Book reviews – Susan Cooper “The Dark is Rising” sequence

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(Much) earlier last year, Annabookbel decided to do a re-read of Susan Cooper’s wonderful “The Dark is Rising” sequence (her intro post is here), and while I was mightily tempted, I really like to start/read it over Christmas. Knowing the story fairly well, I watched and read the reviews stacking up, many by other lovely book bloggers I follow, and greatly enjoyed seeing their reactions to their read or re-read. Then Twixtmas came along and I read the first two before New Year’s Eve and the last three from 1-9 January, writing this the evening after I finished the last volume.

I last re-read all of these in early 2013, alongside Matthew, and my very short reviews are here. It was lovely re-visiting them and finding new details, coming from either my longer reading and life experience since last time, and stuff I’ve become more aware of in my reading over the years. Unfortunately the edition I have is a horrible one: Simon and Schuster went for these weird covers. And yes, those are post-it notes stuck over “Silver on the Tree” as I have a horror of the Marie Llwyd at the best of times, let alone having it prancing around on the front of the book I’m reading!

“For Drake is no longer in his hammock, children, not is Arthur somewhere sleeping, and you may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you. Now espcecially since man has the strength to destroy this world, it is the responsibility of man to keep it alive, in all its beauty and marvellous joy […] And the world will still be imperfect, because men are imperfect. Good men will still be killed by bad, or sometimes by other good men, and there will still be pain and disease and famine, anger and hate. But if you work and care and are watchful, as we have tried to be for you, then in the long run the worse will never, ever triumph over the better.” (“Silver on the Tree”, p. 272)

Susan Cooper – “Over Sea, Under Stone”

One theme I really noticed in the books this time is Jane Drew’s courage, practicality, intelligence and resourcefulness in the books in which she appears. This one starts off the sequence and finds Jane, Simon and Barney in Cornwall with their Great Uncle Merry, working out a series of clues to find a golden grail, first of a number of items of power which must be used to defeat the Dark. All three children must hold strong amidst the old magics in Cornwall; a classic children’s adventure complete with special map but with Cooper’s deep knowledge of and interest in local British folklore centring and grounding it.

“The Dark is Rising”

Possibly the one we all read first, I know I did (making OS, US more of the “Magician’s Nephew” of the sequence, chronologically first but arrived at later by readers), we meet Will Stanton, who comes into his powers as the last of the Old Ones on his 11th birthday. The midwinter setting is spooky as the world shifts and Will slides in and out of time, one minute carol singing in the old manor, the next learning his trade or interacting with other Old Ones on the Old Ways. Again steeped in British folklore, with Herne the Hunter’s wild ride as a climax, it also reaches around the world with the arrival of a carnival head via Will’s brother. As with the first book, the story is also rooted in the real family relationships of the large set of Stantons, which gives it both a familiarity and an edge of horror. Will’s friend and protector, Merriman, is there to guide him but he’s also pretty well on his own.

“Greenwitch”

In this one, the Drews and Will meet and we find out Merriman is Great Uncle Merry. We’re back in Cornwall and the folk figure the women of the village make is central to the plot, as is good old Jane and her compassion for the sacred object. This time, this one was also notable for a compassionate and perceptive comment her American aunty makes about the destruction of Indigenous American customs by tourism. Jane doesn’t only commune with the Greenwitch; she notices the most important thing about a weird artist who is hanging around. Well done, Jane!

“The Grey King”

Will is on holiday in Wales, recovering from an attack of hepatitis that has also blurred his memory of his quest and Old One identity. He meets the pale-haired local boy, Bran, his albinism seen as weirdness at best, who it’s apparent has his own separate special identity and quest. This has the awful bit about Bran’s dog which is hard to bear, as they come into conflict with magic giant grey foxes and a local farmer who has gone over to the Dark. I like this one, although Will’s quest in the mountain where he magically knows what to do doesn’t feel as satisfying as when things have to be worked out (this is improved in the last novel). The Welsh lore is enticing here.

“Silver on the Tree”

The longest of the novels, and everyone comes together, with Bran and the Drew children having to learn to work together quickly. Each member of the group has their own quest and challenge, each picking up on what they are most afraid of. Unfortunately for Bran, it’s the skeleton ‘obby ‘oss or Marie Llwyd (also a feature in Kent and Cornwall, hooray) which he was terrified to screaming nightmares by as a child and which this book terrified me to screaming nightmares of when I first read it! There are buried lands, figures from Welsh myth and history, magical towers and riddles a-plenty, a Narnia-like train full of Old Ones and figures from all the other books and a heart-breaking decision to be made by an ordinary mortal man.

There’s an interesting point in this one near the beginning, where Will and his brother Stephen encounter a Sikh boy being bullied by some White thugs; I watched for this carefully as other reviewers had questioned its relevance to the book, but as well as working in some “We’re here because you were there” anti-colonialism, it is making the point that it’s through bigotry and blind hatred that the forces of the Dark find a channel to affect the world, and Merriman’s speech at the end, quoted above, links round to this, I feel.

What a wonderful and thoroughly enjoyable re-read, although I seem to find these more scary each time I read them: I had to sit up late to finish “The Grey King” so as to resolve it and not have bad dreams! Thank you Annabel for running the readalong and all the other reviewers who did far more detailed reviews than these!

Dean Street Press December 2022 Round-up Post

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Well, that went well, didn’t it! I mentioned in November as a passing thought that I was going to read a few books published by Dean Street Press, the indie publisher devoted to finding and republishing good fiction and non-fiction, in December, I set the scene in this post with all the detail and I created this Main Post where I recorded all the reviews that people submitted with links to their blog, Goodreads review or Storygraph review (if I didn’t capture yours, please comment on this post with a link and I’ll add it).

What did we read?

I was astonished at the number of reviews that were submitted – thank you everyone! We …

  • Read books by 24 authors
  • Read 57 different titles
  • Wrote 66 reviews of those titles

Robin Walters “won” (there is no prize) for sheer numbers, with 30 books read and reviewed! I think I came second, with my eight. But I loved how many people took part – sixteen different reviewers, in fact! Thank you to everyone who joined in, and a big thank you to Dean Street Press for republishing (or publishing for the first time) these lovely books, and Scott from Furrowed Middlebrow for finding all his imprints’ books, which certainly featured heavily in my selection!

Are we doing it again in 2023?

Well, given the response and the requests to do it again, I rather think we will!

State of the TBR – January 2023

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Looking at last month’s picture, and given that I have added my Christmas books already, I haven’t done too badly! Incomings have come in but books have come off the TBR, too, although from the middle mainly down to my Dean Street December challenge (remember you have until the end of Monday to submit your reviews to me). The pile at the end is still there, but it’s only one pile …

I completed 17 books in December although I have three left to review (two of Susan Cooper’s “Dark is Rising” sequence, which I’m going to review together, and Dave Grohl’s memoir), and am part-way through three more (one my Reading With Emma Emma Read). I read two of my six ebook TBR books (four for December and two older one) although I started one and only have three January publishing dates so might do OK this month. I read eight out of the ten Dean Street Press books I put out to choose from (seven print and one ebook) and one of the other print TBR I’d set aside for myself (the Christmas stories) but I didn’t get round to my Larry McMurtry for the month.

Incomings

Incoming print books. I have already shared my Christmas incomings in another post (see here) and also gathered these ones during the month (only four!):

I picked up “Birmingham: The Brutiful Years” by Mary Keating, Jenny Marris and John Bell in advance of their author talk for The Heath Bookshop, and had it signed at the event. It’s about post-war architecture in Birmingham, at risk, lost and saved. My dear friend Cari bought me Alison Mariella Désir’s “Running While Black: Finding Freedom in a Sport that Wasn’t Built for Us” at her launch event and had it signed for me – this is a US book and I’d love to know if anyone has seen similar from the UK. My lovely friend Chrissie popped Peter Oborne’s “Basil D’Oliveira: Cricket and Conspiracy the Untold Story” through my letterbox the other day as she knows I enjoy a sports book, and OUP have kindly sent me Carl Abbott’s “Suburbs: A Very Short Introduction” to review for Shiny New Books.

I won five NetGalley books this month:

Elizabeth Day’s “Friendaholic: Confessions of a Friendship Addict” (published in March) is a non-fiction account of her own and others’ thoughts and research on the phenomenon of friendship. Libby Page wrote “The Lido” and “The 24-hour Cafe” which I really enjoyed (and I might just have bought “The Island Home” on Kindle as I missed that one) and her “The Vintage Shop of Second Chances” (February) is another warm community novel. I enjoyed Julie Shackman‘s “A Scottish Highland Surprise” so was pleased to be offered “A Scottish Country Escape” (March) by the publisher. Anika Hussain’s “This is How You Fall in Love” (February) is a South Asian YA romcom and Krystle Zara Appiah’s “Rootless” (April) looks at the “happily ever after” as a British-Ghanaian marriage falls into crisis.

And I bought no e-books (hooray!)

So that was 17 read and 17 coming in in December – I call that a win in a busy month for incomings!

Currently reading

I’m currently still reading Jini Reddy’s “Wanderland” with Emma, seeking the mystic places of Britain with the author; we should have it finished and reviewed soon and it’s been an interesting if a little frustrating read so far. I’ve decided to use Annabookbel’s “Nordic FINDS” challenge to finish that Icelandic Sagas book I’ve had on the go for EVER so am picking that up for 20 minutes or so a day. And I’m part-way through one of my December NetGalley reads, Eris Young’s “Ace Voices” about the asexual spectrum and people’s everyday experiences.

Coming up

This month, I’ll also be reading my Larry McMurtry from December – “The Evening Star”, which I wanted to do justice as it’s a big book. Then I have two review books to prioritise: Mary Gordon’s “Chase of the Wild Goose” which is “part biography, part novel, part spiritual memoir” about the Ladies of Llangollen, published by the fab young publishing house, Lurid Editions, and the aforementioned “Suburbs: A Very Short Introduction” from OUP for Shiny.

My NetGalley TBR for January has just these three books, but I have one to finish and one to read from my December books and those two September/October ones. I reckon I can manage seven in the month, right?

Colin Grant’s “I’m Black so You Don’t Have to Be” is an intergenerational biography which places the author’s British-Jamaican identity in context; Nell Zink’s “Avalon” is a coming-of-age novel set in the context of late-capitalist California, and Jyoti Patel’s “The Things that We Lost” is a debut novel covering families and mental health in the British Asian and Black communities. With the ones I’m currently reading (including my readalong which will only take another week or so), that’s three books to finish and nine to read in full, though I would also like to get to Barbara Kingsolver’s “Demon Copperhead”, which Matthew has finally finished reading!

Reading Challenges

I am not going to do an author reading challenge this year for the first time in a decade or so. I have two Larry McMurtrys to finish and then I’m going to concentrate on my TBR (I will do Dewithon, Reading Ireland, 20 Books of Summer, NonFiction November, AusReading Month and Novellas in November as well as running Dean Street December again, plus Simon and Karen’s two Year Weeks, but I will fulfil all those from my TBR). I have also realised that I buy hardback books only to find the paperback is out by the time I get round to reading them, so I am going to prioritise the newer hardbacks on the TBR and then try to read any more that I acquire as I go. What are your reading intentions for 2023?


How was your December reading? What are you reading this month? Have you read or picked up any of my selection?

Book reviews – Dayo Forster – “Reading the Ceiling”

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Squishing in one more read for my Dean Street December challenge, taking the total to I believe sixty, which feels amazing!

*** Important update: participants have until the end (UK time) of Monday 2 January to submit their review links to me – I will do a round-up post once I’ve added the last few ***

The main post for the challenge is here. This was the one Kindle book I included (I do have a couple of Elizabeth Fairs on there I was hoping to get to but in fact I’ve “only” managed to read eight out of the ten here) and is the only modern DSP book I’ve read so far, published in 2007, by an author from The Gambia and set mainly there, so quite different from the other books I and others have read for the challenge – but REALLY GOOD still! You can find a link to the book here.

Dayo Forster – “Reading the Ceiling”

(03 October 2022, bought online, ebook)

Six months hasn’t been long enough to get me used to the inconsistency of English weather. It’s been long enough to help me shed the disappointment of Reuben – who I chose on a whim only to find myself in a muddy pool of self-pity. Sometimes, when I think of what he would have expected of me – I shudder. Me, to declare him as my boyfriend and allow him to claw my body. And to drift towards marriage with thorough approval from both families, having achieved the rare magic: “Krio titi marraid Krio boy”. Thank goodness I could leave.

As Ayodele turns 18, kept in check by her mum and, along with her younger twin sisters, exhorted to be a good, chaste girl, she determines to lose her virginity and start her adult life. But who should be the man who does the deed? She makes a list, then goes off to a disco with her best friends … and from here the narrative splits, so, like Theodora Benson’s “Which Way”, we return to the disco three times and, as she chooses a different man each time, follow Ayodele’s life as it turns out based on her choice.

Three times, she receives a letter about a university scholarship, and goes to England to study twice, each time she follows a different path through love and her career, twice losing a friend, once more close than the other time, and once staying in The Gambia and becoming a second wife, with all the potential strife that involves. Each time, her mother dies, and the descriptions become more detailed, until the third section feels almost mainly about that, very moving and detailed.

Pleasingly, to me, it lacks clumsy explanations of specific cultural terms and items, with only text in a different language being casually translated. This was a first novel which was shortlisted for a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2007 and republished by Dean Street Press in 2015: it’s astoundingly self-assured and technically well done for a first novel, especially with such a strong and complex concept. For example, we’re not told the timeline, but the clothes and music set the beginning of the novel in its context.

I would read more by this author, although it doesn’t look like she’s written any more novels since this one; she writes about this book interestingly here, however.

This was Book 8 in my Dean Street December challenge.

Book reviews – Molly Clavering – “Susan Settles Down” and “Touch not the Nettle”

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Two more reads for my Dean Street December challenge, as the total read by everyone gets near sixty! The main post for the challenge is here. These two were more lovely Furrowed Middlebrow imprint books, given to me for my birthday this year by my best friend Emma: my birthday pile is here and it was recent in terms of my TBR, so not surprising that I’ve only read one book of Maya Angelou essays, these two and “Anna and her Daughters” so far. These are a pair of books so I can’t say too much for fear of spoilers, but they’re very good ones and I recommend reading both for maximum enjoyment! These two get me up to seven read for my own Dean Street December and I have one last, maybe surprising, one on the go …

Molly Clavering – “Susan Settles Down”

(21 January 2022, from Emma)

When, in a fury of revolt against the domestic cares with which she, an unwilling Martha, was cumbered, Susan rushed out of doors, or even thrust her head out of a wide-flung window, a deep peace instantly fell on her, and she returned soothed and refreshed. (p. 38)

We are introduced first to Peggy, daughter of the Manse in a small town in the Scottish borders, but the narrative centres on her and the people who come to live in a neighbouring house with farmland, Oliver, invalided out of the Navy, and his sister Susan, aged 33 but having given up on love and excitement after a sad mistake in earlier life, who is housekeeping for them. Taciturn Jed, a neighbouring farmer, completes the positive characters, and then there are the awful Pringle sisters, who spread nasty gossip wherever they go, as well as being figures of fun.

We see Susan settle in to country life and realise it’s much nicer than town life, and Clavering’s descriptions of the local area and its seasons are as usual beautifully done. There are misunderstandings aplenty, but all sorted through, and dear Peggy does her very best to make things better for people. Susan is also, pleasingly, a novelist, but is a bit of a nightmare when she’s writing – I imagine a bit of a self-portrait of the author there!

Molly Clavering – “Touch Not the Nettle”

(21 January 2022, from Emma)

In the sequel to “Susan Settles Down” we find ourselves in the same community about three years later, the established couples fully established and Amanda, a fairly young relative of one of them being thrust upon them after her aviator husband has gone missing. But Amanda’s marriage wasn’t what it might have seemed, and her early disillusionment on matters of the heart makes her realise a kindred spirit when she meets one in a lonely, angry man who lives locally with his peculiar sister. Although they are drawn together, it seems there will be no future in it, so a vein of upset runs through the book.

Again, though, we have local events – fairs and races – local characters (the dreadful Miss Pringles and their parrot) and the lovely descriptions of the Borders through the seasons that Clavering should be better known for. An excellent pair of reads.

These were Books 6 and 7 in my Dean Street December challenge.

Book review – Margery Sharp – “Fanfare for Tin Trumpets”

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Yes, another read for my Dean Street December challenge, as the total read by everyone climbs past forty (I’m amazed and thrilled!). The main post for the challenge is here. We’re on to the second row of my picture (although I’m taking a short break for two Christmas-themed books now), this is another lovely Furrowed Middlebrow imprint book, and again from Ali for Christmas, and so now I have read seven of the books in this pile! The next ones come from my birthday pile. Margery Sharp is a writer I’ve been reading for a good while, back to when my friend Jane used to run a Margery Sharp week and she started to be reissued.

Margery Sharp – “Fanfare for Tin Trumpets”

(25 December 2021, from Ali)

“I’ve put myself down as a playwright,” he told Henry that evening. (It was seven o’clock, the meeting did not begin till eight-thirty, but he had already changed his collar.) “I don’t know whether I mentioned it, but I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s my real line.”

It was quite true: almost immediately after their arrival in Bloom Street, Alistair had come to the conclusion that he would stop writing novels and write plays. Plays, as he now pointed out to his friend, admitted of a more direct attack on the emotions, satisfied eye and ear as well as intellect, and were altogether far more suitable vehicles for his art.

“They’re much shorter to write, too,” added Henry.

Alistair looked at him sharply. It was either the first or the last thing on earth one would expect from Henry, but he had no means of ascertaining which. (p. 35)

Alistair French, an unwilling teacher, throws up his job and moves into lodgings for a year with his best friend, having inherited £100 from his distant and peculiar father. Off he goes and we get all the colour and excitement of the “setting up home” theme I love in mid-century novels, here furnishing a Room and all the business that goes around washing and having a woman “in” and meeting the other inhabitants of a somewhat chaotic house in West London (they’ve moved to these excitements from Norbury). Winnie Parker is the chief inhabitant of the house, living with her frowsty mother/grandmother, taking in lame ducks, surrounded by a cloud of young men but with a central tenet never to be unpleasant to anybody which is very sweet.

Now, Alistair has, for some reason, decided to Write for his year, while his friend Henry is at teacher training college, and we see his struggles as he moves from novels (if he writes all day, he can write two novels and forty short stories in his year: as it is, he produces half a play script) to short stories, to plays. He has one moment of amazing luck and is whirled half into the land of showbiz, but fatally, he meets the fragrant Cressida, falls for her, and spends all the rest of his time (and meagre resources) on her rather than his writing.

Meanwhile, we see parts of the book from Winnie’s point of view, and there’s a very interesting passage where she realises her own guiding principle, that her body is more fastidious than her mind, when touching the alternate satisfying wooden counter and greasy metal edge in a shop. Sharp is never run of the mill, that’s for sure.

I should mention there are a couple of pages at a boxing match which are overtly antisemitic; unfortunately the setting is important for the scene so I’m not sure how they could have been excised; knowing they are at the only boxing match in the book means the reader who has read this review can skim them. “Of its time” (this book was originally published in 1932) but not nice now.

Alistair not getting far with either of his aims and having to admit the reality of the situation could make for a depressing book, but the lovely characters and his final realisations leave it positive, with the set pieces (two English people mistaking each other for French people in the park; a literary meeting) and heartwarming friendship of Winnie the most important takeaways. Did I mention it’s also very funny? I chuckled out loud a number of times when reading it; Sharp has a quietly acerbic way of pricking pretensions and showing us the truth underneath the facade, and is a writer I heartily recommend.

This was Book 5 in my Dean Street December challenge.

I got another Bookish Beck Serendipity moment out of this one: as in “The Swiss Summer“, though that book had more of it, there’s a sudden flash forward so we know what will happen in two years’ time, just the once. A somewhat startling sentence that stood out from the run of the narrative, though.

Book review – Stella Gibbons – “The Swiss Summer”

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I’m getting on nicely with my own Dean Street December challenge – and I’m so pleased that so many people are taking part and submitting their reviews! You can find the main post here where we’re building up a nice number of reviews during the month and you can see this post for all the detail. Finishing off the top row of my picture, this is another lovely Furrowed Middlebrow imprint book, again arriving from Ali for Christmas, and so of course I’ve now read six of the books in this pile, and have started the last one so will get Christmas 2021 nearly finished by Christmas 2022!). Stella Gibbons is very much more than just the writer of “Cold Comfort Farm”, but her books are often just slightly peculiar, this not being an exception.

Stella Gibbons – “The Swiss Summer”

(25 December 2021, from Ali)

Yes, the situation was more promising than she had at first thought; two romantic boys staying in a chalet miles from anywhere with a charming middle-aged woman – it must lead to trouble. Freda would be too busy cataloguing and making inventories to spend much time with the trio, and drama would develop unchecked by a fourth person’s presence. (p. 66)

In this engaging and substantial novel (249 pages but much smaller print than many of them), first published in 1951, Gibbons turns her beady eye on the middle classes and their travelling habits. Rather surprisingly, Lucy Cottrell, having visited an elderly woman and met her unpromising companion and Lady Dalgleish having taken a fancy to her, finds herself staying at Lady D’s Swiss chalet for the summer, with the aforementioned Freda Blandish, with the aim of cataloguing the contents and preparing it for sale or inheritance. Once there, looked after by the uncompromising Utta, who regards the chalet and the Dalgleishes as her personal property and is quick to take offence, they have very different guests to visit (Freda her unpromising daughter and several paying guests, Lucy simply two young men, one her godson, who she’d like to see) and different attitudes to the Swiss scenery (Freda isn’t bothered, Lucy we feel will be sustained by it through her life from now on.

Lucy harbours the secret sorrow of her childless state and while Freda is cutting about it, Asta, her daughter, is taken in hand by kind, careful Lucy, given some tips and hints and claims a sort of daughterhood which is quite moving. There are the usual battles among paying guests (especially the last, unrelated one), satire of a bright young girl with ambitions for her marriage and a careful delineation of how people can influence one another for good or for not.

Chapters move between different viewpoints, which is done technically well and rounds out the story: I felt very sympathetic towards Utta, for example. Of course there’s a climax and a nicely rounded-off story; as I said, being Gibbons, it’s just a bit odd here and there: there are tiny flashes forward which act as a guide to how Lucy and Asta’s lives will turn out suddenly inserted into the text; the shallow Kay only gets the imaginings of Lucy for her future.

An absorbing and engaging read with a lovely setting beautifully described.

This was Book 4 in my Dean Street December challenge.

Another Bookish Beck Serendipity moment occurred in this one: both Molly Clavering’s “Dear Hugo” and this novel feature the issue of only being able to take a certain amount of currency out of the UK, thus constraining holidays.

Book review – D. E. Stevenson – “Smouldering Fire”

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I’ve finished my third read for Dean Street December! I am reading them in order of acquisition, so it’s the third book along in the top row of the picture. You can find the main post here where we’re building up a nice number of reviews during the month and you can see this post for all the detail. This is yet another Furrowed Middlebrow imprint book, this time from Ali, and so of course I’ve now read five of the books in this pile, and should get another two done this month). I’ve read a good few D. E. Stevenson books so far, ranging from Mrs Tim’s military adventures to family sagas set in Scotland, but this one was set in the Highlands and with an almost timeless, and darker, feel to it. Very absorbing and a cracking good story, still!

D. E. Stevenson – “Smouldering Fire”

(25 December 2021, from Ali)

He had a careless, almost regal, grace of manner combined with a boyish joy of living. It was the kind of charm that had conquered Scotland in the person of Prince Charlie – the Stuart charm of manner – but in Iain MacAslan it was allied to a sense of responsibility, to an unselfish desire for the welfare and happiness of others, and especially for the welfare and happiness of his own people. Iain was a king in his own domain. His power was absolute within the boundaries of his small kingdom. His word was law in a literal sense. He ruled by right of his ancestry, but right of possession, and by right of the affection which he inspired in the hearts of his people. In the old days the chiefs of Ardfalloch ruled by the first two rights, but conditions were changing now, and, without the affection of his people, Iain would not have found his kingdom so easy to rule. (p. 14)

When we meet Iain MacAslan, he is distraught, because he’s had to rent out his Highland estate for the summer to a Londoner – what kind of Londoner he doesn’t know – and feels he’s let everyone down. But however much his neighbour, Mr Finlay, thinks business will save everything, somehow keeping to the traditional ways feels better for him (near the end of the book, he might have come around to considering one of Mr Finlay’s stock exchange tips).

Meanwhile, we meet Mrs Hetherington-Smith, wife of the Londoner, or Mary Smith as she prefers to think of herself. She’s been up and down in her fortunes with her financier husband and has, on balance, preferred the downs, when she’s lived happily cheek-by-jowl in mutually supportive poverty in tenements. This happily means that when she meets a kindred spirit, she is vastly more understanding and accepting than a true society woman would be. All she really wants is friends, to help people, and to be close to her husband, and she’s just a lovely character.

Into the middle of all this comes Linda Medworth. She’s just about to be divorced and has a dear little son who is terrified of his father, who wants to “mould” him and make a man of the sensitive, artistic boy. Now he’s after retaining his son so he can do just that. How is Linda important? Because five years ago, in London, Iain MacAslan laid eyes on a woman, helped her in a moment of need and fell hard for her – so hard that he can’t bring himself to propose to lovely Margaret Finlay, rich and a good friend, who would be the perfect wife for him. And now …

The background of the novel is the Highlanders and their deep loyalty to their chief. Donald, his keeper and manservant, would do anything for him. Janet from the Lowlands looks after his poor mother assiduously, Donald’s wife Morag keeps an eye on things when Iain insists on staying on the estate through the summer, and all of them and the village are deeply possessive and careful of him, presenting a masked, uncomprehending face to the visitors.

“It takes a Highlander to deal with peat,” Iain replied. “There’s a special knack – we’re rather like peat-fires ourselves, I always think, not easily understood by the Sasunnach. We smoulder away and look as if we were half dead, but it only needs a touch and a little draught to set us ablaze.” (p. 106)

This background is timeless, as I said, but also running up against modern times (between the wars) as things can’t always be done as they were (see the quotation at the top). It makes things get a bit gothic, as do some big storms and the flickering candle- and gaslight of a place without electricity (Mr Finlay has electricity from his own hydropower). As timeless passions and modern types of people collide, what will happen and who will support whom? Who are the odd people staying at the village inn and will all the estate folk stick together?

What a lovely, engaging book with a belief in true love and tradition but a steady eye and a dark undercurrent.

This was Book 3 in my Dean Street December challenge.

Book review – Molly Clavering – “Dear Hugo”

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Here’s my second book for my reading challenge this month: Dean Street December. You can find the main post here where we’re building up a nice number of reviews during the month and you can see this post for all the detail. This is another of the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint books and the other one Emma gave me for Christmas last year (for those who like to keep count, I’ve now read four of the books in this pile, and should get another three done this month).

Molly Clavering – “Dear Hugo”

(25 December 2021, from Emma)

“You’ve nothing to wish for? You have everything you want?” She stared t me. Then her vivid face sobered. “Or there’s nothing you could get just by wishing?” she ended.

How could a young creature like that guess such a thing, unless through her own experience? Yes she seemed so untouched by sorrow of any kind … We stood there for a moment with the coloured leaves dropping gently, inexorable about us, until suddenly she laughed, and the spell was broken.

“What babies we are, to imagine that a dead leaf could make a wish come true!” she cried. “If we don’t hurry there will be no sloes left for us to pick!” (p. 44)

An epistolary novel, don’t you know – the Dear Hugo of the title being the man to whom our heroine, Sara Monteith, is addressing long letters. Hugo is the brother of Sara’s by now long-dead fiancé, Ivo, who died during World War Two – the book is set in 1951-53 so it’s a decade ago. Hugo lives in Africa, which does lead to a few unfortunate sentences about his servants and superstitions which we wouldn’t write these days and needs noting but doesn’t spoil the book, and Sara has just moved to a small cottage in the Scottish Borders village of Ravenskirk. What she doesn’t let on to anyone local is that she has chosen this location because Ivo and Hugo spent a lot of time there as children, and there might be people around who remember them.

Sara is quiet and reticent: so much so that the odd plot point gets mentioned in retrospect rather than report! Lest Sara be alone in cottage in her 40s, she’s given first a bustling set of neighbours, some lovely, some less so – the usual village novel characters of the demanding and judgemental older woman and the flighty woman led astray feature, as well as worth-their-weight-in-gold slightly comedy “helps – and a young boy, a second cousin, who’s thrust upon her but gives colour and humour (don’t worry: he’s not nearly as annoying as Tony Morland from Angela Thirkell!).

There are light romances and also darker moments and shade to bring them into relief: Sara of course has her sorrow and she meets sympathetic characters like the one in the quote above, and there’s a moral centre to the novel which allows for single motherhood kindly but wants to instill values of decency.

I don’t think his Christmasses have been very exciting up to date, and I want this one to be complete for him, not only with parties and a wee tree and presents, but with the Christmas day services as well. I want to lay the sort of foundation for Atty that will comfort and help him in years to come when he has his own memories and losses … (p. 63)

And I really think that Clavering is very brave in the outcome of her novel – several things start to look like they’re going to happen which you want to happen … but will they come out as you hope and think? Hm. But also: wonderful!

A quick edit to add a bit I forgot in my original review: I remember when the Queen passed away Scott from Furrowed Middlebrow saying that she was a last link back to these books so many of us love, and here is her coronation, of course, as well as the death of the King. The singing of “God Save the Queen” in the novel brought a mist to this not-really-royalist at all eye!

What an excellent, read – the setting is beautifully described, too, there are nice touches like the pink and gold Dresden china cups which also appeared in “Near Neighbours“, and I feel like this will be a comfort read with a strong centre and a bite to it for years to come now.

This was Book 2 in my Dean Street December challenge.

Book review – Molly Clavering – “Near Neighbours”

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Finally, I’m reading the first book for my own reading challenge this month: Dean Street December. You can find the main post here where I’m recording all our reviews during the month and you can see this post for all the detail. This is one of the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint books; I’ve read some Molly Clavering novels before so I knew I’d like her, and I received this one from my best friend Emma for Christmas last year (for those who like to keep count, I’ve now read three of the books in this pile, but should get another four done this month).

Molly Clavering – “Near Neighbours”

(25 December 2021, from Emma)

Her very last waking thought was how astonishingly nice and good people were when you knew them; and then she was fast asleep.

What she did not know and would not have believed was that the people who knew her could not help living up to her belief in their good qualities, or that their virtues were sometimes no more than the reflection of her own shining honesty and kindliness. (p. 71)

In this fairy tale – for a fairy tale it is, if a believable one rooted in reality and with a central character who does have her flaws and failings – we meet Miss Dorothea Balfour, aged 68, whose tyrannical older sister has just died and who is able to start branching out in ways she had never expected, mainly by finally getting to meet the Lenox family next door, who she’s often watched wistfully out of the back window. Soon she’s engaging with them, providing useful advice and watching over the girls in particular as they negotiate marriage, for the oldest, and work and romance for the others. Then she has dramas of her own, including rescuing a baby and re-encountering her sister’s long-lost husband, a bit of a bounder but charming with it.

We see Miss Balfour blossom as well as watching the Lenoxes enjoy themselves and grow up as they do (or grow up, and enjoy themselves as they do). It does remind me of several other books: bouncing Holly reminds me of I think it’s Lydia Keith in Angela Thirkell’s novels, the sisters theme reminded me somehow of Stella Gibbons’ “The Pink Front Door” and the houseful of daughters E. H. Young’s “Chatterton Square“. But it’s its own book, too, and a lovely satisfying, comforting, kind one that I couldn’t put down.

This was Book 1 in my Dean Street December challenge.

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