Spring Magic by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1942 but I read a 1986 reprint which had to be hauled out of Fife Libraries’ reserve stock. I’m only thankful that they haven’t got rid of the books completely, as they have with so many other authors.
I’m not close to having read all of D.E. Stevenson’s books but so far Spring Magic is my favourite. The setting is mainly Scotland and during World War 2. I’m very partial to wartime books especially when they are contemporary.
Frances Field is living in London with her aunt and uncle, she has been with them for years as her parents died when she was quite young. Her aunt is a very silly selfish woman and she believes that Frances is there to pander to her every wish. The aunt is a hypochondriac and Frances had been very sorry for her, but when the doctor tells Frances that there’s nothing wrong with her aunt and urges Frances to get out and get a life for herself, she does just that, taking the aunt’s decision to decamp out of London to a supposedly safer location as her cue to have a holiday in Scotland and think about her future.
The island fishing village that Frances finds herself in is sleepy and friendly but it isn’t long before the whole area is inundated with a battalion of soldiers from the British army, changing everything, especially as some of the officers’ wives have arrived too. Frances has never really had any women friends her own age before and it opens up a whole new world for her.
Not everything is sweetness and light as Frances realises along with everyone else that one of the wives is in an abusive marriage, but nothing can be done about it. Aerial dogfights and air raids bring the war right to her door and there are misunderstandings but as you would expect – all’s well in the end.
The Summer Seaside Kitchen by Jenny Colgan was published in 2017 and I believe it’s the first book by the author that I’ve read. I decided to read it as I’ve been avoiding really heavy books for a wee while, the Brexit mayhem and such was getting me down and this one seemed to fit the bill as a light read. I really enjoyed this it – to a point, there were some things that annoyed me, but more about those later.
Although the setting at the beginning is dirty and sticky London it isn’t long before the action moves to a peaceful Scottish island called Mure (it’s fictional). Flora has been working in London, she’s a very junior lawyer there and her mother had always encouraged her to get an education and have a life away from Mure and spread her wings. A billionaire has moved to the island and although he had promised to bring work and to invest in the island in reality he has kept very much to himself, employed non-islanders and the islanders haven’t gained anything from his presence. Now he needs the help of a hot-shot law firm as the luxury hotel he has looks likely to have an off-shore wind farm as a view – and he wants to put a stop to that.
Flora is sent up to Mure as she obviously has local knowledge, she’s not happy to be back, there are too many bad memories, her mother is now dead and her father and three brothers aren’t exactly happy to see her.
So far so good, I liked Flora and in fact there are plenty of likeable characters in this book as well as a lovely sense of the island landscape.
What annoyed me was that I think that if a writer is writing fiction then they should make sure that they change things that might be too much like real life. I know a few authors and they often say that they get ideas for their books from the news, but don’t make it obvious. Surely everybody knows that Donald Trump threw a hissy fit when he didn’t manage to get the plans for an offshore windfarm close to his Aberdeenshire golf course thrown out. I think at the very least Jenny Colgan should have changed the windfarm to a salmon farm or even to a tidal wave energy turbine – anything but wind turbines.
Otherwise the story was too predictable and it annoyed me how many times Colgan had Flora turning red or pink, she seemed to suffer from terminal embarrassment. Otherwise this fitted the bill as an entertaining light read.
The Young Clementina by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1935 and the story is told in three parts. It’s told by Charlotte who is working in a library in London which isn’t exactly heaving with life and fun. She’s really very lonely and scrapes along on very little money, it’s all very different from what she expected from life when she was younger. She had been engaged to Garth and so had been destined to be the ‘lady of the manor’ but Garth had to go off to World War 1 and when he came back he was a very changed man.
A lack of communication from both sides leads to the end of their relationship, but twelve years down the line Garth comes back into Charlotte’s life, asking her if she will go to live in his home to look after his young daughter who is Charlotte’s god-daughter, while he goes off exploring. Charlotte is in two minds about it, mainly because she knows that after a year or so of comfort and servants in beautiful surroundings she will find it much more painful to return to her dismal poverty stricken existence.
Charlotte eventually discovers what had changed Garth’s attitude towards her and there’s a happy ending. I really enjoyed this one which has a good mixture of mystery, romance, lovely rural descriptions and social commentary with the ludicrous situations that couples had to get into in order to get a divorce back in the 1930s when the book was written.
Attitudes change over the years, however I was absolutely shocked when a male character in this book in all seriousness declared his love for a thirteen year old girl, the man was much older, old enough to be the girl’s father. But Charlotte wasn’t fazed at all and just asked him to wait four years!! Had I been Charlotte I would have beaten him off with a brush! In fact I might have informed the police. How times change.
D.E. Stevenson was of course a Scottish author and Robert Louis Stevenson was her second cousin.
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 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 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.
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 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 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 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.