Category Archives: Scottish Island Fiction

NONE BUT THE DEAD by Lin Anderson (2016)

Scottish Island Fiction

none

Scottish islands – or really any islands – can provide the ideal setting for a murder/mystery/thriller novel, the remoteness and inaccessibility adding excitement and uncertainty to the overall suspense.  A brilliant storm can disconnect island inhabitants from the outside world by severing communication and prohibiting sea and air travel.  The local law enforcement officials may be dealing with a crisis, but sorry, reinforcements can’t reach you.  And, of course, they’re trapped on an island with the villain.  It is really sort of ideal in a world where just about everybody has a cell phone and are therefore “connected” at all times.  In most contemporary suspense novels there is usually a point in the climax where the protagonist is trying to elude some evil doer – they look  at their phone and – “oh no, no bars” or “damn, I forgot to charge it”, –  but someday we’ll have self-charging phones and network service everywhere.  What are writers going to do then?  Islands!  Yeah, just kidding.

NONE BUT THE DEAD is set on the island of Sanday – a real island in the Scottish Orkney Islands.  This novel gives mention to many historical landmarks that actually exist on this island.  I have read many books where the author has chosen to invent an island to provide a backdrop for evil, murder, and mayhem but this one is quite authentic.  

This is the twelve book in the “Rhona Macleod forensic scientist” series and I’ll admit right now that this is the first entry I have read.  Most of the series is set in Glasgow but the team is sent to Sanday when a construction project uncovers bones.  The owner of the project is converting an old schoolhouse into a home and he also finds strange fabric flowers in the attic.  The local historian takes one look at one of the flowers and becomes extremely distressed.  Vandalism at the dig site makes it apparent that someone doesn’t want the authorities digging into the past.  The police are already overwhelmed, but then a young girl goes missing and a huge storm hits the island.

The Orkney Islands (like the Shetland Islands) are north of Scotland and have a greater Scandinavian influence than the Hebrides.  The location made Sanday a good location for a military outpost during World War ll: the remains of the outpost figure in the story.

This novel has all the elements that make Scottish Island mysteries so effective and I was not disappointed.  The characters were fine but I wasn’t enthralled enough to be tempted by previous volumes.  There was also one coincidence in this novel that I found a little farfetched, but it is an excellent mystery/thriller especially for fans of Scottish Island books.

NONE BUT THE DEAD by Lin Anderson (2016), MacMillan, 419 pages

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THE SINGING SANDS by Josephine Tey (1952)

Scottish Island Fiction     Mystery Fiction

singing sands

This is Josephine Tey’s last novel, discovered in her papers after her death, and published posthumously.  She is probably better know for her 1951 novel THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, a  book that has graced a number of top ten mystery novel lists in the past sixty-five years not to mention some required reading lists for college courses (a friend of mine took such a course).  I read that novel over thirty years ago and, although I don’t agree with all the conclusions set forth in that book, I think it did open my eyes to the way history is recorded.

 But back to THE SINGING SANDS.  This is the oldest book I’ve included in my “Scottish Island” series but I think it has a lot to offer to anyone who enjoys reading novels about Scottish Islands.  Only part of the book takes place on the fictional island of Cladda but the character has  lots to say about the effects of visiting the Island.  

The novel opens with Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard enduring the overnight train ride to the Scottish Highlands.  I say “enduring” because Inspector Grant is suffering from  nervous disorders, including claustrophobia, and the small, enclosed sleeper car is agonizing for him.  He departs from the train, after a sleepless night, only to catch the porter trying to wake another passenger;  it’s not going to happen – the man is dead.  Later Grant realizes that he has somehow obtained a newspaper belonging to the dead man and it has a wee poem scribbled in the margins. The poem intrigues him  – so much so that he begins to obsess about it when he is supposed to be enjoying rest and relaxation with his cousin’s family.  The poem leads him im many directions as he tries to discover more about the dead man on the train.

The mystery is intriguing but there are other angles of this book that are also interesting.  Mental health issues are served up 1951 style.  He is on sabatical on the orders of his physician yet it is actually painful when he berates himself for being so “weak.”  His boss is not a supportive man but fortunately his family are quite supportive.

He spends some time on a Scottish Island and fans of these islands will enjoy his reaction to his temporary residence. That’s all I will say.

An excellent novel- even after 65 years.

The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey, 1952, Random House, 246 pages

Post Script

I need to quickly add something because I forgot to include Inspector Grant’s theory on vanity;  “Vanity.  The first requisite in wrong doing.  The constant factor in the criminal mind.” p. 195

“When you say vanity, you are thinking of the kind that admires itself in mirrors and buys things to deck itself out in.  But that is merely personal conceit.  Real vanity is quite different.  A matter not of person but of personality.  Vanity says “I must have this because I am me”.  It is a frightening thing because it is incurable.  You can never convince Vanity that anyone else is of the slightest importance; he just doesn’t understand what you are talking about.  He will kill a person rather than be put to the inconvenience of doing a six months’ stretch”. p.200

Vanity – an interesting perspective.

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THE HOUSE BETWEEN THE TIDES … by Sarah Maine (2016) Originally published as BHALLA STRAND (2014)

 

house tidesbhalla strand

Scottish Island Fiction

I am always looking for new books to read especially if they fall under the category of Scottish Island fiction – a  favoured topic  I’ve been pursuing for many years.  Recently a  review of THE HOUSE BETWEEN THE TIDES caught my attention because it has all the elements I enjoy in my preferred  novels but there was something strangely familiar about it.  As it turns out I had read this book a couple of years ago under its previous title – BHALLA STRAND.  I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t written about it back then but I decided to give it a reread.  My library only had a copy of BHALLA STRAND but the author says on her website that they’re the same book.  A quick gander at some reviews informed me that she changed the name of the house from Bhalla House to Muirlan House in its latest incarnation, but I will say Bhalla House because that is the name of the manor in the copy I now physically hold in my hands.

This is a dual narrative novel with Bhalla House, on an Outer Hebridean Island, being the  link between the two stories.  In the modern account (2010), Hetty has just buried her last living relative – her Grandmother – and subsequently finds herself the owner of an old estate on a sparsely populated Scottish Island.  She is bombarded with advice but most of her counsel is provided by individuals with self-serving interests.  One group – led by her sometime boyfriend – has ideas of making Bhalla House a hotel and playground for the very rich.  Another interested party has warned her that the estate is far too dilapidated to save.  Oh yes, there is a little matter of the skeletal remains found in the foundation.  She is confused by the conflicting advice but she arranges to visit the island and do some research of her own.

In 1910, a newly married Theo Blake, a renowned artist, is bringing his bride to Bhalla house for the first time. He sees his much younger wife as a delicate creature and he is afraid that she won’t love the island and the house as much as he does.  On the contrary, she adores the island; the wildlife, the clean air, the beauty, the ocean and natural plant life.  But the house she finds damp and gloomy and Theo won’t hear of her plans to brighten it up with paint.  It is also filled with dead things (stuffed and mounted but dead)  There are grievances still simmering among the Island people, many of them were cleared out of their homes by Theo’s father in another generation, so he could build Bhalla house.  During the summer, Theo and Beatrice entertain several groups of guests: mostly hunting enthusiast with bored wives.  Many of the birds shot or collected are endangered and this infuriates the factor’s son and it is a source of more tensions.  These underlying tensions and unexpected alliances prove to have consequences that will still be significant in Hetty’s time.

Hetty comes across as someone who is easily manipulated – at first.  But she grows. She is still young and she is without a single family member to support her ( a tough spot to be in )

The concern for the birds really caught my interest.  At one point Beatrice was attempting to keep Theo from finding out about a pair of divers setting up a nest on an island loch, before he could stuff and mount them.  I did a wee bit of research and I  discovered the divers are the same bird a Canada’s loons.  We love our loons (we even put them on our money) and their call truly is haunting. This is just me learning something. Yeh.

I enjoyed both the storylines and I found Maine’s descriptions of the Island  captured the untamed beauty splendidly.  Giving a house such a central role isn’t new (Thornfield Hall, Manderley, Tara, ) but it works.   This novel has mystery suspense, romance in a beautiful setting – a lovely novel.

Now I must explain why I didn’t write about this book when I first read it a few years ago because I do remember now.  I read three books, around the same time, that were set on Scottish Islands. All three books involved turning an old estate into a holiday home of some sort.  And (here’s the big one) all three books began with the discovery of human remains on the property.  But I can see, with hindsight, that despite those similarities they were all unique stories.*

See also *

THE SEA HOUSE  by Elizabeth Gifford (2013)

NIGHT WAKING by Sara Ross (2011)

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THE SEA DETECTIVE by Mark Douglas-Home (2015)

Scottish Crime Fiction

Scottish Island Fiction

This novel has so many of the elements that I love in a book that I was almost certain I was going to love it before I had even read a single page: I wasn’t disappointed. The main character is an oceanographer, working out of Edinburgh,  named Cal McGill who has pioneered a program for using ocean currents, weather records, shipping documents, archives, wind speeds and a host of other information to explain the physical origin of items (or bodies and body parts) washing up on a shore. Where did the journey begin? He is also an eco-warrior attempting to bring attention to global warming and  a loner who uses a bunch of anonymous beachcombers to feed him information.

Cal’s interest in the ocean was kindled in his youth when he discovered his grandfather had died during World War ll, after being washed overboard during a mission. He has an over-riding interest in discovering all the facts regarding this event.  The small Scottish Island that had been home to this branch of his family for generations was abandoned after the war and many pieces of this puzzle just do not fit.  This is my favourite plot line because I adore stories involving Scottish Islands.  Peter May’s BLACK HOUSE trilogy is tremendous and I recommend it to any fans of this novel.

There is also a subplot featuring a young Indian girl exploited by a prostitution/pedophile ring. A third subplot revolves around the mystery of shoe clad feet coming ashore in strangely diverse locations.

.There is a secondary character – a policewoman named Helen Jamieson- and I hope I see her in future installments. Oh yes, there are already two more installments in this series…yippee.

So here it is in a nutshell.. a crime mystery, an interesting protagonist, and a Scottish Island. What is there not to love?

Published by Penguin Random House

383 Pages

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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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CLOSED DOORS …by Lisa O’Donnell (2013)

closed doors

SCOTTISH ISLAND FICTION

Whoever gossips to you will also gossip about you… Spanish Proverb

A secret is a kind of promise…it can also be a prison…Jennifer Lee Carrell

Shame is a soul eating emotion…C.Jung

Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead…Benjamin Franklin

While you were judging others, you left your closet open and a bunch of skeletons fell out…Unknown

Guilt is one side of a nasty triangle; the other two are shame and stigma. This grim coalition combines to inculpate women themselves of the crimes committed against them…Germain Greer

Gossip, rumour, secrets and judgements are a part of life in this community on the Island of Rothesay in  Scotland during the 1980’s. Michael is a twelve-year-old boy who is just starting to understand the whispers and giggles when his Grandma and Ma  exchange information in the kitchen. He knows it’s about other people but he is also picking up on some of things that are said – even if he occasionally needs to check out some of the words in the dictionary.  His neighbour  dances in her living room  and he cannot help watching because, well gee, she does keep her curtains open. And girls seem to fascinate and disgust him in equal measure. His home is mostly happy until one night something happens, and suddenly everything is different. Why has everything changed at home? The behaviour of adults can be truly baffling in the best of times – and these are not the best of times. Gossip can be crippling, but silence can also have consequences.

This is a coming of age story but it is also much more; shame and fear of shame, action vs. inaction, and personal responsibility vs. group responsibility are also examined.

CLOSED DOORS is a fairly short novel but it left me with lots to think about.

CLOSED DOORS    Lisa O’Donnell  2014  HarperCollins  246

 

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THE ISLAND HOUSE …by Posie Graeme-Evans (2012)

SCOTTISH ISLAND FICTIONisland house

I adore Scottish Island fiction and I was fortunate to find this novel at my local library. This is a dual-timeline story where both narratives center around a Scottish Island called Findnar (a fictional island) In the modern tale, the reader is introduced to young grad student named Freya Dane, who has just inherited an Island from her recently-deceased archeologist father. Freya had been estranged from her father for many years but she is also an archeologist and she is curious to learn more about his research – and maybe more about him.

The narrative switches back and forth between Freya’s story and the story of Signy – a Pictish girl in 800A.D. The time period is significant because it was a time of conflict between the Vikings, the Picts, and the newly arrived Christian community.  Signy’s entire family is slaughtered in a Viking raid and she taken in by the Christian community survivors. She also falls in love with an injured Viking youth left behind by the raiders. This story-line is interesting and  I’m thinking that the appeal should be quite timely; especially since tv shows like “The Last Kingdom” and “Game of Thrones”  have popularized hairy, tattooed men with swords, and clubs, and berserker warriors. Fun stuff.

Signy’s story is really quite interesting but I have to admit that I found Freya’s story dull . And her romance – yawn.

THE ISLAND HOUSE   Atria Paperback   2012   448 pages

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE ICE TWINS by S. K. Tremayne

Scottish Island Fictionice twins

“It is a traumatized yet beautiful landscape” p. 70

The Scottish Island in this novel is the perfect choice for a creepy thriller like “The Ice Twins”. Allow me to do a checklist; remote–yes, isolated– very,  unpredictable weather–you bet, unreliable communication–no wifi or cell service on this island. If that’s not enough- well, the locals call this Island a “thin place”, somewhere between our world and the next.  And this particular Island has been uninhabited for two decades, so throw in a dilapidated old house with lots of drafts and a vermin problem and this is the setting for this chilling thriller.

The “just-barely-functioning” Moorcroft family have quit London and  decided to take up residence on this Island off the coast of Skye, after the father (Angus) inherited the land from his Grandmother.  They have had a bad couple of years (understatement). It has been just over a year since one of their identical twin daughters died in an accident and the surviving twin, Kirstey (or is it Lydia) has been experiencing behavioural problems. Angus was fired from his job and Sarah (mother) is overwhelmed with grief and guilt. There is also a problem involving the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Somehow, moving to this spooky island is going to help? Is there method to this madness?

The story is told by alternating the points of view between Angus and Sarah. Personally, I was surprised by some of the twists and turns. The author manages to use the eerie setting  to great advantage and some of the characters are soooo… creepy.

The author is a travel writer and this Island is based on an island he visited in his youth. There are photos that accompany the text and I can only assume that they are from this same island; Eilean Sionnach. I like the photos – they’re a nice touch.

THE ICE TWINS by S. k. Tremayne

Grand Central Publishing, 2015

 

 

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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

THE SEA HOUSE…….by Elisabeth Gifford (St. Martin’s Press, 2013)

Capturesea houseScottish Island Fiction;

(Originally published as SECRETS OF THE SEA HOUSE)

I am enthralled with Scottish Island Fiction, and consequently, I am always trying to scope out a new book to feed my reading obsession. I’ve found one! THE SEA HOUSE is a dual narrative novel; a writing style that appears to be very popular of late.  I think of the authors Kate Morton, Lauren Wellig, Erin Hart, Susanna Kearsley, Diane Setterfield, Titiana de Rosnay and Ciji Ware (to name but a few) and their novels that feature the past and present intertwined. In “The Sea House” it is a house on the Isle of Harris that provides the link between the two narratives, and naturally it is a house by the sea.

The modern story begins in 1991, as a young married couple are attempting to renovate a dilapidated old house, with the hope they can run it as a Bed and Breakfast. As they lift the rotting floor boards in “the sea room” they make a gruesome discovery—the skeleton of a human baby with peculiar “fused leg bones”.  The police take the remains away but they can offer little information on this infant or why she was buried in such a manner. The wife, Ruth,  soon finds that she is beyond  curious about the baby and her research uncovers “a Reverend Alexander Ferguson” would have resided in the house during the approximate time-frame of the child’s death.

In 1860, Reverend Alexander Ferguson, is living in the sea house (it is the manse at the time); he tends to his parishioners but he also has a keen interest in Darwin’s work and an educational background in Scientific studies. Conflicting interests?–not for him, he has an answer for that. It is during this  time period  that the cruel Island clearances are taking place. Lord Marston is a despicable character whose greed and selfishness know no bounds as he ships the Island inhabitants off to other countries in filthy ships where death is a constant reality— all because sheep are a more profitable use of land than people.

This novel is heavily populated with the folklore stories of selkies,  mermen and mermaids (and some pretty darn interesting suppositions.)

On a personal note–I found myself caring about the 1860 characters (flaws and all) more than the modern Characters (and their flaws). By the end of the novel I thought I should have had more understanding for Ruth (maybe I did), but I just didn’t warm up to her. But I didn’t dislike her either–I was just sort of ambivalent.

This novel is delightful, insightful, interesting and enjoyable.

A great example of Scottish Island Fiction.

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