Posts Tagged ‘Romance’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 6/10.

Front flyleaf blurb, Bodley Head edition:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flyleaf says:

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

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

Elements of Gothic Fiction included:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chicago Review Press blurb:

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

Applying the Gothic Fiction checklist yields some promising results:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My vintage copy is terribly faded. The cover illustration depicts a female figure in long pink gown holding a pink parasol, against the backdrop of a white-columned mansion. (You may need to use your imagination.)

My vintage copy’s cover is terribly faded. The illustration depicts a female figure in long pink gown holding a pink parasol, against the backdrop of a white-columned mansion. (You may need to use your imagination.)

The Little Straw Wife by Margaret Belle Houston ~ 1914. This edition: The H.K. Fly Co., 1914. Illustrated by F. Graham Cootes. Hardcover. 217 pages.

My rating: 6/10

This fluffy vintage romance attracted my attention because it was the very first published novel by a writer I have been keeping an eye out for: Margaret Bell(e) Houston (the “e” of her middle name was dropped on later books), author of a number of romantic-suspense novels such as 1955’s Yonder (scroll way down, I was rather more rambling than usual that day), which I read last year and gave an enthusiastic rating to. (And, oh, look – there’s Phyllis A. Whitney again!)

Houston’s novels are still in a modest sort of circulation, with a number of them available as scanned e-books (see here for TLSW) and as print-on-demand paper books, but the originals are much more interesting to handle and read, especially when they contain illustrations, as this one does, to add to their period charm.

The Little Straw Wife was published in 1914, when the author was 37 years old; a comparatively venerable age for a first novel, it seems to me. (So many published writers seem to start so early, literally in their teens. I wonder what the average age actually is?)

Margaret Belle Houston was to write another dozen or so novels between 1914 and 1958, as well as short stories and poetry. She was something of a local celebrity in her home state of Texas, the partial setting of The Little Straw Wife and most of her other romance/drama/suspense novels.

This novel charges out of the starting gate with a lot of enthusiasm and dash, which is maintained for quite some time, though it gets a mite winded about three-quarters of the way through, and ends up gasping for breath in the final chapters.

We meet our heroine, Zoë, just as she locks herself in her room and kicks off her shoes and plumps herself down on her wedding bouquet. Obviously something is not going well!

Here, read for yourself:

littlestrawwife00housiala_0013littlestrawwife00housiala_0014littlestrawwife00housiala_0015Our heroine is writing this account in her “Honeymoon Diary” – a gift from one of the bridesmaids, a blank book intended to document the joys of the first nuptial excursion. Instead it is being used to record the reasons behind the bride’s refusal to go through with things – albeit just an hour or two later than the usual cold-feet-at-the-altar cut-and-run.

Apparently Zoë feels that she has married her groom under false pretenses, and she can see nothing for it but to call the whole thing off. The upshot of it all is that she begs her groom to go off on the honeymoon voyage all alone, while she herself attempts to establish her independence away from Aunt Emmeline, who has made no secret of the fact that Zoë is no longer welcome under the familial roof.

Then we are treated to a rather nicely done flashback, as our narrator relates her history, and how she came to be in the situation now before us.

So far, quite enjoyable stuff, and as Zoë goes off to make her way in the world, with her cast-off groom lingering benignly(?) in the shadows waiting for her to come to her senses, the tale unfolds intriguingly, as Zoë casts herself on the hospitality of an old school chum and proceeds to attempt to enter the work force.

Once our Zoë, after a number of false starts, is settled into a suitable occupation – social secretary for an ambitious nouveau riche Texas ex-ranch wife – the tale begins to shed some of its charm, as it turns into what can only be described as a mushy romance. It’s still frequently sweet and funny, and the heroine still has us on her side, keeping us smiling at her odd personal decisions and indecisive agonizings to Dear Diary, but an immense tidal wave of coincidence and Had-I-But-Known drenches this initially clever story in utter cliché. The ending made me blush deeply. It was absolutely too good to be true, all over I-love-you-darlings and happy-ever-afters. Oh dear!

Well, for a first novel it shows a decently polished style, and the woes of Zoë in her quest for financial independence are feelingly portrayed. There is a strong vein of humour throughout; some of the diary entries are a comedic joy to read. If it weren’t for those last few romance-novel chapters, this would be such a thing of joy in general.

As it is, it’s still a fun vintage read despite its almost-fatally-flawed degeneration near the end. I’m glad I went to the trouble of tracking down in the paper, as it were, but I can’t give it a terribly enthusiastic recommendation as a must-read, because it is just too much of a period piece in its ultimate clichés to be truly top notch as a modern reading experience.

My advice, if one is interested, is to try this one gratis in its online e-book version. This scanned edition includes all of the Cootes illustrations, and is as close to reading the original as one can get without shelling out one’s hard-earned dollars for the real thing. Probably not a keeper, unless one is intrigued enough by the progress of Margaret Belle Houston to want to have a full set of her works on the shelf.

I have several more of Houston’s later novels waiting to be read: Bride’s Island (1957) and Cottonwoods Grow Tall (1958), both of which were published after the very acceptable Yonder, and both of which appear to have received good reviews in their time.

I am anticipating some enjoyable reading from these, but am waiting for that elusive “right mood” to strike. I am saving them for a treat, I hasten to assure you, so that will tell you how I really view Margaret Bell(e) Houston’s writing from my small experience of her – full of promise and most likely to prove highly diverting.

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Tthe etruscan smile velda johnston 001he Etruscan Smile by Velda Johnston ~ 1977. This edition: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1977. Hardcover. 181 pages.

My rating: 6/10

I had read several of Velda Johnston’s mildly thrilling and sometimes simplistic “novels of suspense” before, so had tempered my expectations for The Etruscan Smile accordingly.

1975’s A Room with Dark Mirrors generally pleased me; the period detail of the heroine’s stewardess career and the doesn’t-miss-a-beat flow of the story kept me engaged enough to award it a thumbs-up and a 5.5 rating.

The Girl on the Beach, 1987, felt rather more awkward in plot and style; the author was a quite venerable 75 years old when it was published, and I theorized that perhaps she feeling rather tired of the whole writing-a-book thing. I panned the Beach Girl badly, mentioned that I was almost ready to cross Velda Johnston off my “light reading” list, and gave her a dismissive rating of 4.

Two years have passed, and the memory of my disappointing second encounter with the author has faded; enough so that when I came across this novel recently I was moved to give her another chance. And I am happy that I did; The Etruscan Smile was nicely done for its sort of thing, and reading it was no hardship at all.

A perfect sort of book for a waiting room sojourn; engaging but not challenging. It rocketed right along, and handed me a few surprises in the way of plotting that I wasn’t expecting, though I’m not quite sure that these worked out story-wise all that well. I did give the writer points for creativity; I could tell where she was going and the big picture she was attempting to embroider, even if she dropped her threads a bit here and there.

Mary Stewart this soundly second-rank writer isn’t, though there are bits here and there which remind me favourably of Stewart’s style. Our heroine is nicely independent and capable; but she does end up in the arms of a man, and one that she hasn’t known terribly long or particularly well – a favourite Mary Stewart closing scenario. Those brushes with death do tend to speed along romantic acquaintanceship, is all I can assume.

And I found this much more readable than anything I’ve experienced by Phyllis A. Whitney (see my last post, wherein I hand poor Phyllis her walking papers out of my personal book collection), though Velda Johnston was nowhere near as prolific or (apparently) as popular. Still, she (Velda) did manage to produce something like 35 romantic suspense novels, and so far out of the three I’ve read two have been acceptable; she’s now back on my list of promising minor writers, though I won’t be searching her out specially or paying more than bargain basement prices for any more of her books that I come across in my travels.

So – the actual storyline of The Etruscan Smile. Here it is, such as it is.

Samantha Develin has flown to Italy from New York, accompanied by her devoted German Shepherd, Caesar. Samantha has just learned that her older sister,  Althea, an accomplished artist who has gained a certain reputation as a painter-to-watch, has unaccountably vanished from the small rented farmhouse she has been living in for the past several years. No one seems to know where Althea has gone; the assumption is that she is off with a man; but Samantha immediately finds some clues that her beloved sister may not have planned her departure in a typical fashion.

A dashing Italian count – an old flame of Althea’s – appears out of the blue and puts himself rather unexpectedly at Samantha’s service. Another of Althea’s ex-lovers, an English archeologist, living close by, makes himself conspicuous by his continued presence, zipping in silently on his bicycle at the oddest hours of day and night.

These two men in particular and, to a lesser degree, everyone else she questions regarding Althea’s recent activities are rather cagy and evasive; everyone obviously knows something that they’re not divulging to Althea’s little sister. But what?

Samantha persists in her quest to track down her sister, and she soon comes to sense that perhaps something rather final has happened to Althea, though there is no evidence to support an act of violence or misadventure. Samantha must revisit her own past to unravel the tangled web which her sister had become bound up in; what she discovers is more bizarre than she (or we) could ever have imagined…

A hidden statue of an ancient Etruscan goddess plays an important role in the quest for Althea and the climactic scene; kudos to the author for not doing the expected with that particular clichéd suspense novel scenario. And kudos as well for not making everything all sunshine and light and picturesque Italian travelogue; there are some darkish situations in this short novel which add a certain depth to what could have been pure fluff. And the dog was a nice touch, and well portrayed. (Total super-dog; too good to be true, really. Hint: one may require a Kleenex near the end.)

An adequately engaging story to while away an hour or two on a summer afternoon; a long lunch hour today was sufficient to polish this one off. I must confess that the strongest impulse I felt upon completion was to revisit one of Mary Stewart’s Greek novels, to enjoy the next level up in this particular cozy-escape-lit genre.

 

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the gabriel hounds coronet mary stewartThe Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart ~ 1967. This edition: Coronet, 1974. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-04353-9. 256 pages.

Oh. My. Goodness. This was utterly over-the-top, and if it had been written by anyone lesser (say Phyllis A. Whitney) I would have savagely panned it. But I’ve now embraced this author fully, and therefore completely forgave her the bizarre plot and the very weird and unlikely “drugging” scenes. (And the slightly ick-inducing cousinly love.)

Drum roll, please (or you may substitute the snarl of an accelerating Porsche engine here) …

My rating: 9.5/10

Loved it.

Okay, this isn’t even going to be a “proper” review, because I want you to come to it with no idea of where the plot would go, like I did. I will instead throw out these teasers. This story contains:

  • A lovely, unapologetically wealthy, 22-year-old sophisticated world traveller as the heroine.
  • An eccentric old lady who has completely channeled Lady Hester Stanhope and has created her own legend in a decaying Lebanese castle.
  • A ne’er-do-well young Englishman, handsome and intelligent but fatally weak-willed, who has gotten into a situation very much over his head; perks being the privilege of enjoying the favours of a dusky local maiden and galloping about the countryside on a beautiful Arab horse, accompanied by two gorgeous saluki hounds.
  • A scene in which the heroine unwittingly (???) smokes three “marihuana” cigarettes and only succumbs to their “self-will erasing effect” until the end of the third one, after which she is unable to walk and is carried away giggling.
  • A dastardly villain who eventually confesses absolutely EVERYTHING in a long, rambling monologue.
  • A handsome young man who can scale steep cliffs (and crumbling castle walls) without benefit of climbing gear, and who (bonus feature!) drives a white Porsche 911 S with utter aplomb and finesse.
  • Oh, and a fabulously unique and valuable ruby ring, which no one of the evil-doers seems to be able to recognize for what it is. (Among other priceless heirlooms which they casually dismiss and bundle away as “junk”. Hmmm, not quite as sophisticated as all that, then, these out-for-the-main-chance types.)

There. How can one resist all of that? And there’s more. Oh yes, much, much more!

Enjoy!

Couldn't find a white Porsche 911 S, but here's a 1966 in an elegant shade of sand, suitably posed against a Mediterranean-looking setting. How'd you like to tootle about the Levant driving this?

Couldn’t find a white 1966 Porsche 911 S, but here’s one in an elegant shade of cream, suitably posed against a Mediterranean-looking setting. How’d you like to tootle about the Levant driving this?

 

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the blue sapphire d e stevenson 001The Blue Sapphire by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1963. This edition: Collins, 1963. Hardcover. 320 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Yesterday’s post was all supercilious and disapproving of D.E. Stevenson’s 1969 novel Gerald and Elizabeth, but happily I am able to balance that with a much more enthusiastic opinion of this also far-fetched but charmingly engaging 1963 effort.

There are several parallels between the two stories, which makes their comparison and my views of one as “good” (The Blue Sapphire) and the other as “not-very-good” (Gerald and Elizabeth) an interesting micro-study in perception and the ambiguities of personal taste. I won’t delve any more deeply into this aspect of these two books, but will zip right into a brief discussion of the book itself.

Dust jacket blurb:

The blue sapphire is a gem which the Ancients called the hyacinthus and which Solinus described as ‘a gem which feels the influence of the air and sympathises with the heavens and does not shine equally if the sky is cloudy or bright’.

On a beautiful spring day, Julia Harburn sat on a seat in Kensington Gardens enjoying the sunshine. She was wearing a white frock and a large straw hat with a sapphire-blue ribbon which exactly matched her eyes – a strange coincidence, as it turned out, for the blue sapphire was to have a far-reaching influence upon her life. So far, her life had been somewhat dull and circumscribed; but quite suddenly her horizons were enlarged. She began to make new friends – and enemies – and she began to discover new strength and purpose in her own nature. This development of her character led her into strange adventures, some amusing, others full of sorrow and distress. The story is itself a blue sapphire story, of clouds and sunshine.

As pretty Julia sits on her park bench waiting for her tardy fiancé Morland to appear for their teatime rendezvous, she is increasingly worried that she will be “annoyed” by the numerous questionable masculine types who have started closing in on her, like hopeful jackals surrounding a tender little gazelle. Luckily a rescuer appears in the person of tall, handsome and very forthcoming Stephen Brett, newly arrived in London after some years away in South Africa overseeing a gemstone mining operation. At first Julia snubs the friendly Stephen, but she soon warms to his innocent cheerfulness, and the two part on mutually appreciative terms just as Morland grumpily hoves into view.

Julia is waiting to break some rather big news to Morland. She has decided to move out of her father’s house and find a job and take a room in a boarding house. Some years ago Julia’s mother had died, and her new stepmother, while not at all cruel, is making it increasingly obvious that she would be happier if she were the only woman in the household.

Morland loftily dismisses Julia’s intentions of independence, but she holds firm, eventually ending up in an attic room in the fabulously Victorian-styled boarding house of the inestimable Miss Martineau, ex-actress and current patroness to “resting” theatrical folk. Miss Martineau takes a shine to Julia, and sets her up in a job at a posh hat shop, where Julia proceeds to thrive, becoming a very special chum to her new boss, the ex-Parisian Madame Claire, to the deep resentment of Julia’s several jealous co-workers.

Meanwhile Stephen Brett pops in and out of Julia’s life, adding some much-needed good humour and friendliness as Julia finds her way as a working girl and tries to cope with Morland’s moodiness and reluctance to set a date for their marriage. Stephen is embroiled in a complicated situation involving a potential sapphire mine back in South Africa; he finds relief from his worries in his growing friendship with Julia.

A turning point in the plot occurs as Julia receives a letter from her father’s estranged brother in Scotland, begging Julia to come and see him before he dies. Off she goes, against Morland’s advice, to find in her Uncle Randal the loving relationship she has never been able to attain with her own father. But Uncle Randal is declining rapidly, and it seems as though Julia will tragically lose him just when she has found him…

Stopping right here, because this is a sweet story which you will want to finish up for yourself. D.E. Stevenson is in her usual form, mixing unlikely scenarios with sunny-natured heroines, grumpy-but-ultimately-innocuous villains, salt-of-the-earth old family retainers, and a knight-in-shining-armour (or two) who appear(s) at just the right time.

The mixture-as-usual, but just what is needed in a book of this gentle genre. Highly recommended to those of you who like this sort of thing; everyone else, tactfully glance away!

Another Look Book liked it, too. As did Claire and Susan, who recommended it to me in the comments to my last year’s post about this other DES, also featuring the incorrigibly snoopy but divinely maternal Miss Martineau, 1966’s The House on the Cliff.

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gerald and elizabeth d e stevenson 001Gerald and Elizabeth by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1969. This edition: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969. Hardcover. ISBN: 03-066555-8. 245 pages.

My rating: 4/10

I hadn’t noticed a lot of discussion regarding this mild romance-suspense novel by the generally esteemed D.E. Stevenson in my online travels, and as it seemed to be widely available and very reasonably priced (for a DES book) in the second-hand book trade, I rather wondered why.

Well, I wonder no longer. The answer appears quite clear. It is my humble opinion that this book is not very good, and DES fans are keeping a discreet silence, spending their reviewing energies instead on the author’s top end novels.

While it’s sufficiently readable to keep one’s interest gently engaged, and there are charming passages and likeable characters galore, the whole thing is something of a stretch in numerous ways, even allowing for the DES formula of everyone ending up romantically paired up with all “mysteries” neatly resolved.

Dust jacket blurb:

Gerald Brown is young, good-looking, personable, but he holds himself aloof from the other passengers aboard the Ariadne, a small passenger ship returning to London from Cape Town, South Africa. In fact, his behavior is so extremely antisocial that he appears on deck only late at night, rarely venturing from his cabin during the day. Something is troubling him deeply, something that happened while he was working as an engineer in a Cape Town diamond mine that has left him spent and hopeless.

After the Ariadne docks in London, Gerald, desperately in need of a job, decides to contact his sister, the beautiful and famous actress, Elizabeth Burleigh, whose current play is the hit of the London theater season. As he reveals to her his haunting past in South Africa, he learns that she too is suffering, that behind her facade of gaiety and sophistication lurks a nagging suspicion about her mental health that is threatening to destroy her career and her love affair as well.

What are the forces that seem bent on these destroying these young people who have so much to live for? Can the mysteries surrounding their lives be solved – and in time to prevent irreversible consequences?

D.E. Stevenson reveals the answers to these questions in a way that will hold her thousands of fans breathless until the very end…

A glaringly obvious diamond-theft frame-up has our hero fleeing the gossip and speculative glances of South Africa to end up under the protective wing of his older half-sister Elizabeth, star of a rather goofy-sounding London stage play – Elizabeth plays a princess from the planet Venus marooned on Earth, to the delight of the hypothetical crowds who pack each performance during the play’s astoundingly successful run.

But all is not well in Elizabeth’s world either. Though feted by the all and vigorously courted by a kind, handsome and wealthy Scottish shipyard owner, Elizabeth fears that she has inherited the “melancholia” which plagued her long-deceased mother. How can she marry with such a doom hanging over her head? – for naturally it will be passed along to her own children!

As Gerald seeks to make a new start he also strives to delve into the background of Elizabeth’s mother, hoping to make some sort of discovery which will ease his sister’s worries and smooth the rocky path of her romance.

A wartime bombing raid on the night Elizabeth was born and an enterprising maternity nurse hold the key to the actress’s future happiness, and the events surrounding her birth are as spectacularly far-fetched as D.E. Stevenson’s conception of mental illness. Shades of the bizarre insanity scenario of Rochester’s Wife, published thirty years earlier, made me cringe in readerly discomfort for the author’s lack of research and her apparent clinging to archaic superstitions.

The mysteries aren’t very mysterious, and the characters never truly come to life. The author could and did do much better in many of her other novels. In my eyes, this is a book to round out one’s DES collection, but otherwise I feel that it is without a lot of merit. Please don’t give it to a neophyte Dessie; it might endanger one’s contention that this is indeed an author to spend time and energy tracking down!

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riders of the purple sage zane grey personal copy 001Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey ~ 1912. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, circa 1920s. Illustrations by Douglas Duer. Hardcover. 335 pages.

My rating: 3.5/10

Oh, Lassiter, you big black-clad gun-slinging hero of this desperately romantic book, if I ever find it within me to start to read this one again, please rise up off the printed page, leap off your amazing blind horse, unholster your big black pistol, and shoot me right away. Don’t just nick a lung, like your buddy Venters did to the virginally beautiful Bess as she trotted past his desperate hideout garbed in her Masked Rider’s disguise, but kill me outright, same as you did Mormon Bishop Dyer, despoiler of your late sister and destroyer of her happy marriage. Except maybe don’t shoot me in the arms first, as you did him, before blasting five more holes in his chest. Just aim for my heart, and make it quick.

Gar. What a book. Wow.

So bad.

What was I thinking?

Oh, yeah, that whole “classic of American literature and mold-maker of the classic Western genre” thing.

I’m not even going to touch the Important Book for Various Reasons argument, but am going to go instead to Pleasure of Reading for a Modern Reader. (Meaning me.) Did I enjoy this book? Mostly, no. The novelty of the plushly purple prose paled quickly, and despite the campy sense of irony I felt as I doggedly waded through the story it wasn’t enough to make it an acceptably good experience.

It’s 1871 in Utah, and the Mormons are well-established, top-dogging it marvellously well with their polygamous colonies headed by manly men wedded to legions of willing wives. So when rich Mormon rancher’s daughter Jane Withersteen spurns the advances of the man chosen for her by the local Mormon bishop and insists on carrying on with her charity to the impoverished Gentile (blanket term for anyone non-Mormon) families of the area and her hiring of Gentile riders to care for her seven thousand head of range cattle, events start to escalate.

riders purple sage zane grey old djJust as Jane’s chief Gentile Rider, Venters, is about to be hauled off by a posse of Mormons, fate in the guise of black-clad, gun-slinging, Mormon-hating Lassiter arrives in the nick of time. The Mormons withdraw muttering, to go off and devise clever plans of revenge and sabotage against uppish Jane, while she enjoys (for a while) the loving devotion of two passionate men. (Venters and Lassiter.)

“Then I’ll have you whipped within an inch of your life,” replied Tull, harshly. “I’ll turn you out in the sage. And if you ever come back you’ll get worse.”

Venters’s agitated face grew coldly set and the bronze changed to gray.

Jane impulsively stepped forward. “Oh! Elder Tull!” she cried. “You won’t do that!”

Tull lifted a shaking finger toward her.

“That’ll do from you. Understand, you’ll not be allowed to hold this boy to a friendship that’s offensive to your Bishop. Jane Withersteen, your father left you wealth and power. It has turned your head. You haven’t yet come to see the place of Mormon women. We’ve reasoned with you, borne with you. We’ve patiently waited. We’ve let you have your fling, which is more than I ever saw granted to a Mormon woman. But you haven’t come to your senses. Now, once for all, you can’t have any further friendship with Venters. He’s going to be whipped, and he’s got to leave Utah!”

“Oh! Don’t whip him! It would be dastardly!” implored Jane, with slow certainty of her failing courage.

Tull always blunted her spirit, and she grew conscious that she had feigned a boldness which she did not possess. He loomed up now in different guise, not as a jealous suitor, but embodying the mysterious despotism she had known from childhood—the power of her creed.

Lots of stuff then happens, most of it involving the Mormons and Jane’s Gentile champions plus an independent gang of rustlers shooting at each other (frequently fatally), stealing cattle and prize racehorses, befriending a cute little orphan four-year-old (“Duz oo wuv me, Muvver Jane?”), finding a secret hidden valley and thousand-year-old abandoned cliff dwellings (an enjoyable interlude which added on a point or two to my brutally low rating), panning for gold (“washing” gold, nice topical reference), ambushing, wounding and restoring to life a lovely young girl disguised as a boy cattle rustler, charging about on various noble steeds including Lassiter’s original blind steed (who perishes tragically), two black Arabians (Jane and Lassiter) and a rugged yet awesomely sturdy and fast range horse (Wrangle, ridden by Venters) who in turn is stolen by a bad guy and ends up being shot by his loving owner in order to ensure the demise of the bad guy rider.

And much else.

This is a very multi-stranded story with lots going on, and you have to hand it to Zane Grey, he deserves credit for being ambitious with his intentions.

Here’s another snippet of the text:

He lifted her—what a light burden now!—and stood her upright beside him, and supported her as she essayed to walk with halting steps. She was like a stripling of a boy; the bright, small head scarcely reached his shoulder. But now, as she clung to his arm, the rider’s costume she wore did not contradict, as it had done at first, his feeling of her femininity. She might be the famous Masked Rider of the uplands, she might resemble a boy; but her outline, her little hands and feet, her hair, her big eyes and tremulous lips, and especially a something that Venters felt as a subtle essence rather than what he saw, proclaimed her sex.

Western garb and setting aside, Riders of the Purple Sage is purely an über-traditional romance, and the two female love interests – Jane Withersteen and ex-Masked Rider Bess – are both , despite their brief moments of sturdy independence – Jane in standing up to her Church, and Bess in her mastery of horsemanship –  at heart simpering girly-girls all a-dither with love for their manly men, whom they then order hither and yon with feminine whimsy. The menfolk, being blinded by Love, trot willingly to and fro, breaking out occasionally (“Sorry, lost my temper and killed your dad”) and being instantly forgiven (“That’s okay, he wasn’t my real dad, even if he raised me from a tiny baby and gave me total love and devotion and protected me from the wicked men who sought to ruin me and gave me a proper education and everything”) and generally being tweaked about on silken leading strings.

riders purple sage zane grey old illustrated coverAnd despite spending weeks alone with each other – Lassiter and Jane holed up in the ranch house, Venters and Bess in the hidden valley – the most physical they get with each other is the occasional embrace (with the men nobly holding themselves back from the passions engendered by contact with the heaving breasts of the beloved) and a few rather chaste kisses. These guys (and gals) were made of steel! This is romantic fiction at its best, all heaving bosoms and blushes and occasional fainting and manly-passion-held-in-check just a-waiting for a woman’s word and the arrival of a preacher man to hold a marriage ceremony before going any further.

Oh, yes. And then there’s all the “western” dialect:

The rider thundered up and almost threw his foam-flecked horse in the sudden stop. He was a giant form, and with fearless eyes.

“Judkins, you’re all bloody!” cried Jane, in affright. “Oh, you’ve been shot!”

“Nothin’ much Miss Withersteen. I got a nick in the shoulder. I’m some wet an’ the hoss’s been throwin’ lather, so all this ain’t blood.”

“What’s up?” queried Venters, sharply.

“Rustlers sloped off with the red herd.”

“Where are my riders?” demanded Jane.

“Miss Withersteen, I was alone all night with the herd. At daylight this mornin’ the rustlers rode down. They began to shoot at me on sight. They chased me hard an’ far, burnin’ powder all the time, but I got away.”

And the reams of descriptive prose. You can certainly tell that Zane Grey got his start writing pulp fiction which was paid for by the word, because he does pack them in.

Venters … went to the edge of the terrace, and there halted to survey the valley.

He was prepared to find it larger than his unstudied glances had made it appear; for more than a casual idea of dimensions and a hasty conception of oval shape and singular beauty he had not had time. Again the felicity of the name he had given the valley struck him forcibly. Around the red perpendicular walls, except under the great arc of stone, ran a terrace fringed at the cliff-base by silver spruces; below that first terrace sloped another wider one densely overgrown with aspens, and the center of the valley was a level circle of oaks and alders, with the glittering green line of willows and cottonwood dividing it in half. Venters saw a number and variety of birds flitting among the trees. To his left, facing the stone bridge, an enormous cavern opened in the wall; and low down, just above the tree-tops, he made out a long shelf of cliff-dwellings, with little black, staring windows or doors. Like eyes they were, and seemed to watch him. The few cliff-dwellings he had seen—all ruins—had left him with haunting memory of age and solitude and of something past. He had come, in a way, to be a cliff-dweller himself, and those silent eyes would look down upon him, as if in surprise that after thousands of years a man had invaded the valley. Venters felt sure that he was the only white man who had ever walked under the shadow of the wonderful stone bridge, down into that wonderful valley with its circle of caves and its terraced rings of silver spruce and aspens.

The dog growled below and rushed into the forest. Venters ran down the declivity to enter a zone of light shade streaked with sunshine. The oak-trees were slender, none more than half a foot thick, and they grew close together, intermingling their branches. Ring came running back with a rabbit in his mouth. Venters took the rabbit and, holding the dog near him, stole softly on. There were fluttering of wings among the branches and quick bird-notes, and rustling of dead leaves and rapid patterings. Venters crossed well-worn trails marked with fresh tracks; and when he had stolen on a little farther he saw many birds and running quail, and more rabbits than he could count. He had not penetrated the forest of oaks for a hundred yards, had not approached anywhere near the line of willows and cottonwoods which he knew grew along a stream. But he had seen enough to know that Surprise Valley was the home of many wild creatures.

This is a dreadfully silly “review”, but as the internet abounds with discussion of this book, I’m going to quit right here.

I read the thing from cover to cover, I muttered to myself and to my family, I rolled my eyes, I mused over the novel’s place in the American historical literary canon, and I am now ready to gently shelve it way high up and move along. It had its pleasurable moments, duly noted, but it’s ultimately not the book for me.

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