Borrowed image. I wish my copy had this dustwrapper.
Escape to Mulberry Cottage, Victoria Connelly
A Half Forgotten Song, Katherine Webb
A Holiday to Remember, Mary Kennedy
A Trick of the Light, Louise Penny
Strange Affair, Peter Robinson
The Summer House, Mary Nichols
The House in the Square, Joan G Robinson
The Ridleys, Richmal Crompton
Linden Rise, Richmal Crompton
Family Roundabout, Richmal Crompton
The Testing of Tansy, Winifred Norling
First up, three popular-type books. Escape to Mulberry Cottage was a huge disappointment. I was expecting a cosy, How I Escaped to the Country book and found something straight out of Country Living, the magazine for townies who fantasise about the country (miaow). I was surprised to learn that the writer is already well known, because I found it a cut and paste, badly put together book. It’s like a diary with all the interesting parts left out. ‘We went to visit our neighbours.’ Yes? And? What was their house like? Were they nice? We shall never know. Ugh, a waste of my time. Readers seeking country idylls should stick with Ms Connelly’s heroine, Miss Read.
I saw several paperback copies of A Half Forgotten Song at the book sale I went to recently; mine came from the library. It’s yet another backwards and forwards story (1939 – present) with a dark secret constantly hinted at and very slowly revealed. It starts with Zach, failed artist, gallery owner and husband, travelling to Dorset (very popular with writers at the moment) in search of clues about his artistic hero, Charles Aubrey. He meets old Mitzy, who claims to have known Aubrey well but finds other villagers unwilling to speak about the Aubrey family and the tragedy which overtook them there. My quarrel with this book is that the main Dorset character, Dimity/Mitzy, is a monster, yet it seems we’re supposed to sympathise with her. All for love, eh? That great myth. Nevertheless, the ending is a real surprise.
Mary Nichols is apparently well known as a Mills and Boon author. The Summer House is the linked story of two women of different generations who have babies before they are married, with far reaching consequences. I found it rather pedestrian but enjoyed the wartime setting.
Next, two detective novels. I enjoyed Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache novel The Brutal Telling, so looked forward to A Trick of the Light. Sadly, I didn’t like it as much. Not that it’s any worse, just that having been once introduced to the murder-prone village of Three Pines and its eccentric inhabitants, I couldn’t stay very interested in them, apart from wonderful Ruth, the old poet. Peter Robinson has been recommended to me by several people but Strange Affair was also something of a let down. The plot is good. From the start you know the victims and the killers; the mystery is why on earth apparently innocent people were killed. What was such a dark secret it was worth killing to hide it? It’s good, but I couldn’t engage with the detective, Banks, as I can with Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie, for instance.
I read a couple of truly mad children’s books. A Holiday to Remember was first published in1951. I’d have thought earlier because there’s so much about rationing and a glorious feast at the end. There’s a treasure hunt in a Welsh castle, with a madwoman and her son to cope with. Quite bonkers. The Testing of Tansy is one of the silliest school stories I’ve ever read. Tansy, whose parents run a grocer’s shop, wins a scholarship to a prestigious local boarding school. Her parents seem anxious about her going there and her mother tells her that her real father is not ‘Daddy’ but was ‘a gentleman’ who died when Tansy was a baby. You can see where this is going a mile off. Tansy is quite unfazed by the news and settles easily at school; no problem with accents, for instance, although she’s a village girl. Of course, there has to be one snob who doesn’t like scholarship girls but assures her it’s not personal. Now, Tansy must be clever to have won her scholarship, yet we never hear a word about her work at school. Instead, school life is a series of japes and scrapes which nearly get the idiot girl expelled. The parentage issue is settled (of course) at the sacrifice of her mother’s life. Tansy breezily takes this in her stride and settles down to a new life as the granddaughter of a lord. What tosh.
Far more interesting than either of these books was The House in the Square by Joan G Robinson. This was completely new to me. It was published in 1972 but could just as well be 1952. Jessie is rather strangely sent to London by her parents, to live for a while with ‘Miss Mack’, her mother’s former headmistress. The idea is that she’ll receive extra coaching while attending a local school, and that other girls will board there, too. Jessie longs for company but the other children never appear and she’s left pretty much to her own devices. She spends a lot of time in the square’s garden, where she meets a strange old bag lady, who at first repels her. When she’s in the garden, she hears other children playing; they seem to be children who once lived in ‘the doctor’s house’, now demolished for a new development. Through Miss Mack’s servants she makes connections and right at the end of the book discovers who the bag lady is. A strange book, enlivened by lovely Shirley Hughes illustrations.
Best reads of the month were the three Richmal Crompton novels I picked up at the book sale. She obviously took to heart Tolstoy’s dictum about all unhappy families being unhappy in their own way, for she wrote book after book about unhappy families. Family Roundabout was my least favourite as it was hard to like any of the characters. My top read was Linden Rise, which I’m sure I’ll read again. Linden Rise is a cottage (a pretty big one), which the Culvertons take for holidays and eventually as a permanent home. Mrs Culverton is very unhappy, because of her husband’s infidelity. The children seem to bring themselves up. I defy anyone to read this and not fall in love a little with Richard, the brilliant scholar who has no ambition , becomes déclassé and the only really happy member of the family. The central character is not one of the Culvertons but Tilly, the untaught country girl who arrives, aged fifteen and carrying a rush basket, to be maid of all work and, eventually, cook. She’s a wonderful character; lively, full of common sense and strangely powerful, as she has a great influence on what happens to some of the children. Lovely book, ripe for reprinting.
I was fantasizing about turning the Browns into an unhappy family. Mrs Brown, bored by her eternal mending, feeling shackled by the narrow society around her. Mr Brown, disappointed in his children, taking refuge behind the newspaper and perhaps too fond of his secretary. Ethel, a fast girl, scandalising the neighbourhood with flirtations and broken engagements. Robert, feckless and spendthrift, unwilling to leave home and fend for himself. As for William, they’d have packed him off to boarding school, without a doubt.