Friday, June 24, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE HOUSE OF THE FOUR WINDS (1935) by John Buchan

Sorry guys, I can't be reasonable about these books - when it comes to John Buchan, you could say that I'm close to becoming unhinged (but in a good way). Can't help it. I haven't read all he's written, but the books I have read I've loved and taken to my heart, they are books I will continue to reread as long as I live. You see, I love well-written (if improbable) adventures of long ago  - stories that recall a different world where codes of honor and good manners mattered. A world where people still dressed for dinner and occasionally read poetry. (It also doesn't hurt that I've been an anglophile since my teens.)

Before I forget, here's my review, from last year of HUNTINGTOWER just in case you missed it. It's the first book in the Duncan McCunn trilogy.

The three books (HUNTINGTOWER, CASTLE GAY and THE HOUSE OF THE FOUR WINDS) should be read in order so that the recurrence of certain characters (and their personalities and quirks) will have that much more meaning. But it's not the end of the world if you don't. Stay flexible - that's my motto. Though THE HOUSE OF FOUR WINDS is actually the sequel to CASTLE GAY.

Most of you are probably familiar with John Buchan from having seen Hitchcock's early classic THE 39 STEPS based on the first Richard Hannay book. Though the film script made many changes from the novel (there is no woman romantic interest in the book, for example) it has its own delightfully shadowy allure even to this day. The book is rather different, but it also has its own allure. I've read it twice and will read it again along with GREENMANTLE and MR. STANDFAST. Terrific stuff.

These are the sorts of books you either have an inclination for or you don't. The kinds of books I loved as a kid (books I could disappear into) and still love as an old lady. They are definitely of their time, but I don't find that a hindrance at all. If you enjoyed THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL by Bareness Orczy and THE PRISONER OF ZENDA by Anthony Hope and/or the books of Rafael Sabatini, for instance, then you will probably enjoy John Buchan's stories.

The McCunn books were a late find for me (I had only been familiar with Buchan's Richard Hannay books the last couple of years). And now I am incorrigible about recommending them to anyone who likes a good rip-roaring yarn full of adventure and derring-do, books where the good guys win and the bad guys don't. My kind of books. I mean, sometimes you do need a break from the grimness of everyday life.

Duncan McCunn is a retired grocer (with a romantic heart) and the endearing Scottish hero of HUNTINGTOWER, the first book in this trilogy. He jumps into the fray once again, years later when adventure comes calling in the very enjoyable CASTLE GAY, the second in the trilogy. But to my mind, THE HOUSE OF FOUR WINDS stands up even better to HUNTINGTOWER (which I consider to be 'brilliant') and makes for a perfect third installment.

It's years since Duncan McCunn and the Gorbal Diehards (Glaswegian slum boys without whom a princess would not have been saved and a dangerous villain routed) had an unexpectedly splendid adventure in the Scottish Highlands. After which, impressed by their devotion and intelligence, McCunn had taken two of the boys, Wee Jaikie and Dougal(Chief of the Diehards) into his home and raised them as surrogate sons. They are now young men off to make their way in the world.

All are traveling over the summer holidays to Europe from Scotland. Each on his own, but they will meet up at various places on the Continent which of course, accommodates the adventure nicely. Several characters from the second book, CASTLE GAY, will also be along to help as well as a menacing leftover bad guy in need of a strong rebuke.

Duncan McCunn who is feeling elderly aches and pains will be traveling for his health, Jaikie is on a walking tour and Dougal is on assignment for his newspaper.

It is 1935 and two pugnacious factions are gearing up to overthrow the corrupt rulers of the tiny country of Evallonia. The monarchists form one group and 'Juventus', a well-regulated rebellious youth movement (sort of like the brown shirts in Germany, but nicer) form the other. They see the monarchy in the person of Prince John (the rightful King of Evallonia) as nothing more than a puppet leader and not to be trusted. Needless to say, there are some very nasty villains trying to make sure that neither of these groups succeeds in their aims, setting them against each other and generally stirring the pot.

To prevent a blood bath and place good Prince John on the throne will take all the amateur skill and ingenuity first evinced in HUNTINGTOWER by McCunn and his 'diehards' not to mention the skill and heroics of friends met along the way - the novel is told from several points of view and doesn't suffer in the least from this since John Buchan handles it all skillfully. The last third of the novel is as exciting as just about anything I can remember reading. (Which isn't saying a lot because my memory is not what it once was, but you get my drift.) The beginning is rather slowish and a bit meandering, but stay with it. I did. It soon picks up speed and you'll be off on a grand adventure. Hold on to your hats - because there will even be a Prince in disguise!

Needless to say, there are plot machinations galore and a bit of a love story (involving darling Jaikie whom we've come to have great affection for over the three books) as all the links are finally woven together in an expert way - though I might add that the story-line does require that you pay attention. It's all in the mind-set, you know. If you're in tune, you'll love all this as much as I did. If you're not, you won't.

What can I say? I'm not sensible about any of this.

And since it is Friday, we usually check the FFB links at Patricia Abbott's blog, but this week Todd Mason is doing hosting duties later on today at Sweet Freedom.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Tuesday Salon: The Art of Richard Adams, Contemporary Painter (not the writer, Richard Adams)

'Above the Estuary' Richard Adams - via

'The Farmer's Bride' - via

The Red Millvia

'The Village Wakes' - via



'The Kitchen Garden' - via

'The Bridge' - via

The Lost Villagevia

'A Winter Afternoon' - via

'Skeletons of Summer' - via 

Contemporary painter Richard Adams (not to be confused with the author of WATERSHIP DOWN) is, to my mind, a British national treasure. (Well, and so is Richard Adams, the author, but today it's all about paintings.)

I stumbled across Adams zany world online and fell instantly in love. His paintings and illustrations depict a kind of fantasy pre-1960's England - halcyon days of idyllic rural countrysides beloved in books and art. Years faithfully written about by authors such as Angela Thirkell, D.E. Stevenson and E.F. Benson and SO brilliantly captured in vintage mystery novels too. 

English villages, as we know, were also the special domain of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Michael Innes and their finely tuned ilk. Murder never seemed as foul when taking place among the cabbage roses and topiaries.

Certainly these settings were NOT the innocent byways and highways perceived by less perceptive outsiders, much to our delight, there were always nefarious secrets hidden in the hedgerows - anyone who's read a vintage cozy mystery knows that. 

And certainly anyone who knows ANYTHING about the sinister and oh-so-satirical rural ambience of Stella Gibbons' COLD COMFORT FARM (and if you don't - what are you waiting for?) will recognize the deceptively cozy atmosphere of Adams' work.

That's what I love most about it. Here's all this charmingly innocent rustic detail sparked occasionally by a disconcerting hint of abandon. (This IS England, after all.) But the implied sex in the haystacks is, in itself, of the Cold Comfort Farm type - outrageous yet somehow, not especially shocking. "I saw something nasty in the woodshed."

Adams works, I believe, in pastels which are notoriously difficult to master. But oh are they fun to mess around with. I have a box, untouched, un-used, of oil pastels which I've held onto for years thinking that at some point I'd give 'em a try - but oh, my friends. just TOO intimidating. 

Still, I enjoy the results when they are this obviously brilliant and engaging.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: SAID WITH FLOWERS (1943) by Anne Nash

My blogging friend and fellow vintage book zealot, John Norris, wrote about Anne Nash's SAID WITH FLOWERS just a little while ago (May 27th, to be exact - here's the link) So why am I daring to write about it just these few weeks later? Well, because, his [John's] are recommendations I always pay attention to and I found the book easily online and ordered it immediately. (Not always the case with the rarities that John likes to tease us with.) And I thought it might be fun to compare each other's reviews while still fresh in mind - well, at least in my mind. And I was warned that other Anne Nash books are almost impossible to find so this is probably it.

John is the expert when it comes to flushing out details about author's lives and publisher's imprints and the like, it all seems to come naturally and easily to him. I, on the other hand, have a much harder row to hoe. So for those details, see John.

I really enjoyed this book. (Well, I kind of knew I would.) In fact, I gave it four stars - must remember to add this to my Christmas murder cozy list too since it fits that category so very nicely. I also like that this is the sort of vintage book which quaintly names the characters up front. I wish mysteries still did that.

Though this was Anne Nash's debut, I liked the author's comfortable ease with this tale of two women who own a flower shop out California way and how they become intimately involved in the horrendous murder of a friend. Well, not in the actual murder itself, but practically right on the scene and the first to see the body. Yes, as John points out in his review, there's a touch of the 'had I but known' school of mystery writing, ala Mignon Eberhart or, for that matter, Mary Roberts Rinehart. But only a touch or two.

Doris Trent (called Dodo) and Nell Witter are two nice women of a certain age who live together (but are not a lesbian couple far as I can tell - at least the author doesn't make much of their cozy living arrangement) and together run a shop which is called, very aptly, The Flower Shop. (Or maybe I missed the actual name somewhere along the line.) At any rate, it is just a couple of weeks before Christmas and business is booming. Who knew that florists did this much frenzied business? It seems that plant and flower buying patrons throng the small shop all hours of the day and night. Never a dull moment for Dodo and Nell.

But misfortune has dealt them a blow; their regular jack of all trades and delivery man, Patrick, suffers a broken leg while on the job (slipped on some leaves in the backroom - is there a lawsuit in the offing?) and is suddenly not available to carry out his Christmas duties. Well, as luck would have it, in steps a charming young man named Barney Miller who is not the star of a cop comedy series from back in the day, but a stranger new in town and providentially on the outlook for a job. It also happens that he knows a thing or two about plants and flowers so almost immediately he becomes the answer to a flower shop proprietor's prayer.

However, it's not all roses and baby's breath, these are dark times. It just so happens that a serial killer called Karp the Killer (yeah, I had to laugh) is on the loose and wreaking havoc around the country. This guy travels. And he leaves a calling card of a fish (not a real fish, a drawing of one) at each of his murders - hence, the moniker given him by the press.

Is Barney aka Karp the Killer? Lots of hinting going on as Dodo (especially) begins to suspect that there is more to their savior than meets the eye. Especially when Rosalind Vance, a close friend, is found murdered in the alley behind the shop - a pruning knife stuck in her chest and a calling card nearby.

The cops and the press converge on the small coastal town on the hunt for news and clues about Karp whose wretched excesses have captured the imagination of the entire country.

Into the mix comes a solo (and rather accommodating) cop named Mark Tudor along with his canine partner, the highly trained German Shepherd, Svea. In the long run, it is Svea who will save the day, but I'm not telling you anything you won't have suspected almost immediately.

But was Rosalind Vance - a woman older than Karp's regular targets - an actual victim of the serial killer? More and more it begins to look like a copy cat affair as Tudor starts hunting closer to home for a killer. Dodo and Nell think otherwise but it turns out that Rosalind Vance's home life was not as benign as might have first appeared. Unbeknownst to the town and to close friends who took her to be a happily married lady blessed with a devoted husband and beautiful (but spoiled) daughter Sheila, there was a cauldron of frayed emotions bubbling beneath the calm surface. The things we don't know about our neighbors private lives would fill a book. And here it does.

Adding to the confusion, it seems that charming Barney has been sneaking off to meet a woman in between making his nightly flower deliveries. This guy is a fast operator.

And again I ask, who knew that flowers and plants were so high up on the Christmas 'must have' list? Why, the shop even makes Christmas day deliveries! Well, this was 1943, things were different then. Women wore corsages.

Yes, there are lots of anachronisms running rampant throughout the story - but that never bothers me if I'm engaged - and some of them I find rather endearing. SAID WITH FLOWERS engaged me even as it seemed set in a different world, in a different century (well, that is true enough) and filled with the sorts of people that populated B-movies (and later, early television) of the time.

Though in the end, the real reason for Barney's appearance in town and on the spot seems loosely conceived to me, I still enjoyed the book and recommend it highly to those of you who like this sort of thing. Plus, don't forget, there's a dog.

Since it's Friday, don't forget to look in on author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

My Favorite New Show (Well, actually, the only new show I've watched in ages...) GRACE AND FRANKIE (A Netflix original) starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston.

Those who know me well enough know that I am not in tune with the latest gizmos and gadgets primarily because I generally don't like even the idea of the latest gizmos and gadgets. Or, for that matter, the latest 'anything'. I think most of the details of so-called modern life are just plain silly.

And don't get me started on what passes for entertainment these days.

At any rate, I lately didn't have to bother much about that since I haven't had a TV or the services of cable in several years. But the funny thing that happened is/was that I didn't miss any of it. People missed it for me, but I didn't. I had my computer (a desk top PC) because - call me crazy - I just don't like watching ANYTHING on a screen smaller than your basic desk top. But as time went by I realized I didn't like to sit at my desk and watch movies. I would get impatient and fast forward or just stop the movie and go watch a baseball game. Very little held my interest online except for, maybe, baseball and occasionally, football.

But shows and movies - not so much.

My brother would say that the monitor is the same as having a TV.
'No it isn't' I'd say.
'Yes it is,' he'd say.
Well, I'm sorry, but it kind of is and it kind of isn't.
 'Make believe,' he'd say as a parting shot.

Anyway, this is my long-winded way of getting to the point of this post.

I've signed up again (for the second or maybe, third time) with Netflix since 'streaming' seems to me to be not as 'silly' as some other things I could mention. Plus I guess I got tired of everyone else raving about shows that I never got to see or films I never got to watch. (The films are still an on-going project. Don't know if I'll EVER get used to watching them online. It is possible that at my age, I just don't have the patience to sit still for two hours and watch anything, but we'll see.)

But turns out I do enjoy watching (some) shows. And I suppose I have a lot of catching up to do if I want to be 'part of the conversation' as Frankie says, on my new favorite show, GRACE AND FRANKIE.

Yes, I'm hooked on GRACE AND FRANKIE after watching about five episodes or so.

Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen (whom I adore), and Sam Waterston. I mean, what's not to like?

In case you're not familiar with the basic plot, here it is:

Robert Hanson (Martin Sheen) and Grace Hanson (Jane Fonda) live in San Diego. They have been married for forty years.

Hanson's law partner is Sol Bergstein (Sam Waterston), he and his wife Frankie Bergstein also live in San Diego and have also been married for forty years.

They are all more or less in their 70's. Anyway, one night while the four are at dinner, Robert Hanson informs his wife that he is leaving her to be with Sol whom he wants to marry. Sol informs Frankie that he is leaving her to be with Robert whom he also wants to marry. "We can do that now."

This comes out of the blue for the women, not to mention their grown children who have their own (and less fascinating) problems to deal with. At any rate, it all sounds preposterous, but Sheen and Waterston make it work - their scenes together have warmth and affection reined in a bit by healthy doses of guilt.

I very much like Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin (both are producers of the show) in these 'odd couple' roles. Tomlin plays Frankie as an eccentric ex-hippie mom with two adopted sons (one black, one white) very believably. She is funny but also poignant and goofy and strangely likable. Jane Fonda plays Grace as a bitter, brittle, fashionable and rather typical (I think) California type. (She hasn't had ice cream in fifteen years.) She is less likable, but grows on you as the show progresses. Dealing with their new lives and slowly becoming friends, Grace and Frankie come to realize that in society's eyes, they've become extraneous. They are 'invisible women'.

As happens so often when marriages break up, Grace has lately been dumped by her supposed 'best friend' of many years - at a funeral, no less. She and Frankie need each other and luckily, they have an ocean beach house (which belongs to both couples) to share. (Hey, none of this would be fun if they were poor.)

Events happen at a rather rapid pace since this is a television show and things have to be kept moving I suppose, but so far I've enjoyed what I've watched (and it's possible that the act of streaming unintentionally increases the apparent pace of what happens in the shows).

I like the addition of Craig T. Nelson lately to the cast and am hoping that Ernie Hudson has not been written off.

Yeah, it's gimmicky, but you know Martin Sheen can make just about anything work. He is one of the last of the old time actors working today who has undeniable 'presence' (not to mention acting brilliance) and that counts for a lot.

So yes I guess I'm hooked on GRACE AND FRANKIE. At least, for now.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: DEATH BY A HONEYBEE by Abigail Keam

Surprise! This is not a vintage read, but one I sort of stumbled across on my booky perambulations online. In fact, I read it on my Kindle so I must have downloaded it when it was nicely (and cheaply) priced - that's when I'll take a chance on a book by an author I've never heard of before. I mean, who can resist just paying a buck or two?

I liked this debut mystery a lot and went on to read the next two in the series. (In my view, the first and second books are the best so far). And yes, it does sound like a cozy, but I'd call it more of a cozy on steroids.

Josiah Reynolds is the heroine of the piece - yes, she is a she named Josiah (not quite clear but I think it's mentioned that this is some sort of family name, but I found it confusing at first) and she is a crusty Southern lady of about fifty. The book's action takes place in and around the colorful horse haven of Lexington, Kentucky. Part of the charm of these books is the local color,  not to mention the various eccentrics who populate this unique area of the country. The author gets the ambience just right, I think. (Or at least as we imagine Lexington, Kentucky might be.)

A beekeeper struggling to make ends meet, Josiah sells honey at the local Farmer's Market, though she is by no means, indigent. She lives in an architecturally historic house filled with art which she refuses to sell and thus, it's hard not to feel that she's just a bit too stubborn for her own good. 'The Butterfly' is the remarkable creation of her ex-husband, an architect who left Josiah for a younger woman and has since died - the husband, not the girlfriend. In the meantime, said girlfriend has reaped all the financial benefits, but Josiah - at least - got to keep the house and the art. And to keep on keeping it, she needs to make a living.

Josiah is the type of person who doesn't sit still when she's threatened, she is feisty and sarcastic and faces the world with a pugnacious attitude which serves her well in this first mystery of the series. When a man with whom she has been feuding is found dead among Josiah's beehives, she naturally enough becomes the obvious suspect in the murder.

The author gives us the usual supply of colorful friends and enemies who pop in and out as Josiah sets out to find a killer. There's also an added bit of mystery attached to a grown daughter who seems to be some sort of kick-ass mucky-muck in a stealthy armed forces group. She shows up now and then to do for her mother, when she's not traveling the world trouble-spot to trouble-spot.

I know this set-up sounds a bit cozy and I also know that for some of you that is the kiss of death, but honestly, this didn't read much like one (not that there's anything wrong with that). Josiah doesn't seem to me, to be the everyday run-of-the-mill cozy heroine, she is irascible and confrontational and the book ends in a doozy of a cliff-hanger. Plus there is the added attraction (at least for me) of lots of interesting lore about bees, creatures which I have always found fascinating.

Since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patti Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.