19th December

Mum tried for years to interest me in O Douglas’ books but it took a lot of persuading before I finally delved in. Of course, once I’d taken the plunge, I couldn’t understand why I’d hesitated.  The books are a real surprise: they look like they’ll be a bit saccharine and old-fashioned even for their time (mostly the inter-war period) but Anna Buchan was no-one’s fool and she had a firm grasp of what her world was really like.  I love them all and chose The Setons after some thought.  Elizabeth Seton is an engrossing companion, one I don’t tire of.  She’s a minister’s daughter living on the south side of Glasgow, looking after her widowed father and much younger brother.  In many ways it’s a domestic tale of its time but it’s not at all stuffy and is peopled by some wonderful characters.  It’s set just before, and in the early days of, the First World War and was published in 1917; thus it honestly captures the feeling of the day and has no happy ending but only unanswerable questions.

Murder on the Flying Scotsman by Carola Dunn is set just after the War but was published this century. It is the fourth in the series about Daisy Dalrymple, scion of the nobility trying to earn her own living as a writer in London.  Daisy has an unbelievable tendency to become involved in murders – merely as a witness I should point out!  In the course of the first book she meets Detective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher of the Met, and their relationship is a feature of the series. Murder on the Flying Scotsman introduces his daughter Belinda into the action and she plays a prominent part.  I’ve read my way through the whole series now, having discovered them this year, but I particularly like this one both for its murder mystery and Daisy and Alec’s developing relationship.

14th December

My first of two books by O Douglas (Anna Buchan) is The House that is Our Own, the last of her completed novels. It was published in 1940, a dark year for the author whose brother John died in Canada where he was serving as Governor-General. Much of the action takes place in that country and is clearly based on Anna’s recent visit. But the titular house is in the Scottish Borders not far from Peebles. Isobel Logan, a Scot by birth who has never set foot on her native soil, goes to stay in the area on the recommendation of her friend Kitty who has family connections there. Isobel falls in love with the area, makes friends and ultimately buys Glenbucho Place, a rundown country house. Before she has time to settle in properly she is persuaded into a visit to Canada where she makes the acquaintance of the house’s former owner, Gideon Veitch…

Although they were born decades apart I think that Isobel would have had a lot in common with Kate Milbank, the heroine A Foreign Affair by John Rowe Townsend. I devoured his books as a teenager and this is one of the two I have kept. It’s described as a modern fairytale and it’s actually a Ruritanian novel being set mostly in the Alpine country of Essenheim. Kate is the teenage daughter of a newspaper editor who unexpectedly finds herself making the news when, after becoming involved with the Crown Prince, she travels to Essenheim in the company of two disaffected students and an exiled writer. The resulting story is a wonderfully frothy confection with a deep seam of satire running through it.

Christmas Reading

 

An Adventurous Christmas Voyage with Hurtigruten MS Midnatsol: Bodo: 23. December 2008: 2pm

For many years I had books that I almost always re-read at Christmas.  They formed a mixed bag but, inevitably, they all had a strong sense of community.  The only children’s book regularly in my Christmas collection was Nancy Calls the Tune by Dorita Fairlie Bruce, one of my all-time favourites.  I’ve written about it elsewhere so suffice it to say that, despite its wartime setting, it is a warm and welcoming story, inviting the reader to become a part of life in Easterbraes.  It ends just before Christmas but it’s easy to imagine what a wonderful time the characters will have then.  My other regular Christmas reads do have descriptions of Christmas, very different Christmases.  One is Taken by the Hand by O Douglas and the other is Charlotte Fairlie by DE Stevenson.  They both have solitary heroines surrounded by crowds.  Beatrice Dobie in Taken by the Hand finds herself part of  a small community for Christmas, though, while Charlotte Fairlie remains alone until afterwards.  I’m not sure why I always read these books but something about them fitted my mood.

This is all in the past tense, however.  Last year I was in Norway for Christmas (where it was mostly warmer than it is here in lowland Scotland just now.  In Tromso, well inside the Arctic Circle, it was 10C on Christmas Day; in Stirling on Christmas Eve it’s around -5C) and I didn’t want to take books with me that I’d have to bring home again.  So I read a completely random selection, including The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder which was excellent (see last year’s blog).

Having broken myself of reading the same books last year, I haven’t gone back to them.  Instead I’ve spent this week reading books on my to-be-read pile: books that I’ve taken home from work, books that I’ve been given as presents and a couple of old children’s books that I bought myself (Maddy Alone and Maddy Again by Pamela Brown).  Still awaiting me is Murder at the Flood by Mabel Esther Allan.  This is a reprint by Greyladies of her only published adult novel.  Also on the pile is British Children’s Fiction in the Second World War by Owen Dudley Edwards.  I bought it at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and haven’t started it yet!

However the book that will keep me from re-reading my usual Christmas books is much more exciting than any other.  I bought it in November and started it immediately.  However, I got halfway through and then stopped.  This is  not because I wasn’t enjoying it but, rather, because I couldn’t bear to finish it.  Enough suspense?  Okay.  The book is a previously unpublished title by LM Montgomery called The Blythes are Quoted

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know how much I like her books and so you can guess how excited I was when I read that Penguin Canada was publishing this title.  It is a collection of short stories, poems and conversations between various members of the Blythe household.  Most of the stories and one of the poems were published in a collection called The Road to Yesterday (which, of course, I have) in the 1970s but the stories were edited, most of the poems and all of the conversations were missed out.  For me, reading The Blythes are Quoted is like meeting friends I thought I’d never see again and I am determined to make the meeting last as long as possible.

Living in an O Douglas Novel

I’m soaking myself in the novels of O Douglas this week.  I have a cottage by Tweed in Peebles and honestly the town still seems like a place Anna Buchan would recognise.  I’ve always loved Peebles but I’ve never stayed here before and I’m so glad to be having this week out from the madness that is my usual life. 

I’ve brought Christmas cards to write, CDs to listen to, there’s snooker on television and I have some of my favourite O Douglas books with me.  At the moment I’m reading The House that is Our Own, her last finished book, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.  I’ve just come out for a wander along the High Street (I’ve made it as far as the library) and I really wouldn’t be surprised to bump into Isobel Logan or Jean Jardine.

Unusually for me I haven’t brought any children’s books with me.  At least, I don’t think I have…  I have a brand new book with me, one about which I got very excited, that might be shelved in the teenage section (yes, I am a librarian!) but I think it’s actually an adult book.  Next time, I’ll tell you all about it…

A Book Launch in the Borders

A while ago I said that there had been one other book event in August about which I’d write later.  So, finally, here I am! 

On a pleasant Saturday evening at the end of the month, I drove down to Peebles for the launch of a new edition of Pink Sugar by O Douglas.  If you don’t know, I should tell you that O Douglas was the pseudonym of Anna Buchan, sister of John.  The story goes that she didn’t want people to associate her books with him and so she didn’t use her own name.  She did, however, draw very largely on her family and background in her books.

Mum collected the O Douglas books and eventually I did too.  We both loved them for the same reason: the strong sense of family and/or community that they all contain.  They are not just cosy family stories, though.  Anna Buchan was no-one’s fool and knew exactly what the world was like even is she didn’t choose to dwell on the depressing or the depraved.

Many of her books are set in Peebles-shire with which the Buchans had strong family ties.  Anna lived in the town for many years.  Pink Sugar is one of those titles and so it was an ideal place for the launch.  This new edition is published by Greyladies who are venturing beyond their original plan.  This is not a book for children or by a children’s author.  However, as Shirley Neilson said, it’s her business and she can expand the idea if she wants!  I’m glad she has done if it means that more books by O Douglas will be available.

The launch was attended by members of the Buchan family and representatives from the John Buchan Centre in Broughton and the John Buchan Society – as well as committed O Douglas readers like me.  It was a very enjoyable evening – there aren’t many opportunities to discuss the works of O Douglas with well-informed, enthusiastic fellow book lovers.

Of the book itself, I have to say that it’s not my favourite, although I do like it.  It tells the story of one Kirsty Gilmour who settles nears Peebles with her elderly aunt and three unrelated children.  It is not plot-driven but shows a clear insight into character.  Despite the title, it is not sweet and cloying and just about manages to avoid sentimentality over the children.

If you don’t have it, you should certainly buy it.  But also look out for second-hand copies of other titles.  I’d suggest The House that is Our Own, The Setons and Taken By the Hand.  Or maybe Greyladies will publish them too…