Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

Wild Strawberries cover

Wild Strawberries is the second of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire books, first published in 1934 but my copy is a 1983 Hamlyn paperback.

This one revolves mainly around the Leslie family. I remember someone commenting years ago that the Leslies were their least favourite characters, and I can see that some people could find them very annoying indeed, but they’ve suffered tragedies that money can’t cushion. There is a sort of sense of entitlement pervading them but for me there’s just enough charm there to be able to forgive that, although I could see David Leslie far enough – as they say.

Lady Emily Leslie is so disorganised that she can’t get anywhere on time, not even to church, and it holds everybody up. Even when she gets there she causes chaos with her stage whispers as she tells everybody where to sit. The eldest son was killed in the Great War and the youngest son David is absolutely full of himself, has umpteen lady friends and never gives a thought to any of them. John who is son number two is the sensible one. His wife Gay died after just a year of marriage.

With the arrival of a family friend to stay for the summer and some French visitors who have rented the vicarage (I doubt if that was actually possible) the story evolves with the usual bits of romance, uppity servants and mothers of young children who are incredibly relaxed about them, not batting an eye when they cause havoc and mess. After all, why worry when the nanny will sort it all out!

This one is entertaining and interesting as David Leslie is hoping to get a job at the BBC which is in its early days and it seems that any ‘toff’ with the right sort of an accent could get a job there – even women! It’s obvious that most of the young men working there were gay, but sometimes settled for a ‘companionate’ marriage – to the right sort of girl – with money of course.

At one point David Leslie is at the railway station to meet someone and the London bank-holiday train disgorges lots of hikers, a few of which give him the Fascist salute – I wonder just how common that was in 1934, just a year after Hitler took power in Germany.

This book is one of my 20 Books of Summer.

High Rising by Angela Thirkell

It’s the time of the year when if I’m not on holiday then I have people visiting me for a holiday, so I’ve just been too busy to blog recently, but a fun time was had by all as we dashed about the east of Scotland showing friends some sights. But back to blogging:

One of the books on my 20 Books of Summer 2017 list is Angela Thirkell’s High Rising, a re-read for me because I wanted to read them all in the correct order this time around. High Rising introduces many of the inhabitants of Barsetshire, that updated setting of many of Anthony Trollope’s books and featuring some of the descendants of his characters, but that is by the by as it really doesn’t matter if you haven’t read those books.

The book was first published in 1933 but my copy is a modern re-print with an introduction by Alexander McCall Smith. It mainly features Mrs Laura Morland, a widow with four sons, three of whom are out in the world, but her youngest son Tony is still at prep school and he’s the reason she keeps writing her very popular Madam Koska books, she needs the money they bring in to pay for his school fees apart from anything else. Tony is an exasperating little boy, absolutely full of himself and constantly boasting, but there’s a lot of comedy in Tony’s shenanigans. Thirkell had two sons of her own and I’m sure that she was using an actual boy as a template for Tony’s character, he’s obsessed by trains and has an urge to pass on all his railway information to anyone he comes across. Anyone with sons will recognise that stage, although in my day it was more likely to be dinosaurs or F1 racing.

George Knox is really just an adult version of Tony, someone who loves to hear his own voice, but he has taken on a secretary to help him write his books and there’s something odd about her. She seems to be far too familiar considering she is a type of servant, she is behaving more like a wife, and George’s friends fear she will hook him.

Can Laura save George from the clutches of the obviously mentally unstable secretary, whilst shedding her tortoiseshell hairpins? I googled kirby grips/Bobby pins to see when they were invented and it seems to have been in the 1920s, but Laura was sticking loyally to the old fashioned hairpins which do fall out easily, I know as I have some from way back then.

I enjoyed reading this one just as much as the first time I read it. If you want to read my more detailed review from then have a look here.

Highland River by Neil M. Gunn

Highland River cover

Highland River by Neil M. Gunn won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1937 and I’m trying to make my way through as many of the winners as possible. It’ll be a long haul as there are a lot of them.

This is just the third book by Gunn that I’ve read, I think so far The Silver Darlings is my favourite.

Highland River is set around the Dunbeath area of the Scottish Highlands.

It’s really the story of Gunn’s childhood. It was a hand to mouth existence and the story begins with Kenn being sent out in the dark of early morning to get water from the well situated near a pool. It’s freezing and Kenn slips and falls in the water, but in doing so he realises that a huge salmon has become trapped in the pool, and so begins a battle to catch it with his hands. This is an aspect of the book that reccurs time and time again, in fact too much for me, it might appeal to those who are interested in unusual fishing techniques.

The Scottish Highland childhood chapters are interspersed with chapters about Kenn and his brother’s experiences in the trenches of World War 1 and I would have been happier with the book if there had been more of those. Gunn never was involved in that war though so he probably felt he was better off sticking to writing about what he knew about. He was a customs officer/excise man from 1910 until he was able to earn enough from his writing to become a full time writer in 1937.

He was active politically and was a member of the National Party for Scotland part of which later became the Scottish National Party. He died in 1973.

As it happens, when we were travelling home from our recent trip to Orkney we stopped off at Dunbeath which is a very small place, but is in a beautiful area of Caithness. They’re proud of their ‘local hero; and have erected a statue of Kenn with his massive salmon, a scene from this book. The photo below is of the river that runs through Dunbeath, it’s called Dunbeath Water, and is presumably the Highland river from the title.

Dunbeath Water

There’s also this lovely statue of Kenn and his salmon, a scene from the book.
Kenn + Salmon

I also read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge and it’s one of my 20 Books of Summer.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

I, Claudius cover

You will probably notice that my copy of this book is the 1977 tie in to the BBC dramatisation of I, Claudius. Shockingly it has taken me 40 years to get around to reading it! The book was originally published in 1934.

I really enjoyed reading I, Claudius although I’m not sure if I would have enjoyed it so much if I hadn’t watched the BBC drama – twice over the years – as there are so many characters thrown at you. Mind you often they didn’t hang around for very long as so many people were poisoned or otherwise given the chop.

It’s a very readable history of Rome, up to A.D. 41 supposedly written by Claudius, a disabled, stammering, twitching grandson of Augustus who was despised by his entire family, but inside his less than perfect body there was a clever and quick witted brain which helped him to survive when all the rest were being murdered or banished to tiny islands.

This book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize as did the sequel Claudius the God which was published in the same year. Possibly they were originally published in one volume.

If you want a more in depth review of this book then hop over to She Reads Novels and Helen’s review of I, Claudius.

This is one of my 20 Books of Summer.

For once I think that the TV programme was just as good if not better than the book, Derek Jacobi was brilliant as Claudius and John Hurt as Caligula was unforgettable. Sadly he died earlier this year. Have a look at this excerpt where Caligula who has decided he is the god Jove has taken on his enemy Neptune.

Orkney Book Purchases

For some reason I never gave any thought to the book buying possibilities in Orkney, but as we were driving around Kirkwall looking for a place to park I spotted a sign saying those wonderful words – Secondhand Books. Luckily after visiting the town centre, Saint Magnus Cathedral and two Historic Scotland properties we were able to walk back to the car and find the bookshop not too far away. So my haul was.

Latest Book Haul

1. The Tall Stranger by D.E. Stevenson
2. Evensong by Beverley Nichols
3. Hunting the Fairies by Compton Mackenzie
4. Rogues and Vagabonds by Compton Mackenzie
5. Cloak of Darkness by Helen MacInnes
6. North from Rome by Helen MacInnes
7. Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp
8. Off In a Boat (A Hebridean Voyage) by Neil M. Gunn

Six of them are by Scottish authors so they’ll come in handy for the Reading Scotland 2017 Challenge.

Have you read any of these?

Nella Last in the 1950s by Nella Last

Nella Last in the 1950s

The last book to be published using Nella Last’s mass observations diary is Nella Last in the 1950s. By this time she and her husband are getting on in years and ill health, particularly that of her husband is a major worry for Nella. But in the wider population it was surprising to me how worried people seemed to be about the possibilty of another war beginning, and the use of a hydrogen bomb in the near future was seen as almost certain. No doubt some people were missing the wartime atmosphere of everyone pulling together against one enemy and so civil defence meetings were going on, probably being run by people who were feeling rather aimless in this new peacetime Britain.

This book is quite sad in many ways, I had hoped that Nella and Will would become closer as they got older, but Will’s mental health got worse and they seemed to spend a lot of time taking him to various hospital appointments. But Nella herself suffered from nerves and I’m fairly sure that the operation that she mentions that she had had in the first book was a hysterectomy, although she never specified it. In those days doctors were keen on diagnosing women as being in need of that operation, there was almost an epidemic of them, supposedly as a means of curing women of ‘hysteria’ or nerves. Unfortunately it seems that they just told men such as Will that there was no cure for their nerves.

Although I really like Nella she was definitely a bit odd, that usually attracts me to people anyway but I did think it was weird that she got so annoyed at her eldest son and daughter-in-law when they sent her husband a scarf for Christmas. She sent it all the way back to Ireland so they could exchange it for socks!!

Nella never did manage to get a house in her beloved Lake District and as usually happens in such cases Will outlived her, I wonder how he managed without her to look after him?

Mexico Set by Len Deighton

Mexico Set cover

Mexico Set by Len Deighton is the second of his books to feature Bernard Samson, the first one being Berlin Game which I enjoyed recently. I must say though that I found this one to be even better and I can hardly believe that it has taken me so long to get around to reading Len Deighton, especially given the fact we have had all his books since they were originally published.

It’s difficult to say too much without giving away what happened in the previous book but here goes …

Bernard Samson has been working in British Intelligence for years, as his father before him did, but he has had a shock to his system recently and he’s now a suspect figure within the world of espionage.

There’s a lot of coming and going between Mexico, Berlin and London, it’s the Cold War era and the powers that be in London want to get a particular KGB operative to defect to Britain – will he? – won’t he?

There’s also a lot of office politics going on, but it seems that the top jobs only ever go to Oxbridge candidates which is quite scary when you consider that according to another book that I read recently – Oxford and Cambridge accepted students with virtually nothing in the way of exam passes, the important thing was that your face/background fitted – up until as recently as the 1960s.

I think that the author made a good job of the atmosphere in all of the countries but particularly the situation for people living in East Berlin and unable to see their families in West Berlin. It’s a fact that in those days whenever you (I) met any people who had been originally from ‘eastern bloc’ countries, they always had a flamboyantly embroidered imagination of the past – they were always from a family that had masses of land and property – and even aristocratic titles which was/is laughable but at the same time terribly sad.

20 Books of Summer 2017

I’ve decided to take part in Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer 2017. It seems to be fairly flexible so although I’ll almost certainly be reading at least 20 books between June and the end of August my plans might go a bit awry as if I get completely caught up in Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson books I’ll be reading the ones that follow on from London Match.

Otherwise there are just seven in my list which are by Scottish authors although I’m way behind with the Reading Scotland 2017 challenge. I’m not counting Angela Thirkell as being Scottish although she was of Scottish descent.

1. London Match by Len Deighton
2. I Claudius, Claudius the God by Robert Graves
3. Highland River by Neil M. Gunn
4. The Citadel by A.J. Cronin
5. The Dove of Venus by Olivia Manning
6. City of the Mind by Penelope Lively
7. The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons
8. Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts
9. My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart
10. Flowers for the Judge by Margery Allingham
11. Fludd by Hilary Mantell
12. Pied Piper by Nevil Shute
13. Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd
14. Katherine Wentworth by D.E. Stevenson
15. No Resistance by Evelyn Anthony
16. A Memorial Service by J.I.M. Stewart
17. The Madonna of the Astrolabe by J.I.M. Stewart
18. Redgauntlet by Sir Walter Scott
19. High Rising by Angela Thirkell
20. Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

I’m planning to re-read Thirkell’s Barsetshire books from the beginning – in the correct order this time, so I hope I get further than number two in that series, it just depends how much readimg time I have, but I want to concentrate on books I haven’t read first.

Have you read any of these books? I’m wondering where I should start.

The Salzburg Connection by Helen MacInnes

 The Salzburg Connection cover

The Salzburg Connection by Helen MacInnes was first published in 1968. I remember reading some books by the author way back in the 1970s but haven’t read any since then, after reading this one I’ll have to track down as many others as I can because this was a really great read with loads of twists and turns.

It’s set some twenty-one years after the end of World War 2 but there are Nazis still around, they’ve been searching for things that had been hidden by them at the end of the war. There’s a bit of a race on to track down and recover a metal box which it’s thought has been hidden in a lake called Finstersee which is surrounded by the Austrian alps. Several such boxes have been found over the years, the Russians would also like to get their hands on this one, although what it might contain is a mystery.

This is a Cold War setting with spies and double agents galore – a great read.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge.

Helen MacInnes was born in Glasgow and went to Glasgow University where she got a degree in French and German before going on to get a diploma in librarianship at London. During her librarianship career she chose the books for libraries in Dunbartonshire, which happens to be where I worked in libraries, but she was there decades before my days there.

Her husband was a British agent for MI6 and no doubt his experiences helped to fuel her imagination for espionage. Her second book Assignment in Brittany (1942), was required reading for Allied intelligence agents who were being sent to work with the French resistance against the Nazis. Four of her books were made into films. Later in life she and her husband moved to the US.

Have you read any of her books?

Rolling Stone by Patricia Wentworth

I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver books but Rolling Stone (first published in 1940) is the first book that I’ve read of hers which isn’t a Miss Silver mystery. I was on a ferry sailing to Belgium when I started reading this one and coincidentally Rolling Stone begins in Belgium.

Peter Talbot has just booked into a hotel in Brussels and he realises that the man in the room next to his is in a very bad way. Spike Reilly is feverish and delirious and it’s obvious that he’s dying. Peter Talbot is intrigued by some of the things he has heard him say and despite the fact that he is on an assignment for his uncle – Frank Garrett of the Foreign Office – on the spur of the moment Peter decides to change identity with Reilly, swapping over passports and following clues that lead to a grand country house in England where a painting is stolen.

More crimes pile up and the search for Maud Millicent Simpson – England’s most deadly woman – is on. The only problem is that as she’s a master/mistress of disguise, nobody knows what she looks like.

I really enjoyed this one which has been published as an e-book by Dean Street Press. I downloaded it for free a few weeks ago and I think it’s still possible to do that now, have a look anyway if you’re interested at http://www.deanstreetpress.co.uk/books/went22