Tuesday, March 18, 2014

{review} helen macinnes: the hidden target & cloak of darkness

Helen MacInnes The Hidden Target (1980)
Helen MacInnes Cloak of Darkness (1982)

I love Helen MacInnes' books, but I hadn't read (well, re-re-re-read) any for ages as they were packed in a box in the shed. Then I saw there were quite a few available for kindle -- but not, of course, the one about the hippie-trail that was teasing my memory. So, out to the shed... 


(these are the actual, badly photographed covers of my copies: 
the blueish one is foil-striped in silver, blue and white. 
These books have smallest writing I have read for years. 
Almost smaller than this writing...)

These two are actually part of a trilogy featuring the same character, Robert Renwick, and it is probably worth reading them in order, but as a re-reader I didn't feel it mattered this time around. The first one in the trilogy (Prelude to Terror) is very good indeed and has that amazing chest-squeezing mix of espionage terror and romantic torment that MacInnes is magnificent about carrying off. You're never quite sure with MacInnes about whether her protagonists will make it to a happy ending, and she is good at revealing glimpses of absolute darkness that wrack up the tension for the reader. 

Robert Renwick is one of the sort of old-school espionage champs that you really want on your side if you are stuck in the middle of Europe somewhere and something bad is going down. Because the books are set at the end of the 70s and early 80s there's still enough good ol' Cold War villainy around (and some leftovers of WW2), as well as problems with travelling through the continent (anyone nostalgic for when everyone had a different currency? - no, personally not), crossing all those frontiers, and just getting everywhere SO SLOWLY. Then there's the leftovers of the 70s to play with: relics of Baader-Meinhof and anarchists and terrorists plus NATO and Interpol and so on. 

Renwick, American but mostly Europe-based, has set up an agency, tacitly supported by various western intelligence organizations, to gather and analyse intel on terrorism which can then be sent to the relevant agencies. But Renwick is unable to shake off his field agent past, and always ends up out in the field and in great danger. He is a brilliant analyst and it is remarkable that his omniscience never makes one want to shake him until his teeth rattle: he just comes across as remarkably good at his job. 

I love these sort of 'hunt down the baddie' books where there's a real lo-tech feel: no pulling up a satellite -- you've got to get off your bum and go to deepest where-ever and use your binoculars and your bare hands. 

MacInnes is great on detail: in Prelude to Terror, there's a great art history plot going on under all the spy stuff, and plenty of lovely spots like Vienna take centre stage. In The Hidden Target we set off on the hippie-trail from Amsterdam, across Europe, Turkey and over to India in a camper (my idea of hell) with a very smart young woman who finds herself rapidly out of her depth -- could she really be the unwitting companion of one of the most dangerous terrorists of the time, and why does he need her? And in Cloak of Darkness we jump from the Africa to the US then Europe in a race against time to save Renwick from assassination by mysterious forces intent on trafficking weapons to anyone who can pay. Renwick is supported by some great colleagues, and there is always the well-planted seed in MacInnes' plots that someone here is not all they seem. 

If you're looking for a classic go at Cold War espionage, then she's well worth a read. You have to take on board that women -- despite female authorship -- have relatively secondary roles and often these are painfully traditional (they are pretty and they need saving, for instance), but certainly in the trilogy some of the woman do have significant roles in the plot (as they do in other of MacInnes' books). The Hidden Target is the most appealing in that sense, and also I think for its really varied scene-setting. It is also fascinating because it is set at a time when the hippie-trail is breaking down: the route is by the end of the 70s particularly dangerous, indeed deadly in parts, and the Afghanistan region is about to entirely disintegrate as the Russians move in. The (presumed) innocence of earlier journeys has been lost forever. 

Surely the hippie-trail is due a revival as a narrative theme: or have I missed this? There is one book that I would compare with The Hidden Target in this regard and that is Charles Mccarry's brilliant take (and astonishingly accomplished debut novel) on a carload of are-they-aren't-they-spies travelling from Europe to the Sudan in the 50s in The Miernik Dossier, one of the best spy stories I have ever read (his Tears of Autumn could well qualify as the best).

Anyway...: Helen MacInnes - great spy-craft, great settings, a spot of romance (but not as soft or happy as Mary Stewart, for instance), and that slight ambiguity about whether good really ever fully vanquishes evil without itself becoming tainted. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

{review} dumps: a plain girl

L. T. Meade Dumps: A Plain Girl (1905)


I am going to tell the story of my life as far as I can; but before I begin I must say that I do wonder why girls, as a rule, have a harder time of it than boys, and why they learn quite early in life to be patient and to give up their own will.
I'm not sure this is a review; more of an extended laugh at one of the best book titles I've encountered for ages. I mean, REALLY, "Dumps: A Plain Girl"? One almost doesn't need to read the book - surely it is quite plain (ho ho) what happens in this one.
...but he said the true name for me ought not to be Rachel, but Dumps, and how could any girl expect to rule over either boys or girls with such a name as Dumps? I suppose I was a little stodgy in my build, but father said I might grow out of that, for my mother was tall.
This is my second read of an L. T. Meade book: I started with A Sweet Girl Graduate, because I am interested in the history of women's colleges (having attended one), and I was hooked on Meade's blend of sickly sentimentality and sober evangelism for educating girls. I chose Dumps because of the title, though I was tossing up about Polly: A New Fashioned Girl. Happily there are plenty of Meade titles out there to keep me going forever (she wrote over 300 books).

So, poor little Dumps. Yes, Dumps is a plain girl. And she lives a rather plain life with her widowed father, who is a genius, but quite poor --
He was also somewhat of a saving turn of mind, and he told me once that he was putting by money in order to help the boys to go to one of the ’varsities by-and-by. He was determined that they should be scholars and gentlemen; and of course I thought this a very praiseworthy ambition of his, and offered to do without a new summer dress. He did not even thank me; he said that he thought I could do quite well with my present clothes for some time to come, and after that I felt my sacrifice had fallen somewhat flat.
-- and her brothers and a faithful but slovenly servant.

Dumps' life is a lonely one:
"And a girl's little brain is meant to keep a house comfortable."
"But, father, I haven't such a little brain; and I think I could do something else."
"Could what?" said father, opening his eyes with horror. "What in the world is more necessary for a girl who is one day to be a woman than to know how to keep a house comfortable?"
"Yes, yes," I said; "I suppose so." I was very easily stopped when father spoke in that high key.
Given Meade's support of feminist causes, I was hopeful that he would be struck by lightning at this point, but no such luck.
I really was a very stranded sort of girl. Hitherto I had had no outlets of any sort; I was just Dumps, a squat, rather plain girl, who knew little or nothing of the world—a neglected sort of girl, I have no doubt; but then I had no mother.
And then... one day a mysterious lady comes to visit, then invites Dumps to stay with her for a holiday, and easily wins the poor girl over with nice clothes and plenty of food and gentle kindnesses. But what lies behind this kindly lady's unexpected generosity? I'm not going to tell you any more, but Dumps has her world-view considerably widened and learns some important lessons about life and herself. Also, we are happy to learn, getting enough to eat really helps with her looks.

And I don't think I can end without mentioning Dumps' first friend, the blue-stocking Augusta:
"Do let us walk about," I said, “and let us be chums, if you don’t mind."
"Chums?" said Augusta, turning her dreamy, wonderful eyes upon my face.
"Yes," I said.
"But chums have tastes in common," was her next remark.
"Well, you are very fond of books, are you not?" I said.
"Fond of books!" cried Augusta. "Fond of books! I love them. But that is not the right word: I reverence them; I have a passion for them." She looked hurriedly round her. "I shall never marry," she continued in a low whisper, "but I shall surround myself with books - the books of the great departed; their words, their thoughts, shall fill my brain and my heart. I shall be satisfied; nothing else will satisfy me but books, books, books!"
So, not great literature by any means, but an entertaining, often sad, rather sentimental bit of fiction. Dumps was a bit whingy (though she certainly had grounds for that!), and I didn't think it was as satisfying as A Sweet Girl Graduate - where there is also a lot of rather melodramatic and silly action but the theme of the importance of educating girls is never lost. 

Incidentally, Jane at fleur in her world has also recently reviewed another Meade title, A World of Girls. I have also been following a couple of blogs which constantly offer new lost wonders to explore, and I'd single out redeeming qualities and leaves and pages - there are so many great free e-treasures out there that I many never need to buy a book again. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

{reviews} her father's name & the golden child

I have just read two really enjoyable books in a row, and it would certainly be remiss not to share these. They were quite different books, but both made me laugh and reminded me why I love books.

Florence Marryat Her Father's Name (1876)

Leona Lacoste was a woman who would never give in—until she died.
I chose this one because I read a tantalising blog post on it by Catherine Pope, who has published the Victorian Secrets edition of the text. The novel is available free (e.g., archive.org), but this edition is well worth having - actually, I'd say indispensable - for the absolutely wonderful Introduction by Greta Depledge, in which she provides all sorts of contextualization on the author and the varied and often kooky themes of the novel. 

Basically, if you like 'sensational' novels and you admire a strong heroine (with admirable bosoms, "body supple as a cat-o'-mountain's" and "eyes of burnished bronze, like... the eyes of a spotted panther in repose") who scorns the conventions of polite society in order to escape a fate worse than death ("Bah! In a country where the girls marry at fourteen! But were she twelve it would make no difference. She is old enough for me." Ew.) AND clear her father's name of a heinous accusation, then this is for you.
"I am quite determined, father. I shall never marry. Marriage is slavery, and I was born free. I will never be such a fool as to barter my birthright for any man."
But wait, there's more: cross-dressing...
She commenced to stroll leisurely in the direction of the cabin as she spoke, and as Valera followed her, he could not help wondering at the easy grace with which she filled her part, and the admirable disguise it was, to which, however, the effeminacy of many of the men in those southern climates much assisted her.
... hysteria, sweaty sickbeds, effeminacy, a touch of Sapphism on the chaise-longue, duelling, travel, disguises, faint downy moustaches, guitar playing, ethnic stereotyping ("I shall not faint, doctor, I have too much European blood in me for that") and really tall women who smoke cigars. What more could you ask? 

This is my second Marryat, and I'm loving her more and more. I previously reviewed The Blood of the Vampire (1897), which was one of my 'best of 2012'. 

*

My second recommendation is by an author who made it onto my 'best of 2013', although I never managed actually to review that book. That was Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop (which all lovers of independent bookshops should read: what could possibly go wrong with one woman's ambition to bring a bookshop to her country town?). 

I'll try to do better with my second Fitzgerald: Penelope Fitzgerald's The Golden Child (1977):

       
'Three minutes to go... We are all quite clear, I take it. Slight accidents, fainting, trampling under foot — the emergency First Aid posts are indicated in your orders for the day; complaints, show sympathy; disorder, contain; increased disorder, communicate directly with my office; wild disorder, the police, to be avoided if possible. Crush barriers to be kept in place at all entries at all times. No lingering.'
What made me love this? I did wonder if my list of things that I love might only be applicable to me, but I hope not! The British Museum, a golden treasure from a lost civilization, a group of highly eccentric curators and academics, a quick trip to Russia, and a murder or two. No, surely there's universal appeal there?
Half over the sill, the eminent maniac was holding Untermensch by his two thin wrists, hanging him down outside while he sawed the wrists to and fro on the frame. The Professor’s voice came only faintly: ‘Spare me! I alone can read Garamantian!’
Waring Smith is the naive but practical assistant curating a huge British Museum exhibition (inspired by the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition of 1972) of golden treasures from the mysterious civilisation that was Garamantia in Africa. 

Few know anything about the artifacts which were discovered by Sir William Simpkin many, many years ago: there is Professor Untermensch (Fitzgerald's names are brilliant) who has written the definitive study of the Garamantian script, Garamantischengeheimschriftendechiffrierkunst; there is "Tite-Live Rochegrosse-Bergson from the Sorbonne - the distinguished anthropologist, anti-structuralist, mythologist and paroemiographer" (anti-structuralist - still giggling about that; he also believes in "the irresistible impulse to stop thinking at all"); and there is, of course, Sir William himself, who refuses to visit the exhibition. Is this because of an alleged curse? The museum's Director sees the exhibition as a cash-cow, and Sir William as another source of funds which can all go towards his love of French "dix-septième" objets: "He particularly hated Oriental rugs, which took up an immoderate amount of display space." 

But then things start to go awry and Waring Smith is dragged in well over his head:
And the Museum, slumbrous by day, sleepless by night, began to seem to him a place of dread. Apart from the two recent deaths, how many violent ways there were in the myriad rooms of getting rid of a human being! The dizzy stairs, the plaster-grinders in the cast room, the poisons of conservation, the vast incinerators underground! And the whole strange nature of Museum work, preserving the treasures of the dead for the curiosity of the living, filled him... with fear.
The Golden Child is black humour at its best - gentle, ridiculous and wonderfully well written. 

{READ IN 2014}

  • 55.
  • 54.
  • 53. The Benevent Treasure - Patricia Wentworth [re-read; Kindle]
  • 52. The Catherine-Wheel - Patricia Wentworth [re-read; Kindle]
  • 51. The Alington Inheritance - Patricia Wentworth [re-read; Kindle]
  • 50. The Key - Patricia Wentworth [re-read; Kindle]
  • 49. The Watersplash - Patricia Wentworth [re-read; Kindle]
  • 48. Miss Silver Comes to Stay - Patricia Wentworth [re-read; Kindle]
  • 47. The Ivory Dagger - Patricia Wentworth [re-read; Kindle]
  • 46. Miss Silver Intervenes - Patricia Wentworth [re-read; Kindle]
  • 45. Pilgrim's Rest - Patricia Wentworth [re-read; Kindle]
  • 44. The Traveller Returns - Patricia Wentworth [re-read; Kindle]
  • 43. The Case is Closed - Patricia Wentworth [re-read; Kindle]
  • 42. Vanishing Point - Patricia Wentworth [re-read; Kindle]
  • 41. The Chinese Shawl - Patricia Wentworth [re-read; Kindle]
  • 40. Through the Wall - Patricia Wentworth [re-read; Kindle]
  • 39. Lonesome Road - Patricia Wentworth [re-read; Kindle]
  • 38. The Runaways [Linnets & Valerians] - Elizabeth Goudge [Kindle]
  • 37. The Blinded Man [Misterioso]- Arne Dahl [Kindle]
  • 36. Cloak of Darkness - Helen MacInnes [re-read]
  • 35. The Hidden Target - Helen MacInnes [re-read]
  • 34. Sprig Muslin - Georgette Heyer [re-read; Kindle]
  • 33. The Corinthian - Georgette Heyer [re-read; Kindle]
  • 32. The Talisman Ring - Georgette Heyer [re-read; Kindle]
  • 31. The Unknown Ajax - Georgette Heyer [re-read; Kindle]
  • 30. The Quiet Gentleman - Georgette Heyer [re-read; Kindle]
  • 29. Unnatural Death - Dorothy L. Sayers [re-read; Kindle]
  • 28. Want to Play - P. J. Tracy [re-read; Kindle]
  • 27. The ABC Murders - Agatha Christie [re-read; Kindle]
  • 26. Out of the Past - Patricia Wentworth [re-read; Kindle]
  • 25. The Listening Eye - Patricia Wentworth [re-read; Kindle]
  • 24. Brewster's Millions - George Barr McCutcheon [Kindle]
  • 23. A Fair Barbarian - Frances Hodgson Burnett [Kindle]
  • 22. Gimlet: King of the Commandos - Capt. W. E. Johns [re-read]
  • 21. Out of Circulation - Miranda James [Kindle]
  • 20. Beautiful Ruins - Jess Walter [Kindle]
  • 19. The Blank Wall - Elisabeth Sanxay Holding [Kindle]
  • 18. Dumps: A Plain Girl - L. T. Meade [Kindle]
  • 17. The Inconvenient Duchess - Christine Merrill [Kindle]
  • 16. Biggles Takes it Rough - Capt. W.E. Johns
  • 15. Pnin - Vladimir Nabokov [Kindle]
  • 14. The Silver Linings Playbook - Matthew Quick [Kindle]
  • 13. Eleanor & Park - Rainbow Rowell [Kindle]
  • 12. The Case of William Smith - Patricia Wentworth [Kindle; re-read]
  • 11. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm - Kate Douglas Wiggin [Kindle]
  • 10. A Sweet Girl Graduate - L.T. Meade [Kindle]
  • 9. A College Girl - Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey [Kindle]
  • 8. The Woman Who Did - Grant Allen [Kindle]
  • 7. The Golden Child - Penelope Fitzgerald [Kindle]
  • 6. Her Father's Name - Florence Marryat [Kindle]
  • 5. They Do It With Mirrors - Agatha Christie [re-read; Kindle]
  • 4. Hallowe'en Party - Agatha Christie [re-read; Kindle]
  • 3. Cards on the Table - Agatha Christie [re-read; Kindle]
  • 2. Dumb Witness - Agatha Christie [re-read; Kindle]
  • 1. Fer-de-Lance - Rex Stout [Kindle]

{READ IN 2013}

  • 145. The Toll-Gate - Georgette Heyer [re-read; Kindle]
  • 144. The Great Silence 1918-1920: Living in the Shadow of the Great War - Juliet Nicolson
  • 143. What Katy Did - Susan Coolidge [re-read; Kindle]
  • 142. The Good Soldier - Ford Madox Ford [Kindle]
  • 141. The Bookshop - Penelope Fitzgerald [Kindle]
  • 140. The Burglar & the Blizzard - Alice Duer Miller [Kindle]
  • 139a. Ruth's First Christmas Tree - Elly Griffiths [short story; Kindle]
  • 139. Hercule Poirot's Christmas - Agatha Christie [re-read; Kindle]
  • 138. Envious Casca - Georgette Heyer [re-read?; Kindle]
  • 137. I am Half-Sick of Shadows - Alan Bradley [Kindle]
  • 136. Taken at the Flood - Agatha Christie [re-read; Kindle]
  • 135. Never Go Back - Lee Child [Kindle]
  • 134. When William Came - Saki [Kindle]
  • 133. N or M - Agatha Christie [re-read; Kindle]
  • 132. The Chronicles of Clovis - Saki [Kindle]
  • 131. Come Out of the Kitchen! - Alice Duer Miller [Kindle]
  • 130. The Last Werewolf - Glen Duncan [Kindle]
  • 129. The Thirteen Problems - Agatha Christie [re-read; Kindle]
  • 128. I Am Pilgrim - Terry Hayes [Kindle]
  • 127. Passenger to Frankfurt - Agatha Christie [re-read; Kindle]
  • 126. The Body in the Library - Agatha Christie [re-read; Kindle]
  • 125. Appointment with Death - Agatha Christie [re-read; Kindle]
  • 124. Lord Edgware Dies - Agatha Christie [re-read; Kindle]
  • 123. Murder in Mesopotamia - Agatha Christie [re-read; Kindle]
  • 122. Sarah, Plain and Tall - Patricia MacLachlan
  • 121. Death in the Clouds - Agatha Christie [re-read; Kindle]
  • 120. Destination Unknown - Agatha Christie [re-read; Kindle]
  • 119. They Came to Baghdad - Agatha Christie [re-read; Kindle]
  • 118. Five Little Pigs - Agatha Christie [re-read; Kindle]
  • 117. Crooked House - Agatha Christie [re-read; Kindle]
  • 116. Murder at the Vicarage - Agatha Christie [re-read; Kindle]
  • 115. The Bat - Mary Roberts Rinehart [Kindle]
  • 114. Touchstone - Laurie R. King [Kindle]
  • 113. Fiona on the 14th Floor - Mabel Esther Allan
  • 112. Hell! Said the Duchess - Michael Arlen [Kindle]
  • 111. Pollyanna Grows Up - Eleanor H. Porter [Kindle]
  • 110. Pollyanna - Eleanor H. Porter [re-read; Kindle]
  • 109. The Female Detective - Andrew Forrester [Kindle]
  • 108. Hit Man - Lawrence Block [Kindle]
  • 107. The Fortune of Christina M'Nab - Sarah Macnaughtan {REVIEW}
  • 106. Trains and Buttered Toast - John Betjeman
  • 105. Jim and Wally - Mary Grant Bruce
  • 104. Death of an Old Goat - Robert Barnard [Kindle]
  • 103. An Old-Fashioned Girl - Louisa M. Alcott [Kindle]
  • 102. Thornyhold - Mary Stewart [Kindle]
  • 101. Code Name Verity - Elizabeth Wein [Kindle]