Posts Tagged ‘Light Fiction’

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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It’s always fascinating to read vintage books aimed at the youth market. The terms “literary snapshots” and “period pieces” apply particularly well to this widely varied genre, though more serious themes tend to be handled in a gentle way, obviously in order to cushion young minds from the harsher realities of the world they live in.

I recently read these two American “juveniles” from the many which have accumulated on our shelves in the past nineteen years of buying books for the younger members of the family, and while neither is an outstanding piece of fiction in any sense of the word, they are both rather interesting in what they have to say about the eras they were written in and about. Footnotes to the period, as it were, which is why I’m including them among the Century of Books fellowship.

*****

the black opal dorothy maywood bird 001The Black Opal by Dorothy Maywood Bird ~ 1949. This edition: Macmillan, 1962. (Ninth printing.) Hardcover. 202 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Surprisingly likeable was this rather hard to classify light novel, comprised as it was of equal parts college caper, highly contrived mystery, and blossoming romance. All right, maybe not that hard to classify! But the mixture works quite nicely, and the characters are highly appealing, and the whole thing is completely adorable. Decidedly a book aimed at the feminine readership of the junior high schools of its time.

Look, I even found an approving Kirkus review, from October of 1949:

When Laurel went off to the small coeducational college in Michigan which had been her great-great-grandmother’s alma mater, she expected it to be fun — and it was. What she didn’t know was that she would find herself up to the neck in a century old, unsolved murder mystery which was to give her the thrill of establishing the identity of the murdered man and his killer. The mystery theme is well-integrated and companions a satisfying modern college story of dates, term papers and strict house-mothers. There is not only the sinister black opal which Laurel unearths but also the exciting and sparkling diamond with which her One And Only ends the story. Maybe her solution will seem a trifle glib and maybe everything falls in place too smoothly, but no one will care for it is a nice, light entertaining tale with the virtue, highly to be prized, of not following an exact formula.

Laurel Stanwood has decided to do something a bit out of the norm. Instead of going with her high school friends to a college in her native Vermont, Laurel has chosen to attend a school, Colbert College, in far-off Michigan, a decision inspired by the fact that her Great-great-grandmother Caroline Hayes was a student of the precursor to the now co-educational facility, the Colbert Female Seminary, in 1846.

What follows is an absolutely typical account of lively college life. Laurel immediately makes two best friends, and immerses herself in a whirl of activity, where some serious studying is livened up by dramatic football games, campus socials, the ongoing “campus war” between the freshmen/juniors and sophomores/seniors, and some serious battling of the sexes via the two campus newspapers, the Colbert Feminist, under the editorial control of Laurel’s new friend Rue, and the Colbert Iconoclast, presided over by the woman-despising J. Swinton Towne. As an aspiring journalist, Laurel is immediately put to work gathering material for the Feminist; she has high hopes of finding a stunning “scoop” which will allow the Feminist to grind the Iconoclast‘s annoying pretensions to male superiority under its well-clad foot.

Lovely period details abound throughout this book, such as here where the girls are opening their mail at dinner time.

Laurel slit them open with her fork. The first, a circular, ordered her to make reservations at once for that Round-the-World Cruise she’d been eagerly awaiting since before the war. “Lapping waves,” it promised, “soft winds to caress your brow, nights full of wonder.” The second assured her that she could borrow up to three hundred dollars without embarrassing investigation and could pay it back in easy monthly installments. “Why be short?” it demanded. The third looked more hopeful, an expensive ivory envelope addressed in a feminine hand and postmarked Detroit. But the letter inside merely stated that if she planned to invest five hundred and fifty dollars in a genuine blue muskrat coat, she would do well to visit Compere’s Fur Salon first.

“Here’s a card from Mother,” Stacy giggled, “reminding me that if I want my duds to get into the Monday wash I can’t wait till Monday to mail them, and here’s a letter from Kent. Even if I didn’t recognize the scrawl, nobody else would have the nerve to start out ‘Dear Horseface.'”

Laundry sent home by mail for washing, stocking boxes to protect one’s cherished “nylons”, beau parlors to entertain your male guests in, telegrams sent with gay abandon in the same way teens today fire off texts to arrange their dates, having one’s hair washed once a week at the beauty parlor, Sadie Hawkin’s Day dances with both sexes in drag, apple cider socials, and a continual description of the most lovely-sounding clothes are happy period details. Laurel is continually sporting such gems as a “cherry flannel robe”(while filling out her college application form), “white wool gabardine suit” with a white chrysanthemum corsage (to attend a football game), “green silk raincoat” (actually that was Stacy’s, but it sounds quite sharp), “red cambric bolero edged in gold furniture braid” (for dressing up as a Spanish courtier on Sadie Hawkin’s Day), dungarees and sheepskin lined stadium boot (for winter hiking in the snow), a plaid gingham dress giving way to a “heliotrope spun rayon” (dressing for dinner, a must-do in the girl’s dormitory house), a beau’s “electric-blue loafer coat”, a friend’s “magenta taffeta with the bustle” prom dress, and Laurel’s own costume for the high point of the story, prom night topped off by discovery of the “Black Opal” mystery: mist-gray tulle with silver slippers and handbag, and a corsage of forget-me-nots, rosebuds and silver ribbon. Oh, swoon!

The girls, despite their life of strict midnight curfews and beau parlors, are given a wonderful amount of freedom; in most ways they are treated as completely competent adults and are left to sink or swim and make their own decisions in a way that many of the sheltered-but-socially-sophisticated teens of today would be most miffed to asked to do. Failed your Biology exam? Oh, well, guess you should have studied harder! No helicopter-parenting mom or dad in this 1940s’ world is about to confront the Biology prof to demand their pampered offspring’s mark be altered!

The historical murder mystery/mysterious gemstone plot, though prominent in the title and constantly referenced, is a very minor part of this happy little novel, though it forms a uniting thread throughout. It is the least well handled aspect of the book, being utterly predictable, totally fabricated out of unlikely coincidences, and not particularly believable even at its most detailed point. But this I completely forgave, because the rest of the story charmed me completely.

Dorothy Maywood Bird wrote two other similar novels, Granite Harbor and Mystery at Laughing Water, and I would be quietly pleased to get my hands on these at some point, for a little more travelling gently back in time.

*****

the year of the dream jane collier 001The Year of the Dream by Jane Collier ~ 1962. This edition: Funk & Wagnalls, 1962. Hardcover. Illustrated by E. Harper Johnson. 122 pages.

My rating: 4.5/10

This one is aimed at a younger set, the elementary school ages. Another very predictable plot, with rather more cardboardish characters, but again an interesting period piece with some redeeming features.

A middle-class family of five – mother at home baking cookies, father a teacher, thirteen-year-old Dick, twelve-year-old Wendy and younger brother Beanie – have been summering at a lakeside cottage and messing about with rowboats for years. But this year it somehow doesn’t quite satisfy – “If only we had a boat of our own…!” And not just a rowboat, but a proper boat. A cabin cruiser, so Mom can come along and not miss her kitchen(!) – bright red flag, here – first hint of era-correct gender stereotype, but far from the last.

Anyway, it’s decided that this is just a dream, as Dad isn’t exactly wealthy, and even a cheap cabin cruiser would cost thousands to buy. Then a chance conversation puts the family on the track of a derelict boat to be sold as part of an estate settlement. For two thousand dollars they can have it. Lots of work would be needed, but the boat is essentially sound. But where to find the money?

Everyone chips in and the year progresses as the pennies and dollars start to flow into the boat fund. The family decides to holiday at home and put their vacation money in the fund. Dad quits smoking and takes on an evening job, Wendy gives up her riding lessons and takes on babysitting jobs, Dick decides to raise rats to sell for science experiments, and Beanie roams the neighbourhood with his wagon collecting old newspapers to sell for salvage prices – 75 cents per 100 pounds. Even Mom finds something to do – she goes back to work in a law office part time, asking Wendy to step up and help out more at home.

Domestic details of the early sixties include a gee-whiz!-isn’t-it-great! reliance on cake mixes, instant pudding, canned everything, and casseroles of frankfurters and beans. Mom pores over a book called Shipboard Menus, leaving the mechanical and construction details of boat refurbishment up to the menfolk.

The only person not thrilled with the family’s common goal and their pursuit of their dream is Mom’s older sister, Aunt Louise. Louise had raised her younger sister after they were orphaned, and has settled into a prudently conservative spinsterhood. She lives in an apartment above the card and gift shop she has established with persistent self-sacrifice and dogged determination, and though she is the epitome of a self-sufficient woman she is, paradoxically, absolutely livid with Dad for “allowing” Mom to work. Mom, on the other hand, decidedly blossoms as she goes back out into the world, which inspires an interesting line of thought in twelve-year-old Wendy, about who “Mother” really is, and how she appears to herself and to each individual in her family, and what her mother’s own dreams might be, the ones she calmly has put aside to dedicate herself to her family. Inklings of the consciousness-raising going on in the greater world of the 1950s and 60s.

The dream – the cabin cruiser – is tantalizingly close to becoming a reality when catastrophe strikes, as young Beanie is struck and severely injured by a hit-and-run driver as he plods along with a wagonload of newspapers. Everything turns upside down as priorities are instantly re-assessed, with the two older children readjusting their personal ambitions for the boat without a murmur, much to the surprise of the adults in their lives, who have rather assumed that there would be resistance to the idea of letting the dream die.

Expectedly clichéd is the ending, with everyone rallying around and “family comes first” the slogan of the day; my greatest disappointment (from an adult point of view) was the sudden windfall that allowed the dream a new life. Artistically speaking, the sacrifice would have made for a stronger ending, but thinking back to my own juvenile reading days, the happy ending would have been appreciated by my young self, so I’ll let it go.

These sorts of books were a dime a dozen back in my elementary school years, mild dramas with some sort of a message attached, and The Year of the Dream is neither exceptionally good nor dreadfully bad. It’s a very average example of the middle range of juvenile literature of its era, and as such is worthy of a nod of appreciation as it helps to embellish the background against which “better” and more “mature” and “literary” books are set.

**********

I wouldn’t say that Jane Collier’s The Year of the Dream is worth looking for – it’s very much a nonentity of a thing – but for those of you who enjoy “teen girl’s fiction” of the 1940s and early 50s, precursors to the “malt shop” genre, Dorothy Maywood Bird’s three novels may be of some interest.

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a safety match ian hay penguin cover 1938 001A Safety Match by Ian Hay ~ 1911. This edition: Penguin, 1938. Paperback. 256 pages.

My rating: 3/10

Oh, Century of Books. You are leading me down some strange byways of reading…

Some days ago I wrote with some enthusiasm about a rather charming vintage book by Herbert Jenkins, Patricia Brent, Spinster. I was careful in my review not to reveal the key plot points and the ending, because I felt that this was a book that would reward discovery by a modern-day reader. I am very sad to say that today’s book will not be rewarded the same treatment, because it disappointed me immensely.

Sharp-eyed readers will notice the mending tape on the bottom left hand corner of the book pictured here. That was me. Usually I am very careful about my mending of older books, aiming for non-obtrusive fixes, but in this case I just slapped a piece of Magic tape on there and called it good enough. The whole spine is loose and the text block only just hanging on by a whisp or two of paper – almost as if at some point a previous reader gave this one the toss across the room. Hmmm… (Okay, maybe I’m just being really snarky.)

So, yes, there will be spoilers in the next few paragraphs. (And I’m keeping it shortish, because it’s really not worth spending any more time on.)

It all starts off promisingly enough. Here we have a vicarage family, the widowed Rector Brian Vereker, and his lovely children – literally lovely, as they are famed for their good looks among the local villagers – nineteen-year-old Daphne, doorstepping down through Sebastian Aloysius (“Ally”), Monica Cecila (“Cilly”), Stephen (“Stiffy”), Veronica Elizabeth (“Nicky”) to to the youngest, eleven-year-old Tony. A lively lot they all are, and we are treated to a prolonged domestic interlude which sets up the characters quite nicely, and gives a rather charming picture of English upper-middle-class home life – for the Rector is the youngest son of a youngest son of a peer of the realm –  in the early years of the 20th Century.

Then an abrupt change of scene to a room full of coal mine owners as they meet with labour union leaders in order to negotiate a way out of a possible workers’ strike. Here we become acquainted with our main masculine character, one Lord Carr, also known by his nickname of “Juggernaut” for his overbearing success in always proving his point and coming out on top. In this case Juggernaut succeeds in quelling the potential strike, knocking down the ineffectual union leaders and getting in a few digs about free enterprise and every-man-for-himself-ism which sound forbiddingly close to the spoutings of the far-Right political parties of our current age – not much doubt as to our author’s feelings throughout this book, I’ afraid – he does rather slant towards his brusque hero’s view.

The set-up is to introduce the rather-much-older (forty-five-ish) Lord Carr to the eldest vicarage daughter, the sweet-nineteen Daphne. For of course Lord Carr and Rector Vereker are old school chums, and after squashing the labour uprising in the area, Lord Carr is quite happy to spend a few weeks relaxing among the Vereker clan, where he falls in inarticulate but sincere love with Daphne.

The two marry, Juggernaut for love and Daphne for money – she is motivated by a desire to secure the futures of her brothers and sisters – and for a few years all is quite content. A son is born to Lord and Lady Carr, but as the child grows it becomes apparent that the marriage is, if not actively struggling, becoming a rather pathetic thing. Lord Carr is unable to speak his feelings of devotion to Daphne; she in turn is starting to turn to other companions for amusement, including Lord Carr’s devoted right hand man.

This gets us in quite decent style to the latter bit of the book, where the author completely goes to pieces and gets all darkly dramatic. Daphne and Juggernaut part ways, Daphne fleeing to the old family home with the baby and Juggernaut staying broodingly in London. While they are parted, it dawns on Daphne that perhaps she really does love her masterful though stoic husband, and a reconciliation is affected by way of the right hand man’s revealing that Juggernaut is really just a big softie, supplying food and comforts to the wives and children during the last coal mine strike. “I never knew!” cries Daphne, and she flies to her husband’s sturdy breast, to be clasped there with fervor.

But wait! There’s more!

The workers at the local coal mine go on a wildcat strike, and as a result the workings are sabotaged, resulting in a cave-in which traps a number of our side characters, including Right Hand Man. Juggernaut is front and centre of the rescue mission, and (sob!) is blinded by an explosion after he has personally seen all of the rescued men to safety.

Fast forward a year or two to a scene of domestic bliss, Juggernaut and Daphne all sappily happy with their adorable wee children, love restored and blind Pappa the centre of a scene of cozy cuteness.

66 years after its first publication, the one-and-only Barbara Cartland  decides that "A Safety Match" is a good addition to her "Library of Love".

66 years after its first publication, the one-and-only Barbara Cartland decides that “A Safety Match” is a good addition to her 1977  “Library of Love”. I am saddened, but not surprised.

What a dreadfully clichéd story. No wonder it was picked up and condensed by Barbara Cartland for her 1977 “Library of Love.”

This novel made me prickly all over. It started out so well, and had so many nice domestic and period details, that I hoped right up until those last few chapters that it would go in a different direction, but nope! – no such luck. It just dissolved into mushy sweetness. Absolutely, deeply, offensively, sugary, syrupy adorableness. Argh.

Not recommended, but if you are very brave and wish to look for yourself, here it is on Gutenberg.

The Safety Match by Ian Hay

Ian Hay, by the way, was quite a well-respected writer of his time. Here is his biography, pasted directly in from Wikipedia. As the man could undoubtedly write, in a modestly competent way, I do find myself curious as to some of his other works, in particular the war-themed The First Hundred Thousand. But as for The Safety Match, I wouldn’t open that again at gunpoint.

Major General John Hay Beith, CBE, (17 April 1876 – 22 September 1952), was a British schoolmaster and soldier, but he is best remembered as a novelist, playwright, essayist and historian who wrote under the pen name Ian Hay.

After reading Classics at Cambridge, Beith became a schoolmaster. In 1907 he published a novel, Pip; its success and that of several more novels enabled him to give up teaching in 1912 to be a full-time author. During the First World War, Beith served as an officer in the army in France. His good-humoured account of army life, The First Hundred Thousand, published in 1915, was a best-seller. On the strength of this, he was sent to work in the information section of the British War Mission in Washington, D.C.

After the war Beith’s novels did not achieve the popularity of his earlier work, but he made a considerable career as a dramatist, writing light comedies, often in collaboration with other authors including P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton. During the Second World War Beith served as Director of Public Relations at the War Office, retiring in 1941 shortly before his 65th birthday.

Among Beith’s later works were several war histories, which were not as well received as his comic fiction and plays. His one serious play, Hattie Stowe (1947), was politely reviewed but had a short run. In the same year he co-wrote a comedy, Off the Record, which ran for more than 700 performances.

I did a fairly thorough internet search, and came up with only one other blog review, from Only Two Rs, whose take was similar to my own.

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patricia brent, spinster 1 herbert jenkinsPatricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert Jenkins ~ 1918. This edition: Herbert Jenkins, circa 1918. Hardcover. 312 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

I keep forgetting about this book, even though I only read it a week or so ago. It’s already had the ignominy of being shuffled away into the hall closet with a stack of miscellaneous already-reviewed books, only being rescued several days later when I was delving around in there looking for Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth von Arnim, which I was hoping would be as great a treat as other bloggers have promised. (It was.)

High expectations were inspired by this opening passage:

“She never has anyone to take her out, and goes nowhere, and yet she can’t be more than twenty-seven, and really she’s not bad-looking.”

“It’s not looks that attract men,” there was a note of finality in the voice; “it’s something else.”  The speaker snapped off her words in a tone that marked extreme disapproval.

“What else?” enquired the other voice.

“Oh, it’s—well, it’s something not quite nice,” replied the other voice darkly, “the French call it being très femme.  However, she hasn’t got it.”

“Well, I feel very sorry for her and her loneliness.  I am sure she would be much happier if she had a nice young man of her own class to take her about.”

Patricia Brent listened with flaming cheeks.  She felt as if someone had struck her.  She recognised herself as the object of the speakers’ comments.  She could not laugh at the words, because they were true. She was lonely, she had no men friends to take her about, and yet, and yet——

“Twenty-seven,” she muttered indignantly, “and I was only twenty-four last November.”

A rather handsome later edition cover. This novel has maintained its popularity well since its publication in 1918.

A rather handsome later edition cover. This playful novel has maintained its popularity well since its publication in 1918.

And by this back-cover précis:

Patricia Brent is a guest, damned by the prefix “paying,” at the Galvin House Residential Hotel. One day she overhears two of her fellow “guests” pitying her for her loneliness and that she “never has a nice young man to take her out.”

In a thoughtless moment of anger she announces that on the following night she is dining at the Quadrant with her fiancé.

She wasn’t, and she hadn’t, but she did.

When in due course she enters the grill-room she finds some of the Galvin House-ites there to watch her. Rendered reckless by the thought of being found out, she goes up to a table at which is seated a young staff-officer, and asks him to help her by “playing up.”

This is how she meets Lieut.-Col. Lord Peter Bowen, D.S.O. Then follow the complications that ensue from Patricia’s thoughtless act.

Patricia’s fast-on-her-feet rescue of her situation definitely sets off a tangle of complications, especially when her “pick-up” proves to be something a little bit different than anything she could have imagined.

I won’t say too much more, plot-wise, because I’m sure some of you will be keen to read this one for yourself, as I was. Already something of a fan of Herbert Jenkins – I cherish a thick compilation of the famous Bindle stories – I was keen to see what he would do with a feminine lead. Not too badly, though I must say that Patricia reads rather like a woman written by a man; there were occasional odd notes, especially to do with clothes.

For Patricia is not a dowdy spinster – oh, no, not at all! She dresses well and with exquisite care, rather surprisingly so, considering her obviously straitened means. Herbert Jenkins tries his hand at this description of Patricia primping to go out on her first adventure, to what she thinks will be a solitary visit to the Quadrant Grill-Room, the “major-man” being at this point merely a figment of her imagination.

As she stood before the mirror, wondering what she should wear for the night’s adventure, she recalled a remark of Miss Wangle’s that no really nice-minded woman ever dressed in black and white unless she had some ulterior motive.  Upon the subject of sex-attraction Miss Wangle posed as an authority, and hinted darkly at things that thrilled Miss Sikkum to ecstatic giggles, and Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe to pianissimo moans of anguish that such things could be.

With great deliberation Patricia selected a black charmeuse costume that Miss Wangle had already confided to the whole of Galvin House was at least two and a half inches too short; but as Patricia had explained to Mrs. Hamilton, if you possess exquisitely fitting patent boots that come high up the leg, it’s a sin for the skirt to be too long.  She selected a black velvet hat with a large white water-lily on the upper brim.

“You look bad enough for a vicar’s daughter,” she said, surveying herself in the glass as she fastened a bunch of red carnations in her belt.  “White at the wrists and on the hat, yes, it looks most improper.  I wonder what the major-man will think?”

Swift movements, deft touches, earnest scrutiny followed one another. Patricia was an artist in dress.  Finally, when her gold wristlet watch had been fastened over a white glove she subjected herself to a final and exhaustive examination.

“Now, Patricia!”—it had become with her a habit to address her reflection in the mirror—”shall we carry an umbrella, or shall we not?”  For a few moments she regarded herself quizzically, then finally announced, “No: we will not.  An umbrella suggests a bus, or the tube, and when a girl goes out with a major in the British Army, she goes in a taxi.  No, we will not carry an umbrella.”

She still lingered in front of the mirror, looking at herself with obvious approval.

Would a young lady of such obviously strong self-esteem really be so humiliated by the gossipings of some of the nasty old biddies sharing her residential hotel? Apparently so, and once we’ve accepted this slightly shaky premise we might as well go ahead and abandon ourselves to the whole happily romping thing.

It’s all very fluffy, and definitely a farce, though it has its moments of poignancy here and there. Set in the early years of the Great War, some of the characters are present because they are home on leave while recovering from their injuries; the sombre background of affairs in Europe and the bombings in England are a fascinating backdrop to the frivolous antics of the foreground players.

I was fortunate enough to track down a vintage copy of the book, though it took several long months to arrive from the bookseller in England, but here it is in digital format courtesy of the fantastic Project Gutenberg, for your reading pleasure.

Project Gutenberg: Patricia Brent, Spinster

Dust Jacket, early edition.

Dust Jacket, early edition.

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mamma diana tuttonMamma by Diana Tutton ~ 1955. This edition: Macmillan, 1955. Hardcover. 218 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Remember the buzz a year or so ago here amongst the book bloggers about Diana Tutton’s Guard Your Daughters?

Many people enthused over this forgotten novel by an elusively obscure writer; a few didn’t feel the love. I fell somewhere in the middle of these reactions, for while the book intrigued me I didn’t outright adore it, but it did make me curious about what else this writer could do. I’ve been watching for copies of her only other two books, 1955’s Mamma and 1959’s The Young Ones, for over a year, and lo and behold, I found one recently through an online book dealer. Mamma is now mine.

And what a happy gamble this was – I enjoyed it greatly. I had expected something either brittle or dreary, and possibly a bit smutty, for I knew ahead of time that it concerned a middle-aged mother plotting a love affair with her daughter’s husband – but in reality it is a rather more delicate thing, and well handled, and full of sly humour, and ultimately more than a little heart-rending. It has an intriguing ending as well, which could go any which way, leaving our main character poised on the verge of the next bit of her life.

Where it lost its 1.5 points – for it came close to being a 10 on my personal rating scale – was in its occasional outspoken snobbishness, something which also disturbed me in Guard Your Daughters. And, as in that novel, I am having a hard time deciding whether it is meant to be a tongue-in-cheek joke by the author, or a real reflection of her feelings, putting her thoughts into her character’s heads. It was just frequent and mean-spirited enough to take the bloom off this otherwise highly diverting concoction.

41-year-old widow Joanna Malling has just bought a house in a country village, a rather decrepit, unattractive house, with potential masked by neglectful decay. With her furniture unloaded, Joanna sinks into a momentary depression, wondering what she has done, and wishing desperately that she had someone to lean on, someone like her beloved husband Jack, who had died suddenly in the first year of their happy marriage, leaving the 21-year-old Joanna utterly bereft and a new mother to boot.

That baby, Elizabeth – Libby – is now a young woman herself, and a lovely, competent, and accomplished one. And also newly engaged. For the very day Joanna moves into her new house, a letter arrives from Libby in London announcing her intent to marry Steven Pryde, a career army officer, fifteen years Libby’s elder.

Joanna is apprehensive, wondering if she and Steven will make friends, and her first meeting with him leaves her cold. Stoic and expressionless, Steven is brusque and almost rude, and Joanna is less than impressed. But as she helps the young couple prepare for their wedding, and as Steven starts to show glimpses of manly chivalry, glints of a sense of humour, and a hidden taste for serious poetry, Joanna starts to see what has caught her daughter’s attention. Steven is also self-centered and frequently brusque, and occasionally dismissive of Libby’s interests and whims, though it is obvious that he also deeply admires her and loves her dearly.

Through a series of unplanned-for occurrences, Steven and Libby end up moving into Joanna’s house several months after their marriage, and the inevitable adjustment period of a brand new marriage finds Joanna caught between her beloved daughter and her enigmatic son-in-law.

I found myself sympathizing most ardently with fictional Joanna. Here she is, trying to make the best of things, and striving to keep out of the newlyweds’ way and allow them privacy, while at the same time dealing with the unexpected upsurge of feelings of grief at her own long-ago loss in her own early days of her marriage. After the first stages of grief had passed, the young Joanna had expected that she would meet another man and would remarry; this has not happened. But Joanna is not soured or embittered by this; she has steadfastly gotten on with her life. For twenty years Joanna has competently coped with her widowhood and single parenthood, sublimating her very real emotional (and sexual) needs in caring for her daughter, housework, and serious gardening. It has been an occasionally fragile balance, though, and it is about to tip, with potentially disastrous consequences.

Steven in only six years younger than Joanna, and the two inevitably find common ground in gently humouring just-out-of-her-teens Libby’s occasionally juvenile enthusiasms, heedless pronouncements, and occasional mood swings. Their shared appreciation of literature and poetry leave Libby far behind; she is not by any stretch an intellectual.  Constant propinquity allows even stronger feelings to develop, and Joanna is horrified to realize that she is falling in love with her daughter’s husband, while he is watching her with something more than dutiful regard.

When Libby at last realizes that the building tension in the three-person household is not her imagination she blazingly accuses Joanna of attempted seduction,  which scenario is very close to the truth. In Joanna’s defense Steven has been allowing himself the same burning glances at his “Mamma”-in-law as she is sending his way, though neither had so far made an overt move to bring their growing mutual attraction to the next stage.

Libby is soothed down and the potentially explosive situation is delicately defused by unspoken agreement between Joanna and Steven. He and Libby move on into their own establishment, but the experience has made Joanna take a deeply introspective look at how closely she allowed herself court disaster. Still a relatively young woman, she must rethink her future and how best to proceed into the second half of her life.

An unusual novel with some mildly unconventional characters. Steven perhaps gets the least authorial attention of the three main protagonists; he remains something of an enigma throughout, despite our glimpses at his secret self. Confident and competent Libby is shown in some detail, though mostly through her mother’s affectionate eyes.

It is Joanna who stands out, and her depiction is sensitive and deeply moving. Having several too-young widowed friends myself, Joanna’s agonizing internal dilemma as to how to best cope with her own needs when all about her prefer to conveniently view her as “beyond all that” strikes true indeed. Joanna has absolutely no one to confide in, and when her own daughter blithely and rather cruelly speculates on the psychological twists of those who are deprived of a satisfactory sex life, without grasping the obvious fact that her own mother is one of those so deprived, we cringe for both of them, but mostly for proud and stoic Joanna.

The gardening references – very important, as Joanna spends a lot of time working away her many frustrations at the end of a trowel – are impeccably plausible; a decided point in favour as this is something I am alert to, and I’ve frequently caught authors out on their lack of detailed horticultural knowledge. Diana Tutton appears to have been a gardener, or at least a garden lover.

Several lower-class characters, namely the two daily helps employed by Joanna, and the unmarried mother-to-be employed as a cook-companion by Steven’s mother, are depicted in the broadest of caricatures and here the Snob Factor again raises its ugly head, leading me to speculate that the dismissive and critical attitude which the upper-class – or, to be more accurate, upper-middle-class – characters show reflects the author’s personal views and is not merely a fictional device. Several scenes concerning these characters degenerate into broad farce; a jarring note in an otherwise well-constructed tale.

That last caveat aside, I’ll repeat that I liked this novel a lot, and am now very keen indeed to get my hands on the third of Diana Tutton’s elusive novels, The Young Ones. Apparently it concerns a woman’s dealing with the incest of her brother and sister. A decidedly eyebrow-raising scenario, but if Mamma is anything to go by, perhaps intriguingly plotted. I’m up for the gamble, but so far have not come across a copy for sale at any price anywhere, despite diligent online searching.

I’ve also been inspired to re-read Guard Your Daughters, and though the annoying bits still make me grit my teeth a bit, I’m enjoying it much more this time round, and may at some point need to revise my review to reflect the second-time-round reading experience.

Back to Mamma, has anyone else read this, and, if so, what did you think? I do believe Simon tackled it at one point, but didn’t write up a review. Any comments most welcome. 🙂

And has anyone come across The Young Ones? And, if so, what’s the word? Worth the hunt?

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the gilded ladder laura conway hebe elsna 001The Gilded Ladder by Laura Conway ~ 1945. This edition: Collins, 1970. Originally published under author’s name Hebe Elsna. Hardcover. ISBN: 00-233272-8. 159 pages.

My rating: 5/10

Found recently among my mother’s stored-away books was this mildly engaging relationship novel. (One can’t really slot it neatly into the romance category as it has larger ambitions, and the love affairs are off on the sidelines as compared to the niece-aunt partnership at the centre of the drama.)

It is just good enough to get a pass from me, though I doubt it will be high on the re-read list. A keeper, I think, though one for the bottom shelf. It pleasantly helped while away the time I spent in the orthodontist’s waiting room yesterday while my son was getting his braces tightened up a few more notches.

Young Lucy Erskine, ten years old in 1888 when this novel opens, is slightly in awe of her Aunt Madelon. Lucy’s mother is dead; her father’s new wife has produced two step-siblings, and Lucy feels rather out of things and appreciates the occasional attention she receives from her father’s rather glamorous unmarried sister who resides in a small suite of antique-furnished rooms in the Erskine family home.

Lucy has a small but genuine talent for music, both for playing the piano and for composing original little melodies, which Madelon notices and files away for future reference as a trait worthy of further encouragement. Madelon herself is fully occupied with hoisting herself up on the social scale – the “gilded ladder” of the title – and she gains each rung by strenuous though hidden exertions and more than a little single-minded plotting.

In Lucy’s tenth summer, all are agog at the upcoming marriage of Madelon’s old school chum, Lady Pamela, to a wealthy young man who cherishes an altruistic interest in slum projects. Lady Pamela hesitates at the thought of David’s plans to turn the major part of their prospective home into a convalescent hospital for ailing factory girls and as Pamela momentarily bobbles, Madelon slinks in and scoops away the fiancé. Marrying in haste, the two decamp on a honeymoon in France, but tragedy strikes and David is killed in a railway accident, leaving Madelon a devastated widow, albeit an exceedingly wealthy one.

Back then to the Erskine family home, where yet more tragedy has occurred, for Lucy’s father has suddenly died. Bereft Madelon, looking about for a new interest to assuage her grief, offers to give a home to young Lucy, and our story is off and running.

Madelon is truly fond of her niece, but can’t resist speculating about the possibilities of Lucy’s mild accomplishments as a minor musical prodigy to gain entry into noble drawing rooms. Tea for auntie, and a command performance from pretty little Lucy is the unspoken “deal” Madelon makes with her acquaintances in the social strata directly above her own, for Madelon’s new wealth, and, ironically, her past friendship with Lady Pamela, have given her a renewed taste for the joys of class climbing.

The novel wends on its way following Madelon’s steady social progress, and detailing Lucy’s growing awareness of her aunt’s manipulative ways, which Lucy starts to quietly confound when they touch upon herself. Lucy’s growing self-awareness and her rather clever provisioning for an life independent of her aunt’s control were rather admirable and renewed my interest in the plot, which had started to flag just a little.

This is a shortish novel, so things do keep moving at a respectable pace right up until the last chapter, where Lucy’s love affair, originally sabotaged by jealous Madelon’s manipulations, promises to finally come out all right. Madelon herself gets a brutally permanent comeuppance: she perishes rather dramatically just as she reaches the pinnacle of her social ambitions.

More irony here, for, as the author delicately informs us, Madelon’s bitterly hard-won ascent up the social scale is about to be rendered obsolete, as mere wealth alone is now becoming the golden ticket to social status. Madelon was born a generation too early; her long-sought-for prize is merely gilded base metal, and her tragedy is only appreciated by Lucy, who has loved her manipulative aunt for the good qualities of her personality, and by Lady Pamela, who has forgiven Madelon for the long-ago treachery of the stolen husband-to-be.

The writing is far from stellar, being rather pedestrian, more tell than show, full of awkwardly-written dialogue from the lower-class characters, and with the characters remaining at arm’s length from the reader. Despite the flaws, it was well-paced and just good enough to hold my interest, though as the climax of the story approached the strands of plot were increasingly predictable. No surprises there, but I have encountered much worse in some of the “bestsellers” of our present day (Rosemary Pilcher, your name springs to mind), and it was a mostly painless reading experience, though I cringed at the pat predictability of the last few pages.

Though The Gilded Ladder is decidedly a formula story, it is a well-polished one. A search of the internet to find out more about the author yielded little in the way of biographical insight, but it did produce some rather startling information.

Laura Conway was one of the pseudonyms of the terrifically prolific Dorothy Phoebe Ansle, who published, between 1928 and 1982, something like one hundred (!) popular novels under a variety of names, including Hebe Elsna, Vicky Lancaster and Lyndon Snow.

A long list appears on the Fantastic Fiction – Hebe Elsna web page, and the titles are surprisingly intriguing. Now I don’t recommend you rush out and acquire any of these. If The Gilded Ladder is a fair example of the author’s output then it is a very average sort of casual romantic fiction aimed at the housewife market (forgive my using that phrase – it’s not meant to be derogatory of actual housewives, of whom I myself am one, merely descriptive of a certain cliché) and certainly not “literary”.

But don’t some of these sound quite fascinating in an “Oops, I didn’t do the dishes as I was too wrapped up in my latest dime novel” sort of way?

What could This Clay Suburb concern? What is a Receipt for Hardness? Is it really true that Women Always Forgive? What happened The First Week of September? Are Marks Upon the Snow as sinister as they sound?

I sadly suspect that the titles may be the best part of many of these…

Child of Passion (1928) The Third Wife (1928) Sweeter Unpossessed (1929) Study of Sara (1930) We are the Pilgrims (1931) Upturned Palms (1933) Half Sisters (1934) Women Always Forgive (1934) Receipt for Hardness (1935) Uncertain Lover (1935) Crista Moon (1936) You Never Knew (1936) Brief Heroine (1937) People Are So Respectable (1937) Like Summer Brave (1938) Strait-Jacket (1938) This Clay Suburb (1938) The Wedding Took Place (1939) The First Week in September (1940) Everyone Loves Lorraine (1941) Lady Misjudged (1941) None Can Return (1942) Our Little Life (1942) See my Shining Palace (1942) No Fields of Amaranth (1943) Young and Broke (1943) The Happiest Year (1944) I Have Lived To-Day (1944) Echo from Afar (1945) The Gilded Ladder (1945) Cafeteria (1946) Clemency Page (1947) The Dream and the World (1947) All Visitors Ashore (1948) Midnight Matinee (1949) The Soul of Mary Olivane (1949) The Door Between (1950) No Shallow Stream (1950) Happy Birthday to You (1951) The Convert (1952) A Day of Grace (1952) Gail Talbot (1953) A Girl Disappears (1953) Catherine of Braganza (1954) Consider These Women (1954) A Shade of Darkness (1954) The Sweet Lost Years (1955) I Bequeath (1956) Strange Visitor (1956) The Marrying Kind (1957) My Dear Lady (1957) The Gay Unfortunate (1958) Mrs. Melbourne (1958) The Younger Miss Nightingale (1959) Marks Upon The Snow (1960) Time Is – Time Was (1960) The Little Goddess (1961) Lonely Dreamer (1961) Vicky (1961) Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1962) Take Pity Upon Youth (1962) A House Called Pleasance (1963) Minstrel’s Court (1963) Unwanted Wife (1963) Too Well Beloved (1964) The Undying Past (1964) The Brimming Cup (1965) The China Princess (1965) Saxon’s Folly (1966) The Queen’s Ward (1967) The Wise Virgin (1967) Gallant Lady (1968) Heir of Garlands (1968) The Abbot’s House (1969) Pursuit of Pleasure (1969) The Mask of Comedy (1970) Sing for Your Supper (1970) Take Heed of Loving Me (1970) The Love Match (1971) The King’s Bastard (1971) Prelude for Two Queens (1972) Elusive Crown (1973) Mary Olivane (1973) The Cherished Ones (1974) Eldest Daughter (1974) Distant Landscape (1975) Link in the Chain (1975) Cast a Long Shadow (1976) Family Duel (1979) Bid Time Return (1979) Long Years of Loving (1981) Red Headed Bastard (1981) Heiress Presumptive (1981) My Lover – The King (1982)

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brewster's millions 1902 richard greaves george barr mccutcheonBrewster’s Millions by Richard P. Greaves, pseudonym of George Barr McCutcheon ~ 1903. This edition: Herbert S. Stone & Co., 1903. Hardcover. 325 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This was a pleasant light novel which was easily breezed through in several sittings. Nothing here to challenge one; purely diversionary.

Montgomery Brewster is one of the set of young men with expectations, “The Little Sons of the Rich”, who form an informal club for card-playing, wining and dining in turn-of-the-century New York. In Monty’s case, it is his paternal grandfather who provides the expectations; Monty is widely believed to be the millionaire’s heir. This proves to be the case, and Monty’s natural sorrow at his relative’s demise – for Monty has been a ward of the old man since his parents’ untimely deaths – is salved by the news that he has been set down in the will for one million dollars.

Now Monty is gently pleased at this, the more so because he has been a hard-working young man and is not that desperate for the money, though there is no doubt that it will make life much more pleasant. Monty has been working in banking, and is pulling down a respectable salary; he boards with a widowed lady who has been something of a foster mother to him since childhood, and he is good friends with the household’s daughter, Margaret Grey. He is also romantically involved with a vivacious young woman who herself has good prospects, banker’s daughter Barbara Drew. An engagement is expected by both of them – Monty and Barbara – in due course, and all in all life looks fair to be peaceful and prosperous, with no clouds on the horizon.

Then, mere days after the Brewster will is proved, Monty receives a surprising communication from another lawyer. Monty’s late mother’s brother, his Uncle Sedgwick, has just shuffled off into eternity, and he has appointed Montgomery Brewster, son of his beloved sister, his sole heir. With a condition.

Seems that when Monty’s parents were married, a feud of sorts was started between Brewster senior (Monty’s grandfather) and the Sedgwick clan. Unforgivable words were spoken on both sides, and James Sedgwick was left with a bitter hatred towards the Brewsters, Monty excepted. As a sort of twisted revenge, he wanted to turn Monty into his chief heir but without mingling any of his (Sedgwick’s) hard-earned money with that of his enemy’s. Monty must divest himself of the Brewster fortune in a prescribed time, to be left with only the clothes on his body, in order to inherit the Sedgwick cash. And the amount of that legacy makes Monty sit up and take notice: $6,345,000! With projected interest, something like seven times the fortune already in hand.

Will Monty take the gamble?

Well, of course he will! For that is the entire premise of this rather silly story.

The conditions set for divesting himself of the Brewster fortune are stringent. Monty is not allowed to confide in anyone as to why he is ridding himself of his grandfather’s cash, with the deadline being Monty’s twenty-sixth birthday, just under a year in the future.

There was also a clause in which he (Sedgwick) undertook to dictate the conduct of Montgomery Brewster during the year leading up to his twenty-sixth anniversary. He required that the young man should give satisfactory evidence to the executor that he was capable of managing his affairs shrewdly and wisely,—that he possessed the ability to add to the fortune through his own enterprise; that he should come to his twenty-sixth anniversary with a fair name and a record free from anything worse than mild forms of dissipation; that his habits be temperate; that he possess nothing at the end of the year which might be regarded as a “visible or invisible asset”; that he make no endowments; that he give sparingly to charity; that he neither loan nor give away money, for fear that it might be restored to him later; that he live on the principle which inspires a man to “get his money’s worth,” be the expenditure great or small.

So Monty sets out to spend Grandfather Brewster’s cash, which he will need to do, as his calculations have shown him, at an average of almost $3,000 per day. He must demonstrate that he is receiving “value for money”, and he’s not allowed to tell anyone what he’s doing. Let the farcical fun begin!

For Monty’s friends, the other “Little Sons of the Rich”, prove surprisingly unwilling to let Monty squander his cash, and they go to great lengths to limit his expenditures. Early on in the proceedings, Barbara Drew is disgusted by Monty’s profligacy, and withdraws from their informal engagement, giving him pause, but only for a moment. As the year races on, Monty finds it harder and harder to spend fast enough, even adding to his fortune completely unwillingly by several freak occurrences – a second-rate prize fighter knocking out a champion (Monty had bet on the second-rater); a foray into stock trading on a “sure loss” which was turned around due to Monty’s investment; a visit to Monte Carlo ends with a bizarre winning streak – the fellow just can’t lose! Or, as the true case would be, win.

Luckily a financially disastrous yacht trip helps with the final disposal of Monty’s funds, as well as showing him that he has started to develop romantic feelings towards the young woman whom he had previously thought of as a platonic foster-sister, his old chum Margaret Grey. But Monty’s birthday is fast approaching, and suddenly Sedgwick’s executor disappears, and the Sedgwick millions with him. Could Monty have gambled and won, only to have ultimately lost everything through a cruel twist of fate?

Well, what do you think will happen?

I enjoyed this humorous period piece, and I was quite amused as well to learn some of the history behind its writing. I will pass you over to this excellent article by Nathaniel Rich, American Dreams: Brewster’s Millions, from which I’ve excerpted this back story of the author’s own gamble. (And please click over and read the full article; it is excellent.)

Brewster’s Millions, a novel about a bet, was written on a bet. George Barr McCutcheon was visiting his publisher when the subject of bestselling novels came up in conversation.

“The name of the author is what sells the book,” remarked the publisher.

McCutcheon, who the previous year had written his first bestseller—the initial volume in the Graustark series of romantic adventure novels—disagreed.

“I will bet you $100 that it does,” said the publisher.

“I will take that bet,” replied McCutcheon, “and I will write you a story to show you that I am right.”

Six weeks later McCutcheon submitted a manuscript. It was the story of a young man named Monty Brewster who, in order to inherit $7 million, must spend $1 million in a single year. There are, however, strings attached. At the end of the year Monty cannot possess any assets; he is forbidden from telling anybody why he’s spending all his money; and he may only donate a piddling amount to charity. Monty is free to reject the challenge and keep the $1 million, but he accepts the bet without hesitation. He begins his year of spending dangerously by renting the most expensive apartment in Manhattan and leasing four Monets, three cars, two horses, and a chef from Paris.

McCutcheon, needless to say, won his publisher’s bet—in fact he made off nearly as well as Monty Brewster. Brewster’s Millions sold 150,000 copies in its first three months of publication, despite the fact that the author was listed as “Richard Greaves.” (A clerk at the publishing house posed for the press photo.) The novel remains in print 110 years later, and has been adapted for film at least 10 times.

*****

Note: I originally purchased a copy of the book in order to fill in the 1902 spot in my Century of Books reading project, but it appears to me that the book was actually published in 1903. My copy is a first edition, showing the author’s name as Richard P. Greaves on the front cover (later editions replaced the pseudonym with George Barr McCutcheon), and the publication date on the copyright pages states: Issued April 20, 1903. Not a big deal, but it did leave me feeling a bit uneasy about using it for 1902, so I filled that space with Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories instead. So if you’re looking for inspiration for this time frame for your own Century project, just an alert that the copyright date of 1902 which appears in almost every reference to Brewster’s Millions that I’ve seen may be slightly incorrect.

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the princess priscilla's fortnight elizabeth von arnim 001The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim ~ 1905. This edition: Smith, Elder & Co., 1906. Hardcover. 329 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Her Grand Ducal Highness the Princess Priscilla of Lothen-Kunitz was up to the age of twenty-one a most promising young lady. She was not only poetic in appearance beyond the habit of princesses but she was also of graceful and appropriate behaviour. She did what she was told; or, more valuable, she did what was expected of her without being told. Her father, in his youth and middle age a fiery man, now an irritable old gentleman who liked good food and insisted on strictest etiquette, was proud of her on those occasions when she happened to cross his mind. Her mother, by birth an English princess of an originality uncomfortable and unexpected in a royal lady that continued to the end of her life to crop up at disconcerting moments, died when Priscilla was sixteen. Her sisters, one older and one younger than herself, were both far less pleasing to look upon than she was, and much more difficult to manage; yet each married a suitable prince and each became a credit to her House, while as for Priscilla,—well, as for Priscilla, I propose to describe her dreadful conduct.

German Princess Priscilla is finally facing an appropriately marriageable suitor, a personable prince with a suitably secure income, and all that is left is to arrange the formal engagement. But the princess is suffering from what would vulgarly be called “cold feet”, so she dreams up a plan to escape from her overly lavish courtly surroundings, “where one is never alone”, by taking up an incognito life in an English country cottage with her personal mentor, the elderly ducal librarian, who sympathizes with Priscilla’s secret desire to pursue the beautiful simple life.

Bribing one of Princess Priscilla’s maids to go on ahead and meet them in Cologne, prefatory to travelling through France and crossing the Channel, Priscilla and Herr Fritzing disguise themselves in old clothes, scarves and veils and depart the castle on bicycles. Luck smiles on them; they make a clean getaway, and eventually fetch up in the English countryside, where they turn a sober village upside down by their joint combination of well-meaning naïvety and high-handed snobbishness.

Two young men fall immediately head over heels in love with the oblivious princess, two households are bitterly disrupted, and then the cheerful farce of this improbable adventure turns even more sober when Priscilla’s thoughtlessness and misplaced generosity causes a hitherto honest young woman to turn thief through irresistible temptation, and an elderly woman to be murdered for the money Priscilla has given her.

Once luck deserts the two idealistic German vagabonds, it does so with a vengeance. Their emotional maid, deeply resentful of her lowly position and the assumption that she will take on menial tasks unthought-of in castle days, blackmails Herr Fritzing for his last penny. The indignant mothers of Priscilla’s two local suitors descend upon the household with their respectively outraged and tearful maternal woes, and the local tradespeople send in their bills and refuse to extend any more credit to the suddenly-beleaguered establishment.

Luckily this is by way of being a fairy-tale-ish confection, and a bold rescuer appears from an unexpected direction. Priscilla comes away from her rural fortnight a much sadder and wiser young woman, and the obvious morals are writ large in bold letters all over the concluding chapters.

This playful story with a semi-serious message is a very readable light novel, something along the lines of The Enchanted April and The Jasmine Farm in tone, with a similarly neat and tidy satisfactory ending. Perhaps not one of von Arnim’s best and most complex works, but more than acceptable for cheerful diversion, and charmingly witty, with the author getting her usual digs in at the Germanic patriarchy’s tendency to squelch their women into an acceptable meekness.

Here is Princess Priscilla at Project Gutenberg, and here are several other favorable reviews:

The Captive Reader ~ The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight

Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf ~ The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight

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the rosie project graeme simsionThe Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion ~ 2013. This edition: Harper Collins, 2013. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-44342-266-6. 329 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Aw, how sweet!

A charming beach read of a book which felt rather odd for a Canadian snow-filled January, but then I twigged that it was set in Melbourne, Australia (a reference to a character’s skimpy dress being perfect for “hot January evenings” making me sit up and pay attention) and it all fell into place.

An unusual narrator, university genetics professor Don, tells of his hyper-scheduled life, and how it all changed when he decided to locate a suitable life-partner by undertaking the questionnaire-based Wife Project in order to pre-screen likely prospects. A friend sets him up with a certain “Rosie” as something of a cruel joke; she fails the questionnaire on all counts, but even as he dismisses her from his list of potential partners, she interests him in a number of other ways.

Do I really need to go on? This book is completely stereotypical on so many counts, up to and including Don’s reinvention of himself to fit the presumed requirements of the woman he loves, and her teary-eyed insistence (after the fact) that the original him was the one she fell in love with.

Total chick flick stuff, and I thought all the way through what a perfect Hollywood romantic comedy this thing would be, which turned out to be the case – it was originally written as a screenplay. So no points for catching that.

But it works. It’s very funny, and cute and sweet and adorable and very happy-ending-ish. Also insubstantial as cotton candy, or perhaps one should say apricot ice cream – a bit zingy here and there, but ultimately mostly just sweet. Definitely not a real meal of a book, but a delectable dessert.

Many thanks to Claire at Captive Reader for recommending this; it was a whole lot of fun, and a perfect use of my Christmas bookstore gift card, and I know I will reread it when I need a bit of a pick-me-up.

I did a brief reconnaissance of other reviews, and among the many to choose from (several thousand on Goodreads, with a substantial number of high ratings) I found this one, by Ottawa writer Zachary Poole, which nicely reflected my own pros and cons regarding the story. I was quite impressed that we both rated it the same, 7/10, and my thoughts echoed Zachary’s to a T, though I must add the disclaimer that never once was I even marginally teary eyed!

Zachary Poole at Pop Matters Review – The Rosie Project

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rose cottage mary stewartRose Cottage by Mary Stewart ~ 1997. This edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1997. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-340-69560-9. 234 pages.

My rating: Honestly, all I want to give is a 4.5/10, upped to a 5 because it is Mary Stewart, and I will be looking for a copy to purchase and add to my collection of gentle books maintained for my mother’s perusal.

I feel absolutely rotten giving this low of a rating to a writer I have come to greatly enjoy, but it is an honest assessment of my reading experience. Rose Cottage is indeed a lovely story, a nostalgic journey into the past, and I do believe that the author meant it to reflect her own pleasant memories, dedicated as it is

To the gentle shades of Henry, George, Patsy, Nip, Rosy, Maudie and Muffin, and all the other friends whom I meet again in my stroll down Memory Lane.

But it was vaguely unsatisfying, and a bit too – dare I say it – mild, with an anticlimactic happy ending and love and flowers and reconciliatory kisses all round and even a kitten.

And how could one not love a kitten? Well, in this case, the kitten felt superfluous, the one adorable straw which caused this particular camel to sag at the knees and subsequently dock several points off the rating scale. Do I feel like a big old meanie discounting the kitten? Oh, yes, I do indeed. But I can’t, in all honesty, recant. Sorry, George-the-kitten.

And sorry, Mary Stewart. I’ve come to admire you greatly these past few months as I read my way through a selection of your novels. But Rose Cottage, though a sweet thing in its own way, is not representative of your work at its peak. It’s a step down and back, a lessening-off, a gentle coda to round off your life-long symphony of written words.

Looking back down the vista of years, Kathy (Kate) Herrick reminisces about the summer of 1947, when her life took an abrupt turn.

Kate was brought up in a tiny thatched cottage – Rose Cottage – attached to the estate where her mother (Lilias) and grandmother were employed as maid and cook. Kate’s mother lost her position when it was discovered that she had become pregnant; Kate has never been told who her unknown father is. Her grandfather dies, and sternly religious Aunt Betsy comes to stay. Aunt Betsy’s bitter disapproval of Kate’s mother’s “fall” results in Lilias leaving for parts unknown when Kate is only six. Some time later word comes that Lilias has been killed in a bus accident; Kate is effectively left an orphan.

Kate grows up in an atmosphere of combined love (Gran) and puritan repression (Aunt Betsy), and, when the war comes, it is not as much a break as it could be when Kate moves away, and then falls in love and marries a bomber pilot. Their short marriage is happy, but ends tragically when her husband is killed in action. Kate takes this in stride in her quiet way, and goes on to keep herself occupied with an interesting job in a plant nursery, though she has been left well-provided for in her late husband’s will.

Then, out of the blue, Kate gets an urgent phone call. Gran has been ill; she has something important she needs Kate to look after for her. Can Kate please come to Scotland, where Gran’s employers have migrated due to the requisition of their English house during the war, and hear what it’s all about?

Aunt Betsy has since died, and Gran’s old home, Rose Cottage, is due to be renovated and sold, but all of Gran’s things are still there. Could Kate please go and pack up Gran’s furniture and small treasures, including the family’s personal papers and the bits of sentimental jewelry and keepsakes hidden in a small wall safe?

So off Kate goes to her childhood home, where she immediately discovers that there has been a recent intruder. The wall safe, which was papered over and known only to household intimates, has been opened, and the contents are gone. Now who would ever have known the safe was there? And what did it really contain?!

Luckily one of Kate’s old school friends, handsome, still-bachelor Davey Pascoe, is more than happy to renew acquaintance with pretty Kate, and to help her solve the mystery.

Many worrisome coincidences and much foreboding evaporate into a purely domestic situation with a prosaically reasonable explanation, and everything is tied up very tidily indeed by the last page. Definitely a feel-good sort of read, a very meek and tame adventure despite the potential of the early events to be worked into something much more melodramatic.

I can’t help but wish there had been some more dramatic developments, even though those sorts of plot twists in Mary Stewart’s earlier novels sometimes made me roll my eyes with readerly disbelief. But I’ve become used to this sort of thing from this author, and her stepping away from drama left me feeling surprisingly let down.

Still and all, a nicely written and completely sweet story. One to give to one’s own granny for gentle entertainment over a nice cup of tea, if one’s relative is of the type to enjoy a non-challenging sort of tale with a blissfully happy ending.

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