The Toll-Gate by Georgette Heyer

The Toll Gate cover

The Toll-Gate by Georgette Heyer was first published in 1955 and my copy is a Book Club hardback from that date. This is more of a mystery/adventure book and is quite light on the romance – which is fine by me.

Captain John Staples has recently left the army after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, he had a bit of a reputation for being crazy amongst his fellow officers and he’s finding civilian life a bit boring, especially when he has to go to a family wedding in Derbyshire. The women in his extended family seem keen to find a wife for him, but they’re disappointed when he leaves the wedding early.

Looking for an inn to spend the night in John – or Jack as he’s generally known to his friends – gets lost and eventually reaches a roadside toll-gate which is being ‘manned’ by Ben a young and scared boy all on his own. It transpires that Ben’s father has gone missing and Ben fears the worst. Jack decides that he must find out what is going on.

This is a good light read with likeable characters and a plethora of Regency slang.

You might think that a toll-gate dates a book immediately to a certain era but it’s only a couple of years since we had to stump up all of 40 pence in the dead of night on a rural road somewhere around the English midlands. In fact not that long ago I saw such a house and business for sale in the Guardian, you would have to be a keen home body though as you would never be able to leave the place!

Pastoral by Nevil Shute

 Pastoral cover

Pastoral by Nevil Shute was first published in 1944 but my copy is a 1950 reprint complete with dust jacket.

I really enjoyed this one which is a mixture of unsoppy romance and nail-biting World War 2 action via a bombing crew. The R for Robert crew is based near Oxford, they fly a Wellington bomber and have been very successful, surviving nearly 50 sorties. Their success is almost certainly due to the fact that they all get on so well together, they have trust in each other’s abilities and Peter Marshall their captain is a very fair and even tempered chap. His personality keeps everyone calm despite the appalling stress that they’re all under flying their Wellington bomber to Germany on bombing raids so often.

Luckily all of the men are keen anglers and they all go off on fishing expeditions locally, it’s just what they need to keep their minds off the dangers they face on a nightly basis.

Peter Marshall falls heavily for a young WAAF officer, she’s a radio operator and feels that Peter is moving too fast, she’s not ready to get serious. Peter’s relaxed personality changes completely and he becomes bad-tempered and nit-picking around his crew which has a bad effect on their flying performance.

I found the descriptions of the flights to and from Germany to be incredibly tense, I’ll probably give this one a 4 on Goodreads at least.

The Two Mrs Abbots by D.E. Stevenson

 The Two Mrs Abbots cover

The Two Mrs Abbots by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1943 and my copy is an original hardbak, sadly minus the dustcover. It’s the third book featuring Barbara Buncle although she is now of course Barbara Abbot as she’s now married to her editor Arthur and they have two small children, a boy and girl. Barbara is kept busy as a mother, wife and with various war work that she’s involved with, so she has given up her writing for the duration. She’s also the type of person that ends up helping everyone else and giving them her time, and often gets little thanks in return. I think a lot of women will recognise the situations she finds herself in with selfish individuals around her. As you would expect there’s the usual trouble about rationing and evacuees although it’s not the children who are a problem but the mother.

The other Mrs Abbott is Jeronina, usually known as Jerry (a blight on her considering who the enemy is in WW2). She’s married to Arthur’s nephew who is in the army doing his bit in Egypt (possibly). She’s not alone though as Markie her old governess is living with her, and they’ve also had a whole battalion of soldiers billeted on them.

D.E. Stevenson was of course Scottish and if she didn’t set her books in Scotland she often had some Scottish characters in the book. In this one Markie is from Fife and she’s thrilled to discover that one of the soldiers is also a Fifer, well they are very clanish!

There are various stories in this one, quite a lot of characters, one being a young female writer of romances that are very popular but not the sort of thing that Barbara and Jerry are impressed with. I’m wondering who it was that D.E. Stevenson was thinking of when she wrote that character!

There’s plenty of wit and charm as you would expect but this one isn’t as funny as Miss Buncle’s Book, it’s still well worth reading though.

Listening Valley by D.E. Stevenson

Listening Valley

Just a couple of weeks ago I managed to buy an old copy of Listening Valley by D.E. Stevenson in Edinburgh, sadly it doesn’t have it’s dust jacket though. I can’t say I’m all that keen on the cover of the paperback above, but I suppose it’s better than nothing.

The book begins with the Edinburgh childhood of Louise and Antonia Melville. On the surface they have a very comfortable upbringing, it would seem that money was no problem. But in truth they’re really emotionally neglected children, brought up by the nannie. They both have the same problem – they weren’t born a boy and both parents wanted a boy, particularly their father as his family home was a castle and he wanted to pass it on to a son. In disappointment he ended up selling the castle. Their mother was a bridge fiend and playing bridge seemed to take up all of her time. She was disappointed because she thought of her girls as being very dull compared with other children she met, but as she never took the time to get to know her daughters she had no idea of their real personalities at all.

Inevitably both girls marry young, Tonia marries a man even older than her father is but he’s kind and wealthy and gives her some badly needed confidence, in wartime they move to London and experience the Blitz.

Eventually the action moves back to Scotland where Tonia settles close to what had been her father’s country estate. But the war is still very much in evidence with an airfield very close by. Tonia’s home becomes a meeting place for young airmen who never knew when their number would be up.

I thoroughly enjoyed this one, it has some truly ghastly characters in the shape of sponging relatives, I have a feeling that they crop up from time to time in Stevenson’s books, she must have been bothered by some I think! I bet they never read her books though.

Green Money by D.E. Stevenson

Green Money cover

Green Money by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1939 but World War 2 doesn’t come into it apart from a very brief mention of Hitler. This one isn’t one of her best, it would seem that 1938/39 wasn’t a good time for Stevenson’s writing and given what was going on in the UK at the time that isn’t at all surprising.

George Ferrier is twenty-five years old and enjoying a holiday in London when he meets a man called Mr Green who had known his father years ago. It turns out that Mr Green is a wealthy widower with one daughter and he is in need of a third trustee to look after her best interests if he should die. He decides that George is the man he needs, the upshot of which is that not long after that George has the onerous duty thrust upon him when Mr Green dies suddenly.

The daughter Elma has been brought up in Victorian ways by a governess and when she gets a bit of freedom it goes to her head, she’s very pretty and has men flocking around her and she ends up in a dangerous situation, and George has the job of tracking her down. He discovers that the other two trustees are anything but trustworthy.

There are lots of other characters and George’s Irish mother Paddy gave the author the opportunity to write some dialogue in that style, there are moments of humour and the moral of this tale is that it’s more important to be honest and decent than clever.

The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart

The Gabriel Hounds cover

The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart was first published in 1967. The setting is the Middle East, High Lebanon and with that and just about everywhere else that is mentioned such as Syria now being completely unrecognisable having been bombed to hell and back – I found that aspect of the book really sad. Politicians – HUH!

Apart from that the book was just okay, I’ll give it a 3 on Goodreads I think, for me it dragged a fair amount although it did heat up quite a bit towards the end.

Christy Mansell is a young English woman from a wealthy family, she’s in Damascus and intends to visit her great-aunt who had settled nearby years ago, building a large palace for herself. Great-aunt Harriet is an eccentric who has modelled herself on a Victorian called Lady Hester. Before Christy can visit her aunt she bumps into her cousin Charles, he had been her hero in her younger days, he’s a few years older than Christy, they look very alike and their fathers are identical twins. There had been a sort of tongue in cheek expectation that they would get married (so far so shuddersome as far as I’m concerned!!)

When Christy reaches her great-aunt’s palace it’s evident that the place is falling apart and her aunt is on her last legs. She’s being attended by some suspect characters and Christy realises that her appearance there isn’t at all welcome. She’s determined to get to the bottom of it all.

As I said, it does get more interesting towards the end although for me it didn’t come close to her usual suspense and I found the romance side of it to be distinctly icky!

Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart

Airs Above the Ground cover

Airs Above the Ground was first published in 1965 but my paperback copy is from 1967, I really like the cover and I found the book to be a great read. In fact I’m sure that if this book had been written by a man it would have had a much higher profile and might have been made into a film. A lot of it is full of suspense, it’s much more of an adventure/mystery than for instance – John Buchan’s books, in my opinion.

On page one the Guardian newspaper is mentioned as the main character Vanessa March is a Guardian reader. Presumably Mary Stewart was also one as she incorporated a classic Guardian misprint in an article from the newspaper. The word ‘churned’ appears when it should have been ‘burned’. In case you don’t know, the Guardian is affectionately called the Grauniad as the typesetters were always making mistakes. Of course nowadays it’s all done on computers so that isn’t such a problem – or feature.

Anyway, back to the book. Chapter one begins in Harrod’s tearoom where Vanessa March is having tea with her mother’s old friend Carmel. Vanessa has only been married for a few years and she’s had a bit of a ‘domestic’ with her husband Lewis as he has had to change their holiday plans at short notice. From something that Carmel says – it seems that Lewis might not be where he says he is and so follows the adventure with Vanessa travelling to Austria in search of the truth and Lewis, with help from Tim – Carmel’s seventeen year old son who is in need of time away from his suffocating mother.

Tim’s a huge fan of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and the Lipizzaner horses, and he’s very impressed that Vanessa is in fact a trained vet. With the storyline moving on to a travelling circus featuring animals (a pet hate of mine) it was a bit of a wonder that I wasn’t put off by that, although circus acts don’t feature too much.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge. Sadly I don’t have too many of Mary Stewart’s books still to read now, I think I’ve read them all except My Brother Michael and maybe Madam Will You Talk.

The Buttonmaker’s Daughter by Merryn Allingham

The Button Maker's Daughter over

The Buttonmaker’s Daughter by Merryn Allingham was just published last month and the sequel is due out in July. I heard about this one from Margaret @BooksPlease and you can read her thoughts on the book here.

I went from not being quite sure about this book to really feeling sorry that I had come to the end of it, then happy when I realised that there was a sequel coming out soon.

The setting is rural Sussex 1914, in the run up to the beginning of World War I. Summerhayes is an estate belonging to Joshua Summer who had made his wealth in the button making trade. His daughter Elizabeth is now nineteen and her parents are keen to marry her off, but during her summer London season when she was presented at court she turned down two good offers of marriage. She’s an artist and has hopes of making a living through her art.

Relations between the Summer family and the owners of the next-door estate are fraught, it was Elizabeth’s mother’s family home, now owned by her brother who is jealous of the wealth that she has married into, but despises them for being in trade.

This book deals with lots of topics in a time of change. Women’s suffrage, arranged marriages, religious bigotry, class distinctions, romance, same sex relationships and Irish politics – it’s all going on.

This is the first book I’ve read by Merryn Allingham and I’ll definitely be reading more. She also writes under the name Isobel Goddard.

I’m swithering between giving it a four or five on Goodreads.

Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher

Winter Solstice cover

Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher was first published in 2000 and it was the last book that she wrote as she retired from writing then although she lived for for quite a few years after that.

I’ve read quite a few of Rosamunde Pilcher’s books and I suppose they come under the category of comfort read, although in this one there is a tragedy, but it doesn’t involve any characters that the reader gets very involved with.

Elfrida has retired and moved from London to a small cottage in Hampshire where she intends to supplement her income by making cushions and home furnishings and selling them on to a posh London shop. She makes a good job of settling into her new life and making good friends in the area, she has a gorgeous rescue dog called Horace as a companion, but there’s no doubt that the one person who is most important to Elfrida is her neighbour Oscar, but he’s already married with a young daughter.

Circumstances lead to Oscar having to move back to the north of Scotland where he had been brought up and Elfrida gives up her comfortable life to join him there, and so begins a sort of tour of various houses in that area. In fact I felt that it was a bit like reading one of those glossy homes magazines. Some of the properties mentioned were definitely in need of refurbishment and others were very desireable indeed.

I feel that Pilcher had decided to modernise her writing a bit for the new millenium. One of the main characters is a woman who has had a long term affair with a married man and it has come to an end. I can’t be sure, because it’s quite a while since I read any other Rosamunde Pilcher books but I don’t think she had previously had a main character who had had an affair with a married man. I think in most romances a woman like that would have been seen as a bit of a wicked witch and not the main character.

In fact towards the end of this book something happens (you know me, I don’t want to say too much) and probably a lot of people would think that it is just too unlikely but – hold on to your hats girls – some husbands/widowers DO replace their wives after only a couple of months of their death, well they do in Kirkcaldy anyway. I know, I have said too much! Anyway, Winter Solstice is an enjoyable jaunt from Hampshire via London and on up to the wilds of Creagan which is north of Inverness in the Highlands of Scotland, and you can go on a tour of the places mentioned in the book, have a look here if you’re interested. There’s romance a-plenty too.

You can see some images of Creagan here.

I read this one for the Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge 2016 and also for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge

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.