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.

The Salzburg Connection by Helen MacInnes

 The Salzburg Connection cover

The Salzburg Connection by Helen MacInnes was first published in 1968. I remember reading some books by the author way back in the 1970s but haven’t read any since then, after reading this one I’ll have to track down as many others as I can because this was a really great read with loads of twists and turns.

It’s set some twenty-one years after the end of World War 2 but there are Nazis still around, they’ve been searching for things that had been hidden by them at the end of the war. There’s a bit of a race on to track down and recover a metal box which it’s thought has been hidden in a lake called Finstersee which is surrounded by the Austrian alps. Several such boxes have been found over the years, the Russians would also like to get their hands on this one, although what it might contain is a mystery.

This is a Cold War setting with spies and double agents galore – a great read.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge.

Helen MacInnes was born in Glasgow and went to Glasgow University where she got a degree in French and German before going on to get a diploma in librarianship at London. During her librarianship career she chose the books for libraries in Dunbartonshire, which happens to be where I worked in libraries, but she was there decades before my days there.

Her husband was a British agent for MI6 and no doubt his experiences helped to fuel her imagination for espionage. Her second book Assignment in Brittany (1942), was required reading for Allied intelligence agents who were being sent to work with the French resistance against the Nazis. Four of her books were made into films. Later in life she and her husband moved to the US.

Have you read any of her books?

Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart

Madam Will You Talk? cover

Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart was first published in 1955 but my copy is from 1969 as I think you would have realised from the cover. When I was reading this book I didn’t realise that it is actually the first book that she had published, it certainly doesn’t read like a first effort.

Charity is a young widow and when she decided to go on a road trip to Provence she asked her close friend Louise to accompany her. Not long after arriving at their hotel Charity befriends David an English teenager who is staying there with his French step-mother. It transpires that David’s father Richard has been tried for murder but has been acquitted, and when Charity overhears a conversation she realises that Richard is in France and is trying to track down his son. She is sure that David is in danger, he certainly seems to be terrified of his father.

I really enjoyed this book which is a mystery, adventure, romance and travelogue all rolled into one. There are some lovely descriptions of the countryside and there’s a hair-raising high speed car journey with Charity as the expert driver, something quite advanced and new for a female character in 1955 I think.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge.

The Shrouded Way by Janet Caird

The Shrouded Way cover

The Shrouded Way by Janet Caird was published in 1973 and it is one of the books that Peggy brought from the US for me. I have to admit that I had never heard of the author before Peggy started reading her books, which is strange as Caird was Scottish.

The Shrouded Way reminded me very much of Mary Stewart’s writing, well of her adventure/mystery books, and I enjoyed the way the mystery started almost from the very beginning, with Elizabeth Cranston discovering a body in a tractor when she is driving to visit her Aunt Jenny who lives in the small Highland fishing village of Mourie.

There are some strangers in the village where over the years there has been a belief that there is a sunken boat containing treasure just off the coast of the village. The strangers include Crane Maclean, a wealthy American who is the new laird and he intends to finance the search for the treasure, promising that if they find it he will give it to the villagers for the good of the community.

All is not well though, and more villagers end up dead. Elizabeth has attracted the attentions of the laird and the school teacher who is also a new arrival in the village. But Elizabeth has her doubts about both of them.

I enjoyed this one although for me it somehow dragged a wee bit around the middle of the story, however that might just have been me rather than the fault of the book and I’ll definitely be looking out for more books by Janet Caird.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge.

The Fair Miss Fortune by D.E. Stevenson

 The Fair Miss Fortune cover

The Fair Miss Fortune by D.E. Stevenson was published by Greyladies in 2011, it was one of those books that D.E. Stevenson’s agent couldn’t get anyone to publish back in 1937 when she wrote it. At the beginning of the book there’s a correspondence between Stevenson (under her married name Peploe) and Mr Curtis Brown, her agent. He was explaining to her that publishers felt that the book was a bit too old fashioned as it featured identical twin sisters and mistaken identity. Having read the book I can see what the publishers meant, but on the other hand it’s a mildly entertaining read of the marshmallow or fluff variety.

The village of Dingleford in England is peopled by the usual widows, bachelors and retired army colonels, it is of course a time when Britain still had an empire so one of the bachelors is home on leave from the army in India.

When Jane Fortune appears in the village with the intention of turning an old house into a tearoom, helped by her old nannie – she quickly attracts the attention of two young men. They are a bit perplexed though when they realise that she doesn’t seem to be quite the same person as they had met before, and often seems not even to know them.

Throw in a truly ghastly smothering, selfish mother of a grown up son and and you have a reasonable light read, but this one doesn’t have the serious social aspects of some of her later books. It’s still entertaining though for when you can’t concentrate on anything too heavy.

I read this one for the Read Scotland Challenge 2017.

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.

Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart

Airs Above the Ground cover

Airs Above the Ground was first published in 1965 but my paperback copy is from 1967, I really like the cover and I found the book to be a great read. In fact I’m sure that if this book had been written by a man it would have had a much higher profile and might have been made into a film. A lot of it is full of suspense, it’s much more of an adventure/mystery than for instance – John Buchan’s books, in my opinion.

On page one the Guardian newspaper is mentioned as the main character Vanessa March is a Guardian reader. Presumably Mary Stewart was also one as she incorporated a classic Guardian misprint in an article from the newspaper. The word ‘churned’ appears when it should have been ‘burned’. In case you don’t know, the Guardian is affectionately called the Grauniad as the typesetters were always making mistakes. Of course nowadays it’s all done on computers so that isn’t such a problem – or feature.

Anyway, back to the book. Chapter one begins in Harrod’s tearoom where Vanessa March is having tea with her mother’s old friend Carmel. Vanessa has only been married for a few years and she’s had a bit of a ‘domestic’ with her husband Lewis as he has had to change their holiday plans at short notice. From something that Carmel says – it seems that Lewis might not be where he says he is and so follows the adventure with Vanessa travelling to Austria in search of the truth and Lewis, with help from Tim – Carmel’s seventeen year old son who is in need of time away from his suffocating mother.

Tim’s a huge fan of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and the Lipizzaner horses, and he’s very impressed that Vanessa is in fact a trained vet. With the storyline moving on to a travelling circus featuring animals (a pet hate of mine) it was a bit of a wonder that I wasn’t put off by that, although circus acts don’t feature too much.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge. Sadly I don’t have too many of Mary Stewart’s books still to read now, I think I’ve read them all except My Brother Michael and maybe Madam Will You Talk.

Recent book purchases – Mary Stewart

I’ve been looking for these Mary Stewart books and although I had been hoping to find hardbacks in a secondhand bookshop, I decided to settle for the copies in the photo below when I found them in a Stockbridge, Edinburgh bookshop. The covers are so of their time. Airs Above the Ground is a 1967 reprint, it was originally published in 1965. Mr Brother Michael was published in 1959 but this reprint was published in 1971 – the eighth impression.
Mary Stewart
I did read a lot of Mary Stewart’s books way back in the 1970s but I think that I missed Airs Above the Ground and My Brother Michael back then, so I’m really looking forward to reading them soon – for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge of course.

If you are a regular visitor to ‘Pining’ then you’ll realise that Stockbridge in Edinburgh is my favourite stamping ground for books, but when I’m there I never take any photos of the place, I’m too busy perusing book and charity shops and also it’s quite a busy area so it would be impossible to take photos without getting a lot of people in them. So if you want to know what Stockbridge looks like have a keek here.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

 His Bloody Project cover

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet was of course shortlisted for the Booker prize, I haven’t read any of the others shortlisted or indeed the winner but I can’t imagine that they would have been as good as this one. Burnet portrays Culduie and its surrounding areas and inhabitants so well, down to the rivalry that there often is between one settlement and the nearest neighbouring one, who tend to be seen as barbarians for some reason. The book is set towards the late 1860s and it’s 1869 when everything comes to a head.

The subtitle of the book is Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae. More than half of the book is written by seventeen year old Roderick Macrae who is in a prison cell in Inverness, accused of the murder of three of his neighbours. Roderick has admitted to the deed, in fact he could hardly deny it as he had walked through the tiny hamlet of Culduie in the Highlands – covered in their blood.

After a campaign of bullying by Lachlan Broad – the local constable and a figure of authority tasked with seeing that the inhabitants of Culduie kept the area in order – Roddy snapped, the last straw being when an eviction order was delivered to his father.

Roddy’s relationship with his father was a strained one, which only got worse after the death of his mother who had been a bit of a buffer for him, protecting Roddy from the worst excesses of his father’s Presbyterian strictness which included beating Roddy on a weekly basis for no real reasons.

Roddy’s advocate hopes to prove that his client committed the murders when he was more mad than bad, it’s the only thing that will save him from the gallows.

But when it comes to the actual trial Roddy’s account of things doesn’t tally with the forensic evidence from the bodies. Something doesn’t quite add up.

Of course there’s a lot more to this book than that, but as ever I don’t want to give a blow by blow account of it. It’s a great read though, but not exactly an uplifting one.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge. Jack has read it too.

The Gaudy by J.I.M. Stewart

The Gaudy cover

The Gaudy by J.I.M. Stewart was first published in 1974 and it’s the first book in his A Staircase in Surrey quintet.

J.I.M. Stewart is of course better known as the crime fiction writer Michael Innes, but the books he wrote under the name of Stewart are supposedly more literary, he certainly sprinkles them with quotes and Latin anyway, but that isn’t too distracting. The author was also an academic working as a lecturer at Oxford as well as other universities and in these books he uses that experience and background for his settings.

The Gaudy is the annual re-union dinner at an Oxford college and the Scottish playwright Duncan Patullo has never been to one before in the 20 or so years since he graduated. Nor has he met up with any of his old friends in that time. Duncan has been busy carving his successful career over those years. He has decided to attend The Gaudy this year and has been allocated his old room in college.

Meeting up with old friends is a bit of an eye-opener as the one who was girl mad and what would nowadays be called a ‘serial shagger’ is now a bishop and has a very low opinion of the morals of the students nowadays! Another friend has just been appointed to the cabinet in government, the least likely friend seems to be a spook in the secret service.

There are still some students around as there are re-sits going on for those who failed their exams. The story involves quite a bit of snobbery with the usual differences between the state school educated students and those who were sent to posh schools at great expense. There’s definitely a them and us thing going on between the students and this ends up in disaster for one of them.

I enjoyed this book but not nearly as much as I remember enjoying the next one in the series, The Young Patullo, which I read back in the 1970s. I never did get my hands on The Gaudy back then so I can’t compare my feelings on that one.

The Financial Times said: ‘Wit, acute observation, clever plotting …. As a gallery of characters it leaves nothing to be desired.’

If you are thinking that Patullo is a strange surname – it is actually an old Scottish surname although you could be forgiven for thinking it must be Italian or something.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge – my second book for that challenge.