Posts Tagged ‘Century of Books 2014’

Well, I might just make it to my Century of Books (2014 version) goal. That is: 100 books read and reviewed from January 1, 2014 to December 31, 2014, one for each year between 1900 and 1999. I have 8 years left to read, and 3 weeks to read them in – still quite do-able.

But the reviews…well…I think those might not be exactly in-depth – I have a fearfully large number to write about!

These past few weeks have been rather trying, in a number of small, niggling ways. Everyone’s been sick with various viruses, we’ve had some unplanned trips to the dentist, vehicles have been acting up, and we’re in the midst of some ambitious house renovations – tomorrow the dining room floor is coming apart, from the floor joists up, to be completely replaced and then followed by a ceiling to floor redo of the room.

What else? Oh yes, my faithful old computer printer died, right in the middle of a large clerical project for the upcoming regional performing arts festival, which I’m deeply involved in. To make things even more interesting, it has been very cold, well into the minus 20s Celsius. It’s warmed up a bit the last day or two, but now the prediction is for freezing rain. Oh, hurray.

And then there’s that whole Christmas thing. The first without my mother, who passed away in June of this year, and also mostly without my oldest child, who is now living away from home. I miss him quite a lot, though I’m glad he’s happily getting on with his life. We’ve just been discussing Christmas arrangements, and where everyone will be, and how to coordinate new schedules and commitments – it feels very strange.

Well, this too shall pass. It’s really just little stuff, and one feels very “first world problemish” even mentioning it, but there it is.

On the plus side, I’m back in my little office after its recent desperately-needed facelift, though the re-installed bookshelves are still empty and things are just kind of plunked down here and there in a very muddled fashion.

How are you other Century-of-Bookers making out? Please share!

It’s been a grand project, and I’ve greatly enjoyed it, even while getting pulled away into some bookish side paths.

Happy December, everyone, and I’ll try to get some more book-related posts up very soon.

 

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Not my personal copy, which is a rebound old school library edition with a boring green cover.

Not my personal copy, which is a rebound old school library edition with a boring green cover.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame ~ 1908. This edition: Scribner’s, 1954. Illustrated and with Preface by Ernest H. Shepard. Hardcover. 259 pages.

My rating: 10/10

What can be said about this book that hasn’t already been said, written, or recorded in some way? A true “classic”, in every sense of the word, beloved by children and adults the world over for the century-plus since its first publication.

Grahame’s anthropomorphic characters are most cleverly depicted. They are small humans in animal form, wearing clothes, walking upright when appropriate (though some find this easier to manage than others), and only sometimes following their animal nature. They interact with the humans in their world on a perfectly equal basis (or so they think) while the “real” humans seem to view them with a mildly patronizing attitude. The whole thing is rather complex, when one stops to think about it, and it says much for Grahame’s artistry that we accept his world immediately and without question.

The story itself is a series of linked adventures, starting with the subterranean Mole busily spring cleaning his rather dingy underground home, and throwing down his scrub brush in despair when the scent of Spring wafts through the air and catches the attention of his sensitive little nose. Wandering aimlessly out along the riverbank, Mole meets the cheerful Water Rat, who is appalled that his new acquaintance is unfamiliar with the joys of the river, and decides post-haste to initiate the ground dweller into the thrill of the liquid world, for

‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,’ he went on dreamily: ‘messing – about – in – boats; messing –‘

‘Look ahead, Rat!’ cried the Mole suddenly.

It was too late. The boat struck the bank at full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air…

The earnest Mole and the carefree Rat go on to have numerous adventures, mostly concerning their bumptious neighbour Toad, who is a wealthy creature much prone to following ever-changing whims full speed ahead until something new catches his short attention. A camping trip in a horse drawn caravan (with decent Mole walking along beside the Horse to keep him company and to try to make up for the fact that the Horse is doing all of the hot, dusty work while Toad lolls in the driver’s seat) goes awry as the group is run off the road by a Motorcar. Toad is seduced immediately, buys his own extra-deluxe motorcar, and with a war cry of “Poop! Poop!” (meant to mimic the klaxon horn of his newest Beloved) gets himself into much more serious scrapes and eventually into Court, where he receives a stern sentence for Driving to the Public Danger, and much more seriously, Cheeking a Policeman. Twenty years in the deepest dungeon of the best-guarded prison in all of England is the fate of Toad. How ever while he get out of this one?!

Good stuff. Read it for your personal pleasure; read it aloud to your children, and continue the long tradition.

That’s all I have to say. If you are looking for scholarly examination, it is freely available in great abundance here, there and everywhere. But not from me. It’s a grand book, undoubtedly an “important” book, and most crucial of all, a fun-to-read book. Go read it. It’s utterly perfect for Spring.

And oh, well, here is a link to a quite lovely blog post regarding it, the sort of thing which I would have liked to have written, but which has already been done to such perfection that I lazily thought, “Why do it again?”

Check this out: Behold the Stars: The Wind in the Willows

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I must do some round-up posts – I have ten months’ worth of miscellaneous stray reads stacked up and begging to be re-shelved, but I don’t feel that I can happily do that until I at least give them a quick summation. Most books worthy of time spent reading them deserve thoughtful posts all to themselves, and I wish I could do that, but life is full of a variety of occupations, and there are still only twenty-four hours in each day.

I’m hoping to clear at least some of the backlog of books-I-read-in-2014-but-haven’t-managed-to-post-about, and at the same time tidy up the Century of Books list. I’m a bit afraid to look at it, but if I check off a few more of the years, I think I may still find that the December 31st goal is within reach. Though perhaps I will need to seek out some shorter tales to fill in the gaps. Didn’t someone who tackled this project a few years ago (Stuck-in-a-Book’s Simon?) resort near year’s end to reading Beatrix Potter for some of those troublesome years? Nice and short, definitely worthy of attention, and conveniently published year-after-year-after-year in a hard-to-fill Century time slot. 😉

Well, here we go. Hang onto your hats, people, for if all goes well the next few days will see a flurry of micro-reviews.

*******

looking up jane boyle needham rosemary taylor 1959 001Looking Up by Jane Boyle Needham, as told to Rosemary Taylor ~ 1959. This edition: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959. Hardcover. 191 pages.

My rating: 7/10

This was a rather unusual memoir, narrated by the author to journalist/memoirist Rosemary Taylor (Chicken Every Sunday, Harem Scare’m) for the very good reason that the subject was paralyzed from the neck down as a result of adult-acquired bulbar (affecting the brainstem) polio in 1949, when she was 27 years old. Jane Needham lived in an iron lung for thirteen years, until dying from complications of gall bladder surgery in 1962.

Looking Up was written when Jane Needham had been in the iron lung for nine years. She was, as she well knew, living on borrowed time. After five years in hospital, Jane Needham decided that she needed to make a concerted effort to provide as “normal” as a home as possible for her three children.

She had been unexpectedly divorced by her husband several years earlier and had with difficulty retained custody of her young children. Her elderly parents liquidated their assets, moved into an apartment, and purchased a house for Jane, the children, and Jane’s round-the-clock private nurses. Unable to breathe on her own, and never regaining more than twinges of movement in her extremities, Jane did create a functional home and proceeded to confound the naysayers who predicted disaster.

Jane Boyle Needham, quite literally "looking up", into the mirror attached to her iron lung, which allowed her to view her world.

Jane Boyle Needham, quite literally “looking up”, into the mirror attached to her iron lung, which allowed her to view her world.

The tone of this book is rather unrelentingly cheerful; one might call it positively inspirational. Jane Boyle Needham comes off as a darned good sport, even when relating her experiences with her rather caddish husband. Perhaps her strong Catholic faith had something to do with this? Towards the latter part of the memoir Jane goes on at great length about the strength her faith has given her, and the spiritual and moral assistance given to her by her parish priests.

Or perhaps the positive tone was partly façade? But Jane does manage to occasionally convey the anger at her fate and the anguish of her spouse’s betrayal; occasionally she is downright cutting, and those bits are a relief, because otherwise this woman’s saintliness and fortitude would be much too good to be true.

This book, something of a bestseller in its time, is a fascinating glimpse into the world of the many polio sufferers whose lives were saved by the invention of the iron lung and various portable breathing apparatus. Every breath was a struggle, brutal physical pain was a constant, and death was ever-present, lurking around the corner. A few moments of electrical outage, and it could be game over, quite literally, unless one had an attendant who could immediately start manual lung compressions.

The chirpy tone of Jane Needham’s narration serves to add piquancy to her tragic fate. She desperately hoped to live long enough to see her children make their way in the world; they would have been still in their teens when she died. I wonder what became of them?

*****

 

life with daktari susanne hart 1969 001Life with Daktari: Two Vets in East Africa by Susanne Hart ~ 1969. This edition: Bles/Collins, 1969. Hardcover. ISBN: 7138-0234-0. 224 pages.

My rating: 5/10

Susanne Hart (her last name condensed from her second husbands surname, “Harthoorn”) loved animals from her childhood, studied at the Royal Veterinary College in London, England, and qualified as a vet in 1950. She found herself in South Africa newly divorced and with two young children to support, and she set up a thriving domestic animal veterinary clinic. Then she encountered a fellow vet whom she had known in college days, Dr. Toni Harthoorn, and gave up her practice to marry him and join him in Nairobi.

Dr. Harthoorn specialized in working with wild animals, with particular expertise in immobilizing large creatures such as rhinos and elephants to be studied and fitted with radio collars. Susanne found herself becoming involved in her husband’s interests, and the two soon started working as something of a team, though Toni insisted that Susanne preserve a womanly decorum by avoiding the more dangerous situations that their work invariably entailed.

This is an uneven memoir, in that it has a rather hero-worshipping tone to it. Susanne goes on at great length about her second husband’s brilliant technique with wild creatures; the two of them also become acquainted with the famed Adamsons of Born Free fame, Joy and George, and their lion study project.

The animal bits are much the best, and I found the accounts of various encounters with wild and semi-wild creatures quite mesmerizing, but I could have done without the preachy details of Susanne Hart’s vegetarianism and special “health diet”, which she apparently pushed on every one of her acquaintances. She is quite snooty about those who don’t immediately fall in with her notions in this area, and it rather put me off.

I bogged down somewhere around the middle of this promising sounding but ultimately awkwardly written book, and had to force myself to finish it; a rather disappointing state of affairs as I had wanted to like it so very much.

Susanne and Toni were obviously passionate about their life callings, and their impatience with other people who didn’t quite embrace their ideas with full fervour is understandable, but the impression I received was that the reader was rather included with those not really “on side”; there is the faintest hint of patronization in Susanne Hart’s tone, and it left me not at all eager to seek out any of her other memoirs, of which there are something like eight or nine.

Susanne Hart was also active in environmental outreach, and hosted a short-lived television series, Animal Ark, featuring a group of children being introduced to various African creatures. In later years she was deeply involved in an organization assisting African children whose parents had died of AIDS. Susanne Hart was still actively involved in her social charity work when she died in South Africa in 2010, at the age of 83.

Susanne Hart was no doubt an admirable woman in many ways, and I feel rather like a rotter for not liking this memoir more, but there you have it. She annoyed me as much as she informed and entertained me so she gets a generously conditional “5” on my personal rating scale.

*****

make a cow laugh john holgate 1977 001Make a Cow Laugh: A First Year in Farming by John Holgate ~ 1977. This edition: Pan, 1980. Paperback. ISBN: 0-330-25780-3. 221 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Despite the off-putting front cover blurb – “The hilarious tale of a ‘townie’s’ first year in farming” – I found myself liking this book a lot.

“We moved to the country, and look how stupid we were!” self-mocking memoirs are a dime a dozen, and I almost didn’t pick this one up, but a quick peek at the contents inspired me to give it a go. It rewarded me for my bravery by being quite a nice little neophyte farmer’s tale, and it wasn’t hilarious at all – what a relief! – merely gently amusing.

John Holgate, his wife, and three children – sixteen-year-old son, eight-year-old daughter and four-year-old son – all make the move from city life in London to a 75-acre mixed farm on the Welsh border. Their motivation is rather vague, even to themselves, but upon consideration John Holgate theorizes that it was a collective desire to leave the city for the emotional and aesthetic pleasures of rural life, and the more elemental challenges of “sweat labour” versus the hurly-burly bustle of the city, where he was successfully involved in a standard “career”.

I am ashamed to say that I can’t quite recall what it was that John Holgate actually did in his London life. Or perhaps he didn’t tell us? My husband, who also read and enjoyed the book, can’t remember either, so perhaps it was a deliberate omission. In any event, it doesn’t matter, as the Holgates leave it all behind. They finance the purchase of the farm by selling their city house; money is tight and their subsequent financial struggles are completely believable.

John Holgate is a more than competent writer; his words have a beautifully readable lyrical flow, and he is deeply, quietly funny. His characters are respectfully portrayed – no bumpkins here! – and are utterly recognizable and familiar, even though we live in rural western Canada and the Holgates in far-off Great Britain.

John’s relationship with his eldest son, who completely embraces the rural lifestyle, is a joy to read about. The whole book is a pleasant experience, in fact, and the Holgates come across as being truly nice people, with their share of human flaws, but with the most relatable good intentions.

Not much happens in this memoir – no great disasters, no epiphanies, no real drama. At the end of Year One on the farm, things are plodding along quite nicely. John Holgate has been fortunate in his neighbours; they are keen to rally round when needed, and John has had the deep satisfaction of being able to lend a hand in his turn. Humourous incidents have indeed occurred, but none of them were “hilarious”, and that made me deeply pleased.

John’s personal challenges ring true – spousal squabbles triggered by money stress and culture shock, the physical discomfort caused by moving from a sedentary to a deeply physical working day, the inevitable “second-guessing” of the decision to change one’s lifestyle in such an astounding way, the continual drama of dealing with farm animals – and are seen to be resolved in a sober and very true-to-life way.

I would happily read John Holgate’s subsequent books. He wrote at least two more, On a Pig’s Back and A Sheep’s Eye View, and though I have no strong urge to go to a lot of effort to seek them out, I would be gently pleased to stumble across them on my travels. As I said before, the man can truly write, and a well-phrased, gently humorous, nicely realistic memoir which speaks highly of one’s own lifestyle choice is a desirable thing to have on the shelf.

 

 

 

 

 

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beyond the blue horizon alexander frater 001Beyond the Blue Horizon by Alexander Frater ~ 1986. This edition: Penguin, 1987. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-010065-2. 430 pages.

My rating: 9.75/10

Almost perfect.

The tiniest bit of transitioning muddle here and there lost the 1/4 point. Nothing at all serious, but just frequent enough to very occasionally interrupt the otherwise seamless flow.

Okay, this one came (flew in?) from way out in left field.

Or, to be completely accurate, the slightly ho-hum Nuthatch Books in 100 Mile House, B.C. I sometimes pop in there when passing through in my travels, mostly because it is conveniently located right next to the village’s premier (only?) coffee house, the Chartreuse Moose, which, at two hours driving time from home, is a perfect quick stop for a beverage in a take-out cup to see one on the next few hours of travel when heading for points to the south.

Where was I? Oh yes, Nuthatch Books. The bookstore itself is very average, with mostly new stuff, and a fairish quantity of used. Stiffish prices on the second hand books, and not much in the way of a vintage selection, but I’ve picked up a few interesting things there now and then. Such as this book, which was a complete impulse buy, inspired by the promising title and a lightning-quick random-passage read. In this case, the book hunter’s instinct was rewarded. This was great.

From the back cover:

The romance and breathtaking of the legendary Imperial Airways Eastbound Empire service – the world’s longest and most adventurous scheduled air route – relived fifty years later in one of the most original travel books of the decade.

‘Whether being mown down by stampeding Baghdad-bound passengers in Cairo airport, or battling with Indian Airline staff (and failing) to reconfirm six vital going-on flights from Delhi, or being lured unwittingly into a souvenir shop selling pornographic wood carvings in Lombok, or hitting tropical cyclone Ferdinand in a 748 en route from Sumba to Bali, Frater rises above it all with humour, style and a wonderfully sharp eye’ – Christopher Matthew in the London Standard

The front cover of my Penguin paperback is emblazoned with the overly-familiar Theroux comparison – I quite like most of Theroux’s travel writing, but for goodness sake – can’t we occasionally reference someone else?! – and despite the initial annoyance this triggered, I found myself having to agree. Alexander Frater does share many of the best writerly qualities of Paul Theroux, though Frater’s voice is distinctively his own.

I’m coming at this rather backwards, for no doubt if you’ve made it this far you’re wondering what the heck Beyond the Blue Horizon is actually about.

It’s simple-ish. It’s an attempted recreation of an old commercial flight path from England to Australia, via Northern Africa, the Middle East, India, and South Asia, taking modern commercial flights and touching down at each and every one of the destinations referenced in the flight paths of the venerable Imperial Airways Eastbound Airways Service in its 1920s-30s heyday, when such a journey was referred to, aptly, as a “voyage”, and was more akin to a leisurely ocean journey in a luxury liner than to the sardine-can-squished, as-much-as-possible-non-stop, strictly-transportation experiences of today.

Back in the day, the trip from London to Brisbane by air took two weeks, with something like 35 way stops. Most flying was undertaken in the daylight hours, and passengers and crew slept each night in generally quite posh hotels, many of which were purpose-built to serve the airways trade, much in the way that the great railway hotels of North America were constructed as an adjunct to the leisurely upper-class train travel of a similar period.

Though definitely plotted with a book-in-mind – Frater was a well-respected travel writer and journalist well in successful mid-career when he embarked on this project – Beyond the Blue Horizon doesn’t feel terribly manufactured-for-sale, mostly because Frater is a true airplane enthusiast and a grand people person and an accomplished journalist, and he writes this slightly unlikely journey up in the most engaging way. He did his research first, lined up appropriate people to interview at pertinent points in his journey, and assembled a comprehensive number of long-ago accounts of air travel, which I wish could have been included in a bibliography, because the excerpts we are given are frequently intriguing.

Accounts of Frater’s trip are interspersed with accounts of long-ago flights covering the same bits of territory, and this is where my only complaint comes in. There are so many different references to so many different pilots, travellers, airplanes and airlines that I occasionally got a bit lost among all the reminiscences, and had to back up an reread the passages where Frater connects the now to the then of each particular bit of his journey. But it always came right, and the juxtaposition of experiences absolutely made this book, so it’s a very minor demerit point given to an otherwise excellent bit of travel lit.

Though I admire the concept of airplanes, I am not a comfortable flyer myself, and I read Beyond the Blue Horizon like I read accounts of mountaineering, or of sailing in small boats across the vast wastes of ocean – with admiration and interest but with no desire at all to emulate the experience. Writers who can keep me engaged in something so foreign to my personal comfort zone are quite rare, and greatly appreciated when found. Alexander Frater gets a shiny gold star from me for this one, and I already have a second journey-book by him purring promisingly on my bedside bookshelf: Chasing the Monsoon, 1990, in which Frater leaves rainy England for even more rainy India.

Frater’s writing in Beyond the Blue Horizon is no less than excellent. He combines sober statistics with revealing asides in which his inner keenness comes out all schoolboy enthusiastic and highly likeable, and he wanders off topic just enough to keep things continually engaging.

Frater also has a vast inner knowledge of the sort of esoterica in his chosen area of devotion which one comes across in other fields of interest, such as train buffs and vintage car people and those single-breed dog/cat/horse/you-name-it enthusiasts who occasionally, revealingly, let themselves go a little too far for the audience at hand, causing one to glance furtively about for an exit opportunity to escape the intensity of the one-topic conversationalist.

Frater never goes too far.

Highly recommended.

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pomp and circumstance noel coward 001Pomp and Circumstance by Noël Coward ~ 1960. This edition: Pan, 1963. Paperback. 287 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Havoc under the sun…

Samolo – a lazy, sun-drenched island in the South Pacific where nothing ever really happens…
Until suddenly it is announced that the Queen and Prince Philip are to pay a state visit. From then on chaos reigns. And the arrival of the curvaceous Duchess of Fowey, who brings out the beast in every male, only adds confusion to confusion.

Here we have an easy candidate for the most unexpected book of 2014.

I can’t quite recall where I acquired this tattered and very well read paperback; it just sort of appeared one day at the top of a book stack, like the frothy sort of thing that it is, effortlessly rising above the (comparative) heavyweights below.

As this seems to be my year of reading mostly lightweight novels, and its year of publication was so-far blank in the Century of Books list, what could I do but succumb?

I was initially a little uneasy as to whether I could sustain my interest for the whole thing, as it started off at frenetic high speed, all very much a-laugh-a-minute, and that sort of style can get tiresome early on, especially if the writer bobbles, but Coward, old pro that he was by his point in his career, kept up the pace marvellously well, and completely won me over.

“Charming” is an overused term in describing the light novel, but in this case it is most apt. With a bit more consideration, charming isn’t complex enough, for there is a lot of snark here, too, of the most readable sort.

Maybe a page scan is in order, to give one a sample of the contents.

First, an overview.

The curtain rises over the (completely fictional) small South Sea island of Samolo, an idyllic tropical paradise populated by a happy-go-lucky native population and a large colony of British nationals who make up the bulk of the government. For Samolo was never conquered in the warfare sense of the word; the inhabitants merely welcomed the superior managerial style of the inhabitants of that other, colder isle and gladly made way for a dual society of semi-equality. The native upper classes mingle easily with the Brits; the ones a bit farther down the social scale are apparently quite thrilled to provide staffing for the expatriates in their various cottages, villas and stately homes. Everyone is very hail-fellow-well-met, with a bit of resigned-but-not-bitter bitching about the occasional laziness of the servants and their tendency to wander out of paid employment when the mood strikes them providing reliable tea table and cocktail party conversation. (Yes, this is most definitely a fantasy.)

Our narrator, one Grizelda Craigie (Grizel), is the happily married forty-something wife of banana grower Robin. Coward sustains the first-person voice of his female narrator beautifully, something I had serious qualms about when I realized that this was what he was undertaking.

Grizel moves in the upper social circles of Samolo, being on best-friends basis with the British Governor’s wife, Lady Alexandra (Sandra), so of course is the first person to be confided to when the news of the impending Royal Visit breaks.

This is just the start of the drama, for in quick succession Grizel must cope not just with the professional stresses (so to speak) of her highly placed friend, but with an incident in which her small son is mixed up in a very below-the-belt assault on a schoolmate (either triggering or in retaliation for a sharp knock on the head by the other party; the parents on both sides predictably receive conflicting stories from the superficially wounded lads), by the sudden confession of a bachelor friend that he has used her name in telegrams inviting his latest (aristocratic and very prominently married) paramour for a visit, with the intent that the lady actually spend her nights with said bachelor while pretending to occupy Grizel’s guest room, and by involvement in the island’s amateur dramatic association as it plans an elaborate aquatic pageant to be presented to the Queen and her consort, despite prognostications of squally weather soon to come.

Mix in an assortment of Samolan and expatriate characters of all walks of life – from gardener to Prime Minister to journalist to ex-secret-service-agent-turned-sugarcane-planter to aristocratic Duke, and add for good measure a brusque English nanny, numerous beloved-but-high-maintenance visitors, maddening letters from Mummy back home in England who always seems to know the latest Samolan news well before there-at-the-source Grizel, an intense lesbian who is openly smitten with our narrator, the various clashing personalities of the Dramatic Society members, and an epidemic of chicken pox striking in the most unexpected quarters.

It’s all highly silly, but increasingly enthralling. There are moments of sincerity here and there: the portrayals of both Griselda’s and Sandra’s marriages are warm and believably true-to-life, and the family scenes with the children are hugely enjoyable. Most of the sarcasm – which is in relentless but in general quite gentle – is reserved for Grizel’s outer circle of friends and acquaintances, with some deep digs being got in here and there at anti-monarchists both in Samola and back home in England; Noël Coward’s staunchly pro-monarchy patriotism is unabashedly on view.

Several homosexual couples play significant roles, with stereotypical behaviour paraded in full technicolour. I felt just a bit ashamed to find these characters and episodes so amusing, but comforted myself with the thought that the depictions were coming from a writer of that persuasion himself, for Noël Coward was well known to be gay, though always politely reticent about his private affairs.

Pomp and Circumstance was Coward’s one and only attempt at novel writing. One rather wonders what inspired this project, amidst all of the plays and musical compositions. It definitely works, and in my opinion deserves to be shelved alongside the older but similarly giddy Wodehouse tales, as more than slightly goofy, cheerfully amiably, decidedly literary entertainment.

I had a difficult time deciding where to take a page scan from, as much of the joy in this thing is in the building of the story and the connections and contexts of each succeeding episode, so perhaps a bit of Chapter One will be best. This will give a taste of what is going on here; it definitely gets better.

And keep your era-appropriate sense of humour dusted off. One can find much which might be viewed as potentially offensive and politically incorrect these five decades on. Disturbingly vast quantities of alcohol are consumed, mostly in cocktails with oddly evocative names – the “Horse’s Neck”, presumably a long sort of drink, seems exceedingly popular – though sometimes straight from the bottle. Cigarettes are prominently smoked during every emotional and romantic moment, too.  If these sorts of things bother you, best to stay clear. Everyone else, it’s a richly glorious vintage romp.

Pomp and Circumstance has been reissued numerous times since its first appearance in 1960, though it appears to be out of print at present. A quick look online shows it easy to find, and I’m guessing the larger library systems will still have copies. Enjoy!

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No uniting theme here, unless it is that of gently engaging but not wow-inducing works by quite decent writers, quickly consumed and just as quickly set aside. Nothing really wrong with any of these, but I must admit that I almost forgot I’d not-that-long-ago read them until I unearthed them from one of the book piles mushrooming on my perennially overcrowded desk.

trumpets over merriford reginald arkell 001Trumpets Over Merriford by Reginald Arkell ~ 1955. Published in the United States as The Miracle of Merriford, 1956. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1955. Hardcover. 175 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

I’d heard of Reginald Arkell before, author of the gardening ode Old Herbaceous and other humorous depictions of English rural life, but this was my first time reading him.

Quick verdict: Quaint. Almost painfully so, in fact, but salvaged by the abundance of good humour and the general likeability of the characters.

It is several years post-World War II, and the tiny English village of Merriford has subsided back into its centuries-old peace. But world affairs keep moving right along, and to prove it Merriford is unexpectedly invaded by a military force from another country. An American Air Force base, strategically located within striking distance of those increasingly pesky Russians, is erected with stunning speed, wiping out farm fields and ancient common grounds with no advance warning.

No more mushroom patch, no more wildflower meadow, just acres of runway and a small city of rambunctious young airmen. Needless to say, the locals are shocked to the core, and react in their various ways. Most find some degree of acceptance, some few are deeply hostile, while others predictably haunt the base gates, hoping to catch the attention of lonely (and well-paid) young men far from home and missing feminine company.

trumpets over merriford illustration reginal arkell js goodall 001The elderly vicar of Merriford takes it all in stride – for he takes the long view, back through the centuries, and an enthusiastic American or two in the here-and-now is no cause for undue alarm – until he is informed by the American work party affixing a warning light to the church steeple that there is something of an emergency concerning the venerable church bells. Or, rather, the bell tower. The support beams are rotten – riddled with wood-worm! – and could tumble down at any time, with dire results to any unlucky congregants in the church below. The vicar orders the bells silenced and the bell tower off limits, and casts about for some way to raise the substantial funds required for repairs, a dauntingly difficult prospect in cash-strapped post-war England.

Meanwhile the vicar’s lovely young housekeeper, the war-orphaned Mary, has caught the eye of one Johnny Fedora, lately of Texas. Mary is much too busy mothering her beloved employer to dally with anyone, let alone one of the forward Americans cheekily camped on her very doorstep, but Johnny is well smitten despite his initial resistance to the charms of rural Britain. He woos the fair Mary with a certain individual style and a noteworthy persistence which eventually brings the vicar round to his side, even if Mary is primly accomplished at keeping her feelings to herself.

Of course there is a charming happy ending, all full of Anglo-American goodwill. Very nice, very sweet. Almost too nice. (But not quite.)

This reminded me quite a lot of similar efforts by Miss Read, though Reginald Arkell writes with considerably more dash, and much more obvious humour. The two also share an illustrator, which served to highlight the resemblance, and I felt that the cheerful line drawings by J.S. Goodall were a marvelous embellishment of a very light sort of village tale.

every living thing james herriot 001Every Living Thing by James Herriot ~ 1992. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1993. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-4093-8. 374 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Quick verdict: Pleasant enough, but perhaps just a titch too obviously written for the existing fan base.

Between 1970 and 1981 Yorkshire veterinarian James Alfred Wight wrote a number of fantastically successful fictionalized memoirs under the pseudonym James Herriot. Anthologized in compilation volumes, these are All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Bright and Beautiful, and All Things Wise and Wonderful, and their popular success spawned movie and television productions and a thriving tourist industry in Thirsk, Yorkshire, where Wight settled and practiced.

I have read all of them with great enjoyment, and tattered copies remain on our shelves, providing pleasant re-reading for those times when quiet good humour is required. Nominally about the animals the authorial vet comes across in the course of his rounds, the books are at heart most appealing because they are all about human interactions.

Wight/Herriot was a master at capturing the moment; he is one of those writers whose words create vivid snapshots of time and place. The fact that he was fifty years old when he penned the first of his memoirs perhaps leads to their strong appeal. By this time the author had been involved in veterinary medicine for three decades, and his sometimes quite deliberate documentation of the post-war shift of small British farms with their work horses and diverse range of small herds and flocks to a machine-powered, amalgamated, single-enterprise system gives his work a certain importance far beyond the charm of the worked-over anecdotes which comprise them.

When I came across Every Living Thing, I was quite thrilled. Here was a new(ish) work by an author I already held in high regard. And in many ways, the book was well up to par with its predecessors, full of charmingly poignant stories of the animals and people the vet bumps up against.

Some way into the book, though, I started to feel vaguely uncomfortable. Though many of the vignettes are well portrayed, and the glimpses of Wight/Herriot’s family life are most intriguing – he speaks with great feeling about his young children and the joys of their company on his rounds; his son went on to become a vet and his daughter a “human” physician – the book as a whole is slightly unsatisfying. The vignettes are short, frequently unrelated, and often dependent upon one having already read the original books, bringing in references to the best known of the stories and characters of the previous bestsellers.

Preaching, perhaps, mainly to the choir.

For something fairly substantial, 374 reasonably dense pages, Every Living Thing was a very fast read, being smoothly written and engaging. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this as a first experience of James Herriot to one who has not yet read him, but for those who are already fans, the book adds a little something to the other works. Herriot was 72 years old when it was published in 1992, and as he had publically announced back in 1981 that he would no longer be adding to the memoirs, it reads rather like a tacked-on addition to the earlier works, versus a seamless continuation. Not without merit, but a lesser thing, comparatively speaking.

deck with flowers elizabeth cadell 001Deck with Flowers by Elizabeth Cadell ~ 1973. This edition: Coronet, 1976. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-19863-X. 192 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Quick verdict: Pure fluff, but fun.

I vaguely recall Elizabeth Cadell being ranked with D.E. Stevenson among writers of vintage “women’s fiction” – a designation perhaps even more damning than my beloved mid-20th Century “middlebrow” fiction – but I had not paid too much attention, being at the time still a rank neophyte in the Dessie world, as it were, and not quite convinced of its merits.

Of course, that was then, and this is now, and these days every time I am in a second hand bookstore with even the slightest pretension to an organizational system I do an automatic scan of the appropriate shelves for serendipitous D.E.S. titles. (I’ve found her most frequently in Romance, in Vintage, in Pulp, downright expensively in Collectible, rather surprisingly in Classics, and once in the rather all-embracing Brit Lit.) During one of these generally fruitless scans, this slender paperback caught my eye, with its typically romantic cover and slightly familiar author’s name.

“Oho! What have we here?!” was my immediate response, and a quick scan of the back cover blurb confirmed me in my suspicion that I had stumbled across a classic example of this gentle genre.

Madame Landini’s memoirs promised to be sensational. Rodney, who was publishing them, and Oliver, his literary business agent friend, congratulated themselves on a brilliant coup. But having covered her childhood as a Russian princess, her exile in Paris, and the discovery of her phenomenal voice, the prima donna reached her first husband’s death – ‘man overboard’ – and declared she would write no more.

Rodney suspected that there was more to her change of heart than a display of temperament. He hoped that perhaps Nicola Baird, Madame Landini’s dismissed secretary, could help solve the mystery. But Nicola was beautiful as well as elusive and Rodney found himself becoming romantically entangled with her…

Kirkus is mildly dismissive, and I won’t argue with this 1973 review as it pretty well sums this thing up:

Another soft-centered entertainment of light mystery and lighter romance in London, where Mme. Landini, a once formidable diva, whose autobiography editor Rodney is publishing, literally screeched to a halt in mid-memoir. Some fairly casual sleuthing reveals that Mme. Landini had been spooked by the watch of Nicola, her pretty secretary. And did that have something to do with the disappearance, years ago, of the singer’s husband, who was last seen on shipboard with an armload of flowers? By the time this tangle is gently untangled, Rodney and Nicola have discovered pleasant things about one another and Rodney’s charmingly scatterbrained sister hooks her man. For the lounge library.

Pure chocolate box reading, this was, and quite guiltily delicious as a treat among more wholesome fare.

I thought it not quite up to D.E. Stevenson standard in plotting, at least not that of her best attempts. Though perhaps Cadell is a mite more technically proficient? Deck with Flowers was smooth as smooth, with some grand characters – loved the elderly head of Rodney’s publishing house in particular – but I’ll have to read more examples to be able to pass a fair judgement in this area.

Elizabeth Cadell is an author whom I am as of now adding to my standard look-for list, albeit one of those whose covers I will automatically conceal when reading out in public. 😉

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no fond return of love barbara pym 001

Great cover on this 1981 Granada edition, designed by someone who has obviously read and “got” the book.

No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym ~ 1961. This edition: Granada, 1981. Paperback. ISBN: 0-586-05371-9. 287 pages.

My rating: 8/10 on a first reading. Perhaps to be elevated after a future re-read. This author is always better the second time around.

Barbara Pym is in rather fine form with this further delving into the complex lives of a number of single women in various stages of contentment (or otherwise) with their unpartnered state.

As with the stellar Excellent Women, and most of her other stealthily pithy novels, No Fond Return of Love has twin strands: the inner voice of a quiet spinster of the keenly-watching-from-the-shadows type, and the omnipotent authorial observation (not always uniformly benign) of various relationships playing out in that spinster’s sphere.

The set-up is familiar to the Pym reader. A single, upper middle class lady of no-longer-young vintage, engaged in some sort of quasi-intellectual undertaking, encounters a number of new people, including a man who both repels and attracts her. The man may or may not look upon the spinster with equal interest; the interest, if piqued, may or may not be romantic. Pym then shines an illuminating light on her chosen small segment of society; she dances her puppets about in increasingly bizarre postures until at last pairing them up in sometimes unexpected partnerships, which frequently feel less than wholly satisfactory, though cleaving to the traditional pattern of a tidy, “happy” ending.

Dulcie Mainwaring is our key character here, though she occasionally steps aside to allow others to have their moment in the dusty spotlight of Pym’s regard. A pleasantly attractive and undeniably intelligent women in her early thirties, Dulcie has just been given her walking papers (in the most tactful way) by her long-time fiancé – he has recently informed her, in acceptably clichéd terms, that he is “not worthy of her love” – and though Dulcie unprotestingly goes along with this charade, her inner confidence is badly shaken.

Pulling herself together, Dulcie decides to divert herself with attendance at a conference designed to address some of the various complexities of her particular line of work. Dulcie belongs to that of the vast network of poorly paid, unseen people (mostly female) who proofread, fact-check, do minor research, tidy up footnotes, and compile indexes and bibliographies for scholarly works of research and biography, and the conference is highlighted by lectures on such arcane topics as “Some Problems of an Editor”, by presenters mildly well-known amongst their peers.

As anyone who has been to this sort of a limited-interest conference may have found, the really interesting networking happens during coffee breaks and over evening drinks, and this event is no exception. Making a deliberate effort to shake off her post-broken-engagement gloom, Dulcie winds herself up to approach a fellow attendee, the slightly younger, slightly more experienced-in-the-arena-of love, and more than slightly patronizing Viola Dace. Though not exactly kindred spirits at first encounter, the two find themselves sharing an interest in one of the conference’s key speakers, the handsome and apparently charming Aylwin Forbes.

no fond return of love barbara pym excerpt 001no fond return of love barbara pym excerpt 001 (2)

Aylwin Forbes effortlessly repulses Viola’s attempts to renew their nebulous relationship with well-practiced urbanity; Dulcie watches their wary exchanges with an eyebrow secretly cocked; she catches every nuance. There is something about Aylwin which piques her interest, and after the conference is over and Dulcie is back home in the over-large house she has inherited from her late parents, she finds him popping back into her field of awareness.

Well, what else to do but research the man, then? Which Dulcie proceeds to do, with a tenacious thoroughness which does credit to her meticulous skill in tracking down elusive references and firmly knitting up tenuous connections. Dulcie’s technique, which involves much trudging about and putting herself into situations where she can inquire as to her subject without causing undue alarm to the interviewee, might well be what we refer to nowadays as stalkerish, but Dulcie, though obsessed with the minutiae of Aylwin’s life and the state of his troubled marriage, somehow manages to stay just on the sane side of this sort of behaviour. We view her actions as manifestations of her innate desire to acquire and organize information, even as her curiousity leads her into some exceedingly unlikely situations, in which the author’s sense of humour is fully indulged.

Dulcie is joined in her home by her eighteen-year-old niece Laurel, and then, in an odd plot twist, by the perennially sulky Viola Dace. Aylwin himself shows up, still vaguely attracted to/repulsed by Viola, and mildly interested in Dulcie in a platonic sort of way – she might be useful to him in a professional sense, Aylwin practically muses – and then increasingly infatuated with the oblivious (and half his age) Laurel, who has herself become romantically interested in the florist-shop-owning son of the family next door.

Meanwhile Dulcie has scraped acquaintance with Aylwin’s clergyman brother, Neville, who himself is having romantic problems with the aging spinsters of his flock, and with Aylwin’s rather soppy but ultimately likeable estranged wife Marjorie, with his matter-of-fact mother-in-law, and eventually with his surprisingly “common” mother, who owns a not-very-good guesthouse (complete with moulting taxidermied eagle in the lobby) in a seaside town, where most of the characters converge for what one fears will be a tremendous confrontation. This never materializes, though Dulcie has a bad moment or two as she crouches behind a piece of guesthouse furniture while Aylwin and Marjorie emotionally discuss the dissolution of their marriage, thinking they are alone.

The tale has strong elements of farce, as you may have gathered from this sketchy outline of some key points, but Pym’s dry tone, and the ever-apt inner thoughts of Dulcie kept me quite enthralled, even while I was mildly annoyed with myself for my collusion in such a nonsensical sort of thing. Dare I say that this reminded my of something which David Lodge might have dreamed up? Or even Robertson Davies, on one of his lighter-hearted days? Full of in-jokes which leave the reader feeling slightly on the fringes of the intellectual circle in which the author has placed his/her characters, and coming close to outright vulgarity with some of the more outlandish developments.

I didn’t much care for the ending, which seemed to argue that any man is better than none, after a book’s worth of practical examples of why a spinster’s fate might not be such a bad one. I thought that after going to great pains to demonstrate her character’s rich inner life, Barbara Pym let Dulcie down. Perhaps, writing at the end of that “happy housewife”-focussed decade, the author caved in to the 1950s’ ideal of marriage always being better than the alternative?

 

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solomons seal hammnd innes 1980Solomons Seal by Hammond Innes ~ 1980. This edition: The Book Club, 1981. Hardcover. 320 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

At one point in my reading life (late teens) I read a fair bit of Hammond Innes, mostly because I had read everything else handy and he was still “there”. I must say that I found his dramatic, testosterone-infused stories acceptable enough, though ultimately easy to re-shelve. This renewal of my acquaintance with Innes reminds me of just how readable-but-not-great he can be.

Please forgive that “astounding breasts” reference in the post header. Coupled with my last post featuring an almost-nude woman on a book cover, you might think I’m reading some pretty risqué stuff these days, but as with Dodie Smith’s allusive-but-not-explicit sex scenes, Hammond Innes avoids most of the details. He does, however, go on at some length about his female character’s physical attributes. Those breasts are mentioned numerous times; the hero describes them as astounding both before and after he has had some hands-on investigation. As a female reader I must say I found this rather off-putting. Hey, dude, what colour are her eyes?

This is merely a digression, though, a side note of personal annoyance regarding what is actually quite an initially promising story of mystery, suspense, and manly derring-do.

Trying to sort out the many plot strands to present them in logical order – more difficult than you’d think, as Innes has obviously decided that more is better in this case – and I am going to refer you to the Kirkus Review of 1980. Whoever penned this summation has neatly separated out the main points. I left the Big Plot Spoiler in, such as it was. See if you can make sense of this:

An improvement over Innes’ recent, dullish adventures – with stamps and sorcery (instead of, as usual, wildlife and armaments) helping to give a lift to at least the first half of the proceedings. Ex-naval officer Roy Slingsby, a temperamental property appraiser for a law firm is sent out to size up the auctionable holdings of the Holland family – and native-looking beauty Perenna Holland (whose twin brother Timothy is supposedly dying of sorcery) shows him the family treasures: carvings and stamps from Papua New Guinea. But before Slingsby can decide how much the stamps are really worth, Perenna disappears…and Slingsby himself quits his job, accepting an offer to relocate to Australia and settle a huge estate down there. Once Down Under, however, the Slingsby/Holland paths will merge again: in Sydney Slingsby meets Jona, a part-native Holland relation who captains an LCT (WW II landing-craft transport), and goes on a cruise with him to Bougainville in the Solomons, working as a navigator for his fare. Re-enter Perenna, of course, who is soon Slingsby’s shipboard bedmate – and the lovers then discover that Jona is delivering a cache of arms to rebels in Bougainville (where the Holland family has a long history). They all become involved in this insurrection (which fails) – and, while in the ancestral area, they uncover family secrets. Above all: grandfather Holland fathered Perenna on his own daughter-in-law – which is partly responsible for the family curse…The stamp stuff is fine, the rest is familiar and foolish but reasonably atmospheric – and none of it is as soporific as The Big Footprints or other Innes super-duds…

Do I detect more than a whiff of damning with faint praise in those first and last lines? If so, I must agree. This was a bit of a dog’s breakfast, and I notice that the Kirkus reviewer left out the cargo cult stuff, which Innes tosses in to justify the mindless actions of his “indigene” characters – the “fuzzy haired” (which epithet occurs as often as the breast reference, and is as equally irritating – did the man not have access to a thesaurus?) natives of Australia, Papaua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands who, in a mostly amorphous mob, get to play the crowd scenes during the bizarre and hardly believable “political insurrection” bits.

Here’s another excerpt from a contemporary review, this one more openly annoyed.

Anatole Broyard, writing in the December 12, 1980 issue of The New York Times, has this to say:

Everyone, even V.S. Pritchett, praises Hammond Innes. But I wonder what they will say about Solomons Seal. It did not work for me, but then perhaps I have the wrong attitude in reading suspense novels. Since they are supposed to be entertainments, I refuse to work very hard in reading them. I tend instead to sit back and wait for the book to come to me, to manipulate me as a skillful masseur might… Mr. Innes’s ambitions, apparently, are of a higher order. Solomons Seal is a heavy stew of voodoo death, cargo cult, family curses, philately and South Pacific politics – plus a dash of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and a soupçon of The Ancient Mariner… Much of the action occurs off stage, and we are given huge chunks of plot in summary. I think it was novels like Solomons Seal that inspired Edmund Wilson’s famous attack on the detective story, in which he said that reading them was like looking for a rusty nail in a crate of straw…

Well, this isn’t much of a review so far, dear readers, being mostly a presentation of other people’s words with me fervently nodding in agreement off in the wings.

I liked the set-up, and greatly enjoyed the details of the stamp collecting sub-world, as well as the introspective passages during the at-sea times, as multi-talented Slingsby contemplates the ocean during his solitary time on the bridge of the sturdy but wallowing Landing Craft Transport he finds himself piloting. There was also a short but good description of open pit copper mining which I greatly appreciated for its verisimilitude, for my husband works in just such a mine here in the interior of B.C. and Innes has obviously paid close attention during his research visit to a similar late 1970s mine site. He even references the many Canadians working in the mine, which I appreciated as evidence of the author’s keen eye for scene-setting detail. (Innes famously travelled for six months of every year, examining story settings and taking notes, then spent the next six months writing up his latest adventure tale. He also had a soft spot for Canada, and was warmly appreciative of the Canadians he met on his research journeys here, as portrayed in his autobiography, Harvest of Journeys, which I think I must really re-read some time soon, since he’s back on my radar.)

Where Innes lost me (setting aside the trying-to-be-sexy bits and the pervasive offhand racism) was in his failure to bring all of the story strands together in an interesting and understandable way. There is a Great Big Secret, which men are prepared to kill (and to die) for – this turns out to be some sort of muddly your-father-betrayed-my-father-therefore-I-don’t-like-you-very-much-and-oh-yeah-if-I-can-I’ll-do-you-down melodrama. The lone female character turns out to have a slightly complicated ancestry (see the Kirkus excerpt), but I was never quite clear on why that really mattered. There is a convenient maybe-suicide of the conflicted primary bad guy, who is really a mix of admirable initiative and evil genius – our hero admires him as much as fears and hates him. The two “native sorcerers” at the heart of the mostly-off-stage insurrection have a weird mental showdown; one mysteriously wins and the other “wills himself to die.” The few stray bodies (all of expendable bit players) are apparently easily disposed of with no apparent qualms or consequences – “These country bumpkin black fellas are continually bumping each other off, no need to interfere” seems to be the attitude of both the local and post-colonial management level and police types. The cargo cult and voodoo elements are continually mentioned but never really detailed, almost as if Innes expects his readers to be completely au fait with this sort of arcane knowledge and able to figure out these references by themselves.

As a plus point, the book title is a neat triple entendre, as the stamps which start the story-ball rolling are actually shipping company business seals versus true postage stamps, and they are embellished with an actual seal-on-an-ice-floe picture cribbed from a Newfoundland postage stamp design, and much of the action concerns the Solomon Islands.

This wasn’t a painful read, but it wasn’t great, either. It was, in fact, resoundingly okay-ish.

I’m eyeing the other Hammond Innes books tucked away on the “B-List” cabin bookshelves with mild surmise; we are about to head out on a longish road/camping trip and much not-too-hard-going reading matter will be required. Solomons Seal was needlessly convoluted, but some of Innes’ earlier works were much more linear in construction, if memory serves. Perhaps I should take along The Wreck of the Mary Deare (ghost ship!), or The Doomed Oasis (Arab chieftans and oil!), or The Land God Gave to Cain (murder and meanderings in desolate Labrador!) Or maybe the autobiographical Harvest of Journeys, which I remember from a long-ago read as being a very good memoir, with the bonus element of being eligible for inclusion on my Canadian book list, as it is much concerned with Innes’ travels in Canada.

Keep an eye on this space, and in the meantime, consider that you’ve been given the heads-up on how well (or not well) Hammond Innes travels through time from his heyday as a bestselling “blue collar” action-suspense writer.

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the girl from the candle-lit bath dodie smith 1978 001The Girl From the Candle-Lit Bath by Dodie Smith ~ 1978. This edition: W.H. Allen, 1978. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-491-0-2113-5. 155 pages.

My rating: 3/10

Oh, dear.

I was warned ahead of time that this book was a huge disappointment (see what Nan has to say here, and Elizabeth here) but I thought to myself, “Surely it can’t be that bad?”

I was wrong.

It is dreadful.

Great title, gorgeous cover. Very titillating to the readerly imagination, kind of like our heroine’s soap commercial was to the TV-viewing masses in this thankfully short novel, which explains the reference which the title makes. For our heroine is a not-very-successful actress, who was engaged to perform in a soap commercial which showed her nude but with the naughty bits always just concealed, and she is therefore famous enough to be recognized for this years later.

So, did her many fans concentrate solely on her face? I can see some credence in her being continually recognized if she were wandering around nude, but as her fans instantly recognize her when she is fully clothed there is something weird going on with this premise.

Oh, heck. The whole thing is weird. And not in a good way, either.

Dodie Smith was 82 years old when this was published, part of an all-at-once 1978 three-book release by her publisher, along with the second volume of her autobiography, Look Back with Mixed Feelings (which is utterly excellent), and a juvenile, The Midnight Kittens (beautifully illustrated by Anne and Janet Grahame-Johnston, and appearing quite promising from my recent browse-through), and all I can assume is that her elderly energies were mostly being engaged with her journals and memoirs. The Candle-Lit Girl is a sketchy creation, paper-thin and not terribly engaging. In fact, I found myself wishing someone had left her in that notorious bathtub, well submerged.

But here she is, undeniably on paper, and wafting about the vintage book world tempting those seduced by the excellence of Dodie Smith’s masterpiece I Capture the Castle into exploring her other novels. I speak from experience; I was one of those seeking something of the same quality of Castle, and I must agree with all of those who have quested before me that there is nothing in this particular book for us.

The other Dodie Smith novels I’ve read, The Town in Bloom and The New Moon with the Old, are quite acceptable as minor diversions, containing as they do a lot of genuine charm and reasonably cohesive narrative threads, but The Girl From the Candle-Lit Bath is an utter dud, not even up to the standard of these mild but amusing second-raters.

So – have I made my point yet? I think I have. Stay away!

Do we need a plot description? I guess we do, after this opening rant.

From the flyleaf:

When Nan Mansfield arrives home to hear her husband, Roy, on the telephone arranging a clandestine meeting in Regent’s Park, she is determined to find out what he is involved in. Is there another woman – or can it be blackmail, drugs, or even treason?

Roy is a Member of Parliament who was helped into politics by Cyprian Slepe, a brilliant eccentric who lives with his sister, Celina, in a decaying Stately Home. Nan comes to believe that Cyprian is connected with Roy’s mysterious activities. Helped by an enigmatic taxi-driver, she delves deeper and deeper, while her love and loyalty war with her ever-increasing suspicions, until at last she discovers that her own life is in jeopardy.

This starts off quite well, with a mysterious meeting and exchange of a small package in Regent Park between respectable Roy and a shady-looking man with long, “obviously dyed” hair. In fact, Nan thinks Roy’s meet-up is a woman, though taxi-driver Tim insists the stranger is a man.

Tim insists on quite a number of things, come to think of it. He goes well beyond the call of taxi-driverish duty, escorting Nan up to her apartment after the witnessed rendezvous and examining every nook and cranny, and warning Nan that she well may be up against more than she knows. For while Nan is still thinking that Roy is engaged in a purely personal complication, Tim is spouting off about the possibilities of Evil Russian Involvement (Roy is an M.P., after all,  although very much an innocuous backbencher) and Political Espionage. Of course, Tim claims to be a (and actually is) a thriller writer, so these sorts of plots come quite naturally to his mind.

Not so Nan, who is exceedingly dim and unimaginative for someone whose métier is the theatre. Can’t help but think (rather meanly) that this might explain why her career was so second-rate, and why she was so willing to drop out of the theatre world to play tame political wife to ambitious Roy.

Anyway, Nan starts dictating her experiences into a tape recorder, the transcripts of which recordings we are now reading. At first I thought that might explain the curiously flat tone of the writing, that it was a deliberate attempt by Dodie Smith to represent Nan’s monologue, but after a while I gave up on that idea, concluding instead that the author really wasn’t that engaged with her story, hence the droning prose.

The plot is as full of holes as a piece of Swiss cheese, and the analogy doesn’t stop there. As well as being embarrassingly cheesy, this thing is capital-L Lame. Poor Dodie proves herself to be something of a one-trick pony, repeating all of the theatrical clichés we’ve already seen in her other non-Castle novels. Sure, she had some great youthful experiences in her own time as an aspiring actress, but we can only hear them so many times before we turn away in boredom. And her rather promising villain, Cyprian Slepe, is never properly developed, nor is his ditzy sister Celina, who is actually rather intriguing, what with her habit of painting portraits all in swirls of colour with one pertinent feature rendered with artistic precision. I liked that bit, and thought it showed promise. But nope, Dodie drops it and wanders away, into poorly-thought-out Communist Plot Land. Well, more like British-Right-Winger-Mulling-Over-Getting-Involved-With-The-Russians Plot Land. Or something. It’s a bit nebulous as to what the whole conspiracy is actually about. Gar.

Well, I’m going to point you to those other two reviews, because they go into more detail and are well worth reading if you’re wondering if you want to hunt down this very obscure novel for yourself.

My advice to you: Don’t do it. And if you do do it, go for a library copy and don’t shell out your hard-earned cash for a personal copy. (Speaking from rueful experience. Oh, well, looks grand on the shelf. I do like that cover.)

Here you are:

Fleur Fisher’s Review of The Girl in the Candle-Lit Bath

Strange and Random Happenstance’s Review of The Girl in the Candle-Lit Bath

Thank you, ladies. Next time I’ll believe you and not go forging ahead in optimistic disregard of your assessments!

 

 

 

 

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Prefacing this sure-to-be-rambling post with this information, for those of you who wonder what I’m actually talking about way down below. As different as can be in time periods and settings, but all at heart clinging to a similar traditional structure, that of the Gothic Romance Novel. The three books under discussion will be:

  • Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer
  • Tregaron’s Daughter by Madeleine Brent
  • Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

All of these are velvety dark, thrillingly romantic (for the most part), highly predictable (ditto), and guiltily enjoyable tales.

Perhaps this won’t be the most sober-minded book discussion, which would indeed be fitting, for these books are not High Literature in any sense of the term, and are therefore free game for a little bit of mild mockery, all in good fun, because I did read them willingly and with general pleasure, though occasionally that pleasure was all about their fulfillment of stereotypical Gothic Romance Scenarios.

I have had recourse to our ever-handy Wikipedia to quickly define the main elements of a proper traditional gothic novel, and by applying the criteria to the books in question we can get a nice overview of how well the authors fulfilled the requirements of this assigned genre.

So, cribbing from the article and adding some of my own descriptive notes to those provided, we generally must have:

  • Virginal Maiden – young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. Usually starts out with a mysterious past, and later discovered that she is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family.
  • Older, Foolish Woman – who often has charge of or advises the Virginal Maiden, or acts as an Awful Warning due to past errors of judgement, which Virginal Maiden may or may not take into consideration
  • Hero – who may or may not be misrepresented as The Villain for the earlier stages of the plot
  • Tyrant/villain – who may or may not be disguising his (her) True Evil Nature for the earlier stages of the plot. Usually male, occasionally female.
  • The Stupid Servant – acts as comic relief by asking seemingly stupid questions, transitions between scenes, brings news, messenger, moves plot forward. Sometimes takes on form of Humble Social Inferior or Female Friend of Virginal Maiden, well-meaning but ignorant of darker designs of Villain.
  • Ruffians – always under the secret (or not so secret, depending on if he is the Disguised or the Obvious species) control of the Villain
  • Clergy – always weak, usually evil (says Wikipedia, but in more modern gothics I have noticed that the Clergy figure is often absent, being replaced by a Doctor or Lawyer or other Figure of Social Authority, acting under the influence of the Villain)
  • The Setting – The setting of the Gothic Novel is a character in itself. The plot is usually set in a castle, an abbey, a monastery, or some other, usually religious edifice, and it is acknowledged that this building has secrets of its own.
  • And, if I may add to this list, The Secret. There is generally some Great Big Secret which the heroine – er, Virginal Maiden – either sets out to investigate or unwittingly stumbles upon. Sometimes (frequently) The Secret is, of course, that of her own mysterious past.
  • Also added by me: The Forced Marriage. Another common element I’ve noticed in my own perusal of gothics. So many times the heroine faces matrimonial peril, either by being forced to marry the Disguised Hero (who she then realizes she loves in Chapter Ten), or by a Weak Male Character under the control of the Villain, or by the Villain himself.

So, let’s see how these measure up. I’m going to present these in order from my least to most favourite.

Warning: There may well be some significant spoilers here and there, but as the plot twists are all highly predictable by anyone with the least bit of experience with the genre, I doubt if having these confirmed ahead of time will lessen one’s reading pleasure. 😉

Cousin Kate georgette heyer 1968Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer ~ 1968. This edition: The Bodley Head, 1968. Hardcover. 318 pages.

My rating: 6/10.

Front flyleaf blurb, Bodley Head edition:

Finding that her youthful appearance and the lack of accomplishments caused by a childhood spent following the drum prevent her from securing a position as governess, Kate Malvern, recently orphaned, gratefully accepts an invitation from her unknown aunt Minerva to make her home at Staplewood, the seat of Sir Timothy Broome, Minerva’s elderly and invalid husband.

On arrival at Staplewood, Kate finds herself in beautiful and luxurious surroundings, and is treated by her aunt with a kindness which is regarded by those best acquainted with Minerva with considerable surprise. At first grateful, Kate gradually becomes uneasy, and with the arrival on the scene of Sir Timothy’s nephew, Mr. Phillip Broome, the plot rapidly thickens. Minerva’s motive for bringing Kate to Staplewood is revealed, and her machinations are brought to a dramatic conclusion.

Okay, let’s see how Cousin Kate does on the Elements of Gothic Fiction scale.

  • Virginal Maiden – check! No secrets as to origin, as Kate is legitimately accepted as a family connection. She is an orphan, reasonably young (24), beautiful (“a flower-like countenance”), appears younger than her age, is sexually pure but well aware of the “facts of life” from her experience as a soldier’s daughter, and is definitely kind and sensitive, though she also fearless and well able to stand up for herself in socially awkward situations.  A most promising heroine.
  • Hero – check! Our Hero turns out to be one of the disguised ones, who operates under a cloud of misunderstanding engineered by the Villain, or, in this case, the Villainess.
  • Villainess – check! No mystery here, though it takes a while to reveal her true nature. It is, of course, suspiciously friendly Aunt Minerva.
  • Humble Social Inferior – Moving the plot along is Kate’s old nurse, Mrs Nidd, who bring’s Kate’s need of succour (she’s just been fired from her first job and has little prospect of finding another due to lack of training or experience) to Aunt Minerva, setting things in motion. Mrs Nidd reappears later in the story to aid Kate in unravelling The Secret.
  • Doctor – weak rather than deliberately evil, and under the complete influence of the Villainess, the Doctor plays here merely a supporting role
  • The Setting – It is 1817, mid-Regency. Most of the action occurs at a stately country home, Staplewood, with Aunt Minerva established at the centre of things controlling all of the domestic strings, and separate wings housing the frail Sir Timothy and the family son and heir, beautiful, erratically-mannered Torquil, who is under the fulltime care of the Doctor, for reasons no one is prepared to elaborate on. Mysteriously locked doors, male screams in the night, random shots being fired, a suicide-worthy lake, a lonely country setting leading to easy isolation of characters not wanted to be out in public circulation by the Villainess.
  • The Secret –  Insanity! Torquil’s. Kate has been tagged by the Villainess to be a suitable wife for her mentally unstable son. She (Kate) is to produce a son and heir to the Broome family fortune, after which Torquil will be put into ever-deeper seclusion as his insanity worsens (the Doctor is quite sure it will), and Kate will be allowed to discreetly seek consolation elsewhere.
  • The Forced Marriage – see The Secret.
  • Great Big Climax – Revelation of Secret! Murder! Suicide! Horror-stricken Virginal Maiden flees to arms of Hero! And once all of the details of The Secret are revealed, a blissful future is embarked upon via Glorious Holy Matrimony between the two who have suffered so many setbacks to the progress of their romance through initial misunderstanding and deliberate machinations of the Villainess, who has now had her ultimate comeuppance.

My verdict: While Cousin Kate had its appeal, and was quite nicely written and full of Heyer’s dependably engaging Regency slang. Kate is a likeable enough heroine, but the whole thing dragged on just too long for my interest to be sustained completely; the plot was desperately predictable, and the whole thing became rather depressing, what with its dependence on a mysterious insanity and the ditherings of all those concerned regarding the proper treatment of the sufferer.

The ending is rather brutal, as Heyer fatally disposes of two of her characters under horrific circumstances. The imagination of this reader was boggled regarding the possibility of a happy future for the heroine and hero with that sort of emotional baggage to deal with.

I rated Cousin Kate at 6 because of Heyer’s competent handling of her setting and the quality of her writing. Some serious themes (position of women/class distinctions/treatment of the mentally ill) were touched upon but never thoroughly examined – not really to be expected in this sort of light novel. But for a light novel it had some desperately dark strands.

Hard to classify, really. I know I said “boring” in the header, and that seems to be my ultimate feeling. Rather flat. Heyer could do much better.

tregaron's daughter madeleine brent 1971 001Tregaron’s Daughter by Madeleine Brent ~ 1971. This edition: Doubleday, 1971. Hardcover. 251 pages.

My rating: 7/10. I bumped it down just a bit because of the inclusion of Young Man with Symptoms of Insanity, a plot strand which I found exceedingly annoying for some reason. (Perhaps because a similar character plays a major role in Heyer’s Cousin Kate?)

Flyleaf says:

Excitement, drama and suspense were only part of Cadi Tregaron’s new life. It had been a sunny afternoon when she glanced from the cliff where she sat reading and saw below her in the sea a sight that would change her life.

Set in England and Italy in 1910, this is the story of a young English girl who by accident starts to unravel the unknown elements in her grandmother’s past and is brought by the mystery to the faraway city of Venice. There, among the gondolas and canals, she slowly comes to comprehend the meaning of two strange and puzzling dreams – dreams that seem to hold the an eerie and menacing prophecy of the future.

Elements of Gothic Fiction included:

  • Virginal Maiden – check! Our heroine, Caterina (Cadi), daughter of a half-Italian mother and sturdy Cornish fisherman father, is young (late teens), beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. And (spoiler alert!) she does turn out to be the descendent of the Italian nobility. No doubt because of this innate blue blood, our heroine has just naturally developed far beyond the expectations of her humble place in the world. Her language is surprisingly upper class (due to the convenient society of a cultured retired governess in the neighbourhood, who has taken the bright young Cadi under her tutorial wing), and she is fluent in Italian (learned from her grandmother), which comes in handy later. And she starts the story off as a half orphan, mother dead some years (fell off a cliff with grandmother in a tragic accident – sob!) and loses her father as well soon after we enter the story, which precipitates the now-fully-orphaned Cadi into the next stage of her saga.
  • Hero – check! This one is the conflicted type, and is disguised (occasionally deliberately) as a villain. Classically gothic  introduction of hero and heroine involving heroine being pulled up onto horse and forced to cling closely to rock-hard-muscled hero as they gallop to rescue of hero’s uncle who is caught in a dangerous current in his borrowed sailboat. (This is the life-changing thing which Cadi saw from the cliff.) Bonus first-meeting episode: as Cadi, her father, and the hero row out to the rescue, the bodice of Cadi’s dress rips, leaving her lily-white skin exposed in a rather delicate area, and causing the hero to take a deep breath and force his gaze away, manfully resisting the surge of testosterone this incident inspires. Predictably, hero’s taciturn silence is misunderstood by heroine – “He thinks I am below his notice!” Oh, no, darling, that ain’t it.
  • Villain – check!  Disguised variety. Cadi’s Italian relation, Count Chiavelli, who is surprisingly warm and welcoming to the little English chit who is apparently going to bump him from both his title and his fortune – unless, of course, she can be enticed into a marriage with the Count’s weak-natured son – shows another side to his nature as this plan fails to advance.
  • Hero’s Sidekick – not at all stupid, though a slight social inferior, the Sidekick keeps things moving by his unexplained presence at key points of the saga. He is eventually assisted in his efforts by Female Friend of Virginal Maiden, as they join forces to assist Hero in rescue of Virginal Maiden from the Villain’s foul clutches.
  • Ruffians – check! The Villain has a full complement of brutish henchmen, but as bad guys in gothic novels are always slightly slower (and much more stupid) than good guys, these particular ruffians are continually foiled by the Hero, Sidekick and Maiden.
  • Lawyers – These People of Social Authority – we have an English and an Italian version – are in general full of good intentions and quite helpful to Heroine, though they are completely hoodwinked by the Villain. I would like to put forward that a too-trusting lawyer = weakness, so this element is included, albeit in a very minor role.
  • The Forced Marriage – The Virgin is pressured to marry the Villain’s weak-willed son, in order for the Villain to get his hands on the fortune the Virgin is coming in for, and also to keep the title in the family.
  • The Setting – Gorgeous settings, full points for those. We start out in a humble cottage in a little Cornish fishing village – towering sea cliffs above it, treacherous currents swirling offshore – progress to turn-of-the-century London as the heroine is adopted by the beneficent and wealthy family whose patriarch she helped save back in chapter one, and end up in Italy in a gloomy Venetian palazzo, with a final nighttime chase scene by boat through mist-shrouded canals.
  • The Secret – Hmmm, aside from the confusion around the true nature of the Hero-disguised-as-Villain, the only other secret of major import was that Granny was almost murdered by the Villain’s sister, and that honestly came as no surprise, being telegraphed strongly right from chapter one. Young Man with Symptoms of Insanity was also something of an obvious twist, and quite wonderfully similar to the same figure as depicted in Cousin Kate. (Do we need to add him to our list of shared elements?)

My verdict: A better-than-average modern gothic, and an excellent first-novel-in-the-genre by – drumroll! – a male author writing under a female pseudonym.

For “Madeleine Brent” was actually Peter O’Donnell, British mystery novel and comic strip writer, and creator of the pop culture character Modesty Blaise.

O’Donnell’s publisher, Ernest Hecht of Souvenir Press, pleased by the success of O’Donnell’s thrillers, asked his author to try his hand at writing gothics under a female pseudonym. The Madeline Brent novels were a decided success, and Peter O’Donnell eventually wrote nine. All are set in the Victorian or immediately post-Victorian era, and feature young women in exotic locations seeking the truth about their identity. O’Donnell’s authorship was kept secret until after the publication of the last one, Golden Urchin (featuring a Caucasian girl raised in isolation from mainstream society among Australian Aborigines), in 1986.

An interesting side-note, this revelation of the gender of the author, and one which sheds some light on the structure of the Tregaron’s Daughter. Do I dedict a technically-minded male slant in – just one example – the inclusion of the details about construction of gondolas which allow them to be operated from one side by a single person?

Great details in the setting throughout, and the action was well maintained. The plot was (predictably) groaningly predictable, but my interest was held despite the lack of surprises. Good job, Mr. O’Donnell!

nine coaches waiting by mary stewart 1958 001Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart ~ 1958. This edition: Coronet, 1973. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-01439-3. 317 pages.

My rating: 10/10. Now this is how you write a gothic! Mary Stewart, after her previous year’s rather dire first attempt, 1957’s Thunder on the Right, pulls up her authorial socks and takes another run at the genre, this time succeeding brilliantly.

Chicago Review Press blurb:

A governess in a French château encounters an apparent plot against her young charge’s life in this unforgettably haunting and beautifully written suspense novel. When lovely Linda Martin first arrives at Château Valmy as an English governess to the nine-year-old Count Philippe de Valmy, the opulence and history surrounding her seems like a wondrous, ecstatic dream. But a palpable terror is crouching in the shadows. Philippe’s uncle, Leon de Valmy, is the epitome of charm, yet dynamic and arrogant—his paralysis little hindrance as he moves noiselessly in his wheelchair from room to room. Only his son Raoul, a handsome, sardonic man who drives himself and his car with equally reckless abandon, seems able to stand up to him. To Linda, Raoul is an enigma—though irresistibly attracted to him, she senses some dark twist in his nature. When an accident deep in the woods nearly kills Linda’s innocent charge, she begins to wonder if someone has deadly plans for the young count.

Applying the Gothic Fiction checklist yields some promising results:

  • Virginal Maiden – Check! Our heroine Linda is indeed young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. And orphaned, too, which should really be one of the traits listed alongside young, beautiful, etc. etc. etc. No mysterious past, unless one counts Linda’s own concealment of her French heritage in order to pass for a strictly-English governess as required by her new employer.
  • Older Woman – Check! Elegant Madame de Valmy, who acts as an extra set of eyes and legs for her wheelchair-bound spouse, brings Linda into the household and complicates the plot by her alternating moments of warm we’re-all-women-here-together friendliness and cold putting-the-help-in-her-place slap-downs to our heroine.
  • Hero – Check! We actually have a choice of two Heroes, either or both possibly of the disguised variety, and in the interests of not spoiling the ending for those of you who haven’t read this, I will not say any more. Just that both are perfectly perfect for their chosen roles, and I was up in the air guessing as to which one was going to be the ultimate winner of the lovely Linda’s heart.
  • Villain – Check! The debauched old nobleman now confined to his wheelchair, of course. And he is masterful at disguising his True Evil Nature, though our heroine catches a disturbing gleam in his eye when he looks at his hapless nephew, the young Heir to the Family Fortune who has tied up the riches which the Villain would like to further his own ambitions.
  • The Servants – Linda finds herself associating with several useful servant-figures who fill her in on all the gossip and aid in her attempts to discover why her young charge, The Endangered Heir, is having so many close brushes with death. We have a chatty English housekeeper, who came to France some decades ago, and a sprightly local maid who has rather tragically (but usefully, as he drops some hints which can then be related to the heroine) fallen in love with the Wicked Henchman.
  • Wicked Henchman – One is indeed in residence, and he is secretly under the control of the Villain.
  • The Setting –  Time: The early 1950s. Place: A vast French château, isolated from all neighbours and tucked away in its own private forest among the craggy hills of the High Savoy in France. A steep, narrow, twisting road leads to the château, ideal for those sorts of engineered “accidents” where one’s automobile brakes unexpectedly fail, or where a pedestrian can be “inadvertently” run down on a one-lane bridge over a rushing torrent.
  • The Secret – How far will someone go out of personal and family pride, and for love for a piece of land?

This is one of the very best of Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels. Decidedly well written, with abundant clever humour, and an ongoing literary thread as revealed in the title, for the Nine Coaches Waiting reference comes from a rather obscure Renaissance play by Cyril Tourneur, The Revenger’s Tragedy, in which a poor but pure and beautiful young woman is tempted with the luxuries of palace life to yield up her virtue.

The parallels between the Tourneur scenario and the Mary Stewart gothic are not particularly apt, but as a poet’s daughter herself (did I mention that bit? – I don’t think I did) our heroine in the novel is of course a highly imaginative (and literate) type, and the snippets of the play included by Mary Stewart are most intriguing and set the mood of rushed passion and moral unease very well indeed.

Oh, think upon the pleasure of the palace!
Secured ease and state! The stirring meats
Ready to move out of the dishes, that e’en now
Quicken when they are eaten…
Banquets abroad by torchlight! music! sports!
Nine coaches waiting – hurry – hurry – hurry –
Ay, to the devil…

My verdict: Hands down, Nine Coaches Waiting was the best of these three novels, but they all had their moments, and are all nice diversions for those times when one doesn’t want to think too hard, and wishes to recapture those long-ago (for many of us – I know a number of my regular readers are my generational compatriots) days of teenage summer reading, wrapped up in these darkly sensuous – but really quite chaste, kisses being as far as our heroines go – gloriously suspenseful, absolutely predictable romances.

(Ha! Grammar police, sort out that last paragraph. I dare you! It boggles me, rather, but I will let it stand, as a challenge to those of you who would perhaps like to dissect it and see of it actually works.) 😉

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