Kinvara by Christine Marion Fraser

Kinvara cover

Kinvara by Christine Marion Fraser was first published in 1998 and it’s the first by the author that I’ve read. I don’t know if it’s just the setting of a coastal community or what, but this really felt like Fraser was heavily influenced by Neil M Gunn’s books although her writing isn’t as sparkling as his. I have a feeling that Fraser could be described as being a sort of Scottish Catherine Cookson as her books seem to have been wildly popular family sagas. I admit that I’m a bit snooty about some writers and Cookson is one of them, but I did end up getting dragged into this tale and enjoyed it although I now realise there are three more books in this series, I’m not sure if I’ll continue with it though – so many books to read!

The setting is the Outer Hebrides of Scotland and Kinvara is a small village, some of the men are lighthouse keepers, it begins at Christmas 1922 and Robbie Sutherland is leaving the lighthouse to travel home to Kinvara after completing his stint.

He’s married to Hannah a difficult woman of the ‘own worst enemy’ variety who has been withdrawn and sullen since the birth of their son who has cerebral palsy. Robbie married her on the rebound after he had broken up with Morna who had gone back to her native Shetland. Hannah sees no point in caring for her son and makes no attempts to form a relationship with him. Robbie is at his wits’ end and as Morna has returned – with what turns out to be Robbie’s daughter, his life is a mess.

The book ends in the summer of 1926 and obviously there’s a lot more to it than I’ve written, if you fancy being in the company of some funny and interesting characters and you like a Scottish setting then you might like this one.

I’m a bit puzzled as to why the author called the book Kinvara as it is apparently a real place in Ireland, and she gave some of the characters Irish names too which is fairly unlikely in the far north of Scotland.

Dandy Gilver & a Spot of Toil and Trouble by Catriona McPherson

 Dandy Gilver & a Spot of Toil and Trouble cover

Dandy Gilver & a Spot of Toil and Trouble by Catriona McPherson is the new mystery featuring Dandy and Alec’s detective agency. Dandy has been contacted by an old schoolfriend who needs her services. Minerva, better known as Minnie lives with her husband in Castle Bewer which is a crumbling 14th century pile. In her letter she explains that they are opening the castle to the public and also staging plays there.

A company of actors from London will be arriving there soon and Dandy and Alec are needed to guard the castle’s valuables apparently. Grant – Dandy’s loyal maid is champing at the bit to join in on this job as she grew up with actor parents, and the stage is a home from home for her.

When they arrive at Castle Bewer they soon realise that the job is far more complicated than Minnie had implied. As ever this was an enjoyable read, I like being in the company of Dandy and Alec. Hugh her husband doesn’t appear in this one much though which is a shame as I think he’s a good character.

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.

The Dragon of Og by Rumer Godden

The Dragon of Og cover

I read The Dragon of Og by Rumer Godden ages ago but I’m so behind with some book thoughts that I’m only getting around to it now. It was published in 1981, it’s only the second or third children’s book by Godden that I’ve read and I must admit that it was the book cover that attracted me to it although I’m quite a fan of her books for adults. Pauline Baynes illustrated the book in colour and black and white and the cover. I’ve always liked her designs, she designed C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books in the 1960s.

Anyway, I was particularly delighted when I started to read this one as the setting is the Scottish Borders at a time when the castles were made of wood. The Castle of Tundergarth stands high on a hill overlooking broad meadows and forests through which flows the Water of Milk which isn’t as benign as it sounds as beneath its pools lies a deep cave where a dragon lives.

This isn’t an ordinary dragon though, he’s a lonely soul as his mother left him at the cave as a youngster and he has no friends, and no idea of what it means to be a dragon. The young wife of the new laird befriends him, but the laird isn’t pleased with that as Og the Dragon occasionally eats one of his bullocks and the laird is determined that Og must die. Matilda and the locals villager are up in arms about that. The story is based on an old legend of the Scottish Lowlands.

What amazed me about this book is that Godden writes quite a lot of the dialogue in Scots, using a fair few Scots words and ways of speech. She even uses correctly amn’t I instead of the less grammatical English aren’t I. That is a big bugbear of mine as editors often wrongly anglicise it and even directors have Scottish actots saying it the English way when they definitely shouldn’t be as they are speaking Scots.

I always thought of Rumer Godden as being one of those very English women – in the way that a woman who had grown up in the Indian Raj always was. But after a teeny bit of research I discovered that in her old age she moved to the Scottish Lowlands to be close to her daughter. She certainly soaked up all of the atmosphere of the area, she must have enjoyed living here I think.

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson

 Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary cover

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson was first published in 1937 but it has been reprinted by Persephone Books and I was lucky enough to find it in a secondhand bookshop.

This book was apparently a favourite of the Queen as she was at that time (later the Queen Mother). I suspect that she felt very much in tune with Lady Rose, the main character in the book, as they shared very similar Scottish upbringings.

The book begins with a group of people asking if they can look around a grand house in the Scottish highlands. The old housekeeper is pleased to show them around, it’s a house that has seen better days and it’s hoped that new tenants will be found for it. Although the vistors are careful to let her know that they couldn’t afford to rent the house, the housekeeper is still happy to tell of the history of the place, the book switches from the present day to the past regularly, but is never confusing.

Like many wealthy Scots the owners of the house sent their only child – Lady Rose, to England to be educated. As she is very much a Scot, steeped in the romance surrounding the history of the country – particularly Mary, Queen of Scots – Lady Rose is very unhappy and is always happy to get back to her beloved Scotland. The story of her life is one of ups and downs and it’s an entertaining read which has been described as a love letter to Scotland. But it’s about snobbery, discrimination against women and money.

One thing did puzzle me – on page 164 wee Archie says:

“Tonight at the chair, we’ll have some battles where we beat the English.”

“We always beat the English” said Alistair hotly.

“Not at Bannockburn.”

“That was murder; Duncan says so. Wasn’t it Mamma?”

Well that is obviously wrong because Scotland did famously win the Battle of Bannockburn, I suspect that what the author meant to write was Culloden or maybe Flodden. I’m wondering if that was one of the reasons that the Queen Mother invited Ruby Ferguson to Buckingham Palace, to point out her mistake!

Ruby Ferguson was an English writer but Ferguson (her married name) is a Scottish surname, so maybe she married a Scot and fell in love with the country too.

I really dislike the endpapers though, completely inappropriate for the book, from 1937 of course but I feel that another more appropriate design must have been available for that year. The design is Masqueraders and I found an image of it on the V&A site.

masqueraders

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge.

Dandy Gilver and A Most Misleading Habit by Catriona McPherson

 Dandy Gilver and A Most Misleading Habit cover

Dandy Gilver and A Most Misleading Habit by Catriona McPherson is the latest in the Dandy Gilver series that I’ve been enjoying over the past few years.

The setting is Scotland, the bleak moors of Lanarkshire, and Dandy is called in to investigate a break out of inmates at a remote mental hospital on Christmas Eve 1932, and a fire that broke out the same night at a nearby convent.

Of course Dandy’s side-kick Alec is helping out as usual although he isn’t able to do much of the investigating in the convent, he concentrates on the mental hospital.

I don’t think this book is as successful as the previous ones, a lot of it just feels so wrong given that it is a convent in the early 1930s. Everyone is just too happy and it is just too unrealistic with the orphanage attached to the convent being full of well-loved children, unlikely even within a sort of freelance convent as it is. There were so many mentions of ‘sister’ in it, it was even mentioned by Alec in the book that he was tired of the word, or something to that effect. I suppose I’m just not that fond of a convent setting.

There wasn’t much in the way of banter between Dandy and her maid Grant, or even between Dandy and Alec although her husband Hugh played a larger part in this story and he’s a good character I think so that was welcome.

I will definitely read the next one in the series though.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.

Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher

Winter Solstice cover

Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher was first published in 2000 and it was the last book that she wrote as she retired from writing then although she lived for for quite a few years after that.

I’ve read quite a few of Rosamunde Pilcher’s books and I suppose they come under the category of comfort read, although in this one there is a tragedy, but it doesn’t involve any characters that the reader gets very involved with.

Elfrida has retired and moved from London to a small cottage in Hampshire where she intends to supplement her income by making cushions and home furnishings and selling them on to a posh London shop. She makes a good job of settling into her new life and making good friends in the area, she has a gorgeous rescue dog called Horace as a companion, but there’s no doubt that the one person who is most important to Elfrida is her neighbour Oscar, but he’s already married with a young daughter.

Circumstances lead to Oscar having to move back to the north of Scotland where he had been brought up and Elfrida gives up her comfortable life to join him there, and so begins a sort of tour of various houses in that area. In fact I felt that it was a bit like reading one of those glossy homes magazines. Some of the properties mentioned were definitely in need of refurbishment and others were very desireable indeed.

I feel that Pilcher had decided to modernise her writing a bit for the new millenium. One of the main characters is a woman who has had a long term affair with a married man and it has come to an end. I can’t be sure, because it’s quite a while since I read any other Rosamunde Pilcher books but I don’t think she had previously had a main character who had had an affair with a married man. I think in most romances a woman like that would have been seen as a bit of a wicked witch and not the main character.

In fact towards the end of this book something happens (you know me, I don’t want to say too much) and probably a lot of people would think that it is just too unlikely but – hold on to your hats girls – some husbands/widowers DO replace their wives after only a couple of months of their death, well they do in Kirkcaldy anyway. I know, I have said too much! Anyway, Winter Solstice is an enjoyable jaunt from Hampshire via London and on up to the wilds of Creagan which is north of Inverness in the Highlands of Scotland, and you can go on a tour of the places mentioned in the book, have a look here if you’re interested. There’s romance a-plenty too.

You can see some images of Creagan here.

I read this one for the Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge 2016 and also for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge

Murder at the Loch by Eric Brown

 Murder at the Loch cover

Murder at the Loch by Eric Brown is the third in his Langham and Dupre mystery series and this one is possibly even better than the first two Murder by the Book and Murder at the Chase.

The setting is a freezing cold December in 1955. Donald Langham is of course a writer and he’s preparing for his marriage to his fiancee Maria Dupre, but his wartime commanding officer Major Gordon has contacted him and his friend Ralph Ryland, he needs their help. Donald and Ralph drop everything and go off to help.

Major Gordon now owns a luxury hotel in the wilds of the Scottish Highlands, so it’s to the hotel that Donald and Ralph make their way as someone has been taking potshots at the major – or maybe they were aiming at the major’s companion.

Major Gordon is attempting to raise the wreck of a German Dornier bomber which had crashed into the nearby loch in 1945. The winter weather has hampered the project, but it also seems that someone doesn’t want the Dornier to be lifted from the loch. Why would that be? And why was a Dornier flying in that area in 1945 anyway? Who or what were its cargo?

As the weather closes in on them Donald and Ralph are stranded in the hotel with the rest of the guests, then one of them is murdered. With everyone under suspicion Murder at the Loch has all of the suspense of a vintage murder mystery and the charm too.

It was only a matter of time before Maria Dupre managed to get in on the act too and Donald’s literary agent Charles Elder makes a welcome entrance towards the end of the book when he is finally released from Wormwood Scrubs where he has been languishing “at Her Majesty’s pleasure,” – in other words he’s been in jail – due to the discriminatory laws of the time. Charles is one of my favourite characters in this series so I hope he has an even bigger part to play in the next book.

I love Eric Brown’s writing and his ability to capture the atmosphere of the 1950s.

Although Eric is a typical Yorkshireman he has been living in Scotland for a number of years now and so this book counts towards the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.

John Macnab by John Buchan

 John Macnab cover

John Macnab by John Buchan was published by Chambers Journal in 1924, I’m presuming that it was published in weekly parts there as it was apparently published as a book in 1925. I read this one for The 1924 Club which is being run by Simon@ Stuck in a Book

John Buchan is of course known for his tales of adventure, sort of adult versions of ‘Boys’ Own Adventure’ books and John Macnab is no different, except you could say it’s multiplied by three as there are three men being hunted down in the Scottish Highlands.

The tale begins in London in midsummer where a successful man has gone to see his doctor because he has lost his zest for life. He’s a successful lawyer with no money worries and he’s just bored out of his skull. His doctor advises him to do something quite outrageous for a man in his position, to pull himself out of his despondency.

When he discovers that two of his friends who are equally as successful as him are also feeling exactly like him, they cook up a plan to drag themselves out of their depressive moods.

The plan involves all three gentlemen travelling to the Highlands where they intend to do some poaching on three neighbouring country estates, having sportingly informed the lairds of their intentions in a ‘catch us if you can’ way. The fact that if the men are caught it would spell disaster to their careers and reputations only adds to the adrenaline rushes.

The book is quite political really with young Janet Raden, the daughter of a laird, denouncing the status quo of forelock tugging to aristocracy in favour of a more democratic society. But the reality is that as the three men are regarded as gentlemen and they are discovered to be Old Etonians, it puts everything in a totally different light from if they had been just plain old penniless poachers. This is quite an enjoyable read but as I always seem to say when I write about a John Buchan book – it’s not as good as Greenmantle.

I suspect that one of the reasons that John Buchan wrote this one was because when he went back home to Scotland after completing his first term at Oxford his siblings were very amused that he had developed a very posh ‘Kensington’ accent, they teased him mercilessly but Buchan had obviously decided that if he wanted to get on in life he would have to pose as an upper class Englishman – thank God those days are gone! – What am I saying, just look at the UK Cabinet Members!