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Calgary Beach, Isle of Mull. Stunning, isn’t it?  One of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever visited. This experience guaranteed to be one of the highlights of 2014, and a harbinger of the pleasures that followed with the reading of Bhalla Strand.  Sarah Maine’s beach a crossing point between the mainland and a fictional island in the Outer Hebrides, leading to the location of Bhalla House, a crumbling Edwardian mansion, inherited by city-girl Hetty, who has plans to transform it and the island into a luxury holiday resort.

Just before she arrives to scout out her inheritance, however, a body is found beneath the floorboards of the conservatory and the resulting investigation introduces delays during which Hetty faces the locals and their hostility to her plans; a hostility fed by their mistrust of the outsider and a genuine concern for their way of life and the ecology of their island.

These are themes echoed in the historical narrative, the story of Beatrice and her ill-fated marriage to Theo Blake, an artist of some genius, whose descent into madness was documented in his paintings.  The seeds of that illness sown during his early life on the island but sprouting much later, during and after his marriage to Beatrice.  Domestic dramas like this don’t usually rivet me but this had me superglued to the pages.

The antagonisms between Theo and his tenants (those that survived the clearances required to make space for the mansion), his disregard for the wildlife, seeking out rare species of bird, only to shoot and add them to his collection of stuffed animals, his superior and condescending manner to his wife … it’s no wonder Beatrice soon finds herself torn between wifely duty and an overwhelming attraction to a rugged islander and estate groundsman ….

100 years later Hetty finds herself facing similar tensions.  Her business plans are formulated by her boyfriend and his patronising contacts.  Profits, the only driving force and, of course, a risk to the island’s fragile ecosystem.   But the island has defences of its own: the landscape, the tides and a particularly canny, rugged islander in the form of James Cameron.

And so the two narratives weave in and out of each other, held together by the timelessness of the Scottish landscape, echoing themes, emotional authenticity, a gothic mansion and the mystery of the body beneath the floorboards.  A fantastic blend from the palette of this debut author’s pen … As for Sarah Maine’s beach, I wish I could visit.  As for Theo’s Blake’s Bhalla Strand, a painting of that beach on which two wispy figures are fading with the transience of time, someone should paint it.  I want to hang it on my wall.

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© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2014)

Angus Peter Campbell is a Hebridean, born and bred on South Uist. He is a award-winning poet and novelist, who writes both in Gaelic and English.  His most recent novel is the first ever to be published simultaneously in both languages and is set on the island of Mull (though not exclusively). It is woven around a pivotal moment on the ferry from Oban to Mull.

Alasdair crosses Helen’s path on the ferry steps.

“Sorry” I said to her, trying to stand to one side, and she smiled and said, ‘O, don’t worry – I’ll get by.’

Blink and you’d miss it but this moment remains in his head for the rest of his life, as he wonders what might have been if he’d followed through on his instant attraction.  What I found puzzling though is that Alasdair’s life from that moment on isn’t miserable.  He’s not paralysed by the lost opportunity.  His studies are successful, he flourishes when he leaves the island, he marries, and eventually retires to France. Yet there is always a melancholic what if undertone.

Is it the loss of a potentially spectacular love that is being mourned, or the loss of the island lifestyle?

As a young man he plays an active role in the community and he celebrates his friendships.  He becomes a boat-builder’s apprentice and builds a skiff for a middle-age couple who dream of whiling away their retirement on sailing trips.  Life doesn’t turn out that way for them and the boat is left to rot.

Cue diversion – seems that this is the fate of many a boat on Mull.  You could say I went wreck-spotting while there recently.  Here are my top 3 wrecks.

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Flippant as the diversion may be, it’s not irrelevant to a novel that is full of such diversions.  It meanders with stories from Gaelic folklore, celebrations of the Gaelic languages, island tradition and straightforward Scottish humour.

Did you of the Lewis-Man who loved his wife so much he almost told her?

Helen’s story is as important and is told in alternating chapters.  It, too, encompasses loss – most regretfully that of a violin, a family heirloom, stolen at Waverley station.  Yet her life appears more purposeful …

Still 40 years after they first met on the ferry, they meet again and immediately recognise each other. Will this second chance meeting lead to happiness or …. is the path to further loss unavoidable?

I wouldn’t recommend reading this novel for its plot, which at times simply is not credible.  It spans two separate lives over a period of 40 years in just under 200 pages, so perhaps I should say it condenses.  There’s a lot of telling, not showing.  It’s hard to get emotionally involved. And yet, I will remember the beautiful prose describing the island landscape and the honesty of its language and its culture (and the metaphoric rotting boat).

I remember Aamer Hussein once bemoaning the criticism given to the quietness of his novels.  They contain a wealth of emotional drama, he said. The same is true here but the style is far too undramatic for me.

It all started with the publication of Hamish-Haswell Smith’s An Island Odyssey. (See my review on Shiny New Books.) and the irresistible pull of Island 14, Staffa,  the lure of Fingal’s Cave.  Staffa is uninhabited – now – and it is necessary to travel via Mull.  So, one fine sunny weekend in June, bags packed, appropriate reading material excavated from the TBR, where this fine anthology has languished for some 3 years, off we set.

Looking out to the Sound of Mull

It was an inspired choice of reading material.  As the editor Kevin MacNeil says in the prologue “I believe the poetry in this anthology is among the best that the UK has produced since the beginning of the 20th century.  Even the most objective critic will appreciate that a high proportion of the finest and most important poems of recent years have had a connection with one or other of the Scottish isles: Sorley MacLean, George Mackay Brown, Iain Crichton Smith, Edwin Muir, Hugh MacDiarmid.  And although all those “big” names are male, I hope this collection will go some way to remedying that gender imbalance, as it also showcases the strength of the great female island voices, so often underrated.”

Besides balancing gender, this anthology also spans language containing compositions originally written in English, Gaelic and Scots. The Gaelic poems are translated into English, but the Scots ones are not.  This, I thought an oversight, for Scots really isn’t that easy to read. I may have lived in Scotland for 25 years, but I haven’t picked up enough of the vernacular to understand some of the longer poems.  The poems I did understand were delightful and true companions as I meandered my way around just 2 of the 800 Scottish Isles.  They chart island culture and its loss through emigration of the younger generation to the mainland.  They chart the landscape of human emotions as well as the landscape of the islands themselves, and it was this theme that stood out for me during my first trip to the Inner Hebrides.

Islands 

(Myles Campbell – translated from Gaelic)

Islands rise from the sea,
their foundations hidden
in ancient experiences.

Islands are in and out of time,
guides for the wanderer,
or submerged in time long gone.

Some are well established,
high and dark in the flood.
No storm will affect their well-formed front.

Some in lava and sulphurous grief,
sea children of torn heart.
And others, icebergs, coldly moving in the water.

Some will stand silent,
lonely – inwardly as rock –
unassuming in the heat of the day.

And there is an island in the dusk,
assured, dark, and repelling,
its foundations in a fading time.

And this island in the sunset,
island watching another island.
You decide your own form.

These tangible differences between the islands were clearly demonstrated on the trip from Mull to Staffa.

The leafiness of Ulva


The basalt stacks of Little Colonsay 


The Dutchman’s Hat of Bac Mór

 The sight of Bac Mór on the horizon and this poem are now permanently fused in my mind.

Slate, Sea and Sky 

(Norman Bissell)

An island on the rim of world
in that space, between slate, sea and sky
where air and ocean currents
are plays of wild energy
and the light changes everything.

And finally to Staffa, formed by the same slow-cooling volcanic activity as the Giant’s causeway.  Spectacular.  I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

 

Staffa – Entrance to Fingal’s Cave


Staffa – Basalt Columns


Staffa – Hexagonal formations


Staffa – Fingal’s Cave

 

Inspiring.  Certainly something to sing about. If you want to invent a lyric to Mendelssohn’s overture, feel free.

With only 2 weeks to the Glasgow 2014, the eyes of the world will be turning to Scotland, once they’ve finished focusing on Brazil. I decided that in advance of the games, I’d focus on some Scottish books, while at the same time visiting the places involved. – a mini tour if you will, arriving in Glasgow in time for the opening ceremony on the 23rd.  Ready?

First port of call is to visit this chap, Robert The Bruce, King of Scots, astride his steed on the hill at Bannockburn, just outside Stirling.

 

He’s waiting to give the English a hiding – one that the Scots haven’t stopped talking about since 24 June 1314.  (Behave yerself, Sassenach!)

I’m not going to tell how 700 years ago an 8,000 strong Scottish army, armed with 12-foot pikes,

 

saw off an English army of 16,000 plus, including 2500 heavily armoured knights and a quiver or twenty of archers.    There are plenty of sources for those kind of details.  I will recommend the recent BBC 2-part series on The Quest for Bannockburn, currently available on iplayer.

There’s no disputing that the battle of  Bannockburn was a glorious victory for Scotland, one that secured the heroic reputation of The Bruce (as he is known in these parts).  But what about the reality of the man himself?

When Edinburgh publisher Birlinn approached James Robertson to write the text for their recent publication, they asked him for a straightforward retelling of the story in just 2500-3000 words.  The text was to appeal to all ages and would be lavishly illustrated throughout.   Speaking of condensing The Bruce’s story and this complicated period of Scottish history in this way, Robertson spoke of the difficulties writing an unpatronising text, in which there was no space for if, buts, maybes or rationalisations.  It also needed to serve as an interface between legend, myth and fact …

The Bruce and Spider by Jill Calder

… because what do most people outside Scotland know about The Bruce.  The story of  the spider.  Did it happen?   The incident was first narrated by Sir Walter Scott in Tales of A Grandfather, published some 500 years after the event.  So …. 

…. Returning to,facts, what is clear from Robertson’s text is that The Bruce was a man of his time, a 14th century guerilla warlord, ruthless and ambitious, capable of heinous deeds but yet a subtle and clever leader.  His own interests and that of the nation overlapped to propel him into immortality. Those were dark and violent times and Jill Calder’s illustrations reflect that.  Her Bruce is no romantic hero but a dangerous and at times desperate man.

 And yet, in Robertson’s words:

Without his personal ambition and careful planning, Bruce would not have succeeded where another hero, William Wallace had failed. Wallace lit the torch of Scottish liberty; Bruce carried it triumphantly to victory.  In doing so he forged the Scots into a nation.

This book is a fitting testament to this legacy, and, I hope, the first in a series on Scottish history from Birlinn.

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Warning –  Make sure you’re in the mood for cynicism of the deepest, darkest kind before embarking on this read.  More importantly, if you’re coming to this after enjoying Koch’s The Dinner, you will miss the charm. This will take you to places you may find tasteless and revolting ….

…. but, if you’re like me, you will keep reading regardless.

Why?  A fascination with the medical profession, particularly with doctors behaving badly.

The narrator, Marc Schlosser, is a successful GP, a man with no real interest in his celebrity clients, but he knows how to dispense an illusion of professional care. While he may be hiding his boorish, and even misanthropic thoughts from his patients, he’s not afraid of revealing all to the reader.  That includes medical details that maybe you’d rather not know, together with the chilling ease with which a doctor can make a patient cross the thin line between life and death.

So, when his most famous client dies of cancer, and his wife accuses him of murder, the question to be answered is was this a case of medical negligence or something more sinister?

All is revealed as the story of a shared holiday unfolds: a tawdry tale of hedonistic, celebrity lifestyle, moral ambiguity and dubious motives during which the reader’s sympathometer to Schlosser swings ever lower. It’s not until the inevitable tragedy happens to one of his own, that we begin to see a genuine, kinder side to him.

There will be repercussions and it’s very unlikely that the sympathometer will retain a positive reading, given that Koch specialises in the nasty side of human nature.  Schlosser’s voice is relentless and his pretensions and self-delusion grandiose. I did, however, enjoy the irony that came with an eye injury, details of which are not for the squeamish.  The injury temporarily renders Schlosser sightless in one eye, just as he can only half see the perpetrator of the holiday crime.  When his sight is restored, his inner eye reveals the answer.  He has no idea that he has been hoodwinked and that he is about to make the biggest misjudgment of his life …..

This is a deeply unpleasant tale, possibly – no, definitely – not in the best possible taste, but I did enjoy it.  Life isn’t always sunny, not even in a summer house with a swimming pool.

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If the evidence presented by the picture of books read during the last two months is anything to go by, I’ve been busy!

Highlights – May saw me take part on Kim’s Australia and New Zealand Literature month and I travelled to London to attend the IFFP award ceremony.  I haven’t enjoyed myself online as much for ages (#germanlitmonth excepted) as I did during June’s #bookaday event on twitter.  Further adventure as I made a quick trip to the Hebrides both reading wise and in real life.

July will see me blogging about that – in fact, given that the world’s eyes (well, the Commonwealth’s at least) will be turning towards Glasgow (a mere hop, skip and a jump away from my Lanarkshire base), there will follow an impromptu Scottish lit fortnight in the lead up to the Commonwealth Games.  Starting Monday 7th.  Just because ….

July is also Spanish Literature Month (hosted by Richard and Stu) which gives me a bit of a dilemma.  If you’ve seen the Edinburgh International Book Festival programme, you could almost say there’s a mini Spanish lit fest going on.  I’m hoping to attend events featuring Cercas, Laub, Neuman, Vila-Matas and legendary translator Margaret Jull Costa.  So I will be reading plenty of Spanish lit during July, but may not review until after the events in August. We’ll see whether time permits some none #edbookfest reads.. Surely I can slot in a couple of short stories somewhere ….

Time for the final batch of #bookaday nominations.   I really enjoyed myself this month – taking time out to reflect on some favourites and others  not so much so,  instead of constantly chasing to review the next new thing.  #bookaday will continue as #bookadayuk for the foreseeable future and I’ll continue to play on twitter.  See you there?

For now though, let’s complete #bookaday June 2014 in orderly fashion.  Scroll down for previous entries.

June 23 – Made to read at school

That phrase implies something negative and so, here’s the book that tortured me at German A-level.  Call Don Carlos what you will.  I have. Many, many times.

 

Apologies to Schiller.  The companion play in the pictured volume, Mary Stuart, is superb.

 

June 24 – Hooked me into reading

My teachers didn’t always get it wrong and this O-level English literature choice was inspirational.   It showed me just how great the best literature can be and ensured I became a lifelong bookworm.

 

Of course, To Kill A Mockingbird is now banned from the English Literature syllabus, as post-1914 titles must be British. Parochialism rules! Where would we be without the astute wisdom of our politicians?

June 25 – Never finished it

I was surprised at the shame many tweeters felt at not finishing their nomination in this category.  Not me.   9-pages of that Irish novel, Uly-something, was more than enough. 

 

June 26 – Should have sold more copies

Title changes occur between editions to boost sales, and I hear such is mooted for my favourite from Peirene Press.

 

Please, Peirene. Please don’t come up with something as inappropriate as Witch Hunt, the singularly awful and misleading title that was inflicted on the paperback edition of Susan Fletcher’s superb Corrag.

 

June 27 –  Want to be one of the characters

i’m very specific about this.  I want to be Natasha in Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  Her fiancé, Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, has been my literary crush since forever.

June 28 – Bought at my favourite independent bookshop

“Meandering in Marylebone” has become a euphenism for visiting the legendary Daunt’s Books in Marylebone High Street. I never exit that shop with bank balance intact.  Fortunately I live 387 miles away.  This was the purchase I made in May.

 

June 29 – Most reread

English O-level teacher 5 (To Kill A Mockingbird) German A-level teacher 5 (Effi Briest) 

 

June 30 – Would save in a fire

Me, mine and, assuming there’s time, my photograph albums.  My books can be replaced, memories cannot.

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