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.

 

Book No 6 (2017) : Fingers in the Sparkle Jar

I’m sorry, I haven’t got change of a ladybird” has to be one of the most intriguing openings to a book I’ve ever come across (and remember I’m a du Maurier fan, for whom ‘last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again‘ is the ultimate in classic first lines).

From that initial sentence, Chris Packham’s autobiography goes in only one direction, and that is upwards. It soars like his kestrel, demonstrating a complete mastery of vocabulary and description, permeated with discernible tension.

Packham’s unrelenting recall of events moves from early childhood when he tries to barter a beetle for an ice-cream, through school where he excels at art but skives a lot in favour of exploring and to escape the classroom bullies, to his identification with the rage of The Clash at 18. The author’s attention to detail is awe-inspiring, conjuring up breathtaking images of animals, insects, birds, weather, water.  But this is not a romanticised retrospective: there is dog shit, and fags, and girls “who hung around outside Chelsea Girl on Saturday afternoon smoking and squealing at the men in lumberjack jackets with furry collars.”  and then there is “the thrush’s silver-throated voice fell like pocketfuls of marbles down a church staircase.” And this eloquence from someone who was always anxious, barely spoke and was tormented at school for being weird.

Mr Packham intrigues me; his clearly encyclopaedic knowledge of wildlife and obvious enthusiasm for his subject, contrast with his slightly ‘buttoned up’ manner and awkwardness, unusual in such a seasoned presenter. It all makes a lot more sense now I’ve read ‘Fingers in the Sparkle Jar‘, as interspersed with the wildlife explorations and discoveries, are some very raw accounts of counselling sessions which he undertook in 2003. As a result of the therapy, Chris was found to have Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism. It explains a lot about his obsessions, collections, difficulty fitting in and forming relationships.

Apparently Chris Packham is not keen on his own work, and wasn’t sure whether this book was good enough for publication. Thank heavens for his mentor, whose resounding endorsement of the draft was “you must publish it.” How right she was.

Book No 5 (2017) : The Loving Spirit

loving spiritThe trouble with having an obsession with someone is that you can be blind to their faults. So it is with me and Daphne.

The Loving Spirit‘ was du Maurier’s first novel, written when she was just 22 and living in Fowey, Cornwall. It is a family saga, charting the fortunes of the Coombes, beginning with the matriarch, Janet. Janet has a longing to be free and at one with the sea and the wind, borne by the power of the loving spirit. She finds a partner in Thomas, who provides for her and her children, but it is not until her son, Joseph, is born, that Janet meets her true soulmate. She promises never to leave him and he, in turn, embodies her in a schooner named in her honour.

A wild sailor, driven by impulse rather than reason, Captain Joe places his hopes of succession in his eldest son, Christopher. But when Christopher fails to fulfil his father’s ambitions for him, Joseph sinks into a deep depression, exacerbated by the failing eyesight which forces him to abandon his sea-faring life. Whilst the family boat-building business is driven to the wall by recession and the financial shenanigans of Joe’s Uncle Philip, it seems as if the family’s fortunes are dashed. But hope for the family’s salvation appears in Jennifer, Christopher’s daughter. She also is driven by the loving spirit.

Despite the author’s obvious careful research into the family history of the Slades (upon which the Coombe family is based), the more contemporary the plot becomes, the more credible the descriptions. The novel is naive at best and the influences of the Brontes evident. There is a lot of wildness, tumult, roaring and plunging, resulting in a melodramatic tone to the whole work. It is nevertheless a remarkable achievement for the extremely young Daphne du Maurier who, as we know, went on to even greater things. Like ‘Rebecca‘, ‘My Cousin Rachel‘ and ‘Jamaica Inn‘.

My copy of ‘The Loving Spirit‘ is old, with slightly blurry font and brown-edged pages. I loved re-reading it. Although I realise it’s not a great book overall, as part of a body of work by an author I love, it is nevertheless important. All those churning seas and screaming gulls have a special place in my bookish affections.

Book No 4 (2017) The Sea House

the sea houseWriting a book review isn’t an instantaneous thing for me. I don’t turn the last page of a book and immediately start bashing away at the keyboard. Instead the review forms over time in my head, sometimes whilst I am still reading, and then it takes me a little while to put it all in to words. For about half of Esther Freud’s ‘Sea House‘, the review which was forming was at best indifferent, at worst uncomplimentary. But then something changed and I was totally won over by its charm.

Lily has rented a Suffolk cottage so that she can work on her research of a famous architect, Klaus Lehmann. Reading through Lehmann’s letters, given to her by his son, Lily learns of Klaus’ passion for his wife, Elsa – a love which is possessive and jealous. The focus of the novel alternates between Lily and Max Meyer, a young artist who was commissioned many years ago to produce a painting of the house of Gertrude Jilks. Through Gertrude, Max is introduced to Elsa and the pair embark upon a passionate affair. Lily’s echoes Max’s; while she and her partner, Nick, are apart, she is drawn in to a relationship with Grae, her neighbour. Gradually, the past and present converge, as the links between the characters are revealed.

The book has a fairly complex plot – I couldn’t work out the connections between the main players: the lines joining them were only sketched lightly. After a while, I decided to abandon my frustrations and stop thinking so hard about the plot. The novel is full of insightful descriptions and prose, in which the sea and its shoreline communities play an important part. Unsurprisingly, houses also feature heavily, anchoring people in time and place.

It was at the point that I stopped concentrating so hard that I began to enjoy this book more. It must have been all those descriptions of the sea. I just let it wash over me.

Book No 3 (2017) The Butcher’s Hook

butchers hookAnne Jaccob is a young woman who knows what she wants. What she wants is Fub, the butcher’s boy. With her household thrown into disarray by the arrival of a new baby, Anne is drawn into the arrangements involved in running a London house in the 1700s, including the checking of meat brought for inspection. Fub brings the cuts of flesh to the back door, and hooks Anne. He awakens something in Anne which she has not experienced before and which she is not going to give up easily. But when their liaison is threatened, Anne herself is drawn into a realm of butchery and blood spillage that Fub could never have envisaged.

This novel, the debut novel by former ‘Blue Peter’ presenter Janet Ellis, fascinated me. The period and historical details of the book are finely drawn, creating a credible backdrop against which the author sets out the tale. But it is Anne herself who provides the main interest; from the outset the reader knows that Anne has the capacity for malevolence when she is slighted.  She is cunning, duplicitous and single-minded, capable of hot-blooded passion yet also cold-blooded revenge. I was totally drawn in by her.

As well as Anne, there is a strong supporting cast of characters who spring to life from the page: Simeon Onions, to whom Mr Jaccob hopes that Anne will be married, lecherous Dr Edwards who abuses the trust of both Anne and her father, twittering Aunt Elizabeth. The women in the novel are largely compliant and malleable, shaped by the strictures of their society. The men don’t fare much better, being self-interested and unscrupulous.

Some reviewers have called the ‘The Butcher’s Hook‘ a feminist work and I am not sure if I entirely agree with that conclusion. However, what does become apparent as the plot progresses, is that in order to hold on to what she wants, Anne has to behave more like the men around her than the women. Leaving me wondering if anything much has changed since 1763.

 

Book No 2 (2017) : Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

batle hymnThe parenting style which has been my default position for the last 19 years is sometimes referred to as ‘benign neglect’. You know the kind of thing; snooze upstairs at the weekends while the kids watch cartoons and make their own toast, allow them to wash their own hair, let them fall off swings in the park and at least once, totally forget to collect them from an extra-curricular activity, leaving them wailing in distress at the village hall.

Amy Chua’s approach to parenthood is the antithesis of mine. Chua, lawyer, mother and author of ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother‘ raised her children in what she calls the Chinese way. She supervised, managed, coached and organised, overseeing every aspect of her daughters’ lives. Sophia and Lulu were not allowed playdates or sleepovers, she returned the handmade birthday cards the girls produced, requiring them to be re-worked to a higher standard. Both girls excelled academically and showed prodigious musical talent; maybe not surprising when instrument practice could take up five hours at a time. At times even her husband questioned her methods.

Her approach required absolute obedience from her offspring;  back-chat was viewed as defiance and therefore shaming to both parents and children. There were many battles, particularly between Amy and Lulu. The wheels begin to fall off the Tiger Mother’s rickshaw when her youngest daughter rebels, railing against the tough regime. One of them is going to have to capitulate.

The book is written with warmth and insight, and whilst I may have disagreed with Amy Chua’s ideas, her love and dedication to her family is never in doubt. Plus, she gets impressive results.

Now in their twenties, the Chua-Rubenfeld girls are both at Ivy League universities and achieving brilliant results, largely down to their ingrained work ethic. Their stellar futures are assured. So while Lulu and Sophia are highly successful young women, erudite and accomplished, my own lumpen teenagers are a blight on society, lying on their beds in darkened rooms, watching PewDiePie on You Tube.

Only that isn’t quite true. My daughter holds down a full-time job while she waits to take up her place at University and my son, Head Boy at his school, is about to take GCSE’s. Despite, or perhaps because of, my lax attitude towards structure and regulation, both are competent, socially adept and independent. Maybe with more effort from me they could have achieved more but they are doing just fine. They will define their own success. After all, I don’t believe anyone approaches the end of their life wishing they had put in more hours at their desk.

 

Book No 1 (2017) : The Owl at the Window

owl-at-the-windowHaving a dead wife is not funny. I mean, even I can see that the opportunities to extract humour from being a widower are extremely limited. Which makes ‘The Owl at the Window’ extraordinary. Carl Gorham writes with such under-stated proficiency (he is the creator of ‘Stressed Eric’ and his credentials as a wordsmith are not in question) that  his book drew me in and made me laugh as well as weep.

The autobiography chronicles the author’s relationship with his wife, Vikki, from their meeting at University to her untimely death from cancer. Beginning at Oxford where the couple were undergraduates, to courtship, marriage and successful careers, Carl and Vikki seem to have a charmed life. He is prattling on about an exciting job prospect when Vikki drops the bombshell that she has discovered a breast lump. Through the diagnosis of cancer, chemotherapy, then six years of bi-annual checks and yearly scans, I was willing Vikki to beat the big C. But of course we know the ending of the book; it’s written on the (beautiful) cover. The re-appearance of the disease and Vikki’s death is related through a series of flash-backs, alternating between Carl’s panic and the re-emergence of hope. I felt slightly guilty about giggling at some parts (Cardboard Mummy in particular), and I cried lots of times (his daughter’s memory Box and an imaginary telephone call both reduced me to tears). But no-one wants to read about unremitting despair. Gorham is smart, he knows that for sure.

Despite the sadness of Carl’s experience, this is not a sad book. The author examines bereavement and grief with an honesty and self-deprecating humour which is inspiring. There is no bitterness, no ‘why me?’ but instead an acceptance that shit happens. And sometimes it’s really bad shit, like your wife dying of cancer, so you have to just keep going.

I’m not sure whether it is a good thing that this has been my first review of 2017. On the one hand, I have 11 months to tell people about ‘The Owl at the Window’. On the other, the bar has been set rather high for remaining 49 books of my year.

2016 : The End (thank heavens)

I don’t have that much in common with Queen Elizabeth II. She has far more money than me, her eldest son is a loose cannon and so far this winter (touch wood) I have managed to avoid catching a ‘heavy cold’. But, like our glorious monarch in 1992, I’ve just had an ‘annus horribilis‘.

Due to family bereavements, building work at home and a new job, I have been rather distracted from reading. Or, more accurately, I have been reading but neglecting my blog.

Undeterred, however, I’m going to get back on track in 2017 and look forward to sharing my thoughts on the books I read.