Posts Tagged ‘Yawn’

the sea-gull cry robert nathan 001The Sea-Gull Cry by Robert Nathan ~ 1942. This edition: Knopf, 1942. Softcover, with French flaps. First edition. 214 pages.

My rating: 3/10

A short, lightweight novella by the onetime-popular Robert Nathan. I confess that I have in the past read and quite enjoyed his most famous publication, 1940’s Portrait of Jennie (see condensed spoiler-laden précis here), but The Sea-Gull Cry is infinitely more sentimental, and, to be brutally honest, not particularly memorable, either in plot or in execution.

Nineteen-year-old Louisa and her seven-year-old brother Jeri are refugees newly in America, from war-torn Poland via England. Children of an English mother and a Polish nobleman, they are in reality a countess and count, but the family castle has been bombed, leaving their mother interned forever in its rubble, while Papa has perished defending his country against the evil German invaders.

Louisa and Jeri are bravely making a new sort of life for themselves. Desiring to get out of the crowded American city they arrived at some short time ago, they have taken their refugee relief money and are looking for a place to live along the seaside for the summer. They make it to Cape Cod, where they fall in with a gruff-mannered but hearts-of-gold older couple, the Baghots, who rent them an abandoned scow beached on an isolated stretch of sand.

Onto this strip of sand precipitously arrives one “Smith”, a jaded, middle-aged history teacher, (and a not very experienced sailor), who has just purchased an old sloop with the view to cruising up and down the coast for the summer, to escape from the stress of his unsatisfying job and the pervasive gloom of the situation in Europe. (The story is set just before American entry into World War II.)

Smith is caught up in a squall and violently beaches his boat, putting an end to his summer plans. But when he meets lovely Louisa he is immediately smitten; even more so when she pops out of her faded blue overalls to swim in a teeny tiny homemade bikini. Smith feels that maybe life isn’t so dull after all…but wait…why would Louisa look at a man old enough to be her father…?

Maybe because she is seeking something of a father-substitute, a romantically-older man?

It takes them a few chapters to get it all worked out, chapters in which small Jeri provides a side plot as he fights with the local children, makes friends with the Baghots’ young niece Meg, and has a brush with death as he sets out to sea with Meg on an old raft, seeking to sail back to Europe to rescue “the children” from the conflict.

Aw, how sweet.

Sure.

A little of that goes a very long way, and luckily this was a lightning fast read, being presented by the publisher with a large font, immense margins, and thick paper. It clocks in at 214 pages, but could probably quite happily fit onto 50 or so. (One speculates therefore that this was before any sort of wartime paper restrictions hit the American publishing market.)

That’s it; that’s the story; well whitewashed with slosh.

I don’t quite get Robert Nathan’s obvious popularity in his time, because this was pretty sub-par stuff in the great scheme of literature-of-the time, unless it was as a writer of escape-lit-light for the stressed-out housewives of the 1940s and 50s. The Sea-Gull’s Cry seems the sort of thing that would be found serialized in the Good Housekeeping type of magazine of the day.

A contemporary review by Rose Feld of The New York Times had this to say:

‘The Sea-Gull Cry’ tells a tale that will hold you until the last page is turned. It will hold you because of Nathan’s rare art of drawing you into his own mood of tender contemplation of human beings and because you cannot let them go until you know what happens to them… And you will decide that this is more than a tender little love story exquisitely written; that it is a tale of exile and valor and spiritual rebellion that has more than surface significance.

I suspect I am myself a bit too jaded and cynical to really appreciate this sort of fiction; I find myself lifting an eyebrow when I read these other quotes by the author himself regarding his authorial motivation:

What I really want is to give comfort to people in this wilderness of death and trouble. And to myself, too. So, when I can, I take the poison and hate out of my books; but I hate, just the same. I hate violence, and tyranny, and vulgarity. I hate despair and destruction, and the writers who insist that that is all there is, there isn’t anything else.

and

It seems to me that I have always wanted to say the same things in my books: that life is one, that mystery is all around us, that yesterday, today and tomorrow are all spread out in the pattern of eternity, together, and that although love may wear many faces in the incomprehensible panorama of time, in the heart that loves it is always the same.

Fair enough; Nathan’s readers obviously responded to his style.

As you can see from my brutal rating, I didn’t.

 

 

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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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a safety match ian hay penguin cover 1938 001A Safety Match by Ian Hay ~ 1911. This edition: Penguin, 1938. Paperback. 256 pages.

My rating: 3/10

Oh, Century of Books. You are leading me down some strange byways of reading…

Some days ago I wrote with some enthusiasm about a rather charming vintage book by Herbert Jenkins, Patricia Brent, Spinster. I was careful in my review not to reveal the key plot points and the ending, because I felt that this was a book that would reward discovery by a modern-day reader. I am very sad to say that today’s book will not be rewarded the same treatment, because it disappointed me immensely.

Sharp-eyed readers will notice the mending tape on the bottom left hand corner of the book pictured here. That was me. Usually I am very careful about my mending of older books, aiming for non-obtrusive fixes, but in this case I just slapped a piece of Magic tape on there and called it good enough. The whole spine is loose and the text block only just hanging on by a whisp or two of paper – almost as if at some point a previous reader gave this one the toss across the room. Hmmm… (Okay, maybe I’m just being really snarky.)

So, yes, there will be spoilers in the next few paragraphs. (And I’m keeping it shortish, because it’s really not worth spending any more time on.)

It all starts off promisingly enough. Here we have a vicarage family, the widowed Rector Brian Vereker, and his lovely children – literally lovely, as they are famed for their good looks among the local villagers – nineteen-year-old Daphne, doorstepping down through Sebastian Aloysius (“Ally”), Monica Cecila (“Cilly”), Stephen (“Stiffy”), Veronica Elizabeth (“Nicky”) to to the youngest, eleven-year-old Tony. A lively lot they all are, and we are treated to a prolonged domestic interlude which sets up the characters quite nicely, and gives a rather charming picture of English upper-middle-class home life – for the Rector is the youngest son of a youngest son of a peer of the realm –  in the early years of the 20th Century.

Then an abrupt change of scene to a room full of coal mine owners as they meet with labour union leaders in order to negotiate a way out of a possible workers’ strike. Here we become acquainted with our main masculine character, one Lord Carr, also known by his nickname of “Juggernaut” for his overbearing success in always proving his point and coming out on top. In this case Juggernaut succeeds in quelling the potential strike, knocking down the ineffectual union leaders and getting in a few digs about free enterprise and every-man-for-himself-ism which sound forbiddingly close to the spoutings of the far-Right political parties of our current age – not much doubt as to our author’s feelings throughout this book, I’ afraid – he does rather slant towards his brusque hero’s view.

The set-up is to introduce the rather-much-older (forty-five-ish) Lord Carr to the eldest vicarage daughter, the sweet-nineteen Daphne. For of course Lord Carr and Rector Vereker are old school chums, and after squashing the labour uprising in the area, Lord Carr is quite happy to spend a few weeks relaxing among the Vereker clan, where he falls in inarticulate but sincere love with Daphne.

The two marry, Juggernaut for love and Daphne for money – she is motivated by a desire to secure the futures of her brothers and sisters – and for a few years all is quite content. A son is born to Lord and Lady Carr, but as the child grows it becomes apparent that the marriage is, if not actively struggling, becoming a rather pathetic thing. Lord Carr is unable to speak his feelings of devotion to Daphne; she in turn is starting to turn to other companions for amusement, including Lord Carr’s devoted right hand man.

This gets us in quite decent style to the latter bit of the book, where the author completely goes to pieces and gets all darkly dramatic. Daphne and Juggernaut part ways, Daphne fleeing to the old family home with the baby and Juggernaut staying broodingly in London. While they are parted, it dawns on Daphne that perhaps she really does love her masterful though stoic husband, and a reconciliation is affected by way of the right hand man’s revealing that Juggernaut is really just a big softie, supplying food and comforts to the wives and children during the last coal mine strike. “I never knew!” cries Daphne, and she flies to her husband’s sturdy breast, to be clasped there with fervor.

But wait! There’s more!

The workers at the local coal mine go on a wildcat strike, and as a result the workings are sabotaged, resulting in a cave-in which traps a number of our side characters, including Right Hand Man. Juggernaut is front and centre of the rescue mission, and (sob!) is blinded by an explosion after he has personally seen all of the rescued men to safety.

Fast forward a year or two to a scene of domestic bliss, Juggernaut and Daphne all sappily happy with their adorable wee children, love restored and blind Pappa the centre of a scene of cozy cuteness.

66 years after its first publication, the one-and-only Barbara Cartland  decides that "A Safety Match" is a good addition to her "Library of Love".

66 years after its first publication, the one-and-only Barbara Cartland decides that “A Safety Match” is a good addition to her 1977  “Library of Love”. I am saddened, but not surprised.

What a dreadfully clichéd story. No wonder it was picked up and condensed by Barbara Cartland for her 1977 “Library of Love.”

This novel made me prickly all over. It started out so well, and had so many nice domestic and period details, that I hoped right up until those last few chapters that it would go in a different direction, but nope! – no such luck. It just dissolved into mushy sweetness. Absolutely, deeply, offensively, sugary, syrupy adorableness. Argh.

Not recommended, but if you are very brave and wish to look for yourself, here it is on Gutenberg.

The Safety Match by Ian Hay

Ian Hay, by the way, was quite a well-respected writer of his time. Here is his biography, pasted directly in from Wikipedia. As the man could undoubtedly write, in a modestly competent way, I do find myself curious as to some of his other works, in particular the war-themed The First Hundred Thousand. But as for The Safety Match, I wouldn’t open that again at gunpoint.

Major General John Hay Beith, CBE, (17 April 1876 – 22 September 1952), was a British schoolmaster and soldier, but he is best remembered as a novelist, playwright, essayist and historian who wrote under the pen name Ian Hay.

After reading Classics at Cambridge, Beith became a schoolmaster. In 1907 he published a novel, Pip; its success and that of several more novels enabled him to give up teaching in 1912 to be a full-time author. During the First World War, Beith served as an officer in the army in France. His good-humoured account of army life, The First Hundred Thousand, published in 1915, was a best-seller. On the strength of this, he was sent to work in the information section of the British War Mission in Washington, D.C.

After the war Beith’s novels did not achieve the popularity of his earlier work, but he made a considerable career as a dramatist, writing light comedies, often in collaboration with other authors including P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton. During the Second World War Beith served as Director of Public Relations at the War Office, retiring in 1941 shortly before his 65th birthday.

Among Beith’s later works were several war histories, which were not as well received as his comic fiction and plays. His one serious play, Hattie Stowe (1947), was politely reviewed but had a short run. In the same year he co-wrote a comedy, Off the Record, which ran for more than 700 performances.

I did a fairly thorough internet search, and came up with only one other blog review, from Only Two Rs, whose take was similar to my own.

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Installment 3 in the 2013 Round-Up takes a melancholy look at some books which just didn’t do it for me.

Still to come, Installment 4 highlighting some books which really hit the spot: Personal Favourites of 2013.

*****

MOST DISAPPOINTING READS ~ 2013

In absolutely random order.

*****

the chamomile lawn mary wesley1. The Chamomile Lawn 

by Mary Wesley ~ 1984

The Chamomile Lawn became a bestseller when it was first published in the 1980s, and much was made of the fact that the author, Mary Wesley, who apparently based much of the wartime narrative on her own experiences, was over seventy when it was released. A popular television mini-series broadcast in 1992 brought the novel to a much wider notoriety.

I can understand the popularity of the novel, as it does have an ambitious scope, a tangled, soap-opera-like storyline, and a generous enough amount of sexual goings-on to pique the interest of the most reluctant and jaded of readers, but I’m afraid I did not embrace it fully. This might be partly editorial, as the phrasing often seemed awkward to me, and I never entered fully into the story, remaining very much an onlooker as the author soberly and without much flair matter-of-factly related the action with an abundance of smutty detail which couldn’t help but leave me squirming – and not in a good way. A complicated and vaguely incestuous (cousins all over each other) picture of lust, yearning and self-indulgence. The period details weren’t enough to make up for the unsavoury plot and stylistic deficits.

sea jade phyllis a whitney 0012. Phyllis A. Whitney’s Gosh-Awful Bodice Rippers

Sea Jade and Columbella 

by Phyllis A. Whitney ~ 1964 and 1966

Just to prove that I sometimes show desperately poor judgement in my reading choices, I willingly read not one, not two, but three books by the very prolific romance writer Phyllis A. Whitney this year. One of these, Seven Tears for Apollo, was reasonably decent, but these other two were absolute stinkers.

Sea Jade was a desperately gothic romance set in post-Civil War New England. Here’s our heroine.

I know how I must have looked that day when I first set foot in the little New England town where my father, my mother, and I were born. Since I am no longer so tenderly, so disarmingly young, I can recall the look of that youthful Miranda Heath as if she were someone else. Slight and slender she was, with fair tendrils of hair, soft and fine, curling across her forehead beneath the peak of her bonnet. Her eyes were tawny brown, with quirked, flyaway brows above them. The wind undoubtedly added to the illusion of her flyaway look; the look of a fey, winged creature straight out of a make-believe world where love and pampering were taken for granted. A creature unaware that she was about to stray into dark regions for which nothing had prepared her…

Breathless, gushing, suddenly orphaned Miranda goes on to have all the stock adventures of a gothic genre heroine. As soon as she seeks refuge with her late father’s old friend Captain Bascombe, she’s immediately forced into an unwelcome marriage with his widowed son. There are all sorts of family secrets, and of course her husband hates her and wants nothing to do with her, having married her under extreme duress. Dramatic deathbed scenes and mysterious Chinese wives and exotic swords and ill-begotten fortunes feature in the scenario. And there’s an intially-hateful-yet-ultimately-winsome child, a huge black dog named (of course) Lucifer, an unexpected will, a mysterious murder (or two)… In other words, the formula as usual.

Points in favour were a certain amount of creativity in the historical bits involving the tea trade and the brief glory of the Yankee clipper ships. And also because the author used every cliché in the romance writer’s book, completely (I’m quite sure) without irony. One of those “so bad it makes everything else look good by contrast” reading experiences – a necessary thing in every reader’s life. Occasionally.

columbella phyllis a whitney 001Columbella  was salvaged very slightly by its nicely described setting, that of the St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Shell collecting, jewel thieves, love triangles, heaving bosoms all round. A throbbingly broody love interest named Kingdon should have tipped me off, but I squelched those misgivings down, because I so wanted this to be better than it turned out to be. More clues to its sheer over-the-top-ness which I willfully ignored can be found on the front flyleaf:

That was a night of gold and red, with torches flaming on the hilltop and the lights of Charlotte Amalie fanning out around the harbor below. A night of water lily and sweet-smelling cereus. The night of the shell…

Jessica Abbott, fleeing her own past, finds herself the center of a whirlpool of conflict at Hampden House, high on its cliff in the Virgin Islands. She is confronted by Catherine Drew, a woman whose sole purpose is to torment and destroy. Catherine is the wife of a vital, driven man, Kingdon Drew-toward whom Jessica is irresistible drawn. Jessica must defy the beautiful, self-indulgent Catherine, who likes to affect the name of a shell – Columbella. She must fight for the very future of another woman’s child. Above all, she must find the strength to help the man she loves escape the trap Catherine has set for him. Yet each day Catherine seems to mock her in a new way – and win. Until the night of the shell…

Always, the brilliant island sun shines over Hampden House in St. Thomas and over Caprice, the plantation in St. Croix that is crumbling to eerie ruin, guarded by its unicorns. Always the threat of a hurricane looms over this exotic setting, where the past still affects the present.

And so on. Read at your own peril!

one happy moment dj louise riley 0013. One Happy Moment

by Louise Riley ~ 1951

Much less gushing and emotional than Phyllis A. Whitney’s tortured heroines is this home-grown Canadian gal. Deborah Blair, a young librarian from Montreal, disembarks from a train at a remote way station in the Rocky Mountains near Lake Louise. The first thing she does is when the train pulls away is to strip off her city clothes, change into country duds, and pitch her suitcase and dress suit into the lake. Then she sets off on the 9-mile hike to the mountain holiday camp where she has secretly booked herself a holiday.

Oh, hurray! Tell me more, I thought. But sadly that was about as good as it got. Deborah is fleeing from both an overbearing mother and a rotten, already-married lover, and both track her down to her mountain hideaway, but not before she has found enough self-fulfillment among the lofty peaks and has gained a certain amount of self confidence due to the appreciative embraces of several of her fellow (male) guests to tell them both (mother and lover) to go take a hike.

Not a horrible book at all, and it had some good things to say about female self determination, but clunky styling, the plainest of prose, and an increasingly awkward plot kept it from reaching significant heights. A keeper because of its vintage appeal and enthusiastically described Alberta setting, but disappointing because it could have been so much better with tighter editing, an expanded vocabulary, and less wooden characterizations.

 unlikely pilgrimage of harold fry rachel joyce4. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

by Rachel Joyce ~ 2012

This recent bestseller started off with some promise. Recently retired Harold, stuck aimlessly at home with his sour wife, receives a letter from an old colleague which tells him that she is terminally ill. Harold hems and haws and eventually writes a rather pathetic letter of condolence. He sets off to walk to the mail box to send the letter, but is overwhelmed by a sudden urge to walk to see the doomed Queenie and deliver his message in person. While he’s walking, she can’t die, is his sudden superstitious thought. The catch is that she is ensconced in a nursing home some 600 miles away. But he trudges along in his light summer jacket and golf shoes, for days and days and days, compelled by an inner urge to make at least this one thing right in his rather gone-wrong life.

Sadly, very soon into Harold’s walk, the plot went all mawkish and droopy and all directions of highly unlikely as meaningful encounters with troubled but helpful people start to occur in quick succession, until at last an assortment of odd pedestrians start walking along with Harold in some sort of copy-cat pilgrimage having nothing to do with poor dying Queenie.

I’m all into magical reality if it’s convincingly well done, but this one demanded more of my suspension of disbelief than I could possibly give.  And the Big Sad Secret which was revealed at the end was so terribly boring, and the “life affirming” ending was so stereotyped that I was tempted to give the thing the toss-across-the-room treatment. It was only saved by the fact that it was a library book. Sorry about my rude dismissal, those of you who loved this one, but my dislike for the way this deteriorated from its early promise is savage and sincere.

And checking out the one-star reviews on Goodreads showed that while I am part of  a serious minority, I was not alone in my annoyed dislike. Long-listed for the 2012 Booker Prize? Was it really?! Oh. My. Gosh. Though I see (I checked) that it didn’t get to short-list status. Thank you, gods of literature, for that small mercy.

letter from peking pearl s buck5. Letter from Peking 

by Pearl S. Buck ~ 1957

I hate it when I quite like an author but then he/she turns out not just one or two but a whole string of sub-par throw-away books. Pearl S. Buck is a classic case of this, and I have long had a love-hate relationship with her work. When she’s good, she very, very good, but when she gets sloppy, she’s dire. Guess which category this novel – long novella(?) – falls into?

It has an interesting premise, but the characters are all so smug and unlikeable that any sympathy for their situation I might have had soon evaporated.  Here’s the plot. An American woman, happily married for twenty years to a half-Chinese, half-American man, leaves China with her twelve-year-old son at the start of the Communist government takeover. Her husband, due to an extreme sense of duty, remains behind in his job. The woman settles into her family home in rural Vermont, complete with faithful hired man. Communication is sporadic with China; years pass quietly. A letter arrives. Her husband has been pressured to take on a Chinese wife, to prove his loyalty to his country. The woman puts off answering it. The (mature teenage) son runs into issues with his mixed race ethnicity. The woman vapors about, meddles in son’s romantic affairs. She continually demonstrates extreme snobbism, and not-so-secretly rejoices that son’s fiancé is orphaned so she (the mother) will not have to interact with them. During all of this not one but two prospective suitors to the mother materialize. “Divorce your husband and marry again!” Oh, what to do, what to do???!

By the time it all sort of resolved itself (sort of) I no longer cared. Meh. A very carelessly put together book, from a writer who can do much better.

 6. in pious memory margery sharp 001In Pious Memory 

by Margery Sharp ~ 1967

Those of you who are aware of my strong infatuation with the glorious Margery Sharp will be surprised to see her on the Most Disappointing list, but sadly, this book let me down. It’s not rotten, but it’s not up to par either. The plot – never admittedly a very strong point with this author – seems more befuddled than usual, and the characters did not engender any sort of a sympathetic response in my readerly heart. I didn’t really like any one of them, but neither could I work up a strong feeling of dislike. There they just kind of were, moving about randomly in fictional limbo.

The plot description sounds better than the story turns out to be. Mr and Mrs Prelude are in a plane crash; Mrs Prelude walks away, but Mr Prelude perishes. Or does he? Convinced that she has possibly made a horrible mistake when viewing her husband’s body, Mrs Prelude theorizes that perhaps he is still alone, wandering in the Swiss mountains. The 16-year-old Prelude daughter decides to go and investigate for herself. A rather limp farce which doesn’t, like the ill-fated plane, quite make its destination.

OK, I’ll repeat, it’s not a horrid book, and there are quite a number of wickedly funny moments. It’s a keeper, and I fully intend to re-read it and try to drum up some more affection for its good elements, but at this point I’d hate to recommend it as any sort of prime example of this accomplished author’s greater body of work.

rochester's wife hc dj d.e. stevenson7. Rochester’s Wife  

by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1940

Here’s another writer whom I like quite a lot, but who sometimes lets me down. I don’t read these sorts of books for their hyper-realism – they are “cozies”, after all – but one does require some standard of verisimilitude. In Rochester’s Wife, with its strong reliance on insanity as a key plot point, one can’t help but feel that the author didn’t do her research.

A young doctor decides to settle down in England after travelling about the world. There is much romance, none of it particularly appealing to read about, all forbidden love and rather limp yearnings. The already-referred-to episode of insanity is handled in a very bizarre manner by the author as well as the several doctors in the case. Even in 1940 I am sure the British medical establishment was more capable of treating psychoses in more effective ways than they appear to do here! One of the weakest of this author’s books I’ve read to date.

8.Mary Stewart’s B List

Wildfire at Midnight and Thunder on the Right 

by Mary Stewart ~ 1956 and 1957

Well, while I’m on something of a roll panning tales by authors I really, truly like, let’s spend a few minutes with Mary Stewart. I’ve read quite a few of her romantic-suspense novels this year, and have found my responses to be mixed. While I really do sympathise with her very capable and likeable heroines, and enjoy her detailed descriptions of settings, the de rigueur action sequences of many of the books, described in frame-by-frame photographic detail, drive me slightly mad. Panic-stricken girl in high heels etcetera manages to dodge ex-secret service trained killer etcetera while negotiating crumbling cliff/tiled castle roof/squelching Scottish bog/etcetera. Yup. Of course.

Well, those sequences are really the whole point of the books, aren’t they? The menace keeps building until something has to give. And in most of the books I’ve read I’ve happily played along, rolling my eyes but taking it as part of the package deal. But these two pushed past my tolerance level for willing suspension of disbelief.

Wildfire at Midnight - dust jacket illustration, first edition, 1956.

In Wildfire at Midnight, a gorgeous London model, separated from her husband, is maneuvered by her parents into taking a holiday on the Isle of Skye, ostensibly to escape the chaos of the Coronation festivities. Immediately upon arrival, who should lovely Gianetta meet but her estranged husband, who is ostensibly on Skye for a mountain climbing holiday. The two keep their prior acquaintanceship a secret from their fellow guests, which makes things quite awkward when a series of grisly murders puts the holiday-makers and rock-climbers at the remote country inn under strong suspicion.

Gianetta (or Janet, as she prefers to be called) shows no common sense at all, continually wandering about either all by herself or with one or another of the chief suspects. One day she goes for a walk at just the wrong time…

Bizarre and unlikely motive for the killings, continual stupidity of the heroine, and unlikeable love interest rather ruined this one for me, even before the mountain crag/quivering bog/Scottish mist chase scene.

Salvaged by gorgeous descriptions of the settings and atmospheres of London and Skye, and the period verisimilitude of the characters crowding around the radio every evening in order to follow both the progress of Coronation festivities and Edmund Hillary’s attempt to climb Mount Everest, of particular interest to all of the rock climbers in the story. Nicely done, those bits.

Beware the nun! An older paperback cover which captures the mood so very well.

With my panning of Thunder on the Right I’m in good company. This was apparently the author’s least favourite of her novels, and I can see why. Here are her own words, courtesy of the excellent Mary Stewart Novels website:

From Contemporary Authors, Vol. 1, 1967

Ms. Stewart once claimed Thunder on the Right as her least favorite novel. “I detest that book. I’m ashamed of it, and I’d like to see it drowned beyond recovery. It’s overwritten. It was actually the second book I wrote, and for some strange reason I went overboard, splurged with adjectives, all colored purple.”

So what’s this one all about? Let’s see if I can sum it up briefly. A gorgeous young lady is in France and hopes to have a reunion with her older, recently-widowed cousin, who is apparently undergoing a retreat in a nunnery prefatory to taking vows. When the heroine arrives at said nunnery, she is told her cousin is dead and has been buried in the garden. “Something” tells the heroine that this is untrue, and that her cousin is alive. Luckily there is a handsome and rather brooding young man handy to aid the heroine in her search for the truth – and, by golly! – he is conveniently an old flame of the heroine’s, there in a remote corner of France by sheerest authorial hand-of-God. Evil nuns, a handsome local boy on a rampant stallion, a wicked smuggler, escaping criminals and much too much coincidence unite in making this one my own least favourite of Mary Stewart’s improbable (but usually highly enjoyable) romantic-suspense novels.

 

the living earth sheila mackay russell 29. The Living Earth

by Sheila Mackay Russell ~ 1954

I became interested in this book due to my prior discovery of the author’s semi-autobiographical novel A Lamp is Heavy, concerning a young nurse’s experiences as probationer in a North American city teaching hospital in the early 1940s. I was pleased to find out that Sheila Mackay Russell was an Albertan nurse/writer, who had a modest success with A Lamp is Heavy, and who went on to publish another novel, The Living Earth, also with a nurse as a main character. With some trouble I managed to acquire a copy of The Living Earth, and settled down to a happily anticipated read.

The story started out quite well, with a young nurse travelling by train to her posting in a remote northern Alberta community, “Mud Creek”. On the train is a fellow traveller, another young woman heading for the same community, to her posting as a school teacher. The two set up house together, and proceed to have all sorts of rather sordid experiences. Both attract rather unsavory lovers (married, alcoholic, manic-depressive, abusive etcetera) and much heart-rending ensues.

This novel is of the hyper-realistic genre, and it could have been quite decent but for its rather awkward phrasing throughout, and its insistence on dragging out every single episode to the utmost of its interest level and then a little bit beyond. It’s also dreadfully bleak. And melodramatic. Bleakly melodramatic, in fact! I am not surprised that there is no third novel from this writer, though The Living Earth went through a number of printings which argues a certain success. She did produce a number of short stories which were printed in the Canadian women’s periodical Chateleine, according to one of this blog’s readers.

I never did write a review of this novel, because it so deeply disappointed me, despite its author’s undoubted good intentions of creating a true-to-life dramatic novel with a regional setting. I think that her motivation was praiseworthy, but sadly it didn’t quite come off. Possibly of interest to anyone studying womens’ experiences in northern Alberta in the 1940s/50s, but beware the fictional elements, which seemed to me to be many.

I could not find any other reviews of this now-obscure Canadian novel.

1982 jian ghomeshi10. 1982 

by Jian Ghomeshi ~ 2012

And here we have a truly Canadian memoir, this time by the popular C.B.C. radio personality and ex-Moxy Früvous drummer, Jian Ghomeshi. I had such wonderfully high hopes for this book, as I usually enjoy Jian’s interviewing style on his weekday pop culture talk-and-music program on the C.B.C., “Q.” He’s an interesting-sounding personality himself, and his frequent references to his own background as a child of Iranian immigrant parents growing up in Ontario in the 70s and 80s make him both relatable and slightly exotic, a public persona he nourishes with obvious care.

But this memoir. Boring, boring, boring.

It wasn’t that Jian didn’t have an interesting teenage life. He did, in a tame sort of middle-class, upwardly mobile, successful immigrant family sort of way. In 1982, the year more or less profiled in this “creative autobiography”, Jian turned fifteen. He was in the throes of young love, was hanging out with a bunch of good friends, and was playing drums in a band – okay, it was the community band, but still… He was listening to all sorts of cool new music, had reinvented himself as a New Wave wannabe, and was having quite a time experimenting with hair dye and styling gel and eyeliner and dressing all in black. He had a loving and supportive family, abundant parental funding, and oodles of positive reinforcement from his teachers and the other adults in his life. He did stuff. He went places. He got into a few interesting situations, and made it through them in one piece. Easily enough stuff to write a memoir about.

A short memoir. A novella-length memoir. Not the almost-300 page thing that this turned out to be.  Jian ran every single little incident of that year completely to death. And though it was interesting in bits here and there, ultimately I just couldn’t care.

shadows robin mckinley11. Shadows

by Robin McKinley ~ 2013

Much as I hate to do this, I need to add a “bonus” to this list.

Shadows is the recently published “kind of like Sunshine, but for teens” fantasy by the iconic writer, and I had high hopes for it. Sounded good in the pre-publication discussions, and the early reviews were mostly favorable, though in retrospect I realize there were quite a few “buts” in some of those reviews.

17-year-old Maggie lives in a world where magic is forbidden, and when it sporadically shows up it is immediately squelched by squads of specially trained soldiers. People with magic in their genes are “cleaned” and re-released into the population; science takes care of everything in this world, thank you very much.

So when it becomes apparent that there is a massive outbreak of the magic bulges called cobeys threatening to overflow into Newworld, Maggie is shocked to discover that she has some latent powers which work to contain the bad vibes.

The author doesn’t bother explaining why magic is so nasty, and what will happen if it breaks through. She tells us it’s a really bad thing, and leaves it at that. But suddenly all of the “good” characters start showing varying degrees of magic powers which are obviously going to save the day. From, umm, something.

Extra Disappointing points for the annoying first person narrating heroine and her endless rambling on about how wonderful she is to understand all the nice little animals she loves so very much and how thick the adults in her life are and how hard algebra is and how amazing her origami skills are and how cute and clever her pop culture Japanese slang is.

Please forgive me, those of you who liked this book. I’m a long-time McKinley fan too, and I hate to slam her work, but this one wasn’t quite ready to see the light of day, in my opinion.

 

 

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the chamomile lawn mary wesleyThe Chamomile Lawn by Mary Wesley ~ 1984. This edition: Black Swan, 1989. Softcover. ISBN: 0-552-99126-0. 336 pages.

My rating: 4/10.

It had its moments, but not enough to make it a keeper. Into the giveaway pile, to try its luck with other readers.

*****

In the summer of 1939, just before the start of the Second World War, a group of cousins assemble at a Cornish cliff side house. Lazing in the sun, lounging on the fragrant chamomile lawn, they are poised for whatever the future brings. Mary Wesley’s narrative follows them through the war, in a series of extended flashbacks triggered by the surviving cousins preparing to attend the funeral of a mutual acquaintance, a key figure in the family’s  fortunes.

That summer Oliver, newly returned from fighting in the Spanish Civil War, is in love with beautiful Calypso, who professes not to love anyone; 10-year-old Sophy is in love with Oliver. Kind Walter, his indolent sister Polly, and the twins from the nearby rectory, David and Paul, round out the cast of characters lounging the days away and enjoying the hospitality of Aunt Helena and Uncle Richard. When war is declared, the scene shifts to London, where the various marriages, affairs and misalliances of the cousins, the twins, Helena, Richard and Jewish refugees Max and Monika Erstweiler form a complicated and vaguely incestuous moving picture of lust, yearning and self-indulgence.

The Chamomile Lawn became a bestseller when it was first published in the 1980s, and much was made of the fact that the author, Mary Wesley, who apparently based much of the wartime narrative on her own experiences, was over seventy when it was released. A popular television mini-series broadcast in 1992 brought the novel to a much wider notoriety.

I can understand the popularity of the novel, as it does have an ambitious scope, a tangled, soap-opera-like storyline, and a generous enough amount of sexual goings-on to pique the interest of the most reluctant and jaded of readers, but I’m afraid I did not embrace it fully. This might be partly editorial, as the phrasing often seemed awkward to me, and I never entered fully into the story, remaining very much an onlooker as the author soberly and without much flair matter-of-factly related the action with an abundance of smutty detail which couldn’t help but leave me squirming – and not in a good way.

Little girls running about with no underwear and “respectable” gentlemen who should know better putting their hands up under those juvenile skirts; continual references to flatulence and erections and various other bodily functions seemed, after a while, to be over-telling; much too much information! The thing just felt smutty to me, and the story, though reasonably engaging, was completely unrelatable. None of the characters came to life for me, and I couldn’t drum up enough interest to really keep track of who was sleeping with who after a while, let alone try to get inside their rather nasty little heads long enough to work up some personal empathy.

It was hard work to finish this one. Perhaps because right before reading it I had just experienced Vita Sackville-West’s The Edwardians, which is a gorgeously written specimen of this sort of novel, an example of what it could be?

Mary Wesley isn’t even in the same city, let alone the same ballpark, as Vita Sackville-West and her ilk! Apples to oranges, or, rather, an overripe, sickly sweet, partly decayed banana (phallic pun fully intended, inspired by Wesley’s fixation on the male naughty bits) to an opulent bunch of hothouse grapes.

This is a damning review, and I’m sitting here having second thoughts about even posting it, but I think I will go ahead and just put it out there as an example of something which sounded great, received lots of positive press, but just didn’t click with this particular reader.

I didn’t hate the book, and I truly enjoyed some of the details the author shared about life and attitudes in wartime England, but the sexual stuff put me off. Not the fact that there was sexual content in this novel, but how it was portrayed.

Nothing was terribly graphic; I’ve read and happily tolerated – more than that – enjoyed – much more detailed portrayals of people’s fictional sex lives, but this one just felt off somehow. I’d hoped to be able to give The Chamomile Lawn to my elderly mother to read, but I don’t feel comfortable with doing so after reading it; something which seldom happens, as she quite happily tolerates a fairly broad range of “intimate” detail in some of the modern fiction we share and discuss.

I’m open to investigating some of the author’s other titles if they cross my path, because the story itself showed some creativity, but not planning on seeking them out in the near future. I will, however, be making a determined search for Sackville-West’s The Heir, which I know is around here somewhere, and which I desperately want to re-read, because reading All Passion Spent some months ago, and The Edwardians a day or two ago have reminded me what a stylish and clever writer Vita was, and how enjoyable really well-written “personality” fiction can be.

Edited to add: I’ve just registered The Chamomile Lawn with BookCrossing, and will be sending it back out into the big wide world on one of my next trips to town.

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Oh, such high hopes I had for these ones!

Reviews I’d read and the past experiences I’d had with some of these authors led me to believe I’d love these books. But for various reasons, these were the reads that failed to thrill to the expected levels in 2012.

(I’ve read much “worse” books this year, but in all of those cases I had no expectations of excellence, so the disappointment wasn’t so deeply felt.)

*****

MOST DISAPPOINTING READS 2012

In alphabetical order of author’s surname.

*****

1. A White Bird Flying (1931)

and

Miss Bishop (1933) 

by Bess Streeter Aldrich

A double whammy of disappointment from this author, whose mild historical romances I generally quite enjoy. Both of these books started off wonderfully well, but by midway through each I was thoroughly out of sympathy with the heroines, and their every thought and action served only to annoy.

Laura in White Bird Flying seriously over-estimated her artistic abilities, and when she did chuck her not-very-viable dream of becoming a writer (key requirement: you have to be able to write) to marry her long-suffering swain, she rather moped her way through her not-very-exciting married life in much the same way as she’s drooped through college. Perhaps if she’d dreamed less and applied herself more? A bit of a whiner, was Laura, with a strong sense of her own “specialness”.

Ella Bishop, of Miss Bishop, might as well have been walked around with a “kick me” sign taped to her back. Her continual self-sacrifice buys her a few moments of gratification here and there, and a public ovation when she’s turfed from her job at the worst possible moment, but she still ends up a penniless old maid, having given and given and given all her life with no return from her selfish hangers-on. The author seems to approve. I really wanted Miss Bishop to show some selfishness and gratify a few of her own deep down desires, instead of being such a darned good sport all the way through. This whole story just irritated me. Grrr.

2. The L-Shaped Room (1960)

and

The Backward Shadow (1970)

by Lynne Reid Banks

I so wanted to enjoy the story of Jane Graham, a very liberated young woman who forges ahead with her life regardless of the opinions of those around her. I should have liked her, I wanted to like her, but ultimately I came away feeling that she was a morbidly self-centered and stunningly rude little piece of work. I pity her poor kid. I couldn’t make it through the second book of the trilogy, and I can’t even recall the title of the third book. Seems to me it focusses on Jane’s difficulties with her child. No wonder; I’m sure the mother-child relationship is as dismally ill-fated as all of Jane’s other relationships.

Too unspeakably dreary.

(However, Stuck-in-a-book’s Simon liked this one a lot, so don’t take my word for it; please read what he has to say, too. Most of his reviews agreeably jive with my own opinions, but this was a rare exception.)

3. Adventures of a Botanist’s Wife (1952)

by Eleanor Bor

A promising-sounding memoir of travels throughout northern India in the 1930s and 40s. In reality, the writing was a bit flat, and not nearly as interesting as I’d hoped for. The author didn’t include nearly enough detail either about her own thoughts and feelings, or about the botanical and geographical wonders of the areas she was moving through. A chore to finish; I kept expecting it to pick up, but the narrative deteriorated as the book progressed. This one could have been so wonderful; a sad disappointment.

4. Pippa Passes (1994)

and

Cromartie v. The God Shiva Acting Through the Government of India (1997)

by Rumer Godden

A pair of duds from veteran storyteller Godden. Written in the last years of her life, it is apparent that Godden’s stamina is failing in carrying these fictional ideas through to the higher level achieved by many of her earlier books. Moments of lovely writing, but generally not up to the standard I had hoped for from this master storyteller.

Pippa Passes concerns an impossibly gifted young dancer and singer and her trip to Venice with a ballet troupe. Previously sheltered and protected Pippa is ripe for romance – she attracts the amorous attentions of a dashing young gondolier and her lesbian ballet mistress. Unsatisfactory throughout; a sketchy sort of resolution which I cannot even really remember only a few months after my reading. That says it all. Godden was 87 when this one was published; I’m sure she felt tired; the story reads like she couldn’t really be bothered to refine her slight little romantic tale.

Cromartie vs. The God Shiva is also a disappointment, though a more ambitious, better-written story than the forgettable Pippa. A promising premise: a priceless statue of the god Shiva has surfaced in Toronto; it is believed to have been stolen from its niche in a temple alcove in a hotel on the Coromandel coast of India, with a clever replica substituted for the original. Romance, mystery, and tragic sudden death are all elements in this promising but shallow creation, the last published work by the veteran writer, who died shortly after its publication, at the venerable age of 90. Kudos to her for writing until the end, but sadly this last work is not up to the fine quality of many of her earlier novels.

5. The Middle Window (1935) 

by Elizabeth Goudge

One of Goudge’s very earliest published works – it was preceded by a forgettable (and forgotten) book of poetry, and the well-received Island Magic in 1934. The Middle Window is a sort of super-romantic Scottish ghost story, and it just didn’t come off the ground, atmosphere of Highland heather and noble-but-doomed ancestors notwithstanding. Lushly purple prose and terribly stereotypical characters, with a plot both predictable and outrageous in its premise. Some sort of weird reincarnation features strongly. Goudge herself blushingly dismisses this one in her own assessment of her works in her marvelous autobiography, The Joy of the Snow. Interesting only as a comparison to later books, to see how much better she could do once she found her stride. I’d heard it was pretty dire, but I’d hoped the panning comments were over-critical. They weren’t.

6. Mrs. de Winter (1993)

by Susan Hill

Contemporary “dark psychological thriller” writer Susan Hill takes a stab at a sequel to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Some things are best left alone. I wish I could erase this dreary piggyback-on-a-classic tale from my memory. What was I thinking, to read this? What was anyone thinking, to commission this train wreck – er – car crash – of a misguided pseudo-sequel? I hope Daphne puts a ghostly curse on Susan Hill for this defamation of her (du Maurier’s) characters. They might have some issues, but no one, not even fictional characters so firmly in the public domain as Max and his unnamed second wife, deserve to be tampered with like this. Ick.

7. The Honorary Patron (1987)

by Jack Hodgins

Hodgins is a very clever writer, but my own mind couldn’t quite stretch enough to take some of the mental steps needed to fully enter into the spirit of this ponderously gleeful “magical realism” word game. I definitely saw and smiled at the humour, appreciated what Hodgins was getting at with his sly digs and cynical speeches, but found it terribly hard to push my way through to the end. This wasn’t the happy diversion I’d been expecting.  Another time, maybe a deeper appreciation. Perhaps. But in 2012 at least, a personal disappointment.

8. Friends and Lovers (1947)

by Helen MacInnes

One of thriller-espionage-suspense writer MacInnes’s several straightforward romances – no guns, spys or dastardly Soviet plots in sight. I’d read and enjoyed a number of the thrillers, and one of the romances – Rest and be Thankful, so when Friends and Lovers crossed my path I quite eagerly snapped it up, took it home, and settled down for what I thought would be a good vintage read.

Two star-crossed lovers triumph over family roadblocks and challenging personal circumstances to eventually wed. Essentially humourless, this was a disappointing read, and not anywhere close to as entertaining as I’d hoped it would be. The hero was terribly, jealously chauvinistic; the heroine was ultimately spineless where her swain is concerned. I didn’t like or respect either of them by the end of the tale. The author was capable of greater things.

9. Kilmeny of the Orchard (1910)

and

A Tangled Web (1931)

by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Canadian literary icon Lucy Maud Montgomery has written some wonderfully entertaining books, but these two don’t count among them as far as I’m concerned.

Kilmeny presents an unbelievably lovely, incredibly musically talented, but vocally mute innocent country girl who is avidly pursued by the much more worldly Eric. A brooding Italian foster-brother acts as a rival in love. Aside from the rather creepy gleefulness with Eric displays upon his discovery of Kilmeny – “So young, so pure, so innocent – let me at her!” – the hateful prejudice the author displays towards the “tainted by his blood” Neil is exceedingly off-putting, even allowing for the era of the writing.

A Tangled Web concerns the internal struggles of a large family as each individual tries to prove worthy of inheriting a hideous heirloom – an old pottery jug. More dirty linen is displayed than I am interested in seeing; it could have been salvaged by better writing and non-sarcastic humor – both of which I know the author could have pulled off – but it missed the mark on all counts. I tried but couldn’t bring myself to even like most of the characters, and the author throws in a gratuitous racial slur on the last page which dropped this already B-grade novel more than a notch lower in my esteem.

10. The New Moon with the Old (1963)

by Dodie Smith

Yearning after a book of the same quality and deep appeal as my decided favourite read by this author, I Capture the Castle, I was ever so eager to experience some of her other quirky tales. And I was careful to ensure that before turning to the first page, my mind was consciously emptied of preconceptions and expectations, to be able to give New Moon a fair trial unshaded by the brilliant sun of Castle.

Even without a comparison to my favourite, The New Moon with the Old was not what I had hoped for.  Investment consultant (or something of the sort – I can’t quite remember the job description, just that there were clients and large sums of money involved) Rupert Carrington gambles and loses on an ambitious scheme involving his other people’s funds. He goes into hiding to escape prosecution, leaving his four offspring to fend for themselves with only a recently hired housekeeper to keep all of the practical wheels of a luxurious household running. Never having to have worked, and faced with the need to earn money to feed and clothe themselves, the four Carringtons – aged 14 into the early 20s – make forays into the larger world, taking on occupations as diverse as actress, novelist, composer and “mistress to a king”.  While not conventionally “successful”, all four land jam-side-up, being taken under the wings of various wealthy sponsors; swapping Daddy’s protection for the patronage of others.

I wasn’t so much shocked by the sexual/intellectual sellings-of-themselves most of the siblings indulged in, as by the ready acceptance of the father’s betrayal of the trust of his clients. This is never rectified; a skilful lawyer is obtained to get Rupert off the legal hook, and by the end all is looking potentially lovely in the Carrington garden. Cute characters and funny situations didn’t quite sugarcoat this one enough for me to swallow without gagging. Darn.

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Departures and Arrivals by Eric Newby ~ 1999. This edition: The Lyons Press, 1999. Hardcover. ISBN: 1-58576-224-4. 192 pages.

My rating: 5/10. Some decent essays but not enough of them to swing the balance between “fair” and “very good” reading. A lot of reciting of railway schedules, and short, out of context snippets about trips which blurred together after a while. Travel writing “lite”. I expected more from this writer.

*****

A few essays into this book I was thinking to myself, “Okay, these are obviously excerpts from other works. Where’s the reference page?” Looking through the front and back material, there was no indication that this was the case; it apparently is a stand-alone collection of (mostly) travel tales and short reminiscences of the writer’s earlier life.

There is no context given more many of the trips referenced, which I found disconcerting. “Flying into Coober Pedy…” Yes – okay – so you’re in Australia – but WHY are you there? What bigger trip is this part of? And aside from discovering that opal miners like to be paid in cash, and certain of them have a fondness for personal architecture such as a revolving bed surrounded by mirrors, what other memorable things did you find there that we, your readers, might be interested in?

Though there are well-written, interesting, and amusing passages, the whole thing feels like a selection of truncated pages from a personal journal, bits and pieces of information jotted down in transit to aid in later memory of the trip. Perhaps it is, worked up with a minimum of added information.

I suspect this is a book which was commissioned and published on the strength of the author’s earlier, and much stronger, efforts. A case of selling the name, not the content.

It was readable, but  vaguely unsatisfying. One to borrow from the library for light diversion, hotel room reading on a road trip (which is how I’ve just experienced it), but I’m not left with an urge to rush out to buy it. Not recommended, unless you come by it for a bargain basement price.

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