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.

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.

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.

Highland River by Neil M. Gunn

Highland River cover

Highland River by Neil M. Gunn won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1937 and I’m trying to make my way through as many of the winners as possible. It’ll be a long haul as there are a lot of them.

This is just the third book by Gunn that I’ve read, I think so far The Silver Darlings is my favourite.

Highland River is set around the Dunbeath area of the Scottish Highlands.

It’s really the story of Gunn’s childhood. It was a hand to mouth existence and the story begins with Kenn being sent out in the dark of early morning to get water from the well situated near a pool. It’s freezing and Kenn slips and falls in the water, but in doing so he realises that a huge salmon has become trapped in the pool, and so begins a battle to catch it with his hands. This is an aspect of the book that reccurs time and time again, in fact too much for me, it might appeal to those who are interested in unusual fishing techniques.

The Scottish Highland childhood chapters are interspersed with chapters about Kenn and his brother’s experiences in the trenches of World War 1 and I would have been happier with the book if there had been more of those. Gunn never was involved in that war though so he probably felt he was better off sticking to writing about what he knew about. He was a customs officer/excise man from 1910 until he was able to earn enough from his writing to become a full time writer in 1937.

He was active politically and was a member of the National Party for Scotland part of which later became the Scottish National Party. He died in 1973.

As it happens, when we were travelling home from our recent trip to Orkney we stopped off at Dunbeath which is a very small place, but is in a beautiful area of Caithness. They’re proud of their ‘local hero; and have erected a statue of Kenn with his massive salmon, a scene from this book. The photo below is of the river that runs through Dunbeath, it’s called Dunbeath Water, and is presumably the Highland river from the title.

Dunbeath Water

There’s also this lovely statue of Kenn and his salmon, a scene from the book.
Kenn + Salmon

I also read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge and it’s one of my 20 Books of Summer.

The Salzburg Connection by Helen MacInnes

 The Salzburg Connection cover

The Salzburg Connection by Helen MacInnes was first published in 1968. I remember reading some books by the author way back in the 1970s but haven’t read any since then, after reading this one I’ll have to track down as many others as I can because this was a really great read with loads of twists and turns.

It’s set some twenty-one years after the end of World War 2 but there are Nazis still around, they’ve been searching for things that had been hidden by them at the end of the war. There’s a bit of a race on to track down and recover a metal box which it’s thought has been hidden in a lake called Finstersee which is surrounded by the Austrian alps. Several such boxes have been found over the years, the Russians would also like to get their hands on this one, although what it might contain is a mystery.

This is a Cold War setting with spies and double agents galore – a great read.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge.

Helen MacInnes was born in Glasgow and went to Glasgow University where she got a degree in French and German before going on to get a diploma in librarianship at London. During her librarianship career she chose the books for libraries in Dunbartonshire, which happens to be where I worked in libraries, but she was there decades before my days there.

Her husband was a British agent for MI6 and no doubt his experiences helped to fuel her imagination for espionage. Her second book Assignment in Brittany (1942), was required reading for Allied intelligence agents who were being sent to work with the French resistance against the Nazis. Four of her books were made into films. Later in life she and her husband moved to the US.

Have you read any of her books?

Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart

Madam Will You Talk? cover

Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart was first published in 1955 but my copy is from 1969 as I think you would have realised from the cover. When I was reading this book I didn’t realise that it is actually the first book that she had published, it certainly doesn’t read like a first effort.

Charity is a young widow and when she decided to go on a road trip to Provence she asked her close friend Louise to accompany her. Not long after arriving at their hotel Charity befriends David an English teenager who is staying there with his French step-mother. It transpires that David’s father Richard has been tried for murder but has been acquitted, and when Charity overhears a conversation she realises that Richard is in France and is trying to track down his son. She is sure that David is in danger, he certainly seems to be terrified of his father.

I really enjoyed this book which is a mystery, adventure, romance and travelogue all rolled into one. There are some lovely descriptions of the countryside and there’s a hair-raising high speed car journey with Charity as the expert driver, something quite advanced and new for a female character in 1955 I think.

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.

The Fair Miss Fortune by D.E. Stevenson

 The Fair Miss Fortune cover

The Fair Miss Fortune by D.E. Stevenson was published by Greyladies in 2011, it was one of those books that D.E. Stevenson’s agent couldn’t get anyone to publish back in 1937 when she wrote it. At the beginning of the book there’s a correspondence between Stevenson (under her married name Peploe) and Mr Curtis Brown, her agent. He was explaining to her that publishers felt that the book was a bit too old fashioned as it featured identical twin sisters and mistaken identity. Having read the book I can see what the publishers meant, but on the other hand it’s a mildly entertaining read of the marshmallow or fluff variety.

The village of Dingleford in England is peopled by the usual widows, bachelors and retired army colonels, it is of course a time when Britain still had an empire so one of the bachelors is home on leave from the army in India.

When Jane Fortune appears in the village with the intention of turning an old house into a tearoom, helped by her old nannie – she quickly attracts the attention of two young men. They are a bit perplexed though when they realise that she doesn’t seem to be quite the same person as they had met before, and often seems not even to know them.

Throw in a truly ghastly smothering, selfish mother of a grown up son and and you have a reasonable light read, but this one doesn’t have the serious social aspects of some of her later books. It’s still entertaining though for when you can’t concentrate on anything too heavy.

I read this one for the Read Scotland Challenge 2017.

The Silver Darlings by Neil M. Gunn

 The Silver Darlings cover

The Silver Darlings by Neil M. Gunn was first published in 1941. The setting is mainly the coastal areas of Caithness in the north-east of Scotland in the early 19th century. It’s a time of upheaval, especially in the Highlands of Scotland. Inland crofters have been moved out of their crofts and land and have been transported to the coast where they are expected to take up fishing as a living, despite the fact that they know nothing about it. As crofters they had worked the land, but that land was required for sheep by their landowner, often the head of their clan.

These ‘clearances’ caused terrible strife but in The Silver Darlings the original fishermen of the village have been remarkably calm about the influx of newcomers and have shared their knowledge of the sea with them.

I really enjoyed the first half of this book more than the second half, I suppose because I was more interested in the domestic side of it. Early on some of the transplanted fishermen have been press ganged into the Royal Navy – as was quite common in those days. That leads to disaster for newly married Catrin as her husband Tormod is one of the ones who has been snatched, leaving the pregnant Catrin to struggle on on her own. She gives birth to a son Finn, but she’s in a limbo as she has no idea if her husband is alive or dead. This puts a break on the possibility of a relationship with Roderick who is the most skillful of the local fishermen.

As Finn grows up the local fishing industry goes from strength to strength. The silver darlings of the book title is the nickname given to the herring that brought riches to the area, not only for the fishermen but for the women who gutted the fish and for the various others involved, such as coopers and fish smokers.

This book is beautifully written, and it’s easy to imagine the landscape and seascape. I’m always impressed not to say aghast at the size of the trawlers that fishermen ride the North Sea in nowadays, but that is obviously nothing compared with the wee fourteen foot long sail boats that Roderick and his crew went out in, often fighting mountainous seas and always in danger of not making it back to land safely.

The Silver Darlings was chosen as a readalong for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge. Jack read the book last year and if you’re interested you can read his thoughts on it here.