Tuesday, 22 November 2022

Jingle bells, jingle bells ...


New collection of short stories available for pre-order now:

Fourteen short stories, all previously published, six with a Christmas theme. Other topics include the pros and cons of vinyl, teenage rebellion, sunbathing, long-distance love, names given to babies and to storms, punctuality and a king’s coronation. 


My story A Year to Remember is the first one in The People's Friend Annual this year (available in bookshops).



And I have the last story, Pass the Parcel, in The Magic of Christmas (from newsagents).


And if you'd like to read about a snowy Christmas in Edinburgh and the Scottish Borders:

May all your wishes come true this Christmas.

Monday, 31 October 2022

Six in October

 I read six books in October


Scottish Women Writers: 1800 to the Great War by Eileen Dunlop

Many of these novelists, playwrights, poets, memoirists and journalists were new to me.

Most have been forgotten, although not scientist and writer Mary Somerville (pictured on the cover) whose name lives on in the Oxford college named after her. But what about brave Charlotte Waldie and Christina Keith who, respectively, visited Waterloo and Flanders in the immediate aftermath of battle? Literary multi-tasker and brilliant businesswoman Christian Isabel Johnstone? And Emily Gerard, from whose travel memoir The Land Beyond the Forest Bram Stoker directly lifted the most blood-curdling elements of Dracula?

Eileen Dunlop has brought around thirty women writers into the light in this most readable book.


The Undercurrents by Kirsty Bell

Read for book group, non-fiction. Essentially, this is a history of Berlin by a half-Scottish, half-American writer who moved there around twenty years ago.

I have never been to Berlin but I found this excellently written book unexpectedly fascinating, taking in as it did town-planning, politics, wars, family life, delves into archives, feng shui – and an extraordinary kind of exorcism.


Well behaved Wives by Amy Sue Nathan

This was the free Kindle book from a selection for Amazon Prime members. I chose it because America in the 60s is generally a fascinating time to read about – especially the proscribed lives of women, sent back to the kitchen after the comparative liberation of the war years. (For example, I enjoyed this book a few years ago.)

Five women meet at a class for wives … advice on how to shut up and support your husband in his career basically. One of them, Ruth, is new to the area having just got married to a local man; she keeps quiet for a while about her college degree and her desire to be a lawyer.

The theme is hammered home to the detriment of any story, I felt, and each woman stands for some aspect of those proscribed lives (eg one suffers from domestic abuse), rather than being a rounded character.

<spoiler alert> a note at the end says that the book is based on the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States until her death in 2020.


Flowers in the Rain and other stories by Rosamunde Pilcher

Bought in charity shop (occupational hazard of volunteering in a branch of Shelter).

Rosamunde Pilcher’s world is both irritating and seductive. Most of these stories were published in the early 80s yet some of the characters are as if from an earlier generation. Women over 60 are always wise grandmothers; several of the girls get married aged 20.

But amid today’s uncertainty, it was comforting to sink into a world of homes belonging to the same family for generations, surrounded by gardens and beautiful scenery, to hear the Labrador’s bark of welcome, to know the happy ending is just a few pages away …


The Ghost of Gosswater by Lucy Strange

I loved two other books by this author, especially The Secret of Nightingale Wood which breaks your heart clean in two and puts it back together again. This gothic tale packs a huge punch too, so atmospheric and so well told, with a clarity and pace that might have been lost if written at greater length for adults.


The Dinner Lady Detectives by Hannah Hendy

I liked the idea and setting and the dinner ladies, Margery and Clementine, but there was confusion too – a lot of characters, some I thought superfluous to the story until the end … and mixed messages about the personality of the deceased, and about the ages and behaviour of all the characters. Also, a bit of a parallel universe school-dinner-wise considering this is set now – the ladies cook huge roasts of beef and chocolate pudding made with expensive dark choc. Not a turkey twizzler in sight.


… and a bit of

The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly

I’ve read Little Women countless times and was thrilled to be able to visit the Alcott home, Orchard House, in Concorde, Massachusetts, some years ago. So I fell on this book at the Christian Aid book sale.

I was totally onboard with the premise that Jo had had a late baby girl and that her descendants were living in contemporary London and that a stash of letters by Jo March/Bhaer was discovered in their attic.

But I was sorely disappointed. The few ‘letters’ I read were okay but the modern story was hard-going – reams of unrealistic dialogue, and the fact that virtually no verb went unqualified. When I read (on p58) ‘ … where she was contentedly doing a crossword puzzle while the dishwasher hummed happily … ’ I stopped reading. A missed opportunity (unless you want to read about happy dishwashers).


Tuesday, 4 October 2022

Six in September

 I read six books in September.


The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting

Lars Mytting had a rather unlikely non-fiction bestseller in 2015 with Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way.

Wood plays a large part in this novel and the descriptions of it, and the art of the master craftsman, are glorious. The (very) intricate plot takes Edvard from a mountain farmstead in Norway to Shetland and the WW2 battlefields of France in his quest to unravel his family’s history; in particular to find out what happened to his parents when he was three and the nature of a very unusual inheritance.


The Bullet that Missed by Richard Osman

The mixture as before and just as enjoyable.


Between Extremes by Brian Keenan and John McCarthy

Charity shop find. Two of my heroes – I’ve read both of their accounts of being kept hostage for years in Beirut and how their friendship there sustained them. One continuing fantasy they had when they were chained to a wall in a small dark space was that they set up a yak farm in Patagonia, the thought of the endless panoramas being the most appealing terrain they could think of.

And several years after their release they made it to South America, their friendship surviving despite their very different personalities (and some very hairy horse riding adventures). The yak farm remained a fantasy inevitably but they let the idea go not without regret, I felt; months of talking about it had helped to keep them sane and forward-looking.


Are We Having Fun Yet? by Lucy Mangan

I enjoy Lucy Mangan’s journalism and I loved her Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading, so I looked forward to this, her first novel. It’s a story of family life, told in diary form. All mum Liz wants is some peace and quiet so she can read a book (and I can empathise with that … ); her husband and two small children have (unsurprisingly) different ideas.

I wasn’t as enthusiastic as the celebrity reviewers … I found Liz’s harping on her domestic ineptitude funny at first but ultimately repetitive and tiresome. Her three friends, and their endless pooling of grievances, all sounded the same. I did love Evie, her ‘five-year-old acrobat, gangster, anarchist, daughter’ though I’m not sure I’d want to be her mother.

A bit of a disappointment.


Mortification: Writers’ Stories of their Public Shame by Robin Robertson

So you want to be a famous writer? Well, Simon Armitage, Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, Louis de Bernieres, Margaret Drabble, Roddy Doyle, AL Kennedy and others are here to tell you it’s not all beer and skittles (or champagne and adoring fans); on the contrary there are moments of deep humiliation and embarrassment. Some bring it on themselves (drink might be involved … ) and some have it brought upon them (dodgy hospitality, being mistaken for someone else, no one turning up to signing sessions … ).


The Toll-gate by Georgette Heyer

A thriller with a romance – and a male protagonist. What a comfort read she provides when comfort is needed.

Saturday, 3 September 2022

Seven in August

 I read seven books in August.


Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn

Non-fiction. Cal Flyn visited places which humans have vacated for one reason or another – eg Chernobyl; the island of Monserrat (because of volcanic activity); the no-go buffer zone in Cyprus; and a strange sea that comes and goes in California. Nature has reclaimed all of the places to a great or lesser extent. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, when collective farms in Estonia were abandoned, a staggering 500,000 hectares of forest had taken over by 2010 which is very good news for the planet on the carbon front.

Two sites closer to (my) home were of much interest: the abandoned island of Swona off the north coast of Scotland which is a living experiment in how cattle behave when they stop being domesticated; and the shale bings, legacy of coal mining in West Lothian, where no end of plant life can be found now including two rare orchids.

Cal Flynn doesn’t shy away from the bad news around climate change but it was heartening to have these flashes of hope.


A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer

See July … impossible to choose a top five of GHs as it turns out because this one is right up there too. Unusually, the heroine is plain and plain-spoken and much of the book takes place in the countryside with talk of new farming methods rather than balls and beaux.


Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny

Read when it came out in April 21 and it was a joy to read it again, not for the last time I’m sure. I’ve read her first novel Standard Deviation three times and just thinking about it makes me want to make that four. Check them out!


Fabulous Nobodies by Lee Tulloch  

I had never heard of Fabulous Nobodies until I read this article praising it by Marian Keyes and before you could say ‘look, missus, there are already xx books on your to-read pile’ I’d nipped online and bought it.

It reminded me in some ways of The Dud Avocado, a book I am fond of, although it is set in New York in 1983 instead of 1950s Paris. Reality Nirvana Tuttle (known as Really) is fashion obsessed and desperate to be a trendsetter, to be ‘somebody’ – sometimes succeeding and sometimes not. Entertaining and oddly sweet.


The Bridge Ladies by Betsey Lerner 

I’ve been dipping in and out of BL’s The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, (bought in a charity shop, not for this price). She’s been an agent as well as an editor so very well qualified to write it, although not everything translates to this side of the pond (and publishing has changed so much since 2010).

She mentioned her memoir and, yes, my fingers went walking online again. Her mother played bridge with the same friends for over fifty years. When Betsey comes back from New York to live where she grew up, she gets to know the ladies better and asks them about their lives, especially their young lives, so different from her own.

I very much enjoyed that aspect – the ladies and their families, living in a post-war Jewish community in Connecticut – but when Betsey takes up bridge too and goes to classes so that she will be a worthy player, she lost me. I can only hope that playing bridge is more interesting than reading about it.


The Swallow’s Flight by Hilary Mackay

A welcome sequel to The Skylarks’ War with as wonderful a cast of characters as you could meet anywhere. For children of all ages.


Arabella by Georgette Heyer

Arabella, daughter of a Yorkshire vicar, is brought to fashionable London by her mother’s friend to enter the marriage market. Despite her new surroundings, her vicarage upbringing keeps coming to the fore as she intervenes in the lives of those less fortunate … (as you can see from this cover – shades of The Water Babies). Unwittingly, she attracts the attention of wealthy and elegant Mr Beaumaris who is undoubtedly the catch of the day.

Despite the money and the immaculate attire though, our hero has a strong sense of the absurd. He is aware that other men strive to dress like he does (he’s an ‘influencer’ of his time) so, three days in a row, he sports a dandelion in his buttonhole and is amused to watch his followers scramble over themselves to do likewise.

A total delight.

Monday, 1 August 2022

Seven in July

 I read seven books in July (more or less)


Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty

Another page-turning story from Liane Moriarty – really, the kind where you don’t speak to your nearest and dearest for a whole day until you’ve finished. Twists and turns, humour, romance, dark secrets – it’s got the lot.

Joy Delaney and husband Stan have done well. Four wonderful grown-up children. A family business to envy. The golden years of retirement ahead of them. So when Joy Delaney vanishes - no note, no calls, her bike missing – it's natural that tongues will wag.
How did Stan scratch his face? And who was the stranger who entered and suddenly left their lives? What are they all hiding?


Summer at the French Olive Grove by Sophie Claire

When adventurous film-maker Lily has an accident and recuperates with her grandmother in Provence, she finds that her childhood friend and former crush Olivier is back there too, ready to marry his fiancée and settle down. ‘Former’ crush? – well, maybe not …

If you can’t face going abroad with all the passport problems/queuing etc, just stay at home, pour yourself a glass of white and escape, hassle-free, to an olive grove in sunny Provence with Sophie Claire.


Death on a Monday Night by Jo Allen

Book 8 in the Jude Satterthwaite Mystery series. Jute, jam and Jerusalem? Not at this WI meeting; instead there’s a body in the kitchen. There’s a lot for DCI Satterthwaite and his colleague and current partner Ashleigh O’Halloran to investigate in the complicated life of the victim including her relationship with her sister. Very satisfying conclusion.

I’m hoping there will be a Book 9 as there is some unfinished business between Jude and his former girlfriend Beccy …


The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown by Vaseem Khan

Thoroughly enjoyed the first book in this series The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra (read in May) and the second did not disappoint. The British crown jewels, including the fabulous Koh-i-noor diamond, have gone on display in Mumbai and are stolen … As well as the wonderful Inspector Chopra and his wife Poppy and the fast-paced (and far-fetched but who cares) plot, what I loved was the way the author totally submerges you in the sights, sounds and smells of this huge city.


The Man with the Silver Saab by Alexander McCall Smith

AMS is currently the Honorary President of Edinburgh Writers’ Club (new members welcome in September!). In June he came to our AGM and not only gave a fabulous talk, presented prizes and was happy to pose for photographs but also brought along a selection of his titles and handed them out free and for nothing … this fell to my lot and very entertaining it was. 

In the best-selling Detective Varg series, an eminent art historian is framed and the ace investigators of the Department of Sensitive Crimes are on the case.



Untold Stories by Alan Bennett

No, I didn’t read all of the 712 pages this month. It’s one of those books, non-fiction or sometimes short stories, that I dip in and out of between other reads. Mr Bennett and his untold stories have been very pleasant company over the last few months containing as they do ‘significant previously unpublished work, including a poignant memoir of his family and of growing up in Leeds, together with his much celebrated diary for the years 1996-2004, and numerous other exceptional essays, reviews and comic pieces.’


Cotillion by Georgette Heyer

Continuing my happy travels through Georgette Heyer’s oeuvre. I have many titles still to read but I can confidently say that Cotillion will, at the end of the journey, be in my top five. I liked it excessively.


Sunday, 17 July 2022

Five in June

I read five books in June.


Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

Read for bookgroup. Loved it. It went straight into my top thirty or even top twenty all-time favourite reads. (I love making lists but that one is a moveable feast.) It’s over 600 pages but I whizzed through it – except when I stopped in awe at the writing. It’s rare to get perfect similes and descriptions and characterisation and a terrific story all at the same time.

The book was inspired by the early women aviators whose bravery/foolhardiness we can only wonder at. Here, Marian, brought up as an almost feral child in 1920s America, becomes obsessed with flight. The first time she sees an airplane, and ‘The Flying Brayfogles’ doing stunts and acrobatics, she’s hooked. Maggie Shipstead puts it this way: ‘She was at an age when the future adult rattles the child’s bones like the bars of a cage.’

But there’s so much else too – do read it and fly with Marian through much of the 20th century.


Last Resort by Andrew Lipstein

One of three carefully chosen books I was lucky enough to receive as a Mother’s Day present. A novel about writing a novel – fab and squirmingly funny.

Caleb Horowitz is twenty-seven, and his wildest dreams are about to come true. His manuscript has caught the attention of the literary agent, who offers him fame, fortune and a taste of the literary life. He can't wait for his book to be shopped around to every editor in New York, except one: Avi Dietsch, a college rival and the novel's 'inspiration'.

In fact, Caleb has stolen Avi’s ‘what I did on my holiday’ story and the hole he’s dug for himself can only get deeper.


Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

Read for bookgroup. Strout’s Olive Kitteridge is floating around my top twenty/thirty too. I also enjoyed and admired My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible. Oh William! is the third book about Lucy and I’ve pictured the three of them here because I would urge you to read them in order.

I confess to being a little disappointed with Oh William!. Lucy’s turbulent life was so well documented (in the multi-viewpoint style this author is so good at) in the first two books but here, although her current situation has its blackly funny side, neither Lucy nor her ex-husband William were people I felt I wanted to spend a lot of time with.


The Undiscovered Deaths of Grace McGill by C S Robertson

Bought at Christian Aid Booksale. I love the TV programme Heir Hunters in which companies try to find beneficiaries of deceased people who have not left wills. I’ve now picked up two novels which use that scenario and I didn’t much like either of them. I was hoping for a straightforward family mystery but it was not to be. 

In the first one, read a few years ago, the writer was trying too hard to be literary which I didn’t think suited the plot. Here, the plot twist was just too, er, twisty; although it was nice when the action moved from Glasgow to Bute where I once lived and don’t recall being a novel setting before.


My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci

His TV series was wonderful and I’m hoping (travels gods permitting) to visit Sicily next year. Thoroughly enjoyed reading about his parents and their Italian food heritage and, bringing things right up to date, how he and his own family coped with shopping and cooking during the first lockdown. My daughter followed him on Instagram at that time when he posted a cocktail recipe each day. Cheers!

Friday, 17 June 2022

Seven in May

I read seven books in May.


One More Croissant for the Road by Felicity Cloake

Cookery writer Felicity Cloake had her own ‘tour de France’ – cycling (2300km) around the country in search of the perfect croissant, and has written a delightful book about the experience. She ate fabulous and not so fabulous meals, and in the book she gives a recipe from each region. The ultimate croissant (9/10) turned out to be from her last stop, Paris, from the Blé Sucré patisserie.

During the 2020 lockdown we got veg and various other provisions delivered by a local company. One time, having run out of bread flour they substituted buckwheat flour and most of it was still in the (large) packet. So when I came across Felicity Cloake’s recipe, from her journey from Saint-Malo to Redon, for Crêpe Complètes made with the flour, I gave them a go. With an egg and grated cheese on top they were trés delicious.


Riding Pillion with George Clooney by Geraldine Ryan

Geri is a much-published short story writer, particularly in women’s magazines (for whom she has also written serials). This collection of a dozen stories showcases her versatility and demonstrates how she is inspired by the daily lives of women at different stages of their lives – I was particularly fond of Bernadette in the title story as she bravely moves out of her comfort zone.


Daughters of the Labyrinth by Ruth Padel

Read for book group. An area of history none of us were familiar with – the treatment of the Jewish community living on Crete when it was under German occupation during WW2.

Ri, a successful artist living in London, goes back to her ancestral home in Crete following the death of her husband. Her mother is ill and in her delirium she lets slip a family secret. As well as being a book about the wartime history of the island it’s about relationships between mothers and daughters so a good read on several levels.

I wasn’t sure about the first person, present tense, narration – first person can sound self-conscious, and the present tense plain irritating, so the two together in a book (as opposed to a short story) is hard to sustain successfully, in my opinion.


1979 by Val McDermid

The first in her new series – the next one due imminently is 1989, and so on; the books will chronicle history, changing attitudes etc as well as following reporter Allie Burns. In 1979, Allie and her colleague, Danny, infiltrate a splinter Scottish Independence group bent on aping IRA violence, and investigate an insurance scam that comes only too close to home.


The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

Bought at Christian Aid booksale. I’d vaguely heard of the film with this name (with Glenn Close) but hadn’t connected the two when I picked up this book.

I haven’t read any of Alison Lurie’s books for decades but her name came to mind when I started this – about a literary, warring couple. I appreciated The Wife for the writing and deplored the way (mostly) American men lorded over the literary scene in the mid 20th century, some quite undeservedly … but I don’t feel invested enough in the story to seek out the film.


The Hive by Gill Hornby

Bought at Christian Aid booksale.

It's the start of another school year at St Ambrose. But while the children are in the classroom colouring in, their mothers are learning sharper lessons on the other side of the school gates. Lessons in friendship. Lessons in betrayal. Lessons in the laws of community, the transience of power... and how to get invited to lunch.

I loved this, wanted to know the end but didn’t want it to finish – the best kind of read. The dialogue was so sharp, each character so distinct. And it was so funny in places (yes, Heather, thinking of your lunch menu). 


The Fishing Fleet: Husband Hunting in the Raj by Anne de Courcy

Bought at Christan Aid booksale

From the late 19th century, when the Raj was at its height, many of Britain's best and brightest young men went out to India to work as administrators, soldiers and businessmen. With the advent of steam travel and the opening of the Suez Canal, countless young women, suffering at the lack of eligible men in Britain, followed in their wake. This amorphous band was composed of daughters returning after their English education, girls invited to stay with married sisters or friends, and yet others whose declared or undeclared goal was simply to find a husband. They were known as the Fishing Fleet, and this book is their story, hitherto untold.

I love this kind of social history, although I skipped the parts about the tiger hunts.