Read Scotland 2014 Challenge: two books

I’ve got a bit behind with writing reviews, so here are some notes on two books I’ve recently read, both of which fit into the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge.

It’s common knowledge now that Robert Galbraith is J K Rowling’s pseudonym. I wish I’d read The Cuckoo’s Calling without knowing that, as although I have no problem with authors writing under pseudonyms, I found myself thinking how like the Harry Potter books it is in some ways and I doubt I’d have thought that if I’d read it ‘blind’.

Anyway, I liked The Cuckoo’s Calling. It is crime fiction, set in the world of Cormoran Strike (a Harry Potterish name, I thought), an ex-army private detective, who is struggling to get clients and pay his bills, sleeping on a camp bed in his office. Along comes Robin Ellacott, from the Temporary Solutions Agency to help out (think, Hermione Granger). She’s intelligent, efficient, remarkably resourceful, and she soon has Strike organised, which is essential as he is asked by John Bristow, a lawyer and the brother of a childhood friend to investigate the death of his sister, Lula Landry. The police are satisfied that Lula, a model, had committed suicide, but Bristow is certain that she didn’t.

What follows is at times a leisurely narrative and the plot is quite complex, but not too difficult to work out. The characters are convincing, Robin in particular soon became my favourite. She has an enquiring mind, ‘fascinated by the interior workings of other people’s minds‘ and despite her fiancé’s opposition to her job, she carries on, motivated by her fascination with investigating, and her secret ambition to be a private detective. In fact without Robin, Strike would have really struggled to get to the truth.

I’ve counted this book towards the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge because J K Rowling, although she was born in England has lived in Scotland for twenty-one years and plans to spend the rest of her life in Scotland. Whereas the author of the next book, Muriel Spark is an author who was born and grew up in Edinburgh, but who later lived in London. To qualify for this challenge books have to be by Scottish authors, either by birth or immigration, or about or set in Scotland – quite a wide brief!

brodie001The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is perhaps Muriel Spark’s most famous novel. I’ve read it before and seen the film, with Maggie Smith in the title role. Each time I’ve read it I’ve really enjoyed it – it’s one of those books that isn’t spoilt by knowing what happens, because part of the pleasure of reading it is the fact that I do know who betrayed Miss Brodie. Despite her declaration: ‘Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she will be mine for life‘, it is one of the ‘Brodie set’ who causes her downfall, that and her pride and self-absorption.

But what really impresses me about this book is the writing, so compact, so perceptive and so in control of the shifts in time backwards and forwards. It’s a joy to read. I’ve written more about it in this post.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark


I was pleased this book was chosen for discussion for Cornflower’s Book Group because I thought it was a brilliant  book when I first read it some years ago. I like to re-read books I’ve enjoyed and sometimes I find that my views/mood have changed and I no longer think the book is as good as I first thought. No such problem with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie! I still think it’s an excellent book.

It’s set in Edinburgh and starts in 1936 with schoolteacher Miss Brodie and the Brodie Set, a group of girls she has groomed to accept her ideas. The school is the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, a traditional school where Miss Brodie’s ideas and methods of teaching are viewed with dislike and distrust. The Head Teacher is looking for ways to discredit and get rid of her. The story is told in flashbacks from 1930 – 1939 and quite early on in the book we are told who ‘betrayed’ Miss Brodie.

Although it’s a short book I immediately was plunged into the school world, reminded so much of my own schooldays when you had to wear the school hat or beret under penalty of detention and it was absolutely forbidden that any girl from my school should be found eating even an ice cream in the street. Like the Brodie Set my friends and I used to meet boys either before or after school, both boys and girls leaning on the handlebars of our bikes as we talked. The likeness to Marcia Blaine ends there though – there were no teachers like Miss Brodie at my school, but I did enjoy that trip down memory lane for a brief time.

Team spirit is encouraged at Marcia Blaine but team spirit is despised by Miss Brodie, who encourages the girls to recognise their ‘prime’ and live it to the full. Instead of lessons she takes them outside and with text books open in case anyone comes she regales them with stories of her life and loves. Miss Brodie’s love affairs intrigue the girls, from her lover who was killed in World War 1 to the love triangle of Miss Brodie, Gordon Lowther the singing teacher and Teddy Lloyd the married art teacher with six children.

Miss Brodie wants to dominate the girls’ lives and the darker side of her character is shown through her admiration of Mussolini and fascism. Despite, or may be because, of her failings the girls are all loyal to her until one of them betrays her and she is left to wonder just which girl it was.

The novel is not so much concerned with plot as with character. The moral aspect of Miss Brodie’s betrayal is not questioned but how people are influenced by others, their vulnerability or indifference to others’ feelings and thoughts, how we appear to others and how we try to impose our beliefs are amongst the issues explored.

Coincidentally, I see that the film, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie starring Maggie Smith is being shown on ITV1 today at 1.00pm. I saw this after I first read the book and loved it. Maggie Smith was just right as Jean Brodie.