Posts Tagged ‘1958 novel’

The Visitors by Mary McMinnies ~ 1958. This edition: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1958. Hardcover. 576 pages.

Breaking my recent life-is-stupid-busy silence to give a resoundingly positive shout-out to like-minded vintage novel aficionados regarding this stellar 1958 novel, a hidden gem if there ever was one.

10-carat diamond quality, people, 24-carat gold. This is very good stuff indeed.

It took me a good ten days to work my way through The Visitors, which is mostly a reflection of my very limited reading time, but I dove into it every chance I had, five minutes here, ten minutes there, not wanting to miss a sentence. It was positively addictive.

Nothing much actually happens in this novel. It’s a slow, intense, smouldering sort of thing, and the characters are allowed ample time to display their unique characteristics; we know them very well indeed by our journey’s end.

Publisher’s flyleaf blurbs generally err on the side of overenthusiasm for the contents within; not so in this case. Every word is true. My next step this morning after posting this will be to scour ABE for The Flying Fox, McMinnies’s first novel. She only seems to have published the two. What a disappointment.

Anyone else familiar with this writer? Why haven’t I heard of her before? Maybe it’s the only-two-books thing. This sort of find gives me such pleasure, for who knows what else I may stumble upon in my journey through the immense and rewarding forest of vintage reading!

My rating: 10/10. (That was easy.)

And oh, yes, that rather funky, green-tinted cover illustration.

When I picked this up from the jumbled heap of old hardcovers at a recent charity book sale, I had an instant vision of this perhaps being one of those over-written 1960s drug-culture dramas, obviously concerning hallucinogenic mushrooms: the woman’s half-closed eyes and rather addled expression, the focus on the prize (as it were), the sinister lurker in the shadows.

It turned out to be much more innocent (?) than that. The mushroom incident is a wonderfully metaphoric excursion into an Eastern European forest, the fungi providing the purpose for the excursion being the strictly culinary kind. And the lurker is not as sinister as he appears to be.

While life is slowing down just a bit, time is still in short supply, even on a peaceful Mother’s Day Sunday morning, so I’ll cheat on the personal review aspect and instead give you the flyleaf scans and the back cover author biography to be going on with.

I should really include some excerpts from the book. I’ve earmarked a few particularly stellar passages, places where I stopped and backed up and re-read with ever-increasing joy at how McMinnies handled her words. I might return to this post and add those in future. Perhaps the next time I read this novel? For it is decidedly a keeper.


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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.





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Robinson by Muriel Spark ~ 1958. This edition: Penguin, 1987. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-002157-4. 175 pages.

I’m not sure who this is supposed to represent; none of the male characters in the novel struck me as even slightly resembling this melancholy fellow. One must assume it is supposed to be Robinson himself, and then gently avert the eyes.

I did wish to go home, but not that I had never come away. If I had stayed at home, there might have been a fire in the house, or I might have been run over, or murdered, or have committed a mortal sin. There is no absolute method of judging whether one course of action is less dangerous than another.

En route to the Azores, a small passenger airliner crashes on a tiny Atlantic island.

Twenty-six people perish; three are thrown free and survive, to be nursed back to health by the reclusive ex-priest Miles Mary Robinson and his young ward Miguel.

The island Robinson, named after its most recent owner, once was home to a thriving small community of productive farms and orchards, but all that now remains is a barely surviving pomegranate orchard, the crop of which is harvested by a crew of workers who visit once a year by ship, to take off the fruit and deliver Robinson his year’s supply of canned food.

The boat carrying the harvesters is due in three months, and as there is no way of contacting the outside world – Robinson has no radio set and disclaims any desire for such intrusive devices – the castaways settle down to wait out their ninety days.

Our narrator, January Marlow, is a young widow with a teenage son. She ran away from school to be clandestinely married; her much older husband died within six months of the wedding, leaving widow and as-yet-unborn child with a modest inheritance. She has created a satisfactory life for herself, working as a freelance writer; she was researching a book on islands, which accounts for her presence on the doomed airplane.

The two other survivors are men. Jimmie Waterford is the charming and seemingly vague cousin of Robinson, Tom Wells a smarmy publisher of a spiritualist magazine, with a suitcase full of good luck charms and a packet of secret papers.

At first the new society ticks along reasonably well. The men supplement Robinson’s fast-dwindling food supply by fishing and the odd wild bird or rabbit shot for the pot. There’s also a goat, who provides milk. January wonders why Robinson doesn’t grow any vegetables, as the climate of the island is perfect for a wide variety of crops. She inquires, and Robinson brushes off her hints.

As injuries heal, cigarettes are rationed, and boredom sets in, tensions among the four adults start to rise, the most serious of which are wound up by Robinson’s strict religious views. A Roman-Catholic of strong anti-Marian beliefs, Robinson scorns both January’s rosary and Tom’s collection of superstition-promoting good luck medals.

Young Miguel is fascinated by both, causing Robinson to take firm steps to remove such temptations from the reach of his young protegé, whom he is educating in his own ascetic beliefs.

Secret tunnels, shark infested surrounding waters, and a volcanic fissure in the rocks known as the Furnace add to the atmosphere of potential impending doom. Not to mention the presence of the wrecked plane, the twenty-six shallow graves, and the macabre collection of fire-scorched “salvage”.

Tempers are ever tighter; hasty words are spoken. And then one day a trail of blood and bloodied clothing is discovered by a hysterical Miguel. It leads to the edge of the Furnace.

Robinson is nowhere to be found.

Who killed Robinson? And why? The survivors eye each other with deep suspicion; speculation turns to open accusation. Will another act of violence occur?

Okay, this sounds all very melodramatic murder mystery, but that’s just the background stuff. For what Muriel Spark really wants to talk about here is Roman Catholic doctrine, and the development of one’s spiritual self. The mixture as seen in so many of her subsequent books, in fact. (Robinson is only her second novel, after The Comforters, 1957.)

After converting to Catholicism in 1954, religion was very much on Muriel Spark’s mind; she used her fictions as the backdrop to numerous theological discussions all the way through her writing career, something she had in common with her literary mentor Graham Greene.

A cover artist’s rendition of the charming Bluebell, cat of many sterling qualities and unexpected talents.

This is an utterly odd book in so many ways, as are so many of Spark’s novels. It’s also an extremely clever, strangely engaging, and darkly humorous one – a ping-pong-playing, water-loving cat adds charm and comic relief to some of the bleaker passages – and (to use an apt cliché) one can’t look away.

Our possibly murderous castaways are rescued at the 11th hour, after some startling developments, and the last we hear of Robinson-the-island, rumoured relic of Atlantis, it is sinking beneath the ocean waves.

Was it ever a real place, wonders January? Did all that really happen?

First edition dust jacket, one of the most pleasing examples of well thought out and aesthetically pleasing cover illustration I’ve come across in a very long time.

I liked Robinson quite a lot more than I thought I might from its spare back cover précis. (The cover illustration of my copy also might have had something to do with my hesitation to engage – that dude looks downright creepy!)

Posthumous cheers then to Dame Muriel, whose 100th anniversary of birth is coming up in just a few days, February 1, 2018.

The literary world is gently buzzing with tributes; Muriel Spark’s books are being dusted off and republished in new editions, and read and re-read by devotees new and old. Reviews are already showing up in enthusiastic profusion online; I add my own to the list, and I will doubtless be joining a host of other readers revisiting Muriel Spark in greater depth as the year progresses.

My own personal rating for Robinson: 7.5/10.





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mrs 'arris goes to paris paul gallico 2 001Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico ~ 1958. Originally published as Flowers for Mrs. Harris, and alternatively titled Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris. This edition: International Polygonics, Ltd., 1989.  Softcover. ISBN: 1-55882-021-3. 157 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

I’d read this before, long ago in junior high school – I have a memory of sitting reading it at one of the small round tables tucked in the back of the library early in my Grade 8 year, my refuge from the crowded cafeteria at lunch hour – and at least once in the years since then, and the re-read brought me no new revelations. A decidedly sweet (just this side of saccharine) novella. “Charming”, and “Adult fairy tale”, two terms beloved of this minor classic’s many reviewers, suit it well.


The small, slender woman with apple-red cheeks, graying hair, and shrewd, almost naughty little eyes sat with her face pressed against the cabin window of the BEA Viscount morning flight from London to Paris. As with a rush and a roar the steel bird lifted itself from the runway and the wheels, still revolving, began to retract into its belly, her spirits soared aloft with it. She was nervous, but not at all frightened, for she was convinced that nothing could happen to her now. Hers was the bliss of one who knew that at last she was off upon the adventure at the end of which lay heart’s desire.

London charwoman Mrs. Ada Harris is bound upon a great adventure, ten British pounds and a stunning one thousand four hundred American dollars tucked safely into her shabby imitation leather handbag, along with the return half of a round-trip ticket to Paris. What could she be up to?

We are soon to find out, when Mrs. Harris firmly directs her Parisian taxi driver to transport her with the utmost speed and efficiency to the Avenue Montaigne; more specifically, to the House of Christian Dior. Mrs. Harris is about to buy herself A Dress.

Now, how, do you ask, can a 1950s’ London charwoman, billing herself out at a modest three shillings an hour – roughly the equivalent, at the exchange rate of the time, to a little under fifty American cents – manage to come up with the incredible amount needed to purchase an original Dior creation? And, most urgently, you must be wondering why?!?

The how (this is a “fairy tale”, don’t forget) is quite easily explained by our author. There was a substantial win on the football pools; that got Mrs. Harris a quarter of the way to her goal. Scrimping and saving, going without her beloved weekly movies and occasional visits to the pub and cutting down on her lavish consumption of tea took her to the halfway point. A disastrous attempt at gambling on the dog races was a setback, but Mrs Harris soldiered on. It took her three years, but she did it; the cash is in hand. Now for the dress.

But, again, why a Dior dress? What on earth could be possessing this humble woman in setting her aspirations on such a worthlessly extravagant item? Well, it all goes back to a little incident at one of her employers’ houses, a certain fashionable and extremely wealthy Lady Dant.

Opening up Lady Dant’s closet in the discharge of her tidying up duties, Mrs. Harris discovers something marvelous. Not one, but two astonishing garments, the like of which she has never seen in real life before, though she has sighed briefly and appreciatively over such creations in the discarded fashion magazines which frequently have come her way. And she’s always loved beautiful things, though that love has hitherto only expressed itself through the more readily accessible medium of flowers; the geraniums she grows with such marvelous success, and the cast-off bouquets which come her way and which she nurses along until the vestige of any beauty is completely faded.

But now as she found herself before the stunning creations hanging in the closet she found herself face to face with a new kind of beauty – an artificial one created by the hand of man the artist, but aimed directly and cunningly at the heart of woman…There was no rhyme or reason for it; she would never wear such a creation; there was no place in her life for one. Her reaction was purely feminine. She saw it and she wanted it dreadfully…

Oops, there goes Paul Gallico expounding on the childishly weak nature of femininity again, a tendency he demonstrates fairly frequently, and which annoyed me so much in another one of his folksily frothy novellas, 1962’s Coronation. But steeling myself, and soldiering on, I allow myself to be caught up in the saga of Mrs. Harris and her Dior dress.

She does indeed reach her goal and attain her wonderful garment – the description of which appealed deeply to my own feminine soul, and left me feeling a yearning-for-loveliness sister to Ada Harris – but while she is going about it she also proceeds to magically make several unlikely friends connected with the House of Dior, and to change several lives, and to generally act as an unlikely catalyst to events beyond her daily sphere. For in Paul Gallico’s fictional world, a heart of gold and a cheeky smile can move mountains, cutting through the sneering superiority of the wealthy and snobbish, and bringing some down-to-earth sensibilities into the most artificially fabricated situations.

Mrs. Harris is our hero(ine) of the moment; her eternal wisdom sees through the superficialities of social class and fancy dress, to the eternal desires for “something higher” trapped within every human soul.

Oh, Paul Gallico. I do enjoy your work, but there is always just a little hesitation in my own occasionally cynical soul which stops me embracing your fables fully…

Mrs. Harris gets a pass, however, and a generous one; the unlikeliness of her quest puts this tale on a plane of its own.

Next up, three more fables concerning our charwoman with a flair for the extraordinary. Gallico followed up the phenomenal success of Mrs. Harris’s Parisian escapade with equally fantastical trips to America, to the British Houses of Parliament, and to Soviet Russia. I haven’t read any of these yet, but I am in possession of two of them, the America and Parliament capers, in the 1967 collection of novellas under one cover, Gallico Magic. My husband read that collection a year or so ago, and finished it off wit the comment that it was a bit much to take all together; he was completely Gallicoed out by the end. I may approach with more caution, judiciously choosing only one or two of the novellas and leaving the others for another time. I will be sure to report back on Mrs. Harris, though. I’m quite curious as to what further tangles she’ll untangle with her golden “common touch”!

Oh – and I can’t leave you without a comment on the edition of Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris which I’ve just read. It has to have some of the ugliest illustrations possible inside; an absolutely perfect example of generic illustration lite. I shan’t share; it would be too painful, but a glance at the cover will give you a clue as to the horrors within. As an antidote, and to soothe my own ruffled sensibilities, I include several much kinder covers below. (Query: Who or what is International Polygonics, Ltd., and why did they ruin their otherwise nicely produced edition of this book – good paper, lovely font – with these pedestrian pictures?)

Ah, well. Moving on (at last!),  here are several nice reviews to peruse.

One Minute Book Reviews – Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

Stuck-in-a-Book – Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

I do believe this is the first edition cover. Understated, but very pleasant.

I do believe this is the 1958 first edition cover. Understated, but very pleasant.

A nice early paperback cover, though Mrs. Harris is perhaps portrayed as a trifle more elderly than she should be; in the book she is a slender lady, capable of fitting into a Dior "floor model" hot off the runway mannequin, and she is also only "approaching her sixties" in age.

A nice early paperback cover, though Mrs. Harris is perhaps portrayed as a trifle more sturdy and elderly than she should be; in the book she is a slender woman, capable of fitting into a Dior “floor model” hot off the runway mannequin, and she is also described as “approaching her sixties” in age. The hat is bang-on, though!

Another early dustjacket, this one from the first American edition. This is my personal favourite; nice example of cover art by an artist who studied the story within.

Another early dust jacket, this one from the first American edition. This is my personal favourite; a great example of cover art by an artist who studied the story within.

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