The Musgraves

The Musgraves

Esther Musgrave worries about her family of three daughters. And with good reason.

“How strange it was to have three daughters, all completely different! They had all been brought up in the same way with the same background, and in outward appearance they were not unlike, but inwardly there was no resemblance at all: Delia so prickly and difficult; Meg so sweet-natured and sensible; Rose so gay and happy and young!”

Could there ever be three sisters in one family more different than the Musgraves?

Delia is touchy and easily provoked (there’s one in every family!) The oldest is often more responsible and ambitious, but not in Delia’s case. Having felt pushed aside from a young age to make room for her younger siblings, Delia yearns for fulfillment and her frustrations are easily transferred to those around her. Alienating her fellow actors and actresses in a small village play is just one of Delia’s outlets. When a new neighbor moves in next door, Delia finds a way to ingratiate herself with Eulalie Winters. Delia very quickly (and not very prudently) enmeshes herself in her new friendship and is greatly influenced by her older, more sophisticated friend… but is Eulalie everything she seems?

Margaret, the middle child, is happily married to Bernard and has everything she wants… well, almost everything. She loves being a homemaker and creating a place of safety for her husband, giving him comfort foods when he returns from his demanding job at the law firm. Bernard is saddled with running his mother-in-laws estate and his lawyer background is perfect for the job, but it isn’t always an easy task (especially when Delia so outspokenly objects to his methods).

Rose is young, naïve and pretty. Just finished with school, she is also seeking her place in life and is ripe for plunging into in an unwise relationship. Will she be rescued in time?

I picked up The Musgraves looking for a quiet, gentle comfort read and as usual DE Stevenson’s writing hit the spot. Her characters are on-target and human, and I had to laugh when Mrs. Bloggs decides to take her dog for a long walk on an uncomfortably hot day all in the pursuit of rescuing a damsel in distress! (I loved that chapter!)

“Soon after the arrival of Puggy (their dog), the Bloggses bought a ‘telly’; (it was essential to have one, because all their neighbours had ‘tellies’) but none of them liked it much. The fact was they were all great talkers and they found it more interesting to exchange news of their daily doings and the gossip of Shepherdsford than to look at and listen to the daily doings of the outside world, and they soon discovered that it was more comfortable to sit and talk quietly than to shout and bellow at each other with the ‘telly’ turned on full blast. Of course they turned it on full blast when a neighbour dropped in to see them because that was the right thing to do, but neighbours often brought news – interesting news about other neighbours – which the Bloggses wanted to hear.”

Perhaps others don’t get as much pleasure out of this author as I do. Her language and cultural references are a little outdated at times with uncomplicated plots, but for me, that simply adds to her charm. DE Stevenson, long a favorite of mine, never disappoints.

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Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good

Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good (Mitford Years, #10)

Father Tim is retired. Having returned from his trip to Ireland, he is now feeling restless, a little bored, and useless.

“I’m still jet-lagged,” he said.
“Jet-lagged? After ten days? Try again, sweetheart.”

Little does Father Tim know, that even after retirement, life happens. He will be offered a position as interim pastor within very difficult circumstances for his former flock, called upon in a crisis to help out at a bookstore, and rescue Dooley’s younger sibling Sammy, from himself.

There are other dilemmas as well. The local town paper seems to insist upon putting Father Tim in the spotlight, something he abhors at the best of times. He needs a haircut but he isn’t very enthusiastic about meeting up with his old nemesis, Fancy Skinner, so he takes matters into his own hands. Fancy’s sister Shirlene has moved to town complete with tanning booth and turns the town upside down. And those are only a few of the challenges that will face Father Tim in this fresh Mitford story.

But in between all the difficulties that life is offering Father Tim at this particular point in time, there are also little bits of hope.

“Here he was, seventysomething,and still whining, though God had woven like a gold thread through every chapter of every book of Holy Writ: Rejoice! Know that I am with you and for you and will never leave you take courage that I will fight for you and be your shield and buckler and provide for you when you are old…”

I had originally read four or five of the Mitford series and, although I liked them a lot, I never continued with the series (although now, I’m going to). And then I picked up “Somewhere Safe…” off the ‘new books’ shelf at my local library.

“Somewhere Safe…” isn’t a novel of suspense, or mystery, or historical fiction (my favorite genres). There aren’t high-speed chases, Regency-era duels to be fought with masked heroes or high-powered, successful and gutsy heroines. It’s just a quiet story about Father Tim, his wife Cynthia, the small town they live in and the problems that arise during everyday life.

And I loved it.

Father Tim is the perfect non-judgmental, compassionate priest who nevertheless stands firm on what he believes and somehow is able to mix his faith with action, albeit while often risking public opinion. He rescues and ‘pulls out of the fire’ those suffering from the consequences of their choices, whether it be a troubled teen or a middle-aged man of the cloth, and is called upon more than once to assist those with questions, bereavements, illnesses, threatened miscarraiges.

There is something about this book that really hits the spot. Perhaps the timing was just right (I had just suffered a family loss), or maybe it was that after reading several Christie mysteries, I was ready for a slower-paced book. Jan Karon, though never overly intricate or descriptive with wording or sentence-structure or plotting, somehow puts her finger on the flaws and foibles of human nature and brings her characters ‘home’ to the reader. She makes us laugh, cry, and appreciate the smaller pleasures of life itself. And yet, lest we forget that Fr. Tim is anything but human, the author also shows us his own humanity and struggles to forgive:

“How was he really feeling about all this, about some out-of-control kid stealing his car and wrecking it?

He went deep and discovered the truth. He was furious.”

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The Body in the Library

The Body in the Library (Miss Marple, #3)

How did Ruby Keene come to be lying in the library of the well-known aristocrat and genteel family, the Bantry’s? What are the moral repercussions for Mr. Bantry? and, if every suspect in the case has an alibi, how can this case possibly be solved?

“Colonel Bantry, like nearly all retired military men, is really abnormally sensitive. He reacts very quickly to public opinion. He won’t notice it for some time, and then it will begin to go home to him. A slight here, and a snub there, and invitations that are refused, and excuses that are made, and then, little by little, it will dawn upon him, and he’ll retire into his shell and get terribly morbid and miserable.”

“Let me be sure I understand you rightly, Miss Marple. You mean that, because the body was found in his house, people will think that he had something to do with it?”

”Of course they will! I’ve no doubt they’re saying so already.”

Mrs. Bantry knows that in order to save her husband’s reputation, she needs this crime solved.  But who is competent enough to resolve the question of where the body in the library came from in a timely enough manner so as to save her husband’s reputation? Thankfully, Mrs. Bantry has a good friend she can call upon; the ever-resourceful Miss Marple.

On the heels of the discovery of Ruby Keene, another person comes up missing, this time, a young Girl Guide (what we in the US would call “Girl Scout”).   Is her disappearance somehow linked to the murder of a frivolous, ambitious young dancer?

Beneath all of these questions, however, there is an even greater mystery that introduces a moral dilemma: is murder ever justified, especially in the face of manipulation and clever deceit for personal and financial gain?

Agatha Christie not only is an expert at portraying human character at its worst, but she also is very good at introducing to the reader the question of what truly is permissible, and what are the parameters of justice.

Once again the author caught me by surprise, as my own (very uneducated) guess did not result in a successful solution to this fast-paced mystery.

“The Body in the Library” just might be one of Agatha Christie’s most cleverly plotted mysteries. On the other hand, I have quite a way to go before I read them all and make a final decision on which of her books engaged me the most.

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Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mewed

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd (Flavia de Luce, #8)

So far, so good.

Every Flavia de Luce mystery I have read so far has kept my interest, entertained and amused me, and provided me with hours of reading enjoyment.

Flavia is just as resilient and creative as ever. Still loving her chemical experiments, her ‘first love’ continues to be investigating murders and once again she is thrown upon the scene of a suspicious death.

Flavia returns from Canada cautiously expecting a warm welcome from her family, hoping against hope that someone has missed her. Instead she finds her father is hospitalized with pneumonia and visits, even from a daughter, are not welcome.

However consolation for Flavia comes in the person of Cynthia (three cheers for the vicar’s wife!)

“There are times when even family can be of no use: when talking to your own blood fails to have meaning.

I suppose when you stop and think about it, in the great scheme of things, that’s what vicars’ wives are for.

Poor Flavia. She has lost her mother, does not have the comfort of close relationships with her sisters, and now her father is dangerously ill. When Cynthia sends Flavia on an errand, she finds much more than she bargained for.

Distracting herself with uncovering the mysterious death of a local woodcarver, Flavia relies on her ingenuity to assist (whether appreciated or not) Inspector Hewitt, to solve yet another case. (Whether this episode is a true murder mystery or an unfolding series of events leading to accidental death, the reader must decide for themselves).

In between her trips on Gladys, her ever-reliable bicycle that doesn’t fail her (even in snow), the reader finds Flavia maturing in ways that are often surprising. Flavia once again proves herself to be quick-thinking, able to resourcefully interact with characters as diverse and ranging from Boy Scouts to curious curtain-twitching neighbors to nosy telephone operators.

Pushing herself to uncover the facts behind the death of a much loved poet and author, Flavia becomes ill herself. Sadly, the family leaves for the hospital without her, but Mrs. Mullet, (the resident cook/housekeeper), shows the concern for Flavia’s physical needs that is missing from her own family. Her kind gesture to supply Flavia with breakfast-in-bed is both touching and admirable.

We cannot but sympathise that Flavia at twelve years old seems to have no point of refuge to run to except her chemistry lab.

“… my mind became a tiny boat tossed on a vast, dark sea. With no compass to guide me – no stars, no oars, no sail, not even a bailing bucket – I was at the mercy of God… or Fate… or Chance… or Mrs. McCoo in the Sky, or whoever it was in cosmic charge of things.

At such times I could only retreat for safety into the Castle of Chemistry: the only hiding place in the universe where relationships would never – could never – change.”

I read “Thrice the Brinded Cat…” quickly, needing a distraction from unexpected, abrupt circumstances that can burst upon life on occasion. (I could really sympathise and identify with Flavia when I read the final chapter.) After finishing this latest Flavia mystery, I have to wonder if perhaps Flavia has not only matured but is in danger of becoming hardened through life’s circumstances. We will see what the next book in the series brings to Flavia.

“In the same way I suppose, that the perfect crime is extremely rare, so is the perfect solution. In real life, we are never able to dot every i, cross every t, or tease out every last strand of what we think of as the evidence.

Real life is messy, and it’s probably best to keep that in mind. We must learn never to expect too much.”

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Waves of Mercy

Waves of Mercy

Anna Nicholson is recovering from a broken engagement. Her ex-fiance William has put his foot down. It simply is not acceptable for Anna to continue seeking out her religious questions and attend the unpretentious church in Chicago that has seemed like such a place of safety for her. Anna retreats to a hotel on Lake Ottawa in Michigan to give herself some breathing space. While there, she meets a young seminary student, Derk, who also has his own choices to make.

Derk is also hoping to marry the love of his life; however Caroline, his fiance, doesn’t want to be a minister’s wife. She feels it would make too many demands on their family life. Who is right? Should Derk choose an alternate career path? Should Caroline adjust her expectations of Derk?

In order to find answers to these questions, Derk turns to Geesje, his neighbor, who practically raised him after he lost his own mother. Geesje came to America from the Netherlands with her parents as a young seventeen year old girl. Fleeing religious persecution, Geesje has faced her own dilemmas with life-choices. Now in her sixties, she is asked by the town of Holland, Michigan, to write her memories as one of the town’s first immigrants. As Geesje begins to write her memoirs, she finds parallels in her own story with that of her young friend, Derk.

“I stop writing and drop my pencil as if it’s on fire. I close the notebook and stuff it into my desk, remembering the mistakes I made, the tragic choices I faced, and the people I hurt in the process. The memories cause me immeasurable pain. Even now. Even after all these years.”

‘Waves of Mercy’ was so well done. The dual story, unlike others I have read, was never confusing. I had no trouble keeping these characters, their stories or time frames, straight.

When the possibility arises for her to become re-engaged, Anna, knowing that Derk has a close relationship with the Lord, goes to him with her questions. Should she still marry William, knowing that he expects her to obey his wishes and stop attending the church of her choice? How important is religious freedom and where does it fit into the parameters of marriage?

“I learned that my father’s business is in financial trouble. He needs the family connections with William and his bank in order to survive the crisis. I love my father. I would do anything for him and Mother. They wouldn’t know how to survive if they lost all their money.”

Do they know that’s why you’re making this sacrifice and marrying William?”

“No. But it’s hardly a sacrifice. William is a good man from a fine, churchgoing family. I’ll be a wealthy woman. I’m sure he’ll let me give generously to the poor. I can do a lot of good as his wife.”

Lynn Austin is not afraid to explore the hard questions of life within the lives of her characters. Some questions are never fully or completely answered to the satisfaction of the characters in this historical fiction novel, but within the struggles there are opportunities for growth and maturity and life-lessons of perseverance within hardship.

As we read through Geesje’s story we live through the Civil War with all of its anxieties for her sons and her friends’ sons when they go off to fight.

“As the war dragged on and on into another dreadful year, casualties among our area men began to mount. Every day brought news of Union setbacks and victories, with more and more deaths and appalling injuries. Every day we gathered with other worried families on a downtown street corner not far from the print shop to listen to the news as it was read aloud, holding our breaths as we waited to see if one of our Holland boys was listed among the wounded or dead.”

Along with Geesje and Maarten we hope their home and business survives the terrible fire that sweeps through the town, and admire their tenacity when they work to rebuild. We want to find out how Anna, who was adopted, became part of her family and why she has the memories that hold clues to her own story. We too ask all the “why?” questions when the characters suffer yet another setback, another disappointment, another terrible loss.

“Where are your parents, Geesje?” Hendrik was looking all around the cabin as his eyes adjusted to the dim light.

They died several months ago. Of malaria.”

The story of the settlement of Holland in Michigan by the Dutch was an unknown to me, and their struggles to carve out a new life in a new, unfamiliar land with very few comforts (if any), were mind-boggling. Could we today have done the same?

I found Geeseje’s writings fascinating. Although I predicted the tie-in that happens near the end, her story still held my interest enough that I wanted to keep reading. I admired her courage and determination to do the right thing, even though at first her heart was breaking.

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The Headmistress

The Headmistress

Mrs. Belton is worried. And she has a lot to worry about. With three children serving in England’s wartime forces, plus a move from their country estate to the village (due to financial strictures), Mrs. Belton has a lot of adjusting to do.

“But gentleman-farming is no inheritance and by the time the war settled down upon the world the Beltons were living on overdrafts to an extent that even they found alarming, and two years later were unhappily making up their minds to sell a house and estate for which there would probably be no demand, when Providence kindly intervened, in the shape of the Hosiers’ Girls’ Foundation School.”

“The Headmistress” centers upon life in the small village of Harefield. At times lighthearted, don’t let the author’s well-earned reputation for blithe, carefree prose deceive you. Taking us through the wartime years and giving us snippets of life in a small countryside village, we experience along with the Beltons, the changes brought about not only through food and clothing coupons and rationing, but within social mores and status.

Mrs. Belton, to all intents and purposes seemingly unflustered and stable, inwardly quakes at the fears and anxieties the war brings, not only for her children serving in the military but for her husband who must weather the straits his finances have brought him to and adjust to village life, leaving his estate to be rented out by a girls school.

“All three children ought to have married years ago, but they never seemed to want to. Nor did they want a jolly elder sister. All they wanted was a purveyor of beds, fires, food, such drink as there was, cigarettes; someone who could take all telephone messages accurately, never ask where they were going or had been tireless, self-effacing. All of which she had tried to be and she knew that her husband had too, but at the end of each leave, whether it was Freddy from his ship, Elsa from her hush-hush job, or Charles from the army, she felt she had not given satisfaction….

What she would really like, she thought, would be to throw every single thing in her wardrobe out of the window and have everything new and to stop feeling tired and looking her age and go somewhere warm, if there was any warm place left in this horrible world now...”

There are the ever-present cast of quirky characters. Mrs. Updike, who though lovable is constantly accident-prone, stabbing or burning herself while doing the most simple of household tasks. Mr. Carton who despises his christened name (Sydney after the Dickens’ character. Like Anne of Green Gables he distinguishes the spelling of his name), and who manages to keep it private from most of his acquaintances but unexpectedly finds himself revealing it to Miss Sparling. The headmistress, Miss Sparling herself, who always seems to know the right things to say or do. And Elsa, the spoiled daughter of the Beltons who cannot seem to see that her attempts to interfere in her father’s finances are unwelcome.

Then there is poor Heather Adams, the regrettably plain and undistinguished student who develops a schoolgirl crush, daydreaming constantly when rescued from her wallflower status at a dance. Heather surprises everyone when she demonstrates her skating prowess and brings notoriety and attention upon herself when she experiences a mishap. And as always, there is romance and the reader must discover whether Miss Sparling will find happiness with the vicar, Mr. Oriel, or with Mr. Carton.

I have read and enjoyed several of Thirkells’ novels now and enjoyed this one (although it was not one of my favorites). I look forward to reading many more.

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The Glass-Blowers

The Glass-Blowers

“The Glass-Blowers” tells the story of a middle-class family in France just before and during the French revolution.

Sophie Busson is the daughter of a master glassmaker and his wife, with three brothers and one sister. Her mother is formidable, respected and hard-working and in many ways becomes a ‘safety net’ for Sophie. Her father unfortunately dies while still in his fifties. Sophie was sixteen years old when she lost her father.

As the story progresses and a hard winter combined with high bread prices stokes the fires of resentment among the poorer classes, Sophie finds her family caught up in the vacillating tides of revolution.

“I’ve been saying this for years,” my brother Pierre would remark, when he came to visit us. “What we need is a written Constitution as they have in America, with equal rights for all, and no privileged classes. Our laws and legal system are out of date, along with our economy; and the King can do nothing about it. Feudalism has him in thrall as it has the whole country…”

“How, I asked, “would having a written Constitution make any of us the better off?”

“Because,” answered Pierre, “by abolishing the feudal system the power of the privileged would be broken, and the money they take from all our pockets would go towards giving the country a sound economy.”

When Robert flees to London to avoid prosecution for bankruptcy, he leaves his young son Jacques behind in the care of his mother.

I found Sophie’s self-serving and ambitious brother Robert to be a frustrating character! Saved more than once out of his financial schemes that were ultimately paid for by his own family, I could not understand the depths his own mother would go to to enable her son to escape paying off his own debts.

As conditions in France deteriorate and revolution looms, Sophie at first is horrified when her husband Francois and brother Michel join the National Guard and participate in the sacking of the homes of the aristocracy. However once she experiences the brutality of the counter-revolutionaries, arriving to loot and pillage her brother Pierre’s home and business, she finds herself able to overlook her family’s actions.

“I looked at myself in the mirror on the wall. There was a great weal on my face where the man had laid his whip, and it was bleeding, too. I did not mind the pain, but the shock of what had happened made me feel faint. I put my handkerchief to my face and sat on the bed, trembling.

“Are you hurt?” asked Emile anxiously.

“No,” I said, “no, it’s not that.”

It was what one person could do to another. The man driving the cart, not knowing me, cracking my face with his whip. It was Edme, shooting wildly from the window. It was the crowd, in ‘89, before the Abbey of St. Vincent…”

When Robert finally does return to England, the reader finds that he has not changed his true colors. His choices have tragic consequences for his family relationships.

Although starting out strong, I was disappointed by the slow-moving pace of this historical novel. The author somehow failed to make her characters breathe and resonate for me. The chapters describing the arrival of civil war and fighting coming to Pierre’s village were more intriguing. I did enjoy how some of the characters mature throughout the story; most surprising was seeing Pierre, Sophie’s brother, in his admirable philanthropy to aid those too poor to find legal assistance.

Daphne du Maurier bases this story upon her own family ancestry and in her acknowledgments, thanks those who have helped her discover the facts relating to the Bussons, during the years from 1747-1845.

“But the name Busson,” he insisted. “I was brought up to understand that we were descended from an aristocratic Breton family going back to the fourteenth century…”

Madame Duval considered her nephew with a sceptical eye. “Your father Robert was first and foremost the most incorrigible farceur I have ever known,” she said drily, “and if he told these tales in England no doubt it suited his purpose at the time.”

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