My first Jane Gardam: Bilgewater

Jane Gardam, Bilgewater (1976)

The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your “first” a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I’m revisiting some of these “first reads” and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.

I first became interested in Jane Gardam upon reading Michele Landsberg’s description of Bilgewater in her wonderful guide to children’s literature, Reading for the Love of It:

The characters are a gallery of endearing and sometimes buffoonish eccentrics, and all of them, young and old, reticent or extravagant, act out the various and extravagant follies to which they are driven by love.

By now, having read all the Jane Gardam books I could get my hands on, the “gallery of endearing and sometimes buffoonish eccentrics” to which she has introduced me has greatly expanded, as this is one of the strengths of all her writing. But Bilgewater was my first, and I’m still very fond of her.

The title refers to the nickname bestowed upon the novel’s narrator by the boys of the boarding school where she lives with her widowed father, a housemaster. (“Bill’s daughter” = Bilgewater, to a schoolboy’s sense of humor.) Her real name is Marigold, a sunny, cheerful name that contrasts with her image of herself as an ugly, froglike creature suitable to be dismissively called “Bilgie.” But the radiant side of her being is manifest to us from the first chapter, in the energy and verve of her narration.

I emerged into this cold house in this cold school in this cold seaside town where you can scarcely even get the telly for the height of the hills behind — I emerged into this great sea of boys and masters at my father’s school (St Wilfrid’s) an orange-haired, short-sighted, frog-bodied ancient, a square and solemn baby, a stolid, blinking, slithery-pupilled (it was before they got the glasses which straightened the left eye out) two-year-old, a glooming ten-year-old hanging about the school cloisters (“Hi Bilgie, where’s your broomstick?”) and a strange, thick-set, hopeless adolescent, friendless and given to taking long idle walks by the sea.

As readers, we don’t see or care what she looks like; what matters is that here is a brilliant, original mind, able to look at herself and the world with humor and insight that far transcends the ordinary. But at seventeen, looks are paramount — so when she’s given a makeover by the glamorous headmaster’s daughter, it seems possible her life might take a turn for the better.

Fortunately, things do not develop in any dull, conventional way, but go badly astray with hilarious, tumultuous results. Along the way we meet many of those endearing eccentrics, chief among whom is the indispensable Paula, whirlwind of a house matron and the closest thing Bilgewater has to a mother. Though she has no dress sense and is given to handing out items from the rag bag, we can tell Paula’s love is the real thing, however blind those around her may be to her true worth.

And then there is the “great sea of boys and masters,” some of whom give Bilgewater/Marigold her first painful, confusing experiences of attraction and repulsion, love and loss. As she negotiates these treacherous waters, trying to discern what is real and life-sustaining in the midst of deception, falseness and dishonesty, we are reminded of our own journey towards truth — a journey that can be taken up at any age.

I can’t possibly write as well as Jane Gardam does, or explain how she manages to make us laugh while treading on the edge of despair. I can only say that once I found her funny, warm-hearted, and verbally dexterous writing, I didn’t want to stop reading it. If you haven’t already, I hope I’ve intrigued you enough to pick up this or another book by one of the great comic novelists of our time.

And please, don’t be misled into thinking this is only a book for adolescents to read, just because it’s about one. A blurb on my edition insultingly says “Here is a brilliant talent that, if it appeared in adult fiction would be noisily greeted and deserve to be.” Such a talent should be greeted wherever it appears, and the theme of making individual human connections in the face of all the forces that seek to divide and estrange us (or conversely, submerge us in conventional sameness) never loses its relevance, even after the teenage years are long past.


My First Georgette Heyer: False Colours

Georgette Heyer, False Colours (1963)

The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your “first” a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I’m revisiting some of these “first reads” and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.

FalseColoursAs with Terry Pratchett, I saw Georgette Heyer’s books on the shelf for years before I picked one up. I had her pegged as a “romance novelist,” and romance was not a genre I was particularly interested in. Wasn’t she one of those formulaic, swoony writers like Barbara Cartland? So I passed her by, until who knows what whim prompted me to take home one of her books from the library and start reading.

Well, that book, False Colours, had me hooked from page one, with its witty banter, well-realized period setting, intelligent, likeable central couple, and screwball-comedy-style plot. It starts when Kit Fancot, returning home from the Napoleonic wars to his mother’s London townhouse, learns that his twin brother Evelyn is missing on the eve of an important appointment … for which the twins’ mother begs Kit to stand in for Evelyn for just one day … which stretches into weeks, during which the masquerade becomes more and more difficult, particularly as he finds himself falling for Cressy, his brother’s potential bride …

Yes, this is a Regency romance; Heyer basically invented the genre, and she practiced it in a way that many have tried to imitate, but few have bettered. Her Regency is not the lived one of Jane Austen, but a constructed universe that is slightly unreal, a bit too technicolor. Her period slang is genuine, but nobody would really run it all together in one speech the way her characters do. Her female characters, while behaving with a thorough understanding of the proprieties of the time, have a slyly modern side that allows them much more knowledge of certain “unmentionables” than was probably the case. And no writer of Austen’s era would spend so much time on descriptions of clothing, especially masculine fashions.

Heyer had an exhaustive knowledge of Regency styles for both men and women, some of which are represented in this period fashion plate.

But such alterations are clearly not the result of sloppy research and careless writing (which sometimes drive me mad when I try to read other Regencies). It was Heyer’s choice to consciously craft this fictional world, full of details from a time she clearly loved and knew much about, but with an internal coherence and logic all its own. She did it brilliantly, and most importantly she used it to tell wonderful stories about people who come to life on the page, so that we care about them and want them to find happiness with each other.

I was enchanted by this world, and by Kit and Cressy and all their friends and relatives. Most notable in this particular book are the twins’ flighty mother, who seems to be modeled on the Duchess of Devonshire, and her portly suitor Bonamy Ripple. Heyer uses them to poke fun at some of the excesses of the era, but her humor is more light-hearted than coldly satirical. We want this unlikely couple to find happiness too, even as we laugh at them.

After my first Heyer, I went on to read as many others as I could get my hands on. Not a one-note writer, she wrote with astonishing flair and facility in a variety of genres and historical settings. Quite a few of her other novels are better than False Colours, which has too much talk and too little action, and suffers from Cressy not being given enough to do (aside from a memorable scene in which she puts paid to the blackmailing mother of one of Evelyn’s paramours). It’s when Heyer’s heroines really get to shine, as in The Talisman Ring or Friday’s Child or Cotillion, that her books are at their best, I think. But every one has pleasures of its own, and if you haven’t yet discovered them for yourself, I hope you will soon.

Thanks to First Impressions Reviews for inspiring me to write this post for her Georgette Heyer blog hop! Please visit the other posts for more about this author and her marvelous books.


My First Robertson Davies: Tempest-Tost

Robertson Davies, Tempest-Tost (1951)

The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your “first” a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I’m revisiting some of these “first reads” and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.

Robertson Davies first novel

When I was in college, my campus bookstore had a tempting array of current fiction on the way to the textbooks. Among these were several strikingly designed Penguin paperbacks by an author named Robertson Davies. After looking at them for years I finally bought one: Davies’s first novel, Tempest-Tost, about an amateur production of Shakespeare’s play in a provincial Canadian town.

And how glad I was that I did! With a sure comic touch, Davies assembles his cast of characters and lets them make fools of themselves, occasionally learning something in the process, in the best Shakespearean tradition. The pompous English professor who simply must play Prospero with his own special touch; the drama club president, preoccupied with impressing her social superiors; the suddenly stage-struck mathematics teacher whose staid and comfortable life is shaken up by his venture into theatrical circles; the gloriously unconventional church organist with a passion for Henry Purcell; the young assistant director bound by painful ties to his invalid mother; all these and more entertain and divert us with their own comedy alongside the one they are preparing for the stage.

In this early work, Davies sometimes lets the seams of his novelistic construction show. He can’t resist including some incidents and bits of dialogue that don’t quite fit — as when he puts one of his favorite sayings (“chastity means having the body in the soul’s keeping”) in the unlikely mouth of the ingenue Griselda, or shoehorns in a scene that shows off his knowledge of the value of some forgotten old books. An actor, director, and playwright himself, Davies is somewhat given to staginess and long passages of dialogue that seem out of place in this brief work of fiction.

Robertson Davies trilogy novels

All of these rough spots would be smoothed out in future novels, where Davies really came into his own as a fiction writer. The comic sense and eccentric characters, as well the evidence of his formidable learning and eclectic interests, remain — but his storytelling becomes more accomplished and compelling, resulting in a most satisfying reading experience. For a sample of his narrative power at its height, I recommend Fifth Business (first of the Deptford Trilogy, about the surprisingly interwoven destinies of three boys from a small Canadian town); my personal favorite, What’s Bred in the Bone (a wonderful exploration of the art world, among other things); or his final novel, The Cunning Man (conceived as the memoir of a physician who was “holistic” before it was trendy).

Rereading Tempest-Tost just now after an interval of many years, I was struck by the opening scene — a motherless young girl, living in a large estate, with a faithful ex-military family retainer and a lovely older sister she describes as “brainless,” engaged in a somewhat shady activity. The activity is wine-making instead of concocting poisons, and the girl’s family is still comfortably wealthy instead of living on the edge of insolvency, but is this set-up not reminiscent of that of the Flavia de Luce mysteries? The two girls even both have unusual names that start with F (here, Fredegonde).

In another somewhat awkward move, Davies abandons Freddy after the opening chapter and his story goes into quite a different direction — but still, it made me wonder whether fellow Canadian author Alan Bradley was consciously or unconsciously inspired by this scene. It would not be a bad thing for more writers to read and be inspired by Davies’s example of intelligent, emotionally resonant fiction, or for more readers to discover its pleasures.

Robertson Davies Booker shortlistDavies never won the Booker Prize, though he was shortlisted for What’s Bred in the Bone  in 1986. At the time surprise was expressed in the UK at the presence of two Canadians on the list, the other being Margaret Atwood for The Handmaid’s Tale. Davies said dryly, “The English are just a little late in discovering what the rest of the world has known for some time.” (Alas, both lost to third-time nominee Kingsley Amis.)

We’re in a different world now, where Canadian authors like Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Carol Shields, and Bradley himself garner wide readership and honors, but Davies was their forerunner, and deserves all the recognition we can posthumously give him. Whichever book you start with, I hope you’ll agree.


My First Diana Wynne Jones: Charmed Life

Diana Wynne Jones, Charmed Life (Greenwillow, 1977)

The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your “first” a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I’m revisiting some of these “first reads” and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.

Diana Wynne Jones Chrestomanci
The first DWJ I ever purchased

I first encountered the name of Diana Wynne Jones when at age fourteen I wrote a letter to my favorite author at the time, Robin McKinley, and received this response. I had asked her to tell me her favorite book and not to answer War and Peace (I guess I was fed up with high school required reading lists). She gave quite an extensive list of books and authors, all of which I duly checked out.

Charmed Life was the first DWJ title I found in my local bookstore, and I purchased it forthwith. Here is the first paragraph:

Cat Chant admired his sister Gwendolen. She was a witch. He admired her and he clung to her. Great changes came about in their lives and left him no one else to cling to.

Four simple, almost simplistic sentences, but as we progress further into the story we find out that there are many layers beneath the surface. The bland statement “She was a witch” turns out to have quite a different significance in Cat and Gwendolen’s world than in ours, as witchcraft is an ordinary occupation, like hairdressing or teaching music. And Cat’s admiration of and dependence on his older sister, which seem entirely natural considering that the “great changes” in their lives include the sudden death of their parents in a boating accident, turn out to be problematic. For magic may be common in Cat’s world, but it’s not always innocuous, and Gwendolen is not using her powers to benefit her young brother, but rather the opposite.

Diana Wynne Jones novel
The latest British edition

These two threads — the building of an alternate world in which magic is a part of daily life, and the theme of a young person’s need to discover his own strengths and free himself from unhelpful bonds — make a marvelous blend, a tale that is wonderfully fanciful, entertaining, and imaginative, yet grounded in serious concerns of the human heart. And the deadpan style masks a wickedly perceptive sense of humor. As I read more of Jones’s work, I found this blend in book after book, always with new twists and new worlds to explore, and always with the same sense of humor rooted not in cheap laughs but in a rare kind of wisdom.

Maybe that’s why of the authors Robin McKinley recommended, Diana Wynne Jones is the only one who became a favorite of mine, far eclipsing McKinley herself in the end. She is a writer of comedy in the true sense: a way of looking at life that, while it sees what is absurd and out of place with clear eyes, also uplifts us with the knowledge of what is noble and enduring in the human spirit. While it might seem presumptuous to compare her to the greatest writer of comedies in English, Shakespeare, in her chosen realm of children’s fantasy novels, she’s not so far from the top. She has her flaws and weak points, but at her height of creative invention, I don’t know anyone who compares to her.

While you may see Charmed Life publicized as part of the “Chrestomanci series” (along with The Magicians of Caprona, Witch Week, The Lives of Christopher Chant, Conrad’s Fate, and The Pinhoe Egg), it is not a series in the conventional sense and the order of reading is not terribly important. Charmed Life is a good place to start, though, because in it Jones introduces the character of Chrestomanci — a role rather than a name, an enchanter powerful enough to ensure that lesser magic-workers follow the rules in his world; it also introduces the important idea of “related worlds,” alternate realities that have split off when an event in history could have taken different paths. I’m not going to go into the plot more than that, because I want you to discover its surprises for yourself; and if I haven’t managed to intrigue you by now, I give up.

Five weeks from today, I’ll be hosting a celebration of Diana Wynne Jones and a read-along of another Chrestomanci book, Witch Week, from October 31 to November 6, 2014. Although Charmed Life is not one of the official featured books of that week, if you’re thinking of joining us, you might want to check it out if you haven’t already. It was where I began, and I still think it’s a good place to start. From there, you’re going to find many magical worlds to explore.

Review copy source: Personal collection

My First Terry Pratchett: The Truth

Terry Pratchett, The Truth (2000)

The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your “first” a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I’m revisiting some of these “first reads” and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.

Terry Pratchett has written a LOT of books. And a lot of people have read them. He’s one of the most popular and prolific fantasy authors of our time, but while “popular” and “prolific” may call up a certain image (one that does not necessarily include literary quality), he is in a category all his own. I don’t know of another author who can both inspire laughter and provoke thought on so many levels, from the lowest of the lowbrow on up. At his best, he is brilliantly satirical without being cynical, which is no mean feat.

I don’t remember exactly why I picked up my first Pratchett. I suppose I had passed by their steadily multiplying ranks in the library often enough that curiosity finally got to me. The one I took home was The Truth, which plunged me right in the middle of the “Discworld” universe. How to explain Discworld? Well, besides being a flat earth on the back of a giant tortoise, on top of four elephants (after which “it’s elephants all the way down…”), it’s a place where Pratchett can play around with all kinds of tropes of genre fiction, inhabited as it is by witches, wizards, dwarfs, vampires, werewolves, policemen, politicians, journalists, and other strange creatures.

Pratchett builds whole sub-worlds around each of these populations (and more), which would take too much time to explain. Suffice it to say that he pulled off the feat of introducing many of them to me in this mid-series book without tedious info-dumping, and without leaving me totally mystified. I’m not sure how exactly he did this, but I do think it’s sufficient to qualify him as a master storyteller.

Part of the conceit of Discworld is that while everything has a vaguely medieval and/or Victorian feel (like much of fantasy literature), things are changing; modern innovations such as racial integration and rapid communication come into play. Of course, since this is Discworld, racial integration means dwarfs co-existing with vampires, and communication is by semaphore tower. In The Truth, the new element is the press, which comes about when the dwarfs find a way to turn lead into gold — by inventing moveable lead type, of course. Before many days have passed, the first city newspaper has been created, the guilds of Engravers and Town Criers are enraged, a rival paper is fanning the flames of sensationalism, and a mystery that strikes at the very heart of society is calling for some brave soul to find and expose that elusive thing, the truth.

On rereading, I did find that some of the repeated jokes became tiresome, such as the gangster who confusedly tries to mainline everything from rat poison to chalk. Pratchett can get too enamored of an idea like this and bring it in over and over, causing an “okay, I get it already” reaction.

But I fell in love again with many of the characters: the oddly endearing vampire photographer Otto, who has taken the pledge to abstain from “the b-word” and sings temperance hymns to stay strong; the aristocrat-turned-journalist William de Worde, who bemusedly learns that putting a story in print makes it true, even if it isn’t; the so-bad-he’s-good despot Vetinari, who when accused of attempted murder, arouses suspicion because it’s so unlike him not to succeed.

I won’t try to analyze what makes Discworld funny, except to say that Pratchett somehow manages to set up totally absurd and impossible situations that nevertheless cause us to recognize some truth about ourselves and our world. Here’s an example in which a Discworld computer (powered by a magical imp, naturally), is pitching its features to a couple of gangsters.

The imp took a deep breath. “May I introduce to you the rest of my wide range of interesting and amusing sounds, Insert Name Here?”

Mr. Pin glanced at Mr. Tulip. “All right.”

“For example, I can go ‘tra-la!’”


“An amusing bugle call?”




“Or I can be instructed to make droll and diverting comments when performing various actions.”


“Er…some people like us to say things like ‘I’ll be back when you open the box again,’ or something like that…”

“Why do you do noises?” said Mr. Pin.

“People like noises.”

“We don’t,” said Mr. Pin.

“We —ing hate noises,” said Mr. Tulip.

“Good for you! I can do lots of silence,” the imp volunteered. But suicidal programming forced it to continue: “And would you like a different color scheme?”


“What color would you like me to be?” As it spoke, one of the imp’s long ears slowly turned purple and its nose became a vaguely disquieting shade of blue.

“We don’t want any colors,” said Mr. Pin. “We don’t want noises. We don’t want cheerfulness. We just want you to do what you’re told.”

“Perhaps you would like to take a moment to fill in your registration card?” said the imp desperately, holding it up.

A knife thrown at snake speed snapped the card out of its hand and nailed it to the desk.

If you don’t find this funny, you probably won’t like The Truth. But if you chuckled, give it a try. I don’t think you’ll be sorry.