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

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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.

The Path of the Hero King by Nigel Tranter

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The Path of the Hero King by Nigel Tranter is the second book in his Robert the Bruce trilogy. The first one The Steps to the Empty Throne ended with the disastrous battle of Methven in Perthshire, when Bruce and his army were attacked during the night as they slept. That made Bruce realise that he would have to ditch his chivalric behaviour and adopt dirty tactics as the English King Edward I did. Previously The Bruce and King Edward I had been fairly friendly and the two countries had been on good terms.

In this book Scotland’s main castles are inhabited by the English as are many smaller castles and strongholds. King Robert is having a hard time with people who don’t recognise him as king and as usual the many clans in Scotland who have been at each other’s throats for generations are still causing problems. When he learns that his wife, daughter and sister have been taken prisoner by King Edward, and that they and his brothers had been handed to the English by a fellow Scot – the Earl of Ross – the gloves are off so to speak, especially when he’s told that the women have been hung in cages which dangle from various city and castle walls.

The Bruce begins the task of slowly grabbing back the smaller castles from the English invaders, using the guerilla tactics he learned from William Wallace. Slashing and burning the lowland parts of Scotland which the invading English army had to pass through, making sure that there was nothing left for the army to eat or even any shelter for them. That must have been heartbreaking for Bruce as the Border country had been his. There’s a lot of fighting in this book, interspersed with some bedroom action which I suppose is Tranter’s attempt to sex it up and bring in some variety.

This was a good read which ends on a high with the Battle of Bannockburn where Bruce used his knowledge of the surrounding land close to Stirling to win against a massive English army led by Edward II. I hadn’t realised quite how huge the English army had been, when the first of them marched into the Stirling area the end of the army was still marching through Edinburgh over twenty miles away! It must have been a terrifying sight.

Unfortunately I’ll have to wait a while before reading the last of this trilogy as I had to take the omnibus edition back to the library instead of updating it as someone else had requested it. I have plenty of other books to choose from though and will take a rest from historical fiction for a wee while.

The Steps to the Empty Throne by Nigel Tranter

 Bruce Trilogy cover

The Steps to the Empty Throne by Nigel Tranter was first published in 1969 and it’s the first of a Bruce trilogy. I do think though that Tranter was a bit generous with what is known of the history regarding Robert the Bruce, at one point Bruce comes to the aid of William Wallace at the end of a battle, something which almost certainly didn’t happen. In the early days Bruce was known for not being where he should be – when it came to battles. I suspect this was because he had had quite a close relationship with Edward I of England – before Edward became known as ‘The Hammer of the Scots’.

Scotland had always been an independent country but when King Alexander III fell off his horse and died at Kinghorn in Fife (see his memorial at the location here) and then his daughter (The Maid of Norway) – who had been his heir died, that left a power vacuum and that’s what this book is about. The Scots made a huge mistake in asking their neighbour King Edward of England to help to choose between the candidates. Edward decided that John Balliol should get the top job but he had decided to take over himself in Scotland and Balliol was really just Edward’s puppet. As you can imagine this didn’t go down well with the Scots who ended up getting rid of Balliol and signed a treaty with France, always England’s enemy. Edward took this as an excuse to invade Scotland and so began the Wars of Independence. As ever though the Scots were as much at each other’s throats as at war with the English.

A few battles are fought but the book is much more than that. Bruce is a widower but by the end of the book he has remarried so there’s romance too, despite Edward’s manipulations. There’s the difference between William Wallace’s guerrilla warfare and Bruce’s chivalric leanings which he had to give up when Edward’s dirty tricks led to Bruce’s defeat in battles. The manner of Wallace’s execution also enraged so many Scots – so the gloves were off. Bruce had always been keen to avoid being excommunicated by the pope, but inevitably that happens, he was reminded that the Scottish church had originally been a Celtic church and it had been obliterated by Queen Margaret (King Malcolm’s wife) who replaced the Culdees with the Benedictines that she had grown up with. Suddenly excommunication didn’t matter any more.

I’m really looking forward to the next one in this trilogy The Path of the Hero King.

Homespun by Annie S. Swan

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Homespun by Annie S.Swan was first published in 1893 and its subtitle is – a study of simple folk. The setting is the small village of Beild, supposedly the lowlands of Scotland but this was one of the two books that she got material for while she lived in the very small village of Star of Markinch in Fife where her husband James Burnett-Smith was the schoolmaster, before he left so that he could pursue his ambition of studying to become a doctor.

Beild is a typical wee Scottish place where gossip is the main occupation of the inhabitants and there are the usual village rivalries. The pub is frequented by many but particularly by four old bachelors for whom it’s a home from home. In one of their more drunken moments they decide that it’ll be a good laugh if one of them proposes marriage to a local spinster, no doubt expecting her to be outraged by the drunken man. It doesn’t go as hoped though as the spinster accepts the proposal – well, she had discovered that he had some savings and she believed she could control his boozing. He’s stuck.

This is a typical sentimental book of its day, plenty of romance, sorrow and a local cossetted son who has been away studying to be a minister packs the church out at his first sermon as a probationer. He’s so disliked they’re all hoping for a disaster of course. This book is quite entertaining in an old and coothie way.

I think that the author’s reaction to living in Star/Beild for two years as she did is summed up below.

To fully master the intricacies of the Beild character, old or young, you have to be brought up in the place; no stranger has half a chance.

You can read a bit more about her here.

INDEPENDENCE An argument for Home Rule by Alasdair Gray

 Independence cover

INDEPENDENCE An argument for Home Rule by Alasdair Gray was published in 2014, so before the Independence referendum of 2014 and it contains eleven chapters and a postscript.

It was Jack who gave me this one to read and you can read his thoughts on it here.

The book begins with Alasdair Gray’s prologue in which he writes: This book is written for Scots, by whom I mean anyone in Scotland who will vote in the September referendum to make Scotland a more or less independent nation.

The chapter titles include:
National Geology – How Lands Make People Behave

Anglo-Scots Differences

Old and New Corruption 1800 – 1976

UK Parliament, North Sea Oil A New Chapter in Old Corruption

Settlers and Colonists A Controversial Topic

A Small Stir of Correspondence More Controversial Matter

In Settlers and Colonists he writes about being asked to write an article on the subject and the result of that was that he was called a racist by people who had never even read the article and questions were asked in the Scottish Parliament. In this chapter he clarifies the situation, explaining the differences between the two. Basically Settlers are people who arrive in Scotland from another country but are happy to embrace the place, people and culture – in my experience these people often cheerfully end up becoming more Scots than the native Scots.

Colonists move to Scotland as a sort of smash and grab raid, often being given high profile jobs in Scottish culture, knowing nothing about the subject, but for them it’s a stepping stone to getting a similar position in England, they usually stay a very short time. In my experience these people usually come to Scotland and grouse about everything – declaring loudly how much better everything is elsewhere – in their opinion. Not the way to win friends and influence people.

The next chapter – A Small Stir of Correspondence was the upshot of Gray mentioning the difference between Settlers and Colonists. Pete Selman who was the Director of Properties and Visitor Services at the National Trust for Scotland and took umbrage at what Gray had said at something he was invited to. It’s a bullying letter from him demanding an apology from Gray and threatening to remove his books from the National Trust shelves because as far as he knew they weren’t selling any of his books anyway.

Alasdair Gray’s reply to Selman is a cracker, needless to say that he didn’t get a reply to it. Among many things Gray pointed out that his mother’s parents were both English and he has never had any problem with English people choosing to live in Scotland or indeed the many Scots who live in other parts of the world – only the carpetbaggers.

It’s all about peoples’ attitude to others or as one of our English friends says – some English people come to Scotland and ‘do the English thing’ – by which he meant they throw their weight about.

This is an interesting read, and what with all this Brexit chaos it highlights the differences between the two so-called united kingdoms. If Scots had known that Brexit would become UK Government policy within two years the outcome of the 2014 Independence Referendum might have been very different.