About Katrina

I live on the east coast of Scotland, not from choice. After 30 years here it still doesn't feel like home. Hence the name of my blog. West is still best as far as I am concerned. I'm married with two grown up 'boys'. I'm interested in books, films, art, crafts, cooking, politics, museums and travelling around Britain.

The Deadly Truth by Helen McCloy

The Deadly Truth

The Deadly Truth by Helen McCloy was originally published in 1941 but was re-printed by Agora Books last month. It’s a Dr Basil Willing mystery, he’s a psychiatrist who works in New York. Unusually for him he’s spending the summer on Long Island, renting a cottage on an estate which belongs to Claudia Bethune. She’s a wealthy socialite, three times married and she loves throwing parties. It seems that she gets most of her joy from being cruel and nasty to her guests though.

Dr Roger Slater is a research scientist who is infatuated with Claudia, so when she visits him in his laboratory he can’t stop himself from boasting about a new truth serum that he has developed. But when Claudia leaves the lab he realises that she has stolen a small aluminium tube of the serum. He’s furious, he’ll get into a lot of trouble from his employers if they find out. It looks like Claudia intends to have fun with her guests by doctoring their drinks with the serum.

Things don’t go quite the way Claudia plans them to, she’s in for a very big surprise. Dr Basil Willing gets involved and his investigation uncovers blackmail and jewellery theft, it seems that just about everyone had something to hide.

I really enjoyed this one, not only for the mystery and investigation but I appreciated the author’s descriptive abilities. I like to know where I am when I’m taken into a room by an author and I think you can see from the description below that Helen McCloy was interested in painting the scene for the reader.

The curtains were satin brocade of buttercup yellow. The walls were washed a pale primrose, the ceiling a sour cream colour, and two mantelpieces of tawny ochre marble faced each other at opposite ends of the room. The parquet was blond, the woodwork ivory white, and the chairs were covered with petit point in the same faded buff and blue as the Chinese rug. There was a Chinese cabinet of brilliant black lacquer with a procession of mandarins eternally wending their diagonal way across its double doors picked out in tarnished gilt.

She has one character saying:
If I may be permitted to paraphrase Aaron Burr: Truth is whatever is boldly asserted and plausibly maintained.

The politicians of the moment seem to have adhered to that one well!

I was sent a digital copy of this book by Agora Books via NetGalley. Thank you.

The Sleeping Army by Francesca Simon

The Sleeping Army by Francesca Simon was first published in 2011 by Faber and Faber. The setting is London’s British Museum to begin with, but it isn’t in a Britain as we know it because Christianity has never taken over from the Norse religion, Thor, Woden et al are still worshiped. It’s a Wodenist culture.

Freya is a twelve year old girl whose parents have split up and have joint custody of her, she’s having a tough time coping with living in two different locations – and with her father’s work patterns. He has a new job as a guard at the British Museum and Freya is having to stay at the museum during his shift. While wandering about on her own she’s drawn to the display of the Lewis Chessmen, most of which were taken to London despite being discovered on the Isle of Lewis. The room houses treasures from a Viking silver hoard, and when Freya fiddles with one of the exhibits she’s catapulted into an adventure which features the Norse gods and the chess pieces which have come to life.

Oh, Mum, if you could see me now, thought Freya, as she stepped off the trembling rainbow into the realm of the Gods.

This was an enjoyable adventure, written by the author of the very popular Horrid Henry series (which I’ve never read). The book has some lovely illustrations by Adam Stower, some of which you can see here.

You can see images of the Lewis Chessmen here.

I love the Berserker, he’s the one chewing on his shield, he just makes me laugh!

berserker

Guardian links

In this week’s Guardian Review section Henry Eliot reflects on his favourite literary locations, you can read the article here. It’s the hottest literary locations to visit – when lockdown ends.

Lucy Jago has gathered together books about female friendship but the piece isn’t on the website. The only one that I’ve read on her list is Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship, but she also mentions Sula by Toni Morrison, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, Sebastian Barry’s Annie Dunne and Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe. For some reason this article isn’t appearing on The Guardian website so I can’t link to it. Have you read any of these books?

There was an article in the main newspaper about John le Carre who took out Irish nationality a while before his recent death. It was Brexit which pushed him to take the decision. You can read about it here.

Tom Gauld’s cartoon below gave me a laugh – I so agree!

gauld.

New Books

I’ve had to resort to buying books online so here are my recent acquisitions.

Books Again

Escape from Loch Leven by Mollie Hunter is obviously about Mary, Queen of Scots. Loch Leven Castle, which is close to where I live is one of the several places she managed to escape from. This one is aimed at those aged over 11 – I come into the category!

Evelyn Finds Herself by Josephine Elder is a girls’ school book, one of the best of the genre apparently. I certainly enjoyed reading it recently, it’s unusual that it’s set in a fairly ordinary day school, rather than a posh boarding school.

Val Forest in the Fifth by Evelyn Smith is another school story, I have hope that this one will be good, the author taught at Glasgow High School until 1923.

The remaining three are all by Elizabeth Goudge.

Smoky House
The Valley of Song
Henrietta’s House

I’ve never read any of her books for young people so it’ll be interesting to see what they’re like anyway

The last book I bought for all of £1 and it was bought in an actual shop when the lockdown was lifted briefly last summer. I bought Every Woman’s Doctor Book just for the charm of the cover. It has no publication date on it but going by the woman’s hat and hair I think it must have been around the 1920s. It says in this book that women in labour should be lying on their side, that is obviously where I went wrong!

I think that bookshops will be opening again on April 26th, so not long now.

In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman

I read In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman because it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2014 and I have a personal project to read all of the winners, which I’m never going to complete I’m sure, but I’ll have a good go. It pushes me to read some books that I never would have thought of reading otherwise, this one comes under that category. I had a wee look at the reviews on Goodreads and noted that several people had abandoned the book, that’s something that I rarely do, but I can see why people would do so, this is a very wordy book at 554 pages, actually it seemed longer. I can’t say that I disliked it, but at the risk of seeming sexist I think this one might be appreciated more by male readers. This is partly because a lot of the book is conversations between two men who have been friends since they met at Oxford University.

The narrator is an investment banker of Pakistani origin, it’s 2008 and he suspects that he is going to get the blame for the mess his bank is in, they need a fall guy and he’s the youngest partner, but to be fair – he did have the idea of selling sub-prime mortgages, which caused all the trouble. He comes from a very wealthy background so losing his job is not a great worry. He has lost sight of Zafar over the years since they were at university, and when Zafar turns up at his front door he doesn’t even recognise him. Zafar has been in Afghanistan which as we know had become a hellhole.

The narrator mainly sits back and listens to Zafar as he does a lot of ‘mansplaining’, pontificating on varied subjects that he seems to be an expert on however, he’s not an expert on the one thing that I know about – the design of the Union flag/jack which he says most people think is symmetrical, when we all know that it certainly isn’t symmetrical and anyone putting up that flag has to be careful not to fly it upside-down! But the narrator also points out that Zafar is wrong about some things.

Otherwise Zafar tells the story of his life, from his conception in Bangladesh and poverty stricken childhood to his disastrous relationship with Emily and her wealthy entitled family in London.

Although this is a well written book, sometimes beautifully written, it was in dire need of an editor, and I’m left just hoping that the author has fewer problems with women in his own life than his characters have in the book. The women are all portrayed as being ghastly.

Evelyn Finds Herself by Josephine Elder

Evelyn Finds Herself by Josephine Elder was first published in 1929 but my copy is a modern paperback which has been reprinted by Girls Gone By, actually although it’s a paperback (I prefer hardbacks) it’s still a lovely book and there are 46 pages of very interesting information at the beginning. There’s some history of education in England and Scotland which had/have very different systems. Scotland’s system was way ahead of the English one which only really got into gear for ordinary children in the 1930s. It was the 1920s before commissions recommended that secondary education should be available free to all children in England. In contrast in Scotland education was sponsored by the state from the 18th century. There are also some interesting photographs of the original book covers, and some old schools and teachers.

Unusually this book is set in an ordinary girls’ secondary day school rather than a boarding school so the reader sees the girls at home as they visit each other to do homework together and also as they enjoy each other’s company outside school and socialise with their families.

Evelyn’s best friend is Elizabeth but when they meet up at school after the summer holidays they haven’t seen each other for eight weeks. It’s evident from the beginning that although they’re great friends they’re quite different characters. Elizabeth is always thinking ahead, such as planning to get what she thinks will be the most interesting seat locations in their new classrooms. Evelyn is altogether more serious about her studies.

When Elizabeth seems to be more interested in being friends with another girl Evelyn is surprised, she can’t see the attraction and the girls grow apart somewhat. There’s no animosity, just a coolness but Evelyn is hurt. It’s all character forming though, and all so familiar to anyone looking back on their own schooldays. I particularly enjoyed the way the girls were disdainful of the ‘Home Life’ department and the girls who were too stupid to do anything else – it felt so true to life. I just remember being astonished that anyone would need lessons on such things as washing clothes! I had been doing all the housework in my family home since I was ten years old.

This book is so well written and observed with the teachers also coming across as human beings with a life outside their workplace. This is a really enjoyable read so I’ll definitely be looking for more books by the author.

The Spanish Letters by Mollie Hunter

 The Spanish Letters cover

The Spanish Letters by Mollie Hunter was first published in 1964 but my copy is a Puffin book dating from 1972.

The setting is Edinburgh and the year is 1589, the end of January. Young Jamie Morton is a caddie in the city – that means he earns his living by doing messages for people, whatever is needed, maybe delivering a note to someone, a sort of odd job person who has to know the city inside out. He has been trained up by ‘the Cleek’ a much older caddie. There are a few hundred such males of all ages in Edinburgh, it might be a bit of a precarious living but Jamie likes it because he’s his own boss. He isn’t so keen on being starving half the time though.

When a young well known musician goes missing Jamie is asked to help track him down and so begins a tale of adventure, murder and kidnap with the Earl of Huntly – a favourite with King James involved.

There’s a ship from the Netherlands docked at Leith, Edinburgh’s port, and there’s a suspicion that it has Spaniards on board. Is there a Spanish plot afoot? A second Armada attempting to topple Queen Elizabeth. For once the Scots and the English are on the same side, well most of the Scots are.

This was a really enjoyable read, my first by the author but I’ve recently bought a couple of others. Her writing reminded me of Dorothy Dunnett’s adventures which is high praise indeed, but obviously not as convoluted (or long) as Hunter’s writing is aimed at youngsters. Her books are apparently all well researched so it seems like a painless way of learning history.

For anyone who has already read this book you might be interested in this blogpost that I wrote earlier, when I visited Huntly Castle in Aberdeenshire.

Flying the flag?

How do you feel about flag flying? I don’t often stick my head above that political parapet but I’ve always been very suspicious about people and places who feel the need to fly a flag. I think it dates from when I visited Northern Ireland where flags are everywhere and then some months later the first time I was in France I noticed that the town hall doorways were flanked by enormous flags. I think it’s a manifestation of basic insecurity if you have to do things like that.

Recently there have been various Conservative MPs on TV seemingly vying with each other to see who can have the biggest and fanciest display of union jacks/flags – in their own homes – strategically placed for their webcams. Honestly I felt embarrassed for them and the TV journalists couldn’t help having a wee bit of fun with them. Those MPs must feel deeply insecure!

Anyway, to make matters even worse the news today is that all government buildings in the UK have been told they must fly the union flag. Previously they were only flown on around twenty days a year. It’s more than a wee bit worrying that in the middle of a pandemic there must be people in power who are wasting time on nonsense like this. It’s so obvious that they’ve been watching the copious displays of flags during the recent US elections and for some reason feel the need to emulate them.

You can read about it in this Guardian article.

It’s rather unfortunate that the union flag has been hijacked by the British fascists over the years, but then it seems that the Tory party has also been hijacked by them. It’s just very sad that David Cameron didn’t realise that himself and was so out of step with his party that he was clueless to the danger he was putting the country in when he caved in to them and had the EU referendum.

This building in Perth has a lovely array of wee flags, it has them all, or as many as they can fit on it anyway and they’re of equal status, click on it to enlarge it.

Perth, Scotland

It was Samuel Johnson who said that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. – Enough said.

Springtime walk – daffodils

Daffodils , Balbirnie

Over the past week my morning walk for the newspaper has been brighter and sunnier than usual. It’s the daffodils that are doing it. The poor things have been taking a wee bit of a battering from the wind, but they’re tougher than they look.

Daffodils, Balbirnie

These ones are at Balbirnie, a place that has become a lot busier since lockdown!

Daffodils , Balbirnie

The Gates of Eden by Annie S. Swan

The Gates of Eden by Annie S. Swan was first published in 1893. This book is seen as her most successful one I believe and it was an interesting read for me as almost all of the action takes place within a couple of miles of my home. Unusually the author didn’t change the names of any of the villages involved in the tale. The main setting is a hamlet called Star which Annie S. Swan had moved to when her husband got employment there as a teacher in the wee school. They only lived there for two years, it must have been a bit of a culture shock for them as they would have been used to Edinburgh and Star was really at the back of beyond comparatively.

The story begins with the death of a young woman who has just given birth to twins, both boys. Before she died she asked her husband to make the eldest boy – Alexander (Sandy) a minister when he grew up and he was determined to keep his promise. The result was that Sandy was put above his younger brother James who was destined to help his father on the farm and was very much overlooked by everyone. Nobody seemed to realise or care that James was also talented and had dreams of his own, farming was drudgery to him, he wanted to be a writer. When Sandy left to go to St Andrews University James was deeply unhappy, especially as Sandy had always just taken for granted that he deserved the best things in life.

As you would expect Sandy had grown into a really self-centred snob with money and status being his god, which isn’t great for someone who is going to become a church minister, but James who has spent his time reading widely such people as John Stuart Mill, has turned into a really thoughtful, decent and compassionate human being. Still his father doesn’t appreciate James and it’s their Aunt Susan who has cared for the twins since their birth who eventually sees James’s worth.

This is a book very much of its time with a Christian slant but not overly preachy. The lessons are many – stick in and hard work will pay off, everyone deserves a second chance, don’t be a miser or proud and materialistic – forgive.

Locally Annie S. Swan is a bit of a heroine here for putting such small places in Fife on the map back then, but in truth, if you read her memoir as I have she was quite disdainful about the two years she and her husband lived in the area, but as she said – at least she got two books out of it.

There is a lot of Scots dialogue in this book, I can only surmise that back then readers were less easily put off by that, now many readers would find it too difficult or annoying to read. Interestingly despite the fact that there’s much mention in the book of the broad Fife speech it actually isn’t a Fife dialect, so perhaps the author couldn’t cope with that herself.