Monthly Archives: May 2006

Sugar and Syrup: Michael O’Halloran by Gene Stratton-Porter (1915)

I am greatly indebted to the wonderful Metallumai for my copy of this book. I can’t say I particularly liked it, although for very different reasons to the previous post. This is an American tale of a poor boy made good, and I nearly overdosed on treacly sentiment while reading it. I still feel slightly queasy. Unlike the novel in a previous post where most of the characters had no redeeming characteristics, here it’s the opposite; they’re all too good to be true. Characters that start out selfish, or delinquent, only have to have the errors of their ways gently pointed out to them (usually by an interfering busybody who masquerades as the heroine), for them to instantaneously change forever.

The story is set in a fictional city, presumably based on Indianapolis, called in the American tradition, Multiopolis. I have a problem with this convention as it renders the story that less believable for me – what is wrong with giving a fictional place a believable name? This city is plagued with apparently corrupt officials and a large immigrant population.

There is mention throughout of the war – characters can’t make their customary trips to Europe because of it, and it is used as a way of pointing to the reactionary social conditions of Europeans, fighting for their monarchs etc.
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Shades of Unreason: Life’s Shadow Show, Louise Gerard (1916)

While it may be seen from my plot summary below, that I find this book pretty objectionable, I do recognise that it has some interesting elements to it.

On the death of her father, the heroine is left to the guardianship of her only brother (somewhat older than she is). He, for some reason, sends her to school in Germany, while he buggers of to South Africa, that useful place for disposing of unwanted relatives. He does quite well, but then when the Boer War blows up, insists on enlisting and getting himself killed. Left with no relatives, the school headmistress secures her a post as playmate/companion to a Russian aristocrat, who appears to live in darkest Siberia. When the aristocrat is conveniently removed by a plot device (she gets married), our heroine heads off to Paris when she is ruthlessly exploited, by the headmistress of a school. Finally, she comes to London and sets about earning a crust there. This is where it gets a bit more interesting. I feel that there are strong autobiographical elements in the heroine’s search for work, her struggle as a writer, and daily life in a grotty bedsit.

However, taken as a whole, the plot is utterly preposterous, and the heroine is of such breathtaking naivety that it borders on mental deficiency. She also has many sterling Mary Sue qualities including knee length hair, weird coloured eyes, and numerous talents – I mean, good grief she writes a book and the first publisher she sends it to accepts it!
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Louise Gerard

Louise Gerard was a writer of ‘exotic’ romantic fiction, active between 1910 and the late thirties. She favoured settings that her readers would be unfamiliar with, although she meticulously researched the locations, travelling widely to do so. She favoured a type of storyline that I find particularly repulsive, of the type, boy meets girl, boy rapes girl, girl falls in love with boy, wherein the hero is usually an orphaned Englishman raised in the desert by Bedouin or similar nonsense.

My distaste notwithstanding, she was very popular in her day, being one of the fledgling Mills & Boon’s most successful authors and at least two of her novels were made into movies. Son of the Sahara was even reviewed by the New York Times in 1924.

Her work and that of others like her is beginning to attract serious academic study; she is discussed in Lynne Hapgood’s book Margins of desire. The suburbs in fiction and culture 1880-1925, and also in Jay Dixon’s book The Romance fiction of Mills & Boon.

Other modern readers however, seem to find her subject matter as distasteful as I do, as evidenced by this Book Crossing review of Fruit of Eden.

Her novels were:
A Golden Centipede 1910
The Hyena of Kallu 1910
A Tropical Tangle 1911
The Swimmer 1912
Flower of the Moon: a romance of the forest 1914
The virgin’s Treasure: a romance of the tropics 1915
Life’s Shadow Show 1916
Days of Probation 1917
The Mystery of ‘golden lotus’ 1919
Spanish Vendetta 1920
A Sultan’s Slave 1921
Necklace of tears 1922
Wreath of Stars: a romance of Venice 1923
Shadow of the Palm 1925
The Fruit of Eden 1927
The Harbour of Desire 1927
Wild Winds 1929
The Dancing Boy 1928
A Strange Young Man 1931
Secret Love 1932
Strange Paths 1934
Following Footsteps 1936

To me, some of these titles read as if they’ve come out of one of those online title generators, correction, they all do.

Plots and stories

It occurred to me that although I’ve made reference in the blog title to reading and writing, I’ve really only posted about things I’ve been reading so far. I thought it was about time for a writing related post.

One of the things I always look at when I read something is the type of plot a book has. We’re all aware of similarities in plot; such similarities are the mainstay of genre fiction. For example a detective story has to follow a very fixed formula for it to be a detective story, but it may come in several flavours – police procedural etc.

Christopher Booker came up with a theory that there are only seven basic plotlines, link to the book. others have said no, there are eight, or twelve or, one I saw recently, thirty eight. Whether or not one subscribes to this, it is undeniable that the similarities are there. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all novels are the same, although some are more similar than others as Kaavya Viswanathan found to her cost recently.

I read Booker’s theory last year, and was impressed with the amount of research that had gone into it. The plots he identified are, Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and lastly, Rebirth. Of these, he identifies comedy as the only one that has evolved during the historical period, from the Greek comedies of Aristophanes et al. It is worth noting that of these plots, only tragedy does not have a happy ending.

Since reading it, I’ve amused myself by looking at books I like and trying to identify the basic plot. For example, most of my great grandmother’s books are romances and as such are either rags to riches stories or comedies. Sometimes it’s easy, at other times less so, because much of modern literary fiction doesn’t follow the pattern. I’ve even identified the plot I’m happiest writing which, as it turns out, is the one I enjoy reading the most.

On the Scrounge: Behind the Lines, WF Morris (1930)

I think this is an interesting story because, as I mentioned in a previous post, it makes use of the deserters living in no man’s land story.

The hero, a lieutenant in the RFA* is one of those chaps who loves the war. He’s having a great time, thank you very much; the chaps in the mess are a jolly good lot and they all get on swimmingly. He even manages to get engaged to an ambulance driver at the local CCS*. Then a new officer is posted to the battery. He’s older, and it readily becomes apparent, is a total scrimshanker. He doesn’t do his job properly with the result that it’s left to those who will do it to take the burden. The hero and the other subaltern find this most unfair, but it seems to be the way of things. Things come to a head when the other subaltern has just departed on some well deserved leave (he’s virtually cracking up) when the battery is heavily shelled. The CO is badly wounded and the other officer is killed. This leaves the scrimshanker to take command. He declares he will recall the other subaltern to go forward while he (the new CO) hides out with the transport. The hero is totally disgusted with this and they end up fighting. To his horror, the scrimshanker breaks his neck when crashing to the ground. Nothing for it but to bugger off.
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A Commercial Adventure: Psmith in the City, PG Wodehouse (1910)

My paternal grandfather gave me this book when I was about ten or eleven. I had been reading a book that had belonged to my mother when she was a child (Susannah of the Mounties, IIRC) and he apparently didn’t think much of it, handing me this book from his shelf instead, (a 1924 edition) and saying it was “much better.” He was right. This is a treat of a book.

I hadn’t read it for some years, but was prompted to by noticing that Ian Hay and Wodehouse collaborated on a Psmith play at one point. There are scenes in here that have stuck in my memory for years – the ghastly bed sit in Acacia Road, Psmith’s monocle, and the fact that there was lots and lots of cricket (the only tedious thing about the book).

Like Ian Hay’s books it is written in omniscient third with a very present narrator. This seems to be a feature of this type of humorous fiction, and there are incidents in the book that made me laugh out loud. Sad to say, I haven’t read much Wodehouse, apart from a couple of Bertie Woosters that I read in my teens, and which I never found to my taste, but I liked this.

The novel is obviously a sequel; there are references all through it to incidents that occurred in the previous book, which I have never read. This does make for slightly irritating reading, as I think it’s unnecessary – the book stands well enough on its own as a narrative.

I won’t bother repeating what Wikipedia has to say about Psmith, or indeed about this book, but what I found interesting about it, reading it now, are the descriptions of life at the New Asiatic Bank – which Wodehouse clearly based on his own at the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank, although one hopes they are an exaggeration. Mike, the sidekick and putative hero, is paid the princely sum of four pounds ten shillings a month to stick stamps on letters and take them to the post office. Compare this with the slog the heroine has to undertake to scrape a living in Louise Gerard’s Life’s Shadow Show, which I will eventually post about.

The descriptions of the Kenningford by-election are also interesting, not least because ‘Comrade’ Bickersdyke, the Unionist candidate romps home after the opposing candidate is discovered to have been educated in Germany, and, shock horror, spent two years at Heidelberg University.

“These damaging revelations were having a marked effect on the warm-hearted patriots of Kenningford, who were now referring to the candidate in thick but earnest tones as ‘the German Spy’.”

Needless to say, all ends happily – for Mike and Psmith, if less so for Comrade Bickersdyke, who exits, stage left, fuming.

I couldn’t find any contemporary reviews online, but there’s a general review of Wodehouse in the Guardian.

Last Gasp – Prisoners of the Kaiser, Richard van Emden (2000)

Van Emden seems to have spent the last few years rushing around interviewing the last Great War veterans before they died for a series of books on the subject. This is not to say these are not good books – they are certainly informative, and they reflect a general desire to secure first hand testimony before it is too late.

It’s an interesting book, useful as a starting point for further research. Rather than follow each contributor from start to finish, or describe the aftermath of particular battles, it is structured to cover chronological topics – capture (whenever, and wherever that may have been), behind enemy lines, surviving in a prison camp etc.
This is a topic that is not covered so extensively as others in all the forests of Great War related material, and it’s good to see such an accessible book on the subject.

The book was based on a Channel 4 documentary of the same name, which unfortunately I don’t recall seeing. As a result of the documentary there was a flutter of interest in the mainstream press, and this site republishes an article from the Guardian, which took on some of the issues in the documentary.

For further reading, there is some interesting discussion on the subject in this forum thread, discussing POW conditions, and this one, discussing British POW attire.