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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

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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What a wonderful week for reading!  My rereading of old favourites for the 1930 Club continued on from The Diary of a Provincial Lady to Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers (via Corduroy by Adrian Bell but I have complicated thoughts on that book and won’t manage to write about it before the Club is over).

Strong Poison was the fifth of Sayers’ mystery novels features Lord Peter Wimsey, the erudite graduate of Eton and Oxford who loves old books, music, cricket, and sleuthing.  Suffering from shell shock after the First World War, Lord Peter, the second son of the Duke of Denver, loafed about a little before discovering in his early thirties a passion for crime solving.  And so he became one of the world’s best-loved literary detectives.

He is, as always, surrounded by a cast of excellent supporting characters: his delightful mother, the Dowager Duchess; Charles Parker, a Scotland Yard detective with whom Wimsey works closely (and who will eventually become his brother-in-law); and Miss Climpson, who runs what Wimsey refers to as “the Cattery”, an employment bureau stocked with useful women who can be installed as informants in offices and homes of interest to the cases Wimsey works on.  Best of all, Wimsey is supported by his batman-cum-valet Bunter who has been with him since the war and is integral to both the running of Wimsey’s life and the solving of crimes.

Strong Poison contains all of these beloved supporting characters and introduces the most important one of all: Harriet Vane.

When we – and Peter – meet her, Harriet Vane is in the dock at the Old Bailey, accused of murdering her former lover.  A detective novelist by trade, Harriet is twenty-nine years old, a graduate of Oxford, and, Peter is convinced, entirely innocent of the murder by poisoning of Philip Boyes.  Despite her plain appearance, Peter falls in love with Harriet at first sight and becomes determined to both prove her innocence and marry her.  He alerts her to both intentions when he finally manages to meet her.  Harriet, being an entirely sane and reasonable person, is not terribly impressed and sees a number of bumps along the path to wedded bliss.  Peter is unperturbed by these concerns, including her past relationship with Philip Boyes:

‘I was absolutely stunned that first day in court, and I rushed off to my mater, who’s an absolute dear, and the kind of person who really understands things, and I said, “Look here!  Here’s the absolutely one and only woman, and she’s being put through a simply ghastly awful business and for God’s sake come and hold my hand!” You simply don’t know how foul it was.’

‘That does sound rather rotten.  I’m sorry I was brutal.  But, by the way, you’re bearing in mind, aren’t you, that I’ve had a lover?’

‘Oh, yes.  So have I, if it comes to that.  In fact, several.  It’s the sort of thing that might happen to anybody.  I can produce quite good testimonials.  I’m told I make love rather nicely – only I’m at a disadvantage at the moment.  One can’t be very convincing at the other end of a table with a bloke looking in at the door.’

Of Harriet’s concern, separate from their romantic future, that she night not have any future at all as the jury seems inclined for her to face the gallows, Peter is equally confident:

‘People have been wrongly condemned before now.’

‘Exactly; simply because I wasn’t there.’

There is much to be said for such confidence.  And so Peter sets out to use all his intelligence and ingenuity to prove Harriet’s innocence.

Strong Poison is, aside from the murder bit, drawn on events from Sayers’ own life.  Harriet, Sayers’ alter ego, was involved in an intense affair with the deeply selfish Philip Boyes, a fellow novelist.  Despite Harriet’s desire to marry and live conventionally, Boyes’ asserted his beliefs in bohemian ideals and free love, eventually breaking down her resistance and convincing her to live with him.  In Sayers’ own situation, she had a passionate affair with a poet who, like Boyes, rejected convention and embraced free love.  After two years, they parted and Sayers’ love then married another.  In Strong Poison, she had the satisfaction of killing him off instead.

Peter is Sayers’ ideal man so it is no surprise that he proves to be the perfect foil to selfish Philip Boyes.  He appears and immediately offers the one thing Harriet had tried so hard to get from Boyes: marriage.  He plays no games and tells her that her past is no barrier to their future together – after all, he also has a past.  Why should hers be more of a barrier than his?  And Peter is wonderfully accepting of other views.  When he visits with Harriet’s friends to gain a better understanding of the case, he good naturedly responds to their egalitarian beliefs – no macho posturing for him:

‘No, thanks’ – as Wimsey advanced to carry the kettle – ‘I’m quite capable of carrying six pints of water.’

‘Crushed again!’ said Wimsey.

‘Eiluned disapproves of conventional courtesies between the sexes,’ said Marjorie.

‘Very well,’ replied Wimsey, amiably.  ‘I will adopt an attitude of passive decoration.’

And yet…Let us be clear, I enjoy these books and always find them entertaining.  But with the introduction of Harriet, I also find myself a little unsettled.  Peter’s pursuit of Harriet is determined and, in the face of Harriet’s repeated assertions that she will not marry him, that becomes a little disturbing.  And there was one statement that drew me up short:

‘…I say,’ said Wimsey, ‘that it would be better for her to be hanged outright than to live and have everybody think her a murderess who got off by a fluke.’

This seems a little out-of-character for Peter and it seems a sentiment that is more focused on his feelings than Harriet’s.  Peter can easily incorporate a wife who has been cleared of wrongdoing into his privileged world but one who still has the stain of notoriety would be a rather different matter.  This statement seems fixed on his concerns, rather than Harriet’s.  Yes, she is a proud woman but would she really prefer to be dead?  To be alive and free might appeal more to the prisoner herself.

In the end – thanks to the extraordinary assistance of Bunter and Miss Climpson – the true murderer is discovered and Harriet is freed.  All is well and we end the book with Peter still determined to marry Harriet and Harriet perhaps feeling a little more inclined in his favour.  But we’ve another five books for that story to play out across…

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Like many other people this week, I am viewing the 1930 Club as the perfect excuse to reread The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield.  This begs the question, does one ever really need an excuse to read such a perfect book?  No but I took it anyways.

For the uninitiated (are there any of you?  Is it possible that the Venn diagram of people who read my blog and people who have read the Provincial Lady does not directly overlap?), the Provincial Lady is a devoted diarist who chronicles the small goings in her life over the course of a year.  The PL lives in the country with her husband Robert (a land agent), her six-year-old daughter Vicky, and, when he is not away at school, her son Robin.  They are attended by the standard indispensable household staff for an interwar middle-class household, include Mademoiselle, Cook, a maid, and a gardener.  Life is not hard but it has its trials and they are (mostly) all amusing.

With a mono-syllabic husband who is more likely to fall asleep with his copy of The Times after dinner than make sparkling conversation, the PL pours most of her thoughts into her diary.  She aspires to cultural and social refinements but, to her disappointment, is always falling a bit short.  She can’t quite find the enthusiasm to read the books she knows she ought to read.  When in town, she swears she wants to see the exhibitions everyone else is talking about, but prefers to spend her time shopping for things she can’t afford.  She can’t seem to win the literary contests she enters, even though clearly stupider friends and relations manage to do so.  She struggles to be modern (particularly when it comes to parenting), well-dressed (always a challenge on her budget), and many other things, always falling a bit short.

Where she doesn’t fall short is with her writing.  The PL’s style is distinctive and has been copied ad nauseum since she appeared (Bridget Jones being her most famous descendant) and you can understand why.  Brevity is the soul of wit and her sentences are masterfully short with great effect.  Most winningly, she leaves herself notes and questions in her diaries for further reflection, highlighting her insecurities and random trains of thoughts, and giving us a much better sense of her personality than most verbose novelists could do.

But the best way to get to know the PL is through her own words.  I find she is always at her best when discussing the children.  Lamentably, they are neither as attractive nor as angelic as other people’s children appear to be, which she feels reflects badly on her.  Vicky and Robin are reassuringly irritating and arguably the best things about the book:

December 1st – Cable from dear Rose saying she lands at Tilbury on 10th.  Cable back welcome, and will meet her Tilbury, 10th.  Tell Vicky that her godmother, my dearest friend, is returning home after three years in America.  Vicky says: “Oh, will she have a present for me?”  Am disgusted with her mercenary attitude and complain to Mademoiselle, who replies Si la Sainte Vierge revenait sur la terre, madame, ce serait notre petite Vicky.  Do not at all agree with this.  Moreover, in other moods Mademoiselle first person to refer to Vicky as ce petit démon enragé.

(Query: Are the Latin races always as sincere as one would wish them to be?)

December 24th – Take entire family to children’s party at neighbouring Rectory.  Robin says Damn three times in the Rector’s hearing, an expression never used by him before or since, but apparently reserved for this unsuitable occasion.

The PL also saves some of her frustration for Robert, but I have a soft spot for him so feel this is largely unearned.  Robert is a solid, predictable man who does not share his wife’s cultural pretensions but tolerates them (I think) remarkably well.  He is decidedly not a figure of high romance – however much the PL might sometimes wish him to be:

December 10th – Read Life and Letters of distinguished woman recently dead, and am struck, as so often, by difference between her correspondence and that of less distinguished women.  Immense and affectionate letters from celebrities on every other page, epigrammatic notes from literary and political acquaintances, poetical assurances of affection and admiration from husband, and even infant children.  Try to imagine Robert writing in similar strain in the (improbable) event of my attaining celebrity, but fail.  Dear Vicky equally unlikely to commit her feelings (if any) to paper.

April 12th – …Final straw is added when Lady B. amiably observes that I, at least, have nothing to complain of, as she always thinks Robert such a safe, respectable husband for any woman.  Give her briefly to understand that Robert is in reality a compound of Don Juan, the Marquis de Sade, and Dr Crippen, but that we do not care to let it be known locally.

I do find that the book is best when the PL is focused on her family.  E.M. Delafield has young children herself at this stage who clearly provided endless inspiration for Vicky and Robin’s most obnoxious behaviours. (N.B. Delafield’s daughter wrote Provincial Daughter as a 1950s response to her mother’s book.)  When the PL turns her sights to her social circle, the humour lags a bit.  Yes, she is still amusing in her pretensions and frustrations but I like her most when she is exasperated rather than insecure.

I like her least of all when she reminds me of how incompetent she is with money.  She is always short of funds: the pawnbroker knows her well and her banker dreads her visits to have her overdraft extended.  It’s never entirely clear if this is a family-wide issue (if so, Robert is remarkably sanguine, though he does know about the pawnbroker) or just the PL’s particular cross to bear.  What is clear is that she should not be allowed near money as every time she has any – or the promise of any – she spends it quickly and uselessly.  I can love her for her other foibles but this one leaves me twisted into anxious knots.

The Provincial Lady never disappoints and it was a delight to revisit her again.  But, by the end, it’s also a relief to leave her.  She is not a restful person – always aspiring to something that she can never reach, always feeling inadequate for some silly reason – and it’s refreshing to leave her behind and return to a more well-ordered world.

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The greatest pleasure of feeling a bit under the weather is picking reading material to match your frail state.  No weighty tomes or complex sentence structure here please!  Just straightforward storytelling that will capture an invalid’s attention without wearing them out.

Enter Ten Way Street by Susan Scarlett.

Scarlett (the penname under which Noel Streatfeild wrote a dozen light romances – see previous reviews of Under the Rainbow, Babbacombe’s, and Pirouette) is always reliable in these circumstances and Ten Way Street fitted my mood perfectly.  Wrapped up with blankets and with a constant stream of tea to keep me hydrated, I fell into the undemanding story with pleasure.

Ten Way Street is the London address of Mrs Cardew.  Better known by her stage name of Miss Margot Dale, Mrs Cardew is a genius in the theatre but a tyrant at home where her three children (Meggie, age 12; Betsy, age 10; and David, age 7) are at the mercy of her self-obsessed whims.  Having pulled the children out of their day schools after clashing with teachers, Mrs Cardew has engaged newly qualified governess Beverley Shaw to take care of them.

For Beverley, used to the pleasant but austere orphanage where she grew up, the Cardew household is  a shock.  The children have been brought up as accessories to their mother and are dressed up and trotted out to show off in a way that boggles her mind.  They are used to fur accessories, exquisite clothing, and caviar.  What they are not used to is an adult who cares about them.  Beverley, of course, is that adult.

Streatfeild wrote often about actors and their world, inspired by her own decade-long acting career, and she was rarely kind.  Mrs Cardew is all things horrible but, for most of the book, seems at least plausible.  It seems sad but realistic that she would prefer to spend her time lavishing attention on male callers rather than her children, or that she would have little patience with childish ailments and insecurities.  The household exists in a state of nervous exhaustion, ever sensitive to Mrs Cardew’s unpredictable moods, and the strain shows on everyone – especially the children.  But they are all quick to excuse her for she is, when the mood strikes her, a Genius on stage.

Beverley, however, doesn’t think Genius excuses Mrs Cardew’s behaviour towards her children.  In best governess-school style, Beverley sets out to get the children on a proper diet (no more gorging on caviar) and on a proper school schedule (no more jetting off to dress fittings if she can help it).  She gives them what they need – attention and discipline – and, to the surprise of absolutely no one, they slowly turn from obnoxious brats into completely normal, lovable children.

An admiring witness to this transformation is Peter Crewdson.  Invalided back to England after contracting black-water fever in Deepest, Darkest Africa, Peter is a young biochemist who has inadvertently become the object of Mrs Cardew’s very determined affections.  Originally a friend of the children, Mrs Cardew “stole” him from them (something they are resigned to – this is not the first time their mother has stolen one of their male friends) but he still manages to break away to the nursery to visit them.  Which is where he meets Beverley.  Naturally enough, the two sensible young people fall in love but all is not well.  How will Mrs Cardew react when she discovers the governess has stolen the man she loves?  And how can Bevelery even think of leaving the children who are just beginning to blossom under her care?

The ending is extraordinarily melodramatic but, after a few scuffles and a runaway attempt, all is resolved in a neat happy ending.  It’s not great literature but it is exactly right for a reader with a head cold.

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For me and many other Canadians (and enlightened Americans living near the border), one of the much-anticipated pleasures of the holiday season for many years was listening to Stuart McLean debut a new Christmas story on his CBC radio show.  You knew you could tune in and spend half an hour that would lead you from collapsing with hysterical laughter to blinking back surprisingly emotional tears.  It was a wonderful tradition.

Stuart passed away from cancer in February 2017 so intellectually I know there are no more stories coming.  But emotionally, I know nothing of the sort.  I long for his characteristically humorous and touching stories this time of the year and, even if Stuart is no longer around to read them, we still have his books to keep us company.  And so, earlier this week, I found myself reaching for Home from the Vinyl Café.

Published in 1998, this was Stuart’s second volume of Vinyl Café stories.  The Vinyl Café was the name of his radio program but it was also the name of the record shop run by Dave, the hapless hero of his stories.  Dave, his wife Morley, and their children, Stephanie and Sam, were the focus of twenty-odd years of radio stories as Stuart chronicled their lives in a normal Toronto neighbourhood with stories of neighbourhood rivalries and friendships, social faux pas (something Dave was particularly subject too), Stephanie and Sam’s growing pains and Dave and Morley’s nostalgia for their own childhoods.  They were wonderful stories and this book is a particularly wonderful collection of them.

It begins with the first – and one of the very best – of the Vinyl Café Christmas stories: “Dave Cooks the Turkey”.  This appears to be available on the CBC website (here – this story starts around 24:30) so if you’re able to listen, go now and do so.  It will be time well spent.  Just make sure you’re somewhere you can laugh uproariously without alarming too many people.  Dave’s wife Morley, after years of carrying the burden of all the holiday preparations as well as the day-to-day administering of their busy family, accepts Dave’s offer to help with Christmas this year: Dave can cook the turkey.  He commits, happy to make a small offering towards marital harmony, but realises only on Christmas Eve that he has forgotten to buy the turkey.  Determined to have the perfect Christmas dinner ready for his family (who are conveniently out of the house volunteering for most of Christmas day), he uses all of his ingenuity to acquire and cook a bird.  But the path he takes is far from conventional and the results are hysterically funny.

The next story in the collection is one of my all-time favourites and could not be more different from “Dave Cooks the Turkey”.  “Holland” tells the story of how Dave and Morley met in the 1970s and their early married life.  It’s a story about the struggles to combine lives and traditions, and the work – and love, and patience – that is required to make that happen.  It’s a beautiful story and one that has stayed fresh in my mind ever since I first heard all those years ago.  Someone has helpfully uploaded it to YouTube so you can listen here (it’s been split into two parts).

There are some other equally classic stories in this book – “Burd”, about what happens when a rare bird decides to winter in Dave and Morley’s backyard, and “Polly Anderson’s Christmas Party”, which involves an awkward neighbourhood gathering and a mix up with the eggnog bowls – but others I’d forgotten.  So many of the stories look at the anxiety Dave and Morley feel as parents, worrying about Sam and music lessons, or Stephanie and teenage romances, and they show what Stuart could do so well: make fun of the little things while always staying true to the heart of the matter.

I love these stories.  I have read them countless times and I will read them countless more, alongside all the other volumes of Stuart’s books.  They bring me great pleasure at this and any other time of year and I hope, if they’re not already a part of your life, you will give them a try.  I can’t imagine them not bringing you joy.

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After reading Anne of Green Gables in July, I was reminded of an eternal truth about books in a series: you can never read just one.  Or at least I can’t, particularly when it is this series which so dominated my childhood reading.  How could I leave Anne after just one book?  So I read on, quickly progressing through first Anne of Avonlea and then Anne of the Island.

Anne of Avonlea is an odd book or perhaps it is just a very typical second book, written in a rush to capitalise on the extraordinary success of Anne of Green Gables.  Published in 1909, only a year after Anne’s debut, Montgomery seems to have lost her sense of humour – and her sense of characterization.  When the first book ended, Anne was maturing and recognizing (with humour) her tendency towards indulging in overly dramatic flights of fancy.  In this book, she embraces those melodramatic tendencies wholeheartedly, becomes dreamier than ever without ever really coming back down to earth, and is insufferably condescending to her more prosaic friends.  She has relapsed to a stage which readers of the first book thought she had outgrown and no one benefits from it.  (There is a very good discussion of this in The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass by Elizabeth Rollins Epperly.)

The book still has its moments but Montgomery, desperately short of plot ideas, covers by introducing new characters at every turn.  We meet Mr Harrison, a grouchy farmer with a foul-mouthed parrot; Davy and Dora, twin relatives who Marilla takes in after they are orphaned; Paul Irving, the most sickeningly sweet child ever written; and Miss Lavendar, who is even more prone to silly fantasies than Anne.  None of these count as improvements to Avonlea society, as far as I’m concerned.

As usual, it is Anne’s humblest adventures that are the most entertaining.  Montgomery writing about ethereal fantasies and really anything involving Paul Irving is insufferable.  Montgomery writing about village gossip is delightful.  The disastrous repainting of the church is one of the book’s greatest moments and Anne’s horror at having to strap one of her misbehaving students – and then find he respects her more for it, thereby crushing all her high ideals – is marvellous.  And these moments are made better because they offer not just Anne’s perspective but a whole array of them, from besotted but still level-headed Gilbert Blythe, from sharp tongued Rachel Lynde, and from quietly amused Marilla.

If Anne of Avonlea is both frustrating and disappointing, Anne of the Island, happily, is an entirely different experience.

Published in 1915, Montgomery has several years to figure out how to next approach Anne’s story (and to write many sentimental stories and novels to expunge her overly dramatic tendencies).  The result is the 2nd best book in the series and one of the most important books of my childhood.

The novel covers Anne’s four years of college, which takes her away from Avonlea and from Prince Edward Island entirely, over to Redmond College in Kingsport, Nova Scotia (a fictionalised version of Dalhousie University in Halifax, where Montgomery studied).  She is accompanied by some familiar faces, Charlie Sloane and Gilbert Blythe, and joins up with friends Priscilla Grant and Stella Maynard, who she met at teacher’s school in Anne of Green Gables.  And, most importantly, she makes two very important new friends over her four years: Philippa Gordon and Roy Gardner.

Roy Gardner enters Anne’s life during her third year of college, an answer to all of her romantic fantasies.  Having by this point survived – and rebuffed – multiple marriage proposals (most very easily, with due horror, but one with great pain) since none of the men matched her vision of a future husband, it is almost too perfect when Roy appears in the midst of a rainstorm, perfection made flesh:

Tall and handsome and distinguished-looking – dark, melancholy, inscrutable eyes – melting, musical, sympathetic voice – yes, the very hero of her dreams stood before her in the flesh. He could not have more closely resembled her ideal if he had been made to order.

But ideal men aren’t very interesting – a fact the reader recognizes long before Anne.  Roy is clearly a red herring but it is easy to understand why a wealthy, worldly, handsome man who adores her has so much appeal.  He is so far removed from the Avonlea boys she’s grown up with, although the Redmond girls seem to think the Avonlea boys have a certain appeal, especially handsome, intelligent, and determined Gilbert Blythe, now studying to become a doctor.  Really, there is no doubt that Anne and Gilbert will end up together but my god does Montgomery put her readers through an emotional rollercoaster before that happy ending comes.

The other character of note is the marvellous Philippa Gordon.  I loved everything about this book as a child but it has only been on rereading it as an adult that I’ve recognized how much Philippa enriches the story.  Philippa is a contradiction from her very first introduction: a beauty from a wealthy Nova Scotian family, she could have married well (to her choice of suitor – both Alec and Alonzo are waiting for her still) but chose instead to come and study mathematics at university.  Despite an active social schedule through all four years, Philippa handles her academics with aplomb and sits at the top of the class.  And, perhaps most importantly, she can do what Anne cannot do: acknowledge when she is wrong, recognize a chance at happiness, and go after it with all her considerable energy and determination.

Phil and Anne approach their romances from very different perspectives.  Anne has dreamed of her ideal man for years.  She knows just what he will look like, has devoted considerable time to composing his perfect speeches, and can envision an idyllic future spent staring into one another’s eyes.  For her, the idea that Roy Gardner, her fantasy made flesh, won’t be as satisfying a life partner as Gilbert Blythe, her intellectual equal who would rather work beside her than worship her, is one she fights against.  She has a fixed vision and it is one that she sticks to.  When she finally consults her heart, it is almost too late.

Phil, on the other hand, never believed in romance.  She believed in marriage, certainly, and expected that one day she would marry one of the rich young men from her social circle and settle down to a life like the one she’d always lived.  Her time at Redmond is her way of postponing – at least for four years – having to decide which of the interchangeable eligible young men she will accept.  She throws herself into university life and has a marvellous time.  But then something changes.  She meets Jonas Blake, an awkward young minister, and that’s it.  Jonas is exactly the sort of man Phil has always joked about not being tempted by – ugly, poor, and far from at ease in company – but she falls in love almost immediately.  And when Jonas doesn’t dare to think she could be interested in him, she makes it very clear that she is.  Phil, knowing what she wants, is not going to let her chance at happiness slip away.

Nor is she about to let Anne do the same.  Marilla and Rachel Lynde may want to tell Anne that she is making a mistake by rejecting Gilbert, but they don’t.  Phil, on the other hand, is more than ready to do so.  Repeatedly.  For years.  Phil is not afraid of a little blunt talking and I love her for it.  As a child who found Anne too whimsical and Diana too timid, Phil was the first Montgomery character – and one of the first literary characters – I ever truly identified with.  And that hasn’t change remotely in the 23 years that have passed since I first encountered her.

Anne of the Island isn’t quite as good as Anne of Green Gables but it is close.  I could write about it endlessly but I’ll save that for another day.  I’ve read it countless times already and I shall certainly return to it again.  And again.  And again…

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