Birnam Book Festival 2018

I’ve just heard that there’s going to be a book festival taking place at Birnam on the weekend of 23rd to 25th of November, I’m really annoyed that I won’t be able to attend it this year as I’m busy that weekend. In fact there are about five things on that weekend that I wanted to go to, it seems that everyone decided that a month before Christmas was the best time for an art fair/festival/antiques fair and I’m fully booked up already.

Jenny Colgan will be one of the many writers appearing at this first book festival next weekend! (23rd to 25th of November). You can check out the programme here. Tickets are available at the Birnam Arts website.

Birnam is of course just a hop and a skip away from Dunkeld which is one of my favourite places to go for a day out and if the book festival doesn’t take up all of your time then there are some lovely walks to go on in the area, but it looks to me like there’s plenty of interest going on at the book festival.

I hope it’s a great success as I want to go to the next one!

Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford – again

Time for a few more photos of Sir Walter Scott’s old home – Abbotsford, in the Scottish Borders. Below is a photo of his dining room and it’s quite different from how it looked when Scott was alive. Originally the walls and ceiling were varnished a dark brown wood colour so it must have felt a bit like being in a big wooden box.

Abbotsford  Dining Room
After Scott died his daughter-in-law had the walls and ceiling painted cream but you can see that a wee bit of the paint has been scraped off the ceiling mouldings so that you can see what it should have been like.
Abbotsford  Dining Room , Sir Walter Scott, Scottish Borders

If you’ve read Scott’s books you’ll know that he was keen on writing about knights and chivalry, in fact he started a whole fashion for books like that and he was also keen on collecting armour and weapons too as you can see from his armoury below.
Abbotsford Armoury

Abbotsford  Armoury , Sir Walter Scott,
Scott was keen to have his house built using authentic bits of old buildings, in fact it sounds like he became a bit of a plunderer and he thought nothing of ripping out panelling from old buildings such as the Palace at Dunfermline. His excuse was that he was saving them from ruin, but I suspect that he hastened the ruin by what he was doing to the buildings. Dunfermline Palace is certainly a ruin now.
Abbotsford Ceiling , Sir Walter Scott
I’m not sure where the fireplace below came from but the tiles are Dutch.
Abbotsford Fireplace, Sir Walter Scott, Abbotsford
The chandelier below is in the drawing-room and to the left of it you can see a painting of Sir Walter with one of his dogs.
Abbotsford Drawing Room, Sir Walter Scott, Abbotsford Chandelier
More of the drawing-room.
Abbotsford Drawing Room, Sir Walter Scott, Abbotsford 2
One of its doorways is flanked by two huge harps and the wall covering is Chinese silk, very grand.
Abbotsford Drawing Room, Sir Walter Scott Harps

But just a stone’s throw from all that grandeur is the dogs’ cemetery, in a wooded area to the side of the house, no doubt it was a favourite area for walks. Next time I’ll show you some photos of the gardens.
Abbotsford  Pet's Graves, Sir Walter Scott

The Machine-Gunners by Robert Westall

The Machine-Gunners cover

The Machine-Gunners by Robert Westall was first published in 1975 and it won the Carnegie Medal.

We’re back at the Second World War in this book, the setting is the fictional town of Garmouth on Tyneside where the children were enthusiastically seeking out war souvenirs in the shape of spent machine-gun bullets, shrapnel and the tailfins from incendiary bombs. They’re vying with each other all determined to have the best collection. Chas McGill has the second best collection, the best is owned by the local school bully who takes great delight in bashing everyone up but of course he is really a coward.

Chas hits the jackpot when he discovers the wreckage of a downed German aeroplane deep in a local woodland. With the help of some friends he manages to free the machine-gun from it and with the help of a tremendously strong mentally challenged neighbour they all set about building an underground shelter for the gun – which expands and expands until it’s a large air raid shelter. The children become adept at nicking anything they need so it’s a real home from home. In fact as one of them lost both his parents in a recent Tyneside air raid the shelter has become his home, the authorities think he also perished in the raid.

At one point an escaped German prisoner of war stumbles across their hide-out and as they’ve somehow managed to jam the machine gun they realise that he can help them fix it. The prisoner is exhausted and ill and the children look after him, well they can’t turn him over to the authorities, he would tell them about their machine-gun.

This is a great read which at times has elements of ‘Dad’s Army’ about it with the Home Guard featuring and local enemies being much more annoying than the German prisoner who isn’t at all like a Nazi, he seems like a decent chap.

This book is very autobiographical, the author dedicated it to his father and mother who were the father and mother in the book.

He says: The bombing raids on Tyneside during the despairing winter of 1940-41 were appalling and relentless and The Machine-Gunners is a tribute to the endurance, courage and humour of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

The Summer Seaside Kitchen by Jenny Colgan

The Summer Seaside Kitchen cover

The Summer Seaside Kitchen by Jenny Colgan was published in 2017 and I believe it’s the first book by the author that I’ve read. I decided to read it as I’ve been avoiding really heavy books for a wee while, the Brexit mayhem and such was getting me down and this one seemed to fit the bill as a light read. I really enjoyed this it – to a point, there were some things that annoyed me, but more about those later.

Although the setting at the beginning is dirty and sticky London it isn’t long before the action moves to a peaceful Scottish island called Mure (it’s fictional). Flora has been working in London, she’s a very junior lawyer there and her mother had always encouraged her to get an education and have a life away from Mure and spread her wings. A billionaire has moved to the island and although he had promised to bring work and to invest in the island in reality he has kept very much to himself, employed non-islanders and the islanders haven’t gained anything from his presence. Now he needs the help of a hot-shot law firm as the luxury hotel he has looks likely to have an off-shore wind farm as a view – and he wants to put a stop to that.

Flora is sent up to Mure as she obviously has local knowledge, she’s not happy to be back, there are too many bad memories, her mother is now dead and her father and three brothers aren’t exactly happy to see her.

So far so good, I liked Flora and in fact there are plenty of likeable characters in this book as well as a lovely sense of the island landscape.

What annoyed me was that I think that if a writer is writing fiction then they should make sure that they change things that might be too much like real life. I know a few authors and they often say that they get ideas for their books from the news, but don’t make it obvious. Surely everybody knows that Donald Trump threw a hissy fit when he didn’t manage to get the plans for an offshore windfarm close to his Aberdeenshire golf course thrown out. I think at the very least Jenny Colgan should have changed the windfarm to a salmon farm or even to a tidal wave energy turbine – anything but wind turbines.

Otherwise the story was too predictable and it annoyed me how many times Colgan had Flora turning red or pink, she seemed to suffer from terminal embarrassment. Otherwise this fitted the bill as an entertaining light read.

The Star-Spangled Manner by Beverley Nichols

The Star-Spangled Manner cover

The Star-Spangled Manner by Beverley Nichols was first published in 1928 and it’s a collection of twenty-three essays about various aspects of life in America in those days. More than anything I was struck by how topical many of the subjects are, even after ninety years.

Beverley Nichols obviously liked visiting America, he lectured there and supervised the production of plays. He had lots of friends and very high-profile contacts there, but he was always an observer and often a critic. He even managed to have a meeting with the then President, Coolidge who apparently had a reputation for being rather silent and lacking in personality, but Nichols managed to get some interesting thoughts and anecdotes out of him.

Prohibition was in place at this time, so there are his observations on that – it’s a mess of course. He also meets a Trump-ish businessman with his eyes on the White House, but it’s towards the end of the book that his thoughts turn back to Britain and the need to regenerate British industry. He calls for Europe to unite and to get rid of all the economic tariffs between the various European countries.

From the previous books that I’ve read by Beverley Nichols I had no idea that he had a serious and deeply thoughtful side to his personality. He’s not perfect of course – who is? But I really like being in his company – via his books. How Brexit would have enraged him!

The Young Clementina by D.E. Stevenson

The Young Clementina cover

The Young Clementina by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1935 and the story is told in three parts. It’s told by Charlotte who is working in a library in London which isn’t exactly heaving with life and fun. She’s really very lonely and scrapes along on very little money, it’s all very different from what she expected from life when she was younger. She had been engaged to Garth and so had been destined to be the ‘lady of the manor’ but Garth had to go off to World War 1 and when he came back he was a very changed man.

A lack of communication from both sides leads to the end of their relationship, but twelve years down the line Garth comes back into Charlotte’s life, asking her if she will go to live in his home to look after his young daughter who is Charlotte’s god-daughter, while he goes off exploring. Charlotte is in two minds about it, mainly because she knows that after a year or so of comfort and servants in beautiful surroundings she will find it much more painful to return to her dismal poverty stricken existence.

Charlotte eventually discovers what had changed Garth’s attitude towards her and there’s a happy ending. I really enjoyed this one which has a good mixture of mystery, romance, lovely rural descriptions and social commentary with the ludicrous situations that couples had to get into in order to get a divorce back in the 1930s when the book was written.

Attitudes change over the years, however I was absolutely shocked when a male character in this book in all seriousness declared his love for a thirteen year old girl, the man was much older, old enough to be the girl’s father. But Charlotte wasn’t fazed at all and just asked him to wait four years!! Had I been Charlotte I would have beaten him off with a brush! In fact I might have informed the police. How times change.

D.E. Stevenson was of course a Scottish author and Robert Louis Stevenson was her second cousin.

The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor

The Scent of Death cover

The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor was published in 2013. I wasn’t too sure of this one at the beginning but it wasn’t long before I got right into it.

The setting is 1778 New York, a city that has just suffered another devastating fire, the second within two years. Edward Savill has just arrived in the city, he’s a young clerk who has been sent from London to represent the British government, his job is to investigate the financial claims of loyalists who have lost possessions and property in the ongoing wars for Independence.

Manhattan is awash with refugees, soldiers, runaway slaves and spies and it’s a dangerous place to move around in – even by day. No rebuilding has gone on as people are cconcentrating on war, not building, so large numbers of people are living in Canvas Town, a dangerous place even in daylight. Edward Savill is lodging with the Wintour family who have themselves lost an estate which is on land that has been taken over by the rebels. The Wintours are very much poorer than they had been and Edward chooses to continue to lodge with them mainly because he knows his rent money is so useful for them, but it’s not long before he realises that there are problems within the household and he suspects that a spy has infiltrated the place.

Although I guessed what was going on in the mystery parts of the book this was an atmospheric and enjoyable read.

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple has been read and reviewed by a lot of my favourite bloggers and I’ve always just skimmed the reviews as I knew I wanted to read the book myself – eventually, so I had no idea what it was about really. I did like it, it’s well written and observed but it was the second book on the trot that I’d read about the break up of a long marriage in which the only mistake the wife seems to have made was that she trusted her husband too much.

The North family consists of Ellen and her husband Avery and two children, Hugh and Anne. They’re well off and live in the suburbs, not far from London. Their problems begin when old Mrs North, Avery’s widowed mother decides to advertise for a French companion. Mrs North feels that her son and his family don’t give her the time and consideration that she deserves, a paid companion who will pander to her every whim is exactly what she wants.

Ellen’s one flaw is that she doesn’t seem to realise that her husband is really a carbon copy of his mother. He’s selfish and immature and easy meat for an avaricious French woman. Louise might be younger than Ellen but she’s much more knowing where men are concerned and soon causes mayhem within the family.

This book was first published in 1953 at a time when divorce was beginning to be more common-place, but I found this to be a sad read and I did think to myself as I was reading it that I’d probably read a children’s Puffin book next, in an attempt to avoid the subject of divorce!

Evelyn Anthony 1926-2018

I was sorry to see Evelyn Anthony’s obituary in today’s Guardian, but I suppose she did have a fair old innings. I devoured her books in the 1970s and have only just begun to buy any books by her that I see, I gave all my old ones away years ago in an effort to de-clutter prior to moving house, I’m sure you know what that’s like.

Anyway, if you’re interested in reading Evelyn Anthony’s obituary have a look here.

I’ve just realised that her obituary was published online on October 10th, but didn’t appear in the physical newspaper until October 31st. They must have a backlog to work through in the newspaper!

Evelyn Anthony

Recent book purchases

When we drove up north of Aberdeen for a few nights last week we had a specific goal in sight – a bookshop in Huntly that we had been told about by a friend. To be honest I was quite disappointed when I saw the shop as it’s really small, however I managed to buy a surprising number of books.

Another Book Haul

1. Continental Crimes Edited by Martin Edwards – a compilation of short stories, another in the British Crime Classics series.
2. Man Overboard by Monica Dickens
3. An Impossible Marriage by Pamela Hansford Johnson
4. Coot Club by Arthur Ransome
5. Company Parade by Storm Jameson
6. No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West

and three Puffin books – yes it seems that I have started a Puffin collection – sort of inadvertently.

7. The Wool-Pack by Cynthia Harnett (A Carnegie Medal Winner)
8. The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall (A Carnegie Medal Winner)
9. A Parcel of Patterns by Jill Paton Walsh

Have you read any of these books?