Archive for the ‘Read in 2018’ Category

The Owl Service by Alan Garner ~ 1967. This edition: Collins, 1998. Paperback. ISBN: 0-00-675401-5. 224 pages.

Alan Garner’s melding of Welsh myth and 1960s’ teen angst tale has, over the years, become something of a legend of its own.

Pondered over by literary folklore scholars and a wide range of students from its publication fifty years ago to today, analyzed to the nth degree, filmed in 1969 with immense popular success, this novel just goes on and on.

Here’s the set up.

Teenage English step-siblings Alison and Roger accompany their recently married parents to Alison’s dead father’s house in Wales. It’s technically Alison’s house now, for it was left to her in her father’s will, bypassing her mother to avoid death duties. Roger’s father is divorced from his first wife, who was blatantly unfaithful to her husband; this situation has left Roger with a serious chip on his shoulder.

On site are three Welsh employees: gardener Huw, housekeeper Nancy, and Nancy’s teenage son Gwyn, odd-job boy.

Huw is viewed by the English visitors as something of a half-wit; he tends to do a lot of standing around gazing into the distance, and is continually making strangely phrased pronouncements. (Big Hint: Huw is not the fool he seems. Or at least not in the conventional sense.)

Nancy seems normal enough, if a bit high-strung. She is very much wound up about class distinctions, and warns her son Gwyn about a.) fraternizing with lowly Huw, and b.) getting chummy with upper-class Roger and Alison.

Gwyn pays this no mind, being attracted to all three of the forbidden ones for vastly different reasons, though he is about to run afoul of Roger. (And Roger’s dad. And Alison’s mother. And his own mother. Well, pretty well everybody, really. Except for Huw. This is another Big Hint.)

Shortly after the newly blended family’s arrival at the Welsh country house Alison, in bed with a minor ailment, hears persistent scratching in the ceiling of her room. Gwyn investigates, going up into the attic through a hatch in the ceiling. There  is evidence of rodent activity, but more intriguingly, Gwyn finds a complete set of elaborately decorated china dishes stacked in a corner. He brings a plate down with him to show Alison, and hey, presto! – we’re off.

The plate depicts an arrangement of flowers, but Alison immediately sees that the pattern also forms an owl, and she is mesmerized by it. She decides to trace the pattern onto paper, matching up body and head, and when done cuts the completed paper owl out. Over and over she does this, with some mysterious results: the paper owls disappear overnight, as does the pattern from the plate. Hmm…

Here’s the plate. For real. Seeing this pattern is what set folklorist Alan Garner off on the plot of this novel.

This is where Garner steps in with his retelling of the tragic Blodeuwedd story from the medieval Celtic folklore epic The Mabinogion. In this story, a man is cursed to never have a human wife. His wizard uncle then creates a maiden out of flowers for his nephew; the two wed, but the maiden falls in love with another man, and the two plot to murder the husband. This sets off another curse in which the flower maiden is turned into an owl, doomed to spend eternity replaying the story in each new generation. (Or something to that effect.)

So here we have Alison being possessed by the shade of Blodeuwedd, with Roger and Gwyn taking on the roles of her two lovers. Metaphorically speaking, that is. No actual lovemaking takes place, not on the page, anyway. And not really out of scene, either, from what hints Garner gives us. Though there is no doubt that everyone is thinking about it.

All. The. Time. Teenagers, raging hormones, the whole supernatural replaying of a tragic love triangle. Yeah, it’s a hot, hot summer, in more ways than one.

There’s a load of other stuff all going on concurrently. Alison’s confliction with her attraction to Gwyn (and maybe to Roger?) which her mother fears and forbids. (Interesting side note on the mother: she drives the story from the background; we never see her, though all of the characters refer to her and appear to view her as one who must not be upset or disappointed or crossed in any way.)

Roger’s father, though wealthy, is of a lower social status than his new wife, which is good for some malicious digs from here and there. Also, his divorced wife is notoriously promiscuous, going from man to man (or so rumour has it) with the result that son Roger is a prickly mass of resentment and fear that anyone will mention her to him.

Gwyn is feeling stuck between two worlds himself. Brought up by his mother, father unknown, he has managed to attain a scholarship to a prestigious school, and has flourished there and surpassed his own mother in social standing, which she bitterly resents, though she has wished this for him.

Roger and Gwyn bristle at each other, swapping insult for insult. In between times they go about together in relative harmony. Alison floats about, never committing to anything, tracing and cutting out her paper owls with increasing intensity, and giving by her very presence – all unawakened virginity – a generous dose of sexual tension to the scene.

As the summer goes on, the supernatural echoes from the awakened curse grow louder and louder until things come at last to a dramatic head. The climax is cut short by an unlikely saviour, in a much-too-simple way, and we are left at the end of this sketchy sort of tale wondering what the heck just happened, really.

An interesting novel, this. It really shouldn’t work, but for the most part it does. The ending is utterly inconclusive; the spell is laid much too easily; we know this can’t possibly be the final solution to Blodeuwedd’s reawakening.

Or is it?

This is a tough one to define a numerical rating for. As a novel, it’s hard to really get into, hard to find a conventional narrative thread; it’s all muddled up.

But on the other hand, one can’t quite look away. If you have the background knowlege of the Bloedeuwedd story, things click a lot more readily; later editions have all sorts of forewords and afterwords and author’s notes, but to read it cold (as it were) must have been a bit mind-bending when the book first came out.

Promoted as a “young adult” book, this one is indeed that. Older adults will find it intriguing, too. As might younger readers, though it might well induce a few nightmares. Those claws scratching in the ceiling, those clover flowers made of claws, those vanishing owls…

Brrr.

Okay, then.

7/10.

 

 

 

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Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham ~ 1960. This edition: Penguin, 1995-ish. Paperback. ISBN: 0-140-01986-3. 204 pages.

Okay, let me say this right up front, so you’ll know I’m coming from a place of love in the critique which follows.

  1. I am a John Wyndham fan.
  2. I like science fiction as a genre and at one time read an awful lot of it.
  3. I like science fiction because (a.) it can be a whole lot of fun because it allows for creative world building or alternate histories, and (b.) it has some reliable general rules, first and foremost being that the “science” must be logical in relation to whatever the fantastical world is it is taking place in.

This book drops the ball on that last one. So much so that I have to break down and call this a Very Silly Book, even taking into account its pro-feminist theme, which, as a female reader, I find is always a nice thing to bask in.

Trouble With Lichen begins with a funeral, one attended by vast crowds of mourning women, sobbing out their sorrow at the loss of one of their own. “Our beloved Diana…her unfinished work which she now can never finish…irony of fate…will of the Lord…” intones the presiding bishop, as the choir croons and the distaff masses nod and sigh.

Fourteen years earlier, young Diana Brackley is graduating from high school. Both beautiful and brilliant, she breaks the heart of her mother by deciding to go on to university, following the calling of the biochemistry lab rather than the domestic kitchen.

Newly employed at the prestigious research labs at Darr House, presided over by Francis Saxover, a personable middle-aged scientist with a terminally ill wife and two adolescent children, Diana flourishes in her chosen field.

One day, while working with samples of lichen collected in Manchuria, Diana stumbles upon an intriguing discovery, and divulges it to her boss. His interest takes a nosedive when his wife dies, and Diana continues her investigations after hours, as it were, not wanting to involve Francis in what might be pointless investigation when he is still in the throes of grief.

But Francis is not so devastated as all that. He is also tinkering with the lichen, and he and Diana independently come up with the same conclusion: they may have discovered a natural anti-aging compound – “antigerone”.

The implications are astounding, and require some serious consideration, in particular because the lichen in question exists only in a small geographical area, in a Chinese-held territory close to the Russian frontier. Which means that the production of the antigerone will always have to be extremely limited, unless someone can crack the biological code and replicate the active ingredients in the lichen. In the meantime, the antigerone remains a closely held secret, with only Diana and Francis privy to its effects.

Stuff happens. The years roll by. Diana inherits a small fortune, and quits her employment at Darr House in order to set herself up as the head of a an exclusive beauty salon catering to the female connections of wealthy and powerful British gentlemen.

“Nefertiti” is a posh salon indeed, and as the years go by, its longtime clients look better and better in comparison to their peers. Almost like they are, well, younger. Like time has slowed down for them. Very interesting.

Yup. Diana is dosing herself and her best customers with antigerone. But – get this – without their knowledge. Kind of like the way Francis Saxover has been dosing himself and – secretly, without their knowledge – his two children. But that story is about to break.

Francis confesses all to his now-adult children, who are not as shocked as you would think, merely insisting that their respective partners be given the potion as well. Which gives us one of the most delicious episodes of this goofy novel when Francis’s money-hungry daughter-in-law Jane, bitterly disappointed to find out that she may have to wait a very long time indeed for Francis to die and leave his son a lavish inheritance, pulls a very sneaky trick to gain the secret of the antigerone for her own nefarious and profitable purposes.

Diana then divulges her own plot, which is that she has intended her regiment of life-extended rich ladies to be the leading force of a new world for women, in which they will be able to either defer having children until after they have a career, or to have a full life after their offspring are safely raised. Yes, they can now do everything! Antigerone will buy them the one thing that has stood in the way of female empowerment all these centuries: TIME. (Okay, I can kind of buy into that myself. Wouldn’t it be loverly, to have a twice-as-long lifetime to get it all done in?!)

The sticky point for me was that these particular women are all under-employed already. They fritter their days away, la la la la. Diana insists that once the boredom of a century or so of this really sets in these ladies will set themselves afire with enthusiasm for doing world-changing stuff. Me, I don’t think so. Why aren’t they already hopping to it, seeing as their offspring are well off their hands with nannies and all? Negating that little theory about women wasting their best years in child rearing being what’s stopping them from taking part in real world-changing work.

We then proceed to have press conferences, a riot or two, kidnappings, torture, death threats, and, finally, an assassination of sorts. China finally wakes up and takes notice of the lichen situation and proceeds to slam the door shut for any further harvest. End of story? Well, not quite.

What an utter snob Wyndham comes across as with this concoction. Wives, daughters and mistresses of the elite are worthy of the antigerone; all others in the lower strata, so sorry, but you get to maintain the status quo. Because, well, just because. But that’s okay, because it would be wasted on you anyway, and your menfolk would never stand for it.

This tale is so ridiculously illogical. The science is never adequately explained; Wyndham takes the ring road round the core of that particular city. There are great gaps in the narrative. No one reacts as they would in real life. Everybody’s very, very restrained, so über-British stiff-upper-lip, refusing to get too excited, except for the odd well-behaved mob, easily controlled by a handful of stern bobbies. The men are all very cool with the women getting the good stuff; it takes chapters and chapters before someone says, “Hey! Men might benefit from this thing, too!” You think?! The Chinese caught on right away, once they twigged to what they had on their territory. The Brits – well – took them a while.

Whole thing is silly. Silly, silly, silly.

Points off for absolute failure to think the plot through in all of its potentially intriguing ways, and for failure to apply logic where most needed.

Points back on because it is pretty funny in places, and yeah, it is pretty cool to have the women getting all the perks, and because Diana offhandedly dismisses marriage as something she might do later when she gets around to it. (Though that might be up for debate; her anti-marriage stance might not be as absolutely disinterested as she makes out.)

Point in favour for letting our lady-scientist also be deeply interested in beautiful clothes and cosmetics.

Another point in favour, for a fairly decent “surprise” ending. Which I must say I saw coming with flags flying from quite some way away. (Wyndham likes to tidy things up.)

Still silly.

6/10.

 

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The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen ~ 1935. This edition: Knopf, 1936. Hardcover. 270 pages.

This novel is stiff with secrets. Everyone is hiding something, and the frequent silences are screaming with unspoken words.

What a tense novel, and what a compelling one, too. Such beautiful writing by Elizabeth Bowen. Though I found I was always being kept an arm’s-length away; the reader is very much the spectator here, privy to all of the secrets, but never sure quite what the next moment will bring.

A commenter on my recent post on Bowen’s The Little Girls mentioned the Henry James-like qualities of The House in Paris. Bang on, that comparison is. And, though I am a dedicated Jamesian at heart, I do find he can be a challenge to really get one’s head around. As is this novel. I had to pay attention, no room at all for straying thoughts.

The novel is set in three acts, as it were. Present-Past-Present. We are thrown into the middle of a certain situation, given a long flashback episode to explain how we got there, and then returned to the situation in time to see it come to its climax and continue on its way.

In brief:

Two British children meet in a small house in Paris. One, 11-year-old Henrietta, is breaking her journey from England to her grandmother’s home in Mentone. She is there for a few hours only, in between train connections. The other child is 9-year-old Leopold. He has travelled from Italy where he lives with his adoptive American family to meet with his real mother – whom he has never known since his birth – at her request.

There is a vast mystery surrounding Leopold and his origins; Henrietta is provided with the barest of explanations as to who he is and what he is there for, but she is warned not to speak of such things to him, or to anyone else.

The rest of the novel is involved with Leopold’s back story, and that of his mother, culminating with a sudden change in Leopold’s circumstances, which may or may not go well for him. Henrietta fades in to the distance, mute witness to what has gone on.

That’s all I am going to say, because otherwise I’d be here all the night! There’s a lot going on in here; Bowen puts her characters through the works.

One could open this book to any page and find a passage worthy of reading over and over and turning about in your mind like a sharply faceted gem, all a-glint with captured light. I will treat you to several which stood out for me, to give you a sense of the quality of the writing here.

It is a wary business, walking about a strange house you know you are to know well. Only cats and dogs with their more expressive bodies enact the tension we share with them at such times. The you inside you gathers up defensively; something is stealing upon you every moment; you will never be quite the same again. These new unsmiling lights, reflections and objects are to become your memories, riveted to you closer than friends or lovers, going with you, even, into the grave: worse, they may become dear and fasten like so many leeches on your heart. By having come, you already begin to store up the pains of going away.

and

She thought, young girls like the excess of any quality. Without knowing, they want to suffer, to suffer they must exaggerate; they like to have loud chords struck upon them. Loving art better than life they need men to be actors; only an actor moves them, with his telling smile, undomestic, out of touch with the everyday which they dread. They love to enjoy love as a system of doubts and shocks. They are right: not seeking husbands yet, they have no reason to see love socially. This natural fleshly protest against good taste is broken down soon enough; their natural love of the cad is outwitted by their mothers. Vulgarity, inborn like original sin, unfolds with the woman nature, unfolds with it quickly and has a flamboyant flowering in the young girl. Wise mothers do not nip it immediately; that makes for trouble later, they watch it out.

and

On the platform before their long journey, to speak of a next meeting would have been out of place… Good-byes breed a sort of distaste for whomever you say good-bye to; this hurts, you feel, this must not happen again. Any other meeting will only lead back to this. If to-day good-bye is not final, some day it will be; doorsteps, docks and platforms make you clairvoyant…

So there we have it.

Elizabeth Bowen.

Each word carefully, deliberately, elegantly placed where it will have the most impact.

I feel the tiniest bit out of my own humble place in boldly assigning a numerical rating to my reading of the book, but here it is: 9/10.

And then there’s this, from the back jacket of my edition. I remember comparing Bowen’s work to that of Rose Macaulay, before I knew of their connection. Called that one right, didn’t I?! I am beyond pleased with myself, as I’d already shelved these two together. Score one for the reader. Now, do I move Henry James, too? 😉

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The Camomile by Catherine Carswell ~ 1922. This edition: Virago, 1987. Introduction by Ianthe Carswell. Paperback. ISBN: 0-86068-873-9. 305 pages.

I had already told him about my being an orphan, about my music teaching, and about my writing and Mother’s. Of my writing he said, ‘I see. It is like the camomile – the more it is trodden on the faster it grows.’

This rewarding short novel is written in epistolary form, being made up of two long letters, fore and aft, and journal entries made to be shared with a distant friend.

It starts out as the amusing and somewhat self-absorbed account of a young woman’s journey of self-discovery, of finding her place in the world, and goes on to discuss some of the larger questions which are still pertinent to young people today: Who am I, really? Why am I here? Do I change to meet the desires of others, or stay true to myself?

Our young correspondent is Ellen Carstairs, just back in Glasgow after spending two years studying music in Frankfurt, writing to her London friend Ruby, whom she had met in her first days at the Frankfurt Conservatory of Music.

Ellen has found Ruby to be a kindred soul, for both soon realize that music is not their true métier, though they have some adequate talents in that area to perhaps serve as teachers of novices. They nevertheless do their best to take in their lessons and improve their musical craft, all the while yearning for a truly satisfying occupation, an “art” which will be their one true life’s pursuit, one which they are suited for and which they will excel at.

After their two years of relative freedom in Europe, the friends return home, and get on with the business of earning their livings while at the same time opening themselves up to finding and developing their true callings. For Ruby the true art – the one which chooses the artist – is that of illustration – drawing and painting. And for Ellen, it is writing. Which is a problem, at least as far as her family and friends are concerned.

For Ellen’s mother was a writer. Not a successful one – far from it! She appears to have been (from the clues we are given) a woman obsessed by the need to write without necessarily having enough mastery of the craft to make her scribblings saleable. She has pursued her interest to the exclusion of all else, spending the housekeeping money on self-publishing of pamphlets of sub-par poetry and the like.

This mother inadvertently neglects her two children, to the extent that her young son Ronald is permanently crippled through her heedless actions. Interestingly enough, when she dies when the children are still young, they and their father sincerely mourn her, harking back at her better qualities, and forgiving her (for the most part) her obsession.

Ellen’s missionary father has been absent for much of her childhood and he too is now dead, leaving Ellen and Ronald in the care of his sister Harriet, an Evangelical Presbyterian of unwavering faith. Neither Ellen nor Ronald share the narrow religious beliefs of their father and aunt, but they go along with Aunt Harriet’s wishes in church attendance and such, not wanting to hurt her feelings, for they love her deeply despite their increasing differences.

On her return from Germany, Ellen begins to teach music at her old school and to private students; she earns enough to be able to rent a room and a piano in a neighbour’s house, ostensibly so she can practice undisturbed and undisturbing. Soon she finds that she is using her retreat for writing more than for piano playing; her true art has chosen her and she gives in with secret relief, though she is wary of admitting it to her brother and aunt, and questions herself on the ethical implications of misleading them as to what she is doing.

Ellen fortuitously finds a mentor in an ex-priest, John Barnaby, a brilliant intellectual engaged in quietly, slowly killing himself by drink and near-starvation. John reads Ellen’s manuscripts and encourages her to seek publication, using his past connections in the literary world to push forward her novice submissions.

Just when things seem set for Ellen to commit fully to becoming a professional writer, she falls in love with Duncan, a friend’s brother who is a young doctor on leave from his practice in India. The two become engaged, but though Duncan gives lip service to his wish for Ellen to not give up her own interests, it becomes increasingly obvious that he is oblivious to the importance of her craft to her very identity.

Added to this building dilemma is the fundamental difference in Ellen’s and Duncan’s views towards sex. Ellen believes that people seriously considering marriage should engage in the ultimate intimacy, in order to make sure that they are compatible for a lifetime of marital companionship. Duncan is shocked by this notion, and condescendingly tells Ellen that she is merely a foolish virgin with outlandish ideas; much better to let Duncan guide her in her sexual initiation once they are safely married.

Can you see where this might be going?

Yes, indeed, second thoughts are in order all round…

No surprise that this novel was chosen by feminist press Virago for republication in the 1980s, for it is all about female self-determination in the face of almost universal societal disapproval.

Ellen documents her personal journey with passion and lucidity and not a little humour. This is not in any way a dreary saga of crushed and downtrodden womanhood. No indeed! For like the camomile referenced in the title, the heavy-footed treading here merely makes the flower find another place and way to thrive.

More on Catherine Carswell here.

The Camomile scores a good strong 8/10 from me.

Carswell’s one other novel, Open the Door! (1920) is now firmly on my wish list, as is her partial autobiography Lying Awake.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Moorchild by Eloise Jarvis McGraw ~ 1996. This edition: Scholastic, 1998. Paperback. ISBN: 0-590-03558-4. 241 pages.

What with my recent reading of Greensleeves, Eloise Jarvis McGraw is on my radar, so when I was bookshelf browsing for my next diversion and noticed The Moorchild tucked away with a bunch of other juveniles too good to dispose of though we have no actual children in residence anymore, I thought, “Aha! It’s meant to be.”

The Moorchild is a book aimed at a rather younger crowd than Greensleeves, in both topic and writing style, though McGraw does her intended audience the grace to assume they are capable of absorbing some non-standard vocabulary terms; the book is stuffed full of what can only be termed dialect.

The novel is Medievalish Britainish in setting, but it’s not meant to be historical fiction or anything approaching it; it’s purely fantastical in theme, drawing heavily from Celtic and Old English folklore. It’s a fairy tale, in fact, in the truest sense of the term.

Young Moql, growing up among the Moorfolk – a race of what would be understood to be old-style fairies, tricksy and malicious versus twinkly and benign – is discovered to be deficient in several important skills; namely in making herself invisible and in shape-shifting.

As the possibility of being seen will endanger the Band as a whole when they venture out into the light of day and forage among the humans, this creates something of a problem, though mostly for Moql, as the Moorfolk are not endowed with anything approaching empathy as the humans know it. (Well, neither are the humans in our tale, as we will find out shortly, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

Turns out that one of the Moorfolk ladies has had a dalliance with a human, and the resulting child – as babies will no matter what the species – shares qualities of both her ancestries. She’s neither this nor that, poor little hybrid, through no fault of her own.

So, what to do with Moql?

Get rid of her, of course, by swapping her with a human baby. Due to time being different inside the Moorfolk’s magical mound, and various powers involved in such exchanges, near-adolescent Moql finds herself trapped in a human infant’s body, surrounded by excruciatingly painful anti-fairy items – salt, rowan wood, various herbs, and in particular iron. Which is really a problem, as her “father” turns out to be the village blacksmith…

Moql, now Saaski (as that was the name of the infant she has replaced) proceeds to make her new parents’ lives sheer hell, until she overhears her “grandmother” putting forth the theory that the baby is indeed a changeling, and that there are some fairly drastic solutions as to getting rid of her.

Saaski mulls this over, there in her confining cradle, and decides that survival is worth adaptation, which forms her basic strategy through the next ten years of her life.

For the humans all around her, with the notable exception of her “parents”, and, eventually, her grandmother (the village herb woman/healer), are not particularly kind to a child with such differences as Saaski soon demonstrates. She’s unusually strong, very fast and agile, her fingers and toes are too long, her skin is dusky and her hair pale blonde, her strangely-set eyes are not blue like those of her parents but a changeable violet in colour. Yup, something’s not right with that one.

You know where this is going, right?

When misfortune strikes the village, Saaski becomes the scapegoat as the superstitious and malicious villagers seek for an easy target for their ire. Luckily she has at least one true friend, and one thing that the Moorfolk want, which turns into a bargaining chip as Saaski, who has slowly become possessed of a conscience and a set of the better human emotions, decides to use it to repay her human foster parents for their own misfortune in losing their true baby and being saddled with Saaski instead.

Being a children’s book, the ending is on a positive note, though with enough mystery to leave the reader wondering what will be happening next with Saaski as she sets out on her greater adventure, cut loose from her ties with both her foster family and her true parents.

This is a well written example of its genre, and it deserves its 1997 Newbery Honor Medal.

I do have a few niggling criticisms, though. I thought that the book bogged down somewhat midstream; it felt like it was coming to its highpoint about half way through, but it took forever for the foregone conclusion to be worked out. For of course Saaski is going to go back into the Moorfolk’s Mound, to retrieve a certain something in exchange for her valuable possession.

What that something is will not be a surprise to anyone even slightly versed in fairy lore and changeling tales, but for quite some time it’s like that problem doesn’t exist, and when it is at last acknowledged we get to breathe a big sigh of relief.

The Moorchild might make a decent Read-Aloud; heads-up to those considering it that the centre section goes on and on and might cause excessive exhaustion in the reader-aloud, though there is enough action that you probably won’t lose your audience.

Bad stuff happens, which is rather the whole point, but good stuff eventually prevails, as long as we don’t think too hard about those intolerant villagers, who get to go on as usual, their gang mentality intact and their target of united malice removed. Can’t help but wonder who they’ll turn on next…

Here’s my rating: 6.5/10.

Probably not a must-read book, though meaty enough for some appeal beyond the junior set. A bit too predictable in its plotting and outcome in my opinion, though that’s not necessarily a demerit in the fairy tale world.

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Greensleeves by Eloise Jarvis McGraw ~ 1968. This edition: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. Hardcover. 311 pages.

This vintage “young adult” novel  is a gorgeous bildungsroman concerning the daughter of celebrities who is given a chance to temporarily reinvent herself as a nobody.

As a (once-upon-a-time) homeschooling parent I was already familiar with Eloise Jarvis McGraw from her often-recommended books for slightly younger readers such as The Golden Goblet and The Moorchild, and I generally liked her work.

But I’d never heard of her 1968 novel Greensleeves until bumping into my cyberfriend Jenny’s post, wherein she calls Greensleeves one of her favourite books ever, and goes on to review it in glowing terms.

I was immediately interested, as we share similar tastes in a number of genres, and set off on a quest for a long-out-of-print copy for myself. Rare indeed, this one was, with prices as expected, but I took a deep breath and went for it, and by golly, Jenny was right. This is a charmer.

So I’m going to cheat a bit here, and send you over to read what Jenny says, because she’s pretty convincing:

Jenny’s thoughts on Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s Greensleeves

So if you’ve been and done what I said to do and have read Jenny’s post and then come back here to see what else I have to say, I’ll pad things out a bit.

Our heroine Shannon/Georgetta/Greensleeves is an utter mass of insecurities on the inside, though she presents exceedingly well on the outside, a state of affairs I am sure a lot of us can relate to, right? Even well beyond those brutal teenage years, when we’re trying to figure out who the heck we are, and how to find friends, and the complications of romantic love and the freight train of sexual feelings and how to be true to yourself when you don’t even know what that really means because life is so utterly complicated.

Yes? Of course. Yes.

So all of that aside, the story is absolutely entertaining, as Shannon reinvents herself and puts her new persona across with mixed results to a crowd of new acquaintances. She goes into her new world thinking one thing, finds herself rather mistaken, does a mental flip, and then despite her personal epiphany finds out that people are just going to do what they’re going to do regardless of well-intentioned meddling from outside forces. The only cage door you can open is your own, because the trickiest latch is on the inside, and sometimes the cage is where you need to be. And sometimes not.

Okay, that’s the message, which I seem to be stuck on this morning, despite my intentions of telling more about the actual story.

This is my third time reading this book, and it’s still pure pleasure. It belongs on the same shelf as I Capture the Castle, another of my cherished vintage “teen” reads which defies its ghettoization as a “young adult” book, whatever that is supposed to mean.

I mean, good is good, right? Whether “targetted” for a ten-year-old, sixteen-year-old or fifty-year-old. I don’t think we change all that much inside our heads, no matter what the externals do. Or so I am finding in my own case. Essentially I am the same person I was way-back-then, with of course layers of experience and what I like to think of as wisdom <insert smiley face here> tempering the highs and lows of my emotional range.

Greensleeves is sweet but not mawkish, thoughtful but not preachy, frequently very funny, and also a little bit heart-rending in places. It’s utterly relatable in its essentials, in a vintage sort of way. It is an absolute period piece, and I say that with an approving nod, because it captures elements of its era wonderfully well.

So, if this sort of thing appeals to you, you will be happy to hear that the novel has recently been republished (in 2015) and can now be found both new and used at exceeding reasonable prices. It’s part of the “Nancy Pearl’s Book Crush Rediscoveries” reprint series, with a foreword by the aforementioned Nancy Pearl, who I must confess I have zero familiarity with.

Obviously I’m way out of that loop, but here is what Wikipedia says about Nancy Pearl, and on the strength of that, and of her championship of Greensleeves (among other neglected books) I say “Hurray” for her!

Oh, yes. My rating. 9.5/10.

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Twelve Girls in the Garden by Shane Martin ~ 1957. This edition: Morrow, 1957. Hardcover. 216 pages.

This satisfactorily beguiling romp of a mystery novel – final body count four-ish, if I’ve added up correctly – stars an elderly American archaeologist, one Professor Challis – who has a nose for curious situations and an unerring talent for chasing down solutions to said problems in a gently circular way.

The Professor, fresh back from some years in Greece (ancient Minoan civilization his speciality) is engaged in writing up his latest findings at the British Museum. Slightly bored with his incarceration (as it were) in the bustling city versus his beloved sun-baked Greek countryside, Professor Challis wanders into a neighbourhood where he once had close friends.

While peering in the window of a house he once knew well, the Professor is accosted by the current owner – the taciturn Mr. Flett – and is immediately embroiled in a rather bizarre scenario involving a mysteriously missing sculptor who disappeared on the eve of a crucial solo exhibition, said sculptor’s twelve masterful statues of beautiful women (all – or at least the heads of all – modelled from life) displayed about a London garden, a beautiful young woman who bears a strong resemblance to one of those statues, and a number of intriguing male characters, some of whom carry firearms as a matter of course.

Suffice it to say that this is a mystery in which art, love, greed and malice play equal parts, and that Professor Chalice faces some danger to life and limb before all is sorted out, with his crucial assistance.

Not bad at all, for a charcter – and a writer – I hadn’t ever heard of before.

Turns out that Shane Martin is the pseudonym of Australian journalist-writer George H. Johnston, whose fictionalized autobiography My Brother Jack is something of a classic of Australian literature.

Moving to the Greek island of Hydra in the 1950s with his wife, the equally talented writer Charmaine Clift, and their four young children, Johnston took to writing “pot boilers” in between his more serious literary attempts, five such light novels under the name Shane Martin, of which Twelve Girls in the Garden is apparently the easiest to find – the rest having dropped out of sight, being virtually invisible on all of the usual used book sites.

I know this because I looked.

Darn.

Okay, now check this out, fellow readers – especially (perhaps) fellow Canadian readers. Here’s an intriguing connection for you to revel in. George and Charmaine were connected in a most intimate way with the late great Leonard Cohen. Read all about it here!

That was unexpected. Everything is connected, isn’t it? How many degrees of separation between everybody on earth? Ha!

Back to the book – head spinning a bit because of Leonard – I was satisfied in that the mystery at the heart of Twelve Girls is hardish to guess – it took me almost to the denouement to figure out the key twists – and the character of Professor Challis is charmingly delightful. I’d happily follow him through the other four companion books –The Saracen Shadow (1957), The Man Made of Tin (1958), The Myth is Murder (1959), and A Wake for Mourning (1962) – if only I could get my greedy hands on them.

Loved the writing in this one – it danced and rollicked and teased and just generally pleased.

Here’s a vignette from a visit to a junk dealer’s shop:

In no way was it particularly different from any other secondhand dealer’s shop that lies outside the orbit of fashionable patronage. It had that dubious air of muddle and secrecy, with a flavor of ignorant stockpiling, that might lead one quite mistakenly to believe in the possibility of discovering a rare Memlinc or a genuine van Eyck or, at worst, a quite good Byzantine icon underneath its coating of discolored varnish and grime. It followed the usual custom of displaying in its windows and on the pavement outside only the tawdriest of trash – cumbersome pieces of furniture which were either blatantly spavined or suspiciously wormy; chamber pots of impressive size and florid decor but quite lacking in handles; chipped saucers filled with wedding rings, synthetic gems, old coins, and unmatched earrings; cases of medals concerned with forgotten gallantries in campaigns against Kaffir, Boer, and Afridi; mid-Victorian specimen cabinets choked either with geological fragments or brittle moths and insects; a tray of surgical instruments that looked as if they must have been used by Crippen; miscellaneous articles of chinoiserie brought from Foochow in that free-enterprising period when taste had declined in inverse ratio to the prosperity of the English tea trade; a varied but rather damaged selection of Spode, Staffordshire, and Rockingham; the usual china dog and Negro boy; a stuffed owl, solemnly dusty; and a group of hideously colored plaster statuettes of girls in the cloche hats, shingles, and alluring postures of the twenties.

The whole goat’s-nest, Professor Challis suspected, was to mislead the gullible into supposing that since no human being who had not been certified could possibly wish to buy anything from a display so ghastly, it followed that the real treasures must be inside, secreted in some glittering Ali Baba’s cavern to which only the cognoscenti had the key…

Yes, wordy and rambling and slightly, deliberately sarcastic, but with the malice tempered with good humour. It takes some time to get to the point, but the journey is worth the trip.

Here’s a nice enthusiastic  8/10, partly because I hadn’t expected the tale to be so erudite.

What would please me even more is a whole stack of Johnston/Martin’s books to pick through for evening amusement when the everyday needs to be escaped from for a bit.

I don’t think I’m done with this writer – this feels like a first step on a book quest journey, in fact.

Anyone else know of him, and his other works? Is he worth pursuing, do you think?

 

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