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My Lockdown Books: Fifty Six

Yes, I know that I’ve already written about one of LM Montgomery’s books but it’s my birthday so I’m indulging myself. No-one is surprised that this appears on my list of all-time favourite books. It was one in the stack of nine that formed my birthday cake a couple of years ago after all!

Birthday Book Stack

I first read Anne of the Island when I was about eight, which was ridiculously young, but it means that whenever I re-read it (and I do), there’s something new to discover. LM Montgomery was a brilliant writer and is much under-rated. There’s a general impression that her books, especially the series about Anne, are all sweetness and light but, if you dig slightly beneath the surface, you’ll see that there are some very dark elements in them.

In spite of the title, this is the only one of all the Anne books not really set on Prince Edward Island but it has long been my favourite of LM Montgomery’s books. I think it’s the best of the series and the one where Anne’s character is most fully explored. There’s a strong sense of community – off, but particularly on, the island – which Anne finally appreciates fully by the end of the novel, thus the title.

This third story about Anne, the world’s most famous red-haired orphan, sees her leave Prince Edward Island to go to college. She enjoys life in Kingsport, studying and making new friends including, she thinks, the man of her dreams. But her heart always remains on the Island – and so, it turns out, do her dreams. A book about discovering where you belong, this is LM Montgomery at her very best.

My Lockdown Books: Fifty Five

I don’t know when I first read A Background for Beryl by Sylvia Little.  It’s another of my Mum’s prize books so it would have been in the house all my life.  Mum went on to collect books by the author but this is still the only one I’ve read.

It’s a bit of a Cinderella story.  Seventeen year old Beryl loses her job as secretary to Mrs Marlowe but is then adopted by her sister.  She is sent to school, the same school that Mrs Marlowe’s daughter Christine attends.  Neither girl is happy with this arrangement but it is Beryl who suffers more.  Of course, there’s a happy ending and Beryl, whose background Chris has dismissed, turns out to be the daughter of someone of great renown.

It’s pretty standard fare and very short but I’ve always loved it.  I think Beryl and Chris are strong and rounded characters, each with faults and failings as well as virtues.  The supporting cast plays its part and it’s one of those books I’d like to see continued.  Now we know Beryl’s background, it would be fun to follow her future.

My Lockdown Books: Fifty Three

I met Brian Conaghan a few years ago at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.  I was chairing a panel event he was part of.  We hit it off quite well and I did an in conversation event with him the following year when we discussed The Bombs That Brought Us Together.

Charlie lives in Little Town.  He’s always lived there; he knows how things work.  It’s home.  Pavel is from Old Country but it doesn’t feel like hime to him so he migrates to Little Town where he meets Charlie.  Against all odds (and all reason) they become friends.  But then the bombs start to fall and the rules of Little Town change.  Suddenly Charlie is not so sure it feels like home.

In preparation for the event I made notes.  One of the things I wrote down was that I felt that by the end of the book that it was hard to know who were the heroes and who the villains.  When is a terrorist not a terrorist?  And even if you’ve committed a crime, do you deserve to be treated fairly?  All of these are questions you will ponder when you read Brian’s thought-provoking and engaging book.

My Lockdown Books: Fifty Two

I met Mollie Hunter a couple of times: once at a book festival I organised to mark the Carnegie Medal, held at the original Carnegie Library in Dunfermline.  Mollie was one of three Scots to win the Medal (for The Stronghold) and she was our guest of honour at an Orcadian ceilidh.  The first time I met her, though, was in Edinburgh at the launch of a book called Reading Round Edinburgh.  Mollie used the city as a setting for many of her books and some of them are mentioned in the volume edited by Lindsey Fraser and Kathryn Ross.  However, my favourite of her books is not mentioned, although it is entirely set in the city.

I read The Dragonfly Years as a teenager not long after it was published.  I hadn’t read the book to which it is a sequel (A Sound of Chariots) but that mattered not a whit.  I was completely entranced.  It’s set in the 1930s against a backdrop of rising fascism at home and abroad.  Bridie, the heroine, lives with her strict (perhaps narrow) Brethren grandparents and works in the family florist business.  It’s the story of her growing desire to write, to experience more of life, to become her own person – if she can only discover who that is.  And it’s the story of her meeting with Peter McKinley and their developing relationship.

I often reread The Dragonfly Years and every time I do I’m gripped again.  It stays in my head and when I walk round Edinburgh I subconsciously note places mentioned in the book.  I have to let you into a secret.  I still haven’t read A Sound of Chariots.  For me, Bridie will always belong in The Dragonfly Years.

My Lockdown Books: Forty Seven

My childhood was filled with books published by Pickering & Inglis, purveyors of Christian literature.  As a daughter of the manse the basic premise of these books (to introduce and encourage a life of faith) felt perfectly normal to me and as a Christian adult that hasn’t changed.  But I recognised at an early age that some of the output was truly dreadful in terms of storytelling and that hasn’t changed either.

However some of the books do stand up to scrutiny and I have kept a few, including the Trudy series by Mary Alice Faid.  The first book, Trudy Takes Charge, about which I have written elsewhere, was published in 1949.  It’s important to remember that, and to accept that the series was written for middle class girls.  By the time I read them in the late seventies and early eighties the world was a different place but, used as I was to books from different eras, middle class 1950s Scotland was fairly easy to accept.

Trudy On Her Own is the sixth book of ten and sees the heroine move back to Martonbury, the town where she trained, to teach English at a private girls’ school.  She is on her own in the sense that she rents a room in a refurbished castle where she hopes she will have time and space to write.  Naturally the demands of life encroach and, having an over-developed sense of responsibility, Trudy finds herself pulled in all directions.

As a footnote, I’m interested in the locations in the book.  The series is clearly set in Scotland and I have puzzled over whether or not the places mentioned are based on real towns.  If anyone has thoughts on this I’d be glad to hear them.  Could Martonbury be Glasgow?  And what about Drumleigh, Trudy’s home town?  I wondered off and on if it might be Dumfries…

My Lockdown Books: Forty Six

As many of you will know, Jean Estoril was one of Mabel Esther Allan’s pseudonyms.  I, however, did not know that when I came across Drina Dances in Italy in this edition in Lossiemouth Library.  It’s the fourth book in the Drina series so I had a bit of catching up to do but I loved the book and quickly set about finding the others.  Only the first six were published in this Collins Ballet Library series and for a long time I was unaware that there were in fact another four books (at that time; an eleventh was published much later).

Drina is half Italian, half English orphan who lives with her maternal (English) grandparents.  It turns out that she is in fact the daughter of a world-famous ballerina, although she only discovers this at the end of the first book.  Her two sets of grandparents fought over the right to bring her up and this book sees her first meeting with her Italian grandmother.

In small ways the Drina books cross with some of the books published under Mabel Esther Allan’s own name.  I remember being puzzled when the Lingeraux Ballet School and Company appeared in Black Forest Summer and later (in terms of my reading history) in Amanda  Goes to Italy.  I had first come across it in Drina.  I have a theory that the books Amanda starts writing in Italy are a variation on the Drina books – which, I admit, is maybe far-fetched.  An author putting her pseudonymous creation as fiction into another of her books, published in her own name,  maybe says more about the convoluted way my mind works!

My Lockdown Books: Forty Five

Every so often, but not often enough, a book comes across my desk that makes me laugh and laugh. Cue: Weasels by Elys Dolan and published by the always wonderful people at Nosy Crow.

Have you ever wondered what weasels do all day? Wonder no more.  It turns out that they plot, and prepare for, world domination! The book takes us inside their HQ on the day they have arranged to take over the world. But as the countdown begins something happens to derail their plans. I guarantee that you will laugh out loud as you read this complex, absurd, utterly engaging picture book.

Who’s it for? Well, everyone!