Monday, May 06, 2019

Up the Hill & Over

Up the Hill and Over / Isabel Ecclestone Mackay
Toronto: Thomas Allen, 1927, c1917.
363 p.

And now for some hundred year old Canadian small town drama! Isabel Ecclestone Mackay was born in Ontario, and though by the time she wrote most of her books she was married and living in Vancouver, her stories still take place in and around Toronto and small town Ontario. 

The first of her books which I read was The House of Windows, set in a town very much like Toronto and featuring a focus on labour practices and the livelihoods of young women, mixed in amongst the storytelling. 

This one takes on another issue - drug abuse - specifically of opioids by someone once prescribed them by a doctor. I don't know if we could find a more timely theme from another 100 year old book.

This is a charming book despite the melodramatic themes -- it felt reminiscent of writers of the era like Myrtle Reed and even our own LM Montgomery -- more Blue Castle than Anne though. 

It starts out with a man walking into town along a dusty road -- he stops for a drink from the schoolhouse pump and encounters Esther, the pretty young schoolteacher. It turns out he's not a tramp, but a doctor intent on settling into this town and working for his living. 

Like every good romance, this one has secrets, mysterious pasts, coincidental meetings, and thwarted love. It also has quite a bit of social commentary: the doctor is a famous Montreal doctor taking an anonymous rest cure after a nervous breakdown, Esther is stuck taking care of an elderly aunt who is mentally unstable, along with a stepmother who is the aforementioned drug addict. The local minister is terrifyingly fixated on the young Esther as well, and she must walk a fine line socially to manage all this. Of course, the arrival of the new doctor throws her ordered life into new paths.

There is lots of confusion, sacrifice and young love going on here, but even with the obvious tropes and the turn of the century writing style the story is appealing and reads very quickly. There's a funny, throwaway quality to some of Mackay's most pointed observations, particularly when she's noting personality quirks and social mores.   
The ending was not at all where I expected the story to go -- she doesn't paint these issues with a golden brush. There is an appropriately happy ending, but one with shadows holding it up.

It was, however, a very engaging read, and I recommend it. I missed out on this author while studying CanLit, so I most definitely think her mix of romance and social critique is due for a second look now.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

12th Annual Canadian Book Challenge: May Round Up

1. Click on the icon above
2. Add a link to your review. (Please link to your specific review, not an entire webpage.)
3. Add your name and in parentheses the title of the book, such as Melwyk (Anne of Green Gables)
4. In the comment section below, tell me your grand total so far. (ex. "This brings me up to 1/13")
5. In the comment section below, note whether you've read a book which meets the monthly challenge set via email for participants.

Don't forget to go on over and check out Shonna's post introducing the 13th Annual Canadian Book Challenge! You can sign up right at the post if you plan to keep on reading Canadian :)

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club /
Dorothy L. Sayers
NEL Books, 1981, c1928
252 p.
Sayers is back on form in Book 5 of the Lord Peter Wimsey series (book 4 is a set of short stories which I will discuss in future).

This entry in the series is quick moving, with a mystifying murder, many suspects, and Peter and Bunter are on top of the whole mix. 

As it opens, Lord Peter is at his club, the Bellona. It's the old joke; so many of the ancient men who sit reading papers all day might as well be dead. In this case, General Fentiman is discovered to be dead behind his paper, by both Peter and one of Fentiman's heirs who has just been talking with Peter. 

The race to figure out this strange decease begins. There are a number of likely suspects, especially as the General's sister died just a few hours before he did, if estimated time of death can be believed, and this throws both estates into great confusion. Both George and Robert Fentiman, brothers, stand to benefit from the will, but then so does Ann Dorland, their estranged aunt's ward. Which one of the three has the most cause for murder? And how was it done? 

There were so many red herrings and likely evidence proving false in this story, I could hardly keep up. I was sure I knew who the culprit was, but then before too long that was clearly not right. So I had to build another case! This was a cleverly constructed and amusing mystery, with some interesting sidelines in the plot. Bunter is much in evidence, taking photos and investigating in the servant class. And Peter is becoming more of a person, showing off his sweet nature and his dislike of the natural end of a case, the arrest of the culprit - which at this time meant hanging was next. 

This is a tricky novel based on time -- time of death, timing of movements etc -- and it seems that Dorothy Sayers pokes fun at herself in later novels when she says there's no-one like a detective writer for clocks. I found this one entertaining, with a great set-up, interesting characters, likely motives, and a plot just tricky enough not to quite figure out until the end.

It feels like Sayers was getting more comfortable with her characters, and thankfully didn't rely on too many dated tropes in this book. Probably my favourite so far. 

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Lucy Maud in the Muskokas

Lucy Maud Montgomery and Bala / Jack Hutton & Linda Jackson-Hutton
Gravenhurst, ON: Watts Printing, c1998
86 p.
Sometimes my job has unexpected and wonderful perks. Recently I met a couple while I was working, and in conversation we discovered that we were all LM Montgomery fans -- in fact, the husband of the couple was a descendent of Mr. Mustard from Lucy Maud's Prince Albert years. As other fans will know, Maud visited the Mustards many, many years later, when they were in Bala, in Northern Ontario. This visit was the genesis of her only adult novel, The Blue Castle, which was set in the Muskoka region. If you're interested in her visit, there is also a 1995 article written about it by LMM scholar Mary Beth Cavert, available online.

In any case, a little later on, this couple dropped off a copy of this charming book for me. I was completely surprised by this generosity, and delighted to read the story of Jack and Linda Hutton, who started a private museum, Bala's Museum, in 1992. It celebrates Maud's visit and holds family events and gatherings focused on her writing. You can find a brief precis of some of the history of the museum, which is shared in this book, on their website as well. 

While the book seems short, only 86 pages, it is also jam-packed with the story of how Jack and Linda met, married and decided to start an independent museum based on the short, one-time visit that Maud made to Bala. It also looks at the story of Maud's writing life and her celebrity; there is a chapter all about John Mustard; and some contributions by or about contemporary Maud scholars and aficionados, like Mary Rubio or Jean Little

It also has a load of wonderful photos of the Montgomery family, of the Huttons and the museum, and of the glorious landscape of Bala. The back cover is a map attempting to trace the movements of Valancy Stirling and Barney Snaith, of The Blue Castle, a route you can follow yourself if you're inclined to take a driving tour. 

It's a charming, homey book, with lots of pure joy in it. You can tell the authors love LMM and the history of the area, and that they have created this still-active museum out of passion. I've only been up to Gravenhurst once, and thought it was lovely, and now that I know all about this nearby LMM location, I'm going to have to go back. This was a delightful read. 

Friday, April 12, 2019

Unnatural Death

Unnatural Death / Dororthy L. Sayers
New York: HarperTorch, 1995, c1927
264 p.

Book Three of the Peter Wimsey series, Unnatural Death, was not as successful for me as the first two. 

Mostly because of the racist language & content. It was dreadful. 

Lord Peter gets drawn into this mystery by chance; he overhears a doctor talking about the case of Agatha Dawson, a sick old woman who died seemingly naturally but although he can't prove it he has doubts. 

So Lord Peter sticks his rather identifiable nose in. There is suspicion cast upon Agatha's grandniece, who lived with her and cared for her in her illness. But this niece, unlike Agatha and her former lifelong partner, is not a sweet lady like them but an Evil Lesbian. Every strange thing she does, it seems to be hinted that it's her unnatural tendencies at fault. There is a counterbalance in the way that Agatha's life is presented; the locals just take her as she is and seem phlegmatic about the relationship she had. And Peter himself has many friends and acquaintances among the more Bohemian set.

Even that pales as a problem, though, when we come across both the repeated use of the n word, and the willingness of Lord Peter and the police to allow the tabloids to spread a raging lie about the possibility that a nice young white girl has been murdered and another kidnapped by vague "black men" in order to entrap a killer. It's irresponsible and icky. This is during the 20s, when racist fearmongering led to direct violence against people of colour, especially in the US, and yet this doesn't feature in the lead characters' concerns at all. I know it's a different time, the story needed a red herring etc etc. But as a modern reader this element makes this into a very uncomfortable read that I couldn't just love as much as the first two books in this series. 

I don't know why Sayers went in this direction in this novel. The characters who seem to embrace this racist viewpoint are the villians, but it doesn't make it any more pleasant to read now.

It's unfortunate because the story otherwise isn't too bad, and the badinage of Lord Peter and Bunter and some of their cohort is as charming and foppish and clever as usual. But just like one rotten apple, the story is rather spoilt by the rest of it. I can enjoy Lord Peter's development, and his silly chatter, and his sleuthing, but still feel that the storyline lets everyone down somewhat. 

So while I still adore the series and the character, I'm not sure this will be one entry into it which I reread often or ever.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Clouds of Witness

Clouds of Witness / Dorothy L. Sayers
London: Hodder, 2016, c1926.
320 p.
This book, the second in Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey novels, takes us right into the heart of Wimsey's family, when his older brother, the Duke of Denver, is accused of murder. 

Peter is visiting Denver when a dead man turns up in the garden -- a London radical with whom their younger sister Mary was having an affair. The Duke is charged with the murder, and won't say anything to support an alibi. Is he guilty? Or is he protecting someone?

Meanwhile Mary is acting very strangely, refusing to talk to her brothers. And the Dowager Duchess is overseeing it all. The Dowager is introduced to great effect here, with resplendent intelligence and dignity, a clear fondness for her odd son Peter, and the best lines in the book. Upon the topic of sleuthing, she says
“My dear child, you can give it a long name if you like, but I'm an old-fashioned woman and I call it mother-wit, and it's so rare for a man to have it that if he does you write a book about him and call him Sherlock Holmes.” 

And in reference to the Dowager, a policeman later notes that:
“Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman, but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force.” 
 So the introduction of Peter's family, and subsequently a little more background and colour to his character, make this a fine second book in this long series. There is lightness and humour among the more serious themes, but there are also a few more dangerous moments for Lord Peter. He nearly gets sucked into a bog; only Bunter's perseverance keeps him alive until help comes. He also comes close to an airplane crash when going to great lengths to bring exonerating evidence for his brother's trial at the last minute. 

The mystery circles around the fact of the dead body in the night, with a houseful of guests, and multiple motives and witnesses. Lord Peter, and Bunter of course, must sort and sift through the facts and the assumptions to save the Duke of Denver from hanging for something they are certain he didn't do.

There are a lot of curious features to this case, and a look at the trial of a peer -- and of the plight of a woman with an abusive husband -- and the oddity of Mary's Bohemian crowd which Peter of course finds entrĂ©e into and nearly gets himself killed by it -- it's full of event and drama and great touches in the plot and the characterizations. Really enjoyable, and one that holds up to rereading.