This month Liz of Adventures in reading, running, and working from home had a fun idea: to read books published by Dean Street Press in December. If you don’t already know, DSP has been unearthing classic mid-century women’s fiction, Golden Age detective novels, and other overlooked treasures and publishing them in attractive new paperback and e-book editions. I had a number of these piling up on my e-reader so I was happy to join in.
I read four books, enjoying them as light and undemanding reads for this stressful season. If you’ve participated in Dean Street December, do let me know about your discoveries.
Apricot Sky by Ruby Ferguson, seemed to be at least two books uncomfortably squashed into one, as Liz pointed out to me. The main character of book 1, Cleo, has just returned to the Scottish Highlands from America to learn that her sister Raine is engaged to the brother of the local laird; unknown to Raine or anyone else, Cleo has been nursing an unrequited passion for him. This makes the ensuing marriage preparations quite painful for her, as Neil barely seems to notice she exists, and appears to be in thrall to an enchanting young widow who’s invaded the neighborhood. Will Cleo’s faithfulness pay off in the end?
The other book concerns a passel of young relatives who are also staying in or near the house this summer, three adventurous kids who like messing about in boats, plus two pairs of cousins who are on the one hand impossibly snobbish, and on the other kept down by an overprotective mother. There was potential for this strand to develop into something interesting between the ill-assorted bunch, but it ended up being just some episodes interspersed among the rest.
Cleo’s story, meanwhile, continued with her love ignoring her, until at the end suddenly he didn’t. This was not well-prepared, in my opinion, and resulted in a lack of romantic tension that made the ending a startling rather than a satisfying payoff. A strangely structured book that could have been better, I think.
Clothes Pegs by Susan Scarlett – The author better known as Noel Streatfeild dashed off a set of twelve romantic novels that were hugely popular at the time, then fell into obscurity again. The first published is a Cinderella story of a girl who works as a seamstress for a fashionable dressmaker, then is thrust into the limelight when she’s tapped for a modeling job. I loved the first half of this, with its typical Streatfeild cozy working-class family and the glimpse into the not-so-glamorous behind the scenes world of modeling, similar to the author’s children’s books about various theatrical and other professions.
Annabel’s sudden elevation puts pressure on our heroine to be other than her own naturally charming self, while also providing her with opportunities for love and self-determination that were absent in her former milieu. The last section, which wrapped things up in a somewhat sketchy and superficial manner, was not so successful — it seemed to have been written in haste, and could have done with a little bit more depth and thought to round out the promising beginning. I’d read more Scarlett novels, though, when I want a little glimpse into a mid-century working girl’s life — something Streatfeild always delivers on.
Mrs. Lorimer’s Quiet Summer by Molly Clavering – I didn’t get what I was expecting with this one, billed as the story of two female writers loosely based on the author and her friend, D.E. Stevenson. It would have been fascinating to have a window into their writing lives, but instead the focus was firmly on domestic and family life, along with the traditions of the Scottish Border country where they lived. Mrs. Lorimer is the focus, an empty-nester who welcomes her four children and their families back for a brief visit, sorting out some of their difficulties before focusing on her younger son, Guy, and his romantic entanglements. It was a pleasant enough story, but Mrs. Lorimer’s snobbishness (she doesn’t think Guy’s ultimate choice of bride is good enough for him, although clearly she’s worth ten of any of the local gentry) spoiled it rather. And it was depressing to see one of her daughters-in-law, who had flown airplanes in the war, reduced to being a do-nothing housewife who wasn’t even good at ordering servants around. I would rather have focused on her and getting her into some equally interesting profession on the ground, or maybe back in the air, but she was just a throwaway side note.
My last Dean Street read of the month turned out to be my favorite: Five Windows by D.E. Stevenson, a lovely book about a boy growing up in Scotland, who then moves to London and becomes a writer. Funnily enough, “Lorimer” was the last name of one of the characters here — Stevenson’s and Clavering’s books were published in the same year, 1953, so maybe the two author-friends were having a little joke there? In any case, I found it a more satisfying narrative altogether, structured around the idea that our lives are composed of “windows” into different places and situations. each section opens with a description of the literal view from David’s window at various points in his life, and in her introduction, Stevenson says that she had to change the writing style as she went along, adapting it from the point of view of a child to that of an adult. She does this subtly but quite well, I think, and I can also understand why she says writing such a story gave her great pleasure. I experienced that as a reader, too. It was a book that allowed me to simply enjoy spending time in this setting with these characters, and that’s my definition of a comfort read.
Thanks, Liz, for giving me the incentive to read all of these! It may seem like a lot, but I finished them all quickly, and they brightened my life as they flew by.