Archive for the ‘D.E.Stevenson’ Category

A decade ago I hadn’t even heard of D.E. Stevenson, until fellow book bloggers kept nudging me to seek her out. Now I own an almost-complete collection, and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve delved into these delicious little comfort reads. Even the relative flops, of which there are a few. (Yes, Crooked Adam, I’m looking at you. And sibling story Gerald and Elizabeth. Not to mention Rochester’s Wife. Gar! I blushed for the author while reading all of these. But I kept right on reading, and I won’t part with these for anything, fully intending to revisit, groan in dismay at the bloomers, and forge ahead regardless.)

Kudos to ACE, the genre paperback publishing arm of Grosset and Dunlap, for resurrecting D.E. Stevenson back in the early 1970s, because without their editions D.E. Stevenson would be even harder to acquire than she is, but regrets for those goopy “romance” covers – soooo bad. I have to admit I hide these when reading in public.

Well, we’ve had a fraught sort of summer this year, what with the local forest fires and all, and though we’ve come out the other side personally unscathed, we still feel rather rumpled in the mind. Hence the comfort reading. Nevil Shute and D.E. Stevenson have gravitated to the bedside stand, among others. Engaging but not particularly challenging. Easy to take up, easy to put down, patiently waiting for the reader to return and step back into the story.

Most recently the books on hand are the comfortably charming Dering family novels. This is only the second time of reading them through since my introduction to D.E.S., and I enjoyed them even more so this time round than the first, because this time I read them in chronological order and everything clicked ever so nicely into place. I also recognised a number of characters from other books, which must mean I am becoming a genuine Dessie, tracing the strands of the spider-web from book to book to book – a delightful side pleasure of reading this not-quite-forgotten author.

Cribbing from previous posts to put together this overview. I’ve gotten very much out of the blogging habit, much to my regret, so trying to get those rusty cogs a-turning again. A little cheat feels justified, and I did so enjoy these books I thought them worthy of mention once again, even if I don’t have much new to say.

Here we go.

Oh! I guess I should mention that there are spoilers throughout, mainly in the transition in focus from book to book. Each installment’s resolution leads to the opening of the next. If you are brand new to these and want to be surprised (if we can describe D.E.S.’s mild dramas as worthy of such a strong term) you might want to click away and come back once you’ve read them yourself. Collectively I would give this trilogy an 8/10 or thereabouts in my personal rating system (see sidebar), keeping in mind that this is in relation of these books in D.E. Stevenson’s body of work alone.

Cover depicted is from an earlier hardcover edition, not the paperback referred to in the heading.

Vittoria Cottage by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1949. This edition: Collins-Fontana, 1974. Paperback. ISBN: 0-00-613-444-0. 191 pages.

Middle-aged Caroline Dering has just been widowed, and, aside from her genuine and seemly sorrow at the death of someone who has shared her life for many years, she is not at all steeped in sorrow. Her lately departed spouse, Arnold Dering, was of a complaining and perpetually malcontented disposition. While his wife and three children were accepting of his character – Caroline thought that he always meant well, and suspected that at rare moments Arnold recognized and truly regretted his deep pessimism –  they enjoyed themselves much more in his absence.

World War II has been over for several years, but England is still very much in coping and recovery mode. Society is fast changing into some sort of new normal, and though things are steadily improving, there is still food and fuel rationing, and a strong atmosphere of “making do”, which makes for some quite fascinating scenarios as we progress through the book and look over Caroline’s shoulder as she goes about her days.

Another older hardcover edition, this one more accurately depicting the “cottage” which really isn’t.

The scene is set for what is to become a series of three novels by descriptions of the village of Ashbridge and the far from cottage-like Vittoria Cottage, ancestral home of the Derings. Though she has merely “married into” the local family, Caroline fits into the local hierarchy almost immediately, and by and large leads a deeply contented life, caring for her children, volunteering for various worthy causes, keeping house and gardening. The children are all grown up, with James away in Malaya, and lovely but discontented Leda (she takes after her father in full) and boisterous Bobbie making their way out into the larger world from the safe haven of their village nest.

Life in quiet Ashbridge gets suddenly quite interesting with the arrival of the mysterious Mr. Shepperton, who is apparently very reluctant to discuss his past, and who arouses even more suspicion because he appears to have no old belongings or clothing, a real rarity at that place and time, immediately post-war – “everything new!” the village gossips whisper with raised eyebrows.

Caroline’s lovely younger sister Harriet, a successful actress ducking away to her sister’s home for a respite from a difficult and failed recent stage production in London, brings some sophisticated dash and sparkle to village gatherings, and with the unexpectedly sudden return of James from Malaya, and the trials and tribulations of Leda and her fiancé Derek, the local squire’s son, there is plenty of scope for complications, dilemmas, surprises and sometimes unexpected resolutions.

I thought the characters were very well drawn and (mostly) very believable. Caroline is our heroine, but she is not a perfect person by a long shot; her flaws are well on display, but we forgive her them because she is ultimately exceedingly likeable, as is her sister and most of the other players in this excellent domestic drama. It ends quite abruptly, but this served merely to make me keen to get my hands on the next episode in this extended tale.

Cover depicted is from an earlier hardcover edition, not the paperback referred to in the heading.

Music in the Hills by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1950. This edition: Ace Books, circa 1970. Paperback. 282 pages.

Having more or less settled the fates of Caroline Dering and her sister Harriet Fane in the previous novel, Vittoria Cottage, this next installment in the trilogy follows Caroline’s son James, who, at loose ends after his military service and several years spent “chasing terrorists” in Malaya, is looking towards his future.

Deeply in love with his childhood companion Rhoda, he is struggling with her rejection of his marriage proposal. While we suspect that she is in love with James in her own way, Rhoda fears that, as a rising professional painter, marriage would spell the end of her career goals, and that she would be a discontented wife as well as a poorer artist, having to split her focus between two roles, doing neither well.

James takes it very well, all things considered, and hies himself off to the community of Drumburly in Scotland, where he has been invited by his aunt and uncle to reside at the remote Mureth House, a prosperous sheep farm. Jock and Mamie Johnstone have no children of their own, and are hoping that their nephew might be interested enough in farming life to take over Mureth some day.

James has always cherished a desire to be a farmer himself, so the situation looks like a success all around; the story follows some of James’s apprenticeship and details the day-to-day occupations of a hill farmer of mid-20th century Scotland; quite nicely detailed and relatably true in the telling. (I keep sheep, so happily appreciated the ovine interludes.)

We have sheep rustlers and romantic entanglements and, of course, more than a few misunderstandings between various parties, all neatly tidied up as the story progresses, in proper D.E. Stevenson fashion.

Cover depicted is from an earlier hardcover edition, not the paperback referred to in the heading.

Shoulder the Sky: A Story of Winter in the Hills by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1951. Original British title: Winter and Rough Weather. This edition: Ace Books, circa 1971. 275 pages.

Five years after the conclusion of the Second World War, a young, newly married couple, Rhoda and James Dering Johnstone, arrive at their isolated farmhouse near the fictional Scottish village of Drumburly. Rhoda is an accomplished professional painter, and her husband worries, with some reason, as to how she will adjust to a life as a sheep farmer’s wife, far from the stimulating world she has happily abandoned for true love.

Rhoda drifts for a while, mulling over the dilemma of what she sees as a black and white choice between her perceived role as a wife versus personal fulfillment as an artist. The author handled this theme sensitively and sensibly, though I couldn’t help but think that childless Rhoda, overseeing a small house with the help of a live-in cook-general, had a luxury of a “domestic support system” impossible for those of us in a similar societal-economic position to attain today. Rhoda ultimately returns to the studio, and proceeds to paint a portrait which has far-reaching consequences among the local residents.

Add in several on again-off again love affairs, a missing wife, a bullying neighbour, a misunderstood child, and the challenges of winter storms in an isolated locale, and you have a quietly dramatic novel, very occasionally straying into melodrama, but nicely anchored to reality by the author’s pragmatic asides.

There is one glaringly “coincidental” plot twist which I rolled my readerly eyes at, but I forgave it for love of this writer, as we note and yet forgive the foibles of our dearest friends.

The author set this novel up well, and the details she gives both of farm life and the art world read like they come from personal experience. I thought this particular novel was a relatively strong work for this “light romance” author, rather reminiscent of O. Douglas, what with the Scottish setting and the deep moral dilemmas and all.

Deeply affirmative depictions of marriage form this book, in particular the partnership between the older couple, Jock and Mamie Johnstone. D.E. Stevenson is all about the quiet joys of making things work out and the moral and emotional rewards that follow acting well towards each other, though her characters also struggle in a utterly lifelike way with holding it together when faced with uncongenial people and trying situations.

Fellow D.E. Stevenson readers – there is one thing I want to throw out there. In this last installment of the trilogy, doesn’t it strike you as the littlest bit odd that the very wealthy Nestor Heddle absolutely needs his poor befuddled sister as a housekeeper, and that her jumping ship makes his lordly country life impossible? I mean, couldn’t he just hire someone to fulfill that role? (This is the sort of silly little plot hole which niggles away at me when reading D.E.S.!)

 

 

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What would New Year’s Day be without a round-up of highs and lows from the previous 365 days?

Books gloriously round out my life, and looking back at what I’ve read is a hugely enjoyable diversion at this time of year, right up there with reading other people’s Best of/Worst of lists.

Let’s start with the Sad Disappointments of 2014. And I think I will do a ten-book countdown, with the awfullest thing coming last. Apologies to those who might find their own beloved books on this list. Just look away, okay? 😉

Books Which Let Me Down in 2014:

#10

jalna mazo de la roche 1927 001

Jalna

by Mazo de la Roche ~ 1927

I was really looking forward to delving into this classic of Canadiana, but it didn’t transport me as I had hoped it would. Installment number one of what would eventually be a 16-book saga, Jalna introduces us to an Ontario family matriarch on the cusp of her hundredth birthday, and her motley household of children, grandchildren, and assorted love interests. Pure soap opera.

#9

the second mrs giaconda e l konigsburg 001

The Second Mrs. Giaconda 

by E.L. Konigsburg ~ 1975

A sadly flat young adult historical fiction concerning Leonardo da Vinci and his young apprentice Salai. (Yawn.) Not awful, but here on the Disappointing list because this writer can be really fantastic – think of From the The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler, and The View from Saturday, just for two of her better known YA titles, which grip one’s attention and refuse to let it go even after the last page is turned.

#8

the magician's assistant ann patchett 001

The Magician’s Assistant 

by Ann Patchett ~ 1997

Californian Sabine has just lost her magician husband to AIDS, and though his open homosexuality was no surprise to her the sudden discovery of a unsuspected mother-in-law and two sisters-in-law in far-off Nebraska are. Much drama ensues, mostly to do with abusive husbands – the heterosexual kind. It started off very well but spiralled sadly downwards, with the climax of awful (pun completely intended) being the dreadfully clichéd addition of a lesbian epiphany near the end.

#7

gerald and elizabeth d e stevenson 001

Gerald and Elizabeth

by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1969

Definitely on DES’s B-List. This mild suspense-romance involves stolen diamonds and a successful actress’s hysteria regarding her suspected “melancholia” – the scenario is straight out of a 1800s novel, with 1960s set dressing. Readable, but just barely. I’d been warned, but failed to heed my DES mentors, hoping that it wouldn’t be all that rotten. Wrong I was. Well, you never know till you read it yourself!

#6

the maze in the heart of the castle dorothy gilman 001

The Maze in the Heart of the Castle

by Dorothy Gilman ~ 1983

A sloppy middle school/teenage allegorical story in which the author tosses together a stunning array of quest tropes, and pins them all together with pedestrian writing and a jaw-dropping lack of detail. Of the “Then he overpowered his pursuers, freed the downtrodden slaves, and became a beloved leader” school of hit-only-the-high-points writing. Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad…

Saw this frequently referenced as “rare” so on a whim I looked it up on ABE this morning. There are 28 copies, ridiculously overpriced – starting at $30 for a fair paperback and climbing into the hundreds. Save your dollars, people! (Or hey! – make me an offer. I have a decent-condition school library hardcover discard here…) Just kidding. Or maybe not… 😉

#5

green mansions 1944 dj w h hudson

Green Mansions

by W.H. Hudson ~ 1904

Thousands loved this when it was first published. One hundred and ten years later, I am less than impressed. An Amazonian jungle romantic tragedy between an aristocratic Venezuelan hiding out from the consequences of a failed political coup, and a mysterious “bird girl” who guards her section of the forest against all intruders.

#4

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The Sea-Gull Cry 

by Robert Nathan ~ 1962

An über-light novella concerning a gaggingly winsome pair of Anglo-Polish war refugees shoehorned into a dreadfully upbeat formula romance between the eldest sibling, 19-year-old Louisa, and a middle-aged history professor, Smith. The wee 7-year-old brother provides way too much cuteness and pathos.

#3

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The Girl From the Candle-Lit Bath 

by Dodie Smith ~ 1978

82-year-old and possibly out-of-fresh-ideas Dodie Smith pens a sub-par “suspense novel”, full of recycled characters and very thin in plot. Who could ex-actress Nan’s backbench MP husband be surreptitiously meeting in Regent’s Park? Another woman? A male lover? A blackmailer? His secret drug dealer? Or perhaps a Soviet connection seeking political secrets? Nope. The reality is even more lame than these stock scenarios. A disappointing read, from a writer who was capable of rather more.

#2

Smith, Dodie - A Tale of Two Families

A Tale of Two Families

by Dodie Smith ~ 1970

Sorry – no review yet on this one because I just read it, and was so sorely let down I couldn’t bring myself to face up to writing about it quite so soon after the experience. Two brothers are married to two sisters. They move to the country together, one couple in a manor house and the other in a cottage on the grounds. Two of the spouses are carrying on an illicit long term affair with each other, and because it’s Dodie Smith at her worst this leads to much arch commentary about the desirability of sexual freedom within relationships blah blah blah. So why keep it all so secret, then, dear Dodie? The plot, what little there is of it, is tissue thin. More anon.

In the meantime Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow has a detailed, thoughtful, and mostly favourable post on this novel. Reading his take makes me step back and reconsider my own first response. Definitely a re-read coming up. (And I stole your cover image, Scott. It’s the same copy as mine, so I shamelessly poached it for this round-up. Fascinating review you’ve written there. I hadn’t considered the Freudian angles at all.)

#1

her father's daughter gene stratton porter

Her Father’s Daughter

by Gene Stratton Porter ~ 1921

One of the most racially offensive books I’ve yet encountered, and to make it even worse, it is as poorly plotted out as it is marred by a dreadful white supremacist subplot. Lovely teenager Linda has been wronged by her sister, but luckily is able to turn things around by a combination of stellar natural talents and a keen lust for revenge. Featuring the “yellow peril” (the wicked Japanese taking over bits of the USA from the innocent white people) and continual rants on why white people should “strike first” to maintain the upper hand.

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charlotte fairlie dj d e stevenson

An early edition dust jacket illustration. I’m not including mine as it is the 1985 reissue and the jacket illustration is a hideous black, pink and white effort which offends the eye greatly. Well, maybe I will include it, but only at the very bottom. Scroll down if you dare!

December 14, 2014. Thinking some more about Christmas-including books, this novel I read and enjoyed exactly a year ago came to mind. It’s definitely not all about Christmas, but I was most intrigued by the title character’s (and presumably the author’s) thoughts on the “paganism” of many of the socially accepted customs of the time (the 1950s), and her religious musings.

For those of you who didn’t catch this the first time around, and to jog the memories of those of you who are already very familiar with D.E. Stevenson’s novels, here it is again.

Charlotte Fairlie by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1954. Also published as Blow the Wind Southerly and The Enchanted Isle. This edition: Collins, 1985. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-00-222108-X. 320 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Casting about on the internet this morning, looking for other opinions, for I wanted to see if my happy reading experience was shared by fellow D.E. Stevenson fans, I was more than a little bemused by the dearth of reviews on this book. I was favourably impressed, and enjoyed it a lot; I assumed others would have as well, and said so. But perhaps I am not looking in quite the right places?

A straightforward plot and a limited cast of characters make for a smooth, fast read. The heroine is a strong-minded, quiet-spoken, wise-beyond-her-years type; I greatly admired her coping skills and judicious use of silence when confronted by difficult situations; a delicious example of letting one’s enemies defeat themselves by running about ever more madly while one remains at the calm eye of the storm saving one’s breath.

Miss Fairlie’s technique reminded me strongly of that of an enigmatic young Dutch man I once spent a summer working under; in his office there hung a small plaque stating: Silence is the only satisfactory substitute for Wisdom. Berndt was both wise and silent; he was one of the most non-committal people I’ve ever come across, but when he had to say something it was always to the point. I think I learned something there, though I seldom put it into practice, being personally of the say-too-much persuasion!

Charlotte Fairlie is a young woman who has made good. Only in her late twenties, she is already the competent headmistress of a respectable girls’ boarding school. She has no family ties but for one disinterested aunt; no romances complicate her emotions. Her one thorn is the senior mathematics teacher at her school, who feels that Miss Fairlie is the devious usurper of a position which should have been her own, and does not hesitate to stir up trouble at every opportunity.

Two of Miss Fairlie’s three hundred students are causing her particular concern. One, Donny Eastwood, stands out as being one of the least bright and most dreamily befuddled children Charlotte has ever had in attendance. Charlotte suspects that there is a hidden intelligence hiding under Donny’s dull façade, and this proves to be the case when Donny perks up greatly upon becoming friends with a new student, one Tessa MacRynne.

Tessa has been living on a secluded Scottish island and having lessons from a governess, rather an anomaly in these times, for the story is set in the early 1950s, and the teaching governess is no longer anything like the norm. Tessa’s lovely, vivacious, American mother has delivered her to the school with something of a regretful attitude; Mrs. MacRynne appears vaguely desirous of confiding something to Miss Fairlie, but in the confusion and business of start-of-term she leaves without divulging, and Charlotte tucks the idea that something is not quite right with the MacRynne household away in the back of her mind.

The Eastwoods and the MacRynnes are decidedly families with “issues”, and Charlotte becomes ever more embroiled in these two students’ personal lives, culminating in a joint visit to Tessa’s island home with Tessa, Donny, and Donny’s two younger brothers, with dramatic consequences for all.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this story. While it was absolutely predicable in many ways, there were serious undertones that I found most moving. Charlotte herself is an exceedingly likeable character; I found I was completely taken with her and most sympathetic to the way she rebuilt her life after her father’s rejection of her after his remarriage in her adolescent years. Her own experiences aid her in understanding the woes of her  students, in particular Donny and Tessa, who themselves are bereft of a beloved parent, though Tessa has a loving father to cling to while Donny’s coldly unemotional, widowed father refuses to pander to his daughter’s desperate desire for parental affection. But Charlotte is also shaken to realize that she is not as perceptive as she should be, when one of the four children is tragically involved in what appears to be a suicide attempt while on their Scottish vacation.

I should leave off here, in order to allow those of you who haven’t yet read this book to discover its charms, and its few twists and turns, for yourself. For though there are some dark themes, it is a thoughtful and hopeful story, with a strong element of good humour throughout. And, reading it in December, I was pleased to find that it described several of Charlotte’s Christmases, spent in very different circumstances.

The first is with Charlotte’s Aunt Lydia, a self-indulgent gadabout of a woman, whose Christmas celebrations Charlotte finds vaguely distasteful.

Charlotte… found herself even more out of tunes with the festivities than usual. She had nothing in common with Aunt Lydia’s friends and it did not amuse her to see a group of middle-aged people pulling crackers and wearing paper hats and kissing coyly beneath the mistletoe. In fact she found it revolting… (S)he thought about it seriously: was there any connection between Aunt Lydia’s parties and the “Christmas Spirit?” Was it priggish to be unable to join in the “fun?” She thought of the noise and the laughter and the feasting…and then she thought of the birth of a little baby in a quiet stable… The more Charlotte thought about it the more she became convinced that the orgies of Aunt Lydia and her friends were not Christian at all, but pagan…

The author obviously has this topic on her mind throughout the story, as she comes down hard against the “paganism” of secular Christmas celebrations again during her description of Charlotte’s second Christmas. This time Charlotte has decided to retreat to the depths of the country and spend Christmas alone in contemplation; it is after the turned-tragic Scottish episode, and Charlotte has much thinking to do.

Staying at a quiet country inn. Charlotte spends the week before Christmas taking walks, visiting the church, occasionally talking to the elderly vicar – in one notable exchange detailing her objections to the use of mistletoe because of its Druidic – pagan! – associations, and convincing the vicar to eliminate it from his decorations, though she will allow him to retain the holly(!)

Of her three hundred Christmas cards – delivered to the great astonishment of the villagers who have no idea that their transient visitor is a school headmistress guaranteed a card from every one of her students’ families –  only a few depict the Christmas story, and this seems to Charlotte to be indicative of the increasing loss of the “real” Christmas spirit, the religious significance of the holiday. She muses on about this for some time, and comes to the conclusion that unless one has children, that Christmas is an empty celebration.

…and then she raised her eyes and saw the little church with its lights shining through the stained-glass windows and she realized that there was one child who belonged to everybody… or at least belonged to everybody who would let Him come in. The cloud upon her spirits lifted and quite suddenly she was happy and at peace.

I felt that in these passages the author’s personal feelings and thoughts were made quite clear; she uses her character to make a point she obviously feels very strongly about, and I came away feeling that I had had a glimpse into D.E. Stevenson’s private world under the guise of acquaintanceship with her fictional creation.

Whether one agrees or not with the author’s opinions regarding the paganism of popular Christmas celebrations, it was refreshing to read such a strongly expressed argument; it added a bit of an edge to what otherwise was a mildly interesting set piece: “Christmas in the village.”

Though it does not get much mention among some of D.E. Stevenson’s more popular tales, I personally enjoyed Charlotte Fairlie greatly. A simple story competently told, with enough darkness here and there to let the bright bits really shine.

And here, as threatened, is the just jacket of the 1985 re-issue. While not as Harlequin-romance-y as the kilted hero and shapely heroine depicted on the earlier edition, this one is a bit too avant garde for the 1950s era contents! (Not to mention its sheer ugliness.)

And here, as threatened, is the dust jacket of the 1985 re-issue. While not as Harlequin-romance-y as the kilted hero and shapely heroine depicted on the earlier edition, this one is just a bit too avant garde, in my opinion, for the 1950s-era contents. (Not to mention its sheer ugliness.)

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the blue sapphire d e stevenson 001The Blue Sapphire by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1963. This edition: Collins, 1963. Hardcover. 320 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Yesterday’s post was all supercilious and disapproving of D.E. Stevenson’s 1969 novel Gerald and Elizabeth, but happily I am able to balance that with a much more enthusiastic opinion of this also far-fetched but charmingly engaging 1963 effort.

There are several parallels between the two stories, which makes their comparison and my views of one as “good” (The Blue Sapphire) and the other as “not-very-good” (Gerald and Elizabeth) an interesting micro-study in perception and the ambiguities of personal taste. I won’t delve any more deeply into this aspect of these two books, but will zip right into a brief discussion of the book itself.

Dust jacket blurb:

The blue sapphire is a gem which the Ancients called the hyacinthus and which Solinus described as ‘a gem which feels the influence of the air and sympathises with the heavens and does not shine equally if the sky is cloudy or bright’.

On a beautiful spring day, Julia Harburn sat on a seat in Kensington Gardens enjoying the sunshine. She was wearing a white frock and a large straw hat with a sapphire-blue ribbon which exactly matched her eyes – a strange coincidence, as it turned out, for the blue sapphire was to have a far-reaching influence upon her life. So far, her life had been somewhat dull and circumscribed; but quite suddenly her horizons were enlarged. She began to make new friends – and enemies – and she began to discover new strength and purpose in her own nature. This development of her character led her into strange adventures, some amusing, others full of sorrow and distress. The story is itself a blue sapphire story, of clouds and sunshine.

As pretty Julia sits on her park bench waiting for her tardy fiancé Morland to appear for their teatime rendezvous, she is increasingly worried that she will be “annoyed” by the numerous questionable masculine types who have started closing in on her, like hopeful jackals surrounding a tender little gazelle. Luckily a rescuer appears in the person of tall, handsome and very forthcoming Stephen Brett, newly arrived in London after some years away in South Africa overseeing a gemstone mining operation. At first Julia snubs the friendly Stephen, but she soon warms to his innocent cheerfulness, and the two part on mutually appreciative terms just as Morland grumpily hoves into view.

Julia is waiting to break some rather big news to Morland. She has decided to move out of her father’s house and find a job and take a room in a boarding house. Some years ago Julia’s mother had died, and her new stepmother, while not at all cruel, is making it increasingly obvious that she would be happier if she were the only woman in the household.

Morland loftily dismisses Julia’s intentions of independence, but she holds firm, eventually ending up in an attic room in the fabulously Victorian-styled boarding house of the inestimable Miss Martineau, ex-actress and current patroness to “resting” theatrical folk. Miss Martineau takes a shine to Julia, and sets her up in a job at a posh hat shop, where Julia proceeds to thrive, becoming a very special chum to her new boss, the ex-Parisian Madame Claire, to the deep resentment of Julia’s several jealous co-workers.

Meanwhile Stephen Brett pops in and out of Julia’s life, adding some much-needed good humour and friendliness as Julia finds her way as a working girl and tries to cope with Morland’s moodiness and reluctance to set a date for their marriage. Stephen is embroiled in a complicated situation involving a potential sapphire mine back in South Africa; he finds relief from his worries in his growing friendship with Julia.

A turning point in the plot occurs as Julia receives a letter from her father’s estranged brother in Scotland, begging Julia to come and see him before he dies. Off she goes, against Morland’s advice, to find in her Uncle Randal the loving relationship she has never been able to attain with her own father. But Uncle Randal is declining rapidly, and it seems as though Julia will tragically lose him just when she has found him…

Stopping right here, because this is a sweet story which you will want to finish up for yourself. D.E. Stevenson is in her usual form, mixing unlikely scenarios with sunny-natured heroines, grumpy-but-ultimately-innocuous villains, salt-of-the-earth old family retainers, and a knight-in-shining-armour (or two) who appear(s) at just the right time.

The mixture-as-usual, but just what is needed in a book of this gentle genre. Highly recommended to those of you who like this sort of thing; everyone else, tactfully glance away!

Another Look Book liked it, too. As did Claire and Susan, who recommended it to me in the comments to my last year’s post about this other DES, also featuring the incorrigibly snoopy but divinely maternal Miss Martineau, 1966’s The House on the Cliff.

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gerald and elizabeth d e stevenson 001Gerald and Elizabeth by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1969. This edition: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969. Hardcover. ISBN: 03-066555-8. 245 pages.

My rating: 4/10

I hadn’t noticed a lot of discussion regarding this mild romance-suspense novel by the generally esteemed D.E. Stevenson in my online travels, and as it seemed to be widely available and very reasonably priced (for a DES book) in the second-hand book trade, I rather wondered why.

Well, I wonder no longer. The answer appears quite clear. It is my humble opinion that this book is not very good, and DES fans are keeping a discreet silence, spending their reviewing energies instead on the author’s top end novels.

While it’s sufficiently readable to keep one’s interest gently engaged, and there are charming passages and likeable characters galore, the whole thing is something of a stretch in numerous ways, even allowing for the DES formula of everyone ending up romantically paired up with all “mysteries” neatly resolved.

Dust jacket blurb:

Gerald Brown is young, good-looking, personable, but he holds himself aloof from the other passengers aboard the Ariadne, a small passenger ship returning to London from Cape Town, South Africa. In fact, his behavior is so extremely antisocial that he appears on deck only late at night, rarely venturing from his cabin during the day. Something is troubling him deeply, something that happened while he was working as an engineer in a Cape Town diamond mine that has left him spent and hopeless.

After the Ariadne docks in London, Gerald, desperately in need of a job, decides to contact his sister, the beautiful and famous actress, Elizabeth Burleigh, whose current play is the hit of the London theater season. As he reveals to her his haunting past in South Africa, he learns that she too is suffering, that behind her facade of gaiety and sophistication lurks a nagging suspicion about her mental health that is threatening to destroy her career and her love affair as well.

What are the forces that seem bent on these destroying these young people who have so much to live for? Can the mysteries surrounding their lives be solved – and in time to prevent irreversible consequences?

D.E. Stevenson reveals the answers to these questions in a way that will hold her thousands of fans breathless until the very end…

A glaringly obvious diamond-theft frame-up has our hero fleeing the gossip and speculative glances of South Africa to end up under the protective wing of his older half-sister Elizabeth, star of a rather goofy-sounding London stage play – Elizabeth plays a princess from the planet Venus marooned on Earth, to the delight of the hypothetical crowds who pack each performance during the play’s astoundingly successful run.

But all is not well in Elizabeth’s world either. Though feted by the all and vigorously courted by a kind, handsome and wealthy Scottish shipyard owner, Elizabeth fears that she has inherited the “melancholia” which plagued her long-deceased mother. How can she marry with such a doom hanging over her head? – for naturally it will be passed along to her own children!

As Gerald seeks to make a new start he also strives to delve into the background of Elizabeth’s mother, hoping to make some sort of discovery which will ease his sister’s worries and smooth the rocky path of her romance.

A wartime bombing raid on the night Elizabeth was born and an enterprising maternity nurse hold the key to the actress’s future happiness, and the events surrounding her birth are as spectacularly far-fetched as D.E. Stevenson’s conception of mental illness. Shades of the bizarre insanity scenario of Rochester’s Wife, published thirty years earlier, made me cringe in readerly discomfort for the author’s lack of research and her apparent clinging to archaic superstitions.

The mysteries aren’t very mysterious, and the characters never truly come to life. The author could and did do much better in many of her other novels. In my eyes, this is a book to round out one’s DES collection, but otherwise I feel that it is without a lot of merit. Please don’t give it to a neophyte Dessie; it might endanger one’s contention that this is indeed an author to spend time and energy tracking down!

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the english air d e stevenson 001The English Air by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1940. This edition: Farrar and Rinehart, 1940. Hardcover. 317 pages.

My rating: 9/10

I liked this novel a lot. It’s hard to believe it was written at the roughly the same time as the melodramatic Crooked Adam (1942), as it is a much more sober and thoughtful sort of thing, reflective no doubt of the author’s own musings in the years leading up to the start of World War II. It is wonderfully atmospheric from start to finish, and the characters pleased me greatly, from the gorgeous blonde Aryan “super-man” and ex-Hitler Youth Franz to fluffy-but-ultimately-wise Sophie and fragile-seeming but tough-as-nails Wynne.

This book is fairly common, and I don’t want to spoil it for those of you still to read it, so I’ll keep this review brief and avoid any spoilers.

It is the spring of 1938, and half-German, half-English Franz has suddenly invited himself to stay with his English semi-cousins, the Braithwaites. No one is quite sure what to make of Franz’s out-of-the-blue advances, and when he arrives their initial reaction is uneasy. Franz is a tall young golden-haired “Greek god” figure of a man, with stiffly formal manners and no apparent sense of humour. After the initial whispered consultations: “I wonder if he’s a Nazi? Don’t talk about politics!” everyone unbends a bit, and as the days pass Franz is seen to make a real effort to find common ground with his English hosts.

Especially lovely Wynne, the Braithwaite daughter, who has been tenaciously trying to get through Franz’s Teutonic reserve while educating him in the niceties of the English sense of humour, common slang, and recognition of and appropriate responses to friendly teasing.

But Dane Worthington, Wynne’s uncle, who has been her legal guardian since her father’s untimely death, cocks a cynical eyebrow in Franz’s direction. Why is he really so keen to immerse himself in English domestic life? For Dane knows, through certain connections of his own, that Franz’s father is a highly-placed official in the Nazi party, and one of Hitler’s personal advisers.

There are many secrets afoot, this golden last summer of peace before the start of the war…

A rather nicely plotted story – though we do get some major clues throughout as to what is really going on – and well up there in D.E. Stevenson’s oeuvre. The themes are serious and treated with respect without being dreary; in places this one reads rather like an O. Douglas novel, unsensational and matter-of-fact, and deeply appealing in a quietly memorable way. Occasionally things slip into melodrama, but all in all the author does a grand job here; it is one of my new favourites of the many DES stories I’ve now read.

I particularly enjoyed the author’s discussion of patriotism, and thought it well-balanced and insightful, though by the time of the writing of Crooked Adam in 1942 the mood had obviously changed to something much more reactive and extreme, on both sides of the ongoing conflict.

The English Air was finished in February, 1940, and, as well as being a diverting light novel, is an intriguing eyewitness snapshot of a specific time and place in the last year of peace and the first year of war.

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crooked adm d e stevensonCrooked Adam by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1942. This edition: Fontana, 1974. Paperback. 219 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

You have to hand it to D.E. Stevenson. Even if she didn’t know anything at all about her subject (mental illness in Rochester’s Wife, for example) it didn’t stop her from taking a good old swing at it, cheerfully glossing over the complicated bits by having her characters tell each other, “It’s too specialized to explain. Just trust me.” And of course, they do.

In this case it is schoolmaster Adam Southey who is the clueless one. His headmaster, Samuel Cooke, is a prominent scientist who is working on a secret war machine, a kind of death ray which focus an ultraviolet beam of light on an object – say, an enemy airplane – and causes it to burst into flames. “A Death Ray!” exclaims Adam, only to be lectured by his superior that this is inaccurate: “It’s too specialized to explain to a simple soul like you. Just trust me.”

It is early in World War II, and Adam is disappointed that His Majesty’s Army has no use for him, due to a childhood injury which has left one of his legs shorter than the other. Despite this physical handicap, Adam is fit and strong, and can swing along at a great rate, which is about to come in very handy very soon. He surprises a suspicious intruder attempting to get a look at Cooke’s secret weapon, and ends up accompanying the van carrying the machine to a secret army testing base in Scotland, with some interesting adventures on the way, including an attempted hijacking and a stint of camouflage with a travelling circus.

Once in Scotland, with Marvelous Invention to Change the Course of the War almost ready to demonstrate, Adam’s adventures get even more exciting, as he stumbles upon a Cleverly Disguised Nest of Nazi Spies (complete with submarine access to a secret tunnel), teams up with the local shepherds and fishermen to foil the Wicked Teutonic Menace, and ultimately finds True Love.

Despite the simplistic tone of the whole thing, written in a “Gosh! Golly!” schoolboy-adventure-tale-genre sort of way, it is rather an enjoyable romp, and the groaning faux-pas-by-sincere-author moments add to the charming vintage atmosphere. The hero is sweet and true-blue all the way through (“Crooked Adam”, as one of his schoolboy charges murmurs in a scene-setting aside to a friend, is really one of those double entendre nicknames which mean the exact opposite – gimpy leg aside, Adam is straight as they come) and we can only hope that his serendipitous love interest will live up to his nobleness, once the war is safely over.

Though this adventure started off rather slowly for me – this is my second go at reading it, as the first try fizzled out – once I pushed past the “I can’t explain my invention; you’ll just have to take my word for it that it’s marvelous” bit by Dr. Cooke and wide-eyed Adam’s acceptance that he’s too dumb to grasp the complexities of science I started to grow rather fond of our sterling-natured hero, and cheerfully went along with the tale until the heroic and neatly tied up end. I’d noticed before that D.E. Stevenson often has no qualms about cold-bloodedly eliminating her bad eggs, and Crooked Adam proved no exception, with the author showing more sympathy with the German Nazis versus the turncoat Englishmen, who get their (fatal) comeuppance.

Yes, one might safely shelve this one with the propaganda novels, I think.

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Installment 3 in the 2013 Round-Up takes a melancholy look at some books which just didn’t do it for me.

Still to come, Installment 4 highlighting some books which really hit the spot: Personal Favourites of 2013.

*****

MOST DISAPPOINTING READS ~ 2013

In absolutely random order.

*****

the chamomile lawn mary wesley1. The Chamomile Lawn 

by Mary Wesley ~ 1984

The Chamomile Lawn became a bestseller when it was first published in the 1980s, and much was made of the fact that the author, Mary Wesley, who apparently based much of the wartime narrative on her own experiences, was over seventy when it was released. A popular television mini-series broadcast in 1992 brought the novel to a much wider notoriety.

I can understand the popularity of the novel, as it does have an ambitious scope, a tangled, soap-opera-like storyline, and a generous enough amount of sexual goings-on to pique the interest of the most reluctant and jaded of readers, but I’m afraid I did not embrace it fully. This might be partly editorial, as the phrasing often seemed awkward to me, and I never entered fully into the story, remaining very much an onlooker as the author soberly and without much flair matter-of-factly related the action with an abundance of smutty detail which couldn’t help but leave me squirming – and not in a good way. A complicated and vaguely incestuous (cousins all over each other) picture of lust, yearning and self-indulgence. The period details weren’t enough to make up for the unsavoury plot and stylistic deficits.

sea jade phyllis a whitney 0012. Phyllis A. Whitney’s Gosh-Awful Bodice Rippers

Sea Jade and Columbella 

by Phyllis A. Whitney ~ 1964 and 1966

Just to prove that I sometimes show desperately poor judgement in my reading choices, I willingly read not one, not two, but three books by the very prolific romance writer Phyllis A. Whitney this year. One of these, Seven Tears for Apollo, was reasonably decent, but these other two were absolute stinkers.

Sea Jade was a desperately gothic romance set in post-Civil War New England. Here’s our heroine.

I know how I must have looked that day when I first set foot in the little New England town where my father, my mother, and I were born. Since I am no longer so tenderly, so disarmingly young, I can recall the look of that youthful Miranda Heath as if she were someone else. Slight and slender she was, with fair tendrils of hair, soft and fine, curling across her forehead beneath the peak of her bonnet. Her eyes were tawny brown, with quirked, flyaway brows above them. The wind undoubtedly added to the illusion of her flyaway look; the look of a fey, winged creature straight out of a make-believe world where love and pampering were taken for granted. A creature unaware that she was about to stray into dark regions for which nothing had prepared her…

Breathless, gushing, suddenly orphaned Miranda goes on to have all the stock adventures of a gothic genre heroine. As soon as she seeks refuge with her late father’s old friend Captain Bascombe, she’s immediately forced into an unwelcome marriage with his widowed son. There are all sorts of family secrets, and of course her husband hates her and wants nothing to do with her, having married her under extreme duress. Dramatic deathbed scenes and mysterious Chinese wives and exotic swords and ill-begotten fortunes feature in the scenario. And there’s an intially-hateful-yet-ultimately-winsome child, a huge black dog named (of course) Lucifer, an unexpected will, a mysterious murder (or two)… In other words, the formula as usual.

Points in favour were a certain amount of creativity in the historical bits involving the tea trade and the brief glory of the Yankee clipper ships. And also because the author used every cliché in the romance writer’s book, completely (I’m quite sure) without irony. One of those “so bad it makes everything else look good by contrast” reading experiences – a necessary thing in every reader’s life. Occasionally.

columbella phyllis a whitney 001Columbella  was salvaged very slightly by its nicely described setting, that of the St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Shell collecting, jewel thieves, love triangles, heaving bosoms all round. A throbbingly broody love interest named Kingdon should have tipped me off, but I squelched those misgivings down, because I so wanted this to be better than it turned out to be. More clues to its sheer over-the-top-ness which I willfully ignored can be found on the front flyleaf:

That was a night of gold and red, with torches flaming on the hilltop and the lights of Charlotte Amalie fanning out around the harbor below. A night of water lily and sweet-smelling cereus. The night of the shell…

Jessica Abbott, fleeing her own past, finds herself the center of a whirlpool of conflict at Hampden House, high on its cliff in the Virgin Islands. She is confronted by Catherine Drew, a woman whose sole purpose is to torment and destroy. Catherine is the wife of a vital, driven man, Kingdon Drew-toward whom Jessica is irresistible drawn. Jessica must defy the beautiful, self-indulgent Catherine, who likes to affect the name of a shell – Columbella. She must fight for the very future of another woman’s child. Above all, she must find the strength to help the man she loves escape the trap Catherine has set for him. Yet each day Catherine seems to mock her in a new way – and win. Until the night of the shell…

Always, the brilliant island sun shines over Hampden House in St. Thomas and over Caprice, the plantation in St. Croix that is crumbling to eerie ruin, guarded by its unicorns. Always the threat of a hurricane looms over this exotic setting, where the past still affects the present.

And so on. Read at your own peril!

one happy moment dj louise riley 0013. One Happy Moment

by Louise Riley ~ 1951

Much less gushing and emotional than Phyllis A. Whitney’s tortured heroines is this home-grown Canadian gal. Deborah Blair, a young librarian from Montreal, disembarks from a train at a remote way station in the Rocky Mountains near Lake Louise. The first thing she does is when the train pulls away is to strip off her city clothes, change into country duds, and pitch her suitcase and dress suit into the lake. Then she sets off on the 9-mile hike to the mountain holiday camp where she has secretly booked herself a holiday.

Oh, hurray! Tell me more, I thought. But sadly that was about as good as it got. Deborah is fleeing from both an overbearing mother and a rotten, already-married lover, and both track her down to her mountain hideaway, but not before she has found enough self-fulfillment among the lofty peaks and has gained a certain amount of self confidence due to the appreciative embraces of several of her fellow (male) guests to tell them both (mother and lover) to go take a hike.

Not a horrible book at all, and it had some good things to say about female self determination, but clunky styling, the plainest of prose, and an increasingly awkward plot kept it from reaching significant heights. A keeper because of its vintage appeal and enthusiastically described Alberta setting, but disappointing because it could have been so much better with tighter editing, an expanded vocabulary, and less wooden characterizations.

 unlikely pilgrimage of harold fry rachel joyce4. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

by Rachel Joyce ~ 2012

This recent bestseller started off with some promise. Recently retired Harold, stuck aimlessly at home with his sour wife, receives a letter from an old colleague which tells him that she is terminally ill. Harold hems and haws and eventually writes a rather pathetic letter of condolence. He sets off to walk to the mail box to send the letter, but is overwhelmed by a sudden urge to walk to see the doomed Queenie and deliver his message in person. While he’s walking, she can’t die, is his sudden superstitious thought. The catch is that she is ensconced in a nursing home some 600 miles away. But he trudges along in his light summer jacket and golf shoes, for days and days and days, compelled by an inner urge to make at least this one thing right in his rather gone-wrong life.

Sadly, very soon into Harold’s walk, the plot went all mawkish and droopy and all directions of highly unlikely as meaningful encounters with troubled but helpful people start to occur in quick succession, until at last an assortment of odd pedestrians start walking along with Harold in some sort of copy-cat pilgrimage having nothing to do with poor dying Queenie.

I’m all into magical reality if it’s convincingly well done, but this one demanded more of my suspension of disbelief than I could possibly give.  And the Big Sad Secret which was revealed at the end was so terribly boring, and the “life affirming” ending was so stereotyped that I was tempted to give the thing the toss-across-the-room treatment. It was only saved by the fact that it was a library book. Sorry about my rude dismissal, those of you who loved this one, but my dislike for the way this deteriorated from its early promise is savage and sincere.

And checking out the one-star reviews on Goodreads showed that while I am part of  a serious minority, I was not alone in my annoyed dislike. Long-listed for the 2012 Booker Prize? Was it really?! Oh. My. Gosh. Though I see (I checked) that it didn’t get to short-list status. Thank you, gods of literature, for that small mercy.

letter from peking pearl s buck5. Letter from Peking 

by Pearl S. Buck ~ 1957

I hate it when I quite like an author but then he/she turns out not just one or two but a whole string of sub-par throw-away books. Pearl S. Buck is a classic case of this, and I have long had a love-hate relationship with her work. When she’s good, she very, very good, but when she gets sloppy, she’s dire. Guess which category this novel – long novella(?) – falls into?

It has an interesting premise, but the characters are all so smug and unlikeable that any sympathy for their situation I might have had soon evaporated.  Here’s the plot. An American woman, happily married for twenty years to a half-Chinese, half-American man, leaves China with her twelve-year-old son at the start of the Communist government takeover. Her husband, due to an extreme sense of duty, remains behind in his job. The woman settles into her family home in rural Vermont, complete with faithful hired man. Communication is sporadic with China; years pass quietly. A letter arrives. Her husband has been pressured to take on a Chinese wife, to prove his loyalty to his country. The woman puts off answering it. The (mature teenage) son runs into issues with his mixed race ethnicity. The woman vapors about, meddles in son’s romantic affairs. She continually demonstrates extreme snobbism, and not-so-secretly rejoices that son’s fiancé is orphaned so she (the mother) will not have to interact with them. During all of this not one but two prospective suitors to the mother materialize. “Divorce your husband and marry again!” Oh, what to do, what to do???!

By the time it all sort of resolved itself (sort of) I no longer cared. Meh. A very carelessly put together book, from a writer who can do much better.

 6. in pious memory margery sharp 001In Pious Memory 

by Margery Sharp ~ 1967

Those of you who are aware of my strong infatuation with the glorious Margery Sharp will be surprised to see her on the Most Disappointing list, but sadly, this book let me down. It’s not rotten, but it’s not up to par either. The plot – never admittedly a very strong point with this author – seems more befuddled than usual, and the characters did not engender any sort of a sympathetic response in my readerly heart. I didn’t really like any one of them, but neither could I work up a strong feeling of dislike. There they just kind of were, moving about randomly in fictional limbo.

The plot description sounds better than the story turns out to be. Mr and Mrs Prelude are in a plane crash; Mrs Prelude walks away, but Mr Prelude perishes. Or does he? Convinced that she has possibly made a horrible mistake when viewing her husband’s body, Mrs Prelude theorizes that perhaps he is still alone, wandering in the Swiss mountains. The 16-year-old Prelude daughter decides to go and investigate for herself. A rather limp farce which doesn’t, like the ill-fated plane, quite make its destination.

OK, I’ll repeat, it’s not a horrid book, and there are quite a number of wickedly funny moments. It’s a keeper, and I fully intend to re-read it and try to drum up some more affection for its good elements, but at this point I’d hate to recommend it as any sort of prime example of this accomplished author’s greater body of work.

rochester's wife hc dj d.e. stevenson7. Rochester’s Wife  

by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1940

Here’s another writer whom I like quite a lot, but who sometimes lets me down. I don’t read these sorts of books for their hyper-realism – they are “cozies”, after all – but one does require some standard of verisimilitude. In Rochester’s Wife, with its strong reliance on insanity as a key plot point, one can’t help but feel that the author didn’t do her research.

A young doctor decides to settle down in England after travelling about the world. There is much romance, none of it particularly appealing to read about, all forbidden love and rather limp yearnings. The already-referred-to episode of insanity is handled in a very bizarre manner by the author as well as the several doctors in the case. Even in 1940 I am sure the British medical establishment was more capable of treating psychoses in more effective ways than they appear to do here! One of the weakest of this author’s books I’ve read to date.

8.Mary Stewart’s B List

Wildfire at Midnight and Thunder on the Right 

by Mary Stewart ~ 1956 and 1957

Well, while I’m on something of a roll panning tales by authors I really, truly like, let’s spend a few minutes with Mary Stewart. I’ve read quite a few of her romantic-suspense novels this year, and have found my responses to be mixed. While I really do sympathise with her very capable and likeable heroines, and enjoy her detailed descriptions of settings, the de rigueur action sequences of many of the books, described in frame-by-frame photographic detail, drive me slightly mad. Panic-stricken girl in high heels etcetera manages to dodge ex-secret service trained killer etcetera while negotiating crumbling cliff/tiled castle roof/squelching Scottish bog/etcetera. Yup. Of course.

Well, those sequences are really the whole point of the books, aren’t they? The menace keeps building until something has to give. And in most of the books I’ve read I’ve happily played along, rolling my eyes but taking it as part of the package deal. But these two pushed past my tolerance level for willing suspension of disbelief.

Wildfire at Midnight - dust jacket illustration, first edition, 1956.

In Wildfire at Midnight, a gorgeous London model, separated from her husband, is maneuvered by her parents into taking a holiday on the Isle of Skye, ostensibly to escape the chaos of the Coronation festivities. Immediately upon arrival, who should lovely Gianetta meet but her estranged husband, who is ostensibly on Skye for a mountain climbing holiday. The two keep their prior acquaintanceship a secret from their fellow guests, which makes things quite awkward when a series of grisly murders puts the holiday-makers and rock-climbers at the remote country inn under strong suspicion.

Gianetta (or Janet, as she prefers to be called) shows no common sense at all, continually wandering about either all by herself or with one or another of the chief suspects. One day she goes for a walk at just the wrong time…

Bizarre and unlikely motive for the killings, continual stupidity of the heroine, and unlikeable love interest rather ruined this one for me, even before the mountain crag/quivering bog/Scottish mist chase scene.

Salvaged by gorgeous descriptions of the settings and atmospheres of London and Skye, and the period verisimilitude of the characters crowding around the radio every evening in order to follow both the progress of Coronation festivities and Edmund Hillary’s attempt to climb Mount Everest, of particular interest to all of the rock climbers in the story. Nicely done, those bits.

Beware the nun! An older paperback cover which captures the mood so very well.

With my panning of Thunder on the Right I’m in good company. This was apparently the author’s least favourite of her novels, and I can see why. Here are her own words, courtesy of the excellent Mary Stewart Novels website:

From Contemporary Authors, Vol. 1, 1967

Ms. Stewart once claimed Thunder on the Right as her least favorite novel. “I detest that book. I’m ashamed of it, and I’d like to see it drowned beyond recovery. It’s overwritten. It was actually the second book I wrote, and for some strange reason I went overboard, splurged with adjectives, all colored purple.”

So what’s this one all about? Let’s see if I can sum it up briefly. A gorgeous young lady is in France and hopes to have a reunion with her older, recently-widowed cousin, who is apparently undergoing a retreat in a nunnery prefatory to taking vows. When the heroine arrives at said nunnery, she is told her cousin is dead and has been buried in the garden. “Something” tells the heroine that this is untrue, and that her cousin is alive. Luckily there is a handsome and rather brooding young man handy to aid the heroine in her search for the truth – and, by golly! – he is conveniently an old flame of the heroine’s, there in a remote corner of France by sheerest authorial hand-of-God. Evil nuns, a handsome local boy on a rampant stallion, a wicked smuggler, escaping criminals and much too much coincidence unite in making this one my own least favourite of Mary Stewart’s improbable (but usually highly enjoyable) romantic-suspense novels.

 

the living earth sheila mackay russell 29. The Living Earth

by Sheila Mackay Russell ~ 1954

I became interested in this book due to my prior discovery of the author’s semi-autobiographical novel A Lamp is Heavy, concerning a young nurse’s experiences as probationer in a North American city teaching hospital in the early 1940s. I was pleased to find out that Sheila Mackay Russell was an Albertan nurse/writer, who had a modest success with A Lamp is Heavy, and who went on to publish another novel, The Living Earth, also with a nurse as a main character. With some trouble I managed to acquire a copy of The Living Earth, and settled down to a happily anticipated read.

The story started out quite well, with a young nurse travelling by train to her posting in a remote northern Alberta community, “Mud Creek”. On the train is a fellow traveller, another young woman heading for the same community, to her posting as a school teacher. The two set up house together, and proceed to have all sorts of rather sordid experiences. Both attract rather unsavory lovers (married, alcoholic, manic-depressive, abusive etcetera) and much heart-rending ensues.

This novel is of the hyper-realistic genre, and it could have been quite decent but for its rather awkward phrasing throughout, and its insistence on dragging out every single episode to the utmost of its interest level and then a little bit beyond. It’s also dreadfully bleak. And melodramatic. Bleakly melodramatic, in fact! I am not surprised that there is no third novel from this writer, though The Living Earth went through a number of printings which argues a certain success. She did produce a number of short stories which were printed in the Canadian women’s periodical Chateleine, according to one of this blog’s readers.

I never did write a review of this novel, because it so deeply disappointed me, despite its author’s undoubted good intentions of creating a true-to-life dramatic novel with a regional setting. I think that her motivation was praiseworthy, but sadly it didn’t quite come off. Possibly of interest to anyone studying womens’ experiences in northern Alberta in the 1940s/50s, but beware the fictional elements, which seemed to me to be many.

I could not find any other reviews of this now-obscure Canadian novel.

1982 jian ghomeshi10. 1982 

by Jian Ghomeshi ~ 2012

And here we have a truly Canadian memoir, this time by the popular C.B.C. radio personality and ex-Moxy Früvous drummer, Jian Ghomeshi. I had such wonderfully high hopes for this book, as I usually enjoy Jian’s interviewing style on his weekday pop culture talk-and-music program on the C.B.C., “Q.” He’s an interesting-sounding personality himself, and his frequent references to his own background as a child of Iranian immigrant parents growing up in Ontario in the 70s and 80s make him both relatable and slightly exotic, a public persona he nourishes with obvious care.

But this memoir. Boring, boring, boring.

It wasn’t that Jian didn’t have an interesting teenage life. He did, in a tame sort of middle-class, upwardly mobile, successful immigrant family sort of way. In 1982, the year more or less profiled in this “creative autobiography”, Jian turned fifteen. He was in the throes of young love, was hanging out with a bunch of good friends, and was playing drums in a band – okay, it was the community band, but still… He was listening to all sorts of cool new music, had reinvented himself as a New Wave wannabe, and was having quite a time experimenting with hair dye and styling gel and eyeliner and dressing all in black. He had a loving and supportive family, abundant parental funding, and oodles of positive reinforcement from his teachers and the other adults in his life. He did stuff. He went places. He got into a few interesting situations, and made it through them in one piece. Easily enough stuff to write a memoir about.

A short memoir. A novella-length memoir. Not the almost-300 page thing that this turned out to be.  Jian ran every single little incident of that year completely to death. And though it was interesting in bits here and there, ultimately I just couldn’t care.

shadows robin mckinley11. Shadows

by Robin McKinley ~ 2013

Much as I hate to do this, I need to add a “bonus” to this list.

Shadows is the recently published “kind of like Sunshine, but for teens” fantasy by the iconic writer, and I had high hopes for it. Sounded good in the pre-publication discussions, and the early reviews were mostly favorable, though in retrospect I realize there were quite a few “buts” in some of those reviews.

17-year-old Maggie lives in a world where magic is forbidden, and when it sporadically shows up it is immediately squelched by squads of specially trained soldiers. People with magic in their genes are “cleaned” and re-released into the population; science takes care of everything in this world, thank you very much.

So when it becomes apparent that there is a massive outbreak of the magic bulges called cobeys threatening to overflow into Newworld, Maggie is shocked to discover that she has some latent powers which work to contain the bad vibes.

The author doesn’t bother explaining why magic is so nasty, and what will happen if it breaks through. She tells us it’s a really bad thing, and leaves it at that. But suddenly all of the “good” characters start showing varying degrees of magic powers which are obviously going to save the day. From, umm, something.

Extra Disappointing points for the annoying first person narrating heroine and her endless rambling on about how wonderful she is to understand all the nice little animals she loves so very much and how thick the adults in her life are and how hard algebra is and how amazing her origami skills are and how cute and clever her pop culture Japanese slang is.

Please forgive me, those of you who liked this book. I’m a long-time McKinley fan too, and I hate to slam her work, but this one wasn’t quite ready to see the light of day, in my opinion.

 

 

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It’s hard to believe a whole 12 months have raced by since the last Year-End Round-Up List, but the calendar doesn’t lie, and here we are only a few days from a brand new year. Time for a retrospective, then, to clear the decks for the year to come.

Last year I came up with three very broad categories of outstanding books I had read in the previous year: Most Unexpected, Most Disappointing, and Personal Favourites. I will be using the same categories for the books of 2013, though there was some overlap between Most Unexpected and Personal Favourites. I’ve arbitrarily decided which category best fits each book.

And though last year I included only books I had reviewed in full on the blog, this year some will sneak in which I’ve only briefly mentioned. It was a surprisingly hectic year, and I missed writing quite a number of reviews, though the books themselves are too interesting to leave off these retrospective lists. I will link these to other reviews, either by fellow bloggers, or on Goodreads or someplace similar.

Kicking off this week of lists – a most enjoyable aspect of looking back at the year just passed as we head into the longer days and bright promise of the new year – I am adding a fourth category: Books Which Pleased Me 2013. These are books which, as I peruse my list of things read the past twelve months, don’t really fit into the main categories, and which, for the most part, I didn’t write reviews of, but which I nevertheless feel a warm surge of liking for as I come across their titles. These are books which made me happy.

*****

10+ PLEASING BOOKS ~ 2013

In alphabetical order by author.

*****

a time to love margot benary isbert1. A Time to Love

by Margot Benary-Isbert ~ 1962

An excellent vintage teenage/young adult historical fiction set in the years just prior to and at the start of World War II. Fifteen-year-old Annegret of the earlier books The Blue Mystery and The Shooting Star goes away to boarding school and becomes very aware that the world beyond the sheltering walls of her family home is fast becoming a dark and dangerous place. A rare story told from the German point of view; very much anti-Hitler but also making clear the conflicted positions of many “common” German people in the years leading up to the war. A thoughtful and even-handed book; a lovely and relatable bildungsroman. The author draws heavily upon her own experiences as a German citizen during the war; worth reading for that element alone, though there is much more here to mull over and to enjoy. Goodreads: A Time to Love

but i wouldn't have missed it for the world peg bracken2. But I Wouldn’t Have Missed It For the World

by Peg Bracken ~ 1973

Long before Martha Stewart’s perfectionist homemaker guidebooks, there was Peg Bracken. Unlike Ms. Stewart, Peg was very much “one of us.” (Does anyone remember the slightly subversive 1970s bestsellers The I Hate to Cook Book, and A Window Over the Sink?) Here Peg sets her sights on the highs and lows of travelling, in a humorous collection of musings, meandering and anecdotes. Some real gems amidst the fluff. I read this while travelling myself, and occasionally laughed out loud at the universal experiences I shared with the author. Feather light and deeply charming, albeit in a dated sort of way. I was just a wee bit taken aback by Peg’s enthusiastic promotion of the lavish purchase of souvenirs – one of my own travelling goals is to come back as lightly laden as possible (books excepted, of course) – but to each her own! Goodreads: But I Wouldn’t Have Missed it for the World 

hotel du lac anita brookner3. Hotel du Lac

by Anita Brookner ~ 1984

Shades of Barbara Pym haunt the works of novelist Anita Brookner, whose literary acquaintance I made this year. This subfusc novel of a mysteriously disgraced woman coming to terms with her fate and her future was not exactly Booker Prize material (in my opinion), but it was most readable, and I find myself thinking of its wry heroine, romance novel writer Edith Hope, with real fondness. Blogger Mark Sampson – Free Range Reading: Hotel du Lac – says it well.

paper moon addie pray joe david brown4. Paper Moon

originally published as Addie Pray

by Joe David Brown ~ 1971

Loved it! Read this one way back in high school in the 1970s, and this re-reading stood up marvellously well. An 11-year-old orphan and her maybe-father develop their talents as small-time con artists as they travel around the south-eastern United States in the darkest years of the Great Depression. Funny and heart-warming but never, ever sloppy. Brilliant. Ignore all the “female Huck Finn” and “sassy young heroine” comments on Goodreads – this tallish tale is something quite unique. You may be familiar with the classic Tatum and Ryan O’Neal hit movie; this book it was based on is even betterGoodreads: Paper Moon 

the house that is our own o douglas 0015. The House that is Our Own 

by O. Douglas ~ 1940

Middle-aged, recently-widowed Kitty and independently single, almost-30 Isobel meet at a residential hotel and become firm friends. Their relationship deepens and grows even as they eventually go their separate ways, Kitty to a new flat, and Isobel to a rural Scottish cottage. O. Douglas is always a great pleasure to read, and there is quiet merit in all of her books. Honorable mentions as well to three more O. Douglas books first read in 2013: Pink Sugar (see review), Taken by the Hand, and Eliza for Common. The last two also deserve proper reviews of their own; I know I will be re-reading both in future and hope to expand upon them then.

the grand sophy georgette heyer 26. The Grand Sophy 

by Georgette Heyer ~ 1950

Amazonian Sophy is a surprise visitor to her relations in London, throwing an entire household – aunt, uncle and numerous cousins – into a turmoil it has never known before. Sophy is a born manager of other people for their own good, and here she finds much scope for her personal hobby. By the end of this improbable and frothy Regency tale, set in the early decades of the 19th century, romantic couples are paired off, financial difficulties are sorted out, and Sophy has found true love. What’s not to like? Well, that rather blatantly anti-Semitic moneylender episode, perchance… But dodging that critique with the handy “era correct” excuse, this buoyant tale succeeds at cover-to-cover amusement. Also a lot of fun is another Heyer romance, Devil’s Cub. Pure fluff, but the long dialogue sections are very nicely done with loads of cunning, period-correct language, and much humour. wheels within wheels dervla murphy

7. Wheels Within Wheels

by Dervla Murphy ~ 1979

Irishwoman Dervla Murphy, after leaving school at the age of fourteen to look after her bedridden mother, dreamed of travelling, and cherished her occasional opportunities for solo bicycle trips. In 1963, at the age of 32, the death of her mother freed her at last to embark upon a truly ambitious journey. Dervla cycled, alone and self-supported, from Ireland to India, where she spent five months volunteering in a refugee camp for Tibetans fleeing the Chinese occupation. Wheels Within Wheels details Dervla’s life before the Indian expedition, and describes the personally challenging years in Ireland which led to her future wanderlust.  An excellent memoir by a fascinating woman. Passionate, opinionated, and frequently very funny. Goodreads: Wheels Within Wheels. And for more on Dervla Murphy’s many subsequent travels and her activities up to the present: Dervla Murphy. com

secrets of the gnomes poortvliet huygen 28. Secrets of the Gnomes 

by Rien Poortvliet and Wil Huygen ~ 1981

So much more than just a picture book. An intricately illustrated “travelogue”  about the fantastical world of gnomes. Clever and slyly humorous, with a serious message about caring for our shared world. The artwork is extremely well done. Intriguing and diverting in concept and execution, and decidedly of “adult” interest. Amazon:Secrets of the Gnomes  

amberwell d e stevenson 29. Amberwell

by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1955

Not quite as fluffy as some of D.E. Stevenson’s novels, this may well be my favourite of hers so far. Amberwell is a family saga of awful parents and quite lovely children, set at a Scottish country estate. One for the re-read and write-about pile, but in the meantime a nicely succinct review may be read here: Pining for the West: Amberwell. And neck and neck with Amberwell for D.E.S. favourite status is this recently-read “serious” novel, Charlotte Fairlie (1954).  A girls’ school headmistress attempts to help some of her students cope with difficult personal situations, and finds her own life much changed as a result. Aka Blow the Wind Southerly and The Enchanted Isle.  

laughing gas p g wodehouse10. Laughing Gas

by P.G. Wodehouse ~ 1936

Deeply silly, as only a Wodehouse epic can be. While visiting Hollywood in order to rescue an alcoholic relation from a suspected entanglement with a gold-digging starlet, the ugly but sincere Earl of Havershot and golden-boy cinema idol Joey Cooley exchange bodies in some weirdly out-of-body way while simultaneously under dentists’ anesthetics. Much hilarity ensues before it all gets sorted out. Though it’s not as grand as Jeeves and Wooster, or even Lord Emsworth, it did make me smile. A proper review here: Vintage Novels: Laughing Gas      

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D.E. Stevenson’s 1961 novel Bel Lamington, featuring a young woman thrust out unprepared into a harsh world, Miss Beatrice Elizabeth Lamington – the “Bel” coming from her initials – left me just slightly underwhelmed.

I had first read the sequel to Bel’s titular saga, 1962’s Fletchers’ End, and references to Bel’s previous stint as a downtrodden secretary rather intrigued me. My eagerness to discover her prior story sent me off to the internet to purchase the book, and though I can’t say I’m disappointed by my latest D.E.S. acquisition, I’m not as thrilled as I’d hoped to be.

Bel Lamington links up with the earlier Vittoria Cottage/Music in the Hills/Shoulder the Sky (a.k.a. Winter and Rough Weather) trilogy, and the last third or so of the book concerns a number of characters whom the author assumes we have already met. Doubtless this was so for most readers at the time of Bel Lamington‘s publication; D.E.S. had her staunch following, and a nod to the readers-already-in-the-loop was doubtless the author’s intention here. But for those of us coming newly to the D.E.S. world some half-century after her heyday it can be a little disconcerting, though I must say it is fairly easy to pick up and follow the story threads.

It never seems like the author intends to leave things out, just that she assumes that we know the histories of the cameo role stars she features beside the up-and-coming ingénues. And Bel is very much a charming ingénue, in every sense of the word. Luckily her stellar qualities are recognized by just enough people to soften the blows that fall upon her tentative entry into a working girl’s world.

bel lamington d e stevensonBel Lamington ~ 1961.

This edition: Collins, 1961. Hardcover. 255 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

Bel was orphaned at the tender age of three when both parents perished together in an automobile accident –  a “terrible motor smash” – but luckily she was taken in by a loving aunt and raised and cared for with tender affection. Her aunt has now died, and with it the small income they both lived on; there is nothing for it but for Bel to go out into the world and find employment.

She trains as a secretary and finds a job as a typist in a London shipping firm, and is soon promoted to private secretary to the firm’s chief partner, Ellis Brownlee. For Bel is one of those quietly competent types who excels at everything she attempts, and the author gets some digs in at the lackadaisical sorts whose office ambitions are more to do with flirtation and gossip than in dedication to their employers’ interests. Bel is definitely not cut from that pattern, and this inevitably leads to her being ostracized by the other female staff members, in particular the bullying Miss Goudge, who finds meek Miss Lamington a perfect target for her sarcastic jabs.

Bel’s private life is emotionally fraught as well. She is finding London exceedingly lonely, and has not made friends with anyone at all in the eighteen months she has been there. Her one comfort is the tiny rooftop garden she has created outside her top floor window, and lo and behold, this garden brings her into contact with a handsome young man.

Mark is an artist, and his discovery of Bel’s garden when he is scrambling about on the roofs outside his own top floor studio-flat leads to his painting of Bel’s portrait, and his impetuously offhand courtship of this hidden flower, this “charming little mouse” of a girl. Bel is initially bowled over, but soon finds that Mark’s enthusiasms wane as fast as they sprout up, and she sensibly keeps herself out of trouble when Mark’s casual advances become too forceful.

But it is hard to keep smiling, and Bel is descending into the depths of despair when a chance encounter with an old school friend at the exhibition of Mark’s painting of Bel brings her a happy respite, as she and Louise discover that they are kindred spirits.

Back at the office things are not going well at all. Bel’s mentor and protector Mr Brownlee has left on an extended overseas business trip, leaving Copping, Wills and Brownlee under the supervision of the over-emotional and verbally-abusive Mr Wills. Hand in glove with the manipulative Miss Goudge, Mr Wills ensures that Bel’s office days are numbered, and when the inevitable happens, she flees to Louise for refuge, ending up in Scotland, where everything gets itself all sorted out.

Fletchers’ End ~ 1962.

This edition: Fontana, 1971. Paperback. 256 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Spoiler alert: If you want to read Bel Lamington without knowing the results of her romance in book one, you should read no further. Here, I’ll pop in the cover illustration of Fletchers’ End to give you a chance to click away.

fletchers' end d e stevenson

Still here? Excellent. Here’s the next installment.

Bel and Ellis Brownlee are wed, and are now living in Bel’s tiny London flat and both working at Ellis’s office. They are also looking for a proper place of their own, preferably in the country but within easy commuting distance of London so Ellis can be handy to his shipping firm. Nothing suitable can be found, until Bel’s friend Louise sees potential in a dilapidated old house in a jungle of weeds, one Fletchers’ End in the village of Shepherdsford.

The absentee owner is desperate to sell, and Ellis and Bel purchase the house for a bargain price, though they are destined to make up for the initial savings in the ensuing renovation costs. This now becomes one of those “house books”, where the building is a character in its own right, and ultimately rewards its rescuers by becoming a warm and welcoming haven.

Bel’s adventures in renovation and restoration keep her occupied for the better part of the narrative, though there are side plots in the romance of Bel’s dear friend Louise, carried forward from the first installment, and the sudden appearance of the house’s previous owner, a young and handsome naval officer.

Mark-the-philandering-artist from Bel Lamington makes a brief appearance as well, as does the younger Copping from Ellis’s firm.

But not much really happens in this one, unless, of course, one appreciates the overwhelming busy-ness and architectural challenges and intrinsic rewards involved in a house renovation. The romance gets sorted out most satisfactorily, and all seems set for a happy ending when Bel and Ellis are suddenly faced with the possibility of having to walk away from Fletchers’ End: a will has been discovered which puts into question the legality of the house’s sale. Oh dear, whatever will happen now?!

Yes, it all comes out all right in the end.

(Was there ever any question?)

Nice parallel story of the elderly Mrs Warmer (what an apt name) who has been caretaking Fletchers’ End, and who stays on to provide a motherly presence in Bel’s kitchen, to the envy of all and sundry.

In both of these novels much is made of Bel’s timidity, her gentleness, and her overwhelming humility. D.E. Stevenson puts forward the argument that humility – true humility of spirit – is a worthy trait and should be viewed with respect. She therefore endows her heroine with appropriate rewards for her goodness and meekness. Though Bel occasionally shows that her inner core is of the toughest steel, her continual mildness is sometimes just the tiniest bit irritating; I can understand why Miss Goudge of the first book found her such a fitting target for perpetual scorn.

A very moralistic pair of tales, Bel Lamington and Fletchers’ End, with the author making very clear her opinions of how virtue and innate goodness should be rewarded, and how those who offend against the meek and well-meaning should be cast off into the outer darkness. All in all, a satisfying sort of point of view for this sort of blissfully simple fiction, for aren’t we all, fellow readers, on the side of the angels ourselves? 😉

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