Posts Tagged ‘Dean Street Press’

I don’t generally indulge in fictional fantasy or whimsy, I tend to need my fiction to be firmly rooted in the possible, even if the possible is cosy and unlikely. Miss Carter and the Ifrit is a novel which I already knew would make me suspend my disbelief, in the same way I did when reading novels like The Love Child, Miss Hargreaves and of course Lolly Willowes. I mention those novels because the fantasy element in this one is of the same type, existing lightly within a very realistic world – in this case London in WW2.

“To look at Miss Georgina Carter you would never have suspected that a woman of her age and character would have allowed herself to be so wholeheartedly mixed up with an Ifrit.”

Miss Georgina Carter is a woman in her late forties – she lives alone in a small London flat and works in the censorship office. Her life is one of fairly dull, predictable routine, she feels like she has rather missed out on life, nothing of any interest could possibly happen to her now, she believes. This is London of the later war years, people are tired, there are bombed out buildings all over the city, food shortages have become gruelling. It’s ages since Georgina has heard from her brother Robert or nephew Henry, and she can’t help but feel rather old.

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 acting 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, but he is childishly excited to do all he can for her, joyfully producing dishes of food for her, not seen in London in years. His joy in serving is quite irrepressible and while she doesn’t really believe that any of it is real, Georgina enjoys an evening in the company of Abu Shiháb and everything he is able to bestow on her. Assuming it all to be a dream she is astounded to find him waiting for her in the living room the next morning (when not wanted he disappears into a small bottle on the mantlepiece or makes himself invisible).

“Well, perhaps this was all a dream. Perhaps she was insane. Perhaps even she was dead and wandering in that strange limbo of those half-forgotten things that one had always desired and never achieved. But—and she made up her mind suddenly and firmly—but this present situation she would accept … and enjoy it, as far as possible. That was perhaps not sensible, but sense be hanged, it was at least interesting!”

Once she is convinced that her Ifrit is a permanent fixture, Georgina bestows the name Joe Carter on her new friend, Joe is deeply honoured to be sharing in her family name. Joe is keen to help Georgina in every way he can, and he suggests spiriting her away to wherever she wants to go – he can take her anywhere. Her first magical outing is just to Brighton, where she meets an old friend; Richard a Major who had previously been living in America. Joe is a hopeless romantic and in Richard he sees lots of possibilities for Miss Carter. There’s a wonderful evening out, a beautiful new outfit provided by Joe for the occasion, and Miss Carter’s head is in a whirl. Meeting up with Richard again has taken Georgina right back to her youth, she can’t help but start to daydream a bit, especially when encouraged by Joe. When Richard is posted to Africa, Joe disappears off to provide regular updates, and when he is taken ill, suggests a little trip. With Joe around, a flying visit to an army hospital in Africa is no problem, neither would be a visit to her beloved nephew Henry in Canada.

With her life so full and unusual it’s no wonder that Georgina’s good friend Margaret notices her friend is behaving a little strangely. Margaret works with Georgina at the censorship office, and they usually enjoy tea together on a Sunday afternoon. Margaret thinks she knows Georgina well, and she begins to worry that her old friend might even have turned to drink, there’s some amusing misunderstandings between the two old friends, as Georgina desperately tries to shield Margaret from the truth. It becomes harder for Georgina to hide her secret – and she starts to wonder whether, keeping Joe all to herself isn’t just a little bit selfish.

Miss Carter and the Ifrit is a delicious little bit of whimsy from Dean Street Press. The relationship between Miss Carter and Joe is wonderfully observed, as we watch Joe grow from a kind of simple childishness to a rounder more mature individual as in Miss Carter’s company, he learns about this strange new world he finds himself in.

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I decided I wanted to read at least one Christmas themed book this year – and a Christmas themed mystery is always a good choice. I found The Night of Fear by Moray Dalton re-issued by Dean Street Press to be a very compelling read, really enjoyable – I was rather disappointed when I finished it so quickly, I was so deeply engrossed. As is so often the case with these Christmas murder mystery stories, Christmas is merely a backdrop to the proceedings and a device to have lots of people all together in one place – but when you have an entertaining well plotted mystery that really doesn’t matter.

“Together they looked down at the inert sprawling figure of a man fantastically dressed in red-and-white-striped pyjama trousers, with a red sash belt and a white silk shirt open at the neck.”

Scotland Yard detective Hugh Collier is visiting his friend Sergeant Lane when news comes in of a sudden death in a large country house a couple of days before Christmas.

Collier accompanies Sergeant Lane to the house where they find a Christmas house party in some disarray. A game of hide a seek in the dark had been in progress – the guests sporting fancy dress, when one guest; Edgar Stallard had been found dead in an upstairs gallery. The victim was discovered by Hugh Darrow, a man blinded during the First World War, whose Pierrot costume became smeared with the dead man’s blood. His story is that he discovered the victim in a window embrasure next to the one he himself was hiding in.

The house belongs to George Tunbridge, here he lives with his wife, a former actress who seems rather to loll around the place at the point of collapse. The house party of about twelve other people include his pompous, blustering cousin Sir Eustace and his absurdly young fiancé, her socially ambitious grandmother, an American friend of both George and Hugh’s, some young people from the vicarage and a brother and sister who appear to live off their richer friends.

“Overhead the sky shone a clear pale blue through the network of bare boughs. On the left the ground sloped gradually down to the lake. Would some of the house party be skating there again today? After all, why not? They must pass the time somehow until the inquest was opened. He stopped when he had nearly reached the gates and looked back at the house. From that distance it was beautiful, shining like a pearl in the pale wintry sunshine against the russet and umber background of the leafless woods. Since last night a house with a secret. If walls could speak, what would they have to tell?”

Sergeant Lane calls in his superior officers, Collier, having no official status on the case is allowed to tag along for a day or two, but is soon sent back to London with a flea in his ear by his own superior at the yard with an axe to grind. The hapless Sergeant Lane made the mistake of accepting hospitality at the scene of the crime, with dire consequences to his own health – and so, as Lane is taken off to hospital and Collier sent back to London, the unimaginative Chief Inspector Purley takes over.

It is soon apparent that Darrow has kept to himself several things he really should have revealed to the police, his silence greatly upsets his friend Mrs Clare, the American widow for whom he clearly has long held romantic feelings. When the police uncover an apparent motive as well, things start to look very bleak indeed for Hugh Darrow. Mrs Clare is still sure he is innocent, and although unable to help officially Collier arranges for a private detective Hermann Glide to investigate the case.

“The fact is I rather want this room to remain as it is, untouched. I’d like to lock the door and leave the key with the policeman we shall find waiting for us in the hall. We must not linger. The last pieces of the puzzle will be falling into their places, click, click, click—” At such moments the little man ceased to appear insignificant. The brown eyes blazed, the supple fingers twitched. The others obeyed him instinctively. Something was going to happen. They knew not what.”

Really not wanting to include spoilers I am going to say nothing more about the pot of this one, suffice to say it is an excellent quick read, and has whet my appetite for more by this author. While Moray Dalton might not quite be Agatha Christie, she writes so well, her characterisation is good, her mysteries well plotted and very compelling. This is now the second Moray Dalton mystery I have read, and I will definitely be reading more, and Dean Street have thankfully re-issued several more.

Just ending this review, with a quick note to say, I am a little bit behind at the moment. Many of you, will know I have been struggling with an horrendous attack of sciatica – it’s been about four weeks now. The pain, and the struggle to cope with the most mundane everyday things, has been exhausting and means I am even struggling to get the blog posts done I had hoped to do. There will definitely be some hangover from the old year to the new year, and I still have my yearly and monthly round up posts to do. I will do what I can, some posts might be shorter than usual – bear with me while I get myself back into gear. I shall probably also be posting things at odd times too, normal service will be resumed at some point – I do really want to catch up.

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I have come to rely on Dean Street Press Furrowed Middlebrow titles to provide quality, relaxed reading material. Peace, Perfect Peace follows some similar themes to that of Wine of Honour which I so enjoyed back in September; that of the readjustment to normal life after war has ended. This of course was a completely unique period of time, which was fairly short, but which must have affected almost everyone in some way. After six years of war, with privations and rationing still to be endured, the blackout, bombing and danger were at an end, and those serving overseas began slowly to return.

“Instinctively Frances fumbled in her handbag for a torch before she faced the lights and the certainty of the lifted black-out. For some time now she had taken streetlighting for granted, but in her present sense of withdrawal she had forgotten.”

This is an often quite poignant story of three quite different women, as they return to something like normality after the war. They will each face adjustments that aren’t always welcome, finding a new rhythm within this world of peace. As the novel opens, we meet Clare, who has recently returned to London. A novelist before the war, Clare wants to return to her writing having worked in an office which had been relocated to a Devon seaside town for the last part of the war. Clare; we learn, is thirty-five and has spent eight years as the other woman, in what immediately feels like a deeply unsatisfactory relationship with Matthew. Clare is feeling unsettled and unable to get down to her writing. She contacts her friend Joanna with whom she stayed for two years while in Devon and having wangled an invitation catches the train back there.

Joanna spent the war caring for two of her grandchildren, her husband working behind a desk in London, and one of her sons abroad and her daughter-in-law Frances in the ATS. Joanna’s grandchildren; Giles and June are very close to their grandmother, they know her better than their mother now, and she knows them well too, she is especially close to Giles, who has made a fond confidante of his grandmother. Now, Frances is out of the ATS, preparing for the return of her husband Tim, is keen to get the family back together in London. She has been preparing a flat the best she can, and now wants the children to go back with her. Joanna struggles to hide her reluctance to let the children go, though she naturally can’t and doesn’t refuse, but her relationship with the children, immediately puts Frances on the back foot. Clare is reluctant to get involved, she has a good relationship with Joanna, but she can see potential trouble ahead.

“Sitting dejectedly in front of the hissing gas fire, her feet on the fender in an effort to escape the draught which whistled under the door and through the uncovered and broken floorboards, Frances with an effort turned her mind from mental to practical problems. June, thank goodness, was no trouble at all; she thoroughly enjoyed her picnic existence and found everything new exciting, and utterly absorbing. She liked the flat, she liked her school, and she thought London – even Bayswater – much more interesting than Seaport; and, most satisfactory of all, she had turned to her mother with simple unforced affection and trust.”

Frances returns to London with June, who is excited by everything that’s new, a new place to live, a new school, new friends to make, life for Frances’s youngest child is an adventure which she accepts quite happily. Giles stays with Joanna until the end of his school term, he clearly as reluctant as Joanna to change his living arrangements. Clare begins to think that Frances’s concern that Joanna is unwittingly undermining her relationship with Giles might not be far from the truth.

Clare also returns to London, she knows she must decide what she is going to do with her personal life – she has spent too many days waiting for a man who appears in her life only sporadically, drifting off again to do as he pleases. She also has the offer of a job to think about – or is she really going to get down to writing again?

In the flat she is preparing for the return of her family; Frances is having a tough time. She feels like the place will never be clean, it appears impossible to engage any daily help, and acquiring even the most ordinary bits and pieces to make it more homely is a challenge. When Tim is demobilised, she is delighted to have him back, theirs is a good, strong loving marriage, but Frances knows she must at some time tackle him about his mother’s interference with Giles, which she is sure is preventing him wanting to come home at all. How will Tim take that? and how will twelve year old Giles settle back into his London home, when it is becoming more and more obvious, he is reluctant to leave his grandmother?

What Josephine Kamm does well in this novel is to show us how with the coming of peace not everything in the garden was immediately rosy. Everything was turned upside down again, and relationships don’t just slip easily back into place. Even the relationship between a child and his mother – when she has just been a sometime visitor for several years. Kamm writes with some pathos; Frances’s distress when she thinks Giles hates her is heart-rending. She understands perfectly how difficult normal domestic life could be how daily discomforts wear away at a house wife who wants everything perfect for her family.

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Mrs Tim Gets a Job; is the third book in the delightfully, gentle and undemanding Mrs Tim series from D E Stevenson. Brought back to us by Dean Street Press, this novel begins a few years after book two ended. We find Hester Christie (to give the poor woman her own name) a little jaded from what she calls six years of total war.

The war is over, but the difficulties are not, and as Hester takes up her diary again at the written suggestion of her husband Tim, she must face up to the fact that it could be another year or two before Tim is able to get home from Egypt for good. Hester’s voice is as engaging as ever, though there is a slight weariness of tone, and we know the years have rather taken their toll. Meanwhile, the time has come for her daughter Betty to go off to boarding school, her eldest child Bryan has already been away at school for some years. Her friend Grace; has decided that Hester needs some occupation and has already suggested Hester to Miss Clutterbuck; a friend in Scotland looking for help in her hotel. Initially, Hester is appalled at the idea, not really sure she does want a job after all. However, just then Hester receives a letter from their landlord giving Hester just a few weeks’ notice to vacate the house. She also receives a letter from Miss Clutterbuck, her handwriting is appalling and difficult to read, but it is clear that she thinks Hester will suit her perfectly.

“Miss Clutterbuck would like me to run the bar–no, it can’t be that–run the car, which has seen its best days but is still useful for shopping. Grace has told her I am patient and tactful, so (as she herself is neither the one nor the other) she thinks I am the right person to look after the social side.”

Hester makes a decision, she could go and live with Tim’s aunt in the house he inherited in the last book and is sat waiting for Tim to be freed from the army, but she decides instead, to go to Ryddelton in the Scottish Borders and work in Miss Clutterbuck’s hotel. Arrangements are made, the house packed up, the faithful Annie goes away on a brief holiday, she will be joining Hester at the hotel as a maid. Betty starts at her new school and all Hester has to do then is make her way North and write and tell Tim what she has done.

Upon arrival, Hester finds Miss Clutterbuck to be every bit as alarming as her letter suggested.

“Miss Clutterbuck meets me at Ryddelton Station. It is quite a small station and there are not more than a dozen people on the platform, most of them railway officials, so there is no doubt at all as to the identity of my employer. She stands near the booking stall, a solid figure in a Lovat tweed coat, which is somewhat shabby but well cut. She stands with her feet well apart and her hands in her coat pockets, a cigarette in a cherry-wood cigarette holder is stuck in the corner of her mouth. She is short necked; she is hatless, her grey wavy hair is slightly tousled with the evening breeze. For some strange reason Miss Clutterbuck remind me of Mr Churchill, Mr Churchill in one  of his belligerent moods.”

Hester’s convinced that Miss Clutterbuck took one look at her as she got off the train and found her wanting. The hotel is in Erica Clutterbuck’s family home, and it is pretty much full, as it always seems to be. Tocher House is popular, much to Miss Clutterbuck’s irritation, she is embarrassed by the business side of things, especially the feeding of people who pay her – and she generally struggles with dealing with people. She needs Hester to organise her, deal with the guests, the bookings and written requests for rooms. Erica soon sees she sorely misjudged Hester, that despite being initially overwhelmed at what she has taken on, she is quickly into her stride and managing wonderfully. Hester finds that she is rather enjoying herself – setting herself to sorting out the linen closet in the middle of the night when the hotel is quiet – a surprised Erica finds her thus employed and lends a hand – helping the two women to bond further.

Still missing Tim and the children terribly, Hester is soon far too busy to spend much time fretting. She can’t help but involve herself in the lives of the hotel residents. There’s the deep trauma of a young man returned from war, the romantic fortunes of a couple who seem to have got themselves in a tangle of misunderstanding and two American women who seem to want to know just what makes British women tick. Hester is further persuaded to play the part of a fortune teller in the local fete. She looks forward to when Betty and Bryan will visit for the holidays, though nervous of the effect they might have on Erica, but she is utterly delighted when her and Tim’s old friend Tony Morley turns up, as charming and mischievous as ever, he soon has the whole hotel eating out of the palm of his hand.

Honestly Mrs Tim books should be widely prescribed for anyone feeling unwell or a bit fed up and in need of gentle escape, they fit the bill perfectly. I find D E Stevenson less snobbish than the likes of Angela Thirkell (it is clearly of its time, but less obviously so) it was a real pleasure to spend time with these characters. I am glad I have the last Mrs Tim book; Mrs Tim Flies Home waiting in the wings.

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I really had wanted to review this one a little earlier in the week, but I am struggling a little to keep up with the blog. I’ll still be here – but the gaps between posts might get a bit wider some weeks, I’m so thoroughly exhausted all the time at the moment.

Needing something of a diverting but comforting nature last weekend, I turned once again to my pile of Dean Street Press books. I have quite a few to choose from and having enjoyed so many books set during the Second World War, I was drawn to Wine of Honour because it is set in the early months of peace.

The war had been so disruptive to normal life – people were spread across the globe – separated from their loved ones sometimes for years, put into uniform and given completely new roles. Suddenly, that all came to an end, and for some people it wasn’t quite the celebration it should have been. Those who had felt purposeful and busy, or enjoyed being defined by a role or a uniform, found themselves thrust back into their pre-war tedium, several years older and no better for it.

“I wonder how many women today are back in their pre-war ruts. For how many was the war merely a temporary disarrangement and for how many others has it meant complete re-adjustment, an entirely new set of circumstances? This is a stupid thought for me to have when, even in my own case, I don’t know the answer.”

The story is told from several perspectives. Part of it is the first person narration of Helen Townsend – the rest of the novel told in the third person. Helen and her neighbour Laura Watson are friends who don’t have that much in common, they became close while serving together in the ATS. Now they are both back in their village of Kirton, out of uniform and feeling like strangers in their own village. Helen is married to the local doctor Gyp who has been away in the East for five years. However, she has spent much of the war – serving in various places – with her lover Brian Gurney – who is also from the village. Gyp is due back at any moment and Brian wants Helen just to go away with him.

Laura has returned to normal life quite reluctantly but with a grim resignation. Trapped at home with her domineering father – who is very grumpy and disagreeable and doesn’t care at all for how his daughter feels. Laura had loved the ATS – she is already beginning to live on the memories of the past few years, and Helen recognises that Laura will continue to do this – and that as time goes on her memories will only sharpen. Helen feels a little awkward around Laura now, as she thinks she may have an inkling about her and Brian but really isn’t sure. They have not become the kind of friends who confide such things to one another.

Helen’s lover Brian is the younger son of Sir James and Lady Gurney, his sister married a Polish officer and was soon widowed with a child, his elder brother who joined up by pretending he was younger than he was is now nearing forty and has nothing to do. While Lady Gurney is worried about her eldest son her husband is worried about their finances – living at Kirton Manor is starting to seem it may no longer be an option. Angela Worthing a woman determined to carve out a career for herself in this brand new peace, draws close to Peter, and tries to help him.

The Cobb family run the local pub – and the war has changed them too. The daughter Lily came home from the WAAF pregnant, her fiancé killed before he could marry her. The Cobbs welcomed their daughter home with nothing but pride – she has been a wonderful help to her father behind the bar. Their son, Dick has come home damaged from the war – badly injured at the moment he was given a captaincy – he is struggling to hold down a job and be a good husband and father.

Mary Cross who lost her husband in the First World War, is mother to an RAF pilot, she spent her life trying to be both mother and father to her son. Now she writes an agony column in a national magazine.

While most of the novel takes place in the village – we also pay a few fleeting visits to London, where we learn the BBC is so longer wearing its wartime camouflage – and the streets are full of damaged buildings and scaffolding.

“She walked round by Lansdowne Place where, since May 1941, they’d been patching up the blitzed corner. She noticed, with methodical satisfaction, that yet another gleaming yellow brick building was nearing completion. You could date the devastation and the rate of repair from the lighter brick walls down to the grey black of the house on the Guilford Street corner.

Yes, spring was certainly here. The ladies of Guilford Street had discarded their utility furs for brighter and shorter jackets. Pale sunshine gleamed on the darkening partings of bleached heads. They are feeling the draught, poor dears, Angela thought, and noted the complete absence of American uniforms from the street scene. That was the big transformation—apart from spring and scaffolding—there were no Americans.”

Wine of Honour is fascinating for how it shines a light on one fairly short period of time – those first months of peace in 1945. Wives had to learn to live with husbands again, wind back the clock several years, remember who it was they had once loved so much.

“It went on and on and, quite suddenly, Laura felt desperately tired. Everybody but herself was married or doing something interesting. Only she was left out and lonely. She could have wept for the years snatched from her life. Years of hard work and happiness and the promise of something exciting just ahead. A lovely phase of her life which peace had cut short, leaving her instead just those number of years older.”

Parents had to learn how to live with the altered people their adult children had become, and those children had to reconcile the fact that the best years of their lives were in the past, and all they had ahead was middle age. Society had changed – and everyone had to find their new place in it. Change is always interesting for the way people handle it and Barbara Beauchamp has tapped into this perfectly. Wine of Honour is a lovely, highly readable novel – and I zipped through it.

(A small warning for those reading this edition, there are a few typos – names being mixed up. Maggie Cobb became Mary at one point and Lady G, Laura – I got momentarily confused, this issue might have been fixed in the digital version.)

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Recently Dean Street press added another pile of neglected women’s middlebrow fiction to their catalogue, all the titles set around the WW2 period, they all sound right up my alley. Table Two was Marjorie Wilenski’s only novel – set during WW2 in a London office of translators working for a fictional ministry. A very sharply observed bunch of characters, Wilenski recreates the atmosphere of an office in wartime brilliantly, little traditions and petty jealousies set against a backdrop of air raids.

“That summer was the finest summer that anyone could remember in England. The sun shone all day, day after day, and it seemed that there never would be rain. Everyone said all the time “What lovely weather, if only we were able to enjoy it.” For in England everyone feels that they must enjoy a fine day because in ordimry summers more than one fine day at a time is so rare. But nobody was able to enjoy that wonderful series of fine days because it was the summer of 1940 and nearly everyone was working all day and often all night in offices or factories or A.F.S. or A.R.P.,and there were no week-ends and no summer holidays. So in the daytime all the glorious sunshine was wasted and at night the rooms were stifling behind the blackout curtains.”

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. These women are mostly middle aged – or approaching it – they are plain or disappointed by life.  

Among them is a fresh air fanatic, a former lady’s companion who simply delights in bad news, regaling her colleagues daily with the latest casualty figures, an honourable, an inept supervisor who relies on her very capable deputy, a chatterbox and a woman who appears to masquerade as a child. 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 to good to be among these women, most of whom she considers idiots. Anne Shepley-Rice, a cheerful, pretty young woman, her once affluent family fell on hard times and then her mother died. 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, jealously attaching herself to Anne and spiriting her away at lunchtime each day. Anne is a young woman with no experience of the world of work she takes Elsie at face value, not recognising the bitterness in Elsie – finding her a bit of a funny old thing.

Anne and Elsie’s home lives are contrasted too, although neither of them has much money, Anne has known a better standard of living, and no doubt has the right accent, she is clearly a lady, though this is merely implied. There is a privilege about her which Anne is not even aware of. She is living in the house of a former servant of her mother’s, she is looked after just as she might have been in former times, the landlady looking out for her, fussing over her. When the air raids start, she has a comfortable spot in the cellar, a few feet from someone who cares what happens to her. Elsie is alone in the world, when the air raid siren sounds, she shelters in a cramped little shelter with her landlady and the landlady’s children.

 A new deputy is soon to be appointed in the office when the current one leaves, and Elsie is desperate to be appointed. Elsie loves to talk of her plans to Anne in whom she finds a sympathetic ear, mistaking her natural kindness and sympathy for a close friendship that doesn’t really exist.

One day Anne runs into an old family friend, Sebastian, the son of a wealthy family Anne had known growing up. Initially Anne tries not to get too close to Sebastian, worried her new impoverished status means she is unfit to be as close to him as she would like. It is clear that Sebastian has no such qualms, every time there is an air raid he is in agonies until he finds out that Anne is all right.

In some respects, Anne is just a little bland as a character, and she is far too willing to allow a man to sweep her up and take her off to the country for a rest – still that’s a minor quibble. It is certainly Elsie who steals the show – a really interesting character full of flaws, there are moments when she appears just a little too bleak, but she gets all the best lines.

“”It’s awful to think that there are nine of us here to-day at this table and in six months’ time we may all be dead,” said Miss Purbeck. “There were thousands killed last night, so the bus conductor told me.”

“You certainly are our little ray of sunshine,” said Elsie scornfully.”

As bombs rain down on London with greater frequency, Elsie has decided that maybe she could invite Anne to live with her, and so is brought up short to find herself lunching with Anne, Sebastian and a friend. A toe-curling scene follows in which Elsie drinks too much and speaks very insultingly to Sebastian’s friend.

In some ways not a huge amount happens in this story – but it is in the brilliant portraits of Anne and Elsie’s colleagues that make this so good. Many of the little arguments and petty personalities could quite easily I’m sure be found in almost any office today, possibly in any workplace, the gossipy busybody, trying to find out what’s going on, the importance of morning coffee, the appalled delight when someone gets into serious trouble, I’m sure the author must have taken some of these from life. Elsie could so easily have been just a monstrous creation, but Wilenski stops just short of that – and in her backstory we see something of what made Elsie so bitter.

While this isn’t a perfect novel, it is perfectly entertaining and those who enjoy a novel with a war time setting will like it I am sure, the details of everyday wartime life are particularly good as are the portraits of middle aged, professional women. Table Two is another great addition to the Furrowed Middlebrow series.

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The Furrowed Middlebrow series from Dean Street Press are turning out to be books that I can pretty much guarantee to love. There is another batch due out very soon and they look amazing. I was lucky enough to receive a couple of them in the post recently – and Beneath the Visiting Moon was one I decided I had to read almost straight away.

Romilly Cavan was a new name to me – but Scott from Furrowed Middlebrow was able to fill in a little background. Beneath the Visiting Moon was her final novel – and it would seem as if at least one of her other novels is certainly not as good. Never mind, this one is excellent I am so pleased it is being brought back for a new audience.

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.

What we do have though is a genteelly impoverished family living in a large house in a typical English village – characters are wonderfully well drawn, their voices distinct. There is a large supporting cast of eccentric characters, in whom we can see some slightly darker elements hidden beneath the surface.

It is 1939, and beneath the cosy domestic surface there is the threat of impending war – a subject mentioned several times. Bracken; an American explorer and long-time friend of the Fontayne family, reminds us that the world might end soon.  Aristocratic Mrs Oxford cares very much that everyone should stay in their rightful place in society, and yet is cruelly dismissive of her own young orphaned granddaughter, a working class woman whose absurdly beautiful triplets win a beautiful baby competition, a gossipy seamstress and a couple of spiteful office girls. Cavan’s writing is very good, there is some wonderfully humorous dialogue and her descriptions are lovely too. Here her description of the village.

“The place often had a satisfactory depthless look, with light and shadow lying in neat lozenges of effectively thought-out patterns. Times when window boxes, slung casually from the second-story windows of houses that were shops on their ground floors and residences above, were not the mere artistic whims of nature-loving dwellers, but the very expression of a street made from a child’s single-minded design and carried out with the expert aid of scissors and paint-box and glue.”

As the novel opens the Fontayne children are peering over the banisters as yet another prospective buyer is shown into the flower room. Their widowed mother Elisabeth has been trying without success to sell the house, also called Fontayne – the children have little hopes of her success. The eldest is Sarah – at seventeen she is practically grown up, she is beautiful and restless, longing for change. Twins Philly and Christopher are nearly sixteen, and the youngest is Tom, nine years old with a rather delicious turn of phrase and the ability to pretty much run around as he pleases. The only one of them who goes away to school is Christopher – the others educated by a governess – who is never a presence in the novel – and one suspects not in their lives either.

When the siblings hear of the family of a composer renting a nearby property – the hatch a plan to call – and get them to buy their house. The result is that their mother – after just four meetings, decides to get engaged to Julian Jones. Their step-father to be has two children of his own, Peter at eighteen is already very grown up – admitting to a shockingly romantic liaison in America to Sarah, and Bronwen who at thirteen is just about to publish her first book.

“When Elisabeth unexpectedly came in, the scene was one of suspended yet vigorous animation. Enthralled, Bronwen turned the pages of an immaculate copy of her book and masticated sausage with solid but abstracted determination. Peter’s face advanced and retreated in an olive pallor behind a mug of beer. Tom groaned pensively, placidly, swiping at his food with misdirected and eccentric implements. Philly, her back to the evening sunlight, her pale brown hair threading out to a haze of gold, was lost over the mysteries of a knitting pattern that Mrs Moody had given her. Sarah ate in a dream, fork hovering between plate and mouth. Ernest lay stretched at his ease, nicely poised between Philly’s elbow and the loaf; occasionally he lifted a moist pink nose and sniffed delicately at the flowers that overwhelmed a thin vase rocking drunkenly on its foundations.”

The blending of these two families is politely uncomfortable. Poor Bronwen, who hates her own plumpness and envies her step-sisters’ their slim attractiveness, rather annoys everyone with talk of her publisher. The piano playing Peter rather goes his own way, while the slightly dizzy Elisabeth – happiest tinkering about in the garden, and Julian are clearly quite happy. Philly is happiest with her cat Ernest, she is less confident than Sarah, dreads having to dance with people, and finds herself having to sit for a dull local painter.

“Long-threatened calamity had come to be. Philly was sitting for her portrait to Mr Lupin. Outdoors; in tribute to the golden-child-of-the-morning subject. She sat in a pose of unnatural naturalness beneath a meagre sapling of an apple tree, the only one in Mr Lupin’s cottage yard-cum-garden. She leaned lightly back on her arms, her head raised. At least, the ‘lean’ had been light at first, but was now tearing the muscles in her forearms. If she could have kept silent, it might have been bearable, but Mr Lupin expected to keep up a running, not to say leaping, conversation.”

At a local dance, Sarah meet Sir Giles Merrick, a thirty something diplomat who has to dash off across Europe from time to time to deal with the unfolding crisis. Sarah is instantly smitten – and works very hard to throw herself in his way ever afterwards, writing little notes – that aren’t strictly necessary – and trying to persuade her mother to hold a weekend party. Giles is charming and very kind, but the reader is never sure whether this potential romance is a good idea. Eventually, Sarah decides to leave home, getting a rather menial office job in London – and finding that two pounds a week really isn’t enough to live on.

The novel ends in August 1939 – as Sarah turns eighteen – and the ballroom of Fontyane has been spruced up – and the longed for dance/weekend party finally takes place. There is an added poignancy to the novel ending then – just weeks before the outbreak of war – we can’t help but wonder what the future has in store for these characters. First published in 1940 the author must have been wondering the same thing.

This lovely novel was a wonderful companion during a fairly slow reading week, characters who are a pleasure to spend time with.

This was my 13th book in #20booksofsummer, swapped for Girl, Woman other.

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