Posts Tagged ‘Read in 2022’

The Family on the Top Floor by Noel Streatfeild ~ 1964. This edition: Random House, 1965. Hardcover. 248 pages.

Goodness, look at that calendar! Almost March. Well, I’ve been getting in a respectable amount of reading time – it’s still dark in the evenings and we are still snowbound, so outside garden work hasn’t ramped up yet – and the pile of books-I-want-to-talk-about is really stacking up. I likely won’t get to them all, unless I whip off a slew of 100-word micro-posts (now there’s a tempting thought!) but hey, we do what we can.

Suspend your disbelief – and maybe your expectation of quality storytelling – when you crack the pages of this deservedly obscure Streatfeild juvenile.

Malcolm Master is a stunningly successful television personality. The whole of England hangs on his every word, and of course his cleverly produced Christmas Eve broadcast is something extra special. Malcolm stares the camera right in the eye that fateful night, and declares in a voice quivering with apparent sincerity,”Christmas is not Christmas without children. You cannot guess what this old bachelor would give to wake tomorrow morning to the squeals of delighted children opening their stockings.”

Be careful what you ask for, Mister Master. Because guess what appears on his doorstep bright and early Christmas morning, just in time for the milkman to carry inside?

Yup. Four wee babies. Two boys, two girls, all of approximately the same age, and each apparently well fed and cared for and accompanied by anonymous and sadly inane Christmas cards from four different mothers.

I was quite enthralled by this development, thinking to myself, “Aha! Children of our hero’s indiscretions, a la The Whicharts!” (For those unfamiliar with that odd little tale, it’s essentially Ballet Shoes for grownups, with the children landed on the doorstep of their father being the offspring of his ex-lovers.)

Well, this idea was soon put to rest, as these random babies do not get any backstory at all, and no one ever seems to inquire about their origins, and they are immediately absorbed into the household which is conveniently staffed with an assortment of “cottage loaf shaped” mother figures who glom on to the babies and whisk them away to be raised in seclusion on the top floor of Malcolm Master’s stately home.

The children are named after nursery rhyme characters and are raised in a certain degree of luxury, because they soon are introduced to the starstruck nation as Malcolm Master’s “quads”, stars of numerous television commercials advertising a wide range of products with attached sponsorship deals which clothe and feed and house the children with the very products they are used in touting.

Malcolm himself really doesn’t have much to do with the children – they’re very much in the background as he goes about whatever it is he does to keep his own star shining bright, so when disaster strikes in the form of a heart attack brought on by overwork, and a subsequent sea journey to recuperate, the children and their well-meaning pseudo-mothers are left to get on with things as best they can. For Malcolm has inexplicably not had the foresight to arrange for the care and feeding of his many human responsibilities, and money starts to get tight. Oh, dear, what shall we do? Who will care for the children now that the Master money has (apparently) run out? They may have to go to an ORPHANAGE!!!

Um, okay. I can think of quite a few options, but hey! – most of them would be quite sensible and not very exciting, plot wise.

This is essentially the hackneyed Ballet Shoes formula, first trotted out to great success in 1936, transposed to 1964, with the Wonderful World of Television and the Master’s children’s eventual preoccupations and probable future careers – actress, costume designer, cameraman, film engineer – taking the place of the Fossils’ performing arts focus.

There’s so much more I could say, meanly deconstructing this flat little fairy tale episode by episode, but I will leave us right there. A peek at the Goodreads page shows quite a few readers retaining very fond memories of this one, and that’s fair enough. I came to reading Noel Streatfeild as an adult, so there is no childhood nostalgia to temper my reactions to the more far-fetched of her literary efforts.

Her best books – of which there are a respectable number – are very good indeed. Her middle-of-the-pack efforts – very readable in a “light entertainment” sort of way. And some never really get off the ground, and for me this was one of those.

The Children on the Top Floor starts out with oodles of promise, and it could have been charming and quite funny, but unfortunately it soon fizzled out. With 248 pages to work with, it’s not as if there were space constraints, but Streatfeild must have been jaded when she picked up her pencil on this one.

To be fair, an awful lot of 1960s’ and 1970s’ children’s books were pretty dire – it was, after all, the beginning of the incredible proliferation of young audience targeted “themed” and “problem novels” still plaguing us today, churned out with hyper-focus on the chosen topic to the neglect of strong character development and vivid storytelling.

My rating: 3.5/10.

My late mother, book-a-day reader extraordinaire, who always was happy to delve into a quality “children’s book”, would have categorized this one as a “dull thud”, and that’s where I sadly have to put it too.  This writer could do better. If you don’t remember it as a favourite childhood read, perhaps best appreciated by the Streatfeild completest.


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Jumping Off the Donkey by John Barnsley ~ 1983. This edition: Minimax Books, 1983. Hardcover. 191 pages.

Found in the book stacks when doing a spot of spring cleaning the other day. I have no idea where I picked up this obscure autobiography – thrift store? charity book sale? – but it has provided me with a few hours of mild but genuine enjoyment, and that is always pleasing.

From the flyleaf:

John Barnsley is the pen name of a former country solicitor who began working life, after being educated at Derby School and Clifton College, as a journalist on weeklies in Hexham, Jarrow and South Shields.

Leaving journalism John Barnsley became a solicitor’s articled clerk one year before the outbreak of the Second World War. In that war he saw service in England, Egypt, Palestine, Eritrea, Cyprus and the Dodacanese Island where he was Custodian of Enemy Property. After VE day he was sent to Norway where, after a brief spell in charge of a POW camp he was called upon to defend Germans accused in Oslo of war crimes in two celebrated trials.

John Barnsley’s writing style might best be described as tongue-in-cheek with a leaning to the ponderous; one can almost feel his elbow nudging the reader’s figurative ribs on occasion. Not offensively so, though. I am sure Mr. Barnsley would have been a boon to dinner parties post-retirement, when he could let himself go with carefully anonymous tales of some of the characters he encountered throughout those years in the law.

While the law firm anecdotes are generally amusing, the strongest parts of this slender account are the more serious bits – the wartime references and in particular the account of acting as the defense lawyer for several German war criminals.

A bit of an eye opener, that is, and shines a light on a viewpoint not often recognized or discussed – that of the legal counsel speaking for the accused in atrocious crimes.

Criminal law was not Mr. Barnsley’s forte once his military days ended; he returned to civilian life and the workaday business of assisting in settling estates and property transactions and the like.

An interesting find and I am glad to have read it; a good example of this type of “common man” memoir in that it brings a touch of humanity and understanding to one person’s part in our shared society and history.

My rating: I think it deserves a 7.5/10, when considered among other similar minor memoirs. A competent and engaging example of its genre.

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Norwood by Charles Portis ~ 1966. This edition: The Overlook Press, 1999. Softcover. 168 pages.

Trigger warning. I think I need to put this out there in a prominent place – this book has era-expected language, meaning in this case that you will come right up against the n-word, multiple times. It’s generally used in a derogatory way by a key character – not our eponymous protagonist, which was a great relief to me – but one of the unsavories he comes in close contact with.

Reading with 2022 eyes, I have to say I stopped dead when I hit the first occurrence, and thought exceedingly hard about where we’ve come with our current hyper-sensitivity to problematic language.

Which I think is one of the main reasons why we shouldn’t ban or censor books from a time before – we should feel repugnance and we should take time to consider how and why our personal and societal attitudes have changed.

And this is all I will say about that, because I am well aware that opinions on tolerance of and censorship of currently unacceptable language in writings from a prior era will differ. Every reader of vintage fiction is going to have this conversation with themself as things pop up.

If you’re still wanting to stay with me on this one, let’s take a look at this book, this weird and rather fantastic (in every sense of the word) road trip tale. It’s kind of like a stream-of-consciousness fever dream, and it’s brilliant.

Norwood Pratt, just back from Korea, is now an ex-Marine. He’s also now an orphan – his mother is dead, his father has just died – and the feeling back home in Norwood’s current home town (the family’s moved around a lot) of Ralph, Texas is that Norwood needs to come on back home and look after his sister Vernell. She’s taking things hard, and she never really was that viable a specimen even before the latest bereavement, so there’s nothing for it but that Norwood take a hardship discharge and get back into civilian life.

Norwood is on the bus heading back to Texas from Camp Pendleton in California when he realizes that he’s forgotten to collect a debt owed him by one of his Marine buddies. It’s $70, not exactly a fortune, but it’s the principle of the thing, thinks Norwell, and he decides to settle down for a prolonged sulk as the bus rolls eastward.

The sulk doesn’t last long, as Norwood almost immediately befriends a young couple with a baby, transient vegetable pickers heading back to Texas with their California asparagus-season money. He invites them to come and stay for a few days, and our story is on.

Sometime during the night the Remleys decamped, taking with them a television set and a 16-gauge Ithaca Featherweight and two towels. No one could say how they got out of town with all that gear, least of all the night marshal. The day marshal came by and looked at the place where the television set had been. He made notes.

If Norwood has a weakness, it might be that he’s sometimes too trusting. But as subsequent occurrences go to show, he’s far from naive.

Back to his old job at the Nipper Independent Oil Co. Servicenter, Norwood settles down to looking after his still-depressed sister and doing all the cooking and housekeeping.

Sometimes he sat on the back steps wearing a black hat with a Fort Worth crease and played his guitar – just three or four chords really – and sang “Always Late – With Your Kisses,” with his voice breaking like Lefty Frizzell, and “China Doll” like Slim Whitman, whose upper range is hard to match. The guitar wasn’t much. It was a cheap West German model with nylon strings he had bought at the PX. He also put in a lot of time on his car. He had bought a 1947 Fleetline Chevrolet with dirt dobber nests in the heater and radio for fifty dollars. He put in some rings and ground the valves and got it in fair running shape. He loosened the tappets and put up with the noise so as to keep Vernell – who would race a motor – from burning the valves. She burned a connecting rod instead.

Norwood is good hearted and patient, and a darned good brother, but life feels flat to him.

One night he came home from work and said, “I’m tard of working at that station, Vernell.”

“What’s wrong, bubba?”

“Every time you grease a truck stuff falls in your eyes and your hair and down your back. You got it pretty easy yourself yourself. You know that?”

“Why don’t you get a hat?”

“I got plenty of hats, Vernell. I don’t need any more hats. If all I needed was another hat I would be well off.”

“What do you want to do?”

“I want to get on the Louisiana Hayride.”

Yes, Norwood has a secret longing to be a country and western singer, and the prospects are darned poor for that, and he’s starting to get depressed and even a little bit angry. Brooding away about the injustices piling up in his life, he decides to hunt down the debt owed to him by his old army buddy.

So Norwood leaves Ralph, driving an Olds 98 and hitch-pulling a Pontiac Catalina, both gleaming with fresh new paint. He has a commission from one Grady Fring (“the Kredit King”) to deliver the cars (and an unexpected passenger) to New York and return with another car, his payoff a chance to see the country and $50 in driving fees. Works out good, thinks Norwood, for he has a line on his army buddy who him the $70 – the guy was last heard from in New York. Win-win.

Well, things immediately go sideways, and inside out, and upside down. You have to read this yourself to find out all the many details, but I will tell you that during his travels, Norwood hops a freight train, meets a lot of interesting people, including Mr. Peanut, and the world’s smallest perfect fat man. and a beatnik girl who reads him passages from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet but doesn’t commit herself so far as to go to bed with Norwood, which leaves him mildly disappointed but he gets over it. Along the way he loses his precious cowboy boots – thirty-eight dollars, coal-black 14-inchers with steel shanks and low walking heels, red butterflies inset on the insteps – and he never gets on the Hayride, but he gains a few things, too. Including a college-educated chicken and a lady-love. Could be worse.

I will leave you with one of my favourite snippets from this goofy little book. Here’s Norwood in New York, contemplating tattoos.

There was a tattoo parlor and Norwood looked at the dusty samples in the window. He had a $32.50 black panther rampant on his left shoulder, teeth bared and making little red claw marks on his arm. He had never been happy with it. Something about the eyes, they were not fully open, and the big jungle cat seemed to be yawning instead of snarling. Norwood complained at the time and the tattoo man in San Diego said it wouldn’t look that way after it had scabbed over and healed. Once in Korea he sat down with some matches and a pin and tried to fix the eyes but only made them worse. Many times he wished that he had gotten a small globe and anchor with a serpentine banner under it saying U.S. Marines – First to Fight. To have more than one tattoo was foolishness.

Norwood knows what he thinks.

This was Charles Portis’s first published novel, and it was very well received. Very much a product of its free-wheeling time – and one has to wonder if Mr. Portis was indulging in something illicitly mood-enhancing when he rattled this one off, but it comes together just right, in a we’re just along for the ride sort of way. 

I feel like Norwood is very much a dress rehearsal for 1976’s much longer, more complex, but pleasingly similar The Dog of the South, one of my personal secret treasure books.

Now, your own mileage may vary on Charles Portis. My husband, who shares many but not all of my reading tastes, isn’t a huge fan of either Norwood or The Dog of the South, though he laughs along with me at some of the absolutely deadpan humour. Portis can sure nail inner thoughts and dialogue.

No, he (my husband) is something of a traditionalist – he much prefers Portis’s most well-known and likely most popular book, True Grit. (Yes, this is that Charles Portis.)

Me – I like ’em all. Too bad there are so few. Five novels. Not nearly enough.

My rating: 9/10. It would be a 10, but it’s just too short. So many questions left unanswered!

For the record, this novel was made into a 1970 movie starring Glen Campbell as Norwood. Major liberties were apparently taken to Hollywood-ize it – very likely so Campbell could showcase his musical chops. (He also played and sang on the soundtrack.) Full disclosure: I just watched the first ten minutes of this on YouTube. It was…regrettable. Please read the book first. Or better yet, instead of. (Sorry, Glenn.)

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They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple ~ 1943. This edition: Persephone Books, 2020. Afterword by Celia Brayfield. Softcover. 455 pages.

Three sisters, three marriages.

Dorothy Whipple’s novels of fraught family dynamics are compellingly readable, and this one ramps things up a notch over the others; there is some really dark stuff going on here, including but not limited to psychological spousal and child abuse.

Sounds depressing, doesn’t it?

It is, very much so, though it’s so fascinating in its depictions that one cannot ever quite look away.

It is also a story built around the power of love, and, yes, sometimes the powerlessness of love to “make things better” for the loved ones.

In the years before the Great War, three sisters in a middle-class English family lose their mother too soon. Responsible, highly intelligent, seventeen-year-old Lucy leaves her studies – she’s been preparing for Oxford – and takes on the role of mother-figure to her three brothers and two younger sisters, the sweet natured, trusting thirteen-year-old Charlotte, and the headstrong, volatile and exceptionally beautiful eleven-year-old Vera.

The brothers gain independence swiftly, but the young sisters remain on Lucy’s conscience and in her care; she often feels that there is a great divide between them, the too-soon sedate older sister sometimes cut out of confidences by the younger pair. But by and large things go on quite serenely, until the inevitable heart-stirrings of young love strike.

Lucy, “the plain one”, seated among the chaperones at parties and dances, is rather on the shelf, but Charlotte and Vera are very much sought after, and all three sisters ultimately marry. Charlotte to the self-satisfied, go-getter businessman Geoffrey, one of Vera’s cast-offs, Vera to the self-effacing and wealthy Brian, and Lucy to sedate, much older William, whose keen eyes have noted quiet Lucy’s sterling qualities.

As the years go by, these pairings develop in three vastly differing ways. Charlotte and Vera have children; to her quiet grief Lucy is childless; but they keep in touch as the years march on and Lucy remains watchful over her two sisters and then her nieces and nephew, becoming the perpetual aunt, hosting the children on holidays, and trying hard to not interfere when she sees her sisters making some very poor decisions, some deliberate, some thrust upon them by the situations they find themselves in.

Moral failure or spiritual failure or whatever you call it, makes such a vicious circle… It seems as if when we love people and they fall short, we retaliate by falling shorter ourselves. Children are like that. Adults have a fearful responsibility. When they fail to live up to what children expect of them, the children give up themselves. So each generation keeps failing the next.

Geoffrey, to no one’s surprise but Charlotte’s, proves to be a manipulatively cruel domestic tyrant of epic proportions. Brian, despite holding the purse strings in the marriage, is relegated to shadow-husband as Vera fervently pursues self indulgence. William watches it all with a keen eye and hands-off demeanor, giving quiet support to Lucy as she frets over the troubles she finds Charlotte and Vera enmeshed in.

This is as much plot as we are given; it’s very much a novel about relationships versus large happenings. There are dramatic events, but they are of a small, familial nature, kept as much under the rug as possible due to the need to keep up appearances.

When two of the sisters’ marriages go inevitably wrong, the third one quietly carries on, allowing a small semblance of normalcy for some of the damaged children who are ultimately the innocent victims, the collateral damage of their elders’ decisions and actions.

An intense, unputdownable read. Dorothy Whipple, accomplished documentarian of domestic drama, excels herself here.

My rating: 9/10

From the Persephone Books website:

They Were Sisters is a compulsively readable but often harrowing novel by one of Persephone’s best writers, who always manages to make the ordinary extraordinary,’ writes Celia Brayfield. This, the fourth Dorothy Whipple novel we have republished, is, like the others, apparently gentle but has a very strong theme, in this case domestic violence. Three sisters marry very different men and the choices they make determine whether they will flourish, be tamed or be repressed. Lucy’s husband is her beloved companion; Vera’s husband bores her and she turns elsewhere; and Charlotte’s husband is a bully who turns a high-spirited naive young girl into a deeply unhappy woman.

In the Independent on Sunday Charlie Lee-Potter commented that They Were Sisters ‘exerts a menacing tone from start to finish. I eavesdropped on the lives of Lucy, Charlotte and Vera, compelled to go on but with a sense of simmering dread.’ Salley Vickers in the Spectator described ‘the sparkling achievements of this accomplished novelist, not the least of which is the ability – rarer today than it should be – simply to entertain.’ And Elizabeth Day has called it ‘a powerful portrayal of sisterly relationships and an emotionally coercive marriage.’


They Were Sisters was made into a movie in 1945, starring James Mason as the suavely malignant Geoffrey, and Phyllis Calvert as his abused wife. Movie version described in some detail here. The plot appears to have been altered somewhat, but the essentials of the novel appear to remain true to Whipple’s written version.

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The Feast by Margaret Kennedy ~ 1950. This edition: Faber, 2021. Softcover. 435 pages.

This is going to be my year for reading Margaret Kennedy. I’ve been stalling on her for way too long. Or maybe just keeping her in the wings for a time when I need something a bit extra good?

So. The Feast. I’ll bet most of my regular readers are way ahead of me on this one, at least if the number of reviews I’ve read are a clue. Let me see if I can keep this tidy and not too revealing of the details. Here we go.

Cornwall, 1947. A terrible disaster has just occurred. A section of sea cliff has suddenly collapsed, completely obliterating a small private hotel and all of the people inside it. We know this right up front; we get a look over the shoulder of the local Anglo-Catholic priest who has been tasked with coming up with a sermon for the memorial service. (The victims remain entombed.)

But not everyone who should have been in the hotel perished. There were survivors. Who they were, and who perished, remains a mystery to the reader until the last few pages, and though one finds oneself guessing away like mad, one isn’t quite sure.

Except in my case, for my husband blurted out the ending when he saw me walking past with the book because he thought I’d already read it. It didn’t really ruin my reading experience, because I cried out, “Stop!” and he twigged to the situation and immediately apologized, but I would recommend you treat this one like a good old-fashioned whodunit and don’t try to find too much out about it beforehand.

Here’s all I’ll say:

An eclectic array of guests arrive at the small seaside hotel. Every one of them – including the children – carry with them secrets. As do the owners of the hotel, and the staff. Some of these secrets will be revealed, some won’t, and some are directly responsible for the fates of the secret-bearers on the fatal day of the landslide.

Mysterious enough for you?

I’ll say a bit more, because I didn’t “get” this till after, when I went back to read the foreword. I usually skip forewords – so many spoilers! In this case, it’s really interesting, and adds another layer of guesswork to the reading experience.

Seven of these characters have been crafted by the author to represent one each of the Seven Deadly Sins. We aren’t told this in the narrative, but if you read the introduction by Cathy Rentzenbrink it’s all laid out, and then you get to spend the entire length of the book trying to figure out who is which. Some are easy, some not at all.

Tragic ending aside, this is a very clever and frequently very humorous novel; the awfulness of the worst characters is balanced by the goodness of the best ones.

Highly recommended. My rating: I’m going to give it a 10/10. Enjoy!


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