Archive for the ‘D.E. Stevenson’ Category

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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The Young ClementinaWhen I first heard that Sourcebooks was reprinting The Young Clementina by D.E. Stevenson, I was thrilled.  I started reading D.E. Stevenson seriously last year (having only read Miss Buncle’s Book and two of the Mrs Tim books before then) and have devoured many of her novels since then, lapping up her gentle romances with delight and, occasionally, with frustration.  I have had to rely on inter-library loan to read most of them so knowing that there are publishers (Persephone, Sourcebooks, Bloomsbury, Greyladies) out there now who are interested in her work thrills me no end.  I had heard mixed things about The Young Clementina from other D.E.S. fans so had never sought out a copy before but now that it is readily available from my own library, I had to try it.

The Young Clementina is written as a first person confessional (never a favourite style of mine) by Charlotte Dean.  The intended audience is her imaginary friend, Clare.  While I think that is a wonderful (if misspelled) name for an imaginary friend, the having of imaginary friends by grown up women is something I am less supportive of.  In her mid-thirties when the novel begins, Charlotte lives a pretty grim and pathetic existence.  She works in a dull, dusty little library that specialises in travel books, lives alone in a small flat, and has little contact with her lively younger sister Kitty, who married Garth, the man Charlotte loved – and still loves, despite his awful behaviour to her.  Charlotte has a slightly woe-is-me attitude towards life as the novel begins, reminding her (imaginary) confident repeatedly of how miserable she is and how she has never recovered from Garth’s betrayal.  She has had twelve years to recover but instead used that time to become a hermit.  Well done, Char.

Over the course of the novel, much happens to change Charlotte’s life: Kitty and Garth divorce and when Garth decides to go adventuring in Africa, he asks Charlotte to come and take care of Clementina, his daughter, and run Hinkleton Manor.  For Charlotte, who loves Hinkleton more than any place on earth, it is a dream come true.  She still does not understand Garth and why he turned away from her all those years before after he returned from the war or why he has chosen her now to care for Clementina, but she is happy to be away from her shabby flat and tiring job, surrounded instead by pretty things and the countryside she loves.  Clementina is a sober child, affected by her parents’ warring ways, but in their absence she too starts to blossom.  When first Kitty and then Garth die, it is upsetting but Charlotte and Clementina carry on through the next few years, finding solace in each other and in friendship with their neighbours.

The “surprise” ending is as unsurprisingly as you’d expect; if an object of romantic attention is sent to an exotic location and “dies” without a body ever being found (lions seem to be useful this way), hint: he is not actually dead.  He is never dead.  (Unless you are reading an O. Douglas novel, in which case good luck recovering from the shock of not being double-crossed by your author.)  The “mystery” of why Garth went from attentive lover to cold, cruel brother-in-law is equally obvious, unless you are Char, who has spent the last twelve years wondering about this without ever having asked Garth or Kitty directly what happened.  Even more frustratingly, the dialogue is as cliché-filled as I’ve ever encountered in a D.E.S. novel, which is saying something.

The Young Clementina is a pleasant romance, if frustratingly clichéd and in possession of a singularly irritating protagonist.  But I have now read almost thirty of D.E. Stevenson’s books and know she can do so much better.  For the life of me, I cannot understand how publishers have chosen the titles that have recently been reprinted.  D.E. Stevenson was a prolific author and wrote dozens of enjoyable but mediocre novels and only a handful of really good ones.  So why are the mediocre titles (like The Young Clementina and Miss Buncle Married) being reprinted while the better novels languish forgotten?  Why not The English Air?  Why not Sarah Morris Remembers?  Why not Amberwell, or The Blue Sapphire, or Listening Valley?  And why oh why not more of the Mrs Tim books, only the first of which has been reprinted in recent years?  I shall have to be patient, I suppose, and just hope that in time these books will also be reissued but the wait will be frustrating.

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The Four GracesWhen I started The Four Graces by D.E. Stevenson I was instantly charmed.  But Stevenson can be tricky: as delightful and promising as I found the beginning of the book, the second half let it down.  It is an excellent reminder of what makes Stevenson such an attractive and, at the same time, frustrating author.

The Grace family – four daughters and their widowed father – is wonderfully close and companionable, not to mention living in the nicest-sounding vicarage I’ve ever come across in fiction.  Their afternoon teas and evening chats in front of the fire perfectly sum up my (admittedly semi-Victorian) fantasies of domestic bliss.  They banter back and forth, teasing and advising one another, and I could not help but instantly feel attracted to this delightful family.  These times together are the highlight of the girls’ days and, for me, they were the highlight of the book as well:

“I look forward to this all day – sprawling and drinking tea and saying whatever happens to come into my head.  Heaven will be like this – not golden gates and harps.”

The four Graces are: Liz, the outgoing eldest daughter who is spending the war working on a nearby farm; Sally, the “serene and sensitive” homemaker; Tilly, the “shy and gentle” organist who, like Sally, spends most of her time at home; and Addie, the energetic youngest daughter who is out of sight for most of the novel, engaged in war work in London.  Mr Grace is a quiet but intelligent man who remains largely in the background while his daughters run their lives and his.  He is “perfectly capable of holding his own” against them (he does so at one point, rebelling against their use of slang with the perfect phrase “your uncouth idiom revolts me”) but does so rarely.  For the most part, he is left in the background, which seems a shame.

Set during the Second World War (though published in 1946), the action is mostly limited to the small village of Chevis Green where the Graces live.  Though Stevenson temptingly alludes to Chevis Green as “a modern version of Highbury” (which is why Sally counts Emma as one of her favourite books), there are no Highbury-esque supporting characters to entertain us.  Instead, Stevenson focuses on the sisters’ romantic entanglements and, for me, this is where the book started going wrong.

Two men enter the Grace family’s social circle over the course of the novel: Captain Roderick Herd, a rather flashy young officer stationed nearby, and the much quieter, older, and awkwardly large archaeologist William Single, who comes to lodge for the summer with the Graces.  William is very likeable but Roddy is so poorly fleshed out that he seems rather suspicious – not a good impression when you’re supposed to be happy about his marrying one of the heroines!  There are complications and confusions over who is interested in who and by the end I was not satisfied with either of the pairings.

The real problem with The Four Graces is that it is far too short.  If Stevenson had written a longer book and had time to develop each of the daughters (or at least the three who play major roles here), giving them distinct personalities and making the reader care for each of them, then I’m sure it would have been an immensely satisfying story.  While a fair amount of time is spent developing both Tilly and Sally, Liz is largely ignored; a confusing choice, given what an important role she plays in the romantic pairings.  And when attention is belatedly shifted over to Liz, Tilly is abandoned.  It is an unfortunate decision, since Tilly was the only character I had any real interest in, and the one who, early on, Stevenson devoted the most energy to describing.  The book begins with Tilly and discovering that she was not to get any special storyline herself was a great disappointment to me.  But difficulty in recognizing which characters her readers are most interested in seems to be one of D.E. Stevenson’s recurring problems.

Though I was ultimately disappointed by this book, I think I will always love it for the wonderful way it begins.  (Though I may never entirely forgive Stevenson for the way it deflates after such a strong opening.)  It is still a cosy, unchallenging and pleasant read but I really felt that, to do justice to the first half of the story, Stevenson would have needed a book two or three times as long.

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The English AirThe English Air by D.E. Stevenson might just be my new favourite DES book.  It might even surpass the Mrs Tim books in my affections.  No, that’s ridiculous, I love Mrs Tim too dearly see her supplanted even by this book.  But The English Air is excellent and is even better than Sarah Morris Remembers, another of my favourite DES books and one which, with its WWII-era setting and Germanic hero, shares many similarities with The English Air.

Franz von Heiden arrives in England in the summer of 1938 to stay with his English cousins.  The product of a “mixed” marriage, Franz’s English mother died when he was a small boy and he was raised by his strict German father, now a prominent member of the Nazi party.   A reserved young man in his early twenties, Franz has come to England to improve his English (he is a talented linguist) and learn about the English character and culture.  He is not precisely a spy but there is the expectation that whatever he learns will be useful to the Reich in judging the mood and examining the weaknesses of the English people.

Fritz’s early confusion about English culture was delightful.  The English sense of humour is beyond him and the casual use of understatement makes it difficult for him to judge what is meant seriously and what is meant in jest:

Franz sighed.  It was so difficult.  What were these people really like inside?  They made fun of everything, they insulted each other…and laughed; they reviled their superior officers and criticised their government and its administration.  To Franz they were like people from another planet and the more he saw of them the more incompetent he was to understand them.

His English cousins and their friends seem so young and foolish.  It takes a while for Franz to see and respect their strength and loyalty, traits hidden beneath their carefree exteriors.  In the Germany where Franz has grown up, no one is carefree.  His attempts to tell his new friends about life in Germany, about the Wandervögel, for instance, only make him see more clearly the things that bother him about his homeland, things he has been too afraid to admit even to himself:

These feelings of doubt and vague discontent were far below the surface, and indeed, if the truth were told, Franz had never before acknowledged them to himself.  It was only now, when he looked back and saw it all in perspective, that he knew his own mind.  He realised, as he spoke, and described the Wandervögel outings in glowing terms, that Roy and Harry were made of different stuff – he had been faintly disgusted, but they would be horrified; he had been a trifle bored, but they would be bored to death. 

Far from home, Franz initially feels defensive of his country but, when he finds people willing to believe his exaggerate descriptions of the wonders of the Reich, his own loyalty starts to falter.  He falls in love with his cousin Wynne and, having agreed with her uncle not to tell her immediately of his feelings, finds a job and sets to work in London.  The tensions between his homeland and the country he has come to love trouble him; no one, with the possible exception of Mr Chamberlain, is more ecstatic over the outcome of the Munich Crisis – or more devastated when he realises that Germany has no intention of abiding by the terms of the agreement.

When Germany does violate the Munich agreement, Franz (now anglicised to Frank) is horrified.  He rushes back to Germany, intent on getting his beloved great-aunt Anna and party-member father out of the country.  Things do not go according to plan but, for once!, D.E. Stevenson surprised me with an ending that felt well-paced rather than abrupt.

One of the most charming aspects of the book was Franz’s relationship with his delightful cousin Sophie, Wynne’s mother.  Years before, Sophie and Franz’s mother had grown up together and been best friends.  When Franz’s parents were married, his mother moved to Germany, the First World War began and the two women lost contact.  By the time the war had ended and communication was possible again, Franz’s mother had died.  Sophie and Franz are immediately sympathetic to one another because of this bond; Sophie provides Franz with a link to his long-dead mother and he provides Sophie with a connection to the best friend lost to her by marriage and a world war.  By virtue of her age and the times she has lived through, Sophie is more serious than her children and, at first, a more natural companion for the sober-minded Franz.  Their early conversations as Frank stumbles to make out the English character are wonderful, particularly when they descend into the kind of domestic details that D.E. Stevenson did so well.  I especially loved this conversation about Sophie’s reading material; you can practically see D.E.S. winking her eye at her readers:

“What have you been doing all day, Cousin Sophie?”

“I was very lazy.  I got a new book from the library and I’ve been reading all afternoon.”

“It is very interesting?” Frank inquired.

“Yes…no,” said Sophie in a doubtful tone.  “I mean you wouldn’t like it, dear.  It isn’t very good, I’m afraid, but it’s the sort of book I like.  It’s about nice people and it ends properly – she marries the right man and they live happily ever after.”

“Have you looked at the end?”

“Of course not, but Elaine Elkington’s books are all like that.  You can trust her to end it all happily – such a comfort!  Some of the books nowadays begin quite nicely and cheerfully and then, half way through, they go all wrong and make you miserable.  You’ve begun to like the people by that time, so it isn’t fair.”

Published in 1940, it is refreshing to see how fair and positive a portrait D.E.S. paints of her German protagonist.  There is no question that Franz (or Frank) is the main character.  Wynne is nice and good but as bland as most of D.E.S.’s heroines and firmly in the background for most of the story.  Instead, we see everything through Franz’s eyes; it is his outsider perspective and the moral challenges he faces when his allegiances begin to shift that makes this book so engaging and enjoyable.  Franz’s struggles – both humourous and serious – make him a far more intelligent and compelling focus than I am used to in D.E. Stevenson’s novels.  She can write a good gentle, mindless romance (and goodness knows she wrote enough of those) but when she adds some intelligence the books reach a whole new, wonderful level.

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Cherry Blossom by Robert Donnan

Cherry Blossom by Robert Donnan

Every spring, I get distracted.  It is, after all, a very distracting season.  Longer days, brighter days, and certainly more colourful days pull me outside, away from my books and my computer.  Unintentionally, I take a break from blogging.  This year that spring break came earlier than usual, as did the good weather.  It has been a marvellous couple of weeks, spent soaking in the sunshine and walking under cherry blossoms, but now I’m back.

When I stop blogging for a bit, not a lot happens.  I’ve noticed quite a few other bloggers pondering their blogging futures recently but I used none of my time off to contemplate any existential questions about blogging.  For a few weeks, I gave you the bare minimum of content and went off and had fun doing other things.  Now I am back.  I assume we are all good with this arrangement?  Goodness knows there are enough other amazing book blogs out there to keep you busy while I’m away!

But my blogging break also overlapped with a reading break and when I don’t read, everything feels very, very strange.  It wasn’t a long break – only ten days or so – but to me (and to many of you, I suspect) that is an extraordinary length of time to go without picking up a book.  I read newspapers and magazines and far, far too many things on the internet but no books.  I still went to the library, still cheerfully picked books up, but I wasn’t excited enough to start reading them.  Thankfully, my reading hiatus came to an end a few days ago and I’m now happily back into reading mode (and hopefully soon will be back in reviewing mode because goodness knows I have a lot of books to catch you up on).

Kate HardyI eased myself back into reading with Kate Hardy by D.E. Stevenson, which is pleasant and slight – just the thing to start off with after a break.  Published in 1947, it is about a successful female author who buys a house in a small village and moves there, sight unseen.  It doesn’t take long for her to settle into her new home and to find herself with not one but two potential love interests.  One of these men is struggling with civilian life after a very successful army career propelled him far beyond the prospects he was born with while the other is kind and thoughtful but a little bit helpless.  The straightforward Kate tries to help both men sort out their lives, while also dealing with villagers, family members, and assorted other visitors.  It is not DES’s most memorable book but it is nice and enjoyable.

The Misinterpretation of Tara JuppI then quickly moved on to The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp by Eva Rice, which was published earlier this year and eagerly anticipated by those of us who loved Rice’s earlier novel, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets.  I am thrilled to say that this is just as good and, to me at least, maybe even a little bit better.  It follows Tara Jupp from her childhood in rural Cornwall during the 1950s to the dazzling early 1960s music scene in London, where, with her amazing voice and the right connections, she quickly becomes a star.

There are some odd bits – Tara is asked to sing “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight” from Gigi at a wedding, which gets more inappropriate the more I think about it – and some slightly too self-conscious moments, like when two characters discuss a book being written by another character, “one of those novels where real historical people pop up and get involved with the characters he’s invented”, right before hanging out with The Rolling Stones.  Mostly though, it is just a very fun story about how fame is manufactured.  Characters from The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets appear, some with more prominent roles than others, but prior knowledge is not necessary to enjoy the story.

Rice is so good with the details and she creates two worlds – both in London and in Cornwall – peopled by extraordinarily intriguing people.  I was especially enthralled by the Jupp family.  The father, a powerfully stern vicar, has two passions in life: God and tennis.  Tara’s closest sister Lucy, who accompanies her when she goes to stay in London, is beautiful but with the capacity to surprise those who would judge her by her appearance alone: her great passion in life is the history of country houses.  The other siblings sadly fade into the background – there is too much going on here to fit them all in – but I would love to hear more from them.  I shall keep my fingers crossed in the hopes that they’ll appear in Rice’s next book.

Since then I’ve read The English Air by D.E. Stevenson (easily my favourite of her books so far and deserving of its own full post) and have started on It Ends With Revelations by Dodie Smith, which looks promising.  It is such a relief and a delight to be reading again!

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Mrs Tim Carries OnI spent a quiet New Year’s Eve in the company of an old friend: Hester Christie.  With Mrs Tim Carries On by D.E. Stevenson in hand, I saw out 2012 and also finished my first reading of the Mrs Tim books, for this was the last one I had left to discover (even though I have only – so far – reviewed the last book in the series).  Though it is not my favourite of the four, I still loved this dearly.

Like Mrs Tim of the Regiment, the first book in the series, Mrs Tim Carries On is based on Stevenson’s own diaries and experiences as a military wife.  Published in 1941, it focuses on Hester Christie’s diaries from February to December 1940.  It is Hester’s perspective as a career military wife in wartime that I found particularly fascinating here.  When Hester is called on to break the news to another of the regimental wives that her husband has been killed, we hear nothing more about it.  Hester knows – as do all these women – the dangers their husbands face, just as they know how excited the men are (especially the younger officers) to have a war to fight after years of uneventful peace.  The women have spent their entire marriages dreading war but they are at least prepared for it in a way the civilian population never could be.

But being prepared does not make the awfulness of war any less miserable, just slightly easier to bear.  When the novel begins, Tim is stationed in France but, unlike other members of the regiment, does not make it home after the evacuations at Dunkirk.  Hester must go on for several months not knowing if he is dead or alive, trying to stay cheerful for Bryan and Betty (their two children) and, most importantly, for herself:

None of us could bear the war if we allowed ourselves to brood upon the wickedness of it and the misery it has entailed, so the only thing to do is not allow oneself to think about it seriously, but just to skitter about on the surface of life like a waterbeetle.  In this way one can carry on and do one’s bit and remain moderately cheerful. 

When she does finally break down, she finds “in some strange way it is a relief to give way to misery.  It does nobody any harm, for there is nobody to see.  Just for a few moments I can take off the mask of cheerfulness.  Just for a few moments I can allow myself to think.“  But Tim, after some perilous adventures, does return and, surprisingly, remains present through the rest of the book.

Tim’s presence allows the reader to contrast the Christie’s happy marriage with the stressed one of their younger friends, the MacDougalls.  Jack and Grace MacDougall are always squabbling, putting one another down, and longing for opposite things.  They are both so selfish and it is easy to see why other regimental wives disapprove of Grace, who can barely manage to be kind to Hester, her closest friend and, it seems, only defender.  Hester and Tim, on the other hand, have a marriage of equals, described repeatedly as a partnership.  They love but never crowd one another.  Hester notices the changes in Tim after his experience in France and Belgium and accepts that these will mean a certain adjustment in how they relate to one another:

Now that I have time to observe Tim, I have discovered what the difference in him really is – the ‘something new’ which I noticed in him on the night he arrived home.  Up to now I have always felt that I was older than Tim – not older in years, of course, but older in spirit.  I have felt that Tim was my junior partner, a sort of large child to be humoured and managed and loved, but now our relationship has changed and, all of a sudden, Tim is the elder.  He has borne tremendous responsibilities; he has met and overcome desperate dangers, and in the course of a few weeks he has endured a lifetime of suffering.  When this is understood it is easy to see why he seems older.

It is a marriage that can keep growing as both its partners grow – a lovely thing to see.

As the war begins in earnest, Hester records many of the ways life – both for her and her extended family – has been altered.  In London, her brother and his wife must get used to air-raid sirens and almost daily devastation during the Blitz.  In the Norfolk countryside, Tim’s uncle and aunt are enraged by the machine gunning of civilians in fields and in villages by German planes.  More happily, there are also Hester’s descriptions of how the small Scottish town where Tim’s regiment is based handles the sudden and overwhelming influx of Polish refugees – both soldiers and civilians.  It is enjoyable to hear how the town adapts itself (shops put up notices in Polish, bookstalls sell Polish newspapers) and befriends these new arrivals.  The Poles are certainly very present in Hester’s home: her teenage friend Pinkie, who stays with the Christie’s for almost the entire book, gathers a few Polish admirers who she can converse with in French; Tim and one of the officers find that though they lack a common language they can act out fine discussions of strategy; and Bryan (only twelve years old) becomes great friends with one of the younger soldiers and spends his school holiday playing with him and trying to teach him English.  These encounters and details felt much more natural than Hester’s southern excursion to London and Norfolk, which had a feeling of being shoehorned into the book to give a survey of how other regions were being impacted by the war.   It was a little too “Hester Experiences the War for Benefit of Posterity”.

While the war intrudes every now and then, most of the book is focused on Hester’s day-to-day life which, as usual, involves delicately managing her friends’ affairs, taking on far too many voluntary roles within the regiment, and being amused/horrified by her children.  Though times are obviously tense, there is still plenty of fun and, because this is Hester, humour.  Bryan, who writes horribly spelt but still wonderful letters from school, and Betty, who is as blunt and forward as ever, provide much of the humour but, really, it comes down to Hester herself and her wonderful attitude to life.  The world may be ending but she can still laugh at herself: 

The experience of listening to someone else waxing lyrical over the good qualities of my offspring is unprecedented, and I cannot help thinking that Mary is an exceedingly perspicacious woman, and that her conversation is intensely interesting…but fortunately I am able to smile at myself…

I read a lot of D.E. Stevenson in 2012 but, as much as I enjoyed some of those books, Mrs Tim remains my favourite D.E.S. creation.   I could never tire of her and now that I have finished reading the books for the first time, I look forward to many years of rereading them.

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