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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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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.

 

iolaire

 

 

 

 

 

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LETTERS FROM SKYE…..by Jessica Brockmole (Ballantine books, 2013)

letterSCOTTISH ISLAND FICTION

In the spring of 1912 an American college student is recovering in a hospital bed after he was injured during a dormitory prank gone wrong. A friend gives him a small volume of poetry  and on a whim he sends the author (Elspeth)a fan letter. Within a month the lady poet writes him a letter describing the excitement his letter generated in the small post office near her croft on the Island of Skye in Scotland. Her first fan letter . They correspond back and forth  as they share their dreams and disappointments until one day he reveals his plans to visit the U.K. and he asks her to meet him. There are  problems; she has never left her island (she has a crippling fear of water), and she is a married woman. This narrative continues throughout WWl.

The novel has a second narrative which begins in 1940 as Elspeth’s daughter Margaret has fallen for a R.A.F. pilot.  Margaret is confused over Elspeth’s reluctance to see her daughter marry during war-time.

This entire novel is told through letters and it is not surprising that it is constantly being compared to “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society” by Mary Anne Schaffer.  My library website offers space for people to comment on books that they have read and EVERYONE made that comparison with this novel. I recently read that the epistolary narrative was extremely popular in the 18th century and then its popularity declined. Perhaps it is coming back.

The title kind of gives it away but the main character was born and raised on a remote area of Skye. We see a little of the Island life –her father and brothers are fishermen and she discusses the beauty of her island and the work involved in a croft but I would say that this novel is not centered on island life BUT it still gets to be in my Scottish Island series!!!

I enjoyed this book and found it quick to read.

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In Another Light……by Andrew Greig (Orion Publishing, 2004)

in another lightScottish island fiction.

This novel tells the story of a father and a son and their own unique experiences as Island inhabitants nearly seventy years apart. I say “unique experiences” but the similarity in their experiences may be even more telling. The book is told in the Parallel story-line method that has become very popular in recent years.  First we meet Edward Mackay who has just suffered a near death experience with a cerebral aneurism. He has a long recovery ahead, not to mention a permanent shunt in his head. When he is finally ready to resume working he accepts that his former teaching job is an impossibility but he finds a job working on the Orkney Islands as part of a team of researchers looking into the feasibility of creating power from the tides.  (And fans of Ann Cleeves will remember that this was one of the themes of her Fifth Shetland Book)  Edward also has a new interest in finding out more about the father that died seventeen years earlier because he is sure he met him in the shadowlands between life and death.

Alexander Mackay’s story begins on a ship in 1928 as he is on his way to Penang (Malaysia) where he will take up a position as Doctor in charge of the baby birthing unit; he is determined to increase live births and decrease maternal deaths. We learn that Alexander was a veteran of the first world war which only makes sense when we learn that  Edward was born when his father was quite old.  I think Alexander’s Island experience may have been more confining since “mixing” was more limited at the times.

Edward sums up certain aspects of his life on Orkney when he says……

A mixed bag, a mixter-maxter as they say. Natives and incomers and returnees all coming together in these bright rooms.  In cities you chose your company, which means you end up with people like yourself – same interests, values, income bracket, aspirations , sexuality. But on small Islands you make due with whoever happens to be there, and so are put in the company of folk you wouldn’t otherwise know.” (page 218)

The author does not seem to suggest that this is good or bad; just the way it is. Sheesh, I knew all this growing up and watching “GILLIGAN’S ISlAND” on television because there is NO way Ginger and Maryanne would have been roommates if they hadn’t been stranded on a deserted Island.

I like the Edward character. He is a straight, never married, middle age man who even gets the “so what’s wrong with you question” (meaning why have you never married) that female literary characters must often endure in the same situation.   And isn’t it often a right person / wrong time or wrong person / right time situation. Any ways, both main characters experience a romance of sorts.

The author is a Scottish writer ( and poet) and I will definitely check out some of his other novels.

P.S> I sometimes forget that blogs reach an international audience so I will explain that “GILLIGANS ISLAND” was a silly but popular show in North America during the 60’s and it featured  seven people stranded on a deserted Island.

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THE SUMMER OF THE BEAR……by Bella Pollen (2010, Mantle)

bearA book in my series featuring fiction novels with Scottish Island Settings.

The year is 1979 and the Fleming family are living in Bonn Germany where father Nicky is a diplomat. When he dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances mother Letty relocates her family to  her childhood home on an Island in the Hebrides. Letty and her three children are trying to come to terms with his death but the bizarre and unexpected nature of his demise make it more difficult. The youngest son Jamie is convinced that his father is still alive so he  leaves maps for his father to find .  At the same time a  grizzly bear has escaped from his keeper and was last seen on the Scottish West Coast. Young Jamie is convinced that the bear is somehow connected to his father.

This book is many things. There is a mystery–certainly we want to understand more about the father’s death especially since he was in diplomatic service during the cold war–so was it an accident? suicide? or maybe murder?  It is the story of the family members, different personalities with different relationships with Nicky, trying to understand this death. The eldest daughter Georgie has always been the responsible one but she knows something that she doesn’t want to know.  Middle daughter Alba is consumed by hate (for everything but mostly for Jamie). Young Jamie is a very special child; at eight-years-old he can neither read nor write but he processes an almost magical thinking that endears him to some and alienates him from others.

And there is the search for the bear…..

Very interesting;   In 1980 a bear did escape from his trainer and spent 4 weeks on an Island in the Outer Hebrides. More information in the book’s epilogue.

I thought this book was very unique – perhaps a little slow at times – but worth it.

An Oprah pick in 2011.

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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.

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Does Your Mother Know……by Maureen Jennings (Dundern, 2006)

doesdoesI am back on my blog and I am happy to say that I haven’t yet run out of Scottish Island fiction with an emphasis on murder and mystery. Today’s entry is a 2006 novel written by Maureen Jennings. This author is well known here in Canada for her “Murdoch” mystery series that also appears as a tv series on Canadian tv. This novel is the first of two to feature Christine Morris as a Canadian police officer and expert in profiling. This is a contemporary novel. As the story opens, Christine is at a conference in Edinburgh where she is learning about modern police methodology. She is shocked when she is contacted by the Northern constabulary of the outer Hebrides and informed that her mother has been in a fatal car accident on Lewis and has disappeared. Christine is estranged from her mother but the last she heard her mother was residing in Canada. On Lewis, Christine finds herself working with a local officer in unexpected circumstances and together they try to solve a murder. Even Prince William figures into the plot. And the book covers a little slice of life on Lewis. The second Christine Morris novel is called “The K Handshake” (Dundern 2008) although it is set in Canada. A solid mystery.

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THE BLACK HOUSE …….by Peter May (2011)

  • black houselewis manchess menTHE LEWIS MAN …. By Peter May (2012)
  • THE CHESS MEN….  By Peter May (2013)

THE LEWIS TRILOGY: three novels set against the backdrop of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.

I’ve read all three of these novels and I just love them – all three of them – with no particular favourite. There are two main characters in “The Lewis Trilogy”: first there is a detective named Fin Macleod , and then there is the Island of Lewis itself.

 Fin Macleod is a native son, born on the Island where he spent the first eighteen years of his life before he transferred to the mainland of Scotland for university and eventually to join the police force.  As the first novel opens, almost twenty years after his departure, he is working as a detective in Edinburgh and coping with a ruined marriage and the grief and anger associated with his son’s hit and run death. He is sent to Lewis to investigate a murder that is strikingly similar to an Edinburgh murder; his Island knowledge and command of the Gaelic are considered to be an advantage. What follows is an engaging novel with an interesting whodunnit and a fascinating insight into growing up in a remote and isolated environment. The novel expertly moves between the present murder and the life of Fin as he was coming of age  He is both an insider and an outsider. The moody, unpredictable atmosphere is aided by the unsettled climate that in turn mirrors Fin’s unsettled soul.

The second novel in the series (The Lewis Man) still features Fin but it is more focused on another character who, in the present, is battling with Alzheimer’s disease. It is this character’s past that makes up the majority of his story. And a bog body!!! Bog bodies can be 2000 years old or very recent since the temperature, acidity and lack of oxygen in the bogs acts as a preservative. I have talked, in previous blogs, about my fascination with bog bodies and I recommend the novels of Erin Hart to anyone who shares this interest. (A little aside but now back to “The Lewis Man” ) I cannot stress enough how the description of the Island, its inhabitants, and its culture enrich this novel.

The third novel in the series is called “The Chess  Men” ; a reference to the famous medieval chess pieces discovered in Lewis in 1831, and featured in this novel. The novel also discusses the tragedy of the sinking of the HMS Iolaire on January 01,1919 which is a horrific moment in Lewis history.  The ship was carrying 280 passengers, mostly soldiers returning from WWI , when she hit a rock within view of Stornoway Harbour.  At least 205 of the 280 aboard perished.  It is somehow beyond sad that these soldiers should survive the war and die within view of their home. A young Fin is educated about this tragedy and learns how actions taken on that night could affect  life even 60 years later. This is the novel which probably illustrates the unpredictable nature of the Lewis weather the most and serves as a metaphor for life on the Isle of Lewis.

Did you know……?

Donald Trump is a son of a …..no not that….he is the son of a Lewis woman. His mother, Mary MacLeod was born just outside the capital city of Stornoway. Just a little fact you may need in a trivia contest.

I REALLY hope Peter May decides to make this trilogy a quartet (look to Ann Cleeves for inspiration ).

In conclusion,three novels that capture the atmosphere and details (lots of details) of the culture and atmosphere of the Isle of Lewis.  Lewis is the most northerly island (Part of Harris and Lewis) in the outer Hebrides. Known for its deeply religious inhabitants  (Sunday it closes down)  and for a deep adherence to the Gaelic language and traditions.

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The Crossing Places…….by Elly Griffiths (2009)

Mystery——First in a series, the fourth book is set to be released in February 2012

I have loved this series since I read the first book  (THE CROSSING  PLACES) and I believe the series has improved with each book. Ruth Galloway is a university lecturer and a forensic archeologist.  She is almost forty, a wee bit overweight, and she lives at the edge  of a salt marsh in Norfolk U.K.–a lonely existence that she believes suits her just fine.  She is called in by the police to investigate when the bones of a child are uncovered. The police are sure that they will belong to a young girl who went missing almost ten years earlier. But no; Ruth determines that the bones belong to a child from the iron age, 2000 years earlier.

I love historical mysteries but this is a contemporary mystery that  still gives me some historical enlightenment. And the characters are great. DCI Harry Nelson is more complex than he seems at first and there is also a Pagan priest and Ruth’s Nordic mentor.The characters develop with each installment. This novel  is the perfect cross between a thriller and a who-done-it.

The other books presently available are THE JANUS STONE—-(2009)   and THE HOUSE AT SEA’S END  (2010)

This is a mystery series that I highly recommend!

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Instruments of Darkness….by Imogene Robertson

Historical Mystery, Regency Mystery

(2011, Pamela Dorman Books, Viking)

I suppose it is probably pretty obvious that I am a fan of historical Mysteries, and if they are in a series-well that is even better.  INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS is the first book in a new series that now numbers three books.  The heroine is a ship captain’s wife; a woman who spent many years at sea with her husband but , since the arrival of children, she has been running the family estate; a stay at home mom circa 1780 with wet nurses and servants. She is a no-nonsense person who has run this estate profitably.  Her neighbour is a gentleman recluse, a man who has rejected his own noble title and instead he stays at home and studies human  anatomy among other things. His name is Gabriel Crowther and he is  more at home with the company of dead things.

The sea captain’s wife (Mrs. Harriet Westerman) discovers a dead body on her property and she immediately seeks the assistance of her reclusive neighbour. They become a team as they try to unravel this mystery. Along the way they encounter a misplaced heir. The American war of Independence figures in to the plot and the action moves between a country estate and London. Harriet and Gabriel make an interesting pair of amateur sleuths and the murder mystery is satisfying.  We see small glimpses into Gabriel’s past that hints at why he is such a hermit.

The second book in the series is called ANATOMY OF MURDER  and there is also a third book called ISLAND OF BONES. The third book is available at bookstores but it is not yet available at my library.  I am in queue and look forward to receiving it to read.

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