20 Books of Summer 2017 update

I’m doing quite well with my 20 Books of Summer 2017 list this year although I had meant to do a bit of a half-way roundup before now. I have veered slightly from the list for various reasons, but I’m still hopeful of finding my copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet before September. I did a fatal tidy up before some visitors arrived and now that book is lost in the stacks which is very annoying as before that I knew exactly where it was – on the floor!

1. London Match by Len Deighton
2. I Claudius by Robert Graves
3. Highland River by Neil M. Gunn
4. The Demon in the House by Angela Thirkell
5. The Dove of Venus by Olivia Manning
6. City of the Mind by Penelope Lively
7. The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons
8. Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts
9. This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart
10. Flowers for the Judge by Margery Allingham
11. Claudius the God by Robert Graves
12. Pied Piper by Nevil Shute
13. Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd
14. Katherine Wentworth by D.E. Stevenson
15. The Bertie Project by Alexander McCall Smith
16. A Memorial Service by J.I.M. Stewart
17. The Madonna of the Astrolabe by J.I.M. Stewart
18. Redgauntlet by Sir Walter Scott
19. High Rising by Angela Thirkell
20. Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

Highland River by Neil M. Gunn

Highland River cover

Highland River by Neil M. Gunn won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1937 and I’m trying to make my way through as many of the winners as possible. It’ll be a long haul as there are a lot of them.

This is just the third book by Gunn that I’ve read, I think so far The Silver Darlings is my favourite.

Highland River is set around the Dunbeath area of the Scottish Highlands.

It’s really the story of Gunn’s childhood. It was a hand to mouth existence and the story begins with Kenn being sent out in the dark of early morning to get water from the well situated near a pool. It’s freezing and Kenn slips and falls in the water, but in doing so he realises that a huge salmon has become trapped in the pool, and so begins a battle to catch it with his hands. This is an aspect of the book that reccurs time and time again, in fact too much for me, it might appeal to those who are interested in unusual fishing techniques.

The Scottish Highland childhood chapters are interspersed with chapters about Kenn and his brother’s experiences in the trenches of World War 1 and I would have been happier with the book if there had been more of those. Gunn never was involved in that war though so he probably felt he was better off sticking to writing about what he knew about. He was a customs officer/excise man from 1910 until he was able to earn enough from his writing to become a full time writer in 1937.

He was active politically and was a member of the National Party for Scotland part of which later became the Scottish National Party. He died in 1973.

As it happens, when we were travelling home from our recent trip to Orkney we stopped off at Dunbeath which is a very small place, but is in a beautiful area of Caithness. They’re proud of their ‘local hero; and have erected a statue of Kenn with his massive salmon, a scene from this book. The photo below is of the river that runs through Dunbeath, it’s called Dunbeath Water, and is presumably the Highland river from the title.

Dunbeath Water

There’s also this lovely statue of Kenn and his salmon, a scene from the book.
Kenn + Salmon

I also read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge and it’s one of my 20 Books of Summer.

Orkney Book Purchases

For some reason I never gave any thought to the book buying possibilities in Orkney, but as we were driving around Kirkwall looking for a place to park I spotted a sign saying those wonderful words – Secondhand Books. Luckily after visiting the town centre, Saint Magnus Cathedral and two Historic Scotland properties we were able to walk back to the car and find the bookshop not too far away. So my haul was.

Latest Book Haul

1. The Tall Stranger by D.E. Stevenson
2. Evensong by Beverley Nichols
3. Hunting the Fairies by Compton Mackenzie
4. Rogues and Vagabonds by Compton Mackenzie
5. Cloak of Darkness by Helen MacInnes
6. North from Rome by Helen MacInnes
7. Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp
8. Off In a Boat (A Hebridean Voyage) by Neil M. Gunn

Six of them are by Scottish authors so they’ll come in handy for the Reading Scotland 2017 Challenge.

Have you read any of these?

The Silver Darlings by Neil M. Gunn

 The Silver Darlings cover

The Silver Darlings by Neil M. Gunn was first published in 1941. The setting is mainly the coastal areas of Caithness in the north-east of Scotland in the early 19th century. It’s a time of upheaval, especially in the Highlands of Scotland. Inland crofters have been moved out of their crofts and land and have been transported to the coast where they are expected to take up fishing as a living, despite the fact that they know nothing about it. As crofters they had worked the land, but that land was required for sheep by their landowner, often the head of their clan.

These ‘clearances’ caused terrible strife but in The Silver Darlings the original fishermen of the village have been remarkably calm about the influx of newcomers and have shared their knowledge of the sea with them.

I really enjoyed the first half of this book more than the second half, I suppose because I was more interested in the domestic side of it. Early on some of the transplanted fishermen have been press ganged into the Royal Navy – as was quite common in those days. That leads to disaster for newly married Catrin as her husband Tormod is one of the ones who has been snatched, leaving the pregnant Catrin to struggle on on her own. She gives birth to a son Finn, but she’s in a limbo as she has no idea if her husband is alive or dead. This puts a break on the possibility of a relationship with Roderick who is the most skillful of the local fishermen.

As Finn grows up the local fishing industry goes from strength to strength. The silver darlings of the book title is the nickname given to the herring that brought riches to the area, not only for the fishermen but for the women who gutted the fish and for the various others involved, such as coopers and fish smokers.

This book is beautifully written, and it’s easy to imagine the landscape and seascape. I’m always impressed not to say aghast at the size of the trawlers that fishermen ride the North Sea in nowadays, but that is obviously nothing compared with the wee fourteen foot long sail boats that Roderick and his crew went out in, often fighting mountainous seas and always in danger of not making it back to land safely.

The Silver Darlings was chosen as a readalong for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge. Jack read the book last year and if you’re interested you can read his thoughts on it here.

Morning Tide by Neil M. Gunn

Neil Gunn was born in the far north of mainland Scotland, in Caithness. Morning Tide was published in 1930, and he stuck firmly to what he had experienced himself. It’s the story of a small fishing and crofting community near Caithness, at the end of the 19th century, where life is harsh and the women don’t know if their husbands and sons will come back after their day’s work is done. All too often the sea claims them before they can get back to shore with their catch.

The story begins on the beach where the thirteen year old Hugh Mac Beth is searching for mussels for his father to use as bait on his fishing line. It feels like a sort of rite of passage as Hugh has reached the age when he can be a help to his father instead of just being another mouth to feed.

Neil Gunn writes a good storm and if you’re languishing in horrendous heat wherever you are at the moment, I’m fairly sure that reading this book would cool you down by the way Gunn describes the cold of the sea and the shore.

This is an autobiographical story and it’s really as much about the women of the community as the men. Young and old are having a hard and sometimes cruel life and the community is dying as the young men go off to seek their fortune elsewhere. Waving off their sons to places like Australia was something that the parents just had to do, knowing that they would never see them again, but at least they would be alive and hopefully living a better life.

Hugh grows up in lots of ways, like being allowed to take part in a poaching party but he can’t neglect his schoolwork and he has to learn poetry by heart, failure to do so will result in the schoolmaster doling out the usual punishment – getting the strap/belt/tawse – up to six strokes of it on the hand.

If you’re interested in what Scottish life was like back then then I think that Morning Tide will give you a clear idea. It wasn’t all doom, there were occasional joys for the folks too.

This book is written in plain English and Neil M. Gunn is thought to have been one of the most influential Scottish writers of the first half of the 20th century.

Library book sale

You know what it’s like when you look forward to something for ages, you can almost guarantee that you’re going to be disappointed. Well that’s how I felt when I got to the library sale at the Adam Smith Theatre last Saturday.

Mind you after having perused my haul again – I’ve got a bit of a cheek not being happy with it, it’s just that I didn’t get anything which I had really been looking for.

So this is my haul:

The Borley Rectory Incident by Terrance Dicks
Morning Tide by Neil M Gunn
Faro’s Daughter by Georgette Heyer
The Foundling by Georgette Heyer
The Nonsuch by Georgette Heyer
Arabella by Georgette Heyer
Middlemere by Judith Lennox
Flambards by K M Peyton
Right Royal Friend by Nigel Tranter
Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I must admit that I prefer Heyer’s detective stories to her romances but I’ll get around to these ones sometime.

Nigel Tranter is a Scottish writer who writes good historical fiction.

I can hardly believe that I’ve not read To the Lighthouse yet.

I enjoyed Updike’s Rabbit series so I thought I’d give this one a go although it seems to be very different being about the king and queen of Denmark before the action of Shakespeare’s Hamlet begins.

Neil Gunn is another Scottish author of the 1930s.

I had meant to borrow something by Judith Lennox for a while now but hadn’t got around to it.

Flambards was a bit of pure serendipity because I had seen the book somewhere on the internet just a few days before and I hadn’t even realised till then that it was a book. I really enjoyed the series of that name when it was on the TV years ago. This was in the childrens section and I left it until late on before picking it up in case a kiddywink should want it – but it was left there looking forlorn so I didn’t feel that I was depriving anyone of it.

The Borley Rectory Incident is another junior library book and it’s written by the chap who wrote a lot of the Doctor Who books. Gordon went through a phase of wanting those books as bedtime stories and I just want to know what this one is like compared with them.

Now that I look at them all carefully I don’t know what I was moaning about at the beginning of this post, I’m quite pleased with my haul. Now I just need the time to read them all.