Sunday, September 29, 2013

My Ghosts

My Ghosts / Mary Swan
Toronto: Knopf Canada, c2013.
281 p.

What a beautiful read! This novel is just my thing: it looks at generations of a family, weaving memory and chance and connection into a long chain of storytelling. It begins in 1879, in a large family based in Toronto. Both parents are dead and the siblings are creating their own strong family unit, which carries through the book. (Full disclosure up front: this group was my favourite of all the characters)

Through their marriages, new family connections are created, and the next generation arrives with their own stories. Then we hear from the mother of one of the new spouses (a wonderful section) and much later, from two young women travelling Europe in the 70's who don't realize they are related -- but we see the links.

There are sorrows, joys, laughter, bitterness, dark episodes, hope, growth, love... it is a marvellous book. It takes us through the World Wars, into the raucous 70's, right up to our present. It follows characters from youth to old age, or not to old age depending on their fate. We see various perspectives of characters in different episodes. It all feels quite like looking through the old family album, which two of the characters actually do at one point.

I can't really summarize plot for this: starting with Clare in 1879, sick in bed with a dangerous fever, and ending with Clare, a widow in her 60's today, this family tree is more like a vine, twisting and turning unexpected corners, entangling itself in multiple directions. Names, characteristics, and even similar experiences recur as we move through the hundred years and more that the story covers. Plot is not exactly the point.

Characters and the gorgeous language are really key here. That and the sense of Toronto and Southern Ontario more generally, where all the characters tend to stick to, with excursions to Greece and to the wilder 19th century West in parts. There are lovely phrases to ponder, and many small details of family life that Swan notices, the small things that make individuals of our relatives -- the tendency to be sharp-tongued, a propensity for accidents, habits of behaviour, and so forth. There are so many intriguing women in this book, too, from first generations and on (but especially the first ones for me).

Here are a few bon mots that I marked in my reading:

It's not a thing she's thought before, but it makes sense to Clare if that's what Heaven is. Not a place, exactly, but something like a fold, like the part of a let-down hem that has stayed as bright and clean as it was in the beginning, while all the rest fades and fades. Maybe there is a fold like that in time, a sort of sidestep that lets you stay with the ones you loved, lets you watch them and hold them up. But no work to be done, no fretting or cares.

How can it be, that all that time has vanished? All the days and years we walked through together, my same hand turning down the lantern, night after night. A silly question to be asking myself, no point in wondering, no answer. Like the rules of light and shadow, some things just are as they are, and the only way is to start from there and carry on.

The space between them now is tumbled with separate memories, from the time Nan was gone, and with their separate thoughts...She thinks how most of the pleasure goes out of the remembering when there's no one to really share it with.

As you might notice by now, the thoughtful, quiet and deliberate pace of this tale caught me right away. I loved this book, though the end section went on a little too long about Greece for my preferences. I just wanted to get back to Toronto -- and that's not something I say every day ;)

A lovely book that I think needs sharing. What a pleasure it was. The Montreal Gazette says it has a  "purity of voice" and I think that is the perfect phrase to describe it.

Monday, September 23, 2013

An Inquiry into Love and Death

An Inquiry into Love and Death / Simone St James
New York: Penguin, c2013.
368 p.

I had to follow up my reading of Simone St James' first novel (The Haunting of Maddy Clare) with her second, An Inquiry into Love and Death. Fortunately for me, she has another coming out in April 2014, because she has become a must read author for me!

I enjoyed this novel greatly. It was very Mary Stewart, with smugglers and ghosts and everything :) The ghost in this particular tale is called Walking John, and he has been well-known in this small seaside community for many years. But more than a legend, or a human attempt to scare off our main character, or even a psychological belief, Walking John is R.E.A.L. And he is terrifying! So scary at moments, and even scarier is when our heroine Jillian realizes that not only is Walking John outside her house, there is ANOTHER GHOST INSIDE IT.

Okay, a little bit of melodramatic reviewing going on here, but what a classically spooky read! And this one still has romance but it's not quite as steamy or descriptive as the first novel was. There are fabulous characters, including a cat, ghosts, vicars, and more.

It is 1924, and Jillian Leigh is one of "those" women, a young woman at Oxford. She gets pulled from her classes though, when her Uncle Toby dies and she is left responsible for identifying his body and dealing with his belongings. He was renting a house in the haunted village of Rothewell, because he was (embarrassingly for her family) a ghost hunter. Jillian goes to Rothewell, not believing in ghosts, not expecting to stay more than a day or two, but she ends up doing both.

The varied inhabitants of the village are described as Jillian meets them, and there are lovely red herrings and false trails laid for the reader everywhere. Who can Jillian trust? Who will be the love interest? All of these questions swirl around a story that relies on the recently concluded Great War for some of its suspenseful elements. Into the mix comes Scotland Yard Inspector Drew Merriken, and at least one of the questions is immediately resolved -- no one else could possibly be the love interest after he arrives! He is quite a dashing character, a former RAF pilot, now detective, handsome, charming, etc. etc. But he also sees Jillian as intelligent and intriguing, rather than odd, as an Oxford girl. Who could resist all that? Not Jillian. And probably not many readers, either ;)

The story made sense, was well plotted, well paced, and had some surprises in it. Even the minor characters were interesting and full characters. The setting was so evocative, the sea and the small town and the ghostly disturbances intensely drawn. I was given shivers by Walking John, an unpredictable and volatile presence, but enjoyed reading about Jillian's dramatic encounters rather than having to experience them myself! The historical details are done just right, and the balance of ghost story and romantic tale is spot on. Definitely a very fun read for the season, and highly recommended for fans of this kind of story.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Touch Not the Cat

Touch Not the Cat / Mary Stewart
London: Hodder & Stoughton, c1976.
302 p.

This was just sitting on my shelf, unnoticed and unread until my husband asked, hey, have you read this one? How could I have neglected a Mary Stewart novel for so long, especially one with a maze in it? Well, that is now remedied.

This was written in the 70's and has telepathy as a main plot point: Bryony Ashley is the daughter of a family who has lived at Ashley Court since the 1600s. Her father has died in Europe in a suspicious car accident, and so Bryony returns home to England to sort things out and resolve her grief.

She also wants to find out who her mysterious "lover" is, the one she's been telepathically linked to since childhood. The concept and the terminology is a bit hokey, but the romance is still pretty well done. Bryony assumes that her lover is one of her cousins (ick) because this telepathy thing has been passed down through the generations... but it's not necessarily so. She has identical twin cousins, James and Emory, who are quite a pair, and their younger brother Francis who is conveniently out of the way on a hiking trip for much of the book. There's also Rob, a childhood friend, still living nearby with his mother. He was a lovely character, reminding me strongly of another Rob, the one in Susanna Kearsley's recent The Firebird.

Bryony must figure out what her father's last message to her means, and this involves their family motto -- Touch Not The Cat -- as well as the rather neglected maze and garden house at its centre, at Ashley Court. Her search for the truth about her family legacy draws in all the previously mentioned characters, as well as the American family renting Ashley Court (Bryony lives in an estate cottage). The story also includes brief, dream-like snippets of the life of her 16th century ancestor and his own lover, the 'gypsy' who brought their psychic trait into the family line. It's well written, melodramatic but enjoyable, and really difficult to puzzle out.

While I still love the sweet witchiness of Thornyhold, one of my Stewart favourites, this book was a more modern, dense read that I also liked for its own clever storyline. But then it takes work to be disappointed in a Mary Stewart novel, I think ;) While some reviewers have mentioned the slow moving storyline, I enjoyed the pacing and all the historical and familial background. Plus the maze! I love mazes.

Reliable comfort reading, and great to be have read some Stewart in time for Anbolyn's Mary Stewart Reading Week, which I only discovered a few days ago, thanks to Danielle at A Work in Progress and Barb at Leaves & Pages. And a very happy birthday goes out to Mary Stewart, who turned 97 on September 17th!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

After Life

After Life / Rhian Ellis
AmazonEncore, 2013, c2000.
310 p.

Another selection from Nancy Pearl's Book Lust Rediscoveries series, this is most suitable for RIP reading season!

It features a fictional setting drawn from the real life Lily Dale, a town of spiritualists and mediums. I've read about Lily Dale so was really intrigued by the premise of this novel: Naomi Ash and her mother Patsy (aka Madame Galina Ash) are only partially fake mediums and clairvoyants, and they live in Train Line, a town of spiritualists.

This book also takes its place in the firmament of great first lines:

"First, I had to get his body into the boat."

After this humdinger of a beginning, we go back to discover how and why Naomi is trying to dispose of a body. It's the 'why' of this murder that keeps us reading, trying to discover what could have happened to cause this to happen to Naomi and Peter, her sometime boyfriend.

Naomi is a complicated character. Stolid, aching for security, and rather surprised by her own mediumistic talent that appears in her late teens, she is always unsettled and uncertain of her place in life. She and her mother have been on their own for a long, long time -- they lived with Naomi's grandparents in New Orleans for much of her youth, but left town to strike out on their own after her grandmother died, ending up in Train Line.

At the time that the book opens, Naomi is living in a small apartment, with roommates, rather than with her mother. Her day job is maintaining the spiritualist community's library, and she also works as an after-school babysitter for a quiet, awkward child, a relationship that is extremely important to her.

There are a couple of references to librarians and library work in this novel, which of course I notice. One line that amused me was Naomi talking to Officer Peterson, who is investigating the discovery of a body:
He asked me what my job entailed, exactly, and said that a couple of people had told him that I might be a good person to talk to. Was it true that I saw a lot of the people who came through Train Line?
"Yes, I guess so. Though I don't necessarily look at them."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean I"m a librarian. I mostly only notice people who annoy me."

In every way, Naomi is very self-contained, and is holding in a lot of trauma and secrets. She is a difficult character, lacking social connections, disliking having to take the time to care about her appearance, mostly numb to feeling. She is not motivated to achieve anything or develop any particular skills or place for herself in the world. And yet the reader does feel empathy for her by the end.

She seems to have locked away most of her emotion around the death that is shared in the first few pages, but when a contractor starts development across the lake and uncovers a body -- the one she buried some years ago -- everything starts up again. She begins to become slightly unhinged as this discovery results in some suspicion falling on her, causing her relationship with the girl she babysits to be summarily discontinued. Her mother (unaware of Naomi's concerns) is also trying to use this discovery to restart her local radio show, and awkwardly for Naomi, she wants her help.

This book was fascinating in its depiction of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship that is not all good or all bad. There is still connection, but it's clear there is a fault line there, and after reading the last few chapters of this book I wondered how far Naomi had gone to protect her secrets.

Ellis is also wonderful at creating atmosphere, whether in New Orleans at the beginning and end of the book, or Train Line in between. The story slowly surrounded me, like the fog on the cover, and kept me pondering the fine line between truth and deception long after I finished reading.


One of the many things I enjoy about the Book Lust Rediscoveries titles are the forewords written by Nancy Pearl. In reading her introductory essay on After Life, not only did I get to hear a little bit about why she selected this book, and the reasons she thinks it is worth reading, I also discovered that Pearl collects quotes from her reading, like many of us do. I've kept a commonplace book myself for years and years, and just love gathering up the words that catch my attention.

When I read the following paragraph in the introduction to this book, it sounded oddly familiar... because I realized that I could say much the same thing!

The way an author uses language is always important to me in the books I choose to read. I realized a long time ago that, of all the books I've most enjoyed, the vast majority are characterized by their authors' ability to put words together in ways that surprise and enchant me, ways that cause me to look at the world as I never had before. Invariably, there are sentences and paragraphs in these books that I am compelled to read aloud to my husband (or whomever happens to be close by), post on the bulletin board in my office, and copy into the by now multi-volumed set of notebooks I have kept for years and years, which contain my favorite poems and lines from the books I've loved, to be read to myself when I need comforting or aloud, by my husband, to help me fall asleep.
This was a great book, one I really enjoyed, one that made me look closer. Great choice for a satisfying read -- and so nice to have a great book to follow up a read that wasn't so pleasant!

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Deadly Space Between

The Deadly Space Between / Patricia Duncker
New York: Harper Perennial, c2003.
256 p.

It seems that I've been finding a few duds in my RIP reading over the last few years. Last year I read a book that I really, really disliked, finding it creepy and violent, despairing with no good reason given for it (Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye)

I suppose this one would be this year's unpleasant choice, for me. I read it because it was on my TBR list of 20 books to read this year off of my shelves, as I've owned it for a long time. And I liked this author's first book, Hallucinating Foucault, which I read many years ago now. But this one, well, I'm not sure exactly what it was about it that disturbed me and resulted in a queasy response to it.

It's blurbed as follows:
An eerie psychological ghost story with echoes of Faust, Freud, and Frankenstein, The Deadly Space Between is a disturbing tale of Oedipal passions -- a rich and dark exploration of sexual ambiguity and longing.
The storyline is that young single mother Isobel, a painter, is unusually close to her son Toby who is only 15 years younger than she is. Now that Toby is a sullen teenager, Isobel takes up with a new lover, the enigmatic Roehm, who captivates both Isobel and Toby. Isobel's sister is violently opposed to her connection with Roehm, for reasons we later discover. So far, so good.

But. There is prurient, incestual sex involved in this story, among more than one set of characters. It doesn't add to the tale, it feels gratuitous and icky. Aside from this content, I ended up being very confused about Roehm's character. He is mysterious and powerful, a scientist who is doing biological studies in a dark, humid room which he takes Toby to, once. Roehm only comes around at night, and he seems to have a preternatural sense of what people are thinking, and seeing. He gives Toby a computer as a gift, and thus Toby tries to search for information about Roehm online -- he can find nothing, except a mention of a 19th century scientist who died during a mountaintop expedition.

When Isobel and Toby try to run from him at the conclusion of the book, they end up in Switzerland, in the mountains, where they run out onto a mountain path and Isobel collaspses, with visions of a man in the snow. Guess who? It's Roehm, the modern one, and the 19th century one. I couldn't work out whether he was a ghost, a psychological figment, a spirit, a descendent of the original -- nothing really fit with the story -- he has a presence in the modern world, not to mention prodigious sexual appetites, so how does that work?

I was confused, but glad enough to be done with this that I didn't try to puzzle it out any further. Unfortunately, this one is not recommended: it's simply deadly.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Utterly Heartless

Utterly Heartless / Jan Underwood
(read as ebook -- approx. 188 p.)

In 2007, I read this author's first book, Day Shift Werewolf, which was a previous winner of the absolutely insane 3 Day Novel competition. I really enjoyed it, though it was a set of linked short stories rather than a straightforward novel.

So when I had the chance to read Utterly Heartless, a new novel by the same author, I jumped at it. It's just as entertaining, revealing much of the same dry humour and fascination with the unusual that the first book held. But it's also a longer, more complex novel, incorporating both the academic world and the oddities of the afterlife with the very physical nature of strip clubs and student relationships.

The basic premise: Linnea E. Nil, Latin professor, is murdered on campus one night, her heart torn from her body. Her best friend Dori Amore, French professor, is grief-stricken, but also shocked when Linnea's spirit appears to her, asking for help in tracking down the missing heart.

Linnea has made this request in hopes that this act of friendship will offer her redemption -- otherwise, she'll have to go to Hades, the afterlife she's been assigned to on the strength of a couple of academic papers written years before. The opening scenes where Linnea encounters the afterlife kiosk and is told to report to Hades are very amusing indeed, with Linnea wishing she'd thought ahead and selected her afterlife. She meets the poet Vergil, a gladiator or two, has a run-in with Charon the ferryman, and ponders what treat might distract Cerberus...

Among this very classical story, we also have a storyline that follows Latin student Alice, as she works in a strip club, goes to Professor Nil's classes, and has a semi-open relationship with roommate Tad (his name is suspiciously close to "cad", a clue to his nature, I think!) Her household is full of odd characters living on the cheap and trying anything they can to afford tuition -- surrogate pregnancy, drug tests, and of course, working in a strip club. There's an evil administrator on campus as well, determined to cut services and raise costs, who is the nemesis of both students and professors.

All this comes together in a funny, dark, and somehow touching story of friendship, love, and meaning. Underwood throws in some edgy themes -- politics, the high cost of education, murder and mayhem -- and blends it all up into a very engaging story. Linnea was a wonderful character, even as a spirit, and her adventures on the otherworldly side of the town of Bridges are quirky and clever.

Perfect when you feel the need to read about Hades, murder, and nefarious characters, tempered by sly humour and clever observations about the state of academia today. It's now available on Amazon, or if you prefer, directly from CreateSpace, so if you're intrigued, do get yourself a copy & enjoy the seasonal read.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Haunting of Maddy Clare

The Haunting of Maddy Clare / Simone St James
New York: New American Library, c2012.
330 p.

This was a deliciously ghostly and romantic tale from a new-to-me Canadian author. It's set during the interwar years in England, and it is both chilling and thrilling!

As the book opens, we meet Sarah Piper, a lonely orphan in London, working for a temp agency and eking out her living. She lives in a tatty old boarding house and has a very restricted life. Then she gets a call from her agency: an author needs some temporary help and they want to assign the job to her. Although it's last minute, her rent is due so she accepts.

She heads off to meet Alistair Gellis only to discover that he is an unusual type of author: he writes factual books about ghosts and hauntings. He needs her not for secretarial assistance but because his latest ghost is said to make contact only with women.

Sarah's life changes utterly as she heads for the country with this charming, wealthy young man, ready to investigate ghostly rumours and add a little excitement to her routine. Alas, the ghost is only too real, and is sticking around thanks to a thirst for vengeance... fortunately, Gellis' usual assistant, Matthew Ryder, another young ex-soldier (but one who is manly, rough and solidly working class) turns up in time to become Sarah's protector and love interest.

How and why the ghost haunts her old home, and what this trio does to document her presence and help her move on, brings the chills to the tale. It's genuinely scary in parts, with the ghost's malevolence and powerful influence terrifying many of the characters. The reason why the ghost is haunting this house is slowly revealed, as a horrifying experience that gives power to her violent haunting.

But the relationship between Sarah and Matthew adds some warned this is a Gothic romance, and a modern one, with romance and lust making themselves known! There are secrets, mysteries, and enough unknowns to spook you and keep you reading. And the conclusion is a great payoff.  But the level of writing and the characterizations make this special.  I really enjoyed it, reading it all in one go, appreciating the details of the 1920 era setting. Not only the descriptions of clothes, or the after-effects of the war, but also the assumptions and restrictions taken for granted for women and for different classes of people. St James really captures the feeling of this era and yet makes it feel contemporary, not quaint.

It's a wonderful ghostly tale to read at this R.I.P. time of year. I'll be reading her second book as soon as I can!

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Cover Designs! #1

Here is the first of a projected occasional series called Cover Designs!

I've noticed a lot of book jackets in the last while featuring a woman in a dress, which is pretty much the main focus of the cover image. And usually she's facing away from the reader, but that's another whole issue for another day.

The point being that recently I've been focusing much more on sewing -- I used to sew clothing quite a lot, but this has dropped off over the last few years. Now I've got my sewing mojo back and thus have been looking at this rash of cover designs more closely, seeing as how I've also been poring over pattern catalogues and sewing websites a lot lately (my husband might say "obsessively").

I'll try to match up a cover design with possible patterns & sometimes fabrics that I think would work together to make a great knock-off of the cover dress. I'll start with Jennifer Close's "The Smart One", which, while I haven't yet read it, has made my TBR list, mostly because this cover caught my eye when I first saw it!

She is so smart that she can't decide how to tie her belt...

Here is the pattern I would choose to create a knockoff version of this dress, a Vogue design (always reliable).

Vogue 8379 is similar with that collar & the 3/4 sleeve cuffs -- assuming
that if our cover model turned around it would be a wrap dress she has on

I'd call it the Smart One dress, and flaunt some jewelry like this that picks up on the orangey blobs in the original, because of course I'd be smart enough to make it from the same fabric. And I'd probably wear shoes too.

gorgeous necklace

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Smith's Glaciers

Glaciers / Alexis M. Smith
Portland, OR: Tin House, c2012.
174 p.

I admit it, I was sucked in by this cover. And by the small size of this book, so pleasant to hold. And by the fact that main character Isabel works in a library and is fond of vintage items.

But. The quirks of the main character came to be a little too much of a perfect representation of the modern hipster. She is young, single, quiet, has a cat, loves vintage fashion and found objects from the past, works in a library, and is in love with a coworker who also happens to be a former soldier. A touch of everything cool there. She is a representation more than a person, and she is cold and distant from her emotional life. It was difficult for me to imagine her as a young girl with love on her mind. At the point that she finally admits her feelings to coworker Spoke, he is leaving to be redeployed. Will she ever see him again? Who knows, but a distant love to pine over is certainly romantic.

The story is brief, a series of sketches of her thoughts and actions over one day. The past is revealed through her memories -- growing up in Alaska, moving to Portland, ending up where she is -- as she moves through her present. The big moments of the day include deciding which vintage outfit to wear, choosing a restaurant for her lunch, and working at her implausible library job. Really, she mends old books in the basement. All day. I'm not sure which kind of library she works at, but it doesn't sound much like the ones I know.

While there were moments of appreciation, overall I was not wowed by this book. I liked the ending, at which Isabel attends a dinner party and each guest has to tell a story. At that moment, I felt as if this book were the prologue to the real story that was about to start...but the book ended. It wasn't a bad book, but was so brief and emotionally spare that I didn't have time or incentive to become involved with the characters or story. I do love that cover though :)

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Devaney's Leaky Body

My Leaky Body / Julie Devaney
Frederiction, NB: Goose Lane, c2013.
344 p.

This read was something I hadn't really considered picking up when I first heard of it, but I had a copy handy so started browsing it. Then I quickly found myself turning to page 1 and reading without ceasing.

It's a combination of memoir/social commentary on illness and the experience of chronic patients in the Canadian health care system. And it is powerful. Devaney relates how she was seriously ill for a long time until finally being diagnosed with colitis. She reveals the condescension and attitude she experienced as a young woman who dared to challenge the opinions of doctors and nurses, and the way that her own experience of pain was ignored or minimized by the "system".

During all of the initial flare ups of her illness, she was also a grad student and a social activist. Through her story she also shares the ways in which academia dismissed her illness as laziness, a stress response, or simply attention seeking. There were no accommodations made to allow for her physical limitations, despite the fact that her academic work was still excellent.

But rather than simply complaining, Devaney decided to do something about it. She created a play and a workshop to sensitize health workers to the needs of patients, to really personalize the individual who is being treated. She's written this book to bring the lived experience of chronic, serious illness and its accompanying pain to a wider audience. I think she's been successful at sharing the facts of illness and how it shapes a life, a lesson that many of us have not had to suffer through.

This book is very well-written, with humour and pathos and extremely open and graphic descriptions of her "leaky body". Not for the squeamish... She is sharing a critical time in her very full life, as a student, as a wife, a daughter, an activist, and a patient. Remembering that patients are more than just patients is a key message -- they are people with a full life of concerns and relationships which also affect their experience of illness and healing.

Anyone who is interested or involved in health care must read this. For me, it was reading out of my usual purview but was eye-opening and compelling.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Return of RIP VIII

It's hard to believe that it is already time for the annual RIP Challenge, now in its Eighth iteration! Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings is always a fabulous host and I'm so looking forward to some more RIP reading.

Nothing says Autumn like earlier evenings, falling leaves, hot drinks, and creepy reading! Around about here it's still muggy and summerish, with rain and heat and so on. So we only have the creepy reading going on right now, but I'm sure the rest is coming...

As Carl says so succinctly:

Dark Fantasy.

Or anything sufficiently moody that shares a kinship with the above. That is what embodies the stories, written and visual, that we celebrate with the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril event.
As time has wound on I’ve honed this event down to two simple rules:
1. Have fun reading (and watching).
2. Share that fun with others.

If you wish to join in on RIP VIII, go on over and sign up on Carl's blog. RIP reads go from September 1st to October 31st, so there is plenty of time to decide on a Perilous reading level and read along.

This year I'm once again going to choose Peril the First -- reading 4 books by RIP's end. I'm creating a pool of choices, some which I own and some for which I am eagerly awaiting release dates. Some of my possible reads in the weeks ahead...

We Have Always Lived in the Castle / Shirley Jackson
Perfume / Patrick Suskind
The Terror / Dan Simmons
The House of the Wind / Titania Hardie (DNF)

Alchemist & the Angel / Joanne Owen
Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes / Jonathan Auxier
Daphne / Justine Picardie
Bellman & Black / Diane Setterfield  (DNF)
Bones of Paris / Laurie King  (DNF)

Actually Read:

The Haunting of Maddy Clare / Simone St James
Utterly Heartless / Jan Underwood
The Deadly Space Between / Patricia Duncker
After Life / Rhian Ellis
Touch Not the Cat / Mary Stewart
An Inquiry into Love and Death / Simone St. James

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Riders of the Purple Sage

Riders of the Purple Sage / Zane Grey
Sanbornville, N.H. :, Large Print Book Co., 2008, c1912.
361 p.

On my Western kick after reading The Cowboy & The Cossack, I decided to read one of the most famous Westerns of all, by an author I have read other titles from previously. My library has it in large print, newly reprinted in an "American Classics" series. This was written in 1912, but set in 1871, taking place in the canyons and highlands of Southwest Utah.

It's a complicated plot, centering around a gunman, Lassiter, a Mormon woman, Jane Withersteen, one of her riders, Bern Venters, and Bess, the woman he rescues from rustlers. It focuses on Mormon settlement in Utah, and takes the position that the Mormon men use their religion for purposes of power and lust, for women and for land. Lassiter, the archetypal gunman, is known as the "killer of Mormons", and yet acknowledges to Jane Withersteen that he has met many decent Mormons, though he believes their creed leads to corruption and evil.

When I first started reading, I wondered whether "Riders of the Purple Prose" might be a more accurate title! Grey describes the settings extensively; it's one of his hallmarks that he makes the landscape as much a part of the story as the plot. In his hands, the land itself is a symbol and a reflection of his themes of independence, morality, honour, and the vitality of isolation. I found the storyline a bit tedious and overblown, with Jane's stubborn refusal to admit that the Mormon men she knows are acting against her openly and secretly. The themes of honour and love and so forth are a bit heavy-handed, and of course this book is dated according to our modern eyes. But I did enjoy parts -- the sections with Venters and Bess living in their isolated Surprise Valley in the canyons were interesting, mainly for the description! These two characters felt fresher and more alive than Jane and Lassiter, although they are all linked, in more ways than we first realize.

Jane finally admits she must leave her ranch, and she and Lassiter flee to Surprise Valley. Along the way they encounter Venters and Bess, who are leaving Utah altogether, and since only two people can outrun the Mormons on the good horses, Venters and Bess take the horses and Jane and Lassiter take the burros and continue on to Surprise Valley. They rescue Fay, a small girl that Jane had adopted, and end up permanentlyshutting themselves into Surprise Valley when they start a landslide to avoid pursuit (an occurrence that has been heavily foreshadowed for most of the book).

This is a complicated, Western melodrama (for full exposition of the plot, you can check out the Wikipedia article -- and who knew that there have been 5 movie/tv versions?) I found it denser and more portentous than some of Grey's later work, but in any case, this novel was extremely successful, and led to a sequel just a few years later, giving us the story of what happened to Jane, Lassiter and Fay.

Rainbow Trail, or The Desert Crucible

The sequel was published in 1915 as The Rainbow Trail, but has been released more recently with the full original manuscript as The Desert Crucible. I read it in this recent paperback. It follows the themes of the original novel, but is set ten years later.

Although Venters and Bess, at the end of Riders of the Purple Sage had mentioned returning to Utah to rescue Jane and Lassiter, they never did. It's been ten years that they've been stuck in the valley. As this book opens, Shefford rides into Utah. He's a former preacher who has left the church, and is following the romantic tale of Fay Larkin and her parents, told to him by a friend, who happens to be Bern Venters. His goal is to find Surprise Valley and release all three captives.

Of course, it doesn't go as smoothly as planned. Shefford connects with a trader named Withers, who he begins working for, and through him develops an important friendship with Nas-Te-Bega, a Navajo. In working for Withers, Shefford comes to awareness of a secret settlement of Mormon wives. At the time of the story, polygamy was being persecuted in Utah, so the older Mormons have created a small town of sorts just barely across the border in Arizona where they keep all their superfluous wives. Shefford takes supplies in, and of course falls in love with the youngest, quietest and most beautiful of the wives.

At some point he realizes who this young woman is, and with the assistance of Nas-Te-Bega they escape from the town, ride to Surprise Valley to rescue Jane and Lassiter, and flee down the canyons to ride the rapids to freedom.

I thought that this book was much better than the first. Less philosophizing, more action, and a great escape. The travails of Shefford and company after they leave the Mormon settlement and head down into the wilderness are described thoroughly. The mystical nature of the landscape is there, along with the practical experience -- the pebbles underfoot, the silence, scorching heat, roaring river and the terrifying ride down the rapids in all its watery violence. The ending is also satisfying, as the four characters from the first novel meet up again in peace and friendship, "back East" in Illinois.

There was also more openness to the Mormon settlers in this book. Grey, through his characters Shefford and Withers, allows that the older, fundamentalist Mormons are still set on empire and polygamy, but the younger Mormon men and women are less likely to believe in or support things like multiple wives. They are also less antagonistic to "Gentiles" (non-Mormons). I do find it a bit amusing that someone like Zane Grey, who was married but had multiple, continual affairs, is so insistent on the issue of polygamy in both these books. While I didn't think that either novel was utterly without fault, Grey can certainly evoke a place, and create drama, even if does devolve into melodrama now and again.

After reading these novels, I have found that I'm very interested in Grey's own life. His relationship with this wife, who acted as his editor and business manager, is particularly intriguing, so thank goodness there is a published collection of their letters, Dolly & Zane Grey: Letters from a Marriage. It's on my reading list now.