Vittoria Cottage by D E Stevenson

This is only the third book I’ve read by D E Stevenson, but I’m finding that her novels are perfect when I’m in the mood for something gentle and undemanding, but still with convincing characters, some insights into human nature and just enough plot to keep me interested from beginning to end. Having read what other people have to say about her books it seems that they vary in quality, but I think I’ve been lucky with the three I’ve chosen to read so far (Miss Buncle’s Book, Amberwell and now this one).

Vittoria Cottage is the first in a trilogy. The ‘cottage’ of the title is located in the quiet English village of Ashbridge and is home to the Dering family. Arnold Dering died before the novel opens, leaving behind his widow Caroline and their two daughters (there’s also a son who is with the army in Malaya). The younger daughter, Bobbie, doesn’t give Caroline any problems – at least not during the course of this first novel – but the same can’t be said about pretty, selfish Leda. Her engagement to law student Derek causes concern for both families, who can see that the young couple will have no money and are perhaps not very well suited anyway. However, Caroline and Derek’s father resist the temptation to interfere too much and leave Derek and Leda to learn this the hard way.

Meanwhile, Caroline has a romantic interest of her own, although she tries to deny even to herself that she is falling in love. He is a newcomer to the village – Robert Shepperton, a man with a mysterious past. What did he do during the war? What happened to his family? And why has he come to Ashbridge? When Caroline’s sister Harriet, a London actress, arrives for a long stay at Vittoria Cottage, she also finds herself drawn to Robert. But which sister, if either, is Robert interested in?

The main characters in the novel are well drawn and engaging (apart from one or two, such as Bobbie, who remain a bit shadowy) and I liked Caroline immediately. As an older, more mature heroine, she is sensible and practical and if she can sometimes be frustratingly naive and lacking in self-confidence, it only makes her all the more human. I enjoyed watching her relationship with Robert Shepperton slowly develop – a relationship built around friendship and trust. I also liked Caroline’s maid, Comfort Podbury, a young woman who has gained a lot of weight due to a medical condition and is devoted to Caroline because she is one of the few people in Ashbridge who doesn’t judge her by her size.

Vittoria Cottage was published in 1949 and the effects of the war on Caroline and her friends are clear – rationing is still in place, the Derings wonder where Mr Shepperton gets enough coupons to buy so many new clothes, and Caroline is surprised when she finds herself in trouble for attempting to send eggs to Harriet in London. If I’m going to be critical, I could say that this book doesn’t feel very original and I can think of quite a few other novels I’ve read by similar authors which have similar settings and similar types of characters. I don’t think that matters too much, though, because DE Stevenson is very good at writing novels like this and, as I said at the start of this post, sometimes they are just what I’m in the right mood for.

I didn’t enjoy Vittoria Cottage as much as the last Stevenson book I read, Amberwell, but I did like it. The ending seems very abrupt and, without saying too much about it, it’s satisfying in some ways but in others not very satisfying at all! If I want to know what happens next to the Dering family, I’ll have to read the other two in the trilogy, Music in the Hills and Shoulder the Sky.

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

the-moving-toyshop I can’t remember where or when I first heard about this book, but I’ve been interested in reading it for a long time and was pleased to see that it had been made available through NetGalley. It was worth the wait because it was every bit as much fun to read as I had thought and hoped it would be.

The novel opens with poet Richard Cadogan on his way to Oxford, where he hopes to find some literary inspiration. Arriving in the city just before midnight, he is surprised to find a shop with the door unlocked and goes inside to investigate. Inside he finds nothing but toys – ‘Meccano sets, engines, dolls and dolls’ houses, painted bricks, and lead soldiers’ – but venturing up the stairs at the back of the shop, he stumbles across the dead body of an elderly woman on the floor.

Before Cadogan can react, someone hits him on the head and he wakes up to find himself locked in a tiny room used for storing cleaning products. He manages to escape through a window and wastes no time in informing the police – but when they accompany him to the street the next morning, the toyshop is gone and in its place is a grocer’s which looks as though it has been there all the time. How could a shop possibly disappear overnight? Feeling that the police aren’t taking him seriously, Cadogan calls on his friend, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, Gervase Fen. Fen has some experience of solving mysteries (there are two previous novels in this series, which I haven’t read – The Case of the Gilded Fly and Holy Disorders) and he agrees to help Cadogan investigate.

With the main characters being a poet and an English professor, the dialogue between them is clever and witty, filled with literary allusions and wordplay. When they need a break from crime solving, they amuse themselves by playing games with titles such as Detestable Characters in Fiction. I’m sure we can all think of plenty of those!

“Got you!” said Fen triumphantly. “You miss your turn. Those vulgar little man-hunting minxes in Pride and Prejudice.”

At this exultant shout the muffled, rabbity man at the nearby table frowned, got unsteadily to his feet, and came over to them.

“Sir,” he said, interrupting Cadogan’s offering of Richard Feverel, “surely I did not hear you speaking disrespectfully of the immortal Jane?”

But the literary references are not always just for fun…they form an important part of the plot too. As a mystery involving wills, inheritances, unscrupulous lawyers and small spotted dogs begins to unfold, Fen and Cadogan discover that a knowledge of Edward Lear’s limericks will be useful in deciphering some of the clues. I loved this aspect of the novel; it was so imaginative and made up for the fact that the mystery itself is not a particularly strong one. The plot relies heavily on coincidences, improbabilities and things which are so far-fetched as to be ridiculous – but none of that really mattered to me. I was left with the impression that the author had as much fun writing this book as I had reading it.

Published in 1946, The Moving Toyshop is the third of Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen novels but it stands alone perfectly and I didn’t feel that I was at any disadvantage because of not having read the first two books. I’m sure I’ll be tempted to pick up one of the other books in the series soon!

The 1947 Club: The Labours of Hercules by Agatha Christie

1947-club-pink This week, Karen (of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) and Simon (of Stuck in a Book) are hosting a 1947 Club. The idea is that we all read and review books which were published in 1947, forming an overview of the literary world in that particular year. Having enjoyed the books I read for the first two clubs – 1924 and 1938 – I’ve been looking forward to taking part in this one.

First, here are some reviews of 1947 novels previously posted on my blog:

The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger

I can highly recommend all three of those – and I also enjoyed the book I chose to read for the club: Agatha Christie’s The Labours of Hercules. I love Christie and as it’s been a while since I read one of her books, I was pleased to find that she’d had one published in 1947!

the-labours-of-hercules The Labours of Hercules begins with a foreword in which we learn that Hercule Poirot is planning to retire from crime-solving and devote himself to the growing of marrows. Before giving up detective work for good, he decides to take on twelve more cases, each inspired by one of the twelve Labours of Hercules from Greek mythology. This is in response to a friend who has pointed out that although Poirot may be Herculean by name, he is hardly Herculean by nature!

The foreword is followed by twelve stories, each one a complete mystery in itself. If you’re familiar with the original Labours of Hercules (Poirot himself admits to having no knowledge of the Classics and has to do some research before beginning his mission), you will know that the first one involves the slaying of the Nemean Lion. The ‘lion’ of Poirot’s first Labour is slightly less terrifying – a Pekinese dog stolen during a walk in the park – but it forms the basis of a case which is much more intriguing than it initially appears. The other stories in the book are also loosely related to the Labours but instead of tackling monsters and wild beasts, Poirot finds himself facing an assortment of thieves, drug dealers, kidnappers and murderers.

Until now, I have only read full-length Poirot novels and have avoided the short story collections as I often find short stories disappointing, lacking the depth and complexity I prefer in longer books. However, this particular collection is surprisingly satisfying; fun to read, nicely varied and with at least one clever twist in each story. I’m not going to discuss all of them here, but a few of my favourites were The Stymphalean Birds, in which Poirot attempts to rescue a British politician from the clutches of a pair of blackmailers, and The Cretan Bull, where a young woman seeks Poirot’s help after her fiancé ends their engagement because he fears he’s going insane. I also enjoyed The Erymanthian Boar, set in a hotel on top of a mountain in Switzerland to which Poirot has travelled in the hope of disturbing a rendezvous arranged by a dangerous Parisian gangster.

Poirot is very much alone throughout most of his adventures in this book. We don’t see anything of Captain Hastings, but other recurring characters from the series do make an appearance in some of the stories, including Chief Inspector Japp, Poirot’s valet, Georges, and his secretary, Miss Lemon (I loved her brief but hilarious role in the final story, The Capture of Cerberus, when Poirot asks her what she would do if a friend wanted to meet her in Hell).

Apart from one or two stories towards the end which I found slightly weaker than the others, I really enjoyed reading this collection. I’m sorry that I’m not going to have time to read anything else this week for the 1947 Club, but I’m pleased that the one book I have read proved to be such a good choice!

Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp

Cluny Brown After reading The Nutmeg Tree a few months ago, I was desperate to read more books by Margery Sharp, so the news that several of her novels were being reissued by Open Road Media came just at the right time for me. I have been lucky enough to receive a copy of Cluny Brown for review via NetGalley, but official release day is Tuesday 12th April so not long to wait!

What I remember most from The Nutmeg Tree is its heroine, the wonderful Julia Packett. Cluny Brown is another memorable character – an intelligent, free-spirited young woman who refuses to ‘know her place’. To the dismay of Uncle Arn, who has brought up the orphaned Cluny, she’s the sort of girl who goes for tea at the Ritz on her own just to see what it’s like and who spends a whole day in bed eating oranges because she’s read in a magazine that it provides revitalisation. Uncle Arn is a plumber, a hard-working man leading a conventional life, and he’s unsure of the best way to deal with Cluny.

It is eventually decided that what Cluny needs is a job – and so she finds herself taking up a position as parlourmaid at Friars Carmel, a country house in Devon which is home to Sir Henry and Lady Carmel and their son, Andrew. With her ‘height, plainness and perfectly blank expression’, Cluny makes a perfect Tall Parlourmaid and soon settles into her new life, taking the neighbour’s dog for walks on her day off and forming a friendship with Mr Wilson, the local pharmacist.

But Cluny is not the only new arrival at Friars Carmel. The Polish academic Adam Belinski has been invited to Devon by Andrew, who is afraid for his friend’s safety. It’s 1938 and with the situation in Europe growing increasingly unsettled, Belinski (who becomes known to the family as The Professor) needs refuge from the Nazis. Andrew himself is still a bachelor but contemplating marriage with the beautiful Betty Cream….and it’s not long before Betty also decides to visit. Life at Friars Carmel is about to become much more complicated!

I loved Cluny Brown as a character. Like Julia in The Nutmeg Tree, she’s a real individual and doesn’t conform to the expectations of others, but at the same time she’s friendly, warm-hearted and always has the best of intentions. Her story is played out during a time of social change and unrest with Britain on the brink of war – and as the novel itself was published in 1944, this adds an interesting angle.

The conclusion to Cluny’s story surprised me, all the more so because what eventually happened was what I had initially expected to happen before Margery Sharp began to lead things in a different direction. I was quite happy with the ending, but I’m not sure whether Cluny would be happy with it once a few years had gone by; it would have been nice if Sharp had written a sequel, both for the pleasure of meeting this set of characters again and also so we could see whether everything did work out for Cluny.

I think I enjoyed The Nutmeg Tree slightly more than this one, but I have been impressed by both of the Margery Sharp books I’ve read so far and am looking forward to reading more of them. I just need to decide which to read next, now that so many tempting titles are being made available to us again.

Small Island by Andrea Levy

Small Island Last year I read The Long Song, Andrea Levy’s novel about life on a sugar plantation in 19th century Jamaica. Small Island is a very different book and didn’t initially sound as appealing to me, but now that I’ve read both, this is definitely my favourite of the two.

Set in London in 1948 but with flashbacks to other times and places, Small Island follows the story of two couples, one British (Queenie and Bernard) and one Jamaican (Hortense and Gilbert). After a brief prologue, the first character we get to know is Hortense. Having been raised by her father’s rich relatives, Hortense is a well-mannered and well-educated young Jamaican woman. With Jamaica still a British colony (it wouldn’t gain independence until 1962), Hortense is desperate to see the ‘mother country’ she has heard so much about and when she marries Gilbert Joseph she has a chance to do just that.

Gilbert, who had volunteered with the RAF during World War II, has found it difficult to settle back into life in Jamaica and is planning to return to Britain where he believes there will be more opportunities. Arriving in London, he rents a room in a house belonging to Queenie Bligh, a white Englishwoman he previously met during the war, and Hortense joins him there a few months later. Queenie’s husband, Bernard, also in the RAF, has still not returned from the war, and Queenie has been taking in lodgers to help pay the bills. But when Bernard finally does come home, he is not at all pleased to find black people living in his house.

Through the eyes of these four very different men and women we watch the stories of life on two ‘small islands’ unfold – Britain and Jamaica. From the perspectives of Hortense and Gilbert we share the disappointment and bewilderment of two immigrants discovering that their new country is not quite what they had expected and facing a level of prejudice and discrimination they were unprepared for. In Bernard and Queenie we see how the attitudes of the white British people towards black immigrants range from overt racism and intolerance in Bernard’s case to a more open-minded attitude in Queenie’s (sadly most of the people Hortense and Gilbert meet tend to share Bernard’s views rather than Queenie’s). While things have changed a lot since the 1940s, these are obviously issues that are still important and relevant today, and it was interesting to read four such different points of view.

I was impressed by the way Levy manages to give each character a distinctive voice of his or her own (though I shouldn’t have been surprised after reading The Long Song, which also has a protagonist with a very strong narrative voice). The book is structured so that each of the four has a chance to narrate their part of the story, going back into the past to talk about their childhood and their experiences before and during the war. My favourite character was Gilbert, though I did enjoy the sections narrated by Queenie and Hortense too. I found Bernard’s section the least interesting, not just because I didn’t like him, but also because the story of his wartime experiences in India didn’t feel very relevant to the rest of the novel.

Apart from being bored with Bernard’s story, my only other problem was the ending, which I thought relied too heavily on coincidences to bring the novel to its conclusion. Other than that, I loved this book! I know Andrea Levy has written three other novels as well as Small Island and The Long Song, and although I haven’t heard much about any of them I do want to investigate at some point.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

Death in Kashmir by M. M. Kaye

Death in Kashmir I have always thought of M. M. Kaye as an author of historical novels (such as the wonderful Far Pavilions) and although I was vaguely aware that she had also written a series of mystery novels, I had never really thought about reading them. Now that I’ve read the first one, Death in Kashmir, I will certainly be reading the others. What a great book this is!

Death in Kashmir was first published in 1953, but set a few years earlier in 1947, just as India is about to gain independence from Britain. Our heroine, Sarah Parrish, is attending what will probably be the final meeting of the Ski Club of India at Gulmarg, a resort in the mountains of Kashmir. Sarah is hoping for an enjoyable, relaxing holiday but the first sign of trouble ahead comes when another skier has a fatal accident on the slopes. Another death soon follows the first, but this time, the victim – a young woman called Janet Rushton – was able to share an important secret with Sarah before she died.

Sarah is now certain that neither death was accidental but all she wants is to leave Gulmarg and its secrets behind her and have nothing more to do with the whole business. When the skiing party breaks up she visits her aunt in Peshawar and tries to forget what she has learned. Soon, though, her promise to Janet pulls her back to Kashmir where she finds herself caught up in the mission her friend was working on before her death – and this time, Sarah’s own life could be in danger.

I loved this book from the very beginning. It’s so important that a first chapter pulls you straight into the story and this one did, right from the opening line – “Afterwards Sarah could never be quite sure whether it was the moonlight or that soft, furtive sound that had awakened her”. The rest of the story was equally engrossing: a perfect mixture of mystery, suspense, romance and espionage.

The descriptions of Kashmir are stunning. The first part of the book is set in winter on the snow-covered mountain trails of Gulmarg and later the action moves to the Dal Lake in the summer resort of Srinagar where Sarah takes over the lease on a houseboat that once belonged to Janet. Both of these locations are described beautifully, but Kaye also chooses just the right words and images to create a genuinely eerie and unsettling atmosphere. I found myself literally holding my breath as Sarah wondered who was standing outside the ski lodge in the dark, as she watched an unknown figure disappearing up a staircase and as she listened to footsteps on the boards of her houseboat in the night.

What makes Sarah’s situation even more dangerous is that she’s sure the enemy must be one of the group of skiers who were gathered at Gulmarg – the same group who are all now spending the summer in Srinagar. Who should she trust? The hostile Helen Warrender who makes no secret of her dislike for Sarah? The jovial, good-natured Hugo and his long-suffering wife, Fudge? Timid Meril Forbes and her domineering aunt? Or the handsome, polo-playing Captain Charles Mallory? When the villain was eventually revealed it didn’t come as a complete surprise – but I have to admit I had suspected almost everybody at some point, so one of my guesses was bound to be right!

The book is also interesting from the historical viewpoint, being set just before the end of the British Raj and the transfer of powers back to India. Through the stories of Sarah and the rest of the British community in Kashmir, I thought Kaye had perfectly captured the mood of a group of people who knew that their way of life was about to change forever.

I’m now looking forward to reading the other five Death In… mysteries. I just need to decide which one to read next!

Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick

Heading Out to Wonderful “When you’re young, and you head out to wonderful, everything is fresh and bright as a brand new penny, but before you get to wonderful, you’re going to have to pass through all right. And when you get to all right, stop and take a good, long look, because that may be as far as you’re ever going to go.”

Heading Out to Wonderful is set in Brownsburg, Virginia, a small town where people live quiet, peaceful lives, where everyone goes to church on a Sunday and where no crime has ever been committed. Then one day in 1948, a stranger, Charlie Beale, arrives in the town with a suitcase full of money and another containing a set of butcher’s knives. Deciding that Brownsburg is where he wants to stay, Charlie gets a job working for the butcher, Will Haislett, and soon settles into his new life, getting to know Will, his wife Alma, and their five-year-old son, Sam. He and Sam become particularly close friends, with the little boy accompanying Charlie everywhere he goes.

Things begin to change when Charlie meets the beautiful Sylvan Glass. Sylvan is not like the other women in Brownsburg – she models herself on the Hollywood actresses she admires so much, wearing lipstick, earrings and glamorous dresses – and Charlie is instantly drawn to her. But Sylvan is the wife of the town’s richest man, Boaty Glass, and it’s obvious from the beginning that her relationship with Charlie can only lead to trouble. And when Sam, who is never far from Charlie’s side, witnesses something he really shouldn’t have seen, his loyalty to Charlie will be tested.

I really enjoyed the first half of this book. From the very first chapter there is an atmosphere of mystery. Who is narrating this story? Who is Charlie Beale and where did he come from? Where did he get his money? We learn almost nothing about his background – and maybe that’s the point, as he has come to Brownsburg to start a new life – but we still can’t help wondering what might have happened in his past. Other characters are intriguing too; one of my favourites was the dressmaker, Claudie Wiley. Claudie and Sylvan become friends due to their shared love of pretty clothes, but Claudie fears that it will never be a true friendship because this is Virginia in the 1940s and she is black while Sylvan is white.

In the second half, the tone of the novel becomes a lot darker. I thought I knew where things were heading, but it turned out I was wrong: what actually happened was more shocking and more devastating than I had expected. It’s the combination of the idyllic setting and the feeling of impending disaster that makes this novel so unsettling and causes what seems at first to be a pleasant, gentle story to become something else entirely.

This book wasn’t perfect – there were things that I didn’t understand, actions that didn’t make sense and storylines that could have been developed further – but overall I was impressed and I really liked Robert Goolrick’s writing style. Although the pace was slow, the story was compelling and I loved the portrait Goolrick painted of a small 1940s town and the people who lived there. My verdict is not quite ‘wonderful’ but definitely more than just ‘all right’!

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review.