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.

The Revolving Door of Life by Alexander McCall Smith

 The Revolving Door of Life cover

The Revolving Door of Life by Alexander McCall Smith is the latest in his 44 Scotland Street series. I didn’t enjoy the previous one as much as I had some of the others, but this one was better I think.

Bertie is still only seven years old, I reckon that that is the third book in which he is still seven. At the end of the previous book Bertie’s mother Irene has gone on a trip to the Persian Gulf and she has somehow ended up being taken captive in a sheik’s harem there. Irene is a very pushy and truly ghastly sort of female Edinbugger, a keen devotee of the child psychologist Melanie Kline and that has led to her trying her best to emasculate poor wee Bertie – perish the thought that he should want to do anything ‘boyish’ or even wear anything normal such as blue jeans. Bertie must wear pink dungarees. Her long suffering husband Stuart is enjoying the respite and fears that Irene will find her way back to Edinburgh all too soon. Meanwhile his mother has come to help him look after his two sons – Bertie and Ulysses.

The lack of Irene is probably why I enjoyed this book more as she is so annoying. As ever there are moral decisions to be taken by many of the characters in the book. Such as – is it fair game to set up someone you know to be a gold-digger in order to rid your father of her attentions? Everybody makes the correct choices and everything is hunky dory – if only real life were like that!

Bertie’s ambition is to move to Glasgow as soon as he legally can – and he thinks that is when he is 18, at this rate he’s never going to reach there which is a real shame because I would love it if McCall Smith continued the series in Glasgow at some point.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge, my 35th or possibly 36th.

Dandy Gilver and A Most Misleading Habit by Catriona McPherson

 Dandy Gilver and A Most Misleading Habit cover

Dandy Gilver and A Most Misleading Habit by Catriona McPherson is the latest in the Dandy Gilver series that I’ve been enjoying over the past few years.

The setting is Scotland, the bleak moors of Lanarkshire, and Dandy is called in to investigate a break out of inmates at a remote mental hospital on Christmas Eve 1932, and a fire that broke out the same night at a nearby convent.

Of course Dandy’s side-kick Alec is helping out as usual although he isn’t able to do much of the investigating in the convent, he concentrates on the mental hospital.

I don’t think this book is as successful as the previous ones, a lot of it just feels so wrong given that it is a convent in the early 1930s. Everyone is just too happy and it is just too unrealistic with the orphanage attached to the convent being full of well-loved children, unlikely even within a sort of freelance convent as it is. There were so many mentions of ‘sister’ in it, it was even mentioned by Alec in the book that he was tired of the word, or something to that effect. I suppose I’m just not that fond of a convent setting.

There wasn’t much in the way of banter between Dandy and her maid Grant, or even between Dandy and Alec although her husband Hugh played a larger part in this story and he’s a good character I think so that was welcome.

I will definitely read the next one in the series though.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.

Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher

Winter Solstice cover

Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher was first published in 2000 and it was the last book that she wrote as she retired from writing then although she lived for for quite a few years after that.

I’ve read quite a few of Rosamunde Pilcher’s books and I suppose they come under the category of comfort read, although in this one there is a tragedy, but it doesn’t involve any characters that the reader gets very involved with.

Elfrida has retired and moved from London to a small cottage in Hampshire where she intends to supplement her income by making cushions and home furnishings and selling them on to a posh London shop. She makes a good job of settling into her new life and making good friends in the area, she has a gorgeous rescue dog called Horace as a companion, but there’s no doubt that the one person who is most important to Elfrida is her neighbour Oscar, but he’s already married with a young daughter.

Circumstances lead to Oscar having to move back to the north of Scotland where he had been brought up and Elfrida gives up her comfortable life to join him there, and so begins a sort of tour of various houses in that area. In fact I felt that it was a bit like reading one of those glossy homes magazines. Some of the properties mentioned were definitely in need of refurbishment and others were very desireable indeed.

I feel that Pilcher had decided to modernise her writing a bit for the new millenium. One of the main characters is a woman who has had a long term affair with a married man and it has come to an end. I can’t be sure, because it’s quite a while since I read any other Rosamunde Pilcher books but I don’t think she had previously had a main character who had had an affair with a married man. I think in most romances a woman like that would have been seen as a bit of a wicked witch and not the main character.

In fact towards the end of this book something happens (you know me, I don’t want to say too much) and probably a lot of people would think that it is just too unlikely but – hold on to your hats girls – some husbands/widowers DO replace their wives after only a couple of months of their death, well they do in Kirkcaldy anyway. I know, I have said too much! Anyway, Winter Solstice is an enjoyable jaunt from Hampshire via London and on up to the wilds of Creagan which is north of Inverness in the Highlands of Scotland, and you can go on a tour of the places mentioned in the book, have a look here if you’re interested. There’s romance a-plenty too.

You can see some images of Creagan here.

I read this one for the Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge 2016 and also for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge

Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett

Queens' Play cover

I actually read Queens’ Play a wee while ago, but I have such a backlog of book reviews to catch up with, mainly because of not blogging while we were on holiday. I use this blog to keep track and remind myself of books that I’ve read though, so here goes.

Queens’ Play which was first published in 1964 is the second in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles and as I recall, I enjoyed it even more than the first one. These books aren’t really suitable for bedtime reading – well not for me anyway because they require more concentration than I can usually summon up by then.

In Queens’ Play Francis Crawford – more commonly known as Lymond is in France at the court of the seven year old Mary Queen of Scots. He has been invited there by her mother, Mary of Guise who thinks that her daughter is at risk of assassination, with good reason no doubt. The young Mary was sent from Scotland to France as a five year old, but that might have been a case of jumping from the frying pan to the fire.

As France and Scotland shared an enemy in England it was hoped that the young Mary and the young French Dauphin would eventually strengthen the alliance through a marriage. But those in power in England were obviously against that alliance. It was Lymond’s job to seek out intrigues and to protect Mary from them.

The New York Time Book Review said:

“(Her) hero is as polished and perceptive as Lord Peter Wimsey and as resourceful as James Bond.”

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.

After the Dance by Iain Crichton Smith

 After the Dance  cover

After the Dance by Iain Crichton Smith is a collection of short stories by this Scottish author who wrote poetry as well as novels, writing in both Gaelic (his first language) and English, he died in 1998. He was born in Glasgow but moved to Lewis when he was two years old. Although he wrote poetry and prose he was also a high school English teacher.

These short stories have very diverse subjects ranging from the First World War and the horror of mothers seeing a church elder approaching their houses, it was his job to deliver the telegrams, to a Highland wedding in the city. The Highland father feels completely out of it but when the singing starts and he realises the youngsters don’t know the words of the Gaelic songs well he takes over, singing the traditional songs and turns the celebration into a Gaelic culture fest, to the delight of the younger generation.

There are thirty-one stories in the book and a few of them show the author’s distaste of the Free Church of Scotland’s strict Calvinism. But the existence of Calvinism has given him a chance to write with humour on the subject, every cloud I suppose….

There’s an introduction from author Alan Warner (of Morvern Callar fame), who lived near Iain Crichton Smith in the 1980s and he gives an instance of his sense of humour when he mentions that a woman has such an insistent personality that she is the sort of person that you have to say goodbye to through your own letterbox! Mind you I’m not at all sure that that translates for people who don’t have a letter box in their front door.

I really enjoyed these stories, some more than others of course, but they’re well worth reading. I must try one of his novels next year. If you’re interested you can read his obituary here.

You can read what Jack thought of this anthology here. He’s much more thorough than I am where reviews are concerned.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge. I believe that’s my thirtieth.