The Revolving Door of Life by Alexander McCall Smith

 The Revolving Door of Life cover

The Revolving Door of Life by Alexander McCall Smith is the latest in his 44 Scotland Street series. I didn’t enjoy the previous one as much as I had some of the others, but this one was better I think.

Bertie is still only seven years old, I reckon that that is the third book in which he is still seven. At the end of the previous book Bertie’s mother Irene has gone on a trip to the Persian Gulf and she has somehow ended up being taken captive in a sheik’s harem there. Irene is a very pushy and truly ghastly sort of female Edinbugger, a keen devotee of the child psychologist Melanie Kline and that has led to her trying her best to emasculate poor wee Bertie – perish the thought that he should want to do anything ‘boyish’ or even wear anything normal such as blue jeans. Bertie must wear pink dungarees. Her long suffering husband Stuart is enjoying the respite and fears that Irene will find her way back to Edinburgh all too soon. Meanwhile his mother has come to help him look after his two sons – Bertie and Ulysses.

The lack of Irene is probably why I enjoyed this book more as she is so annoying. As ever there are moral decisions to be taken by many of the characters in the book. Such as – is it fair game to set up someone you know to be a gold-digger in order to rid your father of her attentions? Everybody makes the correct choices and everything is hunky dory – if only real life were like that!

Bertie’s ambition is to move to Glasgow as soon as he legally can – and he thinks that is when he is 18, at this rate he’s never going to reach there which is a real shame because I would love it if McCall Smith continued the series in Glasgow at some point.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge, my 35th or possibly 36th.

Read Scotland 2016 Challenge

I’ve really enjoyed doing the Read Scotland Challenge this year and I’m definitely doing it again in 2017. I managed to read thirty-five books by Scottish authors or with a Scottish setting or link. I’ve been fairly strict with myself though as I’ve just finished reading a book by an author who according to the back blurb now lives in Glasgow, but there was nothing Scottish in her book so I’m not counting that one at all.

I’m going to be compiling a list soon of some of the Scottish books I plan to read in 2017. It’ll include a few classics by Sir Walter Scott and R.L. Stevenson and I think some other people doing the challenge will be doing a readalong at some point, RLS’s The Black Arrow has been mentioned as a possibility, it’s a historical adventure set at the time of The Wars of the Roses. It’ll be different anyway!

1. Beneath the Abbey Wall by A.D. Scott
2. The Factory on the Cliff by A. G. MacDonell
3. Lament for a Maker by Michael Innes
4. Night and Silence by Aline Templeton
5. A Life, Josephine Tey by Jennifer Morag Henderson
6. Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party by Alexander McCall Smith
7. Murder at the Loch by Eric Brown
8. The Moon King by Neil Williamson
9. Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart
10. Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell
11. Water on the Brain by Compton Mackenzie
12. Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
13. Cork on the Water by Macdonald Hastings
14. The Hangman’s Song by James Oswald
15. Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart
16. Crossriggs by Jane and Mary Findlater
17. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
18. The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett
19. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
20. Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne
21. Candleshoe by Michael Innes
22. Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart
23. The Land the Ravens Found by Naomi Mitchison
24. England Their England by A.G. Macdonell
25. Kate Hardy by D.E. Stevenson
26. The Revolving Door of Life by Alexander McCall Smith
27. The Rival Monster by Compton Mackenzie
28. Furnished for Murder by Elizabeth Ferrars
29. A Smile in One Eye a Tear in the Other by Ralph Webster
30. Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson
31. After the Dance by Iain Crichton Smith
32. Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett
33. Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher
34. Dandy Gilver and A Most Misleading Habit by Catriona McPherson
35. Glasgow Interiors by Helen Kendrick

Dandy Gilver and A Most Misleading Habit by Catriona McPherson

 Dandy Gilver and A Most Misleading Habit cover

Dandy Gilver and A Most Misleading Habit by Catriona McPherson is the latest in the Dandy Gilver series that I’ve been enjoying over the past few years.

The setting is Scotland, the bleak moors of Lanarkshire, and Dandy is called in to investigate a break out of inmates at a remote mental hospital on Christmas Eve 1932, and a fire that broke out the same night at a nearby convent.

Of course Dandy’s side-kick Alec is helping out as usual although he isn’t able to do much of the investigating in the convent, he concentrates on the mental hospital.

I don’t think this book is as successful as the previous ones, a lot of it just feels so wrong given that it is a convent in the early 1930s. Everyone is just too happy and it is just too unrealistic with the orphanage attached to the convent being full of well-loved children, unlikely even within a sort of freelance convent as it is. There were so many mentions of ‘sister’ in it, it was even mentioned by Alec in the book that he was tired of the word, or something to that effect. I suppose I’m just not that fond of a convent setting.

There wasn’t much in the way of banter between Dandy and her maid Grant, or even between Dandy and Alec although her husband Hugh played a larger part in this story and he’s a good character I think so that was welcome.

I will definitely read the next one in the series though.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.

Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher

Winter Solstice cover

Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher was first published in 2000 and it was the last book that she wrote as she retired from writing then although she lived for for quite a few years after that.

I’ve read quite a few of Rosamunde Pilcher’s books and I suppose they come under the category of comfort read, although in this one there is a tragedy, but it doesn’t involve any characters that the reader gets very involved with.

Elfrida has retired and moved from London to a small cottage in Hampshire where she intends to supplement her income by making cushions and home furnishings and selling them on to a posh London shop. She makes a good job of settling into her new life and making good friends in the area, she has a gorgeous rescue dog called Horace as a companion, but there’s no doubt that the one person who is most important to Elfrida is her neighbour Oscar, but he’s already married with a young daughter.

Circumstances lead to Oscar having to move back to the north of Scotland where he had been brought up and Elfrida gives up her comfortable life to join him there, and so begins a sort of tour of various houses in that area. In fact I felt that it was a bit like reading one of those glossy homes magazines. Some of the properties mentioned were definitely in need of refurbishment and others were very desireable indeed.

I feel that Pilcher had decided to modernise her writing a bit for the new millenium. One of the main characters is a woman who has had a long term affair with a married man and it has come to an end. I can’t be sure, because it’s quite a while since I read any other Rosamunde Pilcher books but I don’t think she had previously had a main character who had had an affair with a married man. I think in most romances a woman like that would have been seen as a bit of a wicked witch and not the main character.

In fact towards the end of this book something happens (you know me, I don’t want to say too much) and probably a lot of people would think that it is just too unlikely but – hold on to your hats girls – some husbands/widowers DO replace their wives after only a couple of months of their death, well they do in Kirkcaldy anyway. I know, I have said too much! Anyway, Winter Solstice is an enjoyable jaunt from Hampshire via London and on up to the wilds of Creagan which is north of Inverness in the Highlands of Scotland, and you can go on a tour of the places mentioned in the book, have a look here if you’re interested. There’s romance a-plenty too.

You can see some images of Creagan here.

I read this one for the Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge 2016 and also for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge

Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett

Queens' Play cover

I actually read Queens’ Play a wee while ago, but I have such a backlog of book reviews to catch up with, mainly because of not blogging while we were on holiday. I use this blog to keep track and remind myself of books that I’ve read though, so here goes.

Queens’ Play which was first published in 1964 is the second in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles and as I recall, I enjoyed it even more than the first one. These books aren’t really suitable for bedtime reading – well not for me anyway because they require more concentration than I can usually summon up by then.

In Queens’ Play Francis Crawford – more commonly known as Lymond is in France at the court of the seven year old Mary Queen of Scots. He has been invited there by her mother, Mary of Guise who thinks that her daughter is at risk of assassination, with good reason no doubt. The young Mary was sent from Scotland to France as a five year old, but that might have been a case of jumping from the frying pan to the fire.

As France and Scotland shared an enemy in England it was hoped that the young Mary and the young French Dauphin would eventually strengthen the alliance through a marriage. But those in power in England were obviously against that alliance. It was Lymond’s job to seek out intrigues and to protect Mary from them.

The New York Time Book Review said:

“(Her) hero is as polished and perceptive as Lord Peter Wimsey and as resourceful as James Bond.”

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.

After the Dance by Iain Crichton Smith

 After the Dance  cover

After the Dance by Iain Crichton Smith is a collection of short stories by this Scottish author who wrote poetry as well as novels, writing in both Gaelic (his first language) and English, he died in 1998. He was born in Glasgow but moved to Lewis when he was two years old. Although he wrote poetry and prose he was also a high school English teacher.

These short stories have very diverse subjects ranging from the First World War and the horror of mothers seeing a church elder approaching their houses, it was his job to deliver the telegrams, to a Highland wedding in the city. The Highland father feels completely out of it but when the singing starts and he realises the youngsters don’t know the words of the Gaelic songs well he takes over, singing the traditional songs and turns the celebration into a Gaelic culture fest, to the delight of the younger generation.

There are thirty-one stories in the book and a few of them show the author’s distaste of the Free Church of Scotland’s strict Calvinism. But the existence of Calvinism has given him a chance to write with humour on the subject, every cloud I suppose….

There’s an introduction from author Alan Warner (of Morvern Callar fame), who lived near Iain Crichton Smith in the 1980s and he gives an instance of his sense of humour when he mentions that a woman has such an insistent personality that she is the sort of person that you have to say goodbye to through your own letterbox! Mind you I’m not at all sure that that translates for people who don’t have a letter box in their front door.

I really enjoyed these stories, some more than others of course, but they’re well worth reading. I must try one of his novels next year. If you’re interested you can read his obituary here.

You can read what Jack thought of this anthology here. He’s much more thorough than I am where reviews are concerned.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge. I believe that’s my thirtieth.

Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson

 Emotionally Weird cover

Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson was published in 2000. The setting is Dundee, where Atkinson went to university and it’s a series of tales told by various characters. This is a style that the author seems to favour and I can’t say that it’s one that I’m crazy about.

The main story is told by Effie, a student of literature. But her mother Nora also tells her family story and various other students are writing books which feature too, although thankfully never for very long. In fact Nora even reviews the main book, complaining of too many characters and such, so Atkinson is well aware that critics will complain of the flaws in the book. But I suppose she doesn’t see them as flaws.

It’s definitely curate’s egg-ish, meaning of course that the book is good in parts, however, the bits that are good are really very good, in my opinion anyway. It’s very funny in parts.

Here, Dundee’s English Literature department in the early 1970s is depicted as peopled by crazy characters – students and staff, headed by Professor Cousins who isn’t really in the real world at all and takes any chance to have word games. The professor is sure someone is trying to kill him and Effie is sure she is being followed.

Effie’s boyfriend Bob has hardly been to any lectures, he’s in danger of being chucked out of uni and Effie can’t think why she’s still with him.

Chick is a private detective ex-policeman who has fallen on hard times due to his divorce and Effie knows he reminds her of someone, but she can’t think who.

Dogs feature in the story, as they quite often do in Atkinson’s books and they provide some of the humour.

Kate Atkinson was born in the north of England but has lived in Scotland since her Dundee University days and now lives in Edinburgh. In this book she proves how well she has assimilated as she has a good Scots vocabulary and she uses it well.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.

A Smile in One Eye: a Tear in the Other by Ralph Webster

A Smile in One Eye: a Tear in the Other cover

Ralph Webster’s parents had the misfortune to be caught up in the horrendous happenings in Germany that led up to the beginning of World War 2. It was a subject that Webster’s father had been rather reticent about, as so many people are when they have been traumatised by events, but as Ralph Webster and his wife Ginger witnessed the plight of refugees on their recent trip to Europe from the US where they live, it made him think more about his own family’s history. The upshot is this book A Smile in One Eye: a Tear in the Other which I must say is a cracking good read for anyone interested in that era. The author says that most of the story is based on fact, with just a few bits of fiction – to join the dots. He asked me to review the book as his father had found refuge in the west of Scotland as a teenager and was eventually able to join the British army – the Pioneer Corps.

There are two narratives running in tandem in A Smile in One Eye: a Tear in the Other. One relating the experiences of the Wober family in Prussia in the Nazi era as told by Gerhard Wober and the other the told by his son Ralph Webster as his father’s life draws to a close.

The story begins with Gerhard Wober (Webster’s father) describing his family, he’s the youngest and has three very much older sisters. The family is well off, his father is a businessman, selling farm machinery and he also owns a farm. They have several servants who are like part of the family, and life is good, but as time goes on the rise of the Nazi Party was to change all that.

The trouble was that although the Wober family were Lutherans who regularly attended church and the children had all been baptised Lutherans, Gerhard’s mother had actually originally been Jewish, although not a particularly religious one. Gerhard’s father had been adopted and he later discovered that his parents had also been Jewish.

Living in a rural area in Prussia they had been fairly sheltered from what was going on in the cities, but when members of their extended family phoned to warn them what was going on in their town it was no longer possible to ignore the facts. The fact that they had completely assimilated and didn’t think of themselves as Jewish wasn’t going to save them from the horrors. The mayhem of Kristallnacht in 1938 woke them up to the fact that the Nazis weren’t a passing phase. It wasn’t long before the locals joined in with the violence of the National Socialist thugs and the Wober family home was trashed. Obviously unknown to the Wobers there had been a lot of jealousy over the years in some quarters.

It was time to move out. It might be safer in a city and they would have to think about escaping. With everything they had owned having been trashed or confiscated escape wasn’t going to be easy. By this time Gerhard is a teenager and his father’s top priority was to get him out of Germany to safety, but with no money and not having any friends abroad to sponsor him it seemed a forlorn hope.

The fact that as far as the family was concerned they were Lutherans, not Jews, only complicated things further. Taking advantage of the Kindertransport would have meant Gerhard would probably have been fostered to a Jewish family, but his father wanted him to hold on to his Lutheran upbringing.

Eventually Gerhard finds a sponsor and makes it to the west of Scotland where he gets a job working on a farm in Balfron, Stirlingshire – not that far from where I grew up actually.

When war actually breaks out all foreigners in Britain were interned in various places. Those in power naturally worried that some of those people might have been German or Italian spies. Jerry – as Gerhard was now known, was moved to the Isle of Man but when it was decided that he was no threat to Britain he was able to join the British army and do his bit. It was at this point that he changed his name to Webster as it was thought that if those in the Pioneer Corps had been captured by the Germans they would be likely to be killed as traitors.

I found this to be a really fascinating read and for me it answered some questions that I had always had – such as – Why didn’t they all just get out as soon as they realised what the Nazis were like?! But of course it wasn’t that simple.

Ralph Webster contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in reviewing A Smile in One Eye: a Tear in the Other, mainly because of the Scottish connection. His father had always been grateful that he had been welcomed in Scotland, his sponsor had probably saved his life. I had to laugh though when it became evident that the farm workers that he had been working with were obviously rather rough in their speech, as many rural people are. So the Scottish dialect that he learned from them was quite different from the English that was spoken elsewhere in Britain, that must have been quite a shock to him. The blighters might have made an effort for the foreigner as certainly where I was brought up we were all bilingual with one dialect for in the school playground and ‘correct’ speech for in the classroom!

I rarely accept books review requests but the subject matter of this book was right up my street. My thanks go to Ralph Webster for giving me the chance to read his book.

As it happens today – the 9th of November is the anniversary of Kristallnacht – when any Jews who had been in denial about all the restrictions that had been going on in their lives could no longer have any belief that the Nazis couldn’t possibly mean people like THEM – normal law abiding people.

I thought that I knew a lot about this subject but I hadn’t realised that German birth certificates had a space for ethnicity/religion. So it would seem that that information was something that had always been important to those in power, long before the Nazi party reared its ugly head. There was no need for them to wait for jealous neighbours to denounce people as Jews, they had all the information already.

I wonder if German birth certificates still have that information on them. British birth certificates definitely don’t have a space for anything like that, it’s unimportant. It’s the child’s name, birthplace and the parents’ names and address only.

I know that South African birth certificates did/do have space for ethnicity. But that’s another weird country, and midwives in the past have been known to just decide that a baby was of black descent, causing all sorts of problems to the family.

I do wonder though if the nasty anti-foreigner post Brexit and let’s face it – pre Brexit attitudes to foreigners by some people nowadays were at all prevalent in 1930s Britain. Has our relative affluence made some people more hard-hearted towards people fleeing war and mayhem. It makes you think!

This one counts towards the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.

The Rival Monster by Compton Mackenzie

The Rival Monster cover

The Rival Monster by Compton Mackenzie was first published in 1952. The setting is again the Scottish Highlands and Islands, more particularly the islands of Little Todday and Great Todday, the islands made famous by the sinking of a ship full of whisky in his earlier book Whisky Galore. In fact if you intend to read these books you should start with Keep the Home Guard Turning then read Whisky Galore, then Rockets Galore. All absolute hoots.

The Loch Ness monster had been very shy all through the war when the area had been taken over by the military, but more recently there have been several sitings of a terrifying monster with enormous teeth like a hayrake. There’s suspicion that the whole situation has been drummed up to lure tourists up to the islands.

Ben Nevis – the local laird is incensed because he thinks ‘his’ Loch Ness monster has been lured away to an island loch and he vows to bring it back to Loch Ness.

A Glasgow newspaper gets involved when a local claims that he saw the monster being hit by a flying object which is being described by the press as a flying saucer but is supposedly more akin to a flying teapot spout! It’s feared the monster has been killed.

Paul Waggett, the Englishman who fondly imagines he is far superior to any of the locals is of course as delusional as ever and brings a lot of humour to the book. The whole thing is completely nutty, but very well written with Mackenzie having a wonderful feeling for the various dialects used by the characters ranging from the cockney of Mistress Odd who has fallen in love with the islands since her son married one of the islanders, to the differing Scots dialects and Gaelic phrases scattered throughout, luckily there’s a glossary at the back!

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

Nine Coaches Waiting cover

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart was first published in 1958.

The book is a mixture of mystery and romance and has an almost Victorian feel to it as Linda is a young English woman, alone in the world and in need of some way of supporting herself. Linda’s mother had been French and Linda had lived in France in the past so she is a fluent French speaker but when a job opportunity comes up for her and it seems that it is only open to an English woman she decides to hide her ability to speak French.

Linda becomes governess to a young boy Phillippe whose parents have died recently. It means that Phillippe has inherited the family estate as his father was the eldest of three brothers. But Phillippe’s uncle had been in control of the estate for some years as Phillippe’s father had been more interested in his archaeology career which kept him away from the chateau that should have been his home.

It isn’t long before Linda realises that Phillippe’s life is in danger and she picks up various interesting pieces of information as her employers think that she doesn’t speak French.

I always enjoy Mary Stewart’s writing and I found this one to be a page turner, full of suspense and great holiday reading.

The title Nine Coaches Waiting was taken from a Renaissance play by Cyril Tourneur – The Revenger’s Tragedy and although there are twenty-one chapters in the Stewart book nine of them are headed by a coach number with Ninth Coach appearing as the name of the last chapter. The coach chapters all deal with car journeys that are important to the storyline.

I know that someone who reviewed Nine Coaches Waiting on Goodreads was perplexed as to why the book was titled as it is. My copy of the book is a very old paperback so maybe later versions of the book had those chapter headings removed, or maybe that reviewer just didn’t read the book very closely.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.