The Lightening Conductor

I have so many things to tell you that I scarcely know where to begin. First let me announce that I am in for an adventure–a real flesh and blood adventure into which I plump without premeditation, but an adventure of so delightful a kind that I hope it may continue for many a day. I know you’ll say at once, “That means Woman”;  and you’re right.

I definitely have Melody to thank for introducing me to A.M. and C.N. Williamson. I picked up a few on Bookmooch a while ago, and a sick day seemed the perfect excuse for a musty old book, though I had to look up online which one came first. The Lightning Conductor it was.

the lightning conductorI’m not going to summarize too much because it’s not necessarily a book where things happen (plus, you can read that here). Suffice it to say that young American heiress Molly Randolph, while embarking on a European tour with her Aunt Mary, is smitten with an automobile she sees, and happily agrees when the owner offers to sell her both the car and the chauffeur. The car turns out to be a clunker, and the chauffeur absconds with the money when she sends him to the next town over for new parts. Luckily, she is met on the road by the Honorable John Winston, out for a ride in his own snazzy Napier. He is as smitten with Molly as she was with the car. On the spur of the moment he decides to pass himself off as his own chauffeur, Brown, and offers up his services to the Randolphs. Molly gratefully agrees. She engages him for her entire trip through France and Italy, and finds him pretty much indespensible.

It’s hard not to like a novel with Molly as a main character, or to see why Jack is in love with her. she begins a letter to her father “Dear Universal Provider of Love and Cheques,” and ends another “Your sinner, Molly.” She is irrepressible in her enthusiasm, while at the same time appreciating the beauty and history of the sights they take in. Jack, meanwhile, is having a rougher time “slumming it,” and spends half his nights reading up on the next day’s tourist sights to continue enthralling Molly with his knowledge. Eventually his double life catches up with him in a funny case of mistaken identities, but all ends well in the end and he and Molly can finally admit they’re in love.

It wasn’t until the last third of the book, when they reached Italy, that I started to get tired of the travel descriptions and began skimming for the next plot development, but that may also be because I read most of the book in one day. After a while, reading letters about charming villages and historic chateaus and beautiful views is like looking at one too many of someone else’s vacation photos. (It did remind me of this recent news tidbit.) Overall, though, it was an entertaining read with likeable characters. It was a fascinating look at early cars, with interesting bits about social class distinctions as well. Plus, I always enjoy a good epistolary novel.

I believe the other Williamsons’ book I have, The Princess Passes, also includes Molly and Jack as secondary characters, though I don’t know if I can handle another car trip just yet.

Published in: on December 10, 2012 at 8:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

Crimson Mountain

And then she heard the sound of his car coming and her heart quickened. He was coming! The color sprang to her cheeks and a light to her eyes, though she had no intention of looking like the personification of joy, and wouldn’t for anything have had him know how glad she was to see him.

But he saw it, and his own heart was filled with a great joy, which was all quite wrong for a soldier about to go back to camp, and no knowledge of where he was to be sent, or if he would ever come back again. Well, at least this joy was his to keep and remember when he had nothing else.

I can’t for the life of me find the website where I first saw Grace Livingston Hill’s books mentioned, but I believe the opinion was that they were squeaky-clean old-fashioned romances and pretty good as long as you didn’t mind very proper characters, Christian morals, and eventual repetitiveness of plot. I have a feeling that that reader is probably correct. Crimson Mountain didn’t quite have the drama of an Emilie Loring or Louise Platt Hauck romance, but it was pleasant and very sweet.

Lovely young Laurel Sheridan grew up in Carrollton near Crimson Mountain with her wealthy parents. Since their deaths and the loss of most of the money, she has been staying with cousins in the city, whom she fears are planning on marrying her off to one of their well-to-do friends. Laurel doesn’t mind the partying crowd but also doesn’t feel completely comfortable with them, even Adrian Faber who has been paying her special attention. She decides to try earning her own living and heads back to Carrollton to interview for a substitute teaching position. While taking the scenic route across the mountain, her car breaks down along a cattle track. Luckily, Phil Pilgrim is also passing along the road, and after saving her from being trampled by cattle he feels bound to help her out the rest of the way as well.

Phil also grew up in Carrollton, but had only known Laurel to see her because he was a few years older and had a less happy story. He lived with his grandfather on Crimson Mountain and worked at the local filling station. After his grandfather died he put himself through college for mechanics on athletics scholarships and is now in the army, home to sell the farm to be used as a munitions plant before shipping off to camp.

Though Phil is only around for two days, he offers to chauffeur Laurel around while her car is repaired. The two of them spend a good portion of the time apologizing for inconveniencing each other, and feeling like they’ve know each other their whole lives, which is only true technically. Eventually, however, Phil must leave, and Laurel promises to write to him. She is less than thrilled when Adrian Faber arrives the following week to attempt to claim her affections. Two other men she knew in the city also appear at the same boarding house. One night, Laurel overhears a conversation about a plot to blow up the munitions plant. Can she stop worrying about Phil and get the information to the right people in time?

I genuinely liked both Phil and Laurel, and their attraction to each other was sincere and sweet, a blend of love at first sight and childhood sweethearts. They are the kind of people everyone loves to love–Laurel the kind, unspoiled society girl, and Phil the honest, hard-working man who wants to make something of himself.  If handled differently they could have easily been obnoxious, but instead they come across as role models.

Part of this is due to the religious elements in the books. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t mind Christian fiction as long as it’s not heavy-handed or overly doctrinal. Crimson Mountain gets a bit close to that boundary at times, but not enough to give me something to disagree with, and still comes across as sincere rather than preachy. Surprisingly, one of my favorite passages is when Laurel realizes that letting God’s glory shine through her means “keeping everything clean and fine about you,” like being patient with the men in the boarding house even if she’d just rather dream about Phil. It reminded me of A Little Princess, and Sara Crewe’s own outlook.

I almost think the book would have been better without the munitions plot, because it all seemed somewhat shadowy and necessitated focusing on the actions and thoughts of characters other than Laurel and Phil. However, the book would have had pretty much no suspense without it. It also, unfortunately, was probably a very real concern at the time.’

Crimson Mountain was written in 1942 (my Grosset and Dunlap copy has the wartime conditions paper notice in the front), and nothing quite matches a book written during the war with the war as part of its plot. Thousands of women were in Laurel’s situation watching men go off to camp without knowing if or when they would get shipped overseas. Thousands of men were like Phil, feeling guilty for encouraging a relationship when he might realistically never see her again. It’s a sobering thought, and every time I think of WWII through a romantic lens I have to remind myself that that’s not the case.

Before I even finished this I found a few more Grace Livingston Hill books Bookmooch to save for a rainy day. I starting flipping through one, and it seemed to be about a spoiled selfish girl–who wore make-up and smoked and snuck out to meet boys–who learns her lesson in life. So apparently not all of her books are for me, but if I can find any others as sweet as Crimson Mountain then I’m a fan. (Provided, of course, I make sure my literary diet consists of more substantial fare as well.)

Published in: on February 28, 2011 at 5:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

A Splendid Hazard

In a twist this year I didn’t really ask for books, mostly because I buy so many at book sales that the only ones I seek out brand new are Nancy Drews. My mom knows my tastes, however, and picked out a few treasures for me at the Bookbarn: two Mary Roberts Rineharts (Tish and The Red Lamp), and a book called A Splendid Hazard. I also just received a few mooches (on the right): a Honey Bunch book, and the first two in the Polly Brewster series (the third is still on its way). And, as evidenced by the inclusion of a picture, I finally got a new camera!

With older books you never know what you’re going to get, and I started A Splendid Hazard with no hint as to plot save the cover illustration by Howard Chandler Christy. As charming as it is (and from an actual scene), it doesn’t tell the half. Harold MacGrath spins a wonderful yarn that I quickly found myself unable to put down. I had been reading it while we were on vacation, and on the ride home was cursing myself for my inability to read in a moving vehicle.

“There would be something more than treasure-hunting here; an intricate comedy-drama, with as many well-defined sides as a diamond.”

It begins with a chance meeting at Napoleon’s tomb between a young American war correspondant, a German man down on his luck, and a retired American admiral and his daughter. None of them really knows who the others are, and they go their separate ways untouched.

A year later Fitzgerald, the journalist home in New York between assignments, is mysteriously summoned to the house of Admiral Killigrew and his daughter Laura. Meanwhile Karl Brietmann has applied to be the admiral’s private secretary, a post below his station and abilities, with some seeming ulterior purpose. Perhaps, Fitzgerald suspects, it is related to the mysterious noises in the chimney. When an old letter is found telling of a secret treasure buried on Corsica, the group and several friends with whose pasts also intertwine with the story set sail for the island, never dreaming that danger awaits them. The only one who knows the truth is renown butterfly collector M. Ferraud, a French secret agent, but he is reluctant to show his hand in the hopes of saving someone from destruction.

MacGrath is fantastic at building character and suspense. Breitmann is a man of many mysteries. He is proud, noble, and desparate, and the reader is unsure as to what his purpose really is. As another character remarks, he is either “a great rascal or a great hero.” Even the romantic entanglements of the characters are left unresolved until the end of the novel.

You can almost feel the hand of fate at work here, for every character has some prior connection to the others.  In fact, the entire book seems to take place on a grand scale. People live nobly, and love passionately, and all seem tinged somehow with something larger than life. Everything feels grand and important, but in a good way. I’m not sure I can quite explain it. I do think these characters would be fascinating to know. And, yet again, one of the heroes is a journalist. For some reason, to me it always seems the most romantic profession, other than the navy, because of the sheer amount of experience, wits, and personality that it entails.

I loved this book so much, and not just for the plot and characters. MaGrath has real skill as a writer. A Splendid Hazard has no pretentions at being great literature, and yet he often has an elegant turn of phrase that brings people and situations to life with a vibrancy. It almost reminds me of A Room With a View. For example, take this description of Laura:

She was one of those happy beings in either sex who can amuse themselves, who can hold pleasant conversation with the inner self, who can find romance in old houses, and yet love books, who prefer sunrises and sunsets at first hand, still loving a good painting.

Technically I finished this on January 1, and it feels a little silly to say I’ve found one of my favorites of the year, but I honestly could sit down and reread this from cover to cover. I will definitely be keeping my eye out for more from Harold MacGrath. It seems he had several bestsellers in the early twentieth century (this is from 1910), many of which are available on Project Gutenberg.

Published in: on January 2, 2011 at 6:45 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , ,

The Pink House

“‘Van,’ she began, still a trifle breathlessly, ‘you said two words to me. Do you remember?’

‘I’ve said a lot of words to you, Jocelyn; most of them foolish ones.’

‘These–were not–foolish,’ she murmured. ‘These were–very important words. They were–darling–and–wife.’

‘Jocelyn!’ he cried and would have gone to her, but she put out a frightened little hand to hold him back.

‘Would you mind lending me–not giving me, Van–oh, do say you understand you mustn’t give them to me!–those words for a little while?I can promise you,’ she assured him earnestly, ‘that I’ll return them to you just as good as ever–not damaged a bit–hardly even used.'”

I went to a new-to-me book sale earlier this month, and was pleasantly surprised at the number of older books present. I was able to find a couple Angela Thirkell novels, some older series books, a Frances Parkinson Keyes, a Grace Livingston Hill, and, last but not least, two books by Louise Platt Hauck. I read The Crystal Tree earlier this year and had been curious about her other works.

I needed a break from grading one night, and picked up The Pink House despite knowing the danger. Soon I was sucked in;  I made it halfway through, and finished the next evening after I couldn’t get it out of my thoughts. Everything about these older books just appeals to me! (This one even still has its original price tag from the Gimbel’s in Philadelphia.)

The Westmores had always been a wealthy and successful family, but after investments go badly and Roger Westmore commits suicide, Jocelyn and her mother Kitten suddenly find they must survive on their own. Rather than live with questioning relatives, Jocelyn decides to rent a rustic lakeside cottage for them to live in. She is unprepared for the challenges of running a household, especially one with few of the amenities they are accustomed to, but copes with the situation valiantly.

The cottage is part of the estate of young Van Cortland, who falls in love with Jocelyn at first sight. Her father’s death and the flight of her former fiancé Phil Eliot have set her resolutely against marriage. She accepts Van’s aid despite her pride, however, and the two become fast friends. She turns to him for help again when Phil shows up in town. Jocelyn fears that in moments of weakness she might give in to Phil’s advances, and convinces Van to agree to a fake engagement. Unfortunately, however, Phil doesn’t believe it is entirely real, and Van won’t admit it’s entirely fake. Jocelyn will eventually need to face both the past and the present, and learn a new lesson in courage from her parents.

I was expecting a typical fluffy romance, but the story has surprising depth as well, especially concerning Jocelyn’s idolization of her father and her subsequent anger at his suicide. Her mother also had much more to her than met the eye, and I was glad to see her come into her own by the end of the book. Louise Platt Hauck’s writing style appeals to me for some reason, even though others might think differently. For example, I love that throughout the book Jocelyn refers to the engagement as “borrowing” the word “darling” from Van, just as she is borrowing the furniture for the house.

Perhaps this is due to the depression mentality(this was written in 1933), or even elements from her own life, but Mrs. Hauck seems to have a fascination with setting up house in a cozy abode. The experience is less romanticized here, as Jocelyn and her mother must learn to cook and make do without a hot water heater:

“Rosy color foamed all about the little house. Kitten sent to Chicago for some pink frocks for Jocelyn: pink ginghams for morning wear, pink linens for afternoon, thin, lace-trimmed pink voiles for evening.

‘We mustn’t, Kitten,’ the girl remonstrated. ‘We mustn’t spend a cent we don’t actually have to. I’ve plenty of clothes–enough to last me a year or two out here.’

‘But these cost so little, sweetie,’ her mother pleaded. ‘The whole bill didn’t come to a hundred dollars.’

Jocelyn was silent. Once a hundred dollars was the price of a single frock, or a luncheon downtown with only a few guests, or of a birthday gift for a friend. Now it stood for other and vastly more important things: taxes and grocery bills and wood for the fireplace and the insurance she insisted on carrying on her own life.

She had set herself the task of learning to cook and care for the four rooms with the dogged tenacity with which she did most things. By the time June arrived she was ale to prepare and serve meals which did not differ too greatly in quality from the ones Kitten had eaten all her life. To be sure, there were frills of olives and salted nuts and ices and daintily frosted cakes which she felt bound to omit, but Kitten did not complain of the disappearance of them.”

Forgive me for quoting at length; I love the glimpse into the past these details provide! I can just picture the little pink house in my mind, and sympathize with Jocelyn’s sudden need for economy and domesticity. She handles it all very well, however.

I still have Family Matters to look forward to, though it seems a little different. In this case a newly married couple setting up home must deal with an affectionate extended family reluctant to let the bride cut the apron strings. After that? Well, Mrs. Hauck was apparently a very prolific writer, so I’m sure one or two of her other works will find their way to me!

Published in: on October 12, 2010 at 6:57 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , , ,

The Crystal Tree

“‘They’re bound to be single peonies,’ she announced happily. ‘You can tell from the slender stalks that they are. The double ones are twice that size.’

‘I’ll swear they are!’ he said, though he didn’t know a peony shoot from asparagus.”

I really should stock up on more 1930s romances for when I’m in the mood, but I’m glad I reread The Crystal Tree by Louise Platt Hauck because I liked it much more this time around. I think I was in high school when I read it before. My biggest complaint is still the name of the main character.

When Quail Ashby sees the darling little house with a garden and white picket fence, she falls instantly in love with this replica of the childhood home she had to sell. Since she is unable to afford to rent alone, her new neighbor Mike suggests she advertise in the paper for housemates. Along came Len Worthing, with a farm girl past and opera star future; Whitey, a chaperon with zany health food ideas; and Mike’s friends Kent and Phil. Life at Hilarity House, as they dubbed it, went smoothly until Quail was forced to introduce pretty, invalid Mabel to the household, resulting in a series of trials and triangles.

There’s really not much I can say except that I find this type of happily-ever after book so refreshing, and even more so when there’s a whole flock of characters who get their lives neatly sorted out by the last page. And the descriptions of their glorious garden are enough to make me grab a watering can myself. My favorite part, however, is the glimpse into the past that the narrative offers, in passages such as this one:

“Quail removed her office dress, inspected the cuffs and decided reluctantly that they would not do for tomorrow, found fresh ones and began basting them in while she explained to Whitey that Dr. Barstow would attend to Mabel regularly.”

A far cry from today where ironing and dry cleaning are often enough to give pause.

Published in: on May 21, 2010 at 2:30 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , ,

Fair Tomorrow

His sister’s eyes followed his to the maple gate-legged table in front of the long French window which framed a view of a russet-tinged lawn […] Beyond it blue water stretched to the purple haze of the horizon like a sea of sparkling sapphires streaked with malachite, above it thin filaments of fleecy cloud striped a turquoise sky.

I could so easily devour Fair Tomorrow in one sitting. I started it in June, limiting myself to a chapter here and there, and about halfway through I just didn’t pick it up again. Part of the problem may be that I don’t let old books stay in the nightstand pile, but I think it goes a little deeper.

Over the summer I was in a bit of a blue funk; as much as I love being home again, it’s hard that my friends are now scattered around the country. Working weekends and evenings part-time meant that I wasn’t even on the same schedule as the few who are only an hour away. It’s not that I wasn’t happy, just that I felt a little world-weary and jaded now that I was supposed to be an adult. Fairy-tale romance was the last thing in the world I needed at the time.

And yet I kept coming back to it in spurts, wishing I could enjoy it again with an open mind, so that six months later it has finally won me over again. The novel is slightly campy by today’s standards, but I prefer it ever so much to modern books where happily ever after means sex instead of wedding bells.

image from Fanastic Fiction

When Pamela Leigh’s father goes bankrupt and falls ill, she abandons her writing dream and with her brother Terry must try to scrape a living together. Their daily struggles running a Chowder House from their New England cottage are compounded by creditors.  Luckily, two men come to Pam’s rescue: Scott Mallory, a promising lawyer who untangles the family finances, and dashing Phil Carr, who helps build a guest house. Pamela may finally be able to stop putting her family first, but only if her father’s estranged second wife will leave them alone.

As you can tell from the  quote above, Emilie Loring liked to go a bit over the top in her phrasings and descriptions–especially involving colors and gemstones. Wikipedia credits her with always using catchphrases and metaphors to symbolize optimism throughout the book, like the title here, so that spotting them is almost a game. The plot also continues to pile up a series of incidents and coincidences, including a court scene Perry Mason would have been proud of.

I mention the silly things up front, but there’s also a lot to like about Fair Tomorrow. No historical novel can match one actually written in the 1930s, where the Depression is the impetus for Harold Leigh’s bankruptcy. I had to look up that a flivver is a type of car; the fashions and expressions are like a window into the past. The characters are also surprisingly well-rounded with dreams and flaws, with the possible exception of Scott. Pam is realistic instead of selfless, longing for the day when she can return to the city and pursue a writing career. We see her occasionally crack under the struggle and stress, or let her pride and temper get the better of her. It’s a refreshing balance of independence and a need to be taken care of (at least legally).

On another level the story acts as a Cinderella retelling, complete with wicked stepmother and knight in shining armor as Pamela slaves away in the kitchen. I’ve always wondered at the absent real father in the story, and here Emilie Loring explores that a bit with Mr. Leigh.

I want to keep looking for books like this to have on hand when I’m in the mood for fluff. A small part of me is still pushing against fairy tale endings, but I know I’d be more upset without them. I’m hoping this is a step on the road back to rose colored glasses!

(Unfortunately my version is without it’s lovely dust jacket. If I find a good enough picture I might try to make a facsimile based on other Grosset and Dunlap books I have.)

Published in: on December 21, 2009 at 9:28 pm  Comments (4)  
Tags: , ,