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15th December

I discovered the Drina books by Jean Estoril serendipitously in Lossiemouth Library as a child. I read them in a random order as and when they were available. And only the first six, which had been recently re-issued, were available at all. The last of these chronologically is Drina Dances in New York, set partly in that city and partly on board a transatlantic liner. I may have said before that I grew up with my Mum’s stories of sailing to Australia and back, and ship-board life had always fascinated me. And I was a great reader of ballet stories so this was a combination guaranteed to appeal. I still re-read the Drina books and I now have all of them, including Drina Ballerina, published MUCH later than the others when the series was issued in paperback. I have them in a variety of editions as I find their publishing history fascinating. They’ve been updated over the years but haven’t suffered too badly. Honestly, I could have selected any of the books for inclusion in this list but the description of life at sea probably brought Drina Dances in New York into my mind first!

A few years ago Greyladies, a small independent publisher, re-issued some of the books of Susan Pleydell, a mid-twentieth century Scottish writer. I enjoyed them (Summer Term and A Young Man’s Fancy) so much that I checked the library catalogue to see if we had any of the rest of her ten novels. And thus I found Brighouse Hotel, her final offering. It’s set in the fictional Glen Torran somewhere unspecified – between Inverness and Fort William is my best guess – in the Highlands. Clunie Ritchie, a regular visitor to the area as a teenager, suddenly finds herself homesick for the mountains. So when the receptionist at Brighouse Hotel is rushed into hospital, Clunie is delighted to deputise. The hotel, as well as being frequented by walkers and fishers, is the local Mountain Rescue base and much of the plot revolves around this. But really this is a story about people and relationships and how both change and develop. It’s a charming novel without being at all cloying and enough of the real world of the 1970s intrudes to make it believable.

14th December

My first of two books by O Douglas (Anna Buchan) is The House that is Our Own, the last of her completed novels. It was published in 1940, a dark year for the author whose brother John died in Canada where he was serving as Governor-General. Much of the action takes place in that country and is clearly based on Anna’s recent visit. But the titular house is in the Scottish Borders not far from Peebles. Isobel Logan, a Scot by birth who has never set foot on her native soil, goes to stay in the area on the recommendation of her friend Kitty who has family connections there. Isobel falls in love with the area, makes friends and ultimately buys Glenbucho Place, a rundown country house. Before she has time to settle in properly she is persuaded into a visit to Canada where she makes the acquaintance of the house’s former owner, Gideon Veitch…

Although they were born decades apart I think that Isobel would have had a lot in common with Kate Milbank, the heroine A Foreign Affair by John Rowe Townsend. I devoured his books as a teenager and this is one of the two I have kept. It’s described as a modern fairytale and it’s actually a Ruritanian novel being set mostly in the Alpine country of Essenheim. Kate is the teenage daughter of a newspaper editor who unexpectedly finds herself making the news when, after becoming involved with the Crown Prince, she travels to Essenheim in the company of two disaffected students and an exiled writer. The resulting story is a wonderfully frothy confection with a deep seam of satire running through it.

13th December

Back in the fifties and sixties career novels were all the rage, particularly those aimed at girls. I read them in the eighties and was first of all puzzled, and then fascinated, by them.  There was Jane, Young Author (!), Juliet in Publishing and Molly Qualifies as a Librarian (not by going to university, though, as I was planning).  Of course, these careers were only there to fill in the time before marriage inevitably ensued!  Hester: Ship’s Officer is one of The Bodley Head’s career novels.  It was published in 1957 and from a modern standpoint it’s absolutely hilarious.  But in spite of everything it’s a remarkably good story.  Many of these career novels (which I love and collect) are little more than tracts for different jobs but this has plot and character and everything!  The author is Valerie Baxter, actually Laurence Meynell, who wrote a lot of the better career novels.  Obviously I like this because it’s set on a ship.  Or, at least, that’s what you’d think.  Actually it takes Hester about half the book to get on board…

Between Two Seas is by Marie-Louise Jensen.  The author is half English/half Danish and the book is set in the two countries at the end of the nineteenth century.  The heroine is Marianne, the illegitimate daughter of Esther.  At the start of the novel they are living in Grimsby but the action really begins after Esther’s death when Marianne sets sail for Denmark in search of her unknown father. In my opinion, the book’s major strength is its description.  I’m predisposed to envisage the sea but Marie-Louise Jensen certainly created a clear setting for me in the north Danish fishing village of Skagen.  Having been there since reading the book (because of reading the book if the truth were to be told) I can see how well it was described.  My only slight problem with the book is that everything falls into place quite easily.  Marianne leaves Grimsby with limited money, speaking no Danish and not knowing where Skagen is but somehow she arrives with little difficulty.  I am also very envious of the ease with which she seems to master Danish.  I spent two years learning Norwegian, a very similar language, and I still find it pretty hard going in spite of a number of visits to Norway.  But my quibbles are professional; on a personal basis I really enjoyed reading it.

12th December

In a sneaky move I’m including a second book by Dorita Fairlie Bruce who, you may remember from last week, is my favourite collectable author. The Serendipity Shop introduces Merran and Julia Lendrum, orphaned sisters living happily enough with relatives in London. In the great tradition of Dorita Fairlie Bruce, though, they’re exiled Scots, and when an unexpected legacy recalls them to their home town they fight off all opposition from their well-meaning relatives and return. The book is set in Colmskirk, a thinly disguised Largs, and it makes me happy! Julia and Merran are welcomed back to the town warmly. Merran, the reserved older sister, has inherited an antiques shop and, along with it, an enemy. Insouciant Julia, still at school, makes friends with the enemy’s daughter. In an unexpected turn, however, all four are thrown together in an effort to save the town from an unscrupulous businessman. Dorita Fairlie Bruce’s characterisation is always strong and the description of the small town setting with its idealised sense of community is my best kind of feel-good.

It was Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies Detective series that rocketed him to fame. Mma Ramotswe struck a chord and put Botswana securely on the map for many readers. But Botswana had been front and centre of my mind for a long time. Brought up in the United Free Church of Scotland, I knew more than most about the southern African country where much of the denomination’s overseas work was focused. I loved the series from the outset and got very over-excited in the staffroom one day when a real life character who had once stayed with us got a mention. Shrieking wasn’t in it! However I also enjoy the Edinburgh based books and it’s one of them I’ve chosen for my list. Alexander McCall Smith’s deceptively simple style of writing is well known and The Right Attitude to Rain exemplifies it well. It is the third in his Isabel Dalhousie series set in middle class Edinburgh and meets the high standard of its predecessors. I enjoyed the first two books in the series (The Sunday Philosophy Club and Friends, Lovers, Chocolate) but for me this was better than either of them because of what we learn about Isabel. In this book, Alexander McCall Smith sensitively describes her emotional character. He also leaves us on the edge of a precipice that I certainly never saw coming…

11th December

Clare Mallory was a New Zealander who wrote books for children and teenagers in the 1940s and 1950s.  I came across her books fairly recently and immediately enjoyed them.  Many of them are school stories but the schools tend to be much more relaxed than their British contemporaries although they do have much in common. My favourite of Clare Mallory’s novels is Juliet Overseas.  It concerns a girl who is sent halfway around the world to attend her mother’s old school in England.  In a typical school story plot, the tone of the school is not all it might be and Juliet takes it upon herself to effect an improvement.  Of course she succeeds but reading about how she does it is entertaining and even thought-provoking.  Juliet is an engaging character, fairly self-sufficient but keenly aware that the customs of New Zealand are not those of home – as England is always referred to – and anxious not to trample on sensitivities, whilst at the same time being impatient with the unwillingness to change displayed by some of her contemporaries.

I love a Regency romance and one of my favourite writers in the genre is Julia Quinn. She’s American but she manages to hide that pretty well in her use of language and, unusually for American-penned novels of the genre, there are very few jarring notes in her writing. Her series of books about the Bridgerton family is good fun.  The characters are likeable and varied and over the series Julia builds up a great picture of their family life.  Each of the children has a book describing his or her courtship and these stories are all quite different. I like Colin’s story, Romancing Mr Bridgerton, best of all.  He’s an urbane young man, intelligent, witty and attractive but with a deep seam of insecurity.  The heroine of the piece is Penelope Featherington, old enough to be considered an irredeemable spinster but hiding an explosive secret.  It’s funny, romantic, sexy and great escapism!

10th December

Trudy Takes Charge is the first of ten books about the eponymous heroine. They were published over the course of twenty-one years, from the late forties on, by Pickering & Inglis, a Scottish publishing house well-known for its overtly Christian books.  I know nothing about the author, Mary Alice Faid, but I believe she also wrote adult novels.  My copy of Trudy Takes Charge is actually my Mum’s, a Sunday School prize.  I read it when I was maybe about ten and over the years acquired the rest of the series, mostly from McCall Barbour’s bookshop on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh.  Fifteen year-old Trudy is recalled from her boarding school and left in charge of the family in her parents’ absence due to illness. It’s unashamedly evangelistic but it is also (and this makes it sadly unusual) a great story.  Everything does not go well and being a Christian brings Trudy trials as well as triumphs.

Something completely different is Once by Morris Gleitzman.  It’s also the first book in a series but there the similarity ends. It is the story of Felix and Zelda, two children living in Poland in the 1940s, trying to escape from the Nazi regime. Once is a good book – maybe a great one – and it’s deceptively simple.  The language is simple and the plot is simple but there’s nothing simple about the story.  It deals with horrific situations and dreadful choices and real-life history.  The power of the book lies in its matter-of-fact description, and some of the scenes will haunt readers of any age for a long time.  Because of that it is a challenging, but ultimately worthwhile, read.

9th December

Busman’s Honeymoon is the last of Dorothy L Sayers’ novels about Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. If I had to pick one of the series as my favourite this would be it. In fact, I did choose it as one of the books in my extravaganza of a birthday cake earlier this year. Why do I like it so much? At least partly it’s because it is unusual in following a fictional relationship through the wedding into married life. So many series of novels end with the impending marriage or resolved relationship of the hero and heroine. But Busman’s Honeymoon explores the complexities of a developing committed relationship. As far as I’m concerned the murder is simply a backdrop to the profound mystery of Peter and Harriet’s marriage and their growing awareness of each other’s multi-faceted personalities, vulnerabilities and sensitivities. The Lord Peter Wimsey of this novel is so far removed from the man we first meet in Whose Body? that they might as well be two different characters. Interestingly, his constant companion, Bunter, has changed not at all. It would take Jill Paton Walsh to alter that – but that’s a post for another time!

If you want excellence in historical storytelling for young people, Theresa Breslin’s novels are a good place to start. Perhaps because of this year’s centenary commemorations of the Armistice it is Remembrance that jumped to mind in compiling my list of favourite books, although, in fact, I will usually cite Saskia’s Journey as my favourite of her novels. Remembrance is a study of the First World War as seen through the eyes of two families in a small Scottish community. It’s a superb piece of writing and tells the story of this cataclysmic event in a beautifully understated and very personal way. There are dramatic scenes of course but the plot and characters are grounded in the real world of the time. It’s a compelling and rewarding book.