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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

When I was in high school, there were three women who dominated conversations of Canadian Literature: Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Carol Shields.  I happily read Atwood and dipped in and out of Munro’s short stories but the only thing I’d read by Shields was her slim biography of Jane Austen.  It wasn’t until the start of this year that I properly made her acquaintance when I picked up The Republic of Love by Carol Shields.

This tender and leisurely-told tale was the perfect book to start the year with.  It is spring in Winnipeg when we meet thrice-divorced Tom Avery, a radio host who is days away from turning forty, and thirty-five-year-old folklorist Fay McLeod, who is splitting up with the boyfriend she’s spent the last several year living with (just as she did the one before, and the one before that).  It takes until the half-way point of the book for the two to meet, by which point we’ve witnessed several months in each of their lives.  We’ve seen their kindness, their insecurity, their love for their families, and their longing for more love in their own lives.  They are lovely people and, like their interested friends, colleagues, and family members, you want desperately for them to both find happiness and you know they can find it with one another.

As you follow their lives and see the web of connections amongst their friends and families that could bring them together, you wait.  And then the meeting happens and it is magic, the kind of magic we all wish could happen to us and which seems mundane from the outside but life changing when it happens to you.  And Shields’ genius is that she makes it feel possible.

But a key part of Shields’ brilliance and what gives the novel its immense warmth is that Tom and Fay exist within their families and communities.  And when the power of their new love causes someone in that circle to rethink their own relationship, there are ripples that upend Fay’s world and leave her questioning everything she knows of love and commitment.

I loved every word of this.  Shields captures normal life so well that when love arrives, it feels both extraordinary and entirely natural.  It changes Tom and Fay’s lives but does not disrupt or dominate them – love settles in at the heart of things, creating a warm glow that casts from them out to those around them.  And those people around them are the key to what makes this book work so well.  The secondary characters are rich and important to Tom and Fay.  Their parents, their exes, their godparents and godchildren are all parts of their lives and therefore parts of the story.  Their fears, their reversals, their kindnesses and crises all matter.  It is a close knit and entirely recognizable world and that is all too rare to find in fiction.

For once, I’m happy that I waited to read something.  I think I would have enjoyed this if I’d read it as a teen but reading it now, as a thirty-five-year-old single woman reading about a thirty-five-year-old single woman, was perfect.  Fay’s fears and hopes are ones that I may have absorbed without reflection as a younger reader but now they resonate as familiar echoes of my own thoughts.

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It takes very little for a book to entertain me on a lazy Sunday afternoon.  All I ask for is a bit of romantic intrigue, a dash of humour, and ideally a Scottish setting.  Susan Settles Down by Molly Clavering fit the bill perfectly.

When Susan Parsons moves with her brother Oliver to Scotland, she’s not quite certain what awaits her.  The drunken cook is not an ideal introduction to her new home but, after years of following Oliver abroad during his naval postings while earning her own living writing, she is intrigued to try quiet country life in the home her brother has just inherited. 

Even more intrigued are all of the Parson siblings’ new neighbours, from the kindly vicar’s family to the dreadfully gossipy Pringle sisters to the neighbouring farmer.  Because what would the fun of a village novel be without villages to be upset/romanced/amused by the new arrivals?

The title gives the impression that Susan needs settling down but she is in fact very settled in herself when we meet her.  She has the poise of maturity but retains the ability to laugh at herself, a combination that endears her quickly to others.  Oliver, on the other hand, I find singularly unappealing.  He is still angry about the injury that has caused him to leave the navy and left him with a limp, and can lash out at those around him.  His sense of humour tends towards the juvenile and slightly nasty, with a penchant for baiting and embarrassing others.

There’s no plot to speak of – as it should be for a book of this sort – just a nice meandering flow as Susan and Oliver become more enmeshed in country life.  Oliver, mentored by neighbour Jed Armstrong, finds an interest in farming to help him move on from the dashing career he’s lost while Susan finds plenty to occupy and amuse herself – though she would be more amused if Jed would not bait her so often to lose her temper. 

By the end, both Oliver the lothario and Susan the spinster have found suitable spouses to help them settle even further into the community.  All is well and ends just as you predicted it would early in the book – exactly right for a Sunday afternoon read.  I loved Susan and enjoyed Clavering’s sense of humour (not to be confused with Oliver’s awful one), and look forward to rereading this in years to come. 

More recently, I picked up the sequel, Touch Not the Nettle, eager to be reunited with Susan.  A few years have passed since the end of the last book (this was published in 1939, while Susan Settles Down came out in 1936) and the married couples are all as happy as we left them.  Susan (now in her mid-thirties?  I’m struggling to remember ages from the first book but I feel like this was mentioned, though she is referred to by another character as a “young woman” here) wishes silently for a child, admiring her growing nephew, but thankfully this is not a book about that.  Instead, the central character is a visiting cousin by marriage, Amanda Cochrane.

Amanda’s aviator husband has gone missing and is presumed dead.  Amanda, tired of her husband’s philandering and spendthrift ways, had been planning to divorce him so her feelings about her uncertain widowhood are complicated to say the least.  Exhausted after living with her dramatic, superficial mother, she has retreated to Scotland for some much-needed rest and no hostess could be more considerate than Susan.

Without charm to conceal the lack of plot, I found this heavy going.  I still appreciate Clavering’s sense of humour but Amanda is a trickier character than Susan was, with heavy burdens she cannot free herself of.  Amanda is given a love interest in her new surroundings and he is awful.  Women can explain away a lot of bad behaviour to uncover the eligible man beneath but this takes it to a ridiculous level.  He is rude, vicious, and almost always drunk.  There are reasons (obviously) but it’s hard to ever see how he could seem appealing (his house is nice, maybe that’s it?).

The story gets exceeding dramatic, with madness, murder, and more deaths.  The characters from the first book are all happily distanced from this – continuing on in their cosily domestic worlds, exactly as I want them to – but I wish I had been too.  The sprightliness and good humour that I loved from the first book is gone and I have no desire to return again to Amanda’s dramatic life.

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When Dean Street Press reprinted eight of Molly Clavering’s books earlier this year, I was so overwhelmed with excitement that I barely knew where to start.   My only experience with Clavering had been Near Neighbours, reissued by Greyladies a few years ago, and I’d enjoyed it enough to want more.  Overwhelmed by choice, I chose Dear Hugo for my reintroduction to Clavering.  When, after all, have I ever been able to resist an epistolary novel?

Published in 1955, the story begins a few years earlier, in June 1951 when Sara Monteith moves to a village in the Scottish borders.  Sara’s fiancé, Ivo, had come from Ravenskirk and even years after his death in the war she remains faithful to his memory, though she is reticent for her new neighbours to know about that relationship.  It is to Ivo’s brother Hugo in Africa that Sara writes, with frank assessments of her new neighbours, humorous glimpses of her life – particularly enlivened after taking on the guardianship of a young cousin – and the occasional moments of grief for the man she has lost.

The correspondence between Hugo and Sara feels extremely well-established by the time we enter it as she is entirely frank in her letters to him.  Her frustrations with her new neighbours are clearly voiced and delightfully entertaining.  As in any village novel, Ravenskirk is peopled by a distinctive group of personalities, though Atty, Sara’s young ward, does tend to dominate the letters when he is home from school.  I thoroughly enjoyed Sara’s reports on Atty’s doings and sayings and her adjustment – as a single woman of around forty – to life with a lively boy underfoot.  Comparing notes with a neighbour and marvelling over Atty’s permanent dirtiness, she receives helpful (and timeless) motherly advice:

‘I don’t want to disillusion you, but they don’t really wash when they lock themselves into the bathroom for ages.  I think they fall into a kind of mystic trance or something, and running water helps them.  It’s the only way once can explain it.’

If Clavering had kept the focus on domestic doings, I could have left the book entirely happy and unconflicted.  But…she doesn’t.  Of course there needs to be an element of romance and there are in fact several men who appear as likely mates.  But romance is so entirely besides the point that they serve as frustrating red herrings rather than enjoyable plot points.

It is the conclusion to one of these romantic intrigues that Sara addresses in her last letter to Hugo and that left me frustrated rather than delighted by the book.  After being remarkably light-handed in her dealings with neighbours, Sara suddenly decides it is up to her to arrange the lives of her friends and tell them what is best for them, despite what they may think and want.  After only two years of village life, she has gone from amused observer to spinster busybody and it feels wrong for this charming character to act in such an awkward way.  Personally, I am all for arranging the lives of others but the circumstances here feel forced – as though Clavering wanted an ending that would surprise the readers more than she wanted to leave them satisfied.  In the end, she doesn’t achieve either effect – a poor end to an otherwise enjoyable book.

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When I find myself in times of trouble, my remedy is slightly different than The Beatles’.  I inevitably reach for a book and, more often than not when things are too dark or stressful or scary, that book is the delightful Little G by E.M. Channon.  In the not-quite seven years I have owned a copy, I have read it at least five times and – no surprise – it was one of the first books I read during the lockdown of spring 2020.  It is no less comforting this spring, with the dual motivation of reading it for the 1936 Club and to provide comfort amidst the dire Covid third wave we are experiencing here.

John Furnival is a pre-maturely stuffy, antisocial Cambridge mathematician who is ordered by his doctor on a long country stay to recover his health, which, his doctor chides him, has suffered due to:

Too much to eat: too much port and too much tea: too much work for your head, and not enough for your body.

Because the world of 1930s academia is forgiving of the need to do work – especially by dons with private incomes – Furnival is soon installed in a cottage in the village of Challingley.  The village, from the doctor’s perspective, is ideal.  It’s hilly enough to force Furnival to discomfort on his walks, quiet but full of sociable neighbours, and the cottage offers a large garden to rest or putter in.  Furnival is less convinced, disgusted by his new neighbours’ obsessions with their gardens, tennis parties, and, most horrifyingly of all, the pretty young widow at the center of the village’s social life.  But he is firmly drawn into the social whirl and realises – slowly and to his horror – what an unattractive foil he serves against this healthy, vigorous set.  Surely he – once a champion rower and tennis player – isn’t the sweaty old man set next to the village’s quick vicar or dashing doctor?  And at only thirty-seven!

While adult society may terrify or bore him in equal measure, Furnival finds himself much more at home with the cottage’s cat – the only creature he was immediately delighted to encounter in his new surroundings – and his next-door neighbours, three children living with their terrifying Aunt Agatha.  Rather to his surprise, the children are pleasant companions and it isn’t long before the three are slipping from their yard to his, eager for his stories and spoiling.  Furnival, for the first time in years, is giving thought and attention to something other than his equations (though his versions of children’s stories are very physics-focused).  But there is yet another resident next door, the children’s aunt Grace, who is that most terrifying of things – a young woman.  Thankfully she is not so terrifying as most of her species, being rather small and quiet, but also very capable and quick-witted and rather pretty…

Over the course of his time in the village, Furnival is forced out of his almost monastic mindset and learns once again how to be human.  He relearns how to care for others and to take care of himself and questions his long-held and unquestioned visions of a solitary, scholarly future.

This sounds very sweet, which it is, but Channon is a clever, funny writer and it’s that spark of humour that makes this book so memorable.  She is more than happy to skewer Furnival, but always affectionately, and the neighbours who most concern him (the female ones) aren’t nearly as one dimensional as his initial imaginings of them.  That’s not to stay this is a novel of great characterization and depth – it decidedly is not – but it’s far better than the sentimental drivel it could have been in another writer’s hands and I love it desperately.  The only sad thing about it is how difficult it is now to find copies.  It was reissued by Greyladies Books in 2012 but it’s almost impossible to find second-hand copies.  I’m not surprised – I certainly wouldn’t give mine up!    

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The only mistake I made in reading Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford this year was that I did it too early: this would have been the perfect book to soothe and comfort during the stressful early months of the pandemic but it was just as delightful when read in the calmness of January.

Published in 1933 (and reissued this spring by Handheld Press), Business as Usual tells with dashing epistolary style and comic illustrations the story of Hilary Fane.  Hilary, a young woman of twenty-seven with a history degree from Oxford and previous work experience as both a teacher and librarian, is trying to fill the time before she marries her fiancé Basil, a young doctor.  Anticipating at least a year before the wedding and, having been made redundant from her last job, Hilary is looking for a way to occupy herself.  As she explains to Basil:

…I know I couldn’t wait for you if I were idle, sitting about and trying to fill the gap between one lovely experience and another with those dreary little sociabilities that you despise as much as I do.  I wish I had the kind of talents that you’d really like to have about the house, my lamb.  It would all be so much simpler if my bent were music or if I could write.  But it isn’t any use, Basil, I haven’t any talents; even my drawings always got me into trouble.  I’ve just got undecorative ability and too much energy to be happy without a job.

And so she sets off, leaving her parents’ comfortable Scottish home for exceedingly humble lodgings in London and a job in a department store (a thinly veiled Selfridges).  She eventually finds herself working in the store’s library (I would never complain about going shopping if department stores still had these!) and the story follows her throughout the year as she advances at work, makes friends, and discovers the simple pleasures of her new life:

Oh, Basil, there are compensations!  It’s worth sleep-walking from nine to six all the week just to wake up on Saturday with half a day and a night and another day after that unquestionably one’s own.  I came out of Everyman’s and watched all the other people with hockey sticks and skates and suit-cases tearing for buses.  But I strolled, feeling marvellous.  Rather as if I’d kicked off a tightish pair of shoes.

Hilary is a wonderful character, full of energy and warmth and attractively straightforward in discussing anything on her mind.  Basil, we can tell from Hilary’s side of the correspondence, doesn’t share these traits:

I can fail and start again.  And with you to believe in my work, I could.

Only, now and then, I feel you don’t.  Do try to.  I mean, think of me as a creature, not just as a possible wife who will persist in doing things that tend to disqualify her.  I love you frightfully; but I want your companionship and tolerance and understanding even more than other things.  I wonder if you see?

Basil, the reader decides long before Hilary, must go.  Luckily, there is a very suitable replacement close at hand.

I love stories about work – I find hearing about people’s working hours and salaries and how they manage to live on said salaries endlessly fascinating – and I adore epistolary novels so the combination of the two was always going to be something that interested me.  But this book manages to be far more than interesting.  The reader cannot help but adore Hilary, who is endlessly curious, admirably efficient, and inspiringly intrepid.  It is a book to laugh over and to read for comfort and inspiration when you are feeling daunted by the world.  It is, frankly, quite perfect, which is why I am picking it up again as the book to see out 2020 with. It’s never too soon to reread great books.

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Whenever Simon and Karen host one of their reading weeks, there are a few authors who bibliographies I immediately check.  It’s hard to find a year that didn’t have a book published by Angela Thirkell, Agatha Christie or Georgette Heyer and in fact for 1956, the focus of this week’s reading, all three had new books out.  Spoiled for choice (though Thirkell’s talents were waning by then), I happily picked up Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer, looking forward to rereading the humorous story written at the height of Heyer’s powers.

We meet our hero, Sir Gareth Ludlow, on a visit to his sister’s home.  Adored and idolized by his nieces and nephews, we understand immediately the character of “Uncle Gary” but his sister, being an elder sister, also clues us into the key challenges of Sir Gareth’s life: he is thirty-five years old, unmarried, and, with their younger brother now dead, must think of an heir.  Having never fallen in love since the death of his vivacious fiancée seven years before, despite the many young women that have been thrown his way, the family is starting to despair.  But Sir Gareth has his own plan as to whom he wants to marry and is in fact just off to propose to Lady Hester Theale, an old friend and confirmed spinster of twenty-nine living quietly under her family’s thumb.

He sets off from London but soon crosses paths with Amanda “Smith”, a very determined sixteen-year-old runaway.  Amanda, loathe to reveal her identity, is happy to share the details of her situation and of her plan: an orphan living with her grandfather, she is in love with a military officer and determined to marry him.  She has run away from home in order to force her grandfather’s hand but, having run out of money, is trying to convince the innkeeper to hire her when Sir Gareth stumbles across her.  He takes it as a matter of course that the young lady must be rescued from herself but Amanda views Sir Gareth’s involvement less kindly:

‘I believe,’ said Amanda, after another seething pause, ‘that kidnappers are sent to prison, or even transported!  You would not like that, I daresay!’

‘No, indeed.’

‘Well!  I am just warning you!’ she said.

‘Thank you!  I am very much obliged to you.’

‘And if you,’ declared Amanda, bethinking herself of the groom, and twisting round to address him, ‘had one grain of manliness you would not permit your master to carry me off.’

Trotton, a deeply interested audience, was unprepared for this attack, and nearly lost his balance.  Much discomposed, he could only stammer an unintelligible answer, and glance imploringly at Sir Gareth’s back-view.

‘Oh, you mustn’t blame Trotton!’ said Sir Gareth. ‘Consider how difficult is his position!  He is obliged to obey my orders, you see.’

‘He is not obliged to assist you in kidnapping people!’ she retorted.

‘I engaged him on the strict understanding,’ said Sir Gareth firmly, ‘that that would form an important part of his duties.’

‘I w-wish you would not be so absurd!’ said Amanda, struggling to suppress a giggle.

Being a Heyer hero, Sir Gareth has no sinister intentions.  He abducts Amanda from the inn but takes her to Lady Hester.  Having already obtained her father’s permission to propose, the entire household is scandalised that Sir Gareth would bring such a young, pretty girl – clearly a mistress – along with him.  But his faith in Lady Hester is well-placed and Amanda is soon confiding in her – and also lecturing her about Lady Hester’s meek ways with her overbearing family:

‘I wonder you should not tell people who scold you to go about their business.’

‘I am afraid I have not enough courage,’ said Hester ruefully.

‘Like my aunt,’ nodded Amanda.  ‘She has no courage, either, and she lets Grandpapa bully her, which puts me out of all patience, because one can always get one’s own way, if you one has resolution.’

‘Can one?’ said Hester doubtfully.

‘Yes, though sometimes, I own, one is forced to take desperate measures.  And it is of no use to tease oneself about propriety,’ she added, with a touch of defiance, ‘because it seems to me that if you never do anything that is not quite proper and decorous you will have the wretchedest life, without any adventures, or romance, or anything!’

‘It is very true, alas!’ Hester smiled at her again. ‘But not for you, I think.’

‘No, because I have a great deal of resolution.’

But while Lady Hester trusts that there is no relationship between Sir Gareth and Amanda when they arrive, she also is certain that one will develop.  Amanda’s brightness and energy remind her too much of her long-dead friend who Sir Gareth once loved and so she rebuffs Sir Gareth’s proposal, despite being clearly, painfully already in love with him.  Heyer’s genius is in making the reader like Amanda but never share Lady Hester’s fears.

Unsurprisingly, Amanda has soon run away againand the rest of the novel takes place on the road.  The greatest danger to Amanda’s innocence comes from Lady Hester’s uncle, a middle-aged roué whom Amanda convinces to aid in her escape.  But Amanda, innocent though she is, is far from stupid and gives him the slip, setting off to disturb the lives of yet more people with Sir Gareth in hot pursuit.  When Amanda’s most ambitious plan goes awry, Sir Gareth is shot and becomes gravely ill.

Heyer loved a sickbed scene and this is no exception.  It allows her to show Amanda’s best qualities – her quick thinking and decisiveness – and also to allow Lady Hester, when summoned to Sir Gareth’s side by Amanda, to finally rebel against her family.  It also allows Heyer to amuse herself and the reader as Amanda and Hildebrand, a young aspiring playwright who had the misfortune to cross Amanda’s path and be roped into her schemes, squabble their way through Sir Gareth’s recovery, concocting ever more confusing relationships to one another to lend some propriety to their current circumstances.

Heyer revisited this plot – eligible bachelor crossing paths with beautiful runaway – many times but this may be my favourite version of it.  Amanda is her best and most well-rounded runaway and the humour is perfectly sustained throughout.  It had been years since I last reread it but I’m so happy I picked it up for the 1956 Club.

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It is no great hardship to spend a summer in Vancouver but by the start of this month I was desperate for a change of scene.  Usually, I’d be heading off to hike in the Alps at this time of year but (with only minimal sobbing over the lack of European escapes in my future) instead I went to the beautiful Okanagan region of BC.  It’s famous for sunshine, hot summers, beautiful lakes, and wineries.  My brother moved there a few years ago with his family so it also has the added draw of an adorable niece and nephew to visit.

I was there for ten days, which was a welcome break from work after an intense summer.  My days were wonderfully undemanding, fitting in a hike each morning, a swim in the lake each afternoon, plenty of socially-distanced family visits in my brother’s backyard, home-cooked dinners with the amazing local produce, and LOTS of reading.  The smoke from the horrible American forest fires only drifted up during our last couple of days so for the most part I was able to sit on the deck of the house we were staying at and alternately read and gaze out at the beautiful lake view.

Here’s what kept me distracted in between swims:

Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes – It’s been years since I reread any of the Walsh family books from Keyes but this one is just as good as I remembered it.  Keyes is always funny but that doesn’t stop her from addressing dark topics, in this case drug addiction.  Rachel knows she doesn’t have a drug problem but her family is insistent about checking her into a treatment centre, dragging her back to Ireland from New York city after she ends up in hospital there.  There’s not much left for her in New York anyways, just a job she’s lost interest in, a best friend who does nothing anymore but criticize her, and a boyfriend who has just broken up with her.  In treatment she has the voyeuristic pleasure of hearing the stories of other patients, knowing that she’s an outsider in this world.  But of course she isn’t and her journey to realising what has happened to her life and how she’s impacted the people around her is so cleverly done.

Cutting Back by Leslie Buck – In the late 90s, Buck was running a successful pruning company in California when she decided to take a sabbatical and spend several months training with pruners in Kyoto.  It was clearly an interesting experience but Buck’s writing doesn’t particularly do it justice.

The Wish List by Sophia Money-Coutts – Absolute fluff, as is mandated for all heavy reading holidays.

Where the Hornbeam Grows by Beth Lynch – This was such a disappointment to me.  I’d heard about it on the Slightly Foxed podcast last year and was certain that the story of a woman moving to Switzerland and making a garden to help her feel at home would be just right for me.  Now, I can’t think of a single expat memoir where someone has had a positive experience moving to Switzerland but usually the main criticism is that it’s a boring place to live.  Lynch finds SO many more things to criticize and seems to find the entry country rather sinister in its determination to make her feel excluded.  Her combined naivety (as far as I can tell she didn’t bother to learn anything about the country before moving there) and sense of victimhood drove me absolutely mad.  I kept hoping this would get better, but it didn’t.  Even her enthusiastic plant descriptions (of which there are not enough) weren’t enough to redeem this for me.

Hamnet and Judith by Maggie O’Farrell – Unsurprisingly, this was truly excellent and is deserving of all the praise that is being heaped upon it.  I was initially resistant, thinking myself uninterested in anything about Shakespeare but O’Farrell handles him very cleverly.  He is such a minor character that he is never even named.  It is his wife’s story and it is her grief over their only son Hamnet’s death that dominates.  We see little of Shakespeare’s own reaction – but, knowing his plays, we already know how he dealt with it.  Darlene did a much better and thorough job of articulating her thoughts so I’d recommend reading her review.

A Rogue of One’s Own by Evie Dunmore – Back to the fluffy reading.  This is the second in Dunmore’s “A League of Extraordinary Women” series of historical romance novels focused on a group of suffragists and I thought it a great improvement over the first book.

Cleopatra’s Sister by Penelope Lively – I read this for the first time back in 2016 and remembered it fondly but not, as it turned out, accurately (which is very suitable for a Lively book).  I remembered it as the story of Howard and Lucy, who meet when their plane is diverted to an African country where a coup has just occurred.  Held hostage by the new government, they find themselves – quickly, quietly, amazingly – falling in love.  And it is that story, but that only begins halfway through the book.

The first half is the story of their lives and all the quirks of fate that happened to them and others for them to eventually find themselves together in such extraordinary circumstances.  I loved it all the better for not having remembered it in detail.  Lively is always wont to muse on time and history, mischance and happenstance, and I love to watch her do it.

Once Upon an Eid edited by S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed – a wonderfully varied collection of children’s stories about celebrating Eid.  I especially loved the stories about a refugee camp in Greece, a boy in Toronto learning to live up to his name, and a girl who, having always been defined by her identity as the only Muslim at her school, adjusts to not being an “only” when a new student arrives.

September by Rosamunde Pilcher – every vacation should feature a good family saga.  It was so satisfying to sink into Pilcher’s comfortable, genteel world and her idyllic rural Scottish setting.  She can be a very skilled writer and is especially good at slowly revealing characters’ stories, avoiding the temptation to overshare when they are introduced.  But…in the end, the female characters were so ornamental and inconsequential that it set my teeth on edge.  The only exceptions were those who were made sexless either by age or by their husband’s impotence.  They managed to be the most interesting characters, which shows what Pilcher was capable of.  But the younger women are constantly being described through the eyes of men and appraised based primarily on their appearances.  Which makes a kind of sense since they have nothing else to offer – none of them are educated or employed, even the girls in their late teens and early twenties.  The huge age gaps between couples are barely mentioned, only contributing to the feeling of separation between the genders.  For a book set in 1988, this all seems bizarre and part of a world that was already lost.  Despite the material attractions, it’s not a world I’d want to live in.

Indians on Vacation by Thomas King –  If I can’t travel abroad this year, at least I can read about those who can.  Bird and Mimi are visiting Europe to trace the postcards sent more than a hundred years before by Mimi’s uncle.  Bird and Mimi have their own identities to juggle – American-born Bird is half Cherokee and half Greek while Mimi is Canadian but introduces herself as Blackfoot, a distinction Bird reminds her that no one in Europe understands – but the most important distinction is Bird’s pessimism versus Mimi’s eternal optimism.  Bird, burnt out after years as a journalist, has fallen into a lethargy and is plagued by endless physical ailments.  He is not happy to be in Europe and reminds Mimi of this constantly:

I’m not sure why we travel.

The default response is that we travel in order to see new places, to meet new peoples, to broaden our understanding of the world.

Whereas I tend to see travel as punishment for those of us who can afford such mistakes.

I loved this far more than I expected to, finding it funny (Bird’s snarky asides and one liners are excellent) and poignant.  And the fact that the bulk of the book is set in Prague, my favourite and most familiar European city, didn’t hurt.

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After years of looking for a copy of Rhododendron Pie by Margery Sharp (and not being able to stomach the $300+ price tag attached to used copies), I finally employed my interlibrary loan system to help me track it down.  For the eminently reasonable price of $15 dollars they found it for me in the wilds of Utah and now, after almost ten years of waiting, I have finally had a chance to read it.

First published in 1930, Rhododendron Pie is the story of the Laventie family.  The country-dwelling Laventies take great pleasure in their cultured and sophisticated tastes when compared to their pitiful rural neighbours and this is, we learn on the first page, a tradition that the family has carried on for many generations:

…deep-rooted in Sussex history, they had nevertheless a fantastic strain in their blood which served to alienate them almost entirely from their worthy neighbours.  Generation after generation of eldest sons set off on the Grand Tour and had to be sought out, years after, in Paris and Vienna and St Petersburg when the death of their sires left Whitenights masterless.  They came home middle-aged men, urbane, travelled, generally impoverished, occasionally debauched: and the good Sussex squires asked them to dine.  It was usually about six months before all invitation ceased.

In the current era, this family trait is exhibited by Mr Laventie, a louche aesthete who goes travelling (and philandering) every so often and returns with a gift for his invalid wife and even more distain for his rural neighbours, eldest daughter Elizabeth, a sharp-tongued and observant essayist, and son Dick, an artist.  Mrs Laventie, disabled for many years, stays quietly in the background for the most part while daughter Ann struggles to find where she fits in.  Not unnaturally, she shares the tastes and prejudices of her opinionated family members, as we all absorb the world view of those we grew up with.  But even early in life there are signs that a more conventional soul lurks beneath: it is Ann, alone among the Laventie children, who quietly loathes the family birthday tradition of pies filled with artistic but inedible flowers.  Rather than beautiful mounds of rhododendron flowers, Ann longs for juicy apples to fill her birthday pie.

Ann is our heroine but, as in the way of so many Margery Sharp novels, heroine may be too strong a word.  It implies perhaps more fondness than Sharp cares to elicit from us.  What I love about many of Sharp’s other novels is how pointed they are and how callously she treats many of her protagonists.  Here in her first novel she hasn’t quite achieved that style but the early glimmerings are there.  She gives us enough in Ann to care about but not so much that we don’t still find her frustrating in her moments of meekness and uncertainty.

And there are many such moments.  Ann, young and isolated from the glamorous world of artists and liberal thinkers that she has been brought up to view as her rightful sphere, is infatuated when Gilbert Croy arrives at Whitenights.  A daring film producer, Croy is handsome and flatteringly attentive to Ann.  It is only when the action moves to London that Ann, who has decided she is in love with Croy and willing to marry him, realises how little her values align with those of her father, her siblings and Croy.  For in the country the family’s affectations were relatively harmless – at least to themselves.  They may have made cutting remarks about the stolid neighbours (particularly the sprawling Gaylord family) and discussed their beliefs in personal expression and free love but in Sussex the neighbours found them too odd (and perhaps too amusing) to take much offense and there was little chance of a belief in free love causing problems when there was no one intellectual enough around to love.  London, where all three children find themselves, is another matter.

Following Elizabeth and Dick to town, Ann finds herself part of their social circles and not at all sure of her surroundings.  Everyone she meets seems somewhat lost in their pursuit of individual pleasures and free love seems to be causing more pain than anything.

When she retreats home to Sussex, Ann’s London experiences help her see her old surroundings and old country friends in a new way.  And when she falls in love with one of those neighbours whom her family so despise – a young man who is so gauche as to work in a bank, epitomizing the type of conventional thinking that so outrages Mr Laventie – the family is aghast.

It’s an entertaining story but, for me, a forgettable one.  Sharp was very young when she wrote it – only twenty four or twenty five – and everything is a bit simplistic.  The elements that would make her excellent later are there but it’s a bit of wasted potential when she wasn’t yet confident enough to truly make fun of her eminently laughable creations.

What it worth $15?  Absolutely.  Is it worth $300?  Certainly not.  Spend your money instead on one of her later, better works (my favourites are The Flowering Thorn and Something Light).  But if you can track this down, there is still plenty to enjoy.

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Well Walk from New End Square by George Charlton

It’s been an absolutely beautiful Sunday here and, despite having been determined to do lots of reading this weekend, I have been weak.  Instead I’ve been enjoying the pale winter sunlight and the spring-like temperatures.  Sunshine in winter – especially in a Vancouver winter – always feels like a gift.  The more typical torrential rains will return soon enough (tomorrow, to be precise) so to waste such weather would have been unforgiveable.

Despite neglecting my books this weekend, I have managed to get some reading done already this year.  I’ve somehow managed four books, though none of them were very long or challenging.  Two were pleasant and forgettable but I’d thought I’d share a little about the two extremes: one which was very beautiful and one which turned out to be very bad.

My least favourite, and by far the most scarring, was Brief Flower by Dorothy Evelyn Smith.  Originally published in 1966 (and, as far as I can tell, never republished thank goodness), it is the story of Bunny’s adolescence, those last years of childhood as she matures into adulthood, told many years later by the adult Bunny.  Raised in squalor and hunger by Laurie, an unsuccessful author with a drinking problem, and the equally useless Madge on the Yorkshire coast, Bunny has no idea who her parents were and, when we meet her at the age of ten or eleven, doesn’t seem particularly to care.  She hates being cold and hungry and not having any clothes that fit her but loves her wild life at the farm and adores Laurie (despite him literally belting her when he’s had too much to drink).  But then her wealthy grandfather appears and Bunny goes away to live with him for a year, after which she must decide which home – and which set of loved ones – to stay with.  The story follows her for the next few years, though the “brief flower” of her youth, and I HATED it.  It’s so disappointing because Smith’s writing is good and her supporting characters are truly excellent, but the entire story is overwhelmed by bizarrely sexual overtones right from the beginning (when, let’s remember, Bunny is about 11).  And the ending was so off-putting that I feel sullied for having read it.  I’m not a particularly sensitive reader but this was such a jarring combination of factors that the end result was very disappointing.  If you see this one, pass right on by.

Far more successful was Poems of Arab Andalusia translated by Cola Franzen.  I first became interested in the Arab poets of Andalusia when I read The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay.  Kay’s books are infused with poetry and I loved the style of the verses.  It pushed me to read some of the works that had inspired Kay and ever since I’ve been happy to pick up any volumes that come my way.  This year, as I’m planning a trip to Andalusia for the autumn, I plan to be reading even more.

This is a slim book originally published in 1989 but its roots go back to the 1920s, when the versions the translations are based on were originally published by Emilo Garcia Gomez.  The poems themselves of course date back much further, to the 10th through 13th centuries when much of modern-day Spain was ruled by the Islamic Moors.

The poems are sensual and beautiful and my favourite was “Remembering Silves” by King Al-Mu’tamid of Seville, the 11th century “Poet King”, who was dethroned and lived his final years far from the home he loved:

Well, Abū Bakr,
greet my home place in Silves
and ask the people there
if, as I think, they still remember me.

Greet the Palace of the Balconies
on behalf of a young man
still nostalgic for that place.

Warriors like lions lived there
and white gazelles
in what beautiful forests
and in what beautiful lairs!

How many pleasurable nights I spent
in the shadow of the palace
with women of opulent hips
and delicate waists:

blonds and brunettes.
My soul remembers them
as shining swords and dark lances.

With one girl I spent
many delicious nights
beside the bend of the river.
Her bracelet resembled
the curve of the current

and as the hours went by
she offered me the wine
of her glance or that of her glass
and sometimes that of her lips.

The strings of her lute
wounded by the plectrum
caused me to shiver
as if I had heard a melody
played by swords on the
neck tendons of the enemy.

When she took off her cloak
and revealed her waist,
a flowering willow branch,
it was like a bud
opening to reveal a flower.

I’m not usually a poetry lover but how could anyone fail to love that?

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Sometimes the stars align and an author produces a work so perfect, so utterly satisfying and joyous on every page, that you never want the reading experience to end.  That was what I found when I picked up A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

Now, this is hardly an unheralded gem.  It was well-reviewed and widely read when it came out in 2016, appearing on several prize lists, and Bill Gates, a reader par excellence, has shared his own love of it.  So I am, as usual, a little behind the times.  But the beauty of books is that they wait for the reader to find them when the time is right and, for me, this was the perfect time.

The story opens in 1922 in Moscow as Count Alexander Rostov is being sentenced by a people’s committee.  Their usual inclination to dispose of a member of the leisured class is checked by one thing: a poem written by Rostov more than a decade before that was sympathetic to the revolutionary cause.  And so their verdict is unusually lenient: house arrest for life.  But Rostov has no home of his own – the family estates having been seized – and lives in the Metropol Hotel at the heart of Moscow.  So it is there that he, age 32, is sentenced to live out the rest of his days.

And so it is within the walls of this last pillar of old-world elegance that our tale unfolds, a place where ballerinas from the Bolshoi dash in for a drink, where the French chef ensures that every dish is a masterpiece, and where every detail is thought of, cared for, and perfected.  It is a world that suits Rostov well and, even after he is moved into a dingy attic room from his stately suite, he finds ways of adapting to his new circumstances.

It is this graceful adaptability that provides the true charm of the novel.  Rostov is a product of his upbringing and it is the gentlemanly traits he has been trained in that allow him to weather his trials.  Before his incarceration, his days were, as he explained during his trial, devoted to “Dining, discussing.  Reading, reflecting.  The usual rigmarole.”  He was a friend to poets and princesses, a world traveller, and darling of hostesses for his easy conversation, excellent manners, and ability to smooth difficult situations.  He knew the world and loved its many pleasures.  Now captive in the hotel, he must set about building a life on a smaller scale, mastering his new world and seeing to the little preferences and pleasures that make life – whether it be in a palace or a prison – tolerable.

This he does with such ingenuity and nonchalance that it is impossible not be charmed by him.  If you grew up reading about orphans living in attics or poor young women making sad garret rooms into welcoming havens, you will be delighted by Rostov’s immediate actions.  And then even more delighted as through the years he makes a true home at the Metropol, finding new friends and a purpose.

The story follows Rostov over the course of thirty-odd years, years where he is largely insulated from the wider changes happening in Russia.  But he is not oblivious to them, staying as well-informed as ever (as any good gentleman would), and as Russia becomes increasingly dangerous, he begins to worry about the future of those he loves.  For, in thirty years, he has found people to love: friends, a lover, and a daughter-of-sorts whom he has raised from childhood.

A Gentleman in Moscow reminded me of nothing so much as an Eva Ibbotson novel, which is just about the highest praise I can think of.  It has the same charmed nostalgia of her books, capturing a world of lost European elegance, and Rostov shares the same optimism and practicality as Ibbotson’s protagonists, who, when faced with disaster, can smile, persevere, and use all their charm and talent to bring about a solution.  It is also peopled with delightful secondary characters: a willowy actress, who throws tantrums but has enough humility to clean up after them; a serious child who introduces Rostov to all the secrets of the hotel; a shy seamstress with a lazy eye and a warm heart; and so on.  Towles, like Ibbotson, takes care to make each character memorable and loveable and, in doing so, creates a world that is just a little kinder, a little more fantastic, than the one we know.  Just the kind of world we like best to escape to in a novel.

 

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