The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona MacLean – 20 Books of Summer

The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona MacLean  (S.G. MacLean) was first published in 2008. It’s one of my 20 Books of Summer.

The setting is the town of Banff, Scotland in 1626. It’s 10 o’clock at night and two whores are searching the pockets of a man that they have found lying in the street, but they find nothing. When they realise that the man is ill, not just drunk, they drag him to the schoolhouse where the teacher lives, hoping that he will be able to help the man, but they didn’t stay to speak to the teacher, they were worried about getting involved. In the morning the man is found dead, and it seems he must have been poisoned.

The teacher – Alexander Seaton – had trained for the ministry, but he had been denounced as a sinner, unfit for the job, when the dead body was found he was obviously going to be under suspicion.

Seaton sets about investigating the death, it’s a time of witch hunts and extreme religious fervour, a dangerous mixture.  I really enjoyed this one, it is very atmospheric. Maps feature in the storyline, apparently at that time maps were rare and most people had never seen one, so anyone in possession of one is suspect. I must admit that it’s something I hadn’t really thought about

Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer – 20 Books of Summer

Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer was first published in 1929.

Eustacia has never been to school before, her father had been a professor of Greek and her mother a doctor, they had not made a good job of bringing her up, and by the time she was a teenager she was a rather superior little prig.

When both of her parents died fairly suddenly Eustacia only had two people in her life, her Aunt Margery as her guardian and uncle Edmund as trustee, and it’s decided that she’ll go to boarding school – the Chalet School of course.

When Eustacia gets there she makes herself very unpopular from day one. She’s a prig and a sneak, two things that most schoolgirls detest, as do the teachers. The girls are intent on pulling her down several pegs. Eustacia can’t stand it and decides to run away, over the mountains!

Of course she has an accident which means a long recuperation. With visits from staff and girls Eustacia is a changed girl. When Eustacia is happy to call herself Stacie it’s seen as an improvement by the headmistress, they didn’t like her ‘sister’ Eustacia at all.

There are a lot of books in this Chalet School series, and they are still being written by different authors. I suspect that I will not be reading them all, but will probably just read up to just after the war years – I’ll see how it goes. They’re an enjoyable read, for me anyway.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a short story by Washington Irving was first published in 1820. I bought my secondhand copy of it very recently, for all of £2 and it’s illustrated by Arthur Rackham, he did that in 1928. I really like his style and have quite a few books illustrated by him. Washington Irving travelled around Europe and seems to have collected European fairy tales, which he rewrote with an Amercan setting.

I don’t think I had ever read this story before, I think I would have remembered if I had because the female character is a Katrina. The setting is a little valley which had originally been settled by Dutch people. A drowsy, dreamy atmosphere seems to permeate the place.

Ichabod Crane is the schoolmaster in Sleepy Hollow, he’s in love with Katrina van Tassel, a farmer’s daughter. Abraham von Brunt (Brom Brunt) is also in love with Katrina and he and his friends play pranks on Ichabod.

They tell him the tale of a headless horseman who haunts the area, and of course Ichabod ends up being chased by it.  After that he’s never seen again!



The Wrench by Primo Levi – Classics Club Spin No 37

The Wrench by Primo Levi is a quick read at just 171 pages. It’s unlike anything else that I’ve read by the author, which I must admit was a bit of a relief as I wasn’t in the mood for reading about the horrors that he experienced in concentration camps during World War 2. The Wrench has the title The Monkey’s Wrench in America. The book was written after Levi had retired from his work as a chemist at a paint factory.

There are only two main characters in this book, Faussone and the autobiographical chemist. They’re both working in a very remote part of Russia. Faussone is a rigger and he has plenty of tales to tell of his work experiences all over the world, always in remote places.  Each experience takes the form of a short story, they’re all loosely connected. The job of a rigger is to construct cranes and other large mechanical structures. The riggers are the first to arrive at any project, sometimes moving in to places that had been home to animals previously. Problems occur of course, but they’re there to be solved, which they are.

I found this one to be entertaining. Faussone is obviously happy to have a new audience for his tales, he’s by far the most garrulous one.

The blurb on the back says: ‘One of the sanest, most experienced and wisest books I’ve ever read’ Douglas Dunn, Glasgow Herald.

‘Transforms molecules and ballbearings into romantic fairy-tales’ VOGUE

Bernard Levin of The Times wrote at length about it on the back, and he seems to have loved it.

So this was a good spin choice for me. It was originally written in Italian and was translated by William Weaver, very successfully I think.



Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge

Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge was first published in 1972. I find that Bainbridge books are either hit or miss, and for me this one was definitely a miss.

The tale is narrated by a 13 year old girl who is home from her boarding school for the holidays. She had been sent away from home when her parents found that she had been writing ‘dirty’ things in her notebook. At boarding school she learned of even more dirty things to write about. She is very easily led – by her best friend Harriet. It transpires that Harriet is the one who tells her what to write in her notebook, but of course it is all in the handwriting of the unnamed narrator.

Harriet of course is no friend to the narrator, she’s just a user and as the narrator was at a local private school before she was sent to boarding school she is lonely, which is presumably one of the reasons why she puts up with the ghastly Harriet.

They’re out to get experiences, and write about them in the notebook.  Mr Biggs becomes a target for them, he is in late middle age and is unhappily married, they decide to have some fun, the plan being that he will end up being humiliated, but things go badly wrong,  This is really a horror story, the whole thing gave me the creeps, I didn’t enjoy any of it but I ploughed on to the end anyway, luckily it’s only 152 pages long.

The blurb on the back from The Telegraph says: ‘An extremely original and disconcerting story ….. Miss Bainbridge’s imagination is dark …. her landscapes reek and threaten, and her images smell of corruption.’

Apparently this was Bainbridge’s first novel and it was rejected by several publishers. While I was reading it I was reminded of the Parker/Hulme teenage murderers case in New Zealand which you can read about here, and indeed it transpired that Bainbridge used that case as a basis for this book, Hulme eventually became the author Anne Perry.


Women and Power by Mary Beard

Women and Power by Mary Beard was published in paperback form in 2018, it’s based on two lectures which Beard gave in the LRB Winter Lecture series, the first one in 2014, prior to the Me Too movement.

As you would expect she links the mysogyny in our culture to Greek and Roman literature. The first recorded example of a ‘man’ telling a woman to shut up was Telemachus when he told his mother Penelope to go back to her weaving and let the men get on with the important things of life.  Women’s high-pitched voices couldn’t be tolerated. She points out the similarity nowadays to women’s voices not being heard  – or being ignored, showing the Riana Duncan cartoon of men and one woman around a board room table, the caption is: ‘That’s an excellent suggestion , Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it’

The Me Too movement features in the second edition of this book. With women being silenced, or just not believed or taken seriously.  Beard points out that in the Metamorphoses Philomela was raped and had her tongue cut out so she couldn’t tell anyone what had happened to her, but Philomela wove her horrific experience into a tapestry, and so denounced her rapist. It’s more difficult for women nowadays I think!

She does mention ‘mansplaining’, something that I suspect all women have been victims of, despite having far more exerience than the ‘explainer’ – I know I have.

Worryingly she suspects that countries which have more female MPs than male ones might be proof that the real power doesn’t lie within the parliament. I must admit that I didn’t realise there were such countries, and I suspect she is correct.

Anyway, this is a very interesting read, despite it being a very slim book at  just 115 pages.

There was no mention of something that I think is very dangerous for women. That’s the treatment of women at the hands of the medical profession. Women are dying needlessly because they aren’t being taken seriously when they have health problems. Too often they are seen as just another menopausal or paranoid  female, even by female doctors.  Women often get very different care, often no care at all, just told to go away, there’s nothing to worry about,  until they literally can barely move and they are dead a few weeks later, as happened to a neighbour of mine – and I could go on and on as that wasn’t the first time something like that had happened. I know that strictly speaking a different sort of power, but it still leads to women being victims.

Back to Mary Beard, I always look forward to her being on TV, but this is the first book that I’ve read by her, I’ll look out for the others now.




Across the Barricades by Joan Lingard

Across the Barricades by Joan Lingard is the second in her Kevin and Sadie series, it was first published in 1972.

Although Kevin and Sadie lived just a short distance from each other, they both come from different worlds and so hadn’t seen each other for years when they bumped into each other in Belfast town. In the previous book The Twelfth Day of July they had obviously quite fancied each other, but with Sadie being a Protestant and Kevin a Roman Catholic they couldn’t even be friends.

Now they’ve both left school and are working, so when they realise that they’re still keen on each other they decide to keep their relationship a secret, easier said than done. Kevin ends up getting badly beaten up by his one time best friends, and he loses his job.

Both families are adamant that they’ll have to give each other up and it looks like the end of the road for the couple, but when one of Sadie’s old teachers realises what has been going on he allows them to meet up at his house. He lives in a different part of Belfast, a quiet middle class area, it seems like a safe place to be, but – not for long.

This is a great read, I couldn’t help thinking that at the time it was written it was quite a brave thing to write about.  Things were going from bad to worse in Belfast and Northern Ireland in general, and the violence was moving on to England and even in Scotland it was quite common for the department store that you were shopping in to be evacuated because of a bomb threat. I’m looking forward to reading the next one in this series. Into Exile.

20 Books of Summer

I’m going to be taking part in 20 Books of Summer again this year. It’s hosted by Cathy at  746 Books,  and it’s quite flexible, you don’t have to read 20 books, it can be less, but I’m usually well able to read 20 books during June, July and August.

Below is a list of the books I intend to read, but some of them might change.

1. The Wrench by Primo Levi (for The Classics Club)

2. O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

3. Another Country – A Guide to the Children’s Books of the Lake District and Cumbria

4. Post After Post-Mortem by E.C.R. Lorac

5. The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona MacLean

6. Gideon Ahoy by William Mayne

7. The Quarry Wood by Nan Shepherd

8. Dissolution by C.J. Sansom

9. The Secrets of Blythswood Square by Sara Sheridan

10. Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

11. Mayland Hall by Doreen Wallace

12. The Little Bookroom by Eleanor Farjeon

13. The Runaway Summer by Nina Bawden

14. Making It Up by Penelope Lively

15. A Very Great Profession by Nicola Beauman

16. Long Live Great Bardfield by Tirzah Garwood

17. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

18. Yesterday Morning by Diana Athill

19. Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill

20. The Fall of Kelvin Walker by Alasdair Gray

It’s quite an eclectic list I think, there’s only one which is a re-read for me, Gaudy Night.  It should be a good summer of reading!


Mrs Ames by E.F. Benson

Mrs Ames by E.F. Benson was first published in 1912. I love his Mapp and Lucia series and I think this one was a sort of dry run for those ones, he hadn’t quite honed his talent for replicating the atmosphere of a small town and it’s supposed foremost inhabitants. So it’s not as blatantly hilarious and sarcastic, but it’s still well worth reading.

The town is called Riseborough and it’s the sort of place where the retired and comfortably off men go to their club straight after breakfast, while their wives go to the shops do the shopping and hear any local gossip.

Mrs Ames is the queen bee, and her social gatherings lead the way for all the others, she likes to try different things and set new fashions. ” In appearance she was like a small, good-looking toad in half-mourning; or to state the comparison with greater precision, she was small for a woman, but good-looking for a toad.” She’s over 55 and at least ten years older than her husband.  Mrs Ames only makes social calls to Dr Evans and his family because Mrs Evans is a sort of cousin to the local aristocrat, who is also loosely related to Mrs Ames.

Mrs Evans is in her late 30s but looks ten years younger and has both Mr Ames and Henry the son hankering after her.  Worse than that it looks like she intends to knock Mrs Ames off her social throne.  But the older woman is more than a match for her young relative.

This was a good read, amusing and sometimes sad, a true reflection of the Edwardian lifestyle that E.F. Benson was witnessing at the time,  in the town of Rye in Sussex where he lived for many years.

Recent book purchases

For some reason the usual Christain Aid book sale at St Andrew’s and St George’s didn’t go ahead this year, but the three day Holy Corner, Morningside book sale did go ahead, and despite it all being within one small church hall I did manage to find some books that I wanted to buy.

Books May 24

New York 1930 by Robert A.M Stern, Gregory Gilmartin, Thomas Mellins

Saint Petersburg and its environs

Mrs Ames by E.F. Benson

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving illustrated by Arthur Rackham

The New York book is a massive tome with loads of photos and information on Art Deco architecture and design.

The Saint Petersburg book is a good reminder of our visit to the city some years ago.

I’m a big fan of E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books (and the original TV series)  so I had to buy Mrs Ames.

I have a lot of books which have been illustrated by Arthur Rackham, so I couldn’t pass up on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

It is of course just more books added to the TBR piles, but I couldn’t NOT buy them, and it was for a good cause.

Jack also bought books, but only two. The Changeling by Robin Jenkins and Highland Pack by Neil Gunn.