The Classics Club Spin # 27

The Classics Club #27 has been chosen and it’s number 6 which for me means that I’ll be reading The Corn King and the Spring Queen by the Scottish author Naomi Mitchison.

I must admit that this one has been languishing on what is my second Classics Club list unread because I’ve been dodging it due to it being a chunkster – and a paperback, therefore is awkward to read. However I’m determined to read this one as I failed miserably in the last spin.

The Wind Off the Small Isles by Mary Stewart

The Wind Off the Small Isles cover

The Wind off the Small Isles by Mary Stewart was first published in 1968. The setting is Lanzarote on the Canary Islands, off the coast of Africa, and 23 year old Perdita is there with her employer Cora Gresham who is a famous English novelist. Perdita is her secretary and as Cora freely admits she half writes the books too. They’re busy seeking out settings for the books, but when Perdita drives down a country track which Cora wants to explore it leads to a house which Cora falls in love with immediately.

There are workmen outside the house and Perdita is sent to enquire about the owner as Cora wants to buy the place, but it turns out that Cora already knows the owner James Blair and he’s another English author – the house is definitely not for sale. Michael is working for James and it’s obvious that he and Perdita are interested in each other, and so begins a suspenseful adventure accompanied by the atmospheric descriptions that Mary Stewart was so skilled at.

This is a lovely little novella at just 96 pages, my copy has the original dust jacket and the beginning of each chapter has a small illustration by Laurence Irving. Unfortunately it seems to be quite expensive online but I was lucky to find a perfect copy for all of £3 in a secondhand book shop.

The Fascinating Hat by Isabel Cameron – 20 Books of Summer 2021

 The Fascinating Hat cover

The Fascinating Hat by the Scottish author Isabel Cameron was first published in 1941. The book begins with Jinty Campbell trimming a hat that she’s going to wear in a dramatic entertainment in the village hall the following week. She’s interrupted by the local minister who has a habit of just walking into people’s houses unannounced. With him is his nephew who is a doctor, he has come to stand in for the local doctor who is going on holiday. There’s quite a lot of snappy banter as the two young people seem to hit it off quickly, having a similar sense of humour.

The screeching of tyres in the street and a crash alert them to a taxi which has ended up on its side while swerving to avoid a child on the road. The young passenger has been knocked out, tended by Jinty who had been a VAD, and the new young doctor. But their patient has lost his memory and has no idea who he is.

Jinty is an apprentice at a firm of architects, planning to become an architect herself eventually. As far as she’s concerned it’s about time that houses were designed by women for women as men have no idea of how to design homes with women in mind, making a lot of unnecessary work for them. Cupboards too high up, the sink in a corner facing a wall, sometimes no sink at all, the dishes to be washed in a basin on the kitchen table, no cupboards for storage and unneccesary steps. Secretly her bosses have to admit that she has a point.

The architects had got a commission to build a wonderful large house locally, with no expense spared. Their client was abroad and wanted to come home apparently. As you can imagine Jinty is in her element.

This was an enjoyable read and I imagine that in 1941 it must have been very unusual to have a young woman with the ambition of becoming an architect, so that was quite a surprise to me. However the storyline took a weird turn when the patient’s memory was restored by an operation. I found the thought of that quite shuddersome as so many people in reality were damaged forever when doctor’s performed brain operations when probably what they needed was a good psychologist – or even a nice wee rest!

The House of the Pelican by Elisabeth Kyle

 The House of the Pelican cover

The House of the Pelican by Elisabeth Kyle was published in 1954 and is illustrated by Peggy Fortnum who is best known for illustrating Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear books.

The setting is Edinburgh during the Festival where Mr Foley has gone to play the trombone in an orchestra. His wife is dead and he has a son and daughter to bring up, it’s a difficult life for all of them as he has to travel around for work so they don’t have a permanent home. Pat isn’t a problem as he’s old enough to look after himself, but Janet is younger and that means it’s difficult for them to get accommodation, nobody wants to end up having to take responsibility for her while her father is at work. But Chris is a young girl who helps her mother run their boarding house in a poorer part of the city, and she takes their booking.

Janet is intrigued by Effie the fishwife who visits the boarding house every week carrying a huge basket of fish to sell. When Janet follows Effie she gets completely lost in the many wee lanes and wynds at the back of the Royal Mile and ends up in a condemned building where the elderly inhabitant shows her a golden box, but Janet lives in a bit of a dream world and tells so many ‘stories’ that nobody believes her. They don’t believe that the House of the Pelican exists.

This was my first Elisabeth Kyle read but I definitely want to read more of her books as I really enjoyed this one which I’m sure captured the atmosphere of the early days of the Edinburgh Festival.

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.

The Spanish Letters by Mollie Hunter

 The Spanish Letters cover

The Spanish Letters by Mollie Hunter was first published in 1964 but my copy is a Puffin book dating from 1972.

The setting is Edinburgh and the year is 1589, the end of January. Young Jamie Morton is a caddie in the city – that means he earns his living by doing messages for people, whatever is needed, maybe delivering a note to someone, a sort of odd job person who has to know the city inside out. He has been trained up by ‘the Cleek’ a much older caddie. There are a few hundred such males of all ages in Edinburgh, it might be a bit of a precarious living but Jamie likes it because he’s his own boss. He isn’t so keen on being starving half the time though.

When a young well known musician goes missing Jamie is asked to help track him down and so begins a tale of adventure, murder and kidnap with the Earl of Huntly – a favourite with King James involved.

There’s a ship from the Netherlands docked at Leith, Edinburgh’s port, and there’s a suspicion that it has Spaniards on board. Is there a Spanish plot afoot? A second Armada attempting to topple Queen Elizabeth. For once the Scots and the English are on the same side, well most of the Scots are.

This was a really enjoyable read, my first by the author but I’ve recently bought a couple of others. Her writing reminded me of Dorothy Dunnett’s adventures which is high praise indeed, but obviously not as convoluted (or long) as Hunter’s writing is aimed at youngsters. Her books are apparently all well researched so it seems like a painless way of learning history.

For anyone who has already read this book you might be interested in this blogpost that I wrote earlier, when I visited Huntly Castle in Aberdeenshire.

The Gates of Eden by Annie S. Swan

The Gates of Eden by Annie S. Swan was first published in 1893. This book is seen as her most successful one I believe and it was an interesting read for me as almost all of the action takes place within a couple of miles of my home. Unusually the author didn’t change the names of any of the villages involved in the tale. The main setting is a hamlet called Star which Annie S. Swan had moved to when her husband got employment there as a teacher in the wee school. They only lived there for two years, it must have been a bit of a culture shock for them as they would have been used to Edinburgh and Star was really at the back of beyond comparatively.

The story begins with the death of a young woman who has just given birth to twins, both boys. Before she died she asked her husband to make the eldest boy – Alexander (Sandy) a minister when he grew up and he was determined to keep his promise. The result was that Sandy was put above his younger brother James who was destined to help his father on the farm and was very much overlooked by everyone. Nobody seemed to realise or care that James was also talented and had dreams of his own, farming was drudgery to him, he wanted to be a writer. When Sandy left to go to St Andrews University James was deeply unhappy, especially as Sandy had always just taken for granted that he deserved the best things in life.

As you would expect Sandy had grown into a really self-centred snob with money and status being his god, which isn’t great for someone who is going to become a church minister, but James who has spent his time reading widely such people as John Stuart Mill, has turned into a really thoughtful, decent and compassionate human being. Still his father doesn’t appreciate James and it’s their Aunt Susan who has cared for the twins since their birth who eventually sees James’s worth.

This is a book very much of its time with a Christian slant but not overly preachy. The lessons are many – stick in and hard work will pay off, everyone deserves a second chance, don’t be a miser or proud and materialistic – forgive.

Locally Annie S. Swan is a bit of a heroine here for putting such small places in Fife on the map back then, but in truth, if you read her memoir as I have she was quite disdainful about the two years she and her husband lived in the area, but as she said – at least she got two books out of it.

There is a lot of Scots dialogue in this book, I can only surmise that back then readers were less easily put off by that, now many readers would find it too difficult or annoying to read. Interestingly despite the fact that there’s much mention in the book of the broad Fife speech it actually isn’t a Fife dialect, so perhaps the author couldn’t cope with that herself.

An Edinburgh Reel by Iona McGregor

 An Edinburgh Reel cover

An Edinburgh Reel by Iona McGregor was first published in 1968. I’ve been reading a fair few books set in historic Edinburgh recently and this is another one. The setting is mainly around the Royal Mile, six years after the battle of Culloden, so 1752.

Christine has left her family home of Strathdallin in the Highlands to go and meet her father in Edinburgh, it’s her first visit to the capital and she’s not impressed as the place stinks. So although her family home at Strathdallin had been trashed by the Redcoats after the battle and there are only a few rooms left standing and the roof is leaking, she’s still homesick for the place. Living in a couple of freezing rooms at the top of a tenement building doesn’t suit her at all, despite having friendly but much better off relatives living in the same building.

John Murray, her father has spent most of the past six years in France after he managed to escape from a prison hulk after his capture, he knows that he had been betrayed by another Scotsman after Culloden but doesn’t know his name. He’s still a loyal Jacobite and is determined to get back at whoever betrayed him.

When Christime first sees her father she’s shocked that the he doesn’t look at all like the handsome tall man that she remembers. She must only have been nine years old in 1745 and she has grown while her father seems so old and shrunken, he has permanent health problems because of his treatment by the English and his estate has been seized by the government, so they are penniless.

Christine is worried for her father as he’s in danger of getting dragged into another Jacobite plot and ending his days kicking on the end of a rope.

This was a great read, very atmospheric with a wee bit of a romance too. I’m sure that Iona McGregor got it exactly right when she has the wealthy Edinburgh inhabitants getting all teary eyed and sentimental over the songs sung about ‘The Chevalier’ – despite the fact that most of them hadn’t been supporters of the Jacobites during the Rising.

This book was apparently aimed at children aged 11 and over, but like all well written books it’s appreciated by people of all ages.

Bel Lamington by D.E. Stevenson – a book review

Bel Lamington cover

Bel Lamington by the Scottish author D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1961 and to begin with the setting is London although it does move on to the north of Scotland later.

Bel has been in her tiny London flat for 18 months but she doesn’t know any of her neighbours, she had had to move to London to find work after her aunt had died. Her parents had died long ago when she was a small child, so apart from her work in a shipping company the only joy in Bel’s life is her small garden which she has cultivated in containers on a flat roof outside her living-room window. So when she comes home from work one summer evening she’s not best pleased to discover that a strange young man has invaded her wee patch of heaven. It turns out that Mark is an artist, quite a good one and he wants Bel to model for him, which she does, but Mark turns out to be a bit of a flibbertigibbet.

Meanwhile things at Bel’s work aren’t going well, she lives in fear of losing her job as she has no money to fall back on so life is stressful, especially when the women who have been working there for years take a dislike to her. Well, she had been promoted over their heads so that was bound to cause friction. Things come to a head and Bel ends up travelling to Scotland to spend time with an old schoolfriend and her father. The Thames-Clyde Express takes her to Dumfries in south-west Scotland where Bel’s life takes a turn for the better.

This was an enjoyable read, especially when the story moved to Scotland, but I thought that the London workplace stresses and office were very authentic. I knew eventually there would be a happy ending and that’s the sort of book that I’m drawn to at the moment.

Dimsie Moves Up by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

Dimsie Goes to School cover

Dimsie Moves Up by Dorita Fairlie Bruce is the second book in the Dimsie series which I started reading recently. It was first published in 1921 but my copy dates from 1950. These books were obviously very popular as this book was reprinted eight times within those years.

In this book Dimsie is unexoectedly moved up a form along with several of her friends, with new girls arriving those who had done well academically the previous year need to move up to make room for them. Some of the older girls in the new form make Dimsie and her friends promise not to give flowers to any of the teachers. It’s something that none of the younger girls had even thought of doing. It’s explained to them that some girls go through a phase of being soppy over their female teachers or older girls. Nowadays we’d call it having a crush. Dimsie and her friends set up an ‘Anti Soppist Society’ as they don’t want anything to do with that sort of nonsense.

Dimsie Moves Up has quite a lot about games in it, but even if like me you were never keen on PE at school this doesn’t detract from the storyline

Nita Tomlinson isn’t a prefect but she has been made games-captain. Giving someone like Nita any power is just madness, she does her best to make trouble all round, stealing away best friends and generally throwing her weight around. I suppose she’s the sort of character that you love to hate, whereas Dimsie is a lovely girl, nothing startling in the looks or brains department, just a girl with plenty of common sense and kindness. She reminds me a bit of Darrell in Blyton’s Malory Towers series but I must say that I think Dorita Fairlie Bruce was a much better writer than Blyton was, although I loved her books as a youngster.

It has been mentioned before that the name Dimsie is an unfortunate choice, her actual name is Daphne and I’d plump for Dimsie any day rather than that. However I googled dim as in dimwitted and it seems that it was first used in that way in 1934. However another source cites it as being used in US colleges first in 1922, which is still after this book was published.