A Sense of Belonging to Scotland by Andy Hall

A Sense of Belonging to Scotland cover

We were recently given a copy of this beautiful book – A Sense of Belonging to Scotland by Andy Hall. It contains a collection of sumptuous photographs of Scottish scenery – the favourite places of Scottish personalities. The book was first published in 2002 and features a real mixture of people who have written about their favourite place and the photograph that Andy Hall has taken of it is on the facing page.

Most of the personalities chose beautiful scenery as their favourite place but I had to laugh when I saw the photo of author Ian Rankin’s favourite place – it is the pub sign of The Oxford Bar in Edinburgh.

It features fifty people’s favourite places – Kirsty Wark, Iain Banks, Jimmy Logan, Barbara Dickson, Sally Magnusson, Sir Ludovic Kennedy, Gregor Fisher, Rikki Fulton, Evelyn Glennie, Hannah Gordon, Richard Wilson, Cameron Mackintosh, Ewan McGregor – to mention just a few and some of the places featured are: Castle Campbell, Dollar Glen in Stirlingshire, Ettrick Valley, Langholm in Dumfriesshire, Plockton in Wester Ross, Mull, Loch Morar.

This book is a real feast for the eyes, a lot of the places I’ve visited but there are an awful lot that I haven’t. So I’m adding to my long list of places that I still want to visit in Scotland. I somehow think it will be a good few months before there is any possibility of getting on the road again, but until then I’m happy to read this book and admire the photos.

The photo on the front cover is Loch Morar and it was the choice of Cameron Mackintosh.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by e.l. konigsburg

 From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler cover

This book was first published in 1967 and it won the Newbery Medal. I was lucky enough to be given it by Jennifer and until I received I hadn’t even heard of the book but it was just perfect reading for these strange and unsettling times.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg begins in a suburn of New York City where Claudia, the eldest of four children is thoroughly fed up with things as they are. She has three younger brothers who never have to do any chores around their home, not that all her work is appreciated, in fact they try to make her life even more difficult.

Claudia decides that the time has come for her to run away, the only problem is that she has very little money, she can’t save her pocket money as she must have her hot fudge sundae treat every week. Her plan will only work if she can persuade her brother Jamie to go with her as he is a tightwad and consequently has quite a stash of money saved.

She doesn’t want to stay away from home too long, just long enough to make her parents worry and pay her more attention in the future. She’s not keen on roughing it so plans to stay somewhere where they can be fairly comfortable and she chooses the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Claudia and Jamie manage to dodge the museum guards for days and they are able to wander around the museum and sleep in a 16th century four poster bed. Claudia has it all worked out, they bathe in a fountain and manage to eke out their money and even wash their clothes at a launderette. Then Claudia becomes obsessed by a new exhibit of a statue of an angel – is it by Michelangelo or not?

This is a lovely book and I so empathised with Claudia’s situation at home, a common one for girls of my and Claudia’s age back in 1967. Although this is a lovely light read it also shows how the siblings become aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and they learned to appreciate each other more.

Blood on the Mink by Robert Silverberg

 Blood on the Mink cover

Blood on the Mink by Robert Silverberg was first published in 1962 and at 156 pages it’s a really quick read. I’ve been having trouble settling down to read and had tried and failed with a few books before this one unexpectedly hit the spot.

The setting is 1950s America, starting in Chicago before moving on quickly to Philadelphia – apparently the City of Brotherly Love. Someone is printing loads of counterfeit US money in Philadelphia and it’s almost indistinguishable from the real thing. The government sends Nick an undercover agent there to infiltrate the gang responsible and to find out where the currency is being printed.

It all gets very complicated and more than a wee bit dangerous, but Nick is a good guy always aiming to wing not kill, which is more than can be said for the gangsters. This is well written but very much of its time so there’s quite a lot of 1950s style sexism, if that bothers you then this might not be for you. Maybe there’s something wrong with me, I just find it quite amusing and quaint nowadays. There’s quite a lot of humour. It all helps to set the scene. Philadelhia is portrayed as being a very strait-laced and boring place, you can’t get a drink after midnight and nothing at all is open on a Sunday – very similar to Scotland until fairly recently, but apparently unusual in 1950s America.

Robert Silverberg is better known as a very successful writer of science fiction, but he wrote all sorts of things when he was starting out in his career. He wrote a very interesting afterword to this one which had initially been rejected, it was a difficult time for writers and publishers (when is it not?) and magazines were going to the wall. A magazine publisher decided he might have more luck publishing a novel and Silverberg offered him this old one of his. He was paid $800 for it which apparently had buying power of about $8,000 then. How lucky was that?!

This book also contains a couple of short stories – Dangerous Doll and One Night of Violence.

Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times

In common with most book lovers I have stacks of unread books awaiting my attention. Judith at Reader in the Wilderness has decided to start her Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times MEME – talk about three of the books in your TBR stacks. For me anyway this might be a way of reacquainting myself with books that I was keen to buy at the time, but for some reason have languished in the piles. I’ve been having trouble concentrating on reading, in common with loads of readers so I might find something to pique my interest here.

Niccolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett – I started collecting this series while I was reading the author’s Lymond series which was a few years ago. I think it’s the thickness of the book that has put me off beginning it, but having finished reading The Mirror and the Light at over 800 pages, this book now seems quite slim.

Niccolo

Flowers on the Grass by Monica Dickens. I have no idea how long I’ve had this one which according to the blurb is: perhaps the gayest and most entertaining novel yet written by an author whose work has always been unfailingly entertaining. The setting ranges from a country cottage to a holiday camp in Northern England, a Bayswater hotel to a modern ‘do-as-you-like’ school, and has a fascinating gallery of characters – apparently. I’m now wondering why I haven’t thought of reading it before now.

Dickens

Over the Mountains by Pamela Frankau has a World War 2 setting. It’s May 1940 and the British armies are retreating from Dunkirk. Reading the blurb I’ve just realised that this one is the last book of a trilogy, but I think it can be read as a stand alone book, and it seems like it might be right up my street.

Frankau

I’m going to read one of these books soon – if I can concentrate on one, I might have to dip into all three before I find one I can concentrate on!

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

 The House on the Strand cover

I had a feeling that I might have read The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier way back in the early 1970s. It was first published in 1969, but I definitely hadn’t read it before. The reason I wanted to read it is that a couple of weeks ago I caught the back end of a programme which mentioned that many readers said that Rebecca was their favourite du Maurier book, but older readers tended to plump for The House ion the Strand. I enjoyed this one but although it’s years since I read Rebecca I think I still prefer that one.

This is a time shift tale with the action split between the late 1960s and 1332, the setting is of course Cornwall.

Dick is married to an American widow who has two young sons, but at the beginning of the book he is on his own, waiting for his family to arrive at the house which has been loaned to them by his friend Magnus. Magnus is a professor, a scientist who has a laboratory in the basement of the house. Dick’s relationship with his wife Vita is a difficult one, not helped by Magunus’s attitude to his marriage.

Magnus asks Dick to be a guinea pig, helping in research he has been carrying out. It means that Dick has to take some liquid and report to Magnus what effects it has on him. For Dick the effects are amazing, he’s whisked back to 1332, where he can see what is going on in the area around the house he is living in. Although there seems to be no evidence of buildings which existed it seems that there was a lot going on. There was a priory and large farmhouses and Dick is a witness to murders and intrigue, without being able to do anything about them. When the effects of the liquid wear off he’s violently ill, but is unable to stop himself from repeating the experiment, wanting to find out what happens to the people who he is convinced used to live in the neighbourhood.

When Vita and the boys arrive it isn’t so easy for him to find time to take the liquid, and his behaviour causes problems with Vita

Actually it was the contemporary part of the book which didn’t ring quite true for me, mainly because I couldn’t believe in the relationship between Dick and Vita. He supposedly loved her but it seemed to be a sort of love/dislike thing and I must admit that there didn’t seem to be much to like about her.

I intend to read all of her books and only have a few still to read I think. So far I have enjoyed The King’s General most – apart from Rebecca. This book did make me think that I would like to read more about the history of the 14th century – and wouldn’t you know it – this did feature the Black Death!

Guardian links – books

Alex Clark’s article in the Guardian review – Hole up, hunker down… and read might be of interest to you, you can read it here. It’s his suggestion of books to read during this horrible Covid-19 situation. I must admit I’ve only read one of them – Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, and I didn’t love that one as much as many people did. But I’ve been meaning to read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann for decades, it’s a pity I don’t have a copy of it in my house.

Reading the description of Devotions upon Emergent Occasions by John Donne makes me think this book might be worth a read, you can read it free here. Having had a quick squint at it I’m not at all sure it’s my cup of tea now.

Otherwise, there’s an interview with Anne Glenconner, one time lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret. Her book Lady in Waiting: My extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown has been selling like hot cakes. You can read the interview here.

Five Windows by D.E. Stevenson

 Five Windows cover

Five Windows by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1953, but it has been reprinted since then.
I enjoyed this one although I can’t say that it’s my favourite by the author.

I really like the idea of a book with five sections, each one beginning with a description of the view from the window from the room where the narrator David is living. Through the actions of other characters that we meet David learns some important life lessons.

David is the only child of the local minister and his much younger wife, they live in Nethercleugh in the Scottish Borders, it’s a very quiet rural location and we follow his career from the age of nine until his early 20s.

The first window view is from his childhood bedroom window and “looked out over the garden to the bridge and the hills.”

The setting changes to Edinburgh when he starts secondary school and lives with his uncle.

The view from the second window “looked out on a chequer-board of gardens, each separated from its neighbour by a solid stone wall covered with ivy.” David’s two best schoolfriends are very different from each other and he allows himself to be led by one of them, culminating in David moving to London at the end of his schooldays.

The third window is London and it begins: The wall towered up some thirty feet from my window: It was of dingy brick and there was no break in it except for an iron ventilator.” The boarding house that he rented a room in was ghastly, filthy and the food provided was awful, but worse than that was the other boarders. But this was a steep learning curve for David, he learned a lot about people before he made his escape, for me this was the darkest section of the book, but maybe it’s through strife that we learn the most.

The description of the fourth window view begins, “My window looked out on to roofs of all shapes and sizes sloping in all directions: upon jutting gables and hundreds of chimney-pots.” From an attic flat David has real freedom for the first time, a place of his own but it’s not easy as he has to count every penny. This section is much happier as until now David’s life was far from one he had imagined for himself, and it begins to go in a more hopeful direction.

The fifth window was “dirty and we could not see through it, so I opened it from the bottom and we looked out …. Now that the trees had been felled we could see for miles: we could see meadows and fields: we could see hedges with the green tint of spring upon them.”

I liked this book but it has a few preachy Christian passages in it which don’t appeal to me. It has a lot of similarities with O. Douglas books with the main character home-making and descriptions of interior decoration – and the preachy bits. But I do love the idea of the descriptions from the windows as whenever you walk into a room of a house that you think you might end up living in the first thing most people do is walk over to the window to see what the view is like.

Yet again D.E. Stevenson managed a wee name check for her more illustrious relative R.L. Stevenson.

The Weem Witch by Leonard Low

 The Weem Witch cover

I was loaned a copy of The Weem Witch by Leonard Low by a friend after hearing the author talk at a local history group meeting on a different subject. This is an interesting although at times horrific read because in the early 1700s in the coastal villages of Fife a terrible kind of madness took over the inhabitants. The area had suffered badly from an economic downturn and was extremely poverty stricken. Life was miserable for most people there and it didn’t take much for people to point fingers and accuse people of being a witch. In 1704 A bucket which contained some water and coal and left outside a door was claimed to be a witch’s spell. The local bigwigs and particularly a local church minister started to cast around looking for someone to blame for their misfortunes and dragged lots of innocent women and some men into their investigations. Their victims were tortured until they would admit to anything just to make it stop.

The goings-on were objected to by the authorities in Edinburgh who obviously had a bit more common sense about them and that led to so-called witches being released, but the locals must have felt hard done by and when a young woman – Janet Cornfoot – who scraped her living by doing sewing for people was accused of being a witch by one of her drunken clients, they were determined to give her a ghastly end.

This was an interesting read, although as the author himself admitted he does ramble at times and he throws in quite a bit of earlier history to set the scene, which was fine by me, but the people of Pittenweem (which is a village very close to where the author lives) seem to have been a very nasty lot who whipped themselves up to hysterical madness and committed long drawn out murder on the beaches of the East Neuk of Fife. I’ll never feel quite the same about having a walk along those beaches!

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

I finished The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel this afternoon, so that took me eight days to read the 882 pages, I could have been faster, but I savoured every word. This last book in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy was well worth waiting for, but I can hardly believe that it has been eight years since Bring Up the Bodies was published. I don’t go in for much in the way of re-reading but I intend to read the whole trilogy again at some point in the future.

If you’re at all interested in the history of the Tudors then you obviously know how this story ends, but despite that 874 pages before Cromwell’s execution are still a riveting read and from about half-way through I slowed down my reading, not wanting the book to finish and at the end I felt quite bereft, knowing that I was going to miss being in Cromwell’s company.

Well, none of us is perfect and he had a lot of flaws, but given the circumstances he could have been an awful lot worse than he was and in the end it was his lack of brutality and cruelty to others at Henry’s court that brought his downfall.

Cromwell had always been able to see that given Henry’s nature the possibility of swiftly falling out of the king’s favour was almost inevitable, he could have sailed to Italy or some other European country with some of his wealth, but he left it too late as he loved being at the centre of power.

Throughout the book Cromwell thinks back to scenes in his life from his childhood on, replaying the abuses that he had to put up with from his blacksmith father Walter, and his life in Italy as a young man, the loss of his wife and daughters and before that the loss of his ‘Anselma’, for me this had the effect of a man drowning and seeing his past life playing out in front of him. He could clearly see where he had gone wrong, what he should have done differently in his incredible career but at the time he didn’t think he could do anything different. In reality though he knew that if Henry wanted rid of someone it was going to happen, there was no getting away from it.

I was really glad that Hilary Mantel wrote three and a half pages of author’s notes explaining what had happened to many of the other characters in the book, as it saved me from having to look them all up. She explained that she had been given encouragement from many historians, academics, curators and actors over the years which had included many distinguished names but had decided not to compile a list of acknowledgments. She thought that it would be like a vulgar exercise in name-dropping. I think that’s a bit of a shame as I imagine that if I had been one of those people I would have been expecting such an acknowledgement, and as a reader I would have been interested to know who had contributed help over the years.

Anyway, I suspect that this one will also win the Booker, it’s a great read.

Out of the Past by Patricia Wentworth

Out of the Past cover

Out of the Past by Patricia Wentworth was first published in 1955 and it’s a Miss Silver mystery.

James Hardwick and his wife Carmona are living in an old house on the south coast which James has inherited from an uncle. It’s an ugly place and they hope to sell it soon, but as it’s a very hot summer they have several house guests staying with them, then another one unexpectedly turns up.

Alan Field had been engaged to Carmona in the past but he had left her standing waiting for him at the altar, and she hadn’t seen him again. He obviously expects to stay at the house, but James isn’t going to allow that to happen and Alan is dispatched to a boarding house nearby.

When murder ensues there’s a plethora of suspects and Miss Silver who is having a holiday with her niece and staying at the boarding house ends up sorting it all out of course.

I really liked this one and as ever I appreciated the updates on Maud Silver’s knitting projects. She knitted a pink coatee for a baby and matching bootees, her knitting obviously helps her to relax and think through all the clues to the mysteries. What a woman!