Book No 11 (2021) : The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter

Over the years I’ve read about, visited, stayed in and photographed lighthouses – they have always fascinated me. Looking back, I think it was the children’s BBC TV programme Blue Peter that sparked my interest: there was a clip about winching Christmas puddings over to the lighthouse keepers. The Blue Peter album that year had a feature about Grace Darling, who saved several survivors from a ship wrecked near the lighthouse where her father was the keeper. I remember reading it again and again.

There is something about the combination of the lighthouses themselves – their construction, longevity, isolation, proximity to the sea (obviously!) which set me off on my own explorations. There’s no way I could have let ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter‘ pass me by.

Based on fact, Hazel Gaynor has written a fictionalised account of the rescue which Grace Darling and her father mounted in September 1838 from the Longstone light. The circumstances surrounding the rescue are well documented as Grace became something of a national heroine once details of the rescue became more widely known. One of the survivors saved from the sea was a young woman called Sarah Dawson. Sadly, Sarah’s two young children drowned.

Interwoven with Grace and Sarah’s history is an entirely imaginary thread, concerning a young woman (Matilda) who is banished from Ireland to America when her family discover she is pregnant – with no prospect of marriage. Matilda is sent to stay with a distant relative, Harriet, who is a lighthouse keeper on Rhode Island. As the time draws near for Matilda’s baby to be born, her relationship with Harriet takes on a new significance. Two family heirlooms, a locket necklace and a manual for light keepers are the clues to an untold story.

I enjoyed this book and not just because of the lighthouse interest! Grace Darling emerges as what we would now call a celebrity and the attention doesn’t sit comfortably with the young heroine. She feels as if her father’s role in the dangerous rescue is underplayed in the light of her own bravery, but they had worked as a team. Furthermore, everyone wants a piece of her – quite literally. As well as boatloads of gawpers chartering boats to try and catch a glimpse of Grace at Longstone, correspondents also write requesting locks of her hair and scraps of her clothing. She has her portrait painted several times and is tempted by a dubious offer from a circus owner. I was drawn in by the notion that Grace Darling was famous for a reason, rather than looking a certain way or having an astute marketing team. She deserves recognition for her heroism, but the balance between the public’s admiration and infatuation, is a fine one.

Hazel Gaynor has clearly researched her subject matter very carefully and cites many of her sources and reference works in the author’s notes. However, the facts of history are balanced by Matilda’s fictional narrative which is also engaging and enjoyable. There is a touch of mystery and some romance; next time I’m at a lighthouse, I’m sure there will be scenes from this novel which will be realised, just as I imagined them. I just hope it isn’t the part where I’m single-handedly steadying a small boat in the middle of a storm!

Book No 10 (2021) : Anatomy of a Scandal

Sarah Vaughan’s novel has been hugely successful. As well as having been selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club in 2018, it has recently been added to that Club’s list of their favourite, stand-out titles from the past decade. Which all makes me think that anything I might have to say will be largely irrelevant, as the reading jury has already delivered its positive verdict on this one! Nevertheless, I’ll give you my twopenn’orth.

The plot of the novel (classed by Richard & Judy as ‘literary fiction‘ #debatable) centres upon a prosecution for rape brought against a politician (James Whithouse) by an aide with whom he was having an affair. The case is prosecuted by a female barrister, Kate; it transpires that she has a particular reason for wanting to see this perpetrator brought to justice.

Switching between the viewpoints of Kate, James and his wife (Sophie), and a University contemporary of the couple (Holly), the story is set between the University of Oxford in the early 1990s and the London setting of Westminster and the courts in 2017. Although this may sound complex, it works reasonably well as a literary device and the plot is easy to follow. I managed to read the book in a day.

For most of the day that I spent reading though, I wanted to fling the ‘Sunday Times‘ best-selling, 4-pages of plaudits, Simon & Schuster novel at the wall. If it hadn’t have been the monthly choice for our own village book group, I would have given up.

Firstly, the plot is paper-thin. If it was a hotel wall, you’d be able to hear your neighbour clipping their toenails. It is also predictable, and not in a dramatically ironic way, more in a ‘I saw that coming a mile off” way. Kate has a back-story which is barely disguised and the reveal is under-whelming.

Even more frustrating though, were the clumsy stereo-types, especially of Oxford students: the provincial, dull, hard-working state school pupil who is over-awed by the public-school types. Contrast her with the posh bird – beautiful, sporty, wealthy and only at Oxford to find a husband. The male counterparts are the posh boys – floppy haired members of exclusive drinking clubs, drug-taking champagne quaffers who are dismissive of their sexual flings with women. This may have been the Oxford of Sarah Vaughan’s youth, but I felt she does the University a huge disservice. Oxford today works hard to dispel these out-dated stereotypes, which threaten to make an Oxbridge place feel unattainable for less privileged and state school pupils. Interestingly, most of us in the book group discussion had come to the same conclusion – many of us have first-hand experience of the modern University of Oxford and were disappointed by the cliches.

The number of rape convictions in England and Wales has fallen to a record low but sadly the treatment of the issue in this novel was disappointing, with the prosecuting lawyer driven by a personal vendetta, rather than striving for a conviction to deliver justice for the victim.

I realise that my last few reviews I’ve been a bit Marmite about books – I other seem to love ’em or hate ’em. But this one is definitely toast!

Book No 9 (2021) : One August Night

This is the sequel to Victoria Hislop’s highly successful novel ‘The Island‘, which chronicles the experiences of a young woman sent to Spinalonga, the leper colony off the coast of Crete. I like this novel, although not without reservations – I read it for a second time in 2018.

One August Night‘ is supposedly the story of what happens after a cure for leprosy is discovered and the residents of Spinalonga return to their island communities. Two key characters in ‘The Island‘ are sisters Anna and Maria; Maria had contracted leprosy and been exiled to Spinalonga. Anna, meanwhile, engages in a passionate extra-marital affair with Manoli and gives birth to a daughter, Sofia.

During the island celebrations for the return of its villagers from Spinalonga, Anna is murdered. Someone is convicted of the crime and jailed, whilst her lover takes off to start a new life. I hoped that the novel would pick up Maria’s story and address how she adapts to life after Spinalonga, but instead it spins along-a (see what I did there?!) different storyline.

This whole book feels like a wasted opportunity. Having invested a considerable amount into the development of Maria’s character and circumstances in ‘The Island‘, there was a rich seam of material to be mined in a sequel. Instead, leprosy and its consequences are virtually ignored in favour of a bizarre exploration of Manoli’s new life and Maria’s prison visits to the murderer. The plot is weak, disjointed and uninteresting, as are the majority of the characters. There was very little to hold my interest and I struggled to finish the novel at all. I can’t help thinking that if this had been a submission to an agent from an unknown new author, it would have either gone in the ‘Reject’ pile or been published after several major edits. As it is, Victoria Hislop has seen another bestseller hit the shelves.

For me, Ms Hislop was drinking in the last chance saloon and I’m afraid she’s blown it. Nothing she has written since ‘The Island‘ has equalled it, despite my fervent hoping. Having read every single thing she’s produced afterwards, desperately looking for the same emotional connection I felt with Alexis, Eleni and Maria initially, nothing has been as good. I was very excited when a friend lent me ‘One August Night‘. When I’d finished, I was even more glad. Because if I’d wasted £12.99 of my own money on a copy, I’d have been gutted.

Book No 8 (2021) : Beastings

The plot is simple: a young workhouse girl, having been found a job as a servant, absconds when she discovers the father of the household physically abusing his baby. The girl takes the child with her and runs – there is no real plan, nowhere to run to. She just has to get away. It isn’t long before she is missed and the local priest, assisted by an able poacher, sets off on her trail. The novel follows the girl (we never know her name, nor the that of the baby – whose sex is never even revealed) as she flees, trying to survive in the wild, becoming increasingly exhausted and malnourished.

The runaway is shown some kindness by strangers, but only temporarily before she moves on again. The portrayal of nature and the landscape is harsh and so are the people. The Priest is an ugly character, immoral and hypocritical; as the novel progresses, his reason for wanting to run the girl to ground becomes apparent. When they finally encounter one another the conflict is brutal and terrifying.

Reading this felt like all my bad dreams – running, running, always scared and looking behind. Finding a place to rest for a while before having to be on my feet again. Blisters, hunger, a crying baby, rain, dark. The relief of water, a wash, a drink. Then scrambling again, the danger always just out of sight on the periphery of your consciousness, but you have to keep moving to get away from it. A nightmare.

When I was at studying literature at University, I think my critical analysis skills were probably at their height. About 30 years ago! Nowadays I read for pleasure and entertainment, not to pass exams and so, after years of laying unused, my critical skills have diminished. I missed them whilst reading Benjamin Myers’ ‘Beastings‘. The text is rich in imagery, punctuation during dialogue is non-existent and scarce in many places, adding to the pace of the narrative. I felt I could have got more to the heart of it, as if true insight was evading me.

I’m not sure this is a book I can say I enjoyed – admire, certainly, this is powerful and arresting writing. A Portico Literary prize winner, it would almost certainly provoke a lot of discussion as a book group choice. Nevertheless, it has made a lasting impression: all I kept thinking about was people for whom terror, running, hiding is a permanent state – refugees, the homeless, conscripted child soldiers, trafficked slaves, illegal immigrants….. how terrifying it must be to never be able to relax, rest, breathe, for fear of being caught.

Book No 7 (2021) : The Last Wilderness

With this choice, I don’t want to give the misleading impression that I spend my weekends tramping through the wilderness with my backpack, self sufficient and unafraid. In actual fact, whilst I do like to be out in the countryside, I’m still a nature tourist rather than a traveller. I don’t like to be too far from the nearest Costa or the relative safety of shelter. With this disclaimer though, Scotland is my favourite place in the whole word and I’ve spent a fair amount of time exploring it over the years.

Neil Ansell writes about the Rough Bounds of Scotland, details of separate visits he makes throughout the course of a year. He makes his trips alone, reflecting often on his preference for solo expeditions – something with which I have great sympathy, as I often prefer to walk alone. As he traverses the countryside, the author intersperses his observations about landscape, weather and wildlife with facts. Having been interested in the natural world since he was a youngster, his knowledge is wide and really added to my enjoyment of the book.

There is an under-current in the book though, as Neil is losing his hearing. Initially this has affected only sounds within certain ranges, but is slowly becoming more profound. The effect of this is that he is no longer able to hear some birdsong and animal calls, losses which might threaten to break part of his connection with the natural world. For someone who derives enormous solace from the adventures of camping alone (midges nothwithstanding!), walking and exploring, this is a huge threat to the author’s wellbeing. His eventual acceptance is poignant and profoundly moving.

Reading this book made me realise something about myself; although I look at wildlife and nature, I don’t see very much. The author doesn’t just spot birds, he understands their movements, flight patterns, calls. He can follow tracks and understands what might have caused a change in vegetation, weather or animal behaviour, The author describes sitting watching the waves, which are roughly the same size, until the rhythm is broken by one very large wave. Out at sea, there is a pod of pilot whales. Watching them, Neil figures out that the creatures have systematically surrounded a shoal of herring to hunt. I would probably have seen the whales and been very excited, but not figured out what they were doing. I’ve spotted sea eagles, eagles, deer (never an otter, sadly), seals and have good enough binoculars to be able to bring them closer, but am not observant in my looking. This book gave me a much greater appreciation of what I might be able to actually see, with more time and patience.

Book No 6 (2021) : Close to Where The Heart Gives Out

Another Scottish island experience, this time of a GP who moves from his Glasgow city practice with his wife and children to Eday, one of the Orkney islands. Written retrospectively, the book recounts Dr Alexander’s time on the island.

At the time of starting work on Eday, Malcolm and his wife, Maggie (also a doctor) have four young children, all boys. As you’d expect, life is a bit crazy as everyone adapts to the new lifestyle with wild and windy weather, a slightly rundown cottage and dramatically different lifestyle. The GP’s surgery attached to the cottage isn’t well equipped and takes a while to get organised. Supplies come by boat, weather permitting.

The islanders leave the new arrivals alone for a while, not wanting to bother the doctor while he settles in. Gradually though, the new GP gets to know his patients, consulting in the surgery and visiting them in their homes. The recollections of these home visits allow the reader to learn about Eday life – cottages with no running water, peat fires, hard working islanders – straight talking, uncomplaining and stoic. Doctor quickly earns the respect of the locals and is asked to step up as a preacher, teacher and vet: very few people have only one job!

What I loved about this book is that it has heart. This isn’t a medical journal or textbook. Dr Malcolm Alexander seems genuinely modest and he treats people, not ‘cases’ or symptoms. His writing is reflective and insightful – about his own part in his marriage difficulties, being a good dad, serving his community and where he seeks fulfilment as a medic. When Maggie encounters difficulties in her fifth pregnancy, her husband’s anguish rises from the pages, as all the while he cares for the boys and his patients.

As you’d expect, the book is also shot through with observations about the landscape and wildlife on Eday; wind and sky, otters, owls and gulls. Tempered with the author’s gentle philosophy about the sanctity of life and his duty to do no harm, embracing the pace of island life instead of resisting it, I found this book enchanting.

The irony of me reviewing a book called ‘Close to Where The Heart Gives Out‘ when my partner has died of a heart attack, is not lost on me! Hearts do give out between these pages, and death itself isn’t euphemised, as you would expect from a doctor. But I was touched by the author’s refutation of the view that as death is commonplace for medics, it becomes almost meaningless to them, part of the job. ‘Patients sometimes think they are just one among many but they aren’t. Each life stays with us.’ I imagine this is why Eday took Dr Alexander to their own hearts. How lucky they were.

Malcolm now lives on Bute, having spent a while working in Stromness before leaving the Orkneys. I’ve started following him on Twitter, where he continues to offer comment on landscape, home comforts, vaccines and duck eggs. In the meantime, I’ve added Eday to my list of places to visit.

Book No 5 (2021): A House by the Shore

This slim volume has been on my bookshelf for many years, I can’t even recall how I came across my copy, which was secondhand when I got it! Despite there being so many new books and never enough time, this (along with Judy Fairbairns’ ‘Island Wife‘) is one I have returned to and re-read several times.

Scarista House is still a highly successful hotel, well known for its shoreside location and gourmet food. However, it wasn’t always as polished! Alison Johnson and her husband were working as teachers when they decided to relocate to the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, where they renovate an old manse and turn it into a guest house.

Far from being DIY experts, the young couple, although practical, have taken on a huge project. Many of the rooms are uninhabitable, there are not enough bathrooms. Floors and windows have rotted, everything needs re-wiring. Alison herself spends a lot of time outside, digging trenches for the various pipes, drainage and services. It isn’t glamorous at all!

The renovation begins in 1974, so there is no internet to ease the communications involved in ordering, finding expertise, seeking advice. Battling with the difficulties of being in such a remote location and the inherent problems of getting supplies, combined with the frequently awful weather, Alison and Andrew persevere. With an immense amount of hard graft, lots of mistakes but a little bit of good luck, they are eventually able to welcome guests. There are several Fawlty Towers moments, with a big discrepancy between what is happening front of house in the dining room and Alison’s frantic scrabblings in the kitchen. Let’s just say it’s probably a good job this all took place before ‘elf and safety was A Big Thing.

A gentle read, with lots of comical moments, the opening of Scarista House is testament to how Alison and Andrew adapted to life in the Outer Hebrides and made it their own. I return to this book because it contains my dream; to move to a Scottish island. I relinquished the dream years ago; there has never been the right time and the opportunities to start again have passed. However, part of me still hankers after it so I live the experience vicariously. Although the Johnsons have moved on, the hotel is still there – I’m going to visit next time I’m in that neck of the woods. Hopefully the plumbing is no longer dodgy!

Book No 4 (2021): The Binding

Emmett Farmer hasn’t been feeling too well. What he doesn’t know is that he has been suffering from bookbinder’s fever. When Seredith, an elderly bookbinder who lives alone out on the marshes, chooses Emmett to be her apprentice, the truth about his calling is revealed.

If you want to forget, the binder will take your memory and encase it forever in the pages of a book. Seredith’s shelves are full of carefully stored volumes, beautifully crafted books which bind the memories of those who seek her help. Emmett is settling down to his new life when Seredith dies unexpectedly and his term of apprenticeship has to continue with her son, Mr de Havilland. Emmett hasn’t been at de Havilland’s workshop for long before he is sent to bind his first customer, a maid at the house of a Mr Darnay. The young apprentice is reluctant, as Mr Darnay’s son, Lucian, had once been a visitor at Seredith’s bindery, an encounter which left Emmett feeling inexplicably afraid.

This brings the reader to the end of the first of three parts of the book. Slowly, slowly, the book begins to turn on its axis, so that the fulcrum of the story becomes something totally different. The focus changes from the process of the binding, to the memories it captures. About how the process can be abused, the effects it might have. I was totally enthralled. This was one of those books which I inhabited until it ended. The characters are carefully drawn, the author has a captivating sense of place. She also has an authentic way of describing an often chaotic and distressed state of mind.

Sometimes the pain of grief and despair can feel too much to bear. So what if there was a way to make it all disappear, so you had no recollection of what happened, or of the pain? It sounds very tempting. But a binding isn’t selective, you can’t choose to keep just the happy memories, the good times – you lose the good along with the bad. Would I rather keep the pain and all the memories, or lose the whole lot? And what if someone else could read my binding, or I could read theirs?

I know ‘The Binding‘ is a story, but ever since I read the book, this whole concept has sparked many an internal debate and several real-time conversations. Any book which provokes that kind of reaction has to be worth a read, surely?! I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Book No 3 (2021) : The Diary of a Bookseller

Like most people, I didn’t have a good year in 2020. Although I didn’t feel up to blogging and reviewing books, I found a great deal of comfort in the distraction of reading. I was extremely grateful to everyone who recommended, lent and bought me books. As we start a New Year I’ve decided to clear my backlog of reviews and so count from where I left off in 2020.

First up, a chance find when I went on a bit of a spree in Waterstones, Brighton and was trawling for non-fiction especially. The diarist in question is Shaun Bythell, owner and manager of the Book Shop in Wigtown, Dumfries and Galloway. Wigtown is to Scotland what Sedbergh is to England and Hay-on-Wye to Wales i.e. the National Book Town.

Through his daily diary entries over the course of a year in 2014, the author brings to life a colourful and varied cast of bookshop staff and customers, as well as the atmosphere of the famous annual Book Festival. From the rude to the slightly batty, the bewildering to the belligerent, the intriguing to the indignant (which sometimes includes Mr Bythell himself), the diary paints a picture of the bookseller’s lot. With a dry, sardonic wit, Shaun bemoans the rise of Amazon, despairs at the antics of his staff (‘Nicky’ in particular) and tells us about the visitors to his home and the Festival. This is all set against the backdrop of a planned wind farm and a leaky shop.

I know it is really annoying when someone you love keeps reading random clips out of a book because it made them laugh, but I couldn’t help myself! It really is very, very funny – laugh out loud funny. The combination of the diarist’s observations, together with some slightly absurd situations just made me smile. I also learned quite a lot about how second-hand books are bought and sold, both online and over the counter.

Shaun Bythell has a partner throughout the book, known by the pseudonym ‘Anna’ but who is actually Jessica Fox, an author who recounts her side of the Wigtown Book Shop experience in Three Things You Should Know About Rockets (Shaun is ‘Ewan’ in her book). I will be reading that soon, along with the sequels to the original diary, Confessions of a Bookseller and Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops.

I’m not sure I’ll ever dare to visit The Book Shop in case I behave appallingly and end up immortalised in the next diary. Nevertheless, I’m excited to have discovered these books. Mainly because I’ve just got myself a new job. In a secondhand bookshop! Mr Bythell has certainly taught me a thing or two about what to expect. There was a strange guy in the shop last week……

Book No 2 (2020) : Ordinary Thunderstorms

Until I started work at Jesus College, Oxford, I’d never actually heard of William Boyd. But it turns out he’s an alumnus of the College; I’ve read quite a few of his novels to date and enjoyed them all, especially ‘Restless’. ‘Ordinary Thunderstorms’ was our Book Club choice for March 2020.

Adam Kindred’s life turns on a sixpence. Having been for a job interview, he meets a businessman and strikes up a conversation. When the businessman leaves a file of information behind in  restaurant, Adam tries to return it. The simple act of kindness results in life as he knows it unravelling. He’s forced to live rough, skulking in the shadows of London trying to avoid detection. Meanwhile, the reader learns the back story of the forgetful businessman, and his role in the development of a ground-breaking cure for asthma. As the novel develops, we meet a two contrasting casts of characters, ranging from hit-men and prostitutes in London’s underclasses, to a titled Board member and top pharmaceutical executives.

This book cracks on at a pace, with plenty of twists and turns. It is cleverly crafted, weaving together the major threads of the story in a page-turning thriller. As well as being exciting, I found myself really questioning who were the good guys and who were the baddies, and how easy it is to make assumptions about people based on their place in society. Adam is faced with some tough choices and makes some decisions which I’m sure he would have abhorred in his previous life. It really made me think about what lengths I might be prepared to go to in order to survive.

If you haven’t read any Boyd before, this is as good a place as any to start. However if it isn’t quite to your liking, I wouldn’t give up on him without trying another book – one of the things we agreed upon in our Book Club chat is that Boyd’s novels are very different from one another. So much so, that if you didn’t know, it might not be that easy to tell they were all by the same author.