Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling ~ 1997. This edition: Bloomsbury, 1998. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7475-32679-9. 224 pages.

This is the book that started a pop culture empire.

Isn’t it astonishing how certain things capture the collective imagination, and what springs out of what was first a nebulous idea in someone’s brain? The only things I can think of comparable to how the Harry Potter multi-media phenomenon took off are the Star Wars sequence and, to a much lesser extent, The Lord of the Rings.

The social buzz that started with the publication of this first book in what would turn out to be a seemingly endless string of ever-bulkier sequels and spin-off novelty projects was well-deserved; this is indeed a frequently humorous novel with broad appeal, but I must say I personally have dodged the bullet of full-on Harry Potter addiction that so many have succumbed to.

I did read the first three novels in the series with great enjoyment when I had novice readers in the household, so it was rather nostalgic for me to revisit this one with an eye to its entry on the Century of Books list.

In a nutshell, this is your typical school story with a twist, in that it includes a parallel world to the one we inhabit, in which magic is part of the everyday, and there is a certain amount of back and forth between the two cultures. I strongly suspect J.K. Rowling read her fair share of Diana Wynne-Jones, because the parallels are certainly there, though Rowling took things out of the mainly-for-juveniles realm as her series grew and flourished.

A book as popular as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone went on to become needs no extra words from me, but in case you have been living in a secluded cabin in a deep dark forest and have only now been introduced to the internet, here is the publisher’s blurb:

Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy. He lives with his Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia and cousin Dudley, who are mean to him and make him sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. (Dudley, however, has two bedrooms, one to sleep in and one for all his toys and games.) Then Harry starts receiving mysterious letters and his life is changed forever. He is whisked away by a beetle-eyed giant of a man and enrolled at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The reason: Harry Potter is a wizard!

Harry Potter’s story is that of the classic underling who comes into his own.

Orphaned under mysterious and shocking circumstances as a wee baby, Harry experiences a childhood of repression and psychological abuse by his “blood relations” – his mother was Aunt Petunia’s scorned sister – so his initiation into his true place in the magical world is doubly poignant. Harry finds his first true friendships with fellow students Ron and Hermione, and father figures in the school headmaster Dumbledore and school groundskeeper Hagrid. He discovers he has unsuspected athletic abilities, along with innate magical powers, both of which come in handy as he finds himself facing an astoundingly evil figure, Lord Voldemort of “the Dark Side”, the killer of his parents and now the threatener of all the good in Harry’s twin worlds.

The story is fast-moving and engaging, and deserves most of the good things which has been said about it. If you haven’t read it, you probably should, if only for a deeper understanding of all of its pop culture references in our nowadays world.

I suspect you will find it both better and worse than you expect. Better because it is a very competent example of the classic school story and the downtrodden young hero coming into his own, and quite possibly worse because you may then think, as I did and still do, that there are a lot of other similar books out there which quite simply didn’t catch the buzz that this one did.

Dissected, there isn’t a whole lot of new in this one, aside from some imaginative interpretations and enhancements of classic school scenarios. All of Rowling’s ideas are essentially secondhand, but obviously her recreation of what came before has been a stupendously winning one.

My rating: 10/10

 

 

 

 

 

The October Country by Ray Bradbury ~ 1955. This edition: Ballantine, 1971. Paperback. 276 pages.

OCTOBER COUNTRY

. . . that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain . . .

This is a collection of nineteen mainly macabre short stories originally published between 1943 and 1955. Be prepared for queasy feelings as Bradbury graphically depicts mummified corpses and otherworldly autopsies, and paints some dark and brooding scenarios. There are a few light moments, but in general these tales are tinted inky-black.

  • THE DWARF has a strange compulsion to visit and revisit a carnival’s Hall of Mirrors.
  • A married couple visiting a small Mexican town explore a picturesque cemetery in which the burial spots are only temporary. Mummified corpses are stored in a grim mausoleum, leading the nervous wife to speculate who might be THE NEXT IN LINE.
  • THE WATCHFUL POKER CHIP OF H. MATISSE enhances the monocle of one George Garvey, formerly the most boring man alive and cultivated by the avant garde for that sole reason.
  • A hypochondriac becomes aware that inside his body a SKELETON resides, and his consultation with a certain “specialist” solves that particular issue all too well.
  • A farmer visiting a sideshow finds a fascinating item on display and buys it and brings it home. His wife is disgusted with him and his new obsession. So now what’s floating in THE JAR?
  • Long ago two children played on the shores of THE LAKE, until one tragic day. How long do friendships last?
  • A pet dog acts as THE EMISSARY linking a bed-bound boy and an elderly woman.
  • Two men attempt an altruistic act towards a bitter woman which has much different consequences than they had anticipated in TOUCHED WITH FIRE.
  • A new mother has oddly fearful feelings about her baby, which turn out to be justified in THE SMALL ASSASSIN.
  • Onlookers flock to accidents, but who really are the people in THE CROWD?
  • JACK-IN-THE-BOX: A young boy is raised in isolation by his emotionally disturbed mother.
  • A homeless farm family finds a refuge in a rather unusual wheatfield. One day the father realizes that his reaping work with THE SCYTHE has powerful consequences.
  • UNCLE EINAR is a member of a powerful and unusually gifted family. When his gossamer green wings are damaged in a storm, he finds a human wife, and redemption of a sort in his children.
  • A far travelling man has ventured where he shouldn’t have and has fallen afoul of THE WINDS.
  • A young boy living in his grandmother’s boarding house senses something foreboding about THE MAN UPSTAIRS and uses his knowledge gained in watching in the kitchen to counter a deadly threat.
  • THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN who wasn’t quite ready to die, so she pulled a fast one on Death.
  • Two sisters, one man, long years, and many waters swirling in THE CISTERN under the city…
  • THE HOMECOMING: A human child raised in a family of immortal supernaturals comes to terms with his differences and the knowledge that he must one day die.
  • A promising writer announces his stunning retirement and the literary world goes mad. But there is a secret story behind THE WONDERFUL DEATH OF DUDLEY STONE.

For full effect, read these at night. After you turn on some extra lights, and lock the door.

While I must say that while the writing is elegantly daft and as well embroidered as can be, and while some of these tales are up to Bradbury’s best, many of them weren’t to my particular taste, so my overall personal rating for the collection reflects this. Your mileage may differ.

My rating: 6.5/10.

Dust jacket of an original 1930 edition, not of my copy, which is a plain red cloth binding, sans dj.

Barren Corn by Georgette Heyer ~ 1930. This edition: Buccaneer Books, 1977. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-89966-123-8. 282 pages.

Not exactly a hidden gem in the way one would hope (meaning reading quality wise), but instead a long-suppressed early novel by our well-beloved Georgette Heyer, who dabbled in all sorts of genres throughout her long writing career, including a number of “serious” contemporary novels in the 1920s and 30s, of which Barren Corn is the fourth and last. (The others being Instead of the Thorn, 1923, Helen, 1928, and Pastel, 1929.)

Those who’ve read them all report that Barren Corn is the best of the lot, which is rather damning, because this uneven novel is not on Heyer’s A-list by a long shot.

Georgette Heyer herself was deeply embarrassed by a number of her earlier works (this one very much included), and refused to countenance their republication after she hit the big time with her Regency novels and murder mysteries in the 1930s and beyond. It wasn’t until after the author’s death in 1974 that reprint publisher Buccaneer Books managed to access Heyer’s B-list, and put a modest number of titles back into circulation, of which my copy of Barren Corn is one.

Nephew of a British Baron, professional dilettante and casual artist Hugh, meandering his way around France, meets lovely English shop-girl Laura who is taking a well-deserved short holiday. Infatuation at first sight and so on, and Hugh is so enamoured of Laura’s Madonna-like grace and stillness that he completely overlooks the fact that she is staidly bourgeois and almost morbidly religious.

Against all advice from friends of both of them, Hugh convinces Laura to marry him, and the two embark upon an extended passion-filled honeymoon among the Italian mimosa flowers. But at last the day comes when the newlyweds must return to England and the searching eyes of both families.

It doesn’t go well. Laura’s people disgust Hugh by their very respectability; Hugh’s family is rudely snobbish to the new bride; Laura’s friends stay away after the first few awkward visits; Hugh’s friends find Laura utterly boring. Which she absolutely is, apparently content to stay at home alone while Hugh dines out and resumes his riding with the local hunt etcetera, twiddling her thumbs and nursing her inferiority complex instead of getting on with creating some sort of inner life for herself.

Enter Hugh’s childhood friend Stella, who cherishes a quiet passion for her old pal deep within her heart – she is too well-bred to let it show – and Laura immediately realizes that this was the woman Hugh should have married, and because her (Laura’s) stern religious principles preclude divorce, she must just find another way to free her beloved to marry The Other Woman.

Yes. For real and for true.

Barren Corn has brief moments of Heyerian brilliance, but these are greatly outweighed by its ridiculous plot and a truly gormless heroine. Poor girl, she steps out on the wrong foot from page one, and spends much of the book sighing herself ever deeper into a tragically deep depression. This reader very much wanted to reach inside the book and shake silly Laura and tell her to stop selling herself so darned short and to either divorce the guy and marry the fellow lurking in the wings who does appreciate her, or at the very least get herself a hobby.

Mari Ness goes into some detail regarding this novel here, (there are spoilers), and I must say I agree with her assessment. The thing is both painful to read and strangely compelling; it ends up being weirdly memorable and even rather thought-provoking, which may indeed be what Heyer had in mind all along.

Perhaps.

My rating: A regretful 5.5/10. If this were by anyone else but Georgette Heyer I suspect I would have given it a 3 or 4, but it is very interesting in the context of her other work, and contains some quite good dialogue on morals and the interpretation of good and evil, which motivated me to raise it a few notches. Oodles of discussion on British social class structure, which perhaps was still an issue in the 1930s in Great Britain, but it felt a over emphasized to me – it read rather “older” versus post-Great War.

Your own thoughts, fellow readers, are (as always) greatly appreciated!

Playground by John Buell ~ 1976. This edition: Ballantine, 1977. Paperback. ISBN: 0-345-25616-6-175. 185 pages.

Well, well. What have we here? Could it be a version of that standard Canadian theme-novel, the Man-Against-Wilderness saga?

Yes, indeed. And it’s a grand specimen of its kind.

Spencer (Spence) Morison, middle-aged professional man, exact occupation unspecified, is well-off, well-organized, fighting fit physically but emotionally more than ready for his meticulously well-planned two weeks holiday in the bush, exploring a bit, fishing a lot, and drinking good booze with three like-minded friends.

Spence leaves a day early, as the plan is that he will fly in a rented plan to the remote lake that the four have planned to base themselves at. He’s a qualified pilot, though that is not his official trade, and like everything else he undertakes he’s darned competent at flying, so a leisurely solo flight is not something he worries about.

Spence provides his flight plan, everything is loaded up, and off he goes. He’s got some time to spare, and it is a holiday, so he then does something which will prove to have serious implications. He detours to check out what the country farther north looks like. Over a hundred miles off his flight path, Spence runs into bad weather and takes his plane down on a large lake. Unfortunately he lands on a submerged shoal of rocks, holes his floats, and the plane goes down. Spence finds himself in the water a mile or more from shore. The struggle is on.

Heartbeat by heartbeat John Buell walks us along with his protagonist as he thinks his way through situation after situation: not drowning, getting to shore, taking stock of his very few assets, figuring out how to light a fire, making a shelter, finding food, locating himself in his surroundings and formulating a plan to head southwards, as it becomes apparent several days in that any search planes out there are not reaching his location.

Spence is a fascinating character. He is by nature so very, very sure of himself, but he realizes almost immediately that he is astoundingly out of his element. He is so well-organized in daily life, every contingency planned for, that he is thrown off kilter by having to truly think on his feet, and herein lies the true interest to me in this otherwise stereotypical Canlit tale, as Spence comes to terms with what he doesn’t know, and muddles through regardless.

He wondered what kind of evergreen it was, not pine, not balsam, not fir, they’re supposed to be big, there’s spruce and cedar and hemlock, only words for him, he knew the shape of his tree, the sprays and flattened leaves, and he’d recognize it. That and the plant with the little yellow flowers. For all his outdoorsman sports he didn’t know much about these things, there was always someone around to say that’s a such-and-such tree and the Indians made a medicinal tea from that plant, and it didn’t really matter, it was interesting and it sounded like a tour, nature had become a museum. And a playground. That’s what brought me out here. I’ll have to find out what those things are. I wonder who told the Indians. And how did they ever manage to boil tea?

Spence isn’t very good at living off the land. In the three weeks of his ordeal, he catches one fish and a handful of minnows, and clubs one small porcupine to death. The rest of the time he eats leaves of some unidentified species of plant – dandelionish but taller and more fleshy. He wishes he’d paid more attention to all the nature hints his previous fishing guides dropped in conversation, but he never really thought he’d need to, so that information was never retained in his well-organized brain.

As week three progresses, Spence gets weaker and weaker. He starts to hallucinate. He comes to terms with the idea of death, so foreign to him at this time in his life. He’d always assumed he had decades more to go. And at last he can’t get up any more. It’s all over.

Serendipity intervenes, which I was exceedingly happy about – as is Spence, obviously – because I had become quite attached to him and found myself utterly invested in his solitary goal of continuing to live.

The best thing about John Buell’s Playground is how it isn’t about a dramatic, hostile, violent life-and-death struggle of man against nature. Ignore all that crap on the cover blurbs. None of that happens.

The true and sobering kernel of truth which comes through loud and clear is that nature is utterly indifferent to the individual. It just is. It’s not out to hinder or to help. The individual is in charge of how he/she/it interacts with what is around, and sometimes the luck is on your side and sometimes it isn’t. This is essentially a non-dramatic drama. There are no struggles with predators or derring deeds done. Just a single human being, plucked out of his physical and psychological element, and doing the best he can with the resources at hand.

Great stuff.

My rating: 10/10

 

 

 

 

Beauty by Robin McKinley ~ 1978. This edition: Harper Collins, 1978. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-06-024149-0. 247 pages.

Robin McKinley’s first published novel, targeted at the pre-teen/teen readership of forty years ago.  (Can she really have been writing for that long? Golly!)

Surely we all know the outline of this fairytale:

  • rich shipping merchant loses his fleet in a storm
  • selfish children all except one daughter are peeved at new poverty
  • word comes that one of the merchant’s ships has survived
  • children all request rich gifts except good daughter who askes merely for rose
  • father, returning home without rose (it’s winter), is lost in blizzard and stumbles upon mysterious unpeopled castle where food and fire and yes, a blooming rose garden, appear by magic
  • father plucks rose and is confronted by horrific beast demanding penance
  • father trots home with rose and bad news and good daughter offers herself as sacrifice to beast to save father

Need I go on?

McKinley takes the traditional French fairy tale of La Belle et la Bête and twists it a little here and there to fit her own particular ethos – for example, the scenario in which the presumably doomed Beauty leaves behind a loving family flies in the face of the usual “selfish sisters” setup – but it is essentially the traditional story retold, with the additional romantic fillip of a triple wedding at the end (Beauty, her sister, and their widowed father all finding their One True Loves), plus horses.

Yes, horses.

Or, perhaps more accurately, one horse in particular, Beauty’s steed Greatheart, a massive warhorse stallion who was hand-raised by Beauty and thus imprinted on her to the point where he refuses to eat in her absence. He is noble, majestic, tireless, utterly obedient etcetera, and I am sure would affect the susceptible average thirteen year old reader like catnip affects a half-grown kitten. Pure intoxication.

This Beauty is a clever-sweet, trope-ridden novel. The heroine is the stock tomboy type who thinks she’s utterly homely – “Beauty” is a self-chosen (and eventually ironic) nickname because she doesn’t care for the stolid “Honour” which her mother christened her with – but of course she blossoms into loveliness just when it counts the most.  There is enough brooding romance to get the reader all warmed up, but nothing explicit enough to have it whisked away to the adult section of the library.

I first read Beauty a decade or so ago when I had my own pre-teen reader in residence. We shared the opinion that it was a nice enough story but a bit too perfectly peopled – there are zero villains, except for the nebulous non-human magician who works the original enchantment turning Man to Beast –  and even rather goopy here and there.

Nothing happened this time round to change my opinion.

Damning with faint praise? Yes, I suppose I am.

That said, it’s not that bad. Some parts are, in fact, excellent.

I would happily present this to a young reader, say between the ages of eleven and fifteenish, who is romantically inclined and fond of horses. And, much as I hate to use gender-based recommendations, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that this is likely to appeal the most to girls.

And of course to Robin McKinley fans of any age, and all those open to whiling away a few hours with a blatantly charming re-worked fairytale.

My rating: 7/10.

 

 

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith ~ 1998. This edition: Abacus, 2003. Paperback. ISBN: 0-349-11675-X. 233 pages.

Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill. These were its assets: a tiny white van, two desks, two chairs, a telephone, and an old typewriter. Then there was a teapot, in which Mma Ramotswe – the only lady private detective in Botswana – brewed redbush tea. And three mugs – one for herself, one for her secretary, and one for the client. What else does a detective agency really need? Detective agencies rely on human intuition and intelligence, both of which Mma Ramotswe had in abundance. No inventory could ever include those, of course.

(Is that an Isak Dinesen ripoff in the first line? I’m thinking so.)

Our heroine in this low-key character portrait/detective novel is one Precious Ramotswe, thirty-four years old, once married but long deserted by her handsome but brutal jazz musician husband, beloved daughter and sole heir of the late Obed Ramotswe, who sells her father’s prized herd of cattle (with his prior permission) in order to set herself up in business.

Always an observant sort of person, and provided by nature with a strong moral sense, Mma Ramotswe sets out to solve problems, to right wrongs, and perhaps to lay a few personal ghosts.

This likeable book full of homey snippets of wisdom caught the attention of the reading public – could it have been helped along by its two Booker Judges’ special citations? Its Times Literary Supplement International Book of the Year designation? – and took off like a small but blazing rocket. Seventeen sequels have followed, all of them with long and quirky titles, and all just as charmingly readable as the first.

Or at least so I am assuming; I think I stalled out at number six or seven, vaguely surfeited by the constant good-natured mullings and musings of this small-town wisewoman.

Don’t get me wrong, I fully intend to catch up to Precious and her companions one day. Just not quite yet.

I don’t think I need to get into plot synopsis and suchlike here; this is such a well-known tale that the internet is crowded with all sorts of reviews. Suffice it to say that it was a notable book way back in 1998, and so serves as an ideal Century of Books candidate for its year.

And it was fun to re-read this rainy Canadian Thanksgiving Sunday, as I sit in my comfiest chair and nurse a worsening head cold passed along to me by a friend’s winsome but overly affectionate (at least while contagious) youngsters.

My rating: 8/10.

 

The Flower-Patch Among the Hills by Flora Klickmann ~ 1916. This edition: The Religious Tract Society, London, 1926. Hardcover. 316 pages.

So, fellow gardener-readers, who is familiar with Flora Klickmann?

I certainly wasn’t, before I inadvertently acquired one of her many cheerful books (Weeding the Flower-Patch, I believe it was) on a visit to The Bookman in Chilliwack, B.C., and read it and was intrigued and then went on to purposefully hunt down several more.

Flora Klickmann, 1867-1958, had a background in music, but health issues in her early twenties forced her to step away from the piano. Once recovered, she started writing well-received articles on musical subjects, and in 1904 became editor of a missionary magazine, followed some years later by an appointment to the editorship of the Religious Tract Society’s exceedingly popular Girl’s Own Paper, which she successfully oversaw from 1908 until 1931.

A nervous breakdown in 1912 due to overwork saw Flora convalescing in a country cottage. She found this change of venue to be so refreshing that, upon her marriage in 1913, she and her husband purchased the first of what would be a succession of rural retreats. Rosemary Cottage, home of the first “flower-patch”  was “perched on the hills overlooking the Wye Valley, with views of the Welsh hills, Tintern Abbey, the river, and a distant glimpse of the Bristol Channel.”

Flora Klickmann’s branching out into full-on authorship was somewhat inadvertent, and she details it here, in the first pages of The Flower-Patch Among the Hills:

I
Just to Explain

I. Who Everybody is

Virginia and her sister Ursula are my most intimate friends. Virginia—really quite a harmless girl—imagines she has a scientific bias. Ursula—domesticated to the backbone—led a strenuous life in the pursuit of experimental psychology, till she switched off to wash hospital saucepans.

It will be so obvious that I scarcely need add: What little common sense the trio possesses is centred in ME.

Abigail is my housemaid; her title to fame is the fact that she is the only servant I have ever been able to induce to remain more than a fortnight at one stretch in the country. The others, including those who are orphans, always have a parent who suddenly breaks its leg—after they have been about ten days away—and wires for them to come home at once.

The cook has discovered a number of cousins in the Naval Division at the Crystal Palace (detachments of which pass my London house hourly, while many units partake of my cake and lemonade), and, of course, you can’t neglect your relatives in war time.

“You never know whether that’ll be the last time you’ll see them,” she says, waving a tearful tea-towel at all and sundry who march past. Naturally, she doesn’t care to be away from town for many days at a time.

The parlourmaid was interested in a member of the L.C.C. Fire Brigade, when he enlisted, and incidentally married someone else—unfortunately the very week she was away with me. This has given her a marked distaste for the simple pleasures of rural life.

Abigail is unengaged. “What I ask is: What better off are you if you are?” she inquires of space. “Take my sister, now, with eight children, and——” But as I am not taking anyone with eight children just now, the sister’s biography is neither here nor there.

Abigail is a willing, kindhearted girl. Also she has a mania for trying to arrange every single household ornament in pairs. She would be invaluable to anyone outfitting a Noah’s Ark.


As for the other people who walk through these pages, they do not appertain exclusively to one district. I have had two cottages, one beyond Godalming, in Surrey, the other high up among the hills that border the river Wye. Some of the country folk live in the one village, some in the other; but the scenery, the little wild things, and the garden are all related to the cottage that overlooks Tintern Abbey.

II. Why the Cottage is

I took a cottage in the country on a day when I had got to the fag-end of the very last straw, and felt I could not endure for another minute the screech of the trains, the honking of motors, the clanging of bells, the clatter of milk-carts, the grind-and-screel of electric cars, the ever-ringing telephone, the rattle and roar of the general traffic, the all-pervading odour of petrol, and the many other horrors that make both day and night hideous in our great city, and reduce the workers to nervous wreckage.

The cottage has been so arranged that not one solitary thing within its walls shall bear any relation to the city left far behind; and nothing is allowed to remind the occupants of the business rush, the social scramble, and the electric-light-type of existence that have become integral parts of modern life in towns.

Here, to keep my idle hands from mischief, I made me a Flower-patch.

III. Why this Book is

I was viciously prodding up bindweed out of the cottage garden, with the steel kitchen poker, when the telegraph boy opened the gate.

Unhinging my back, and inducing it into the upright with painful care, I read a message from my office to the effect that there was some hitch in regard to the American copyright of a certain article I had passed for press before leaving; this would necessitate it being thrown out of the magazine that month. Would I wire back what should go in its place, as the machines were at a standstill?

Under ordinary circumstances I should merely have waved a hand, and instantly a suitable substitute would have been on the machines with scarcely a perceptible pause—that is, if I had been in London. But such is the witchery of the Flower-patch, that no sooner do I get inside the gate than I forget every mortal thing connected with my office. And try how I would, I couldn’t recall what possible articles I had already in hand that would make exactly six pages and a quarter—the length of the one held over.

And because I could think of nothing else on the spur of the moment, I threw down the poker (it was red-rust, alas, when I chanced upon it a week later) and went indoors and wrote about the cottage and the hills.

When it was published in the magazine, readers very kindly wrote by the bagful begging for a continuation. It has been continuing—with perennial requests for more—for some time now. This only shows how generously tolerant of editors are the readers of periodical literature.

Virginia merely sniffs, “What won’t people buy!”

I don’t think she need have put it so baldly as that.


If by some miraculous chance there should be any profits from the sale of this book, I intend to devote them to the purchase of a cow (or hen, if it doesn’t run to a cow), to aid the national larder. I shall call it “the Memorial Cow,” in memory of those who have been good enough to assist in its purchase.

Should any reader wish to have the cow (or hen) named specially after him—or her—self this could doubtless be arranged. Particulars on application to the publisher.

Here’s a snippet from the body proper of this book, regarding our author’s observations on country bouquets as seen at the typical small village railway station:

There are women with empty baskets returning from market, and women seeing off friends, each carrying a huge “bookey” of flowers, built up in the approved style, from the back: first a big background rhubarb leaf, or something equally green and spacious, then some striped variegated grass – gardeners’ garters, we call it; also some southernwood – better known as Old Man’s Beard; tall flowers like foxgloves, phlox, Japanese anemones, early dahlias and sunflowers follow; the shorter stems of pinks, calceolarias, sweet williams and roses are the next in succession; finishing off with some gorgeous pansies and a very fat cabbage rose with a short stem (that persists in tumbling out), a piece of sweetbriar, and a few silver and gold everlasting flowers down low in the front. If you have a geranium in your window, etiquette demands that you add the best spray – as a special offering – to the bunch, telling your friend all about the way you got that geranium cutting , and the trouble you had to rear it.

The Flower-Patch Among the Hills is very much a wartime book, and as such is of interest on a number of different levels, in that it matter-of-factly details English country life in this unprecedented time of turmoil and change, as the Great War sets the gears grinding for what will be a major shift in the long traditions of rural England. A number of the incidents detailed concern the efforts of stay-at-homes to help with the war effort, and there is a quite delightful sequence involving the purchase of vast quantities of onion seed for sowing in amongst the garden’s flowers.

The correct term to describe this book is “charming”, and I say that with sincere appreciation. There is enough gently acerbic bite in Flora’s style to keep things from being too sugary, and as period pieces these collections of anecdote and observation are quite fascinating.

You definitely don’t have to be a gardener to appreciate them, as there are perhaps even more human interest passages than those going on about wildflowers and cottage borders and such, but if you are a plant person you will find some gleaming gold nuggets of plant observation here.

And don’t let the Religious Tract Society connection put you off, for the books aren’t anything as “preachy” as that might lead one to believe. Secularites will find little to rub them wrong, though there are occasional (okay, rather frequent) references to church-going and to the author’s personal faith. The intent throughout is merely to interest and amuse, not to convert.

My rating: 7.5/10.

Almost a “curiousity” book. Though very close to being a “hidden gem”, I hesitate to designate it as such for fear fellow readers might sight-unseen invest in one of the sometimes rather pricey copies available through antiquarian book dealers, and then not find it to their liking. Before running out on my recommendation to purchase a hard copy, perhaps it might be best to dip into the online version at Project Gutenberg. I believe there are a number of Flora Klickmann’s other titles available to read for free on that invaluable site.

A short biography of Flora Klickmann can be found here.

And a Wikipedia biography and bibliography here.