FIVE 5-STAR READS
Each month this year, I’ll be looking back over my reviews of the past five years and picking out my favourite from each year. Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with this brilliant idea and kindly agreed to let me borrow it.
So here are my favourite July reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…
This is the second in a series of historical crime novels set in the late 17th century just before the dawn of the Scottish Enlightenment. On checking it appears that the next one has just been released, 4 years later. Douglas Watt is a ‘proper’ historian, so one assumes his day job must have got in the way. This works excellently as a standalone, though – well written, historically insightful and with a solid plot based on the concerns of the time – treasonable plots, religious division, superstition and witch-hunts. Through the two main characters, rationalist John MacKenzie and Presbyterian Davie Scougall, Watt sheds a good deal of light on the political, religious and cultural concerns of the times and foreshadows the move towards Enlightenment thinking in the following century. But he doesn’t let the history get in the way of the story-telling, as MacKenzie must try to prevent the daughter of a friend from being burned as a witch. The descriptions of how witches were identified and dealt with are both fascinating and horrifying. A couple of chapters are written in Scots dialect but not broadly enough to cause problems for a non-Scottish reader to understand.
This set comprises 20 15-minute episodes in each of which Neil MacGregor (of A History of the World in 100 Objects fame) discusses an object from Shakespeare’s day, linking it to the plays or the theatres and also using it as a means to shed light on the society of the day.
MacGregor is excellent, clearly an enthusiast both for his subject and for sharing his knowledge. Each episode focuses on one object linked to an aspect of the plays – for example, a model ship leads us to the witches in MacBeth – and then MacGregor tells us of how that would have resonated at the time, when witches were still credited with the power of raising storms, causing shipwrecks etc. Every episode, though short, is packed full of information, interestingly told. If you prefer reading to listening, there is a book of the series, which is without exception the most lavishly illustrated book I own, and is a thing of beauty in itself.
Set in Iceland in 1829, the book is a fictionalized account of the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, condemned to die for her part in the murder of two men, one her lover. While waiting for the date of execution to be set, Agnes is put into the custody of Jón and Margrét Jónsson and, at Agnes’ request, a young priest, Reverend Tóti, is given the task of preparing Agnes spiritually for her death. At first the family are horrified to have a murderess amongst them, while Tóti doubts his own experience and ability to help Agnes find some kind of repentance and acceptance. But as summer fades into the long, harsh winter, Agnes gradually breaks her silence and begins to reveal her story of what led to that night…
Beautiful, sometimes poetic, writing, excellent characterisation and a haunting and heartbreaking plot, but what lifts this to the top ranks of literary fiction is the atmospheric depiction of the life and landscape of this remote community in the cold and dark of an Icelandic winter. A fabulous book that I felt was cheated by not being included on the shortlist for that year’s Booker.
I described this book as stunning at the time and that still seems like the right word. A dark tale of a journey, a quest into the Black Mountains to find a cave – to find the truth – the story is equalled and enhanced by the amazingly atmospheric illustrations of Eddie Campbell. The two elements – words and pictures – are completely entwined. There’s no feeling of the one being an addition to the other – each is essential and together they form something magical. The story is by turns moving, mystical, dramatic, frightening; and the illustrations, many of them done in very dark colours, create a sense of mirky gloom and growing apprehension. Do click on the cover to see the review, where I included some pictures of the illustrations. As the story gets darker some of the later pictures are truly macabre and unforgettable. And the story itself is wonderfully haunting – one I remember very distinctly more than a year after reading it. I’ve read this in another collection without pictures, and it’s only about half as effective, so I strongly urge anyone who wants to read it to go for the graphic version – the paper one. A superb book.
Considered to be one of the greatest Scottish novels of the 20th century, this first volume of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy, A Scots Quair, is a lament for the passing of a way of life. It tells the story of Chris Guthrie, daughter of a tenant farmer in the fictional estate of Kinraddie in the north-east of Scotland, before and during the First World War. Some of the writing is heart-breaking in its emotional intensity but never overloaded with mawkishness or sentimentality. As war approaches, Gibbon handles beautifully the gradual change within the community, from feeling completely detached and uninvolved to slowly finding their lives affected in every way. But he also shows that the community was changing already, with increasing mechanisation of farms, the landowners gradually driving the tenant farmers off as they found more profitable uses for the land, the English-ing of education leading to the loss of the old language and with it, old traditions. And as he brings his characters together once again after the war ends, we see them begin to gather the strength to face their uncertain future in a world that will never be the same again. A brilliant book that fully deserves its reputation.