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!

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Book No 9 (2016) : At the Water’s Edge

At the Waters EdgeI was raised in deepest, darkest Surrey, where the highest point of the landscape is a hill near Dorking and the biggest lake is probably a man-made reservoir just off the M25. It is a complete mystery to me therefore, why I fell in love with Scotland – maybe it is the contrast. My passion for Caledonia often leads me to choose books with a Scottish setting, including Sara Gruen’s ‘At the Water’s Edge‘.

The storyline seems unlikely, but it works: an American Colonel was accused of faking pictures of the Loch Ness monster. Years later when his son, Ellis and daughter-in-law (Maddie) behave appallingly badly at a party, the Colonel threatens to cut off Ellis’s allowance. To save face and triumph where his father failed, Ellis wants to find the monster himself. He and Maddie together with a mutual friend, Hank, depart for Scotland. The trio arrive at Craig Gairbh, Glenurquhart in 1944; there are blackouts, Anderson shelters and rationing. Whilst the men set about the serious business of monster-hunting, disappearing to the loch shores every day with their cameras and equipment, Maddie is left to her own devices. Struggling with the differences between high-society Philadelphia and the hardships of war-time Scotland, Maddie is lonely at first, but gradually begins to makes herself useful. She forms unlikely friendships with people whom her husband treats as staff. But as Maddie’s confidence in her own abilities grow, she starts to question her place in the world.

This is essentially a love story; not overly complex but with richly-drawn characters whose behaviour ranges from violent to tender, honourable to deceitful and a whole range in between. I loved the contrast between the Maddie at the opening of the novel, and the same character at the close of the final chapter.

Of course I knew all along that they would find Nessie, they just had to be in the right place at the right time. After all, who hasn’t gazed into the depths of Loch Ness and known that it was just a matter of time, and patience? I mean, on our last visit, I know we’d only missed her by a few minutes….

 

Book No 41 (2015) : The Summer of the Bear

summr of the bearJamie’s Dad, Nicky Fleming, was a diplomat based in Bonn and he died when he suffered a fall. The family members he left behind – wife, Letty, and teenage daughters Georgie and Alba, as well as Jamie, are trying to re-shape their lives to accommodate the gaping hole that Nicky has left. He wrote what might be a suicide note but Letty is sure that he would not have deserted his family. An investigation ensues and gradually a version of the truth begins to emerge.

When I was 7 years old, I lost my Dad. He was only 29. Only ‘lost’ is a euphemism of course, because actually he died. My Mum told me that he had had an accident and was dead. But although I thought I understood, I really didn’t. My memories of waiting for him to come back from Canada (the farthest away place my 7-year old mind could imagine) are very vivid. What I had failed to grasp is that dead was for ever. It is obvious to grown-ups, but it wasn’t obvious to me. My desperation when the truth hit, many months after my father’s death, was as crushing as the original news.

My own experiences came flooding back to me as I read Bella Pollen’s stunning novelThe Summer of the Bear’. Jamie’s mother tells him that his Dada has gone for a long, long time. Jamie knows that as Dada is lost, he will be searching for his family, even as far as the remote Hebridean  island where Jamie now lives with his Mum and 2 sisters. So Jamie throws lots of messages in bottles into the sea, each one containing a hand-drawn map with the location of the family’s house clearly marked. This image moved me to tears; in their efforts to protect Jamie, whose mind works in mysterious ways, the adults had blurred the edges of reality to such an extent, that the little boy comes to believe that his father has been re-incarnated into the body of a grizzly bear which has escaped on the island and so far evaded capture.

The narrative moves from Bonn to East Berlin, Ballanish in the Outer Hebrides to London, taking in the experiences of not only Letty and her children, but also the escaped bear, the Cold War and a suspected radiological contamination. Only an exceptional talent could weave together such disparate threads as these, to produce a tender, compelling and imaginative novel. I found it completely captivating, such was the power of Pollen’s characters; the islanders with their fears and fairytales, the commandeering Ambassadress, Nicky’s faithful friend Tom, and Ballanish itself.

Such is the scope and sweep of ‘The Summer of the Bear‘ that even if you have never been bereaved, or set foot on a Scottish island, or read the (true) story of Hercules the bear, there will be something in this book to seduce you. I will definitely be hunting out Bella Pollen’s other work.

Film No 23 (2015) : What We Did On Our Holiday

what we did on holidayThere was no way really that I was not going to enjoy this film. Set in Scotland (including beach scenes from Gairloch) and starring both Billy Connolly and David Tennant, it would have to be pretty dire for me not to have liked it. Thankfully it is not dreadful and, even if you are not a fan of all things Caledonian, I’m sure you will find plenty to make you smile in this gentle film.

Abi (Rosamund Pike) and her husband, Doug (David Tennant), are living separately and negotiating their divorce via lawyers, after Doug was unfaithful. Their three children are aware of their Dad’s infidelity but when the whole family travels North to stay with Doug’s father, everyone is sworn to secrecy about the situation. Gordie (Billy Connolly) is approaching his 75th birthday but has terminal cancer; as this birthday celebration will probably be his last, Doug doesn’t want it to be marred by the news of his son’s marital problems. The family manages to keep up the pretence for a while once they arrive in Scotland, but the children are not great liars and before long they have inadvertently let slip the whole story. As the preparations for the birthday party gather pace, managed with military precision by Doug’s brother, Gavin (Ben Miller), Gordie escapes to the beach with the children. Chilling with his grand-kids, Gordie is clearly relaxed and happy. But when he is taken ill, Lottie, Mickey and Jess take some decisions which show they are more in tune with Grandad than the grown-ups are.

Directed by the makers of the TV series ‘Outnumbered’, many of the film scenes involving the children are improvised rather than closely scripted. This results in some hilarious comedy as the young actors ignore social conventions and say what they think. Equally telling are the adults’ reactions to the dialogue and I rather got the feeling that in several of the scenes, they have forgotten that they are acting and react spontaneously to the children. I’ve never met Billy Connolly so I don’t actually know what he is like, but during ‘What We Did On Our Holiday‘ my guess is that he wasn’t doing much acting at all; he was getting paid to be himself! His delight in the children, and the affable way in which he ridicules the vanities and pretences of his family greatly contribute to the charm of this film.

There is a message at the core of the movie, about being true to yourself and making the most of the opportunities that life presents. Nothing ground-breaking, and the audience is rolled along in the genial sway of the story without a sense of being preached at.

In undertaking the 50/50 challenge this year, I have found it difficult to find films that seeped into my pores the way that some books have. But  ‘What We Did On Our Holiday’ is one of the rare ones that has and I know I will be returning to it time and time again.

(Film available on Netflix.)

Read Scotland Challenge

Read Scotland badge copyBlogosphere is an amazing place, and whilst on my travels around t’Interweb  I came across the Read Scotland Challenge, which I have decided to accept. As if 50 books in a year is not difficult enough, I have also signed up to make at least some of those books Scottish in some way or another – any genre, any form, written by a Scottish author (by birth or immigration) or about or set in Scotland.

Scotland is my favourite place in the world (so far!). I lived there for many years, met my husband there and have spent the 20 years since we left, hankering to go back.

The Challenge has 5 levels;

Just A Keek (a little look): 1-4 books
The Highlander: 5-8 books
The Hebridean: 9-12 books
Ben Nevis: 13-24 books
Back O’ Beyond: 25+ books

and I’ve opted for The Highlander!

If you have Caledonian connections or any other reason for suggesting a book which I could read to contribute towards my 5-8 Scottish book challenge, please feel free to comment!

Book No 41 (2014) : Old Magic in Everyday Life

old magicIt’s a weird thing reading a book which someone you know has written – but having read ‘Old Magic in Everyday Life’, I feel very lucky to know its author, Mhairi (known as ‘Vav’) Simon. Her book is a very personal account of her gifts as a healer and her connection with Mother Nature. Interspersed with tales of earlier lives recalled, and her current earthly life remembered, are words of wisdom and warmth. She urges us all to indulge our senses, re-connect with our inner selves and our lands. She mourns the passing of the old ways, delights in the healing gifts with which she has been blessed and tells lots of funny stories to boot. It’s a delightful read, one which provokes inner reflection but just as easily lends itself to discussion with others.

The book made me think. Made me think that maybe I think too much. Upon reading it, I came to realise that I have virtually no spiritual life at all. I don’t pray, meditate. or visualise: I rarely commune with Nature, other than out walking the dog (and even then I sometimes stop to get through the next level on Candy Crush or send daft Snapchats). Having declared myself an atheist several years ago, I seem to have detached myself from all inner life.  Because my body is a battleground and I live uncomfortably in it, the notion of focussing on it and channelling energy to promote personal wellbeing is just not on my  inner radar. These are things which I need to address and the book does have a useful set of exercises at the back, aimed at encouraging self-awareness.

If you are even remotely interested in magic in a very broad sense, this little gem will cast a spell on you. No smoking cauldrons or eye of newt, just centuries-old wisdom.

 

Film No 31 (2014) : Sunshine on Leith

sunshine on leithI used to live in Edinburgh; we had a small flat just 5 minutes walk from Leith, overlooking where the Royal Yacht Britannia is now anchored. As well as some of the saddest, I also had some of the happiest moments of my life in Scotland’s capital, including meeting my husband. Scotland is (so far!), my favourite place in the whole world.

In order to add authenticity to my viewing experience of ‘Sunshine on Leith‘, I borrowed a real-life Scottish person to watch it with me. True, she does hail from the Outer Hebrides, islands which are rather a long way from the historical port of Edinburgh, but her soft burr was the perfect accompaniment to the film!

Directed by Dexter Fletcher, this is a musical, in the style of ‘Mamma Mia’. The storylines are woven through with songs – not, in this case, the music of Abba, but of the two-man band, ‘The Proclaimers‘. The film tells the stories of Davy and Ally (George MacKay and Kevin Guthrie respectively), young soldiers returning to their families after a tour of Afghanistan. The lads have to figure out what to do next, and the film is set against the background of Davy’s parents silver anniversary year and his sister’s tug-of-heart about whether to settle in Edinburgh or see some of the world.

The marriage of music and plot often felt contrived – my canny pal foresaw the opening bars of ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)‘ appearing on the horizon of the storyline at least 10 minutes before they arrived! But the Reid’s tunes are jaunty toe-tappers with intelligent lyrics. The film was saved by the undoubted talent of  the key actors – Jane Horrocks and Peter Mullan in particular.  (The singers themselves actually feature in a short cameo, wandering out of a pub!)

There are great views of Leith and the city; part of the fun was yelling at the screen, ‘I know where that is, do you remember….?!’. If you don’t feel any great affinity for Caledonia, The Proclaimers or Edinburgh itself, there is probably not a great deal to draw you to this film. But for me, who’d love to be an honorary Scot, it cast some happy rays over my evening!

Book No 34 (2014) : Island Wife

island wifeIf Judy Fairbairns were to watch me alighting from the ferry onto the Scottish island where she lives, she would be able to tell a lot about me – by looking at my shoes. Clarks they are, brown leather, strong elastic strap. Sensible shoes. But Judy knows. “I have met many women over the years with the dream dying in them. I know them instantly. They are sensibly clad in stout shoes..”

‘Island Wife’ is a personal journey of someone whose dream almost died as Judy cooked, cleaned, raised children, ran a working farm, hotel, holiday cottage business, recording studio and helped her husband found a still-successful whale-watching business. Her autobiography is moving, often funny but also searingly honest. Her husband’s dream was not always her own, but she signed up for marriage, was in for the long haul. Mixed with laugh-out-loud anecdotes involving children, mud and weather, are meaningful insights into how women become tamed, domesticated. An inspirational read. Uncomfortable maybe, but written with a deep understanding of the dilemmas faced by women.

Towards the end of the book, the author asserts that once we have an awakening, a realisation that we can be more than we have allowed ourselves to become, women will find themselves a guide. You heard it here first. When I write my first book, or sell my first photograph, Judy Fairbairns will be right there in the Acknowledgements.

 

Book No 28 (2014) : Raven Black

raven blackBooks based in Scotland are generally a hit with me – Scotland is my favourite place in the whole world. ‘Raven Black’ by Ann Cleeves is set in Shetland, a rugged group of islands situated over 100 miles North of mainland Scotland. The book is a crime thriller and is the first in a series, which has been televised for BBC Drama.

On her way home, Fran Hunter discovers the body of her teenage neighbour, Catherine Ross. Catherine has been strangled. Suspicion immediately falls upon Magnus Tait, a reclusive islander who has been suspected of murder before, when young Catriona Bruce went missing – her body was never found. Jimmy Perez is a local detective, who refuses to jump to the same conclusion as others. Even once Magnus has been arrested following the unearthing of Catriona’s body, Perez uses his knowledge of the community, its tensions and stories, to eke out the details which are so important in a murder investigation. The climax of the story takes place during the annual Shetland celebration Up Helly Aa, which culminates in the burning of a Norse galley. It’s a fine backdrop to the culmination of the police investigations.

Cleeves paints her characters with great skill, mirroring human loneliness in the Shetland landscape. She gradually exposes several potential suspects, all of whom had links to Catherine. There are no gruesome, bloody details, the power of this book is in the relationships woven between the islanders.

Needless to say, the murderer, once revealed, was a complete surprise to me. It always is! I am never certain whether this is due to my own failings of deduction or intuition, but it does mean that I find myself scanning back through the pages to find the clues I missed. This was an atmospheric and suspenseful read and I will be looking out for the sequels.