Katherine Wentworth by D. E. Stevenson

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Katherine Wentworth is a gentle romance set in mid-20th century Edinburgh and the Highlands. The book opens with a widowed Katherine living with her stepson and twins in Edinburgh. Unexpectedly, Katherine’s stepson is notified he is heir to his grandfather’s estate. After a strained and disheartening visit to the family seat in the countryside, Katherine wonders if she will lose her stepson to a life neither she nor her late husband wanted for him. Meanwhile Katherine has revived a friendship with a mostly selfish old schoolmate (Zilla) who also happens to have a kind and thoughtful brother in the picture (Alec). Zilla insists on sending Katherine to her highland cottage for a summer holiday and it is there that Katherine’s stepson must unravel his future and Alec must decide if he will take the next step with Katherine.

The author, Dorothy Emily Stevenson, was born in Edinburgh in 1892 and went on to write over 40 gentle romance novels during her career. And yes, she is related to Robert Louis Stevenson, her father being Robert’s first cousin. Dorothy’s books are comfort reading: the kind of book you want to curl up with on the couch when the gentle breezes of autumn bring a little chill to the air and you don’t have the mind strength for more strenuous readings.

Dorothy’s novels are filled with common, everyday experiences of her time. They are mostly set in little towns and villages throughout Scotland and England and many of the books echo Dorothy’s own experiences as a military wife.

Fans of Stevenson’s works are many. Thanks to some of them, you can have access to gargantuan spreadsheets that list every book, every location mentioned, characters, plots, etc. If you aren’t that interested in D. E. Stevenson, you may find this website of interest in learning more about her and her books.

Travel Notes: a good portion of this novel takes place in Edinburgh, several of the characters travel to Moffat for a day trip, and the remainder of the novel takes place in the Highlands.

The 39 Steps by John Buchan

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The 39 Steps by Scottish author John Buchan is a classic spy thriller included on many great Scottish reading lists. Written in an easy-to-read style, and at just 149 pages, this little novel is an excellent choice for light holiday (vacation) reading.

The story begins in the summer of 1914 in London where Richard Hannay is minding his own business but feeling he “was the best bored man in the United Kingdom.” Intrigue and adventure fall into his lap when he allows a man from the street into his flat (apartment). The man, Scudder, claims to have faked his own death in order to escape an international spy ring out to steal British political secrets. When Hannay finds his houseguest dead, he feels compelled to flee for his own life. He rushes off to the area of Galloway in southwestern Scotland, a fugitive on the run from the police.

More adventures ensue as Hannay flees from both the police and what now appears to be the international spy ring Scudder was afraid of. Hannay meets various people who help him allude his pursuers just in the nick of time. After many harrowing situations, including the need to build a simple bomb to escape imprisonment, Hannay is able to return to London where he alerts the government to the impending danger. However, it turns out the only way to prevent the top secret intelligence from leaving England is to decipher the meaning of the phrase “the 39 steps.” Can Richard Hannay find the answer in time?

This is a great vintage read, and if you find yourself becoming attached to the character of Richard Hannay you will be delighted to find that John Buchan wrote four more novels starring Hannay!

Travel notes: Much of this novel takes place in the region of Galloway. Richard Hannay takes dinner at a pub in Moffat on his way south to London.

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

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Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey is such a fun book choice if you want to read fiction set in modern Edinburgh. Part of “The Austen Project,” Northanger Abbey is a re-write of the Jane Austen classic by the same title. In keeping with the terms of the project, Northanger Abbey maintains the same plot and the same characters Austen created but creatively takes the setting to 21st century Edinburgh during the annual Edinburgh Festival.

Following the original plot, Catherine (Cat) Morland is invited to join her friends the Allens in Edinburgh for the Festival. There she keeps company with the Thorpe siblings who appear to like her but don’t seem to have her best interests at heart. Cat meets the handsome and well-mannered Henry Tilney (who happens to have an ancient home in the country named Northanger Abbey) and upon becoming best friends with his sister, Ellie, secures an invitation to stay with them at the Abbey. Along the way Cat’s brother is engaged to Bella Thorpe but Cat begins to question Bella’s sincerity. Will things turn out right for Cat’s brother and will Henry ask Cat to marry her? (And why is the death of Henry’s mother shrouded in so much darkness and silence?)

Of course there is no surprise ending or twist of plot in this book. Rather, the surprise is in how McDermid reinterprets 18th century personalities and events into modern day Scottish life. Edinburgh comes alive in a special way during the month of August each year when it hosts the Edinburgh Festival. This Festival includes music, theatre, opera, books, art, and street performers. One could spend their entire day (for three weeks) hopping around the city to various performances, lectures, and exhibits. There is a buzz in the air as the city swells with visitors eager to feast on the arts at the largest cultural festival in the world. McDermid captures some of the excitement and aura of the Festival in this story.

Plenty of place names are included in the book which helps to make it seem more real: all kinds of locations in Edinburgh (West End of Queen Street, Morningside, Lawnmarket, Arthur’s Seat, Haymarket, and Princes Street to name a few) as well places beyond (Glasgow, Linlithgow Palace, Stirling, Kelso, Loch Lomond, Jedburgh, and Melrose).

One of my favorite parts of the book is the constant mention of literature. You will find authors, books and series such as: Ian Rankin, Kate Atkinson, Swallows & Amazons, Famous Five, Harry Potter, Dracula, Middlemarch, Jane Eyre, Twilight, The Wasteland, Hunger Games, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, William Letford, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Burns, Henryson, Sir Walter Scott, Muriel Spark, and Pride & Prejudice Zombies.

McDermid ends the book with this quote: “The moral or message of this story is hard to discern. And that is as it should be, for as Catherine Morland found out to her cost, it is not the function of fiction to offer lessons in life.” I’m not quite sure I agree with that statement, at least not completely. It seems quite clear that the message of this Northanger Abbey is not to let your imagination run away with you to such an extent that you deny reality.

I have never been a fan of “re-writes,” but I found Northanger Abbey such fun that I’ve read it twice now! If I were packing for a trip to Edinburgh this is a book I’d considered putting in my suitcase!