The Gourlay Girls by Margaret Thomson Davis

The Gourlay Girls  cover

The Gourlay Girls by the Scottish author Margaret Thomson Davis is the second book in her Clydesiders trilogy which was first published in 2000. The setting is Glasgow and it begins with young Wincey witnessing her grandfather’s death. She’s so shocked by it that she runs out of the house and wanders into a neighbourhood that she doesn’t know. She’s soaking wet and bewildered by the time young Florence Gourlay finds her in the street and takes pity on her and so takes Wincey to her own home where she knows her mother will feed her and sort things out.

The Gourlays live a hand to mouth existence in a two room tenement with three generations, the old Gaanny is a ‘greetin faced’ curmudgeon if ever there was one. Her son the father of the family is out of work like most of the men in the area. It’s the 1930s and work is scarce, so the Gourlay females, the mother and three daughters of the family have been taking in sewing to keep starvation at bay, but one more mouth to feed in the shape of Wincey doesn’t seem to be a problem for the motherly Teresa Gourlay.

Wincey’s own family is wealthy and from Glasgow’s west end, so the poverty stricken east end of Glasgow is a revelation to her, but it isn’t long before Wincey feels well-loved and cherished in her new family. That’s something that she never felt within her own family. A sense of shame and guilt over not helping her grandfather when he was dying leads Wincey to opt to stay with the Gourlays instead of making her way back home, the longer she stays missing the harder it is to go back home.

Margaret Thomson Davis could be described as the Scottish version of Catherine Cookson I think. She tells a good story, but isn’t the best writer. Although I enjoyed this book it annoyed me that the author hadn’t managed to write separate voices for all the females, with Teresa the mother’s voice being particularly anonymous, which is surprising as she was supposed to come from the Highlands originally, there was no sense of a Highland accent or dialect.

Otherwise I enjoyed it. The tale begins in 1932 and goes on to the outbreak of World War 2 and with the help of Wincey the Gourlays’ little business has expanded hugely, but that brings problems too.

I’ll definitely continue with this trilogy, the third book is Clydesiders at War.

Close Quarters by Angus McAllister

Close Quarters by Angus McAllister was published in 2017 and I decided to read it because Jack was literally shaking the bed with laughter as he read it. I have to say that although it is funny in parts, I didn’t laugh out loud.

The setting is Glasgow’s West End, which if you don’t know it is a rather cosmopolitan and up market area with expensive housing, due mainly to the proximity of The University of Glasgow and the attractions of the Botanic Gardens, a posh hotel and restaurants, eclectic shops, the BBC (once of Queen Margaret Drive but now housed elsewhere in the city) but also ‘normal’ pubs and shops.

A ‘close’ in Scotland is the communal entrance area and stairwell of a tenement building in Scotland. Most of the book features the inhabitants of 13 Oldberry Street, a tenement building which contains seven flats, and a small shop on one side of the ground floor. One of the longest inhabitants of the building is Walter Bain and close to the beginning we’re told that Bain is dead – murdered. It seems that the deed must have been committed by someone who lives in the building as the close security door hasn’t been damaged.

The rest of the book features how Walter Bain’s horrible personality impinged on the lives of his long-suffering neighbours. Bain behaved as if he owned the entire building and spent his time firing off badly spelled and ungrammatical notes to them whenever he thought they had committed a heinous offence – such as not shutting the gate, missing their turn at cleaning the stairs, or having their television on! Bizzarely his mantra is ‘this is a family building’ despite the fact that there are no children in any of the flats. His tyranny has ruled the building for years before someone snaps and does him in.

Suffice to say that everyone has a good reason to murder Bain, in fact – in other parts of Glasgow he would have been bumped off a lot sooner – but then there wouldn’t have been a book, there would just have been a few columns in the Scottish newspapers and a few minutes on the Scottish TV news!

There is humour in it, it wouldn’t have been Glasgow if there was no banter and I really enjoyed strolling around Byres Road and the West End, our old stamping ground, it just didn’t have me shaking with laughter and I guessed the culprit very early on, as did Jack to be fair. His review is here. I’ll definitely try some of McAllister’s other books in the future.

How late it was, how late by James Kelman

How late it was how late cover

How late it was, how late by the Scottish author James Kelman was first published in 1994 and it won the Booker Prize that year. I must admit that I find that amazing as this book is mainly a stream of conciousness and it’s written in a broad west of Scotland dialect – no problem at all for me of course, but even so I almost gave up on this one fairly early on.

If you are bothered by ‘sweary’ words then this one definitely isn’t for you as most of the pages in this book contain the ‘f’ word and even that nuclear bomb of a ‘c’ word. Sometimes there are three ‘f’ words in the one sentence, but I have to say that that is very true to a certain type of character and fits the bill exactly for Sammy.

Sammy is having a terrible time, he had gone out to the pub for a few drinks but had ended up drinking so much that he had lost track of time and there were big blackouts in his memory. He has lost his wallet and his new leather shoes and is wearing someone else’s smelly old trainers – too small for him.

The drink has turned him into a violent nutcase and when he attacks policemen he inevitably ends up being brutally beaten by them , so badly that he loses his sight – not that they believe him about that. A lot of the book is how Sammy copes with this devastating situation. He doesn’t look for any sympathy which is just as well as he doesn’t get any. What worries him more than anything is the fact that his partner Helen is missing. He vaguely remembers that he had a row with her but can’t remember anything else.

It was only the fact that this one won the Booker Prize that encouraged me to keep reading this one and I’m sort of glad that I did because Sammy is a great character who takes all his difficulties with stoicism, but I really didn’t like the ending as it just stops and the reader is left still wondering what happened to Helen, will Sammy’s sight loss be temporary – what happens next? We’ll never know.

I vaguely remember when this book won the prize against all the odds. It stills seems strange that the judges chose a book written in broad Glaswegian.

The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh

The Cutting Room cover

The Cutting Room is the first book that I’ve read by the Scottish author Louise Welsh, it was published in 2002 and was nominated for several awards, including the Orange Prize.

I mention that she’s a Scottish author, but it seems she was born in England, she must have moved to Scotland at a fairly young age I think because this book which is set in Glasgow is pure dead Glaswegian as far as the dialogue goes anyway. But it would be easily understood by anyone I think. It’s quite detailed on the dodgy background of auction houses, but I’m sure that wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

The blurb on the front says: ‘A stunning work of fiction’ Sunday Times – well I enjoyed it anyway although I think for more prudish readers some passages might be a much to take.

The story revolves around a Glasgow auction house where Rilke is an auctioneer, the business isn’t going very well so when they get a call to clear an entire housefull of antiques – if they can do it all within a week, they jump at the chance. The house owner has died and as he has no children it has fallen to his elderly sister to arrange everything.

She tells Rilke that her brother’s private office is in the attic, not easily accessible, and she wants Rilke to destroy whatever he finds in there. He finds some very disturbing books and photographs there and is loath to destroy them as he knows they are worth a lot of money, but it’s the photographs that haunt him and he starts inquiries of his own.

Of course as I knew all the locations the book had that extra dimension for me, being able to picture all the places mentioned and Welsh managed to make Rilke a likeable character despite his many weaknesses, including his penchant for having gay sex with random pick ups from time to time. It’s decidedly sleazy in a few places. It takes all sorts I suppose!

I’ll definitely be reading more books by Louise Welsh.

The Kellys of Kelvingrove by Margaret Thomson Davis

The Kellys of Kelvingrove was first published in 2010 and this is only the second book by Margaret Thomson Davis which I’ve read. I enjoyed the first one, The Clydesiders but this one really annoyed me, it’s set in Glasgow in the early 1970s which was a time when I was spending a lot of time in the city so everywhere mentioned was well known to me. Unfortunately it obviously wasn’t so well known to Thomson Davis, or whoever wrote the book, I’m beginning to think that maybe it was franchised out to be ghost written, as sometimes happens when a previously successful author has stopped coming up with the goods for their publisher. This seems to be the last book which was written by the author, so maybe she was just getting a bit too old and forgetful when she wrote it – if she did.

Jack Kelly is a Glasgow policeman, married to Mae and they live in a rented room and kitchen, having a very frugal lifestyle. Jack dreads getting into debt. That was the first thing which annoyed me because it made out that policemen weren’t well paid, when of course they were, even before taking into account overtime.

After he was involved in the Ibrox Stadium disaster Jack didn’t feel the same way about his neighbourhood and decided to rent a much larger house in the much posher area of Kelvinside, close to Kelvingrove Art Gallery. That’s when Mae starts getting into financial difficulties, unknown to Jack.

That’s as much as I’m going to say about the storyline which is thin and not credible to me but there were lots of details which were wrong and drove me mad. Such as the mention of Buckfast as the alcohol of choice for youngsters and winos. In the 1970s it was only Lanliq and Eldorado which were drunk by ‘alkies’. Buckfast hadn’t reared its ugly head.

There’s actually a mention and description of The Royal Concert Hall at the top of Buchanan Street which wasn’t even built until the late 1980s and the description of Buchanan Street itself is of as it is today – pedestrianised and a popular destination for buskers, which it definitely was not in the 1970s.

There were various other anomalies and a very tedious ‘history’ of Gretna Green. It might be fine if you aren’t a Scot and don’t know Glasgow well but it just wasn’t for me.

Do you ever come across mistakes in books like that, and if so, does it put you right off?

The McFlannels see it through by Helen W. Pryde

The ‘it’ which the McFlannels are seeing through in this the second book in the series, is of course World War 2. The McFlannels are all doing their bit as is everyone living up the same close in Glasgow. Mr McMuslin is an Air Raid Precaution Warden (put that light out!) and is fairly enjoying himself trying to organise his neighbours. Sarah McFlannel is really only interested in seeing the inside of the McMuslin flat though and when he implies that she can’t take part in the fire watching (looking out for fires caused by bombs) because you have to be under 60, Sarah is incensed, she’s not much older than 50.

The book is full of laughs although as they’re in broad Glaswegian – especially when it’s Willie McFlannel speaking – I’m not sure how well it will go down with non Glaswegians. For me though it brings back so many phrases that I had just forgotten about, and I love the relationship between Willie and Sarah McFlannel. Their children are almost off their hands now, but Willie is still always looking for a ‘wee cheeper’ (a kiss) from Sarah, and Sarah is always being shown up by her husband’s broad Glaswegian accent. Long may it live!

In this one Willie ends up in hospital, having had an accident at work. He keeps dropping in and out of consciousness and one woman says:” Ah mind when Ah had ma operation for ma perspirated stummuck, there wis a wumman in the next bed that was aye drappin’ intae unconsciousness like that, and she was deid in hauf an hoor.” Poor Sarah isn’t amused.

There are quite a few books in this series but the first two have hit the mark with me because the first one was all about the McFlannels flitting and moving up the housing ladder, just as we were arranging our flitting. At the end of The McFlannels see it through they are thinking about downsizing as the kids have grown up, we followed the same pattern as I was reading the books. I wonder what will happen in the next one.

Whatever, I’m sure that there will still be a rivalry between Mrs McFlannel and Mrs McCotton, it’s what’s keeping them going!

I read this one as part of the Read Scotland 2014 challenge.

The Cabinetmaker by Alan Jones

The Cabinetmaker cover

The Cabinetmaker is the first foray into crime fiction by Alan Jones and I hope it won’t be his last because I really did enjoy it. The setting is Glasgow, starting in the early 1970s and ending in 2009.

John McDaid is the newest recruit to the CID and he finds himself in a department full of detectives who are less than careful about their work and the way they gather information. When a young student is jumped in a Glasgow street by a group of thugs, and ends up dead, the resulting investigation is compromised by the behaviour of the older detectives.

Over the years McDaid forms a friendship with Francis the victim’s father. Francis is a talented and successful cabinetmaker and watching him at his craft awakens a love of woodwork in McDaid. The workshop parts of the book contain some of the best writing. Alan Jones conjures up the scene perfectly, describing the techniques involved in making various pieces of furniture.

The main character of McDaid is very likeable and I do hope that Jones will be able to use him in another book. The storyline has some very clever twists and turns but the language of the police station which is mainly at the beginning is what is usually described as ‘strong’ – don’t let that put you off. Jones wanted to be true to the ambience of the 1970s male dominated police force. I’m sure it’s all very authentic. Think of the TV programme In the Thick of It where the language is atrocious but according to those who know, in reality Blair, Campbell et al were actually even worse with the amount of swearing that really went on in Downing Street.

You can read Peggy Ann’s review of The Cabinetmaker here.

It just shows you that everything is relative as Peggy found the football/soccer parts of the book dragged a bit, whereas I thought those bits flew past. I’m assuming that that is because I’m well used to being bored stiff by my husband’s football chat!

If you fancy reading The Cabinetmaker you can buy it here. You can ‘look inside’ and get a flavour of the book too.

Alan Jones is Scottish and lives in Scotland, so this one would count towards the Read Scotland 2014 challenge.

Still Midnight by Denise Mina

Still Midnight cover

This is one of the books which I picked up on my last visit to the library. I’d been meaning to read something by Denise Mina for years but this one didn’t live up to my expectation so I’ll leave it a while before trying another one, just in case this one is not as good as the others.

It’s a crime novel set in Glasgow but it doesn’t have the feeling of Glasgow the way a book by Ian Rankin or Alexander McCall Smith exudes the atmosphere of Edinburgh. University Avenue which I’ve frequented for 35 years or so was unrecognisable. Apparently the students are all tall and tanned!!

There’s nothing much in the way of humour, no smart ‘patter’ between characters and in fact there are very few characters who are even mildly likeable and that always makes it very difficult to enjoy a book. You could say that I have no right to expect humour in a crime novel but sans humour – it just isn’t Glasgow. Christopher Brookmyre manages to do it in his crime novels, although he sometimes takes it a wee bit too far.

It’s the story of the Anwar family who have a small corner shop and when the father is kidnapped a ransom of £2,000,000 is demanded, but they don’t have anything like that kind of money.

I saw the ‘twist’ in the story from a long way off. The blurb has Val McDermid (another Scottish crime writer) saying ‘Denise Mina is set to carve a niche for herself as the Crown Princess of Crime.’ Which I thought was the funniest part of the book, I suppose Val sees herself as the Queen of Crime then!