The Distant Echo by Val McDermid

The Distant Echo cover

Strictly speaking I read most of this book in 2017, but it’s the first one I’ve finished in 2018.

The Distant Echo by Val McDermid is the first in her Karen Pirie series, but she doesn’t turn up in this book until nearer the end of it when she’s been given the task of investigating a cold case going back 25 years or so to 1978.

The action begins in St Andrews, Fife, around the Christmas holidays where four male students are out celebrating at a local pub. It’s freezing and snowy and on the way home they stumble across a woman who is breathing her last in the snow. She has been stabbed and there’s blood everywhere.

The local police seem determined to pin the murder on the students who are almost locals and are known as ‘the lads fi’ Kirkcaldy’, another town in Fife about 20 miles from St Andrews. The ‘gentlemen’ of the press are quick to be judge and jury, so suddenly the four witnesses are suspects and everyone is turning against them.

The action moves on to 25 years later when the ‘lads’ have settled in their various occupations, but the past catches up with them unexpectedly and the nightmare begins again.

This is the first book by McDermid that I’ve read, apart from her Jane Austen re-write of Northanger Abbey. I was quite surprised by it, mainly because I had it in my mind that her writing would be a bit more cerebral – silly of me really as probably if it was then her books wouldn’t sell as well as they do.

I found this book to be just an okay read, I’ll probably give it three stars on Goodreads, but I suspect that most of my interest in it depended on me living close to all the locations and knowing the areas involved so well. McDermid even mentions a woman that I knew when I lived in Kirkaldy and she has her characters walking around so many of the local roads where I lived until recently.

I really had to suspend my disbelief towards the end of the book and I don’t think it’s fair when an author withholds information from the reader in the way that McDermid did – but maybe that’s just me being picky.

I’ll probably give the next one in the series a go to see if the Karen Pirie character grows on me, but so far McDermid has been a bit of a disappointment.

Ninth Life by Elizabeth Ferrars

Ninth Life cover

Ninth Life by the Scottish author Elizabeth Ferrars – or E.X. Ferrars as she seems to have been known in the US – was first published in 1965.

I enjoyed this one which was more of a mystery than murder mystery – for 85%-ish of it anyway.

Caroline lives in London on her own and works in an office, she’s always beeen independent but when she needs to recuperate after having her appendix removed she agrees to go to Fenella her much younger married sister’s house until she’s well enough to look after herself again.

They have a rather fraught relationship as Fenella feels that her older sister is too domineering and she has kept Harry her husband away from Caroline so this is the first time the two will be meeting.

Harry isn’t at all Fenella’s usual sort, he’s older than she is, not particularly good looking and has given up journalism, supposedly to concentrate on writing a book. Meanwhile he and Fenella have opened their lovely old home as a guest house.

But Fenella knows that Harry has more money than he should have. Where is the extra money coming from?

The blurb says: The brooding atmosphere explodes into violence and death. Miss Ferrars achieves a high suspense, not by fireworks or blood-baths, but by the precise observation of character and mood, and by her skill in surprising the reader at the climax.

I agree.

The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett

The Disorderly Knights cover

The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett is the third book in her Lymond series and was first published in 1966.

I had a look at Goodreads to see what other readers thought of this one because although I loved the second half of the book there were parts of the first half that dragged for me. I really wasn’t too keen on the bits that were set in Malta and Tripoli, but by the time the action switched back to Scotland I found myself sitting up in bed – still reading at 2.30 am.

I don’t even think that this book is really perfect for bedtime reading as you have to concentrate on it, but when it got to 2.30 I had sworn to myself that I would put the light out at the end of the chapter and then I noticed that the next chapter sub-heading was Dumbarton, April/May 1552 – which just happens to be the town that I grew up in! I forced myself to give up for the night though, despite dying to know what was going to be happening at Dumbarton.

As it turned out I was slightly disappointed because Dunnett didn’t describe the town’s surroundings at all, which makes me think that she didn’t go there to do any research as there are lots of lovely hills and crags around Dumbarton to describe, and the castle rock is visible for miles around and would have been even more so in those days. Mind you nowadays you could just get on the internet and look at Google earth if you want to describe a location.

Dunnett wound this tale around actual historical events and a few of the people were real too. As ever I really started to dislike Lymond a lot, for most of the book he seemed like an out and out baddie, but I should have known better by now. When he gets back to Scotland he has the job of training a large amount of men who are going to be used to keep the rule of law in the Scottish Border country where the land has been constantly fought over by the Scots and English, in truth those Border families were only ever interested in their own survival, seeing themselves as being on neither the Scottish or English side, and who could blame them for that. Lymond is also thinking of himself as he is being employed by the English to keep the peace in the Border lands, but that’s easier said than done.

Meanwhile Graham Reid Malett/Gabriel who is a ‘high heid yin’ in the Noble Order of Knights Hospitallers is making a good job of putting Lymond in a bad position, making him look like an absolute swine!

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Modern One

Some years ago I blogged about the art installation that has been added to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. I thought it was just a temporary thing, a reaction to the financial melt-down of 2008 but obviously it isn’t. In Alexander McCall Smith’s recent Scotland Street book The Bertie Project he mentions this installation. He’s not happy that the word ‘alright’ is there instead of ‘all right’. He has his character Domenica complaining of the use surmising that it must be deliberate as Kingsley Amis desribed ‘alright’ as ‘gross, crass, coarse and to be avoided,’ and Bill Bryson, hardly a fuddy-duddy describes its use as ‘illiterate and unacceptable.’

Domenica admits that she feels very old-fashioned in expecting people to be able to spell. It’s one of McCall Smith’s meandering conversations that often bring in modern morality or ethics.

But a more recent installation in the gallery across the road and several years on from the melt-down is taking a much more pessimistic and possibly Calvinist attitude to our situation.

View from Dean Gallery

It seems we’re done for!

View from Dean Gallery

Winter and Rough Weather by D.E. Stevenson

Winter and Rough Weather cover

First published in 1951 Winter and Rough Weather by D.E. Stevenson is the third and last book in her Dering series which is set in the Scottish Borders. I found it an enjoyable read and all the loose ends were dealt with albeit a wee bit abruptly at the end. It is of course an old-fashioned family tale with a smattering of romance.

I can’t make my mind up what it is that makes these books such comfort reads. Is it the characters? The high moral standards (that sounds so pious but the obnoxious and clueless of country ways new neighbours are clear cut baddies). Maybe it’s the decency of the locals and the sense of community that add up to a fine place to visit vicariously.

At the end of Music in the Hills (the second book in the series) James and Rhoda have decided to get married, it was a difficult decision for Rhoda as she knew it would mean re-locating from London to a remote rural area in the Scottish Borders, as a successful artist she felt like she might be giving up her career. James persuaded her to take a risk and marry him but she hadn’t realised that they would be living in a cottage with no electricity or phone, five miles from a neighbour and with a very poor road in between.

The story involves a bit of mystery with fatherless children who had been evacuated to the area with their mother during the war. She has always been very reticent about her past and seemingly uncaring of her children to the point of neglect. When Rhoda takes an interest in the boy who it turns out has a talent for art, it leads to their father being found.

D.E. Stevenson wrote light romances often with a Scottish setting, very reminiscent of O.Douglas books. It has been mentioned by a few people that in Winter and Rough Weather Stevenson concentrates on the boy and fairly quickly drops his sister from the storyline. This is such a typical thing with Scottish mothers and women of that period that I almost don’t even notice it. If you’ve read O.Douglas books too you’ll remember that she always had a young lad as a central character, very much the favourite – almost in the position of a ‘house god’.

It’s a sad fact that Scottish women of the past held sons and males in general as being much more important than females. I remember that a character in one of Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy comments that ‘in Scotland female children didn’t count’. Daughters were for helping with the housework. Thankfully this attitude has disappeared – I hope.

You can read a far more detailed review of this book over at Leaves and Pages although the book is called Shoulder the Sky there, presumably a title for the US market.

The Golden Bird – Two Orkney Stories by George Mackay Brown

The Golden Bird cover

The Golden Bird by George Mackay Brown consists of two novellas, the first one called The Golden Bird and the second one The Life and Death of John Voe. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1987. The author is probably better known for his poetry.

I really enjoyed this book although possibly the fact that we were in Orkney in June and so I knew a lot of the places mentioned contributed to my enjoyment. I could picture exactly a certain spot mentioned in Stromness main street and many other locations.

The settings are Orkney in the 19th century, a time when the way of life there was beginning to change. It was a hard and dangerous life and when two of the men who had been fishing partners and shared a boat fell out over the division of their catch, it begins a feud that continues for generations.

The second novella The Life and Death of John Voe is about a man who had left the islands to seek adventures abroad. He hadn’t wanted to knuckle down on the family croft as a youngster, but after years on the sea and in South America and even some time as a gold panner, a failed romance prompts him to turn for his home in Orkney. It’s time to get back to crofting, but all is not as he expects it to be.

These tales are an enjoyable glimpse back to the past.

Music in the Hills by D.E. Stevenson

Music in the Hills cover

Music in the Hills by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1950 and it’s the sequel to Vittoria Cottage. The setting is the Scottish Borders, not any specific town apparently but I imagine the countryside as being like that around Stevenson’s beloved Moffat.

James Dering has been in Malaya, chasing bandits for some years and he’s glad to get back to Scotland. He has made his way to Mureth where his Aunt Mamie and Uncle Jock have a farm. James is thinking about becoming a farmer too, he loves the countryside and animals but he’s not sure if he’ll be good at farming.

James had spent some time in London before making his way to Murath, but his romance with Rhoda an aspiring artist had ended badly and he is nursing a broken heart. Will the change of air heal him, or at least help him to discover what he wants to do in the future?

With a cast of couthie characters this is a bit of a comfort read although not everyone or everything in the neighbourhoods of Murath and Drumburly is sweetness and light. Aunt Mamie is perfect though, although she wouldn’t agree with me about that. She envies the way others can talk with ease to strangers and acquaintances, she feels too shy and knows that she’s often seen as being a bit snooty. A lot of readers know that feeling I suspect!

Kinvara by Christine Marion Fraser

Kinvara cover

Kinvara by Christine Marion Fraser was first published in 1998 and it’s the first by the author that I’ve read. I don’t know if it’s just the setting of a coastal community or what, but this really felt like Fraser was heavily influenced by Neil M Gunn’s books although her writing isn’t as sparkling as his. I have a feeling that Fraser could be described as being a sort of Scottish Catherine Cookson as her books seem to have been wildly popular family sagas. I admit that I’m a bit snooty about some writers and Cookson is one of them, but I did end up getting dragged into this tale and enjoyed it although I now realise there are three more books in this series, I’m not sure if I’ll continue with it though – so many books to read!

The setting is the Outer Hebrides of Scotland and Kinvara is a small village, some of the men are lighthouse keepers, it begins at Christmas 1922 and Robbie Sutherland is leaving the lighthouse to travel home to Kinvara after completing his stint.

He’s married to Hannah a difficult woman of the ‘own worst enemy’ variety who has been withdrawn and sullen since the birth of their son who has cerebral palsy. Robbie married her on the rebound after he had broken up with Morna who had gone back to her native Shetland. Hannah sees no point in caring for her son and makes no attempts to form a relationship with him. Robbie is at his wits’ end and as Morna has returned – with what turns out to be Robbie’s daughter, his life is a mess.

The book ends in the summer of 1926 and obviously there’s a lot more to it than I’ve written, if you fancy being in the company of some funny and interesting characters and you like a Scottish setting then you might like this one.

I’m a bit puzzled as to why the author called the book Kinvara as it is apparently a real place in Ireland, and she gave some of the characters Irish names too which is fairly unlikely in the far north of Scotland.

Green Money by D.E. Stevenson

Green Money cover

Green Money by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1939 but World War 2 doesn’t come into it apart from a very brief mention of Hitler. This one isn’t one of her best, it would seem that 1938/39 wasn’t a good time for Stevenson’s writing and given what was going on in the UK at the time that isn’t at all surprising.

George Ferrier is twenty-five years old and enjoying a holiday in London when he meets a man called Mr Green who had known his father years ago. It turns out that Mr Green is a wealthy widower with one daughter and he is in need of a third trustee to look after her best interests if he should die. He decides that George is the man he needs, the upshot of which is that not long after that George has the onerous duty thrust upon him when Mr Green dies suddenly.

The daughter Elma has been brought up in Victorian ways by a governess and when she gets a bit of freedom it goes to her head, she’s very pretty and has men flocking around her and she ends up in a dangerous situation, and George has the job of tracking her down. He discovers that the other two trustees are anything but trustworthy.

There are lots of other characters and George’s Irish mother Paddy gave the author the opportunity to write some dialogue in that style, there are moments of humour and the moral of this tale is that it’s more important to be honest and decent than clever.

The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart

The Gabriel Hounds cover

The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart was first published in 1967. The setting is the Middle East, High Lebanon and with that and just about everywhere else that is mentioned such as Syria now being completely unrecognisable having been bombed to hell and back – I found that aspect of the book really sad. Politicians – HUH!

Apart from that the book was just okay, I’ll give it a 3 on Goodreads I think, for me it dragged a fair amount although it did heat up quite a bit towards the end.

Christy Mansell is a young English woman from a wealthy family, she’s in Damascus and intends to visit her great-aunt who had settled nearby years ago, building a large palace for herself. Great-aunt Harriet is an eccentric who has modelled herself on a Victorian called Lady Hester. Before Christy can visit her aunt she bumps into her cousin Charles, he had been her hero in her younger days, he’s a few years older than Christy, they look very alike and their fathers are identical twins. There had been a sort of tongue in cheek expectation that they would get married (so far so shuddersome as far as I’m concerned!!)

When Christy reaches her great-aunt’s palace it’s evident that the place is falling apart and her aunt is on her last legs. She’s being attended by some suspect characters and Christy realises that her appearance there isn’t at all welcome. She’s determined to get to the bottom of it all.

As I said, it does get more interesting towards the end although for me it didn’t come close to her usual suspense and I found the romance side of it to be distinctly icky!