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.

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Seven in April

 I read seven books in April.


Jeannie’s War by Carol MacLean

A couldn’t-put-down family saga set in Glasgow in 1939 and, yippee, the first in a series called The Kiltie Street Girls.

The first Girl is Jeannie Dougal who lives with her widowed mother, wayward teenage sister, Kathy, and small brother and sister – except that the younger two are currently evacuated to Perthshire and the fate of older brother Jimmy who is in the army is constantly on her mind. Jeannie has become engaged to the handsome and comparatively well-off Arthur Dunn but comes to realise how overbearing he is.

In the munitions factory she makes friends with three girls whose lives become entwined with hers and with her family.

The Second World War shows no sign of falling from popularity as a background for novels. (Last month I read A Wartime Secret, this month We Must be Brave, see below, and I have The Watchmaker’s Daughter lined up.) I look forward to hearing more from Kiltie Street.


The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan

Vaseem Khan was the keynote speaker at the Scottish Association of Writers conference this year, and a very entertaining one he was too. I bought this book, the first in a series, and asked him to sign it. I told him I was going to read it first … but I’d like it signed for my brother who has been to India on business many times and he wrote a very nice personal message inside. Brother was delighted (and yes, I told him I’d sneaked a read). Terrific characters (two- and four-legged) and a great plot.

On the day he retires, Inspector Ashwin Chopra discovers that he has inherited an elephant, an unlikely gift that could not be more inconvenient. For Chopra has one last case to solve ...


The Sentinel by Lee Child with Andrew Child

The first book written by the two brothers. More of the same – violence and mayhem and our hero walking off into the sunset having sorted it all out with more violence and mayhem.


Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Original take on the spy novel. In 1940, Juliet Armstrong, alone in the world and just eighteen, is recruited to MI5. Mundane typing and dangerous liaisons follow – and an unexpected ending – told in Kate Atkinson’s brilliant writing.


The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon

Best-known as the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, Mark Haddon turns his attention here to short stories. Apparently he wanted to experiment with writing styles and genres but not commit these to a whole novel.

So the first story, for example, is about the collapse of a pleasure beach pier and it’s told by an omniscient narrator who observes the scene before, during and after – the innocent holiday makers, the deaths, the injuries, the traumas, the heroism. Not something you’d want sustained – as a reader or a writer – in a longer piece but the effect is stunning (if grim) here.

In fact all the stories are dark and disturbing and only too memorable – I wanted to, but couldn’t stop thinking about The Island, based on Greek mythology, long after I finished reading it.


We Must Be Brave by Frances Liardet

‘Domestic stories of women’s lives in wartime are common in genre publishing but rarer in literary fiction.’ began the Guardian’s review of this book.

It’s 1940; Southampton has been bombed and homeless civilians arrive in busloads in the village of Upton. Childless Ellen Parr and her much older husband, Selwyn, help them to find beds for the night – and Ellen realises that among them is a small, unaccompanied girl. Pamela ends up staying with them for some years until … no spoilers.

Then there’s Ellen’s riches to rags back-story, her uncompromising friend Lucy who just walks off the page, and much else woven into the fabric of Upton over the years – the novel finishes in 2010.

I won’t read it all again (so little time so much to read …) but when I finished it I did go back and revisit the passage where Ellen and Selwyn first literally bumped into each other. For various reasons it was an unlikely match but that meeting very believably set the tone for their happy relationship.


The Nighwatchman by Louise Erdich

Read for book group. Set in 1953 in the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. Thomas Wazhuhk, a prominent member of the Chippewa Council is extremely worried by the US government’s proposed new ‘Emancipation Bill’ which threatens the rights of Native Americans.

The book also follows Pixie who supports her family financially but wants, somehow, to get to Minnesota to find her missing sister.

The author, an enrolled member of Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for this book. It’s a gripping read and opened up a world I knew almost nothing about.

Wednesday, 20 April 2022

Interview with James A. Johnstone

 In February I reviewed Was William Wallace a Jacobite? A Private Tour through Scotland’s History by James A. Johnstone. Now I am pleased to say that James is on my blog answering some questions about his book.


In spring 2020, when the tourist industry (and everything else) was hit by the pandemic, James found himself with nothing to do, unable to continue the job he had loved for almost forty years – driving visitors around Scotland.



James, when lockdown happened people reacted in various ways to that extraordinary situation. Many took the opportunity to finish DIY or handicraft projects, perfect their sourdough or banana bread or get a dog … you wrote a book. Was that something you always wanted to do?


Yes, it had been on my mind for some time and, like most people who have such plans, I had always considered that it might be a retirement project – when, and if, I ever got round to retirement. From that point of view, lockdown became an opportunity.


How did you start? Had you kept diaries or notes of your travels?


Over the years I have put together a lot of material, both as notes for guests and ‘training notes’ for driver/guides who came to work with me. The latter contained quite a few stories but the answer to your question is that I really wish I had kept diaries. It is not so much the big things as they can be fairly easily recalled – it is the smaller details, such as people's names, that I regret not having available to me. Although recollections and stories from journeys with guests do feature in the book there is really more historical content as I was aiming to put it together in a way that replicates an actual tour – as far as that is possible.


Did you have the structure of the book from the beginning or was there a bit of shuffling chapters around when you’d got it all down?


Although I had the basic idea in my mind, yes, there was a bit of ‘shuffling’ as I had originally set out to intersperse the historical narrative with separate chapters about locations of interest relating to that specific history. I felt this was getting a bit messy so then decided to stay with the history and, for the time being, set aside the information about places to visit.

The intention at that point was to write a second part to the book giving my thoughts on the best places to visit, relating them to the history I had written about in the first part. I have frequently come across advice/comments suggesting that a successful book (particularly a first book) should not be too long and there is no doubt that it would have been, at least, twice as long if I had included this second part.

Was William Wallace a Jacobite? runs to about 75,000 words and I had almost completed all of that before it dawned on me that I really needed to look at this as two separate projects and the first one (primarily concentrating on history) was already complete. 

The guide to locations of interest will now be a different, second, book though it will still allow me to add in stories and opinion. It is already partly written.


It’s one thing (a big thing I know!) to write a book but publishing it is another – was that a learning curve for you?


Yes, it most definitely was though I was very fortunate that I came across Duncan Lockerbie at Lumphanan Press, who helped me through the process. Like most who self-publish I had set myself a budget as I really did not want to spend a fortune but, equally, I did want to go for a reasonably high quality product and I very quickly felt that Duncan shared my thoughts. I also liked that he did not try to oversell the whole idea and was honest enough to state that many who self-publish do not even recover their initial costs. 

I am fortunate that I had time to visit bookshops throughout Scotland in order to promote the book and having reached a distribution agreement with Lomond Books it means that even the larger shops can place an order – if they like the book. I was really impressed by the warm welcome I received in every bookshop I visited. [see picture of signing session below]

Whether I spoke to sales assistants or store managers they all had a very obvious enthusiasm for the job they do. All very encouraging.

So, yes, it has been a learning curve and the biggest lesson, as anyone who has ever self-published will know, you have to be pro-active or your book, however good it may be, will go nowhere.


I believe that the book is available and doing well in Waterstones as well as in many other outlets. Will there be an electronic version in due course?


For the moment I prefer the idea of my book going out as a traditional paper product though I recognise that a digital version would broaden the appeal, so it is likely that I will, at some point, follow through on this. Relating it to your previous mention of a learning curve I think the biggest revelation for someone with no previous experience of the publishing world is how little money a writer makes, and how many books you would need to sell if you had any thoughts of ‘making a living’ from this.

A number of my American guests have asked about an audio version and, sooner or later, I hope to get round to that. As you might guess our American friends ‘love my Scottish accent’ so they have all been adamant that I should be the reader!


I look forward to the audio version! The title of the book is a question you were asked. What is the question you get asked most?


Weather is a common part of any conversation no matter where you live so ‘What is typical Scottish weather?’ crops up quite a lot. However, as mentioned in the book, the most frequent questions can relate to myself and how I got into this line of work. That is why I felt the need to include a chapter about me (effectively a very brief biography) as it is hardly surprising that guests want to know a little more about the person who will be their travel companion often for several days.


What is your favourite period of Scottish history?


What initially looks like an easy question is actually quite difficult to answer as I would really be looking at all of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Clearly I need to narrow that down so I would then go for the second half of the 17th century and the first half of the 18th as this was the foundation period (particularly the late 1600s) for significant changes to come – the Jacobite cause, the formation of the United Kingdom, the enlightenment and, of course, the consequences of the Reformation. 

All of this, not least the Presbyterian reformation, shaped the Scotland we live in today – not to mention the influence these events had on many other parts of the world, and that, most definitely, includes the USA.


If you could have a chat with one person from the past who would it be and what would you ask them?


Now that really is a difficult one. Given the influence John Knox has had on the image we, as a nation, often project, I would like to first explain to him that very image we associate with him, before asking if it is one he recognises. I am not sure that I would have particularly liked John Knox but he was a fascinating figure who I think, possibly, had a worse press than he might have actually deserved. I have a feeling that he might have difficulty recognising himself given his frequent portrayal as someone who is constantly dour, serious minded, and humourless.

I know you said one person but if John Knox was not available I would love to be able to speak to Lord George Murray who commanded Jacobite troops during the 1745 rebellion. The question would simply be: ‘What would your strategy have been had you not been encumbered by Prince Charles Edward Stuart?’ It was interesting that another James Johnstone (Chevalier de Johnstone) who was aide-de-camp to Lord George later wrote: ‘Had Prince Charles slept during the whole of the expedition, and allowed Lord George Murray to act for him according to his judgment, he would have found the crown of Great Britain on his head when he awoke.’


Well, there’s a thought … Hopefully, you will be back on the road this year showing telling visitors about Scotland’s history – certainly you’ll never run out of stories for them! Have you any plans to write another book?


A second book is already in the pipeline and, as mentioned, it will, to some extent, relate to Was William Wallace a Jacobite?. To some extent it will be a guide book but, hopefully, an entertaining one.

The Reformation fascinates me so I would like, at some point, to write about that period. However, the day job is picking up again so my time is slightly more limited though I do not think I am alone in that Covid has changed my priorities and caused me to re-evaluate how I use my time.



Thank you for answering my questions, James, and all the best with your writing.


Was William Wallace a Jacobite? is available from Amazon, from all good bookshops and in gift shops and tourist attractions.


James can be contacted through his website.


Thursday, 7 April 2022

Five in March

 I read five books in March.


Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

Read for book group. Fascinating, learned but accessible. The ‘Square’ in question is Mecklenburg Square in London which was blitzed almost to extinction in September 1940. Before that, at different times, it had been home to five women; the Square is what connects them.

I knew of Virginia Woolf and Dorothy L Sayers already, but I learned a lot more about them here. The others – the writer H.D.; classics don Jane Ellen Harrison; and medieval historian and lecturer Eileen Power – were new to me. The last two were at university at a time when women could study but not graduate.

Eileen sounds absolutely delightful. She was the first woman to receive the Albert Kahn Travelling Fellowship which funded a year’s travel designed to widen the ‘narrow academic mind’, and she made the most of it.

Unlike other ‘blue-stockings’ she took a great interest in clothes and wore very colourful outfits, some bought on her travels, and she was famous for her ‘dancing in the kitchen’ parties at which guests were required to wear morning dress. The book doesn’t say how big her kitchen was … but who could refuse such an invitation?

I dared not more than glance at the eleven-page bibliography at the back of the book – I know there will be dozens of titles there that I would like to to read but will never have the time.


A Wartime Secret by Helen Yendall

This has one of the most enticing openings I've read - 'Maggie Corbett lay face down on the open platform of the number 56 bus ... ' which was a great introduction to the believable and feisty Maggie.

I've read a lot of books set in WW2 but I learned two new things from this one: 

1) some companies relocated from London to the country, in this case (as you can see in the lovely cover image) to very grand houses. What a gift for the writer, to have different classes cheek-by-jowl in a way they would not be in normal circumstances. 

2) there are villages which became known as Thankful Villages after WW1 because all those who were in the armed forces in that conflict came home.

There are several enjoyable story strands in the book – I particularly liked the one with his Lordship and his childhood sweetheart. The era was well conjured up and the characters were memorable – I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with Maggie et al.


The Glass Room by Ann Cleeves

A Vera book. Ann Cleeves must have had fun writing this as it’s set in a writers’ retreat and no one seems to have a good word to say about that strange breed of people … A cruel, Svengali type is found murdered and there’s no shortage of suspects.


Everyday Kindness edited by LJ Ross

A charity anthology of commissioned short stories with the theme of kindness, all proceeds going to Shelter. It seems churlish to have any criticism of such a kind book but the lack of editing was distracting – in one story a child was mostly called Mable but sometimes Mabel, for example. And a cable-knit cream jumper is an Aran not an arran.

The stories are from well- and less-known writers and include Sophie Hannah, Louise Jensen, CL Taylor and LJ Ross herself.


A Maid and a Man by Anne Stenhouse

It’s 1819. Tabby has come north to Edinburgh when her employer, the enlightened Lady Warrende, needs a new lady’s maid to accompany her. Tabby is no ordinary girl though, having previously worked as assistant to her apothecary father. She desires to know more about medicine and about anatomy at a time when girls were debarred from these studies. As Edinburgh University is currently at the forefront of anatomical studies (despite the opposition of the church) she’s come to the right place …. and it seems that in another servant, the handsome Cal Morrison, she may have a kindred spirit.

As the blurb says, ‘Drama and danger abound in old Edinburgh town’ – I read this in a oner and highly recommend.


Wednesday, 2 March 2022

Five in February

 I read five books in February.


The Conversos by V. E. Masters


I read the first book in this series, The Castillians, when it came out last year (you can read my interview with the author here) and much enjoyed it so it was great to get reacquainted with the Seton sister and brother, Bethia and Will.

The turbulent times in which they live (middle of the 16th century) is affecting both of them. Bethia, now married to Mainard, and living in Antwerp, is discovering things about the background of her husband’s family which land her in danger.

Her forthright Fife maid, Grissel, provides some comic relief.

Will, a prisoner after taking part in the siege of St Andrews Castle described so vividly in the first book, is now a galley slave in the company of John Knox, later founder of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland. A bright spot in the dreadful life Will has to lead is the appearance <no spoilers> of another iconic figure from Scottish history.

For siblings devoted to each other, and with little contact from their homeland, it is agonising that they don’t know where the other is, or even if they are still alive.

As in The Castillians, the writing is visceral – such as the opening scenes of sea-sickness and piracy on Bethia’s voyage to Antwerp and Will’s physical agony as a galley slave. I trust that there was no first-hand research there …

And the good news is that V. E. H. Masters is at work on the third book in the trilogy.


The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

I said last month, after reading Ann Patchett’s latest collection of essays, that I wanted to read her novels. This is her newest one and I absolutely adored it. I love a sibling story (see also above … ) and this brother and sister, Danny and Maeve, leapt off the page.

Ousted by their stepmother from their architecturally extraordinary childhood home (in small-town Pennsylvania, while they are little more than children) they cannot let the house go from their minds. Together and separately they return to sit outside it again and again.

The story is narrated by Danny, the younger of the two, and so cleverly told in its weaving of past and present.

Isn’t that cover beautiful? AP was not impressed with her publisher’s cover suggestions (as she says in one of the aforementioned essays) so she commissioned a painting showing how she envisaged Maeve with her striking looks.


Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

So it was with high hopes that I immediately started reading this one, hopes that bounced down a bit as I concentrated on getting to grips with a lot of characters and time shifts that were sometimes hard to figure out.

‘Commonwealth', perhaps more a title for the American market than elsewhere, refers to the ‘Commonwealth of Virginia’. When their mother divorces their father to marry Bert, Caroline and Franny relocate there from California, and every holiday (vacation) Bert’s four children come to visit. With very little parental supervision the six do pretty much what they want, with tragic consequences.


No Man’s Nightingale by Ruth Rendell

I went through a stage a few months ago of rereading some of my Ruth Rendells before passing them on. I had no idea there was a final Inspector Wexford until I saw this in a charity shop. Reg is now retired but Mike Burden still relies on him for advice. Not her best but the bar was set high.



Was William Wallace a Jacobite? A Private Tour Through Scottish History by James A. Johnstone

James Johnstone’s livelihood came to a sudden halt in spring 2020. When Covid 19 brought tourism to a standstill there were no visitors to drive around Scotland, a job he had loved to do for the previous forty or so years.

He used his time off wisely, in writing this book. The title comes from a question he was asked, among many others, by his clients. Over the years he acquired the knowledge not only to answer but also to explain and give context.

If you want the Roberts and the Jameses sorted out in your mind or would like to learn more about the Jacobite rebellions, and much more, this is the book for you.

Look out for my interview with James Johnstone coming soon.