Tuesday, July 23, 2024

The Plague Stone

The Plague Stone / Gillian White 
London: Phoenix, 1996, c1990.
320 p.

Another oddball book that I picked up in a thrift store, drawn in by the cover and the series. This is the first book I've read by this author, and I won't be looking for her further work! 

It's called The Plague Stone for the looming presence of this landmark in the middle of the village of Meadcombe, a hulking rock wound about with legends of black magic from the past. 

There are three women in this book - Marian, Sonia and Melanie. Each has a dilemma and on one dark night, they all wish for change on the Plague Stone. Their wishes are granted, but is it coincidence or something darker? That's the question of this book, and it seems speculative and philosophical until it isn't, rather it's something quite real - this change in the tone and expectations from beginning to end was unsettling as a reader, and I don't think it quite worked. I was left wondering what actually happened here. 

Marian is a widow, left to care for her aged mother-in-law, a nasty woman at the best of times who is now suffering from dementia as well. Marian just wishes that the old woman would die already and free her from this burden. 

Sonia is used to being a wealthy woman, and has to beg her father-in-law for a loan to save her husband's business. How she goes about it makes her cringe the next day. 

And Melanie is a teenager full of angst and goth tendencies, who can't stand her self-martyred mother and depressed, self-focused father. She just wishes to get out of the village. And she does; she disappears, setting off the rest of the drama. 

The dark centre of the book is Melanie's mother Janey, a woman obsessed with the idea that everyone around her belongs to a devilish cult, and they've stolen Melanie away. She is very wrong, but as it turns out, right in one small way. In any case, everyone else has their own issues they are dealing with and aren't as focused on Melanie as Janey wants them to be. She's known to be a problem teen and most locals assume she ran away (for understandable reasons). Janey, however, spirals into deeper delusion, even as no-one around her seems to notice. 

This leads to the shocking and abrupt conclusion. I didn't see this coming, or, if I did I couldn't quite believe the author would go there. Melanie returns at the end, too late to do anything, and she and her grandmother (who she had in actually run away to) are not what you might have expected or foreseen. It's a strange tale, more violent that I'd expected, and left me unsatisfied with the ending; the build up of the events in the story seem pointless in light of the ending. It sticks in the mind, but perhaps not for the best reasons. 


Monday, July 22, 2024

Mr. Wrong

Mr. Wrong / Elizabeth Jane Howard
London: Pan, 1993, c1975.
223 p.

This collection of nine short stories was not what I expected. The title story leads the collection, and it is much darker than I had anticipated. I wish I would have known that it was a horror story before I began - it was very unsettling indeed!  In fact it coloured the rest of the book for me, even though the rest of the stories are not really horror. I didn't actually like this story very much; sometimes I can admire even if it's not for me, but this one left a bad taste. 

There are other stories here that are looking at dysfunctional or unhappy families - Whip Hand or Pont au Gard are examples, showing difficult mother-daughter dynamics or couples confessing affairs. But there are a couple of others that are more charming, even if a bit edgy, like Toutes Directions. 

Overall the stories are well crafted, with a real focus on character. The settings do evoke an England of a certain time and focus; this was published in 1975, and I find many books by English women from this time period to have this kind of female struggle as a key element. It's a bit dark though, and I'm not sure I'd look for any of her work again if this had been my first read by her. If you like horror tales or an atmosphere of angst in your short stories, you may like this collection. 

Saturday, July 20, 2024

Peace, Perfect Peace

 

Peace, Perfect Peace / Josephine Kamm
London: Dean Street Press, 2019, c1947.
206 p.

Now for the last of my Dean Street Press streak! This was a shorter read than some other titles in this series, and appealed to me because of its setting, immediately post-war with evidence of wartime still all around. 

This was the most interesting part of the book, for me - the descriptions of rusting barbwire entanglements on the beaches, the shortage of housing which necessitates the main characters taking a flat in poor repair, constant dust from bombed sites, rationing in food and in clothing (there are difficulties buying a dress and the main character has to settle for what's available). 

The storyline focuses on the Smallwood family. Frances is returning from her service with the ATS, and her husband should be coming back from his wartime service soon as well. She is going to retrieve her children from her mother-in-law Joanna's country house, where they've lived for the last five years. Joanna is loath to let them go, feeling that only she really understands them, particularly the boy Giles. 

There are struggles between Joanna and Frances over the two children, albeit mostly unspoken ones. Frances believes Joanna is trying to alienate her children, but nobody really believes her. Meanwhile, Clare, a friend of Joanna's, is stuck in the middle of this struggle, getting confidences from both sides. Clare, however, is more focused on her own life - romantic difficulties, and the agony of not being able to finish her second novel. 

I loved the setting and some of the elements of the story. But overall, I found it bland, with tiresome characters and an overreliance on the psychological elements of the story. It's trying to show the disruptions that the end of the war caused, specifically for women, but the characters are not engaging and I didn't really care whether Clare wrote a book or not, or the Smallwood family reconnected or not. The plot was thin and slow moving, and Clare just floats through the book, with nothing actually happening to her, and nothing resolved. The Smallwood issues are resolved as Frances' husband comes home and after some fuss, believes her and regathers their children into their small family unit, as is right -- this insistence on the small nuclear family to the exclusion of a wider inclusion of grandparents or friends also felt retrograde. 

So unfortunately this one wasn't really a match for me. I finished it to find out what was going to happen to the family, but I didn't love this one. 

Friday, July 19, 2024

All Done By Kindness

 

All Done By Kindness / Doris Langley Moore
London: Dean Street Press, 2020, c1951.
246 p.

This is the first novel by Doris Langley Moore I've read, and I really enjoyed it, for many reasons. She was one of the first female fashion historians in England, and started the first costume museum there, with the support of luminaries such as Dior and the Queen Mother. She wrote novels, society guides, and plays and had a wide artistic circle. All this appealed to me! 

But on to this book itself. I didn't know much about it when I began reading, which is a great way to go into it. It follows the Sandilands family, a country doctor with two adult daughters, after he is given a trunk of old paintings by an elderly patient. She is grateful for his care for her despite her increasing lack of funds - all she has left is a big old house that's now mostly shut up. These paintings turn out not to be the junk they'd all first assumed. 

Dr. Sandilands' two daughters are quite different from one another. Beatrix, the eldest, is orderly, bossy and controls the household. Linda, the younger, is laissez-faire, with a part time job in the local library, and not much concern about housekeeping. She knows that her boss, librarian Stephanie du Plessis, is an amateur art specialist as well as a fiend when it comes to research, so asks her to take a look at the paintings. Stephanie comes up with a solid provenance and theory, and believes they are worth a whole lot. 

So Beatrix and Dr. Sandilands head up to a real art expert in London, Sir Harry Maximer. But his opinion on them depends greatly on what he wants to do with them. The scheming is underway! 

The book starts a bit slowly, but gets going once the paintings are in play. So many characters with their eye on them, so much shadiness, so many ploys and counterploys! It's great fun. I was all in once Stephanie de Plessis appeared; how many times does a clever librarian get to be the driving force in a novel? I loved it. 

It's fun, with a dash of serious art history, some romance, and a really satisfying ending with only one minor thread not tied up. The villain gets an unusual comeuppance and it made me laugh. For a clever and amusing romp, with art and librarians and museums involved, this one is a great choice. I'd definitely read more of Moore's work on the strength of this one. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Miss Carter and the Ifrit

Miss Carter & the Ifrit / Susan Alice Kerby
London: Dean Street Press, 2019, c1945.
222 p.

I've been reading a whole lot of Dean Street books lately, and this was one of my favourites so far. It's set during WWII but it's also a bit of a fairytale. 

Miss Georgina Carter is a single woman in her late 40s, living in a comfortable though sparse flat. As the story opens, she is not so comfy, as she's lacking coal. She buys some wood blocks from a street seller to heat her flat, wood that had been part of roads long ago. As she burns them, one cracks open and an Ifrit appears to her (don't call him a genie!) He's been freed from his long imprisonment in this wood, and is ready to serve his new master. 

Miss Carter, however, is very practical and isn't quite sure what to do with this turn of events. She's embarrassed by his lavish servitude, insists he sits on the furniture as an equal with her, and nicknames him Joe. To prove his powers and willingness to serve, he magics in exotic food, cushions and colour, and other treats. When she is missing her only nephew greatly, Joe whisks her to Canada where he is training -- to the nephew's great shock. This scene is very funny, as the nephew tries to make sense of what is happening and convinces himself he is still drunk from his night out. 

But then a former flame, a friend of her brother's, shows up and Joe scents romance. Miss Carter insists it's not, but we are given glimpses of her past and his, and know that it will be. 

The joy of the book is the relationship between Miss Carter and the Ifrit. When Joe first appears, he is traditional, bound to his habits. So is Miss Carter - stuck in a British spinster's life with a constricted view of the world. Joe becomes fascinated with the modern world and is absorbing and learning at an exponential rate. And Miss Carter begins to learn and grow alongside him. They have conversations about ethics, wishes, morals, and meaning, and it's really engaging to read along. Joe even visits an old nemesis, another Ifrit who has chosen to go the opposite way to Joe, the way of power and corruption; this Ifrit is in thrall to none other than Hitler. (this book was published in 1945, so it was all still going when she wrote this). They free one another through their relationship; Joe quite literally, and Miss Carter from her small life.

I thought this was a delight, a mix between fantastical and really ordinary things - Miss Carter still goes to work in her office every day, for example, once wearing a beautiful dress that Joe has got for her, to the suspicious and jealous eyes of her coworkers. I thought the writing was light and entertaining, and the story certainly unusual, both funny and touching. Lots to think about here, and a happy ending for a 47 year old heroine. Really great read. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2024

The Lark

 

The Lark / E. Nesbit
London: Dean Street Books, 2017, c1922.
267 p.


For a book that's now over 100 years old, this feels fresh and engaging in so many ways. I enjoyed reading this, although on reflection, it feels a little like two separate books combined. 

It's 1919 and Jane and Lucilla are just leaving school, to go live with their trustee in a country cottage -- only to find that he has mismanaged their funds and done a bunk. They have a small cottage to live in and a bit of money, but realize they will have to make money for themselves somehow. They begin by selling flowers from their garden to passersby on the road - this is a success and they need to find a bigger and better flower garden to supply themselves from. 

There is a big house down the road, long empty but with a large garden, and somehow they manage to finagle a room there to use as their flower shop. Jane and Lucilla do seem to fall into luck most times. Jane has more gumption and as their precarious business starts, she's the one who bracingly says: 
Life is a lark — all the parts of it, I mean, that are generally treated seriously: money, and worries about money, and not being sure what’s going to happen. Looked at rightly, all that’s an adventure, a lark. As long as you have enough to eat and to wear and a roof to sleep under, the whole thing’s a lark. Life is a lark for us, and we must treat it as such.
They need a steadier source of income, however, and end up fixing up the big house and taking in paying guests, some of whom disappear without paying. This is where it feels like another story is beginning. Their circumstances have changed a lot since the beginning of the story, there are now young men involved and they've somewhat magically been allowed the use of this big house for their needs by running into the owner's handsome nephew, John Rochester, and they can afford a couple of servants as well. Jane's young man was foreshadowed in the beginning, in an opening chapter 4 years prior to their leaving school. While Lucilla's was a bit sudden and silly in my opinion! 

In any case, this was a funny and charming tale. I'm always interested in stories where someone has to start a business to survive, especially when it's the unexpected combination of two young women on their own. There are practical issues for them to deal with as well as the lighter ones of romance, and they get up to some mischief as well. Entertaining characters, not what you'd expect, and a beautiful country setting. I enjoyed this one. 

Monday, July 15, 2024

Rhododendron Pie

Rhododendron Pie / Margery Sharp
London: Dean Street Press, 2021, c1930.
225 p.

I thought it was time for another Margery Sharp, so I chose this title from my library. I'm so glad I did; it was a joy to read. This was Sharp's first novel, reputedly written in a month. If so, it must have been a busy month because this is an enjoyable and well constructed novel. 

Ann Laventie is the youngest of a family full of elegant aesthetes. Her father is a charming dilettante, her brother and artist and womanizer, and her sister a restrained essayist. Ann, however, prefers to do jigsaw puzzles and play with the rowdy children of a local family. As she grows older, she realizes she looks more down to earth than the rest of her beautiful family also.The title of the book comes from their family tradition of birthday pies filled with flowers to please the eye; but Ann doesn't want rhododendrons, she wants apples, as she thinks: 
Flowers are beautiful in gardens … and in houses, of course … but in a pie you want fruit. Apples. Hot and fragrant and faintly pink, with lots of juice … and cloves. She wished there had been apples in her pie.
Her mother, though, is more like her, even if she doesn't see it right away. Mrs. Laventie has limited mobility due to an accident in the past, and in the story she is mostly in the background. She spends time in her room, not always with the family as they get up to all sorts of things. But in the end it's Mrs. Laventie who has her say. 

There are various episodes shared, as Ann gets older. We see the interrelations of the family members clearly, the irresponsibilities and prejudices they hold. The story is a clash between aesthetic standards and a much more practical life. Especially when Ann falls in love with a stolid bank clerk from the family she knew as a child. Ann realizes she can't please everyone, and has to choose a direction for herself. It's such a satisfying story, with multiple side characters who are all fully and lively, besides Ann's own family. There are scenes in bohemian London as well as at the Laventie home in the country, and each one has its charm. A lovely first novel which contains many of the themes that later books explore more deeply.