Posts Tagged ‘Century of Books – 2018’

Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker ~ 1940. This edition: Bloomsbury, 2010. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-60819-051-5. 317 pages.

This one has been on the want-to-read list for many years. I’ve seen so many enthusiastic recommendations by like-minded readers, and I am pleased to report that my own experience is the same. This is a grand – and more than slightly unusual – novel.

I’m parachuting in here in the briefest of ways this desperately busy Sunday morning, because this one is just too good not to mention, and luckily a lot of others have said a lot of things about it; it’s no longer quite the hidden gem it was before Bloomsbury dusted it off and sent it back into the world.

Here’s the set-up, courtesy the publisher’s blurb:

When, on the spur of a moment, Norman Huntley and his friend Henry invent an eighty-three year-old woman called Miss Hargreaves, they are inspired to post a letter to their new fictional friend. It is only meant to be a silly, harmless game – until Miss Hargreaves arrives on their doorstep, complete with her cockatoo, her harp and – last but not least – her bath. She is, to Norman’s utter disbelief, exactly as he had imagined her: enchanting, eccentric and endlessly astounding. He hadn’t imagined, however, how much havoc an imaginary octogenarian could wreak in his sleepy Buckinghamshire home town, Cornford.

Norman has some explaining to do, but how will he begin to explain to his friends, family and girlfriend where Miss Hargreaves came from when he hasn’t the faintest clue himself? Will his once-ordinary, once-peaceful life ever be the same again? And, what’s more, does he want it to?

And here, because anything I say would be merely a repeat – he even includes one of the quotes I marked in my own book! – is Simon at Stuck in a Book. Thank you, Simon. For this, and for so much more. You keep pointing me in the direction of intriguing things!

“I abominate fuss…” Miss Hargreaves and Me

This is a delicious creation indeed, a close to perfect novel, with its combination of intelligent ridiculousness and things much deeper and darker. It stands alone; I can think of nothing to compare it to.

Very highly recommended. 10/10.

 

 

 

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Mr. Finchley Discovers His England by Victor Canning ~ 1934. This edition: Hodder and Stoughton, 1954. Paperback. 256 pages.

Crazy busy month. I’m reading at the slowest rate ever right now, and as for posting – ha!

But this too shall pass. (As many of you know, I operate a small perennial plant nursery, so I needn’t get into detail about how overwhelmed my spring is with things-needing-doing and not-enough-hours-in-the-day.)

I did escape a week or so ago for a whirlwind three-day road trip (plant related) to Salt Spring Island and then Vancouver, and on my way home stole an hour to visit one of my favourite used book stores ever, Neil Stad’s Nuggets in downtown Chilliwack.

Neil gently reminds his shoppers that “Good luck will follow those who are tidy.” And an utterly random “found item” – this bookshop’s decor fully expresses its owner’s sense of humour.

Neil doesn’t have a website, but here is a nice article from a few years ago, which gives some background info.

B.C. readers: go see Neil. 45832 Wellington Avenue, a few blocks down from the 5 Corners clock tower. And an hour is just barely enough to hit the high points, for it’s one of those book stores, a maze of rooms packed floor to ceiling with well-labelled shelves of books, books, books, including exploration-worthy sections of vintage literature and a vast and well-organized selection of British serial school novels for those who are into such things – Angela Brazil, Elinor Brent-Dyer, Enid Blyton et al.

And records and cds, too, and Neil plays awesome music, heavy on the blues and vintage rock side of things. And he’s friendly and helpful but also very cool with just letting his shoppers dig and delve at will. Excellent coffee shop next door, too. The whole setup is pretty Nirvana-ish, in fact.

This visit to Nuggets (and the also-stellar The Book Man, just down the street – Chilliwack is blissfully well provided with vintage book shopping) didn’t yield any stupendously amazing “wow!” finds this time round, but I did find some goodies, among them this well-read paperback copy of thriller writer Victor Canning’s first published novel – not a thriller, by the way, but a humorous picaresque-ish journey-book – which I’d been mildly keeping an eye out for, as I have its sequel from my last visit to Nuggets (Mr. Finchley Goes to Paris) and was holding off reading it until I read the first.

Light reading for sure, a perfect sort of book for popping in one’s travelling bag, though I must confess I couldn’t wait until my next trip, but delved into it that very night, once I reached my own home in the wee hours.

Meet Mr. Finchley:

Mr. Finchley was forty-five, short, with a comfortable face such as you might see on the fringe of any crowd, and a tonsure that surprised you when he raised his hat. He was panting slightly as he came to the top of the hill. He had lived in London all his life and, since Mr. Bardwell had made him chief clerk ten years ago, he had never had a week’s holiday. Mr. Bardwell himself never took a holiday and he fostered the practice among his clerks. Mr. Finchley had succumbed meekly to the conviction that he was indispensable to the office, a conviction which Mr. Bardwell had encouraged. When Mr. Bardwell had died it was generally considered that Mr. Sprake would continue his tradition. But Sprake (he was only referred to as Mr. Sprake in the presence of clients) had developed surprising attributes. Mr. Finchley took out his yellow silk handkerchief and wiped his forehead as he mused over the astonishing change which had come over Sprake. He came to the office in tweeds. He smoked all day, scattered his ash in deed boxes, and looked more like a bookmaker than a lawyer. Mr. Finchley had witnessed in silence the desecration and waited anxiously for the practice to decline. The practice did not decline. Business increased. Sprake grew jollier and the checks on his golfing suits larger. And then – it was hot even in the shade now and Mr. Finchley decided to rest on the seat at the end of the avenue – there came the day when Sprake had called him into his room.

“Ah, Finchley, I wanted to have a chat with you,” he said.”Of course, you know that things have changed a bit since poor Bardwell packed up…”

No, it’s not the golden handshake Mr. Finchley is getting, but an official order to get the heck out of the office and take a vacation already, and our hero finds himself facing an unusual situation: three weeks with no structure, no obligation to be anywhere. What to do, what to do? Mr. Finchley plumps for the obvious thing, and books a room in the seaside resort town of Margate.

Mr. Finchley will indeed be having a vacation from his regular life, but as things turn out he never does get to Margate. The very first day of his holiday, as he’s resting on a bench in the sun, whiling away the hours until his train leaves, a stranger pulls up in a brand new Bentley. Seeing Mr. Finchley’s glance of pure admiration, and being impressed by his appearance of deep respectability, the stranger asks if Mr. Finchley could just keep an eye on his car for the next half hour or so. Mr. Finchley cheerfully agrees, but as the half hour stretches into something longer, Mr. Finchley tires of his bench, and decides to sit in the car. He stretches out on the back seat…the sun is so warm…he’s tired…

Waking up with a start, Mr. Finchley discovers himself an unwitting passenger as the Bentley races along a country road, police in hot pursuit. Yes, it’s been stolen! And we’re (quite literally) off.

Stolen cars, thieves’ dens, a mysterious woman asking for help and aiding escape from the previous, encounters with (deeply stereotyped) gypsies, and tramps, and wealthy eccentrics posing as tramps, a stint as a carnival sideshow assistant, the acquisition of a bicycle, and the almost immediate losing of it, skinny dipping whever the opportunity arises, mistaken identity, an almost-incarceration in a lunatic asylum, a romantic dalliance (of sorts), a journey in a smuggler’s yacht, and more – oh, yes, our Mr. Finchley does manage to fill his three weeks to the brim!

An enjoyable book in its way, which I found initially intriguing, but slightly less so as episode followed increasingly predictable episode – Mr. Finchley meets a (generally) roguish character, is dragged into a questionable situation, backpeddles, is accused of cowardice, and steps up to defend his manhood, while always maintaining his Respectable British Integrity – with not much in the way of carryover from adventure to adventure. Mr. Finchley remains a caricature, albeit a likeable one, and the book as a whole a bit of a curiosity piece versus a stellar piece of inter-war literature. There are sober moments here and there, but it’s mostly lighthearted romping.

Mr. Finchley Discovers His England met with significant success, selling well enough to allow Victor Canning to quit his day job clerking and go into writing full-time, which he did with great energy, producing over sixty books in a variety of genres during a career that spanned the years from the 1930s until his death in 1986, at the age of 75.

An excellent website chock full of background information on Canning’s life and many works is maintained by John Higgins and can be found here, and I highly recommend a visit by those either already Victor Canning fans, or soon to become such.

Oh, yes, the rating. What shall I give Mr. Finchley? Well, it fully met my expectations as a relaxing light read, though it wasn’t quite as complex as I could have wished. Not bad, though. Pretty good, in fact. Here’s a 7/10.

 

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Dustjacket image from 1939 first edition – not my personal copy.

The Runaway by Kathleen Norris ~ 1939. This edition: Collier, 1939. Hardcover. 344 pages.

During the Very Tumultuous Month just past, there were moments of serendipitous small thrills, such as stumbling upon a collection of six Kathleen Norris novels on a local buy-and-sell Facebook group while I was supposed to be scouting for a vehicle to replace the one I destroyed in my dramatic crash.

Well, no luck on another car so far (we’re not looking very hard, as ride-sharing with the other family vehicles is working out satisfactorily at present) but I did buy the books.

Good thing my expectations were realistic, for despite the seller’s enthusiastic “Aren’t these marvelous reads!” endorsement, I am finding that they are pretty well up to par with the author’s other utterly contrived dramatic romances I’ve read to date. Meaning, formula plot, gorgeous background setting.

These are as much “California novels” as anything John Steinbeck wrote, and I love that about them, having a family California connection and many fond childhood memories of orange groves and eucalyptus trees, trips into the Sierra foothills to marvel at the giant Sequoia trees, and then back to the suburbs, with immense rose bushes in every yard and quail scurrying down quiet streets lined with modest middleclass bungalows.

A golden place still in many ways – such an astonishingly distinct natural setting! – and to me much more “California” than the smoggy metropolis of L.A. and the artificial wonders of Hollywood and such.

So, as I said, Norris does the settings well, but her plots, not so much.

This one is fairly dire, as Norris novels go. Definitely B-list. Here’s the rundown, spoilers and all.

Bee-yoo-ti-ful young woman, only (and adopted) daughter of staunchly respectable working class parents in a small rural California community, yearns for more fulfillment than her current occupation as a kindergarten teacher provides. She falls into an engagement with a clean-living, very devoted Italian-American boy, which is viewed by all concerned as a mostly good thing, seeing that he is from a well-off family, though the fact that he is absolutely Catholic and she isn’t particularly religious-minded is rather a sticking point, especially with his Mamma.

Not to worry, Italian Mamma! Here comes an entrancingly romantic ne’er-do-well, who sweeps our heroine off her feet with his tales of derring-do and fervent protestations of love. Before she knows it, she’s off in the big city and married to her impulsive swain, who turns out to be a class-A jerk.

Abandoned and pregnant, our heroine returns home to Mom and Dad, who comfort and shelter her, and also welcome with open arms the wayward son-in-law when he shows up on the doorstep some five moths later.

Emotionally fraught interlude.

Heroine, child in arms, decides that she must leave her current embarrassing situation (spouse is gambling and carousing and borrowing money from all and sundry) so she hies herself all the way off to New York City, leaving her parents hosting her husband, which they do with astonishly good grace, because they’re Really Good People, and they don’t believe in divorce, and well, you never know, the couple might just sort things out down the road…

So. New York. Heroine finds herself living in poverty, working as a lowly saleswoman in a cheap clothing store. Wee child gets deathly ill. Crisis! Off to the charity ward he goes, but oh! what luck. The talented doctor who saves the wee lad’s life turns out to be none other than the husband of the now-deceased birth mother of our heroine – though he’s not her actual father.

He (the doctor) is a sedate widower, exceedingly wealthy, kind, noble, etcetera etcetera etcetera, and he takes our heroine and child under his wing, without revealing his true interest in her as the child of the woman he was married to and loved beyond all reasonable degree, what with her abandoning him for another man and then showing up pregnant begging for an abortion which of course he refuses being sternly moral and highly religious (those are some of the etceteras  previously mentioned) but he did his best to comfort her and gave her access to his fortune which she used to ensure that her baby would have a good adoptive home after she expired when the tiny babe (our heroine) was a mere few weeks old.

Still with me?

Okay, somewhere in here the heroine finds God, and starts to pray incessantly whenever she is faced with a fresh self-created dilemma, of which she has oodles.

After a passionate interlude with yet another questionably motivated swain (the heroine does have a knack for attracting rotten men!) she decides that she must return to her abandoned husband – still sponging off her parents back in California, still squandering his sporadically earned cash on loose living – because she did take those marriage vows way back when, and well, I honestly have no idea at this point why this gal does any of the things she does.

There’s a reconciliation, rocky as all get out – yeah, spouse is still a jerk to her, though all the locals, including Mom and Dad, profess a fondness for him, can’t quite get my head around that but Kathleen Norris says it’s so there there we are – and some years go by.

Then who should turn up but our heroine’s doctor hero – her not-really-her-father legal father – and quelle surprise! – heroine finds she is actually in romantic love with him, which her jealous husband picks up on immediately. Drama ensues, ending with husband dead due to a noble act, and heroine now free to blushingly profess her love to the doctor, who is only in his early fifties, after all, to her twenty-something.

Yeah, I know. Strong ick factor going on here.

Why do I read this stuff? Too strangely, entrancingly bad to look away? That has to be it…

Happy April, fellow readers! It’s got to be uphill from here! 😉 🙂

(Who am I kidding? These sorts of books are grand fun! Though maybe not quite in the sense that the authors originally intended.)

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

But disaster is about to strike.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Oh, golly.

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

Harsh, aren’t I?

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

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

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

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

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

Bingo. He’s got it.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the scenario.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

But it isn’t.

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

Caveat: the following rantlet is stuffed with spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is pretty well that.

Potentially creative premise, which went absolutely nowhere.

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

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

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

Yawn.

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

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

 

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