Parachuting in from my desperately overfull real world to touch base with you all, to say that yes, I am still here. Feathers (if I were a bird) ruffled, fur (if I were a cat) stroked backwards, the opposite of easy in my mind.

It’s been an eventful month, March 2018 has. Some good stuff, some blissfully funny, some simply bad, some desperately sad.

As regular readers of these posts know, early on in the month I crashed my car (bad!) but everyone involved came away mostly unscathed (good!) Which I think rather started things; it’s been roller-coastering ever since.

Subsequently we’ve all sorts of out of the ordinary things happening, too many to detail, but here are a few examples.

There’ve been a series of vet visits with a couple of our problem creatures: an elderly farm dog with a knack for raising the ire of the cow with the most accurate dog-bashing kick, and a stray cat who wandered in and won our hearts, to the extent that we have officially adopted him and set in process that whole thing where he’s being vet-inspected and neutered and vaccinated and then introduced properly to the rest of the very well-entrenched cat tribe. All seemed well, but then the poor fellow started up an infection from an old war wound, plus he developed a vaccine reaction, necessitating multiple extra veterinary visits, dollars being tossed about with wild abandon. No good deed goes unpunished, I guess – isn’t that how the story goes?

The very weather has been messing with us. It’s been unseasonably cold many days, and very snowy. But then one warm day last week some of that snow melted too fast, and our road washed out. (It’s now fixed.)

Another blip, as we almost ran out of firewood for our plant nursery greenhouses, when our usually reliable wood guy broke down one weekend and then fell ill with the flu the next. We’ve managed to forage a load ourselves to keep things going, but the stack is getting mighty small – a more than niggling worry. Tonight the forecast is for minus 14 degrees Celsius, which means one of us will be up in the wee hours, putting more of that precious wood on the stoves and tinkering with the fans.

Al of this stuff has turned out to be utterly trivial, though, as something truly awful has happened, putting all this day-to-day fussing and fretting into absolute perspective.

The phone rang several mornings ago, with my elderly mother-in-law on the line. My husband’s oldest sister had just died, very suddenly. She had been having some health issues with a lung condition, but it had seemed to be under control.

We’re all still in a state of shock, I think, trying to process the news. So very unexpected.

What fragile things our lives are. Take nothing for granted, it can change in a second.

Please go give your close-by dear ones a hug, and maybe call those far away.

Here’s hoping my next post will be an utterly mundane thing about books. Well, April is a whole new month, isn’t it?

Wishing you all a peaceful and happy Easter (for those that celebrate it), and a kindly spring, as the days get longer and the warm time comes again. Except of course for those in the other hemisphere – best wishes for a gentle seasonal change where you are, too.

One foot after the other, keep stepping along.

 

 

 

 

I’ve been mulling over whether I should say anything about what happened to me six mornings ago, or if it crosses the line into the dreaded “too much information”, but as a number of you are my “real life” friends, and others well into established cyber-friend territory, I think I’ll go ahead.

Friends, I had a brush with death the other day. It was that close. I thought it was over – I had enough time to formulate that thought, and was most surprised to find myself alive.

Without getting into too much detail, here’s the scoop. Icy road, shady corner, lost control of my car, spun into oncoming traffic, hit another car, the impact spun us both out of the way of an oncoming transport truck, with a whisker of room to spare.

Both cars were totalled, but both cars did what they were designed to do – passenger compartments remained intact though slightly compressed, seatbelts worked, airbags went off. We – the other driver and myself – walked away. Bruised and throughly shaken up, but alive and essentially well.

I haven’t actually seen the police report yet, but the gist of what I was told by a most soothing officer was that they were taking road conditions into account, that we were very, very lucky, and that I should go home and take it easy for a few days.

My insurance adjuster assures me that the other driver’s expenses will be taken care of – she was from out-of-country, visiting friends here. We shared an ambulance ride to town and she was beyond decent about being crashed into by a random stranger. One of those things, she said, very calmly.

I am very glad I didn’t kill her. (Understatement, in spades.)

It’s a rather surreal feeling, to realize that one has been given what amounts to a second chance. It was that close.

So here I am, feeling like I’m suddenly on the other side of something big. Which I guess I am, aren’t I?

Back to normal.

Life, precious life, goes on.

 

 

Home Port by Olive Higgins Prouty ~ 1947. This edition: Houghton Mifflin, 1947. Hardcover. 284 pages.

Time for a quick post this morning before I’m off into the snowy world to further the progress of the performing arts in our community: the vocal and choral portion of our regional version of what in other parts of the world could be called an Eisteddfod begins tomorrow, and today I collect the vocal adjudicator from his flight in and then brief him on the finer points of what his duties shall be.  It will be a peaceful and pleasant meeting, but it puts a gaping hole in my otherwise home-focussed Sunday. Ah, well, it’s all for a good cause. Encouraging musicians is always a good thing, and I get to sit and listen in as my reward!

So. Olive Higgins Prouty. A name I had heard bandied about in the past, though I had not until now bumped into one of her books.

She’s the author of the widely known Stella Dallas, 1923, and her 1941 book Now, Voyager was made into the 1942 film starring Bette Davis which has attained film classic status. Olive Higgins Prouty also famously mentored a young Sylvia Plath, which seems to be a whole other complex story which I shan’t get into here.

Olive Higgins Prouty was deeply interested in psychology and psychotherapy, and her books are reportedly very much about the emotional lives of her characters, and their rehabilitation from various states of mental imbalance through various therapeutic experiences, not necessarily involving “professional” intervention, but rather organically through positive life experiences and such. Or that is my understanding, in particular from my reading of Home Port, which is all about the emotional trauma and healing of its key character, Murray Vale.

Murray is a young man in his early twenties; he is in the process of studying for his law degree, though it’s not his dream job by a far stretch; he’d rather be out rambling in the woods and studying flora and fauna. Luckily he has a summer job as a camp counsellor at his old camp, so he gets to indulge in woodsmanship and mentoring all the younger boys in his personal passion.

But disaster is about to strike.

Murray is asked to take another counsellor along on a short canoe trip to scout out a camping location; he’s specifically asked to keep an eye on his partner and not allow him to over-exert himself; seems the chap has a ticky heart. All is well until a sudden storm blows up; the men end up in the water, and despite heroic attempts on Murray’s part, the other counsellor slips away and is lost.

Murray makes it to shore, passes out, and regains consciousness to a horrifying realization: he has let everybody down! (Murray has serious self-esteem issues, being the younger, more bookish, less athletic brother to super-athlete and all-around good guy Windy, who even after being crippled by a bout with polio is active in the local sport and social scene – everybody loves Windy!)

What to do, what to do? Murray considers suicide, but can’t quite figure out the “how”; after much inner anguish he decides instead to disappear from his old life and go to ground under an assumed name, which he pulls off with a little luck, becoming a successful camp guide for a small Maine fishing outfit. (I’m condensing madly here.)

Murray also has sex issues, in that he thinks he is impotent, because all of his previous relations with women have been so stressful that he can’t fulfill their requirements, as it were, but luckily there is this one young woman client of his who is utterly non-threatening and sweet and interested in all the same things…

Long story short, Murray is rehabilitated in both his own eyes and those of the world, as he finds true love and then goes off to be a brave soldier in World War II, vindicating his moment of physical weakness out there on that long-ago lake.

All’s well that ends well; Murray has found his “home port”.

Not a bad effort as far as these sorts of sentimental stories go; I was happy to go along for the ride, though I often felt like giving wishy-washy Murray a good hard shake. Which was the whole point, I suppose.

Home Port is the fourth installment in a series of five novels regarding the fictional Vale family; it was interesting enough that I may indeed by seeking out the other four novels at some point. (The sequence is: The White Fawn (1931), Lisa Vale (1938), Now, Voyager (1941), Home Port (1947), and Fabia (1951).

I’m really curious now about getting my hands on the even earlier Stella Dallas; Olive Higgins Prouty intrigues me; I want to read a bit more of her work.

It appears from a cursory visit to ABE that none of Prouty’s books are terribly rare; she was a bestseller in her time, and Stella Dallas for one has been in print fairly continuously since its publication in 1923, due to its (apparently unauthorized) adaptation as a long-running radio soap opera and its subsequent high public profile.

So there we go. Another new-to-me vintage author discovered, another sequence of books to chase down at my leisure.

On that note – must run! Happy Sunday, fellow readers.

Oh – that obligatory rating: 6.5/10, let’s say. It got a bit soggy towards the end – very über-heartwarming and neatly tied up – but getting there was reasonably diverting.

 

The Land God Gave to Cain by Hammond Innes ~ 1958. This edition: Collins, 1958. Hardcover. 255 pages.

Oh, golly.

This earnest adventure novel, which I’d been looking forward to reading with some anticipation – raw and gritty Canadian setting, meticulously researched in person by the far-travelling Innes – turned out to be something of a dud, a rather “dull thud”, as my mother used to say when finishing off a disappointing novel.

Harsh, aren’t I?

Kind of like that brutal Labradorian setting, which is quite possibly the best thing about this logically unlikely effort by the otherwise careful Innes.

Herein we have a young Scottish engineer, Ian Ferguson, a charmingly fresh and enthusiastic twenty-something-year-old, son of an over-anxious mother and a crippled and brain-damaged army veteran, who stumbles upon a family secret while attempting to vindicate his father’s dying claim of having intercepted a crucial radio transmission on a shortwave radio, an improbable 2000 miles away from its alleged source in the wilds of northern Canada.

For much more detail and an ambitious analysis of the plot I will pass you over to the Books & Boots post of fellow blogger Simon, who has delved into the finer points of Hammond Innes’ many macho adventure tales, with intriguing conclusions.

I must say I am in total agreement with all that Simon says there, in particular his accurate assessment of Innes’ “formula”:

Innes’ novels are very strong on setting and atmosphere, but I’ve come to realise a central characteristic is that the reader spots what’s going on, or sees the danger signals, way before the central protagonist. There are two aspects of this: the protagonist is slow to the point of being dim; and a key figure who knows the secret of the riddle at the centre of the plot just obstinately refuses to reveal it, unnecessarily prolonging the agony (and the text).

Bingo. He’s got it.

Well researched though it may be, The Land God Gave to Cain is riddled with glaring inconsistencies of logic, not least in that Innes fails to take into consideration (or deliberately ignores) the real results of bodies left lying about in the Canadian wilderness.

For example, a perfectly preserved two-week-old (or thereabouts) corpse is found lying out in the open, sightless eyes staring at the sky (or something to that effect.) Well, sorry to be gruesome, but it begs the question: are there no crows/ravens/bears/other scavengers in the wilds of Labrador? It beggars this country dweller’s belief that a dead thing of any species would lie utterly undisturbed for any length of time, though Innes’ version is convenient of course to his narrative, and less harrowing to the squeamish reader.

The Land God Gave to Cain is very readable, as are all of Hammond Innes’ books, but it was also deeply frustrating in its eventual disintegration of already sketchy plot into pure melodrama, with a perfectly preserved scene of (possible) crime, and impossibly perfect clues such as handfuls of gold nuggets strewn about in telling locations, all ready for our amateur sleuth to find in his ultimate “aha!” moment.

Now for the rating. From what I’ve said above you’re doubtless expecting a dismal grade here, but I’m going to step back and be charitable, for I knew (to some degree) what I was getting into when I started this book, having a long experience with Hammond Innes and a fondness for his work possibly due more to nostalgia (his books were well represented in my teenage reading years) than to stellar literary merit.

Let’s see now…how about a generous 6.5/10, because I read it end to end without pause (if you don’t count my many muttered “Oh, really, Hammond!” asides), and the fact that despite my persistent annoyance with this writer his novel still very much a keeper, joining his many others on the re-read shelf.

 

 

 

 

The Man from Greek and Roman by James Goldman ~ 1974. This edition: Random House, 1974. Hardcover. 215 pages.

I have a confession to make. If it weren’t for my latest Century of Books reading project, and the fact that this novel fit into an empty place on the list, I might not have made it through.

As it was, I did, and I ultimately found it reasonably amusing, but it’s not something I’m going to push forward with a “You must read this!” recommendation. In fact, it’s poised above the giveaway box, as I suspect one time through will quite enough for me.

That off my chest, I have to say that there were a lot of things to like about this lightweight novel. James Goldman can certainly write – his manner of stringing words together was a pleasure to encounter.

But The Man from Greek and Roman is a schizophrenic sort of novel, in that it skips from mood to mood much too frequently for this reader’s comfort. Was I reading a travel-adventure-action-romance spree? A tormented psychological drama? Light porn? The ending got really dark there for a bit, and then turned all sunshiny again. I am still confused. What was that all about?

Here’s the scenario.

Dr. Melvil West, middle-aged Curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum, is going through a rough patch. He should be on top of the world, as his department has just acquired a priceless golden chalice – Roman, 1st Century B.C. – but for the fact that his wife Dido (yes, really) has announced that she is leaving him.

Side-swiped by his imminent de-spousing, our protagonist is all in a state of confused anguish largely because Dido, an avant garde artist, who remains in residence because her studio is attached to their apartment, starts bringing home her lovers and bedding them loudly with Melvil present. Awk-ward.

Then the phone starts ringing off the hook at work, for the golden goblet which came with a supposed ironclad provenance, proves to be perhaps not quite such a safe buy after all. Accusations of double-dealing and theft, emotional missives from dueling archaeologists, and skulkingly mysterious millionaires get into the picture, leaving Melvil so wrought up he does what any sensible museum curator would do.

Yes, he quietly goes to his safe, packs the chalice up in a brown paper parcel, walks out of the Met and into the airport, where he is astonished to find that people’s luggage is being gone through before they are allowed to board the plane. Those pesky hijackers and their bombs, you know. Melvil’s journey seems about to end before it’s truly started when he is rescued from his dilemma by a lovely young woman who has her own ideas about how best to get sensitive things on to and off of international air flights, and the romp is on.

For Melvil is on the track of the real story of the chalice, and the beautiful (and secretly tormented) Caroline becomes his mostly willing accomplice as they dodge reporters and policeman, zigzagging across England and France, and ending up in Corsica, where the jig appears to be up, with Melvil tagged as an eccentric thief and cornered by a B-movie’s worth of detectives and bumbling European cops.

Season all of this with sporadic episodes of Melvil having sexual fantasies about Caroline, and vice versa, and their eventual fulfillment of the same and you have – well – I’m not quite sure where to shelve this rather odd novel.

It wasn’t awful by a long shot – parts of it were downright excellent, in particular the travelling sequences, and the cynical-humorous depictions of various artist-scholar types – but it was hard going during the semi-graphic sex scenes, and when it delved into the troubled places of the two main characters’ back histories. It seems to me to be a novel with an identity crisis of sorts, and I can’t imagine having the patience to tackle it ever again.

As a period piece of the decadent 1970s art-and-money scene it succeeds, and for that I will give it fair due: 5/10. Though it’s not to be a keeper, I’m afraid.

 

 

Stranger at Wildings by Madeleine Brent (pseudonym of Peter O’Donnell) ~ 1975. This edition: Doubleday, 1975. Alternate title: Kirkby’s Changeling. Hardcover. 310 pages.

I am finally beset by the virus that’s been going around for months here – it’s almost a relief to be ill at last, as everyone else seems to have had it or is in the middle of it, and I was thinking my apparent immunity was a bit too good to be true – and my reading luck is also at rather a low ebb.

I have three finished novels stacked up to share some thoughts on. They are all very different – this one, and The Man From Greek and Roman by James Goldman (intriguing title, no?), and The Land God Gave to Cain by Hammond Innes. All of them were quite entertaining in parts, though none attained perfection. With that in mind, let’s see what my foggy brain can find to say. I’ll start with Stranger at Wildings, while its finer points are still fresh in my memory.

From the front flyleaf:

Here is a tale of charm and adventure – set in Europe around the turn of the century – whose colorful action ranges from a touring circus in Hungary to the fox-hunting society of the English countryside to the elegant circles of wealth and fashion in London. It is the story of a spirited young woman of eighteen who has left an unhappy, uncertain past in England and made a new life for herself as a trapeze artist in a small touring circus…But that forgotten past will stumble upon her one day, beside a stream in Hungary, where the circus has pitched its tents for a time. It will come in the form of a mysterious young man – handsome, appealing, yet curiously remote – whose appearance is the beginning of a strange, dangerous intrigue that involves deception, romance, disappearance and, in the end, the revelations of a family’s darkest secrets.

Yes, it’s a gothic romance!

Written – anomaly alert! – by a man. The only man, in fact, to have ever won the Romantic Novel of the Year Award by the Romantic Novelists’ Association, in 1978, for his novel Merlin’s Keep.

Though to be fair, no one at the time except his publisher (and presumably his nearest and dearest) knew that “Madeleine” was actually “Peter”. For some reason I get a lot of quiet amusement from knowing this, and I read this novel with enhanced enjoyment because of it, in particular during the more “girly” bits, where Mr. O’Donnell finds himself forced to describe articles of womanly attire. He does quite well, for a while. I did notice towards the end that he rather lost interest in playing that particular game, merely stolidly stating that a character’s dress was, say, blue, no other details of style or shade or fabric or embellishments given.

The whole scenario is decidedly unlikely, but a good romp it makes, and I liked it a lot until the last chapter or two, when the requisite happy ending was being set up. Yeck. This is where someone like Norah Lofts trumps others in the genre, with her carefree tendency to keep things dark; no happily-ever-afters there. But I digress.

Okay, here it is. A thirteen-year-old, motherless English girl, spoiled and unlikable, finds out upon the death of her supposed father that she is in fact no relation at all – she was a changeling child. She is therefore told that she is to be put into an orphan asylum, as no one wants to continue supporting her.

So she runs away, and joins a circus, where she becomes a talented trapeze artist. (Yes, seriously.)

Fast forward a few years. Our heroine, Chantal, is now eighteen, and has decided that she wants to become a medical doctor, once she has banked enough money from her acrobat’s salary to put herself through medical school. (This is not such an easy feat for a young woman in the late 1800s to pull off, remember.)

In Hungary, where the circus is touring, Chantal befriends a handsome young man who has apparently lost his memory. Their eyes meet, etcetera, but before anything comes of it the young man disappears under suspicious circumstances. Hot on the heels of this drama, Chantal is “discovered” by an English brother and sister couple (but are they?) who inform her of her real heritage, and off she is whisked to England, to a high place in society.

But Chantal soon realizes that someone is out to harm – kill? – her, and lo and behold! – the mysterious man from Hungary reappears, memory apparently repaired…

There is a killer dog attack, lots of acrobatic antics, various horseback athletics (Chantal is a talented equestrienne, of course), a sinister secret society, and a grand finale which I must admit I didn’t see coming, save for the inevitable romantic clinch at the end.

Points in favour include a divertingly fast pace, and a heroine with numerous personality flaws to contrast nicely with her enviable physical accomplishments. Points against are the sincerely silly plot, and the goopy ending.

But all in all a rather decent example of the genre. Let’s give the man (Peter) a round of applause, and a well-deserved 7/10.

I’d made acquaintance with Madeleine-Peter before, and I wrote about it, too. At length.  Here we go.

A bit of an extra from the back dust jacket:

Chocky by John Wyndham ~ 1968. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1968. Hardcover. 184 pages.

This was John Wyndham’s last novel published during his lifetime, though there have been several others pulled from the “not quite ready” pile, dusted off, tidied up and published posthumously.

I wish I could say that this book is brilliant; one of the best; a fitting end to Wyndham’s string of creative and very readable sci-fi almost-disasters.

But it isn’t.

I found it to be a bit of a dud, in fact.

Caveat: the following rantlet is stuffed with spoilers.

Young Matthew, 11, the adopted child of loving parents and the older brother of an exceedingly pert younger sister, Polly, starts exhibiting some unusual behaviour. He talks (apparently) to himself, pausing between comments as if listening to another side of the conversation. He starts asking precocious questions, such as why are there two separate sexes versus a much more efficient hermaphroditic, self-fertile single parent, and where is the earth exactly in relation to everything else in space. He starts to do his math homework in binary code, and makes telling comments regarding the inefficiencies of the internal combustion engine.

A psychiatrist is consulted, for his family is starting to fear that some sort of mental illness is developing – for who knows what his background is, after all? Maybe his biological parents were…you know…subnormal…

Turns out that Matthew isn’t exhibiting schizophrenia at all; the voice inside his head belongs to a being from another planet way out beyond the boundaries of known space, seeing as thoughts/mind communications aren’t bound by pesky restrictions such as speed of light or sound.

Chocky, as Matthew christens his alien mind-friend, turns out to be an advance scout of another civilization, a eco-missionary, in fact, questing mentally across the void of space to find other thinking creatures, and to share a vision of better living (nuclear energy! hydroplanes! solar power!) with them. Matthew has been chosen as a communicant because of his open young mind. Too bad he’s just a naïve child, as his unusual behaviour leads to all sorts of complicated situations.

The popular press gets turned on to something weird happening after Matthew, who can’t swim, miraculously rescues himself and Polly from drowning, Chocky having taken over Matthew’s movements at the critical time and turning him into a superhuman swimmer. A similar plot twist involving artistic skills is floated.

Eventually everyone gets tired of all the press attention; Chocky decides to end the relationship in order to de-complicate Matthew’s life – he/she (Chocky’s sex is vague) has been allowing himself/herself to get too emotionally involved with the subject, not at all scientific, you know.

And that is pretty well that.

Potentially creative premise, which went absolutely nowhere.

I kept waiting for things to get properly interesting; they never did. This might have made a better short story than a novel, and it turns out that that’s close to the actual background of Chocky. First published as a novella, it was padded out to novel size the following year, no doubt in order to take advantage of the well-selling Wyndham name.

Points off for lame plotline which drops the ball early on, and more points off for the sexism which is absolutely overt in this novel, with some very sketchy attempts by the author to explain the weaker-sex complications of the feminine psyche, with all of the female characters – wee sister Polly, Matthew’s adoptive mother, his aunts, his art teacher – being depicted as silly, meddlesome, frequently foolishly moody and/or hysterical, and definitely lower on the intelligence food chain than the Big Important Men who get all of the plum roles.

Oh, yeah, there’s also a pointless mysterious kidnapping, as some secret “officials” whisk the young lad away and subject him to a series of injections – truth serum? or? – before decanting him onto a street in a faraway city.

Yawn.

4/10. Generous, because despite its poorness (John Wyndham was capable of much better!) I did read it to the end. Luckily it is a shortish book.

Margaret Atwood has a slightly kinder take on Chocky, and Wyndham’s stuff in general, in this 2015 article from Slate.