Vinland by George Mackay Brown

Vinland  cover

Vinland by George Mackay Brown  was first published in 1992 and I was attracted by its cover when I saw it in a St Andrews bookshop, the cover features a Viking ship  and the title seemed to promise something interesting as Vinland was the name that the Norwegian explorer Leif Erikson  gave to the land we now know as America, he voyaged there around about the year 1000. Sadly this book really should have been titled Orkney as most of the story takes place there. It’s the tale of Ranald a young lad from Stromness in Orkney who ends up stowing away on Leif Erikson’s ship after his father treats him so badly during his very first sea voyage with him to Bergen.

The time on Vinland passed very quickly as the First Nation people that they encountered were sensible enough to beat them off, it’s such a pity that the next tribesmen who encountered Europeans didn’t emulate them as then they wouldn’t be in the position they are today.

Anyway, back to the book. Vinland is written in the style of a Norse saga and it follows Ranald from his childhood through to his death at an old age. During his life on Orkney he realised that the violence and terror that had been the Viking way of life was no way to live and he settled down to cultivating the family farm. He never lost his longing for the sea though and dreamed of visiting Vinland again.

With Orkney being ruled by three brothers each with their own area and with the Kings of Norway and Scotland also laying claim to the place peace wasn’t always easy to come by.

I quite enjoyed this book but as I read the Orkneyinga Saga fairly recently and that is the actual Norse sagas about Orkney I wouldn’t have bothered to read this one if it had been titled Orkney as it should have been.

George Mackay Brown was an Orcadian writer, mainly a poet, and if you have visited the islands you might appreciate re-visiting them through the book as the geography of the place is so clearly described.

I’m counting George Mackay Brown as a Scottish author although he might not have been happy about that as the people in those northern islands sometimes take umbrage at that. Orkney was Danish until 1472.

Cloak of Darkness by Helen MacInnes – Readers Imbibing Peril XV

Cloak of Darkness cover

I still regard Helen MacInnes as a Scottish author as she was born and grew up in Scotland and graduated from The University of Glasgow, however she married an American and moved to the US in 1937.

Cloak of Darkness by Helen MacInnes was first published in 1982 and it was the author’s second last book, she died in 1985. Despite being in her 70s by then this book was just as full of suspense as her earlier books and as there’s not much chance of travelling right now it was good to travel vicariously with most of the action taking place in Switzerland.

Robert Renwick is an American ex-CIA man who is now working for Interintell which is an anti-terrorism organisation peopled by agents from various western countries. Renwick is in London with his young wife Nina when he receives a cryptic phone call telling him to go to a particular London pub. There he is given a list of names, it’s a list of targets for assassination, and his name is on it.

So begins an adventure full of suspense and mystery as Renwick takes on a group of illegal arms dealers who have friends in high places. He also has the added worry that they will target his wife given half the chance, he just doesn’t know who he can trust.

I’m so glad that I still have a lot of Helen MacInnes books left to read.

imbibing

Prefects at Springdale by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

 According to Queeney cover

I think I had been looking at Angela Brazil books when this author’s name popped up. I had never heard of her, but was interested to see that her books are mainly set in Scotland. Although Dorita Fairlie Bruce was born in Spain – hence her nickname Dorita – her name was actually Dorothy, she was really Scottish and apparently second only to Angela Brazil in popularity where school stories were concerned. Her books are set in Scotland, I recognised the area as being Ayrshire, the other side of the River Clyde from where I was brought up and quite a bit south. At one point some of the girls go on a jaunt with Dimsie to Arran which is a place I’ve always wanted to visit and intended to do it this year – but we all know what happened to that plan.

I don’t think it was just the setting that led me to enjoy Prefects at Springdale, which was first published in 1936, more than any Angela Brazil books that I’ve read. Somehow the schoolgirls seemed more authentic to me. Unfortunately the books can be quite expensive, there are seven books in this Springdale series and I inadvertently started off with the sixth one. Well, I was amazed to find this book in a pile at an antiques centre, the books are usually really expensive but obviously the seller didn’t rate this author highly as it was priced at £5, I snapped it up.

Anne is preparing to go back to Springdale School, packing her trunk when her sister Peggy tells her that she has received a letter from Diane, also known as Dimsie, a Springdale old girl who is now 23. She’s going to be working there as a temporary games-mistress until a permanent replacement can be found. Peggy is worried about Dimsie and wants Anne to look out for her. It’s going to be a bit of an awkward situation all round as some of the younger girls had rather idolised Dimsie when she was a senior girl.

This was a great read which seemed quite before its time with one of the girls being keen to become an archaeologist and another one being determined to train as a museum curator and luckily they both get a chance to get some hands on experience. There’s a bit of an adventure and a smidgen of romance and this one was an enjoyable trip back in time and place. I also like the rather stylish 1930s design of the book cover.

When I opened this book I discovered that a previous owner had left a wee cache of bits cut out from pop magazines, from the 1970s. I suspect that she wasn’t allowed to stick posters on her bedroom walls so made do with small ‘photos’ cut out. She was a fan of Gilbert O’Sullivan, Rod Stewart, Slade and two mystery chaps that I don’t recognise. I’ll try to take a photo of them and add it here later, maybe someone can enlighten me.

Whose posters did you put on your bedroom wall? I was devoted to Marc Bolan and T.Rex. I’m not even sure if teenage girls still do things like that nowadays.

Salem Chapel (Chronicles of Carlingford) by Mrs Oliphant – Classics Club Spin

It’s Classics Club Spin time again.

 Salem Chapel cover

Salem Chapel by the Scottish author Margaret Oliphant was first published in 1863, originally in the weekly periodical Blackwood’s Magazine, but I read a Virago reprint which dates from 1986, I think I’ve had it on my Virago shelf almost all of those 34 years! Salem Chapel is part of her Chronicles of Carlingford. Margaret Oliphant wrote over 120 books, she seems to have been one of those Victorian female authors who supported a larger extended family through her writing.

Arthur Vincent is a young newly qualified minister, a Nonconformist who has been chosen by the congregation of Salem Chapel to lead them. Very quickly it becomes obvious that the situation is not quite what Mr Vincent expected. Despite being Nonconformist and so not part of the more fashionable Church of England he is drawn to the more elegant and upper class members of the C of E. He’s really quite embarrassed by the members of his own congregation, they drop their aitches and use double negatives and are mainly small tradesman such as grocers, milkmen and day school teachers.

Mr Tozer is the senior deacon of the chapel so he’s in charge of the business side it seems, collecting the money from the churchgoers who apparently pay rent for their pews. But Mr Tozer deals in butter, cheese and bacon and his home smells of his wares. Mrs Tozer is kind but common and their daughter Phoebe is obvious in her admiration for the minister. But any minister would do.

This book is Victorian melodrama with a capital M. Really it would make a great TV series, much better than the very popular Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford was, having said that it really drags in the middle and the 461 pages could have been cut by at least 100 pages. There’s a railway chase down and up half the country which goes on too long, and there’s an attempted murder and possible abduction. Of course Oliphant would have been paid for each instalment of the book so it was in her best interests to spin the tale out as much as possible.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Miss Marjoribanks (pronounced Marchbanks) which is also part of the Carlingford series. Salem Chapel suffers from a paucity of likeable characters, although I don’t think that would be such a problem if it was dramatised for TV. Really the disdained Mr amd Mrs Tozer were just about the only people that I liked, but the idea of a person finding after years of study that their personality is not suited to the profession they have chosen is very realistic I think.

You can see what Jack thought of the book here.

The Turning Tide by Catriona McPherson

 The Turning Tidecover

The Turning Tide by Catriona McPherson was published in 2019, I’m glad that I’ve caught up with this series which should be read in the correct order if possible. Dandy’s family has just expanded by two as her daughter-in-law has given birth to twins.

The setting is the summer of 1936 and on the east coast of Scotland Dandy is feeling no need to shed her cardigan as there’s a keen wind, as usual! Dandy and Alec have been asked to investigate goings on at the Cramond Ferry. It doesn’t sound like their sort of thing and initially they decline to take the case on, then refuse the second plea, when the third request came along things at Cramond had deteriorated and they decided to take the case on. Apparently the ferrywoman’s behaviour was now so strange that she was refusing to ferry anyone out to the small tidal island in the middle of the Firth of Forth. There has been a tragic accident, the body of a young man has been fished out of the river and Dandy realises that she knows his family. When Dandy and Alec arrive at Cramond island the ferrywoman who goes by the name of Vesper Kemp is raving, filthy and is naked from the waist up. Alec doesn’t know where to look! Vesper claims she murdered the young man.

Various Cramond residents including the local minister don’t believe that Vesper is guilty, surely it was just an accident, but there’s no doubting that there are strange things going on in the small community. Dandy and Alec are the ones to get to the bottom of it all, assisted by Grant, Dandy’s maid who now sees herself as a key component of any investigation.

This was a good read and for me the fact that I know the settings of Cramond and Edinburgh so well added to the enjoyment. You can see images of Cramond here. However the tidal island off Cramond whih is featured in this book sounds much bigger than the actual island.

A Step So Grave by Catriona McPherson – Readers Imbibing Peril XV

A Step So Grave

A Step So Grave by Catriona McPherson was first published in 2018 and it’s the 13th book in her Dandy Gilvers series.

It’s 1935 and Dandy is crossing from the beautiful Scottish Highland village of Plockton to Applecross Bay, Wester Ross, in a small boat. She had expected it to be a smooth jaunt but the sea loch was choppy, it’s not something she’s keen to repeat any time soon. Dandy’s accompanied by her husband Hugh and her two sons, Donald and Teddy. They’re on their way to meet Donald’s future mother-in-law Lavinia, Viscountess Ross, she’s about to celebrate her 50th birthday. Dandy hasn’t met Donald’s fiancee Mallory, but she’s not at all keen on her, mainly because at the age of 30 Mallory is seven years older than Donald. Surely Mallory should have been married already at her age, maybe there’s something wrong with her?

It isn’t long before Lavinia’s body is found in the garden, but she’s surrounded by a fall of snow and there are no footprints at all in the area. How did the murderer manage that? Who would want to kill Lavinia and why? Then there’s another murder.

This was a good read, and it made a nice change to have the action going on in the Scottish Highlands instead of the Edinburgh area or Fife. There’s a wee glossary at the beginning as there are quite a few Gaelic words used, the tale features folklore but McPherson says in her ‘Facts and Fictions’ at the back of the book that most of the folklore is made up by her. Applecross is of course a real place and the manse which appears in the book is apparently available for holiday lets. I imagine that the owners were very happy to have the publicity as it sounds like a beautiful place for a holiday – and it’s fairly unlikely that you’ll be murdered there!

If you want to read this book you might be interested in what the scenery looks like. You can see images of Plockton here. Applecross images are here.

I read this one for Readers Imbibing Peril.

readers imbibing peril

The Citadel by A.J. Cronin

The Citadel cover

The Citadel by the Scottish author A.J. Cronin was first published in 1939. It was the fifth book that he had had published and prior to taking up writing he had been a doctor for ten years. The Citadel must have been cooking away in his head for several years before he wrote it. This book is much more important than most fiction as it has been regarded as having been instrumental in the setting up of the National Health Service.

At the beginning the setting is 1924 in a coalmining village called Drineffy in Wales where Dr Andrew Manson has taken his first position after graduating. He’s going to be the assistant to a doctor who has worked there for years and is popular, but Andrew quickly discovers that he will have to do all of the work as Dr Page is bed-ridden, having had a stroke. This doesn’t stop Page’s spinster sister from grabbing the vast majority of the money from the ‘business’ leaving Andrew with less than a pound a week for pocket money. It’s a miserable dirty and poverty stricken place but Andrew works hard and is popular and he’s interested in doing research into lung diseases so he has plenty of interesting case, and to cap his happiness he marries Christine, a young schoolteacher. But not everyone is happy with the young doctor, he has made some enemies and that culminates with Andrew leaving the village to work in a larger Welsh town.

Andrew and Christine eventually end up moving to London where he buys a deceased doctor’s practice, but most of his patients are poor so life is still a struggle. When Andrew meets up with one of his friends from university he can’t help being jealous of his riches. He wasn’t as clever or hard working as Andrew but had concentrated on looking prosperous and soon was, with wealthy patients, most of whom were not at all ill but were lonely or hypochondriacs. The successful medics were selling medicine which was mainly made up of coloured water with a bit of ether added. In fact they weren’t any better than snake oil salesmen. Andrew is seduced by the high lifestyle and as he gets richer his marriage deteriorates until he and Christine are barely speaking to each other. She longs for the countryside and a garden but spends her days standing in a cupboard making up the fake medicines.

A tragedy wakes Andrew up to what he has been doing, and he realises that so many of his Harley Street colleagues are charlatans doing much more harm than good and doing very well out of it financially.

This is a sad book at times, but is a great read and when it was published it was Gollancz’s highest selling book. As you can imagine Cronin made plenty of enemies, and a group of medical specialists tried to have the book banned which probably just about guaranteed its success.

The Citadel was made into a film in 1938 and there was a BBC adaptation in 1983.

My Friend Flora by Jane Duncan – 20 Books of Summer

My Friend Flora cover

My Friend Flora by Jane Duncan was published in 1962, it’s part of a long series of ‘My Friend’ books. These are generally a light-hearted keek into another way of life, the setting is the Highlands of Scotland, a remote crofting community where all families have a nickname. Often it’s just the name of the farm where they live. Janet Sandison’s family are all named Reachfar as a surname. Reachfar being the name of where they live.

It begins in 1915 when Janet goes to the small local primary school and meets Flora Smith for the first time. Flora is a few years older than Janet and her bye-name as they call it is Bedamned because her father is always using that word, but it seems that the bye-name is more like a curse on the family as disaster after disaster befalls them. For that reason this book is different from the others in the series that I’ve read, admittedly I haven’t got my hands on many of them yet.

Janet is sorry for Flora, it seems like a life of selfless drudgery with no thanks from anyone, particularly her harsh and morose father, but Flora is happy with her lot and her situation shows that what seems appalling to one person is a source of love and even pride to another.

Towards the end of the book the action moves to the USA briefly, via a trip on a ship and aeroplane, something that would have seemed very exotic to most readers of the book.

This was an enjoyable read despite Flora being the sort of character that you wanted to give a good shake and also some uncomfortable scenes involving a dog being tormented. There is comeuppance which is always a good thing.

20 books of summer

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.’

Glitter of Mica by Jessie Kesson

Glitter of Mica cover

Glitter of Mica by the Scottish author Jessie Kesson was first published in 1963. Previously I’ve read Another Time Another Place and The White Bird Passes and I enjoyed those ones but I didn’t like this one nearly as much.

The setting is rural Aberdeenshire in the north-east of Scotland, the parish of Caldwell and the book begins in the 1930s. Hugh Riddell is a farm worker who is never kept on after his year of contracted work is up, which means that every year he has to find a new job in the area at a different farm. His wife is sick fed up with the constant moving, she can’t even plant a garden as she would be working for whoever would take over the tied house that goes with the farm work. They had a son, also Hugh and it’s his family that this book is mainly involved with.

The marriage of Hugh and his wife Isa isn’t any more successful than that of his parents, Hugh despises Isa and she seems afraid of him, they did manage to produce a daughter though, Helen does well at school and goes to university, but her mother is disappointed that she is only doing a diploma in social sciences and won’t come back with the MA that past ‘scholars’ have attained.

Helen gets work as a youth worker and unknown to her father starts a relationship with Charlie Anson, someone else that Hugh despises. As you can imagine it all ends in tears.

There are some flashes of humour in this book such as ….for she was a tight woman and had she been a ghost she would have grudged giving you a fright.

The characters in this book remind me, if I ever needed to be reminded of why I am ‘pining for the west’ as they are almost all miserable and mean spirited and are their own worst enemies. Love doesn’t seem to enter into anyone’s life, people get married because they have to marry someone and quickly go right off them it seems. There’s only one character who seems to have any human warmth – and she’s the talk of the place – being a wee bit too friendly with some of the local men. But the women have to admit that she always hangs out a ‘bonnie white washing.’ High praise indeed among the women.

This is supposedly Jessie Kesson’s best book but I just found it too depressing, I have no doubts that it is a very true portrait of the area and the times. Some readers wallow in misery, but it’s not for me

You can read what Jack thought of the book here.