine as a rather elegant Miss Mayfield. From the plot description and movie stills it appears that the African connection is played up to a greater degree than in the book, and that one of the background characters who leaps into prominence in the last chapter is given a larger early role, and that there is general tweaking of the storyline to make it more dramatic. For those of you with an interest in this vintage film genre, it might well be an enjoyable diversion. (But be sure the read the book as well; it has charms of its own, though the original Miss Mayfield is no Joan Fontaine!)

The Witches horror film peter curtis norah lofts hammer film

And here is a rather detailed synopsis and analysis of both book and movie, containing abundant spoilers. I would suggest you read the book first, because it gives away all of the key twists, but it is most interesting after one is finished.

Necromania BlogSpot: The Witches by Peter Curtis

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