Bel Lamington by D.E. Stevenson – a book review

Bel Lamington cover

Bel Lamington by the Scottish author D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1961 and to begin with the setting is London although it does move on to the north of Scotland later.

Bel has been in her tiny London flat for 18 months but she doesn’t know any of her neighbours, she had had to move to London to find work after her aunt had died. Her parents had died long ago when she was a small child, so apart from her work in a shipping company the only joy in Bel’s life is her small garden which she has cultivated in containers on a flat roof outside her living-room window. So when she comes home from work one summer evening she’s not best pleased to discover that a strange young man has invaded her wee patch of heaven. It turns out that Mark is an artist, quite a good one and he wants Bel to model for him, which she does, but Mark turns out to be a bit of a flibbertigibbet.

Meanwhile things at Bel’s work aren’t going well, she lives in fear of losing her job as she has no money to fall back on so life is stressful, especially when the women who have been working there for years take a dislike to her. Well, she had been promoted over their heads so that was bound to cause friction. Things come to a head and Bel ends up travelling to Scotland to spend time with an old schoolfriend and her father. The Thames-Clyde Express takes her to Dumfries in south-west Scotland where Bel’s life takes a turn for the better.

This was an enjoyable read, especially when the story moved to Scotland, but I thought that the London workplace stresses and office were very authentic. I knew eventually there would be a happy ending and that’s the sort of book that I’m drawn to at the moment.

Dimsie Moves Up by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

Dimsie Goes to School cover

Dimsie Moves Up by Dorita Fairlie Bruce is the second book in the Dimsie series which I started reading recently. It was first published in 1921 but my copy dates from 1950. These books were obviously very popular as this book was reprinted eight times within those years.

In this book Dimsie is unexoectedly moved up a form along with several of her friends, with new girls arriving those who had done well academically the previous year need to move up to make room for them. Some of the older girls in the new form make Dimsie and her friends promise not to give flowers to any of the teachers. It’s something that none of the younger girls had even thought of doing. It’s explained to them that some girls go through a phase of being soppy over their female teachers or older girls. Nowadays we’d call it having a crush. Dimsie and her friends set up an ‘Anti Soppist Society’ as they don’t want anything to do with that sort of nonsense.

Dimsie Moves Up has quite a lot about games in it, but even if like me you were never keen on PE at school this doesn’t detract from the storyline

Nita Tomlinson isn’t a prefect but she has been made games-captain. Giving someone like Nita any power is just madness, she does her best to make trouble all round, stealing away best friends and generally throwing her weight around. I suppose she’s the sort of character that you love to hate, whereas Dimsie is a lovely girl, nothing startling in the looks or brains department, just a girl with plenty of common sense and kindness. She reminds me a bit of Darrell in Blyton’s Malory Towers series but I must say that I think Dorita Fairlie Bruce was a much better writer than Blyton was, although I loved her books as a youngster.

It has been mentioned before that the name Dimsie is an unfortunate choice, her actual name is Daphne and I’d plump for Dimsie any day rather than that. However I googled dim as in dimwitted and it seems that it was first used in that way in 1934. However another source cites it as being used in US colleges first in 1922, which is still after this book was published.

Personality by Andrew O’Hagan

Personality by Andrew O’Hagan was first published in 2003 and it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize that year. I have to admit that that was the only reason I read this one as I have a bit of a personal challenge going on – trying to read all the books that have won that prize.

The author does begin with a note to the reader claiming that this is a work of fiction, but in truth it is very heavily based on the life of the Scottish child star Lena Zavaroni who becane wildly famous at the age of ten when she won Opportunity Knocks in the 1970s, for several weeks running. O’Hagan didn’t even bother to change ‘his’ personality’s place of birth or family circumstances. It didn’t feel like the 1970s and he got names wrong – Quivers Jelly might sound right but it was actually Chivers.

Young Maria Tambini of Rothesay, Isle of Bute, whose parents own a cafe in the town is well known locally for her amazing singing voice and when a talent scout is in the audience at a concert where Maria is performing the upshot is a spot on the very popular talent show Opportunity Knocks. A warning to readers from me is that the ghastly human being Hughie Green appears quite a lot in this book, but as a decent human being, not the vile man that we all discovered him to be after his death, although most of us probably had our suspicions. So at the age of 13 Maria is an international star, living in London with her female manager and her husband and having very little contact with her own family. Surprise surprise she develops anorexia nervosa and does a tour of TV shows talking about her problems, just as Lena did!

There is one sex scene in the book between Maria and her very caring and loving boyfriend, not that you would get that idea from the way it is written and the language used to describe it is just so wrong for the situation. I was wondering if O’Hagan was hoping to win that Bad Sex prize.

The only difference is the ending, and by that time we’re getting into a version of the crazy fan à la John Lennon, with a twist to that too. Hurrah, the author used his imagination. I cannot imagine how this book won the James Tait Black Prize, there must have been many better books published in 2003.

I so hope that the next prize winner I read is better. I’m so annoyed that he ripped off a very sad life, she was used and abused enough in her lifetime.

Dimsie Goes to School by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

Dimsie Goes to School cover

Dimsie Goes to School by the Scottish author Dorita Fairlie Bruce was first published in 1920 with the story taking place in 1919. It was originally titled The Senior Prefect. My copy was published in 1932.

It begins with the ten year old Daphne Isabel Maitland better known as Dimsie travelling by train from her west of Scotland home to her new boarding school at Westover, a coastal town in the south of England. She’s accompanied by her older cousin Daphne who is a prefect at the school.

There’s a bit of a mystery as to what has happened to Dimsie’s mother as she has disappeared and only communicates with her soldier husband through solicitors, but Dimsie is unaware of this. There’s a new headmistress at the school and many of the girls are upset by the change, especially when she cuts their hockey practice time by half, reasoning that they don’t do at all well in their exams. However she starts lessons in domestic science which hadn’t been taught there before. This is a good idea given that it’s just after World War 1 when the lack of servants became such a problem for middle-class households.

Although the war has ended it’s still very much part of the book as air-raids and coastal trenches are mentioned as well as shell-shock, and Dimsie’s father is a colonel in the army.

There’s talk of spies, counterfeit money, a strike and even a problem with burglars in the neighbourhood and rumours fly around, aided and abetted by Nita, a nasty piece of work who takes aim at Daphne with a view to getting her sacked as a prefect. The characters of the two Maitland girls shine through it all though with Dimsie in particular becoming popular with just about everyone, the addition of some well written Scots dialect was enjoyed by me anyway.

I found it interesting that it was written in 1919 and that first marking of armistice day is described as ‘the rejoicings’. That struck me as being really strange as today more than one hundred years later it’s always a very sober affair. I think a lot of people in 1919 who had lost family members in the war would not have felt much like celebrating and in a girls’ school there would have been girls who had lost fathers and brothers in the war.

Whatever, this was a really entertaining read and I think it was better than any by Angela Brazil that I’ve read and she was the most popular writer of school stories, but maybe that was just because she wrote so many of them.

The Black Book by Ian Rankin

 The Black Book cover

The Black Book by the Scottish author Ian Rankin is the fifth book in his Inspector John Rebus series. The setting is mainly Edinburgh but moves across the Firth of Forth to Fife from time to time as so often happens in this series. Rebus and Rankin both hail from Fife originally. It was first published in 1993 and it’s the first in the Rebus series which features his side-kick Detective Constable Siobhan Clarke. She’s a great character and really much smarter than Rebus, but he has the experience and local knowledge.

Rebus has moved in with Patience his girlfriend, she’s a doctor and is beginning to be impatient of his long working hours and broken promises. The writing seems to be on the wall for that relationship. To complicate matters Rebus’ younger brother Michael turns up – straight from jail.

Crime wise there’s an awful lot going on in this book, but Rebus is mainly focusing on a cold case. Five years earlier the Central Hotel in Edinburgh had burned down and a charred body was found in the ruins. They never did find out the identity of the body, but the hotel had been a bit of a den of iniquity, headquarters for all sorts of low life, including the biggest and most evil gangster in Edinburgh.

There’s violence but also plenty of humour and smart patter, so this was a really entertaining read. As the book is now 27 years old I suppose this can be seen as vintage crime now, it certainly often feels like that.

Wild Harbour by Ian Macpherson

 Wild Harbour cover

Wild Harbour by Ian Macpherson was published in 1936 but it has been reprinted by British Library in the Science Fiction category. Actually it’s a bit of a difficult book to categorise, I wouldn’t really call it SF. Ian Macpherson was a Scottish author and he was obviously influenced by what was happening in the news in the 1930s, with Hitler tooling up for WW2 and indeed the Spanish Civil war already ongoing.

Hugh has no intention of waiting for his call up papers, he doesn’t want to take part in any war, so he and his wife Terry pack their little car with as many things from their home as they can and as much food as possible, and set off for the western Highlands of Scotland. They know of a well hidden cave there that they can hide out in. Hugh has also managed to buy lots of ammunition for his gun and takes a lot of rabbit traps too, he plans to shoot deer to feed them.

The next part of the book is all about them trying to make their cave into a home, levelling the floor, building a chimney and hearth. It’s fine in the warm summer weather but they know that it’ll be brutally cold and snowy in the winter. This section reminds me of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie except they were building a cabin, not fitting out a cave.

Life is much harder than they could have imagined and eventually the war catches up with them as starving gunmen make their way into the Highlands. Certainly towards the end this wasn’t an uplifting read as I’m sure you can imagine. I’m sure that in the 1930s there were a lot of ordinary people who just felt like getting away from the threat of a wartime situation, just as many people nowadays hanker after going off grid and withdrawing from society – even without the prospect of being called up to ‘do their bit’.

Strip Jack by Ian Rankin

 Strip Jack cover

Strip Jack by the Scottish (Fife) author Ian Rankin is the fourth book in his long Rebus series which follows Detective Inspector John Rebus through his whole career in the Lothian police force, based in Edinburgh. I have read quite a few of the books and it would have been sensible to read them in order mainly for the personal life of Rebus, although not crucial I think.

Strip Jack was first published in 1992, it’s quite shocking to think that that is now 28 years ago, so this book now has the feel of vintage crime, no mobile phones or internet, it adds to the charm.

The book begins with a police raid on an up-market brothel in one of the Georgian terraces in Edinburgh’s New Town, (believe me – there is one!) One of the clients caught up in the raid happens to be the popular local Member of Parliament Gregor Jack. The ‘gentlemen’ of the press are hanging around the brothel doorway and it dawns on Rebus that they must have had a tip off from someone, he suspects that the MP is the victim of a set up.

Gregor Jack’s wife Elizabeth is from a local wealthy family and she’s more than a bit wild, she’s a party animal, with drink and drugs involved. She spends a lot of time away from home, sometimes at her home in the Highlands, so when she disappears it’s assumed that she has gone there in high dudgeon after having seen her husband’s face all over the newspapers.

Gregor Jack’s staff and close friends that he has known since childhood rally round to protect him, but his friends are not what they seem to be on the surface.

I really liked this one although I do think that the books get even better as the series progresses.

At the back of my copy of the book there is a map of Edinburgh New Town which will be of use to people who don’t know the city, but if you do know the area part of the charm of these books is being able to visualise all the locations. However, if you’re really keen you can go onto Google Street to have a wee ‘walk’ around and see for yourself.

Gerald and Elizabeth by D.E. Stevenson

 Gerald and Elizabeth   cover

Gerald and Elizabeth by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1969 and I really enjoyed it, up until page 188, then I got a shock.

Gerald Burleigh-Brown is on a ship, on his way home from South Africa where he had been working as an electrical engineer at a diamond mine. He left under a very dark cloud, without any references as he had been accused of attempting to steal uncut diamonds and as you can imagine he was very depressed about his future. He was going to London to look for work, but his half-sister Elizabeth has become very successful on the stage and Gerald doesn’t want to contact her, he’s too embarrassed about his situation and is worried that it would somehow harm Elizabeth’s career if anyone found out about the accusation.

But Eliabeth spots Gerald in the audience one night and is determined to keep in contact with him. She has a problem of her own. She’s in love with a wealthy shipbuilder. Sir Walter owns a shipyard in Glasgow and he’s keen to marry Elizabeth, but she is sure that there is a strain of mental instability in her family and refuses to marry him. Of course Gerald manages to sort it all out.

There’s quite a bit of travelling from London up to Glasgow and then on to the Scottish Highlands involved in the storyline and it’s all very scenic, especially if you know the areas mentioned, but for me it was ruined by D.E. Stevenson’s anti-semitic attitude. When Gerald is looking for a gift he visits an antiques shop in Glasgow.

The bell jangled as he opened the door and an elderly man with a hooky nose emerged from the back premises. I was surprised by the mention of a hooky nose and I thought ‘surely not’. Then Gerald is annoyed when the dealer refuses to accept a cheque as he doesn’t know him and he has lost money before that way. This is before bank cards of course. Gerald wants him to make enquiries at the bank.

“I’ve no time for that,” replied the little Jew nastily. You’d better go to the bank yourself and come back with the money.” He had been turning Gerald’s cheque over and over in his dirty hands; now he handed it back.

Honestly I was absolutely gobsmacked, and mortified that any other readers might think that that sort of attitude was normal in Scotland, especially considering that Gerald is portrayed as a decent chap all the way through the book. I can assure you I’ve never heard anything like that. I was ten years old in 1969, but that sort of attitude to Jews seems to me to be medieval. As Robert Burns said a couple of hundred years earlier, “A man’s a man for a’ that.”

I’m also wondering why an editor didn’t strike it out? Days later my heid is still birlin’ just thinking about it. Up until page 188 this was a good read. It was her penultimate book with House of the Deer published in 1970 being her last so maybe she was going a bit odd in the head in her old age, she died in 1973.

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.