Letters from Skye … a review

The title of this book contains two favourite words, so even before I began reading it, I knew I would like it. The entire book is written in the form of letters – between a poetess Elspeth from Skye and her pen pal David from America, and parallely Elspeth’s daughter Margaret’s letters to various people. Elspeth and David correspond during World War I and Margaret’s letters are based around the Second World War. It all begins when, upon the publication of a book of poems, Elspeth receives a rather sweet letter from a ‘fan’ in America. The story spans two generations, about two decades, two wars, and two continents – finally reaching culmination at the St Mary’s Episcopal Church in Edinburgh (it’s on Palmerston place on the West end, it’s beautiful).

The book is very well written. There isn’t much surprise in the way of the plot because the letters alternate between the two women’s stories and Margaret’s story fills us in on the gaps left in Elspeth’s. So, no surprises, really, but I enjoyed the concept and the backdrop of the war and of life on Skye. Skye is stunning and the idea of a poetess penning her thoughts as poems and letters and slowly but surely falling in love with a man she’d never met is just my type of thing. Let me warn you, however, it might not be everybody’s cup of tea; which is possibly why this book has got mixed reviews on websites etc

But like I said, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It brought scenes from Skye, Edinburgh, and London quite vividly in my head. The writing is atmospheric and evocative; the emotions expressed are very natural and believable. I’d recommend it.


The Chessmen … a review

This is the last and final book of The Lewis Trilogy. I wrote about the earlier books here and here. While the personal story of Fin has advanced quite a bit, there was bound to be some part of his dark and brooding head that we hadn’t seen. That part turns out to be a fabulously beautiful and famous woman who was the vocalist for the band that Fin drove a van for! I know, right!
Anyway, the opening bit of the book is when Fin starts a new job investigating a serious spate of illegal game poaching at a local estate. But when he runs into an old school friend Whistler Macaskill, whose turns out to be a poacher; Fin is faced with the tough choice of his principles against his loyalty.
A dead body is discovered again, this time, at the site of a plane crash. And as Fin, with the adorable George Dunn’s ‘assistance’ starts digging deeper into what he thinks is an odd coincidence and the death of an old friend, the reader is drawn deeper into another can of worms. It made me think how hateful it would be to be part of such a small community, where everyone would know everything about everyone!
Although the books in this trilogy may be read as standalones, I think that if you read them back to back, their effect is very powerful. The way Peter May writes makes the characters set up shop in my head, especially Fin. And his stories of the past, along with the dark grim truth of deaths that seem to follow him made this series a very enjoyable read.

The Lewis Man … a review

I read this book a while ago, just after the first book. This is the second book of The Lewis Trilogy, where ex Detective Inspector Finlay Macleod has now moved back to the womb, back to his native village of Crobost on the Isle of Lewis, one of the remotest of islands in the Outer Hebrides. I was going to write a little intro to the fact that there is so much that is part of this book apart from the discovery of a murdered man in a peat bog, but The Scotsman did it better, and I quote:

“like all the best crime fiction its interest is not restricted to the investigation.
It’s about the weight of the past, failed relationships, lives gone wrong and the ill-treatment of children. It may also be called a hymn in praise of the beauties of the islands and the miseries of their weather. There is a great deal of description of landscape and the elements, too much perhaps for some tastes, but you can always skim these paragraphs.”

However, I would judge you if you skimmed ‘those’ paragraphs. Scottish islands, most beautiful landscapes in the world. Anyway, the only DNA that matches that of the corpse’s turns out to be Tormod MacDonald’s, who turns out to be Marsaili’s father, who has advanced dementia. Marsaili, of course, is Fin’s love interest. In trying to prod through an ailing old man’s foggy memories, Fin finds out about the history of the island and its people. More and more people are intertwines in so many ways, like a giant spider web. And Fin finds himself right at the centre of it.
I really liked the character of George Dunn, who is on the island police force and helps Fin gather evidence even though it is against the law to give away information. It adds and element of dry humour to the book, very nicely done. Fin’s relationship with Marsaili and his new found son Fionnlagh also goes through some radical changes. More family is discovered and harder choices are made. Some very potent observations about organised religion as well there.
This book is just right as the second of a trilogy. The action is enough to bring some resolutions from the first book, but enough loose ends added as well so you have to have to read the last book! Like I said before, if you are into crime thrillers, tartan noir, handsome messed-up men, Scottish islands, go for it!

The Blackhouse … a review

You might start to see a pattern here related to the Isle of Lewis. But I can assure you that it was pure chance that I mentioned The Guga Hunters to a friend and she had read something similar in this book. So I felt I should read it too. This is the first book of The Lewis Trilogy, where Detective Inspector Finlay Macleod of Leonard’s Land Police Station in Edinburgh (sigh!) faces the ghosts of his past as horrible murders and island histories unfold around him. He is pulled into a case when his island background is deemed advantageous. In any case, it is almost a full move for him as he leaves his wife of many years in Edinburgh. The death of their young child has forced them apart and our dark and brooding hero makes the long journey to one of the remotest of island in the Outer Hebrides. Practically the edge of the world, if you ask me.

 This is a very good book. The pace is not very fast, no car chases, no gunmen, no drama. Just a careful unravelling of the close ties that knit an island community together. There are shared histories that follow every character around, and even if, like Fin, you had left years and years ago, you still got sucked into it as soon as you stepped back onto the island. There is more about the annual guga hunt. In fact, it has a bit with all of the details of how it is actually conducted. And eventually, it is here that the drama ends up, on this rock surrounded by the Atlantic – ruthless and relentless.

 The resolution of events was a bit predictable. Or maybe that is the wrong word, let us just say that it did not surprise me. But there were plenty of elements on the way that did, and kept me hooked. Fin is very likeable, with his confusion and his good looks. He has been dominating my reading scene since, and I’m on the last part of the trilogy just now. If you are into crime thrillers, tartan noir, handsome messed-up men, Scottish islands, go for it!

The Guga Hunters … a review

I picked this book up because it seemed intriguing, it was a hardback, and it was discounted 70%. The plot was set around the premise of men from the Isle of Lewis  in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland going to hunt gugas, or chicks of large sea birds called gannets. It seemed bizarre enough that I thought it was fiction. Turns out, like all great stories, it was not! The men on the port of Ness on Lewis have special permission from the Society of Preservation of Birds to go out on an annual pilgrimage and hunt up to 2000 gugas. It is a tradition that dates back to hundreds of years and is considered sustainable because it keeps the population of these birds under control.

I am not going into whether I think this is wrong or right. To be honest, I don’t have an opinion. If they are delicious and considered a local delicacy, and if there is a cap on the numbers hunted each year, I think it is okay. But the book is a beautiful read. From the history of the islanders that belong to one of the most remote populations of the world to atmospheric descriptions of the Sula Sgeir, it is very well written. Sula Sgeir is the rock to which these men go to hunt. It is on this rock that generations of Ness boys are deemed to  have become men, once their first trip is complete. The author himself is a local, and descriptions of the landscape and weather are very nicely written. The men brave inclement weather conditions, the hunt can only be organised at a certain time of the year. The chicks have to be the right age and the window is crucial. Stormy seas and incredibly strong winds do nothing to deter the hardy islanders. And to think that this has gone on for years and year is quite a humbling thing to know about the tenacity of humans.

I read non-fiction after a very long time. But that did not matter because for the most past, the details seemed too far removed from modern times and modern places to be actually thought of as real. It felt like a story. I love reading about other cultures and to think through their minds, to see what they see, in a book, makes me respect the book as a good friend. I do believe that this book is discounted in many stores and online shops so if you think, go for it.

Teaser Tuesday (October 07)

My teaser:

“The wind almost rips the car door off. I have to strain bodily just to slam it weakly shut. Jesus Freezus. I close my eyes. The wind flaps and whacks me like a fat black towel that’s been dipped in seaheavy salt.

From (page 34 Penguin Global 2007) of The Stornoway Way.

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!


A School in South Uist: Reminiscences of a Hebridean Schoolmaster, 1890-1913 … a review

As I was saying earlier, I’ve been hooked to this book set in one of the Hebridean islands. An English schoolteacher in the late 1800s, for want of more earning, applies to teach in a school in South Uist. As luck would have it, he gets picked as head teacher. It is his first trip to Scotland, and certainly his first to one of the isles. Now, just like this man, I too was new to Scotland last year. I visited my first Isle this year. Though there’s been about 120 years between us, the emotions that the isles of Scotland evoked in him are much the same as they did in me.

From Wikipedia, “The Hebrides comprise a widespread and diverse archipelago off the west coast of mainland Scotland. There are two main groups: the Inner and Outer Hebrides. These islands have a long history of occupation dating back to the Mesolithic and the culture of the residents has been affected by the successive influences of Celtic, Norse and English-speaking peoples. This diversity is reflected in the names given to the islands, which are derived from the languages that have been spoken there in historic and perhaps prehistoric times.”

They are islands in the Atlantic and their coasts are rugged, windy, and unforgiving. The landscape is different on every island. Skye for instance is dominated by the sharpness of the Cuillin hills and the jagged cliffs on the Trotternish peninsula. Arran, however, has gentler slopes and a softness of landscape. The islanders are kind and deeply religious, and it is easy to understand why. If you’ve ever been there, you’ll have seen that the sea and the rain and the wind make a combination of tremendous proportions. And if there is a God, he resides there. 

Anyway, back to the book. So our schoolmaster begins an instruction in English, and as his pupils have spoken Gaelic before his arrival, it takes everyone a while to adjust. His experiences during his stay include getting lost and hardening up. Everything is relatively new to him, weddings, dances, food, celebrations, hospitality. And as almost no one speaks English, his experiences are less vocal and more tactile, if that’s possible. He appreciated the wildlife and the weather, the culture and the life. And for his part, he did a wonderful job at school, with the help of father Allan, and brought in new practices like a lending library, midday meal, and an exercise routine. 

This book has made it to my best books read list. It is a brilliant memoir. The book is probably hard to find and definitely not very popular, so you might have to look for a while for it. However, in the meantime, what you could occupy yourself with, is the BBC Series on Hebrides. It is brilliant!

Quote: “One calm night my brothers went out into the garden, and called me to join them, and, on my doing so, one of them said in an awed voice: ‘Isn’t it wonderful!’ The word was justified. All was perfectly still; not a murmur came from the sea, no cry of bird nor bark of dog was heard, and there was a complete silence.

Overhead the sky was a canopy of deep cobalt-blue. There was no moon, but myriads of stars shone so brightly in the clear air that by their light the whole landscape around us stood out in every detail to the south: the hills, the lochs, the road down to the sea, the sea itself with its islands placid and dark, the crofters’ cots, and the inn by the shore. The stars did not appear to be in the sky but hanging from it like globular lams, so that I remember my impulse was to raise my arms and to clasp my hands around them, as would be the urge had they been beautiful scintillating diamond balls. 

On our looking north there was not a star to be seen, but a huge black curtain of brooding cloud lay across the horizon for many miles from east to west, shutting out all beyond. As we watched wonderingly, a wave of light crossed this dark curtain like a beam from some gigantic search-light sweeping from east to west, a distance of, perhaps, fifty miles; again and again this light wave swept backwards and forwards across the black cloud; then the top edge of the dark curtain of cloud became tinged with crimson as though an enormous fire were burning behind it and were reflected at the top edge. Streaks of light now flashed upwards and then downwards on the black barrier of cloud; brilliant streamers of coruscations in different colours next appeared, till the whole brilliant spectacle resembled a mammoth firework display, but far transcending in splendour any such human effort.

Gradually as we gazed in silence, the brilliance of the lights began to wane, whilst the whole curtain seemed to pulsate; fainter and fainter became the manifestation, the waves of light fewer and slower, till at last they ceased altogether, and nothing remained but the silence, a dark cloud, and the star lamps in the dome of the sky overhead.”

Teaser Tuesday (September 24)

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My teasers:

“They might have stepped straight from one of Scott’s novels. The dull laden-skied winter afternoon, with a piercing cold wind blowing across the bare landscape seemed completely in keeping with them. I remember how, with a heart sinking in foreboding, I murmured to myself: ‘Now I am in Scotland!'”

From Page 2 (Routledge and Kegan Paul ltd 1964) of A School in South Uist: Reminiscences of a Hebridean Schoolmaster, 1890-1913.


Musing Mondays (September 23)

Musing Mondays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Musing Mondays asks you to muse about one of the following each week…

  • Describe one of your reading habits.
  • Tell us what book(s) you recently bought for yourself or someone else, and why you chose that/those book(s).
  • What book are you currently desperate to get your hands on? Tell us about it! 
  • Tell us what you’re reading right now — what you think of it, so far; why you chose it; what you are (or, aren’t) enjoying it.
  • Do you have a bookish rant? Something about books or reading (or the industry) that gets your ire up? Share it with us!
  • Instead of the above questions, maybe you just want to ramble on about something else pertaining to books — let’s hear it, then!

My Musing:

I am going through a spate of, as I call it, Scotland reading. I am trying to read stuff set in places I have been to, the highlands, the islands. I am also trying to read books about places that I haven’t had a chance to visit, or maybe never will. I bought a couple of books a couple of weeks ago, one set in Orkney and another one set in South Uist. I love the Hebrides. I believe that they are a generalised lot, but each island, each settlement has got tremendous character and poignance of its own. The islands of Scotland are a land of harsh climes and warm hearths – they are lands that are ravaged by the cycles of nature and yet are ever-changing and unchanging. I think the islands off the coast of the Island (UK) are just  that – islands of islands. Can a satellite have satellites?