The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison

A Scottish classic…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the tale of three sisters, daughters of the minister in a parish in the Highlands of Scotland. Our narrator is the youngest of the three, Lisbet, who over the course of the couple of years of the book’s story grows from a girl only half comprehending her elder sisters’ early forays into the world of romantic love, into a young woman on whom the two older girls come to depend for support. The date is unspecified, I believe, but the book was published in 1933 and it reads as if the story is set somewhere in the decade or two before that, at a time when young girls had more freedom than Austen’s heroines, for example, but were still confined by lack of opportunity and girded round by social restrictions, breaches of which would inevitably lead to scandal and ruin.

I mention Austen in my little introduction because the comparison was running in my head throughout most of my reading of the book. Like Austen, this is fundamentally a book about young women seeking the men they will eventually marry but, also like her, it’s much more than that. It portrays the society of a particular place at a moment in time and does so brilliantly, showing the subtle social stratifications that limit the lives and suitable marriage prospects of these moderately privileged girls still further. Since this is Scotland, the book also shows the stranglehold of Protestant intolerance that has blighted the country since Knox, and the anti-Catholic discrimination that goes hand-in-hand with that.

The dominie could read from a snail on a blade of grass or the flight of a bird every whim of the weather. He would tell us it was not going to thunder because he had noticed a trout jumping in the loch or that we must expect rain for he had seen a craikie heron ‘take to the hill’. There were other things he told us of as he helped us over dykes or went in front to guide us through boggy places: how death and the eddying fairies came from the pale west, and the white chancy south brought summer and long life, giants and ill-luck strode from the black north, and only good could come out of the sacred east.

The writing is superb and, to continue the Austen comparison a little further, the characterisation of these young girls is beautifully done. None of them is perfect – each has her flaws and idiosyncrasies. The two eldest, Julia and Emmy, are a little like Elinor and Marianne from Sense and Sensibility – Julia’s strong feelings masked by her outward calm, and with the intellect and strength of character to overcome the slings and arrows of her fortune; Emmy driven by emotion, unwilling, perhaps unable, to accept society’s restrictions. Lisbet is clear-sighted about her sisters, and about herself. Although she is young during the events of the book, it is written as if by her older self looking back, giving her narration a feeling of more maturity and insight than her younger self may have had at the time. Lisbet is also profoundly affected by her physical surroundings, describing the landscape and weather in lush passages of great beauty, full of colour and a sense almost of mysticism.

A pale green light poured down from the wintry sky, as though this earth were lit by chance rays from some other world. Grey sheep silently ate split turnips in the brown fields. The snow had melted in the low lands, leaving everything sad dun shades, and only streaked the mountains, where it lay like the skeletons of huge, prehistoric animals. The shouldering outline of the mountains cut against the horizon, their detail of burn, crag and ravine lost in the immensity of their shadowed bulk. It was as though, in those transient windless seconds between dawn and daylight, the world had resolved itself again into the contours and substances that composed it before man trod on its earth and drank in its air.

But despite all my comparisons, there are elements that make the book very different in tone from Austen. Although there are plenty of moments where we see the touching love and loyalty among the sisters, there is little of the wit and humour displayed in most of Austen’s works. This book is darker, with a tone of pathos and impending tragedy created by the subtlest hints of foreshadowing. I don’t want to tell any of the story because its gradual unfolding is one of the book’s great strengths. But there isn’t that feeling of certainty that all misunderstandings and obstacles will be cleared away in time for a happy ending for all of these girls. And, dare I say, the eventual outcomes have something more of the ring of truth about them as a result.

‘There’s plenty of time for my breakfast and your wedding,’ he informed her, ‘as I’m sure Drake would tell you. You know, our whole lives consist of this kind of thing – seeing things out of proportion. Think of the furore and fever we worked ourselves into last year over something that now leaves us quite cold.’

‘I hope it will take more than a year for my marriage to leave me cold,’ Julia rejoined.

‘You never know,’ he replied lugubriously, ‘for after all love is merely seeing the loved one hopelessly out of proportion. Then, you’ll find, you’ll both waken up one day to the fact that the other is quite ordinary and is peopling the world in hundreds. That’s why I never married,’ he added complacently, ‘ I always knew I would be the first to waken up.’

The vast majority of the book is written in standard English, with just some Scottish dialect in the dialogue of one or two characters. However there is a sprinkling of Scottish words throughout, some of which have faded into complete obscurity now, but many of which are still used by older Scots. The meanings of most of them are clear by their context, but I was a little disappointed that my Canongate Classics edition has neither a glossary nor footnotes – not that they are essential, but to add to the interest for non-Scots and younger Scots alike. I would also warn forcibly not to read the introduction by Edwin Morgan before reading the book – he gives away the entire plot (and frankly adds little depth to the understanding of the book).

I was not, however, disappointed in any way by the book itself. In my opinion, it’s easily of the quality of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s much better known Sunset Song and, in fact, I think I enjoyed it even more. I am sorry it seems to have sunk into relative obscurity. The quality of the writing and characterisation; the beautiful descriptions of the wild landscape and weather of the Highlands; the delicately nuanced portrayal of the position of women within this small, rather isolated society; the story that manages tragedy without melodrama and hope without implausibility – all of these mean it richly merits its status as a Scottish classic, and deserves a much wider readership than it has.

The carriage moved forward. We turned the bend in the road where we used to stand to see if any one were coming. I heard the immeasurable murmur of the loch, like a far-away wave that never breaks upon the shore, and the cry of a curlew. All the world’s sorrow, all the world’s pain, and none of its regret, lay throbbing in that cry.

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Book 11 of 90

Rather be the Devil (Rebus 21) by Ian Rankin

Hail! Hail! The gang’s all here… 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

While Rebus is having dinner with his long-term girlfriend, forensic pathologist Deborah Quant, in the Caledonian Hotel, he tells her of a murder that took place there years ago, when a famous rock star and his entourage were staying in the hotel – a woman who, it appeared, was probably murdered by her lover, except that the lover had an alibi. The murder was never solved and, as he tells the story, Rebus’s interest in it revives. Time for a little amateur sleuthing! Meantime, gangster Darryl Christie has been beaten up and Siobhan is on the case. The obvious suspect is Big Ger Cafferty, the older gangster whom Darryl has pushed aside, but Cafferty hints to Rebus that there’s a Russian connection. (No, fear not, Comrade Trump isn’t in it!) Malcolm Fox has been moved to the Specialist Crime Division in Gartcosh. They are quietly looking into some of Darryl’s business interests and reckon the investigation into his beating will be a good opportunity to nose around his affairs, so Malcolm is sent back through to Edinburgh to liaise with Siobhan. And so the scene is set for another full-cast outing, all the detectives and gangsters gathered together one more time.

Ian Rankin

Anyone who’s been reading my reviews for a while will know that Rebus is up there at the top of my list of favourite detectives, and Ian Rankin can really do no wrong in my eyes. As always, the plotting is great, with the various strands crossing and interconnecting. The old murder story is a traditional whodunit, where alibis and motives are key, while the gangster story allows for plenty of action and a good, believable thriller ending. There’s lots of room for the regulars to interact with each other, which is always one of the major joys of the books – tension between Siobhan and Malcolm because she’s jealous of his move to Gartcosh, concern over Rebus’s health as he undergoes some tests, and Rebus and Big Ger continuing their roles as the elder statesmen of policing and crime, running rings around the young’uns as usual.

However, in truth, I couldn’t help but notice that there are a good deal of similarities to the last book. The rivalry among Darryl, Big Ger and their Glasgow counterpart, Joe Stark, has been rumbling through a few books now, and shows no signs of coming to a conclusion. In retirement, it’s harder to create reasons for Rebus to be involved, and the excuse of Big Ger only being willing to deal with him is becoming a little worn. I hate to say it because I love the old man so much, but I think it’s time to let Rebus go and allow Siobhan and Malcolm to take over as the lead characters. Either that, or Rankin should break his own rule and take us back in time to revisit Rebus as a younger man, when he was still on the force. That’s not to suggest I didn’t enjoy this one – I did, thoroughly, and I’m sure other Rebus fans will too. But this and the last one have felt like encores, given as a treat to those who’ve watched the whole show and want a little bit more. And I think it would be better if Rebus left the stage while the audience is still applauding.

James Macpherson

I listened to the Audible audiobook version of this, narrated by James Macpherson whom some of you will remember as Chief Inspector Michael Jardine in the long-running STV series, Taggart. I’d listened to him narrate Rebus before, in the short story collection The Beat Goes On, so knew he’d be good. But actually he’s even better in this one – the length allows him to create different personalities for all the characters, and his range of Scottish accents and voices is fabulous. From posh Morningside gents to wee Glesca nyaffs, he can do them all brilliantly! He has a real understanding of the recurring characters, so his interpretation never jars. And his timing for the humour is perfect – he often made me laugh out loud. I heartily recommend his readings to any Rebus fans out there – I can’t imagine a better narrator for them, and fully intend to back track and listen to his readings of some of the older books.

For anyone coming new to the series, I’d definitely recommend starting much further back – this one depends to a large extent on familiarity with all the relationships amongst the regulars. But for existing Rebus fans, another thoroughly enjoyable book. Rankin writing and Macpherson narrating are a dream team – pure pleasure! Highly recommended.

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Murder of a Lady: A Scottish Mystery by Anthony Wynne

A locked-room mystery…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

murder-of-a-ladyAmateur detective, Dr Eustace Hailey, is visiting a friend in Mid-Argyll in the Scottish Highlands, when a murder is committed in nearby Duchlan Castle, home of the laird, Hamish Gregor. The victim is the laird’s sister, Mary, a woman to all outward appearances of a saintly nature, the last person one would expect to be brutally slain. Her body is found in her bedroom, with the door and windows locked from the inside, and no obvious way for the murderer to have got in or out. The local Procurator Fiscal has heard of Dr Hailey’s reputation and begs him to come and look at the scene, fearing it may be some time before a police detective arrives in this remote spot. It’s not long before Dr Hailey discovers that Mary Gregor had another, darker side to her nature, harsh and judgemental, manipulating and controlling the people around her to get her own way in all things, no matter the cost to others…

These British Library re-issues of vintage crime novels have been a bit hit or miss for me, so I’m delighted to say this one is most definitely a hit! I was simultaneously attracted to and apprehensive about it because of its Scottish setting – so often at that period Scottish characters were annoyingly stereotyped as either figures of fun or drunken, belligerent half-savages by the rather snobbish English writers of the time. However I needn’t have worried – it turns out Wynne was Scottish himself, and the picture he paints of this Highland society gives a real feeling of authenticity, even though it does, as with most Golden Age crime, concern itself primarily with the aristocratic and professional classes. There is an interesting, short introduction from Martin Edwards, giving a little background information on the author, and setting the book into its place in the history of crime fiction.

Although the focus is largely on the locked-room puzzle of how the crime could have been done, there’s some pretty good characterisation along the way. Not so much of the detective, Dr Hailey – I believe this was quite far along in the series so Wynne may have presumed his readers already knew about him. But the victim’s personality is key to the motive, and, though she’s dead before we meet her, we get an increasingly clear picture of her in all her malevolence through the eyes of the various people who knew her. Her brother Hamish, the laird, is another fine creation – his snobbery and sense of self-importance, his pride in his family and lineage, his weakness to stand up to his sister, his insistence on the maintenance of tradition. I particularly liked the way Wynne portrayed the women, showing them as subordinate within this society, but strong within themselves; victims sometimes, but not hysterical ones; and intelligent, worthy partners for the men they loved.

Anthony Wynne
Anthony Wynne

Of course, there is more than one murder, and I have to admit that the second one took me totally by surprise and actually made me gasp a little. There’s no real horror aspect in the book, but it nevertheless builds a great atmosphere of rather creepy tension, aided by the superstitions of the Highland folk. It does veer into melodrama at points, but that works well with the rather gothic setting of the old house filled with secrets from times gone by. I wouldn’t call it fair-play – I think it would be pretty impossible to work out the who, why and how of the crimes. And yes, it does stretch credibility when all is revealed – the method, at least, though the motivations of all the characters were credible enough to carry me over any other weaknesses.

I enjoyed this one very much – another author the British Library has managed to add to my list!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

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Black Widow (Jack Parlabane 7) by Chris Brookmyre

Winner of the 2016 McIlvanney Prize…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

black-widowWhen Peter Elphinstone drives off the road into a river one cold, dark night, it appears to have been a tragic accident. But Peter’s sister isn’t convinced. She knows Peter was stressed and unhappy in his new marriage and fears there’s more to his death than it looks at first sight. So she asks journalist Jack Parlabane to investigate. The uniformed police officer who attended the scene of the crash also isn’t wholly convinced, but CID seem happy to let the incident be filed under accident. So Ali and her new partner Rodriguez carry out a little investigation of their own. Soon all the evidence seems to be pointing towards Peter’s wife, Diana…

This is my first introduction to Chris Brookmyre and I was hugely impressed by the quality of the writing. The book is told partly in third person from Parlabane’s point of view, partly in first person from Diana, and partly from a neutral third person voice covering any aspect not directly involving either of these two characters.

Diana is a surgeon who once kept an anonymous blog where she complained about the sexism shown to women within medicine and the NHS in general, and told some fairly damning stories about colleagues. Her cover was blown when she got hacked, and a huge public scandal ensued that led to Diana being forced to leave her high-flying job down South and head for the small and rather remote town of Inverness in the Scottish highlands where, despite her reputation, the management were keen to have such a skilled surgeon on their books. Alone, forty, and with her body-clock ticking loudly, it’s here that she meets Peter, one of the hospital’s IT guys, and after a whirlwhind romance, they marry. The question is: what lead to Peter’s death only six months later? Diana tells us the story of their relationship, while Parlabane digs into her background.

Inverness - Gateway to the Highlands
Inverness – Gateway to the Highlands

The NHS setting is brought convincingly to life, and I say that as someone who has spent most of her working life in it. All the rivalries, the arrogance of the top medical professionals, the strict pecking order, the cliques and groups, the loyalties and ultimately the professionalism are all very well done. Brookmyre shows the sexism as an institutional thing – that it is hard for women doctors and surgeons to balance such a demanding career with a fulfilling family life – rather than overt sexism from male colleagues, and again I found this very true to life.

The characterisation is very good, especially of the main characters, Diana and Peter, both of whom Brookmyre manages to keep ambiguous even while we learn a lot about them. The plotting also starts out great, though in truth I felt the outcome was pretty well signalled by about halfway through, meaning the twists towards the end came as no big surprise. There are also a couple of pretty big deviations from reality, which I’m not sure would be noticed by non-Scots in one instance, and non-Scottish NHS employees with a good understanding of the rules around NHS IT confidentiality in the other. Unfortunately, being both those things, they leapt out at me and left me wondering if it had been a failure of research or whether Brookmyre had simply decided to twist things to fit his plot. A degree of fictional licence is always permissible, of course, so I did my best to overlook them, but they did kinda spoil the credibility for me, especially since both were important as to how the plot worked out.

Chris Brookmyre
Chris Brookmyre

Despite those criticisms, I found the book very readable and more-ish, doing that just one more chapter thing till the wee sma’ hours. Parlabane is a likeable character. He’s clearly had some ethical problems in the past, and still isn’t averse to breaking the odd law or two, but in this one at least his motives are good and he doesn’t go too far into maverick territory. His divorce has just become final, and he’s finding himself approaching middle-age, single and with his career going through a rocky patch. Brookmyre handles all of this well, including plenty of humour in the book to prevent any feeling of angsty wallowing. The tragic thing is that I now feel I have to add all the previous Parlabane books to my list and investigate some of his other stuff too… oh, my poor TBR!

PS This was the book that won the 2016 McIlvanney Prize, for which regular readers may remember I was involved in the longlisting process. A worthy winner in my opinion, though my own preference is still for Douglas Skelton’s Open Wounds.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.

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Out of Bounds (Karen Pirie 4) by Val McDermid

Murder in the family…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

out of boundsWhen some drunken lads steal a Land Rover and then crash it, a blood sample is taken from the driver and routinely checked for DNA matches. The results show a familial match to the perpetrator of a horrific unsolved rape and murder from 1996, so DCI Karen Pirie and her cold case team, consisting of herself and one DC, reopen the case. However it becomes more complicated when they discover the car crash victim was adopted, so they will have to seek the Court’s permission to access his birth records. Meantime, a young man called Gabriel Abbott is found dead from a gunshot wound in a park, a death that the investigating officer is eager to call suicide and close the case. Karen’s not so sure, and when she discovers that Gabriel’s mother was herself murdered over 20 years earlier, she finds herself drawn to try to solve the older case and see if it impacted in any way on Gabriel’s death.

I really like this new series of McDermid’s. She has always been one of my favourite crime writers, but I tired eventually of the Tony Hill series, so I’m delighted she’s gone off in a new direction. These books are strictly police procedurals, told in a straightforward linear fashion with no flashy gimmicks or unbelievable twists. I’ve only read one other in the series, The Skeleton Road, which had a plot-line that took us back to the Serbo-Croatian war and was as much about the horrors of that as about the crime under investigation. While I enjoyed it very much, in truth I prefer to get my history from history books, so preferred this one which is more traditional in style – a crime or crimes, suspects, motives, clues, red herrings, etc., but all set firmly in the present and with a totally authentic feel to the investigation.

Karen Pirie is an excellent character, perhaps my favourite of all the various lead characters McDermid has created over the years. She is refreshingly non-maverick, working within the rules and procedures of contemporary policing, and getting on with her colleagues on the whole. Somewhat tediously, she has the usual useless boss who’s always trying to do her down, but she gets round him with a combination of wit and manipulation, instead of the rather unbelievable outright defiance and belligerence that so many fictional detectives seem able to get away with. She thinks her young assistant Jason is “thick”, but is nevertheless a good, supportive boss to him, and during the course of this book, as he matures into the role, she finds she’s beginning to appreciate him more. And again unlike many of the loner detectives of today, she has a few good friends and a normal social life outside work.

In this book she is still grieving after the events at the end of the last one. (I’m leaving that deliberately vague to avoid spoilers – the books work perfectly as standalones and don’t have much of a continuing story arc, but like most series they’re probably best read in order.) But her grief is shown believably, without wallowing. It recurs from time to time but lessens as time goes on, and Karen handles it without taking to drink or beating people up or all the other things our dysfunctional detectives usually do.

Val McDermid
Val McDermid

There’s also a strand in the book about some of the Syrian refugees who have come to Scotland fleeing from the horrors in their own country. McDermid handles this very well, showing them not as potential terrorists, rapists, murderers or religious fanatics, but as normal people who have seen and experienced terrible things, but survived, and who now want to find a way to build new lives for themselves and their families in a safer place.

The plotting is great, with enough complexity to keep the reader guessing but without ever straying far over the credibility line. Although there are two separate cases on the go, McDermid juggles them well, never letting one be forgotten at the expense of the other. And personally, I’m delighted to see her set a series in her native Scotland. She doesn’t shine a light on the political zeitgeist in quite the way Rankin often does, but she creates a clear and authentic picture of contemporary Scotland, particularly with regards to policing and justice systems.

All-in-all, an excellent read which I highly recommend. I’m hoping this series will have a long run.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group.

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Dirt Road by James Kelman

Road trip to the basement…

😦

dirt roadA young boy and his father, grieving for the recent loss of the boy’s mother and the longer ago loss of his sister, go on a trip to visit relatives in America. While there, Murdo meets up with a family of musicians, who invite him to play his accordion (annoyingly spelled accordeon throughout in my advance reading copy, whether intentionally or accidentally I know not) at a gig in a couple of weeks time. Murdo assumes his father won’t want him to go. In fact, his father wants nothing more than to sit around the relatives’ house and read, while Murdo lies on his bed in the basement, bored out of his head, listening to one of the two CDs he has. At the point where I finally threw in the towel (33%) they had only left the house once, and that was to go to the mall for a couple of hours.

The writing is undoubtedly excellent. Although written in the third person, the reader is entirely inside Murdo’s head, listening to his thoughts. It’s not stream of consciousness in the sense of long complicated sentences. Quite the reverse in fact – the sentences tend to be short and plain. But we do see Murdo’s thoughts drift and circle. On a technical level, it’s beautifully sustained and the voice and emotions ring true. My only criticism of the style is that, for some obscure reason, Kelman, having decided not to “do” Scottish dialect, still substitutes the word “ye” for “you” all the way through. This drove me mad. Either do a Scottish accent or don’t!

James Kelman
James Kelman

But the real issue is that there is no discernible plot or story. I realise that’s all the rage these days in some quarters of the lit-fic world and that many readers enjoy lengthy studies of emotions we have surely all felt, but it bores me rigid. The book is purely character study and stylish prose, and that’s not enough to make a novel. The blurb describes it as a road trip, but to be a road trip surely involves going out of the house occasionally. While the journey to America is moderately interesting, once they reach their destination it becomes entirely static. There is no sense of place, other than that I could describe Murdo’s basement and the shopping mall in detail. But happily for you, I won’t.

The only questions are, will Murdo go to the gig or not and will he and his father learn to communicate with each other? After what felt like hours of nothing happening, I found I couldn’t care less, and certainly not enough to stay with him in his basement for another couple of hundred pages, listening to him go round in endless circles about what it’s like to be a bored, isolated and grieving teenager. So I abandoned it and feel much better now, ye know. Perhaps it becomes more interesting later – perhaps there even is the promised road trip. But I’m afraid I’d had enough. This trend for books which do nothing but wallow in descriptions of fictional grief is not for me. The quality of the prose makes my 1-star harsh, but if I find a book so tedious that I can’t face reading on, then it seems ridiculous to rate it any higher.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate.

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The Rat Stone Serenade by Denzil Meyrick

Too much of a good thing…

🙂 🙂 🙂

the rat stone serenadeA hundred years ago, blacksmith Nathaniel Stuart was driven off his property in Blaan, a village on the southernmost tip of the remote Kintyre peninsula on the west coast of Scotland. Of tinker stock, Stuart cursed the landowner Archie Shannon, declaring that every fifty years calamity will befall his family and their descendants until the end of time. Fifty years later, young Archie Shannon hid from his mother in the woods behind their home for a lark – and was never seen again. Now, in the present day, the Shannon family is returning to their ancestral home in Blaan for the annual general meeting of the hugely successful international company they now own. But things take a sinister turn when the bones of a young child are discovered on the Rat Stone, an ancient site surrounded by much superstition and fear…

There is so much to like about this book that I really wish I was recommending it more highly. It’s very well written, and the recurring characters of DCI Daley and his small team are done well – each with a distinct personality, each flawed, but all likeable as individuals and working well together as a team. The remoteness of this part of the world is increased when an unusually severe snowstorm cuts off the roads to the mainland and causes power cuts throughout the area. Meyrick creates an excellent atmosphere of isolation and menace, with some nicely spine-tingling supernatural undertones. With no likelihood of reinforcements getting through any time soon, it’s up to Daley and his colleagues not just to investigate the old bones but to try to stop the sudden crime wave that is sweeping through the village.

And therein lies the problem. Too much, too much! The body count is completely ridiculous! For a large proportion of the early part of the book, each chapter introduces us to someone who is then gruesomely killed. It seems like there’s a million strands each resulting in gory death for someone and for a long time, too long, the connection between all these events is entirely unclear. And with so many deaths happening so quickly, these characters are no more than names, so that when they’re referred to later in the book, I was having real difficulties remembering who they were or how and where they died.

The book is like an Irish stew – everything has been thrown in. One detective is an alcoholic trying to lay off the booze, while a couple of the others are having an affair with each other. There are dead businessmen, human sacrifices, dodgy business dealings, vicars with secrets, ex-nuns, tinkers’ curses and about three people all having visions, either supernatural, caused by drink or due to brain damage. Corpses with their skin flayed, corpses on bonfires, corpses on sacrificial stones. Every now and again new people had to arrive by helicopter or boat just to replenish the stock of people to bump off. One felt an investigation wasn’t really necessary – leave it a couple of days and only the bad guy would be left alive!

Denzil Meyrick
Denzil Meyrick

One of the detectives is given what I think is supposed to be a Glasgow accent, though it feels more like an anglicised speaker’s idea of what a generic Scottish dialect sounded like circa 1950 – a bit too Sunday Post (which will mean nothing to non-Scots – sorry! Twee, perhaps, is the closest comparison). However, kudos to the author for at least trying to keep the book feeling Scottish in tone, and I must say my ‘ear’ did get tuned in to the dialect after a while, and it began to sound more authentic. (And one of the characters lives in Kirkintilloch – my very own little hometown!)

It picks up towards the end and, while the supernatural stuff is left hanging for the most part, the rest of it is explained, even if the credibility is stretched way past breaking point. Despite all the ridiculous stuff, it’s still very readable because of the overall quality of the writing. Although I really feel this one goes so far over the top it becomes farcical, I would be willing to read another in this series. I was reminded of the artist Agatha Troy, in Ngaio Marsh’s books, who never knew when one of her pictures was finished and needed her lover Roderick Alleyn to tell her when to stop painting. I really hope Meyrick can find an editor who will perform the same function for him (the stopping bit, not the lover-ing bit!) and tell him when enough is enough. Loads of potential in this series – I hope in future books to see it fulfilled.

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Open Wounds (Davie McCall 4) by Douglas Skelton

Genuine Tartan Noir…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

open woundsDavie McCall is a gangster with a moral code – he doesn’t hurt women, children or ‘civilians’. But that doesn’t stop him from hurting other people – badly, when they’ve done something that crosses one of his personal lines. He’s always felt in control of his violence though, until recently, when he suddenly found he was enjoying it. Now he wants out of the ‘Life’, but he’s scared – not of what his boss might do to him, but scared that he won’t be able to change, won’t be able to leave the desire for violence behind him. Meantime, he’s still working as a heavy for Rab McClymont, who’s not just his boss but an old friend. So when Rab asks him to lean on a man, Fergus O’Neill, at first Davie’s fine with that. O’Neill was convicted a few years back of a horrific burglary that involved rape, but is now out pending appeal and is publicly accusing Rab of having fitted him up for the crime. When Davie begins to believe that O’Neill may have been innocent, he still can’t believe that Rab would have been involved in a rape, even indirectly. So he begins to investigate…

This is a great book that I’m strongly recommending you don’t read. At least not straight away. It’s actually the fourth and final book in the Davie McCall quartet, and I very much wish I’d read them in order, partly because there are lots of references to the previous books in this one which meant I was a bit lost at the beginning, and partly because having now read this one, the first three will have been a little spoiled for me since I know how the series resolves. That won’t stop me reading them though! The first in the series is Blood City.

The book is set in Glasgow gangster culture and has a totally authentic feel to it. These are low level gangsters, running dodgy businesses, small-time drug dealing, protection rackets and loan-sharking. As well as giving a great sense of place, using mainly real locations, Skelton has a complete grip on Glaswegian “patter”, the humour that covers the harshness of life on the edges of society. The dialogue isn’t really written in dialect so non-Scots would have no difficulties with it, but the speech patterns and “voices” are spot on.

Normally I would have a serious problem with being able to empathise with a man who uses violence as a tool, but Skelton provides a ton of moral ambiguity, both about Davie’s victims and regarding his background, that makes him understandable. And his own internal struggle to hold onto some kind of moral code lets the reader be on his side, willing him to win out against the demons that haunt him. I couldn’t help but think of McIlvanney’s Laidlaw – Davie might be how Laidlaw would have turned out if he’d been born into the life of the gangster, and with a few better breaks in life Davie could have turned into Laidlaw. They share that sense of clear-sighted vision about the society they move in, the same philosophical acceptance that there’s only so much any one man can do to change things and the same core of morality that makes them swim against the tide even when they feel themselves being sucked under.

Douglas-Skelton
Douglas Skelton

Though I struggled at first from not having read the earlier books, by about a third of the way through I had gathered enough about the background for that aspect to stop being an issue, and from that stage in this worked fine as a standalone. The plotting is great, with several strands weaving in and out of each other. Davie is a kind of mentor to a younger thug, trying hard to stop him from losing his humanity. He’s increasingly at odds with his boss Rab, whose growing suspicions of Davie’s motives threaten their old friendship. There’s a corrupt police officer on the take, and this strand is handle particularly well – Skelton shows him believably as the exception rather the rule within the police, disliked as much by his fellow officers as by the lowlifes he bullies and uses. The characterisation throughout is exceptional, with every character ringing true – no clichés or stereotypes here. And in the end all the strands come together to an ending which is credible and satisfying without being falsely uplifting.

This is genuine Tartan Noir, grounded in the real recognisable Glasgow of today – a rare treasure amidst some of the overblown melodramatic dross which is so often wrongly acclaimed as giving an authentic picture of life here. I’m delighted to have stumbled across Douglas Skelton and he is now part of that select band of Scottish crime writers to whose future books I will look forward with keen anticipation.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Luath Press.

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Coffin Road by Peter May

coffin roadBack to the islands…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A man is washed ashore, exhausted and with no idea of how he got there, or indeed where ‘there’ is. He has lost his memory, but is filled with a sense of dread as if something terrible has happened. As he staggers up the road, he is met by a neighbour who calls him by his name – Neal Maclean – and helps him to the cottage that is apparently his home. But when Neal begins to look for indications of who he is and what he’s doing in this remote cottage on a Hebridean island, he can find no information about himself – even his computer seems to contain no history. But his dog Bran is happy to have him back, and when his other neighbours, Sally and Jon, turn up for a prearranged drink, it appears Sally in particular is a close friend…

This book sees May returning to the Hebrides, this time on Harris rather than Lewis (same island – different ends). However there’s a different feel to this one – Neal is an incomer to the island and doesn’t really get involved much with the local community. The landscape, or rather seascape, plays a huge part though and, as always, May’s sense of place and descriptive writing bring it to life. The bulk of the book is written from Neal’s perspective as he struggles to work out what has happened to him. His sections are in first person present tense which, though still not to my taste, makes some kind of sense here, since Neal is effectively a man without a past, and happily May is skilled enough to avoid the clunkiness that often afflicts present tense writing. The rest of it is written in third person past.

Luskentyre Beach, Isle of Harris
Luskentyre Beach, Isle of Harris

From things that Sally and Jon tell him, Neal discovers he’s apparently writing a book on the story of three lighthouse keepers who mysteriously disappeared many years ago from the otherwise uninhabited Flannan Isles. But he can find no trace of the book, so takes a boat out to the Flannans to see if it triggers any memories. What he finds there shocks him – is it possible he has done something so dreadful that his mind just can’t accept it?

Meantime young Karen Fleming is in Edinburgh, still brooding over the unexplained suicide of her scientist father two years earlier. Carrying a load of guilt because the last words she said to him were angry and untrue, she is becoming determined to learn more about what caused him to end his life. But what she discovers will turn everything she thought she knew on its head, and put both her and Neal Maclean in deadly danger…

Peter May on Lewis
Peter May on Lewis

The writing is up to May’s usual excellent standard and both Neal and Karen are very well drawn, each flawed but likeable in their own way. Neal’s frustration at his memory loss gets even stronger when he fears he might have something to hide and he soon discovers that he’s in danger, but doesn’t know why or from whom. The only thing he has found in his cottage is a map of the island with the old Coffin Road highlighted – the road the islanders used to use to bring their dead for burial amongst the machair. Karen is an intelligent young girl, but headstrong and with the self-centredness of the adolescent. The more people tell her that looking for information about her father could be dangerous, the more determined she becomes. May handles her grief for her father well, letting us see how it has affected her without wallowing mawkishly in it. As the two strands come together towards an explosive finale, we also get to see the action from the perspective of Detective Sergeant George Gunn, whom dedicated fans will doubtless remember with affection from the Lewis trilogy.

The Coffin Road
The Coffin Road

This has much more of a standard thriller format than the last few of May’s books and reminded me in many ways of his early China thrillers. There’s a strong eco-message in the book, a theme May has addressed before, of the dangers of science being exploited for profit untempered by ethics. The plotting is very strong and it’s paced perfectly to keep it gripping all the way through. A couple of times when I thought it was pretty obvious what was about to happen, May showed me that I should know by now never to take him for granted. As always, May’s feel for this Hebridean landscape adds a great deal to the story, and in this one he uses the sea and wild weather of the islands to great effect. (I also enjoyed his brief detour to Balornock in Glasgow – revived happy memories of spending time there in my teen years!) Another great read from May that I think will please the newer fans who came to his work via the Lewis trilogy, while reminding the older fans of just what a good thriller writer he is. Highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus, via MidasPR.

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Even Dogs in the Wild (Rebus 20) by Ian Rankin

Rebus in a deerstalker?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

even dogs in the wildSiobhan Clarke has been called in to investigate the murder of David Minton, a former Lord Advocate (chief legal officer of the Scottish Government). At first, it looks like a robbery gone wrong, until a note is found on Lord Minton’s body – I’M GOING TO KILL YOU FOR WHAT YOU DID. That evening, as Siobhan and Malcolm Fox share dinner, they are told of a shooting in the city – the target Big Ger Cafferty, retired gangster and long-time Moriarty to Rebus’ Holmes. The shooter missed, and Cafferty is refusing to talk to the police about it, so Siobhan suggests bringing Rebus in on it as the one man to whom Cafferty is likely to open up. Problem is Rebus is now retired (again) – and so begins his new career as a ‘consulting detective’. Fox meantime has been seconded to a team through from Glasgow who are carrying out surveillance on a Glasgow gangster and his son, in Edinburgh looking for one of their employees who has betrayed them and run off with a truck-load of drugs.

The book gets off to a great start with a short prologue where two gangsters are in a forest to bury a body. But things don’t go quite to plan. It takes quite a long time for all the various strands of the book to come together, but as always Rankin handles the plotting with sure skill, meting out the information with perfect timing to keep the reader’s interest from flagging at any point. This book is more noir in feel than some of Rebus’ recent outings, being very much about the gangsters of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The thing I love most about Rankin is that his books and characters are set very much in the real, recognisable world of present-day Scotland, and that shows through in his treatment of the gangsters here. He portrays them as less relevant than they used to be, with so many of their old fields of activity having become either legalised – money-lenders now advertise their exorbitant interest rates on TV, and gambling has become brightly lit, family fun – or less lucrative, with the police more successful in preventing protection rackets, for instance. Much organised crime is now carried out via the darknet rather than on the streets. Cafferty and his Glasgow counterpart, Joe Stark, are rather outdated dinosaurs – still dangerous in the parts of society in which they operate, but not universally feared or admired as the old-time gangsters once were. Gun crime is shown as it truly is – extremely rare and not a major issue in Scottish society. (There was 1 – yes, one – gun murder in the whole of Scotland in 2014.) It’s very refreshing to get such a true picture, rather than the nonsense that fills so many books in the ‘Tartan Noir’ genre, most of which describe a society that is as realistic as Hobbiton, or as outdated as Dickens’ London.

Ian Rankin in Rebus favourite pub, the Oxford Bar. Photograph by Murdo Macleod
Ian Rankin in Rebus favourite pub, the Oxford Bar.
Photograph by Murdo Macleod

However, the book isn’t only about the warring gangsters. There is another strand that touches on a subject very much in the current news – the historical abuse of children in care homes. Again Rankin handles this with all his usual skill and sensitivity, showing not only how it affected the children at the time but how the after-effects of abuse can cascade down through generations. And he does it without resorting to shock horror tactics, voyeuristically salacious details or crocodile tears. As a result, the story feels both authentic and credible.

There is perhaps a little less reference to the political side of Scottish life than there has been in the more recent books, but I think this is a good reflection of post-referendum life, where the close result has somewhat left the nation feeling that it’s in political limbo. But the storyline touches on the power structures of both police and government, and especially on the abuse of power at the top.

Ian Rankin
Ian Rankin

This wouldn’t be one I would necessarily recommend as a starting point for newcomers to Rebus. There are so many characters from previous books in it that I think it will work best for existing fans, who understand how the relationship between Rebus and Big Ger has developed over the years. But for me, a new Rebus is always a huge treat – Rankin is so in control of his writing and plotting that reading his books is an effortless joy. Another strong entry in the series that I’m sure fans will enjoy, and great to have Rebus back in action after the long two years since the last book. Here’s hoping his ‘consulting detective’ days are not over…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion.

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Waverley: or ‘Tis Sixty Years Since by Sir Walter Scott

waverley 2Charlie is my darling…

😀 😀 😀 + 😀

Young Edward Waverley has been brought up mainly by his uncle, Sir Everard Waverley, an English Tory and supporter of the Jacobite cause in the failed 1715 rebellion. When Edward reaches manhood, his absent father, a Whig and supporter of the Hanoverian government, arranges a commission for him in the Army. While Sir Everard is not keen on Edward having to swear allegiance to King George II (since in Sir Everard’s eyes the true King is James III, in exile in France), he reluctantly agrees. Edward joins his regiment and is promptly posted to Dundee. After serving in a half-hearted way for a few months, Edward takes some leave and goes off to visit an old friend of his uncle, Baron Bradwardine, a staunch Jacobite. Through him, Edward becomes friends with Fergus Mac-Ivor, chieftain of the Highland Clan Mac-Ivor, and falls in love with his beautiful sister Flora. So when the 1745 rebellion begins, Edward finds himself caught between two loyalties – to the Hanoverians through his officership in the Army, and to the Jacobites through his friendships and the influence of his upbringing. The story tells the tale of the ’45 Jacobite Rebellion and Edward’s part in it.

Bonnie Prince Charlie by John Pettie
Bonnie Prince Charlie by John Pettie

The subtitle ‘Tis Sixty Years Since refers to the ostensible time of writing, 1805, sixty years after the 1745 rebellion, although the book was not published until 1814. This book is often hailed as the first historical novel in the English language. It’s also often claimed as one of the most important books in English literature, which doesn’t half annoy us Scots, since it’s written by a Scot about Scotland. I’m willing to compromise and say it’s an important book in English-language literature. This isn’t as insignificant a point as it may seem – Scott was one of the earliest Scots to write fiction in English, accepting that the Scottish language and culture was being subsumed into the dominant English culture of the time. However, in this, as in many of his books, his purpose was partly to explain Scottish culture and traditions to his English readership and do away with some of their misconceptions of the Scots, especially Highlanders, as a half-savage society. Along the way, he created some romanticised misconceptions of his own that gradually became part of the prevailing view of Scotland that lasted well into the 20th century. The cultural importance of Scott in his native country is memorialised not just by the massive monument to him in Princes Street in Edinburgh, the capital city, but also in the name of that city’s main railway station – Waverley Station.

The Scott Monument
The Scott Monument

How I wish, therefore, that I could unreservedly wax lyrical about the wonders of the book! Sadly, taken purely in terms of reading pleasure, it’s not the greatest piece of literature in the world, for all its cultural significance. A major reason for this is simply that tastes change over time, as does language. Although Scotland was one of the most literate societies in the world at the time Scott was writing, nevertheless authors tended to be addressing their work to others like themselves who had had a classical education (pretty much the only kind available), so this is liberally sprinkled with Latin and French and allusions to classical mythology which many modern readers (including this one) will find problematic at best and incomprehensible at worst. Even the English language is in a style that reads as pretty out-dated now and of course, there is some Scottish dialect too, not to mention the odd little bit of Gaelic. I read it in a version without footnotes, but would suggest it’s one that probably needs them more than most. Not that any of this makes the plot hard to follow, but it does very much break the reading flow.

Sir Walter Scott by Sir Henry Raeburn Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Sir Walter Scott by Sir Henry Raeburn
Scottish National Portrait Gallery

But even putting the language difficulties to one side, the book has some problems. Overall, it’s reasonably interesting, but very over-padded, especially the early part. For a long period there is no discernible plot, just lengthy character studies of the various people who will play a part when the story finally gets under way. Scott himself said that this was his way of allowing the characters to reveal themselves rather than simply being described, but to suit our modern tastes most readers would probably want to get into the story a good deal sooner. And personally I could have happily lived without the lengthy and mediocre poetry that Scott stuffs in every so often – again a technique that would have been much more usual in his time than in ours, I think – which he uses as a way to illustrate Scottish culture and the oral storytelling tradition.

Then there are his assumptions about the pre-knowledge of his readers, probably correct at the time but not necessarily so now. He assumes that everyone knows the background to the Jacobite rebellion, the politics, the main players and the progress of the campaign. Well, yes, as it happens, I do, but I would think this could cause some problems for people who don’t. What bothered me about it was that this assumption meant he left out all the bits that are exciting! We’re not there when Bonnie Prince Charlie raises his standard at Glenfinnan, we don’t get to fight at Culloden and we don’t follow Charlie on his last romantic retreat over the sea to Skye! That anyone can make the ’45 dull amazes me – it’s one of the great romantic tragedies of all time!

Raising the Standard at Glenfinnan
Raising the Standard at Glenfinnan by Mark Churms

Instead, Scott concentrates on showing the lifestyle and manners of both Highland and Lowland Scots of the period, and this he does very successfully, though with what I suspect is a decreasing degree of realism the further north he heads. There’s some humour in it, and a lot – a lot! – of romance, as Edward swithers over the beautiful and fanatical Highland Flora and the sensible and adoring Lowland Rose. And his swithering between the Hanoverians and the Jacobites allows Scott to show both sides of the conflict, which he does without demonising either, in fact painting a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of the Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart. But all this swithering makes Edward a hero who inspired me with a desire to bash him over the head with a metaphorical brick while screaming “Make up your mind, for goodness sake, man!” Honestly, he makes Hamlet seem decisive!

So overall I’m afraid I was a little disappointed. I’ve read other Scott books in the past which I’ve enjoyed much more than this one, and am rather sorry it’s the one that people are always recommended to read, purely because of its significance rather than its intrinsic enjoyability. I can’t give more than three stars for the story and writing, with an extra one for its position of importance in both English-language and Scottish literature. I shall go into hiding now in case the last of the Jacobites come after me…

 

Docherty by William McIlvanney

Docherty 2Scottish wrath…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

On a December night in 1903, Tam Docherty lifts his new-born son and declares that this one will never go down the pits – this child Conn, his youngest, will work with his brains, rise out of the poverty of his heritage. The book covers the next twenty years or so, telling the story of Conn and his family, and most of all of Tam himself, a man who may be “only five foot fower. But when yer hert goes fae yer heid tae yer taes, that’s a lot o’ hert.”

Tam is a miner in the fictional town of Graithnock in Ayrshire. He’s a hard man but a good-hearted one, with a fierce belief that the working man deserves better from his masters – a belief that he passes on to his sons, though each comes to interpret it in different ways. In some ways this is quite an intimate novel, concentrating on Tam’s family and the small community he is part of, but through them it’s a fairly political look at the lot of those at the bottom of the ladder in the early part of the twentieth century, a time when the old traditions are about to be challenged, first by the horrors of WW1 and then, following close on its heels, by the new political ideas that will sweep through Europe between the wars. Graithnock may be a small place, remote from the centre of power, but these influences will be felt even there.

McIlvanney writes beautifully, both in English and Scots, with as keen an ear for speech patterns and banter as for dialect. All the speech in the book is in dialect and since it’s largely the dialect I grew up with it’s hard for me to know for sure whether it would cause problems for non-Scots to read, but I don’t think so. Other than speech, the book is in standard English. The characterisation throughout is superb, from Tam himself right down to the people who make only a brief incidental appearance. McIlvanney has the ability to get to the heart of a character in a few sentences, often using powerful metaphors to paint vivid portraits. The book is emotional but never mawkish – these are real people and the things that happen to them are real too, never exaggerated for effect.

He thought he understood why it was he had always liked Tam Docherty so much. He was more than anything in his life showed him to be, and he knew it. The effect on Andra was as if he had come across some powerful animal in a cage, kept fit on its own frustration, endlessly restless, knowing instinctively that the bars are an invention, nothing final, and feeling contempt for its keepers. Andra sensed quite simply that Tam was not defeated. And if Tam wasn’t, neither was he.

Although the female characters are strong and well drawn, fundamentally the book concentrates on maleness, in a community where physical strength is of vital importance for economic survival. The men forge strong bonds as they work in the dangerous conditions down the mine and at night gather together on street corners, where they tell each other again and again the same stories that give them their sense of communal identity. McIlvanney shows effectively and movingly how, when physical strength begins to fade, the men are somehow diminished, giving way to the new generation in the first flush of their power, with all the rivalry this causes between fathers and sons. And as men reach the point where they can no longer go down the mine, they become dependent on their children to keep them out of the poorhouse.

High Street, Kilmarnock - the town on which fictional Graithnock is based. "High Street, both as a terrain and a population was special. Everyone whom circumstances had herded into its hundred-or-so-yards had failed in the same way. It was a penal colony for those who had committed poverty, a vice which was usually hereditary."
High Street, Kilmarnock – the town on which fictional Graithnock is based.
“High Street, both as a terrain and a population was special. Everyone whom circumstances had herded into its hundred-or-so-yards had failed in the same way. It was a penal colony for those who had committed poverty, a vice which was usually hereditary.”

The book covers the period of WW1 and McIlvanney takes us there with one of Tam’s sons. Again, where other authors might become self-indulgent with descriptions of the horrors, McIlvanney practices admirable restraint, using brief episodes to illustrate the wider picture – an approach that I found as effective as many of the books that have wallowed too luxuriously in the blood and the mud. His perspective is more to look at the after-effects of the war on those who lived through it or lost someone to it, both in terms of emotional impact and on how it fed into the politics of the post-war society.

“Son, it’s easy tae be guid oan a fu’ belly. It’s when a man’s goat two bites an’ wan o’ them he’ll share, ye ken whit he’s made o’. Listen. In ony country in the world, who are the only folk that ken whit it’s like tae leeve in that country? The folk at the boattom. The rest can a’ kid themselves oan. They can afford to hiv fancy ideas. We canny, son. We loass the wan idea o’ who we are, we’re deid. We’re wan anither. Tae survive, we’ll respect wan anither. When the time comes, we’ll a’ move forward thegither, or nut at all.”

William McIlvanney
William McIlvanney

It’s strange how sometimes it depends on when we read a book as to how it affects us. While I think this is an excellent book, I found its impact on me somewhat lessened by having so recently read The Grapes of Wrath. Docherty was, for me, the easier and more enjoyable read, but I found I was drawing comparisons all the way through; the major themes – of exploited workers and the strength that comes through the bonds of male physicality, of women as the nurturing backbone who hold families together, of the despair that drives men towards more extreme political systems – are at the heart of both books. Different societies but with similar issues and both showing man’s fundamental struggle for survival in an unfair and unjust world. And though I would say Docherty is by far the better structured of the two, and mercifully much briefer, I must give the award for emotional power to Steinbeck, even though I object to the manipulation he used to achieve it. And, though McIlvanney’s writing maintains a much more consistently high standard throughout, he never quite reaches the sublimity of some of the passages in The Grapes of Wrath. I suspect I would have found Docherty both more powerful and more emotional if I could have avoided the comparison. Definitely still a great novel, though, and one that I highly recommend.

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The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona MacLean

An excellent beginning…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the redemption of alexander seaton 3A storm is raging in Banff in the north-east of Scotland as Alexander Seaton makes his way home from the inn so, when he sees a man staggering in the street, Alexander assumes he is the worse for drink and hurries on by to get out of the rain. When the man’s dead body is found the next day in the schoolroom where Alexander teaches, his feelings of guilt are compounded when his friend Charles Thom is arrested for the murder. Convinced of Charles’ innocence, Alexander sets out with his old friend and mentor, Dr Jaffray, to find out who really murdered Patrick Davidson.

The book is set in 1626, a time when an uneasy peace holds sway in Scotland. All those pesky 16th century Queens are dead and the crowns of Scotland and England are united, though not yet their parliaments. The Protestants are in the ascendancy and the Kirk has a stranglehold on religion and morality, but the Catholics are still plotting, and looking to the great Catholic countries of Europe for support. And witch-hunting is still at its peak, led and encouraged by the more rabid members of the hellfire-and-damnation Kirk, often culminating in public burnings. Happy days!

MacLean has caught the feel of this time-period just about perfectly in my opinion. She gives the impression of knowing the history inside-out and her characters ring true as people living in this time. Seaton and Jaffray are on the more enlightened side, though of course the actual Enlightenment is still some way off, but MacLean doesn’t fall into the trap of giving them anachronistically modern viewpoints. So, for example, while being horrified at the attitude of the mob to witch-burnings, they’re not quite ready to deny the possibility of witchcraft and consorting with the Devil.

Seaton is the first-person, past-tense narrator of the story and he is a great main character. Destined to be a minister in the Kirk, some event happened that led to his disgrace and he is now back in his home town working as an undermaster in the local school. While his one or two true friends have stood by him, many of the rest of the goodly people of the town treat him almost as a social outcast and his own feelings of guilt have brought him close to despair. The reader doesn’t find out what the event was until well on into the novel, but as Seaton gets involved in the investigation into Patrick Davidson’s death, he begins to feel again that his life may have some purpose beyond his failed calling to the ministry.

Shona MacLean
Shona MacLean

The plot is complex but entirely credible, leading the reader merrily up several false trails along the way. The quality of the writing is excellent and the characterisation throughout is very strong, not just of the main players but of the secondary characters too. And the wide-ranging nature of the plot allows MacLean to show something of the politics and religion of the time without ever resorting to information dump. There’s almost a feeling of a coming-of-age story to it, as the initially fairly naive Seaton begins to learn about some of the undercurrents in this seemingly so respectable society.

The plot and some of the occurrences make this far too strong to be considered a cosy, but it avoids graphic violence and gore, and is mercifully free of foul language and sex scenes. For the non-Scots out there, it’s also free of dialect – standard English throughout but for the very occasional specifically Scottish word, for which a short glossary is included at the back.

An excellent historical crime novel, well up there with the likes of Brother Cadfael, and the joy of it is it’s the first in a series. Highly recommended – the second one has already been added to my TBR.

Book 14
Book 14

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In Another Light by Andrew Greig

in another light 2Timor mortis conturbat me…

🙂 🙂 🙂

After a narrow escape from death as a result of a cyst in his brain, Eddie Mackay is obsessed with thoughts of his own mortality. While lying semi-conscious in hospital, he is ‘visited’ by his long-dead father who seems to want to tell him something. He learns from his mother that his father once had an affair in Penang, back in the late colonial days of the 1930s, and becomes engrossed in trying to find out more about this period of his father’s life. The book takes the form of two stories running in parallel – Eddie’s recuperation from his illness in Stromness on the Orkney Islands and his father’s story as a young doctor in Penang, with the links being provided by Eddie’s slow research into his father’s life. Both strands involve the complicated love affairs of father and son.

The writing is excellent and Greig brings both very different locations to life. The contrasts between the wild, windswept cold of an Orkney winter and the tropical heat and sudden rains of Penang are vivid and beautifully described. Each society is a small, enclosed one – Orkney by virtue of its island remoteness, and Penang where the colonials remain a separate group within the wider population – and each is a place where secrets are hard to keep, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Eddie, as the main focus of the novel, is particularly well drawn as a man struggling to deal with the aftermath of a traumatic experience, and trying to find something to give his life new meaning. Sandy, the father, is a little less well developed, and indeed this is true of most of the other characters, who seem sometimes to be ‘types’ rather than people. The characters in the Penang section in particular are a little too stereotypical, as if drawn from the fiction of the era rather than from life. But the Orkney side of the story works much better, giving a completely credible picture of a small society now expanded by incomers who both conform to and yet impact on the traditions of the place.

Stromness winter by Glenn McNaughton
Stromness winter by Glenn McNaughton

So, much to praise about the book. Unfortunately, I have a total antipathy to literary fiction that, however beautifully written, doesn’t have a decent plot, and I’m afraid this falls into that category. The Penang story is about Sandy’s love affair, and we are pretty much told how that ends before it begins. The Orkney story is about middle-aged Eddie’s sex-affair (to call it a love-affair would be stretching it) with Mica, the half-crazed woman he sleeps with on an occasional basis. The strand about Eddie’s research into his father’s past is rather pointless for the most part and ends with a totally contrived and unbelievable denouement. It feels as if it only exists as an excuse to link the two stories.

Andrew Greig
Andrew Greig

The book might have worked better if it was shorter, but it drags on for 500 pages, much of which is filled with repeated descriptions of the landscape, weather and culture of the two locations. I’m afraid 500 pages of slow-moving, upmarket romance is too much for me, unless it provides some insight into the ever-nebulous ‘human condition’, and I felt this doesn’t particularly. The question of Eddie’s fear of mortality is raised many times, but insufficiently examined to provide any feeling of real depth. As always, it’s a matter of personal taste. I’m hesitant to criticise too harshly because as I’ve said there’s much to admire, and many readers I’m sure will find the parallel romances sufficient to hold their attention, especially given the interesting locations. But for me fine writing, excellent descriptions and good characterisation are only part of what makes for great literary fiction – it must also have either a strong story or a profundity to it, or preferably both, and unfortunately I didn’t find enough of either in this one.

Book 12
Book 12

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The Tender Herb (Murray of Letho 6) by Lexie Conyngham

the tender herb 2Days of Empire…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Charles Murray of Letho is on an extended visit to Italy when his manservant Robbins turns up unexpectedly. Robbins has received a letter from Mary, Murray’s former maid, asking for advice. Mary’s husband has been arrested for murder in Delhi, where his regiment is based, and Mary is convinced of his innocence. When Robbins asks for permission to go to Delhi to help out, Murray decides that he will go along too – partly out of loyalty to Mary, and partly because he is trying to escape from an enthusiastic mother, determined to trap him into marrying her rather dull daughter.

Have you ever had the experience of loving a book all the way through to the last few pages and then suddenly coming upon an ending that changes your entire opinion? I’ve enjoyed all of the Murray of Letho books. Set in early 19th century Scotland, each one has incorporated a decent murder mystery into an excellent account of an aspect of post-Enlightenment society, well researched and well written. This one is set primarily in India, but the India of Empire, so another important aspect of Scottish life at that time, when so many Scots were posted out there as either government officials or soldiers.

As always, Conyngham wears her research lightly – the descriptions of the journey to and then across India are vivid and ring true, but don’t overwhelm the quality of the characterisation, which is perhaps her main strength. The plots are sometimes the weaker part of the books and again that’s the case here – there’s a lot of bumbling around getting nowhere fast, followed by an unnaturally quick denouement. But it’s still strong enough to hold the book together and to give plenty of room for Conyngham to allow her characters to explore this new and rather exotic environment on behalf of the reader. We get a real feel for the difficulties of this huge journey – a long sea voyage followed by weeks of traversing the country on elephant-back with the huge entourage of native servants that was the norm for wealthy travellers in India. And the depiction of Delhi society, as seen through the eyes of the British there, is both interesting and believable.

Red Fort Palace in Delhi - at the time of the book, home to the British Resident.
Red Fort Palace in Delhi – at the time of the book, home to the British Resident.

The books fall between ‘cosy’ and ‘gritty’ – just where I like crime fiction, in fact. The cosier element is around the recurring characters, whom we’ve got to know and care about over the previous books – particularly Murray himself, of course, who’s an intelligent and attractive lead. There’s always a good deal of humour in the books which makes them a particularly enjoyable read, and in this one there’s a lovely romantic sub-plot, as Murray finally meets a young woman who may be his match in every way. The grittier side comes from the murder plot – in this case, the knifing of a clergyman outside the barracks. But it appears that the clergyman, along with many of the other characters, may have had secrets to hide, and there may have been more than one motive for his murder.

So, great descriptions, excellent characterisation, a nice little bit of romance, and a strong enough plot – it was all going so well and heading straight for 5 stars. But – and I accept this is a matter of personal opinion only and annoying since I can’t explain without spoilers – I hated the way it ended, to the extent that I’ve been left unsure as to whether I want to continue with the series now, and that has to be a serious mark against it. All I can say is that everything up to that point had led me to believe it was going to finish one way, which I would have found satisfactory, and then at the last moment the whole thing was turned on its head, and I found the eventual outcome neither desirable nor credible. 4 stars, then, but still with a strong recommendation to read the series, preferably in order from the beginning. And yes, despite my cryptic remarks over the ending of this one, and with just a little hesitation, I’d still recommend it too.

Book 11
Book 11

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Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

waiting for sunrise coverSpies and lies…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When young actor Lysander Rief consults an eminent psychiatrist in pre-WW1 Vienna about a problem, Dr Bensimon introduces him to the concept of parallelism. A technique developed by the good doctor himself, the idea is to identify the event at the root of a problem and then to invent an alternative history of the event, embellishing and repeating it until it feels like a truer memory than the thing that actually happened. And this book feels like an exercise in parallelism itself – a hazy, shimmering story that seems just a little unreal, a little off-kilter. As Lysander gets sucked into the shadowy world of spies and espionage, it all feels like a bit of a game – an adventure. And despite some dark moments, it continues to feel like that all the way through, as if Lysander is playing a role in one of the great spy thrillers of the past. There are scenes that reminded me of The Third Man, with shadowy figures hiding in alleyways, and the characters, with the exception of Lysander himself, feel like representations of fictional ‘types’ rather than real people – the mysterious femme fatale, the traitor, the manipulative spymaster, etc.

“Let’s say that the world is in essence neutral – flat, empty, bereft of meaning and significance. It’s us, our imaginations, that make it vivid, fill it with colour, feeling, purpose and emotion. Once we understand this we can shape our world in any way we want. In theory.”

Lysander’s little problem is of course sexual – this is a Boyd book, after all – arising from an excruciatingly embarrassing (but very funny) episode in his youth. Encouraged by Dr Bensimon, he keeps a journal which forms part of the narrative, allowing the reader to see the world through his eyes. Coincidentally, it’s at Dr Bensimon’s office that he first meets Hettie, the woman who will firstly help cure his problem, and then be instrumental in creating the situation that later forces him into the world of spying. And coincidentally, the man who will be his spymaster also first meets Lysander in the doctor’s waiting room. All of these coincidences, and the many others that follow, are hardly coincidental though. Even Lysander begins to wonder eventually why everyone he meets seems to be something other than they appear at first sight.

the-third-man-1

The book is about deception, self-deception and lies. And that deception extends to the reader too. There are elements of the plot that are almost farcical in their unlikeliness, and dark moments that are glossed over with such subtle humour that sometimes it takes a moment or two to decide just how seriously they should be taken. Looking at reviews of the book tells me some people have taken it completely seriously and are therefore complaining about credibility issues, especially with the ending. And they may be right. But my perception of the whole thing is that it’s a frothy construct, a parallel to the truly dark stories of wartime espionage, something imagined to shape the world in the way that Lysander wants. Having learned from Dr Bensimon how to obliterate unpleasant truths from his mind, it seems to me that the book extends this idea – so, bad things happen but Lysander, and the reader, choose not to dwell on them. It feels as if a false memory is being created as the reader watches, and to a degree the reader has to agree to be complicit in its creation.

Lysander had done his best to answer the questions seriously because he knew that Davison [the director of the play] had gone to Russia a year before, had met Stanislavski and had fallen under the sway of his new theories about acting and drama, and was convinced that all this extraneous material and information that one invented fleshed out the character and bolstered the text. Lysander felt like saying that if Shakespeare had wanted us to know that Angelo was well travelled or suffered from piles he would have dropped in a line or two in the play to that effect.

William Boyd
William Boyd

As always with Boyd, the writing is eminently readable – smooth, flowing, neither forced nor artificial, but with a lovely use of language. There is a lot about sex in the book, but it’s not at all graphic or icky (yes, I still haven’t got those scenes in Birdsong out of my head) – instead it takes the route of gentle mockery, highlighting the more ridiculous side of the act. Lysander is a great character, self-absorbed, self-deceiving, but fundamentally a good guy with a too-trusting nature and a kind of relaxed, go where the wind blows him attitude that makes him a pleasure to spend time with. Boyd is rarely laugh out loud funny, but I love the way he keeps a layer of gentle humour simmering beneath the surface, lightening the tone and keeping the reader slightly off-balance. He’s one of those authors who can be off-form from time to time, but when he’s on form, as he is in this one, there are few writers I enjoy more. Highly recommended.

Book 10
Book 10

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Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

sunset song 2A Scottish lament…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This first volume of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy, A Scots Quair, focuses on the life 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. Sunset Song, written in 1932, is generally considered the strongest book in the trilogy and one of the greatest Scottish novels of the twentieth century. Although it’s written in a form of the dialect of the area, it’s been pretty heavily anglicised so that it keeps the rhythms without being too hard for non-Scots (or modern Scots) to understand. There’s a heavy sprinkling of old Scots words, but also a glossary of them should the meaning not be obvious from the context.

Chris is born the daughter of John Guthrie of Blawearie, a farmer hardened by the lifelong struggle to wrest a living from the land, and Jean, a woman worn down by years of pregnancies and childbirth. John is a harsh father to his sons, demanding hard labour and unquestioning obedience, and exacting cruel physical punishment when angered, while Jean can do nothing but watch passively. But Chris shows signs of academic intelligence, and it is John’s wish, and her own, that she be educated and get away from the land to become a teacher. All this changes when first Jean and then John die, leaving the family broken up and Chris as the inheritor of the farm. Now with the money to leave and make a new life for herself, Chris realises the land is in her blood – she wonders how she could ever have thought to leave it and to take up a career that would deny her the joys of marriage and children.

Agyness Deyn as Chris in the new movie adaptation due out later this year
Agyness Deyn as Chris in the new movie adaptation due out later this year

And so she marries young Ewan Tavendale and together they are content to farm their land, Chris’ happiness enhanced when she bears her first son. But the world is changing and over in Europe war clouds are gathering. And during the four years of fighting, life for Chris and for this entire community will be changed forever.

Chae jumped up when she finished, he said Damn’t, folk, we’ll all have the whimsies if we listen to any more woesome songs! Have none of you a cheerful one? And the folk in the barn laughed at him and shook their heads, it came on Chris how strange was the sadness of Scotland’s singing, made for the sadness of the land and sky in dark autumn evenings, the crying of men and women of the land who had seen their lives and loves sink away in the years, things wept for beside the sheep-ouchts, remembered at night and in twilight. The gladness and kindness had passed, lived and forgotten, it was Scotland of the mist and rain and the crying sea that made the songs.

The book is essentially a lament for the passing of a way of life. Gibbon shows how the war hurried the process along, but he also indicates how change was happening anyway, 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. Although the cruelties and hardships of the old ways are shown to the full, he also portrays the sense of community, of neighbour supporting neighbour when the need arises. And he gives a great feeling of the relative isolation of these communities, far distant from the seat of power and with little interest in anything beyond their own lives. But here too he suggests things are changing, with some of the characters flirting with the new socialist politics of the fledgling Labour Party.

It took me a good third of the book to really find myself involved in the story. It begins with a long introduction to all the characters and a potted history of the area. While there’s some great writing and quite a lot of humour in this section, I found it was trying to cover too much and I didn’t really get a feel for most of the characters – which was a problem that remained throughout the book in fact. The main characters become very well realised, but all the others flit in and out and I never felt fully on top of who they were or how they related to each other. As Chris grows from childhood into young womanhood, there is a major emphasis on her awakening sexuality, with some writing which I feel must have been considered pretty shocking in its time, including allusions to rape and incest.

But suddenly, at the point where Chris finds herself alone and independent, the book turns into something quite wonderful. The story of Chris and Ewan falling in love and marrying is full of emotional truth. This isn’t a great romance – this is two young people setting out to make a life for themselves and their inevitable children, farming the land in continuity with the generations before them and assuming they will hand it on in turn to the next, and making the adjustments that any couple must when the realities of living with another person don’t quite match up to the dream.

Peter Mullan as, I assume, John Guthrie, also from the forthcoming movie
Peter Mullan as, I assume, John Guthrie, also from the forthcoming movie

It lingered at the back of her mind, dark, like a black cat creeping at the back of a hedge, she saw the fluff of its fur or the peek of its eyes, a wild and sinister thing in the sunlight; but you would not look often or see those eyes, how they glared at you. He was going out there, where the sky was a troubled nightmare and the earth shook night and day, into the lands of the coarse French folk, her Ewan, her lad with his dark, dear face and that quick, blithe blush. And suddenly she was filled with a weeping pity in her heart for him, a pity that brought no tears to her eyes, he must never see her shed tears all the time he was with her, he’d go out to the dark, far land with memories of her and Blawearie that were shining and brave and kind.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon
Lewis Grassic Gibbon

And when war begins, Gibbon handles beautifully the gradual change within the community, from feeling completely detached and uninvolved to slowly finding their lives affected in every way. As the men begin to either volunteer or, later, be conscripted into the Army, each character reacts differently but truly to the personality Gibbon has so carefully created for them. Some of the writing is heart-breaking in its emotional intensity but never overloaded with mawkishness or sentimentality. Gibbon touches on questions that must still have been hugely sensitive so soon after one war and with another already looming – conscientious objection and desertion – and asks not for forgiveness for his characters but for understanding and empathy. The ending echoes the beginning, as Gibbon again takes us round the community showing the irrevocable changes wrought by war and modernisation on each family – some winners, some losers, but none unaltered. And as he brings his characters together one last time, 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. Highly recommended, though I should warn you I sobbed solidly through most of the second half…

Book 9
Book 9

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Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

kidnappedMy heart’s in the Highlands…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When young Davie Balfour is left orphaned on the death of his father, he is given a letter that his father left for him and told to take it to one Ebenezer Balfour, Esquire, of Shaws. Dutifully he obeys, only to find that miserly old Ebenezer is his uncle, who is not best pleased at having his nephew foisted upon him, for fear he may discover the family secret. So Ebenezer tricks David into going aboard the brig Covenanter, where he is promptly knocked senseless and carried off to be sold into slavery in the Carolinas. But with the help of a new-found friend, Alan Breck Stewart, David escapes and finds himself wandering the Highlands of Scotland – a dangerous place just a few years after the failed Jacobite rebellion, where clan is set against clan, and supporters of the Pretender are being hunted or victimised by those who support the King. And when David is accidentally caught up in a murder, he finds he too is being hunted. His only hope is to make it safely back to the Lowlands, while Alan Breck must try to escape back to France, where his chief is in exile.

kidnapped tower

Written in 1886, the story is set over a century earlier, in 1752. In reality, it’s mainly an adventure story, but I always find old historical novels interesting because of the double hit – seeing how people of an earlier generation interpreted an even earlier historical period. Stevenson gives us a very unromanticised version of the clans as uncouth hard-drinking, hard fighting men scratching out a subsistence living from the barren wastelands of the Highlands – a good deal more accurate, I’d imagine, than some of the later more idealised versions of the Jacobite story. It surprised me a little though since I thought that, by the time he was writing this book, the romanticisation of the landscape and culture, begun by Sir Walter Scott and encouraged by Queen Victoria’s love affair with the Highlands, was well underway. Stevenson’s depiction conveys none of the wild grandeur we now associate with the mountains and glens and even our heroes are pretty unheroic.

kidnapped shipwreck

However, without over-emphasising it, he does show some sympathy for the hardships the Highlanders were forced to suffer at the hands of a government determined to destroy the clan system to prevent further rebellion. He talks of the banning of the kilt and points up the difficulties this caused to those too poor to acquire other kinds of clothing; he describes the hiding of arms to get round the ban on Highlanders carrying weapons; he shows the severe privations caused to the poor by being expected to support their own chieftains in exile while also paying taxes to the government; and he hints at the depopulation of the landscape through forced mass emigration to the New World – the beginnings of the euphemistically named Highland Clearances. But his hero is a loyal supporter of King George and a true son of the Covenanters, complete with priggish antipathy towards anything that might be considered fun.

kidnapped 4

All of this is entertaining to anyone with an interest in Scottish history, but I feel Stevenson assumes a certain degree of familiarity with the aftermath of the Rebellion that most non-Scottish readers and probably even many modern Scottish readers may not have. And I suspect the result of that may mean that the story feels slow in places as he digresses a little from the action to set the book in its historical and social context. I felt the pacing was uneven overall. There are some great action scenes – the battle aboard the ship, the shipwreck, the flight from the murder scene – but there are also quite lengthy lulls, usually when poor David is taken ill, which happens with great regularity. Again, probably realistic given the circumstances, but not the stuff of which great heroic adventures are normally made. And I found his personality grating – the older David who is narrating the story frequently remarks himself on how self-obsessed and immature his younger self’s behaviour was, and I could only agree. There is some Scots dialect in the dialogue but not enough and not broad enough, I think, to cause problems for non-Scottish readers.

kidnapped 3

The beginning of the book was the best part for me, when David was at sea, and it picked up again towards the end, when they had made it back to civilisation and set out to prove David’s identity. But I found the central section dragged, when David and Alan are wandering interminably around the Highlands, and half the time is spent on David bemoaning the physical hardship he is undergoing or describing his ill-health. And the ending is so abrupt that I actually wondered if a final chapter might be missing from my Kindle edition, but apparently not. Definitely worth reading, but if I was recommending just one novel about the Jacobite rebellion it would still be DK Broster’s The Flight of the Heron – it may be overly romanticised, but it’s also much more fun. And with a far, far better hero in my beloved Ewen Cameron, the Darcy of the Highlands…

Ian McCulloch as Ewen Cameron in the 1960s TV adaptation of The Flight of the Heron.
Ian McCulloch as Ewen Cameron in the 1960s TV adaptation of The Flight of the Heron.
Book 1 of my 20 Books of Summer
Book 5 of my 20 Books of Summer

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Runaway by Peter May

runawayHit the road, Jack…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Jack Mackay is expelled from school, he decides to run away to London. He tells his friends, the other four members of the band he plays in, and they decide to go with him – partly to get away from problems in their own lives, and partly to seek fame and fortune. It’s 1965, and London is swinging – the place to be for all aspiring musicians. But it’s also a place where young people can find themselves manipulated and used, and caught up in events they can’t control. And Jack’s London adventure ends with a killing. Fifty years on, one of the band members, Maurie, now terminally ill with cancer, reveals that the person everyone thought was the killer was innocent, and that he knows who really did it. He persuades Jack and Dave, the two remaining band members still living in Glasgow, to go back with him to London to put things right while there’s still time.

The publicity blurb for the book tells us that parts of the story are based on May’s own experiences of running away to London as a teenager. As with his last few books, this one has a double timeline. The story of the ’60s London trip is told by Jack in the first-person, while the present day section is third person, though still very firmly from Jack’s perspective, and both sections are written in the past tense. Though we know from the beginning that someone is murdered, we don’t know who or why until near the end, so this has more of the feel of thriller than a mystery. We also know that Maurie knows whodunit, so there’s no investigation element. Instead what we have are two linked but very different stories of the characters heading to London, and the gradual revelation of what happened to the boys in the earlier storyline once they got there.

Both timelines have a great feeling of authenticity and, as always with May, the sense of place is done superbly. I hadn’t realised May grew up in the Southside of Glasgow (as did I), but the accuracy with which he describes it suggests he must have done. Although he’s writing about a somewhat earlier era than my own, the places, attitudes, language and lifestyle are all spot-on. Spookily so, in fact – I kept finding parts of my own life mirrored in the story and spent much of the early part of the book being reminded of events and places in my own past.

The Pond in Queen's Park on Glasgow's Southside...
The Pond in Queen’s Park on Glasgow’s Southside…

The two journeys, 50 years apart, allow May to show the changes across the country in that time, and he does so very well. Both journeys take the form of road-trips, punctuated by accident and disaster, but lifted by a healthy dose of humour. Along the way, the boys rescue Maurie’s cousin from her drug-dealing boyfriend and she becomes one of the gang as they finally arrive in London and start looking round for the streets paved with gold. And at first, when they are given lodgings and a job by a man who promises them a chance to cut a demo disc, it looks as though they have landed on their feet. But it’s not long before things go wrong and start to spiral out of control.

The trip undertaken by the older version of the men in the present day is filled with a mixture of nostalgia and humour. It’s through Jack’s reminiscences during this trip that we see the earlier story unfold, and see him reassessing with the eyes of experience the risks to which his younger self laid himself open. Gradually we see how his whole life has been affected by the things that happened back then, with this trip giving him a chance for some kind of resolution and even redemption.

Peter May
Peter May

The one weakness of the book for me was the crime element itself. The murder and motive for it weren’t quite strong enough to justify the lengthy lead-up – in fact, it felt a little as if it had been tacked on to justify the book being classed as a crime novel. The strength of the book is in the relationships between the boys as they face up to the realities of life; and later between the men as they come to terms with the events that had such an impact on each of their lives. The ending felt a little contrived to bring the whole thing to a neat conclusion.

Overall, though, this is an excellent read that convinces me again that May is at his strongest when he’s writing about his own native country – his instinctive feel for the places and people is far more convincing than even his best researched books set elsewhere. But perhaps I’m biased…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

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Interesting little note…

Apparently May and his old friend Stephen Penn have released an album, also entitled Runaway. Sadly there’s no video for the title track on youtube but here is Peter May singing Big Bad Wolf

 

(I don’t do music reviews so shall leave you to judge it for yourself. But you just gotta love the bikini-clad dollybirds! Ah, middle-aged men and their little fantasies – what would we do without them? 😉 )

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The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories by Ian Rankin

The Grand Old Man in shorts…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the beat goes onLast year, after one of his friends died unexpectedly at a young age, Ian Rankin announced that he’d be taking a year or two off from novel writing to have a bit of a rest. I assume this collection of short stories has been issued to fill the void that many of us Rebus fans would have felt without a new book for the winter. And, since I haven’t read any of these before, it filled that void very satisfactorily.

There are 29 stories, ranging in length from a few pages to near-novella, but with most falling into the 20-40 minutes-to-read zone, so perfect bedside table material for late-night reading. There is also an interesting essay at the end where Rankin tells the story of how Rebus came into existence, which gives us some biographical snippets into how Rankin himself became a crime writer.

Normally, when reviewing a short story collection, I find myself commenting on the variable quality of the stories, but I really can’t say that with this one. I found each of the stories, short or long, to be pretty much equally good, and while they obviously don’t have the complexity or depth of the novels, they show all Rankin’s normal talents for plotting and characterisation, and are as well written as the books. In fact, because we know the main characters so well, Rankin doesn’t have to spend much time on developing them, allowing him to pack a lot of story into a compact space. A few of them have a Christmas or New Year theme, I guess because they were originally written for newspaper or magazine Christmas specials. And a couple make reference to stories from great Edinburgh writers of the past – Muriel Spark and Arthur Conan Doyle – giving a glimpse into Rankin’s own influences.

Ian Rankin
Ian Rankin

Each story is entirely consistent with the Rebus we know, but sometimes angled so that we see a new facet of his character, or get a closer look at an old one. They are spread throughout his career, with the first story being the most recently written – a prequel more or less to his latest novel Saints of the Shadow Bible, when Rebus was a new detective learning the ropes – right through to his retirement (which we now know didn’t last long). The bulk, however, are set in the earlier period, so there’s more of Brian Holmes as his sidekick than of Siobhan Clarke, who only came into the series mid-way through. I found this particularly pleasurable since it’s a long time since I’ve read any of the older books and I enjoyed the trip down memory lane with a younger Rebus. I was intrigued to realise that, although I tend to think back on the early Rebus as one of the drunken mavericks of his day who has since mellowed with age, in fact in comparison to a lot of today’s detectives he was actually both functional and professional throughout – clearly it’s the genre that’s shifted, rather than Rebus…or Rankin. I also felt there was more than a touch of William McIlvanney in the earlier stories, but that his influence seemed to fade as they went on, presumably as Rankin developed into his own equally strong style.

The stories include all kinds of mysteries, from shop-lifting to murder, and the occasional one is really more an observation of a particular aspect of Edinburgh life than a crime story. In total, they left me in no doubt that Rankin is just as much a master of the short story as the novel. I found this a completely satisfying collection, and one that I’m sure to dip in and out of many times again.

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Just for fun I tried the newish Whispersync feature for Kindle with this one – that is, that if you buy the Kindle book, you can add the Audible version at a reduced cost (or for ‘free’ if, like me, you have a bunch of Audible credits you haven’t yet used). Technically, it didn’t really sync on the Kindle Fire which was a disappointment – it meant that when switching from reading to listening I was always having to find my place. Not too much of a problem with short stories, but could be tedious in a full-length novel.

James Macpherson
James Macpherson

However, this particular Audible book is superbly narrated by James Macpherson who, you may remember, took over as the lead in Taggart after Mark McManus died. Not only is he an excellent narrator, but his voice and accent are ideally suited for the character of Rebus and as a skilled actor he also creates different personas for all the other many characters who appear in the stories. I thought it was a first rate recording, and thoroughly enjoyed splitting the book between reading and listening. It’s something I would do again – especially for short stories. A good narration can definitely add something to the original. On the audiobook version, too, the essay Rankin on Rebus is narrated by Ian Rankin himself, which made it a little bit extra-special (especially since he has a lovely voice too). I’d happily recommend the book, the audiobook or both to all Rebus fans out there, or even perhaps as an introduction for new readers to the grand old man of Tartan Noir.

Amazon UK Link
Audible on Amazon UK Link
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Audible on Amazon US Link