Archive for the ‘D.E. Stevenson’ Category

The Window of the Poet by Pyotr Konchalovsky

The Window of the Poet by Pyotr Konchalovsky

It is Margery Sharp day today, hosted by Jane in honour of the 110th anniversary of Sharp’s birth, and though I haven’t read anything recently by Sharp, I thought it would be a good time to share my thoughts on the two of her books that I have read before: Cluny Brown and The Eye of Love.  Neither book turned me into in a great fan, but I nonetheless look forward to reading everyone else’s reviews today.

Since I haven’t been reading Sharp this weekend, I’ve kept busy with other authors.  My plans for a hermit-like Saturday devoted to reading didn’t quite work out, but I picked up my inter-library hold on Katherine’s Marriage by D.E. Stevenson yesterday and am half-heartedly slogging my way through it.  It’s been a while since I read anything by DES and I’d forgotten how mind-numbingly dull her bad books are.  There is a reason I didn’t pick this up back in 2012, when I read the bulk of her other books.  It is a sequel to Katherine Wentworth and, if anything, might be even worse than that book.  I’ll keep reading for a bit to see if it improves at all but hopes are not high.

Here's Looking at YouI did finish Here’s Looking at You by Mhairi McFarlane on Saturday.  It’s a funny, light novel and I love McFarlane’s style but, most importantly, it is one of those books which had surprising overlaps with a number of my current interests.  I love this kind of serendipity.  The main female character, Anna, is a history lecturer at UCL (yay!  a heroine with a real job!), who specialises in the Byzantine Empire.  She and James, the male lead, are brought together when they work together on a exhibit for the British Museum about Empress Theodora.  Since I started reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium (which I didn’t finish back in the autumn but have now picked up again), I have been fascinated with all things Byzantine so this was a delightful coincidence.  But it did not end there: when Anna’s sister decides to get married in Italy, they go to their father’s home town of Barga.  I’m in the midst of planning a trip to Italy for this October and Barga, which I’d never heard of until a few months ago, is firmly on the list of places I want to visit on a day trip from nearby Lucca, where we will be staying.  I would have still enjoyed this book without these references but I enjoyed it so much more with them.

LeftoversSpeaking of chick-lit, I also finished Leftovers by Stella Newman this week.  This was one of my NetGalley reads and it was a good light distraction for a very busy work week.  Susie, the heroine, is thirty-six, single, and desperately counting the days until she will get her promotion and – with the accompanying bonus – be able to quit.  She’s still trying to get over her ex-boyfriend but there seem to be no end of men willing to replace him – if Susie were interested.  But this is not really a book about finding love.  It is about getting your life together, going after the things you want, and being happy.  Oh, and it is also about food.  Loving descriptions of numerous pasta dishes had me whipping up spaghetti carbonara (Nigella Lawson’s excellent recipe from How to Eat) the night I finished this.  The thing that irked me a bit (other than the seemingly endless supply of men who are interested in Susie) – and I wasn’t able to articulate this until I read Here’s Looking at You and felt the contrast – is Susie’s attitude towards her career.  I have more sympathy for books about women whose romantic lives are chaotic or lacklustre than for ones where the heroine is underemployed or just plain unhappy at work.  Susie works for an advertising company, with people she dislikes and clients that she absolutely hates.  But rather than try to find a role at another firm, she slogs on miserably (despite the urgings of her friends and family).  She even talks about how much she loves advertising – and then goes out and does something completely different at the book’s end.  Not an entirely satisfying read but still enjoyable in its way.  Enough so that I’ve now got Newman’s earlier novel, Pear Shaped, on my Kobo.

Now, off to make the most of my Sunday!

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The English AirI’ve just seen the very exciting news that Greyladies, one of my favourite small publishers, has reprinted The English Air by D.E. Stevenson.  This is both very wonderful and very sneaky, since there was little warning ahead of time that they would be printing it.  Still, what an excellent surprise.  I’ve already placed my order and can’t wait to have my very own copy of this, as it is one of my favourite D.E.S. novels (also a favourite of both Barb at Leaves & Pages and Lyn at I prefer reading).

With another Richmal Crompton book (Mrs. Frensham Describes a Circle) slated to be reprinted in February, Greyladies continues to delight.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they’ll continue rescuing Susan Pleydell’s books from obscurity and reprinting my favourite D.E.S. novels (Shirley, if you’re reading, Five Windows would be nice!).  Until then, I look forward to rereading The English Air and working through the rest of my Greyladies collection.

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0375504419_0Educating Alice by Alice Steinbach – Steinbach, to me, is that well-meaning person who desperately wants you to like them and who is so earnest that you wish you could like but, really, you just spend every encounter wanting to hit them with something blunt. In this second travel memoir (following Without Reservations), Steinbach roams the world and indulges in too much introspection and overly romanticized prose.

9780375724596_custom-2efde7beec18b0b581c86a38388313349857619e-s6-c30The Pursuit of Alice Thrift by Elinor Lipman – a much more likeable Alice, The Pursuit of Alice Thrift is a wonderful comedy about a young, socially-awkward surgical intern in Boston (but of course – this is an Elinor Lipman book) who finds herself being wooed by Ray Russo, who seems very likely to be a conman. But at least he’s a man. It is fabulous and hilarious. Alice is marvellously blunt, Ray is exquisitely slimy, and the two friends Alice makes over the course of the novel – sassy Sylvie and supportive Leo – are friends I would love to have myself. Very, very fun.

The Ladies' ManThe Ladies’ Man by Elinor Lipman – I’ve read almost all of Lipman’s novels now (only My Latest Grievance awaits) and I have to say that this is not one of my favourites. That said, my least favourite Lipman is still better than almost anyone else’s best. Thirty years ago, Adele Dobbin was jilted by her fiancé, Harvey Nash. Suddenly, he shows up on the doorstep of the Boston apartment Adele shares with her two sisters with a belated apology. An inveterate ladies’ man, Harvey (now going by Nash Harvey) attempts to charm a series of women over the course of the book. Though the Dobbin women prove immune to his charms (one of them goes so far as to break a casserole dish over his head when he attempts to hit on her), his arrival does inspire them to look to the romantic lives they have largely ignored. Lipman is as clever and witty as ever, I just think there were too many characters splitting focus here, making for an uneven flow.

forever girlThe Forever Girl by Alexander McCall Smith – In that weird space between not good and not horrifically bad. So…inoffensively bad? There were some good moments but the characters were completely flat, every last one of them.

Spring MagicSpring Magic by D.E. Stevenson – I wish I had more to say about this book. It is pure escapist fantasy, about Frances, a young Cinderella-like woman, who is able to escape from her aunt after their London home is damaged by a bombing during the Second World War. The aunt heads into the country with the expectation that Frances will accompany her. Instead, Frances heads for a fishing village in Scotland to figure out her life and develop some independence. Her stay is enlivened by the arrival in the neighbourhood of a regiment of soldiers – and the officer’s wives. The socializing from then on is reminiscent of the Mrs Tim books, since the military wives prove far more interesting than Frances and her mild romantic problems. It’s a sweet book but not quite as energetic as DES’s best works.

JoieJoie de Vivre by Harriet Welty Rochefort – hands down the best – and most entertaining – book I have read about the French. Having lived in France and been married to a Frenchman for forty years, Rochefort is more than qualified to discuss the good, the bad, and the mysterious elements of French culture and the French psyche. She is humorous and does not over romanticize or demonize – an all too common failing of this sort of book. Very enjoyable.

Waiting on You by Kristan Higgins – Higgins is back on form after her disappointing last book.

It Felt Like a KissIt Felt Like a Kiss by Sarra Manning – despite a title that makes the book sound like it is about domestic abuse, this was actually a rather interesting look at what happens when a young woman’s greatest secret – the identity of her famous father – is leaked to the press by a vengeful ex-boyfriend. The romance was less than convincing but the way Ellie’s life was twisted by the press with complete disregard for the truth was all too disgustingly real.

UnstickyUnsticky by Sarra Manning – A very fluffy premise – what happens to a young woman when she agrees to become the mistress and hostess for an older art dealer – but a surprisingly engaging and interesting book. I really enjoy Manning’s writing and though her books are always long, none of it feels like filler. I did find Grace’s liberal use of “like” wildly irritating, though that thankfully faded over the course of the novel, and was thrown by some of the little details of the scenes set in BC: Vancouver, which has the same climate as London, can hardly be described as the “icy hinterlands of British Columbia.” Also, where on earth did they find a Caribbean nurse in Whistler? But these were minor, minor issues and for the most part I loved the book. I also couldn’t help thinking that Clare Carrington from The New Moon with the Old would approve.

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Still Glides the StreamOn January 1st, savouring my day off work and determined to get the year off to a good start, I settled down with Still Glides the Stream by D.E. Stevenson.  There is nothing quite so nice as beginning a New Year in the company of an old, dependable friend.

Published in 1959, Still Glides the Stream begins with thirty-five year old Will Hastie returning home to Scotland after years abroad in the Army, intent on learning to farm the family estate, Broadmeadows.  Will settles in quickly, enjoying his time with his father and reigniting his acquaintance with the Elliot Murray family.  Growing up, Will and the Elliot Murray children, Rae and Patty, had been inseparable.   By the time the story begins, Rae has been dead for many years, killed in France during the war.  Patty, still at home and still unmarried (though engaged) at thirty-four, is just as friendly as ever though and she and Will are delighted to strike up their old friendship.

When Patty mentions a curious letter she received from Rae shortly before his death, Will tells her not to worry herself over it.  But, knowing that Rae would never have written such odd words without some purpose, he privately decides to look into the mystery.  He leaves for France soon after (conveniently avoiding meeting Patty’s awful fiancé during his visit).

In France, he discovers Rae’s secret: his friend had married a French girl, Julie, and was not sure how to tell his family about her.  Will tracks down Julie and discovers not just Rae’s widow but also his son, Tom.  Julie’s excuses for not having made her husband’s family aware of herself or her child are rather weak but handy for plot’s sake so we won’t dwell too much on that.  Conveniently, both Julie and Tom speak excellent English; Julie, knowing how much Rae loved his family home, has seen to it that Tom had English lessons so that he would one day be ready to join the Elliot Murrays’ world.

Will brings Julie and Tom back to Scotland, everyone adores them, etc, etc.  Will briefly thinks he is in love with the lovely Julie but by the end of the book realises that, of course, he has been in love with the steady Patty all along.  All ends well, with everyone suitably married off and young Tom happily adapting to his new Scottish home.

Julie is an interesting D.E.S. character.  She is very lovely and good and, though in some ways Patty’s rival, the two become dear friends.  But she is cold and cautious in a way that horrifies Will when he realises it.  She wants a steady, comfortable life, not a love affair, and so is perfectly happy to marry for position rather than passion.  She wants to be back among people she understands, whose customs she knows.  “To me,” she says, “it seems sensible and right to marry a good kind man, to be his wife and the mother of his children.”  Patty and Will, both romantics (albeit of a silent Scottish strain), are deeply disillusioned with her after this revelation.  I, personally, rather admire her level-headed pragmatism.

But bizarrely, though much is made of Julie’s plans to arrange a comfortable but unromantic future for herself, little is made of her willingness to leave her son in Scotland while she returns to France.  It seems in character for her to do so (as she says early on, she has always known that Tom would one day go to live among his father’s people) but wildly out of character for the family-oriented (and rather judgemental) Will and Patty to make no horrified exclamations about her being an unnatural mother

Still Glides the Streams fits neatly in among the bulk of D.E.S.’s good-but-not-great works.  The plot may be flimsy and the characters one dimensional but D.E.S. had a gift of making such unpromising stuff into something really charming.

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What a strange year it has been, full of changes, new adventures and, as far as this blog is concerned, very abnormal reading habits.  But, however altered my reading schedule may have been, the quality of books remained excellent and it was not at all difficult to pick my ten favourite books from 2013:


10. The Talisman Ring (1936) – Georgette Heyer
Having discovered Heyer a decade ago, I thought I’d read all her best works.  But no, other bloggers assured me, I still needed to read The Talisman Ring.  Nonsense, I thought, but it was Heyer so I was determined to read it anyways.  Of course, I discovered that everyone was right and that this hilarious tale of a fanciful young woman, a dashing smuggler, and their put-upon elders is indeed one of the greatest things Heyer wrote.

9. Alif the Unseen (2012) – G. Willow Wilson
I struggled to review all the books I wished to this year and that included some of my favourites, like Alif the Unseen.  An extraordinary combination of fantasy, religion, and 21st technology, this story of an Indo-Arab hacker who finds himself on the run from the corrupt state authorities is powerful, timely, and above all, engaging.  It was one of only two books this year that kept me reading until late into the night (the other is #6 on this list).

8. The English Air (1940) – D.E. Stevenson
Stevenson is an author whose quality varies dramatically from book to book.  I love her but most of her novels are merely good rather than excellent.  The English Air is one of those excellent exceptions, sensitively following the struggles of a young German man who finds himself torn between England and Germany at the beginning of the Second World War.  Stevenson paints as alluring a portrait of the domestic charms of middle-class pre-war England as anyone but it is her intelligent handling of Franz’s divided loyalties that makes this rise above most of her other works. 2013Books2

7. The Rosie Project (2013) – Graeme Simsion
This quirky and touching romantic comedy about a socially inept Australian scientist’s search for love was an absolute delight.  I loved it so much in fact that I read it not once but twice this year and am now busy pressing everyone I know to read it too.

6. Under Heaven (2010) – Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay, the master of historical fantasy, has now published two books inspired by Chinese history: Under Heaven and River of Stars.  I read both this year and both are extraordinarily good but Under Heaven was, to me, the most absorbing.  Kay is astonishingly good at balancing character development, political intrigue, and action, making for a book that left my pulse racing and my mind whirling.

5. London War Notes (1971) – Mollie Panter-Downes
The fact that I was even able to get my hands on a copy of this all-too-rare book was a miracle; as anyone who has had the privilege of reading this will agree, it is a travesty that it has not yet been reprinted.  During the Second World War, Mollie Panter-Downes’ “Letter from London” was published every second week in the New Yorker magazine, giving her American readers a glimpse of the wartime experience in London.  In typical Panter-Downes fashion, she is observant and articulate, intelligent and unsentimental.  These letters capture Londoners at their best and worst and are an extraordinary historical record as well as examples of first-rate journalism.


4. Framley Parsonage (1861) – Anthony Trollope
I had some reservations but, for the most part, I adored the fourth book in Trollope’s Barsetshire series.  Trollope’s handling of the virtues and failings of his young men reminded me once more of the truthfulness of his writing (and the consistency of human beings, regards of the century) while his female characters, young and old, were delightfully strong, funny, and sympathetic.

3. The Harold Nicolson Diaries (2004) – edited by Nigel Nicolson
An absorbing and revealing collection of wonderfully-written diaries and letters, I loved getting to glimpse all the different facets of Nicolson’s character, from youth to old age.

2. A Time of Gifts (1977) – Patrick Leigh Fermor
In another year, this might have grabbed the top spot.  Fermor’s account of the first leg of the charmed journey he took across Europe as a teenager is beautifully written and had me longing to set out on adventures of my own. Speaking of Jane Austen

1. Speaking of Jane Austen (1943) – Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern
All the other titles on this list were wonderful but not nearly as wonderful as this collection of delightfully eccentric Austen-focused essays.  And, of course, it is the only book I have ever come across that spends a sufficient amont of time lavishing praise on the deserving Emma (if you are looking for the fastest way to my heart, look no further).

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The Fair Miss FortuneHow many books are there in the world which feature both twins and the opening of a tearoom?  I mean, the number of books about the opening of tearooms has to be pretty minute and to then throw twins in as well?  And yet, after reading The Fair Miss Fortune by D.E. Stevenson, I have now read two such books (see Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth von Arnim) so who is to say that there aren’t more out there?  (I rather hope there are.)

Published by Greyladies in 2011, The Fair Miss Fortune was written in the 1930s but was considered ‘“too old-fashioned” to appeal to the “modern” market’.  It is certainly old fashioned, though hardly more so than Stevenson’s other books, and while far from her best work, it is a fun little story.

When Captain Charles Weatherby returns home to the small English village of Dingleford to visit his mother, he has no idea how his life is about to change.  He is happy to be back with his beloved mother but less happy when she, an invalid, encourages him to go out and socialise with their neighbours.  They are all eager to see him after his years in India and the housebound Mrs. Weatherby is eager for Charles to report back on all the latest gossip.  Though a grown up man in his late twenties, Charles is rather scared of the party his mother is urging him to attend, telling him how nice it will be:

Charles was quite sure that it would not be nice, for he was shy with the shyness which besets the exile when he returns to his native place.  He had been abroad for three years – no more – but he was convinced that these people would not want him; that they would have forgotten him; that they would find him awkward and gauche, his clothes old-fashioned and shabby, his manners strange.  He felt that it would have been easier to meet these people one by one, casually, in the village, or on the golf course; he felt that to plunge right into the whole crowd jabbering together in an over-heated room was going to take the kind of courage he did not possess. 

And the party is rather ghastly for Charles, save for two things: he is reunited with his childhood friend Harold Prestcott and he learns about Dingleford’s newest resident: Miss Jane Fortune.  Miss Fortune, a pretty young lady of nineteen, has arrived with her nanny in tow to open up a tearoom in the village.  Before too long, Charles – a man of action – has made friends with Miss Fortune and is well on the way to being in love with her.  And the lady seems to be feeling much the same, until she is suddenly cutting him in the street, acting coldly towards him when they do meet, and generally not behaving at all like the adorable Jane.

Of course, she is not behaving as herself because she is not herself.  Jane’s identical twin sister Joan arrives in Dingleford fleeing the attentions of a sinister Frenchman.  Hoping to avoid discovery by said Frenchman, she decides not to announce her presence and so, with Jane’s half-hearted approval, Joan masquerades as her sister.  The two girls make certain that they are never out and about at the same time but their very different characters and very different romantic inclinations make rather a mess for both Charles and Harold, who have both fallen in love with Miss Fortune – thankfully, each with a different Miss, though they have no idea.  Of course, all ends well, though I have serious doubts that the tea room will ever be opened.

It is a short, undemanding little book and, to be honest, I can understand why it was not published earlier.  It is far from Stevenson at her best.  But, that I said, I am happy Greyladies printed it and that I had the chance to read it.  I sped through it before bed on Sunday night and it was the perfect thing to end my weekend with.

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Anna and Her DaughtersWhen their father dies, none of the three Harcourt girls (Helen, Jane and Rosalie) is particularly upset.  Gerald Harcourt was a distant figure in their lives and he is easily forgotten.  The loss of the family’s income, however, is not something so easily overcome.  When their mother Anna discovers that they have been left penniless, she decides to move them out of London and back her hometown in Scotland.  Suddenly the girls, brought up on dreams of coming-out balls (in Helen’s case) and studies at Oxford (for the bookish Jane), are forced to grow up very quickly.  It all makes for a very promising beginning to Anna and Her Daughters by D.E. Stevenson.

Helen, the demanding and selfish eldest sister, decamps almost immediately to Edinburgh in search of the excitement and refinement Ryddelton cannot offer but the others remain and begin to make very happy lives for themselves.  Rosalie, having always lived in her more beautiful eldest sister’s shadow, begins to come into her own.  Anna, freed of the formalities of her London life, is happier and more relaxed than her daughters have ever known her.  And Jane, our narrator, finds an education she could never have gotten at Oxford in her work as a secretary for Mrs Millard, an eccentric biographer currently residing in the village.

After a nice slow start, lots of things happen: Helen marries the man Jane had, albeit from afar, fallen in love with and then, in the manner of D.E.S.’s evil sisters, does her best to make his life miserable.  Anna gets remarried.  Jane becomes an author of dramatic historical novels and uses her newfound wealth to travel the world.  And Rosalie, lucky girl, fades boringly into the background.

I loved reading about Jane’s development as a writer.  To me, that was much more interesting than the world-travelling dramatics of the Helen-Ronnie-Jane semi-love triangle.  It is fun to read about Jane’s excitement when she gets hold of the idea for her first story and stays up late into the night each day, writing away in her attic bedroom.  It was this part of the book that felt the most alive, the most believable.  I particularly loved Mrs Millard’s assessment of the bestseller appeal of Jane’s first novel:

“You see, my dear Jane, The Mulberry Coach provides an escape from the drabness of the modern world.”

She took a long breath and continued, “Housewives will leave piles of unwashed dishes in the sink and revel in the richness and prodigality of the banquets which you have provided; miserable little clerks in lawyers’ offices will neglect this dusty duties and be transported to a wider life and more colourful surroundings; girls imagine themselves swept off their feet by the wooing of your masterful hero; fashionable ladies will say to each other, “My dee-ar!  You don’t mean to say you haven’t read The Mulberry Coach, by Jane Harcourt?  It’s abso-lootly thrilling!  Everyone’s talking about it!’  Young men will choose it for Aunt Fanny’s birthday and read it with avidity before despatching it by post with a suitable card…and of course people who haven’t got twelve and sixpence to spare will rush to the nearest public Library and clamour loudly for a copy of The Mulberry Coach.”

As usual with D.E.S., the book can be split into two parts: the first is always the most encouraging, when I am caught up in the warm, undemanding story and foolishly believe that Stevenson might manage to pull off one of her all-too-rare competent endings.  And then there is the second part, with the needlessly dramatic climax and hasty (or sometimes nonexistent) denouement.  In terms of disappointing endings, this book might have one of the worst (best?).  I don’t know whether she was constantly rushing to meet a deadline or only enjoyed writing the establishing part of a novel but I do know that you cannot rely on Stevenson if you want a satisfying conclusion.  Yes, she provides happy endings but in a lazy, deeply unsatisfying way.  I much prefer when she just sort of runs along until she hits the end quite abruptly to when she attempts to plot a conclusion, as she does here.

Anna and Her Daughters has so many elements of a delightful story but, at the same time, it also has all the things that make D.E.S. such a frustrating author.  I quite liked it but, at the same time, there was a certain point beyond which I spent all my time swearing at Stevenson in my head, damning her for always failing in exactly the same way.  Perhaps I just need to stop in the middle of her books from now on, savouring the good sections before allowing the bad to disappoint me.  But I do want to get to those happy endings, I just want to get to them in a more graceful way.

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