Lost in a good map …

Call of the Undertow by Linda Cracknell

Variety in reading is usually my watchword, I try not to read books of a similar vein too close together, yet between Christmas and New Year I managed to read two about women running away from their existing life after life-changing events to sort themselves out. The first was The Widow’s Tale by Mick Jackson in which a new widow escapes London for the wide expanses of the Norfolk salt marshes, (reviewed here). Then a few days after, I read Call of the Undertow in which a woman from Oxford escapes to the expanses of cliff and sea in at Dunnet, in Caithness at the NE tip of Scotland.


Maggie had rented ‘Flotsam Cottge’, a single-storey steading conversion on the outskirts of the village, without viewing it. On a peninsula, practically an island, at a latitude of 58º 37′ 21″N, as far north as places with ice-names like Anchorage and Stavanger, the cottage had seemed right when she found it online and she’d signed a six-month lease – a long enough horizon for her to aim for. …

‘You’re mad,’ her sister Carol said when Maggie showed her the final page of the road atlas, the expanses of black white paper, the few wiry roads and the tiny shaded areas indicating settlements. ‘Even I can read a map enough to see there’s nothing there. It’s not like you to be so remote.’ …

Maggie’s friend Helen was more polite. ‘I’ve never heard of it. Apart from that place of course.’ She poked a finger at John O’Groats, known as the most northerly point, even though the map clearly gave this role to Dunnet Head further to the west.
She bought a car, a second-hand Volvo.
‘You’re going to drive again?’ Carol’s tone now sweetened, sniffing her own agenda for Maggie of ‘getting back’ to something.
‘Easiest way to get there with my things,’ Maggie had said.
No-one tried to stop her, but she sensed the whispered conversations, the concern.

We immediately know that something had happened, serious enough that Maggie had stopped driving.  We also find out she’s now divorced from Frank. So her ties cut, Maggie sets off for the north and settles into the cottage.

Shortly after she gets there she visits the Bird Sanctuary at Dunnet Point where she meets Graham the Ranger who will become a good friend.  Whilst there, she also bumps into Year 5 from the local primary school on a trip – and their headmistress soon gets an agreement out of her to come and talk to them for their geography project about maps when she hears that Maggie is a cartographer.

It is at the school that she meets a strange young boy called Trothan, named after the ruined church nearby. Trothan is rather androgynous young boy, long-haired and quiet, yet with an intensity of gaze that causes her to falter momentarily. When she asks the class what you need to be a good cartographer, the others say Google Earth, a computer and so on – he says, ‘Your eyes‘.

The kids finish their projects, yet Trothan seems fascinated by map-making, and ere-long Maggie lets him come to the cottage to work on his own project, a multi-layered map of the whole area, annotated with mythological references and local legend, and more… They form a strong bond, the consequences of which will force Maggie to examine what she was running away from.

Despite seeming to be at the ends of the earth, there is a strong sense of community in this remote part of Scotland. Those from outside the area are generally welcomed once they prove they’re stopping – which was refreshing – they all need each other.

Trothan remains an enigma, an independent spirit at home with nature on cliff and shore – and always watching.  Maggie is encouraged by him to loosen up, and she is able to continue her freelance work beguiled by his interest.  Nora, Trothan’s mother is even harder for Maggie to get to grips with, until they find they have much in common.

Despite the outward similarities with The Widow’s Tale, this novel not being narrated by Maggie, had a very different feel to it.  Call of the Undertow is instead dominated by the beautiful but rugged landscape and a haunting sense of mystery. I enjoyed this novel a lot. (9/10)

I don’t know what I’d do if I went to Caithness, not being a golfer, bird-watcher, or even much of a rambler, but I was drawn by the feel of the place in this novel to check out that you can rent a cottage with sea views on the Castle of Mey estate where the late Queen Mother used to have picnics for £600 per week in high season, you can fly up to Wick, or train it to Thurso …

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Call of the Undertow by Linda Cracknell, pub Oct 2013 by Freight Books, paperback, 245 pages.

Ten Books that Represent Great Britain

A couple of days ago, Simon at Savidge Reads and Thomas at My Porch created a new meme (Yes Simon, I know you didn’t want to call it a meme, but it is one – a nice one!). The challenge is to pick ten books that sum up your own country geographically but authors from that country. Simon has also made his post WWII in its scope – so a state of the nation picture as well.

I couldn’t resist the challenge. I have also kept it current in scope, and all books I’ve written about on this blog. The one bit I couldn’t do, and apologies to the land of my mother’s birth, but I have had to make it a Great Britain list (i.e. England, Wales and Scotland) rather than UK, as I couldn’t find a book to include for Northern Ireland. So here goes (all the links are to my reviews):

Firstly London and the Home Counties:

balthazar jones1. Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo by Julia Stuart.

This novel represents heritage and London Transport. Heritage through the titular Balthazar Jones being a Beefeater at the Tower, put in charge of the Queen’s Royal Menagerie, and LT through his wife Hebe working in the Underground’s lost property office where all of human life can be found. It sounds as though it should be an historical novel, but it was a lovely surprise to find that it was modern.  Charming and touching in equal measure, with some lovely comic moments.

rivers of london2. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

This novel represents rivers and my birthplace. The first in a series of paranormal police procedurals, there is a rich vein of fun running through this book – which leads to the raiding of a vampires’ nest in Purley (my birthplace), but you’ll never look at Covent Garden or Bloomsbury in the same way after reading it either.  The great rivers being personified by modern day Gods and Goddesses adds a more serious mythological flow to the narrative.  Hugely imaginative, there are now four books in the series. (Note to self – get reading them!).

mr loverman3. Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

This pick is all about diversity.  At its heart is Barrington Walker, a sharp-suited seventy-four year old who emigrated to Hackney from Antigua in the 1960s.  Barry has a big secret, since his childhood his friend Morris has been his lover.  Barry’s wife Carmel, thinks he’s a philandering womaniser, whereas Morris is urging him to finally do right by him.  Add two contrary daughters to the mix and you have a richly bittersweet and hilarious family drama. I loved every page of this book.

Moving northwards to the Midlands

200px-TheSecretDiaryOfAdrianMole4. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend

Adrian Mole is one of the funniest characters ever written. A product of working class folk in the Midlands, he is pompous in his unshakeable belief that he could be a great writer, but loveable too.  His eight volumes of diaries take him from his early teens through to forty, chronicling the decades from the 1980s into the noughties with superb wit.

Now moving north and east to Yorkshire …

gods own5. God’s Own Country by Ross Raisin

The North York Moors come to life in this story of a young man and his dog. Stuck working on the farm and virtually ignored by his parents, teenager Sam wanders the Moors. Then a family of incomers move into the area and he falls for their daughter. Rich in nature and landscape, and enhanced with a smattering of Yorkshire dialect, this novel was a fine debut and Raisin was picked as one of Granta’s latest Young British Writers under 40.

Going west …

mills all quiet6. All Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills

Set in the Lake District during off-season, Mills’s hilarious novel encapsulates the plight of the outsider trying to fit into a community, when a plucky tourist stays on after his holiday looking for work.  The book also highlights that it’s always a long way round lakes by road, especially by milk float. All of Mills’s novels are primarily about men and their work, and this one – his second – is still his best.

We now hop over the border into Scotland …

stonemouth7. Stonemouth by Iain Banks

I would have included Banks’s The Crow Road, but haven’t read it during the life of my blog – so Stonemouth represents his writing instead. A Scottish seaside town is the setting for the funeral of the grandfather of the Murston clan, one of Stonemouth’s two ruling families. Stewart Gilmour is returning under a truce for it five years after they ran him out of town. Will he survive the long weekend? Will he see Ellie again? Cracking dialogue, punchy action, and some beautiful writing make this a fabulous read.

hamish mcbeath 18. Death of a Gossip by M C Beaton

Completely opposite in style to Iain Banks’s characters is Hamish Macbeth – the canny police constable that would like an easy life on Scotland’s scenic west coast.  Beaton is the current queen of the cosy mystery and the combination of the beautiful location, fun characters, and Hamish’s laid-back style of investigation all combine to make murder seem almost nothing to worry about! Personally I much prefer Hamish to her other long series featuring Agatha Raisin. The first two in the series were fun – I have another 25 to go!

Then down we go into Wales …


9. White Ravens by Owen Sheers

Representing farming and the food cycle, this short novel is a retelling of the story of Branwen, daughter of Llyr, from the second branch of the Mabinogion – a set of medieval Welsh stories of Celtic origin.  The beginning is set on a farm beset with foot and mouth. The farming brothers go out stealing lambs to supply fancy restaurants in London, and their sister Rhi has to drive the van one day. At the Tower of London (there again!) she meets an old man who tells her a story of raven chicks, and an act of revenge of savage butchery. Grim but gripping with Sheers’ powerful writing.

And finally we join the dots, with a 627 mile journey from Devon to Northumbria…

harold fry10. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

A road novel with a difference. Retired Harold Fry sets out to post a letter to an old friend who he’s discovered is dying of cancer, but decides he’ll deliver it himself. Only problem – he’s in Devon and Queenie is in Berwick-upon-Tweed up by the Scottish border.  On his journey, Harold meets some wonderful people, gets to appreciate nature along the way, and finds himself becoming a celebrity and being taken advantage of. We also learn about Harold’s life, how he and his wife Maureen have ended up in a rut; It’s a tear-jerking page-turner that just manages to stay the right side of sentimentality.

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So that’s my ten books touring around Great Britain.  Having limited myself to those I’ve written about on my blog and British authors, I wasn’t able to include East Anglia, or the great northern conurbations of Manchester and Liverpool.  I would have liked to include a university novel for Oxford and Cambridge too, but couldn’t squeeze one in. Likewise, Beryl Bainbridge and Muriel Spark with their northern and London novels which mostly weren’t quite contemporary enough.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my tour.  Feel free to have a go yourself and link back to Simon and Thomas.

Love in a toun of gangsters

Stonemouth by Iain Banks


That would have been good.
Instead, a cold clinging mist. Not even mist; just a chill haze, drifting up the estuary. I’m standing fifty metres above the Firth of Stoun, in the middle of the road bridge, at the summit of the long, shallow trajectory it describes above the waters.

A man stands on a bridge. A notorious “suicide” spot, he knows some who’ve died there. Stewart Gilmour however, is waiting for someone, waiting to get permission to come back to the town he left five years ago – then, it was a case of leave or die.

It’s an atmospheric beginning that sets the tone perfectly. Right from the off, we’re longing to know why Stewart Gilmour was run out of toun – and why he’s come back.

We’re sitting in Powell’s black Range Rover Sport in the viewing area near the bridge control centre. My more modest hired Ford Ka is a couple of bays away. For some reason when we arranged out arguably melodramatic meeting in the middle of the bridge, I’d thought he would part at the north end and walk over while I did the same from the south, but he must have driven past me and parked here. Obviously hasn’t watched the same old Cold War movies I have.

Gilmour is back for the funeral of the grandfather of the Murston clan, patriarch of one of Stonemouth’s two ruling families, the two had been close when Stewart was young, despite Stewart’s family working for the MacAvetts.  Gilmour, it seems, is a bit of a bridge between the two.  He gets his temporary truce to come home for the long weekend, but is reminded he mustn’t outstay his welcome.

Having lived in London for five years with all the trappings of a good job and lifestyle, Stonemouth doesn’t appear to have changed which is reassuring, slightly surreal and sad at the same time. Some of Stewart’s friends never left either; Ferg did, but he’s back too and the pair, reunited, go out to get drunk – which sets the pattern for most of the weekend.

Divided into five daily sections, starting on Friday with the funeral on the Monday, Stewart narrates his story.  As he goes around over the weekend, renewing some connections, steering clear of others, he reminisces with us about his teenage years, meeting and walking with Murston-pere, an assortment of character-forming tragedies, and … meeting Ellie Murston, the love of his life…  and the reason for his exile.

Despite the truce for the funeral, this homecoming reunion of friends and enemies is always going to be a simmering stew of tension, old resentments and feuds. The younger scions of the Murston clan are not as tolerant as their father, and they’re naturally very protective of their sister Ellie. Stewart finds it increasingly difficult to maintain his distance, especially once Ellie take the initiative to talk to him. I won’t tell you how it goes, you can read or imagine that for yourselves.

It would be fair to say that there is more than a hint of Romeo and Juliet, or rather Capulets vs Montagues, in the central family drama and love story, for despite it being ostensibly a thrillerish gangster drama with a nod to the film Get Carter in its underlying violence and homecoming theme, it is really a romance at heart.

Stewart is an interesting character.  Although he slips back into the boozy culture of his old cohorts and haunts easily, he has grown-up during his five years away. He is still seeking ‘Clarity‘ though, he hopes, indeed he needs to find out where he stands with Ellie.

Stewart’s pals and contemporaries provide much of the humour in the novel. Ferg is f***ing hilarious in particular. The guys’ language is coarse and punchy, argumentative, their body-language physical; fuelled by drink and drugs, they party hard, but none want to fight with the Murstons. The dialogue, the craic, is cracking.

Seemingly at odds with its characters are Banks’ descriptions of the landscape around Stonemouth: the beach has a stark beauty you can imagine when the sun comes out on a misty morning. At other times though, together with the bridge and forest beyond, it marks a boundary – holding the town within.  Yet Banks can’t quite resist occasionally putting some humour into his descriptions – as in this sentence of musing from Stewart:

Quietly pissed, but feeling like a child again, I watched through the side window of the Audi as a waning moon like a paring from God’s big toenail flickered between the black trunks of sentry trees ridging lines of distant hills.

How’s that for imagery!

This seemingly straight-forward novel is not without layers of complexity. Our narrator is a man who is trying to work out his place in the world, and the Murston family dynamics are more than a little complicated, as is this small town which has been held in stasis by its ruling clans with their fingers in every pie. Banks also managed to end it in a way that worked believably – I was convinced. Times are changing, and Stonemouth must change too. (9/10)

I will be adding this novel to my ‘BanksRead’ tab above. It’s the first novel in my project to read and re-read the novels of one of my favourite authors. I shall also be discussing it further at the BanksRead Forum.

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Stonemouth by Iain Banks, Abacus paperback, 448 pages.

Losing myself in the Lymond Chronicles

The Game Of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

Dunnett Readalong

I reported on my experiences about reading the first half of The Game of Kings, the first volume in Dorothy Dunnett’s saga of 16th century life in the Scottish border country, here.  A month later I’ve finished the book and thus the first leg of my plans to read the series.  You’ll be glad to know at the outset that I plan to carry on, but first some closing  thoughts about Book 1 of the Lymond Chronicles…

dunnett 1During the first half, although I immediately enjoyed the derring-do of the errant Master of Culter, I did let myself get slightly bogged down in looking things up – all the foreign phrases, good Scottish dialect and cultural references from history, myths and legends through the ages.

I read the second half in a totally way – I just went for it, didn’t look anything up. Teresa had suggested to me that this was the best way for a first reading. You were right Teresa – total immersion made it great fun.

The second half starts with much politicking, bargaining, and plans for hostage taking and exchanging. Young Will Scott is toying with the idea of handing over Lymond to his estranged father after a falling out.

Scott’s reply was inaudible, and Lymond walked straight up to the boy. His riding clothes, swiftly tended since he had come from Tantallon, were sartorial perfection, his hair shone like glass and his voice glittered to match. He was impeccably, unpleasantly sober.
‘You have my warmest good wishes for any urgent need you may discover to injure me, personally. Just try it…’

I love the phrase ‘impeccably, unpleasantly sober’, so evocative.

Soon Lymond is again toying with the affections of his brother’s wife, Mariotta – who is promptly left by Richard and goes to the convent, from whence she is rescued by Lymond’s mother Sybilla…

There she found herself in the embarrassing position of the social suicide who wakes up after the laudanum: the skies had fallen and had done nothing but add to the general obscurity.

It’s sentences and phrases like the quotes above that I find really attractive in Dunnett’s writing.  However, sometimes I can do without the ‘listiness’ – one of my literary bugbears that makes me shout ‘Get on with it!’ in my head; take this quote for example, in which Will Scott and Lymond are arguing again …

 ‘I’m tired of a landscape with dragons,’ said Scott violently.
‘What, then? Retreat underground into hebetude; retreat under water like a swallow; retreat into a shell like a mollusc; retreat into the firmament like some erroneous dew….’

See what I mean?  By the way, I looked up ‘hebetude‘ – it means dullness or lethargy, and apparently is a word much beloved by Joseph Conrad, so there.

However, Dunnett does have a sense of humour, and a tendency to listiness and hyperbole is one of Lymond’s show-off qualities. He does it again with Gideon Somerville, an Englishman who proves invaluable to his cause…

 ‘The Scot, the Frencheman, the Pope and heresie, overcommed by Trothe have had a fall. Again yes.’
‘I wish to God,’ said Gideon with mild exasperation, ‘that you’d talk – just once – in prose like other people.’

That made me laugh!

I so enjoyed the second half of this novel, that I was really shocked when my favourite character from the first part, (apart from Lymond of course), came to an unfortunate end. (Don’t read my prior post if you don’t want to find out who it was).

The Game of Kings ends with Lymond being caught and hauled back to Edinburgh to stand trial for treason, and we finally find out why he was considered a treacherous renegade.  A fabulous court scene provides a fitting end to the book. Naturally – as there are six books in the series, you can safely assume that he gets off to live another day.  (9/10)

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dunnett 2

What’s Next?…
As you can guess from my enthusiastic reading of the first volume, I have become hooked into reading the rest of this series.  The books are densely written, and are all between four and five hundred pages, so I intend to carry on at the same rate of half a book per month which will take me up to the end of November.

So onwards with Queens Play, which sees Francis Lymond off to France to look after the young Queen at the court of Henri II.

Dunnett Readalong 2I’ll report back on the first half in mid-Feb, and the second mid-March.  I’m looking forward to it, and if any of you want to join in, you’re very welcome. I’ll make a Who’s Who bookmark again in the next few days. I found the one I made for The Game of Kings very useful.

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I inherited my copy. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Game Of Kingsand Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett – Print on demand. Used and e-book formats also available.

The Game of Kings – Half-time thoughts

Dunnett Readalong

Phew! I’ve made it to the halfway point of reading my first Dorothy Dunnett book, The Game of Kings – volume one of the Lymond Chronicles.  At one stage, I wasn’t sure I’d make it in time for the dates I’d planned…  If you’re joining in, how did you do?

Although I enjoyed the book right from the start, at first I could only read a few pages at a time before having to stop and look things up, be it ancient Scottish words, a French proverb, a reference to myths and legends of antiquity.  Gradually though, I was able to immerse myself in the text, concentrating on the plot and character rather than looking up all the learned references and consequently I could up my pace of reading.

Actually, I found the Dorothy Dunnett Companion – an A-Z encyclopedia of all this information very irritating – it covers most of her books in one tome, so includes the Niccolo books, another series too, and thus has to be selective in what it includes…

For instance, characters often talk about ‘Pinkie’ – but it wasn’t in the DDC. My knowledge of mid-16th century politics didn’t really extend beyond who became king after Henry VIII died, and having read, as a teenager, Jean Plaidy’s novel The Royal Road to Fotheringay about the young Mary Queen of Scots. I resorted to Wikipedia and now know that The Battle of Pinkie Cleugh was a decisive win for the English led by the Lord Protector, Somerset in 1547.

The DDC is also purely an A-Z – I’d have liked family trees of characters, plus a chronology, and for the Niccolo books to be in a separate volume.

But I am getting ahead of myself – what of the book itself?  First though, to any Dunnettophiles reading, please do forgive me for my irreverent comparisons and referencing of my own cultural mores…

dunnett 1

Within the first few pages, I was already a fan of Lymond, the Master of Culter, who has snuck back into Scotland, even though he has a price on his head.  He was like Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (without the giving to the poor bit, although he does look after his men).  A mere couple of pages later though, he had turned into Lord Flashheart, (from Black Adder II – “Woof! Where haven’t I been!”), as we are introduced to Mariotta, the wife of his older brother, and get to see Lymond properly for the first time …

Held close to him as she was, she found his eyes unavoidable. They were blue, of the deep and identical cornflower of the Dowager’s. And at that, the impact of knowledge stiffened her face and seized her pulses.  “I know who you are! You are Lymond!”
Applauding, he released her. “I take back the more personal insults if you will take back your arm without putting it to impious uses. There. Now, sister-in-law mine, let us mount like Jacob to the matriarchal cherubim above. Personally,” he said critically, “I should dress you in red.”
So this was Richard’s brother. Every line of him spoke, palimpsest-wise with two voices. The clothes, black and rich, were vaguely slovenly; the skin sun-glazed and cracked; the fine eyes slackly lidded; the mouth insolent and self-indulgent. He returned the scrutiny without rancour.
“What had you expected? A viper, or a devil, or a ravening idiot; Milo with the ox on his shoulders, Angra-Mainyo prepared to do battle with Zoroaster, or the Golden Ass? Or didn’t you know the family colouring? Richard hasn’t got it. …

So we get a hint of Lymond the roué, Lymond as Gok (fashion guru), but also that he is educated – all those ancient references.  Also, we see several examples of Dunnett’s ‘listy’ style of writing – something I took issue with in JK Rowling’s recent novel The Casual Vacancy, (reviewed here). At least I was being educated by Dunnett in her lists.

What of the other characters?  I’ve already grown very fond of Lady Christian Stewart, goddaughter of Lady Fleming, the Queen’s aunt.  She’s blind, but is resilient and has a sense of adventure, and although she doesn’t know it, has a thing for Lymond.  But the person who gets all the best lines is Sybilla, Lymond’s mother – think Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey. Here are a couple of her best …

“Perhaps it’s lucky then,” said Sybilla, “that this criminal has cheated his way out of favour with every party in Europe. Did you try some brazil on your curtains?”  And this time, Lady Buccleuch took the hint.

“My dear man,” said Sybilla next day, placidly stitching before Earl John’s big fire. “Admit you’ve never had to live with eight children on an island, and every one with the instincts of a full-grown lemming.”

There is a character with a comedy accent – who of course is English. Lord Grey has a lisp – “Perhapth,” said Grey icily, “Don Luith might be given thome help to clean hith feet and a chancth to dreth, and then we will have Mr Thcott brought up.”

We also have soldier types like Lymond’s mercenary chief of staff – Turkey Mat, who    puts his finger on it when Will tells Lymond his men are restless, “Too much intrigue, sir, and too little rape: the boys are as unnatural nervy as water fleas…. And besides,” he added practically, “we’re nigh out of beer.” “

As you can see, we have a rich cast of characters; so many with similar names that my bookmark came in useful.  I’m also pretty useless at chess – all the chapter titles are chess-related. I do know the basic moves, but wouldn’t know if these references form a proper game or not. The plot is equally convoluted; so I shall save my thoughts on that until January when I’ve finished the book.

If you’ve read this book before, or are reading along with me – do let me know your thoughts. Here are a few things for you to consider…

  • How are you getting on with the language, learned references and dense writing style?
  • How is your understanding of the history of the period?
  • Who is your favourite character so far, and why?
  • Are you going to read the rest of the book?

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I inherited my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Game Of Kings: The Lymond Chronicles
The Dorothy Dunnett Companion by Elspeth Morrison
The Royal Road to Fotheringay (Mary Stuart Series: Volume 1) by Jean Plaidy

“Shaun the Sheep meets Shaun of the Dead “

Apocalypse Cow by Michael Logan

A comedy thriller featuring sex-crazed zombie cows – The publicity says “Shaun the Sheep meets Shaun of the Dead”. Shouldn’t work, but somehow it does!

It recently won a half-share of the inaugural Terry Pratchett “Anywhere But Here, Anywhen But Now” Prize, set up by Sir Terry with publisher Transworld.  So what’s it about then?

Strange things are happening in Scotland. Some cows have gone mad in an abattoir, and the situation is being dealt with…

Meanwhile: Teenager Geldof Peters, is itching, allergic to the hemp clothes his rabid hippy vegan mother makes him wear; Terry works at the abattoir, and is paranoid a) about getting a girlfriend, who b) is immune to the stench of death that clings to him from his job; and Lesley McBrien is a journalist under pressure  – she’s being made redundant and only a scoop will do.

These three disparate losers will end up being flung together in a race for their lives to get the full story out of Britain which, as more animals become infected, becomes a martial state and is quarantined by the rest of the world.  The story is that the zombie-animal disease is a bio-weapon unleased by terrorists, but Lesley, Terry and Geldof know differently, as does their pursuer, the evil Mr Brown who will do anything to prevent the truth from getting out…

Geldof reminded me rather of Adrian Mole, although not as pompous, and of course his family with their lofty eco-credentials were easy targets for parody. They contrasted with their oafish burger-loving neighbours naturally, which gave plenty of scope for jokes about lentils.

Our three heroes will, of course, have to transcend their own ineptitudes and personal stereotypes to overcome the forces against them and raise their game to outwit the scheming Brown.  Even without the zomboid animals all over the place, there is gore and ultraviolence aplenty, and the plot races through its pages.

It was a fun read and I raced through it.  I shouldn’t quote from an ARC, so to give you a flavour, I will offer you a comparison instead.  This book reminded me of nothing so much as a Christopher Brookmyre novel with added zombie cows.  I’m a big fan of Brookmyre – I don’t think this was as good as his debut, Quite Ugly One Morning, but not too far off, and I can see why Pratchett & co liked it. (7/10)

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My copy was kindly supplied by the Publisher – Thank you.
To explore titles further on Amazon UK, please click below:

Apocalypse Cow by Michael Logan. Pub May 10, by Doubleday. Hardback 348 pages.
Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre

Cuddle up with a cosy mystery

Death of a Cad by M C Beaton.

Now that the weather is cold and frosty, what better type of book to huddle down with than a cosy mystery from M C Beaton. I did exactly this yesterday in between preparations for Christmas with the second in her Hamish Macbeth series set in the Highlands. Having loved the TV series some years ago, I read the first book last year (review here).

The fictional village of Lochdubh is obviously a hotbed of murder – the first book involved deadly goings-on during a fly-fishing course; the second, death over a bet about who gets the first grouse on the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ (of August, the first day of the grouse-shooting season).

So we are introduced to the Halburton-Smythes who are hosting a house party to celebrate the engagement of their daughter Priscilla to the successful playwright Henry Withering.  All the other Highland aristos and regimental cronies are queueing up to be invited, including Captain Peter Bartlett – who has an eye for the ladies and a reputation as a bit of a chancer and sponger to match.  He makes the bet with another guest, manages to upset half the room and ends up dead for his troubles.

Cue Hamish, who has long been a friend (and admirer) of Priscilla’s, to step in and solve the mystery with his expertise in shooting, big family contacts book, and calm way of investigating.

Naturally his DI tries to muscle in, but after his city ways upset the country gentry, Hamish is back on the case in a double act with the DCI, smoothing over the situation and teasing out the truth from all the obfuscation.

Hamish’s methods of policing work perfectly in the village. He acts mainly by deterrent with poachers and the like, rather than arresting them. For all of his laid-back approach he’s keenly observant and good at reading people, and shamelessly works by mutual back-scratching to get his killer.

These books are great fun, easy reads and well-plotted – plus they’re set in an irresistible location. (8.5/10)

* * * * *
I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Death of a Cad (Hamish Macbeth 2) by MC Beaton
Hamish Macbeth – TV series 1-3 (DVD) starring Robert Carlyle

A Cosy Mystery That Hits The Spot

M C Beaton, the pen-name of Marion Chesney, is a prolific author of cosy mysteries with two hit series to her name…

You may be familiar with Agatha Raisin – a bossy urban sleuth who now lives in the Cotswolds and is delighted to stick her nose into things to keep busy. While I’ve read the first few ARs and enjoyed them in a throwaway kind of way, I find the character too ‘Margot-ish’ (A bossy housewife in the BBC comedy ‘The Good Life’ back in the mid 1970s). I refer you to my pal Simon at Savidge Reads for a better appreciation of Agatha. Incidentally, there are now 21 titles in this series which Beaton started in 1992.

MC’s other series which she started earlier in 1985 and has a 27th book due out next year features Hamish Macbeth

The BBC made a TV series in the late 1990s which starred Robert Carlyle as the canny young Scottish policeman – I loved it.  It fitted the Sunday night drama slot perfectly with the lovely Scottish locations and gentle humour with a slightly surreal edge to it.  There were some great characters, especially TV John – an old clairvoyant who helps Hamish, and Hamish’s on/off relationships with the two female co-stars.  There was also Wee Jock – the policeman’s West Highland Terrier.  Undemanding and always entertaining.  Will the books live up to that …

I’ve only read the first so far – Death of a Gossip, but personally I much preferred Hamish to Agatha.  The Hamish of the books is different in physical appearance to Carlyle, being tall and lanky with fiery red hair, but the approach to the policework was very similar.  It’s not that Hamish is terribly lazy, but he’s so laid back he’s almost horizontal!  He has a very laissez faire approach to his work – rather than actually arrest anyone for poaching, he’ll let them know that he knows and the poacher will lie low for a bit so the problem goes away – until the next time.  His investigative approach is similarly low-key.  The fictional Lochdubh is a picture postcard location, nestled on the lochside with a backdrop of rolling hills and moorland.

So to the murder … The Cartwrights running a fishing school, teaching small groups the art of fly fishing with access to normally out of bounds trout and salmon pools and rivers.  The latest group of eight very different students have arrived.  Within hours of starting it becomes obvious that one of the group, Lady Jane Winders is getting on everyone’s nerves.  She continues to wind everyone up, so it’s not a surprise when she ends up dead in a salmon pool!  It had to be one of the other seven students or the Cartwrights whodunnit.  Hamish was going to investigate in his own quiet way, but then DCI Blair and his team from Inverness arrive and shove him out of the way, treating him like the yokel plod he clearly isn’t.  Uncharacteristically, this winds up the normally placid PC …

Hamish changed into his uniform, admitting to his reflection in the glass that he, Hamish Macbeth, was a very angry man. In fact, he could not quite remember being so angry in all his easygoing life. He was determined to go on talking to the members of the fishing school until someone said something that gave himself away. He was not going to be frightened because it was a murder investigation. All criminals were the same whether it was a theft in the school or poaching deer in the hills. You talked, asked questions, and listened and watched and waited. The hell with Blair.

The penultimate sentence from the quote above sums up Hamish perfectly.  He does just that, and is rewarded with doing a ‘Poirot’, getting all the suspects together to reveal the murderer.   Obviously, most of the suspects, who were not locals, came out as thinly described stereotypical characters, but those who will crop up again in future books are more strongly drawn.  Although angling is of no interest to me, it didn’t dominate proceedings too much, and the necessary explanations were woven into the lecture sessions that were part of the course. 

I liked Hamish very much, and I will definitely be carrying on reading this series when the need for a cosy mystery appeals again.  (7.5/10) I bought this book.


To buy from Amazon.co.uk click below …
Death of a Gossip (Hamish Macbeth) by M C Beaton
Hamish MacBeth : Series 1-3 (6 Disc Box Set) [DVD]

Love and Landscape

Corrag by Susan Fletcher

I was always for places. I was made for the places where people did not go – like forests, or the soft marshy ground where feet sank down and to walk there made a suck suck sound. Me as a child was often in bogs. I watched frogs, or listened to how rushes were in breezes and I like that – how they sounded. Which is how I knew what I was.

So speaks Corrag; a young woman in prison accused of witchcraft and aiding members of the MacDonald clan to escape the massacre at Glencoe in 1692. In shackles and awaiting her death at the stake, she tells her story to a visitor to her cell.  How she grew up in Northumberland and had to flee into Scotland when her mother was accused of being a witch …

She shook her head. ‘You are going alone. You are leaving me now, and you must not come back. Be careful. Be brave. Never be sorry for what you are, Corrag – but do not love people. Love is too sore and makes life hard to bear …’
I nodded. I heard her, and knew.
She fastened her cloak on me. She smoothed my hair, put up the cloak’s hood.
‘Be good to every living thing,’ she whispered.
‘Listen to the voice in you.
I will never be far away from you. And I will see you again – one day.’

Corrag is Susan Fletcher’s third novel, which ultimately tells the story of the mass murder of the Jacobite MacDonald clan by soldiers under orders from King William. Corrag herself was probably real, but her visitor, Charles Leslie certainly was. He was a Stuart supporter and came from Ireland to investigate the massacre. He urges Corrag to tell what happened, but first she wants to tell him how a Sassenach girl came to live in the Highlands. Every night after listening to Corrag, he writes home to his wife, telling her all about the witch, her odd lonesome ways, her expertise with herbs, her love of the winter. He starts to become entranced by the storytelling of this illiterate little woman.

Having flown England, and survived encounters with reivers and soldiers in the border country, she discovers the glens of the Highlands, and in Glencoe Corrag finds ‘home’. She forages and filches the odd egg from the hamlets before she meets the scions of the MacIain, chief of the MacDonald clan, who give her permission to live there. Then one day she’s taken to treat the wounded MacIain and she becomes almost an honorary member of the clan. She’s attracted to the younger son Alasdair, but he’s taken – however they do have an empathy for each other, and Corrag the loner feels love. We finally get to the awful night of the 13th February 1693, and Corrag has her part to play in saving the lives of many of the MacDonalds. Leslie gets not only what he came for, but realises that he is a changed man through listening to Corrag.

Susan Fletcher manages to convey the hard life of an outsider convincingly. Corrag is wise beyond her years, and totally in tune with nature – qualities which had she not found a haven with the MacDonalds would have seen her branded a witch instantly. The descriptions of the landscape are beautiful as Corrag gets to know every nook and cranny. The lyrical prose does make for a slow burning novel though, which takes its time to get to the main event. While I did enjoy the story, I was longing for a little bit more plot and history, some background to the clan wars, the Jacobite cause, and the other characters – not least her inquisitor turned entralled audience. It was not quite what I expected; it was slightly long and dragged a little in places, but the author’s turn of phrase was a pleasure to read. (Book supplied by the publisher, 7/10)

Also reviewed by Teresa at Shelflove, and The Book Whisperer who also has an interview with Susan Fletcher.