My Lockdown Books: Twenty Four

I’ve been reading Mabel Esther Allan’s books for about forty years.  I’ve collected them more seriously recently but have limited myself to her teenage novels as her output was prolific.  Originally I was only interested in the travel romances but now I’ve branched out into the mysteries as well.

I have visited more places than I’d realised because of her books or to see specific things she mentions in them: Kandersteg, Lugano, Montmartre, Lindau…  The list goes on.  Mabel loved to travel but hated to be a tourist and I can relate to that.  I love travelling and trying to blend in.

A Summer at Sea is almost my perfect travel novel.  As you do if you’re a middle class girl who’s not interested in a career and has been unwell, Gillian gets herself a temporary job in the shop on board a small cruise ship.  (Actually her aunt, who works for the company and is well in with the Captain, gets it for her.)  I read this one as an adult and I was so jealous!  Not only does she spend a summer at sea, but she visits Bergen multiple times.

Bergen is one of my favourite places in the world and I have only ever been there when embarking or disembarking a ship.  But that’s not as a result of this book.  I first visited Bergen on its own merits and because it is the departure point of the Hurtigruten ships.  The Bergen in this book, set in the 1960s, is very different to the Bergen I know in terms of economy and tourism but the geography of the city is perfectly recognisable.

Oh, to be able to spend a summer at sea in Norway.  I’m saving up to do two Hurtigruten coastal sailings back to back.  That might have to do!

My Lockdown Books: Ten

I adore the Ottoline books, both as items and for the content.  This one is my favourite, though, because it has Norway and the sea in it!  It’s another one I reviewed for The Scotsman.  Here are my thoughts from 2010:

Chris Riddell returns to delight and amuse with Ottoline at Sea. In this instalment Ottoline is devastated when Mr Munroe disappears. Eventually, with the help of the bear, she puts together the clues and realises where her friend has gone: back home to Norway to search for Quite Big Foot. Ottoline and the bear set off after him, meeting many interesting people on their journey. Chris Riddell’s absurd story and brilliant annotated illustrations are a constant joy. With its combination of oblique references and obvious humour this will appeal to children and adults alike.

I see no reason to change my mind about any of that.  But I would add my congratulations to Macmillan for publishing such beautifully tactile items and not stinting on the number of pages.  Whoever was responsible for the design deserves praise.  And I’m happy to say that since then another two instalments of Ottoline’s adventures have been published, bringing the total to four.

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…