The Tall Stranger by D.E. Stevenson

The Tall Stranger cover

The Tall Stranger by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1957 and I was lucky enough to find this one in a second-hand bookshop in Kirkwall, Orkney.

I see D.E. Stevenson as being a sort of updated O.Douglas in her writing style and content, although not quite as ‘churchy’.

This one begins in London where the people are having to cope with a horrendous fog that has lingered for almost a week, but thankfully about half-way through the book the action moves to the clear air of the Scottish borders.

Barbie and Nell are great friends and flatmates. In some ways they’re quite different with Nell being happy running around with lots of different boyfriends and cheerfully accepting lots of gifts from them. She works as secretary for a doctor. Barbie is much more choosy about men friends, and at the beginning of the book she’s in hospital, seemingly having lost the will to live.

When she improves enough to be able to travel she goes to Scotland to stay with her Aunt Amalia/Lady Steyne who lives in a lovely old house called Underwoods. There she meets up with her step-cousin, someone she hasn’t seen for years, and at first Barbie is charmed by him.

This was a good read, D.E. Stevenson’s books have the reputation of being light comfort reads, but they also have a serious side. Barbie has a career that she loves and is very good at, she’s an interior decorator and the thought of giving that up to please a husband isn’t a pleasant one for her. Quite a modern concept for 1957 I think.

Also there’s a moment in this book when Barbie realises that she’s not at all happy with her discovery of an unexpected trait in her fiance’s character. It’s a shock and a game changer for her, she’s wise enough to have a complete re-think about her future. I’m sure that this is something that must have happened to a lot of people, and they have looked back and thought – that was the time when I should have taken steps to change things.

Not just a comfort read.

Jutland Cottage by Angela Thirkell

Jutland Cottage by Angela Thirkell was first published in 1953 and early on in the book the inhabitants of Barsetshire are quite despondent as the death of King George VI is announced, like everyone else it comes as a shock to them as they had thought he was getting better after an earlier health scare. They’ve just realised that they now have three queens: Queen Mary – King George’s mother, Queen Elizabeth the King’s widow and the new young Queen Elizabeth II – the one who should really have been called Elizabeth I of Britain if you ask me!

But most of the book is concerned with the Phelps family who live at Jutland Cottage. The head of the family is Admiral Phelps, retired from the Royal Navy but still fighting the battle of Jutland on a daily basis, with anyone who is willing to listen to his reminiscences. He’s not in the best of health and nor is his wife, in fact between them they are running their poor only child Margot ragged as she is running their house and smallholding single handed as well as looking after them.

Margot’s plight is taken up as a charitable cause by the neighbourhood and as she is taken in hand and spruced up by the very beautiful but dim and madly annoying Rose Fairweather nee Birckett, who it turns out has become very kind and thoughtful despite the fact that she is finding everything too shattering.

The Wiple Terrace inhabitants feature quite a lot in this book, single handedly taking on the national debt via booze tax by the sound of it as they sink enough alcohol between them to float a ship off.

This is the sort of book which I can’t help reading bits out of every now and again, and Jack is usually quite appreciative of the excerpts. Thirkell must have been a great observer of old married couples and their relationships, she’s so authentically amusing.

After reading quite a gruesome crime book it was a real treat to dive into the silliness and rambling writing of Thirkell and re-visit the towns and villages of her Barsetshire. This isn’t her best book, my favourites are the wartime books but I still loved it and for anyone interested in the social history of the time it’s a must. I only have a few of the Barsetshire books to track down now and I intend to re-read them all in order eventually as I’ve just been reading them as I’ve got them. If like me you are ticking them off in a notebook (it comes everywhere with me just in case I come across a booksale on my jaunts) as you go then you might be interested in this list of Thirkell’s books.

Frederica by Georgette Heyer

Frederica Merriville is the eldest daughter in her family and has been thrust into a position of authority due to their mother’s early death. Frederica is only in her 20s but has absolutely no ambitions for herself, beyond looking after her younger siblings. She’s determined to get her beautiful young sister Charis married off successfully and with this in mind she takes her off to London to launch her into high society.

The Marquis of Alverstoke is their very distant cousin, he’s in his 30s and very much the man about town, wealthy and fashionable and has had more than a few affairs but has managed to dodge marriage.

To Alverstoke’s astonishment he finds himself being charmed by his young relatives, particularly the youngest Merriville boy, Felix who is obsessed with steam and the technological advances of the day.

The story is heavily littered with Georgian slang and has plenty of humour. It reminded me of an English upper class version of O.Douglas’ books, which almost always feature a managing but young mother figure of motherless children, and particularly a cheery and lovable lad aged about ten.

A comfort read.

The Four Graces by D.E. Stevenson

The Four Graces cover

The Four Graces are the daughters of the Reverend Grace, a country vicar in an English village. Mr Grace is a widower and his four grown up daughters are ‘doing their bit’ for the war effort; the story takes place in a year during World War 2.

First published in March 1946 but obviously written when war was still ongoing, in the Far East anyway, it’s a deliberately light-hearted tale of family life and sisters in particular. D.E.Stevenson didn’t want to write about the depressions of Total War, she wrote about the inconveniences of war and of course that perennial problem of rationing.

Adeline, the youngest sister, doesn’t really feature much as a character as she is in London most of the time, in one of the services. But she manages to foist a most ghastly person on the family. Aunt Rona (by marriage) has been bombed out of her home in London and Addie tells Rona that she will be made welcome at the vicarage. Well most sisters would have been up in arms at that because Rona makes life at the vicarage very uncomfortable, especially as she has obviously decided to become the next Mrs Grace. But it does give D.E. plenty of opportunity to have some fun at her expense.

The book is light entertainment but it does flag up actual situations which people found themselves in in wartime. Such as the woman who had grown to love her wee evacuee as if he were her son. When his mother decides that as London is no longer in danger from Hitler’s bombs she writes asking for her son to be sent back to his family home. But the boy was never cherished at home and she just wants him there as he is now old enough to be of use to her. The evacuee’s surrogate mother is desperate to hold on to him and give him a good start in life, something he won’t get in his biological home.

This was a situation which did happen and I know one man who was heart-broken to have to go back to the city and leave his country home and family when hostilities stopped. He kept up contact with them all their lives though.

So, this is a good comfort read, but is true to life as it was at that time.

Stevenson was of course Scottish, indeed a relative of Robert Louis Stevenson, and I read this one for the Read Scotland Challenge. I think that’s my ninth one.

Happy Returns by Angela Thirkell

Angela Thirkell’s books could be subtitled Hatches, Matches and Dispatches in Barsetshire I suppose, but they’re always very enjoyable and funny comfort reads for me. I was so lucky to stumble across Happy Returns on a recent visit to the St Andrews bookshop because I wasn’t even looking for her books as I had looked not long before and there had been nothing at all. It just shows you that the inhabitants of the bookshelves are changing all the time.

Happy Returns was published in 1952 and it’s a real bit of social history as at the time it was written the health of King George VI was a worry to people, but it was time for a General Election and so the King had to be propped up in bed to sign the necessary documents. The Labour government has been squeezing the wealthier members of Britain’s population and of course all the ‘better’ families of Barchester are dead against that and all for a Conservative win with Churchill at the helm again. The Liberals come in for a lot of derision – so no change there then!

On the surface Thirkell’s books are easy comfort reads but she always mentions things which were of importance to people, like the fact that after 5 or 6 years of war many of the men who had seemed absolutely normal at the end of it, had been jolted unexpectedly as nobody came home as they had been before and they were all damaged by it in some way mentally if not physically.

As usual there’s plenty of mutual home visiting going on, and lots of parties and dinners are attended. Lady Cora is about to give birth, the Luftons are trying to get over the loss of Lord Lufton but his widow is having a hard time adjusting to being on her own. Their wealthy Scottish tenant Mr Macfadyen (Amalgamated Vedge) is accepted by Barchester society as a good sort. Mr Wickham still manages to get booze and seems never to be without a bottle of something.

Various marriages are forthcoming, one seemingly rocky marriage is saved, but the thing which is exercising the Jorams is the fact that His Grace the Bishop and the Bishopess, as they style that much hated harridan, keep postponing their cruise, which means that the Jorams keep having to postpone their party as they are determined to have it while the ecclesiastical bigwigs are away so that they don’t have to invite them. Honestly, it is funny, especially as the good people of Barsetshire are just about praying for the demise of that detested couple.

What I’m trying to remember is – do the bishop and his wife ever actually appear as characters or are they just referred to from time to time? I’m wondering if they are like Mrs Mainwaring in Dad’s Army and ‘Her Indoors’ in Minder – often spoken of but never seen.

I was swithering about whether to count Thirkell as Scottish, to me she is but to most folk she would be seen as English. Her father was Scottish and she obviously spent a lot of time in Scotland and was brilliant at writing in Scottish dialects, her maiden name was Mackail, her brother was Denis Mackail and her godfather was J.M. Barrie.

I’ll plump for being cautious and not count this one towards the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge as I’ll easily read more than 20 Scottish books this year anyway.

Agatha Raisin and the Wellspring of Death by M.C. Beaton

I’m just trying to clear up the books which I’ve been reading recently, making way for a clean start when 2014 comes around. I did enjoy this one more than some of the other Agatha Raisin books which I’ve read this year. I prefer the earlier ones, when Agatha was still a bit of an amateur sleuth. When she sets up her own detective agency they lose some of their charm for me. I think there are just too many uninteresting characters in the shape of her employees.

In this one a villager has decided to sell the water from her well to a company who will bottle it to sell as mineral water. Many of the other Carsely inhabitants are up in arms about it as you can imagine and as ever murder ensues.

Agatha is still pining for her neighbour James Lacey who as men go is a bit of a waste of space really, if only she would realise it!

Arabella by Georgette Heyer

I’ve only read a few of Georgette Heyer’s regency romances but so far I’ve enjoyed them all, although as a keen vintage crime reader it’s her detective books which are my favourites.

Arabella was first published in 1949 and the storyline is very similar in parts to Pride and Prejudice, but there are enough differences and twists to make it a successful read.

Arabella is the eldest daughter of a family of five daughters and three sons belonging to the Reverend Henry Tallant and his wife who live in a country parsonage. There’s great excitement when Arabella’s godmother, Lady Bridlington invites her to London for the season. As a wealthy woman she knows all the ‘right’ people and can take Arabella about Town and introduce her to them. It’s important that Arabella takes the chance to get a wealthy husband which would make it much more easy for her younger sisters to find good husbands, when their time comes. The Darcy equivalent is Robert Beaumaris who seems to be London’s Alpha male of his generation, with – dare I say it, more charm.

This is a really good read, packed full of Regency period atmosphere. I did read somewhere that Heyer made a lot of it up, then I read somewhere else that she researched the period meticulously, now I don’t know what to believe. She was very keen on having the bright young things of the day using all sorts of slang words, some of which I had heard of but bumtrap sounds to me like one which she just made up for a laugh, expecting it to be edited out – or maybe it was real slang. (I looked it up in my elderly dictionary and it isn’t in it but online I found it’s an old word for bailiff).

Agatha Raisin and the Vicious Vet by M.C.Beaton

I’ve been on a bit of an Agatha Raisin binge recently and although I enjoyed this one I’m going to take a wee bit of a rest from M.C. Beaton for a while.

This is the second Agatha book, I’ve been reading them all out of order. At the beginning of this one Agatha has just got back from a holiday in the Bahamas where she went on the spur of the moment, right after she hears that it was James Lacey’s holiday destination. She’s usually shameless in her pursuit of James, but even Agatha was mortified when she realised that James had got wind of her intention to follow him and he had changed his plans at the last minute.

On Agatha’s return she finds that a new vet has set up business in her home village of Carsley. The women of the village are queuing up for his attentions, but there’s something strange about him, it isn’t long before Agatha is embroiled in murder yet again.

I had wondered how Agatha ended up with two cats, she started off with Hodge, he was named by James Lacey apparently and Agatha didn’t realise that Hodge was the name of Samuel Johnson’s cat. When she acquires another cat she names the new one Boswell. I had always wondered how the unliterary Agatha had ended up with a Hodge and Boswell. Mystery solved.

Agatha Raisin and the Love from Hell by M.C. Beaton

At last I managed to get a hold of the Agatha book in which she is actually married to James Lacey. Previously I had only read the pre marriage and post divorce books.

I did enjoy it as I really like Agatha Raisin as a character, she’s perfectly imperfect as far as I’m concerned, but I must admit to being just a wee bit disappointed that there wasn’t really much of James or the actual marriage involved in the storyline. The newly-weds are already living separately in their own cottages and James goes missing quite early on, but there’s blood in his cottage and of course Agatha is top suspect.

I thought that there might have been more in the way of witty and sarcastic banter between the spouses, (that probably says more about me than anything else!) leading to the inevitable break up but it turned out not to be like that at all. It was all rather mild and it seems that James wasn’t keen on Agatha caking herself with make-up, he criticised her dress sense and apparently hadn’t realised that her microwave is her best friend cooking-wise.

As ever, these books are great for the times when you can’t concentrate on anything too taxing.

Agatha Raisin There Goes the Bride

Agatha Raisin There Goes the Bride cover

I’m on a bit of an Agatha Raisin kick at the moment, well they’re easy reading which is just what I want for now and there have been quite a few available to borrow at my library recently, sometimes I don’t see any there for ages.

Anyway, in this one Agatha has been invited to go to her ex-husband’s wedding, it’s the last thing she wants to do but she feels she has to show her face. It turns out that James Lacey, Agatha’s ex, is having second thoughts about his forthcoming marriage, he has just realised that his future in-laws are ghastly, but he feels it’s too late to call it off.

Another enjoyable romp, although this is the 20th book of the series and I’m not so keen on the later ones because Agatha has her own detective agency and several members of staff. I preferred it when she was more or less on her own and a complete amateur.

Strangely the in-laws in this book are named George and Olivia, which seems to be a combination of names which Beaton likes for ghastly characters as she used them for a completely different couple in the last book of hers which I read. I wonder if she was inspired by a real couple of her acquaintance with those names!