A Memorial Service by J.I.M. Stewart

A Memorial Service cover

A Memorial Service is the third book in the A Staircase in Surrey quintet and it continues the story of Duncan Pattullo who is now middle-aged and a successful playwright, but he has been given a fellowship at his old Oxford college, Surrey. Now he is living on the ground floor of his old student college staircase, involved in the lives of the students. His old friend Tony Mumford’s son Ivo has the room above his and Ivo is trouble, especially as Tony is now a member of the British cabinet and doesn’t see why Ivo should have to pass exams and generally stick to the rules. To make matters worse Ivo’s outrageous grandfather Cedric may be able to stop a large amount of money being allocated to the college so it’ll be sensible to keep in his good books – but that’s easier said than done.

I enjoyed being back in Oxford and although J.I.M. Stewart obviously liked his readers to know that he himself was a fellow of a prestigious college, he enjoys using unusual words, in fact the previous owner of my copy of this book had written the words he had to look up in the back of the book, but usually it is quite obvious by the context what the word means. I looked up maieutic which means helping birth – especially of thoughts.

I enjoyed reading this article containing anecdotes about Stewart from The Oxford Times. Mind you at no point is it mentioned that Stewart/Innes was actually Scottish.

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

The Bertie Project by Alexander McCall Smith

 The Bertie Project cover

The Bertie Project is the latest offering from Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street series. I was in two minds whether to read this one or not despite the fact that I’ve read all the others but as I recall I didn’t enjoy the previous one so much, mainly because life for Bertie is moving so slowly – it’s not getting any faster.

Bertie is still on a treadmill of his mother’s making such as – Italian conversazione lessons, yoga, weekly visits to a psychologist (it’s Irene his mother who needs those).

Stuart, Bertie’s father is just about at the end of his tether. He has been completely emasculated by Irene who it transpires even made him walk down the aisle to her when they got married and insisted that Stuart promised to obey her.

So when a chance meeting with a pleasant woman in Henderson’s vegetarian cafe leads to him realising that not all women are obnoxious like Irene – the inevitable happens and Stuart falls for her.

Hallelujah! (I said anyway) and Stuart’s mother said something similar when she found out as it hasn’t been easy for her to watch her son being bossed and bullied by Irene. Honestly I thought Irene was going to get her comeuppance – but not for long. I suppose the ghastly Irene is just too good a character for McCall Smith to think of getting rid of her permanently – I live in hope of it though.

Jack read the first Scotland Street book as it appeared in a ‘must read’ list of Scottish books, but he was less than impressed by it, mainly I think because it was so obviously meant for throwaway publication in a newspaper. You can read what he thought of it here.

McCall Smith’s own attitudes are really beginning to annoy me though. He’s labeling Irene a fascist, well she’s definitely intolerant of anyone different from her, but she’s also apparently (shock horror) a Guardian reader, something that the author seems to despise. Also I’m a bit fed up that the only time he veers away from wealthy Edinbuggers as characters was to ‘slum’ it in Glasgow where the characters were criminals!

I’m beginning to think that these books will be looked back on in years to come as being terrifically snobby, even more so than say Angela Thirkell’s books are nowadays. I suppose though he is just writing about the Edinburgh that he has experience of.

An amendment on the inside flap of this book says: Oops! On page 1 of this book and elsewhere, the Turner Prize, as Bertie would be quick to point out to us, has been misprinted as the Turner Prise; no disrespect to the prize was intended. The problem is due to a computer error whereby words ending in – ize e.g. size or seize have been changed to -ise endings.

Oops indeed, especially as there are quite a few mentions of Turner Prise due to the author having a bit of a bee in his bonnet about it.

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

Katherine Wentworth by D.E. Stevenson

Katherine Wentworth cover

Katherine Wentworth by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1964. My book is an original but sadly it didn’t have its cover. As you can see from the one on the right which I found on the internet it’s a lovely illustration of the setting.

Reading this book was like soaking in a lovely warm bath, and it was just the sort of reading that I needed to take myself away from all the rotten things that are happening in the news at the moment.

I suspect though that it means I’m terribly parochial, because the fifth word in the first sentence is Edinburgh and Katherine is walking in Princes Street gardens, just as I was one day last week. I can’t help it, for me it’s always a plus when I can see clearly the locations in my mind.

Katherine has had a tough time of it. She’s only 27 years old but she’s already a widow with two children of her own to look after as well as a sixteen year old step-son. Money is very tight and she had been very down for a while but she dragged herself out of her despondency, concentrating on trying to be cheerful and being determined to keep her independence despite an elderly aunt asking the family to move in with her.

Independence had been important to her husband Gerald when he was alive. He had been expected to manage his family’s estate, despite not being in line to inherit it, and his determination to follow his own dreams led to a split with his family. Some years after Gerald’s death his elder brother also dies and as the estate is entailed it means that Katherine’s step-son will inherit it and she finds herself having to meet her intolerant and bullying father-in-law.

A chance meeting with Zilla an old acquaintance from school draws Katherine into an unwelcome relationship with her. Zilla is a manipulative compulsive liar, but fear not – she also has a brother!

As I implied earlier, this was a comfort read for me, especially as the action moved around Scotland to Moffat and Peebles and lots of places known to me. Old fashioned maybe, but very enjoyable.

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

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson

 Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary cover

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson was first published in 1937 but it has been reprinted by Persephone Books and I was lucky enough to find it in a secondhand bookshop.

This book was apparently a favourite of the Queen as she was at that time (later the Queen Mother). I suspect that she felt very much in tune with Lady Rose, the main character in the book, as they shared very similar Scottish upbringings.

The book begins with a group of people asking if they can look around a grand house in the Scottish highlands. The old housekeeper is pleased to show them around, it’s a house that has seen better days and it’s hoped that new tenants will be found for it. Although the vistors are careful to let her know that they couldn’t afford to rent the house, the housekeeper is still happy to tell of the history of the place, the book switches from the present day to the past regularly, but is never confusing.

Like many wealthy Scots the owners of the house sent their only child – Lady Rose, to England to be educated. As she is very much a Scot, steeped in the romance surrounding the history of the country – particularly Mary, Queen of Scots – Lady Rose is very unhappy and is always happy to get back to her beloved Scotland. The story of her life is one of ups and downs and it’s an entertaining read which has been described as a love letter to Scotland. But it’s about snobbery, discrimination against women and money.

One thing did puzzle me – on page 164 wee Archie says:

“Tonight at the chair, we’ll have some battles where we beat the English.”

“We always beat the English” said Alistair hotly.

“Not at Bannockburn.”

“That was murder; Duncan says so. Wasn’t it Mamma?”

Well that is obviously wrong because Scotland did famously win the Battle of Bannockburn, I suspect that what the author meant to write was Culloden or maybe Flodden. I’m wondering if that was one of the reasons that the Queen Mother invited Ruby Ferguson to Buckingham Palace, to point out her mistake!

Ruby Ferguson was an English writer but Ferguson (her married name) is a Scottish surname, so maybe she married a Scot and fell in love with the country too.

I really dislike the endpapers though, completely inappropriate for the book, from 1937 of course but I feel that another more appropriate design must have been available for that year. The design is Masqueraders and I found an image of it on the V&A site.

masqueraders

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge.

The Shrouded Way by Janet Caird

The Shrouded Way cover

The Shrouded Way by Janet Caird was published in 1973 and it is one of the books that Peggy brought from the US for me. I have to admit that I had never heard of the author before Peggy started reading her books, which is strange as Caird was Scottish.

The Shrouded Way reminded me very much of Mary Stewart’s writing, well of her adventure/mystery books, and I enjoyed the way the mystery started almost from the very beginning, with Elizabeth Cranston discovering a body in a tractor when she is driving to visit her Aunt Jenny who lives in the small Highland fishing village of Mourie.

There are some strangers in the village where over the years there has been a belief that there is a sunken boat containing treasure just off the coast of the village. The strangers include Crane Maclean, a wealthy American who is the new laird and he intends to finance the search for the treasure, promising that if they find it he will give it to the villagers for the good of the community.

All is not well though, and more villagers end up dead. Elizabeth has attracted the attentions of the laird and the school teacher who is also a new arrival in the village. But Elizabeth has her doubts about both of them.

I enjoyed this one although for me it somehow dragged a wee bit around the middle of the story, however that might just have been me rather than the fault of the book and I’ll definitely be looking out for more books by Janet Caird.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge.

Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart

Airs Above the Ground cover

Airs Above the Ground was first published in 1965 but my paperback copy is from 1967, I really like the cover and I found the book to be a great read. In fact I’m sure that if this book had been written by a man it would have had a much higher profile and might have been made into a film. A lot of it is full of suspense, it’s much more of an adventure/mystery than for instance – John Buchan’s books, in my opinion.

On page one the Guardian newspaper is mentioned as the main character Vanessa March is a Guardian reader. Presumably Mary Stewart was also one as she incorporated a classic Guardian misprint in an article from the newspaper. The word ‘churned’ appears when it should have been ‘burned’. In case you don’t know, the Guardian is affectionately called the Grauniad as the typesetters were always making mistakes. Of course nowadays it’s all done on computers so that isn’t such a problem – or feature.

Anyway, back to the book. Chapter one begins in Harrod’s tearoom where Vanessa March is having tea with her mother’s old friend Carmel. Vanessa has only been married for a few years and she’s had a bit of a ‘domestic’ with her husband Lewis as he has had to change their holiday plans at short notice. From something that Carmel says – it seems that Lewis might not be where he says he is and so follows the adventure with Vanessa travelling to Austria in search of the truth and Lewis, with help from Tim – Carmel’s seventeen year old son who is in need of time away from his suffocating mother.

Tim’s a huge fan of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and the Lipizzaner horses, and he’s very impressed that Vanessa is in fact a trained vet. With the storyline moving on to a travelling circus featuring animals (a pet hate of mine) it was a bit of a wonder that I wasn’t put off by that, although circus acts don’t feature too much.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge. Sadly I don’t have too many of Mary Stewart’s books still to read now, I think I’ve read them all except My Brother Michael and maybe Madam Will You Talk.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

 His Bloody Project cover

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet was of course shortlisted for the Booker prize, I haven’t read any of the others shortlisted or indeed the winner but I can’t imagine that they would have been as good as this one. Burnet portrays Culduie and its surrounding areas and inhabitants so well, down to the rivalry that there often is between one settlement and the nearest neighbouring one, who tend to be seen as barbarians for some reason. The book is set towards the late 1860s and it’s 1869 when everything comes to a head.

The subtitle of the book is Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae. More than half of the book is written by seventeen year old Roderick Macrae who is in a prison cell in Inverness, accused of the murder of three of his neighbours. Roderick has admitted to the deed, in fact he could hardly deny it as he had walked through the tiny hamlet of Culduie in the Highlands – covered in their blood.

After a campaign of bullying by Lachlan Broad – the local constable and a figure of authority tasked with seeing that the inhabitants of Culduie kept the area in order – Roddy snapped, the last straw being when an eviction order was delivered to his father.

Roddy’s relationship with his father was a strained one, which only got worse after the death of his mother who had been a bit of a buffer for him, protecting Roddy from the worst excesses of his father’s Presbyterian strictness which included beating Roddy on a weekly basis for no real reasons.

Roddy’s advocate hopes to prove that his client committed the murders when he was more mad than bad, it’s the only thing that will save him from the gallows.

But when it comes to the actual trial Roddy’s account of things doesn’t tally with the forensic evidence from the bodies. Something doesn’t quite add up.

Of course there’s a lot more to this book than that, but as ever I don’t want to give a blow by blow account of it. It’s a great read though, but not exactly an uplifting one.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge. Jack has read it too.

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.

My Read Scotland 2017 Book List

Below is a list of the first ten books that I intend to read for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge. I intend to read at least 35 books for this challenge, and as you can see I’m going to be having something of a J.I.M. Stewart binge. I loved reading three of those books way back in the 1970s when they came out, but I never did get around to finishing the series, so I’m starting from the beginning again, hoping that I’ll enjoy them as much. He is of course better known as the crime writer Michael Innes.

I think a read-a-long of R.L.S’s The Black Arrow is on the cards at some time during the year.

I want to get back to Ian Rankin’s Rebus series, I’m way behind with it and I believe that it’s Dead Souls that is next on the reading list for me.

Helen at She Reads Novels recently enjoyed reading Scott’s Redgauntlet, and as I have a copy of it I decided to bump it up my Sir Walter Scott reading queue.

Joan at Planet Joan recently loved reading Mary Stewart’s Airs Above the Ground and it’s one of the few that I still have to read, so I’m really looking forward to that.

I’ve been avoiding Val McDermid’s books as I’ve been told they are quite gory but I’ve decided to pluck up courage and start with her first book Report for Murder.

1. Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart
2. The Gaudy by J.I.M. Stewart
3. Young Patullo by J.I.M. Stewart
4. Memorial Service by J.I.M. Stewart
5. The Madonna of the Astrolabe by J.I.M. Stewart
6. Full Term by J.I.M. Stewart
7. Report for Murder by Val McDermid
8. Dead Souls by Ian Rankin
9. The Black Arrow by R.L. Stevenson
10. Redgauntlet by Sir Walter Scott

Have you read any of these books and are there any Scottish books that you would recommend reading?