Review of Maidens’ Trip, by Emma Smith

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Maidens’ Trip: A Wartime Adventure on the Grand Union Canal perhaps appears to have taken me forever to read (three years), but as it took place in a lost world that yet seems always just beyond my horizon in the past, savouring it slowly in snippets was the best way to enjoy it. During the Second World War, British women were required to participate in the war effort. The young Emma Smith grew bored serving as a typist in some War Office bureau (it was in fact the Secret Intelligence Service but still no less stultifying) and volunteered to become a ‘boater’, piloting canal boats carrying coal and metals back and forth from London to Birmingham. This book is a slightly fictionalised account first published in 1948. The crew consist of Emma, Nanette, and Charity, three young women in their late teens – the latter two composite portraits of the girls Emma worked with. What would now seem to most of us an absolute horror (and indeed many of the volunteers quickly found other assignments) of wet, cold, overwork, danger (drowning, being crushed between the boat and the wall of the lock, hitting your head on a bridge), lack of sleep, and wearing the same filthy jersey and trousers held together by safety pins, is made to sound like a delightful lark and a wonderful opportunity to escape the expectations of being a proper young lady. The other ‘boaters’ – the families that made their living working the canal – seem not quite to have known what to make of these middle-class girls. And their adventures dealing with the highly temperamental one-cylinder diesel engine brought back some nautical memories of my own.

I found out about Emma Smith when I read her memoir As Green as Grass and since I have read her novel The Far Cry. (You can find my reviews of these on this blog.) And I still wish I knew her as a person — as I’m only seventeen years younger, it would have been possible had I not discovered her way too late reading her memoir. But of course I couldn’t have known her as she was in 1943. But I still so admire the people of that generation, with their mixture of cultural sophistication and innocence, their courage and self-sacrifice, sense of belonging to each other, and especially common sense and humour. Even vicariously Emma Smith has been such a privilege to have known.

Review of Bitter Orange, by Claire Fuller

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Clair Fuller’s first novel Our Endless Numbered Days utterly captured me with its strange tale of a father and daughter living out his survivalist fantasy for years alone in the woods and its bizarre aftermath. (Fortunately not at all like Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling’s repulsive treatment of a similar theme.) But Swimming Lessons, Claire Fuller’s second novel, failed to catch fire for me, perhaps because both the characters and the setting were very damp. The latest, Bitter Orange, is un-put-downable gripping though one would expect the principal character to be a drab. Frances presently lays dying in a palliative care unit and her memory keeps returning to the events of the summer of 1969 when her dull life took an unexpectedly exciting turn. Her mother finally died after Frances has spent years as her principal caregiver, barely maintaining a career as an architectural historian. Then she was hired by an American millionaire who had acquired a ruined mansion in Hampshire called Lyntons to appraise its grounds, probably to find valuable objets (such as a Palladian bridge) that could be dismantled for shipping overseas. But Frances finds she is sharing the place with a younger couple. Peter is an antiques dealer, his task to value the furnishings of the house, of which there appear to be none as the army wrecked the place when they requisitioned it during the war. (Sort of like in Brideshead Revisited.) Cara is an extravert given to voluble exclamations in Italian and preparing elaborate meals with nowhere to sit and nothing to eat off of but lots to drink. They look the ideal fun couple. Is Frances – who seems straight out of a novel by Barbara Pym or Anita Brookner — finally going to ‘get a life’ after all?

Then things start turning darker. Under the floorboards of Frances’s attic bathroom is a small telescope set as a spy glass to peer into the bathroom below that Cara and Peter share. Cara isn’t an Italian at all; she’s actually Irish and grew up in a smaller Ascendancy rattled ruin and the seeming fun-couple’s relationship reveals deep fissures. Peter is actually married to someone else whom he is still supporting. Cara is also a total fantasist with a lost baby in her past for which she gives utterly bizarre accounts. Then they discover ‘The Museum’ – the hiding place from the army for all the family valuables and jewellery. They have no key. To get in Peter has to take a sledgehammer to the door. Suddenly the three of them have furniture, tables and chairs and plates to eat off of. And being an antiques dealer, Peter knows how to turn hot artefacts into cold cash. What does Frances do? Does she write her employer and tell him about the treasure trove’s being looted? Of course she responds as I would have done (at least when I was younger) …

At this point I’d best leave the remainder of the story for the reader to discover. For me it was really affecting and disturbing, and yet like the best stories, perfectly appropriate and in character. It is fascinating how well Claire Fuller can use physical detail to create atmosphere, like the cabin in Our Endless Numbered Days and the huge piles of annotated books in Swimming Lessons. Here Frances’ botanical sampling knife, the telescope spy glass, the bridge covered with weeds, the memento-mori ring Cara adopts as a replacement wedding band, the cigarette case Peter gives Frances, the orange tree trapped in the glasshouse (which is also the name for a military prison) with its inedible fruit that gives the book a title, and the sledgehammer all play a sinister symbolic role in the tale. And the twists were so nicely prepared that they scarcely felt like twists and seemed to come just as they look inevitable.

Though Bitter Orange is definitely a five star, some nasty loose ends bother me and as the story runs on two tracks, past and present, to finality, I’ll always wonder about them. Why was the little telescope spyglass planted in the floor? Who was the father of Cara’s baby? How could Victor the priest, who’s at least ten years older than Frances, have officiated at her deathbed and burial? Was the bridge in the Palladian style and what became of it?  Tho’ Bitter Orange is excellent, it is not quite the book I still await from Claire Fuller. That is the sequel to Our Endless Numbered Days, where we encounter Peggy again, as an adult.

New Publication: The Chaplain of Blackburne House, by Bill Kupersmith

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Jennifer McCreavy, is a young Episcopal priest. As the story opens, she has just accepted a position as chaplain, mistress of a girls’ dorm called Blackburne House, and Latin teacher at Saint Aidan’s, a boarding school in Connecticut. But she has also embarked on an undercover mission. Her half-sister Cathy Foxcroft was a second-year student at the school. The previous April she was found hanged in a dormitory stairwell, presumed a suicide. That was totally out of character; Cathy liked school and had no history of depression or self-harm.

When Jen arrives at Saint Aidan’s at the beginning of term, she discovers that the school has fallen under the aegis of a glamorous couple, Antonia and Alastair Brucemoore, a wealthy manager of a secretive hedge-fund and her husband the school’s academic dean and drama coach. A couple of years ago, Saint Aidan’s was in dire financial straits, and the Brucemores assumed control. They live in mansion overlooking the school.

Tackling new responsibilities, Jen concentrates on revitalizing the spiritual life of the school, insuring the safety and welfare of the girls in her dorm, teaching Classics and religion, and coaching the field hockey team. She makes new friends among the students and staff, especially the 17 year-old Amber Talbott, the proctor who assists her in running the dorm, and establishes a close working relationship with Josiah Powel, the senior Classics master. From the school nurse, Jen learns that drug activity and sexually transmitted diseases are rampant on the campus and that Cathy had asked for an HIV test shortly before her death.

Gradually we become aware that Saint Aidan’s is under the influence of dark spiritual forces. These work to implicate Jen in a scandal that would destroy her ministry in the Church and her teaching career. As Jen continues her investigation, it appears the Brucemoores’ mansion is focus of drug activity, sexual abuse, and internet pedophile pornography. When one of girls in Jen’s house is abducted and placed in grave peril, Jen and her friends must risk everything to rescue her.

The Chaplain of Blackburne House is an exciting mystery thriller as well as realistic depiction of life at at a boarding school. We see both the best and the worst features of an elite educational institution and how Jen’s spiritual values and devotion transform the lives of her students, revealing the power of love, friendship and commitment summed up in the house Latin motto, Res Unius Res Omnium. Along with the spirituality, there are paranormal manifestations well. Readers who enjoy school stories and mystery thrillers, along with more than a touch of the supernatural, should enjoy following Jen’s adventures.

Review of She Was the Quiet One, by Michele Campbell

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When we break a good resolution, we usually tell ourselves that it is only this one time and for a good reason. In my case, asking She Was the Quiet One from NetGalley after swearing only to request review copies of new books by authors I had previously read and liked was the specious attraction of the setting—Odell, a boarding school in New Hampshire. I had just completed a novel of my own set at a boarding school in New England that I thought it would be fun to compare notes on how it is done. In this case, Michele Campbell ought to have known that teachers are mandated reporters; that means they are required to report any instances of what they reasonably believe to be physical or sexual abuse to the appropriate authorities. In the case of Sarah and Heath Donovan, who are the housemasters of Moreland Hall, they are informed of a hazing incident when a girl in their dorm beaten on her bare buttocks with a leather slipper and a video posted on Snapchat, and they first concern was how it might affect Heath’s chances of becoming headmaster. As it turns out, the girl withdraws from school but her family sue the perpetrator’s family for the absurdly astronomic sum of $20 million, though the only lasting injury was to the victim’s self-esteem. I doubt law school was part of the author’s formation: later we see a lawyer imagining that asserting girl’s Miranda rights means that she cannot co-operate willingly with the police.

Two sisters are involved. Rose and Bel, fraternal twins. (Is it sexist to refer to twin sisters as “fraternal”? My dictionary doesn’t have an adjective derived from “soror.”) Orphaned, they are sent off to boarding school at the behest of granny’s lawyer (the one who’s not so up on Miranda) boyfriend. They are opposite personalities: Rose is studious and serious; Bel is unfocused and pliable, and finds herself involved in an affair with housemaster Heath Donovan, who is definitely the instigator and consummates their relationship at midnight in the laundry room of the dorm. There’s “a contest, which senior girl can bed Donovan”—I wondered why.

If one is going to portray illicit relationships between teacher and student, make it attractive; feature some class. Have the teacher at least pretend to sophistication, caring, attentive and considerate sexually, devoted to the student-lover’s intellectual maturity. What the Greeks called paidea. Instead Heath makes Bea slog through muddy winter woods to meet him in a car park and then he drives her to a sleazy motel where she finds out that his amatory technique is of the wham-bam variety. On route he orders her: “A car’s coming. Get down.’ She ducked into the passenger-side foot well, and rode down there the whole way to the motel.” Not exactly a romantic relationship.

Campbell provides us with the stock characters who populate the run-of-the-mill prep school story. There’s Darcy, the classic mean girl: “Life in Darcy’s circle was a big joke. The terrible pressures of Odell—the crushing workload, the college-admissions race, the sane three-hundred-page code [sic] of conduct manual—vanished at the flick of Darcy’s shiny, blond hair. Bel needed to be part of that.” Of course she’d be a blonde. Interestingly though, she hang around after her expulsion and contribute to a minor plot twist. And of course there’s the school bully. “Brandon was a mouth-breathing delinquent. He was also very, very rich, his dad being a real-estate billionaire”! Um! I wonder who he might be based on! And Heath and Sarah’s imagining that promotion to Headmaster and “first lady” (that’s really what somebody calls it in this book) will give them a life of abundance and easy and luxury instead of the endless rounds of fund-raising, ingratiating themselves to parents and potential parents, and scrupulous devotion to the welfare of every single student that the responsibilities of a real school head require.

Stylistically, Michele Campbell scarcely misses a cliché: “He bolted down the front path like he’d been shot from a cannon”; “Sarah was weak as a kitten”; “you scream like a banshee” are a few samples.

So, I have to add She Was the Quiet One to my growing list of bad school stories, that is to say, badly told stories about bad schools. Usually the implicit author of such novels seems to be suffering from a terminal case of class envy, portraying an institution run by bullies and snobs. I’ve written my own story about a school afflicted with some very evil characters. But if an author is aspiring to tragic dignity there should also be characters who genuinely care about formation and education and understand that the welfare of their students is their primary duty, however short they fall of their responsibilities. In this story we have instead an unintentional comedy with teachers who never engage in anything that remotely resembles education, a lawyer who knows nothing about criminal law, police detectives unacquainted with police procedure (they leave a suspected murderess in the school infirmary because she has flu symptoms), and a sleazy seducer whose idea of a love nest is the basement laundry room. Which last pretty much sums up the artistic, moral and educational values this school story inculcates.

I am grateful to NetGalley and St Martin’s for an ARC.

Review of The Lucifer Chord, by F. G. Cottam

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As authors mature they sometimes bring together the themes and characters from their earlier books and it is a pleasure that F. G. Cottam has chosen to do so with The Lucifer Chord, which combines elements from his first out-and-out supernatural novel The House of Lost Souls, featuring human sacrifices on the Isle of Wight staged by Klaus Fischer, with such infamous characters as Hermann Goering, Aleister Crowley and Dennis Wheatley (who wasn’t a villain in real life, just a poseur and snob without anything to be snobbish about who wrote enjoyable black-magic and witchcraft stories). There is also a reappearance by the insalubrious Jericho Society which first appeared in Dark Echo. Our principal character in The Lucifer Chord is Ruthie Gillespie, who herself first figured in the last volume of the Colony trilogy, Harvest of Scorn. As a preliminary to this novel, last year the author gave us his novella The Going and the Rise, which set us again on the IOW with Ruthie, the architect Michael Aldridge, and the Jericho Society’s demolished keep.

Again, Cottam uses a favourite device of the quest motif that he employed in The House of Lost Souls. A character is given a project that involves solving a mystery, that leads into a dark perilous journey into the past. In this case it is the disappearance of the rock musician Martin Mear: “He was believed to have been killed by electrocution while rehearsing for a concert in Morocco.” Observers at his concerts claimed they had witnessed him levitating. (In Fairfield, Iowa, not far from where I live, this is an almost routine occurrence!) Ruthie, who is a professional nonfiction writer as well as an author of children’s fiction, is commissioned by a dubious American referred to as “Carter Fucking Melville” to write a 20,000 word (at a quid a word) on Martin and his rock group The Ghost Legion, who after nearly half a century still have a fanatical following, somewhat like the Dead Heads. As the title of the book suggests, Cottam draws on folklore – the story of a guitar player so extraordinary that it was believed he had been taught to play by the Devil. Martin Mear is supposed to have invented a previously unknown guitar chord. (As did my idol Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders as well.) Legionnaire’s reunions feature some strangely spooky occurrences. In her quest Ruthie’s journey covers the entire length of Britain, from Ventnor IOW to the Scottish Highlands, and involves encounters with mediums, Ouija boards, and a ghost driving an ancient grey Morris Minor, as well as a ghostly milk bar. (How it would have depressed David Holbrook to know that these destroyers of traditional working class culture would enjoy future life in the spirit world!) Finally we discover what became of Martin Mears, as well as for Ruthie’s relationship with the architect Michael. The pseudo-history in the background to the Jericho Society was not completely convincing. Supposedly in the early 1920s “two powerful exorcists” from the Archdiocese of Boston deactivated the American headquarters of that diabolical organization which was subsequently demolished by the FBI (which did not add “Federal” to its name till 1935) and that their “chalice now rest[s] in the trophy room at Quantico” (where surely Agent Clarice Starling was allowed to drink from it before encountering Hannibal Lector! That was a trifle too cute – I hope the author will forgive me!).

F. G. Cottam ranks alongside Andrew Taylor as the top current British authors of supernatural fiction. (Susan Hill is no longer at the top of her game, I fear.) In terms of the tradition of the classic English ghost story, I’d place Taylor in the line of M. R. James. Cottam reminds me more of Algernon Blackwood. Cottam’s fans will definitely enjoy how The Lucifer Chord ties together the complex mythological system that began with The House of Lost Souls and Dark Echo, and continued through The Colony trilogy. If you are new to Cottam, I’d recommend you first read his novella The Going and the Rise, as well as Jan Olandese’s Infectious Ghosts: Contagious Magic in F. G. Cottam’s Dark Echo and The House of Lost Souls. It is a huge privilege for contemporary readers of supernatural fiction to have the chance to enjoy so productive a writer as Francis Cottam.

Review of Sweet Days of Discipline, by Fleur Jaeggy

A beautifully restrained and austere depiction of a schoolgirl crush at its most intense, and the ashes it leaves behind.

I don’t usually read fiction in translation any more, except from French where I feel somewhat comfortable with the original, as with The Kindly Ones. Fortunately, the edu.lib had a copy of the Italian original, and as Italian is mostly just Latin with incredibly bad pronunciation and spelling, I could cross check Tim Parks translation. It was amusing to find “in plus fours and long socks” translates “alla zuava”—what on earth can that mean, I wondered? And then a mental picture of a flashily uniformed American Civil War infantryman came to mind. Of course, Zouaves! The 19th century equivalent of Special Forces. But what did “the French were there and they were celebrating the guillotine” (“c’erano i francesi, e festaggiavano la ghigliottina”) mean? Most important, how many senses of “castigo” overlap with “discipline”? Certainly not in the B&D or S/M sense. But perhaps in the sense of military or nautical formation: a mode of life characterized by self-control, service, and devotion. The incredibly erotic relationship between the two schoolgirls is completely chaste and Platonic (in the vulgar sense); the narrator and Frédérique scarcely ever touch except when Frédérique examines the narrator’s hands. But the details of an all-consuming passion seemed perfect. When the narrator painstakingly learns to imitate Frédérique’s handwriting—that rang home for me.

As I had the good fortune to spend the summer of 1960 in Fribourg myself, much of the atmosphere brought back memories, although this book is set in German-speaking Switzerland near St. Gallen. The time is unspecified, but as one of the characters is the daughter of the president of an African country, it must have been about the same time. (That was the summer the Congo blew up.) Both the Swiss setting and the isolation a boarding school imposes create a sense of suspension in time and space—as if the rest of the world, the political world, indeed the “real” world” were on another planet. And for a teenager in boarding school, one year is almost forever.

Very little of an exterior nature passes in this slender and austere book whose principal character is almost anorexic herself. I am not sure whether to regard the ending as sad, but it certainly is tragic in the true sense: cruel, unfair, unfeeling, yet inevitable and right. Frédérique is irresistible, and unforgettable.

Review of Neverworld Wake, by Marisha Pessl

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Though generically a YA, Neverworld Wake should appeal to older readers; it certainly does to this one. It is the book that I’d waited for Marisha Pessl to write, a school-story version of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History with teen-aged characters and set in New England. Pessl has delivered the whole shooting match. Five BFs, graduates of Darrow School in Rhode Island, have a reunion the summer after their first year in college: the wealthy Whitley and her boy friend Cannon, Martha a science geek, Kipling, a Louisiana gay who does Truman Capote imitations (that frankly irritated me), and the narrator Beatrice (alias Bee alias Bumble), whose family operate a tourist restaurant and is our narrator. As in Pessl’s earlier novels, there is a missing character who is a presumed suicide, Bee’s boyfriend Jim, who plunged into a quarry lake at the end of their senior year. The five friends go out in Whitley’s Jaguar convertible, get well lubricated and while returning seem to get into a car smash in the rain with the top down, but find themselves the next morning awaken all wet sitting in the car. As it turns out, they neither survived nor succumbed to the accident. Instead they find themselves caught in a strange limbo between life and death, the “Wake” which gives the book its title. Each morning they awaken in the car to relive the same day. A mysterious old man called the “the Keeper” explains to them that they will continue in that state till they finally vote unanimously for one of them to survive.

Knowing that this scenario of an intermediate state betwixt life and death is the setting of a recent piece of critically celebrated Postmodernist Flim-Flam I’d not touch with barge pole, I’d feared the worst. But received the best; spiritually and morally Pessl offers a most fulfillling exploration of friendship and love. There is also wonderfully wittly dialogue. Just as we fear a cliché, a phrase veers into a freshly minted mot–I loved the sailboats bobbing like feeding unicorns! We find that the limbo our characters inhabit turns out to be spacious in time and space, offering them the chance to explore their pasts at school and to investigate the mystery of what actually happened to Jim and for our narrator Bee to grow into the person she should aspire to be and to confront her own past. Instead of being trapped in purgatorial confinement, we move around a lot, socially, temporally, and geographically, including visits to Greece and Japan. But always under the constraint of the time limit of the Wake, that moves steadily shorter till we reach resolution. For some readers, time travel into the past will seem like science fiction (Martha is a devote of an obscure book called The Bend), but from a spiritual perspective it serves as a device to allow contemporary readers to experience the mystery that time is really illusory and simultaneous. Except for the corn-pone Kip (and I eventually got to tolerate him), I found all the characters very appealing, especially Bee our narrator. The conclusion, both what happened to Jim and to the friends caught in the Wake, was tragic, sad, serious, and yet perfectly satisfying. I love this book. It explores devotion, betrayal, sacrifice, and the journey inward of spiritual growth.