Book No 3 (2018) : The Blackhouse

the blackhouseCrime fiction has never been one of my favourite genres, but this novel drew me in from the very first pages. It’s set on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and we all know I’m a sucker for a Scottish tale, but it was the back story which had me hooked.

Fin is a detective in Edinburgh, but hails originally from the Isle of Lewis. When local islander Angel McCritchie is found murdered, the crime bears similarities to another murder in Leith. So Fin returns to his childhood home with the brief of finding Angel’s killer. Being back on the island brings Fin Macleod straight back into contact with his upbringing; childhood friend, Artair, his first love, Marsailli and their son, Fionnlagh and they all have secrets to reveal.

Central to the plot is the annual guga hunt undertaken by the men of the island. They spend two weeks on a desolate, craggy rock, fending for themselves in the blackhouse of the book’s title, whilst carrying out the historic cull of young gannets. The setting is harsh, violent, and woven into the very fabric of the relationships in the close community. What happens on the island, stays on the island, but the consequences of Fin’s participation in the guga hunt are devastating.

Peter May’s cleverly-crafted novel works on so many levels. As well as the twisting, turning plot, there is a very strong sense of place, evoked by descriptions of landscape and weather. Like the incessant wind, character’s emotions are raw and biting, cutting deep into the reader’s imagination. The closing chapter of the book is exciting, with a couple of last-minute revelations that I really couldn’t see coming.

A racy crime thriller with a real heart is a winning combination in this instance. I also love it when I discover that an author I’ve enjoyed has penned more of the same. I’ll definitely be seeking out the other two novels which follow Fin Macleod’s debut – the Lewis trilogy continues with ‘The Lewis Man‘ and concludes with ‘The Chessmen‘.

Even if, like me, crime is not usually your thing, I strongly urge you to let Peter May try and win you over. I bet he does.

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Book No 2 (2018) : Sealskin

SealskinFittingly for the first week of the New Year, I had an epiphany. It was nothing as startling as the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ, but it has nevertheless had an important consequence. Following the lead of my teenage son, who clearly has far more sense than me, I deleted my social media apps from my phone. Instead of wasting far too much time watching Facebook videos about how to ice cookies or make a microwave cake in a mug (we don’t have a microwave), I have more time to read. Hence why only 9 days in to 2018, I’ve read 2 books. An auspicious start, I feel.

Selkies live as seals in the sea but shed their skin to become human on land. If a selkie loses its sealskin, it is unable to return to the sea. ‘Sealskin‘ was a Christmas present as I had read many positive reviews about it. The novel is a re-working of the selkie myth, telling the story of Donald Macfarlane.

An awkward lad, Donald lives alone with his mother, a healer and midwife. Scorned by his peers for being unable to work on the fishing boats due to the sensitivity of his skin, Donald makes his money hauling crabs from the sea. It is whilst checking his creels that he finds a pile of abandoned sealskins and takes one, hiding it. Coming upon the owner of the skin, Donald forces himself upon her. Separated from her skin, the young girl is trapped on land. Donald takes her home to his mother and, inventing a plausible cover-story to explain her sudden arrival, they name her Mairhi. Donald takes the selkie as his wife.

Over time, Mairhi becomes integrated into the life of the fishing village. Even though she never learns to speak, Donald and Mhairi develop an intimacy and understanding whose evolution is a poignant and touching story. She and Donald are initially outsiders in their community, but Mairhi follows in Bridie’s footsteps as a medicine woman, gradually earning the trust of the villagers. Donald grows in confidence, nourished by the love in his marriage, becoming a respected member of his community. But Mairhi’s longing for the sea permeates the story with a haunting sense of loss.

I did not feel a strong sense of place within the novel, but the weather is a character in itself. Instead this is a book about people; their hopes, suspicion of incomers, their desire to be accepted, redemption and the power of love. It is an unlikely piece of work for me to like as I’m not a fan of mystical writing usually, but I was carried away it. Su Bristow has created a sealskin herself – I was left hoping that someone would hide the book, so that I could remain stranded within its pages and not have to slide back into the waves of everyday life!

Book No 1 (2018) : God’s Own Country

God's own Country4th day of the year and I’ve got one book under my belt already. I feel this is a good omen given my shocking performance in 2017, when I read a fair amount but failed miserably when it came to writing up reviews. In 2018 I resolve to do better and repeat the success of 2015 when I did manage to read 50 books in 52 weeks.

Here goes with Ross Raisin’s shortlisted-for-nine-awards novel. One of the things I liked especially about this book is the serendipitous match between the mustard and black image on the cover and the outfit I wore on the plane when I started reading. But, I digress…

The narrator and protagonist of ‘God’s Own Country’ is Sam Marsdyke, nick-named Lankenstein by the classmates who bullied him. He gets bullied at the end of the book as well, when he has been imprisoned for a crime which the reader sees him commit. Sam spends his days working his parents’ farm in the Yorkshire Dales, and he seems to have acquired a fair amount of expertise in working with sheep, driving the tractor, looking after a litter of sheepdog puppies. He’s a loner though, often found wandering the countryside, mocking the ‘towns’ who spend their weekends rambling and hill-walking.

When a family of Londoners moves into the farm just below the Marsdyke’s, Sam is immediately taken with their 15-year old daughter. The pair strike up an awkward friendship when the girl (Sam never calls her by her name) starts playing truant from school.  When truanting escalates to a plan to run away from home, Josephine (we find out her name much later) enlists Sam’s help.

The book has an air of menace and suspense throughout, as the reader has a strong sense that Sam Marsdyke is dangerous and unpredictable. He was accused of a sexual assault on a young woman, and he sneaks about. Clearly incapable of interacting meaningfully with others, he seems to vibrate with barely suppressed fury. When the two runaway’s escapade begins to turn sour and Sam is unable to communicate with his young ally, there is a frightening downturn of events.

Although not billed as a thriller, this is nevertheless a thrilling book, with a character who has loitered around in my mind ever since I finished reading. With its clever characterisation, eye-poppingly descriptive local language and strong sense of place, I think it would make a great A-level set text. Although I’m aware that is hardly a recommendation!

A good start to the year.