Celia’s House – D. E. Stevenson (1943)

miCGYCEhFXfj911XXhSZ29gIn the library the other day, I found myself in the “S” section and cruising around, happened upon a D. E. Stevenson title, Celia’s House (1943). I’d been hoping for a Miss Buncle title or perhaps a Mrs. Tim Christie, but no dice on those. Instead, they did have this one and after having heard so many good things about Stevenson as an author, I took it home with me. Even more impressive: I picked it up the next day and then read it!

(You know how sometimes library books get shuttled home and then sit on a shelf for weeks unread until they need to go back, primarily because there’s little accountability for the books? No? Might just be me…!)

This title, Celia’s House, traces the history of a Scottish mansion through its owners via inheritance, and so the start of the novel introduces us to Celia, who’s actually an old lady by now. Celia is planning her will and decides that instead of the eldest son of her son inheriting the house (as would be more traditional in them days), she wants a not-yet born daughter called Celia to inherit the land.

This puts rather an onus onto the immediate family to actually go ahead and then produce this daughter, name her “Celia” (as the grandma expected), and then for this young Celia to grow up and get old enough to inherit. In the meantime, the old Celia dies,  and few others are told about the arrangement – neither the young Celia nor her elder brother (who would be the one more typically to inherit). And so, it’s a complete surprise to young Celia when she’s told at the end that she will inherit the mansion.

So, pretty basic story, pretty basic read, but saying that doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy it. I did, for the most part. It’s a quiet domestic mid-century-ish novel that was pretty fun and fast to read. The only parts where I had trouble (in terms of not rolling my eyes) was in the early part of the novel where Stevenson matches her narrative style with the talking style of an 11-year-old boy. (That was a bit painful, but it stopped after a while.)

So, pretty straightforward read and would be up your alley if you’re searching for a domestic not-very-demanding novel about a fairly upper class family and their manor house. Lovely descriptions of the Scottish scenery and an overall pleasant way to spend a summer’s afternoon and evening.

Sometimes fluff is enough! 🙂

 

 

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Swabbing the Decks…

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It’s time for a general swabbing the decks sort of post today, so thought I would just round up what I’ve been doing and what I’ve been reading. I was at the library the other weekend, and happened to stumble upon a part of the non-fiction section that I haven’t seen before – the Dewey 900s.

book391I tend to focus deeply on a subject, but am trying now to spread the book love a little more widely which has meant me wandering the NF shelves and seeing fabulous titles that I didn’t even know existed. I’m not sure why I haven’t wandered in this direction before, but there you go.

The 900s are the Geography and History part of the library, and seems to have a great selection of titles that are right up (down?) my alley. Having to use great restraint, I picked up two titles the other day, both of which were interesting in their different ways and both of which were fairly satisfying to read. Let me give you a mini-review of the first book, in the interest of time and other limited resources.

HebridesmapWanting to read something very different from current life, I picked up John McPhee’s The Crofter and the Laird, which is a collection of columns covering life in the Hebrides. I have not been up that way yet, so this was pretty interesting to read as McPhee uproots his family (wife and four young daughters) to go and live in a crofter’s cottage on Orunsay for a few months.

Oransay is a tiny island in the Hebrides and seems to have resisted modernization for the most part (at least during the time that McPhee was writing). McPhee writes for the New Yorker magazine, and so as this was a collection of his columns, each chapter is not really connected to previous or following chapters. (And that’s ok.)

In my busiest and most crowded days, I tend to think how nice it would be to go and stay in the Hebrides far away from iphone service and civilization in general so I was curious how this American family would fare in such an environment. It’s not all roses though as the people who live on the small island tend to view “incomers” with reserve when compared with the “islanders” (i.e. the people who live there FT and have been there for generations).

This had the potential to be such a great read, but it wasn’t and I’m not sure quite why. McPhee is a good writer, the subject was interesting, but it seemed really superficial and unfocused overall. It’s as though the writer couldn’t make up his mind as to whether to be a travel narrative, a history of the islands and its people, or life on the island and thus ended up being none of those things. I’m not quite sure why I didn’t jive with this read, but it wasn’t riveting for me. However, it might for someone else so have at it.

I also came upon another read about a Polish family were exiled to Siberia during WWII with only the clothes on their backs. It’s an amazing non-fiction read and deserves its own blog post so expect that this week.

Onward ever onward.

Library Haul – It’s good to have choices…

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So, as tends to happen on the weekend, I visited the library and ended up leaving with quite the stack. I’m not sure if I will actually get to all of these, but it’s fun to have the choices..

Top to bottom in above image:

        • This Side of Paradise – Scott Fitzgerald 1920 (F)
        • The Crofter and the Laird: Life on an Hebridean Island – John McPhee 1969 (NF)
        • The Endless Steppe – Esther Hautzig 1968 (NF)
        • Bedknob and Broomstick – Mary Norton 1943 (F)
        • Roads: Driving America’s Great Highways – Larry McMurtry 2000 (NF travel)
        • Dreams from My Father – Barack Obama 1995 (NF – autobiography)
        • As Texas Goes: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda – Gail Collins (2012) (NF – political)
        • Eyewitness Books: Sports – Tim Hammond 1988 (NF)
        • Eyewitness Books: Building – Philip Wilkinson 1995 (NF)
        • Eyewitness Books: Castle – Christopher Gravett 1994 (NF)

I was interested to see that the U.S. title for the kidlit book, Bedknob and Broomstick was singular. In my mind and growing up in England, I had always heard it as plural (i.e. Bedknobs and Broomsticks), but that could easily have been a faulty memory on my part. I’m going to read this as part of my ongoing Century of Books project – it fills out 1947 rather nicely.

I am deep into Obama’s autobiography. I miss that guy…

The Thirty Nine Steps – John Buchan (1915)

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This was a pick from the library shelves for my monthly book review column and was classified as Young Adult. However, I would argue that this rather wild adventure story would tick all the boxes for a good read for adults as well. It’s not a deadly serious novel and some of the events that happen are remarkably coinkidink, but it was still a good read that had an exciting narrative.

The Thirty Nine Steps is the first of a shortish series of espionage and cloak-and-dagger type of action from the eyes of protagonist Richard Hanney. (Hanney is like an early James Bond type hero, except less s*x and fewer gadgets.) It is a very fast read and I found it difficult to put down, so I thoroughly enjoyed it once I had stopped trying to make it believable. (Again, the adventures Harry has are ridiculous, but it’s a great read.)

“I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had three months in the Old Country and was fed up with it.” (Chapter One.)

The narrative begins with Hanney complaining about how dull life was now that he had arrived from South Africa and was living in London. In fact, he was so bored that if nothing happened soon (no job, I see), he was going to move back to then-Rhodesia.

That evening as he was relaxing in his flat, a neighbor knocked on the door and asked for his help in stopping an anarchist plot by evil German spies to destabilize Europe and assassinate the Greek premier of the time when he visited UK. After proving that the story is real, the neighbor is found dead with a knife in his chest, and Hanney takes up the cause, going on the run as a fugitive to avoid being caught by the Germans (called Black Stone) and at first, the English law enforcement who were chasing him as a suspect in murder.

Lots of adventures on trains, in stolen cars, living as a fugitive and a life on the run, Hanney’s story is full of phrases like “Tally ho!”, things being “beastly”, “ripping good chaps”, and “being haled from the other room” to “sup on biscuits”. (The writing reminded me of Enid Blyton’s tales except with grown-ups and guns.)

It’s all a bit much if you read this with a serious mindset, but once I realized that it was a caper-type story, it was really good.

One not so good point was that it is a reflection of the times, and has quite a lot of negative stereotypes and descriptions of minority groups. It’s difficult to get past that sometimes but this stopped after the first few chapters so I kept reading. (There was a lot in the first third of the novel, but once adventures start, the story stops doing that. And, as mentioned, it was a reflection of the times which doesn’t make it right, but it is what it is.) This prejudicial writing is strange as well when you learn about Buchan’s political beliefs as he was a multicultural supporter in numerous ways.

His take on the Germans is also not positive, but if you look at that time in history when it was written, it’s more understandable. (England was in the horrors of World War I, just had the Boer Wars, and numerous other conflicts. Germany had sunk a battleship off Dorset coast killing more than 500 crew, and Zeppelins had quite bombed Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn… It was a time of destabilization which was reflected in the plot.)

Hmm. Points to ponder.

Once Hanney reaches Scotland, he is chased by aeroplanes, by cars, by opposing spies and dogs. He has to fend for himself, and it’s all pretty clichéd but the writing kept me going. Buchan had a lot of exposure to life on the Scottish moors, and this was obvious when I read his descriptions of the glens and muirs and fells etc. I just fell into the world of the highlands and it was such fun.

There was also quite a bit of dialect which was challenging in a good way. To set the stage, Hannery has come across an isolated road mender in the Highlands and is asking for a favor. This is what the roadmender replies:

“You’re the billy…It’ll be easy enearch managed. I’ve finished that bing of stanes, so you needna chap on my mair this forenoon. Just take the barry, and wheel enough metal frae yon quarry doon the road to make anither bing the morn…”

(And it wasn’t all like this – just bits and pieces. If it had been all like that, I’m not sure I could have made it to the end!)

I’m not usually a spy novel reader for the most part, but I loved this. Not only was the adventure fun, but Buchan’s writing was impressive as well and he utilized his large vocabulary. Shelved as a YA novel, I think that strong young readers could pick up the meaning of these words from context clues, but not sure that a more impatient or less confident reader would do the same. So long as that didn’t bog you down, the story itself was just plain exciting and fun. It’s also good for grown-ups too. 🙂

I’m definitely going to read more about Hanney. It’s not a deep and meaningful read, but it’s fast-paced and it’s fun.

As an aside: Buchan was nominated for Governor General of Canada in 1935 and received the title of 1st Baron Tweedsmuir (great name for a mostly Scottish guy). He was one of the first Governors to be appointed once Canada had passed the 1931’s the Statute of Westminster. (A Governor General of Canada is the federal viceregal representative of the Canadian monarch (who is Queen Elizabeth II). The commission is normally about five years or so, and it’s now traditional to switch between anglophone and francophone incumbents.) Buchan seemed to do a good job, with a heavy emphasis on literacy, multicultural causes, and other causes. Also had a pretty natty outfit (see below for details).

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