Book Nos 6 & 7 (2018) : The Lewis Man & The Chess Men

Starting these books and putting them down is a bit like trying to hide chocolates in the fridge. They just sit there shouting and waving at me, ‘wooo-hoo, we’re over here’, until I have to go and retrieve them and finish them off!

The Lewis Man‘ and ‘The Chess Men‘ are the 2nd and 3rd books respectively in Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy and I found them highly addictive.

The 1st novel, ‘The Black House‘, drew me in with its combination of murder and family stories, set against the background of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. I’ve visited the island. It is beautiful, but also somewhat bleak, and the weather dominates daily life in a way we probably can’t quite comprehend, as so many of us have lost our essential connections to the land. May’s descriptions of fishing communities, peat-cutting and folklore, together with relationships and feuds stretching back through decades, make for compelling reading.

The Lewis Man‘ centres upon the discovery of a body in the peat bogs, its features preserved by the acidic soil. Crucial to identifying the victim and discovering his fate, is Marsailli’s father. But Tormod’s mind is confused by dementia, making the pieces of the crime puzzle even more difficult for former detective Fin McLeod to piece together.

The members of a successful Gaelic band are the central characters in ‘The Chess Men‘. When a freak of  nature reveal s a wrecked plane with the former lead singer of Sòlas still strapped in the pilot’s seat, Fin is drawn into unravelling the fate of the band’s musicians.

Both books weave in and out of Fin McLeod’s past. Although each could be taken as a standalone work, reading the whole trilogy allows the reader to examine the experiences and relationships which have shaped Fin’s life through childhood, teenage years and adulthood. The threads of the story are dropped and picked up, intertwined and re-visited in clever ways, but there is not really a neat ending for Fin. Even though it would have been satisfying, I rather liked the ambiguity about his future. Peter May has said there won’t be any more books in the series, so each reader is left with their own ideas about how McLeod’s story will continue.

If you decide to embark on this trilogy, I suggest buying all three books at the same time. Because if my experience is anything to go by, once you finish ‘The Black House‘ you’ll be so keen to move on to ‘The Lewis Man‘ that even waiting for it to arrive in the post will be a frustrating delay!


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.

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 46 (2015) : The Taxidermist’s Daughter

taxidermistIt has never really struck me before how much we take light for granted. I mean, if I can’t see what I am doing, a quick flick of a light switch renders everything visible. My productivity is not restricted to daylight hours and with street lights and car headlights, it is easy to move around at night. Kate Fosse’s novel is not infused with much light at all. It is dark – both actually and figuratively.

Connie is the taxidermist’s daughter. In a gloomy cottage at the edge of the waterlogged Sussex marshes, she practises the skills of breathing art into dead birds. She learned the craft from her father, Gifford, whose heavy drinking forces him into his own dark places. Connie has gaps in her memory following a childhood accident, but flashes of recollection mean she is beginning to recall her early years. When the lifeless body of a young woman is washed ashore close to Connie and Gifford’s house, the discovery of the body coincides with the disappearance of two more local men. As Connie’s memory improves, events begin to come together in a disturbing tableau.

This novel is almost unrelentingly dark. The young Davey provides some light relief, and there is some romantic interest for Connie, but the final denouement is macabre and shocking. The suspense builds throughout the novel, so much so that as the plot approached its climax I was yelling at Connie: “don’t open the door, just don’t go in there!”

There is an element of sexual violence in the plot, highlighting the fact that such aberrations are not a modern phenomenon, just more widely reported and sensationalised nowadays.

The Taxidermist’s Daughter‘ has received plenty of praise and I can also recommend it. But not if you are squeamish – or need cheering up!

Book No 32 (2015) : The Girl Who Wasn’t There

girl who wasnt thereMy immediate impression of Ferdinand von Schirach’s book was that it reminded me very much of Albert Camus’ ‘L’Étranger‘. Mainly, I think because the central character, Sebastian von Eschburg, seems to epitomise existentialist concepts.  Also, although I read the book in English it was written in German; however good a translation is, somehow translated work has a certain timbre to it.

Sebastian has had a difficult childhood, which ended abruptly when his father committed suicide. As an adult he seems to be on the outside of life, looking in. He doesn’t seem to engage fully with others and his reactions are not what one would normally expect (hence the Meursault connection). It is not surprising then, that Sebastian’s career as a photographer develops into that of a more sophisticated artist, famous for his installations exploring themes of pornography and voyeurism. The first part of the novel builds a picture of von Eschburg.

The second part introduces one of the most superb fictional lawyers I have ever come across. I know we have been all over Atticus of late, but Konrad Biegler is grouchy, sardonic, intuitive and brilliant at his job. A wonderfully imagined character, he is appointed by Sebastian to defend him against a series allegation. I am not a big fan of courtroom dramas but the account of the case against von Eschburg, its presentation and the final verdict, had me hooked.

Throughout the novel (which is short, by the way, easily read in one sitting), the author’s use of language is precise and somehow sparse, with no flowery prose, but nevertheless totally fitting for the examination of themes such as truth, reality, evidence and art.

Personally, I found ‘The Girl Who Wasn’t There‘ fascinating. But it also felt like a book to be studied, discussed and probed, rather than just read for the fun of it: I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned up in an ‘A’ level German syllabus! You will either love this book, or think it is pseudo-philosophical claptrap. Either way, you really do need to read it so you can make up your mind, and I think as a Book Group choice it may divide the readership!

Thank you to NetGalley for my  copy of the book.

Book No 21 (2015) : Sleepyhead

Sleepyhead 1Mark Billingham’s ‘Sleepyhead‘ was published in 2001 and I downloaded it from Amazon onto my Kindle for 99p. A bargain, considering this was a Sunday Times Bestseller.  Crime fiction is not really my thing, but I am always tempted by the blurbs promising thriller reads.

Tom Thorne is trying to trace a killer who has committed his crimes by using pressure in a specific part of the victim’s neck, followed by a couple of swift manipulations, to cause a fatal stroke. He tries to kill Allison Willetts as well, but fails. He leaves her alive but trapped, by Locked-In Syndrome. DI Tom Thorne thinks she may know the identity of the killer, but she can only communicate by blinking one eyelid. By the time she and her doctor have worked out an effective form of communication, time is running out. Thorne discovers the real reason behind the killer’s attacks and identifies a prime suspect; but can he prove who the killer is before yet another mistake is made?

Wait for it. Wait for it. Fanfare. Drum roll. I guessed, I guessed! For probably the first time since I figured out that Pauline was nothing but a common girl in ‘Claudine at St Clare’s‘, I correctly identified the killer before the big reveal. To my mind, this is a Good Thing. Nothing frustrates me more than reading through 300-or so pages of a crime novel, only to discover at the end that the murderer was the chap painting the Police Station fence at the end of the first chapter. Knowing that the author set down a trail of clues which I, the astute reader, managed to pick up on and collate made me feel pretty damn smug. Of course the DI works it all out as well, but I was there before him!

I can recommend this as an easy, passing time on a journey kind of book. You may also learn how to induce a stroke (there are some pretty graphic descriptions), should you feel the need to acquire such a skill. Not a book for the faint-hearted.

Book No 13 (2015) : The Cuckoo’s Calling

Robert-Galbraith-The-Cuckoos-CallingIf you are the kind of person who can  memorise the whole of the London Underground map, including the overland intersections, major bus stations and airport connections and then navigate across the capital without ever needing to consult an A-Z, I think you will love ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling.’ If, on the other hand, you are like me and need to check your pocket guide just to remind yourself that there are two stops between Waterloo and Leicester Square, my guess is, you will hate it. My point being, there is only so much information you can hold in your head without it feeling as if you are cramming for an exam; reading Robert Galbraith’s (aka JK Rowling) first detective novel was like plotting an interminable mind map.

The author sets out a deceptively simple story; a famous model falls to her death from the balcony of her flat. The official verdict is suicide, but her brother is unconvinced and hires private detective, Cormoran Strike, to prove the death was murder. You will notice that I have described that scenario in just two lines, but I promise you it is an accurate summary. So how come it takes 549 pages for the crime to be solved? From start to finish, the narrative is a seemingly endless stream of vaguely related ‘facts’ surrounding the suspicious death; pages and pages and pages of them. Phone calls, taxi rides, scenes in shops, flats and nightclubs, drug-taking, adopted children, secret affairs, inheritances and so on. I found it absolutely impossible to remember more than the most basic of details, rendering the reading of the book virtually pointless. By the time I got to page 522, when Strike sums up his evidence and delivers his version of the events surrounding the demise of Lula Landry, I was ready to hurl myself from a tall building.

Cormoran himself is an interesting character, but the rest of the book’s cast is sketchily drawn and two-dimensional. Lula and her boyfriend, Evan Duffield, are pale imitations of Kate Moss and the wayward Pete Doherty, whilst the dying mother, camp fashion designer and money-grabbing lawyer are sadly stereotypical.

This book is the perfect vehicle for show-casing what JK Rowling does best i.e. write really intricate, complicated plots and use 23 words when 4 would probably do. And this time, all without the charm of Albus Dumbledore or the wit of Ron Weasley. If you must tackle ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling‘, I suggest you read up to about page 40 to get the gist. Then skip to page 540 for the conclusion – save yourself 500 pages and instead swot up on the Tube map or the Periodic Table. It will probably be an infinitely more enjoyable use of your time.