Posts Tagged ‘Century of Books – 2017’

First edition dust jacket, illustration by the author. As well as being a writer, Frances Faviell was a professional portrait artist. Side note: the girl in the picture is not, as one might expect, the eponymous Thalia, but is instead the novel’s narrator, the fledgling artist, Rachel.

Thalia by Frances Faviell ~ 1957. This edition: Cassell & Company, 1957. Hardcover (re-bound). 288 pages.

When the car was approaching the docks I looked at my aunt and it seemed to me that this – a profile – was all we ever knew of anyone. We can never know all the aspects but merely those which are shown to us. Was she as lonely as I was? She appeared suddenly such a small person and one at whom I had never really looked…

This story is set in the mid-1930s, from the perspective of the narrator looking back some twenty years later at a life-altering segment of time.

Eighteen-year-old Rachel – mother dead, father off on his own business – has been living with her aunt while studying art at the Slade. After disgracing herself by painting an unflatteringly caricatured portrait of the vicar who is her aunt’s dear friend, Rachel is being packed off to France to act as an unpaid companion to the teenage daughter of a family friend, while her aunt, accompanied by the vicar of the portrait, goes off on an excursion to Egypt.

Arriving in the seaside Brittany village of Dinard, home to a thriving Anglo-American community of penny-pinching expatriates resident in a collection of rental villas, Rachel is prepared to make the best of her experience, though she is uneasy as to how she will fit into the household which consists of her charges, fifteen-year-old Thalia and six-year-old Claude, and their beautiful and indolent mother, Cynthia. The Pembertons have settled in Dinard while the father of the family, Colonel Tom Pemberton, returns to India, where he is engaged in a dangerous military operation on the volatile North-West frontier.

Thalia is in the full throes of an awkward and unattractive adolescence. Mousy haired, sulky faced, inflicted with a skin covered by masses of brown, patchy freckles, Thalia is well aware of her mother’s distaste for her.

Cynthia openly rejects and callously neglects her cuckoo’s-child daughter, concentrating all of her maternal instincts onto her beautiful young son. Golden-haired Claude is lovely to look at, but a demanding and obnoxiously spoiled child, every whim pandered to by his mother in her attempt to avoid his tantrums.

Cynthia lives in self-protective seclusion from the real world, nursing her reputed “heart ailment”, drifting in a sleeping-pill induced haze and seldom leaving her bedroom until noon. When she emerges, she wafts off to ill-afforded bridge-playing afternoons, and ill-concealed dalliances with an old lover, Terence Mourne, ex-compatriot of Colonel Pemberton’s, who has resigned his commission due to a disgrace in which young Thalia has had a leading hand.

The household help is a young Frenchwoman of reputed loose morals, much to the enjoyment of the local permanent residents, who view the English and American residents of Dinard as a constantly changing real-life dramatic ensemble, good for a chuckle as they inevitably flout unwritten rules of etiquette, and good as well for a constant low-key fleecing at the hands of their French employees.

Thalia focusses immediately on Rachel, pouring out all her unrequited affection in an attempt to win attention to herself. Rachel, feeling sympathy for Thalia’s status as the unwanted, coldly rejected child of her mother (though not her now-absent father), reciprocates as much as she feels herself able to, though Thalia’s fixation on Rachel takes on an obsessive tone.

When Rachel falls in love with a young Frenchman, Armand, Thalia’s jealousy unleashes her full potential for secretive revenge plots, and the already deeply unhealthy situation at the Pemberton villa deteriorates in a grand and ultimately tragic manner.

Not what one would call a happy book – oh, no! – but enthralling in its depiction of late-adolescent angst – Rachel’s as much as Thalia’s – and of people making a series of bad decisions and finding themselves overwhelmed by the consequences thereof.

Frances Faviell writes her scenes with meticulous attention to telling detail, something I noted in Faviell’s autobiographical account of living through the London Blitz of 1940-41 , A Chelsea Concerto. Her painter’s eye transposes perfectly into her writer’s voice, and the combination is a winning one.

There is almost a clinical feel to Rachel’s unemotional telling of what happened during those months in France which occasionally feels chilled and tamped down, until one reminds oneself that the story is being told from several decades away in time, with the reflection of an adult Rachel attempting to explain the impulsive actions of the teenage Rachel put into a situation very much out of her depth to competently deal with.

A dark, frequently melodramatic bildungsroman of a book, which I found enthralling from start to finish.

My rating: 9.5/10

The half point keeping it from being a full-out “10” is for the main protagonist’s switch of loyalties as the tale winds down; I found that I couldn’t quite believe in her emotional development in this particular way, though as the novel progresses Rachel becomes more and more what we might term an unreliable narrator, and this may well be a deliberate move on the author’s part.

If I could name a perfect shelfmate to Thalia, it would have to be The Greengage Summer, by Rumer Godden. Similar high standard of writing, similar settings, similar themes, and, most of all, similar takeaway that growing up can be a deeply bitter process, full of betrayal by and of people once beloved.

 

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Tryst by Elswyth Thane  ~ 1939. This edition: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1939. Hardcover (re-bound). 256 pages.

March is not behaving very spring-like at present – it’s a briskish minus 11 Celsius out there right now, and snow has been drifting down all night – so what better time than to read a nice, cosy, ghostly love story?

 It’s hard to know how to say it – but – oh, God, if I’ve earned heaven when I die, let me have England first, let me have England instead

Hilary Shenstone, British secret agent on the troubled Northwest Indian frontier, catches a fatal bullet, but before he pegs out eternally, at the end of a long, beautifully manly, and oh-so-stereotypically-English death scene, he makes the plea quoted above.

God, being sympathetic to Englishmen (as we are so often told), grants his wish, and Hilary’s shade finds itself back in England, sitting on a London embankment, watching a potential suicide being dissuaded from a plunge into the Thames by a compassionate passer-by.

Hilary, being new to the whole business of ghosting, takes some time to learn the ropes, but he quite quickly manages to relocate himself back to his beloved family home, Nun’s Farthing, which has been leased to a scholarly professor for a year, since none of the family (except Hilary, who is often called away on his hush-hush missions) particularly cares to reside there.

The professor-now-in-residence, long-widowed, is accompanied by his dithery spinster sister and his lonely, bookish, social-misfit seventeen-year-old daughter, Sabrina.

(Do you see where we’re going yet?)

Sabrina finds herself fascinated by the locked room which belongs to the absent Hilary; she goes so far as to pick the lock to gain entry, and the room becomes her almost-secret retreat. “Almost”, because tight-lipped, apparently unemotional Mrs. Pilton, the longtime housekeeper of Nun’s Farthing who stays on to oversee the renters, secretly hands over the room’s key to Sabrina, giving her the nod to go in and while away her long days curled up in the sunny window seat, reading her way through Hilary’s large collection of books.

My ex-library copy has seen some hard use. But, though stained and worn throughout, I did not notice any dog-eared pages, so the forbidding stamp which an enthusiastic long-ago librarian dabbed on chapter headings throughout has obviously had its desired effect.

Hilary (in shade form) returns; he becomes immediately infatuated with the sensitively imaginative Sabrina, while she, in her turn, finds herself unable to think of anything else but the man whom she is becoming to know through his possessions and his taste in books.

The news eventually comes that Hilary is dead. Sabrina takes it inexplicably hard; her occupation of Hilary’s old room becomes common knowledge; her appalled and worried father and aunt decide that a move might well be in order, though Sabrina begs to stay…

Stopping right there, I am.

This is a book I would have loved dearly to read as a teenager, and even at this far from teenager-ish age I found it deeply appealing.

Tryst is not particularly well-written, for there are all sorts of gaps in logic and the whole ghost thing is uneven at best. The author is most inconsistent in what her creation is able to do: he can’t be seen (except by dogs, who fearfully growl at him, and cats, who twine about his unseen ankles in feline ecstasy), his writing (as a ghost) can’t be read, he needs to wait for some doors to be opened yet he can pass through walls at will, move items about, and he leaves physical signs of his presence all over the place – a squashed cushion here, a rumpled bedcover there. At one point he even takes a bath!

But I loved it. It’s somehow deeply appealing, despite its inconsistencies, and I happily entered into the tale, squashing my cynical thoughts firmly underfoot.

Marketed (apparently?) to the adult audience of its time, it’s more of what one would consider a teen girls’ novel today. Fine literature Tryst isn’t, but it’s an engagingly effortless read, which is now going onto the guaranteed re-reads section of the keeper shelf, alongside its sisters-in-theme The Sherwood Ring and The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope.

A full extra point awarded for the Kipling references, in particular the connections to Kim, and to Puck of Pook’s Hill, two books which I hold in the very highest personal regard.

My rating: 9.5/10

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

My rating: 6ish/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She’s right, though. He’s doomed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(And don’t read it in the tub!)

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

My rating: 8/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rotten luck,” said the Mathematician, uncomforted.

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

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

The Mathematician did not like cats. He adored them.

His gloomy face relaxed a very little.

“Now you’re talking!” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 8/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 5.5/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 3/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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chelsea-concerto-front-cover-frances-faviellA Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell ~ 1959. This edition: Dean Street Press, 2016. Introduction by Virginia Nicholson. Softcover. ISBN: 978-911413-77-6. 236 pages.

My rating: 11/10

A stunning memoir.

I set this book gently down after my mesmerized reading, feeling emotionally battered, deeply moved, sorrowful and joyful at the same time, the last for what it revealed of abundant grace under extraordinary pressure.

Olivia Frances Faviell (Frances Faviell was her pen name) was a successful portrait artist living in London’s Chelsea District when the Second World War started. She had a pleasant flat in a lovely house, with a good view of the Thames through three long front windows, congenial neighbours in the upstairs apartment, and all amenities – shopping, restaurants, entertainment – within easy walking distance. Friends came in and out at all hours, for Frances kept open house, and her prior world travels had made her many acquaintances from various walks of life, many literary and artistic as she was herself.

No one was more awake to her good fortune as was Frances, particularly as she was also very much aware of the gathering clouds of war. Frances had been living in Shanghai in 1937 when the Japanese army invaded, and the influx of wounded soldiers and civilians and the panicked crowds of refugees seeking passage out of the battle area were still fresh in her mind as now, in 1938, European refugees in their turn crowded into England. Many of them, coming into Frances’ particular circle, were Jewish intellectuals and artists deemed personae non gratae in their homelands by the ever-more-powerful Nazi and Fascist regimes.

A year of “phony war” later, in 1939, everyone was just a bit dismissive of all of the preparatory fuss still being made, of the First Aid training and rehearsals, the rather rickety bomb shelters hastily erected in gardens and public parks, of the rumours of food shortages looming on the horizon. Many of the London children evacuated in panicked hurry into the country in 1938 had quietly returned to their homes as the bombs failed to materialize, and a vaguely ominous “normal” prevailed.

All this changed upon the night of September 7, 1940, when the German “blitzkrieg” – The Blitz – began, a relentless 8-month-long bombing of London carried out mostly at night (at first), and, later, almost 24 hours of the day. Though no region of the city was unscathed, Chelsea and its neighbouring districts were particularly hard hit, perhaps because of their location in the very heart of London, and relatively near the seat of government at Westminster.

Frances Faviell had volunteered for Red Cross duties during the build-up to the war, and she undertook first aid training, hoping to qualify as a Registered Nurse, and, though repeatedly turned down as a full-time nurse trainee because of health issues, she was deeply involved in refugee care, first aid response, and, to her dismay, in being assigned the task of piecing together dismembered bodies so they could be sewn into shrouds before burial. The bits and pieces didn’t necessarily have to belong to each other, but the general instruction was to make reasonably complete packets of what was left after explosions and subsequent building collapses.

Frances relates her experiences in a hyper-detailed, clinically accurate tone, but there is an underlying, very appealing, very human passion to her reminiscences of this concentrated and horrific episode of British wartime history.

As much as it is an unflinching recording of shared community experience – it is, as evidenced by its title, a very Chelsea-centric account – A Chelsea Concerto also gives a vivid portrait of the writer herself, her private thoughts and feelings, and those of the eclectic assortment of people in her wartime life.

Frances married her second husband, Richard Parker, in 1940. Her brief account of their wedding day is both poignant and humorous. Due to a sudden daylight raid, none of the guests nor – more importantly! – neither of the witnesses showed up for the ceremony. Out into the street Frances and Richard went, finding two stalwart taxi drivers, who cheerfully acted as signatories to the marriage documents, and then tossed a coin to see who would be the one to drive the newlyweds through the rubble-littered streets to the club where their wedding breakfast was to be held. The air raid having by then tapered off, most of the guest showed up for that, though some of their wedding finery was a bit battered and dusty from hasty passage through the besieged areas.

At a later point in the book, Frances rather casually mentions that she is now pregnant, though it doesn’t seem to affect her continuous activity much, for, in common with so many of the women of the time in similar circumstances, personal discomfort was stoically borne as more urgent activities took precedence.

This is a compelling book, and, I believe, a tremendously important one, for the detailed descriptions it gives of life under bombardment.

Check your squeamishness at the door, fellow readers, for Frances Faviell is not much for euphemisms, and the blood, guts, stench and filth of being on the receiving end of bombs is described in some detail, though never needlessly so; the author never wallows in the horrors, but as they are increasingly ubiquitous to the time and circumstances, they are a crucial element of this memoir.

If I can leave you with a final thought, it is that though this is a deeply sad book – so many people die, or go through heart-rending extremities of loss – it is also a supremely likeable memoir. Frances Faviell, along with her precise and analytical artist’s eye, possessed a strong if slightly caustic sense of humour, and also a certain understanding kindness of observation of her fellow-man which makes A Chelsea Concerto something a little bit extra in its class.

Very highly recommended.

chelsea-concerto-frances-faviell-back-copy

Back cover, Dean Street Press re-issue. I received this book as a review copy in 2016, and had been waiting to read it for a time when I could give it my full attention. I’m sorry it took me so long. Due to my profound admiration for what I found within A Chelsea Concerto‘s covers, I have just ordered (on my own dime), the other four titles by this author which DSP also released last year.

 

 

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requiem-for-a-wren-reprint-society-1955-1956-nevil-shuteRequiem for a Wren by Nevil Shute ~ 1955. This edition: The Reprint Society, 1956. Alternative American title: The Breaking Wave. Hardcover. 250 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Nevil Shute has something personal to say in each and every one of his novels, and the essence of this one is that war, for some, can be very good indeed. The high point, in fact, of one’s life, encompassing as it were the greatest intensity of emotional and physical experience. In fact, Shute is credited with the following quotation, from a 1943 interview: “War is an activity both exciting and fulfilling, if you survive.”

This might seem to be deeply ironic in regard to this novel, as the entire plot of Requiem for a Wren turns on the emotional breakdowns of two members the British armed forces, due to their experiences during the build-up to the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944.

But that is all gone into with sincere eloquence near the end of this very moving novel, which is otherwise told in Shute’s slightly flat and deeply earnest style.

Australian Alan Duncan had a reasonably good war, all things considered. At least until the fighter plane crash which resulted in the loss of both of his feet, and which turned him from being an important cog in the R.A.F. machinery to a mere bystander and user-up of precious resources.

After his recovery from the crash, with prosthetic feet more or less figured out, Alan goes through much personal turmoil as to what his new role in life should be, a position of choice made possible due to his family’s wealth, which makes it possible for him to wallow (his own term) in angst-ridden self-examination without the everyday concerns about actually earning a living.

***Having just re-read this post and realizing that I’ve discussed in some detail the main mystery of the plot, I’ve whited out the spoiler paragraphs. Mouse over the big white gap below to read, or just go ahead and pass over – your choice! Apologies. By the way, the suicide thing – it’s all there in Chapter One, so I’m leaving part that alone.

Alan’s brother Bill has not been so fortunate as Alan; he was killed in a hush-hush wartime operation involving underwater derring-do. Bill leaves behind his lover/potential fiancée, Janet Prentice, an Ordinance WREN who, due to a…(***potential spoiler section starts)… natural skill in marksmanship, has had a remarkable and disturbing experience, being directly responsible for the deaths of seven people who may or may not have been enemy combatants.

Portrait of our WREN Janet, from the first edition dust jacket illustration by Val Biro.

Portrait of our WREN Janet, from the first edition dust jacket illustration by Val Biro.

With the combined deaths of her lover, her father, and – final straw – Bill’s pet dog which he had bequeathed to her – the hitherto deeply pragmatic and competent Janet has a complete emotional breakdown, during which she comes to the conclusion that her killing of the seven alien airmen was a sin which could only be expiated by seven deaths affecting her personally, the final one being her own.

Yes, she commits suicide, in the spare bedroom of the Duncan family’s Australian manor house, in which she is living under an assumed name.

Which brings us to the very beginning of the story, as Alan walks in to that bedroom, and realizes that this seemingly anonymous dead girl is the key to his own desperate seeking for life-meaning after his personal wartime losses.

This is one of Shute’s “full circle” novels, in which he tosses us in at the ending, and then works us backwards through what brought his characters to that starting point. It’s a plot device which can get a little tiresome if encountered too often, but in this case it works very well indeed.

Recommended, emphatically, for Shute fans, and, speculatively, for those new to this author, who might appreciate a slightly simplistic but thought-provoking view of the effects of war on its participants, by a man who lived much of what he wrote about.

Those of you who’ve read this, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts about Shute’s assertion that war is a desirable state for the young to truly “find themselves”. I thought it a troubling concept, but with a ring of truth. “Desirable” only for the survivors, of course!

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