My Lockdown Books: Twelve

The time has come, as you surely knew it would, for me to share this one from my collection.  There’s nothing random about Nancy Calls the Tune by Dorita Fairlie Bruce.  It’s one of my all-time favourite books.  In fact, it’s possibly the one I’d choose if I could only rescue one of my collection of old children’s books.  The other contender is Anne of the Island by LM Montgomery.

Although written in very different times and places, they have some similarities.  And it’s what they have in common that makes me love Nancy Calls the Tune so much.  I’ve written about this before so I’ll cut to the chase: it’s the description of a small community.  Easterbraes (possibly Blairgowrie in real life) is a small Scottish town that we move to with Nancy Caird early in the Second World War.

Nancy moves to Easterbraes to take up the position of organist at the South Kirk, having met the minister, Angus Macrae, at the home of mutual friends along with his friend Nick Vossaryck.  Already there is her friend Desda, known to us from earlier books in the series.  These four form one level of community, their group being added to by Desda’s sister Rosalind as the story moves on.  The other community prominent in the novel is the congregation – anyone who’s anyone in the town seems to belong to it!

Everyone who has read this book knows that there are issues to be taken with it but I’m happy to look past those and just enjoy the warmth of the friendships and sense of the community pulling together – not always harmoniously – to promote strength and security.

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…

5th December

Of all the children’s authors I collect, Dorita Fairlie Bruce is my favourite. In a large part I think it’s because she’s a Scot and so writes sensibly about my country and its people.  Whatever you might have read in children’s books of the twentieth century, we’re not all red-haired lasses from Glasgow or shy Highlanders!  Nancy Calls the Tune is the almost obligatory final book in a school story series where the heroine is now grown up and embarking on adult life.  For Nancy that means becoming a Church organist!  It’s not a perfect story and other people have pointed out that there are inaccuracies. But it is a story after all, not a factual account of life during the Second World War.  What it does have is a strong sense of community and wonderful camaraderie.  Being a small-town girl myself, I can relate to life in Easterbraes (almost certainly Blairgowrie in real life) and, to a daughter of the manse, the Church setting is extremely familiar and the characters completely believable.  And I like Angus – even though I’ve spent my adult life making sure not to get involved with divinity students or ministers…

My personal favourite of Elizabeth Laird’s many wonderful books is probably still The Garbage King (although I could be swayed in favour of her recent book Welcome to Nowhere, set in a refugee camp…).  It’s one of her many books to have been nominated for the Carnegie Medal, having been shortlisted a few years ago.  Set in Ethiopia, it tells the story of two boys from very different backgrounds who find themselves living on the streets.  It’s powerful and moving and heart-breaking and life-enhancing – and it stayed with me long after I’d finished reading.  One of its major strengths, something it shares with many of Liz’s books, is that it doesn’t have an unrealistically happy-ever-after ending but it does have hope.

Back Beside the Sea

As I write, it is a beautiful autumn day: the sun is shining, the sky is blue and there is scarcely a breeze.  The view from my windows is glorious: the trees still have their autumn colours, there are swans swimming in the pond and I can just catch a glimpse of the cathedral.  Where am I?  In my new office in Elgin.

I’ve just recently been fortunate enough to be given the post of Senior Librarian in Moray.  I have a varied remit including, I’m pleased to say, services to young people.  It’s a great job and I’m working with friendly and helpful people.  But, best of all, I’ve moved back to Lossiemouth after an absence of over twenty years.  From my house I can see the sea and the view is wonderful!

As yet, I don’t have all my books with me which is clearly not a good thing.  Deciding which titles to bring was tough and, in the end, I went for a random selection.  I do work in a library after all!  It’s been fun, though, reading my way through the books I brought.  I’d forgotten all about some of them and they’d got hidden away in my collection.  Maybe less really is more.

What did I bring?  Well, some are books I can’t be without.  Anne of the Island by LM Montgomery, Sisterland by Linda Newbery and Nancy Calls the Tune by Dorita Fairlie Bruce for example.  I also brought some short series: the Carol books by Helen Dore Boylston and the Merry titles by Clare Mallory.  And then there are some that I’ve acquired since moving.  I love Ottoline at Sea by Chris Riddell and Big Bear, Little Brother by Carl Norac and beautifully illustrated by Kristin Oftedal.

I have others, too, some of them even for grown-ups, but to feel completely at home I’ll need all my books with me.  The day can’t come fast enough!

Book Buying on the Other Side of the World

I’m in Australia at the moment, visiting relatives.  Just now, I’m in Melbourne with cousins who know some great secondhand bookshops.  Without trying very hard I’ve bought three or four books, including Australian editions of  Anne of the Island and Dimsie Intervenes.  My cousin gave me a copy of Ethel Talbot’s Seven Little Australians, which I’ve never read.  But my real find came this morning when I bought an Australian edition of Merry Marches On by Clare Mallory.  I know I have a Girls Gone By edition in much better condition but I’ll treasure this first Australian edition.  Clare Mallory has been a recent discovery for me (thank you, Girls Gone By) and I’m so pleased to have one of her books published in her part of the world.

Christmas Reading


An Adventurous Christmas Voyage with Hurtigruten MS Midnatsol: Bodo: 23. December 2008: 2pm

For many years I had books that I almost always re-read at Christmas.  They formed a mixed bag but, inevitably, they all had a strong sense of community.  The only children’s book regularly in my Christmas collection was Nancy Calls the Tune by Dorita Fairlie Bruce, one of my all-time favourites.  I’ve written about it elsewhere so suffice it to say that, despite its wartime setting, it is a warm and welcoming story, inviting the reader to become a part of life in Easterbraes.  It ends just before Christmas but it’s easy to imagine what a wonderful time the characters will have then.  My other regular Christmas reads do have descriptions of Christmas, very different Christmases.  One is Taken by the Hand by O Douglas and the other is Charlotte Fairlie by DE Stevenson.  They both have solitary heroines surrounded by crowds.  Beatrice Dobie in Taken by the Hand finds herself part of  a small community for Christmas, though, while Charlotte Fairlie remains alone until afterwards.  I’m not sure why I always read these books but something about them fitted my mood.

This is all in the past tense, however.  Last year I was in Norway for Christmas (where it was mostly warmer than it is here in lowland Scotland just now.  In Tromso, well inside the Arctic Circle, it was 10C on Christmas Day; in Stirling on Christmas Eve it’s around -5C) and I didn’t want to take books with me that I’d have to bring home again.  So I read a completely random selection, including The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder which was excellent (see last year’s blog).

Having broken myself of reading the same books last year, I haven’t gone back to them.  Instead I’ve spent this week reading books on my to-be-read pile: books that I’ve taken home from work, books that I’ve been given as presents and a couple of old children’s books that I bought myself (Maddy Alone and Maddy Again by Pamela Brown).  Still awaiting me is Murder at the Flood by Mabel Esther Allan.  This is a reprint by Greyladies of her only published adult novel.  Also on the pile is British Children’s Fiction in the Second World War by Owen Dudley Edwards.  I bought it at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and haven’t started it yet!

However the book that will keep me from re-reading my usual Christmas books is much more exciting than any other.  I bought it in November and started it immediately.  However, I got halfway through and then stopped.  This is  not because I wasn’t enjoying it but, rather, because I couldn’t bear to finish it.  Enough suspense?  Okay.  The book is a previously unpublished title by LM Montgomery called The Blythes are Quoted

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know how much I like her books and so you can guess how excited I was when I read that Penguin Canada was publishing this title.  It is a collection of short stories, poems and conversations between various members of the Blythe household.  Most of the stories and one of the poems were published in a collection called The Road to Yesterday (which, of course, I have) in the 1970s but the stories were edited, most of the poems and all of the conversations were missed out.  For me, reading The Blythes are Quoted is like meeting friends I thought I’d never see again and I am determined to make the meeting last as long as possible.

Comfort Reading: The Big Three

Ages ago I wrote about Anne of the Island and said that it was one of my desert island books.  I chose the books in question for an article I wrote for the journal Folly.  As I already mentioned, what the books have in common is a strong sense of community and they also form part of my comfort reading.


If you’re paying attention it’s quite easy to tell when I’m stressed: I start re-reading certain books.  Most of them are children’s books and many of them are school stories although there are exceptions.  And this month I’ve read lots of them.  Things are hectic at work just now and I’m pretty sad at being back from Norway and away from the sea again.  So, there’s been nothing else for it but to lose myself in my favourite books.


Of the children’s authors I collect, my absolute favourite is Dorita Fairlie Bruce.  One of the Big Three (along with Elinor Brent-Dyer and Elsie Oxenham), she wrote fewer and (I think) better books than the others.  I like all of her books but most of all I enjoy her series about Nancy Caird, some of which are set in Scotland and some in England.  The later books in the series are set in Scotland and have a real homecoming feel to them.  It’s the last of them that’s my favourite: Nancy Calls the Tune.  By this time Nancy is grown up and is living in a small town and working as a Church organist.  It’s set during the Second World War and has a strong sense of community and camaraderie.  I’m a small town girl myself and, to a daughter of the manse, the Church setting is extremely familiar and the characters completely believable.


On my imaginary desert island I would have to have a Chalet School book but I found it hugely difficult to decide which one.  In the end I chose The School at the Chalet because it’s where it all begins.  It’s the Chalet School I’ve been re-reading recently and that made me realise all over again how much I like them and how difficult a choice it would be if I could really only have one of them.  I think The School at the Chalet has the best descriptions of the setting and it brings Pertisau and its environs back to me whenever I read it.  And, although I’ve fallen in love with Norway’s west coast as brought to me by Hurtigruten, Tirol will always have a very special place in my heart.  There have been many fill-in Chalet School stories written over the years but the first and best of these is Visitors for the Chalet School by Helen McClelland.  It’s a great addition to the series but it’s a good book in its own right too.  It gives a wonderful outsider’s view of the Chalet School and contextualises it historically.  And it has more descriptions of Tirol…


I enjoy Elsie Oxenham’s books, too, although not as much as those of the other two.  There was no competition for the one I’d take with me to my desert island (actually, I was going to Westray, one of the Orkney Islands).  It had to be The Secrets of Vairy.  I borrowed it when I was a teenager just beginning to collect EJO and for years afterwards it was the title I aspired to own.  For that reason alone, I wouldn’t be able to leave it behind but I think it’s my favourite anyway.  I was probably about the same age as Patricia, the main character, when I first read it and I could relate quite well to her even though it was set between the wars.  It takes place in Scotland, on the Clyde coast, and I can picture the setting which adds to my enjoyment.


These books are my hardcore comfort reads – at least as far as children’s books are concerned.  Another day I’ll tell you about some of the newer children’s books that I return to time and again.  And I’d be interested to know what you read in times of stress…