My Friend Muriel by Jane Duncan is the second book in the author’s ‘My Friends’ series. It was first published in 1959, which was a very good year by the way! This one was a perfect read for these Covid-19 times, it’s a great light read with plenty of laughs. I took this book out to the garden to read on a glorious day last week and it grabbed me immediately. It’s a first person narrative with Jane Duncan – or Janet Sandison as she is in the book telling how she met her friend Muriel who is definitely a bit of an odd bod. It begins in 1930 when Janet was a student at the University of Glasgow and she was lodging with family friends in a village on Clydeside between Clydebank and Dumbarton, which just happens to be where I grew up (see my header photo – it’s Dumbarton). So I knew exactly where Jane was. On her commute to uni every morning she could see No 534 being built at John Brown’s shipyard, the ship was of course eventually named Queen Mary.
It’s just the wrong time to be graduating from uni as there was just about no chance of any graduates getting a job due to the Great Depression. Janet is faced with having to go back to her family home in the Highlands, but before that happens she is troubled for the first time in her life with toothache and while waiting in the dentist’s waiting room she peruses the magazines. An article titled Are You Lonely catches her eye and the upshot is that she writes off to a given address to get a pen friend from the writer of the article Mrs Whitely-Rollin. This eventually leads to an offer of work in England where Janet meets Muriel who pops up off and on throughout Janet’s life.
This book takes Janet from the age of 20 to her mid thirties so it includes WW2 when she joined the WAAF, working in the Operations Room and getting engaged from time to time as she was the only female there! There were lots of familiar situations in this book, for me anyway. There’s even a character called Alexander Alexander and you might think that is an unlikely name for anyone to be given, but I knew a man with that name, although he was called Sandy Eck by everyone – both of those being diminutives of Alexander.
The blurb on the front says: A riotous romp – moving, funny, fresh and alive. Second in a series that is making publishing history.
Back in 1959 this book cost all of 2/6 which if you aren’t old enough to remember pre decimal coinage is 12 and a half pence. It cost me all of £1.60 on our February trip up to Aberdeen (which must have been our last trip away from home) it was money well spent.
The spin number was chosen today and its number 6 which means that I will read Angela Thirkell’s Summer Half and blog about it by the 1st of June.
Summer Half is a re-read for me, but I’ve been reading Angela Thirkell’s books in order again as the first time I read them it was just in a random order as and when I could get copies of the books.
Strictly speaking I don’t really think of her books as ‘classics’ although as they are still in print decades after they were first written I suppose it’s fair enough to categorise them as classics. I know it will be a light and amusing read which will be perfect for these Covid-19 times that we’re having to endure, and no doubt we’ll still be in a similar situation by the 1st of June.
I did want to get number 3 which is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, maybe I’ll just read that one soon anyway. Are you up for that too tracybham?
The Cheval Glass by Ursula Bloom was first published in 1973. It isn’t the first book that I’ve read by the author but the ones I have read were much earlier. I really expected to see that this book was one of her last – as it’s shot full of holes. It only has 183 pages and I read it in a couple of sittings and when you do that it’s so noticeable when the same man’s hand is described as being smooth and brown – then later on as being wrinkled, when the author wanted to point out how much older he was than his young love interest.
The setting is Norfolk and Hilary is a young artist who is renting the lodge house of a large house called Whitethorn. Her landlord is James, a 60 year old retired army officer, married to Margaret and with a young daughter and two much older sons.
In no time flat James and Hilary have embarked on an affair. James is very much attracted to much younger women. When Margaret falls terminally ill Hilary moves into Whitethorn to help look after her. By now she has formed a close relationship with Pearl the young daughter. Pearl is obsessed with a cheval glass which is housed in the attic and talks about the lady in the mirror.
This book isn’t well or even carefully written and I hated the fact Margaret is not allowed to know how ill she is, it brought back so many bad memories for me as I experienced that situation while I was helping my mother to nurse my father when he was terminally ill. For me it meant such a waste of precious time – lying about a situation that my father well knew about – but my mother couldn’t cope with. But it’s what some people used to do.
As I said previously – I expected this to be one of Ursula Bloom’s last books as it is so carelessly written but according to Wiki she wrote over 500 books in her lifetime under various names – just churning them out, so it is no surprise that it’s so badly written. According to the Fantastic Fiction link at the beginning of this post she wrote fourteen other books in 1973. Quantity over quality obviously! Did she write them, or was it some sort of franchise deal? -As often happens in publishing.
Ursula Bloom (1892 – 1984) aka Sheila Burns, Mary Essex, Rachel Harvey, Deborah Mann, Lozania Prole.
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 Musgraves by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1960. Esther and Charles Musgrave have been married for 25 years but they’re not destined to add any more years to that tally as Charles is terminally ill. He was a widower when he married Esther and is much older than her. His 17 year old son Walter reacted badly to the marriage and took off in high dudgeon to make a life for himself, cutting off all contact with his father.
All that is in the past though and it’s Esther and their three daughters that are preying on Charles’s mind in his last days. Delia the eldest daughter has always been difficult, she has never quite got over not being an only child and having to share her parents with two younger sisters. She’s a needy and dissatisfied young woman and likes everybody to know it, with the result that the other members of the family are walking on eggshells when she’s around.
Meg the middle daughter is going to be married to Bernard soon, but her mother isn’t at all happy about the match. Charles is obviously keen to get Meg settled with a steady husband, looking to the future he knows that Bernard will be a help to his family when he’s no longer around to look after them. Esther doesn’t like Bernard and is really quite a hypocrite considering her far more mismatched but successful marriage with Charles.
Rose, the youngest daughter is packed off to school and with Charles’s death and Meg’s marriage Esther is living with just Delia in the much smaller house that they’ve had to move to when it became a financial necessity to move out of their large family home. Delia isn’t happy with the change in their circumstances, living in a large house with plenty of land around it had been important for her ego and she feels the downfall keenly. Esther is delighted with the new house though, it’s just Delia’s personality that is a problem.
I enjoyed this book about difficult family dynamics and clashing personalities. It’s often the middle child in a family who is supposedly the difficult one so I’m told, but I think that quite often the eldest child comes as such a shock to some mothers, especially if they are young mothers and are an only child themselves. I’ve certainly observed some young mothers treating their eldest as if they are a sibling that they never had and not their child. By the time they have a second child they’re ready to get into mothering mode so the relationship is very different. It’s harsh on the eldest child. Perhaps that was part of Delia’s problem.
Well, as Tolstoy said: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Although I prefer D.E. Stevenson’s books to have a Scottish setting (so parochial of me I know) I did enjoy this one.
Green Money by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1939 but World War 2 doesn’t come into it apart from a very brief mention of Hitler. This one isn’t one of her best, it would seem that 1938/39 wasn’t a good time for Stevenson’s writing and given what was going on in the UK at the time that isn’t at all surprising.
George Ferrier is twenty-five years old and enjoying a holiday in London when he meets a man called Mr Green who had known his father years ago. It turns out that Mr Green is a wealthy widower with one daughter and he is in need of a third trustee to look after her best interests if he should die. He decides that George is the man he needs, the upshot of which is that not long after that George has the onerous duty thrust upon him when Mr Green dies suddenly.
The daughter Elma has been brought up in Victorian ways by a governess and when she gets a bit of freedom it goes to her head, she’s very pretty and has men flocking around her and she ends up in a dangerous situation, and George has the job of tracking her down. He discovers that the other two trustees are anything but trustworthy.
There are lots of other characters and George’s Irish mother Paddy gave the author the opportunity to write some dialogue in that style, there are moments of humour and the moral of this tale is that it’s more important to be honest and decent than clever.
The Tall Stranger by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1957 and I was lucky enough to find this one in a second-hand bookshop in Kirkwall, Orkney.
I see D.E. Stevenson as being a sort of updated O.Douglas in her writing style and content, although not quite as ‘churchy’.
This one begins in London where the people are having to cope with a horrendous fog that has lingered for almost a week, but thankfully about half-way through the book the action moves to the clear air of the Scottish borders.
Barbie and Nell are great friends and flatmates. In some ways they’re quite different with Nell being happy running around with lots of different boyfriends and cheerfully accepting lots of gifts from them. She works as secretary for a doctor. Barbie is much more choosy about men friends, and at the beginning of the book she’s in hospital, seemingly having lost the will to live.
When she improves enough to be able to travel she goes to Scotland to stay with her Aunt Amalia/Lady Steyne who lives in a lovely old house called Underwoods. There she meets up with her step-cousin, someone she hasn’t seen for years, and at first Barbie is charmed by him.
This was a good read, D.E. Stevenson’s books have the reputation of being light comfort reads, but they also have a serious side. Barbie has a career that she loves and is very good at, she’s an interior decorator and the thought of giving that up to please a husband isn’t a pleasant one for her. Quite a modern concept for 1957 I think.
Also there’s a moment in this book when Barbie realises that she’s not at all happy with her discovery of an unexpected trait in her fiance’s character. It’s a shock and a game changer for her, she’s wise enough to have a complete re-think about her future. I’m sure that this is something that must have happened to a lot of people, and they have looked back and thought – that was the time when I should have taken steps to change things.
Not just a comfort read.
I’ve been on a bit of an Agatha Raisin binge recently and although I enjoyed this one I’m going to take a wee bit of a rest from M.C. Beaton for a while.
This is the second Agatha book, I’ve been reading them all out of order. At the beginning of this one Agatha has just got back from a holiday in the Bahamas where she went on the spur of the moment, right after she hears that it was James Lacey’s holiday destination. She’s usually shameless in her pursuit of James, but even Agatha was mortified when she realised that James had got wind of her intention to follow him and he had changed his plans at the last minute.
On Agatha’s return she finds that a new vet has set up business in her home village of Carsley. The women of the village are queuing up for his attentions, but there’s something strange about him, it isn’t long before Agatha is embroiled in murder yet again.
I had wondered how Agatha ended up with two cats, she started off with Hodge, he was named by James Lacey apparently and Agatha didn’t realise that Hodge was the name of Samuel Johnson’s cat. When she acquires another cat she names the new one Boswell. I had always wondered how the unliterary Agatha had ended up with a Hodge and Boswell. Mystery solved.
This is the first book in the Agatha Raisin series. I enjoyed reading Agatha Raisin and the Murderous Marriage previously but I decided to read the whole series in order. No problem I thought as there are always a lot of M C Beaton books in the library, but the first one just wasn’t popping up.
So, when I spotted a copy in a charity shop I snapped it up. They were doing two paperbacks for a pound so I also bought Josephine Tey’s To Love and Be Wise, which means I now have all of her books.
Anyway, back to Agatha. This is an enjoyable light read, perfect for when you don’t want to have to concentrate on anything too deeply. The sort of book which you can read whilst waiting to hear your name being called at the doctor’s or when you’re on a train and keeping one eye cocked on the landscape so that you don’t go past your stop inadvertently.
Agatha has just sold her very successful PR business in London and has moved to an idyllic cottage in the Cotswolds. It has been her ambition to do this ever since she was a child, but it isn’t long before she’s wondering if she has done the right thing and is pining for London life. When she makes an effort to join in with the social events of the village she becomes embroiled in a murder.
All jolly good fun which I found especially enjoyable because all of the towns and villages mentioned had been visited by us on our last British road trip so I could envisage the scenery.