Swiss Sonata by Gwethalyn Graham ~ 1938. This edition: Cormorant Books, 2005. Introduction by Elspeth Cameron. Softcover. ISBN: 1-896951-62-7. 326 pages.

What an interesting book this turned out to be, and, after a somewhat uneven start, an absorbing story both for its historical value and for the small personal sagas of its invented characters.

I first became aware of author Gwethalyn Graham after reading Gentleman’s Agreement by Laura Z. Hobson last year. That novel was all about anti-Semitism in American society in the immediate post-World War II years, and in looking into the background of that particular novel, I came across mention of a Canadian writer – Gwethalyn Graham – who wrote a well-received novel on a similar theme – 1944’s Earth and High Heaven.

“Well received”, you’ll note that I said. This is something of an understatement, as both Earth and High Heaven and Swiss Sonata won the Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction – in 1938 and 1944 – a remarkable achievement for a writer’s first two (of only three) published works.

Looking into Gwethalyn Graham – see, this is how these things happen, wandering down each enticing literary rabbit trail! – I found mention of her first novel, published when she was 25 years old. Swiss Sonata was based on Graham’s personal experiences as a student at a Swiss “finishing school” in the 1930s, and it sounded like it might be an amusing read.

Which it turned out to be, in bits here and there, but its overwhelming concentration was on much darker world affairs affecting a group of schoolgirls – some, to be said, not exactly girls but in actuality young women – and their instructors, resident in a small Swiss boarding school in 1935.

Kirkus had this to say in its 1938 review, and I fully concur.

A first novel that is well handled and the story of a finishing school in Switzerland, whose pupils come from many countries. A miniature League of Nations, the problems current in 1935 are reflected in the school, pro-Hitlerite persecutes German-Jew, counter-revolutionary interests are hidden from the public eye. There are emotional, psychological problems, and the head-mistress is forced out of her ivory tower into active participation in the girls’ lives. Vicky, the heroine, is a bit too good to be true, but the story, after a slow start, does carry you along, interested in the outcome. A far-better-than-average girls’ school story.

Time presses, and I will leave you here, with these last few links well worth perusal.

Now interested in Gwethalyn Graham, and want to find out more? Here you go, a grand post on her increasingly tragic back story from the Only Connect blog.

And Brian Busby of The Dusty Bookcase blog, whose opinion on all things bookish I hold in the very highest regard, has this to say.

My personal “reading satisfaction” rating of Swiss Sonata: 7/10.

I liked it, and found its slight unevenness very forgivable. In some parts the emotional tension was exceedingly well sustained, and though I, like the Kirkus reviewer, found the heroine Vicky just a bit too good to be true, I eventually found myself completely won over. Interesting ending, too.

Highly recommended for its historical value, well presented hand-in-hand with its psychodrama fictional theme.

 

 

 

twice-dead-e-m-channon-2Twice Dead by E.M. Channon ~ 1930. This edition: Greyladies Press, 2010. Foreword by Hilary Clare. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-907503-04-7. 229 pages.

My rating: 6ish/10

After my recent enjoyment of Channon’s mathematical romance Little G, I thought it worth taking a gamble on one of her several mystery novels, and yesterday brought me Twice Dead, courtesy of the nicely efficient Royal Mail, which, in combination with our very own Canada Post, makes book delivery from Great Britain lightning fast.

A quick read it was, and reasonably diverting, though I must confess I fell asleep over it while reading in the bath last night.

Now this was only partly the fault of the book. Some of the blame must rest with the physical and mental exhaustion which is the norm for me this busiest time of year, as I scramble to stay on top of my numerous self-inflicted commitments.

Plain old tiredness combined with a tubful of warm water and the white noise of the little electric heater which we use to make our very cold bathroom reasonably fit for lingering in (not to mention the warm air wafting from it) knocked me out, and I woke with a start to a lukewarm tub and a slightly damp novel, for though it never actually got submerged (close thing, though!) it managed to wick up a bit of dampness while I was comatose.

But the book must take some of the responsibility for its almost-soggy state. It’s not the most stirring of reads.

In fact, don’t think I have ever read such a offhandedly casual sort of murder mystery, for all of its darkly passionate goings-on. Dirty deeds are done by heroes and villains both, and shrugs all round seems to be the pattern for official repercussions!

And everyone with such tremendous collections of secrets! My goodness. Complicated lives, these fictional folk lead.

Rich girl Sylvia, sweet-natured and lovely, has several men a-wooing her, but the one she secretly loves is (as far as she knows – heaven forbid she ask the man) affianced to another, so she kind-of-accidentally accepts a proposal from one of the second string, to her immediate regret.

For slightly effeminate Philip – his lack of manliness obviously inherited from his Italian mother – is only superficially charming. On closer acquaintance he’s a bit of a sissy, as far as personal discomfort goes, though he’s virile enough in his secretive pursuit of willing women, including, with tragic repercussions, Sylvia’s delicately lovely but morally corrupt cousin Anne.

A disguised fortune-teller has recently informed Philip that he is heading for a bad end – he will end up “twice dead” – but he shrugs it off, once he discovers that the soothsayer in question is someone well-known to him from his shady past. He thinks she’s just telling him tales as a sort of twisted revenge for how he wronged her.

She’s right, though. He’s doomed.

All the wrong people get the blame for Philip’s demise – or do they? What dark deeds were done in the shabby bedroom of the dingy little inn where Philip lay trapped with a broken leg?

Will the brilliant young village doctor be found guilty of Philip’s death in a court of law as well as the damning court of public opinion? And/or for the death of the mysterious fortune-teller, which follows closely after?

Will Sylvia’s secret flame come round to her sterling qualities, now that her Big Mistake is dead and gone? Or is he (Mr True Love) really going to marry his dynamically attractive cousin instead?

Why is Anne walking and talking in her sleep, all Lady Macbeth-like?

And what is the secret of the Chinese ink brush in the doctor’s curio cabinet?

All this, and more, in this crowded mystery-romance. Utterly period piece, with just enough witty exchanges and charming moments to rescue it from its otherwise ho-hum-ishness as a puzzle novel.

I’d definitely read more E.M. Channon, of any of her several genres, on the feeble strength of this one, and of the infinitely better Little G, but I won’t go so far as to recommend Twice Dead to the rest of you.

Give it a try, for sure, but keep your expectations modest.

(And don’t read it in the tub!)

I am the owner of a sort of mixed bag of a vanity project by the estimable (though occasional uneven) J.B. Priestley.

The book, published in 1951, is called Delight, and it is comprised of short vignettes – one hundred and fourteen of them – of things which gave Mr. Priestley deep (and often secret) joy.

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Occasionally, when in need of a reminder of how many such delightful things the most ho-hum life contains, I dip into this book and read about Fountains and Cosy Planning and Orchestras Tuning Up and Waking to Smell Bacon, etc., and rejoice in my turn in those small goodnesses.

Here’s one I know we can all relate to, apropos of nothing in particular, as it isn’t currently storming – though it is a bit chilly outside – and once I venture out one last time to fill the greenhouse woodstove chock full of the biggest logs I can manhandle into it, my warm bed and a good book await me.

I hope your collective evenings contain a similar pleasure.

Enjoy!

Fifty-One

There is a peculiar delight, which I can still experience though I knew it best as a boy, in cosily reading about foul weather when equally foul weather is beating hard against the windows, when one is securely poised between the wind and rain and sleet outside and the wind and rain and sleet that leap from the page into the mind.

The old romancers must have been aware of this odd little bonus of pleasure for the reader, and probably that is why so many of their narratives, to give them a friendly start, began with solitary horsemen, cloaked to the eyebrows, riding through the night on urgent business for the Duke, sustained by nothing more than an occasional and dubious ragout or pasty and a gulp or two of sour wine (always fetched by surly innkeepers or their scowling slatterns), on side-roads deep in mire, with wind, rain, thunder-and-lightning, sleet, hail, snow, all turned on at the full.

With the windows rattling away and hailstones drumming at the paper in the fireplace, snug in bed save for one cold elbow, I have travelled thousands and thousands of mucky miles with these fellows, braving the foulest nights, together crying ‘Bah!’

e-m-channon-little-g-1936-greyladies-cover-2012Little G by E.M. Channon ~ 1936. This edition: Greyladies Press, 2012.  Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-907503-21-4. 226 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Still playing catch-up with those January-read books. (Not to mention the ones I’ve got stacked up here from February.) Maybe I should try a bit harder to condense my reader’s responses?

Little G, with its rather mysterious title, was, as I’ve mentioned in an earlier round-up post, a whole lot of fun.

It’s a decidedly charming summer-set fluff piece about a misogynistic (and youngish – this is important) Cambridge mathematics don who is sent off to the country by his doctor, with orders to eschew overtaxing his brain, and to get himself into some habits of healthful exercise.

“And you really want to banish me to this beastly village, Cardew?” he inquired, with pathos.

“You can make your own choice, my man. Six months in Challingley, leading the sort of reasonable life that I’ve suggested, or a real genuine breakdown, with a real genuine rest-cure in a nursing home to follow.”

“Good Lord!” said the Mathematician, in blank horror, with a swift vision of himself quite helpless, at the mercy of innumerable designing young hussies in becoming uniforms.

“I can tell you,” said the Doctor, “that I’d be glad enough to change places with you. I’ve spent more than one holiday in Challingley, and always been sorry to come away. Plenty of people would envy you your luck.”

“Rotten luck,” said the Mathematician, uncomforted.

The Doctor, looking round for inspiration, found it suddenly on his companion’s knee.

“You can keep a cat of your own there.”

The Mathematician did not like cats. He adored them.

His gloomy face relaxed a very little.

“Now you’re talking!” he said.

“A dozen cats, if you like,” said the Doctor, encouraged.

“I’m a monocattist,” said the Mathematician.

He stood up suddenly, putting the black kitten down, but with all possible consideration for its feline feelings.

“It’s no use trying to get round me like that, Cardew,” he said. Im not going. ”

Three days later – considerably alarmed by the recurrence of the unpleasant symptoms which had induced him to call in the Doctor – he went.

So there John Furnival is, domestically settled into a picturesque thatched-roof cottage, cared for by a blithely cheerful cook-housekeeper who rather sets his teeth on edge by her unremitting good nature, and her welcoming in of his numerous neighbours making their polite social calls.

Despite his crankiness, Furnival is absorbed into the community and finds himself not only going out to tea but hosting others in his turn, playing tennis, going for long country walks, and, yes, adopting a cat.

And to his horror (for he carefully inquired as to the presence of predatory females before agreeing to relocate to the village), he discovers that one of his neighbours is a very attractive young widow, one who is doubtless on the lookout for an unattached male such as himself as her next potential victim!

So focussed is Furnival on this (wholly unfounded) threat to his bachelor freedom, that he fails to realize that the true danger to his single state is approaching from a very different direction…

A cheerful, effortless read; witty throughout and wickedly funny in parts. I enjoyed it immensely.

Ethel Mary Channon wrote quite a number of books in her time (she died in 1951), most of them being “school stories” targetting the girls’ market, as well as mysteries and a number of adult novels of varying degrees of seriousness.

Little G is definitely on the “light” side; it is also said to be one of Channon’s best works, which might be seen as a warning off of sorts for her others, but I’d happily sample her “lesser” novels merely on the strength of this likeable concoction.

Long out of print, Little G was reprinted by Greyladies Press in 2012, but that run appears to be sold out as well, and the book is currently rather elusive in the second-hand lists. Perhaps all of its readers are hanging onto their copies for pleasant revisiting? I know I am.

a-candle-for-st-jude-rumer-goddenA Candle for St. Jude by Rumer Godden ~ 1948. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1948.  Hardcover. 192 pages.

My rating: 8/10

This slight novel would be better classified as a novella. But it’s an intricately crafted thing in its own way, and there is much to admire in how the author sketches her characters so deftly, using her polished technique in giving us telling glimpses of each from a variety of perspectives.

There is also plenty of scope in this format to show off a writer’s technical abilities, and Rumer Godden worked hard at her craft and it shows. For all that it is set in a constrained period of time, the author darts all over the place in gathering background details. This is how flashbacks should be written; Godden’s are as smooth as silk.

The book details twenty-four hours in the life of a small dance academy and theatre in London.

Madame Holbein, once a prima ballerina, presides over her tiny but exceptionally well-regarded ballet school with the stalwart assistance of her sister-in-law, the misleadingly named Miss Ilse, who cares for all the domestic and financial details. (Miss Ilse is actually a widowed Mrs; Madame Holbein, never married, should really be a Miss, but such petty details of nomenclature are dismissed by the dramatic Anna Holbein: “Madame” she has self-designated herself and so it shall be!)

Every year Madame Holbein holds a gala recital followed by a short but eagerly awaited and always sold out dance season in the tiny, gem-like theatre attached to the school. Her performers are the best of her current students, acting as corps and secondary leads to guest stars drawn from Madame Holbein’s long roster of successful alumni.

This year those stars are Lion and Caroline*, two of her brightest and best ex-students, now dancing to great acclaim as supporting partners – and presumably romantic partners? – in a famous company.

Along with this year’s celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of her debut on the stage, Madame Holbein not so secretly intends to designate Caroline as her successor and heir to the leadership of the dance school – though not just yet! – and she squelches down her occasional unease that perhaps Caroline is not quite as good as she thinks she is; things have come very easily to her, and Madame Holbein is a great believer in the value of suffering for one’s art.

As this extra-special gala night approaches, a mere 24 hours to go, it becomes evident that not all is well in Madame Holbein’s tiny fiefdom.

Senior student Hilda, a gifted junior choreographer, given the stressful honour of preparing a piece for the gala show, has just been informed that her work is not suitable after all, and instead of being presented as planned, it will be excerpted. Oh, and Hilda’s own role in her own ballet will be given to Caroline, because Caroline has decided that she doesn’t much like the admiring way Lion has been looking at Hilda, who is showing signs of developing into a dancer with that little bit extra – that certain hunger – which Caroline herself lacks.

A much smaller student is a bundle of nerves because she has been casually informed that a certain famous film producer will be auditioning her for a role just before the gala takes place; it is handy for both him and Madame Holbein, because he will be in attendance at the gala and the few minutes it will take are just the merest inconvenience to the adults, but Lollie is terrified, and no one has time to talk her through her very real fear.

Madame Holbein is finding that all of her carefully organized plans for her celebratory gala are being endangered by the seething emotions of those whom she thought were well under her rather arrogant thumb; she must come to terms with her own strong personality, and the way it has affected those she loves the most, and demands the most from.

From none has been demanded so much extra as from Miss Ilse, quietly unsung co-heroine of the assembly, whose strong Catholic faith has sustained her in the past when life’s unfairness seems too much to bear. It is Miss Ilse’s habit, when things get too dark, to duck away to the church nearby to light a candle to St. Jude, patron saint of hope and impossible causes, and she does so now, as Madame Holbein’s carefully constructed world seems to be poised on the verge of irrevocable collapse…

Rumer Godden knew the dance world of her time very well indeed. She and her sister Jon opened their own multi-racial ballet school in Calcutta in 1925, and successfully ran it for twenty years; she remained a dedicated balletomane all of her life, and her dance-related episodes in full length novels such as Thursday’s Children read true.

A Candle for St. Jude is a minor book in Godden’s larger oeuvre, but it is one of the best-beloved among many of her readers.

It is not my own personal favourite-of-all of Rummer Godden’s stories – that would instead be China Court, hands down – but there is a lot to like about it.  A Candle for St. Jude is a finely crafted bit of writing; a small and perfectly invented episode which condenses its unseen but masterfully imagined greater background into colourful and immediate clarity.

*Catherine/Caroline – I realized as soon as I hit “publish” that I had written the whole post using the wrong name for Madame Holbein’s guest star. Those of you who receive these posts by email will have received the incorrect version, but I’ve fixed it here. Apologies to sharp-eyed Godden fans who noticed the error! (And I suspect this will be a few of you.)

foolish-immortals-paul-gallicoThe Foolish Immortals by Paul Gallico ~ 1953. This edition: Michael Joseph, Mermaid edition, 1956. Stiff card covers. 223 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

Paul Gallico was an author who loved himself a plotful gimmick – charwoman longs for and acquires a Paris couturier gown in Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris; young boy transforms into a cat in Jennie; a group of disparate (and desperate) characters are trapped inside an upside down luxury liner after it is submerged in the vortex caused by an undersea earthquake in The Poseidon Adventure – just to give a few examples.

In The Foolish Immortals the gimmick is that old quest trope, the search for the Fountain of Youth, or, as Gallico madly invents here, the wholly imaginary “Village of the Patriarchs” in Palestine-recently-turned-Israel (check out the date of writing) where the locals apparently live to fantastic ages, due to their consumption of a fungus which they cultivate in hidden caves.

Our shady hero is one Joe Sears, one-time high school football star of his hometown, Ventura, California, and now a middle-aged failure of a man, down to his last few dollars for the umpteenth time. Joe is what one might call averse to boringly honest work; he’s something of a con artist, if truth be told, always on the lookout for a profitable mark.

Joe twigs to the potential scam-worthiness of an American millionairess, one Hannah Bascombe, 75 years old and not very happy with the rapid march of time. Inspired by his random encounter with an evangelical preacher reciting the immense ages of the Old Testament patriarchs, Joe has an epiphany. How about he spin Mrs. Bascombe a tale of a secret to, if not eternal, then significantly longer life, to be found in the hills of the Holy Land? He’ll mount an expedition to be financed by the Bascombe millions, skimming the dollars as they go along. Joe’s not quite sure how he’ll end the project, but anticipates that he will be able to slip away quietly with well-lined pockets when Mrs Bascombe loses interest in what is bound to be a fruitless expedition.

Joe is aided and abetted by a youthful-looking ex-Commando, one Levi Ben-Isaac (yes, he just might be Jewish, and his heritage is crucial to the tale), who has a tragic wartime back story and a quest of his own. Ben-Isaac agrees to team up with Joe for the wooing of the elderly millionairess, though things are complicated for both men by the watchfulness of a sharp-witted young woman, niece (and potential heiress) to the rather-sharp-herself old lady.

Midway through, The Foolish Immortals turns into a rather decent road trip novel – gratuitous gun battle aside – with Gallico waxing eloquent about the scenic beauties of the bits of Israel they travel through, throwing in oodles of Biblical references and not a little spiritual-religious philosophizing. Both of which – the impressions of the Holy Land on Americans raised on the King James Version of The Bible, plus some thought-provoking debates on the nature of God and personal belief systems – are in all honesty, probably the best elements of what is otherwise a bit of a dud of a book.

Mrs Bascombe finds, if not exactly what she was looking for, an acceptable (or better?) subsitute for it. As do all of the other characters, ragged ends all neatly tied up, emotional issues all salved and soothed by each person’s personal encounters with God (or some reasonable facsimile thereof) while on their trek.

Paul Gallico’s A-list is a nebulous sort of construct at the best of times; I would hesitate to endanger it with the addition of The Foolish Immortals, so I’m going to gently deposit this one on top of the B-list pile.

He comes so very close to being very good indeed, does Paul Gallico. And I keep reading him, hoping he’ll transcend his inevitable banality, his tendency to weak and frequently mawkish endings. So close, but yet so far…

the-slave-of-silence-fred-m-whiteThe Slave of Silence by Fred M. White ~ 1906. This edition: Ward, Lock & Co. Hardcover. 252 pages.

My rating: 3/10

I regret to say that this highly improbable romantic melodrama was, despite its non-stop action, one of the most deeply boring things I’ve come across in recent years. Suitable for shelf adornment, perhaps, but not for actual reading. Just goes to show that some antique books are irredeemably blah, much as we are willing to reconcile old-fashioned, era-expected styling with contemporary interest level.

A beautiful young woman is forced into an appalling marriage with a wealthy scoundrel in order to save her father from disgrace (he’s been speculating financially with other people’s money and has come a major cropper) and the vows are just pronounced when the wedding is interrupted by the announcement that Dear Dad has been found dead.

Is she really married? Or not? It was all a blur – the shock, you know…

And when the paternal body disappears before a postmortem can be performed, things become very convoluted indeed.

Enter a crippled criminal mastermind in a wheelchair, a mysterious Lady in Grey (the Slave of Silence herself, that would be), a couple of interchangeable Scotland Yard/Senior Army Officer investigative chaps, the true lover of our confused heroine wandering about in various disguises, doors conveniently left open while key plot points are being discussed by the bad guys…you name it, this one has it.

I’ll save you reading it. The most villainous of the multiple villains all end up tidily (or messily, in at least one case) dead, and true love prevails.

A disappointing book by a potentially interesting writer, and despite my “Run away!” recommendation for this particular work, I think I may someday look a little further into Fred M. White.

Old-style sci-fi “Doom of London” disaster novels ring any bells? Our Fred was the writer of those, and I must admit my curiosity is piqued. Couldn’t be worse than this one, right? Right?!