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.

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)

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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