Amberwell

By D. E. Stevenson

This is the story of Five Little Children and How They Grew. I listened to this on Audible read by Lesley Mackie. With her gentle voice and slight Scottish accent, she added a lot to my enjoyment of this sometimes somewhat dark novel. While we hear about the children and their story it almost felt like I was being told a fairy tale and it was lovely, hoping as I was for happily ever afters for the children after the storms had passed. And lessons learned and justice served for those that required them.

The Ayrton children, two boys, and their three younger half-sisters are the children of two parents who don’t know or love their children or even care to. They are not socialites, jet setters, or workaholics, or V.I.Ps who are too busy with their own affairs to pay attention to their children. They are conventional and stolid pillars of the community. They keep the children from church and school and pretty much just ignore them unless they are of use or can’t avoid them. They just do not have any love in them. It was very odd.

Left to their own devices, they bring themselves up, thanks to a loving Nanny who unfortunately has little influence with the parents, and they do a wonderful job. Roger and Tom, in time, go off to boarding school where they learn that their parents and family are not normal. The reader spends the most time with Nell and Anne. The beautiful older sister, Connie, is nice as a little girl, but grows up only wanting to avoid unpleasantness and difficulty and doesn’t feel things very deeply. She gets married because that is what girls did and like her parents before her, we learn she is a horrendous parent, but in a different way. Nell and Anne are almost pathologically shy (unsurprisingly) sweet, and very close, with Anne being somewhat of a free spirit. They are both bright but ignorant scholastically and socially. It is Anne who was the most interesting with her fey ways, stronger spirit, and her unusual infectious laugh which is triggered mysteriously and unexpectedly.

It was no use of course. When Anne began to giggle it was hopeless trying to stop her. Anne shook with internal convulsions; she was seized with uncontrollable mirth and flung herself upon the bank writhing helplessly. The others caught the infection and laughed too. “What are we laughing at?” asked Gerald at last in a trembling voice. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes. “Come on, Anne. Tell us the joke.” “Anne can never tell you,” said Nell hastily …“Anne can never tell you the joke, and even if she does it isn’t a bit funny.

The war comes and has a dramatic effect on Amberwell, the center of the universe in this book. Mr. And Mrs. Ayrton are inconvenienced by the war, but that is the end of their involvement. But Roger and Tom go off to do their duty and become fine young men. Roger marries and has a baby. Nell comes out of her shell somewhat and becomes the dependable rock of the family. Anne, however, goes off to London with their Aunt and under her influence disgraces the family by eloping without the blessing of her parents. She disappears off the face of the earth. And we lose the most fascinating character in the book. Throughout the novel, the reader and Nell are consumed by Anne’s fate. Is she well and happily married? We have reason to hope, but why doesn’t she write? Or is she in dire straits? We don’t know until the end.

There are some sad and tragic times as well as a lot of growth and hope in this novel. Despite the happy ending, there were some disappointments and a boatload of loose ends and unrealized promise. Hopefully, the sequel (Summerhills)will resolve some questions and fates and provide some more closure. But I really liked this gentle and serious story with its intricately fashioned characters, insight, thoughtfulness, and atmosphere. **3 1/2 stars, rounded up**

Rating: 4 out of 5.

December 22, 2021

The Fair Miss Fortune

by D. E. Stevenson

What a sweet, funny, and charming book! That is if you like old-fashioned chaste romances set in the English countryside. And who doesn’t? Well lots of people, I guess. But I like them. Not as a steady diet, but if they are as well written, and as beautifully narrated as this one, I could get used to it.

Miss Jane Fortune causes quite a stir when she comes to the insular village of Dingleford with her old nanny to open a tea shop. She charms everyone in sight with her beauty and sweetness. Especially the eligible bachelors. Everyone except Mrs. Prescott who sold her her cottage/future tea shop. She is an overbearing entitled old battle-ax who mercilessly bullies and dominates her son Harold. You know the type. Miss Fortune and the most eligible bachelor in the village, Charles Weatherford, soon become quite close. One day, Jane’s twin sister, Joan, a slightly more impulsive and unconventional version of Jane, comes to stay. She is escaping from an amorous Frenchman who has vowed to chase her to the ends of the earth. Jane agrees to keep Joan’s existence a secret, to protect her. Thus begins, at times, an hilarious comedy of errors, wonderfully narrated by Patience Tomlinson. I listened to this on Audible. Charles, meeting Joan, thinking she’s Jane, is very confused by her indifferent behavior and falls out of love with her. Joan unaccountably falls in love with the browbeaten mama’s boy, Harold Prescott, who is amazed at her sincere interest (as is the reader). The scene where Mrs. Prescott visits Jane, thinking she is the shameless hussy who is attempting to ensnare her beloved son is priceless. Jane may be sweet, but she has enough spirit and poise to spare. She is not to be underestimated, especially in the face of the character assassination of her beloved sister.

The book is peopled with some very well-drawn characters: Jane and Joan’s nanny, Charles’ Mother, the shopkeeper who sells Harold some exercise books, the middle-aged colonel, horrid Mrs. Prescott, and especially Harold, who knows he is “a worm” but vows to make himself worthy of the Fair Miss Fortune.
The only criticism I have is the book ends too abruptly and leaves some loose ends regarding the endearing Harold and his mother.
Probably if I had read it it would have been 3 stars, the narration made it 4. so **3 1/2 stars**

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

December 2, 2021

The Fledgling

By Elizabeth Cadell

This is the story of a journey of a most formidable and inscrutable 10-year-old girl. Tory lives a lonely restricted life with her elderly aunts and equally elderly governess in an ancient castle in Lisbon. Her widowed and still grieving father, whom she hardly knows, decides she must go to school in England to gain some balance in her life. On the way to England, she discovers her chaperone is a nasty drunk and a thief. They are together on a train until he “somehow” leaves the train in pursuit of his luggage he “somehow” thinks has been mistakenly off-loaded by the porter. Tory makes her way to London contentedly alone and, safely in her care, is a priceless gold figurine that had been stolen by the man from the chapel of her aunts.

She is to stop over with her father’s cousin, for a day, before making her way north to her boarding school. Phillipa is lively and lovely as well as frank to a fault. She is forthright and open and she wastes no time expressing her justified disapproval of Tory’s father and his failings as a parent. Even though, or maybe because Tory is quiet and prefers to watch and listen, she immediately feels a kinship and rapport with this distant cousin. Because of her trust and confidence, she confides in her about the figurine which she had meant to keep secret until she could get it back to Portugal. This sets off a chain of events that extends her stay with Phillipa and brings her father back from South America. She becomes acquainted with a boy and his dog, a wicked old lady, a nice old lady, and a suspicious but upright highly placed government official. To further add to the mix, both her father and the stern official both used to be engaged to the charming Phillipa. And Phillipa is still in love with one of them.

This is a thoroughly delightful novel starring one of the most intriguing children I have run across in a book. Let’s just say it would not be wise to oppose her. By the end of the book the people Tory likes or loves are happy and the ones she does not like are not happy. Her future is bright with the promise of newfound freedom and a new family.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

November 15, 2021

The Loving Couple

Virginia Rowans (Patrick Dennis)

Despite Patrick Dennis’s trenchant and sometimes problematic skewering of 1950s New York society and their behavior and attitudes, this was, at its heart a sweet story. The young married couple in whose company we spend almost all of our time is good, kind, smart yet rather innocent, and thoroughly decent. They are the only people in the book who escape the authors cruel yet funny barbs.

The book begins with an epic quarrel between John and Mary, once very happy and in love, and now dissatisfied. Their 6-year marriage changed a year ago when John gave up his writing career, took a high-paying job, and moved to Riveredge, an exclusive suburban mecca for affluent New Yorkers of a certain status and income.
Here is the ideal Riveredge couple as described by the author:

Together they deplored reactionaries, Hollywood and Miami, bright colors, communism and fascism, juke boxes, slums, child labor, strong labor unions, vulgarity, social climbers, snobs, comic books, tabloids, the Reader’s Digest, Life and the Book-of-the-Month Club—although they solemnly agreed that anything that instilled the reading habit among those less fortunately endowed couldn’t be entirely bad. You could hardly wonder that everybody loved the Martins.
“Well, you’re out bright and early,” Whitney said, his tortoise shell glasses and splendid white teeth sparkling in the sunlight. Whitney’s statement, while cordial, also managed to convey surprise, criticism and hope for reform

John has stormed out of his house and left Mary. He spends the day on his own meeting old friends, visiting old haunts, spending time with his shady and vulgar boss of one year, and almost cheating on his wife with the boss’s evil daughter. After a series of appalling encounters and painful adventures, He realizes that his wife is the only decent person in New York City and environs.

Meanwhile, Mary, his lovely wife, is having a similar set of horrific experiences throughout her day. She goes to the city in the clutches of her “friend”, Fran, to escape her big sister Alice a relentless scold and bully.

Alice was active in Planned Parenthood. A couple of decades earlier, Alice would most certainly have been jailed for passing out contraceptives on the cathedral steps. Today she took a more moderate, but no less ardent, stand. Alice believed that those who could afford children should have all the children they could afford and when they could afford them. Alice always said that it was the duty of superior people to bring forth superior offspring. So far Alice and Fred had produced two—a boy of seven, given to chronic nausea and bedwetting, and a girl of five with nineteen distinct allergies. Alice and Fred felt that they could now afford to treat mankind to yet another superior being, and its birth had been as carefully plotted as the Invasion of Normandy.

By the time John and Mary coincidentally meet up at the end of the night outside the old apartment in which they were so happy, they have been through the gauntlet, are ready to fall into each other’s arms in relief and gratitude. They are more than ready to start a whole new life. Or rather, return to their old one.

Patrick Dennis wittily leaves no section of the populace unscathed. Many of his descriptions of the people and their antics are laugh-out-loud funny, but most are pretty bitter as well. He saves his most stinging barbs for…well everybody gets pretty well raked over the coals. The unconscious and casual racism is a little hard to take even if you can keep it in the context of its times. It is quite similar in tone and structure to The Joyous Season, but some of his zingers in that novel come off gentler, funnier, and less corrosive coming from the first-person narration of a formidable but lovable 10-year-old boy.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

October 16, 2021

The Enchanted April

By Elizabeth Von Arnim

“And the more he treated her as though she were really very nice, the more Lotty expanded and became really very nice, and the more he, affected in his turn, became really very nice himself; so that they went round and round, not in a vicious but in a highly virtuous circle.”

This was a lovely book narrated beautifully by Nadia May. The story is already well known, I think, if not from the book then by the multiple award-winning and Oscar-nominated movie, directed by Mike Newell. I saw the movie again a couple of months ago, was inspired to (finally) read the book, and now I want to see the movie again!

Four very different women disappointed by life and love, strangers to each other, decide to rent a beautiful villa in Italy together. Two are married and two are not. The two married ones, Lottie Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot were once in love with their husbands and vice versa but time and temperament have estranged them. Lotty is shy and spiritless and her husband squashes her. She has very little filter and is sometimes awkward and imprudent. She has not been an asset to his career. Rose has driven her husband away by her devotion to her church and doing good works for the poor. She coldly disapproves of him. He leaves her to herself and to her religion. She is confused by her unhappiness. Rose and Lotty are getting away from their husbands as much as they are attracted by the prospect of escaping London for beautiful Italy. Mrs. Fisher is a dried-up selfish old snob who lives in the past. Beautiful wealthy Lady Caroline is trying to escape men altogether. They all inevitably fall in love with her at first sight, much to her dismay, and won’t leave her alone. She calls them “Grabbers”. She was the most interesting of the four women, to me. Improbably nicknamed “Scrap,” She is self-absorbed, but I loved her. All she wants is solitude, but people won’t stop bothering her. Her lovely countenance hides inner bitterness, boredom, and disillusionment.

“…but it was her fate that however coldly she sent forth her words they came out sounding quite warm and agreeable. That was because she had a sympathetic and delightful voice…. Nobody in consequence ever believed they were being snubbed. It was most tiresome. And if she stared icily it did not look icy at all, because her eyes, lovely to begin with, had the added loveliness of very long, soft, dark eyelashes. No icy stare could come out of eyes like that… it got caught and lost in the soft eyelashes, and the persons stared at merely thought they were being regarded with a flattering and exquisite attentiveness. And if ever she was out of humour or definitely cross— and who would not be sometimes in such a world?—-she only looked so pathetic that people all rushed to comfort her, if possible by means of kissing. It was more than tiresome, it was maddening. Nature was determined that she should look and sound angelic. She could never be disagreeable or rude without being completely misunderstood.”

Poor lady!

One by one, by the end, all four of the unhappy women, have their lives transformed by the enchanted beauty of San Salvatore. Two marriages are restored when their husbands visit and see their wives transformed. Lady Caroline learns gratitude and sees herself with clear eyes, and finally realizes that love is a blessing, not a curse, and, perhaps, lets it into her life. Mrs. Fisher, who was thoroughly unlikeable and badly behaved for almost the whole book, learns life still holds love and value for her despite her age, starts to look ahead and not back. As they walk away from San Salvatore and the (enchanted?) villa, we hope and pray they take the enchantment with them permanently. We think they do.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

October 11, 2021

The Trail of the Green Doll (Judy Bolton Mysteries #27)

By Margaret Sutton

“This must be the entrance to the cave…We never would have found it if Judy’s shoe hadn’t scraped against it when she fell.”
You were determined to find it, with or without me,” she retorted. “Isn’t anybody going to ask me if I hurt myself?”
Apparently nobody was.

Judy’s adventure starts out with her putting a sign on the road advertising her home as a place for tourists to stay. Without consulting her husband who is a secret FBI agent with an office in his house. Not Good, Judy, Not Good. Of course, It quickly attracts some really sketchy men and Judy comes to her senses. Anyway, a young single mother with two children whose car had just been forced off the road and her purse stolen also saw it, and Judy is off to the races.

What follows is a mystery involving a valuable jade collection that is missing from a mansion that has just burned to the ground. The rather flaky and secretive widowed mother was traveling to see her Uncle Paul, the owner. Besides being the key to the missing jade, her history includes a soap opera-ish love triangle between her, her late husband, and his identical twin brother, three cousins who grew up there.

This effort by Margaret Sutton is notable for its exploration of the Hindu mythological tale, The Ramayana, which permeates the story and the mystery. It surely would have been very strange and very educational to her young readers.

This book is not a favorite despite its exotic and interesting aspects. The little family and their troubles did not appeal to me, and one of the mysteries (Talking Trees!) had a very far-fetched explanation. Almost as implausible as the secret tunnel in The Black Cat’s Clue.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

October 8, 2021

The Pink Dress

By Anne Alexander

I don’t remember how I heard about this book. No doubt through my interest in girl’s series books. When I read all of the glowing reviews and looked around and saw how expensive it was, I couldn’t justify it but I did put an email alert on eBay so I would be informed whenever one came up for sale. Lo and behold, when one did, and I re-researched it, I saw that it was on Kindle for 9.99! There goes the once justifiably inflated price of another out-of-print book. Thank-you Amazon.

I just finished it, and I do see why people love it so. I still prefer Rosamunde du Jardin, whose stories are a little more complex, but this one really drew me in from the very beginning. Although sometimes, I grew very frustrated with how blind Sue was to her so-called friends, when she finally woke up and smelled the coffee, the resolution and climax were very satisfying. It was very realistic to how teens would think and behave back in the ’50s and probably even today. They are immature and insecure and very silly sometimes. The book had some surprises regarding her new cool boyfriend, Dave, who had quite a good character arc! In parts, it kind of reminded me of a John Hughes movie, or another favorite teen movie, Can’t Buy me Love.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

January 25. 2016

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

By Kate Douglas Wiggin

“Rebecca’s eyes were like faith,—”the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” …Their glance was eager and full of interest, yet never satisfied; their steadfast gaze was brilliant and mysterious, and had the effect of looking directly through the obvious to something beyond, in the object, in the landscape, in you. They had never been accounted for, Rebecca’s eyes.

I loved the well-realized characters, life lessons demonstrated with a light, sometimes amusing touch, and words of wisdom. This is a great comfort read and trip back into time on par with, if not better than, L.M. Montgomery, Jean Webster, Louisa May Alcott, the Five Little Peppers and the Pollyanna series. It kept me interested from first page to last because of the quality of the writing. My only regret is the lack of any kind of sequel, unlike the previously mentioned works. It would have been lovely to see Rebecca’s continued progress into maturity and what life may hold in store for her. (Although, in truth, it is made crystal clear that her final place will be as a teacher and the wife of Mr. Aladdin, her wealthy mentor, Adam Ladd.) Still, the journey there would have been a treat to read. Although some, looking at this relationship through modern eyes, might find it inappropriate, It was written with innocence and I found it charming. The book is concluded with her path pretty much set and the financial problems that beset her family pretty well solved. It does seem to me that if not Rebecca, the story of her brother John, destined to be a doctor, could have made a wonderful continuation.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

August 27, 2015

Mother Carey’s Chickens

By Kate Douglas Wiggin

This is the story of a wonderful single (widowed) mother raising her four children around the turn of the century. Because they are in very straitened circumstances they have to downsize. Nancy, the oldest daughter, remembers a yellow house they saw on a vacation to Maine when their father was alive where the family can live much more cheaply. Sound familiar? It was made into a Disney movie, Summer Magic.

For a while, this book is quite similar in tone and content to many other children’s books I have read from the turn of the century. It noticeably picks up around chapter 20, however. A neighbor family, The Lords, are introduced. This family is a piece of work. Henry Lord, especially, being a seriously messed up parent, to the point of tragedy. The two children are the bitter but brilliant Olive and the nerdy Cyril, who has tons of potential. As with her more famous Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, I would kill to read a sequel. Unfortunately, once again, Kate Douglas Wiggin did not oblige. The Lords are surely one of the most unique and non-stereotypical families in any literature of the time and genre.

There are several quite slapstick and delightful comedy scenes. I found myself pausing with delight and saying to myself, “Hey, this is really funny!” Among them, the resurrection of “You dirty boy”, a much-hated to the point of being a family joke, statue. Despite the family’s best efforts, it refuses to be broken so it can be disposed of. The deed is finally accomplished after they move into the yellow house, by a fall from a loft, after the initial move, despite supremely careless packing, failed to destroy it. However, Osh Popham, their friend and landlord, glues the whole mess together from “a thousand” pieces much to the family’s chagrin, and presents it to them during a solemn housewarming ceremony. The description of Nancy teaching her brothers and sisters how to pretend-faint on command and en-masse creates a hilarious picture in the mind’s eye. At her signal, this performance turned a serious and possibly weepy cliché moment into laughter instead of tears.

Mother Carey is a beautiful widow who is universally admired at first sight by all who meet her acquaintance. Yet somehow, I liked her too. Here is a rather poignant glimpse into her secret thoughts and emotions:

Was doing all that she could, she wondered as her steps
flew over the Yellow House, from attic to cellar. She could play
The piano and sing; she could speak three languages and read
Four; she had made her curtsy at two foreign courts; admiration and
Love had followed her ever since she could remember, and here
She was, a widow at forty, living in a half-deserted New England
Village, making parsnip stews for her children’s dinner. Well,
it was a time of preparation, and its rigors and self-denials must be cheerfully faced.

Summer Magic is my number one comfort movie, and it was amazing to read so many passages and scenes and dialogue that Sally Benson incorporated into the film. The book is considerably fleshed out with more characters and plots, but regrettably, only a bit where Nancy meets her future love, Tom Hamilton. Miss Benson obviously read the book very carefully and loved it.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

May 13, 2015

An Officer and a Gentleman

by Rachel Lee

In a fit of nostalgia, I looked up a few of my old favorites. I read this a long long time ago, and it is one of my top favorite category romances. I must have read it at least 3 times. Probably more. I am amazed at the low ratings! I thought the chemistry between the two was sizzling. This one started me on a long binge of military-related romances which included Debbie Macomber’s Navy series (her best work, in my opinion) Lindsey McKenna’s Love and Glory series and Suzanne Brockman. All of these series were fantastic and when a new one came out, I was so excited! I’ve since lost interest, but it was great reading at the time. I wonder if they would hold up now?

Rating: 5 out of 5.

August 31, 2019