The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart

The Gabriel Hounds cover

The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart was first published in 1967. The setting is the Middle East, High Lebanon and with that and just about everywhere else that is mentioned such as Syria now being completely unrecognisable having been bombed to hell and back – I found that aspect of the book really sad. Politicians – HUH!

Apart from that the book was just okay, I’ll give it a 3 on Goodreads I think, for me it dragged a fair amount although it did heat up quite a bit towards the end.

Christy Mansell is a young English woman from a wealthy family, she’s in Damascus and intends to visit her great-aunt who had settled nearby years ago, building a large palace for herself. Great-aunt Harriet is an eccentric who has modelled herself on a Victorian called Lady Hester. Before Christy can visit her aunt she bumps into her cousin Charles, he had been her hero in her younger days, he’s a few years older than Christy, they look very alike and their fathers are identical twins. There had been a sort of tongue in cheek expectation that they would get married (so far so shuddersome as far as I’m concerned!!)

When Christy reaches her great-aunt’s palace it’s evident that the place is falling apart and her aunt is on her last legs. She’s being attended by some suspect characters and Christy realises that her appearance there isn’t at all welcome. She’s determined to get to the bottom of it all.

As I said, it does get more interesting towards the end although for me it didn’t come close to her usual suspense and I found the romance side of it to be distinctly icky!

Miss Bun the Baker’s Daughter by D.E. Stevenson

Miss Bun the Baker's Daughter cover

Miss Bun the Baker’s Daughter by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1939, written in 1938. The author says in a foreword added in 1973: This book was written in 1938 and published soon after, but although many of the facts have proved untrue it is still artistically true of any little town in the Scottish Border Country and the people are as real today as they were thirty-four years ago.

So far this book has been the least satisfying of Stevenson’s for me, in fact slightly annoying at times as it really didn’t ring true to the era, particularly in Scotland. It’s 1938 and we’re supposed to believe that a young girl would be able to live in a house with just her youngish male employer. She would have been the ‘talk of the steamie’, but apart from that her father and grandparents would never have allowed it.

Early on in the book D.E. Stevenson describes what you should do while singing Auld Lang Syne at New Year, but she did it all wrong – something that drives me mad. She said that you should cross your arms to shake hands with the people on either side of you at the beginning. But of course you shouldn’t do that until the last verse (for brevity the second, third and fourth are usually omitted) when the lyrics say – “And there’s a hand my trusty fiere! / and gie’s a hand o’ thine.”

Anyway, to the rest of the book: Sue has been left motherless at an early age and she is left to be brought up by her rather grim and charmless father who is the local baker. She has had to leave school as soon as possible so that she could become her father’s housekeeper, but when her father remarries she’s seen as a nuisance by his new wife, definitely unwanted in the household. When a well known artist living locally and his wealthy wife offer her a job as their housekeeper she jumps at the chance.

However the artist’s wife very quickly takes herself off leaving Sue alone with the artist. His career is taking a bit of a nosedive as he has started to paint in a different style which is not appreciated by the critics.

The setting is the Scottish Borders, probably where the author is at her most comfortable and so that is always pleasing, but her characters left quite a lot to be desired with the maternal grandparents being particularly unlikely, they didn’t come up to scratch as doting grandparents to me anyway.

This is probably me being nitpicking, but I didn’t really like anybody in the book, and that’s always a problem for me.

As 1938 was a year of worry and turmoil for people in Britain with the onset of World War 2 expected at any time, I’ll forgive her this slightly disappointing book.

Coffin Road by Peter May

Coffin Road cover

Coffin Road was published in 2016 and it’s the first book by Peter May that I’ve read.

It begins with a man being washed up on a beach, he has been injured, is bleeding and disorientated, close to hypothermia – and he has no idea who or where he is. He realises that he must live nearby though as a woman he meets recognises him, she calls him Mr Maclean and helps him to his nearby cottage where his dog is ecstatic to see him, he knows the dog’s name – Bran, but nothing else. He feels he has to hide his predicament hoping that his memory will come back to him, but it doesn’t.

He has no idea why he has been living on the Isle of Harris, he’s certainly not writing a book as people think, and he suspects that his name isn’t even Neal Maclean, but why would he tell people it is? He turns detective and ends up in Edinburgh, thinking he has tracked down his family, but it’s a dead end. I don’t want to say too much more about this one for fear of ruining it for any possible readers.

This book didn’t grab me quickly as some do, it’s hard to like a character when you know very little about them and what you do know doesn’t seem particularly endearing, but I did end up really enjoying Coffin Road and I’ll definitely be reading more by Peter May. I think I have quite a lot to catch up with.

Vittoria Cottage by D.E. Stevenson

Vittoria Cottage cover

Vittoria Cottage by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1949 and the blurb on the back of this 1968 library copy says: It is a family novel, and few writers can do this sort of thing better than Miss Stevenson, in which there is a thread of suspense enough to keep the reader guessing to the end. GLASGOW HERALD

That says it all really but if you want to know a bit more – Vittoria Cottage has been in the Dering family for generations, but the most recent owner has died and left his wife Caroline and three children as the inhabitants. The husband was a moaning grump, always feeling sorry for himself so he’s no loss and it’s a comfortable life for Caroline, especially as she has help with the housework from an adoring villager with the wonderful name of Comfort Podbury. Caroline’s two daughters and son are young adults, the son being in Malaya in the army fighting bandits/terrorists.

Caroline is completely honest with herself, she adores her son whereas her daughters are just daughters and Leda in particular she dislikes a lot, she’s too much like her miserable father. When Leda gets engaged to a young neighbour Caroline knows it isn’t for the best but there’s nothing she can do about it.

Meanwhile there’s a new man in town and Caroline likes him – a lot, although he’s a bit of a mystery. Things get more complicated when Caroline’s actress sister turns up.

With a cast of villagers providing some more interest and tension this turned out to be an enjoyable comfort read.

This seems to be the first of a few Stevenson books featuring the Dering family so I’ll have to track down the others, luckily Fife libraries seem to have quite a lot of her books in their Reserve Stock. No doubt they held on to those ones as she is a Scottish author.

The English Air by D.E. Stevenson

The English Air cover

I realised recently that the reserve stock books in Fife’s libraries are now available to borrow after being unavailable for a few years due to the refurbishment at Dunfermline, so I requested a couple of old D.E. Stevenson books from the catalogue, I’m not sure if they have been reprinted recently. She was of course born in Edinburgh and was related to Robert Louis Stevenson.

The librarian seemed quite amused that I was borrowing these books – more fool her! The English Air turned out to be a great read, first published in 1940. The setting is mainly England although the story does take us to Scotland a few times and to Germany briefly.

Sophie Braithwaite is a well-off widow, living in a house big enough to allow her brother-in-law to inhabit his own wing. She has a grown up daughter and son and they’re waiting on Sophie’s sister’s son Franz to arrive, he is half German and has been brought up by his father in Germany, his mother died young. It’s 1938, a time when Neville Chamberlain was going backwards and forwards between London and Munich, trying to avert war. He was criticised for this ‘appeasement’ but in reality it gave us breathing space and a year to ‘tool up’ for war. Something that Nazi Germany had been doing for the previous five years.

I really enjoyed The English Air, Franz becomes part of his cousins’ social group, their sense of humour is often a mystery to him, he’s really very German as you would expect, especially as his father is a Nazi. But as Franz becomes more comfortable in the free and easy atmosphere of Britain he begins to see the advantages of not having to look over your shoulder all the time as Germany is being ruled by fear and violence.

I suppose this is a bit of propaganda, the lesson being that not every German is a bad German. It’s not surprising that writers all wanted to write their own book about the beginnings of the war. I seem to have been reading a lot of them recently and bizarrely I always find that scenario to be a bit of a comfort read, this is one of my favourites by D.E. Stevenson so now I’m keen to read her other wartime books. The other one of hers that I borrowed was Vittoria Cottage, published in 1949. I’ll be chatting about that one soonish.

My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart

My Brother Michael cover

My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart was first published in 1959 – a very good year I think! But my paperback copy is from 1971.

The story begins with Camilla Haven sitting in a crowded cafe in Greece where she’s on holiday on her own after the break up of a long term relationship, She’s writing a letter to her friend back in the UK and bemoaning the fact that nothing exciting ever happens to her, no sooner has she written that when a man throws car keys onto her table and says that the car he has ordered is waiting for her. There’s been some sort of mix up as she hasn’t asked for a car but eventually Camilla decides to take the car and drive it to Delphi, it’s apparently a life or death situation that the car is delivered there and she had been planning on visiting Delphi anyway.

There she meets Simon who is a Classics teacher back in England and Simon is on a mission to visit his brother’s grave and to discover more about his death. Michael had been in the British army and involved with the Greek resistance fighters during World War 2 – a terrible time for the Greeks as the Nazis treated them so badly, but to make matters worse the various factions of Greek freedom fighters fought amongst themselves, so it was difficult to know who to trust. As the story unfolds it transpires that Camilla also finds it difficult to know who is on her side.

I really enjoyed this one, Mary Stewart was obviously very fond of Greece and the Greeks, as I recall she used it as a setting a few times. There’s plenty of suspense in this one and I can’t help thinking that Mary Stewart would have had a far higher profile and reputation if she had been a male author.

The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh

The Cutting Room cover

The Cutting Room is the first book that I’ve read by the Scottish author Louise Welsh, it was published in 2002 and was nominated for several awards, including the Orange Prize.

I mention that she’s a Scottish author, but it seems she was born in England, she must have moved to Scotland at a fairly young age I think because this book which is set in Glasgow is pure dead Glaswegian as far as the dialogue goes anyway. But it would be easily understood by anyone I think. It’s quite detailed on the dodgy background of auction houses, but I’m sure that wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

The blurb on the front says: ‘A stunning work of fiction’ Sunday Times – well I enjoyed it anyway although I think for more prudish readers some passages might be a much to take.

The story revolves around a Glasgow auction house where Rilke is an auctioneer, the business isn’t going very well so when they get a call to clear an entire housefull of antiques – if they can do it all within a week, they jump at the chance. The house owner has died and as he has no children it has fallen to his elderly sister to arrange everything.

She tells Rilke that her brother’s private office is in the attic, not easily accessible, and she wants Rilke to destroy whatever he finds in there. He finds some very disturbing books and photographs there and is loath to destroy them as he knows they are worth a lot of money, but it’s the photographs that haunt him and he starts inquiries of his own.

Of course as I knew all the locations the book had that extra dimension for me, being able to picture all the places mentioned and Welsh managed to make Rilke a likeable character despite his many weaknesses, including his penchant for having gay sex with random pick ups from time to time. It’s decidedly sleazy in a few places. It takes all sorts I suppose!

I’ll definitely be reading more books by Louise Welsh.

The Tall Stranger by D.E. Stevenson

The Tall Stranger cover

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.

This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart

This Rough Magic cover

This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart was first published in 1964 and the setting is the Greek island of Corfu, where Lucy Waring, a young aspiring actress is invited to stay with her sister for the summer. Her acting career has come to a bit of a halt so it’s an ideal opportunity for her, especially when she discovers that her sister’s neighbour is a famous thespian Sir Julian Gale. His son Max is staying with him, in fact it seems that Sir Julian isn’t in the best of health.

It’s a wee bit of an English enclave on that part of the island, there’s also a photographer who is working on a book of photos of the island and its animals and a dolphin features fairly prominently. But there’s plenty of local colour and of course romance.

Corfu is apparently supposed to be the setting for Shakespeare’s The Tempest from which Stewart took the title for this and which is one that I’ve been intending to read for absolutely yonks now, and I really wish I had got around to it as there are so many quotes from it in the book. Mary Stewart was really well-read.

I enjoyed this one, there’s plenty of suspense although I don’t think it was quite as good as Nine Coaches Waiting.

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

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.