Archive for the ‘Read in 2016’ Category

a-harp-in-lowndes-square-rachel-ferguson-1936A Harp in Lowndes Square by Rachel Ferguson ~ 1936. This edition: Dean Street Press, 2016. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-911413-73-8. 287 pages.

My rating: 10/10

2016 continues to throw an eclectic array of all sorts of unpleasant things our way. Thank goodness for good books. Escape reading has been a slender but strong lifeline in a stormy personal (and societal) sea.

This past week has been particularly rewarding in this aspect, and I found I used up most of my writing time for reading, as I was seduced first by Sinclair Lewis’ highly likeable Dodsworth, then by Will Ferguson’s snarky Generica (aka Happiness™) and, last and best, by Rachel Ferguson’s dense and rewarding A Harp in Lowndes Square.

All three demand discussion. The last-read will be the first. These reviewlets will be short on original analysis, because Real Life is relentless in pounding at the door, but with the thought that any mention is better than none, here we go.

A Harp in Lowndes Square is the most “serious” of the three of Rachel Ferguson’s works I’ve read so far, and the most “conventional” (relatively speaking) in its structure and its plot.

Where The Brontës go to Woolworths was frequently giddy, and sometimes deliberately ridiculous, and A Footman for the Peacock evolved on occasion into pure farce, A Harp transcends the author’s stylistic playfulness in those other works – for to me that is what it often seems, a deliberate, gently ponderous frolicking garbed harlequin-wise in sardonic humour – and attains a higher ground in its characters and its plot.

This despite the reader-challenging dependence on an acceptance of the theory of a parallel stream of time for much of the book. It’s almost what the reviews label it as – a sort-of ghost story – but at heart it’s purely of its time, a self-assessing, slyly humorous, poignantly troubling novel revolving around the thoughts and feelings of a sympathetic narrator.

From the Dean Street Press website, a pared-down précis of the basics of the plot, hinting very slightly at the intricacies of this absorbingly complex novel:

Description

In the schoolroom in Lowndes Square, a child, in her ugly, unsuitable frock of plum-coloured satin, cut down when discarded from one of her mother’s, bent over the cutting out of a doll and its cardboard wardrobe, and shivered as she worked.

Hilarious, shocking, and heartbreaking in turn, A Harp in Lowndes Square is like no other Rachel Ferguson novel. Perhaps her most personal work – and the closest she ever came to a ghost story – it tells of Vere and James, twins gifted with ‘the sight,’ which allows them to see and even experience scenes from the past (including one, at Hampton Court, involving royalty).

The twins are already aware of their mother’s troubled relationship with her own mother, the formidable Lady Vallant, but the discovery of an Aunt Myra, who died young and of whom their mother has never spoken, leads them to uncover the family’s tragic past. Against the backdrop of World War I and Vere’s unexpected relationship with an aging actor (and his wife), and rife with Ferguson’s inimitable wit, the novel reaches a powerful and touching denouement when the twins relive the horrifying events of many years before …

A Harp in Lowndes Square was originally published in 1936. This new edition features an introduction by social historian Elizabeth Crawford.

Praise

‘It is only (now) that I realise how much … my work owes to the delicacy and variety of Rachel Ferguson’s exploration of the real and the dreamed of, or the made up, or desired.’ A.S. BYATT

‘A wonderful concoction … the true stuff of storytelling.’ GILLIAN TINDALL

The above is of course overly dramatized, as is the wont in back cover blurbery, but essentially correct in summation.

I didn’t find much hilarity here, though there was abundant intelligent humour, and the so-called denouement, though indeed powerful and touching, wasn’t particularly surprising as the narrative contained abundant hints as to what it was that actually happened one bitter night in the late 1800s, on the stairs outside the drawing room door.

The real reward of this gem of a novel is in its depiction of the best possibilities of human relationships. Narrator Vere, one of the psychically-sensitive twins, never finds romantic love in the conventional sense, but, looking back on her earlier life from the age of fifty, she reflects on what she did instead experience, and it seems to me to be, in this case at least, an acceptable alternative.

The morally monstrous mother figure in the background – family matriarch Lady Vallant – serves to accentuate the determined rejection of such parental coldness by her youngest daughter Anne, mother of twins Vere and James and the finely-drawn Lalage, their beloved elder sister.

All three of the Ferguson novels read by me to date stand out, despite their sometimes bizarre structure, as warm depictions of familial unity as bulwark against a sometimes-bitter outside world, and these affirmative passages are, to me, perhaps the finest part of these intellectually rich, fascinatingly convoluted novels.

I liked this book much more than I had expected too – and I had high expectations indeed. I’d ordered it with a view to reading it in 2017 as part of my second prospective Century of Books project, but in a moment of weakness I opened it “just to preview”, was drawn in, and here I am, happily contemplating a 1936 replacement on my want-to-read list. Luckily it shouldn’t be too hard to find something else, in that rich literary era.

For more on A Harp in Lowndes Square, I’m going to send you over to this review by Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow, whose fervent hunting out, re-reading, and articulate reviewing of out-of-print mid-century female novelists has led to this particular republication.

Grateful kudos again to Scott, and to Dean Street Press.

Many of us, myself included, hear “print on demand” and our first response is to cringe in disgust, because of the many horrible examples of Gutenberg-mining  hack “presses” so prolifically invading the ABE and Amazon lists, but Dean Street Press is a shining beacon of How To Do It Right. Beautifully produced paper editions, perfectly re-set, with scholarly new forewords and appropriate cover art, made wonderfully (and affordably!) available for those of us who struggle with reading from a screen. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Full disclosure, in case anyone is wondering at my enthusiastic promotion of DSP: A Harp in Lowndes Square is not a review copy; I bought it with my own hard-earned dollars. Worth every penny. Check these guys out.

 

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the-private-world-of-georgette-heyer-jane-aiken-hodgeThe Private World of Georgette Heyer by Jane Aiken Hodge ~ 1984. This edition: The Bodley Head, 1985. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-370-30508-6. 216 pages.

My rating: 9/10

This slim biography-of-sorts was written by the one of the subject’s fellow writers who was a decided fan, and that pro-Heyer bias stands out on every page.

That’s not at all a bad thing in this case, because Georgette Heyer appears by all accounts to be one of those rare creatures, a person of genuinely high artistic integrity, who kept her personal self to herself, letting her work do most of the talking.

From the Foreword:

Georgette Heyer was an intensely private person. A best-seller all her life without the aid of publicity, she made no appearances, never gave an interview, and only answered fan letters herself if they made an interesting historical point.

(Georgette Heyer was) shy on the surface, but a formidable, positive person underneath, with strong views and a great sense of style.

It hardly sounds the description of a purveyor of romantic froth. But in fact, for those with eyes to see, the strong character is there in her books, even in the lightest and most frivolous of them, and an awareness of the kind of person she was adds a new dimension to one’s enjoyment of them, or, perhaps, explains why one does enjoy them. She may have been a compulsive writer, but she was also an immensely skilled and meticulous craftswoman. She did her best to conceal her high standards and stern moral code behind the mask of romantic comedy, and succeeded, so far as her great fan public was concerned. But she had a smaller audience, among dons and journalists, among her husband’s legal associates, among intelligent women everywhere, and even among feminists, who enjoyed the romantic syllabub all the more because they were aware of the hard core of realism underneath.

Doesn’t that make you feel all smug and superior? “Intelligent audience”, oh, yes, indeed! That would be us. Right, fellow Heyerites?

Georgette Heyer, photographed for the National Portrait Gallery in 1939 by Howard Coster. Looking sternly unamused, as was her wont when confronted by a camera.

Georgette Heyer, photographed for the National Portrait Gallery in 1939 by Howard Coster. Looking sternly unamused, as was her wont when confronted by a camera.

Jane Aiken Hodge has competently cobbled this appreciation/analysis together out of the slender material available to her, which was mostly concerned with the literary elements of Heyer’s life. She did receive the cooperation of family members, friends, and publishing connections, as well as some access to private letters and journals, but the biography is really mostly about the books. Not even all of the books, but primarily the best-known ones, the Regency-era dramatic romances, which stand head and shoulders above everything else Georgette Heyer produced, shading the historical dramas of various other eras, and the rather uneven mystery novels, which were published consistently in much smaller print runs, because they sold at a much more modest rate.

Hodge includes an intriguing discussion of Georgette Heyer’s first “serious” novels, four contemporary works highly influenced by Heyer’s own life in her early years. Once she found her groove with the more inventive historical genre she became famous for, those early books were ruthlessly suppressed by their writer. She avoided any mention of them, and refused again and again all requests to reprint them, with the result that they are now decidedly elusive, and expensive when found.

Contemporary reviews suggest that these four books – Instead of the Thorn (1923), Helen (1928), Pastel (1929), and Barren Corn (1930) – were fairly standard works of their type and time. Critics were, in general, mildly appreciative of the young writer’s fast-developing skill and style, gently nodding their slightly disinterested approval and casually placing the novels with the many others of their type being pumped out in the between-the-wars years by other young writers of talent. Everyone at that time seemed to have a bildungsroman or two needing to be shared with the world, and there was a generous public appetite for such accounts.

Jane Aiken Hodge:

(W)ritten in her late teens and early twenties…about the the experiences of young women growing up in the complex social scene of the years after the First World War. Inevitably they and the detective stories she wrote mainly in her thirties throw a certain amount of light on the early years of her own life about which she never would talk.

What was Georgette Heyer hiding?

The answer seems to be “nothing in particular”. There appear to have been no youthful scandals, no skeletons in the closet. From start to finish, Georgette Heyer lived a life of quiet and content propriety. She was the beloved daughter of a well-off and tightly knit family. Her personal romantic life contains nothing of particular note; she married her first love, mining engineer Ronald Rougier, and remained devoted to him  – as he was to her – for the rest of her life.

Financial necessity provided much of the impetus behind the books Georgette Heyer produced with such reliable predictability from the 1930s onward – she was famous for never missing a publisher’s deadline – and she took her work seriously, never apologized for withdrawing herself from social and family life while the writing process was underway.

One of the sedate Barbosa covers, not a heaving bosom in sight.

One of the sedate Barbosa covers, not a heaving bosom in sight.

She was also unapologetically controlling of the way her work was presented by her publishers, writing her own publicity blurbs whenever possible, and maintaining a strict control over her cover art, which explains the elegant accuracy of the early edition dust jacket illustrations, most created by Arthur Barbosa, under her meticulous instruction and proofing.

And one of Heyer's least favourite - and unapproved - Pan paperback covers. "Whatever is that scantily clad woman doing on a battlefield? Did the illustrator not even read the book?!"

And one of Heyer’s least favourite – and unapproved – Pan paperback covers. “Whatever is that scantily clad woman doing on a battlefield? Did the illustrator not even read the book?!”

Georgette Heyer initially resisted her publishers’ requests to allow paperback editions of her work, finally caving in when it became apparent that she was missing out on some serious revenue from those secondary releases. She was deeply appalled by some of the resultant overly gaudy and inappropriate cover art and fulsomely inaccurate back cover blurbs; her indignation is recorded in some gloriously sarcastic letters to friends and (probably slightly cringing) editors.

I find that my own appreciation of the Georgette Heyer novels I’ve read has been enhanced by this interesting collection of anecdotes and semi-scholarly examinations.

The biographer blithely assumes that her readers are all as well versed in Heyer’s entire range of work as she is, and spoilers inevitably crop up, though I don’t think that will put anyone already familiar with Georgette Heyer off, as there aren’t all that many surprises in her storylines, including (regrettably) most of those rather B-list mysteries.

By the end of the book my look-for list of still-to-be-found Heyer titles had grown to an alarming size. The four “suppressed” novels are starred as must-finds, as are the books Georgette Heyer identified as her own consistent favourites: An Infamous Army, The Unknown Ajax, Venetia, and A Civil Contract standing out as ones she seemed to be happiest with and proudest of.

I’m in no rush to acquire most of these, because, thanks to her steady popularity for decades, most of the Regency titles are in abundant supply, but it gives me quiet pleasure to consider the enjoyable reading still ahead of me as I hunt down the books and add them to the intelligent comfort reads section of my collection, shelved beside Margery Sharp, Mary Stewart, D.E. Stevenson, O. Douglas, Monica Dickens, Rumer Godden, Elizabeth Goudge, and their gloriously readable ilk.

She's smiling! A wonderful and rare photo of Georgette Heyer looking downright happy, her actual state much of the time when not being pinned down by publicity people.

She’s smiling! A rare and lovely photo of Georgette Heyer looking downright happy, her actual state much of the time when not being pinned down by publicity people, according to those who knew her best.

 

 

 

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it-cant-happen-here-sinclair-lewis-1935

Not my copy, which is one of the blandly dark blue Collier “Nobel Prize” uniform editions. This is the first edition dust jacket.

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis ~ 1935. This edition: Collier, circa 1938. Hardcover. 458 pages.

My rating: Pretty well have to award a 10/10 for timeliness, but for readability I’m afraid I am stuck fast at 6/10.

It’s well on the “okay” side of the personal rating chart, but that’s all I can honestly give it, when comparing it to some of the writer’s equally thought-provoking but rather more smoothly written A-List books. (Main Street et al.)

I know the Press only too well. Almost all editors hide away in spider-dens, men without thought of Family or Public Interest or the humble delights of jaunts out-of-doors, plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pocketbooks by calumniating Statesmen who have given their all for the common good and who are vulnerable because they stand out in the fierce Light that beats around the Throne.

Zero Hour, Berzelius Windrip.

It Can’t Happen Here is a sardonic alternative history of the United States falling under its own brand of fascist leadership, after the defeat of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by the ravingly populist Berzilius “Buzz” Windrip. (The oft-quoted Zero Hour is Windrip’s own Mein Kampf.)

The novel is chilling in its prescient description of mass rallies and grassroots hysteria, and the comfortable conviction of the optimistic liberals that, well, “it can’t happen here.”

Written as Hitler and Mussolini blazed to their vicious power, the parallels are unhappily contemporary when considering the strange rise of a certain American wanna-be politician. (The world laughed at Hitler, too. At first.)

I’d been saving this one for the elusive “right time”, and what better timing than during this current and deeply disturbing power struggle between political factions in the U.S.A.?

Any of these political platform points sound just a tiny bit familiar?

During the very first week of his campaign, Senator Windrip clarified his philosophy by issuing his distinguished proclamation: “The Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Men.” The fifteen planks, in his own words (or maybe in Lee Sarason’s words, or Dewey Haik’s words), were these:

(1) All finance in the country, including banking, insurance, stocks and bonds and mortgages, shall be under the absolute control of a Federal Central Bank, owned by the government and conducted by a Board appointed by the President, which Board shall, without need of recourse to Congress for legislative authorization, be empowered to make all regulations governing finance. Thereafter, as soon as may be practicable, this said Board shall consider the nationalization and government-ownership, for the Profit of the Whole People, of all mines, oilfields, water power, public utilities, transportation, and communication.

(2) The President shall appoint a commission, equally divided between manual workers, employers, and representatives of the Public, to determine which Labor Unions are qualified to represent the Workers; and report to the Executive, for legal action, all pretended labor organizations, whether “Company Unions,” or “Red Unions,” controlled by Communists and the so-called “Third International.” The duly recognized Unions shall be constituted Bureaus of the Government, with power of decision in all labor disputes. Later, the same investigation and official recognition shall be extended to farm organizations. In this elevation of the position of the Worker, it shall be emphasized that the League of Forgotten Men is the chief bulwark against the menace of destructive and un-American Radicalism.

(3) In contradistinction to the doctrines of Red Radicals, with their felonious expropriation of the arduously acquired possessions which insure to aged persons their security, this League and Party will guarantee Private Initiative and the Right to Private Property for all time.

(4) Believing that only under God Almighty, to Whom we render all homage, do we Americans hold our vast Power, we shall guarantee to all persons absolute freedom of religious worship, provided, however, that no atheist, agnostic, believer in Black Magic, nor any Jew who shall refuse to swear allegiance to the New Testament, nor any person of any faith who refuses to take the Pledge to the Flag, shall be permitted to hold any public office or to practice as a teacher, professor, lawyer, judge, or as a physician, except in the category of Obstetrics.

(5) Annual net income per person shall be limited to $500,000. No accumulated fortune may at any one time exceed $3,000,000 per person. No one person shall, during his entire lifetime, be permitted to retain an inheritance or various inheritances in total exceeding $2,000,000. All incomes or estates in excess of the sums named shall be seized by the Federal Government for use in Relief and in Administrative expenses.

(6) Profit shall be taken out of War by seizing all dividends over and above 6 per cent that shall be received from the manufacture, distribution, or sale, during Wartime, of all arms, munitions, aircraft, ships, tanks, and all other things directly applicable to warfare, as well as from food, textiles, and all other supplies furnished to the American or to any allied army.

(7) Our armaments and the size of our military and naval establishments shall be consistently enlarged until they shall equal, but–since this country has no desire for foreign conquest of any kind–not surpass, in every branch of the forces of defense, the martial strength of any other single country or empire in the world. Upon inauguration, this League and Party shall make this its first obligation, together with the issuance of a firm proclamation to all nations of the world that our armed forces are to be maintained solely for the purpose of insuring world peace and amity.

(8) Congress shall have the sole right to issue money and immediately upon our inauguration it shall at least double the present supply of money, in order to facilitate the fluidity of credit.

(9) We cannot too strongly condemn the un-Christian attitude of certain otherwise progressive nations in their discriminations against the Jews, who have been among the strongest supporters of the League, and who will continue to prosper and to be recognized as fully Americanized, though only so long as they continue to support our ideals.

(10) All Negroes shall be prohibited from voting, holding public office, practicing law, medicine, or teaching in any class above the grade of grammar school, and they shall be taxed 100 per cent of all sums in excess of $10,000 per family per year which they may earn or in any other manner receive. In order, however, to give the most sympathetic aid possible to all Negroes who comprehend their proper and valuable place in society, all such colored persons, male or female, as can prove that they have devoted not less than forty-five years to such suitable tasks as domestic service, agricultural labor, and common labor in industries, shall at the age of sixty-five be permitted to appear before a special Board, composed entirely of white persons, and upon proof that while employed they have never been idle except through sickness, they shall be recommended for pensions not to exceed the sum of $500.00 per person per year, nor to exceed $700.00 per family. Negroes shall, by definition, be persons with at least one sixteenth colored blood.

(11) Far from opposing such high-minded and economically sound methods of the relief of poverty, unemployment, and old age as the EPIC plan of the Hon. Upton Sinclair, the “Share the Wealth” and “Every Man a King” proposals of the late Hon. Huey Long to assure every family $5000 a year, the Townsend plan, the Utopian plan, Technocracy, and all competent schemes of unemployment insurance, a Commission shall immediately be appointed by the New Administration to study, reconcile, and recommend for immediate adoption the best features in these several plans for Social Security, and the Hon. Messrs. Sinclair, Townsend, Eugene Reed, and Howard Scott are herewith invited to in every way advise and collaborate with that Commission.

(12) All women now employed shall, as rapidly as possible, except in such peculiarly feminine spheres of activity as nursing and beauty parlors, be assisted to return to their incomparably sacred duties as home-makers and as mothers of strong, honorable future Citizens of the Commonwealth.

(13) Any person advocating Communism, Socialism, or Anarchism, advocating refusal to enlist in case of war, or advocating alliance with Russia in any war whatsoever, shall be subject to trial for high treason, with a minimum penalty of twenty years at hard labor in prison, and a maximum of death on the gallows, or other form of execution which the judges may find convenient.

(14) All bonuses promised to former soldiers of any war in which America has ever engaged shall be immediately paid in full, in cash, and in all cases of veterans with incomes of less than $5,000.00 a year, the formerly promised sums shall be doubled.

(15) Congress shall, immediately upon our inauguration, initiate amendments to the Constitution providing (a), that the President shall have the authority to institute and execute all necessary measures for the conduct of the government during this critical epoch; (b), that Congress shall serve only in an advisory capacity, calling to the attention of the President and his aides and Cabinet any needed legislation, but not acting upon same until authorized by the President so to act; and (c), that the Supreme Court shall immediately have removed from its jurisdiction the power to negate, by ruling them to be unconstitutional or by any other judicial action, any or all acts of the President, his duly appointed aides, or Congress.

Sinclair Lewis injects more than a little dark humour into his dystopian fable, and though I appreciated the frequent deliberate ridiculousness of the political rhetoric, it’s not really an amusing read, with our hindsight of the excesses of the Gestapo and the Final Solution, and our fresh and raw here-in-2016 imagery of ranting American rallyers advocating a “return to greatness” which seems to be mostly about kicking others in the teeth.

Current affairs aside, It Can’t Happen Here is a tougher read than many of Lewis’ earlier novels; he pontificates an awful lot, and the individuals of his vivid cast of characters are parodies from start to finish, although always relatable in their human flaws and frailties, and in their sometimes dark desires.

It shouldn’t happen here, but it could, and therein lies the strangely compelling appeal of this vintage work of “what if?” fiction.

Reviews abound, many of them very recent. A casual internet search will net you more than you can comfortably peruse, and I couldn’t decide on which ones to link, so I’ll leave a further investigation (if any) up to you.

Vote carefully, my American neighbours.

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the-blue-girl-charles-de-lint-2004The Blue Girl by Charles de Lint ~ 2004. This edition: Firebird, 2006. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-240545-0. 368 pages.

My rating: 6/10

This was supposed to be my “Hallowe’en theme” book post, but I kept putting it off, and by golly it’s now November 3rd so I’d better get it over and done with.

I almost put it away without mention, because it’s a minor blip on my reading radar screen, but then I remembered that Charles de Lint is Canadian, and I did promise over at John Mutford’s 10th Annual Canadian Book Challenge to review all the Canadian books I read from July 2016 to June 2017, and so far I have done this for all of one book since July. (Can that be possible? Did I miss some somehow, or am I reading strictly non-Canadian stuff lately? Hmm.)

The Blue Girl is the very first Charles de Lint fantasy I’ve been able to stick with to the end, and I rather wonder why that is. The man can write, no question about that, and sometimes even shows some flare. So perhaps it’s the genre, fantasy being so easy to go wrong with, all overdone and improbable as it so often turns out to be.

This novel is “Young Adult” all the way, and maybe that’s why I found it a relative breeze to get through, because de Lint herein shows a much lighter, surer hand with his storytelling than in his more “serious” adult-oriented fantasies, which I found put me off with their strangely plodding plots and frequent over telling.

The Blue Girl trusts the reader more, and I liked that. Of course, when one considers that Charles de Lint has written something like 70 books (!) in his career so far (his first book was published in 1984, and he’s still going strong), one expects a certain competence of craft.

Summary, from the catalogue data section on the copyright page:

New at her high school, Imogene enlists the help of her introverted friend Maxine and the ghost of a boy who haunts the school after receiving warnings through her dreams that soul-eaters are threatening her life.

Yawn, right? I mean, soul-eaters. Give us a break!

Good thing I never read the précis until after I finished the book, because I don’t think I would have started it with that sort of pre-warning.

But start it I did, and it hooked me, and I made it to the end cheering on the heroine and her sidekicks, with only one bitter moment of “Aargh! What is the author doing?!” reader’s rage when he utterly undersells the climactic confrontation-between-heroine-and-soul-eaters scene. He got me back with what turned out to be a rather charming ending, but that cop-out still rankles a bit, and will, I suspect, remain the strongest memory of this not particularly original book. Which maybe argues that de Lint is rather clever after all.

Maybe.

17-year-old Imogene, raised on a hippy commune, then experiencing life as a loner-outcast at her old highschool and by compensation getting all involved with a gang, has moved to a new city with her mom and older brother. A new school means a new life, and a chance for reinvention, and Imogene has the best of intentions.

Too bad that she runs afoul of her new school’s Mean Girl and Top Jock couple the very first day, compounding her getting-it-wrongness by befriending geeky Maxine, the previous Chief Outcast. So now there are two losers at the bottom of the pecking order. Oh my, what will happen next? (No, that’s not a real question.)

Quite a lot, in fact, much of which has little to do with the ongoing teenage highschool power struggle, because all of a sudden Imogene has a crop of newer, bigger, much more supernatural problems. Her dreams are getting really real, and center on the nightly emergence from her bedroom closet of a manifestation of her childhood imaginary friend, Pelly, accompanied by a ragged band (literally) of “patchwork creatures made out of words and rags and twigs, of bits of wool and fur, skin and bone…”

Then there’s tragically, eternally adolescent Ghost, haunting the halls of the high school since his deadly fall from the school roof some years ago, who develops a crush on Imogene, which sets her up for even more attention from the Things residing on The Other Side.

I won’t go in to explanations of all the trope-ridden happenings of the book, for de Lint doesn’t break much new ground here. My co-reader whom I pressed the book upon for a second opinion, a keen and happily cynical connoisseur of teen-market fantasy, was gleeful in confirming all of the stereotypes and clichés marching around in predictable lock-step, acting just as they were supposed to.

Ah, the light blinks on! It’s all about comfort reading, isn’t it? No rules are so strong as those that govern our fictional safe zones.

What else do I want to say?

The writing is smooth, the characters either offbeat and likeable, satisfyingly hateable, or shudderingly creepy. (There were bits when I had to have the lights on. Things in Closets. Brrr!) The story amuses, and the key characters don’t take themselves too seriously, despite their ongoing dual battle with Real World school bullies and Other World bad things. There’s a lot of witty humour in here; occasionally I laughed out loud, which is rare for me, and a mark of high enjoyment indeed.

The girl in question does indeed at one point turn blue. Which isn’t as funny as the writer seems to think it is, which lost him a full point.

A point was also lost by the non-epic dissolution of the Epic Battle Scene. And another point gone for the introduction of a Random Internet Mentor who hands out pertinent evil-fighting advice in the nick of time. One more gone because of unbelievability of the melding of Real and Other worlds – the author at some point left off trying to make it plausible, he abandoned the attempt with a “Here it is, don’t look at it too hard, just step inside.”

What does that leave us with?

6/10.

Well on the okay side of the personal rating scale, so I’m good with that.

What else?

Oh yes. If you are a parent considering this for your young reader, there are some intense-ish scenes, including a fairly graphic depiction of how Ghost got to be dead. Also a comfortably relaxed attitude towards sex, which certain of the key characters are happily enjoying with their significant others, though that action’s all off-stage.

There’s a lot worse out there, for this kind of thing.

Decent job, Charles de Lint, despite my continual panning of your plotting technique. I may try some of your stuff again someday. Maybe another of the YA targeted books versus a grownup one. The Blue Girl left me smiling.

 

 

 

 

 

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bath-tangle-001Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer ~1955. This edition: Heinemann, 1955. Hardcover. 327 pages.

My rating: 7/10

This post is absolutely singing to the choir of Heyerites of whom I know there are many in my circle of fellow like-minded readers. You others, feel free to click away.

I picked up this handsome Heinemann edition of this new-to-me novel a week or so ago, and I’ve just finished reading it.

(And while we’re still at the cover point, don’t you love these Heinemann dust jacket illustrations? Far and away the best of the lot. Impeccably period correct, and so crisp and detailed, with hardly a glimpse of the determined frou frou which the cover art of the many later editions is overloaded with.)

I find my immediate response to the text behind that cover is love-hate, shades of the key troubled romance which drives this completely predictable bit of diverting froth.

I mean, I guessed every single one of the eventual matchups as soon as the characters in question stormed, crept, flounced, swanned, artlessly frolicked etc. their way onto the stage. Too, too easy – the suspense was zero. (But we’re used to that with Georgette Heyer, aren’t we? No prizes for guessing the match-ups!)

Starting things off with the funeral and will-reading of a wealthy nobleman sets the scene quite nicely. Subsequently two of the main female characters are in mourning the whole way through, which drives some of the complications soon ensuing, as our characters mustn’t cross the etiquette line which rigidly defines just what a bereaved widow/daughter can or can’t do in the months following the death.

Fanny is the very young widow; Serena is the somewhat older stepdaughter by a previous wife of the dearly departed; the two confound expectations by being very best of friends, though their personalities couldn’t be more different. Serena is proud and willful, Fanny meek and mild. Each defers to the other, though, and their affections for each other are genuine, which is a lovely touch. United they stand, covering for each other as needed, with varying degrees of talent and success.

Serena’s father has left his widow very well provided for, but he has pulled a bit of a rotten trick on his daughter, leaving her portion of the massive family fortune tied up in a trust administered by – get this! – Serena’s previously jilted ex-fiance.

As can be expected, sparks immediately fly.

Throw in a generous handful of star-crossed lovers, a comically “vulgar” grandmother figure, an overbearing and ambitious mum, and a whole peanut gallery of gossiping upper class observers.

Stir well.

Stand back.

When the mixture stops moving, everyone is where they should be, and the one superfluous suitor has quit the scene, gone off to heal his wounded heart elsewhere.

This is basically the Beatrice and Benedick storyline, with a few tweaks here and there. The chief lovers spend every meeting moment sparring, more or less equally, until manly forcefulness drives the final scene, wherein the proud lady goes all over swoonish and apologizes all round for her wilful ways, though we note that she doesn’t vow to permanently change.

Pleasant enough reading for a rainy autumn evening, of which we’ve had our fair share lately.

I haven’t even come close to tracking down Heyer’s entire Regency oeuvre, but compared to those I’ve bumped up against, I’d have to place this one smack dab in the center of the pack. I liked it quite a lot, but ultimately didn’t love it.

Luckily there are lots more to choose from, and the re-reading value is high across the board. I find myself mulling over a return to one of the top-end Heyers. Perhaps The Quiet Gentleman, one of my favourites so far, to luxuriate in a bit of harmless daydreaming about the anti-Ivo therein portrayed!

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blue-days-at-sea-h-v-mortonBlue Days at Sea and other essays by H.V. Morton ~ 1932. This edition: Methuen, 1932. Hardcover. 207 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This is a slender book of very readable essays by that British one-man phenomenon of mid-20th-century journalistic travel writing, Henry Vollam Morton.

In 1910, at the age of 16, H.V. Morton left school to work for the Birmingham Express and Gazette, where his father was employed as an editor. Young Henry took to journalism as a duckling takes to water, and his rise in the newspaper world was sure and steady.

In 1923, Morton was present at the opening of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, and his scoop of the “official” Times reporter brought him much notice, resulting in a further impetus to his upward progress in his chosen career.

In 1926, after several collections of his travel columns had been published and received with approbation by the English public, Morton set off on a motor trip of the rural areas of the UK, frequenting pubs and country gatherings, and documenting in a strongly nostalgic, rose-tinted way the vision of “our England” that he found.

In Search of England was published in 1927 to immediate acclaim, and H.V. Morton rode the crest of its success for the following five decades, wandering (in a very focussed sort of way) hither and yon, throughout the British Isles, Spain, Italy, North Africa, and into the Holy Land.

With his reporter’s pass card in hand, Morton received entry into all sorts of places, and he followed up his visits with likeable articles and essays, a collection of which make up this particular book.

The leading essay in Blue Days at Sea, in length and importance, details Morton’s time spent on one of the Royal Navy’s largest battleships. He documents his awed introduction to the “floating city” of a massive naval ship housing over 1200 people, and pens generally admiring portraits of some of its various classes of officers, focussing on the lowly midshipmen (rejoicing in the nickname “snotties” among their compatriots), and touching on the others, up to the second-in-command Commander, and the lordly Captain. The regular seamen are occasionally mentioned, mostly as being “down there somewhere” in the bowels of the ship, but Morton doesn’t seem to hobnob with them to any meaningful extent.

This being in 1932, England is officially at peace, but the Royal Navy never relaxes, so ambitious war exercises – mock battles at sea – are frequently being carried out to keep everyone up to speed on operating their deadly ships. Morton’s narration of one of these exercises is fascinating, in particular when viewed with our future hindsight, knowing that only a few short years later those mock battles would be very real, and the torpedoes fully loaded instead of being benign duds.

A moving vignette regarding a funeral at sea caps off this section.

Once this patriotic sample of “Hurray, our England!” journalism is tidied away, Morton turns his hand to a series of humorous sketches regarding various stereotypical versions of the era’s women. The Wife, The Woman Nobody Knows, The Woman of Affairs, The Bad Girl, The Head Huntress…these are just a sampling of the rather stock characters Morton dissects. Modern readers will lift an eyebrow; period humour prevails, and with that excuse we must be content.

Travel pieces cap off the collection, giving glimpses of Rome and Egypt. A particularly good essay is a description of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s tomb in Rome. Well done as well are glimpses of the tourists’ experience of the Nile and the monuments of the long-dead kings, Morton standing well off to the side viewing his compatriots with a cynical eye.

Back to Victoria Station proceeds our writer, and “It’s good to be home.”

With the recent publication of several biographies of H.V. Morton (he died in 1979, still enjoying a mostly positive reputation as a true booster of All Things British, though he had been a resident of South Africa for the last three decades of his life), most notably this one, a rather critical light has been beamed into Morton’s private life, revealing the feet of clay of this one-time literary idol.

Apparently the man was a rather promiscuous womanizer, which comes as no surprise to me after reading the essays on women in this collection, the writer very obviously having a keen eye for the delights of the female form.

More damning are Morton’s pro-fascist views in the pre-War years, according to his private journals. In this he was in common company with certain other public figures of his time; one again must keep the context of the times in mind, for the horrors of the wartime atrocities were a thing of the future.

It is now rather the thing to sneer at H.V. Morton, for both his now-politically-incorrect attitudes and the consistent romanticization in his writings, but one can’t dismiss his wide appeal to his contemporary readers, and the fact that he was an excellent documentarian of places and people now lost in time.

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a-footman-for-the-peacock-rachel-ferguson-1940A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson ~ 1940. This edition: Dean Street Press, 2016. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-911413-71-4. 206 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Ever since my 2012 reading of Rachel Ferguson’s challenging but ultimately enjoyable 1931 novel, The Brontës Went to Woolworths, I’ve harboured a yen to broaden my exploration  of the further works of this highly intelligent (and highly class conscious) writer.

Imagine then my anticipatory pleasure when approached by Dean Street Press with a review copy of one of Rachel Ferguson’s long out-of-print novels, A Footman for the Peacock, a partly serious, partly fantasy, partly satirical novel set at the beginning of the Second World War.

“Yes, please!” was my response, and I must say in this case my instinct that this was going to be a pleasure to read and review was perfectly correct.

A small aside, here, regarding my book reviewing. As a book blogger in this esoteric corner of the internet, I frequently receive requests to read and review things, and I generally turn these requests down. No time or energy for possible duds, you know. (I find enough of those for myself quite voluntarily!)

Unless the book in question is one which looks to be something I’d be interested in buying for myself in any event, in which case I’m naturally as keen as can be. (Re-publishers of mid-century middlebrow fiction, and gardening and travel books of any era, please take note! 🙂 )

Back to the Peacock.

It’s 1939, and the war is looming. Even the most optimistic of “peace in our time” Munich Agreement yes-men have come to the realization that all of that was a great big political farce, and that the guns will soon be firing.

The aristocratic Roundelays are in residence at Delaye, a vast pile of a country house just barely holding its own as the 20th century brutally takes its financial toll on the English “gentleman’s class”. Sir Edmund and Lady Evelyn know that another war is well-nigh inevitable, but in concert with their rural neighbours are merely holding still, making no actual preparations other than mental, because to do so would break the fragile hope that peace might yet prevail.

The Roundelays are walking a financial tightrope, balanced as they are between the still-wealthy and the newly bankrupt; each breath of political wind sends them swaying, but they refuse to step aside and are making shift to keep things going, with ever-fewer servants and not running a car (Lady Evelyn does the household shopping herself, travelling to and fro by bus) and having a cousin in residence as a paying guest, his five guineas a week going directly into the grocery budget for cousin Maxwell, Lady Evelyn, Sir Edmund, their two daughters still at home, three perennially feuding great-aunts, an ancient and increasingly senile old family retainer (Nursie), long-time dedicated butler, cranky cook, and a gardener, his helper, and a housemaid or two, not to mention kitchenmaid Sue Privett, eighth in her family to have been in service to the Roundelays, which turns out to have great significance to our story.

And there’s the peacock.

Ill-tempered, raucous, and tolerant only towards kitchenmaid Sue and the younger Roundelay daughter, Angela, the peacock haunts the grounds of Delaye, finding his way home after being forcibly relocated to a neighbouring estate where it is hoped he will find solace with a flock of peahens.

We have clues early on that this particular peacock is much more than a semi-domestic bird. He is, instead, a sort of reincarnation of long ago Roundelay servant Thomas Picocke, a “running footman”, who perished in 1792 due to the horrific nature of his duties (running in front of the carriage horses for miles and miles, to clear the way and announce the arrival of his masters) and the callous disregard of the family he served; all but French expatriate Lady Marguerite, wherein lies a sad tale of pity and betrayal, but not that which you might think…

Of reincarnations we have an inkling of three in this complex tale; also an intriguing reference to Dunne’s Theory of Time, a concept of serialism, or parallel streams of time, much discussed by the intellectuals of Rachel Ferguson’s time, and used by such disparate writers as J.B. Priestley, Rumer Godden and Elizabeth Goudge in their novels.

A Footman for the Peacock was received with lukewarm enthusiasm upon its publication early in the war. Though Rachel Ferguson was well-known by that time as a cutting satirist, the portrayal of the Roundelays as self-devoted shirkers of wartime duties grated just a bit too much on the sensibilities of reviewers, who suspected that Rachel Ferguson’s tongue was not quite as far in cheek as it should have been.

Here’s a sample of what got on their nerves.

War has just been declared, and the Roundelays are appalled by the thought of taking in evacuees or refugees. -(Perhaps understandably so, for their domestic arrangements are delicately balanced at the extreme edge of manageability – though others less well-placed are turning their households inside out in the service of the National Emergency, so that’s not a real excuse.) Anyway, at dinner one night, eldest daughter Margaret drops a bit of a conversational bomb.

‘I say, mother, I had a letter yesterday from Ortrud Bohm, that German girl I was at school with – ‘

Lady Roundelay smote the table with her fist. ‘No! No she doesn’t! My heart bleeds for the German Jews as much as anybody’s but I cannot face a pale fugitive running tear-stained in what she stands up in down this avenue. I’ve read horrors until I’m sick and I know everything the Nazis have done and I can’t cope with being wept over and having the old home in Hamburg or wherever it is described brick by brick and hearing that Mein Vater was suddenly not there and hasn’t been seen since, and that the Liebe Mutter was raped before her eyes and my German wouldn’t stand the strain. I can only say Bitte and Danke Sehr and Sauerkraut and Mein Kampf, and I won’t, I won’t, I WON’T!’

‘God, no,’ confirmed Sir Edmund. ‘If she comes, I go.’

Margaret finished her ham. ‘I was only going to tell you what she wrote and she’s not Jewish, you know… She says that she’s joined the Youth Movement and her brother’s in the army and he’s got a commission he couldn’t have hoped for in peace time as the Bohms aren’t geboren, you know, and that they’re not half so sniffed at as they used to be when they were only in trade, and she’s really seeing some men at last and is having the time of her life. She actually used some German words, so that really looks as though she might even marry now she sees it’s no good being so frightfully British. She was the one who came into the class once in a tartan skirt.’

‘Gosh… well, sorry I spoke. I hope she hooks some oberleutnant – what happened in church today, aunt Jessie?’

Did you find this passage rather shocking?

Well, you were supposed to, because Rachel Ferguson’s point is that people are a mix of thoughts, feelings and instinctive responses.

Quite “nice” people like the Roundelays – who are loving parents (the relationship between Lady Evelyn and emotionally fragile daughter Angela is one of the most likeable aspects of this all-over-the-place book), relatively decent to their servants (that episode with the running footman being in the bad old past), kindly dutiful to their tiresome relations and dependents (the great-aunts and Nursie are high maintenance to the nth degree) – I repeat, quite nice people in comparison to the society they exist in, harbouring selfish and bigoted thoughts, and having the temerity to voice them out loud.

In the last lies the rub.

For though we all harbour certain best-not-spoken thoughts, the Roundelays let fly. Mostly in the family circle, but we are privy to their words, and we recoil in politically correct horror to what is expressed in passages such as the one above, while guiltily holding in laughter, because a lot of what is said is (full disclosure – I laughed when I read this) very funny.

There is a strand of plot running through this very full story, but much of the pleasure of the thing lies in the many side excursions – show Rachel Ferguson a glimpse of a rabbit trail and she’s off like a shot, returning to the main path not at all winded and blithely assuming her reader to be loping along still in stride.

It takes a bit to get it figured out, but once one is hooked – it took me about 20 pages or so; I went back and checked – the rest of this quirky novel is both thought-provoking and entertaining. It’s occasionally rather like untangling a mess of yarn complete with helpful kitten, but it works.

And, thanks to Dean Street Press and the republishing of not just this one Rachel Ferguson novel, plus two more and a tempting selection of other mid-century reprints, my Christmas book wish-list for myself is well-nigh complete. Check out their recent releases – oh, bliss! Available as paper books (print on demand, and very nicely done; I’m impressed) from the publisher or via Amazon and Book Depository; also as ebooks in various formats.

For the original book blog review which triggered this reprint, I’m going to send you over to Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow, whose impeccable taste in obsolete fiction has pointed the way to many, many hours of excellent reading.

Here’s his take on A Footman for the Peacock, with loads of quotes and a most thoughtful analysis, which I find myself nodding away to in complete agreement.

 

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