Posts Tagged ‘Dean Street Press’

This week of course is the 1940 club hosted again by Simon and Karen – and I got reading in good time, so that I would be able to review what I read. I had meant to post earlier in the week, but it seems I never can tell how a week will pan out for me – so here I am feverishly typing away on Friday. 

I chose two books from the wonderful Dean Street Press – The English Air by D E Stevenson and The Stone of Chastity by Margery Sharp. DSP can always be relied upon, however I can’t be, so it’s unlikely I’ll get that second book reviewed.

There is a lot that is perhaps surprising in The English Air – more of that later – I have seen it described as one of DES’s best and I can see why. It’s certainly a delightful novel, and the inclusion of letters between DES and her publisher in this edition, certainly make for interesting reading. The English Air is a novel with a lot going on, and DES balances those different themes perfectly, giving us humour, romance, and tension in wartime Europe. 

Opening in the spring of 1938 when tensions across Europe were already heightened, Sophie Braithwaite and her daughter Wynne await the arrival of a cousin from Germany. Franz is the son of Sophie’s favourite cousin Elsie and the German man she met around the time of the First World War. Sophie never saw her cousin again, as she died not long after WW1 and she’s never met Elsie’s now grown up son before. Living with the widowed Sophie and her daughter is Dane, Sophie’s brother-in-law who has rooms in the house, from where he comes and goes with his factotum Hartley. Dane is Major Worthington, but just exactly who or what he is, is left to our imagination, though he clearly ‘knows’ people in some sort of intelligence role. Sophie also has a son, who having joined the navy spends most of the novel on his ship.

Unbeknownst to Sophie and her family, Franz has been sent to his English family by his father, to observe the English and report back on their general attitudes around all that is happening in Germany. Franz’s father is a personal advisor to Hitler but this of course is also unknown to Sophie. When he arrives Franz appears to be a very formal, stiff young man, whose English is just a little too perfect, but he is also perfectly pleasant, polite and interested in everyone around him and Wynne sees he just needs a bit of loosening up. Wynne wastes no time in introducing Franz to her friends and her cousin, involving him in social get togethers and tennis tournaments. Everyone accepts Franz happily, there are no negative attitudes shown toward him, the First World War is a generation ago, and everyone is busy having a good time, certain that nothing like that can really happen again.

 “There were pretty carpets, good china, and an abundance of excellent food; there were magazines and papers and books lying about, and boxes of cigarettes for anyone who wanted them … there was all this, but above all there was peace. Peace, thought Franz, peace and happiness.”

The atmosphere around Franz is one of happy inclusivity and welcome, good food and good company soon work their magic on the lonely young man. Franz more than just unbends though, becoming Frank to everyone, he starts to question everything he’s been told. Clearly someone who isn’t entirely happy with everything that has happened in Germany, Franz starts to see things with a different lens – the leader he has believed in, begins to look less credible. He falls in love with Wynne, but before he can say anything, events in Europe so distress him, he feels he must leave Sophie’s home for London, later returning to Germany. 

It’s the whole tone of the novel (considering when it was written and published) that surprised and pleased me. It’s hardly surprising that there is an overwhelmingly patriotic feeling towards everyone and anything British, but it’s not the gratingly jingoistic tone I have encountered elsewhere – it’s just all very positive, and idealised. Not that surprising, really. Franz is a young man who has had one narrative thrust at him his whole life, now given new experiences he begins to see things differently. What I applaud DES for particularly here though is that she doesn’t just rubbish the whole of the German nation. Later we see Franz return to Germany distressed and disillusioned, he finds his aunt at home, frightened and worn down by recent events, he hears about a terrifying arrest of someone he’s known his whole life. 

“Our nation is being kept in a state of fear. It is drilled into uniformity. If this goes on much longer it will destroy Germany’s soul. A man needs a little piece of personal life … some happiness and security … without this he becomes an animal, a beast of burden, driven here and there at his masters’ whim … and the masters, Franz!” added Herr Oetzen, “The masters, what are they? Small men scrambling for power and preferment and caring little who is trampled underfoot.”

He is a young man who wants to serve his country but doesn’t want to fight against the British, he has begun to see the Nazi regime for what it is – and he is deeply distressed by it. The few German characters we meet aren’t Nazis – and DES clearly makes the distinction between Germans and Nazis. We come to see Franz as a young man who loves his country and wants to help heal it and rebuild it but acknowledges that there are things wrong with it. 

“He began to realise that it was not Hitler but Hitlerism which must be rooted out before Germany could become whole and sane and able to take her rightful place amongst the great nations of the world. “It seems hopeless,” said Franz at last in a sombre tone.”

So, the war gets underway and Wynne, also nursing very tender feelings for Franz, has no idea of where he is, and what might be happening to him. Dane has reason to think that Franz might be putting himself at risk, after hearing a familiar voice on a German radio broadcast. 

A thoroughly enjoyable novel from D E Stevenson, I’m  delighted I was able to read it for the 1940 club. 

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Sometimes something rather cheery is just what we need, and Babbacombe’s was definitely that something for me, delightful entertainment, and a quick read. I have Simon of course to thank for nudging me to read this, because he reviewed it so enthusiastically, and there I was needing just the right kind of book.

Here Susan Scarlett has given us all the ingredients for a really charming, page-turner. A lovable, ordinary family – in an ordinary house, a department store, a touching courtship and a truly despicable little madam who it is a pleasure to loathe. I started reading and couldn’t put it down. 

Beth Carson, has just finished school, as head girl she had been a credit to the school, and her family. She is now embarking on her first job, in the gowns department of Babbacombe’s department store. This is where her father has worked for over thirty years. At home with Beth, are her parents, four younger siblings and a cat (who belongs chiefly to her youngest brother). It’s a well drawn family, Scarlett easily portraying their love, laughter, tears, hopes and dreams. There are poignant and funny family dramas, keeping the narrative pacy and compelling.

Beth’s mother arranges the attic room for Beth, finally a room of her own, helping to reflect her new grown up status. However, Beth’s delight is not to last – when it’s decided that her orphaned cousin Dulcie will come to board with the family – the boys are put in the attic – Beth will share their old room with Dulcie.  Beth is sad but doesn’t complain – she is thoroughly decent, understanding and wise beyond her years. She understands her mother’s difficulties and never wants to make things harder. 

Beth has only had a week at Babbacombe’s, when Dulcie starts work there as a lift girl – poor Beth can’t get away from her – because Dulcie is awful. (More of her later). As Beth gets to grips with her new job, long hours on her feet, never sitting down, everybody’s little go-fer – she has an unexpected, and not unwelcome encounter.

“I thought we were allowed to sit. I mean I thought it was the Shop Act or something that we had to have something to sit on.”

Jenny laughed.

“So they say, but it doesn’t work out that way. You won’t get sacked for sitting, but if you sit you’ll get the sack.”

David Babbacombe is the ne’er do well son of the store owner – a man originally from much humbler stock, his son has been brought up and educated graciously. When Beth meets him in the staff lift one day, she has no idea who he is. The lift breaks down. Chatting away happily, David reveals who he is and that he is on his way to get a cheque from his father. Beth has the sound good sense of both her parents, and she lets him know exactly what she thinks of him just getting money and not earning it. David, however is smitten – and this is enough for him to change his mind, he pleads with his father for a job in the store, the lowest rung of the ladder, and he gets it. A sales assistant in Cooked Meats. So, we realise, not such a ne’er do well after all. Of course, Beth rather likes him too – but these things can never run smoothly – Beth’s father in particular insistent that Beth can’t fall in love outside her class. Beth tries to put distance between her and David – they go weeks without seeing one another – but inevitably they meet – David often conspiring they do so. There are many twists and turns ahead – I shall say no more. 

Then there is Dulcie – oh my! What an enjoyable thing it is to loathe Dulcie. What is most enjoyable – and saves her character from being frustrating for the reader – is that everyone in the book, pretty much, loathes her too. Dulcie, brought up by a spinster aunt and sent to boarding school, she lords this over everyone, every chance she gets. She is very pretty, she knows it, wears makeup, skimpy clothes, makes it plain that everyone else in the Carson house is somehow lesser – pretends to feel sorry for Beth for not being pretty (everyone considers Beth very attractive)  Dulcie only has eyes for herself. She is rude, selfish, conniving and when she gets to hear about David – is determined to have him for herself. 

I love novels set in workplaces so that is what really attracted me – and I ended up loving all the story strands equally. Animal lovers – there are a couple of Dachshund dogs as well as the cat – and all animals survive the book to  live happily ever after. 

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One thing that #DeanStreetDecember gave me the chance to do was to explore the work of two new to me authors. First was Molly Clavering, a Scottish middlebrow writer who was a great friend of DSP favourite D E Stevenson. DSP have reissued eight of her novels. The second new to me author was Basil Thomson, a mystery writer (among many other things) in that Golden Age style. He was a man of many hats, having worked in the foreign service, then later alongside the Prime Minister of Tonga and then as Police Commissioner to the Metropolitain police. DSP have also published eight of his novels featuring his character Inspector Richardson. I was lucky enough to stumble upon five of them together in a charity shop a year or so ago, I found nos 2, 3, 4, 7 and 8 and having now started with number 2 as the earliest I doubt it matters much which order they are read in.  

Near Neighbours by Molly Clavering 

Near Neighbours is an unashamedly delightful read – without being in way sugary or silly. Molly Clavering has created a cast of characters her readers can become immediately invested in. Her central character Dorothea Balfour in particular is a wonderful character – her back story is somewhat sad, and the reader can delight in her late blossoming and happiness.  

“For as long as she could remember, Dorothea had lived in a continual state of giving-in: to Papa at first, and after he died, to Belle. It had not been so bad while Mamma was alive to share this bondage, but during the last ten years, alone with Belle in the big gloomy house except for Edna far below in the basement, life had become almost unbearable.”  

Dorothea Balfour we are told early on is closer to seventy than sixty. The novel opens on the day of her sister’s funeral. Dorothea had been totally dominated by first her father then her sister – and now suddenly at the age of sixty-eight she is alone in the Edinburgh family home, save for her servant who is clearly happy to see Miss Balfour freed from her domination.  

Next door to Miss Balfour lives the Lenox family, who Dorothea has secretly rather enjoyed hearing through the walls and watching from the third-floor window. Her sister had strongly disapproved of their neighbours and so Dorothea was never able to get to know them. The Lenox family is made up of the widowed Mrs Lenox, and her five grown up, or very nearly grown-up children. Four daughters, all named after trees, Willow, Hazel, Rowan and Holly and a son Murray (pleased to have escaped the tree names). Willow is quite newly married, her young husband is living with her and the rest of the family in the house next door to Miss Balfour – though as he is away at sea, he isn’t there much and Willow sometimes finds that lonely. Mrs Lennox thinks Willow and her husband should be moving out and living on their own. Holly the youngest is coming to the end of her time at school.  

When, on the very day of her sister’s funeral Miss Balfour is visited by Rowan Lenox expressing her condolences, Dorothea seizes the chance to finally get to know her neighbours. She is soon embroiled in their busy, chaotic lives and the Lenox family can barely remember a time when dear Miss Dorothea – as they come to call her – wasn’t a big part of their lives. She is further surprised when her sister’s former husband turns up on her doorstep, and she finds he isn’t quite what she thought he would be.  

There are domestic difficulties to be negotiated, romantic dilemmas and an artist’s abandoned family to be contended with – and although not everything is tidied away completley (which always seems more realistic) there’s plenty to satisfy those hoping for positive outcomes. Near Neighbours is a very cheerful and hopeful novel. Certainly, an author I shall read more of in the future.  

Richardson Scores Again by Basil Thomson 

Richardson Scores Again is the second of Basil Thomson’s Inspector Richardson novels – though Richardson is still a Seargent and has yet to ascend to the dizzying heights of inspectorship. Still, it is a thoroughly enjoyable mystery, with plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader on their toes. I can’t see it matters much what order these books are read in, however the progression of Richardson’s career would make more sense if the novels were read in order I suppose.  

“In the hall he found the body of his maidservant, Helen Dunn, aged about fifty, lying on the floor near the telephone. She had bled profusely from a wound in the head and her body was cold.”  

The case starts with a murder and robbery at a house in Laburnum Road in London. It certainly doesn’t end there however, strangely enough it goes on to include an escaped parrot, a man impersonating a policeman, a stolen car, a political rabble rouser and the almost unbelievable story of the nephew of the Laburnum Road householder.  

To begin with some of Richardson’s superiors aren’t convinced all these things are connected – but Richardson is dogged in his pursuit, an intelligent investigator, who leaves no stone unturned.  

No doubt Thomson’s experience in the world of policing, help to make the police procedural element of this mystery feel very authentic. His characters are well drawn, with good dialogue and some humour. There is a lot to enjoy in this pacy mystery and I will definitely read more.  

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December has been declared #DeanStreetDecember by Liz – a chance to read our lovely Dean Street Press books, and I think it should be an annual event. I always have plenty of DSP waiting to read – usually some in book form, with lots more on my kindle (can’t resist those deals). So, of course I had to join in, although I originally only committed to reading one, I have just finished my third. Such a lovely ten days of reading, two Furrowed Middlebrow titles and a Golden age mystery. I will do my best to review them all properly, but no promises.  

Anyway, the first title I took down off my shelf was an easy choice All Done by Kindness by Doris Langley Moore. I had already read the three other titles DSP publish by her, so I had been looking forward to this one, I wasn’t disappointed. Doris Langley Moore is an excellent writer, the plot of this one, like My Caravaggio Style (1959) showing her knowledge of the creative arts. Where My Caravaggio Style was about an audacious literary fraud, this novel is a comedy of errors centring around the authenticity of a pile of potential Old Masters. It is incredibly compelling.  

Dr George Sandilands is a kindly, family doctor, a widower with two adult daughters and two almost grown-up children still at school. When he shows particular kindness towards an elderly patient who has fallen on hard times, she insists that he allow her to gift him a lot of old paintings that have been stored in the attics of her house for many years. Unaware of the drama these paintings will unleash after the old woman’s death the good doctor accepts the trunkful of old damaged paintings.  

The doctor’s house is run, and managed very well by his eldest daughter Beatrix, who as well as being a superb housekeeper is a bossy, managing kind of person, she is immediately horrified by the pile of old paintings which she considers an eye sore and an untidy nuisance.  

“If it had not been for Mrs du Plessis, Dr Sandilands might never have discovered that, far from having sold a horse for green spectacles, he had, so to speak, exchanged a cow for a handful of coloured beans.”  

Four years after the death of the old lady who gave him the pile of paintings (now stored in his own attics) Dr Sandilands makes the acquaintance of Mrs du Plessis, a young widow who had been previously living in Rhodesia and is now the boss of Linda Sandilands – the doctor’s other adult daughter – at the library. Mrs du Plessis is an amateur art connoisseur, and amateur or not she really knows her stuff. When Mrs du Plessis is shown the old paintings, she gets herself into a fever of excitement, undertaking a lot of detailed research and finally developing a theory about what the works really are, which if correct would take the art world by storm. Mrs du Plessis is totally convinced, and her enthusiasm eventually ignites a little flame of excitement in the doctor and his family.  

A decision is made to get a foremost expert to authenticate the works, should he agree with Mrs du Plessis then any remaining doubt will be put to rest, and the paintings can finally be shared with the art world, sold and out of Beatrix’s hair. Sir Harry Maximer is generally considered the leading art expert in the country, a man of unblemished character. With his trusty and adoring secretary never far away, Sir Harry is himself a collector of art, and he can’t help but be quite the snob about what he likes and what he doesn’t. However, there is more to Sir Harry than meets the eye.  

“He laughed with unwonted nervousness, perceiving for the first time that his coup – so tremendous if he were to bring it off – might be classed by those who did not understand his praiseworthy motives as fraudulence on a rather considerable scale. He was not afraid; he had abounding faith in his own cleverness, but he was excited and a little overwhelmed at the daring of the steps he had already so coolly achieved, like a man who looks down from somewhere near a mountain top and wonders how he has succeeded, without losing his head, in scaling such a height.” 

The battered old pile of pictures that Dr Sandilands has in his attics will unleash all manner of nefarious plotting and machinations. Enter a sleazy London art dealer and the director of a local art museum who comes to side with Mrs du Plessis, who is not about to give up her theory without a fight, and the stage is set for a rollicking good read, that becomes increasingly hard to put down.  

Not wanting to spoil the rest of the plot for future readers I shall leave it there.  

I know that Doris Langley Moore wrote a couple of other novels so far not reissued by Dean Street Press, so of course I am hoping that at some point they will.  

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Finally getting the two books I read for the 1929 club reviewed. I knew I had to get myself prepared to even have a chance of getting down to writing about them in time. The two books I read were rather different, one a more literary type book a curious blend of fiction and travelogue by a British writer and sister to the slightly better-known F. Tennyson Jesse, the second by an American golden age crime writer. To be honest I had more success with one than the other – reviewed here in the order I read them.  

Eve in Egypt – Stella Tennyson Jesse (1929) 

This is certainly presented more as a novel than a travelogue although there are definitely features of the latter – the book is peppered with photographs that Jesse herself took on a similar expedition. Set in the late 1920s, the novel does have a very 1920s feel to it – a good deal of gushing, jolly hockey sticks, frivolity and wit which is charming. The characters are all very engaging (of a particular type) and the dialogue between them is deliciously sparkling. So, there are definitely things to enjoy here, and kept me reading. A couple of things worked less well for me, but I will come on to those later.  

Eve Wentworth is a very beautiful young woman from a certain kind of privileged background (though this is never mentioned – we know the kind of family they are immediately) she lives with her sister Serena and brother-in-law Hugh Erskin. She is in a slightly awkward situation, having been asked by two different men to marry them, they are waiting for an answer, which she seems unable to give. She is bemused it seems by how silly men get over her – but accepts it as her lot in life too. 

“The nuisance was that so often just being natural and friendly seemed to do more harm than anything else! What a pity men were so terribly susceptible! The least little thing, and they seemed to be thrown off their balance. No stamina, Eve supposed.” 

Just at the right moment longtime family friend Jeremy Vaughan invites them to join him on a tour of Egypt, sailing on a traditional dahabeah along the Nile. For Eve this is a perfect escape. Eve has always liked Jeremy, the two have always got on well, with a teasing, relaxed friendship that has developed with those years of easy familiarity. However, during the trip Eve begins to sense her feelings toward Jeremy are changing, which is further complicated by the appearance of a wealthy young American and her brother they meet along the way. So, that is essentially the main premise, which is lovely, charming and hugely appealing – some predictability to the ending, but I don’t mind that.  

Now to what worked less well for me.  

As Eve, Serena, Hugh and Jeremy travel along the Nile, they employ the services of a dragoman named Moussa who will remain with them throughout their tour guiding them and ensuring all their needs are met. It takes about ten seconds seemingly for Serena and Eve to utterly adore Moussa and cast him in the role of a sort of paragon. Moussa we are soon told absolutely adores them too, especially ‘Miss Eve’ for whom we suspect he would happily prance across hot coals. He is constantly delighted by them, beams his approval, wags his head in wry amusement etc. I find this all rather uncomfortable – it is a typical colonial trope which crops up in novels of this period – but I can’t say I enjoy it.  

Secondly, are the detailed historical and geographical details that Jesse has woven into the narrative, often in long conversations between characters – as they set about learning about the history of where they are travelling. I found this rather tedious – and there were a few places where I had to skip a little just so I didn’t get bogged down. Other people might love these details, but for me there were too many and it became dull.  

So, a bit disappointing but good enough to persevere with.  

Water Weed – Alice Campbell (1929)  

Kindly provided by Dean Street Press 

One of the Golden Age mysteries that Dean Street press reissue – this was an excellent kindle read. A bit longer than I had expected but not the worse for that. I really liked Campbell’s sparky heroine and her fully fleshed characters and a mystery that took time to build.  

Young American Virgina (Ginny) Carew is spending several months in London. Here she and her father run into fellow American and family friend Glenn Hillier. Ginny is particularly shocked by what she sees as an obvious change in Glenn. Thinner, distracted and nervous, Ginny finds it hard to engage him in conversation and he is soon rushing off. 

As her father returns to the States, Ginny starts to learn a little about where Glenn’s problems might lie. It seems he has become involved with the family of an older woman, Mrs Fenmore known as Cuckoo. Cuckoo, a beautiful, apparently fragile woman, legally separated from her second husband lives in a large country house with her son Henry and daughter Pam. However, it is clearly with Cuckoo herself that Glenn is infatuated – there has already been a little bit of gossip about the pair. Glenn has spent several months staying with the family and is talking about ditching his plans to return to the states where his father will help him gain good employment.  

Soon, Ginny finds herself invited to stay with the Fenmore family, as a friend of Glenn’s and reluctantly she accepts. Immediately, Ginny senses that she might not be quite as welcome as the invitation might suggest – there is much about her hostess that she simply can’t work out. Glenn seems to be utterly devoted – but absolutely worn down and worried to bits at the same time. The whole atmosphere of the house is strange, even the servants seem peculiar. While Glenn repeats odd stories about Cuckoo’s fears, Ginny hears unexplained footsteps in the corridor outside her room late at night and sees Cuckoo steaming open letters to Glenn from his father in the States. 

“It was the faint but unmistakable noise of a cautious footfall pursuing its way along the passage outside her room. She held her breath and listened alertly. Yes, there was no doubt about it, someone was creeping along, very slowly, a step at a time, with the subdued tread of slippered feet. Who could it be? And why did the person not turn on the light?” 

Ginny is at a loss as to what precisely is going on, and what if anything she can do to help Glenn, toward whom her feelings have begun to change from mere friendship.  

Eventually – at least halfway through this book, a murder occurs – and it’s pretty easy to guess who the victim is going to be. As the murder is discovered, Glenn disappears and is instantly assumed to have been responsible. Only Ginny it seems believes he couldn’t have done it, but she will have an uphill struggle finding out the truth and convincing anyone else. 

A thoroughly engaging read, with a satisfyingly dramatic ending. I look forward to reading more by this author.   

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We come to books in a variety of ways, I find. I came to this one through a Twitter conversation – the subject of which I can’t remember now, but two people mentioned having absolutely loved this book and I soon found myself buying it. I don’t need much convincing where Dean Street Press books are concerned. I later discovered I already had an e-book version on my kindle – sent to me by the publisher, but I am glad I have the real book version to keep.

Ruby Ferguson was a prolific writer, Apricot Sky was her sixth novel under the name Ruby Fergusson, although she had also published several mystery novels under the name of R C Ashby between 1926 and 1934. Additionally she published a series of children’s pony books – the Jill series during the 1940s and 50s. The only book by her I had read was Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary which Persephone has reissued, though it is some years since I read it.  

Apricot Sky is one of those wonderful middlebrow titles that is a sheer joy to read. I read the majority of it during the last few days of my half term holiday, it was perfect company. Set in the Scottish Highlands three years after the end of the war, featuring a large lovable family, their optimism, love, humour set against the ups and downs of normal (sometimes chaotic) family life is absolutely irresistible. There are all the usual deprivations left over from the war, in terms of food shortages etc – but they aren’t dwelt upon and the characters seem capable of rising above such petty concerns.  

Mr and Mrs MacAlvey are a generally loving and cheerful middle aged couple, despite having lost two sons during the war. They are however, still surrounded by the remainder of their large family. There is Raine, newly engaged to Ian Garvine, the younger brother of the laird of Larrich, the sprawling old farm where Raine and her sister spent much of their time growing up. Cleo is just returned from three years in America – everyone excited at her coming home and wondering if she will have become all American. She still harbours a secret love for Neil Garvine, laird, older brother and everyone thinks confirmed bachelor. Raine and Cleo’s brother James lives not too far away with his neurotic wife Trina – who utterly smothers their two slightly nervous children. The housekeeper is Vannah – who after many years is really just another member of the family, and loved by all.

Three MacAlvey grandchildren live in the MacAlvey homestead too – orphaned during the war they slightly wild and adventurous – spending hours out of the house messing around in boats and delighting in the long summer holidays. These three, Primrose, Gavin and Archie keep everyone on their toes with their summer exploits. When the children hear that their English cousins are coming to visit – they are dismayed – fearing an end to their holiday adventures. The beginning of the stay is certainly not auspicious.

“It was a relief when the dinner gong sounded. The children made their way to the bottom of the table, where they usually sat in unobtrusive silence, avoiding any awkward questions from their elders, but this did not suit Cecil and Elinore, who waited to be given places by Mrs MacAlvey. Very soon Cecil was intelligently discussing the shooting prospects with Mr MacAlvey, while Elinore chatted in a sophisticated way with Cleo and Raine and was obviously making a big hit.”

Clearly, Elinore and Cecil are nothing like the MacAlvey children, Elinore in her silk stockings and court shoes at fourteen and sixteen year old Cecil in a tie and smart tweed sports jacket seem very buttoned up and prim. Soon enough, Elinore and Cecil get drawn into their cousins’ adventures which aren’t without risk.

Cleo quickly settles back into her old home with relief – planning on going to Edinburgh to find a new job after the summer. She is delighted to see her sister so happy, and throws herself into the wedding planning, and helping Raine and Ian decide what alterations need to be made to the old house before it welcomes its new mistress. Cleo proves to have a good eye for this kind of thing.

“I’m haunted by an awful dread,” said Raine. “It was a wedding Mysie once went to. The bridegroom never turned up and the bride swooned at the altar.”
“Have you practised swooning?”

As happy as she is for her sister, Cleo is saddened to see that Neil seems barely to notice her, while every time he is anywhere near her, she can barely concentrate. She tries hard to reacquaint herself with Neil, but is distressed by how stilted and strained their conversations seem to be. It doesn’t help that a glamourous young widow, Inga Duthie has moved into the area, a tenant of Neil’s, at ease with everyone, who in turn think she is wonderful. Cleo decides she can’t stand her. So, she is less than delighted to have to go and take tea with her.

“‘Of course I am a fool’ thought Cleo joylessly applying lipstick, ‘and I have a diseased mind. No wonder nobody likes me.’

In this low-spirited mood she found herself putting on a green linen coat and skirt which did not suit her and an organdie blouse which was wilted from having been worn before.

‘As if I cared’ she told her unpromising reflection in the mirror. I’m not competing.’”

There are visitors galore – one of whom talks endlessly about her operation, a garden party, visits to the neighbours, hikes, picnics and lots of wedding talk. So in a sense there isn’t really much plot – but who cares? It’s a simply charming story of a lovely family, everyday life, adventurous child exploits and romance set against the stunning landscape of the Scottish Highlands. Its definitely the kind of book I am always sad to finish, it was such a pleasure spending time with this family. It is also a novel which is frequently delightfully funny.

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I finished my March reading with Cecil – the final novel by Elizabeth Eliot. Cecil is the fourth novel by Elizabeth Eliot I have read, all of them reissued by Dean Street Press. With all of them, I have really enjoyed the way she creates characters, exploring them within a story spanning several decades. In this novel, like in two of those previous novels Eliot tells the story of her eponymous character through the eyes of another. It is an interesting lens through which to tell a story, one that I imagine is difficult to get right. The character telling the story can’t possibly know everything, and yet they need to know enough to tell the story, Elizabeth Eliot seems to get this limited perspective just right. There is both humour and darkness here, and Eliot’s gift of observation sits alongside her skill as a darn good storyteller perfectly.

Lady Anne, the wife of Charles Guthrie narrates this story, which starts in the 1870s. From old age she looks back on the life of her husband’s half brother Cecil, telling the story of the relationship between him and his mother, the beautiful, dominating Lady Guthrie, who married a man many years older than herself. Although the novel is named for Cecil, Lady Guthrie is necessarily the main focus of the novel – for her influence upon Cecil, his life and everything that happens to him is key. Lady Guthrie is that wonderful thing, a brilliantly written monster, who sees herself entirely differently.

“As I waited for the carriage I realised that whereas before I had been accustomed to think of her as a selfish and often foolish woman I now regarded her as a veritable ogress.”

Cecil is Lady Edythe Guthrie’s adored son – he has been petted, coddled and gushed over his whole life by his mother, a woman prone to sudden, unexplained illnesses (which will often occur when most convenient to her) and adept at manipulation. The two have a strong bond and even as an adult, when away from home Cecil writes long and affectionate letters home to her. Lady Anne, her husband, the mild, dependable Charlie, and their cynical American cousin Nealie, watch from that unique and privileged position enjoyed by family as Cecil’s life is systematically destroyed by Lady Guthrie’s absurd and selfish domination.

“What dark secret could there possibly be in the boy’s life that would not be at least suspected by us? It was Lady Guthrie’s almost insane desire to possess her son and keep him for ever chained to her side that was so horrible.”

As a young man, Cecil falls in love, and despite the fact the couple are still very young, Cecil is eager to marry. Lady Anne is concerned from the first that Lady Guthrie will somehow ruin it all, and as things transpire she has reason to fear. Cecil appears oblivious to his mother’s behaviours, her illnesses that mean he must immediately return home to her side, her pretended support – that to others looks rather different and slightly malevolent. Time and again, Anne, Charlie and Nealie conspire gently, charmed by his happiness and obvious love, wanting only to save him from his mother. Later, Lady Anne and Charlie even manage to take Cecil’s manservant Thompson into their confidence, someone else who cares what happens to Cecil but is powerless against the power of Lady Guthrie.

“Intensive preparations for the wedding started a full month before it was due to take place. It was to be in the grand manner, although of course big weddings were then much smaller affairs than they became later. In those days, although the custom was already beginning to change, people invited only their relations and more intimate friends to see them married and didn’t bother with persons whom they had only met once in their lives.”

For the reader, there is a poignancy in witnessing Cecil’s slow decline, all the promise, love and optimism that we witness when he is a young man starting out, replaced by illness, addiction and manipulation. There is an inevitability to parts of this story, Elizabeth Eliot is too subtle just to tidy everything away neatly, and we sense from the start there is no happy ending in store for Cecil. Still, there is a shocking, unexpected element to this story, which really makes it a wonderfully compelling read.

Elizabeth Eliot shows us in this story of a late Victorian family, that we can’t ever really know all there is to know about the people around us.

A lovely conclusion to my March reading, as I enjoyed spending time among the leisured classes of the late Victorian age, the houses, house parties, carriages etc being rather a lovely escape from reality.

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My third read by Doris Langley Moore; My Caravaggio Style was also my first proper read for #readindies – during what has become a shockingly poor reading month. Well more of that in my round up post in a few days. A thoroughly entertaining final novel from Doris Langley Moore – who even makes a brief appearance herself in this story in which she uses her lifelong obsession with Lord Byron in imagining a major literary hoax. Dean Street Press publish four novels by Doris Langley Moore – I have the fourth on my tbr already.

The novel is narrated by bookseller and author Quentin Williams, who as the novel opens has just received the not too princely sum of just over four pounds in royalties from his two already published biographies. He is in the bookshop where he works, feeling very fed up and underappreciated when an American manuscript dealer comes into the shop. Quentin can’t quite help himself from trying to impress the American. Further irritated by the man’s name – Earl Darrow, Quentin begins to drop some not so very veiled hints that he has possibly unearthed a copy of Lord Byron’s memoirs – those famously burned by his friends after Byron’s death. The hook is baited – and all Quentin has to do, he thinks, is reel him in – only that won’t be at all easy.  

He must buy himself some time – several months at least. So Quentin comes up with some fairly elaborate tales – one of which involves the said manuscript being hidden in his great aunt’s cluttered house in Wales. Unfortunately, due to work commitments he won’t be paying his annual visit to Wales for several months.

Darrow seems convinced, and very much interested – and Quentin promises to contact him, once he has been able to verify his own suspicions about the manuscript. Darrow will soon be back in the US – and so now Quentin has given himself about four months to produce a manuscript that will fool all the Byron experts.  

““My finest, ferocious Caravaggio style”—that was his own phrase for his later manner; and that was the style I was aiming at, an interplay of light and shadow that would rivet the attention and, ultimately, draw the eye to darkness.”

Driving his decision to commit this audacious fraud is the knowledge that he already knows a huge amount about Byron, Quentin has been obsessed with him for years. Planning a new biography, hoping to cast the poet in a better light than he often has been, Quentin has already amassed a huge amount of material.

Naturally he will also need to keep his project a secret from anyone else – and this includes his beautiful fiancé Jocasta – a model who he is desperate to marry, when funds allow. Quentin lodges in Jocasta’s old room in her grandparents’ house, while Jocasta lives in London with fellow models – but while he is working on the manuscript he will have much less time to spend with her. Very aware of how beautiful his fiancé is, Quentin is so insecure as to be nervous of her running around socially without him. So, Quentin comes up with a little bit of easy Byron research for her to do for him, it’s not work he actually needs doing, but Jocasta won’t know that, and she will feel happy to be involved and will keep her busy when not working. Meanwhile he buries himself away having told everyone he is working on a novel that will hopefully sell much better than his biographies, and allow he and Jocasta to finally get married.

Quentin gets down to work, he has bought a couple of old notebooks that date to the right period – and decides to write in pencil. For Quentin is not trying to reproduce Byron’s writing, but to produce what will be taken for a copy, hurriedly written out by one of the people Byron is known to have trusted to read the memoirs. It’s the style and the contents that Quentin must struggle with – which Byron will emerge from these memoirs? – and will it be enough to fool the scholars, doubters and experts who will gather to inspect them? He does feel moments of doubt himself, moments of guilt about what he is about to do – but plows on regardless.

There are a couple of things that Quentin hadn’t bargained on, however. The first is just how enamoured with Byron Jocasta becomes, starting out happily helping her beloved – she is soon thoroughly obsessed with all things Byron, and reads everything she can get her hands on. Jocasta is soon on her way to being something of an expert herself – she may not be an academic but she is very smart – and almost certainly far too good for Quentin. Jocasta’s interest is such, that Quentin even starts to feel jealous – of a man who has been dead for over a 130 years (at that time) – and his jealousy starts to affect the way he presents Byron in the manuscript he is working on.

Secondly when he finally makes the trip to Wales to unearth the hidden manuscript – that he is of course carrying with him – he finds his aunt’s house has undergone a huge decluttering. With his aunt’s odd friends and her tetchy housekeeper also getting in the way, Quentin really has his work cut out for him.

“The scheme which had brought me to Wales absolutely hinged on the fact that I would find there a fairly large house filled to overflowing with the minor family possessions of three generations and left in the keeping of a decidedly careless housewife who never bothered about them. I’d relied upon being able to persuade her, forgetful and indifferent as she was, that a manuscript book she’d never seen before must have been lying amongst the lumber for years unnoticed. But if there had been this idiotic clean sweep, my task might not be easy or indeed possible.”

Finally all that is left to do is to make the announcement of his amazing discovery, and sell it to Darrow, the American manuscript dealer who so raised his hackles so many months before. Will he pull it off?

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It may not have escaped your notice that I have read quite a lot of the books re-published by Dean Street Press. They publish many of the kinds of books I love, they have become a reliable source of mid twentieth century women’s writing.

Often, when I have written about DSP books in the past I have had comments from people saying how they would love to try some DSP or already love DSP themselves – so I hope some of you will find a book among this little lot that you like the sound of enough to try.

So, in a kind of reverse order – I found it almost impossible to rank these – my top ten of DSP middlebrow novels is:

10. Company in the Evening by Ursula Orange (1944)

With it’s unapologetic happy ending – Company in the Evening was written at a time when that’s what people needed. Narrated by Vicky in a first person confessional style – it is immediately very readable. The story takes place in the middle of World War two, people have begun to tire of wartime strictures, losses have been suffered in some families. It has quite a modern feel to some aspects, with Vicky working three days in the office and two at home, while juggling being a single mother – she does have help though in the shape of an old family retainer. Vicky offers her brother’s widow a home in her house, she has no real wish to share her home, and the two are very different women. Some interesting 1940s social snobbery, though we can see how that is changing.

9.A House in the Country by Ruth Adam (1957)

 I chose to read this because I had so loved Ruth Adam’s novel I’m Not Complaining. This novel (which could almost be a memoir) was written about a time when Ruth Adam and her husband and children shared a large country house with several friends. It charts their ups and downs of the whole process from acquiring the house and divvying up rooms to tackling a difficult boiler, and living with the privations of wartime. Straightaway, we sense that perhaps this story of a love affair with a house won’t be an entirely happy one. There is still a lot of joy in this book, and it was a pleasure to spend time with.

8 Not at Home by Doris Langley Moore (1948)

Elinor MacFarren is a middle aged single woman, and in the summer of 1945, finds herself obliged to enter into a house share with another woman. She is living in what has been the family home, where she lived once with her brothers, and where she helped to raise her nephew. Now she is alone, and money is tight. Miss MacFarren has spent her adult life writing about botany, publishing several books, and has something of a reputation in the field. She also has a wonderful collection of old botanical prints and some beautiful, antique pieces of furniture in the house of which she is very proud. Antonia Bankes arrives and proves to be an utter nightmare – it’s brilliantly written and really made me shudder, oh just the thought of living with someone like that.

7 Mrs Martell by Elizabeth Eliot (1953)

Mrs Martell is a character none of us are supposed to like, in her Elizabeth Eliot has created a marvellous character, selfish, self-serving, and always set on getting just what she wants.

As the novel opens, Mrs Martell, Cathie is a divorcee in her late thirties, who is satisfied that she can often pass for just thirty. Exploring her character fully, with both honesty and wit, Eliot charts the life of this woman from her teenage years through to a time not long after her second marriage. Elizabeth Eliot is such a good observer of people, and Mrs Martell is a wonderfully monstrous character.

6 Table Two by Marjorie Wilenski (1942)

I loved this novel because it features women in the workplace, during the war. In the office of the Ministry for Foreign Intelligence is an office of women translators – there are two tables of nine translators, and the never the twain (for what reason nobody knows) shall meet. The women of table two, bicker and fuss, trying constantly to out manoeuvre one another, while completely ignoring their colleagues on the other side of the room, who might as well not exist. Wilenski’s two main characters are sharply contrasted. Elsie Pearne is clever and efficient she has worked hard her whole life in various offices of business at home and abroad. She is though horribly embittered and considers herself far too good to be among these women, most of whom she considers idiots. Anne Shepley-Rice is a cheerful, pretty young woman. Anne arrives in the middle of an air raid to take up her position in the translators’ office at table two – sitting right next to Elsie – who decides to make a friend of Anne. Elsie is particularly a brilliant character study – and the relationships between the office women is really well done.

5 A Game of Snakes and Ladders by Doris Langley Moore (1955)

After the end of World War One two young women, Lucy a vicar’s daughter sensible and unflappable, and Daisy, pretty, ambitious, and highly self-interested are performing with a theatre company in Egypt. Lucy is about twenty seven, Daisy a couple of years younger, and the two had been thrown together by their touring company while in Australia, a fairly superficial friendship had developed. In 1919 Lucy is still nursing a heartbreak from during the war. When the show in Cairo comes to an end Daisy decides to stay in Egypt, Lucy meanwhile is keen to return to England. Of course, things don’t quite work out for Lucy in the way she expects – and the novel follows her over the course of almost twenty years through a variety of trials and tribulations.

4 The Woods in Winter by Stella Gibbons (1970)

Which I only read very recently, I loved it from the first sentence. Our heroine is Ivy Gover – a middle-aged, curmudgeonly char woman. When we first meet Ivy, she is living in one room in London. She inherits a small cottage in the countryside, something she has always wanted and takes possession as soon as she can, where she sets up home with a rescued dog and a pet pigeon. She has slight witchery skills, and is at one with the natural world around her.

3 The House Opposite by Barbara Noble (1943)

I do love a book written during WW2. The House Opposite provides an extraordinarily vivid picture of what it was really like to live in London during the Blitz. Normal life goes on just the same in a sense, yet the nightly bombardment is never far away whether in people’s minds or in the everyday conversations with neighbours and work colleagues. Work must still be attended – if the buses are running – food acquired and cooked, the minutiae of everyday life attended to, just as if bombs aren’t falling from the sky almost every night. Elizabeth is a young woman living at home with her parents, working in London and keeping her affair with her boss a deep secret.

Across the road in the house opposite Owen Cathcart is just eighteen years old, having finished with school he awaits his call up, hoping to go into the RAF. An overheard and rather unfortunate remark from Elizabeth in the past has rather coloured his view of both Elizabeth and himself – and it is with some resentment that Owen takes up his fire watching duties alongside her. For years Owen has hero worshipped Derek his slightly older cousin – he starts to fear what his feelings might mean – and is confused and angry a lot of the time.

2 Miss Carter and the Ifrit by Susan Alice Kerby (1945)

A delightful bit of whimsy.  Miss Georgina Carter is a woman in her late forties – she lives alone in a small London flat and works in the censorship office. When Georgina buys some blocks of wood for her fire that have come from a blitzed roadway, she can have no idea what adventures will result. With a new biography of Lady Hester Stanhope to read, she is looking forward to a cosy evening by a good fire. Throwing one of the blocks onto the fire later she is more than a little surprised to find that the act of burning releases a very long-imprisoned Ifrit (similar it seems to a genie). His name is Abu Shiháb, and he declares himself to be Miss Carter’s slave – a word Georgina passionately objects to. She decides to call him Joe – and the relationship that develops between them is just delightful, she teaches Joe and he helps her in a little romance.

1 Beneath the Visiting Moon by Romilly Cavan (1940)

Beneath the Visiting Moon is a little longer than some of the other Dean Street Press titles I have read – a fully satisfying novel that combines family life, romance and the trials of growing up. Scott recommended it particularly for fans of Guard your Daughters, and I can see why, although this novel isn’t as dark as Tutton’s brilliant novel, there are shadows, glimpsed fleetingly at a distance.

There is a large supporting cast of eccentric characters, in whom we can see some slightly darker elements hidden beneath the surface. When Elisabeth Fontayne remarries – two families are blended and have to start living together. A coming of age type novel set in 1939 – a time where threat hung in the air.

Well that’s them – sorry, bit of a longer post today.

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Well my reviewing is really all over the place at the moment. There are books I read at the beginning of December that I still haven’t reviewed, and here I am writing about something I read a few days before Christmas. However, I was eager to tell you all about this as soon as I could, it was such a delight.

Stella Gibbons was a very prolific writer, and many of her novels have previously been reissued by Vintage with their recognisable red spines. However, they didn’t reissue them all, but the wonderful Dean Street Press have reissued five that were previously unavailable. The Woods in Winter was in fact the last novel that Stella Gibbons wrote for publication first published in 1970 – although another novel also written in the 1970s was discovered not long ago and reissued by Vintage. I had only read about six Stella Gibbons novels before this, and this one has reminded me how remiss I have been.

I know I have read a lot of Dean Street Press books – one day I will do a top ten or something – but The Woods in Winter is definitely one of my top DSP novels. A novel about solitude, ageing, the natural world, and unique relationships it is an absolute joy from beginning to end.

Our heroine is Ivy Gover – a middle-aged, curmudgeonly char woman – and who doesn’t love a char woman? When we first meet Ivy, she is living in one room in London. She supports herself with the pension money from her three dead husbands and money she gets from charring. The opening line of the first page reveals the story to be set around forty years before Stella Gibbons was writing – I couldn’t help but sense an old woman, going back to a time when she was most happy. Ivy Gover’s life on the other hand hasn’t been easy, losing three husbands, cleaning for other people, finding reading and writing a challenge – and always she wanted to live in the country where she had grown up. Miss Helen Green is one of the people Ivy chars for – a young woman uncomfortable with the fashionable set of bright young things she is friends with – unsatisfied in her current romance, yearning quietly for so much more.

Suddenly Ivy’s life changes forever, she receives a letter from a solicitor – that Helen has to help her make sense of – telling her she has inherited a small cottage from an uncle, in the Buckingham countryside, near to where she grew up. Ivy wastes little time. She rescues a dog, that she knows has been tied up and mistreated – and takes possession of her new home as soon as she can.

“…for the first time in her life, she was living as she had always unknowingly wanted to live: in freedom and solitude, with an animal for close companion. Her new life had acted upon her like a strong and delicious drug.”

Her canine companion is Neb – a ferocious beast with anyone but Ivy – the bond he and Ivy has is absolute. She saved him. When Ivy and Neb move into the cottage, it is the start of winter, the thatch in the roof has a large hole – and mice and cockroaches are also resident. Only, Ivy treats all creatures with respect and affection, and lets them be. As the cottage is only leasehold, the land around it is owned by Lord Gowerville – who is not responsible for repairing the roof – and poor Ivy can’t really afford it. Ivy though has other talents – she is a kind of wise woman, at one with the natural world around her.

“Calmly and irresistibly, the singing and light flowing out from the cottage with something else began to pull. They pulled with heat, and luring sounds sweet and harsh, and the other force that has no name. In woods, away across the dark field and up the hill; and in hallows in the hedge, and in crevices which had remained dry under the grass swept sideways by winter winds, this pulling was felt; and strange, microscopically small eyes opened, as soft or horny lids stirred, and faint shivers ran along spines covered in chitin or fur. The wind swept greatly over the great trees, rocking slowly in blackness.”

By curing Lord Gowerville’s dog – she earns his respect and protection and gets her roof repaired for free. Now she is comfortably settled with her dog, the mice, cockroaches, and a pet pigeon. Ivy is very content – yet despite her anti-social instincts she can’t help but to have some surprising effects on her neighbours. We meet Angela Mordaunt, a sad spinster living with her domineering mother, still mourning her dead fiancé, also the romantic local vicar and Lord Gowerville’s unpleasant agent. The Cartaret sisters, friends of Helen Green arrive on the scene – who for something to do it seems – open a tea shop in the nearby village. However, Ivy’s greatest challenge arrives in the shape of a twelve year old boy called Mike, a runaway who shows up at her door. The relationship that develops between Ivy and Mike is poignantly portrayed – and it’s hard for Ivy, knowing that where Mike is concerned she has to do the right thing, even if it breaks her heart.

There is a touching conclusion to this novel – set at the time when Gibbons was writing, which gives us a beautiful sense of time passing, and moving on set within the same landscape. It also highlights the divisions that existed in the 1970s (and still do) between those who push for progress and those who wish to protect the countryside from the ravages of that progress.

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