The Gourlay Girls by Margaret Thomson Davis

The Gourlay Girls  cover

The Gourlay Girls by the Scottish author Margaret Thomson Davis is the second book in her Clydesiders trilogy which was first published in 2000. The setting is Glasgow and it begins with young Wincey witnessing her grandfather’s death. She’s so shocked by it that she runs out of the house and wanders into a neighbourhood that she doesn’t know. She’s soaking wet and bewildered by the time young Florence Gourlay finds her in the street and takes pity on her and so takes Wincey to her own home where she knows her mother will feed her and sort things out.

The Gourlays live a hand to mouth existence in a two room tenement with three generations, the old Gaanny is a ‘greetin faced’ curmudgeon if ever there was one. Her son the father of the family is out of work like most of the men in the area. It’s the 1930s and work is scarce, so the Gourlay females, the mother and three daughters of the family have been taking in sewing to keep starvation at bay, but one more mouth to feed in the shape of Wincey doesn’t seem to be a problem for the motherly Teresa Gourlay.

Wincey’s own family is wealthy and from Glasgow’s west end, so the poverty stricken east end of Glasgow is a revelation to her, but it isn’t long before Wincey feels well-loved and cherished in her new family. That’s something that she never felt within her own family. A sense of shame and guilt over not helping her grandfather when he was dying leads Wincey to opt to stay with the Gourlays instead of making her way back home, the longer she stays missing the harder it is to go back home.

Margaret Thomson Davis could be described as the Scottish version of Catherine Cookson I think. She tells a good story, but isn’t the best writer. Although I enjoyed this book it annoyed me that the author hadn’t managed to write separate voices for all the females, with Teresa the mother’s voice being particularly anonymous, which is surprising as she was supposed to come from the Highlands originally, there was no sense of a Highland accent or dialect.

Otherwise I enjoyed it. The tale begins in 1932 and goes on to the outbreak of World War 2 and with the help of Wincey the Gourlays’ little business has expanded hugely, but that brings problems too.

I’ll definitely continue with this trilogy, the third book is Clydesiders at War.

Mail Royal by Nigel Tranter

Mail Royal cover

Mail Royal by the very prolific Scottish author Nigel Tranter was first published in 1989

Lord Gray has been Sheriff of Angus for decades but King James VI has decided to take that sinecure away from him and give the very lucrative sheriffdom to Lord Home. But Scottish sheriffdoms aren’t in the gift of the King, not that that matters because whatever King James says goes.

Lord Gray is desperate to hang on to his only means of getting money and keeping power. He knows that his father had had a hold over King James, it was something to do with secret letters, and Gray is determined to find them so he can blackmail James too. The letters are thought to have been written by Mary, Queen of Scots and must be either embarassing or dangerous for the king.

It’s young David Gray that gets the task of finding the letters. As the illegitimate son of Lord Gray’s younger deceased brother, David gets all the dirty work to do. David’s journey takes him all the way down to London and the royal court that his uncle is so careful to avoid, just in case the King decides to execute him!

I really enjoyed this one, but I’m not sure if it was because I knew every step of the way that David Gray travelled, although he was on horseback. From Broughty Ferry just north of Dundee, to Fife, Haddington, Edinburgh, Dunbar, the fishing village of Cove that we visit, the village that’s lived in by one of my sons, the border towns we know so well. I could picture it all so clearly.

The story includes a romance of course, I think all of Tranter’s books do, and it mentions a few castles that we haven’t got around to visiting – yet!

Two from Ian Rankin – Rebus

I’m really behind with my book thoughts and as I’ve read two books in Ian Rankin’s Rebus series recently I thought I’d just give them a quick mention.

 Set in Darkness cover

Set in Darkness was first published in 2000 and it’s the 11th book featuring DI John Rebus. The setting is of course Edinburgh where the very historic Queensberry House is undergoing refurbishment as part of the devolved Scottish Parliament administrative offices. A partially mummified body is found behind a boarded up fireplace. It looks like it has been there since the last work which was undertaken in that area, some 20 odd years ago.

Then there’s what appears to be the suicide of a homeless man, but it turns out that he had hundreds of thousands of pounds. Why was he living on the streets and did he really kill himself? It’s all go when a prospective MSP’s body is found. Somehow they’re all linked. This was a good read and as ever I enjoyed the Edinburgh setting.

 Resurrection Men cover

Resurrection Men was first published in 2021. This one ranges around Scotland from Edinburgh to Stirlingshire, Perthshire, Fife and Dundee.

Rebus has had a bit of a meltdown and thrown a cup of tea at his boss Gill Templar. The result of that is that he has been sent to Tulliallan, the Scottish police training college for a bit of a refresher course and to have some sessions with a psychologist. Rebus isn’t the only one who has been sent back to school. There’s a group of senior officers who are all there for similar reasons, but it transpires that Rebus has been asked to befriend the others as they’re suspected of being ‘right bad yins’ and Rebus needs to get the evidence. Rebus isn’t sure if he’s being set up by his superiors or if it’s for real, either way it’s a dangerous situation for him. The cold case that they’ve been given to re-open as part of their team building happens to be one in which Rebus was involved, and he’s not happy about that at all.

Meanwhile Siobhan, Rebus’ sidekick is investigating the murder of a wealthy Edinburgh art dealer who had a link with one of the prostitutes in a massage parlour, which in turn might have links with Ger Cafferty, the Mr Big of the Edinburgh dark side.

There’s a lot more to it but, you get the idea I’m sure.

I love that I know all the locations of these books so I’m not sure how much that influences my enjoyment, mind you with the bad guys in this one coming from the west of Scotland I did slightly roll my eyes!

The Spring of the Ram by Dorothy Dunnett – 20 Books of Summer 2021

 The Spring of the Ram cover

The Spring of the Ram by Dorothy Dunnett was first published in 1987 and it’s the second book in her Niccolo series. The setting is Europe and the Levant in 1461. Honestly I had my doubts that this series would come up to the high standards of her Lymond Chronicles but I was completely wrong about that.

Helped by financial support from Cosimmo Medici Nicholas/Niccolo has kitted out a ship and is preparing to sail from Florence to Trebizond.

Unknown to Niccolo his very spoiled 12 year old step-daughter Catherine has run off with Pagano Doria, his business rival. Doria has promised to buy her a dog and earrings, whereas Niccolo and her mother had refused to allow her to have a dog! Her mother doesn’t even know that she’s missing as she’s thought to be staying with friends. It isn’t enough for Doria to have Catherine and ruin her, he’s also determined to ruin Niccolo.

It’s all part of a family feud with Lymond despising Niccolo, his own son, and doing his best to obliterate him.

This was one of my 20 Books of Summer 2021.

Neither Five Nor Three by Helen MacInnes

 Three Twins at the Crater School cover

Neither Five Nor Three by Helen MacInnes was first published in 1951, but the setting is New York in 1950, and the book reflects what was then the beginning of the ‘reds under the beds’ era which was taken far too far by McCarthy.

It begins with Paul Haydn on an aeroplane travelling home. He had stayed in the army after WW2 but now intended to get back into civilian life, maybe back to his old job on Trend magazine as they said that his job would be kept open for him. He had been engaged to Rona a work colleague at the beginning of the war but she had broken it off. It turns out that she’s still working at Trend and has just got engaged again, and Scott is a jealous fiance.

Rona has worked hard at her new relationship but it all seems to be on her side, Scott seems to spend all his spare time going to ‘discussion’ parties and it has taken him ages to get around to proposing. It seems that Scott has been wooed by communists who are trying to undermine American society.

This was different from the previous books that I’ve read by MacInnes as her books often feature espionage in WW2, Nazis or post war Nazi hunting. I believe that she got a lot of the ideas for her books from her husband who worked for MI6 and they did move to the US where he took up a post at Columbia University, while still working at MI6, so basically he was a spy.

This was a good read which probably reflected the atmosphere of the US at the time, in common with the UK it seems that people were expecting another war to come along soon. It was interesting that at one point Rona says ‘we don’t execute traitors any more’. Well she was wrong about that and it seems that the authorities ended up executing people who weren’t really traitors at all, such as the Rosenbergs.

The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison – Classics Club Spin #27

he Corn King and the Spring Queen cover

The Corn King and the Spring Queen by the Scottish author Naomi Mitchison was first published in 1931 but my copy is a Virago reprint from 1989, I think I might have owned it since then, the chunkiness of it put me off reading it. I think this book would have been improved if it had been edited down to about 500 pages instead of the 719 that it is. It dragged terribly at times. I must admit that my heart sank when I realised I had got such a chunkster in the Classics Club Spin # 27.

The setting is Marob, a small state on the Black Sea, and Greece, the story switches between both places – between the years 228 BC and 187 BC. Some of the incidents are fictional while others are historical. In Marob the society revolves around the Corn King and Spring Queen as they and their ceremonies are most important in making sure that there will be a good harvest. Tarrik, the Corn King chooses Erif Der to be his wife and Spring Queen. Her father doesn’t want Tarrik to be Corn King as it’s a position he wants for himself. Erif in common with many of the women can perform magic and her father expects her to use it against Tarrik.

When Tarrik rescues Sphaeros a Greek philosopher from a shipwreck he is wooed by all the new ideas that Sphearos has and decides to sail with him to Greece. In Greece they meet King Kleomones of Sparta, he has decided that he wants a more equal society and so the rich are persuaded to give up their jewellery, money and possessions and to free their slaves. They will be given some land of their own. But everyone becomes poor and eats black soup as the peasants had to before. The previously rich people aren’t happy. King Kleomones seems to have kept all the wealth that had been given up so that he could pay for wars against his neighbours, using the money to pay the wages of mercenaries.

This is very much just the bare bones of the book which goes into detail about the ceremonies, particularly the fertility ones which end up with the Corn King ‘ploughing’ the Corn Queen and everyone else joining in in what was basically an orgy, to ensure a good harvest of course! It struck me that this was very racy for the original publication date of 1931. No doubt the mythological aspect of the book helped in that regard.

The book is split up into nine sections and at the end of every section there’s a shortish summary of what happened in that section. Just in case you didn’t understand it I suppose. I don’t think there’s anything particularly difficult about the writing style, it’s just rather wordy, but it is mainly an interesting read.

Mitchison came from a fairly aristocratic family, she was born in 1897 and had a long writing career, as you will see here. She died in 1998. I read a Virago edition of the book which was first published in 1983 and has an afterword from Mitchison.

Jack read this a few years ago. His thoughts are here.

Appleby’s Answer by Michael Innes – 20 Books of Summer 2021

Appleby's Answer cover

Appleby’s Answer by the Scottish author Michael Innes was published by Gollancz in 1973 so I suppose that means it’s vintage crime now although that seems a bit strange to me, however in some ways the book seems even older than that. It begins with Miss Pringle sharing a railway compartment with a strange man. Miss Pringle is a crime writer with a penchant for ecclesiastical settings and she’s travelling to London to attend a dinner with a group of fellow crime writers.

Captain Bulkington is the other traveller and strangely he’s reading a copy of one of her books, when he recognises her from the photo on the dust jacket the two get into conversation. Bulkington has a private school, a crammer which coaches young men to pass the entrance exam for top drawer universities. It’s a business that he has taken up since retiring from the army, but he has a proposition for Miss Pringle. He wants to collaborate with her in writing a book and invites her to stay at his establishment, but Miss Pringle has her suspicions about him and just agrees to correspond with him instead.

However she decides to travel to Bulkington’s village to do a bit of detective work and discovers that there are only two students enrolled in the crammer, and neither of them seem to be university material. It seems that Bulkington has some sort of hold over them.

Appleby and his wife have travelled to the same Wiltshire village to visit friends and so become embroiled in the affair.

This isn’t a murder mystery but is an entertaining read with quite a lot of humour thrown in. My copy of the book is an old Gollancz one and I couldn’t help thinking of Diana Athill who would have been working as an editor there when this one was published, I don’t think she mentions Michael Innes in any of her books though. This was one of my 20 Books of Summer.

Cross Gaits by Isabel Cameron – 20 Books of Summer 2021

Cross Gaits cover

Cross Gaits by Isabel Cameron was first published in 1945. The setting is Scotland and in the beginning it’s 1904 and Margory Mackay is preparing to marry Hugh Mcgregor a church minister, but there’s turmoil within their branch of Christianity with a split likely among congregations and the so-called church leaders, the usual ‘Free Church of Scotland’ thing. They decide to go ahead with the wedding anyway.

This book isn’t as interesting or amusing as the previous book that I’ve read by this author – The Fascinating Hat. I can vouch for the authenticity of the background of the tale though as it was a hard life being a minister’s wife back in those days, unless you were lucky enough to have money of your own, or the husband had. Those huge manses that they were given as part of the very small stipend were impossible to heat and life was a struggle, especially for the wives. I had that first hand from Jack’s granny who became a rector’s wife during World War 1.

This was just too ‘churchy’ to be a comfy read for me. I’ve bought a few more of Isabel Cameron’s books, just because of the Scottish setting, I feel that they’re a glimpse into the social history of the times, so I hope those ones are more enjoyable than this one.

I read this one for 20 Books of Summer 2021. My copy didn’t have the dust cover.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

 Hamnet cover

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell hops around a bit time wise but not in a confusing way, I really enjoyed it.

The tale begins in 1596 with young Hamnet searching the house, looking for an adult to help him, but the usually bustling household is empty, just when he needs them most. His twin Judith feels so ill that she’s gone to her bed and he’s desperate for their mother’s help as she is a herbalist, and a bit of a white witch as far as some people are concerned.

Then the story flits back fifteen years to the Spring when Shakespeare met his wife at Hewlands, the family farm. They were both leading unhappy lives, William’s father was a violent bully who took most of his rage out on William, and Agnes (known better to us all as Anne Hathaway) was living with her step-mother and a houseful of half siblings. It hadn’t been too awful when her father was alive but life had become miserable since his death. The two were drawn to one another when William’s father ordered him to tutor some of Agnes’s half brothers, to help pay back debts. Agnes and William would become each other’s escape route – or so they thought.

Considering that such a lot of Shakespeare’s life is a complete mystery I think the author made a good job of filling in the gaps in a feasible way, and she neatly tied up the speculation over his will and that second best bed left to his wife. I loved the ending which paints William as a loving father, something that even his wife had doubted.

I noticed that some readers have been upset by the fact that Anne’s name had been changed to Agnes, but it’s a name which is not popular, it was my own mother’s name, she was dutifully named after a grandmother but was always called Nancy by everyone, so it seems very likely to me that Ann was her pet name, perhaps O’Farrell should just have stuck with that rather than reverting to the official name which appears in her father’s will.

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.