Neither Five Nor Three by Helen MacInnes

 Three Twins at the Crater School cover

Neither Five Nor Three by Helen MacInnes was first published in 1951, but the setting is New York in 1950, and the book reflects what was then the beginning of the ‘reds under the beds’ era which was taken far too far by McCarthy.

It begins with Paul Haydn on an aeroplane travelling home. He had stayed in the army after WW2 but now intended to get back into civilian life, maybe back to his old job on Trend magazine as they said that his job would be kept open for him. He had been engaged to Rona a work colleague at the beginning of the war but she had broken it off. It turns out that she’s still working at Trend and has just got engaged again, and Scott is a jealous fiance.

Rona has worked hard at her new relationship but it all seems to be on her side, Scott seems to spend all his spare time going to ‘discussion’ parties and it has taken him ages to get around to proposing. It seems that Scott has been wooed by communists who are trying to undermine American society.

This was different from the previous books that I’ve read by MacInnes as her books often feature espionage in WW2, Nazis or post war Nazi hunting. I believe that she got a lot of the ideas for her books from her husband who worked for MI6 and they did move to the US where he took up a post at Columbia University, while still working at MI6, so basically he was a spy.

This was a good read which probably reflected the atmosphere of the US at the time, in common with the UK it seems that people were expecting another war to come along soon. It was interesting that at one point Rona says ‘we don’t execute traitors any more’. Well she was wrong about that and it seems that the authorities ended up executing people who weren’t really traitors at all, such as the Rosenbergs.

Mamma by Diane Tutton

Mamma by Diane Tutton was first published in 1956 but it has recently been reprinted by British Library.

The book begins with Joanna Malling travelling to the house she has bought, it’s moving in day but nothing seems to be going to plan, she’s even having second thoughts about the house. Joanna has had quite a sad life, widowed at just 21 with a small daughter to look after, Libby. It’s now twenty years later, Joanna hadn’t expected to remain a widow all those years but only one man had proposed to her and he was so much older she regarded that as an insult.

Now it’s Libby’s turn to get married, and her husband is 15 years older than Libby, so there’s only a six year age gap between Joanna and Steven. Joanna just can’t understand what Libby sees in him, they seem such a mismatched couple, but as she gets to know him better Joanna realises that she has much more in common with Steven than her daughter has and things get a wee bit awkward.

In an era when 41 year old women were regarded as being over the hill and fairly superfluous members of society this book has some rather uncomfortable moments with the horribly immature but pushy Libby not seeming to regard her mother as a human being at all. This was a good read.

Thank you to British Library for sending me a copy of the book for review.

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

The Feast cover

The Reverend Bott of Cornwall is having a tough time writing a funeral sermon, so he’s unable to entertain his friend who is visiting for his annual holiday. It’s an unusual situation as it’s a multiple funeral for people who had been in a nearby hotel when the cliffs above it had collapsed on the building. With tons of stone obliterating the hotel there was no way anyone could have survived, or been extricated for a normal burial. Then the tale slips back to the run up to the disaster, featuring a large cast of characters in the shape of the hotel guests, including children.

The hotel had been the Siddal family home but with Mr Siddal’s career as a barrister having come to a halt for some reason, they just can’t afford to live in the house, so Mrs Siddon decides to turn it into an hotel. Her rather feckless husband and adult children help to run the place, along with a few locals, particularly the much put upon Nancibel (she hates her name). Mrs Siddal is a strange mother – favouring her son Duff over everyone else, seemingly because he is handsome. She has nothing but disdain for her son Gerry who is a doctor and is actually supporting his younger brothers via education fees.

This is a great read with characters that you love to hate, including Hebe, a truly ghastly child, but it did take me a while to get really into it. Given that the reader knows what happens within the first few pages I inevitably spent my time hoping that the horrible people would get their comeuppance and the ‘good guys’ would survive. It was a very satisfying read considering that I hadn’t been all that happy knowing about the fate of the hotel so early on in the book, it turned out to be a good strategy by the author, it added a lot of suspense – for me anyway.

Thank you to Faber and Faber who sent me a digital copy of The Feast via NetGalley.

This was my fourth 20 Books of Summer read.

An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden

 An Episode of Sparrows cover

An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden was first published in 1956. The setting is an area of London which like them all has a mixture of what had been grand houses fringing a poorer neighbourhood. The Victorian iron railings had been removed from the private gardens in the square belonging to the grander houses, and big holes were appearing in the grounds where large quantities of earth had been removed, it was a real mystery and Angela – queen bee of the Garden Committee – is determined to get to the bottom of it, although someone else will have to do the work of course.

Although I really enjoyed this book I did find it at times to be so sad as the main character, an eleven year old girl called Lovejoy Mason lives a loveless and neglected life as her mother has dumped her on strangers while she goes off to pursue a life on the stage, and doesn’t even send money for her upkeep with the result that Lovejoy has grown out of her clothes and shoes, something that she feels keenly as she has a love of good quality fabric and design, something that her mother had passed on to her.

A packet of cornflower seeds begins her love of gardening and she manages to make a secret miniature garden on a bomb site, the only one which didn’t seem to be inhabited by a gang of boys. But when the local baseball season was over (a game they had been taught by Zassi a little American boy) Tip Malone and his gang turned up to reclaim their patch and trouble ensues. But Tip Malone finds himself drawn to Lovejoy, it’s a mystery to him. He thinks maybe it’s because she always looks so clean with her hair well brushed, despite her obvious poverty. The garden becomes the most important thing in Lovejoy’s life and Tip gets dragged along in her wake.

The children – the sparrows – are the main characters in the book, but their exploits have a big impact on Angela and her older sister Olivia who has always lived in her young sister’s shadow. In particular Olivia who has never pushed herself forward is impressed with Lovejoy’s attitude to life although it has to be said that Lovejoy is anything but a Goody two-shoes.

Although there’s plenty of strife in this book the writing is lovely and it has a great ending so it turned out to be a perfect pandemic read.

I had been under the impression that I had read this book back in the 1970s when I had a big Rumer Godden binge, but I soon realised that I hadn’t, so that was a nice surprise. I wonder how long it has been sitting unread on my bookshelves!

My Friend Muriel by Jane Duncan

My Friend Muriel  cover

My Friend Muriel by Jane Duncan is the second book in the author’s ‘My Friends’ series. It was first published in 1959, which was a very good year by the way! This one was a perfect read for these Covid-19 times, it’s a great light read with plenty of laughs. I took this book out to the garden to read on a glorious day last week and it grabbed me immediately. It’s a first person narrative with Jane Duncan – or Janet Sandison as she is in the book telling how she met her friend Muriel who is definitely a bit of an odd bod. It begins in 1930 when Janet was a student at the University of Glasgow and she was lodging with family friends in a village on Clydeside between Clydebank and Dumbarton, which just happens to be where I grew up (see my header photo – it’s Dumbarton). So I knew exactly where Jane was. On her commute to uni every morning she could see No 534 being built at John Brown’s shipyard, the ship was of course eventually named Queen Mary.

It’s just the wrong time to be graduating from uni as there was just about no chance of any graduates getting a job due to the Great Depression. Janet is faced with having to go back to her family home in the Highlands, but before that happens she is troubled for the first time in her life with toothache and while waiting in the dentist’s waiting room she peruses the magazines. An article titled Are You Lonely catches her eye and the upshot is that she writes off to a given address to get a pen friend from the writer of the article Mrs Whitely-Rollin. This eventually leads to an offer of work in England where Janet meets Muriel who pops up off and on throughout Janet’s life.

This book takes Janet from the age of 20 to her mid thirties so it includes WW2 when she joined the WAAF, working in the Operations Room and getting engaged from time to time as she was the only female there! There were lots of familiar situations in this book, for me anyway. There’s even a character called Alexander Alexander and you might think that is an unlikely name for anyone to be given, but I knew a man with that name, although he was called Sandy Eck by everyone – both of those being diminutives of Alexander.

The blurb on the front says: A riotous romp – moving, funny, fresh and alive. Second in a series that is making publishing history.

Back in 1959 this book cost all of 2/6 which if you aren’t old enough to remember pre decimal coinage is 12 and a half pence. It cost me all of £1.60 on our February trip up to Aberdeen (which must have been our last trip away from home) it was money well spent.

The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay

The World My Wilderness cover

The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay was first published in 1950, her second last novel with The Towers of Trebizond being her last.

The book begins in post war France at the Villa Fraises where Maurice Michel had lived with his English wife, but Maurice had drowned and as the rumours were that he had been a collaborator it’s assumed that the maquis had dealt with him in retribution. Maurice’s step-daughter Barbary had been on the fringes of the maquis (French Resistance) along with his son Raoul and they had led a fairly wild life dodging the Gestapo and causing mayhem whenever they could. The end of the war hasn’t made much a of a difference to their behaviour.

Barbary had been very close to her mother Helen but since the birth of a son to her and Maurice she’s not really interested in her teenage daughter and decides to pack Barbary off to her father who lives in London. Barbary is appalled at the thought of going there and living with her father and step-mother, but she settles down to life there in her own way, enjoying the many bomb sites and continuing to kick against any authority, and embarking on a career as a shoplifter.

As Barbary’s father is a high flying lawyer she’s a real liability to him, she’s not going to fit into his upper middle-class London society, but she can’t cope with the ruffians of London either.

There are various wildernesses in this book which moves from rural France to the Highlands of Scotland then to the bomb sites of London, and also the wilderness that a family can be when it’s torn apart and re-made in a different guise.

I think the only other book by the author I’ve read is The Towers of Trebizond and I enjoyed that one more with its quirky characters and humour.

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple has been read and reviewed by a lot of my favourite bloggers and I’ve always just skimmed the reviews as I knew I wanted to read the book myself – eventually, so I had no idea what it was about really. I did like it, it’s well written and observed but it was the second book on the trot that I’d read about the break up of a long marriage in which the only mistake the wife seems to have made was that she trusted her husband too much.

The North family consists of Ellen and her husband Avery and two children, Hugh and Anne. They’re well off and live in the suburbs, not far from London. Their problems begin when old Mrs North, Avery’s widowed mother decides to advertise for a French companion. Mrs North feels that her son and his family don’t give her the time and consideration that she deserves, a paid companion who will pander to her every whim is exactly what she wants.

Ellen’s one flaw is that she doesn’t seem to realise that her husband is really a carbon copy of his mother. He’s selfish and immature and easy meat for an avaricious French woman. Louise might be younger than Ellen but she’s much more knowing where men are concerned and soon causes mayhem within the family.

This book was first published in 1953 at a time when divorce was beginning to be more common-place, but I found this to be a sad read and I did think to myself as I was reading it that I’d probably read a children’s Puffin book next, in an attempt to avoid the subject of divorce!

Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy

Troy Chimneys cover

Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy was first published in 1953 and my copy is a nice original hardback complete with dust jacket. Everyone seems to have been reading this one a while ago but I skimmed the reviews as I knew I would be reading it soon-ish. So I was quite surprised when I realised that the book’s beginning is set in 1879 with the prologue and then travels back to 1818 via The Lufton Papers which are the memoirs of Miles Lufton who eventually went on to become an MP. He was nicknamed Pronto by his acquaintances because of his active and slightly rapscallion personality.

In reality though Miles would like to retire to the country and Troy Chimneys, a house he had bought some years ago and had rented out until he needed it himself. There’s a bit of a romance and I liked the Regency setting but I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I thought I would.

One thing puzzles me though, I’ve looked at a few Goodreads reviews prior to writing this just to see if anyone mentioned the link with Jane Eyre, particularly towards the end of the book – but it seems that nobody got it – or thought to mention it – or maybe it’s just me.

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 Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning

The Doves of Venus cover

The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning was first published in 1955 and it really couldn’t be any other era. I suppose that to young people reading this book will seem like ancient history as everything is just so different nowadays. I don’t think the type of young women featured in the book exist now, I was born just at the back end of the 1950s – to older parents so a lot of the attitudes seemed very familiar to me.

The setting is London where eighteen year old Ellie has moved from Eastsea where she lived with her widowed mother and older sister. Ellie has hopes of becoming an artist and her relationship with a much older man Quintin leads to her getting a job in a shop painting old furniture. It’s a hand to mouth existence with every penny being counted.

Ellie has fallen hard for Quintin who is married but separated from his wife – off and on, but as far as he is concerned females are just to be used, picked up and put down at his convenience. But the older female characters are often manipulative and avaricious, this isn’t a book that portrays all women as being good while the men are all bad.

London has changed so much since the 1950s and there is now no way that a teenager working in a shop could rent a room in Kensington or Chelsea, and I’m happy to say that in the 21st century mothers have more ambition for their daughters than getting them safely married and off their hands before they are out of their teenage years.

I really enjoyed this one although it doesn’t come up to the heights of Olivia Manning’s Levant trilogy or her Balkan trilogy.

The blurb on the back says: ‘Manning writes always with a poet’s care for words and it is her usual distinction of style and construction that lifts the novel … far, far above the average run’ STEVIE SMITH, OBSERVER

This one was one of my 20 Books of Summer.