Reading Scotland – January 2019

One of my favourite things is to read books set in Scotland. I have been doing this every year for the past 7 years and this year is no exception. Living here in the English Midlands, I long to be in Scotland, but alas, I am not but books give me the opportunity to travel to Scotland without packing any boxes or suitcases.

I am part of a Goodreads Group each year that encourages you to pick up books set in Scotland or written by Scottish authors and a few weeks ago I made a video about my Scottish TBR for 2019:

So, what have I read so far this year with a Scottish connection.

I do like a dual timeline story and this month I read two of them:

The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley

This is part 2 in her loose duology centered around Slains Castle and the Jacobites fighting to get their King back on the throne. There is a present day love story/narrative and then the story in the 18th century. I adore her books, if I want to escape my head (which at the moment I want to all the time), then a Kearsley will always, always do the trick. Sadly, I only have one book left by her, her most recent Belleweather, which I shall procure at some point this year.

 

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Down to the Sea by Sue Lawrence

When I saw this book listed on the Bookseller, I knew I had to read it. We all have those keywords that make us pick up books, for me they include “Scotland”, “dual timeline” and “mystery”. The book’s “present” day timeline is actually in the 198oies and the past timeline is in the 1890ies. A couple buys an old house in Newhaven, outside Edinburgh to renovate and open as a luxury care home for the elderly, while in the 1890ies, the building was used as a poorhouse. It was a bit spooky in places (I am easily scared), very atmospheric, and a fantastic cosy read by the fire while it was freezing cold outside. Saraband kindly sent me a copy and the book is published on the 21st Feb on the Kindle and 14th March as a paperback. I was delighted to find out that the author is the same Sue Lawrence of the Scottish Baking book, which I would highly recommend, I adore this book. If you like Scotland and baking, it’s a must really.

The Lost Queen by Signe Pike

I have been obsessed with Arthurian myths since I was single digits in age. Oh, how badly, have I wanted it to be true and for magic to be real and I dreamt that it would be me one day, rediscovering magic and bringing it back to the world. I still read most books about Arthur and Merlin and any character surrounding the myths, both fiction and non-fiction. Pike has taken inspiration from Adam Ardray’s books Finding Merlin/Finding Arthur, which make the case that Arthur/Merlin was Scottish. I had read those books myself and they are a great travel itinerary if you want to explore some of those sights yourself. Here, we follow Langueroth, a high-born noblewoman whose twin brother is set to become Merlin, although, he is not quite there yet at the end of book 1. I enjoyed it, although I did not quite love it as much as I had hoped, the downside of going into a book with too much expectation. I believe book 2 is set to be released Summer 2020. A long wait, but I know that books need to be written and I am painfully aware how lengthy this process can be (hello second draft edits).

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The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry

Set in Edinburgh in the 1840ies within the medical profession, in particular that of women’s health and childbearing. It’s part mystery, part historical fiction centred on medical advances, part role and place of women in society and the world as a whole during that time period and it was certainly an interesting read. I liked the book a lot, but did not quite manage to love it because for my taste it was rather grim. I am glad my childbearing years are over.

Agnes Moor’s Wild Knight by Alyssa Cole

This was a very short novella about a black woman at court of King James IV and her Highland Lord. I don’t read much romance of the saucy variety, but I thought this was entertaining enough and I shall definitely pick up another one by her.

 

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Lanark by Alasdair Gray

A Scottish modern classic and one I have been meaning to read for years. I was put off by the description of it as being difficult, hard to access and strange and offputting. You see, don’t let words like that put you off from a book because personally, I thought this was one of the best books I have read in a long time. It’s a like the Bildungsroman meets Weird Fiction, so yes, it is strange, but it is also wonderful. I likened it to my husband as “Mann, Grass and Kafka went on holiday together to Scotland, drank too much whiksy, had a love child, which was reared by China Mievielle in a Glasgow tenement and the child was read daily Lovecraft stories. And the child became the book.” And quite frankly, I have no better explanation for it.

The Art of Coorie by Gabriella Bennett

January is grey and dull and my asthma was bad and then this book arrived kindly sent to me by Black & White Publishing and it was just such a wonderful little thing taking me to Scotland. Coorie may just well be Scotland’s answer to Hygge and Lagom, combining the wonderful feeling of being outside in Scotland’s nature and then returning inside to cosy up by a fire with nice food and drink. If you are planning a trip to Scotland, I highly recommend this to get you into the mood. The images are beautiful and the writing is informative and interesting. I have a Coorie video coming up on my channel later this week. So check back there.

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Nature Writing and writers of colour

As someone who loves nature, the advent in recent years in nature writing has been very exciting. When I cannot be out there myself, I do quite like to enjoy the hearing the experiences of some accomplished writers in the field.

I have followed publishing long enough to know that these kind of fields (pun?) are normally mostly dominated by male writers and some serious effort has to be put in to find more female authors once you ticked off the well known ones like Helen Macdonald and Kathleen Jamie. There is a list on Goodreads for Irish and British Nature Writing and of the 175 books, only about 20 are by women and some of these books are over 100 years old (Hello old friend, “Diary of an Edwardian Lady”). So things are not that great, but I guess that’s a pretty normal picture across publishing, after all more men get published than women.

But then, I thought: Hm, I really would like to find some writers of colour who write nature non-fiction. And so my search began. And I came up with not much. Found a couple of essays, some US based books but personally, I prefer my nature writing to be set in places I know or are about to visit. And that made me wonder why that is? Are there writers of colour with manuscripts waiting to be published, but because there has been no precedence no one is publishing them?

I would love to see some British and Irish nature writing by authors of colour. If you know of anything that has been published or is about to be published, please let me know.

My Reading Year 2018

I contemplated whether or not to make a video about this, but actually, this morning I thought, this lends itself far better to a blog post than a video, so here we go.

2018 has been a fantastic reading year for me. I discovered a couple of authors that have become instant favourites (I am looking at you Kate Atkinson in particular) and with regards to historical fiction in particular, I just found so many gems.

I also kept a reading spreadsheet (and almost entered all the books as well, go me) and it revealed…. not that many surprises.

About 80% of the books I read have been written by women. Historical Fiction (including both historical mysteries and histories) is by far the genre I read the most and well over 50% of my reading. I increased my reading of books authored by writers of colours significantly and this is now almost 25% of all the books I read last year, room for improvement, but still, I am pleased as the year before it was only 8 books (which roughly accounted to about 4% of my reading).

I have read well over 200 books again and before anyone says “how do you read so much”, let me just tell you that reading is (and has been) my prior form of entertainment and when people normally would spend hours watching Netflix box sets, you will find me in the corner of the sofa reading. Or in bed, I do like to read in bed.

So here are some of my favourites.

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Barbara Pym has been a favourite of mine since I discovered her through a real life (I hate that expression) bookclub. She is in my mind along with Elizabeth Taylor one of the best character writers of the 20th century. Unlike Taylor though, Pym is very funny. Her characters normally attend a local church and her exploration of High Church vs. Low Church is so English, it is hard to put it in words. She makes me laugh, she also makes me think. And her characters are wonderful, that’s after all what matters.

Paperback, 277 pages
Published 2013 by Virago Press (UK) (first published 1958)

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One of the best things I did in 2018, was my Harder Conversations project where I read books about what it means to be a person of colour in the UK and the publishing industry obviously found out about this and published some great books. Ok, well, maybe, they did not do it just for me, actually everyone could benefit from reading some of these books. All the books were great, but Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) overall was the best one for me. I read it right at the beginning of the year and I followed the journey of the book and author along ever since.

Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging
by Afua Hirsch
Kindle Edition, 384 pages
Published February 1st 2018 by Vintage Digital

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This year, also saw the publication of more installments in some of my favourite books series and I know that Tombland will feature heavily on all the historical mysteries lists, I though I highlight this one again, because I think if you like C.J. Sansom, you would also love S.G. MacLean. MacLean is a Scottish writere and she is a historian, which you can easily tell by the wonderfully researched books. The Seeker series (this book is the third in the series and the fourth is coming out in 2019) is set during Cromwell’s Commenwealth and the Seeker is an Officer in the New Model Army.  The mysteries are clever, the depiction of the era are engaging and the Seeker is a character that I have become deeply attached too, similar to MacLean’s other series, the Alexander Seaton series set in Scotland with Charles I on the throne.

Destroying Angel (Damian Seeker #3) by
S.G. MacLean (Goodreads Author)
Kindle Edition, 416 pages
Published July 12th 2018 by Quercus

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One of the Classics I read this year and will remember for a long time is Susan Ferrier’s Marriage. Dubbed as the Scottish Jane Austen, I expected the same level of plotting and story as in Austen book, but as so often the similarity is simply that of two women writing books at roughly the same time in history. Ferrier’s book is very different from Austen, but still wonderful. And naturally, I adored the fact that this was looking at the differences between Scottish and English folk. Not much has changed.

Marriage by 
Susan FerrierVal McDermid (introduction)
Paperback, 544 pages
Published December 28th 2017 by Little, Brown Book Group (first published 1818)

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My favourite debut has been without a doubt, Anna-Marie Crowhurst’s The Illumination of Ursula Flight. I am still annoyed that a certain Mermaid book overshadowed this gem of a historical fiction novel, due no doubt to deeper marketing pockets. Having read both of them, I have to say that Crowhurst’s book is in my opinion the more rounded and inventive novel. Set in Restoration England, we follow Ursula from her birth into her adult years and experience England and what it was like to be a woman in that fragile period of Restoration. I really hope this book makes it on the Walter Scott longlist and shortlist next year. Either way though, Ursula and Crowhurst have a place in my heart and I shall read anything that author writes in future.

The Illumination of Ursula Flight
by Anna-Marie Crowhurst
Hardcover, 416 pages
Published May 3rd 2018 by Allen & Unwin

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I adore nature writing and there is always a few each year that I pick up, but I am picky with regards to nature writing. I want it poetic, but not too poetic. I don’t mind a tangent, but if there is more tangents than anything else, then I get bored. I like the personal story, but it has to be done just right. Yes, I am very picky, but this book by Neil Ansell, the Last Wilderness ticked all the boxes. I could identify with so many of his thoughts and in particular what stuck with me was the author’s admission that for him it is no longer about walking to hit certain milestones or even covering certain miles, no, it is just about being out there. In nature, rather than clocking up the miles, just so you can say that you walked 15 miles.  I listened to this on audio via audible.co.uk and the audiobook is wonderful.

The Last Wilderness, A Journey into Silence by 
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published February 8th 2018 by Tinder Press

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Nora Krug’s Heimat has been a very personal read. We are off the same generation of Germans, as in that our parents were born either during the war or at the end of the war and that we felt the collective guilt over the war and the holocaust, but never really knew or found out what it was that our family had done during that time. Were they guilty and if so, to what degree. You may think that this is a book just for Germans, but it is not, this is a book for anyone who wants to understand the concept of collective guilt and lots of tidbits in this book, you probably had no idea about.

Heimat: A Memoir of History and Home
by
Hardcover
Published October 4th 2018 by Particular Books (first published October 2nd 2018)

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A series discovery for me, naturally historical as this is what I like best, has been the Sir Robert Cary Mystery series. Originally published in the 1990ies, Head of Zeus has been re-issuing them with more modern covers. Again, if you like C.J. Sansom then this may be for you. Based on the very real Sir Robert Carey, it follows his life events but the mysteries are “made up” or rather, the author used events she come across in her research and used them. So the books do feel very real. I adored them and am planning on continuing with the series in 2019.

A Famine of Horses (Sir Robert Carey #1)
by
P.F. ChisholmPatricia Finney (Goodreads Author)
Kindle Edition, 296 pages
Published September 1st 2016 by Head of Zeus (first published 1994)

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It’s not all just historical fiction, I also adore fantasy and especially weird fiction and my favourite this year has been Borne by Jeff Vandermeer. I love the exploration of what it means to be a mother and mothering, the need we have to care for someone against an “end of the world” kind of scenario. Loved this book, still thinking about it although I read right at the start of the year. That’s how good it was.

Borne
by Jeff VanderMeer (Goodreads Author)
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published April 25th 2017 by MCD / Farrar, Straus and Giroux

I re-read The Poisonwood Bible this year with a group of fellow booktubers and was very excited for Kingsolver’s new book Unsheltered. Both the re-read and the new release were wonderful. I can honestly say that I have loved all her books (and yes, I have read them all over the years since I first discovered her in the 90ies). There is some joy in re-reading a favourite and then being able to discuss it with others, even – and in a way in particular if – they don’t quite love it as much as you do. And Unsheltered just had my head nodding in agreement, it’s like she gets me.

Unsheltered
by  Barbara Kingsolver
Hardcover, 463 pages
Published October 18th 2018 by Faber Faber (first published October 16th 2018)

Thanks for reading and joining me on this reflection. For more bookish content, check out my youtube channel.

 

 

Autumnal Reading

I thought I share some books with you that I will be reading over the autumn. Now, I am a reader all year round, no matter the season, but there is something about reading in autumn that is just so wonderful. You go out for a walk and return, in my case light the fire, and then settle down with a good book. Extra points for wind and rain howling outside while you are snuggled up inside.

Treacherous Is the Night

(Verity Kent #2) by Anna Lee Huber

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I read the first one in the series last year (and I am also making my way through Anna Lee Huber’s other series set in 19th century Scotland) and I am just about to pick this one up. Set just after the 1st world war, the first book saw Verity suffering from the loss of her husband and so many others in the war, she gets invited to a mysterious party on an island and events unfold from there. Now, I cannot get into the plot of the second one at all as it would be super spoiler heavy…

I expect from this a perfect escapist type mystery novel, that I can read when I am tired from a full day of translating or writing. Sometimes, you just want some glamour and mystery and this one will do nicely, I have read enough Anna Lee Huber to know that I like her.

Thanks to netgalley for the arc

The Corset

by Laura Purcell
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Super excited about this one. I read Silent Companions last year and I loved it. It spooked me and I don’t normally read spooky stuff. There was that night when I read it, when my husband had to go to bed early so I was not alone reading it. This promises to be another spooky read. Maybe I read this by daylight though.

A Discovery of Witches

(All Souls Trilogy #1) by Deborah Harkness

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I am probably the only person in the world, who has not read this. I tried once, but I don’t think I was in the mood back then, so willing to give this another shot. I just have to read books with witches in autumn. It’s the law.

The Magick of Master Lilly

by Tobsha Learner
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Another books I am super excited about, set in 1641 and it says that it deals with role of magic in the English Civil War. I have a slight obsession with that era at the moment, so I am looking forward to that, it does not come out until October, but thankfully, I have an arc via netgalley, so I don’t have to wait, I can just go ahead and read it.

5 books for different readers on Mary, Queen of Scots

I have watched this trailer about 5 times today.

I am so excited about the upcoming movie about Mary Queen of Scots. She is one of the most wonderful characters in history, wild, vilified, dangerous, naive…. the opinions on her and her person differ wildly and her life and how it ended makes for the most thrilling stories.

I have chosen 5 different books that feature her – some where is she the main character, others where she is in the background. The books vary in their tone and style, too: From beach read to serious study.

Mary Stuart by Stefan Zweig

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This is a non-fiction account or exploration rather of Mary Stuart’s life. Zweig had read an account of her execution in the British Library but he could not really find any text that explored her whole life and so he began to write one himself. It was first published in 1935 and is a classic and wonderfully done. You cannot go much wrong with beginning here.

Best suited: You like your non-fiction literary and as if being told a story. This is part biography, part thriller. 

The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory

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Gregory has made it her career almost entirely around the exploration of the women surrounding the Plantagenets and Tudors and although not all of her books work for me, I did enjoy this one. I find her take on Mary interesting and she actually focusses on the years of Mary’s house arrest in England before her execution.

Best suited: Perfect beach read. Will keep you gripped without taxing you too much. 

Fatal Majesty: A Novel of Mary, Queen of Scots by Reay Tannahill

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Tannahill was the historical saga Queen of the 80ies and 90ies and is now sadly quite forgotten, her books are a bit slow but wonderfully researched and this is in my opinion one of her best. She really focuses on all the players around Mary, the intrigue, the politics, the spies, the betrayals.

Best suited: If you don’t mind a slower pace in a historical fiction novel. 

Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett

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The Lymond Chronicles feature Francis Crawford of Lymond and his exploits when Mary is just a baby up to when she is a child. The books are all about the political intrigue surrounding the problematic status in which Mary of Guise finds herself after the death of her husband, the Scottish King and the lengths she has to go to protect the throne for her daughter, Mary. These books are literary historical fiction at its best in my personal opinion. Mary is mostly a background figure there, but the books are wonderful to understanding the greater historical context of Europe at that time.

Best suited: If you like your historical fiction with a lot of brain and quick humour. 

In My End is My Beginning: A Life of Mary Queen of Scots by James A. MacKay

Another non-fiction history book about Mary. This one more recent than the one by Zweig, published in 1999. MacKay looks at Mary within the context of tense Anglo-Scots relations due to the question of religion. An unlucky person, who for a while managed to reign with hardly no resources and actually was quite good at it. Most definitely one of the greatest characters in Scottish history.

Best suited: When you want bare facts!

Have you got any Mary books to add to my TBR?

Why do we read seasonal?

Molly Flatt wrote a piece for the Guardian many, many years ago (I found it: Do you have a seasonal reading pattern?) and it was the first time that I wondered whether the weather influenced my reading. Depending on my mood, when you catch me, my answer can be one of the following

  • No, never
  • Yes, I read sad books in winter and want happy books in summer
  • The reverse of the statement above
  • What seasons, I live in Britain.

Sarcasm aside, my TBR is stuffed full with books that I sort of keep aside for reading during hot summery weather and since that is normally in short supply, I only ever get to one or two of them before I head back to my dark Historical Fiction, the mysteries, the Fantasy tomes etc.

In comes summer 2018: I think it’s well over a month now that is has been sunny and wonderful and I find I started to pick up books that have summery themes, often of an oppressive nature or set in hot places or about people who come from cool climates and then find themselves in unspeakable heat. So, I select these off my bookshelves and place them on the bedside table (which is like being longlisted for a book award in my house, seriously, once you are on the bedside table, your chances are pretty high to reach the “read” status).

So a few things that I have promoted to my bedside table:

 

The Mosquito Coast

Adventure story set in the Honduran Jungle. It sounds dark, it sounds oppressive and has been lingering on my TBR for nearly two years. This might be the summer I am reading it. I feel in the mood for it, so it might just happen.

Illyrian Spring

A 1930s novel by a woman writer? Well, that has been my cup of tea for a while now. Set on the Dalmatian coast, which is one of my favourite places. Apparently, it was scandalous when it first came out. I don’t read gossip magazines, but I do like a good bit of literary scandal.

Mr Lynch’s Holiday

A Midlands bus driver visits his son in a Spanish expat colony and the drama ensues from there. I quite like these enclosed settings and I live in the Midlands, so Brummies on holiday: Sign me up! I always wanted to read something by Catherine O’Flynn anyway.

Villa America

I have already started this one and am by now nearly half way through and I am hooked, this is the second book I am reading set on the Riviera, historical fiction centering around the very real Murphys who basically turned the French Riviera into what it became: a pilgrimage for sun seekers from all over the world. They also apparently inspired one of Fitzgeralds book and I am a smitten kitten and absolutely adore every single minute of this so far.

Fatal Inheritance

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I actually requested this as an arc from the publisher, because I adored the premise and I really enjoyed it. A mysterious inheritance, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage who then travels down to the South of France to claim it and gets swept up in the drama and glitz of the French Riviera. Danger and plenty of mystery ensues. Historical fiction, with a hint of Mary Stewart, a touch of Highsmith, perfect for reclining on a deckchair, sipping a cocktail and enjoying this summer. Will be published on the 28th of July.
So, in summary (or should I say: summery): I am a cliche and the weather does clearly dictate what I want to read, eat and drink.
Does the weather influence your reading?

 

Seven Dead by J. Jefferson Farjeon

I have read quite a few of Farjeon’s books over the years and some of them were quite good, but there is always something that does not quite work for me and with Seven Dead I finally figured out what it is: He is trying to appeal to too many audiences at once. You know some people like the murder mystery, the puzzle figuring out how a murder was committed, others like the adventure stories chasing an “unknown” villain, hunting them down, others love the suspense type books, that keep you on the edge of the seat whilst another group does love a bit of romance in their books, some like a policeman doing the investigation, others love a bystander becoming the sleuth. In this book you have all of that and more. Whilst for the most part it is enjoyable in a way, the conclusion of the book is just silly and so random that if you lived in my neighbourhood, you would have heard a frustrated sigh. A loud one. Still, these days, I adore these books and these re-issues since the Golden Age has become almost of academic interest to me. It’s like a personal research topic for me. So on that note, this one was interesting. 34862888


Paperback, British Library Crime Classics, 288 pages
Published September 4th 2017 by The British Library (first published 1939)
Thanks to Netgalley and Poisoned Pen Press for the review copy.