Listening Valley by D. E. Stevenson

Listening Valley by D. E. Stevenson is a delightful, vintage romance set in both Edinburgh and the Scottish Borders during World War II.

This story follows the life of Antonia Melville, a dreary little girl growing up in Edinburgh with little excitement in her life. Antonia’s sister marries early but it appears there will be no beaux for Antonia herself. Quite surprisingly, a delightful, older man (Robert) takes an interest in Antonia and with his love Antonia begins to blossom into a capable, beautiful woman. The two move to London and Antonia’s husband takes up important war work. Together they weather the bombings of London. The stress and worry of Robert’s work eventually takes a toll on him and his health declines rapidly until Antonia is left a widow.

Now Antonia must learn to stand up for herself against her leech-like sister-in-law and niece-in-law. She must find a way to live on her own without them and manage her own affairs. She finds herself in the small town of Ryddelton, a fictional town in the Borders. Antonia begins to get to know her neighbors and becomes involved in entertaining soldiers from the nearby airfield. One of the soldiers (Bay) happens to be an old friend from school. Perhaps romance might develop between them except for Bay’s fiancé, a suspicious woman from France.

Listening Valley contains all the elements readers expect from D. E. Stevenson: descriptions of Scottish life, gentle romance, a return to the way life used to be, amusing characters who seem almost as if you might have met them, and of course an element of suspense that keeps us wondering if the right people will ever get together.

Travel Notes: a great vintage novel choice for reading in Edinburgh, the Scottish Borders, or Scotland in general. For more information on D. E. Stevenson check out this website.

The Middle Window by Elizabeth Goudge

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The Middle Window by Elizabeth Goudge is set in a remote glen in the Highlands of Scotland in the 1930’s. The story begins with the heroine, Judy Cameron, having a strange, vision-like experience in London which leads her to forcing her family and fiancé into going to the Scottish Highlands on their annual holiday. No one but Judy is happy when they arrive at a run-down manor house in the middle of nowhere with little heating, a grumpy servant who seems to know Judy already, and a boarded up “middle window” in the main sitting room.

A form of magic comes over Judy and through dreams and strange experiences she becomes as if two people living in two different time periods. Judy finds herself feeling more alive than ever. She feels strangely drawn to Ian Macdonald, current Laird of the house she is staying in who lives to create a utopian world there in the glen.

Eventually the book jumps back in time to tell the story of a Judith who lived 200 years previous. This Judith married the Laird Ranald Macdonald who was then immediately called away to fight for the cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie. The book narrates the tragic and difficult life of Judith as she waits at home for her husband as well as showing the cruel hardships the Jacobite supporters were going through at the same time. The “middle window” comes into play as the house is converged on by British soldiers in hot pursuit of the worn out Ranald and Judith attempts to warn her love of the soldiers appearance before Ranald walks into the trap set for him.

Back in the present, Judy is finding it hard to connect with her tiresome London fiancé and finds it strange that she and Ian already seem to know each other so well and may actually be in love. With themes of reincarnation, time travel, and wistful muses flying all over the place the book comes to a happy ending with the right people being matched up and the mystery of the middle window being solved.

Elizabeth Goudge has a huge fan club, myself included. But the votes are out on this book as some people love it, others hate it, and many of us in the “middle” find it worth reading for the nature descriptions and feel for life during the Jacobite uprising but just don’t go completely in for all the ethereal “nonsense” or the “sentimental Jacobite treacle.” Here are a few snippets of nature quotes from the book:

“….wet bracken and bog myrtle, the roses in the garden and the peaty smell of the hills just touched with a tang of the sea.”

“Then why live in Scotland if you don’t go in for shooting and fishing? I’m dashed if I know what you can go in for, except economy and getting wet.”

“How lovely the glen was, with its crofts and white-washed cottages, like an enchanted country, so hidden away that only its lovers could find it.”

“It was a glorious day of alternate sun and shower, with the colours of the mountains shifting and changing as the clouds swept over them, and always the hint of a rainbow across the heather.”

Travel Notes: a book to read if you are headed to the Highlands or want to get a feel for the Jacobite uprising of 1745.

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!