callmemadam (callmemadam) wrote,

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March books

A strong Scottish bias to this month’s reading. Looking at the list I’m surprised it’s so short but two of these books are very long and one is really three books.

Nella Last’s War edited by Richard Broad & Suzie Fleming
The Heir of Redclyffe, Charlotte M Yonge
Put Out More Flags, Evelyn Waugh
Anna and her Daughters, D E Stevenson
A Suitable Vengeance, Elizabeth George
Jam Tomorrow, Monica Redlich
The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom, Alexander McCall Smith
The House That is Our Own, O Douglas
Consuming Passions, Judith Flanders
The Musgraves, D E Stevenson
Steer by the Stars, Olivia Fitz Roy

New this month for my readers’ delight is the Book Gallery, showing the books and giving them star ratings. As I’m rubbish at pictures and rely on LJ hosting, please remember you need to click on all my pics to see them properly. For reviews and comments
I’ve already written about Nella Last’s War and other war diaries by women, also about why I love
Put Out More Flags so much.

I finished The Heir of Redclyffe by Charlotte M Yonge. It’s easy to see why this, her first published novel, was the most popular of her books in Yonge’s lifetime. A romantic story of love, death and redemption with a delightful couple at the heart of it. Guy’s reverence for Charles I is rather tiresome to an old Cromwellian like me but he is still a worthy hero. I found myself less forgiving of the wrongs done than the characters are and actually in tears at the end. I wouldn’t start with this one if you haven’t read any others.

D E Stevenson at her best can be a very good bedtime read. This month I acquired two of her books but neither was really up to much. In Anna and her Daughters, Anna is unexpectedly left a widow with three daughters and no money. That’s no money in the sense that she can buy a cottage and employ a gardener. Rather improbably, she transforms herself from smart wife of London businessman to Scottish housewife, when she decides to return to her roots. The two elder daughters have a few hard lessons to learn and the narration is by the youngest and nicest daughter. Anyone who likes stories set in the Scottish borders (and the novels of O Douglas) would be bound to enjoy this. The Musgraves has a similar theme to Anna and her Daughters: a widowed mother with three daughters, one of whom is not very nice. This one is set in the Cotswolds and has long non-Musgrave interludes, including a horribly snobbish chapter about the Bloggs family. The local amateur dramatic society performs a play based on a book by the narrator of Anna. One can’t help feeling she was running out of inspiration here.

As a purveyor of light fiction I much prefer O Douglas and The House That is Our Own didn’t fail me. Isobel, who is ‘not at all rich’ is galvanised into visiting Scotland, buys an old house, employs a gardener/housekeeper couple and begins to live a little. There’s lots of detail about housekeeping, books and other familiar O Douglas themes and the new house is near Priorsford so we meet again Jean, of Penny Plain and other books, and the Elliots of Laverlaw. Just when you think Isobel is settled, she goes to Canada and everything changes yet again.

Now to a modern Scottish author whom I like very much as a rule: Alexander McCall Smith. The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom, aka The von Igelfold Trilogy, includes: Portuguese Irregular Verbs, The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs and At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances. I suspect that Dr Professor McCall Smith enjoyed writing about Professor von Igelfeld more than I enjoyed reading about him. For me, the academic joke wore thin after a while, although I liked some of the stories. Von Igelfeld ought to be a great comic character but somehow just isn’t. While I was still reading this, Steer by the Stars arrived from Fidra Books, looking lovely and illustrated by Anne Bullen, as a bonus. So I cast aside McCall Smith and got stuck in to yet another Scottish author, Olivia Fitz Roy. I’m still trying to pin down the charm of these books. Olivia Fitz Roy was not a good writer and the story is incredibly slow. Forget lifejackets; these people don’t even have a ship’s compass, hence the title. No gralloching this time, thank goodness (see Orders to Poach), just headless grouse. Or possibly grice. The true hero is the Scottish landscape or rather, seascape and that is the secret: the endless descriptions of what the characters do every day are rather like being on holiday yourself in a beautiful place. As I’m unlikely to sail a boat again, I find this armchair holiday relaxing. My problem is that I loathe the Stewarts: so tall, so thin, so brown, so arrogant, so completely lacking in humour and above everybody and everything else, including the law. My favourite character is kindly Hugh, who is not a Stewart at all. Unfortunately the poor lad seems to be in love with Fiona, who would almost certainly make him miserable.

I’ve wanted to read Jam Tomorrow by Monica Redlich for ages as it’s been so highly recommended by several people. It’s another book of the ‘poor’-people-do-their-own-housekeeping type. Impoverished (and predictably vague) widowed Rector has a family of two children at boarding school stretching the finances and an elder son having to go to secretarial college instead of studying music at Cambridge. To their horror, Daddy suddenly announces that orphaned Canadian cousins are coming to live with them. Luckily the girls turn out to be nice and astonishingly adaptable. Much of the book is about the efforts of teenaged Jean and her cousin to run the house without a maid and all this is enjoyable. It sheds a light on standards of the past when the girls decide that on Christmas Day they will ‘only’ dust and polish the downstairs rooms. A flood proves to be first a disaster, then a solution to some of their problems and there is a romance thrown in. First published in 1937 and reprinted as a Puffin story book it is more suitable for older girls, out of print and quite hard to find. I wonder if Persephone Books might like to republish it?

Jam Tomorrow was another bedtime read but I would never read anything by Elizabeth George in bed: too gruesome. I should have read A Suitable Vengeance before all the others as it explains the early and tricky relationships between Lynley, Deborah, St James and Helen. But yawn, I get tired of them and think, ‘Get on with the murder!’ I see Deb has always been a pain. This one is set mostly on Lynley’s Cornish estate and I read it quite fast, wanting to know ‘who, how and why’. Sometimes, that is the right sort of book to read.

I’ve saved the best until last. Consuming Passions by Judith Flanders is definitely my book of the month. I’ve already written something about it here. I simply loved this book. It is very statistics based, which took me back to my days studying economic history. Flanders employs a wealth of detail which is fascinating and sometimes amusing but there is a serious thesis contained in the book: that much of what we imagine to be nineteenth century invention had its origins in the eighteenth century. It is fascinating to learn that modern marketing techniques such as selling large quantities of goods at low profit margins and using advertorials were being employed by Matthew Bolton and Josiah Wedgwood. In fact I read the whole thing with a sense of plus ça change. The advertising, the spectacle, the horror of the upper classes at the incursions of the middle and working classes into ‘their’ territories, the fear of the lower orders getting out of hand. If only people were made to study history properly.
Tags: books, charlotte m yonge, mccall smith, monica redlich, o douglas, olivia fitzroy, publishing, scottish authors

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