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Archive for the ‘Read Scotland 2014’ Category

0375504419_0Educating Alice by Alice Steinbach – Steinbach, to me, is that well-meaning person who desperately wants you to like them and who is so earnest that you wish you could like but, really, you just spend every encounter wanting to hit them with something blunt. In this second travel memoir (following Without Reservations), Steinbach roams the world and indulges in too much introspection and overly romanticized prose.

9780375724596_custom-2efde7beec18b0b581c86a38388313349857619e-s6-c30The Pursuit of Alice Thrift by Elinor Lipman – a much more likeable Alice, The Pursuit of Alice Thrift is a wonderful comedy about a young, socially-awkward surgical intern in Boston (but of course – this is an Elinor Lipman book) who finds herself being wooed by Ray Russo, who seems very likely to be a conman. But at least he’s a man. It is fabulous and hilarious. Alice is marvellously blunt, Ray is exquisitely slimy, and the two friends Alice makes over the course of the novel – sassy Sylvie and supportive Leo – are friends I would love to have myself. Very, very fun.

The Ladies' ManThe Ladies’ Man by Elinor Lipman – I’ve read almost all of Lipman’s novels now (only My Latest Grievance awaits) and I have to say that this is not one of my favourites. That said, my least favourite Lipman is still better than almost anyone else’s best. Thirty years ago, Adele Dobbin was jilted by her fiancé, Harvey Nash. Suddenly, he shows up on the doorstep of the Boston apartment Adele shares with her two sisters with a belated apology. An inveterate ladies’ man, Harvey (now going by Nash Harvey) attempts to charm a series of women over the course of the book. Though the Dobbin women prove immune to his charms (one of them goes so far as to break a casserole dish over his head when he attempts to hit on her), his arrival does inspire them to look to the romantic lives they have largely ignored. Lipman is as clever and witty as ever, I just think there were too many characters splitting focus here, making for an uneven flow.

forever girlThe Forever Girl by Alexander McCall Smith – In that weird space between not good and not horrifically bad. So…inoffensively bad? There were some good moments but the characters were completely flat, every last one of them.

Spring MagicSpring Magic by D.E. Stevenson – I wish I had more to say about this book. It is pure escapist fantasy, about Frances, a young Cinderella-like woman, who is able to escape from her aunt after their London home is damaged by a bombing during the Second World War. The aunt heads into the country with the expectation that Frances will accompany her. Instead, Frances heads for a fishing village in Scotland to figure out her life and develop some independence. Her stay is enlivened by the arrival in the neighbourhood of a regiment of soldiers – and the officer’s wives. The socializing from then on is reminiscent of the Mrs Tim books, since the military wives prove far more interesting than Frances and her mild romantic problems. It’s a sweet book but not quite as energetic as DES’s best works.

JoieJoie de Vivre by Harriet Welty Rochefort – hands down the best – and most entertaining – book I have read about the French. Having lived in France and been married to a Frenchman for forty years, Rochefort is more than qualified to discuss the good, the bad, and the mysterious elements of French culture and the French psyche. She is humorous and does not over romanticize or demonize – an all too common failing of this sort of book. Very enjoyable.

Waiting on You by Kristan Higgins – Higgins is back on form after her disappointing last book.

It Felt Like a KissIt Felt Like a Kiss by Sarra Manning – despite a title that makes the book sound like it is about domestic abuse, this was actually a rather interesting look at what happens when a young woman’s greatest secret – the identity of her famous father – is leaked to the press by a vengeful ex-boyfriend. The romance was less than convincing but the way Ellie’s life was twisted by the press with complete disregard for the truth was all too disgustingly real.

UnstickyUnsticky by Sarra Manning – A very fluffy premise – what happens to a young woman when she agrees to become the mistress and hostess for an older art dealer – but a surprisingly engaging and interesting book. I really enjoy Manning’s writing and though her books are always long, none of it feels like filler. I did find Grace’s liberal use of “like” wildly irritating, though that thankfully faded over the course of the novel, and was thrown by some of the little details of the scenes set in BC: Vancouver, which has the same climate as London, can hardly be described as the “icy hinterlands of British Columbia.” Also, where on earth did they find a Caribbean nurse in Whistler? But these were minor, minor issues and for the most part I loved the book. I also couldn’t help thinking that Clare Carrington from The New Moon with the Old would approve.

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Scene in Glencoe Pass, Scotland, in the Summer of 1937 by Francis Ferdinand Maurice Cook

Scene in Glencoe Pass, Scotland, in the Summer of 1937 by Francis Ferdinand Maurice Cook

Last weekend, with a mind weak with exhaustion after some heavy-duty studying and rather giddy at the realisation that there were no more exams left on the horizon, I settled down for some light and frivolous reading with, as is so often the case with me, a Scottish theme.  While neither Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher or Apricot Sky by Ruby Ferguson are destined to become great favourites, they certainly helped me unwind after a stressful period.

Winter SolsticeWinter Solstice was only my second encounter with Pilcher.  I’d read Coming Home as a pre-teen and thought it was just about the trashiest thing I’d ever read up to that point in my life.  A subsequent rereading didn’t do much to change my mind.  Still, enough of my blogging friends are fans of Pilcher that I wanted to give her another try and Winter Solstice had been recommended as a perfect winter read.  Well, it is very wintery – the story focuses on a group of troubled people who find themselves spending Christmas together in the Scottish Highlands – but I could not stand the book.  I loved the concept and the writing was bland but unobjectionable, but the characterization would have had me throwing the book across the room if I hadn’t been reading it as a library e-book – my lovely Kobo should not be punished for what I load onto it.  I hung on until the end, hoping that something might happen to redeem it but that never happened.  If anything, I only got more frustrated.  I can see how in certain moods others could find Pilcher’s writing comforting and enjoyably but she is decidedly not for me.

Apricot SkyApricot Sky by Ruby Ferguson, though not particularly inspired, was much more enjoyable.  Described by Scott as “the best approximation I’ve found of a D.E. Stevenson novel not written by Stevenson herself”, it is the story of Cleo MacAlvey, who returns to Scotland after three years working in America, and the rest of the MacAlvey family.  It is 1948 and quiet Cleo, now thirty, has been in love with Neil Garvine for the past ten years, though the dour Neil is completely oblivious to her adoration.  Their more outgoing (and altogether delightful) younger siblings – Raine MacAlvey and Ian Garvine – are about to be married and so, much to both her discomfort and her pleasure, Cleo finds herself frequently in Neil’s company, though she can’t seem to string a sensible or half-way interesting sentence together any time he is near.

Cleo is unobjectionable but I do wish she were more compelling.  Her younger nieces and nephews, who get quite a lot of the author’s attention, are quite interesting but it is her sister Raine who provided the bulk of the entertainment here.  She is bright and outgoing, happy to barge “through life without caring whether people liked her or not, and […]about as introverted as a fox-terrier puppy.”  Her blunt exchanges with her equally affable fiancé were my favourite parts of the novel and left me caring far more for them than I did for any of the other characters.

The book is overly long, full of characters who ought to be more interesting than they are, and generally lacking a sense of humour but it is all still very pleasant.  Not quite up to D.E. Stevenson level, I think, but rather more akin to the works of Susan Pleydell or Noel Streatfeild’s Susan Scarlett novels.  I wouldn’t rush out to buy one of the absurdly-priced second-hand copies but if Greyladies were to reissue it, and it would be a perfect title for them, then I would be happy to have a copy of my own.

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Still Glides the StreamOn January 1st, savouring my day off work and determined to get the year off to a good start, I settled down with Still Glides the Stream by D.E. Stevenson.  There is nothing quite so nice as beginning a New Year in the company of an old, dependable friend.

Published in 1959, Still Glides the Stream begins with thirty-five year old Will Hastie returning home to Scotland after years abroad in the Army, intent on learning to farm the family estate, Broadmeadows.  Will settles in quickly, enjoying his time with his father and reigniting his acquaintance with the Elliot Murray family.  Growing up, Will and the Elliot Murray children, Rae and Patty, had been inseparable.   By the time the story begins, Rae has been dead for many years, killed in France during the war.  Patty, still at home and still unmarried (though engaged) at thirty-four, is just as friendly as ever though and she and Will are delighted to strike up their old friendship.

When Patty mentions a curious letter she received from Rae shortly before his death, Will tells her not to worry herself over it.  But, knowing that Rae would never have written such odd words without some purpose, he privately decides to look into the mystery.  He leaves for France soon after (conveniently avoiding meeting Patty’s awful fiancé during his visit).

In France, he discovers Rae’s secret: his friend had married a French girl, Julie, and was not sure how to tell his family about her.  Will tracks down Julie and discovers not just Rae’s widow but also his son, Tom.  Julie’s excuses for not having made her husband’s family aware of herself or her child are rather weak but handy for plot’s sake so we won’t dwell too much on that.  Conveniently, both Julie and Tom speak excellent English; Julie, knowing how much Rae loved his family home, has seen to it that Tom had English lessons so that he would one day be ready to join the Elliot Murrays’ world.

Will brings Julie and Tom back to Scotland, everyone adores them, etc, etc.  Will briefly thinks he is in love with the lovely Julie but by the end of the book realises that, of course, he has been in love with the steady Patty all along.  All ends well, with everyone suitably married off and young Tom happily adapting to his new Scottish home.

Julie is an interesting D.E.S. character.  She is very lovely and good and, though in some ways Patty’s rival, the two become dear friends.  But she is cold and cautious in a way that horrifies Will when he realises it.  She wants a steady, comfortable life, not a love affair, and so is perfectly happy to marry for position rather than passion.  She wants to be back among people she understands, whose customs she knows.  “To me,” she says, “it seems sensible and right to marry a good kind man, to be his wife and the mother of his children.”  Patty and Will, both romantics (albeit of a silent Scottish strain), are deeply disillusioned with her after this revelation.  I, personally, rather admire her level-headed pragmatism.

But bizarrely, though much is made of Julie’s plans to arrange a comfortable but unromantic future for herself, little is made of her willingness to leave her son in Scotland while she returns to France.  It seems in character for her to do so (as she says early on, she has always known that Tom would one day go to live among his father’s people) but wildly out of character for the family-oriented (and rather judgemental) Will and Patty to make no horrified exclamations about her being an unnatural mother

Still Glides the Streams fits neatly in among the bulk of D.E.S.’s good-but-not-great works.  The plot may be flimsy and the characters one dimensional but D.E.S. had a gift of making such unpromising stuff into something really charming.

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Read Scotland 2014

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I only learned about Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland 2014 challenge a few days ago but once I did there was no chance that I was not going to join.  This sort of reading challenge works perfectly with A Century of Books and, given how many Scottish authors I am already planning to read for that (there will certainly be offerings from D.E. Stevenson, O. Douglas, and Compton Mackenzie), this seemed a natural fit.  I’ve signed up for the Ben Nevis level (13+ books) and, as usual, will be keeping track of my progress on my Challenges 2014 page.

Are any of you participating in this challenge?  Do you have any suggestions for great books by Scottish authors or set in Scotland?

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