My Friend Flora by Jane Duncan – 20 Books of Summer

My Friend Flora cover

My Friend Flora by Jane Duncan was published in 1962, it’s part of a long series of ‘My Friend’ books. These are generally a light-hearted keek into another way of life, the setting is the Highlands of Scotland, a remote crofting community where all families have a nickname. Often it’s just the name of the farm where they live. Janet Sandison’s family are all named Reachfar as a surname. Reachfar being the name of where they live.

It begins in 1915 when Janet goes to the small local primary school and meets Flora Smith for the first time. Flora is a few years older than Janet and her bye-name as they call it is Bedamned because her father is always using that word, but it seems that the bye-name is more like a curse on the family as disaster after disaster befalls them. For that reason this book is different from the others in the series that I’ve read, admittedly I haven’t got my hands on many of them yet.

Janet is sorry for Flora, it seems like a life of selfless drudgery with no thanks from anyone, particularly her harsh and morose father, but Flora is happy with her lot and her situation shows that what seems appalling to one person is a source of love and even pride to another.

Towards the end of the book the action moves to the USA briefly, via a trip on a ship and aeroplane, something that would have seemed very exotic to most readers of the book.

This was an enjoyable read despite Flora being the sort of character that you wanted to give a good shake and also some uncomfortable scenes involving a dog being tormented. There is comeuppance which is always a good thing.

20 books of summer

The Glorious Thing by Christine Orr

The Glorious Thing cover

The Glorious Thing by Christine Orr was first published in 1919 but was re-published by Merchiston Publishing in 2013. I must admit that I had never even heard of Christine Orr until I visited the Writers Museum in Edinburgh earlier this year. The museum is mainly dedicated to R.L. Stevenson, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott but there are some mentions of other Scottish authors such as Muriel Spark and Christine Orr, there is a small display case featuring some of her books. I’m quite ashamed that I had never heard of her, she apparently wrote 18 novels, was also a poet, theatre director, became head of the BBC’s Children’s Hour in 1936 and was instrumental in founding the Edinburgh Festival. Sadly it looks like this book is the only one which has been reprinted so I don’t think it will be very easy to collect the other 17 novels. Although The Glorious Thing is described as being a war novel, it’s really mainly from the Home Front within an Edinburgh family.

David Grant is back home in Castlerig not far from Edinburgh. He had spent two years in the trenches before he received a wound to his spine which led to a time in hospital that he found even more horrific than life in the trenches. But he isn’t happy, he feels weak, has trouble walking, his nerves are shattered and he feels depressed despite the fact that there’s a job waiting for him as a junior partner in his uncle’s law firm, and he has no money worries.

While visiting an art gallery with his sister Minnie, David’s attention is drawn to a young untidy woman, it’s her laugh that attracts him and later on he meets up with her and her large family of sisters. They are all living with their uncle as their parents are dead and I had to feel sorry for the man as the sisters are a fairly argumentative lot.

This is a very good read which focuses on the changing roles of women, politics, social history, atheism (very unusual for this time I think), religion and of course romance with quite a bit of humour too. There are some darling children – was there some sort of unwritten rule that Scottish female writers of the time had to conjure up cuties?

I really hope that in the future some more of Christine Orr’s books will be published. This one was published by Edinburgh Napier University and the proceeds supported Poppyscotland and Scottish Veterans Residences.

The back blurb says: ‘This book is a revealing snapshot of ordinary Edinburgh lives during an extraordinary time.’

Glitter of Mica by Jessie Kesson

Glitter of Mica cover

Glitter of Mica by the Scottish author Jessie Kesson was first published in 1963. Previously I’ve read Another Time Another Place and The White Bird Passes and I enjoyed those ones but I didn’t like this one nearly as much.

The setting is rural Aberdeenshire in the north-east of Scotland, the parish of Caldwell and the book begins in the 1930s. Hugh Riddell is a farm worker who is never kept on after his year of contracted work is up, which means that every year he has to find a new job in the area at a different farm. His wife is sick fed up with the constant moving, she can’t even plant a garden as she would be working for whoever would take over the tied house that goes with the farm work. They had a son, also Hugh and it’s his family that this book is mainly involved with.

The marriage of Hugh and his wife Isa isn’t any more successful than that of his parents, Hugh despises Isa and she seems afraid of him, they did manage to produce a daughter though, Helen does well at school and goes to university, but her mother is disappointed that she is only doing a diploma in social sciences and won’t come back with the MA that past ‘scholars’ have attained.

Helen gets work as a youth worker and unknown to her father starts a relationship with Charlie Anson, someone else that Hugh despises. As you can imagine it all ends in tears.

There are some flashes of humour in this book such as ….for she was a tight woman and had she been a ghost she would have grudged giving you a fright.

The characters in this book remind me, if I ever needed to be reminded of why I am ‘pining for the west’ as they are almost all miserable and mean spirited and are their own worst enemies. Love doesn’t seem to enter into anyone’s life, people get married because they have to marry someone and quickly go right off them it seems. There’s only one character who seems to have any human warmth – and she’s the talk of the place – being a wee bit too friendly with some of the local men. But the women have to admit that she always hangs out a ‘bonnie white washing.’ High praise indeed among the women.

This is supposedly Jessie Kesson’s best book but I just found it too depressing, I have no doubts that it is a very true portrait of the area and the times. Some readers wallow in misery, but it’s not for me

You can read what Jack thought of the book here.

Joseph Knight by James Robertson

Joseph Knight cover

Joseph Knight by James Robertson was published in 2003 and it won the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award 2003.

This book flips backwards and forwards from 1746 to 1802 and dates in between. The locations range from Drumossie Moor – the Battle of Culloden – Dundee, Edinburgh, Perthshire, Fife, London and Jamaica.

James Wedderburn is a young man, a Culloden survivor and at the beginning of the book he’s hiding from the English authorities, if they catch him he’s a dead man. His father, who also took part in the battle has already been captured. Eventually he and his brother make their way to Jamaica and in time become very well off landowners, making their money from the sugar cane fields that are worked by their slaves.

James had always planned to return to Scotland when he had made enough money and he does exactly that. He isn’t willing to part with his slave Joseph Knight whom he has trained up to be his personal house servant. Joseph will be seen as a prized possession and proof of his owner’s success in life. Joseph has become a Christian and is obviously an intelligent man, he wants to be free to make his own decisions in life.

The upshot of that is that he marries and goes away to live with his wife in Dundee, of course he’s a ‘kenspeckled’ figure and eventually he is arrested as a runaway. However, slavery had been outlawed in Scotland long before then so surely as soon as Joseph got to Scotland he should be a free man. A court case ensues.

The author couldn’t resist the idea of having Boswell and Johnson as minor characters, both apparently being against slavery. I suspect this was to pep up the storyline as inevitably boozing and bawdiness was the result, I’m not sure that was necessary but others might dispute that. There are scenes of brutality in Jamaica, slave owners who regarded themselves as being fair-minded were far very from that.

This is a really good read, it’s based on a true story, if you’re interested you can read more here.

The blurb on the back says: ‘A gift for witty re-imagining and a canny understanding of the novelistic and its conduits to the worlds we live in now mark Robertson as a marvellous novelist and Joseph Knight as a work of cunning and great assurance,’ Ali Smith, Guardian.

You can read Jack’s much more detailed review of this book here.

My Friend Muriel by Jane Duncan

My Friend Muriel  cover

My Friend Muriel by Jane Duncan is the second book in the author’s ‘My Friends’ series. It was first published in 1959, which was a very good year by the way! This one was a perfect read for these Covid-19 times, it’s a great light read with plenty of laughs. I took this book out to the garden to read on a glorious day last week and it grabbed me immediately. It’s a first person narrative with Jane Duncan – or Janet Sandison as she is in the book telling how she met her friend Muriel who is definitely a bit of an odd bod. It begins in 1930 when Janet was a student at the University of Glasgow and she was lodging with family friends in a village on Clydeside between Clydebank and Dumbarton, which just happens to be where I grew up (see my header photo – it’s Dumbarton). So I knew exactly where Jane was. On her commute to uni every morning she could see No 534 being built at John Brown’s shipyard, the ship was of course eventually named Queen Mary.

It’s just the wrong time to be graduating from uni as there was just about no chance of any graduates getting a job due to the Great Depression. Janet is faced with having to go back to her family home in the Highlands, but before that happens she is troubled for the first time in her life with toothache and while waiting in the dentist’s waiting room she peruses the magazines. An article titled Are You Lonely catches her eye and the upshot is that she writes off to a given address to get a pen friend from the writer of the article Mrs Whitely-Rollin. This eventually leads to an offer of work in England where Janet meets Muriel who pops up off and on throughout Janet’s life.

This book takes Janet from the age of 20 to her mid thirties so it includes WW2 when she joined the WAAF, working in the Operations Room and getting engaged from time to time as she was the only female there! There were lots of familiar situations in this book, for me anyway. There’s even a character called Alexander Alexander and you might think that is an unlikely name for anyone to be given, but I knew a man with that name, although he was called Sandy Eck by everyone – both of those being diminutives of Alexander.

The blurb on the front says: A riotous romp – moving, funny, fresh and alive. Second in a series that is making publishing history.

Back in 1959 this book cost all of 2/6 which if you aren’t old enough to remember pre decimal coinage is 12 and a half pence. It cost me all of £1.60 on our February trip up to Aberdeen (which must have been our last trip away from home) it was money well spent.

Niccolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett

 Niccolo Rising cover

Niccolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett is the first in a series and was first published in 1986. I really loved her Lymond series and was a bit loath to begin this new series as I didn’t think this one could match up to it, but I really enjoyed Niccolo Rising. As with the Lymond books it seemed to be non-stop action. The setting is Bruges in 1460 where Claes is an apprentice dyer who is always getting into scrapes, he’s a bit of a town fool but is very popular, especially with the young ladies.

But Claes is hiding his talents, it turns out that he has a great head for business, is able to decipher secret codes, gets on the right side of the Vatican – all of which ends up being very lucrative for his employer – the widow. But he has also made enemies as you would expect and there are attempts on his life.

Towards the end of the book his name lengthens to the original Nicholas to the disgust of some who wish to keep him in his place, and even some of his friends have doubts about his motives for some of his actions.

As you would expect from the author this is beautifully written although as ever you really have to concentrate on every word, but there’s quite a lot of humour and I was glad that I know Bruges, which can’t have changed much since the 15th century so I could picture it all.

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.