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Posts Tagged ‘Dean Street Press’

In these strange and sometimes sad times that we have all been living through the past few months – many of us have found ourselves turning to a certain kind of book to get us through. We all have our different escapes in reading material, for some it is cosy or vintage crime, for others light modern fiction – whatever works for you – I understand that need. For me, I like fiction from a bygone age – I read all sorts of backlisted fiction, the literary and non-literary alike. In these times I have sometimes turned to books that lifted me a bit, helped me forget the reality of 2020 for a while.

There are times though when we need a happy ending – a nice setting, characters we love – those books that we lay aside fully satisfied with a great daft grin on our faces.

There are some titles that may immediately spring to mind to those of you who like these kind of books too – The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M Delafield, Miss Buncle’s Book by  D.E Stevenson, The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett  and of course Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. So, in case you are in need for a little something in a similar vein – I have a few recommendations. These are books that are unashamedly feel good, funny, or just light, bright and charming. Many are well written too – great characterisation, sparkling dialogue and amusing set pieces – just what a stressed out reader may be in need of for a weekend of quiet reading. Many of the books below, I really could have done with this year!

Patricia Brent Spinster (1918) Herbert Jenkins

An effervescent little gem, a feel good little fairy tale to be read with a wry smile. Living the shabbily genteel existence of a paying guest at the Galvin House Residential Hotel, is attractive twenty four year old Patricia Brent. Secretary to a “rising” politician with an absurdly socially ambitious wife, Patricia is lonely and stifled by life. One day Patricia overhears a conversation between a couple of her fellow residents – a spiteful couple of “old cats”, called Miss Wangle and Mrs Mosscrop-Smythe – pitying Patricia’s loneliness, with some relish. So, Patricia rashly tells a lie – which has all sorts of consequences. Sadly, out of print, while second-hand copies may be found, I am sure that this is available as a free e-book from Project Gutenberg.

 Our Hearts were Young and Gay (1944) Cornelia Otis Skinner

Cornelia Otis Skinner, an American actress, writer and screenwriter co-wrote Our Hearts were Young and Gay with her good friend Emily Kimbrough, a memoir about their travels in Europe in the 1920’s. It is difficult to see where Kimbrough’s collaboration is exactly as the book is written in Skinner’s first person narrative. None of that seems important however as the book is full of charm and humour, and both women come across quite hilariously full of adorably lovable quirks and eccentricities. My edition also came with some adorable little illustrations.

The True Heart (1929) Sylvia Townsend Warner

The True Heart is apparently a (very loose) re-telling of the story of Cupid and Psyche – though don’t let that put you off. If you weren’t aware of that then it wouldn’t matter – and it wouldn’t alter the delightfulness of this imaginative love story. The novel is deceptively simple, but it is a glorious non-sentimental celebration of love, and the wonderful capacity of the human heart. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s writing is superb – as always, I actually find her very readable, and I defy anyone not to absolutely love Sukey and her Eric. There is a wonderful fairy-tale quality to this novel – there’s a feeling that all is possible.

84 Charing Cross Road (1970) Helene Hanff

Probably a book that needs no introduction. It’s a long time since I read it, and I would love a chance to re-read it. Twenty years of correspondence between Helene a writer living in New York and an English second-hand book dealer in the famous Charing Cross Road in London. The two famously never meet, and this book is as poignant as it is joyful – but I had to include it, because what a wonderful portrait of friendship and book collecting it is.

Miss Carter and the Ifrit (1945) Susan Alice Kerby

Of course, Dean Street Press had to have a place in this list of books. There were probably more I could have included. Miss Carter and the Ifrit is whimsical and charming and a brilliant little escape. 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. An Ifrit (like a genie) is released from a piece of wood she throws on her fire – and her life is suddenly wholly different.

Something Light (1960) Margery Sharp

Light, effervescent and endlessly charming. Something Light, is aptly named, but Margery Sharp’s writing is excellent, her characterisation faultless. Instantly likeable; Louisa Datchet is a woman who has achieved the milestone of thirty. A moment it seems likely to focus the mind. Dear Louisa, has always been a good friend to needy men. She now decides, quite suddenly that she wants to get married – and having decided to do so, she immediately sets about it, with, needless to say, mixed results.

Business as Usual (1933) Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford

Recently re-issued by Handheld Press Business as Usual is full of delightful period detail, humour and spirit. Ann Stafford’s charming, line drawings are reproduced alongside the text as they were originally in 1933.

Written in letters it tells the story of Hilary Fane, a young woman from Edinburgh who having finished with university wishes to spend a year earning her living in London before returning home to be married. The novel faithfully recreates the reality of work, shopping and conventional society while also acknowledging the poverty and even illegitimacy that existed alongside it. In no way a novel that preaches however, it is instead a novel of light, bright intelligence, deeply charming and ultimately heart-warming.

Beneath the Visiting Moon (1940) Romilly Cavan

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.

The Mrs Tim books (1932-1952) D.E Stevenson.

This is a bit of a cheat because there are four Mrs Tim books. The first one Mrs Tim of the Regiment is published by Bloomsbury, and the next three books have been re-issued by Dean Street Press. I still have number four waiting to be read. The first book if I am honest is the one I liked least – but generally these stories of a regimental wife before during and after the Second World War, are a delight. In the company of Hester Christie, we experience life, love, motherhood, friendship, romance, and work, with charming humour.

Home Life (1986) Alice Thomas Ellis

In 1985 Alice Thomas Ellis began producing a weekly column in the Spectator called Home Life. These short pieces were collected together in four volumes of which this is the first – and I really will have to collect the other three (not sure how easy they are to get hold of though). This book was an absolute joy – and I would happily have read on and on had there been more. These articles about the author’s own family life are full of fun, tongue-in-cheek observations and ruminations – a (not so) Provincial Lady of the 1980s perhaps. She is also very honest, blithely referring to visiting her son’s grave almost in passing – you begin to feel very much one of the crowd.

So, if you’re looking for something joyful to read to shut out 2020 you could do a lot worse than one of these. Happy reading.

Oh, and look what just arrived – a bit more joy here too I should think.

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With thanks to the publisher for the ebook

I have been lucky enough to be sent a few of Dean Street Press’s Golden Age mysteries and there they sit on my kindle where I’m afraid I forget all about them. I have been sent three or four Brian Flynn novels – a name that was completely new to me. So, the other week, when I was in that strange reading mood, where I didn’t really know what I wanted to read I decided to give one a go. The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye is the third in Flynn’s Anthony Bathurst mysteries – I’m never sure how crucial it is to read these mystery series in order – but I don’t think my experience was affected by not having read numbers one and two.

Brian Flynn was an impressively prolific writer – turning out about fifty novels – most of which were in the Anthony Bathurst series. I enjoyed this mystery – though not as much as many later Golden Age mysteries – the writing style put me off a little – it is really quite mannered – with not much in the way of description or depth of character. I like a lot from my mysteries – perhaps my mood affected my reading experience – so I am sure I will give Flynn another go. There were though several things I did like about this novel – the main one being the cleverness of the denouement which was a fabulous surprise and I really hadn’t seen coming at all – that is always satisfying. Flynn is also good with dialogue – there are some interesting exchanges between characters – and the story moves along at a good pace.

The novel opens at the hunt ball in Westhampton. Sheila Delaney dances with a mystery man who insists on being known only as Mr X. By the end of the evening he has disappeared as mysteriously as he came.

“‘Anonymity is such a terribly strong position in which to entrench one’s self. To you I am Sheila Delaney – to me you are – an unknown quantity.’

He smiled appreciatively. ‘Yet one usually concludes by finding the value of X – shall we say.’

‘If one is successful,’ she replied, ‘you have to be successful, you know, to discover the true value.’”

Major Carruthers accompanied Sheila to the ball – he’s an old family friend. After the ball they drive home together – this was the last time Sheila was to see Major Carruthers – a month later he is killed in a car accident.

A few months later Anthony Bathurst is consulted by the Crown Prince of Clorania, he is being blackmailed over a secret romance that has now ended. The Crown Prince asks Bathurst to look into the matter – as confidentially as possible.

At the same time Chief Inspector Bannister is having an overdue holiday on the coast at Seabourne. He is nearing retirement and enjoys a fine reputation as one of the big six investigators at Scotland Yard. So, when the local constabulary find themselves with a peculiar case on their hands they waste no time in calling on the experience of Chief Inspector Bannister – although irritated to have his holiday disturbed Bannister agrees to help. A woman has been found dead in a dentist’s chair – murdered in the few minutes he was out of the room – apparently injected with cyanide. While the young woman was being murdered the dentist was locked in another room, his banging on the door alerting his housekeeper to his plight. It is the start of a perplexing case – one full of misdirection, twists and turns. I liked the fact that Flynn clearly understands how desperation works in some people – how they can be pushed to their limits.

“‘…You people who never want for a few pounds don’t realize what it is to be in debt year after year and to see little chance of ever getting out. To be forced to borrow for anything special because you have no margin. Self-denial and going without most of the things that make life worth living may mean the saving of a few shillings, month by month, but no more than that.”

Anthony Bathurst finds himself in Seabourne – his case and Bannister’s beginning to look as if they have some connection. Bathurst assists Bannister in his investigations – a case which sees them travel from Seabourne to Westhampton – and discover the existence of a fabulous jewel called the Peacock’s Eye.

After a complex and involving mystery which is really very clever – the ending is a wonderfully satisfying surprise. I shall say no more. Flynn is clearly a consummate storyteller and weaver of intriguing mysteries. There is a lot for the vintage armchair detective to enjoy with this one – but I wasn’t completely sold on it. It’s been a couple of weeks since I read this one, and earlier this week I found myself reading Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey – my first by her – I shall talk about the book properly in a future post, however that was much more to my taste. There was so much more to it than just the mystery – and that’s the kind of thing I really like I think.

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With thanks to the publisher for the ebook

It probably comes as no surprise that after Hurricane Season, I was in need of another palate cleanser – my collection of Dean street press books were the obvious place to go.

The House in the Country by Ruth Adam is not to be confused with the Persephone title of the same name.

“This is a cautionary tale and true… Never fall in love with a house”

Straightaway then 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. Really a quite different book though to the previous books I have read by Ruth Adam.

“It was the end of the war, and we were very tired of the squalor. We were tired of the blackout edging obscuring the daylight from the windows and of breakfasts of powdered egg eaten at noon because one had been fire-watching last night. We were so very tired of disorder – of living in one room to save fuel, of the smell of scraps boiling up for the backyard hens, of beds in the downstairs rooms and of grubby air-raid shelter in the tiny neglected garden.”

The novel – I think it is safe to still call this a novel, just – is based on Ruth Adam’s own experiences of sharing a large country house with some other families after the war. Here the narrator is unnamed until late in the book when she is revealed as Mrs Adam – i.e. Ruth herself – her husband is also unnamed – but we can take him to be Ruth’s own husband Kenneth Adam – who later became a director for the BBC. Together with their own three children and assorted friends and relations Lefty, Bob, Timmy and Diana the family set up home in a large country house in Kent.

After living through years of wartime privations, bad food, cold, unsuitable housing, blackouts and rationing Ruth and her friends decide to live the dream they have had so long. The fantasy life they talked about through years of hardship – to live in a house in the country where they will have space and privacy and the opportunity to enjoy the world around them in all its beauty. They envisage open fires and good food – a larder stocked with hams. An advertisement in the Times – a large country house for rent, attracts their attention – the finances carefully worked out – everything divided by six – and it’s not long before they are actually moving in.

There is a lot of lovely detail here about setting up the house – allocating rooms, decorating, and laying out their scant pile of furniture and possessions in the large spaces of this thirty-three roomed house. All houses have their quirks and odd little features, even small ones. This house comes with a temperamental boiler, five kitchens a resident bat, stabling and a wonderful garden stocked with flowers. It is also possessed of a head gardener – Howard – who once worked for the previous owner – and has been taking care of the empty house throughout the war. He is a marvellous character – prefacing almost every speech to Ruth with the words “don’t you say nothing…” before immediately setting off to put right what ever is wrong. He fixes the boiler, sees about leaks, and intercedes with his late employer’s daughter who turns up wanting her lino and apple tree retuned. Howard is a marvel with one of Ruth’s young sons she is charmed by the affect this new way of life is having on him.

“Every boy should have a year at the heels of an old craftsman sometime in his life. A dozen nursery schools could not have given Colin the half of what Howard gave him. Howard accepted him, with serious and conscientious calm, like a schoolmaster who has got countless generations of boys through their first Latin primer and then let them go, satisfied that the foundations have been well laid.”

Howard will have absolutely no truck with the nearby village. However, Ruth’s household include those who could be called loosely – BBC types – and they impress themselves on the villagers by producing a radio star to open the village fete. Many of the relationships built up through the years spent in this house are with those who come to work here.  There are a succession of staff – and in the description of their comings and goings, working days and carefully worked out rotas I can see something of those socially historical details that Ruth Adam writes about elsewhere. The world has changed, and those who work in large house now have set hours, duties laid down and timetables stuck to – these are the kind of details that Ruth Adam is so good at laying before her readers.

The novel covers something like eight years – and so there is a sense of time hurrying by – and perhaps a few pages cover quite a length of time. Some of the original residents of the house move on – new arrangements are put in place – money becomes an issue. There are triumphs and disasters – and some pretty horrific rats – and the house changes with the departure and arrival of those who come to stay, this includes paying, foreign guests and household staff who become part of the family.

We know from the beginning that this wasn’t a forever home – and so the time inevitably comes when Ruth and her family leave this house – there is a sense of poignancy and moving on. The end of an era for them, and a lovely reading experience for us.

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With thanks to the publisher for the ebook.

If your idea of hell is an unwelcome house guest/tenant who upsets the rhythm of your home and spoils your most loved possessions, then this is a book that will resonate strongly. As someone who has lived alone a long time, and despite having lots of great family and friends who I love spending time with, appreciates my own company, this novel played into all my anxieties. Within a few pages I found myself shuddering at the predicament the central character of Not at Home finds herself in.

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. Two china cats are her particular pride and joy, and their welfare the reader can’t help but fear for throughout the book. From the first page I was #teamMacFarren all the way – even though Elinor is a bit stuck in her ways (who isn’t).

Elinor has one live in servant – who may not like the idea of two people to run after in the house – so that is the first problem to be faced.

“On the step was a woman laden with flowers, a wonderfully smart woman with a white cloth coat, a yellow taffeta turban draped in the newest style, and white wedge-heeled shoes as complex as a Chinese puzzle. Her hair was pale gold and her ivory-coloured face suggested rather than achieved the most extraordinary beauty. With a smile of such radiance as lies only in the consciousness of flawless teeth, she extended from amongst the flowers a lemon-coloured suede glove.”

When Mrs Antonia Bankes comes to discuss the prospect of a house share she assures Elinor – that she is quiet – has few guests – will help with the domestic duties around the house etc. Having been recommended to Elinor through a mutual friend Mrs Bankes – whose American correspondent husband is still in Europe – seems like the perfect tenant. Elinor divides the rooms in the house between them – giving all the best rooms – as her nephew Mory declares in amazement – to Antonia. Mory works in film – and lives a pretty rackety life- especially compared to his aunt – she is frequently ready to be shocked by his exploits.

“It was not that she was ignorant of young men and their ways; she had read books, she had grown up with two brothers. But Mory sowed wild oats as systematically as if he were bedding out some useful vegetable for the kitchen garden, He seemed to invite one to approve of his crop.”

Naturally, things don’t turn out quite as poor Elinor MacFarren has expected. Antonia Bankes we quickly learn is quite able to present to the world which ever face is most advantageous to her – even when that is about as far from the truth as you can get. She is quite simply an appalling tenant. Soon the ‘shared’ spare room is constantly filled with Antonia’s friends – they troop in and out of the house at all hours of the day and night – dropping cigarette ash all over the carpets in the sitting room that has been given over to Antonia. The china cats are in daily peril, often used – to Miss MacFarren’s horror – as doorstops. The house soon starts to suffer, Antonia never lifts a finger – the servant Manders does her best – but in time she predictably leaves them to it.

Whenever Antonia breaks something or Miss McFarren has to politely remind her about something she behaves as if poor Elinor is being ever so fussy and silly – poor Elinor is constantly on edge and is unable to do a stroke of work. Antonia, Elinor realises is like a spoilt child, incapable of seeing the consequences of her actions or having any conscience at all. Some domestic pets unfortunately come in for poor treatment by Antonia Bankes too – a cageful of birds bought on a whim and later a fox terrier that she is supposed to be looking after for a friend. Animal lovers – I’m afraid the dog doesn’t last long – but is thankfully not dwelt upon or described in too upsetting a way.

Time moves on and Elinor finds herself unable to evict her nightmare tenant – the thought of living with her for a month under such conditions simply horrifies her. When Antonia’s husband Joss arrives home on leaves he loves the house, and Miss MacFarren realises he is much better than his wife, but his visits are short lived. Elinor’s adored nephew Mory introduces her to the beautiful Maxine Albert – a young actress, of whom, Miss MacFarren isn’t sure she approves at first – but the two soon become unlikely friends and co-conspirators in the fight to rid the house of Mrs Bankes. Others are brought into Miss MacFarren’s plans too – Harriet – who first introduced Mrs Bankes – has to finally admit that Antonia isn’t at all what she thought, and Dr Wilmot who Elinor always saw as a rival – soon shows himself to be a friend too. Poor Elinor is desperate to have the house back to herself.

Not at Home is the first novel by Doris Langley Moore that I have read – it won’t be last I am sure, Dean Street have re-issued a few. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel of domestic disharmony – and enjoyed absolutely loathing Antonia Bankes.

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With thanks to the publisher for the review ebook

The lovely Dean Street Press brought out a lovely clutch of Second World War novels last year – and this was one of them. It has been sat on my kindle for some time therefore.

Barbara Noble is probably known best – especially to Persephone fans – for her novel Doreen (1946) – another World War Two novel which paints a very poignant portrait of the relationship between an evacuated child and her mother. It’s something like twelve years since I read it and didn’t review it properly so it’s definitely one I want to pull from the shelf again. The House Opposite is a slightly earlier novel, published in the middle of the war, when no one could be quite certain how things would resolve themselves.

I would say that along with A Chelsea Concerto – another DSP book – 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. What Barbara Noble doesn’t do which is particularly strong – is to make her novel all about the drama of the Blitz. She shows us the underground stations crammed with people, the rubble strewn streets, the city landscape that is changing almost daily – but it is a background hum, a constant presence with which ordinary life, and each individual’s petty concerns must co-exist.

“All through September they had taken the day raids very seriously at the office. The dingy old-fashioned house held three other firms besides their own and when the sirens sounded most of the personnel of all four would walk or run, as their temperaments directed, down to a basement room which had, by the addition of a little timber, been converted into a shelter. Each small group occupied a separate corner and had provided their own chairs or benches. Some attempt was made to carry on work. Carter staggered up and down with Elizabeth’s typewriter, but there were too many people in a confined space for much mental concentration to be possible.”

Elizabeth Simpson is a young woman in her late twenties – living at home with her parents. They live in a typical London suburban street, and in the house opposite live the Cathcart family. Elizabeth works as a secretary for Alex with whom she has been having an affair for three years. Alex is married with children, a marriage he can’t leave – so he says – because of the children. Alex’s wife and children are living in the country away from the bombs and the devastation. Elizabeth is able to spend time at Alex’s flat without fear of discovery. She keeps a kind of boyfriend Bob Craven – dangling – as a cover for her relationship, no one knows about her and Alex and despite all the difficulties they have kept their secret for three years unsuspected by anyone.

“It was curious that the aerial bombardment of London, which had ennobled so much that was normally sordid, should only debase a love affair between two people who had managed for three years to overcome the threat to their relations implicit in all such. To die together would be simple. It would not be so simple to be dug out still alive from the same collapsed building.”

The day doesn’t end when the working day is done, on many nights Elizabeth must take her turn fire watching with the Cathcart boy from the house across the street. She has also volunteered for a couple of shifts at the hospital – long, gruelling hours where she is faced with some fairly upsetting scenes. Her father is an air raid warden, so on many evenings both father and daughter are out of the house together. Elizabeth and her father have a wonderful relationship, they are clearly cut from the same cloth, and theirs is a relationship built on affection and understanding. Meanwhile Mrs Simpson, left alone in the house as the bombs rain down over the city is terrified. She would like nothing more than to go to the country. She starts to take courage with a little nip of rum that no one knows about. She is comforted further by Peter – her imaginary son – with whom she holds satisfactory conversations, Peter always knows the right thing to say. Mrs Simpson is a sad little character, beautifully portrayed by Noble, though I wanted to know more about her.

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. His mother meanwhile is nursing a long held secret that seeps into her brain almost daily, and his father is about to get into trouble with the police, having sold on government timber that shouldn’t be sold on. Owen’s cousin Derek, who Owen joyfully goes off to visit – lives in the country, coincidentally in the village where Alex’s wife and children are spending the war.

Over the course of the novel both Owen and Elizabeth make discoveries about themselves and the people they love. As the nightly bombardment quietens and starts up again, lives move forward just the same. This novel is a brilliant social document – as well as being just a very good read – thoroughly recommended for those of you who like novels of the Second World War.

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Patricia Wentworth was a hugely prolific writer of Golden age mysteries – for some reason I had never read her before. Probably best known for her Miss Silver mysteries she also wrote many standalone novels and Silence in Court is one of them. Dean Street Press have re-issued a number of her standalone novels, and I picked up several for my kindle when they were being offered up very cheaply or even free. I actually read this right at the end of April but haven’t had chance to review it till now – it was a really good quick read, perfect for a lazy weekend.

Set in London, during the Second World War; the novel opens as Carey Silence steps into the dock. She stands accuses of the murder of Honoria Maquisten, whose home Carey had been welcomed into just two weeks before the murder. Carey is numb with the shock of her situation, feeling unlike herself she stands shakily to hear the indictment.

“She was so rigidly controlled as she came into the dock that she wasn’t Carey Silence any more, or a girl, or young, but just a will to walk straight and seemly, to hold a proud head high, to bar sight and hearing against all these people who had come to see her tried for her life. There was a moment when the grip she had on herself wavered giddily ….”

The narrative then takes us back to the time when Carey Silence first met Honoria Maquisten. Having been working as a secretary to an MP, Carey was hospitalised when a bomb exploded near to the train they were travelling on. Still recovering from her ordeal, Carey was contacted by Honoria Maquisten when she saw her name in the paper – Honoria had been the cousin and greatest friend of Carey’s grandmother. Another distant cousin, American Jeff Stewart, who has been fluttering rather dotingly around Carey accompanies her to the door of the Maquisten house – insisting that she promise to see him soon.

Carey is given a fond welcome by Honoria – who sees something of her dear cousin Julia in Carey, and quickly Carey becomes the new favourite. Carey’s arrival has a somewhat mixed reaction from the other members of the household – because she is by no means the only one who has been taken up by Honoria. Three other relatives live in the house, three cousins, Honoria’s niece Nora – whose husband is away in the East, nephew Dennis invalided out of the war, and another niece Honor who volunteers packing parcels for POWs. Robert, another nephew visits regularly but doesn’t live in the house. A maid who has served Honoria faithfully for many years and a professional nurse who cares for Honoria in her fragile health complete the household.

Here Wentworth provides us with some really well-drawn characters, Carey herself is immediately engaging and Honoria a wonderfully vivid creation, with a safe full of fabulous jewels and a constant preoccupation with her will. The reader can never be certain who it is that we need to be suspicious of – and the dynamic of this household and its inhabitants is well portrayed. Told in relatively short chapters, that make the narrative feel perfectly paced – I found myself flying through the book.

Honoria likes to keep a firm hand on her affairs and is well known for altering her will at a moments notice, telling everyone about it and generally making a bit of a drama about the document. Not long after her arrival, Honoria announces that Carey will be added into the will – though she doesn’t reveal to what extent.

Carey has settled into the house well, she has begun to get on well with some members of the household, when a hand delivered letter arrives one day and upsets everything. Carey, Nora, Dennis and Honor are all out when the letter arrives. The contents of the letter put Honoria into a terrible rage – and she demands that whichever of her relatives return first they be sent straight to her. This falls to Carey. Carey can do nothing to soothe the old lady, and is directed to phone Honoria’s solicitor, who it happens is away for a day or two. Honoria demands that his clerk should come to the house instead the following day. Insisting that she has been deceived she tells everyone that one of the beneficiaries will be cut out of her will completely – though she never reveals who that is.

That night, a sleeping draught is prepared for the old lady who is still upset – it is prepared by the nurse as usual and left on the shelf in the bathroom. As it happens Carey is asked to fetch it. When Honoria is found dead the following morning, the house is in uproar. The police are called in and an awful lot of emphasis put on who was where when, and who could or could not have tampered with the medicine glass. Carey is almost immediately put under suspicion, and the evidence of one member of the household sees her placed under arrest.

“She had come to an inner strength that held her up. When things were so bad that they couldn’t be any worse, something came to you—some courage, some control.”

The second half of the book is more in the realms of a courtroom drama, and here Patricia Wentworth pitches the tension just right. Jeff Stewart has arrived back after some time away, and convinced that Carey is innocent, is desperate that her consul prove it. Jeff ensures that Carey is represented by the best – he lets Carey know how he feels about her, that he believes in her. Imprisoned and alone; Carey is still reeling from having been welcomed into a family and then accused of murder all within such a short period of time.  

I thoroughly enjoyed the court room scenes – the tension as the reader awaits a crucial piece of evidence to come along and settle to matter, certainly makes it hard to put down at this point. We hear the evidence from the point of view of several of the characters, and eventually everything falls into place.

My first foray into the world of Patricia Wentworth was certainly an enjoyable one. I have several more of these re-issued standalone novels on my kindle – I am sure I will read another before too long.

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Mrs Martell is the third of Elizabeth Eliot’s novels that I have read, one of authors Dean Street Press have brought back to us. Like her other novels this one is titled with the name of her central character, written in the third person, whereas in other Eliot novels we see the eponymous character through the eyes of somebody close to them.

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. Though Cathie Martell is a monstrous woman, who it is impossible to sympathise with, Elizabeth Eliot makes her reader want to read about her. Cleverly, Eliot does give us a character who we care about, who we root for – and provides some balance.

Born into genteel poverty and reliant on her Aunt Violet to pay her school bills the young Cathie had her sights set considerably higher. Cathie’s mother was clearly ruled by her daughter, allowing her to have everything too much her own way.

“Aunt Violet, Cathie realised, was one of the problems of her life. If Aunt Violet had not had money, Cathie would have forbidden her mother to see her and that would have been that; but it isn’t possible to put an absolute ban on one’s only rich relation, particularly when that relation pays one’s reduced school bills.”

Disliking being told what to do, Cathie resented her aunt’s interest in her – and was anxious to cut ties with her when she could. At school Cathie was at the centre of her own world, her beauty making her a figure of some interest to the other girls. On leaving school she took up a profession at a Madame Sondheim’s beauty parlour, something her aunt strongly disapproved of and married her first husband as soon as she could. However, the death of a couple of male cousins in the war means it is Cathie who inherited her aunt’s money after all.

Now she is divorced, living in a flat at the top of a house in Baker Street, on the ground floor is an antique shop where a murder was recently committed. When a handsome young journalist comes to her door looking for a human interest story, Cathie can’t help flirting terribly with him. Richard Hardy is a pleasant distraction for Cathie Martell – and a possible fall back – but he isn’t who she really has her sights set on for her second husband. However, Cathie is not a woman to ever let an opportunity for male attention to pass her by, she is always on the alert – even when just catching a train.

“Even so, an encounter with a tall and handsome stranger would have been a pleasant interlude, but alas, he did not appear. Once, in the corridor, and right at the beginning of the journey, she thought she had found him; but later when he came into the dining-car he was surrounded by a gaggle of five or six bright adolescents all of whom addressed him as ‘Daddy’; and they were accompanied by a depressed middle-aged woman who inevitably was Mother; impossible to imagine her as having ever been anything else.”

Laura West is a distant cousin of Cathie’s, she is married to Edward, Edward’s beautiful family home Abbotsmere, lies outside of London in the countryside, where the staff gossip about their employers.  Laura is the innocent in the tale, a kindly, sometimes nervous young woman, who has been disappointed in her ability to have a child. She buys two small dogs and takes them home much to her husband’s irritation – the staff like Laura – and can see the trouble that lies ahead. The trouble that Laura is incapable of seeing, and which comes in the shape of her cousin Cathie Martell. Cathie and Edward are already betraying Laura with secret meetings and late night phone calls – and Cathie is not one to just settle for that. Cathie has her sights firmly set on being ‘the beautiful Mrs West’ and while it isn’t obvious to poor Laura, others have certainly worked out what she is up to.

“Laura was heartbreakingly beautiful and yet she could be quite maddening. It seemed to Edward that she made no effort at all to please him. She was pathologically inconsiderate and there were times when she looked quite ugly.”

What Elizabeth Eliot does quite cleverly I think, is make us care for Laura, it becomes obvious that Edward is unworthy of Laura, that in fact he and Cathie are of a type. Laura doesn’t always know how to behave when in society and hates to irritate Edward, she rather enjoys sitting in the kitchen chatting to the servants, and she adores her two little dogs. The reader can’t help but want Laura to be free of Edward.

This was another very enjoyable read from Dean Street Press, Elizabeth Eliot’s voice is witty and sharp, she understands the motivations of people – both good and bad. Throughout the novel Eliot’s observations are deliciously sharp – a shooting party in Scotland, a ski resort in Switzerland to which she takes her characters gives her ample opportunity for exploring several ‘types’ and she does so brilliantly.

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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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