Not So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith

Not So Quiet cover

Not So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith was first published in 1930 but my copy is a Virago from 1988. I can hardly believe it but this book has been sitting unread on my Virago shelves for getting on for 30 years. I have no idea why it has taken me so long to get around to it. When I picked it up last week and read the blurb I knew it was right up my street.

Helen Zenna Smith is a pseudonym . She was really Evadne Price, an Australian. She had a varied career, moving to England and becoming an actress, but she became a journalist and writer of children’s stories.

She was asked to write a parody of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front which had just been published the year before. The parody was to be called All’s Quaint on the Western Front by Erica Remarks. She thought that was an awful idea – and I agree. But she agreed to write a woman’s war story and when she met Winifred Constance Young who had been an ambulance driver at the front she was able to read her wartime diaries and use them to help her to write this book which tells of the horrors of war. Something that the people back home didn’t want to know about.

This is a great book which is I think very truthful about the experiences of the soldiers in the trenches and the V.A.D.’s who had to pick up their broken bodies. Helen Smith is an ambulance driver and of course the war is nothing like the folks back home think it is. Her parents are proud of their splendid daughter who’s doing her bit for King and Country. Her mother is not at all interested in the realities of war, but she spends her time on committees and vying with another woman to be the most important person in the neighbourhood. The war has just brought excitement into her life and a chance to boast about her daughter.

The reality is that the women volunteers are treated far worse than the troops are. The ambulance station commandant is a monster of a woman who is constantly on the lookout for reasons to punish the volunteers she’s in charge of. This means that the women get hardly any sleep. After doing their long shifts they have to scrub out the ambulances which are full of blood, vomit, body parts and everything that should be inside a human being – but isn’t. The food is uneatable and even the smell of it cooking makes them feel sick. Soldiers feel sorry for them.

There are quite a lot of detailed descriptions of mangled bodies and horrible injuries, but don’t let that put you off reading this book.

This book won the Prix Severigne in France as the “novel most calculated to promote international peace”.

The Musgraves by D.E. Stevenson

 The Musgraves cover

The Musgraves by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1960. Esther and Charles Musgrave have been married for 25 years but they’re not destined to add any more years to that tally as Charles is terminally ill. He was a widower when he married Esther and is much older than her. His 17 year old son Walter reacted badly to the marriage and took off in high dudgeon to make a life for himself, cutting off all contact with his father.

All that is in the past though and it’s Esther and their three daughters that are preying on Charles’s mind in his last days. Delia the eldest daughter has always been difficult, she has never quite got over not being an only child and having to share her parents with two younger sisters. She’s a needy and dissatisfied young woman and likes everybody to know it, with the result that the other members of the family are walking on eggshells when she’s around.

Meg the middle daughter is going to be married to Bernard soon, but her mother isn’t at all happy about the match. Charles is obviously keen to get Meg settled with a steady husband, looking to the future he knows that Bernard will be a help to his family when he’s no longer around to look after them. Esther doesn’t like Bernard and is really quite a hypocrite considering her far more mismatched but successful marriage with Charles.

Rose, the youngest daughter is packed off to school and with Charles’s death and Meg’s marriage Esther is living with just Delia in the much smaller house that they’ve had to move to when it became a financial necessity to move out of their large family home. Delia isn’t happy with the change in their circumstances, living in a large house with plenty of land around it had been important for her ego and she feels the downfall keenly. Esther is delighted with the new house though, it’s just Delia’s personality that is a problem.

I enjoyed this book about difficult family dynamics and clashing personalities. It’s often the middle child in a family who is supposedly the difficult one so I’m told, but I think that quite often the eldest child comes as such a shock to some mothers, especially if they are young mothers and are an only child themselves. I’ve certainly observed some young mothers treating their eldest as if they are a sibling that they never had and not their child. By the time they have a second child they’re ready to get into mothering mode so the relationship is very different. It’s harsh on the eldest child. Perhaps that was part of Delia’s problem.

Well, as Tolstoy said: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Although I prefer D.E. Stevenson’s books to have a Scottish setting (so parochial of me I know) I did enjoy this one.

The Strongest Weapon by Notburga Tilt

The Strongest Weapon cover

The Strongest Weapon by Notburga Tilt was published in 1972, by a small firm of publishers in Devon. Possibly it was a book which the writer paid to have published as I honestly can’t see any publisher stumping up money to the author.

Notburga Tilt was an Austrian who lived there at the time of Hitler’s Third Reich and this book is supposedly about the author’s experiences as a member of the Austrian resistance. It was apparently her job to get information from German soldiers – using her wonderful beauty and sex appeal to vamp them.

In fact in every chapter the author harps on about her good looks and she is constantly being proposed marriage by German officers whom she has only just met! One of them she actually did marry – AND he was in the SS.

The book isn’t at all well written but I feel I can’t be too picky about that as she obviously wasn’t writing in her first language. However I believe that one of the most important things about being in any resistance group is to keep quiet about it. One of the first things Burgi told some of the German soldiers who were swooning over her was that she was in the resistance!! – with no consequences.

There’s also precious little about what she was actually doing apart from seducing Nazis and travelling about. She does however mention losing her watch and a few sentences later she’s checking her watch! However, after searching the internet I was surprised to see that she actually appeared on TV’s This is Your Life and seems to have been a bit of a celebrity at one point, locally anyway.

I struggled to the end, just because I was so incredulous really. It reminded me of when my oldest brother first moved to Holland in the early 1970s. He said that everybody of a certain age claimed to be in the Dutch resistance. In reality though people had to be so brave to do such work that they must have been very much in the minority. However I can imagine that post-war some people did feel the need to dream up an alternative history for themselves. The author of this book seems to have been one of them, but it was the narcissistic aspect of her personality that I found most embarrassing, especially as the photo of her at the front of the book is of a woman who is as plain as a scone – as we say in Scotland.

Checkmate by Dorothy Dunnett

Checkmate cover

Checkmate by Dorothy Dunnett is the sixth and last book in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles although in truth this series could just as easily have been named Philippa’s Chronicles. It was first published in 1975.

I loved this series and although I rarely re-read books as I have too many books that I want to read for the first time around, I can see that I might read this series again after a few years. Towards the end of this one I feared that it was going to be an unhappy ending to rival Thomas Hardy’s books, but – it wasn’t. It was however a great read.

Lymond had been determined to go back to Russia where he was almost certainly going to be executed by the Tsar, his friends are determined to stop him and with Philippa’s help he is taken to France. He’s not happy about it, but they are still waiting for their divorce and have to stay there until after the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots to the Dauphin. Strangely Lymond intends to re-marry as soon as he gets the divorce. Philippa is still being pursued by the ever constant Austin Grey. But Philippa is only interested in finding out the truth of Lymond’s parentage and destroying any evidence that might be harmful to him.

Lymond is leading the French army against England and Spain, but back in England Mary Tudor is in ill health and having trouble with her Spanish husband Philip. It’s a time of religious upheaval with the Protestant religion gaining converts, but they’re being persecuted for their beliefs.

These books are dense with detail and not easy reads but they’re well worth the concentration needed to get the most out of them.

Lymond has been suffering from migraines, almost certainly caused by stress. As a fellow sufferer I was glad to see how Dunnett described his illness. So many people claim to have a migraine when what they have is just a bad headache, nothing like a three day hell with constant vomiting at its height and often vision impairment followed by exhaustion. I feel sure that Dunnett must have suffered from migraines herself or lived with someone who did.

My Blog’s Name in TBR Books

I’ve never done this meme before but lots of the blogs that I enjoy frequenting have been doing it including Margaret at BooksPlease and I decided to join in. The idea is that you choose book titles from your TBR pile which begin with the letters of your blog name. So, here goes – sixteen of them. I intend to read them before the end of this year.

TBR Books

PPapa-la-bas by John Dickson Carr

IIf This Is a Man by Primo Levi

NNicolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett

IIf Not Now, When by Primo Levi

NNot So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith

GGuest in the House by Philip MacDonald

FFor the Sake of the School by Angela Brazil

OOld Hall-New Hall by Michael Innes

RReputation for a Song by Edward Grierson

TTroy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy

HHow Late It Was – How Late by James Kelman

EEdinburgh by Robert Louis Stevenson

WWinter by Len Deighton

EEverything You Need by A.L. Kennedy

SSpiderweb by Penelope Lively

TTrooper to the Southern Cross by Angela Thirkell

Have you read any of these books and if so where should I begin?

Q’s Legacy by Helene Hanff

Q's Legacy cover

I read about Q’s Legacy by Helene Hanff very recently on someone’s blog and until then I had absolutely no idea of its existence. A quick check of Fife’s libraries catalogue told me that they didn’t have a copy so I quickly resorted to the internet as I enjoyed reading 84 Charing Cross Road so much.

A couple of days later a paperback copy of the book dropped through the letterbox and I wasn’t too chuffed to see that although its condition was described as being very good – it wasn’t as it is very badly creased back and front. That’s why I prefer to buy books in second-hand bookshops as then I know exactly what I’m getting.

Anyway, back to the book. Q’s Legacy was first published in 1985 and it’s a slim volume with just 138 pages. I whizzed through it in no time, I really enjoyed being in the author’s company again.

The ‘Q’ in the title is Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Helene Hanff hadn’t been able to continue with her college education due to lack of funds, but she embarked on a course of self-education through the library. After consulting a librarian who directed her to the Dewey 800 section she began to work her way through the books there, but it was when she reached Quiller-Couch’s books that she really felt she had hit a gold mine and this book is her tribute to him. As all book lovers probably know she started a correspondence with Marks and Co, a second-hand bookshop in London and ended up writing a book about her correspondence with them.

But even after the success of 84 Charing Cross Road she was still living a precarious hand to mouth life, renting a one room apartment in New York and never having enough money to go and visit her beloved London and all the literary locations she wanted to see.

Eventually with help from the publisher Andre Deutsch who allowed her to stay in his mother’s house she did manage to get to London again and met several fans who had been keen to show her the sights. I must admit that I was quite amazed that she had such a close relationship with fans, being happy to speak to them on the phone, her number was in the book. Lots of them even sent her copies of her book so she could sign them and send them back. That cost her three times what she got for the sale of each book! – not that she was complaining. She was only getting 7 cents for each copy sold. She also got a small advance of course.

I really enjoyed reading this one although not for the first time I was very annoyed with Andre Deutsch who had a very lavish lifestyle, all on the backs of the authors that he published and obviously paid very little money. Sadly writers are often so thrilled that someone actually wants to publish a book they have written that they are easily fobbed off with scant payment for their work.

However, the writer and editor Diana Athill gets a few mentions in this book as Andre Deutch’s partner and that reminded me that she was another woman who was kept on minimal wages for years by him – and I bet she was doing most of the actual work. Athill lived for most of her life in rented accommodation as she didn’t earn enough to buy a home. Shame on Andre Deutsch.

Anyway, if you enjoyed 84 Charing Cross Road you’ll love this one too. It has some really funny bits in it that I just had to share, but I’ll leave them for you to discover for yourself.

The Ringed Castle by Dorothy Dunnett

The Ringed Castle cover

The Ringed Castle by Dorothy Dunnett was first published in 1971 and my copy seems to be a first edition. I love the dust jacket. It is of course the fifth book in the Lymond Chronicles.

Philippa has returned from Turkey. She has contracted a marriage of convenience with Lymond, the plan is they will have the marriage annulled within a few years, that should be easy as it hasn’t been consummated.

Meanwhile Lymond has travelled to Russia with his band of mercenaries and it isn’t long before he has gained yet another title – Voevoda Bolshoia, head of Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s army. Any position that brings you close to Ivan is a precarious one as his moods and rages are a danger to all around him.

But Ivan is keen to modernise his country and to bring wealth to it through trading. Reluctantly the Tsar parts with Lymond to allow him to sail to England with ships full of goods and Osep Nepeja who is to be the first Russian ambassador to England.

In England Mary Tudor is Queen and married to Philip of Spain. She is praying to have a child and is busy having thousands of Protestants burnt at the stake as offerings to her God, presumably hoping that she’ll be sent a child from God for doing her best to support Catholicism. Life in England is almost as dangerous as life in Russia.

I loved this one and went straight on to Checkmate, the last in the Lymond series.

Tartan + Tweed by Caroline Young/Ann Martin

  Tartan + Tweed cover

Tartan + Tweed by Caroline Young/Ann Martin is a history of the two fabrics that are traditionally linked with Scotland. It has lots of interesting photographs, some of them quite nostalgic as a fair few pop/punk/rock bands have used tartan as their stage costumes. Rod Stewart and The Bay City Rollers get a mention plus Slade’s Noddy Holder who wore a tartan suit along with a mirror embellished top hat.

I found the Tweed half of the book more interesting, simply because I learned quite a lot of things that I hadn’t known before about tweed, whereas I found the tartan section to be a bit repetitive and not as well written, also I didn’t learn anything I hadn’t known before. However if you don’t know much about the history of tartan this will be a good read for you.

As a Scot I have an awkward relationship with tartan. Most of us avoid wearing tartan except for weddings or nowadays graduations or Scotland football matches – if you’re a man. Scottish women tend to avoid it completely for fear of ending up looking like something seen on a shortbread tin. For some reason schools often have tartan skirts as part of the school uniform, even in England and everybody is glad to get out of their school uniform at last – so that’s another reason tartan isn’t popular here.

Anybody can design their own tartan so there are thousands of different designs now and I think that diminishes it, but I suppose it helps to keep the industry going. The myth that only Scotsmen can wear kilts is killed off in this book. If you fancy sashaying about in a kilt then feel free to go for it! There’s no doubt that men in kilts walk differently, the kilt almost has a life of its own it seems.

When we went to Northern Ireland for a holiday (don’t ask) we were surprised to see tartan EVERYWHERE. It seems to be used as a tribal flag by the Ulster Scots, so you could buy tartan curtains and bedding – you name it and they had it in tartan. There’s no doubt about it, human beings are strange.

As I said, I found the tweed section more interesting, I also prefer tweed to tartan and over recent years the industry has really modernised and become beloved by fashion designers. There are quite a lot of good fashion photographs, starting with Coco Chanel herself.

One really tragic fact in this book is that 635 men from the tweed making Scottish Border town of Galashiels were killed during the First World War, most of them in one attack at Gallipoli. Several of the mills ended up being bought by outsiders as many of the local mill owners had lost their sons in that attack.

There’s a section on Tartan and Royalty. From that dandy King George IV to today members of the royal family have been keen tartan wearers. I must admit that there are times when Scots find that slightly patronising. But at one point Princess Anne seemed so fond of tartan and supporting the Scottish rugby team, we thought she was making a bid for being the Queen of an independent Scotland – but that never came to pass.

Anyway, this has been a ramble and a half, suffice to say that I was so enamoured with the Tweed part of this book that when I saw a bundle of Harris Tweed at a recent vintage fair I snapped it up – but what am I going to do with it? I have no idea.

Cork in the Doghouse by Macdonald Hastings

  Cork in the Doghouse cover

Cork in the Doghouse by Macdonald Hastings was first published in 1957. This is the second book by him that I’ve read, I don’t think these books are all that easy to find which is a shame because I really like his investigator Montague Cork who is now heading the Insurance Company that he has worked in all his life. In this book he knows that he should be thinking about retiring soon but he finds it hard to even allow his underlings to get on with their work without him looking over their shoulders.

One of his staff has agreed to insure a dog for a large sum of money. Honey is a Staffordshire bull terrier and her owner died leaving all of his money to the dog, until Honey dies, then the money goes to the descendants of the dog owner. There’s obviously an incentive for Honey’s life to be cut short.

I enjoyed this one which shows Monatgue Cork to be a keen dog lover despite the fact that Honey is anything but bonnie. She has been used in the past for illegal dog fighting and so Cork gets involved in a murky underground world peopled by a rough and violent element, not what Cork is used to but that doesn’t faze him at all.

The American Senator by Anthony Trollope

The American Senator cover

The American Senator by Anthony Trollope was first published in 1877 and this was my second attempt at reading it, which is strange as I ended up loving it. Obviously my brain just wasn’t in the right place when I lost interest in it first time around. What I love about Trollope’s writing is that he wears his heart on his sleeve and he chose to highlight different aspects of British culture that he found to be unfair and distasteful. In this book it’s the way young women were put on the marriage market at the age of 18 and often pressurised into being ‘settled’.

Arabella Trefoil is from an aristocratic family but is penniless and she has been chasing after various wealthy men for years and it has all come to nothing. She’s now getting on for 30 and is worn out with it all so she plumps for an engagement with an older man, John Morton, a diplomat, but she makes no attempt to even be pleasant to him, she thinks he’s mean with money and is having second thoughts. When another man who’s a wealthy young lord comes into view she’s tempted to try to manipulate him into a marriage proposal and lies her head off to everyone, including herself.

Mary Masters is a lot younger, just 18 or so and her step-mother is pressurising her to marry a local farmer. It would be a hard life for Mary who would be expected to do a lot of the farm/dairy work on her own, but apart from that Mary just doesn’t love the man. Her step-mother doesn’t see that as a problem.

Meanwhile Elias Gotobed is an American senator who is in England visiting John Morton and writing to a friend in America about his observations on British society and culture. He’s critical of the way the eldest male in any family inherits everything leaving the other children to make the best of it, usually by joining the army or the church.

The way the Church of England is organised is another thing that appalls him. This is a subject that obviously weighed on Trollope’s mind as his Barchester books are about the same thing.

He’s critical of fox-hunting, the cruel ‘sport’ which entails riders trampling crops and trespassing, ending with a fox being ripped apart.

He’s critical of the House of Lords as they’re unelected. The voting system is bizarre and basically corrupt.

Unfortunately the senator doesn’t keep his criticism for his American friend. While at a dinner party he’s keen to share his thoughts with the other guests. Mr Gotobed has no tact or sense of diplomacy whatsoever. Freedom of speech is more important to him, no matter how much he upsets his hosts. His bad manners shock the guests.

This was a great read although it’s slightly depressing that one of the things that obviously annoyed Trollope still hasn’t been improved as the House of Lords is still an unelected house. It’s a really ridiculous state of affairs but I read somewhere that in British politics things are usually spoken of for around 200 years before any change ever takes place, so there can’t be too long to go now surely!