Christmas at High Rising by Angela Thirkell

Christmas at High Rising cover

Christmas at High Rising by Angela Thirkell is a collection of her short stories which appeared in various magazines such as Cornhill Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar ranging in date from 1928 to 1942.

I was slightly disappointed with this collection because due to the title I had been under the impression that the stories were all Barsetshire related – but they aren’t. The ones that are mainly feature the Morlands and George Knox. Although Knox is a character that Thirkell was obviously having a bit of a laugh at as a typical know-it-all poser and bore, she generally takes him just a wee bit too far ending in him being a bit too tedious as far as I’m concerned.

The stories feature such things as a trip to a pantomime, an arty one involving people at a private view and some children who live in London with their parents and a nanny who is very much in control – compared with the mother anyway.

If you’re a fan of Thirkell you’ll probably want to read this book as we all tend to want to read whatever of hers is available – unless of course George Knox drives you round the bend!

Crimson Snow edited by Martin Edwards

Crimson Snow cover

Crimson Snow winter mysteries is a collection of vintage crime short stories edited by Martin Edwards. Reading this book gave me an opportunity to read a lot of vintage crime authors that I hadn’t read before.

The contributors are: Fergus Hume, Edgar Wallace, Margery Allingham, S.C. Roberts, Victor Gunn, Christopher Bush, Ianthe Jerrold, Macdonald Hastings, Julian Symons, Michael Gilbert and Josephine Bell.

Most of the stories are fairly short but the one by Victor Gunn is about seventy pages long so it’s really a novella and I don’t know if it’s because that one is longer – but I think it’s my favourite story. I’ll definitely be looking for more books by Victor Gunn anyway. I’ve seen a lot of his books on my travels but had no idea what they would be like and didn’t give them a go. No doubt now I won’t see any of his books in shops for yonks. That’s what happened to me with Dornford Yates, he was all over the place until Valerie said some of his books were good – and now they’ve disappeared after me being just about haunted by them previously.

I enjoyed this collection of short stories which are all set around winter/Christmas celebrations although the stories that I liked least were the ones by authors that I’ve read most. Margery Allingham and Macdonald Hastings disappointed me, maybe I just expected too much of them.

Published by British Library Crime Classics of course and the cover is taken from a vintage St Moritz travel poster. There’s a wee biography of each writer on the page before their story begins, which was interesting but I would have liked it if they had also added the date the story was originally published and which magazine it first appeared in. That’s me nit-picking though. This was perfect Christmas bedtime reading, why is murder and Christmas such a good combination?!

The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett

The Disorderly Knights cover

The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett is the third book in her Lymond series and was first published in 1966.

I had a look at Goodreads to see what other readers thought of this one because although I loved the second half of the book there were parts of the first half that dragged for me. I really wasn’t too keen on the bits that were set in Malta and Tripoli, but by the time the action switched back to Scotland I found myself sitting up in bed – still reading at 2.30 am.

I don’t even think that this book is really perfect for bedtime reading as you have to concentrate on it, but when it got to 2.30 I had sworn to myself that I would put the light out at the end of the chapter and then I noticed that the next chapter sub-heading was Dumbarton, April/May 1552 – which just happens to be the town that I grew up in! I forced myself to give up for the night though, despite dying to know what was going to be happening at Dumbarton.

As it turned out I was slightly disappointed because Dunnett didn’t describe the town’s surroundings at all, which makes me think that she didn’t go there to do any research as there are lots of lovely hills and crags around Dumbarton to describe, and the castle rock is visible for miles around and would have been even more so in those days. Mind you nowadays you could just get on the internet and look at Google earth if you want to describe a location.

Dunnett wound this tale around actual historical events and a few of the people were real too. As ever I really started to dislike Lymond a lot, for most of the book he seemed like an out and out baddie, but I should have known better by now. When he gets back to Scotland he has the job of training a large amount of men who are going to be used to keep the rule of law in the Scottish Border country where the land has been constantly fought over by the Scots and English, in truth those Border families were only ever interested in their own survival, seeing themselves as being on neither the Scottish or English side, and who could blame them for that. Lymond is also thinking of himself as he is being employed by the English to keep the peace in the Border lands, but that’s easier said than done.

Meanwhile Graham Reid Malett/Gabriel who is a ‘high heid yin’ in the Noble Order of Knights Hospitallers is making a good job of putting Lymond in a bad position, making him look like an absolute swine!

Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively

Life in the Garden cover

Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively was just published earlier this year and it has also featured on BBC Radio 4 extra, you might still be able to listen to it here if you’re interested.

I loved this book and this time of the year made it a perfect read for me as it has suddenly got too cold to do anything in my garden, reading this was a good way of dealing with my withdrawal symptoms.

Penelope Lively was born into a family of keen women gardeners and from them she inherited the genetic tendency to plan and plant gardens wherever she could. Her first garden experiences were in Egypt where she grew up but eventually her family moved back to England where her grandmother, a very wealthy woman, gardened on a grand scale. It sounds like it must have been a wonderful place but as is often the way with gardens, it no longer exists, having been built on. I think that this is something that all gardeners realise – no matter how much work you put into them, in the end they’re very ephemeral and all it takes is a few seasons of neglect and that garden begins to disappear back into a wild state.

Penelope Lively talks about the various large gardens she has planned in different parts of England before settling in her vintage years in a small London garden. It’s a bit of a memoir of the gardens she has known and the books she has read. This is one of those dangerous books that mentions lots of other books and I found myself noting titles down for future reading, in fact I’ve already purchased one of them, English Flower Garden by W. Robinson, but a lot of the fiction books she mentions because they feature gardens. They’re mainly classics and most readers have probably read them all – Alice in Wonderland, Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Secret Garden. Authors such as Beatrix Potter, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West and lots more.

She talks about the changing fashions in plants, and roses of course feature quite heavily. She mentions that as she’s now 83 she can’t do everything in her garden herself and sometimes has to rely on getting a man in to do some jobs, with some disasters ensuing. She has admiration for gardeners in other parts of the world who aren’t lucky enough to have a climate such as Britain’s as we don’t have to cope with really awful low temperatures.

I really enjoyed this one, I’ll give it 5 stars on Goodreads I think, the only gripe I have about it is that although it’s a hardback and has an attractive cover, it was published by Penguin and has been bound so tightly I found it quite difficult to hold it for any length of time. I was the first person to borrow this one from the library so probably it will ease up eventually, but the actual paper used isn’t very good, I don’t think it will age well. Having said that I will probably buy Life in the Garden at some point as it’ll be great for dipping into during bad weather.

If you haven’t tried Penelope Lively’s fiction you should give her books a go!

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Modern One

Some years ago I blogged about the art installation that has been added to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. I thought it was just a temporary thing, a reaction to the financial melt-down of 2008 but obviously it isn’t. In Alexander McCall Smith’s recent Scotland Street book The Bertie Project he mentions this installation. He’s not happy that the word ‘alright’ is there instead of ‘all right’. He has his character Domenica complaining of the use surmising that it must be deliberate as Kingsley Amis desribed ‘alright’ as ‘gross, crass, coarse and to be avoided,’ and Bill Bryson, hardly a fuddy-duddy describes its use as ‘illiterate and unacceptable.’

Domenica admits that she feels very old-fashioned in expecting people to be able to spell. It’s one of McCall Smith’s meandering conversations that often bring in modern morality or ethics.

But a more recent installation in the gallery across the road and several years on from the melt-down is taking a much more pessimistic and possibly Calvinist attitude to our situation.

View from Dean Gallery

It seems we’re done for!

View from Dean Gallery

Winter and Rough Weather by D.E. Stevenson

Winter and Rough Weather cover

First published in 1951 Winter and Rough Weather by D.E. Stevenson is the third and last book in her Dering series which is set in the Scottish Borders. I found it an enjoyable read and all the loose ends were dealt with albeit a wee bit abruptly at the end. It is of course an old-fashioned family tale with a smattering of romance.

I can’t make my mind up what it is that makes these books such comfort reads. Is it the characters? The high moral standards (that sounds so pious but the obnoxious and clueless of country ways new neighbours are clear cut baddies). Maybe it’s the decency of the locals and the sense of community that add up to a fine place to visit vicariously.

At the end of Music in the Hills (the second book in the series) James and Rhoda have decided to get married, it was a difficult decision for Rhoda as she knew it would mean re-locating from London to a remote rural area in the Scottish Borders, as a successful artist she felt like she might be giving up her career. James persuaded her to take a risk and marry him but she hadn’t realised that they would be living in a cottage with no electricity or phone, five miles from a neighbour and with a very poor road in between.

The story involves a bit of mystery with fatherless children who had been evacuated to the area with their mother during the war. She has always been very reticent about her past and seemingly uncaring of her children to the point of neglect. When Rhoda takes an interest in the boy who it turns out has a talent for art, it leads to their father being found.

D.E. Stevenson wrote light romances often with a Scottish setting, very reminiscent of O.Douglas books. It has been mentioned by a few people that in Winter and Rough Weather Stevenson concentrates on the boy and fairly quickly drops his sister from the storyline. This is such a typical thing with Scottish mothers and women of that period that I almost don’t even notice it. If you’ve read O.Douglas books too you’ll remember that she always had a young lad as a central character, very much the favourite – almost in the position of a ‘house god’.

It’s a sad fact that Scottish women of the past held sons and males in general as being much more important than females. I remember that a character in one of Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy comments that ‘in Scotland female children didn’t count’. Daughters were for helping with the housework. Thankfully this attitude has disappeared – I hope.

You can read a far more detailed review of this book over at Leaves and Pages although the book is called Shoulder the Sky there, presumably a title for the US market.

Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer

Envious Casca cover

Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer was first published in 1941.

I’ve read almost all of Georgette Heyer’s mystery novels now and I’ve enjoyed them all although some more than others. I like the witty dialogue, especially between couples. Envious Casca is set at Christmas and features Inspector Hemingway of Scotland Yard as the investigator who is called in when a member of the household of Lexham, a large Tudor house, is discovered dead in a locked room. To begin with it’s thought that the death is from natural causes but it isn’t long before the truth is discovered.

The house is full of members of the Herriard family who are gathered together for Christmas, and a few of their friends. They’re a very argumentative bunch and Nathaniel, the owner of the Lexham estate holds the purse strings.

Despite the fact that the murder was a long time a-coming I really enjoyed this one. It was fairly predictable, the culprit was easy to spot AND none of the characters are particularly likeable, so by rights I should have disliked the book a lot, but the mystery lies in how the murder was carried out and that kept my interest. Heyer obviously meant it to be like that, especially given the title of the book. The characters are a quirky bunch so it all added up to a good read.

Snowdrift and other stories by Georgette Heyer

This blogging malarkey is having a desperate effect on the to-be-read books in my house, it grows and grows, mainly because of book recommendations from fellow bloggers – not that I’m complaining really as I’ve found so many great reads that way.

 Memory of Water cover

It was Helen @ She Reads Novels who made me decide to request Snowdrift by Georgette Heyer from the library. You can see what she thought of it here.

I hadn’t read any Heyer short stories before although I’ve read quite a few of her novels, historical and crime/mystery fiction.

These short stories are like slipping into a warm bath, pure comfort, not that I’ve been reading them in the bath as I can’t do that for some reason. If you’re looking for escapism (which of us isn’t at the moment?!) then this one might fit the bill.

Snowdrift contains fourteen short stories and the last three haven’t been published before. For me they’re perfect bedtime reading, for when I’m not able to concentrate on anything too heavy. As you would expect quite a few of the stories feature Gretna Green as elopements and rumours of elopement are a fairly frequent theme.

As always I learned new words when reading her Regency romances, to me a domino is a games piece with dots on it, but apparently in Regency times it was a silk hood. There’s always a scattering of Regency slang words which have fairly obvious meanings from the context. I did look up a few of them in my dictionary just to see if they were real and not just made up – and they were real apparently. Unfortunately I can’t remember what any of them were now!

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr

A Month in the Country cover

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr was published in 1980 and was shortlisted for the Booker prize, and I can see why, it’s a good read with some really lovely writing. It’s also a very quick read, just a novella really.

It’s 1920, a searing hot summer and Tom Birkin has been given the job of removing centuries of layers of whitewash from a wall in a 12th century church in Oxgodby, a small village in Yorkshire. The whitewash is covering a medieval mural. It’s something he’s well qualified to do as he learned the technique when he was at art college.

He had a particularly rough time during World War 1 as a radio operator, stuck out in no-man’s land on his own, and he ended up with shell shock which is still hanging on in the shape of a facial tic. Will the village environment help his nerves heal?

While Tom is spending his time up scaffolding in the church there’s another wartime survivor called Moon camping in a field outside. He’s an archeologist and has been given the job of searching for the grave of an ancient knight. They recognise that they’ve shared many of the same experiences, they’re both badly damaged but the villagers are a friendly lot and Tom becomes an important part of the community albeit temporarily. It’s an experience that he’s looking back on fondly in his old age.

In 1987 this book was made into a film starring Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh. Have any of you seen it?

J.L. Carr died in 1994 you can read his obituary here.

The Weatherhouse by Nan Shepherd

 The Weatherhouse cover

The Weatherhouse by Nan Shepherd was first published in 1930 and it seems to be something of a Scottish classic, although I must admit that I hadn’t heard of Nan Shepherd until it was on the news that she was going to be featuring on the new £5 Bank of Scotland note. Jack read this book before me and he seems to have enjoyed it a lot more than I did. I do however really like the book cover!

The setting is a very small town called Fetter-Rothnie in north-east Scotland during World War 1. Captain Garry Forbes has returned home from the front, he’s had some terrible experiences there, including the death of his best friend David Grey. When he realises that Louise (Louie) Morgan (the late minister’s daughter) is claiming that she was engaged to David Grey, Garry is incensed. He knows it isn’t true and it feels like the memory of his friend is being besmirched. Louisa is using his death to give her a sense of importance within the community, a dead love being better than no love at all. She’s a compulsive liar and thief so has never been popular.

Garry becomes obsessed with getting Louisa to admit that she’s lying, but most of the inhabitants are happy to let Louisa have her moment in the limelight and believe what Louisa says.

The Weatherhouse of the title is a house full of women, three generations of them and Garry is in love with Lindsay Lorimer, who is related to the women in the house, but his obsession is getting in the way of their relationship.

I was fairly underwhelmed by this book from a storyline point of view, in fact when I got to about page 80 I asked Jack when the book was going to get interesting and he just gave me A LOOK! Each to their own I thought!

Yes it is well written, quite poetic at times, but crucially for me all those female characters weren’t well enough drawn and as a result I never felt that I cared much about what happened to them – or didn’t.

I’m the sort of reader that really inhabits a book as I read it, but as there was nobody in this one whose company I was keen to be in – it wasn’t for me. I seem to be unusual in this as the book has been called ‘Spellbinding’ by Ali Smith. Mind you I’m never led to love anything just because I’m told to!

If you want to read what Jack thought of this one have a look here. For him, it’s almost a rave review.