Five Windows by D.E. Stevenson

 Five Windows cover

Five Windows by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1953, but it has been reprinted since then.
I enjoyed this one although I can’t say that it’s my favourite by the author.

I really like the idea of a book with five sections, each one beginning with a description of the view from the window from the room where the narrator David is living. Through the actions of other characters that we meet David learns some important life lessons.

David is the only child of the local minister and his much younger wife, they live in Nethercleugh in the Scottish Borders, it’s a very quiet rural location and we follow his career from the age of nine until his early 20s.

The first window view is from his childhood bedroom window and “looked out over the garden to the bridge and the hills.”

The setting changes to Edinburgh when he starts secondary school and lives with his uncle.

The view from the second window “looked out on a chequer-board of gardens, each separated from its neighbour by a solid stone wall covered with ivy.” David’s two best schoolfriends are very different from each other and he allows himself to be led by one of them, culminating in David moving to London at the end of his schooldays.

The third window is London and it begins: The wall towered up some thirty feet from my window: It was of dingy brick and there was no break in it except for an iron ventilator.” The boarding house that he rented a room in was ghastly, filthy and the food provided was awful, but worse than that was the other boarders. But this was a steep learning curve for David, he learned a lot about people before he made his escape, for me this was the darkest section of the book, but maybe it’s through strife that we learn the most.

The description of the fourth window view begins, “My window looked out on to roofs of all shapes and sizes sloping in all directions: upon jutting gables and hundreds of chimney-pots.” From an attic flat David has real freedom for the first time, a place of his own but it’s not easy as he has to count every penny. This section is much happier as until now David’s life was far from one he had imagined for himself, and it begins to go in a more hopeful direction.

The fifth window was “dirty and we could not see through it, so I opened it from the bottom and we looked out …. Now that the trees had been felled we could see for miles: we could see meadows and fields: we could see hedges with the green tint of spring upon them.”

I liked this book but it has a few preachy Christian passages in it which don’t appeal to me. It has a lot of similarities with O. Douglas books with the main character home-making and descriptions of interior decoration – and the preachy bits. But I do love the idea of the descriptions from the windows as whenever you walk into a room of a house that you think you might end up living in the first thing most people do is walk over to the window to see what the view is like.

Yet again D.E. Stevenson managed a wee name check for her more illustrious relative R.L. Stevenson.

The Double Image by Helen MacInnes

 The Double Image cover

The Double Image by Scottish author Helen MacInnes was first published in 1966, so at the height of the Cold War and this book seems now to be a nostalgic look back to the time when spies were kitted out with seemingly innocuous items such as pencils, cuff links, tie clips and lipsticks in which could be hidden notes, microfilm or even a poison filled tablet for use in desperation.

The book begins in April in Paris where academic John Craig is doing some historical research. He’s very surprised to bump into an old professor of his in the street. Professor Sussmann looks very worried and it transpires that he has just seen a man that he had presumed to be dead years ago. Sussmann is an Auschwitz survivor and he’s in Paris to testify against a group of Nazis who are on trial in the city. Of course the Nazis are all claiming that they were only obeying orders, but the man who was giving them the orders is Heinrich Berg and according to Sussmann he has just seen him in Paris, although he was supposed to have died and been buried years ago. The worrying thing is that Sussmann thinks that he was recognised by Berg as they had been childhood friends.

So begins an old-fashioned but very readable espionage tale which ends up with John Craig becoming involved in a joint MI5, CIA and Deuxieme Bureau plot to catch Berg along with others of his ilk. As you would expect there are plenty of surprises along the way including double agents.

When the action moves to the Aegean island of Mykonos, a place that John Craig had intended visiting anyway, the sense of danger and tension ramp up.

This was a really enjoyable read, probably particularly if you remember the ‘good old days’ of the Cold War.

I love the dust jacket of this book but sadly my hardback copy has lost its cover. The one above is the one that should have been on my 1966 copy though, I think it’s very stylish.

Still Glides the Stream by D.E. Stevenson

Still Glides the Stream cover

Still Glides the Stream by the Scottish author D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1959 but my paperback copy is a 1973 reprint.

To begin with the setting is the Scottish Borders where Will Hastie has returned to his childhood home after being away for twelve years. His return is tinged by sadness as Rae his childhood best friend was killed in World War 2 and everywhere Will goes brings back memories for him and makes Rae’s absence all the more sharp.

To make matters worse Rae’s mother is suffering from some form of dementia and she keeps expecting Rae to turn up at any time, she’s constantly talking about him. Rae’s father is a retired colonel and his family home is entailed so he’s obviously worrying about what will happen to his wife and Patty his daughter when he dies as the house and land will then be owned by a cousin.

Like many elderly parents the colonel is keen to see Patty settled so that he doesn’t have to worry about her being left on her own and homeless when he dies, but his anxiety might be leading him and Patty in an unwise direction.

Will begins to feel left out of things and decides to take a walking holiday in France, in the area where Rae had been killed, hoping to track down the farmer that Rae had been billeted with and possibly get some information from him. Rae’s last letter had been rather cryptic.

This was a really enjoyable read and I particularly liked the settings of rural Scotland and the more exotic ambience of the south of France. D.E. Stevenson often gets in a wee nod to her more famous relative Robert Louis Stevenson and she has Will saying that he isn’t travelling with a donkey.

On the back The Bookman says: “Hypnotically readable.”
and from Books and Bookmen Skillfully blends love of people and love of the countryside.”

What do you think of the 1973 cover of this book? I think it’s ghastly, that era must have been a particularly low point for book covers I think.

Death of a Gossip by M.C. Beaton

Death of a Gossip cover

I decided to read Death of a Gossip by M.C. Beaton, in memory of the author who died a few weeks ago, it’s the first book in her Hamish Macbeth series, published in 1995.

This is quite similar to her Agatha Raisin books, but this time the murder mystery has to be solved by Hamish Macbeth who is the local Highland police constable, a bit of a lazy bones on the surface, but with the help of his many cousins who seem to live all over the world, he manages to find the culprit. I suspect that this will be a feature of all of the books. The setting is the Scottish Highlands.

The book begins with John and Heather Cartwright preparing for the arrival of their guests. They own The Lochdubh School of Casting: Salmon and Trout Fishing and are expecting a very mixed bunch of students – a 12 year old boy, a retired army major, an American couple, a London barrister, a London secretary, a debutante type and a society widow.

Very quickly the character of Hamish Macbeth is portrayed as being very lazy and a bit of a scrounger, especially where coffee and food is concerned and he seems to be a bit lacking in brain power. Of course he’s just a typical Highlander and as it turns out has plenty of native wit.

Lady Jane Winters – the society widow of a Labour peer seems determined to upset all of the other students, she’s rude and aggressive and seems to know more about them all than she should. In no time she has just about everyone wanting to kill her – or hoping that someone else does. So when she turns up dead in a loch there’s no lack of suspects.

This was quite an enjoyable very light read, but I don’t know if I’ll continue with the series although the books are the sort that are ideal reading when you don’t feel able to concentrate on anything too taxing.

There were a couple of things in it that annoyed me. The Americanism ‘collect call’ was used when of course it should have been the British ‘reverse charges’. Also Lady Jane Winters, who insists on being called Lady Jane should have been named Lady Winters as she had got her title from her husband’s peerage and hadn’t been born a Lady Jane – such as Lady Diana was. I feel sure that a Scottish woman of M.C. Beaton’s vintage would have known this although many people nowadays don’t seem to understand the difference.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

 Transcription cover

Transcription by Kate Atkinson was published in 2018, but it begins briefly in 1981 before the action moves to wartime London. Juliet is just 17 and orphaned with the death of her mother. She’s going to have to fend for herself and manages to get a job with the intelligence service MI5. It turns out not to be as exciting as that sounds as she ends up sitting at a typewriter in a room next door to one which is being used as a meeting place for Nazi sympathisers. The walls are bugged and it’s her job to type out what she hears – not as easy as you might think. No-one is to be trusted and Juliet finds herself wondering about her own colleagues. Is her boss who is supposedly posing as a Gestapo officer actually a Gestapo officer? She now has a different name and it isn’t long before she’s embroiled with the Fascists she has been listening in to and given the task of searching for The Red Book which apparently has names and addresses of Nazi sympathisers.

Fast forward to 1950 and Juliet is working for the BBC making the Schools radio programmes, but her life with MI5 comes back to haunt her, or is she just being paranoid?

I really enjoyed this one and I’ll probably give it 5 stars on Goodreads as I can’t give it 4.5. Kate Atkinson has been living in Edinburgh for donkey’s years so I count her as a Scottish author.

You can read Jack’s much more detailed thoughts on this book here.

The Paper Cell by Louise Hutcheson

 The Paper Cell cover

The Paper Cell by Louise Hutcheson was published in 2017 by Saraband/Contraband and I was drawn to it in Waterstone’s in Chester because it’s such an attractive wee hardback, it even has attractive end-papers. I hadn’t ever heard of the author but I bought it as it was in a sale, I’m so glad that I did as it turned out to be a great read. It seems that the author hasn’t written anything else, but I really hope she does. Louise Hutcheson has a PhD in Scottish Literature from The University of Glasgow.

There’s a short prologue which is set in London 1953, but in no time we’re taken to Edinburgh, 1983 where the author Lewis Carson is about to give an interview to a young journalist after years of silence, but Lewis takes ill during the interview, and the action moves back to London 1953.

Back then Lewis Carson had been a lowly publishing assistant, not fitting in at the family business which was headed up by the bullying son of the owner. When a down-at-heel young woman presents him with her manuscript to be appraised he realises that it’s a great read, but sends her away disappointed, however he still has her MS.

When the young woman is murdered a couple of weeks later Lewis takes the opportunity to claim the MS as his own and it kicks off his writing career. But after writing many more books everyone agrees that none of them come up to the standard of his first book. Lewis doesn’t want to talk about that one though, it’s a taboo subject which weighs on his conscience and contributes to the break up of his marriage. Lewis realises that his whole life has been lived in a ‘paper cell’ of his own making. This was a cracking read.

Green Park Terrace by Isabel Cameron

Green Park Terrace cover

I haven’t been able to find out anything about Isabel Cameron but from her writing she was obviously Scottish. My copy of this book does have its dustjacket which has some information regarding her other books and the information that over 750,000 copies of Isabel Cameron’s books have been sold. And from the Glasgow Herald – “All Mrs Cameron’s work has that grace, humour and feeling that people love.”

Green Park Terrace by Isabel Cameron was published in 1949 but the setting is a town in Scotland during World War 2 and the Green Park which the terrace overlooks is rumoured to be taken over by the army, the Lovat Scouts to be precise. The news is not welcomed by Mrs Warren of No.1 Terrace Park, she thinks that the soldiers will be rowdy and drunken and will likely spend their time swearing and fighting. Her servant, a young woman from the Isle of Lewis is enthusiastic about the prospect though as you can imagine!

Each chapter deals with the attitudes of various neighbours at different Green Park Terrace house numbers. They’re a very mixed bunch, one house has been turned into a guest house. Another is inhabited by a very demanding woman who thinks she is an invalid and her poor downtrodden daughter. There’s a career woman in one house, determined that having a child isn’t going to change her life and her work in a frock shop, but when the nanny ends up in hospital everything begins to fall apart.

There’s many a mention of Lord Woolton who was appointed Minister of Food during the war, as ever, food and rationing feature. Actually I’ve made Woolton Pie and it wasn’t bad.

This is an enjoyable read and as it was published in 1949 it seems that writers, readers and publishers weren’t too keen to drop the subject of World War 2 on the home front. I suspect that a lot of people were hankering for ‘the good old days’ of war, when so many people, particularly women who had been kicking their heels and bored stiff at home found that they were happy and busy doing war work of some kind. The end of the war wasn’t welcomed by everyone.

I’d be interested to hear if any of you have read anything by Isabel Cameron

Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant

 Miss Marjoribanks cover

Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant has been languishing on my Classics Club list for years, it was definitely about time that I got around to reading it, and I’m so glad that I did, it’s so well written. This book was originally published in 15 parts in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1865-66. Margaret Oliphant was Scottish, born in Wallyford, near Edinburgh. In case you don’t know – the Scottish surname Marjoribanks is pronounced Marchbanks and indeed by the end of the book Marchbanks does appear – in the shape of an estate and village.

It begins when Miss Marjoribanks, known as Lucilla to her friends is only fifteen years old, and her mother has just died. Lucilla was away at boarding school at the time but she has decided that she will leave school and concentrate on being ‘a comfort to her papa’. Papa is a popular local doctor and he succeeds in making Lucilla go back to school to finish her education, including a finishing year in Switzerland and Italy. By the time Lucilla gets back to her home town of Carlingford she’s raring to go.

She’s a managing sort of female and quickly takes control of the household. She gets the decorators in to transform the drawing room where her mother had died, making sure that the walls are the perfect shade of green to complement her own complexion and re-upholstering the sofa where her mother had died. She couldn’t be called good looking and she’s a bit on the heavy side, but her father is well off and she intends to stay at home with him for at least ten years before getting married, after ten years she thinks she’ll begin to ‘go off’. She very quickly develops what would be called in London ‘a salon’, with every Thursday night an open evening for the local society and very good dinners being served to them, no wonder she becomes very popular. The house becomes the centre of Carlingford society and Lucilla seems to have an abundance of common sense which helps her to manage everyone which could be very annoying – but somehow isn’t.

To begin with it’s her intention to stop any men from ‘speaking’ (proposing marriage) but over the years just as she thinks that the big moment is coming from various eligible bachelors – it doesn’t, and before she knows it her ten years of self-imposed spinsterhood are almost up and she’s sure that her best days are behind her.

To begin with I wasn’t too sure about this book but I really ended up loving it. Miss Marjoribanks’s thoughts and comments often seem so modern. Men were often seen as being rather inadequate and far from perfect and I really had to laugh when she met up with an old favourite from the past and realised that he had definitely ‘gone off’ far more than she had over the years.

Jack read Miss Marjoribanks before I did and you can read his thoughts on it here.

I agree with Jack that Miss Marjoribanks would make a great TV dramatisation and would be such a change from the seemingly constant re-makes of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen’s works. It’s about time that TV producers branched out to the less well known writers of the past, but I suspect that they never actually read any of them.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine cover

A lot of people seem to have been reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman which was published in 2017, and I had no intention of doing so too as I tend to dodge what seems to be flavour of the month. Then I discovered that it’s written by a Scot and Jack borrowed it from the library and suggested that I should read it too – so I did and I really loved it. The setting is Glasgow but really it doesn’t feature in the book, it could have been set anywhere I think.

Eleanor Oliphant is almost thirty and working in the accounts department of a small company, despite having a Classics degree. She leads a very narrow life with no friends and has no idea how to interact with other people. Socialising is a complete mystery to her, consequently she’s seen as a bit of an odd bod by her work colleagues and it doesn’t help that one side of her face has been damaged by fire.

The one interaction she has apart from work is a weekly phone call from her mother who calls to abuse Eleanor verbally, she dreads the calls but seems unable to take control and put a stop to them. There’s a mystery about where her mother is. Is she in a prison, or maybe a state mental hospital? Obviously Eleanor has been badly damaged both physically and mentally by her upbringing. She’s still being visited by social workers and the only relationships in her life (if they can be called that) are with Polly her houseplant, Tesco supermarket which she loves and Glen’s vodka which she quaffs by the bottle at weekends. She definitely isn’t completely fine.

She’s suffering from arrested development among many other things, and she develops a huge crush on a musician who it turns out lives near her. Eleanor is convinced that her future lies with the musician and sets about transforming her image starting with a perplexing but hilarious visit to a waxing salon (French, Brazilian or Hollywood?) Slowly she begins to get to grips with modern life, helped by Raymond the IT guy’s friendship with her which develops when she needs his help with her computer at work, and bit by bit the reader learns about what has led to the development of Eleanor’s weird and anti-social character.

Or do we? As Jack says – she could be seen as being a very unreliable narrator and the truth could be completely different from how she portrays it. I like to think of her as a victorious victim though, but no doubt that is because I loved the character of Eleanor who had a hard time fitting in anywhere and understanding other people. I enjoyed seeing her learn how to interact in the modern world, even although that involved her doing things that I’ve never felt the need to do such as learning how to put on make-up or getting my nails done.

A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh

A Lovely Way to Burn cover

A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh is the first book in her Plague Times trilogy. I must admit that I didn’t realise this when I started reading it. As I only recently finished reading Station Eleven it was too soon for me to embark on another ‘end of the world as we know it’ book, but I had started – so I finished.

Stephanie/Stevie Flint has just turned thirty and has been living in London for seven years. Her career as a journalist has come to a halt and she’s now working as a presenter for a TV shopping channel and doing very well at it – at least the money is good. Her current gentleman friend Simon is a surgeon and when he doesn’t turn up for a date with her after work she just assumes that he’s probably going off her. But when she goes to his flat she discovers that he is dead.

Very quickly the bodies begin to pile up as the whole world seems to be in the grip of a pandemic which is being called ‘The Sweats’. Stevie contracts it but eventually recovers, one of the very few to do so, for most people it’s a quick death sentence.

But Simon didn’t die of The Sweats and Stevie suspects that he was murdered despite the fact that he supposedly died of natural causes – and so begins her investigation which leads to attacks on her life, while London descends into chaos. The people who haven’t yet succumbed to the illness either load up their vehicles and head out of the city, or begin drinking their way to oblivion.

For me the whole plot didn’t quite hang together so I’m not sure if I’ll carry on with this series.