The Madonna of the Astrolabe by J.I.M. Stewart

The Madonna of the Astrolabe cover

The Madonna of the Astrolabe by J.I.M. Stewart ( aka Michael Innes) was first published in 1977 and it’s the fourth book in his A Staircase in Surrey quintet. The setting is an Oxford college, the fictional Surrey and the books follow the characters who had first met as students there. Some have never left there as they’ve stayed on and become dons.

The college tower which Duncan Patullo’s famous artist father had so admired that he decided it was the only college for his son to attend – is in a serious condition. It had been recently blasted clean, and it’s thought that that has contributed to the damage.

A large amount of money is needed to maintain the college tower and when a very old painting is discovered it seems that their problems are over – or are they?

Duncan Patullo’s nymphomaniac ex-wife has turned up in Oxford, in the past she’s been more than partial to men much younger than herself, so a male college is a dream location for her, but she’s a potential embarrassment for Duncan, particularly as she has hung on to his surname after he divorced her.

I’m really enjoying this journey back to 1970s academical Oxford. I just have one more book of this series to read and I’ll be sad when it comes to an end.

In case you don’t know Patullo is one of those more unusual Scottish surnames, at first glance people often think it’s Italian I think.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge and 20 Books of Summer 2017.

The Gaudy by J.I.M. Stewart

The Gaudy cover

The Gaudy by J.I.M. Stewart was first published in 1974 and it’s the first book in his A Staircase in Surrey quintet.

J.I.M. Stewart is of course better known as the crime fiction writer Michael Innes, but the books he wrote under the name of Stewart are supposedly more literary, he certainly sprinkles them with quotes and Latin anyway, but that isn’t too distracting. The author was also an academic working as a lecturer at Oxford as well as other universities and in these books he uses that experience and background for his settings.

The Gaudy is the annual re-union dinner at an Oxford college and the Scottish playwright Duncan Patullo has never been to one before in the 20 or so years since he graduated. Nor has he met up with any of his old friends in that time. Duncan has been busy carving his successful career over those years. He has decided to attend The Gaudy this year and has been allocated his old room in college.

Meeting up with old friends is a bit of an eye-opener as the one who was girl mad and what would nowadays be called a ‘serial shagger’ is now a bishop and has a very low opinion of the morals of the students nowadays! Another friend has just been appointed to the cabinet in government, the least likely friend seems to be a spook in the secret service.

There are still some students around as there are re-sits going on for those who failed their exams. The story involves quite a bit of snobbery with the usual differences between the state school educated students and those who were sent to posh schools at great expense. There’s definitely a them and us thing going on between the students and this ends up in disaster for one of them.

I enjoyed this book but not nearly as much as I remember enjoying the next one in the series, The Young Patullo, which I read back in the 1970s. I never did get my hands on The Gaudy back then so I can’t compare my feelings on that one.

The Financial Times said: ‘Wit, acute observation, clever plotting …. As a gallery of characters it leaves nothing to be desired.’

If you are thinking that Patullo is a strange surname – it is actually an old Scottish surname although you could be forgiven for thinking it must be Italian or something.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge – my second book for that challenge.

Scottish Highland Book Purchases

books 2

The photo above is of the books that I managed to buy on our brief jaunt up to the Highlands with Peggy. Some were bought at the Pitlochry railway station, a local charity has turned an old waiting room into a bookshop, and they have some great books at very reasonable prices. There’s also another second-hand bookshop just off the high street, well worth a look. I think it’s called Priory Books. I bought two there I believe.

Others I bought in Fort William in a second-hand bookshop just off the main street. It’s not that big but I’m always lucky there.

A few of these books jumped right to the top of my queue so I’ve already read three of them, but only managed to blog about one of them so far – Candleshoe.

Garden Open Tomorrow by Beverley Nichols
The Small Dark Man by Maurice Walsh
The River Monster by Compton Mackenzie
The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons
The Wooden Overcoat by Pamela Branch
King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett (about Macbeth)
Quenn’s Play by Dorothy Dunnett
A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
Candleshoe by Michael Innes
A Child’s Garden of Verses by R.L. Stevenson (illustrated by Michael Foreman)

A decent haul I think but it is a wee bit worrying that within less than two weeks I bought 24 books, apart from anything else I need another bookcase now, or maybe I should perform a book cull, but I’ve done that before and ended up regretting getting rid of some books. I might have a six months cooling off period for them in the garage and see how I feel about them after that.

Have you bought many books recently?

Candleshoe by Michael Innes

Candleshoe cover

Candleshoe by Michael Innes was a very recent purchase by me. I bought it when I was down in the Scottish Borders a couple of weeks ago. I hadn’t even heard of this book before but Peggy knew about it and she has seen the film that Disney made of it. In fact the book was originally called Christmas at Candleshoe but my copy is a later tie in to the film. The book has nothing to do with Christmas the festival at all, it’s someone’s first name. As you can see from the book cover David Niven starred in the film, I don’t know how I managed to miss seeing it. Possibly it was released during one of the several times that our local fleapit in Dumbarton was closed due to fire damage. The Rialto,the last surviving cinema was forever going on fire for insurance purposes it was rumoured!

It’s a bit confusing as although the film is apparently aimed at kids, being made by Disney, the book definitely wasn’t written for children. Michael Innes had a habit of using the art world as part of the plot in his books – as he does with this one but it bears no resemblance to his Inspector Appleby mysteries.

A very wealthy American woman tourist is in Britain touring the usual country stately homes. As her son is a student at Oxford and she is very keen on all the ancient history of England, she’s on the lookout for an estate to buy and refurbish. When she stumbles across a house that has been completely bypassed by the 20th century she’s enchanted.

Her son fears that she’s determined to buy the ancient pile and Jay a teenager who seems to be keeping the whole place going is also worried that the very elderly owners would be happy to sell up. Jay believes an old story that there is treasure somewhere in the house and he’s not surprised when the house comes under attack from thieves.

The whole thing is a bit crazy and I have to say that this definitely isn’t one of Michael Innes’s best books. He was always very keen to shoehorn literary elements into his books, I suppose because for his day-job he was a university lecturer in English, but I don’t think that mentioning Meredith and numerous other literati does much for the pace of a mystery. He drops in Latin phrases in much the same way as Dorothy L. Sayers did, which is fine if like me you were lucky enough to do Latin at school, but I suspect that it’s just an annoyance for many people. At least he doesn’t switch to Greek as Sayers did at times!

This is my 21st book read for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge. That level was originally being named ‘Back O’ Beyond’ but since visiting the Isle of Skye recently with Peggy, I think it is now going to be called Skye, or Isle of Skye – it’s up to Peggy. Any levels beyond that being named Orkney and then the ultimate – Shetland.

I think I’ll be giving this one a three on Goodreads.

Lament for a Maker by Michael Innes

Lament for a Maker cover

Lament for a Maker by Michael Innes was first published in 1938 and the story is told by five different characters in seven sections.

In the first part the story is narrated by Ewan Bell, a shoemaker from Kinkeig and it’s written in his dialect which I think might have put some readers off but really it shouldn’t be a problem for people.

Ranald Guthrie is the laird of Erchany Castle. He’s hated in his part of the Scottish Highlands, because of his meanness. Ranald spends his time counting his gold coins and quoting parts of an ancient Scottish poem by William Dunbar – which you can read here. A maker or more usually makar is a Scottish word for a poet, usually a court poet. The title has been brought back into use now and at the moment the makar is Jackie Kay.

Anyway, back to the book.

Ranald Guthrie has a young niece, but if you believe the local gossip she might actually be his daughter – or maybe he has designs on her, the locals will believe anything of him, he’s seen as being the devil. Christine, the niece has fallen for a young local man but Guthrie despises his family. It’s a bit of a Romeo and Juliet situation.

When Guthrie falls to his death from his own battlements on a wild wintry night there’s speculation, did he jump or was he pushed? His American relatives had tried to have him put into an asylum in the past because of his strange behaviour. Of course John Appleby of Scotland Yard is going to get to the bottom of it.

This is a very convoluted mystery, well worth reading, in fact it’s often regarded as being Michael Innes’s best book.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.

Book Purchases

We were in Edinburgh on Tuesday, right in the middle of the city – Princes Street, we don’t often go there but I wanted to visit the Habitat store. It was a bit of a shock to discover that Habitat has gone from Edinburgh, I knew the one in Glasgow had closed. I suppose we have the internet to blame for that, apparently it closed about five years ago and I’ve only just found out, so obviously they never made much money from me.

Anyway, we rarely go to Edinburgh without visiting Stockbridge, the secondhand bookshops are far more my cup of tea than the shops in Princes Street, or Shandwick Place for that matter. Stockbridge is about a 20 minute walk from the centre of Edinburgh and it’s like a wee separate town, with lots of independent shops – and charity shops of course. You can see some images of parts of Stockbridge here.

I was lucky bookwise as you can see.


A lot of them are childrens books, but I like to catch up on what I missed out on as a child. I don’t think I’ve ever read a Nancy Drew book, but I know that Joan @ Planet Joan is a big fan so I couldn’t resist buying:

The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene.

The Marvelous Land of Oz by Frank Baum. I’ve yet to read The first Oz book although I have the second.

The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff. It’s about Britain just after the Romans left, a dark time of change and upheaval. (Does it remind you of anything?!)

Once Upon a Time by A.A. Milne. This book was first published in 1917 but my copy is a 1962 reprint. It’s a series of hilarious adventures apparently – involving a cloak of darkness, magic swords and seven league boots. It sounds like fun – for children of all ages.

A Folly of Princes by the Scottish author Nigel Tranter is set in Fife where I live and involves some of the local castles and King Robert III, it should be interesting as although Tranter wrote fiction his books were well researched.

Crime at Christmas by C.H.B. Kitchin was first published in 1934 but this one is a 2015 reprint by Faber and Faber. I’m going to keep this one fro Christmas reading.

Lament for a Maker by Michael Innes – another Scottish author – was first published in 1938 and it was recommended to me by a blogger yonks ago. I have read a lot of his books, including the ones he wrote under the name J.I.M. Stewart and I always enjoy his writing.

I think you’ll agree that I had quite a successful day in Edinburgh – despite not being able to do my planned shopping in Habitat.

Vintage Crime x 3

For me vintage crime is perfect for holiday reading so I have three to write about which I read when we were in the Netherlands.

The first one is The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr, it was first published in 1935 and features Dr Fell as the detective. This one was a real puzzler which kept me guessing. It’s a murder mystery which is described in the blurb as an eerie thriller, full of impossible crimes cleverly planned – and I agree with that.

The second one is A Family Affair by Michael Innes, which was first published in 1969. I didn’t enjoy this one quite so much. It begins at Sir John Appleby’s son Bobby’s Oxford College’s dining club. An after dinner anecdote piques Appleby’s interest. He’s left wondering if there’s an elaborate scammer going around in the art world, depriving people of their treasures. Innes did enjoy using the art world as a setting for his stories, especially in the 1960s and 70s but they aren’t always the strongest of storylines.

The third book is Woman Slaughter by Elizabeth Ferrars, it was published in 1989 and it was given to me by a friend who said that he couldn’t get beyond page 55. He had read earlier books by Ferrars and enjoyed them so I was wondering how I would feel about it. I have to say that it’s a real shame that my friend didn’t read on for another 15 pages or so because that was when it all began to kick off and I really enjoyed it.

It begins with the death of an elderly man, the victim of a hit and run accident. He was a neighbour of Virginia Freer, and Virginia’s estranged husband Felix thinks he might have witnessed the accident. Felix doesn’t want to get involved so decides not to tell the police what he saw, but he is tempted to dabble in their investigation and he unwittingly makes things much worse. This is another one which kept me guessing.

Read Scotland 2014

It’s time for a Read Scotland 2014 update, in fact it’s way past time as I’ve just realised that I’ve read 15 Scottish books this year, so I’ve gone beyond Ben Nevis as I knew I would. I don’t know what the next level could be called – do you?

I haven’t been very good at linking to the challenge so here’s what I’ve read so far.

1. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
2. Lanark by Alasdair Gray
3. Rockets Galore by Compton Mackenzie
4. A Double Death on the Black Isle by A.D. Scott
5. The Comforters by Muriel Spark
6. Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford
7. The Cabinetmaker by Alan Jones
8. The Daffodil Affair by Michael Innes
9. The Four Graces by D.E. Stevenson
10. The First Book of the McFlannels by Helen W. Pryde
11. The McFlannels See It Through by Helen W. Pryde
12. Sleeping Tiger by Rosamund Pilcher
13. The Clydesiders by Margaret Thomson Davis
14. The Kellys of Kelvingrove by Margaret Thomson Davis
15. Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin – which I have yet to blog about but I really enjoyed it.

A few of these authors have been new to me and of those I think Compton Mackenzie has been the most surprising and entertaining, followed closely by Helen W. Pryde, I must get around to tracking down the rest in her series.

The most disappointing has been Secrets of the Sea House which was just not my cup of tea and was full of cultural mistakes, it isn’t authentically Scottish at all.

I haven’t read any Scottish non-fiction at all but I intend to remedy that soon, so stand by (Lorraine in particular) for a non fiction blogpost – when I’ve rounded up the ones I hope to read this year – which is almost half-way through already. How did that happen?!

The Daffodil Affair by Michael Innes

The Daffodil Affair Michael Innes

I’ve read a lot of Michael Innes books over the years and also his books written under the name J.I.M. Stewart and I usually really enjoy them but for me The Daffodil Affair was a disappointment. It was first published in 1942 and it’s an Appleby mystery so I settled down to enjoy a good wartime puzzle but the storyline is decidedly weird and really if it had been written by anyone else I think I would have given up on it fairly early on – and I hardly ever give up on books.

The story begins in wartime London where bombs have been raining down and ruined buildings are part of daily life. At Scotland Yard the Assistant-Commissioner’s sister who resides in Harrogate has reported that a horse called Daffodil has disappeared, it happens to be her favourite cab-horse. Appleby is dispatched to that northern England spa town to get to the bottom of the mystery.

But it isn’t only a horse which has vanished, a young girl called Lucy Rideout and a London house have disappeared too. The house was supposedly haunted.

It turns out that someone is gathering people who are supposed to possess special psychic powers together, with the intention of assembling a huge psychic circus, and Appleby and his side-kick Hudspith end up travelling to the other side of the world to get to the bottom of it all – in the middle of a world war!!!

As I said, this is a deeply weird one, I’m just wondering if Michael Innes was on some sort of medication at the time!

I read this one as part of the Read Scotland 2014 challenge. I wouldn’t recommend it, but don’t be put off trying other books by the author.

From London Far by Michael Innes

This vintage crime book was first published in 1946 which is just about my favourite crime fiction era but somehow this one didn’t hit the spot for me.

The action begins in London where Meredith, an absent minded university professor inadvertently gets involved with a criminal gang who are involved in the procurement of famous works of art. With Europe being in upheaval due to the war there’s a lot of scope for criminal types in that line of work.

I quite enjoy crime mixed with humour but this one just took daftness to the extreme and it began to resemble a sort of Indiana Jones type of storyline, very far-fetched and ‘boys own adventure story’-ish.

The action switches to Moila, a Scottish island which I think is the Isle of Mull. Strangely Mary Stewart uses this island as the setting of her book Stormy Petrel, but Moila doesn’t seem to exist, the Gaelic for Mull is Muile.

Meredith is joined in his adventure by a young woman, Jean Halliwell, who had been a student of his and towards the end of their Mull adventure the whole thing takes on the feeling of a James Bond film, Modernist house with gadgets, stylish swimming pool and scantily clad beauties and all.

I’m sure that Ian Fleming must have read this book and thought to himself that he would have a go at something like that himself – only more so! The first James Bond book wasn’t written until 1952.

Michael Innes often liked to have a storyline involving art and of course as he was a university lecturer in his day job he also liked a university setting. There was, and still is a lot of snobbishness in such circles about the types of novels which they read, novels being seen as a bit of a guilty pleasure. Crime fiction was always seen as acceptable light reading and so Innes wouldn’t have been looked down on by his colleagues, but he is careful to have his books full of quotes and references to literature and art, just so that his books would be seen as ‘high class’ crime.

As I said, this wasn’t really my cup of tea but that’s because it wasn’t the cosy sort of railway station and country house setting which I enjoy most. If you’re into crazy action and nutty situations then you may well love this one.