Monday, 24 December 2018

Stella's Christmas Wish

Stella’s Christmas Wish is set in Edinburgh and ….

… On her right-hand side a train glided into Waverley Station. Down in Princes Street Gardens water had been flooded in and frozen to make a skating rink and it was busy both with competent skaters and people holding on to each other, laughing if they fell over. That was a comic Christmas-card scene – but the wider picture showed the dull winter green of the gardens; stalls selling food and mulled wine; the wheel – Edinburgh’s equivalent of the London Eye over the Christmas period.

 … the beautiful Scottish Borders

The Eildon Hills were white on the top, like a snow queen’s tablecloth. It was said that fairies lived there and that long ago the Queen of the Fairies enticed a Borders man called Thomas the Rhymer away to fairyland. When he returned years later – thinking he’d been gone only a few days – he had the ability to see into the future. Alice read Stella and Maddie that story one winter when they were little and for years they imagined that their Christmas-tree fairy had come from that fairyland in the hills.

Wherever you are I hope your Christmas wishes come true.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Free book!

A Christmas present for you ...
In my previous post I told you about Capital Writers’ new anthology Capital Christmas Stories (you can read the beginning of my story here).

And, just for you, our first anthology, Capital Stories, which came out last year, is FREE for five days only, from 20-24 December.

You’re welcome.

Monday, 17 December 2018

Capital Christmas Stories

With Jane Riddell, Anne Stenhouse and Jennifer Young I am part of Capital Writers – four writers who live in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city.

Edinburgh, renowned for many things over the centuries, is now also famous for its Christmas/New Year festivities (anyone tried this year’s silent disco on George Street …?).

So it seemed appropriate that we produce an anthology of festive stories and here it is, available from Amazon at the very cheery price of 99p:

And here is a review by Joanne Baird of Portobello Book Blog

This is how my story begins:


Princes Street. George Street. Moray Place. Castle Street. Hanover Street.
Jessica blinked and looked again at the map she’d just been given in the tourist office.
Edinburgh was over 11,000 miles away, but in front of her were many of the same street names – albeit in a different configuration.
Sophie had only given her vague instructions about how to get to where she lived on Wallace Street, walkable she’d said from the centre of the city. Jessica had left home twenty-four hours ago, the time now a blur of airports and trying to sleep in cramped seats, and her head swam as she scanned the map for the street whose name was yet another reminder that Dunedin, New Zealand, was named after Scotland’s capital.
She took the map over to the assistant behind the desk. He swivelled it round towards him and made a pencil circle.
‘There,’ he said, marking a spot that actually didn’t look too far to walk and then helpfully pointing out the route. ‘Start here, at Stuart Street. About twenty minutes’ walk? Or there’s a taxi rank on the other side of the road.’
Any thought that a walk would clear her head – and postpone the moment of seeing her sister – was dispelled when Jessica saw that Stuart Street was vertical, so vertical she imagined herself having to scale it like a mountaineer while trying to hang on to her wheeled suitcase. Did people really live up there? Edinburgh was hilly but this was in a different league.
So, she wouldn’t walk. But she could still put off arriving at Sophie’s; she’d spotted a café when she got off the shuttle bus from the airport.
Over a long black coffee, which served to wake her brain up a little, she tried to think what she would say to her sister, what platitudes she could come out with this time to comfort her. And she wondered if Sophie would realise that Jessica herself might be in need of comforting.
Would Sophie remember what had happened to Jessica last Christmas? Would she wonder why her hysterical phone call home a month ago, crying that Logan had left her, had resulted in Jessica, uncharacteristically impulsive, saying she’d book a flight and come to New Zealand for Christmas? Just her, not David. No, she wouldn’t wonder; she would take it for granted that her older sister would drop everything – including her husband – so that Sophie wouldn’t be on her own over the festive season.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Five in November

I read five books in November.

As I said in last month’s reading round up I was lucky enough to spend October in New Zealand. And I forgot to mention one book I read while I was there so I’ll catch up on it now; it is set in NZ.

Read on Kindle. This is the first in a trilogy featuring Detective Ngaire Blakes, a half-Maori detective in Christchurch, in the South Island of New Zealand.

Magdalene Lynton died forty years ago, a vivacious teenager who fell victim to a grotesque, accidental drowning. Now someone has confessed to her murder …

I thought this was a terrific police procedural, very dark in places, and can thoroughly recommend it. (I have bought but not yet read the second one.) And you’ve got to love an author whose biography reads: ‘Katherine Hayton is a forty-two year old woman who works in insurance, doesn't have children or pets, can't drive, has lived in Christchurch her entire life, and resides a two-minute walk from where she was born. For some reason, she's developed a rich fantasy life.

My last week Down Under was spent with lovely cousins in Tasmania.

An anthology of stories from the ten finalists in the 2018 Tasmanian Writers’ Prize. And one of those finalists was my talented cousin Allison Mitchell with Keeping Quiet, a story inspired by family tales.

Read on Kindle. The book opens with the Richardson’s house, in a genteel American suburb, burning down and it’s discovered that a fire was made in each of the bedrooms. The suspect is the youngest of their teenagers, Isabelle; she has run away. We then go back to find out what led up to that moment. Totally engrossing.

Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout
I’ve come late to Elizabeth Strout’s party but I’ll be staying right to the end. So far her Olive Kitteridge continues to be in first place for me but Amy and Isabelle is a compulsive and unsettling read, with all the characters living on in my mind. Isabelle and her teenage daughter Amy live in a small American town – a quiet, uneventful life until Amy has an affair with one of her teachers.

News from Heaven by Jennifer Haigh
Another small-town America book – this time of short stories, some of which link with each other. Jennifer Haigh has written an award-winning novel which I haven’t read (yet) called Baker Towers, set in the fictional coal-mining town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania. This declining town is also the setting for the short stories. Loved them – she really gets under the skin of her characters, male or female, whatever age they are.

Murder at the Mousetrap by Helena Marchmont
And now for something completely different – the first in a series of short, cosy, countryside mysteries, with Alfie, a protagonist described as ‘Miss Marple meets Oscar Wilde’. And where cosier to have a murder mystery, laced with a good dollop of humour, than the Cotswolds? A fun read (on Kindle). Look forward to the second one.

Friday, 16 November 2018

Five in October

I read five books in October.

Lucky me. I spent three days in Melbourne in October and the rest of the month touring New Zealand, a trip that katewritesandreads readers will be hearing more of in due course. Don’t worry, I won’t be showing you all of my photos …

I thought I would read more than I ended up doing – somehow plane travel doesn’t seem conducive to reading peacefully and any time in the evenings was mostly spent writing up my diary about that day’s adventures and planning the next day’s. However, I fitted in five books, four on Kindle and one paperback.

The Secrets We Keep by Kate Hewitt
The lives of wealthy Rebecca and of just-making-ends-meet Tessa would never normally coincide, but one summer, in their adjacent but oh-so-different holiday cottages by an upstate New York lake, they do. To begin with, their children hate each other and Tessa is in awe of this privileged, elegant woman who seems to want to be friends with her. But, as the title indicates, all is not as it seems – in either of their lives. The book, told from their alternate viewpoints, explores several modern issues in a gripping way but – spoiler alert – the ending seemed to me unnecessarily harsh.

Through the Years by Kate Hewitt
Kate Hewitt, a USA Today best-selling author, is so prolific it’s hard to keep up with her. She also writes under the name Katherine Schwartz and as such recently had a serial in The People’s Friend, so not only prolific but very versatile. Through the Years is an enjoyable collection of five historical romance short stories originally published in magazines.

He Said, She Said by Erin Kelly
I read Erin Kelly’s The Poison Tree, her first novel, when it came out in 2011 and thought it was absolutely terrific. This is her fifth – I’m not sure how I’ve managed to miss the others but I will remedy that. This is a twisty page-turner about the aftermath of a brutal attack witnessed by Laura and her boyfriend Kit, against the backdrop of eclipse-chasing.

Effie’s War by Philip Paris
Read in paperback. I was intrigued to read this as it’s set in a part of the world I know quite well but was inspired by a piece of real history I knew nothing about. In 1943 a family in the farming community on the Tarbat Peninsula in Ross shire was given notice to leave by the government – their land was to be used for a purpose intended to aid the war effort. Perhaps this was not enough to sustain a whole book because there is also a spy element and a love story – and with the latter Philip Paris’ research for a previous book of his, on the Italian Chapel in Orkney, must have been useful.

The Taste of Marmalade by Tessa McWatt
This has been on my Kindle for ages and I cannot now remember what prompted me to download it. I found it to be a convincing and well-written tale – of Katrin, a Polish woman working in London. She wants to bring her mother to live with her but the difficulties are insurmountable – her landlord won’t let her do that, her erstwhile lover is unable to help plus her boss at the café is giving her grief. I also didn’t remember that this is a Kindle Single, ie a long short story, so was surprised when it ended so quickly.

 I’ve just realised that by chance four of the five books I read this month had downbeat endings. That I didn’t notice this at the time I attribute to being in blossomy New Zealand, trying to decide which delicious piece of bakery to try next (such as this warm Morning Glory fruit loaf). Back home in Scotland, eating porridge in dark November, will call for some up-lit ...


Sunday, 30 September 2018

Seven or so in September

I read five or so books in September.

Bought in Christian Aid Book Sale. This is a book like no other I have read. 
It’s partly a memoir of Keggie (Kathleen) of growing up with her three siblings, her mother and her larger-than-life father, Tom. (Both parents had extraordinary family histories – and later, after they divorced, there was the much-hated Stepmother.) 
And it’s partly her piecing together Tom’s time as an undercover agent with the Jedburghs, a branch of the Special Operations Executive, in the Second World War and afterwards. She vividly portrays his time with the Resistance in France, and in Burma helping to conspire against the Japanese oppressors.
That aspect is not just the work of her imagination; she did a massive amount of research and also spoke to some of Tom’s colleagues who survived from those days – because, sadly, when she began to want to write this book her seemingly invincible father was suffering from dementia and unable to contribute meaningful memories.

Keggie Carew’s writing is fab – this is as gripping as any war-time thriller should be and as poignant as any family memoir should be, with large helpings of black humour and clear-eyed insights. With its different time frames it can’t have been an easy book to construct but it works brilliantly.

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale
Has been on my shelves for years; a current interest in Tasmania made me pick it up now.
First of all, a quiz question: Who is Matthew Kneale’s mother?
Ans: none other than the amazing Judith Kerr, famous for creating The Tiger Who Came to Tea and the Mog stories, among many other wonderful books.
However, English Passengers is rather more wordy than those, weighing in at 470 pages including an Anglo-Manx glossary. It’s set in 1857 and has thirteen viewpoint characters. 
A motley collection of passengers, brought together in various ways, are on a ship bound for Tasmania, that shield-shaped island below Australia, thought by at least one of those on board to be the true site of the Garden of Eden; plus we also hear from several people already on the island who include the natives who are literally being hunted to extinction, the colonial rulers and a chain-gang of convicts.
Every one of the voices ring true; these all seem like real, individual people. Inevitably some of their stories are the grimmest possible but there is much humour to be found too. The main character is the ship’s captain, the insouciant and wonderfully named Manx smuggler, Illiam Quillian Kewley.
I loved it.

After those two corkers I had a blip, reading-wise. I just wasn’t in the mood for getting to know new characters so I fell back on faithful standbys: three O. Douglases. 

‘O. Douglas’ was the pen name of Anna Buchan, sister of the more famous John. Her domestic novels, several of them thinly disguised autobiographies, were very popular in their day, in the early decades of the 20th century. They won’t be to everyone’s taste now but I know I am not their only fan (there is a Facebook group devoted to her). I have been reading them over and over since I was about ten so they are like family members – you know them so well and recognise that they have faults but you love them very much anyway.

And I enjoyed these latest additions to my collection of girls’ annuals.

Normal service will be resumed – I have some new books I am looking forward to reading in October. Watch this space.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Five in August

I read five books in August.

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon
I so enjoyed Joanna Cannon’s first novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. This second novel did not disappoint; in fact I think I liked it even more.
Flo has fallen in her flat in the Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. As she waits (she hopes) to be rescued she thinks about the mysterious new arrival at the Home, about her best friend Elsie, and about a terrible secret she’s been keeping almost all her life.
It takes a brilliant writer to have that as a premise and not make it a gloom-fest. Joanna Cannon pulls it off beautifully – you will actually laugh and cry, and the revelations about how Flo’s past and present have collided make it a real page-turner as well.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
I absolutely fell for Elizabeth Strout’s writing when I read Olive Kitteridge in May. Lucy Barton didn’t grab me quite so much but I still admired the structure and all the small details that made me feel I was right there. Lucy is in hospital for a prolonged but not life-threatening illness. She’s many miles away from where she grew up and the family from whom she’s become estranged. So when her mother turns up unexpectedly they have some talking to do.

Thorndon: Wellington and Home: My Katherine Mansfield Project by Kirsty Gunn
Acclaimed writer Katherine Mansfield grew up in Wellington, New Zealand – and couldn’t wait to leave it. And when she did she found she wanted to write about it. Kirsty Gunn grew up there too, to a family of Scots origin. She’s now based in the UK, writing, and teaching at the University of Dundee. When she got the chance, as a ‘Randell Fellow’, to go back to Wellington for a winter she didn’t at first jump at the chance – like Katherine Mansfield she had mixed emotions about her birthplace. But this little book came out of that time – staying in a 19th-century cottage in a street very near Mansfield’s old haunts, Kirsty Gunn explored the idea of ‘home’.
Why did I read this book? Well, watch this space.

Y is for Yesterday by Sue Grafton
Sue Grafton set out to go through the alphabet with her private investigator Kinsey Milhone. So it was very cruel that she died after she’d finished Y but before she’d written Z – and she left strict instructions that no one was to do that in her stead.
This 25th outing for Kinsey is, happily, the familiar mix of past and present mysteries and danger combined with her home life, such as it is. There’s her wonderful elderly landlord, Henry, and the diner with its almost uneatable Hungarian dishes run by Henry’s sister-in-law Rosie – Kinsey’s alternative to staying home and living on peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. In this book, though, there is the tantalising suggestion of a new direction Kinsey’s life might take. Sadly we’ll never know whether that happened or not. I will miss her – but I can always start at A again …

Too Marvellous for Words by Julie Welch
Perfect for grown-ups who can still remember great chunks of In the Fifth at Malory Towers. (Not just me … I met someone recently and the subject came up. I began to recite the song written by Darrell for Mary-Lou, as Cinderella, to sing in the school play, and my friend joined in: By the fire I sit and dream, and in the flames I see, picture of the lovely things that never come to me ah, me).
However, moving on … Julie Welch’s memoir of boarding school in Suffolk in the 60s (billed as ‘the real Malory Towers’) does have its fair share of jolly japes and midnight feasts but in Julie’s case the school was a welcome escape from a home life that wasn’t very happy.
I don’t now, as I used to, wish that I could have gone to boarding school but I still love reading about those that did.

Friday, 17 August 2018

Edinburgh International Book Festival poem

I wrote this years ago – I doubt it would win any poetry prizes but it's from the heart about one of the highlights of my year, the Edinburgh International Book Festival in Charlotte Square:

Charlotte Square

From a dictionary unravelled
words take wings, soar in the blue,
around America and France,
Spain, Africa and England too;
like homing birds drop from the air
– and come to earth in Charlotte Square.

For two blissful weeks of summer
prose and poetry take the stage
new plots and images enthrall us
ideas pour from page to page;
as poems are read we stand and stare
– and catch the rhymes in Charlotte Square.

Writing workshops, cappuccinos,
chocolate brownies, books galore,
queues to see our favourite authors
it’s all here, and much, much more;
it’s raining words, but all is fair
– the Book Festival’s in Charlotte Square.

Sad end of August, skies are bare
– the words have flown from Charlotte Square.

And if you want to know who I've seen so far at the 2018 Edinburgh International Book Festival visit the Capital Writers' website.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Six in July

I read six books in July, four fiction and two non-fiction.

From Christian Aid Booksale. From the back cover blurb: ‘Nancy Drew has survived the Depression, World War II, and the sixties to enter the pantheon of American girlhood.’ But the story of how the books were written is even more exciting than the girl detective’s many adventures. The ‘author’ Carolyn Keene <spoiler alert> did not exist.  Instead, Edward Stratemeyer thought up the storylines and formed a syndicate of writers to whom he farmed out the work; when he died his daughter Harriet took over.

This is really Harriet’s story, and that of one of the writers, Mildred Wirt, who (long before word processors) could turn in a manuscript in a matter of days. It was many years before Carolyn Keene’s non-existence was admitted to by the Stratemeyers and there had to be many subterfuges (eg when answering fan letters) to keep the secret. And in telling the history of Nancy Drew, the author has also given an engrossing account of women’s history over the decades.

The Wonder Spot by Melissa Banks
Sophie Applebaum feels a bit of a misfit. We first meet her when she’s about twelve at her cousin’s Bar Mitzvah and go with her through various (unsuitable) jobs and various (unsuitable) boyfriends, visit her beloved brothers and not-so-beloved grandmother, until we leave her in her early thirties, still not really sure of her place in the world. I liked the episodic way this was told so that with each chapter we have to fill in the gaps. I enjoyed the writing very much too.

The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae by Stephanie Butland
I read Lost for Words by this author last July and absolutely loved it, one of my favourite books of the year. So I was very keen to read her new one and while I didn’t fall for it quite as much I would certainly recommend it. Ailsa was born with a serious heart defect; now, in her twenties, her life has been saved through having a heart transplant. In part the book is told through a blog she has kept during and after her days in hospital. Ailsa lives in Edinburgh and she finds herself involved in the production of a Fringe Festival event, Romeo and Juliet with tango … At the same time she is getting used to her new heart, she’s wondering about getting in touch with her estranged father, and there’s an unexpected new man in her life.

A Mother’s Goodbye by Kate Hewitt
I do like Kate Hewitt (who also writes as Katherine Schwartz). This story is told in alternate chapters, in the first person, by two women: Heather lives in a too-small house in downtown New Jersey; her husband is injured and unable to work and they have just found out that their fourth child is on the way; Grace works for an investment bank, lives in a minimalist flat in New York, and is realising how empty her life is. Under normal circumstances the two would never meet but … well, find out for yourselves and remember to have a box of tissues handy.

I usually avoid Jane Austen spin-offs and the title of this one did not appeal but when I flicked through I liked the look of it – and I thoroughly enjoyed it. ‘Jane Mansfield’, a gentleman’s daughter in England in 1813, wakes up in Los Angeles in the 21st century in the body of Courtney Stone. As she tries to realise what has happened and who she really is, she must quickly get to grips with the dizzying new world she finds herself in – I found it all very convincing. In Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict Courtney finds that she has gone back in time and is now Jane – look forward to reading that at some point.

Edited by Mary F Williamson and Tom Sharp

Christian Aid Book Sale purchase. During the days of the Second World War when children were being evacuated from cities to countryside, and from Britain overseas, Marie Williamson in Toronto and her family welcomed into their home two boys they had never met, children of a distant cousin in England. During the four years they stayed – and they weren’t the easiest of lads – she faithfully wrote long letters to their mother, which were found just a few years ago.

 I found the whole story fascinating. The boys could not have had a better foster family – the editors of the book are, respectively, Marie’s daughter and the younger of the evacuees. It was also a revelation to me that Canada too had wartime rationing – in part that was because they sent so much in the way of food over to Britain.

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Five in June

I read five books in June.

A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin
Read for book group. Before she found her metier as a biographer (of eg Charles Dickens and, one of my heroes, Samuel Pepys) Claire Tomalin was a successful literary editor. That career would be enough for me to find her autobiography of interest as I worked in publishing in London around the same time (albeit not moving in the same circles … ) But her personal life is so interesting too, from a rather extraordinary childhood, to the death in Israel of her journalist husband Nick Tomalin, tragedies involving her children, and her second marriage to the playwright and novelist Michael Frayn.

Read on Kindle – but in retrospect it would have been better to have a print copy as it’s the sort of book which would be handy to have on a shelf to dip into. I am a little obsessed by names so any book on the subject is grist to my mill. This one covers first names – from Anglo-Saxon kings to today’s celebrity baby names – surnames and their origins, professional names, and the history of titles (Mr, Mrs etc). A good addition to my collection – even if I can’t put it on a shelf.

Looking for Charlotte by Jennifer Young
Read on Kindle. An excellent, gripping read (and I’m not just saying that because Jennifer is a fellow Capital Writer … )

Divorced and lonely, Flora Wilson is distraught when she hears news of the death of little Charlotte Anderson. Charlotte’s father killed her and then himself, and although he left a letter with clues to the whereabouts of her grave, his two-year-old daughter still hasn’t been found.

Flora embarks on a quest to find Charlotte’s body to give the child’s mother closure, believing that by doing so she can somehow atone for her own failings as a mother. As she hunts in winter through the remote moors of the Scottish Highlands, her obsession comes to threaten everything that’s important to her — her job, her friendship with her colleague Philip Metcalfe and her relationships with her three grown up children.

The English Girl by Katherine Webb
‘Secrets, feuds, passion and turmoil in 1950s Arabia.’ KW never writes the same book twice and her backgrounds are always fascinating. My favourite is The Legacy but I enjoyed this dual-narrative, inspired by the true story of an English woman who crossed the Empty Quarter, the world’s largest sand desert.

My Life by Annie S. Swan
Bought in Christian Aid book sale. Although virtually unknown today, in the first half of the twentieth century Annie S was a household name, finding fame as a writer of serials for The People’s Friend whose circulation at the time ran into many (many) hundreds of thousands. From fairly humble beginnings in the Scottish Borders she married a doctor and lived in London where she moved in some of the upper echelons of society – and doesn’t she like to tell us about it …

As a writer of PF serials myself (now on Kindle and in large-print in libraries ... ) I would have preferred less name-dropping and more on her writing process (as we would say now) and on her relationship with the publisher D C Thomson. But she does relate an incident where she was passing a shop and witnessed women coming out and turning pages of the magazine, desperate to find out what happened in the next instalment of her current serial. Ah well, one can only aspire.