Review 2107: Spring

Spring is the third in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet. Like with most of Smith’s books, there is a point where I say, “What the f— is she on about?” and a point where I say, “Oh.”

Richard Lease is an older man, a filmmaker who has done good work. He is grieving after his old friend Paddy’s death. Paddy had been his screenwriter, a woman who supported and inspired him and a good friend. He is further upset because the screenwriter assigned for his next film is trying to turn a delicate work about two famous writers who never actually met each other into a story about a hot affair.

Supposed to be at a meeting about this film in London, Richard takes a train in the opposite direction and gets off in Scotland, thinking about throwing himself under the train.

About halfway through the novel, it suddenly focuses to a seemingly unrelated story. Brittany is a security guard in a detention facility for illegal immigrants. She, like many of the other guards, has started to become callous and treat the detainees as if they were criminals.

She has heard a rumor about a little girl who walked into a facility and spoke to the director. The next day the toilets were spotlessly cleaned. Then one day on her way to work, she meets the child she thinks is that girl. The child Florence wants to know how to get to the place in Scotland shown on an old postcard she has. Suddenly, Brittany finds herself going along.

The novel is obviously about how we treat immigrants, but it makes comments about other things, like social media, on the way. There were times when its digressions got on my nerves and particularly one that I skipped once I had its measure. But somehow even when I’m frustrated by her, Smith always manages to pull me into her story and impress me with her intelligence.

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Review 2098: Yoked with a Lamb

After reading several Clavering books, I’ve decided that one of her strengths is in depicting a warm family and village life. It comes slowly in Yoked with a Lamb.

The village of Haystown in Southern Scotland is shocked and excited to learn that the Lockharts are returning to the area—all of them, including Andrew, who ran off with another woman several years ago. Andrew and Lucy are trying again and moving back to his beloved home. Lucy Lockhart has asked Andrew’s cousin, Kate Heron, to oversee preparations to open the house.

Although Lucy and the children are supposed to arrive there before Andrew, one day he stops by on his way north. Kate spends some time with him and his good friend Robin Anstruther. She begins to be attracted to Robin when she learns that he also was madly in love with the woman Andrew ran off with.

Kate thinks Andrew has treated Lucy abominably, but as the family gathers, she sees that Lucy constantly finds fault with him and throws his past in his face. She also tends to boss her children around and deprive them of small pleasures for no apparent reason. As Andrew and Lucy try to work out their problems, Kate tries to deal with her feelings for Robin.

I am enjoying the Furrowed Middlebrow reprints of Molly Clavering’s work very much. She was a neighbor and friend of the better-known D. E. Stevenson, but I have found Clavering’s books slightly more substantial.

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Review 2082: Mrs. Lorimer’s Quiet Summer

Liz of Adventures in Reading announced Dean Street Press in December long after I read this book, and the press is trying to get some new books to me in time, but since this one came up in my regular review schedule, I’ll take credit for it!

Because she has been trying to talk her husband Jack into buying it, Mrs. Lorimer is disappointed to learn that a nearby home, Harperslea, has been sold. Now that all their children except Guy are married, and some of them have children, their home, Woodside, is not big enough when they all come to visit, which they are doing this summer. With all the income from her writing, they can afford to move, but Jack refuses to consider it. So, her good friend Gray Douglas, also a writer, will help her out by putting some of the guests up.

Mrs. Lorimer, who tends to be a worrier, is also worried about her son Guy. He has been mentioning a girl quite often in his letters, but Mrs. Lorimer is worried that she won’t be good enough for Guy.

At any rate, when the family shows up, Phillie seems to be the one with the problem. She begins behaving temperamentally, being rude to her husband, dashing off to Harperslea because she’s seen Miss Smellie, one of the new occupants, playing tennis and she wants a game. Then bringing Miss Smellie home to dinner and just abandoning her to her mother and Guy.

Miss Smellie is young and not very prepossessing, and they find out she hates her name, which is Nesta Rowena. So, the family dubs her Rona.

These and other family concerns enliven this charming novel. The novel cover claims the book is autobiographical, and it certainly has some likable and entertaining characters. So far, I have very much enjoyed the novels I’ve read by Clavering.

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Review 2046: Dear Hugo

Sara Montieth has purchased a cottage in a small Scottish border village because she wants a quiet life. She has chosen the village because it was the boyhood home of her young man Ivo, who was killed in the war, and his brother Hugo.

Dear Hugo is an epistemological novel, consisting of Sara’s letters to Hugo, whom she has never met and who lives in Nairobi. It is about her daily life, the people she likes and dislikes, the events in the village. Although she wanted a quiet life, hers becomes eventful, especially after her cousin, who is newly remarried, asks her to take his 13-year-old son Arthur during his school holidays. It’s even more so after Hugo sends them a puppy.

The letters are written with gentle humor and describe all the village characters, including Miss Bonaly, a disapproving spinster who urges Sara not to hire Madge Marchbanks, an unwed mother, to help with the housework, and kindly, perceptive Mrs. Keith, who knew Ivo and Hugo as boys.

This is a nice, gentle novel of village life. It didn’t end quite the way I was hoping for, but I enjoyed it very much.

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Review 2032: The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime

The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime is the latest British Library collection of crime short stories, edited by Martin Edwards. These stories are either set in Scotland or written by Scottish writers, like the first, “Markheim,” by Robert Louis Stevenson. They are arranged in chronological order by publication date, ranging from 1885 to 1974.

Some of the stories, like “The Field Bazaar” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, are simple puzzles. In this one, Sherlock Holmes explains to Watson how he knows what is in the letter he just received. Others, like “The Running of the Deer” by P. M. Hubbard, are about the supposition of crime. “Madame Ville d’Aubier” by Josephine Tey tells the story of the heavy atmosphere emanating from a woman at a bakery and how later this woman murdered her sons and husband. In “Footsteps” by Anthony Wynne, a man figures out the connection between apparently ghostly footsteps and an attempted murder.

I liked some of the stories more than others, but they altogether make an enjoyable collection for an escapist evening.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 2013: Touch Not the Nettle

Touch Not the Nettle is not necessarily a sequel to Molly Clavering’s Susan Settles Down, but it features the same locations and some of the same characters. The Armstrongs get a call from Jed’s cousin asking if her daughter, Amanda Carmichael, can come to stay. Amanda’s husband, Cocky, an explorer, has been lost in Brazil, and Amanda is being driven crazy by her selfish mother, who is demanding that she behave like a widow when they don’t know if he is dead. Although Amanda, rather brittle from her struggles in an unhappy marriage, doesn’t really want to go stay with strangers, she soon finds herself happy to be with Jed and Susan and loving the beauty of the borderlands of Southern Scotland.

Like Susan Settles Down, Touch Not the Nettle contains many descriptions of the lovely landscape and many of the same delightful or irritating characters. It is darker, however, and I’m not sure (spoilers!) how happy I am with the love interest for Amanda, Larry with the angry temperament and drinking problem. The couple’s problems are also too magically cleared up.

Perhaps this is a deeper novel than Susan Settles Down, but it is also more facile, and I didn’t like it quite as much.

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Review 2006: Susan Settles Down

Susan Parsons has been leading a wandering life keeping house for her naval officer brother Oliver, but Oliver was badly injured in a fall months before and has left the Navy, still suffering a limp and not his old self. Then Oliver inherits a small estate in Southern Scotland. It’s not in good condition and the Parsons haven’t much money, but Oliver decides to make it their home.

While Susan struggles to get some help in the kitchen and repair the worst problems of the house, Oliver begins supervising the farm work and almost immediately meets Jed Armstrong, the farmer next door. Although they immediately become friends, Susan finds Jed rude and uncouth.

Soon, the two siblings become involved in village activities. Susan befriends Peggy Cunningham, the parson’s young daughter, who has been receiving unwelcome attentions from the organist. The Parsons become fast friends with the Cunninghams, and all try to avoid the Pringle sisters, three mischievous gossips.

This novel is a lovely tale of village life in pre-World War II rural Scotland, featuring two romances. The descriptions of the landscape are beautiful, the characters are attractive, and I enjoyed it very much. However, I continued to find problems with Furrowed Middlebrow blurbs. Twice now the main character’s name has been misspelled, and this time the blurb places the novel in the Highlands.

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Review 2005: Rose Nicolson

It’s 1575. Mary Queen of Scots has been ousted from the throne of Scotland in favor of her young son James and a series of regents. This revolution has been mostly a religious one, with Queen Mary a Catholic and James (referred to as Jamie Saxe) being raised Protestant. But there is also a struggle between the Calvinists and milder forms of Protestantism.

This struggle is reflected in the home of young William Fowler, whose father is a Calvinist and whose mother, with contacts in Queen Mary’s court, is French and Catholic. However, William’s father is accidentally killed during a siege on Embra. Now William is off on the Sonsie Quine to school at St. Andrews. On the ship, he meets a red-haired boy who asks to borrow his dirk. This meeting proves fateful, as William finds out years later that the boy is Watt Scott of Buccleuch. (For Dorothy Dunnett readers, I believe this is the grandson of the man of the same name in the Lymond chronicles.)

William has an affinity for poetry, and at school he befriends another scholar, Tom Nicolson. He struggles within himself over the religious issue as he feels pressure to commit one way or the other. He also falls in love with Rose Nicolson, Tom’s beautiful sister, a fisher girl with a remarkable mind.

As the King gets older, the Catholics and Protestants compete to control him. The country remains Protestant with the Calvinists gaining power while the Catholic side gains strength at court with the arrival of a favorite from France.

As he approaches graduation, William wants to marry Rose, but she is betrothed to a fisherman with the influence to protect her. She needs this protection because her remarks have been misunderstood as evidence of witchcraft.

William, despite himself, is forced closer to deciding between the two religions and finally decides that Protestantism is the least bad alternative. He also meets Scott again and is drawn into political intrigue.

This is not dry stuff. Greig is great at depicting the realities of living in this difficult time and place. I was fascinated from page one. This novel became part of my Walter Scott prize project by getting on the shortlist, but being a fan of Greig, I had already read it.

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Review 1897: The Metal Heart

On the Orkney Islands in 1942, a German U-boat attack on Scapa Flow leads the British to fortify the seaway’s defenses using Italian prisoners of war as labor. The Italians are located on the small island of Selkie Holm, one avoided by the islanders because of its evil reputation. However, twin young women, Con and Dot, also live there, having moved to a ruined bothy after events on Kirkwell that are not at first explained. Con is afraid, though, of Angus MacLeod.

When the Italians arrive, one falls overboard, and Dot dives in to save him. His name is Cesare, and he begins working in the camp commander’s office and trying to find ways to help the girls. However, he is stopped by the brutality of guard Angus MacLeod.

I liked Lea’s The Glass Woman, and I also like her apparent preference for placing novels in remote northern locations. However, I just wasn’t feeling it here. I felt as if the characters were being put through their paces, not as if the story evolved naturally. I also felt a certain sense of manipulation. Although I was interested to find out why the girls’ parents had vanished, I wasn’t very interested in the love story. I read about half the book, then stopped.

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Review 1892: Rizzio

The Scots mystery writer Denise Mina is still concerned with crime, but with this novel, she has turned to historical true crimes. Rizzio is a novella that deals with the 1566 murder of David Rizzio, a musician and favorite of Mary, Queen of Scots.

The murder has been engineered by Lord Lennox and Lord Ruthven, with the aid of Henry Darnley, Mary’s worthless husband. Darnley thinks the shock will cause his hugely pregnant wife to miscarry, most likely causing her to die. Then, he can be king. This is what came of their love match of the year before. To Lennox, Darnley’s father, this outcome would put him in power over his weak son. Lord Ruthven, almost dead already, is the tool of a group of aristocrats about to be dispossessed by parliament.

The novella is mostly description with little dialogue, but it has deep insight into the thoughts and personalities of its characters. It is mostly concerned with the activities of one night, March 9, 1566, in Edinburgh.

It is fast-paced and interesting. Mina has made no attempt to reflect the language of the time, and in fact wrote using modern idioms. Hence, perhaps, the lack of dialogue.

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