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.

20 Books of Summer 2017 update

I’m doing quite well with my 20 Books of Summer 2017 list this year although I had meant to do a bit of a half-way roundup before now. I have veered slightly from the list for various reasons, but I’m still hopeful of finding my copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet before September. I did a fatal tidy up before some visitors arrived and now that book is lost in the stacks which is very annoying as before that I knew exactly where it was – on the floor!

1. London Match by Len Deighton
2. I Claudius by Robert Graves
3. Highland River by Neil M. Gunn
4. The Demon in the House by Angela Thirkell
5. The Dove of Venus by Olivia Manning
6. City of the Mind by Penelope Lively
7. The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons
8. Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts
9. This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart
10. Flowers for the Judge by Margery Allingham
11. Claudius the God by Robert Graves
12. Pied Piper by Nevil Shute
13. Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd
14. Katherine Wentworth by D.E. Stevenson
15. The Bertie Project by Alexander McCall Smith
16. A Memorial Service by J.I.M. Stewart
17. The Madonna of the Astrolabe by J.I.M. Stewart
18. Redgauntlet by Sir Walter Scott
19. High Rising by Angela Thirkell
20. Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

Katherine Wentworth by D.E. Stevenson

Katherine Wentworth cover

Katherine Wentworth by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1964. My book is an original but sadly it didn’t have its cover. As you can see from the one on the right which I found on the internet it’s a lovely illustration of the setting.

Reading this book was like soaking in a lovely warm bath, and it was just the sort of reading that I needed to take myself away from all the rotten things that are happening in the news at the moment.

I suspect though that it means I’m terribly parochial, because the fifth word in the first sentence is Edinburgh and Katherine is walking in Princes Street gardens, just as I was one day last week. I can’t help it, for me it’s always a plus when I can see clearly the locations in my mind.

Katherine has had a tough time of it. She’s only 27 years old but she’s already a widow with two children of her own to look after as well as a sixteen year old step-son. Money is very tight and she had been very down for a while but she dragged herself out of her despondency, concentrating on trying to be cheerful and being determined to keep her independence despite an elderly aunt asking the family to move in with her.

Independence had been important to her husband Gerald when he was alive. He had been expected to manage his family’s estate, despite not being in line to inherit it, and his determination to follow his own dreams led to a split with his family. Some years after Gerald’s death his elder brother also dies and as the estate is entailed it means that Katherine’s step-son will inherit it and she finds herself having to meet her intolerant and bullying father-in-law.

A chance meeting with Zilla an old acquaintance from school draws Katherine into an unwelcome relationship with her. Zilla is a manipulative compulsive liar, but fear not – she also has a brother!

As I implied earlier, this was a comfort read for me, especially as the action moved around Scotland to Moffat and Peebles and lots of places known to me. Old fashioned maybe, but very enjoyable.

I read this one for 20 Books of Summer and also Read Scotland 2017 Challenge.

Orkney Book Purchases

For some reason I never gave any thought to the book buying possibilities in Orkney, but as we were driving around Kirkwall looking for a place to park I spotted a sign saying those wonderful words – Secondhand Books. Luckily after visiting the town centre, Saint Magnus Cathedral and two Historic Scotland properties we were able to walk back to the car and find the bookshop not too far away. So my haul was.

Latest Book Haul

1. The Tall Stranger by D.E. Stevenson
2. Evensong by Beverley Nichols
3. Hunting the Fairies by Compton Mackenzie
4. Rogues and Vagabonds by Compton Mackenzie
5. Cloak of Darkness by Helen MacInnes
6. North from Rome by Helen MacInnes
7. Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp
8. Off In a Boat (A Hebridean Voyage) by Neil M. Gunn

Six of them are by Scottish authors so they’ll come in handy for the Reading Scotland 2017 Challenge.

Have you read any of these?

The Fair Miss Fortune by D.E. Stevenson

 The Fair Miss Fortune cover

The Fair Miss Fortune by D.E. Stevenson was published by Greyladies in 2011, it was one of those books that D.E. Stevenson’s agent couldn’t get anyone to publish back in 1937 when she wrote it. At the beginning of the book there’s a correspondence between Stevenson (under her married name Peploe) and Mr Curtis Brown, her agent. He was explaining to her that publishers felt that the book was a bit too old fashioned as it featured identical twin sisters and mistaken identity. Having read the book I can see what the publishers meant, but on the other hand it’s a mildly entertaining read of the marshmallow or fluff variety.

The village of Dingleford in England is peopled by the usual widows, bachelors and retired army colonels, it is of course a time when Britain still had an empire so one of the bachelors is home on leave from the army in India.

When Jane Fortune appears in the village with the intention of turning an old house into a tearoom, helped by her old nannie – she quickly attracts the attention of two young men. They are a bit perplexed though when they realise that she doesn’t seem to be quite the same person as they had met before, and often seems not even to know them.

Throw in a truly ghastly smothering, selfish mother of a grown up son and and you have a reasonable light read, but this one doesn’t have the serious social aspects of some of her later books. It’s still entertaining though for when you can’t concentrate on anything too heavy.

I read this one for the Read Scotland Challenge 2017.

Kate Hardy by D.E. Stevenson

Kate Hardy cover

Kate Hardy by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1947.

The ancient village of Old Quinings is full of gossip, it’s rumoured that Richard Morven the owner of The Priory, an historic estate, has sold the Dower House. Richard’s wife dies some years before and he sees no need to hang on to the property which has been bought by Kate Hardy, an author in search of a quiet place to write. Kate also has a flat in London but since her older widowed sister and her daughter have plonked themselves on her, with no feelings of gratitude Kate decides to leave them to it in the London flat.

D.E. Stevenson’s writing remind me very much of that other Scottish author O.Douglas – minus the religion, with both of them writing about small communities and usually a young woman moving to a new neighbourhood and having to make a new home for herself amongst strangers.

However there’s a bit more to Kate Hardy which deals with the snobbery and jealousy that some returning soldiers had to put up with when they came back from World War 2 – hoping to just pick up their lives where they were prior to joining the armed forces. It’s a bit of social history and an enjoyable read.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.

Mrs Tim Gets a Job by D.E. Stevenson

Mrs Tim Gets a Job

Mrs Tim Gets a Job by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1947. It’s maybe not quite as funny as her earlier Mrs Tim of the Regiment but it’s still very enjoyable.

It’s at the back end of World War 2 and Tim is still based in Egypt, and it’s going to be quite some time before he eventually makes it back to Blighty. Hester is soon going to be at a loose end as their son Bryan is at boarding school and their daughter Betty is just about to go away to school too.

So when Hester’s friend Grace announces that she has found a job for Hester she’s in two minds as to whether she should accept the position or not. As a middle-class army wife she has no real experience of being a housekeeper, which is the job on offer in a Scottish Borders hotel.

After some swithering she decides to accept it, despite being warned that the lady owner of the hotel is a somewhat difficult character. After a somewhat shaky start Hester begins to enjoy herself and finds that she is valued by the locals and the hotel guests. The American guests try to talk her into going to the US to work for them, but that has no appeal for Hester. She has a conversation with one of them who tells her that: There are at least half a dozen perfectly good reasons why she wants me. Perhaps the chief reason is that I always seem happy and it would be pleasant to have me in her home.

This surprises me vastly, and I tell her so.
She asks if I am really happy, and if so, why.

Feel quite unable to answer these questions offhand.

Mrs Wilbur says thoughtfully that she has come to the conclusion that English women are happier than their American sisters, and she can’t think why, because it seems to her they have a pretty poor time of it. Is it their natures? Is it something in the air? Do I think she should take that as her jumping-off point when she gives her lecture on the Spirit of English Womanhood?

I inquire why Mrs Wilbur thinks happiness is so important.

She looks at me in amazement and says the pursuit of happiness is one of the chief aims set forth in the Declaration of Independence.

This silences me completely, but Mrs Wilbur insists that I must explain my views on the subject. She presses me so hard that at last I am forced to admit that I think the pursuit of happiness an ignoble aim and a selfish aim, and as selfish people are never happy – a foolish aim.

Mrs Wilbur exclaims. “Well fan me with a cup of broth!” and looks so shattered that I feel I ought to order a cup of broth immediately.

That made me laugh. I’m definitely going to use fan me with a cup of broth in the future. D.E. Stevenson was very definitely a Scottish author and was in fact related to Robert Louis Stevenson, so this one counts towards the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge.

Read Scotland 2014

It’s time for a Read Scotland 2014 update, in fact it’s way past time as I’ve just realised that I’ve read 15 Scottish books this year, so I’ve gone beyond Ben Nevis as I knew I would. I don’t know what the next level could be called – do you?

I haven’t been very good at linking to the challenge so here’s what I’ve read so far.

1. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
2. Lanark by Alasdair Gray
3. Rockets Galore by Compton Mackenzie
4. A Double Death on the Black Isle by A.D. Scott
5. The Comforters by Muriel Spark
6. Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford
7. The Cabinetmaker by Alan Jones
8. The Daffodil Affair by Michael Innes
9. The Four Graces by D.E. Stevenson
10. The First Book of the McFlannels by Helen W. Pryde
11. The McFlannels See It Through by Helen W. Pryde
12. Sleeping Tiger by Rosamund Pilcher
13. The Clydesiders by Margaret Thomson Davis
14. The Kellys of Kelvingrove by Margaret Thomson Davis
15. Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin – which I have yet to blog about but I really enjoyed it.

A few of these authors have been new to me and of those I think Compton Mackenzie has been the most surprising and entertaining, followed closely by Helen W. Pryde, I must get around to tracking down the rest in her series.

The most disappointing has been Secrets of the Sea House which was just not my cup of tea and was full of cultural mistakes, it isn’t authentically Scottish at all.

I haven’t read any Scottish non-fiction at all but I intend to remedy that soon, so stand by (Lorraine in particular) for a non fiction blogpost – when I’ve rounded up the ones I hope to read this year – which is almost half-way through already. How did that happen?!

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.

Amberwell by D.E. Stevenson

Amberwell book cover

If you have only read D.E. Stevenson’s Mrs Tim books you might be a wee bit disappointed that this one is not more of the same, it doesn’t feature humour at all, but I still found it to be an enjoyable read.

The Ayrtons are what many families are nowadays, a bit of a dolly mixture family. The two boys’ mother died after having her second son and Mr Ayrton remarried, his new wife had three daughters. Desperately disappointed at only having girls, the second Mrs Ayrton showed no interest in them and left it to her staff to bring them up. School for the girls was not allowed and they were never taken out for treats, no pantomimes for them, they hardly ever left the grounds of Amberwell, which is the name of the house and estate which their father owns.

The parents were completely self-centred and autocratic and the children grew up with a strong love for the house and their surroundings and little contact with the outside world.

Eventually world affairs break into Amberwell, with the start of World War 2 and the boys, Roger and Thomas go off and ‘do their bit’. Mr and Mrs Ayrton are really only concerned about the loss of their workforce as able bodied men join up.

Set on the west coast of Scotland, which is where I grew up, this book has exactly the right feel of how it was to grow up in such a society, where girls were only seen as being useful for doing the housework. Obviously D.E. Stevenson had this same experience herself as she was not allowed to go to university, her father did not want an educated daughter.

Things moved slowly in that society and it was only fairly recently that I realised that amongst all of my schoolfriends, the only girls who got to university were the girls who had no brothers, and that was in the 1970s. I remember reading in one of Mary Stewart’s Merlin books the phrase – girls don’t count in Scotland – so I suspect that she had noticed that too.

Anyway, it’s a bit of a comfort read, despite having a serious storyline about the damages inflicted on young lives when they don’t feel cherished.

One other thing which I have noticed about D.E.’s books is that she always seems to make a point of mentioning her famous forebears. Often it’s Robert Louis S, her second cousin but she was obviously equally proud of her lighthouse engineer Stevensons too, I find it very human and somehow charming that she gives them a name check in passing.