The Musgraves by D.E. Stevenson

 The Musgraves cover

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.

The Ringed Castle by Dorothy Dunnett

The Ringed Castle cover

The Ringed Castle by Dorothy Dunnett was first published in 1971 and my copy seems to be a first edition. I love the dust jacket. It is of course the fifth book in the Lymond Chronicles.

Philippa has returned from Turkey. She has contracted a marriage of convenience with Lymond, the plan is they will have the marriage annulled within a few years, that should be easy as it hasn’t been consummated.

Meanwhile Lymond has travelled to Russia with his band of mercenaries and it isn’t long before he has gained yet another title – Voevoda Bolshoia, head of Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s army. Any position that brings you close to Ivan is a precarious one as his moods and rages are a danger to all around him.

But Ivan is keen to modernise his country and to bring wealth to it through trading. Reluctantly the Tsar parts with Lymond to allow him to sail to England with ships full of goods and Osep Nepeja who is to be the first Russian ambassador to England.

In England Mary Tudor is Queen and married to Philip of Spain. She is praying to have a child and is busy having thousands of Protestants burnt at the stake as offerings to her God, presumably hoping that she’ll be sent a child from God for doing her best to support Catholicism. Life in England is almost as dangerous as life in Russia.

I loved this one and went straight on to Checkmate, the last in the Lymond series.

The Classics Club Spin no. 1 – The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott

The Bride of Lammermoor cover

I was quite pleased to get The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott for my Classics Club Spin book, because I often need my arm twisted a wee bit to get down to reading more of Scott’s books. I don’t know why that should be because I invariably enjoy his work. My copy was published by Richard Edward King and is apparently a first edition, but not worth all that much. Presumably thousands of them were printed. I had to cut a few of the pages so I suspect that I’m the first person to finish this edition. It was first published in 1819 but in its day it was a historical novel, set after King James VII had been deposed.

The story begins with the funeral of the Master of Ravenswood, he had lost his title because he had been on the Jacobite side, and after a protracted battle with a devious lawyer he has lost almost all of his property. Edgar his son and the new laird of Ravenswood is left with only a ruin to live in with a couple of old loyal family servants who would no doubt never have been able to get a job elsewhere.

Edgar despises the lawyer Sir William Ashton, seeing him as the reason for his family’s downfall, and to make matters worse Sir William is now living on the old Ravenswood family estate. While visiting his old nanny in a cottage on the estate Edgar meets Lucy Ashton and becomes infatuated with her. Their relationship develops but when Lucy’s manipulative and controlling mother learns of it she’s determined to put a stop to it.

This story has elements of lots of old tales – Romeo and Juliet being obvious but Scott used a lot of traditional Scottish Border folk tales and ballads in his books apparently. Despite this being a tragic romance there’s quite a bit of humour involved, and I really enjoyed this one.

Lucy keeps rather a low profile for most of the book but this tale seems to have been very popular in many countries and it was even made into an opera by Donizetti in 1835, based loosely on the book.

Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark

Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark was first published in 2000 and it’s the second last book that she wrote. I’ve found Spark’s books to be distinctly uneven and quite a few in my opinion are over praised and I have a theory about that but – later.

Having said that though I found this one to be a lot more entertaining than I expected it to be given the blurb on the back. Normally I’m not all that keen on fiction which involves real people as characters but in this case it works and is acceptable I think.

The actual person involved is Lord Lucan and I well remember watching the news one evening in 1974 – Lord Lucan was missing and his wife was seriously ill in hospital having been battered by him, the nanny had been bludgeoned to death. Lord Lucan was helped by his rich and influential friends and he never was hunted down despite being sought all over the world.

In this book a well-known and very successful psychiatrist Dr Hildegard Wolf is surprised when a man walks into her consulting rooms claiming to be Lord Lucan. He wants her help, she has a strange way of treating her patients as she spends her time talking about herself, but charges the patient a huge fee at the end of each consultation, you have to be wealthy to be able to consult Dr Wolf. What puzzles Dr Wolf most is that she now has two patients claiming to be Lord Lucan and they both look like him.

She wonders if they are working together somehow and have some ulterior motive. As Dr Wolf has a big skeleton in her own cupboard she’s very worried.

This is quite a dark book, but also amusing, I can’t make up my mind about its rating on Goodreads but I’ll probably be generous and give it a 4 as it merits more than a 3.

Now a bit about my theory on Muriel Spark’s reputation. I know that she was a bit of a party animal and she made friends with lots of well-known and successful writers who no doubt helped her a lot when she was forging her own writing career. Nowadays we would probably say that she went on a charm offensive! I suspect that there were plenty of other people writing better books at the time who never got them published due to not having the right connections, but such is life.

The other thing that strikes me about this Penguin copy of the book that I have is that it dates from 2001 and it cost £7.99 or an eye-watering $16.99 Canadian dollars. It has 210 pages, but the print size is massive, it could almost be described as being large print so if it had been published with a more normal print size the book would have been less than half the size it is. Back in the good old days Penguin would have published this novella along with another of her novellas (I have at least one of those Muriel Spark still slim volumes) and the price would have been the same as one normal sized Penguin book. So in 2001 we were being fleeced and probably still are!

The Two Mrs Abbots by D.E. Stevenson

 The Two Mrs Abbots cover

The Two Mrs Abbots by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1943 and my copy is an original hardbak, sadly minus the dustcover. It’s the third book featuring Barbara Buncle although she is now of course Barbara Abbot as she’s now married to her editor Arthur and they have two small children, a boy and girl. Barbara is kept busy as a mother, wife and with various war work that she’s involved with, so she has given up her writing for the duration. She’s also the type of person that ends up helping everyone else and giving them her time, and often gets little thanks in return. I think a lot of women will recognise the situations she finds herself in with selfish individuals around her. As you would expect there’s the usual trouble about rationing and evacuees although it’s not the children who are a problem but the mother.

The other Mrs Abbott is Jeronina, usually known as Jerry (a blight on her considering who the enemy is in WW2). She’s married to Arthur’s nephew who is in the army doing his bit in Egypt (possibly). She’s not alone though as Markie her old governess is living with her, and they’ve also had a whole battalion of soldiers billeted on them.

D.E. Stevenson was of course Scottish and if she didn’t set her books in Scotland she often had some Scottish characters in the book. In this one Markie is from Fife and she’s thrilled to discover that one of the soldiers is also a Fifer, well they are very clanish!

There are various stories in this one, quite a lot of characters, one being a young female writer of romances that are very popular but not the sort of thing that Barbara and Jerry are impressed with. I’m wondering who it was that D.E. Stevenson was thinking of when she wrote that character!

There’s plenty of wit and charm as you would expect but this one isn’t as funny as Miss Buncle’s Book, it’s still well worth reading though.

Listening Valley by D.E. Stevenson

Listening Valley

Just a couple of weeks ago I managed to buy an old copy of Listening Valley by D.E. Stevenson in Edinburgh, sadly it doesn’t have it’s dust jacket though. I can’t say I’m all that keen on the cover of the paperback above, but I suppose it’s better than nothing.

The book begins with the Edinburgh childhood of Louise and Antonia Melville. On the surface they have a very comfortable upbringing, it would seem that money was no problem. But in truth they’re really emotionally neglected children, brought up by the nannie. They both have the same problem – they weren’t born a boy and both parents wanted a boy, particularly their father as his family home was a castle and he wanted to pass it on to a son. In disappointment he ended up selling the castle. Their mother was a bridge fiend and playing bridge seemed to take up all of her time. She was disappointed because she thought of her girls as being very dull compared with other children she met, but as she never took the time to get to know her daughters she had no idea of their real personalities at all.

Inevitably both girls marry young, Tonia marries a man even older than her father is but he’s kind and wealthy and gives her some badly needed confidence, in wartime they move to London and experience the Blitz.

Eventually the action moves back to Scotland where Tonia settles close to what had been her father’s country estate. But the war is still very much in evidence with an airfield very close by. Tonia’s home becomes a meeting place for young airmen who never knew when their number would be up.

I thoroughly enjoyed this one, it has some truly ghastly characters in the shape of sponging relatives, I have a feeling that they crop up from time to time in Stevenson’s books, she must have been bothered by some I think! I bet they never read her books though.

Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett

Pawn in Frankincense cover

Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett was first published in 1969 and it’s the fourth book in her Lymond series.

To begin with I had a look at the chapter headings to see where the story was set because I much preferred the Scottish parts of the last book, so I was slightly down-hearted when I realised that it was almost all set in the near/middle east. But I needn’t have been as this was a great read.

The year is 1552. In the last book Lymond discovered that a woman he had had a brief relationship with had given birth to a son, but they’ve been captured and he’s intent on tracking them down.

An old soothsayer has given him hope that his quest will be succesful. At the same time he plans to seek out Sir Graham Reid Mallett and give him his comeuppance.

As ever with Dunnett there’s plenty of action and intrigue, right up to the very end.

I’m not doing very well with my Scottish reading so far this year, this is only the second book I’ve read by a Scottish author – must do better.

The Distant Echo by Val McDermid

The Distant Echo cover

Strictly speaking I read most of this book in 2017, but it’s the first one I’ve finished in 2018.

The Distant Echo by Val McDermid is the first in her Karen Pirie series, but she doesn’t turn up in this book until nearer the end of it when she’s been given the task of investigating a cold case going back 25 years or so to 1978.

The action begins in St Andrews, Fife, around the Christmas holidays where four male students are out celebrating at a local pub. It’s freezing and snowy and on the way home they stumble across a woman who is breathing her last in the snow. She has been stabbed and there’s blood everywhere.

The local police seem determined to pin the murder on the students who are almost locals and are known as ‘the lads fi’ Kirkcaldy’, another town in Fife about 20 miles from St Andrews. The ‘gentlemen’ of the press are quick to be judge and jury, so suddenly the four witnesses are suspects and everyone is turning against them.

The action moves on to 25 years later when the ‘lads’ have settled in their various occupations, but the past catches up with them unexpectedly and the nightmare begins again.

This is the first book by McDermid that I’ve read, apart from her Jane Austen re-write of Northanger Abbey. I was quite surprised by it, mainly because I had it in my mind that her writing would be a bit more cerebral – silly of me really as probably if it was then her books wouldn’t sell as well as they do.

I found this book to be just an okay read, I’ll probably give it three stars on Goodreads, but I suspect that most of my interest in it depended on me living close to all the locations and knowing the areas involved so well. McDermid even mentions a woman that I knew when I lived in Kirkaldy and she has her characters walking around so many of the local roads where I lived until recently.

I really had to suspend my disbelief towards the end of the book and I don’t think it’s fair when an author withholds information from the reader in the way that McDermid did – but maybe that’s just me being picky.

I’ll probably give the next one in the series a go to see if the Karen Pirie character grows on me, but so far McDermid has been a bit of a disappointment.

Ninth Life by Elizabeth Ferrars

Ninth Life cover

Ninth Life by the Scottish author Elizabeth Ferrars – or E.X. Ferrars as she seems to have been known in the US – was first published in 1965.

I enjoyed this one which was more of a mystery than murder mystery – for 85%-ish of it anyway.

Caroline lives in London on her own and works in an office, she’s always beeen independent but when she needs to recuperate after having her appendix removed she agrees to go to Fenella her much younger married sister’s house until she’s well enough to look after herself again.

They have a rather fraught relationship as Fenella feels that her older sister is too domineering and she has kept Harry her husband away from Caroline so this is the first time the two will be meeting.

Harry isn’t at all Fenella’s usual sort, he’s older than she is, not particularly good looking and has given up journalism, supposedly to concentrate on writing a book. Meanwhile he and Fenella have opened their lovely old home as a guest house.

But Fenella knows that Harry has more money than he should have. Where is the extra money coming from?

The blurb says: The brooding atmosphere explodes into violence and death. Miss Ferrars achieves a high suspense, not by fireworks or blood-baths, but by the precise observation of character and mood, and by her skill in surprising the reader at the climax.

I agree.

The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett

The Disorderly Knights cover

The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett is the third book in her Lymond series and was first published in 1966.

I had a look at Goodreads to see what other readers thought of this one because although I loved the second half of the book there were parts of the first half that dragged for me. I really wasn’t too keen on the bits that were set in Malta and Tripoli, but by the time the action switched back to Scotland I found myself sitting up in bed – still reading at 2.30 am.

I don’t even think that this book is really perfect for bedtime reading as you have to concentrate on it, but when it got to 2.30 I had sworn to myself that I would put the light out at the end of the chapter and then I noticed that the next chapter sub-heading was Dumbarton, April/May 1552 – which just happens to be the town that I grew up in! I forced myself to give up for the night though, despite dying to know what was going to be happening at Dumbarton.

As it turned out I was slightly disappointed because Dunnett didn’t describe the town’s surroundings at all, which makes me think that she didn’t go there to do any research as there are lots of lovely hills and crags around Dumbarton to describe, and the castle rock is visible for miles around and would have been even more so in those days. Mind you nowadays you could just get on the internet and look at Google earth if you want to describe a location.

Dunnett wound this tale around actual historical events and a few of the people were real too. As ever I really started to dislike Lymond a lot, for most of the book he seemed like an out and out baddie, but I should have known better by now. When he gets back to Scotland he has the job of training a large amount of men who are going to be used to keep the rule of law in the Scottish Border country where the land has been constantly fought over by the Scots and English, in truth those Border families were only ever interested in their own survival, seeing themselves as being on neither the Scottish or English side, and who could blame them for that. Lymond is also thinking of himself as he is being employed by the English to keep the peace in the Border lands, but that’s easier said than done.

Meanwhile Graham Reid Malett/Gabriel who is a ‘high heid yin’ in the Noble Order of Knights Hospitallers is making a good job of putting Lymond in a bad position, making him look like an absolute swine!