Rose Nicolson by Andrew Greig

Rose Nicolson by Andrew Greig is a great read. The setting is mainly Edinburgh or as it is written ‘Embra’ and St Andrews in Fife. It begins in 1574, the hardline Calvinist John Knox is dead and the woman that he despised, the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots has left Scotland, but it’s feared (or hoped depending on which side you are on) that she will be back with a French army to help her.

William Fowler lives with his parents in Anchor Close, Edinburgh, but his father is killed in the close when he goes out to see what all the noise in the street is about. It doesn’t change the plans for William though, he is sent to St Andrews University, while his mother takes over the running of the family business – moneylending. William discovered that he could help her by putting some business her way. St Andrews Cathedral is already a ruin after John Knox and his followers had wrecked the place years before. What had been a well-off Catholic institution, because of the pilgrims that had brought money into the place in the past is now a poverty-stricken small town with teachers being almost as poor as the students, the locals are mainly involved in the fishing industry, and it’s a fishing family that Rose Nicolson belongs to.

William had seen her when she was busy mending fishing nets and had completely fallen for her, it turns out that she’s his best friend’s sister, and like his own family the parents had had religious differences.

Will’s mother is involved in a plot to have the Catholic religion reinstated. The Scottish Reformation has introduced a much more unforgiving version of Christianity and there are those that think that it was much more fun when you could sin and then confess and be forgiven. There’s no such fun with Knox and Calvinism, where just about everything leads to hellfire!

Anyway, this is a great read, the locations are all so well-known to me and that always adds to the experience. I intend to take some photos of some of the locations, including the martyr locations in St Andrews which have their initials on the ground where they were burnt. Meanwhile you can see some photos of Anchor Close here.

This book’s plot didn’t go the way I had expected it to, there was a good twist at the end which I did half guess, but I really enjoyed the character of Walter Scott, who was an ancestor of Sir Walter Scott the author, he was apparently very proud of being a descendent of this Border reiver. Scott would have loved this book, as I did.

Jack read it after I did and if you want to read his much more detailed review and thoughts you can have a look at it here.

The Vanished Days by Susanna Kearsley

The Vanished Days cover

The Vanished Days by the Canadian author Susanna Kearsley is a prequel to her book The Winter Sea which I haven’t read, but I think this one can quite happily be read as a standalone. The setting is mainly Edinburgh 1707, the Union of Scotland and England, something which most ordinary Scots didn’t agree with but the ‘aristocracy’ sold the country for their own gain, so there’s discontent in the country. The tale loops back to the 1690s from time to time, and the disastrous Darien Venture which more or less bankrupted the country and led to the union with England. It’s suspected that the whole thing was an English plot. It was such a nice change to be reading about a different part of Scottish history as most authors stick to writing about the 1745 ‘Rebellion’, as if nothing else of significance ever happened in Scotland. Rebellion is in the air though with rumours of the French standing by to invade and help the Stewart King James III to regain the throne from the Dutch usurper King William.

Part of the settlement for the union is that England will provide money to pay off debts incurred because of the Darien scheme, including payments to the dependents of those who had lost their lives in Jamaica. Lily Aitcheson (Graeme) comes forward to claim her late husband’s wages, and Adam Williamson a former soldier has the job of investigating her claim, it’s suspected that she wasn’t actually married to her husband. But Adam is attracted to Lily and becomes embroiled in her life. There are lots of surprises along the way. This is not the sort of book that you could call a light read, but I loved it.

I was sent a digital copy of this book for review by Simon and Schuster via Netgalley.

The Black Book by Ian Rankin

 The Black Book cover

The Black Book by the Scottish author Ian Rankin is the fifth book in his Inspector John Rebus series. The setting is mainly Edinburgh but moves across the Firth of Forth to Fife from time to time as so often happens in this series. Rebus and Rankin both hail from Fife originally. It was first published in 1993 and it’s the first in the Rebus series which features his side-kick Detective Constable Siobhan Clarke. She’s a great character and really much smarter than Rebus, but he has the experience and local knowledge.

Rebus has moved in with Patience his girlfriend, she’s a doctor and is beginning to be impatient of his long working hours and broken promises. The writing seems to be on the wall for that relationship. To complicate matters Rebus’ younger brother Michael turns up – straight from jail.

Crime wise there’s an awful lot going on in this book, but Rebus is mainly focusing on a cold case. Five years earlier the Central Hotel in Edinburgh had burned down and a charred body was found in the ruins. They never did find out the identity of the body, but the hotel had been a bit of a den of iniquity, headquarters for all sorts of low life, including the biggest and most evil gangster in Edinburgh.

There’s violence but also plenty of humour and smart patter, so this was a really entertaining read. As the book is now 27 years old I suppose this can be seen as vintage crime now, it certainly often feels like that.

The Peppermint Tea Chronicles by Alexander McCall Smith

 The Peppermint Tea Chronicles cover

The Peppermint Tea Chronicles by Alexander McCall Smith was published in 2019 and it’s the latest in the 44 Scotland Street series.

This was an enjoyable read, perfect really for bedtime reading as the chapters are very short so if you suddenly get tired it isn’t far to the end of the chapter.

At the end of the last book the ghastly Irene decided to do a PhD at Aberdeen University, leaving her husband Stuart to look after their son Bertie and Ulysses who isn’t Stuart’s son, although Irene doesn’t know that we all know that! Everyone is glad to see the back of her. It’s obvious to Stuart that Irene will be continuing her relationship with the fellow psychologist and father of Ulysses in Aberdeen, so he feels that it’s the end of the marriage, even although Irene seems to think that Stuart is still very much hers to use and abuse. Will he have the guts to break free completely?

Bertie’s life has become more varied as his mother isn’t there to plan out all of his waking hours with psychology appointments and things he doesn’t want to do.

Big Lou, owner of the coffee shop discovers that having a child in her life has very much complicated matters.

Elspeth’s life out in the sticks, with a beautiful house and no money worries looks idyllic, but she’s bored stiff. I would tell her that she should try looking after her triplets herself, but I doubt if that would appeal to her!

Anyway, these books are humorous but also feature small ethical dilemmas. Not all of the characters work well for me, but probably everyone has their own favourites and might be different from mine. For me as ever it was pleasant to be in Edinburgh and the surroundings again, at a time when I haven’t been allowed to travel the 30 miles into the city from my place.

The Glorious Thing by Christine Orr

The Glorious Thing cover

The Glorious Thing by Christine Orr was first published in 1919 but was re-published by Merchiston Publishing in 2013. I must admit that I had never even heard of Christine Orr until I visited the Writers Museum in Edinburgh earlier this year. The museum is mainly dedicated to R.L. Stevenson, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott but there are some mentions of other Scottish authors such as Muriel Spark and Christine Orr, there is a small display case featuring some of her books. I’m quite ashamed that I had never heard of her, she apparently wrote 18 novels, was also a poet, theatre director, became head of the BBC’s Children’s Hour in 1936 and was instrumental in founding the Edinburgh Festival. Sadly it looks like this book is the only one which has been reprinted so I don’t think it will be very easy to collect the other 17 novels. Although The Glorious Thing is described as being a war novel, it’s really mainly from the Home Front within an Edinburgh family.

David Grant is back home in Castlerig not far from Edinburgh. He had spent two years in the trenches before he received a wound to his spine which led to a time in hospital that he found even more horrific than life in the trenches. But he isn’t happy, he feels weak, has trouble walking, his nerves are shattered and he feels depressed despite the fact that there’s a job waiting for him as a junior partner in his uncle’s law firm, and he has no money worries.

While visiting an art gallery with his sister Minnie, David’s attention is drawn to a young untidy woman, it’s her laugh that attracts him and later on he meets up with her and her large family of sisters. They are all living with their uncle as their parents are dead and I had to feel sorry for the man as the sisters are a fairly argumentative lot.

This is a very good read which focuses on the changing roles of women, politics, social history, atheism (very unusual for this time I think), religion and of course romance with quite a bit of humour too. There are some darling children – was there some sort of unwritten rule that Scottish female writers of the time had to conjure up cuties?

I really hope that in the future some more of Christine Orr’s books will be published. This one was published by Edinburgh Napier University and the proceeds supported Poppyscotland and Scottish Veterans Residences.

The back blurb says: ‘This book is a revealing snapshot of ordinary Edinburgh lives during an extraordinary time.’

A Time of Love and Tartan by Alexander McCall Smith

A Time of Love and Tartan cover

A Time of Love and Tartan by Alexander McCall Smith is one from the author’s 44 Scotland Street series and the setting is of course Edinburgh although towards the end of the book there’s a bit of a keek into Orkney. This book was published in 2017 so I’m a bit late in getting to this Scotland Street catch up. These books aren’t great literature, but it’s always good to find out what is happening to the inhabitants. Bertie is probably everybody’s favourite character and he’s still seven years old, he seems to have been seven for about three books. and he’s a bit of a miracle child as he has managed to survive and even thrive despite the behaviour of his ghastly mother Irene. At last it seems like things are looking up for him and his father Stuart, there are changes afoot for them. Will they ever get to that promised land – Glasgow? It’s a place they both hanker after although Bertie had decided that he would have to wait until he was 18 before moving there.

Pat has an encounter with Bruce her ex boyfriend, it’s one of those moments when all readers will be saying – no don’t ever go back!. Matthew, the father of triplets gets into a very embarrassing situation involving an old teacher of his. The newly married Domenica is wondering if she has done the right thing and Big Lou is as ever keeping everyone going with her coffee.

The doings of the characters are interspersed with lots of philosophical and ethical meanderings and even some comments on artists by the Scotland Street artist Angus Lordie.

Alexander McCall Smith uses these books to register his own opinions about modern life, and in this one he takes on the rampant feminism that we have in many government workplaces now where he believes men are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to promotion as political correctness has gone crazy. I think that any job should go to the best candidate, no matter which sex they happen to be, so I have sympathy with his sentiments. This is an enjoyable read, although a bit disjointed.

The Bertie Project by Alexander McCall Smith

 The Bertie Project cover

The Bertie Project is the latest offering from Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street series. I was in two minds whether to read this one or not despite the fact that I’ve read all the others but as I recall I didn’t enjoy the previous one so much, mainly because life for Bertie is moving so slowly – it’s not getting any faster.

Bertie is still on a treadmill of his mother’s making such as – Italian conversazione lessons, yoga, weekly visits to a psychologist (it’s Irene his mother who needs those).

Stuart, Bertie’s father is just about at the end of his tether. He has been completely emasculated by Irene who it transpires even made him walk down the aisle to her when they got married and insisted that Stuart promised to obey her.

So when a chance meeting with a pleasant woman in Henderson’s vegetarian cafe leads to him realising that not all women are obnoxious like Irene – the inevitable happens and Stuart falls for her.

Hallelujah! (I said anyway) and Stuart’s mother said something similar when she found out as it hasn’t been easy for her to watch her son being bossed and bullied by Irene. Honestly I thought Irene was going to get her comeuppance – but not for long. I suppose the ghastly Irene is just too good a character for McCall Smith to think of getting rid of her permanently – I live in hope of it though.

Jack read the first Scotland Street book as it appeared in a ‘must read’ list of Scottish books, but he was less than impressed by it, mainly I think because it was so obviously meant for throwaway publication in a newspaper. You can read what he thought of it here.

McCall Smith’s own attitudes are really beginning to annoy me though. He’s labeling Irene a fascist, well she’s definitely intolerant of anyone different from her, but she’s also apparently (shock horror) a Guardian reader, something that the author seems to despise. Also I’m a bit fed up that the only time he veers away from wealthy Edinbuggers as characters was to ‘slum’ it in Glasgow where the characters were criminals!

I’m beginning to think that these books will be looked back on in years to come as being terrifically snobby, even more so than say Angela Thirkell’s books are nowadays. I suppose though he is just writing about the Edinburgh that he has experience of.

An amendment on the inside flap of this book says: Oops! On page 1 of this book and elsewhere, the Turner Prize, as Bertie would be quick to point out to us, has been misprinted as the Turner Prise; no disrespect to the prize was intended. The problem is due to a computer error whereby words ending in – ize e.g. size or seize have been changed to -ise endings.

Oops indeed, especially as there are quite a few mentions of Turner Prise due to the author having a bit of a bee in his bonnet about it.

I read this one for 20 Books of Summer 2017 and the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge.

The Revolving Door of Life by Alexander McCall Smith

 The Revolving Door of Life cover

The Revolving Door of Life by Alexander McCall Smith is the latest in his 44 Scotland Street series. I didn’t enjoy the previous one as much as I had some of the others, but this one was better I think.

Bertie is still only seven years old, I reckon that that is the third book in which he is still seven. At the end of the previous book Bertie’s mother Irene has gone on a trip to the Persian Gulf and she has somehow ended up being taken captive in a sheik’s harem there. Irene is a very pushy and truly ghastly sort of female Edinbugger, a keen devotee of the child psychologist Melanie Kline and that has led to her trying her best to emasculate poor wee Bertie – perish the thought that he should want to do anything ‘boyish’ or even wear anything normal such as blue jeans. Bertie must wear pink dungarees. Her long suffering husband Stuart is enjoying the respite and fears that Irene will find her way back to Edinburgh all too soon. Meanwhile his mother has come to help him look after his two sons – Bertie and Ulysses.

The lack of Irene is probably why I enjoyed this book more as she is so annoying. As ever there are moral decisions to be taken by many of the characters in the book. Such as – is it fair game to set up someone you know to be a gold-digger in order to rid your father of her attentions? Everybody makes the correct choices and everything is hunky dory – if only real life were like that!

Bertie’s ambition is to move to Glasgow as soon as he legally can – and he thinks that is when he is 18, at this rate he’s never going to reach there which is a real shame because I would love it if McCall Smith continued the series in Glasgow at some point.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge, my 35th or possibly 36th.

The Hangman’s Song by James Oswald

 The Hangman’s Song cover

The Hangman’s Song by James Oswald is the third book in his Inspector McLean series.

Edinburgh’s police headquarters is in chaos as the ongoing restructuring of Scotland’s police forces has meant that Chief Inspector Duguid – or Dagwood as he is sometimes known as is the temporary boss. McLean has a very low opinion of Duguid and the feeling is mutual. Duguid is piling lots of extra work onto McLean and at the same time is removing officers from his cases, sending them on needless training courses at Tulliallan police college.

However when a series of hangings take place in the city there are enough odd details to make McLean feel that they are anything but the straightforward suicides that Duguid insists they are.

McLean is having as much trouble with his work colleagues as he is with the investigation, jealousy is leading some of the more immature in the force to play stupid but expensive pranks on the financially independent McLean and at times he does wonder himself why he is bothering to remain in the police force. Luckily for us he realises that that would be giving in and doing just what his colleagues want.

I’m really enjoying this series which should be read in order but I agree with Jack that it could do without the spooky elements which really don’t add anything.

If you want to read what Jack thought about this book, have a look here.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.

The Book of Souls by James Oswald

The Book of Souls cover

At last I got around to reading The Book of Souls by James Oswald, it’s his second book and just as good as his first one I think. The setting is Edinburgh of course, where the Lothian police are struggling with a shortage of staff. It’s the run up to Christmas and an inmate at Peterhead prison has murdered the Christmas Killer aka Donald Anderson, a serial killer who killed ten women over a ten year period – all of the murders happening at Christmas.

Just after Anderson’s burial copycat murders take place in and around Edinburgh, leading Detective Constable Tony McLean to wonder if Anderson was really murdered, or had he somehow duped everyone.

As ever this is a well written book although as not many things in life are perfect, there were a few things which I could have done without. As in his first book there’s an element of spookiness in the shape of a demonic book, things like that just don’t appeal to me because demons don’t exist.

I was surprised that there’s a Glaswegian hardman/gangster character who is almost a carbon copy of one who appears in Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street series, even down to them both living in a rough council estate but having two semi- detached houses knocked into one. It could be a coincidence I suppose or maybe Oswald did it deliberately as a sort of homage – weirder things have happened.

As a Glaswegian myself I do wonder why writers have to take themselves over to Glasgow when they want to find a hardman. They must exist in Edinburgh too and Dundee, Aberdeen and probably even in Auchtermuchty as well!

Two books feature in the storyline, one is about the earlier serial killer, giving precise details of his crimes and the other is The Book of Souls, the demonic bit which I could have done without.

Also I did notice that on page 53 there is a mistake in a character’s name – Peter Robertson’s name was morphed into Peterson, and for a minute I thought another character was being introduced. And if I’m really going to be nit-picking I did notice that there seemed to be people doing an awful lot of ‘errands’ which is a word which isn’t often used in Scotland ‘messages’ is more appropriate I think – well I told you I was nit-picking!

I read this one as part of the Read Scotland 2014 challenge, it counts towards it as although Oswald is English, he does live in Fife where he runs a 350 acre livestock farm, raising pedigree Highland cattle and New Zealand Romney sheep.

PS

James Oswald has since been on Twitter (which I am not on) – saying that he was actually born in Scotland but went to school in England, which is presumably why he has an English accent – poor soul! Also he has never read anything by Alexander McCall Smith so the similarities with his Glasgow hardman are completely coincidental.