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!

Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

The action in this book flips between Scotland in 1860 and Scotland in 1992, mainly on Harris, a Hebridean island. Michael and Ruth have bought an old manse with the intentions of refurbishing it and turning it into a guest house. A tiny skeleton is discovered in an old tin chest underneath floorboards in what they are calling the Sea Room and Ruth is amazed when she realises that there is only one leg bone. Of course the police have to be involved but it turns out that it is a very old skeleton, so nothing that the police need to worry about but Ruth, who is herself pregnant is fascinated by it and naturally wonders about the story behind it.

In 1860 Scotland, the Reverend Alexander Ferguson has an interest in evolution and wonders if there is a possibility that such things as mermaids existed in the past. There have always been folk tales of such things. He wonders if they did exist, was it possible that they were an evolutionary step, such as Darwin was writing about.

The local landowner has decided that he will get rid of the islanders and replace them with sheep, a far more lucrative business for him, and the Reverend Ferguson is horrified to discover that he is being involved in the ghastly task of clearing the land of his congregation. Ruth has had a dysfunctional childhood so she has lots of demons from her past to deal with and they’re all coming to the surface with her own impending motherhood.

The actual stories were enjoyable and well written, but not researched at all and the mistakes drove me round the bend, but if you aren’t Scottish then you probably won’t know about all the things that are wrong.

However this book could have been doing with being better edited, silly things like one character going to get her hair permed every week!!!! obviously that isn’t possible. That should have been shampooed and set every week as I think you can only have a perm every 6 months, if you had one every week then your hair would quickly fall out and you would have no scalp left at all, those chemicals are fierce. Also on page 217 the reverend is described as wearing a white surplus, it should of course be white surplice.

But THEY always say that you should write about what you know about, or at least make sure that you research your subject. Sadly Gifford is absolutely clueless about religion in Scotland and she got herself into a right fankle/tangle. At first I couldn’t figure out which variety of Presbyterianism Alexander Ferguson was but I settled on the Free Church of Scotland, mainly because of the mention of Gaelic psalms being sung in his church, but the clothes which he was wearing would never have been worn by any sort of Presbyterian minister, never mind a ‘Wee Free’ – who have been described by a friend of mine as black belt Protestants. A satin stole was mentioned at one point and any minister who wore something as frivolous and vain as that would soon find himself without a church and congregation. They apparently went to ‘matins’ – oh no they didn’t! A black graduation gown over a black suit was/is what Presbyterian ministers wear in the pulpit. Ministers in most Scottish churches have always had to do what amount to auditions and the congregation votes on them, fire and brimstone was the order of the day, if the minister wasn’t seen as being strict then he probably wouldn’t have got a congregation and church at all.

The mention of the surplice (surplus !!) being worn by Alexander whilst he was conducting a service, that’s the white smocky thing which is worn by Scottish Episcopalian and Roman Catholic priests, is completely alien to any form of Presbyterianism. But when Alexander went to Morningside to visit his bishop towards the end of the book I was actually groaning out loud. The bishop referred to Alexander’s time as a curate!!!!

The whole reason for the Scottish Reformation was to get rid of such things as bishops, the congregation is in control and there’s also no such thing as a curate unless it’s an Episcopalian one. So Alexander could never have had a bishop. At one point there are people crossing themselves!! Well I swear I could hear John Know birling in his grave, about 20 miles away.

To be fair Gifford does give thanks to a lot of people who helped her with this book, including a reverend somebody. I’m assuming that they didn’t actually read the book otherwise such glaring mistakes should have been pointed out to the author.

I read this one as part of the Read Scotland 2014 challenge and it has a wide variety of possible books which will fit it as they don’t have to be by Scots but can just be set in Scotland, or be written by an author who is now living in Scotland, but there is a vast difference between Scottish authors and authors who use Scotland as their setting – just saying.

Rockets Galore by Compton Mackenzie

Rockets Galore was published in 1957 and is set on the fictional Scottish islands of Great and Little Todday, as were his previous books Keep the Home Guard Turning and the better known Whisky Galore, which was of course made into a film.

It is Cold War era and the government has decided that the islands are needed to house the rockets which will supposedly protect the people in Britain by firing at the people in Russia. The islanders have been told that some land will be needed for the plans and some of them will have to move off the islands altogether, as you can imagine, that news doesn’t go down well. In reality both islands will need to be evacuated completely, but the powers that be are keeping quiet about that to begin with.

Later one islander says: Yes they’re going to make a desert of the Western Isles and call it peace.

His friend replies: I think desert will be the last word you’ll be able to apply to the Islands when they’re full of these chaps training for ballistic warfare. But don’t misunderstand me Hugh. I feel just as strongly as you do about this rocket business, but what can we do? If we could trust the Russians … but we can’t. They mean to rule the world, and we and the United States have got to stop them. And by the time they’re ruling what’s left of the world, the Chinese will step in a rule them.

Well that Compton Mackenzie seems to have been quite a seer, as it feels like China is taking over now!

The islanders are being wildly underestimated by their so called betters of course and have plenty of tricks up their sleeves to see the invaders off.

An enjoyable and amusing read.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge.

East Fortune by James Runcie

East Fortune was first published in 2009 and it’s just the second one by James Runcie which I’ve read. I have to say that I didn’t enjoy this one as much as Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death. In fact I almost gave up reading it very early on because it begins with an unavoidable tragedy and I thought to myself – ‘Do I really want to be reading a possible doomfest of a book just before Christmas?’ Anyway I persevered and it wan’t until I was about two thirds of the way through the book that I really began to enjoy it.

The blurb on the front says ‘This gripping novel has only one major flaw – it was far too short – I wanted at least another 200 pages of these people and their lives.’ VICTORIA HISLOP

In a way I sort of agree with that statement but mainly because for me the whole thing pepped up towards the end. This would qualify for Peggy’s Read Scotland 2014 challenge as the setting is Scotland and Runcie now lives in Edinburgh.

It’s the story of the three Henderson brothers, now middle aged but still suffering from sibling rivalry, family expectations and disappointments. East Fortune is not far from Edinburgh and it’s where their family home is, when they return for their annual summer get together the usual tensions turn up too, made worse by the obvious frailty of their elderly parents.

I have to say that the author has done a good job of depicting middle aged family life, but it isn’t exactly uplifting, and if you’ve already been there then it isn’t something which you really want to spend your time reading about. I will read more by this author though as I think he is a good writer, it’s just the subject matter of this one which didn’t appeal to me so much.

A Small Death in the Great Glen by A.D. Scott

A Small Death in the Great Glen

First I have to say a big thank you to Peggy Ann for sending me three books by Scottish ex pat author A.D. Scott for my birthday which was a while back. I thoroughly enjoyed A Small Death in the Great Glen which is set in the Highlands of Scotland in the 1950s.

When the body of a young lad is found in a canal lock it’s thought that he has just stumbled into the canal and drowned, but on examination of the body it’s discovered that he has been ‘tampered’ with and as usually happens suspicion falls on the only stranger in the community, a Pole who had been a crew member on a Russian ship which had been docked in the harbour.

As usual I’m not going to say too much about the plot for fear of spoiling it for other readers, suffice to say that the author has drawn on Scots traditional tales, such as hoodie crows, just as that other writer of Scots descent Edgar Allen Poe did – well a raven anyway.

I suppose it could be said that this is a familiar tale but it’s also a very well written one with some great characters and A.D. Scott has captured the atmosphere of a small Scottish town of the 1950s with all its prejudices and social problems. In fact I found it all to be very similar to my experiences growing up in a West of Scotland small town in the 1970s, things certainly hadn’t moved on much in those 20 years. Like the fact that women who wore trousers were looked on askance, and in fact when I started work in a library in the 1970s the female staff members were not allowed to wear trousers, no matter how smart and expensive they might be.

Italians also feature, just as they did then in Scottish towns, there was always a fish and chip shop which was owned by Italians and the Italian cafes were wonderful exotic places with coffee in glass cups and saucers, ice drinks which now seem to be called ice cream floats and a great selection of continental chocolate. Sadly the second and third generation Italians didn’t want that way of life and Italian cafes are now a thing of the past.

This book brought it all back for me, scary local house and all. Does every neighbourhood have a house which terrifies the local children? One which you had to run past, ducking down while you ran so that your head couldn’t be seen above the hedge.

Anyway, I don’t normally read what other people think of books on Goodreads but I did with this one, just because Peggy Ann is the only person I ‘know’ who is a fan. I was annoyed to read one review which complained about the ‘slang’ which is used in the book. There is no slang but there is dialogue in various different Scots dialects, which is no mean feat actually, all of the words used are fairly easy to guess at from the context. A glossary would have been nice for people who might find the language confusing, but really we all manage to understand dialogue in American movies which can be quite challenging at times, some people seem to think that everyone should speak just as they do though – how boring would that be?!

On a totally personal note I was chuffed when the action moved briefly from the Highlands of Scotland to my beloved Glasgow. I was born there but we moved out of the city when I was 5, I was back there just about every week though, my mother was a keen shopper and city person, so I enjoyed the fictional trip to Glasgow and at one point as Duke Street was mentioned I was holding my breath thinking that the street which I was born in was going to get a mention, but it didn’t, well that would have been just too spooky I suppose.

I’m looking forward to reading the next book in this series – A Double Death on the Black Isle. I don’t think these books are easy to obtain in the UK as they have been published in the US. It’s about time someone published them over here.

Keep the Home Guard Turning by Compton Mackenzie

This book is like Dad’s Army (I love that programme) but instead of the south of England setting we find ourselves on the Scottish islands of Great Todday and Little Todday. The islanders are fierce rivals and even have different religious affiliations with Great Todday being staunchly Protestant and Little Todday Catholic. In earlier days they spent their time stealing each other’s sheep.

World War 2 has broken out and the islanders are living in fear of a German invasion, although some of them think that if Hitler invades then they will be able to improve him with their hospitality in the shape of whisky, which everyone seems to quaff at an amazing rate, ‘just a sensation’ is the usual offer, but a sensation is a very big dram indeed!

This is an amusing read and for me it came to an end too abruptly. I couldn’t find anything about a sequel to this one which was first published in 1943. But amazingly I was browsing in a local bookshop (Burntisland) when I came across Rockets Galore which was first published in 1957 it has the same setting and I now realise that his famous book Whisky Galore was published in 1947 and as that is set on the islands too I should be reading that one next. Whisky Galore was of course made into a very popular film and the TV series Monarch of the Glen was based on one of Compton Mackenzie’s books too.

This is the first book by Meckenzie which I have read but some of his earlier books are available free from Project Gutenberg.

Dandy Gilver & a Bothersome Number of Corpses by Catriona McPherson

Most of this book is set in a girls school in the village of Portpatrick in Galloway in the south west border country of Scotland, not a place which I know well, the combination of the two settings meant that I didn’t enjoy this one as much as her other Dandy Gilver books.

Dandy is called by two of the Lipscott sisters whom she has known since she was a young thing, they need her help. The Lipscotts are an eccentric family and Dandy still fondly remembers the time she spent with them in the past.

When she hears that the youngest sister is working as a schoolteacher at a school which has a habit of ‘losing’ teachers, Dandy has to investigate.

I think that Catriona McPherson was smart to make Dandy an Englishwoman, married to a Scotsman and living mainly in Scotland as it gives her ample scope to comment on Scottish culture and traditions, but not in a snide way.

For instance: “I know that the leftover soup from a Scotswoman’s kitchen is not for the fainthearted, given its starting point of rib-sticking heft and the nature of the inevitable barley which works away long after the cooking is done, so that sometimes second- or (I have heard tell of it) third-day soup, can just as easily be eaten with a fork as with a spoon.”

That made me laugh as I always have a pot of home made soup on the go and Jack has been known to say ‘cut me a slice of soup please.’

The Case of the Constant Suicides by John Dickson Carr

I was thrilled when my blogpal Peggy Ann sent me this book all the way from the US, it was very naughty of her though and we have resolved not to be so mad in the future, the postal services of the US and UK have become so wildly expensive recently. Books and printed paper are supposed to be a cheaper rate too!

I hadn’t read anything by John Dickson Carr before, he was an American so I was more than a wee bit surprised to discover that this book is set mainly in Scotland. It begins at Euston station in London however, where Alan Campbell, a young professor of history, is catching the sleeper train to Glasgow, something I’ve done often myself. There has been a mix up with the booking and he ends up having to share with a young woman, Kathryn Campbell, and it transpires that they are both travelling to Castle Shira in the Western Highlands, having been invited there by yet another Campbell. Alan and Kathryn had met before, but only through a newspaper’s letters page where they had an acrimonious correspondence.

Angus Campbell, to whom they’re both distantly related, had fallen to his death a few weeks before and there is some doubt as to whether it was suicide or murder. It’s a ‘locked room’ mystery and I really enjoyed it. Dickson Carr wrote it with a good balance of mystery, romance and humour, so I’ll definitely be looking out for more of his books. He also managed to capture ‘Scotland’ which is a surprise really, apparently he was married to an English woman but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she had been Scottish, I’ve often seen that mistake, with Josephine Tey being described as English, she is probably ‘birling’ in her grave!

Anyway, he obviously knew Scotland well and managed to write in dialect which is something which isn’t easy to do. This book was first published in 1941. I’ll definitely be looking out for more of his books. Thanks again Peggy.

If you want to have a look at the part of Scotland the book is set in – have a look here, Argyle and Bute.