Friday, September 15, 2017

My share of disappointments

With the Big Book Sale looming next week, I thought I'd make my last post before the sale a sort of cautionary tale, in an effort to reign in my wilder impulses and avoid replacing our sofa with piles of books.

As I've mentioned here before, the flipside of some of the fascinating, joyfully obscure discoveries I've made in my pursuit of obscure authors is the occasional disappointment of books and authors that don’t live up to their potential. All that glitters is indeed not gold.

For a long time, I didn't really discuss the books I'd read but didn't love, figuring that since I'm generally blowing layers of dust off of these books to begin with, or noting from library cards that the books haven't been checked out since 1948, I might just as well keep quiet and simply let the dust gather on the books again, rather than pointing out their weaknesses. But lately, especially since I've often shared snippets of promising reviews or blurbs, and since I know that some readers of this blog enjoy making their own voyages into the obscure in search of buried treasure, and since no one else is likely to write about these books any time soon, I thought I might just as well allow my disappointments a post of their own every now and then.

I'd still ask you to bear in mind that other readers might feel very differently about these books (I always think about my dislike of Rebecca and everyone else's love for it whenever I start imagining that everyone will agree with my take on a book). But with that in mind, here goes…


I had been on the lookout for books by this hard-to-find author ever since coming across very promising reviews of her later novels Gnats and Camels (1924) and The Wild Feather (1933). They sounded charming and fun, and so when this book recently appeared at a reasonable price on Abe Books, I jumped on it. Sadly, though, this tale of a young woman who puts off all her suitors due to the influence of a possessive cousin who wants to keep her for her own companion proved to be surprisingly lifeless and heavy-handed. Lots of pop psychology about the poor middle-aged spinster cousin quickly started to wear on my patience, and what seemed sure to be a sparkling romantic comedy soon became too dull to continue with. I read only a bit over 50 pages before moving on to greener pastures.

MARY GRIGS, Bid Her Awake (1930)

An even more promising review of this one proved irresistible to me:

There is dignity here [said the Bookman], and beauty as well. It is the story of a conflict between two sisters, the imperious Alix and the shy suddenly transfigured Susan, and the latter's brief excursion into love. It is an air for muted strings that Miss Grigs gives us, with little dancing notes of gaiety in it, and a sombre theme. So quietly is it done that the insensitive reader may fail to perceive the artistry with which it is composed; though he cannot fail to be charmed by the effect so subtly created.

Library slip for the copy of Bid Her Awake I managed to get
hold of--fresh from Alcorn A&M University in Mississippi,
and apparently not checked out since 1947?

What could be more my style than a quiet little novel about the tensions between two sisters? And it certainly had more of interest about it than Misfits did. The portrayals of Alix and Susan have some subtlety, and Grigs is clearly aware of the ways in which family relationships can limit or stifle one's identity. Susan's feelings while spending a rare weekend away from Alix are believable:

This sudden removal from Alix and all the associations of her life had the effect of making her feel a different person; quick to influences and moods that before had passed her by, and ready with a confident delight to play whatever role might be cast for her in this amusing play.

Predictably, Alix—long accustomed to be the protector and supporter of the awkward, inept Susan—is threatened by Susan's surprise love affair. And sadly, neither sister ever really came alive for me, and I made a rare decision to scrap the book two-thirds of the way through (usually if I've made it that far, I have an "in for a penny, in for a pound" attitude, but this time I put the book aside "temporarily" for something more enjoyable and simply never picked it up again).

ANNA GORDON KEOWN, Mr Thompson in the Attic (1933)

This one I abandoned much earlier in my reading—as with Misfits, I only made it about 50 pages in with Mr Thompson. Who would imagine that a grown-up school story with my namesake as a main character would be so unenjoyable? I reviewed Keown's earlier novel The Cat Who Saw God (1932) soon after I started blogging (see here), and although I enjoyed it more or less I expressed some reservations about Keown's poetic style (she was a poet before she turned to fiction), which sometimes dragged the story to a halt. Perhaps I've only become older and crankier since then, because here the ornate prose and insistent philosophizing made me give up after only a bit of effort, and I've sadly concluded that I need not pursue Keown's other two even-harder-to-find novels. Those who like more poetic and ponderous prose, however, rather oddly mixed with what seems like it should be (but never quite becomes) a cheerful, humorous plot, might enjoy her work.

MARJORIE MACK, Velveteen Jacket (1941)

It's a rare and sad occasion when one of my absolute favorite discoveries of the year and one of my least favorite attempted reads of the year are by the same author, but that's the case with Velveteen Jacket, the only other adult novel by the author of the wonderful, lovely The Red Centaur, which I reviewed here. Mack later published several books for children under her married name, Marjorie Dixon.

Both Red Centaur and Velveteen Jacket are focused mainly on children and childhood, but while Red Centaur makes elegant and subtle use of a young girl's perceptions and misunderstandings of adult carryings-on during two summers spent in Brittany, and presents them in completely believable, unsentimental prose, Velveteen Jacket is so weighed down with sentimentality and so unrealistic in its portrayal of a young boy that I couldn't wade through more than the first two or three chapters.

My theory is that in Red Centaur Mack was relying on her own experiences—if not of time spent in Brittany, at least her experiences of being a little girl observing the adults around her—while in Velveteen Jacket she relied on all sorts of sentimental stereotypes of boyhood that had, for me at least, not the faintest ring of truth. Add to this that the entire premise of the story is that an elderly man, the devoted gamekeeper of a noble, idealized, apparently absolutely perfect country squire, is remembering the growth of their boyhood friendship while waiting beside the squire's deathbed, and the schlock and silliness is running rampant.

But do try to read Red Centaur if you can! It's a shoe-in for my Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen this year.

MARJORIE STRACHEY, The Counterfeits (1927)

I feel a bit bad for including this one on my list of disappointments, since my inspiration for finally tracking it down was that bookseller Jon S. Richardson was kind enough to email me out of the blue with his recent catalogue, which included the first picture I've seen of the book's original cover. It was a striking image indeed, and though the book's price tag was well out of my range ($465, indeed!), the image undoubtedly helped Jon sell the book immediately—several times over, in fact, as he later reported.

On the other hand, since Jon has sold the book with no difficulty, I suppose I don't need to feel too bad for being lukewarm on the book itself. Jon's description was terribly enticing: "a satire of Bloomsbury and Virginia's friends by Lytton's sister, even VW recognized herself as Volumnia Fox, novelist of Bloomsbury, plus all the Slade school friends, etc. etc." And indeed, the Bloomsbury scenes were quite entertaining. The trouble, however, was the alternating flashbacks to the main character's wartime experiences and ill-fated romance, which felt rather overwrought and romance novel-ish to me. But if you're an aficionado of all things Woolf (even somewhat judgmental portrayals of her and her pals), then dust off your library card or start saving money for the next time Jon has a copy available!

And even if you're not a die-hard aficionado, you may want to email Jon at to get on the mailing list. He and his wife Peggy specialize in Bloomsbury-related items, and his catalogues are worth seeking out even if one can only fantasize about owning the delightful books he comes across!

HILDA HEWETT, Farewell Solitude (1942)

And last but not least (though it's a close race), this one wasn't quite as bad as Velveteen Jacket, but it was enough to demonstrate for me that Hewett was a wildly uneven author. Her later novel So Early One Morning (1948) is another of my favorite discoveries of the year, which I raved about here, and the even later A Week at the Seaside (1955) was a weaker but still enjoyable little holiday novel, which I discussed here. I've also just finished Kaleidoscope (1947), which was really delightful, and which I know Shirley at Greyladies books enjoyed (see our correspondence about Hewett in the most recent issue of The Scribbler).

Ah yes, this jogs my memory a bit...
for better or worse

But, wow, her debut novel is a different ball of wax. Sadly, I read it a while back and was feeling lazy about making notes (and no doubt rather uninspired by any redeeming qualities in the novel), but I remember an irritating artist and lots of romance novel angst, not nearly compensated for by the occasional appearance of realistic, entertaining child characters that show glimmers of Hewett's future strengths.

I still have one Hewett novel that I haven't yet read, her fifth, called Never Come Back (1944). I know a reader commented recently that she'd read Hewett's sixth, Dancing Starlight (1945), and enjoyed it very much, so here's hoping that Hewett had already realized her best strengths the year before.

And that's that. Me at my most negative and disgruntled. But have no fear, I'll undoubtedly be back to unrestrained adoration in the near future...


  1. Sad when they let you down, eh? I tend not to bother putting up a review of a disappointing book at Goodreads. If they are simply unengaging or have dreary, unlikeable characters, I just stop reading.

    But when I invest time and emotional energy into a promising book, only to reach the end and say, "What????" then I feel I have to warn others not to waste their time on it.

  2. I think it's really useful to have these posts; you're obviously scrupulously fair and if it's the only post about a book, you're doing readers a good service.

  3. Scott, you may have inspired me yet again, albeit in a different way. I am slogging through The Hush Hush Murders (1937, by Margory Tayler (yes, new spelling) Yates) and set on a naval steamer out in the Far East - oh, it has affairs, murder (of course) adultery (maybe) Russian spies (maybe) but also way too much dated dialogue. I did a cursory Google search and can find no mention of her. I think I have taken this blog today as permission to return it to another book sale!

  4. Even with your preface to this post, I read the descriptions of most of these thinking "gosh, this sounds wonderful!" - but really useful to have cautionary tales. Especially since you're usually such an enthused and optimistic reader - I think it help lends even more authority to those novels you DO love :)


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