Posts Tagged ‘Century of Books – 2018’

The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells ~ 1901. This edition: W. Collins Sons & Co., 1901. Hardcover. 254 pages.

This was a first for me: one of H.G. Wells science fiction/fantasy novels.

I’ve read a few of his “straight” novels: The History of Mr Polly and Mr Britling Sees It Through, and quite liked them though they were fairly run of the mill, reminding me of J.B. Priestley’s Bright Day and similar “ordinary man” novels.

This one, however, was nothing like those ones. It’s pure sci-fi, in its founding form.

Mr. Bedford is a young(ish) businessman who has run into severe financial difficulties. His solution to bankruptcy is to retreat to the country to write a play, which would doubtless be instantly successful, as first plays by non-writers usually are. (Yes, I’m joking, as is Wells throughout this frequently humorous novel.)

Here:

It is scarcely necessary to go into the details of the speculations that landed me at Lympne, in Kent. Nowadays even about business transactions there is a strong spice of adventure. I took risks. In these things there is invariably a certain amount of give and take, and it fell to me finally to do the giving reluctantly enough. Even when I had got out of everything, one cantankerous creditor saw fit to be malignant. Perhaps you have met that flaming sense of outraged virtue, or perhaps you have only felt it. He ran me hard. It seemed to me, at last, that there was nothing for it but to write a play, unless I wanted to drudge for my living as a clerk. I have a certain imagination, and luxurious tastes, and I meant to make a vigorous fight for it before that fate overtook me. In addition to my belief in my powers as a business man, I had always in those days had an idea that I was equal to writing a very good play. It is not, I believe, a very uncommon persuasion. I knew there is nothing a man can do outside legitimate business transactions that has such opulent possibilities, and very probably that biased my opinion. I had, indeed, got into the habit of regarding this unwritten drama as a convenient little reserve put by for a rainy day. That rainy day had come, and I set to work.

I soon discovered that writing a play was a longer business than I had supposed; at first I had reckoned ten days for it, and it was to have a pied-a-terre while it was in hand that I came to Lympne. I reckoned myself lucky in getting that little bungalow. I got it on a three years’ agreement. I put in a few sticks of furniture, and while the play was in hand I did my own cooking. My cooking would have shocked Mrs. Bond. And yet, you know, it had flavour. I had a coffee-pot, a sauce-pan for eggs, and one for potatoes, and a frying-pan for sausages and bacon—such was the simple apparatus of my comfort. One cannot always be magnificent, but simplicity is always a possible alternative. For the rest I laid in an eighteen-gallon cask of beer on credit, and a trustful baker came each day. It was not, perhaps, in the style of Sybaris, but I have had worse times. I was a little sorry for the baker, who was a very decent man indeed, but even for him I hoped.

So Mr. Bedford, incipient playwright, quite soon makes the acquaintance of Mr. Cavor, scientist-inventor, who is working on a project to develop a gravitationally neutral material. When it becomes apparent that Cavor’s invention  is successful, Bedford is quick to scent the possibilities of sharing in the potential profits (as yet undetailed) of such a unique material, and he partners with Cavor in the enterprise.

Cavor’s ideas are large and scientifically ambitious. With his anti-gravity material – cavorite – the sky is (literally) the limit. He has apparently also been mulling over the logistics of building a vessel to travel through space, and this he immediately puts into production, with Bedford his cooperative though bemused assistant.

Finally, the spaceship is completed.  It’s a round, glass-lined, ball-shaped object, sheathed in moving panels of cavorite which will ingeniously allow steering, landing, etcetera, outfitted with all of the needs for space travel, not detailed by Wells, who merely assures us that the travellers will have every want provided for. And so they do.

For Cavor wants to go to the moon, in the interests of pure science, and he convinces the reluctant Bedford to come along with the tempting thought that perhaps the moon will yield valuable materials for export back to Earth. “Science!” cries Cavor. “Vast profits!” thinks Bedford, and off they go.

I shan’t go into detail of what they find on the moon, or how their adventures continue. I will merely tell you that the moon proves to be mostly hollow, full of tunnels and chambers and passages, with a huge subterranean ocean at its core, and it is inhabited by ant-like beings who live on the flesh of fungus-grazing “mooncalves”.

Oh, yes. There is also gold.

After some adventuring, Bedford and Cavor inadvertently part ways, with Bedfor returning to the space vessel, and “accidentally” (is it or isn’t it?) triggering its relaunch back to Earth, leaving Cavor at the mercy of the ant-people.

Now Bedford feels kind of bad for poor Cavor, but he quashes remorse and gets on with his own affairs, helped along by the large quantity of pure gold he has luckily managed to bring back with him.

Imagine then his surprise to find that Cavor is sill alive on the moon, and has been cared for by the Selenites/Moonies, and has crafted a wireless device capable of broadcasting details of moon-life back to Earth. And then, faintly and fading fast, comes a message concerning an intended invasion…

<Cue foreboding music.>

Did I like this book?

Hmmm.

Parts of it were fun, but in generally I have to say no, not entirely. It was well written and often drily humorous, but I soon found myself slightly bored with it, and instead of poring over every word I found myself skimming the very detailed descriptions of lunar flora and fauna and the inner workings of the anthill, as it were.

H.G. Wells undoubtedly had an ingenious sense of invention, and I am happy to give credit where it’s due, but I personally found this tale a bit of a slog. I don’t think I’ll be diving into any of his other sci-fi fantasias anytime soon, though I think I’d be open to more mild exploration at a later date, if ever the occasion arises. (Such as needing to fill a year on the Century of Books, for example.)

His other, more conventional novels are much more to my taste, and I will happily continue to broaden my acquaintance with those as opportunity allows.

So. The First Men in the Moon.

My rating: 5.5/10

 

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The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart ~ 1914. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, 1918. Hardcover. 377 pages.

First off, I’ll tell you what this book isn’t. It’s not a murder mystery, and it’s not a gothic romance, no matter what later covers and sensationalistic publicists’ blurbs might say.

It’s merely one of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s early-career, sentimental love stories, padded out with a rather good depiction of immediately pre-war Vienna – that would be pre-Great War, in case you missed the publication date – and its fluid population of young foreigners seeking to further their education in one of the greatest centres of arts and sciences in their time.

American Harmony is a violin student, fellow American Peter is a young doctor; both are talented and driven; both are poor as church mice; both are determined to stick it out in Vienna for the boost their access to specialists in their field will give their future careers. Neither has room in their life for romantic love; neither plan to marry. Need I go further?

Point A will lead inevitably to Point B, but the path between is twisted and full of obstacles, such as friends with complicated love lives, a wee orphan boy dying of heart failure, and the judgemental frown of social mores, turning an innocent partnership to share expenses into a forbidden thing, if a young woman would retain her virtuous reputation.

The theme throughout is sacrifice, and every character grapples with it, from charmingly innocent Harmony and her hopes of a musical career, to Bulgarian spy Georgiev who slips up and loses his place in the quickening Great Game as Europe readies itself for open conflict.

The little Georgiev was in trouble those days. The Balkan engine was threatening to explode, but continued to gather steam, with Bulgaria sitting on the safety-valve. Austria was mobilizing troops, and there were long conferences in the Burg between the Emperor and various bearded gentlemen, while the military prayed in the churches for war.

The little Georgiev hardly ate or slept. Much hammering went on all day in the small room below Harmony’s on the Wollbadgasse. At night, when the man in the green velours hat took a little sleep, mysterious packages were carried down the whitewashed staircase and loaded into wagons waiting below. Once on her window-sill Harmony found among the pigeons a carrier pigeon with a brass tube fastened to its leg…

Though the chief love story of this standard sort of novel-of-its-kind progresses along traditional lines, some of the side stories diverge from the expected, and, along with the period atmosphere captured in brief by Rinehart’s facile pen, turn this slight, occasionally melodramatic period piece into something readable – and for the most part, very enjoyably so – a century past its time.

My rating: 7/10

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White Hell of Pity by Norah Lofts ~ 1937. This edition: Corgi, 1972. Paperback. ISBN: 552-08393-3. 188 pages.

Get your head around that title. It’s a stunner, isn’t it?

This was Norah Lofts’ third published book, after a book of connected short stories, I Met a Gypsy (1935), and a historical fiction, Here Was a Man: A Romantic History of Sir Walter Raleigh (1936). White Hell of Pity went off on another tangent, that of contemporary realism, with a splash of the darkly gothic which was to show up so very often in Lofts’ subsequent 40+ books.

Let me say right now, this is a fantastic little novel, and it’s worth getting past that awful title.

Our young protagonist, Emmie Bacon, starts out in life with all the disadvantages possible, being raised in the rural country cottage equivalent of a dismal slum. Her mother tries to abort her, and that pretty well sets the scene for Emmie’s childhood years. She’s not a “wanted” child, nor are her numerous siblings.

Luckily (or perhaps unluckily?) Emmie is an intelligent child, a natural scholar, and she catches the eye and attention of one of her school teachers, which comes in handy when the thirteen-year-old flees the maternal home to escape a brutal attempted rape by her mother’s boyfriend. Straight to Miss Stanton flees Emmie, and Miss Stanton does her best for her protegé. She staunchly confronts and turns away Emmie’s horrid mother when she comes looking for her offspring. (Mrs. Bacon is keen to have Emmie back, as when she turns fourteen she may leave school and start bringing home a wage.)

Miss Stanton finds Emmie a place in a well-regarded boarding school run by an old school chum, and pays Emmie’s fees out of her own not very generous teacher’s salary, regarding Emmie’s future as something of a sacred trust, and Emmie, blossoming in her new environment, seems set to fulfill all of Miss Stanton’s hopes.

This goes on for a few years, and then things come crashing down, with the sudden arrival of what will turn out to be one of Norah Lofts’ stock characters, an Evil Lesbian. Jealous Ella Frome has been impatiently watching Miss Stanton’s activities from the sidelines, and now wishes to resume their old Special Friendship, which Miss Stanton has sternly discontinued once she takes on young Emmie. (Just so you know, Miss Stanton is a Good Lesbian, or possibly a Conflicted Lesbian, who doesn’t appear to have sexual designs on Emmie; she is beautifully disinterested in Emmie’s person, loves her for her mind alone, and concentrates solely on helping her find a better place in the world than that she came from.)

Here’s Ella:

Ella Frome, who had been a plain and dowdy student, noticeable only for her style of hairdressing, had become an elegant combination of masculine trimness and feminine touches. Her hair was still cut short, but her nails were brilliantly lacquered. She wore a severe tailored suit and over it, when she arrived in her car, a mannish camel-hair coat: but she had large pearl earrings in her ears, and a sweet subtle perfume rose from her hair and her clothes. Her voice was hybrid too. Generally it was deep and abrupt, but now and then it sank unexpectedly into a caressing dulcet murmur. She was obviously extremely fond of Helen Stanton. For Emmie she had only the flintiest of stares, the most strident voice.

Ella promptly takes Emmie aside and gives her the what for, informing her that Miss Stanton is undergoing financial distress in order to keep Emmie in school, and Emmie’s over-developed sense of guilt flames up. Off she trots to find herself a servant’s job, and the sad decline of her young life from its brief peak has begun.

I’m going to stop right there, with the recommendation that if at all possible you like-minded Norah Lofts appreciators find this elusive novel and dig right in. Spoiler alert (of sorts): it doesn’t end well. Like, really not well.

Lofts has created a heroine in Emmie who truly engaged my interest, and I became very invested in her trials and tribulations, hoping beyond hope that she would get another break, quietly cheering at her moments of joy and inwardly sobbing at her continual setbacks. I even flipped ahead to read the last page, and let me tell you I wasn’t very happy at what I read, but I forgive Norah Lofts, because she made it all make sense from Emmie’s point of view, even as I wished for the authorial hand to pluck her character away from her sad fate.

Here’s the 1st edition dust jacket. I sure wish I could acquire a hardcover copy of this one – my paperback 1972 Corgi has deconstructed, and only a rubber band holds it together now. But sadly these are in the scarce-as-hen’s teeth category, save for one lonely hc on offer through ABE for $200. It’s a good book for its sort, but not that good.

Norah Lofts is a hard author to classify. She’s not what one would consider a literary writer, though her historical fictions are very well-regarded for their detailed verisimilitude. Lofts was an accomplished researcher, and well able to transform dry facts into poignant semi-fiction; her years as a history teacher before she became a bestselling writer stood her in good stead.

Lofts also isn’t afraid to go into some rather dark places in her stories; happy endings occasionally appear, but they are rather the exception. She’s a very smart writer; she never talks down; her standard is very high indeed, higher than the norm perhaps was in the popular fiction of her time. If one could cross Rose Macaulay with (maybe?) Mary Stewart, with a dash of something even grittier thrown in, one might come close to categorizing her.

So. This book.

My rating: 9.75/10 (Quarter point off jointly for that dismal title, and for the Evil Lesbian, who’s just too, too stereotypical.)

Good stuff, if you like this sort of thing.

I apparently do, as does writer Katherine Edgar, whose blog post Norah Lofts, and why you should read her makes a convincing argument for exactly that.

Caveat! There are some duds in Lofts’ ouevre, too. If you don’t hit it off with one, you might well love another. There are about fifty to choose from, written between 1935 and 1984. If you are looking for an entry-level Lofts, I would suggest Jassy for contemporary fiction, and The Concubine for historical fiction. Wikipedia has a list of all of her books.

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Laddie by Gene Stratton-Porter ~ 1913. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, 1913. Illustrated by Herman Pfeifer. Hardcover. 541 pages.

I had a really long post written, but I’ve just deleted it. My troubled relationship with Gene Stratton-Porter seemed to be getting in the way – I enjoy large parts of her stories (except for the appallingly racist Her Father’s Daughter ) but there’s always something utterly improbable to jib at, and Laddie is no exception.

Here’s the (only slightly) condensed rewrite.

First, the good.

This tale is based on Gene Stratton-Porter’s own childhood as the “afterthought” child in a well-off Indiana farm family of mother, father, and twelve siblings. It takes place not too many years after the end of the Civil War, which is frequently referenced. The family was most fervently on the Union side, and there is a major incident concerning a hideaway built to shelter stoppers-by on the pre-war Underground Railway.

The memoir passages taken from GS-P’s personal experience are, for the most part, absolutely charming. Depictions of family dynamics, sibling squabbles, beloved pets, and of course nature rambles, all ring wonderfully true, and kept my interest during the “fairytale” scenes, which were much more of a chore to get through straight-faced.

The hero of this story is the family’s middle brother, “Laddie”, based on GS-P’s own beloved brother, who died in a drowning accident when she was nine years old. The Laddie of the novel is the embodiment af all the masculine virtues; he never (and I mean never) sets his foot wrong, or does a mean act to anyone. The girl he (ultimately successfully) courts throughout this tale is virtually his matched twin in physical perfection, athleticism, intelligence,  and kindliness.

The only star missing from the Princess’s (for that is her nickname) crown of virtues is that of fervent religiosity, and she attains that by the end through Laddie’s efforts (he has enough religion for two), so all will presumably be well going forward with them, graced as they are by a kind fate which has also endowed upon them abundant financial resources and aristocratic English heritages, those last two always a Very Big Deal in Stratton-Porter’s fictions.

Oops, I’ve strayed into the bad.

Snobbery.

Gene Stratton-Porter’s most unappealing trait. She’s a snob, and that sticks out in great big bumps in every single one of her novels.

Sure, mere common-place characters are allowed to toddle about with her mild approval, but she was a fervent advocate of the “good birth will tell” school of thought, and so it’s no great surprise when it is revealed that Laddie and his family have true blue blood a-sloshing away in their veins, having ancestors back in the old country (England) who were Crusaders. In the family treasure chest is the old family crest; there’s an Earldom (or something similar) in their background, and once the equally snobbish (and newly arrived from England) father of Laddie’s heart-throb learns this, all objection to his aristocratic daughter mating with a commonplace (though well-off, well spoken, morally pure, physically perfect etc etc) farm lad magically disappears.

I think I’ll stop right here. If anybody really needs a plot description, it’s basically a gentle family saga, children being children, the young narrator (she’s eight years old or thereabouts) running free and then adjusting to the imprisonment of school, and Laddie, on the cusp of adulthood, courting his future partner for 500 pages or so before the inevitable happens (everyone says yes) and things are tidied up. There is another blighted romance which gets fixed up, a mystery or two, an adventure involving stolen money, lots of riding around on Arab-Kentucky thoroughbred horses, and tons of charming nature-related anecdotes.

And God.

Lots and lots of God. GS-P’s own father was a lay preacher of sorts, and so is the father in the book, so Biblical references sprout up on every page.

The happy ending relies heavily on the hand of coincidence; it is by far the weakest part of what isn’t really as rotten a book as my niggling criticism might make you suspect.

I actually quite liked Laddie, despite the frequent annoying bits and the “God-given superiority of the British upper classes” strand. It’s long, it’s glacially slow-moving, it’s full of off-tangent excursions and rabbit trails of thought, but there’s a core of sweetness, too and an appealingly obvious love of the author for her family and her childhood home.

My rating: (deep breath) 7.5/10

Okey-doke. Bonus. If you’re still with me, here are the author’s own words, recorded in Gene Stratton-Porter: A Little Story of The Life and Work and Ideals of “The Bird Woman”. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1926.

In August of 1913 the author’s novel “Laddie” was published in New York, London, Sydney and Toronto simultaneously. This book contains the same mixture of romance and nature interest as the others, and was modelled on the same plan of introducing nature objects peculiar to the location, and characters, many of whom are from life, typical of the locality at a given period. The first thing many critics said of it was that “no such people ever existed, and no such life was ever lived.” In reply to this the author said: “Of a truth, the home I described in this book I knew to the last grain of wood in the doors, and I painted it with absolute accuracy; and many of the people I described I knew more intimately than I ever have known any others. Taken as a whole it represents a perfectly faithful picture of home life, in a family who were reared and educated exactly as this book indicates. There was such a man as Laddie, and he was as much bigger and better than my description of him as a real thing is always better than its presentment. The only difference, barring the nature work, between my books and those of many other writers, is that I prefer to describe and to perpetuate the best I have known in life; whereas many authors seem to feel that they have no hope of achieving a high literary standing unless they delve in and reproduce the worst.

“To deny that wrong and pitiful things exist in life is folly, but to believe that these things are made better by promiscuous discussion at the hands of writers who fail to prove by their books that their viewpoint is either right, clean, or helpful, is close to insanity. If there is to be any error on either side in a book, then God knows it is far better that it should be upon the side of pure sentiment and high ideals than upon that of a too loose discussion of subjects which often open to a large part of the world their first knowledge of such forms of sin, profligate expenditure, and waste of life’s best opportunities. There is one great beauty in idealized romance: reading it can make no one worse than he is, while it may help thousands to a cleaner life and higher inspiration than they ever before have known.”

Take that, nay sayers! Clean lives and high inspirations for all!

(Now I’m hitting the publish button, before I take it all down again. Cheers!)

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The Crab-Apple Tree by Richard Church ~ 1959. This edition: Heinemann, 1959. Hardcover. 238 pages.

Throbbing with symbolism, as might be expected from a novel written by a poet.

The crab-apple tree of the title represents the life passages of an elderly ex-seaman who has returned to his old home in the fertile farmland of Kent. He has known and loved the tree in childhood, and returns to see it blossom and fruit one more time.

At this point stood a large crab-apple tree in full bloom. It had a bridal look under the bright sunlight. A hum of bee-music filled it, and the marauders in their thousands kept the blossom trembling, shaking out the rosy perfume as if it were bell-music.

“So there you be!” exclaimed the old man, eyeing the tree fondly. He was so enamoured that he did not notice the general decay around it: the tumbled fence the tangled mass of last year’s skeleton grasses and umbels knee-high up to the rotting boards of the house; the blind windows stuffed with sacking; the nailed-up central door with the brick steps crumbled into a heap; the loose slates accumulated in and over the guttering.

Yes, Jim Bright has returned from sea at long last, but he hadn’t expected to find his old family cottage empty and neglected. His aged mother had died, and he knew that, but where was his younger brother Tom? And why are all of his old neighbours so unwelcoming?

This novel is not a static portrait of a village Eden as one might expect – oh, no! – but instead a moving picture crammed full of all of the human emotions – incidents of love and kindness are challenged by jealousy and core-deep hatreds; lust walks the country lanes. Lust for power, for land, for money, for plain old sex – and the most lustful of all of the residents watching Jim with deep suspicion is prosperous farmer Jim Bellaby, who has a long-standing grudge against the Bright family, and a strong urge to indulge his taste for grinding people down who dare to stand up against his brutal personality.

Enter Maggie Jones, a young Welsh widow, baby at breast, sent to seek refuge with Jim by an old friend, and then the return of brother Tom, a man with many troubles, not least of which is a warped and damaged mind.

Jim Bellamy sees Maggie and his desire to take her over for himself surges hot within him, and all through the coming summer he relentlessly courts her, while she is torn between her anguished love for her dead husband, her devotion to her young son, her growing love for the two elderly men whom she is now keeping house for, and her own physical desires which increasingly refuse to be ignored.

Yes, things are getting complicated; not much simple life in this part of the country!

Tragedy and violence inevitably strike, but are tempered by the responses of a few good people, and the strangely unexpected transformation of an angry man who seems set to find some sort of personal redemption through love.

While the author of The Crab-Apple Tree seems to have been held in esteem by his peers as an accomplished poet, his fictions are slightly less well-known; I could find only a few cursory reviews online, and none for this particular novel, which rather surprises me. It’s absolutely lyrical in places, beautifully written as a whole, and quite up to standard compared with other similar novels of its era. Perhaps its moods are a bit too troubled for happy reading? It’s not really a “literary” book, not quite a “popular” type novel, either, so maybe it falls unnoticed between those two camps.

I quite liked this novel, though it left me feeling rather melancholy. Not exactly a hidden gem, but a rewarding sort of discovery nonetheless.

I’d absolutely read another novel by Richard Church if it came into my hands. I’m now downright curious about his poetry, and his highly regarded three-volume autobiography. A name to add to my “look out for” list, though I don’t think I’ll expend a lot of effort deliberately tracking him down.

My rating: 6.5/10.

Are any of you familiar with this writer and his works?

 

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The Prelude to Adventure by Hugh Walpole ~ 1912. This edition: Macmillan and Co., 1925. Hardcover. 310 pages.

One of Walpole’s more obscure early works, and perhaps deservedly so, for what an odd little tale this is. The Prelude to Adventure is the fourth novel by the subsequently very prolific Hugh Walpole – a reliable book-a-year man for the next three decades – published when he was twenty-eight.

It concerns a Cambridge undergraduate, one Olva Dune, and, with Walpole himself only 6 years past his Cambridge graduation, one can assume that the college scenes at least are portrayed with accuracy.

The God angle as well stems from personal experience. Walpole, son of an Anglican clergyman, lost his own religion as a young man, and at first refused to admit it to his family; his subsequent writings frequently contain characters grappling with the “Is there a God?’ quandary.

“There is a God after all.” That was the immense conviction that faced him as he heard, slowly, softly, the leaves, the twigs, settle themselves after that first horrid crash which the clumsy body had made.

Olva accidentally kills a despised fellow student in a moment of righteous rage, all unwitnessed, except by God, wherein lies the key to the tale, as Olva Dune struggles mightily with his conscience and his newly wakened awareness of a Higher Power. Things are complicated by his confession to a religion-addled compatriot, and even more so by his falling in love.

There is much inner dialogue, and a rather odd non-resolution at the end, with Olva apparently dodging the earthly penalty for his crime of passion, and instead heading out with a rucksack to hike about and undertake whatever penance God will put upon him. The four people he confessed to seem to think this is a fine compromise, and the last chapter is paradoxically titled ‘First Chapter’:

The sun was rising, hard and red, over Sannet Wood and the white frozen flats, when Olva Dune set out…

Often referred to as a psychological drama, and that does sum it up as well as anything: Carl Jung in a letter to the author describes this as a “psychological masterpiece”. Fair enough; Jung should know.

Though Prelude concerns an unsolved death (though we of course know who the killer is, and Olva ends up confessing to four other people on separate occasions), it’s not a murder mystery in any sense of the term, though it is sometimes described that way by people who obviously haven’t actually read the thing.

Walpole himself described it as a Fantasia, and that suffices as well as anything else. I’ve happily read a fair bit of Walpole over the years, and this turned out to be a work on the lower end of my personal enjoyment scale – much too overwrought and frenetically stream-of-consciousness – and though it has its moments I can’t say that I recommend it for Walpole neophytes. More of a completest’s novel, I would say.

If you are curious, check it out for free on Project Gutenberg. Early hardcover editions start at just a few dollars on ABE, but because it is long out of copyright, most of the offerings you will find are print-on-demand.

My rating: 4/10

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The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley ~ 1982. This edition: Firebird (Penguin Putnam), 2002. Softcover. ISBN: 0-14-130975-X. 272 pages.

Orphaned misfit tomboy rather unwillingly travels to a new home, finds herself, falls in love and is fallen in love with, saves a kingdom. There we have it in a nutshell.

Embellishments include a rather good invented world based recognizably on colonial Great Britain and one of its more troublesome hot-place colonies, wonderfully psychic horses, stellar swordplay (our heroine is a natural, of course), giant domesticated cheetah-like cats (I want one!), not-quite-human bad guys, and a fair bit of magic.

Also a strong silent type who just happens to be a king, and who does he fall for?

Yup. You guessed it.

Okay, this sounds a bit dismissive, and I don’t mean it to be, because this is a very decent example of its genre, a fast-moving bildungsroman incorporating a truly generous number of fantasy-fiction tropes, with undoubted inspiration from those who went this way before, most obviously perhaps our old friend J.R.R. Tolkien.

Here’s the back cover blurb from my Firebird edition, which hits all the high points:

Harry Crewe is an orphan girl who comes to live in Damar, the desert country shared by the Homelanders and the secretive, magical Free Hillfolk. When Corlath, the Hillfolk King, sees her for the first time, he is shaken—for he can tell that she is something more than she appears to be. He will soon realize what Harry has never guessed: She is to become Harimad-sol, King’s Rider, and carry the Blue Sword, Gonturan, which no woman has wielded since the legendary Lady Aerin, generations past…

Damar is well imagined, and I am happy to report that McKinley develops it in much more detail in another, even better novel, the prequel to The Blue Sword (though published after it, in 1984): The Hero and the Crown. Lots more girl power. And horses. And there also be dragons.

Also in several short stories contained in the 1994 collect The Knot in the Grain.

Good stuff.

The Blue Sword picked up a seriously decent award early on, being designated a Newbery Honor Book in 1983 (The Hero and the Crown subsequently won the Newbery Medal in 1985), and a couple of ALA citations, one  for Notable Book, and another for Best Book for Young Adults.

This was McKinley’s second published novel, after 1978’s Beauty, and in common with a lot of her early work it is for the most part nice and tight and well-edited; sadly the same cannot be said for some of her later efforts, which suffer from over embellishment and goosey-loosey plot structure. (Sunshine, you’re the gorgeously vampirish exception. Shadows, I’m looking right at you.)

My rating: a good strong 8/10, because I’ve read it quite a number of time over the years (though I was out of the target YA age group when it was first published, and so missed reading it in my teen years) and I still like it a lot, crowded with predictable fantasy stereotype as it is.

Undemanding and engaging escape reading, as so many of the better “youth” novels are. Picking out those familiar fantasy-lit motifs and seeing how the author makes them her own can be a lot of fun.

 

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Mrs. Harter by E.M. Delafield ~ 1924. This edition: Hutchinson, 1924. Hardcover. 253 pages.

It has taken me several false starts to get past the rather subfusc beginning of this sardonic novel, but once hooked it become so compelling that I stayed up well after midnight last night finishing it off, and quite some time after that lying awake and mulling over my response to it.

Narrated in the first person by Sir Miles Flower, confined to a wheelchair by his injuries during the Great War, Mrs. Harter seems at first a slightly brittle village comedy of the classes, with the arrival in the village of Cross Loman of Diamond Harter from Egypt, who sets eyes flashing and tongues clacking.

Mrs. Harter has come without her husband, and has gone into rather shabby lodgings, and no one (including herself) quite seems to know why she is back home. For Diamond is the daughter of the late village plumber, and the general consensus is that she has boosted herself up a social notch or two by her marriage.

The women in general (with one or two exceptions) greatly resent her arrival, the more so since all of the men seem to find her rather fascinating, and make all sorts of excuses for her, and in a few cases actively seek her out.

Mrs. Harter herself is a stoic character, showing little emotion, being brusque almost to rudeness at all approaches. How odd then that another new arrival, eligible bachelor Captain William (Bill) Patch, seems drawn to Mrs. Harter’s side like a moth to a flame, and it soon becomes apparent that she is in her turn silently infatuated with him.

Sir Miles speculates upon their private lives, going so far as to invent their most private conversations and to indulge in a bit of amateur psychoanalysis, depending on others for most of his information, as he doesn’t actually go out much.

Sir Miles has a complicated relationship of his own with his appalling wife Claire, an overly emotional and deeply egotistical poser of a woman, who turns every conversation to herself, and is capable of nourishing strong resentments towards anyone whom she sees as a competitor for the attention of her social circle, which means just about everyone, and in particular the ex-plumber’s daughter. Claire is decidedly affronted.

Things really get brewing during the production of an amateur theatrical piece; Mrs. Harter proves to have an unexpectedly good singing voice so is dragged into attendance by the universally popular Bill Patch. Open snubs by the snobs are constantly being averted by Sir Miles’ cousin Mary, who is pretty well the only character not to reveal herself to have unpleasant character traits. (Our narrator included.)

There is a lot of dry comedy here, in the character portraits of the villagers – one is reminded of the same sort of thing in the Delafield’s later Provincial Lady novels – but tragedy is never far away.

Mr. Harter shows up unexpectedly, and, being nothing like what anyone expected, his presence sends the simmering situation to a disastrous boil.

E.M. Delafield seems to have had an agenda of sorts in this ironically constructed novel, which seems to be that no one of us can tell what really goes on in the mind of others, and that preconceived notions and even direct observations may often be absolutely wrong. Her narrator has something of an unplanned agenda of his own, the increasing apparent revelation of his deeply buried hatred for his wife, and the disaster that is his own emotional life, brought out into the light during the destruction of the possibility of happiness for Mrs. Harter and Captain Patch.

Not a happy novel, then, but an increasingly fascinating one, well up to the standard we expect from this accomplished writer of the mid-wars period.

My rating: 8/10

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Cabin at Singing River by Chris Czajkowski ~ 1991. This edition: Nuk Tessli Publications, 1997. Foreword by Peter Gzowski. Softcover. ISBN: 0-9681775-0-6. 149 pages.

Chris Czajkowski, born in 1947 and raised in England as the only child of a British mother and a Polish war refugee father, grew up surrounded by industrious creativity. As a young woman, Chris travelled the world, hiking in lonely places and working on farms, eventually fetching up in western Canada in 1979, milking cows near Salmon Arm, B.C.

Salmon Arm – with a population of 17,000 people not a particularly large metropolis – proved too crowded for Czajkowsky’s liking, and she headed even farther west, across the Coast Mountains and into the remote Bella Coola Valley some 250 miles out of Williams Lake, where she was invited to build a cabin on the Trudy and Jack Turner wilderness farm near Lonesome Lake, a day and a half’s hike on foot from the nearest road.

This is the story of Chris Czajkowski’s first cabin, how she built it mostly by herself with mentorship from the Turners, teaching herself to fall trees and erect log walls and finally, two years or so after her start, put on a roof. The eventual cabin was more than a modest log shack; it turned out to be a handsome and very livable house, where Chris spent the majority of her time for a number of years, occasionally going out to civilization to work and earn some much-needed cash.

Czajkowski was already an accomplished visual and textile artist, and she eventually found her writer’s voice as well, when her lyrical letters to Peter Gzowski’s Morningside CBC radio program caught the imagination of Gzowski and listeners across Canada.

Cabin at Singing River is a fascinating depiction of an adventurous life beyond the ken of most of us, but those of us familiar with the region are perhaps the most aware of the magnitude of what Czajkowski and her fellow wilderness dwellers accomplished in making themselves a viable home in the bush; this really is The Wild; one truly is alone and in charge of one’s destiny out there beyond the end of the last road.

Upstream from the Stillwater, the river splits and runs in braided skeins through dark strands of cedar, an Emily Carr landscape of green and gloom, a prime place for mosquitoes in the summer and grizzlies in the fall. Pale cottonwoods send vast, corrugated trunks into the canopy, and devil’s club writhes like a mass of spiny snakes beside the boggy creeks. The remnants of the settlers’ trail are visible in places, but it is rarely used and no longer maintained. Great windfalls cross it in hopeless tangles, and much of the original route has been obliterated by the vagaries of the river…

Chris Czajkowski is a highly individual and very opinionated person, and this comes through loud and clear in Cabin at Singing River and in subsequent books. She has little time or patience for dilly-dalliers, and visitors coming into her solitary domain had better keep themselves up to the mark or risk a keen critique in her writings; she’s not averse to publically calling out those she considers naïve, pretentious or unprepared.

To me, city people are frighteningly alike, aspiring to be carbon copies of each other. Their programmed world gives them no chance to grow as individuals; not only are they unbelievably ignorant about what goes on beyond the limits of their lives, but they also surmise that anything outside their range of experience is inferior and not worth knowing.

Yeah, there’s a strand of judgementalism running through these pages, taking away some of the shine on what is otherwise a deeply moving appreciation of the natural world, and the truly admirable exploits of the memoirist. But more often Czajkowski is deeply appreciative of her neighbours and friends, the unique individuals who make their homes way away from the easy-come amenities of the more “civilized” parts of the world.

This first beautifully written account of her life-so-far is in my opinion one of Czajkowskii’s best, though every one of her subsequent books – Diary of a Wilderness Dweller, Nuk Tessli: The Life of a Wilderness Dweller, Wildfire in the Wilderness, A Mountain Year, And the River Still Sings, among others – follows much the same pattern. All are very readable.

Full disclosure: I’ve had some brief interactions with Chris Czajkowski over the years, and several prized pieces of her artwork grace my walls. I admire her greatly but find her a bit intimidating, too. I suspect she is a stalwart friend to those she allows into her inner circle. I happily purchase each one of her books as they appear, for personal pleasure and for knowing how much she depends on her writings to put food on her table; she’s perennially struggling to make ends meets, because even the most self-sufficient of remotely lived lives require resources from elsewhere and infusions of cold hard cash.

My rating for this one: 8.5/10

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Introduction to Sally by Elizabeth von Arnim ~ 1926. This edition: Tauchnitz, 1926. Hardcover. 303 pages.

What happens when an unbelievably beautiful girl is born into a modestly situated, working class, strictly God-fearing family, unable to fathom how best to protect their jewel of a child from the increasingly lecherous gaze of every man who sees her?

By marrying her off, of course, to the first man who offers for her, thereby shifting the responsibility to other shoulders. Beauty as burden is the theme of this little novel, with a dash of reluctant Eliza Doolittle-ism thrown in.

Goddess-like in appearance, strictly working class in every other way, meek and obedient shopkeeper’s daughter Salvatia (Sally for daily use) is catapulted by her desperately out-of-his-depth (and now widowed) father into an absolute mésalliance with brilliant Oxford student Jocelyn Luke.

Jocelyn is infatuated with Sally, and (at first) cares only for the perfection of her face and figure. During the whirlwind courtship which is rushed along by all parties in the interests of keeping her out of the public eye as much as possible (her beauty literally attracts crowds), Jocelyn hasn’t ever stopped to think of what marriage actually means beyond the sanctioned bedding of the loved one, but once he takes a break from the bedroom, he finds himself caught in an appalling situation. His darling Sally is utterly unable to meet him halfway in thought and in conversation; their minds are as far opposite as fire and water; what has he done?!

Optimistically thinking that he can perhaps remake his wife’s mind and manners (not to mention her speaking voice and limited vocabulary, all dropped aitches and “Pardon”s and “Don’t moind if I do”s), Jocelyn trots Sally off to his mother’s house, hoping to foist his wife off on his ladylike mother for a Pygmalion-like re-education.

It doesn’t take. Sally is unchangeable, and deeply unhappy in her new milieu, as she finds kind Mrs. Luke sadly intimidating, and her speech-and-etiquette lessons completely bemusing.

Sally runs away, all the way back home to her father, who refuses to harbour her for a moment, for he’s been enjoying his newly peaceful life. He loads her onto a train with a pound-note and firm instructions to return at once to her husband’s arms, but Sally unaccountably goes astray, only to pop up again in the company of none other than an elderly (and fortunately deaf) Duke.

I’ve left out an enormous number of Sally’s blundering and innocent adventures. She’s continually being pulled about from here to there by her caretakers and random acquaintances, allowing Elizabeth von Arnim to indulge herself in a gleeful and gently sardonic polemic on English society and its hidebound class distinctions. There’s a secondary courtship going on as well, that of the genteelly impoverished, highly cultured Mrs. Luke and her wealthy but intellectually ignorant neighbour Mr. Thorpe, which provides a delicious counterpoint to the main events, as the lives of both couples intertwine and complicate things exponentially.

This romping tale is mostly farce, but there is a kernel of sincerity present too, with the caricatured characters being allowed their moments of genuine humanity. The author is keen-eyed and sharp-tongued but ultimately kind, and she allows her buffeted heroine a certain amount of self-determination as well, by refusing to allow herself to be changed. Sally is what she is, and the sooner her champions accept that, the happier they all will be.

The ending of this story is only a beginning. It’s merely – as the title makes clear – the introduction of Sally to what will obviously become a gently triumphant progress through life. A home of her own, a kind and contented husband, and a lapful of darling babies being Sally’s stated best ambition, it is happily moved forward by her chance acceptance as a protegé by one of the highest in the land. The fickle fate which endowed Sally with her physical gifts has tried her sorely; she’s gone through her testing time; now that same random fate will smooth her way.

As you may have gathered, this is one of the gleefully ridiculous von Arnims, exceeding in its giddy plot even the deeply silly Enchanted April. To be happy in your reading, you must abandon all 21st Century notions of how Sally should behave, and how people should behave to Sally, and remind yourself that it’s just a fictitious story of a nine decades ago, a fairytale of the Twenties, a mere snippet of a gentle farce.

Elizabeth von Arnim’s writing is always a delight, and I enjoyed Introduction to Sally greatly (to the point of reading it twice in the space of a year) but if I absolutely had to choose I daresay I’d have to go with von Arnim’s slightly more serious novels – The Benefactress being the one that springs first to mind – as my “author’s best”.

My rating: 7.5/10

 

 

 

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