Category Archives: Scotland

COLD EARTH by Ann Cleeves …2016

This is the seventh cold-earthbook in Ann Cleeves’ delightful Shetland series featuring the dogged detecting skills of Jimmy Perez. I have been a fan of this series since the first book RAVEN BLACK appeared in 2007 and in some ways this book provides some closure from the first book.  Magnus Tait, a lonely old man and a suspect in RAVEN BLACK is being buried in the first few pages. We learn that in the intervening years, he had developed some friendships and his last years were not as lonely. It is during his funeral that a landslide sweeps through the cemetery and a nearby croft and exposes the body of a well dressed lady. It is determined that she was murdered before the landslide so Jimmy Perez calls Chief Inspector Willow Reeves to head the investigation. This is a character that has appeared in the last few books and, up until this book, I never cared for her much. I found her irritating and also wrong a lot of the time but in this entry she seems more reasonable (but I don’t think she is a good match for Jimmy.)  Jimmy is still grieving for his murdered girlfriend but he is at least open to the idea of a relationship.  Well…he is…then he isn’t…then he is….you get the idea.

Sandy Wilson is another character that has been along since the first book . The once raw  recruit has grown and is now a thoughtful contributor to the team. He is also in love and I wouldn’t be surprised if marriage is in his future.

In recent years this book series has been made into a television series – simply called SHETLAND.  I have only just recently had a chance to see it and it is well worth watching just for the spectacular scenery.  I love Douglas Henshall but I think he was miscast a Jimmy Perez.  Jimmy had a shipwrecked Spaniard in his family tree and is always described as dark and Spanish looking.

I love these books because Cleeves does a wonderful job of describing life on the Islands. This book does a great job of describing the contradictions of privacy – the homes can be miles apart with vast expanses of land in between yet there is that small town element where everybody knows your business. Private but no privacy.

Good addition to a fabulous series.

***  After the third book this was called a trilogy – after the fourth book it was called a quartet – now it is just called a series.  I mention this because in recent years I just fell in love will Peter May’s BLACK HOUSE TRILOGY….LOVED IT so I just want to remind Peter that there is no reason you have to stop a three just because you once called it a trilogy.***

COLD EARTH by Ann Cleeves   2016   Macmillon


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Filed under book review, book reviews, books, General fiction, mystery fiction, Scotland, Scottish Island Fiction

HIS BLOODY PROJECT by Graeme Macrae Burnet (2015)



This novel was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2016 and, although it didn’t win, the nomination will give the novel oodles of exposure. It’s a historical thriller that is a little difficult to categorize but the author himself has said it’s “a novel about a crime rather than a crime novel” That sounds right. The multiple perspective format allows the reader to almost be the detective; taking in the information and sifting through the often contradictory evidence.

This is not a whodunnit since we learn almost immediately that the protagonist -a youth by the name of  Roderick Macrae – had readily admitted to the killing of three people in his Scottish Highland crofting community in 1869. But why? Roddy’s advocate (lawyer) tasks him with writing an account of his life and the circumstances proceeding  the murders along with details of the actual killings.  The resulting narrative is a grim and gloomy representation of a life saturated with hopelessness where the churchy types embrace providence -” it is the will of God”- sort of thinking.  The death of his mother and then the wrath of a bully-man add further darkness to an already bleak existence.

Roddy’s personal narrative accounts for over half of the novel but there are other perspectives to consider. The reader is privy to the court proceedings, newspaper stories, medical and coroner’s report, character assessments, and other cronicles. An expert on lunacy examines Roddy and gives testimony that might have been darkly funny if it hadn’t been so disturbing.

Of course nothing is straight forward…and that is the point, I think.  Extenuating circumstances — maybe —maybe not!

I found this to be a fascinating and rewarding novel.

HIS BLOODY PROJECT Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae… by Graeme Macrae Burnet   Contraband Publishing (2015) 288 pages

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THE ISLAND HARP by Jeanne Williams…..(St. Martin’s Press, 1991)

Scottish Island Fictionisland harp

The year is 1844 and Mairi and her family live a simple but satisfying life on the Island of Lewis in the Hebrides. They raise sheep, weave their tweed fabrics, farm, fish, and send their young men to fight in the English Queen’s army; all this to ensure their rents are paid to the factor and that they may remain on the land. But sheep are a more profitable use of the land than humans so they are deceived and men are sent to turn-out the villagers and burn their homes and processions. Mairi’s beloved grandfather is killed during this attack, although his prized harp is rescued.  The villagers are still dazed by what has happened when an Englishman, who has been renting a nearby estate, stumbles upon them and offers some temporary shelter. It is during this time of “the clearances” that many islanders will immigrate to North America or Australia but Mairi is determined to remain on the land of her ancestors.

Now allow me this awkward digression while I reminisce about a 60’s American tv show called “Green Acres” and trust me that I will eventually make a point about this. This is a very basic outline——-In this comedy sitcom, a successful Park Avenue lawyer leaves city life behind and purchases a farm (a fixer-upper in the extreme) and moves there with his socialite wife. On many occasions throughout the show, people ask this fellow (Mr. Douglas) why he chose to become a farmer. And he answers them. He usually delves into a speech about the farmers being the backbone of the country …. and ancestors turning to the earth……planting small seeds in the ground and watching plants shoot  into the air…..growing food and breathing fresh air…..and blah blah blah. During these speeches, the audience can hear a fife in the background playing a patriotic tune—usually Yankee Doodle or something.  Now here is where I make my connection, you see Mairi liked to give these impassioned speeches about her ancestors living on this land…the land and the music are a part of her….in her veins and body….and the unfairness of the English taking their land…and so on, and so on.  At this point I probably should have heard bag pipes or something in my head, but noooo—I had Pocahontas singing away. Weird right!  You think you own whatever land you land on, The earth is just a dead thing you can claim, But I know every rock and tree and creature, Has a life, has a spirit, has a name.  You think the only people who are people, are the people who look and think like you…..”Colors of the Wind”
 Mairi gives alot of speeches and the reader is privy to her thoughts. Yeah so I spent a great deal of this book with Pocahonas singing in my head. It was like “don’t think of pink elephants” if you catch my meaning. I must say that “Colors of the Wind” is appropriate.

The Islanders have to deal with nonhuman problems as well –the potato famine, harsh weather, and angry seas. There is more to Mairi’s story but I don’t want to get into spoiler territory. I read some reviews before I read this book and some people found Mairi a little too headstrong but I liked her and I liked the book. Oh and there is a love story as well.

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February 6, 2015 · 12:39 am

World War One Fiction set on Scottish Islands.

LETTERS FROM SKYE… Jessica Brockmole (Ballantine books, 2013) Wonderful novel told entirely through letters (epistolary style) encouraging comparisons to THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL SOCIETY…by Mary Ann Shaffer.  In the  Spring of 1912 an American college student is lying in bed recovering from a dorm prank gone wrong. A friend gives him a small volume of poetry. On a whim he sends the author (Elspeth) a fan letter, and she replies from her home on the Scottish Island of Skye.  They correspond  back and forth, sharing their dreams and disappointments. I have reviewed this book in greater detail in an earlier posting but I will say that the plot takes them through World War One and beyond. There is also a second narrative involving Elspeth’s daughter and a World War 2 romance. I loved this novel!

THE ROAD DANCE……by John MacKay (Luath Press, 2002). The road dance in the title was an event held to say good-bye to the first boys to leave the Island (Lewis)  for WWI. The author is a Scottish journalist/tv personality who spent his childhood summers on Lewis with his Grandmother. The book is published by a Scottish independent publisher but please do NOT read the back cover…all the major plot points are revealed in the blurb on the back cover. This book is beautifully written and very sad. A quote….”Sending their young men off to war had been a sad ritual for so long for the people of the island, and the dust of many of these boys blew across the historic battlefields of Europe and beyond. Yet again the King had called from far away, and the young bloods had rallied to the cry. And when the steel had clashed and the guns had roared and the victory had been won, those who were left would return home and be forgotten again. The Islanders knew this and yet they always marched.  It was God’s will some said” (page 71)  I have reviewed this book with more detail in a past post.

The sinking of the Iolaire was mentioned in  Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy ( sorry but I can’t remember which book) but one of the characters discovers that he is related to the Iolaire hero and it has a profound effect on his life.


letterroad dance

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Filed under book review, books, historical fiction, Scotland, Scottish Island Fiction, world war 1

Scottish Islands during World War 1

IolaireI am drawn to novels set on Scottish Islands; for years now I have tried  to get my hands on any and every novel featuring a Scottish Island setting.  Skye, Orkney, Lewis and Harris, Iona, Shetland, Barra,—well it could be a long list because there are over 90 inhabited Islands (although in some  cases the population may consist of a single caretaker or family). Of course two famous writers (Ann Cleeves and Peter May) have made it easier, each by setting a series on a Scottish Island.   I have reviewed many of these novels in greater detail in past blogs (and explained some of the reasons why they attracted me).

And….I have been presenting an overview of some  impressive World War 1 novels in my past few blogs and now I am going to continue with the war theme and add the Scottish Island theme. I hope my next few blogs might offer some choices and possibilities to readers who enjoy this type of fiction.

I have stated that my main interest is fiction–well this blog is about fiction—BUT right now, in this posting, I am going to indulge in some NON-fiction. I think the narrative I am about to present will give the reader some perspective with respect to the Islanders’ involvement in World War 1.  So I will break with form to tell…..

The Heartbreaking and True story of the HMY Iolaire,

The young men of Isle of Lewis had a long record of coming to the aid of king and country, and true to form, during World War One, Lewis contributed 6,200 servicemen to the cause, and that  from a population of 30,000.  When the  guns  went  quiet after the armistice had been signed….1,000 Lewis men had succumbed to the war. One thousand young men would never come home.  Six weeks after the armistice, Lewis servicemen (survivors of a hell on earth), were still being demobbed and preparing to return home to their Island . On New Years Eve, 9:30 p.m., the HMY Iolaire (Gaelic for Eagle) left the Kyle of Lochalsh and  set sail for Stornaway Harbour on the Isle of Lewis. These men had survived the obscenities of war….and they were going home. Families on Lewis were preparing to have their sons/fathers/brothers/cousins/husbands/sweethearts home for the new year. The ship had a maximum capacity for 100 persons yet 280 men were onboard that night. Just outside Stornaway harbour, the Iolaire hit a rocky outcropping known as “The Beasts of Holm” These rocks had long been known as challenging to navigate (even in daylight with a familiar crew….and even today). On January 1, 1919 the Iolaire sank. Many men drowned immediately with their heavy boots and full uniforms weighing them down and others were able to hang on to the masts for hours. Of the seven men gripping the masts, only one was able to hold on until rescued. And there was a hero……  A man named John F. McLeod managed to swim ashore with a rope. He secured it to a rock on the shore and it is believed that 40 men were saved by using this life line.  In the final count 205 men of the 280 onboard perished in the sea that night…….174 Lewis men,  7 Harris men and the rest were crew.  The entire Island was in mourning.

The first time I heard this story it was like a kick in the gut. They survived the war, only to die within sight of their home.

My next blog will feature Scottish Island fiction set during the First World War. I hope my readers can understand why I chose to  reveal this true story before I began the next stage of my WWI fiction blogs.








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Filed under book review, books, historical fiction, non fiction, Scotland, Scottish Island Fiction, world war 1

“Naming The Bones” …… by Louise Welsh (2010, HarperCollins )

naming the bonesMore Scottish Island Fiction

I would like to begin by presenting a quote that appears on the inside flap of this novel.

“Dr. Murray Watson is a disenchanted academic whose research is going nowhere, a lover of poetry and a failure in love, a drinker with a problematic personal life.  The object of his study is Archie Lunan, a young poet, the brightest of his generations, whose death thirty years prior is shrouded in mystery.” (from inside flap).

This particular description did not have me chomping at the bit to read this book.  I read several reviews because I really wanted to want to read this book but so many of them pointed out that his book would really appeal to academic types who would find the conflicts and politics very familiar. Not me again (I barely got through my undergraduate degree maybe 35 years ago but I was never cut out for higher academics.)  I have friends and even a brother who is a lecturing PhD. so I am aware of the “publish or perish” pressure but I was still  not convinced that I wanted to read this book.  In the end it was the mystery surrounding the death of the poet that intrigued me enough to read this book.  I sincerely think it peaked my interest because it sounds so similar to the mystery surrounding a famous Canadian painter named Tom Thomson.  I will explain more about Tom Thomson near the end of this post.

I will admit that this novel really picked up for me when Dr. Watson made the trip to the Scottish Island of Lismore (a real Island) in an attempt to unravel the puzzle of Lunan’s death.  I found it much more interesting at this point and in the end I felt it was a satisfying read.

Tom Thomson; I am Canadian and I am familiar with the story of Tom Thomson (August  1877-July 8, 1917)but it is almost impossible for me to gauge how well-known his story is outside of Canada. But here goes….Tom Thomson was a painter who  was renowned for his nature studies in oils. He was heavily influenced by a group of painters who  would become know as “The Group of Seven” but he was never a member since he died before the group was officially formed.  In 2009 a Thomson painting sold for 2.75 million cd dollars making Thomson one of that vast group of painters whose real financial success came after his death.  He spent most of his last years living in a cabin in Algonquin park where he painted year round.  I should explain at this point that Algonquin park is a huge provincial park; over 2,400 lakes and 1,200 kilometers of streams, it is about 1/4 the size of Belgium.  One day Tom went fishing but he didn’t come back.  His body was found eight days later with fishing line wrapped around his ankles. The official cause of death was accidental drowning.  But since his death almost 100 years ago there have been no shortage of researchers and journalists who have vowed to discover “the truth’ .  And so, depending on what you chose to read or believe, Tom’s death was a murder, a suicide or an accident and there may or may not have been a pregnant young lady involved.  Also his body may or may not have been moved from its original grave. Still a mystery

I am afraid that I have written more about Tom Thomson then I have about the book but hey I did warn you that the book made me think of Tom Thomson.

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EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY…. by Linda Gillard (Transita 2005)

emotionA continuation of my series featuring novels that are set on Islands in Scotland.  In my last 5 blogs I introduced novels of murder, mystery and suspense  and  I have discussed how the barren landscape, isolation, unpredictable weather and insider/outsider mentality can be used by the authors to heighten the suspense in these novels.  In my next two entries I will introduce novels with themes involving mental health issues and how the Islands (especially the isolation) motivate the characters and contribute to the plot.

The primary character in “Emotional Geology” is a woman named Rose. She has had at least one suicide attempt, she has been institutionalized, and she has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She is also obsessed with her ex-lover despite having had no contact with him for five years.  She makes the decision to buy a house on a particularly isolated area on the Isle of North Uist.  Her plan is to avoid people, enjoy nature, and get to work on her beloved art. She has hopes that she will be able to reduce her medications in order to regain some of her creativity.

She writes in a letter to her daughter  “the locals have been kindness itself..” p.5 and one particular kind  local may be a whole different sort of problem…or not.  Culum is a single school teacher with his own set of baggage.

It is definitely not all clear sailing.

Rose’s story is told straight — no apologizing. A worthy read.


Filed under book review, book reviews, General fiction, Scotland, Scottish Island Fiction