The Public Image by Muriel Spark

The Public Image by Muriel Spark was first published in 1968. The setting is Rome and it’s about a young actress called Annabel Christopher. The Italians call her the English Lady-tiger and she’s married to Frederick who was also an actor when they first got married, but Annabel’s career has gone from strength to strength whilst Frederick found it difficult to get work. He eventually takes to screen writing instead, but he’s obviously very disgruntled at his wife’s success, and spends his time trying to chip away at her confidence. Annabel is supposedly a bit dim but of course she’s anything but dim.

It’s at a time when image is everything and so it’s very important that the paparazzi see the Christophers as the perfect married couple. Time and time again Frederick has told himself that he will leave Annabel, he has had a string of affairs over they years, but then Annabel gets pregnant and he delays leaving her again.

Meanwhile Billy O’Brien, a long term friend of Frederick’s since they were at drama college together is equally jealous of Annabel’s career and he does his best to cause trouble for Annabel and Frederick too, whilst pretending to be a friend.

I find Muriel Spark’s work to be very ‘curate’s eggish’ in that for me her books are hit and miss-ish and often just good in parts. I thought this was one of the more enjoyable ones but I found the ending somewhat underwhelming and just unsatisfying. I’m glad I read it though, I gave it three stars on Goodreads, I would have given it 3.5 if possible. My favourite of Spark’s books is still The Girls of Slender Means, but I think I’m quite unusual in that.

The Spanish Gardener by A.J. Cronin

The Spanish Gardener cover

The Spanish Gardener by Scottish author A.J. Cronin was published in 1950 and was made into a film in 1957, it looks like you can see the whole of the film online, if you’re interested. It stars Dirk Bogarde, worth watching for him alone but as I recall it’s an enjoyable watch. Actually I’m not sure if enjoyable is the word, given the storyline. It’s probably more acccurate to describe it as an interesting look at a psychological type.

Cronin was a doctor, a local GP in a small town (Dumbarton) in the west of Scotland and as such must have met a lot of characters in his daily life, some of whom inspired/appalled him so much that he felt the need to get their characters down on paper and write tales around them. He seemed to specialise in men who were bullying, self centred obsessives, going from the books of his which I’ve read in the past.

Mr Harrington Brande is an American consul who has been sent to a small town in Spain to do his diplomatic bit, he isn’t at all happy about being given the post as he thinks that he should have been given the top job in Madrid and he feels that he has been overlooked for promotion again and again. By Brande’s estimation he is superior to almost everyone, a sure sign of people that are in fact inferior to the rest of us. His feelings of superiority and snobbery leave him open to being easily manipulated by people who know his weakness for the upper classes.

Brande’s wife has left him, she was unable to stand his suffocating and controlling nature and was driven to leave him and their son Nicholas. She wasn’t allowed to have a normal relationship with her son anyway, not even having a say in what he would be named.

Nicholas has been treated as an invalid all his life, so not surprisingly he is a weakling, never having been allowed to go out and do what normal boys do. He has to spend a lot of time in bed reading, no fun for a 9 year old, but the beautiful surroundings of their new home entice Nicholas to go out and walk in the garden, where he makes friends with a 19 year old gardener, Jose.

Jose is supporting his whole family on the pittance that he manages to earn as the gardener, but he is also a very talented pelota player, a sort of local sporting hero. When Brande realises that Nicholas and Jose have struck up a close friendship he is consumed by jealousy, feeling that Jose is taking Nicholas away from him, so Brande sets out to punish Jose, with devastating consequences.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge.

Another Time Another Place by Jessie Kesson

Another Time Another Place by Jessie Kesson was published in 1983. The setting is rural Scotland, early on in World War 2. Kesson writes about what she had experienced in her life so her books are very autobiographical. If you’re the sort of reader who expects to experience a roller coaster of emotions in everything you read then you probably won’t be interested in this type of book which is as much a social history of a time past than anything else.

A young woman who didn’t have much confidence in herself ends up marrying a young farm worker, much to her surprise as she never thought any man would want her. Her life is all farm work, the men around the place have not been called up for war as their work of growing food is essential.

When three Italian prisoners of war are billetted on the farm it causes some upset. It seems to some that the prisoners are more free than the locals, they even have bicycles provided for them, when the locals have to buy their own – or can’t afford them. One of the Eye-ties is after the young wife, he’s after just about anything in a skirt mind you and to be fair her husband only seems to be interested in money.

I really like Jessie Kesson’s writing, her descriptions of the countryside and rural life remind me of Willa Cather and in some ways Irene Nemirovsky too. From a social history perspective I can’t help thinking that it’s just as well that most of the people in such rural communities would have had no experience of any other sort of life, because it was so narrow, all hard work for little money and not a lot to look forward to except the changing of the seasons – or having Italian prisoners of war billetted next to you.

I read this one as part of the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge, it’s my 11th so far, I think I’ll manage to get to 20 before the end of the year.

Dandy Gilver and The Unpleasantness in the Ballroom by Catriona McPherson

The Unpleasantness in the Ballroom is the latest Dandy Gilver investigation from Catriona McPherson. This one is set in Glasgow in 1932 and the whole city is dance crazy. There is a big dancing competition coming up and none other than Victor Sylvester will be officiating.

The Locarno Ballroom in Sauchiehall Street is the venue and Theresa, better known as Tweetie is one of the contestants. She’s the very spoiled and self-centred daughter of a wealthy businessman and her dancing partner is a young man who works for Tweetie’s fiance. The other contestants are very much more down to earth, typical Glaswegians.

When Tweetie starts to get various threats, such as being sent a dead stuffed bird – her parents are understandably worried and call in Dandy and her side-kick Alec to try to track down the perpetrator, and keep an eye on Tweetie.

This was a good mystery with a particularly enjoyable setting for me as I knew everywhere mentioned, and in fact the street that I was born in is even given a mention. The various different types of tenement flats are described in detail which will be of interest to people who haven’t frequented any.

I was a bit disappointed that gangsters featured in this book – thinking that yet again Glasgow is being portrayed as a wildly violent place, but in a note at the end McPherson does say that gangsters had been a problem in the city up until the early 1930s, after which the police seem to have got to grips with the problem.

If you want to have a wee keek at what The Locarno actually looked like, click here.

This book counts towards the Read Scotland 2015 challenge.

Mrs Tim Gets a Job by D.E. Stevenson

Mrs Tim Gets a Job

Mrs Tim Gets a Job by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1947. It’s maybe not quite as funny as her earlier Mrs Tim of the Regiment but it’s still very enjoyable.

It’s at the back end of World War 2 and Tim is still based in Egypt, and it’s going to be quite some time before he eventually makes it back to Blighty. Hester is soon going to be at a loose end as their son Bryan is at boarding school and their daughter Betty is just about to go away to school too.

So when Hester’s friend Grace announces that she has found a job for Hester she’s in two minds as to whether she should accept the position or not. As a middle-class army wife she has no real experience of being a housekeeper, which is the job on offer in a Scottish Borders hotel.

After some swithering she decides to accept it, despite being warned that the lady owner of the hotel is a somewhat difficult character. After a somewhat shaky start Hester begins to enjoy herself and finds that she is valued by the locals and the hotel guests. The American guests try to talk her into going to the US to work for them, but that has no appeal for Hester. She has a conversation with one of them who tells her that: There are at least half a dozen perfectly good reasons why she wants me. Perhaps the chief reason is that I always seem happy and it would be pleasant to have me in her home.

This surprises me vastly, and I tell her so.
She asks if I am really happy, and if so, why.

Feel quite unable to answer these questions offhand.

Mrs Wilbur says thoughtfully that she has come to the conclusion that English women are happier than their American sisters, and she can’t think why, because it seems to her they have a pretty poor time of it. Is it their natures? Is it something in the air? Do I think she should take that as her jumping-off point when she gives her lecture on the Spirit of English Womanhood?

I inquire why Mrs Wilbur thinks happiness is so important.

She looks at me in amazement and says the pursuit of happiness is one of the chief aims set forth in the Declaration of Independence.

This silences me completely, but Mrs Wilbur insists that I must explain my views on the subject. She presses me so hard that at last I am forced to admit that I think the pursuit of happiness an ignoble aim and a selfish aim, and as selfish people are never happy – a foolish aim.

Mrs Wilbur exclaims. “Well fan me with a cup of broth!” and looks so shattered that I feel I ought to order a cup of broth immediately.

That made me laugh. I’m definitely going to use fan me with a cup of broth in the future. D.E. Stevenson was very definitely a Scottish author and was in fact related to Robert Louis Stevenson, so this one counts towards the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge.

The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison

The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison was first published in 1933 and it features in the Top 100 Scottish books. Jack is intending to work his way through that list and he thought I would enjoy reading this one. Which I did, as did Peggy Ann, you can read her review of it here.

The setting is the Highlands of Scotland, a manse which apart from the minister and his wife houses their three young daughters. The story is told through the observations of the youngest girl Lisbet. Her two older sisters Julia and Emmy are reaching the age when they are going out and about a bit and meeting other young people, life beyond the strict atmosphere of the manse beckons but it’s a more complicated life which ends in grief.

Some people think that the story is similar to that of the Brontes and as the author also wrote a biography of the Brontes I can see why they would think that, there are three daughters and the father is a self-centred tyrranical misery, but for me it was the writing of Willa Cather which was brought to mind. The ability to conjure up a sense of place in beautiful descriptions is always a winner for me and I think it’s a very Scottish/Celtic trait in writing, where the place is as much a character as any of the people.

The tale veers towards Thomas Hardy in its sense of doom and drama, but not quite as dark and depressing as his writing can be. The Gowk Storm is described as – ‘lyrical, passionate and a real page turner.’ I’ll definitely be looking for more of Nancy Brysson Morrison’s books.

Below is a wee taster of her writing.

I sat for some time on the western side of the dyke, looking over the moor and stared at the bare ground so long that I saw it veined with deep dark colours, wine red, ruby and prune, drawn to the surface by the sun. Amongst the peat hags were little raised islands with tufts of long grasses sprouting from them, which made me think of fantastic hedgehogs. Grasses purple when in a mass, bent whispering and sighing before the wind, but I was so protected where I sat that it scarecely fanned my face.