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Winner of the 2014 CWA International Dagger

Translated from Spanish by Frank Wynne

So there I am at the beginning of July, wondering how on earth I am going to manage to participate in Spanish Literature Month because I’m in the middle of a busy, busy, busy summer, when the CWA announce that this book, which I really, really want to read, has won the 2014 International Dagger.  I have a voucher which means I can get me mitts on it, without breaking the book buying ban (according to Mrs Peabody). I nearly fainted when it dropped through the letter box.  At 561 densely-packed pages, it’s not a quick read but it’s all kinds of everything I like.

I’m really enjoying historical fiction this year and this one pitches me right into the Peninsular War, specifically into Siege of Cadiz of 1811 about which I knew nothing. 561 pages later I know lots: Cadiz’s strategic position, the ineffectiveness of the French bombardment, mainly due to French command insisting on using howitzers and refusing to use mortars, and the intense economic battle, waged primarily at sea.  These were the days of the commercial corsair; mercenary pirates, we’d call them now, I suppose, but, having sailed the seas and braved the dangers of navigating the Bay of Cadiz, I can but be in awe.

Meticulous as the historical detail is (and let it be said, the translation –  I bet Frank Wynne learned English vocabularies he never knew existed), I’m not going to pretend that the research is always invisible. However, it is only the odd paragraph here and there that reads as a history lesson.  And there is repetition – perhaps a tad too much about the technicalities of French ballistics ….

That said, I’d rather read this than a history book, for it is alive.  It pulsates with characters and viewpoints from all social strata, many of them quite unique: a taxidermist French spy, a young French professor turned artillery expert, a corsair dying of tuberculosis, the corsair captain,  Pepe Lobo (I give you his name because he’s – well, you know – a hard man with chinks in his armour), Lolita Palma, a spinster in her 30’s and a shrewd business woman, fighting for the continued viability of the family firm.  (In the end using those in her employ as cruelly as Napoleon his troops.)

In the seam that gave the novel eligibility for the dagger, there’s a murderer who is flaying young girls to death together with the detective who pursues him, Rogelio Tizon.  Now he’s as complex a character as I’m ever likely to encounter, and not one I’d like to meet.  A brutal, violent man, who does not welcome reform (i.e. the abolition of torture as a legitimate tool of police interrogation).  After seeing him interrogate those he suspects, a process he almost enjoys, it’s hard to swallow his outrage at the serial killer.  Yet there is more than an intimation of “a curious intimacy” with the murderer. How else would he detect the pattern of the killings and their relation to the falling French bombs? Only Tirzon would have the mendacity to enlist the enemy into catching the killer, and to ensure that when justice is finally served, it is chilling ….

It may not be the fastest paced thriller in the world – in fact, given that the climax doesn’t relate to the crime at all, it could be argued that the criminal thread is secondary to the historical. The Siege is nonetheless an absorbing, magnificent adventure from start to finish.  

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At this juncture I should rush off to read Pérez-Reverte’s backlist but consensus is that this is his finest novel to date.  Apparently though, if I enjoyed this, I’ll enjoy Dumas and Stevenson. Well, I love Stevenson but have never read Dumas.  Where should I start?

© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2014)

A special post today.  It is my 900th after all, and posted on the day the Commonwealth turns its eyes to Glasgow, a mere 26 miles from my home.  Just in case you’re like me with a zero interest in sport, or you’re in Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games and need a change of activity, here’s an alternative guide to the city and its environs.  

A is for art, architecture and Ayewrite (Glasgow’s Literary Festival).

B is for the Burrell Collection. A fabulous museum donated to the city by Sir William Burrell.  The Degas paintings and the medieval tapestries are exquisite.

C is for the River Clyde – not the prettiest of rivers but the waterway that enabled Glasgow to grow rich in days gone by.

The Doulton Fountain

D is for the Doulton Fountain, an ornate reminder of the city’s Victorian heyday and that

E is for Empire. Glasgow was once known as the second city of the Empire. The 19th century population was double that of today.

F is for the Finneston Crane – a giant disused cantilever crane to that stands testimony to Glagow’s great engineering heritage.

G is for Glasgow, From the Gaelic Glaschu meaning dear, green place, hence Glasgow Green, a huge green space, right in the city centre on the banks of the Clyde; George Square, the formal centrepiece of the city centre.

H is for the Hunterian, the oldest museum in Scotland.  The art gallery houses an impressive collection of Whistlers (including his mother) and this Chardin, which I have been known to stare at for hours.  The rising steam fascinates me.

I is for Ingram Street, the place for upmarket shoppers. For more suggestions, see S.

J is for Jamaica Street, its name a reminder of the sugar cane, tobacco and slave trading past.

K is for Kelvingrove Museum.  Another fantastic municipal collection ranging from stuffed animals, a fully operational organ from 1901 (time your visit to coincide with the free recital), and a comprehensive display of paintings by The Glasgow Boys.  Pride of place belongs to Dali’s Crucifixion.  This museum also houses a fine selection of furniture designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. My favourite exhibit pictured below.

Kelvingrove’s Hanging Heads

 

However, if you prefer plants to historical artifacts, visit the Kibble Palace in the Botanic Gardens.

L is for Laidlaw – William McIllvanney’s fictional detective, the sire of tartan noir.

M is for Charles Rennie Mackintosh, arguably Glasgow’s most famous son.  Tragically the library at the Glasgow School of Art was lost to a fire earlier this year but there are plenty of other Mackintosh sites to visit.  (Hill House in Helensborough, the Mackintosh House at the Hunterian, Scotland Street School to name just three.)

 

The Hill House (technically not in Glasgow but so worth the 40 minute train ride ) 

M is also for Madeleine Smitha Victorian socialite sensationally tried for murder by arsenic poisoning  in 1857.  (Every Victorian city must have an arsenic murder!) Her case one which inspired Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison (1930).

N is for the Necropolis, situated beside Glasgow Cathedral – a Victorian graveyard, Glasgow’s answer to Highgate Cemetery in London.

O is for Oran Mor – a former church, now night club and restaurant complex, stunningly decorated by Glaswegian author and painter, Alasdair Gray.

P is for the People’s Palace, situated on Glasgow which tells the story of the people and city of Glasgow from 1750 to the end of the 20th century, with particular emphasis on the socialism of the working classes.

Q as in IQ – needed if you’re ever to work out the Glasgow bus route map!

R is for rejuvenation.  Glasgow is a city seeking to do just that and was planning to demonstrate rejuvenation in action during the opening ceremony, by demolishing two huge blocks of flats on Red Road.  Fortunately sanity has prevailed and that idea has – er – bit the dust.

Argyll Arcade

S is for shopping.  You can spend lots of money in Glasgow. Buchanan Street, Sauciehall Street, Argyle Street, Ingram Street in the Merchant City.  Take your pick and pick your budget!   If you are seeking jewellery, go to the  Argyll Arcade, Scotland’s oldest covered mall. My favourite place is Princes Square just off Buchanan Street.

T is for tenement.  Traditional Glaswegian housing.  You can visit an original tenement flat, preserved by the National Trust of Scotland.  The modesty of these dwellings contrasts starkly with the Victorian splendour displayed in the public buildings of Alexander Thomson.  T is also for traffic cone – walk by the Gallery of Modern Art to find a traffic cone, where you never thought to see one!  By the way, the building was originally the townhouse of wealthy tobacco lord, William Cunninghame.

These cones get everywhere!

U is for the Ubiquitous Chip, arguably the best named restaurant in Europe and another decor executed by Alasdair Gray.

V is for Voltaire and Rousseau, the legendary secondhand bookshop named after its owner’s cats.  The most idiosyncratic bookshop you will ever visit.  Words cannot describe it.  Perhaps these pictures can.

W is for the Willow Tea Rooms.  You must have tea with Miss Cranston in the teashop designed and decorated by Rennie Macintosh.  Though if you prefer something stronger, why not try the local whiskey, distilled by White and MacKay.

X, Y, Z – Three wildcards, which I will use to highlight my 3 favourite places in the city.

3 IMO the best champagne afternoon tea is to be had at The Butterfly and Pig on Bath Street.

 

Crockery at the Butterfly and Pig

 

2 The Mitchell Library.  I’ve written many words about this – for obvious reasons.

1 The West brewery on Glasgow Green.  All beers brewed to the requirements of the German purity laws and a Jägerschnitzel to die for!  

 

 

Source materials: 

a) Personal meanderings and pitstops

b) Glasgow and Edinburgh – Robert Crawford (ISBN 978-0-674-04881) p 179-316

c) Look Up Glasgow – Adrian Searle and David Barbour (ISBN 978-1-908754219) / Look Up Glasgow Pocket Guide (ISBN 978-1-908754-76-9)

 © Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2014)

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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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