Thursday, March 21, 2024

Columba's Bones - David Greig

Packing shorter books was a sound plan, I'm on a roll with them - Columba's Bones is 183 pages, both myself and husband read it yesterday with plenty of time to discuss how much we enjoyed it. It's book 4 in Polygon's Dark Lands series which has different authors take a moment in Scotland's history and re-imagine it. It's an excellent series to date with the promise of more good things to come.

I've been sitting on this book for a few months - it came out in October last year - of all the books in the series so far it was the least immediately appealing to me and my expectations for it were relatively low. As it happens I loved it, it also turned out to be a good companion read with Carys Davies 'Clear', touching on some similar themes. 

It opens with a short description of Iona, I as it was known in early times, as the Viking Grimur sees it sometime around 825 as he lands in a raiding party. From the Viking's point of view the raid is of mixed success - they do not find the reliquary they seek, but they get plenty of other silver and slaves. From the monk's point of view it's disastrous, almost all of them are brutally slaughtered, their monastery all but destroyed. Grimur gets dead drunk and is buried alive - but emerges more or less unscathed so his day is more mixed. 

Grimur emerges from the ground to find a single remaining monk, and Una the mead wife responsible for seeing him into his premature grave are all that's left of Iona's population. everyone else has shifted to Mull or beyond where they'll be better protected from future raids. The three form bonds of friendship and affection despite their differences, and then as Autumn comes the raiders return threatening everything all over again.

It's a funny, often brutal, insightful book. Greig uses fairly contemporary idiom to good effect, succinctly capturing the emotions of his characters when faced with either the necessity to slaughter or the impact that violence has on those who witness it. The humour emerges in the relationship between Grimur and Una who make each other laugh.

Greig's obvious knowledge and love for the Viking saga's is something else I loved about this book. He captures the rhythm of them when he talks about his Vikings, along with their jokes and epic nature. Brother Martin's struggles are told in a different voice, closer to the plainsong chanting of the monks perhaps. Iona is used well too - a living island with a pull of its own on the imagination, there's a tantalizing hint that it's a place of magic - although the nature of that magic is ambiguous - it could mean saintly miracles, or the promise of a home.

More than anything though, I think I might be charmed by moments like this: 

"In August, the puffins had left I. A Thousand tiny bird ships with muti-coloured head-prows bob on the wild green sea."

It's a perfectly evocative description, and one of many that will make this a book to turn back to. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Clear - Carys Davies

Good intentions got away with me and it's been a while. I'm currently on holiday in the Scottish borders - idyllic, so idyllic and full of nice things to do that despite packing a lot of books I only had time to start reading yesterday (we got here on Saturday). Before that I read Holly Black's new YA title (The Prisoner's Throne) and then started re-reading through some of her previous titles just for the fun of it. More about that when I get home.

My holiday book packing was mostly shorter books that I want to clear from my TBR pile, one I had low expectations of and a couple I'm excited by. 'Clear' by Carys Davies was the low-expectation book, it's getting glowing reviews but I'm distinctly ambivalent about it. It's set in 1843 against a background of the Scottish clearances and the great disruption of the Scottish church. John Ferguson is one of the ministers who has joined the Free Church, putting himself and his wife in a perilous financial situation in the process. 

To ease this he has accepted a job found through his brother in law to visit a remote (imaginary) island somewhere between Shetland and Norway. He is to serve the last remaining inhabitant with an eviction notice and survey it for the suitability of putting sheep on it. Unfortunately, he meets with a near fatal accident almost immediately and ends up being pulled naked, and unconscious from the beach by the man he has come to displace. 

Over the next few weeks they slowly build a relationship, despite Ivar having lived entirely alone for 20 years and John Ferguson not speaking his language, based on the Norn that would once have been spoken in Orkney and Shetland. The reason for John being there, and Ivar's withholding of the photograph of John's wife that he found before he rescued the man sit as uneasy secrets between them.

Carys Davies writes well, but there's a lot of story to fit into 146 pages and I think she's trying to do too much. She was partly inspired by Jacob Jacobsen's dictionary of the Norn language - a Faroese researcher who came to Shetland in 1893. The last known Norn speaker had died in 1850, although plenty of words survived. It's worth reading up on Jacob Jacobsen's work and the influence it had. 

My issue with this book is that I feel the setting and the plot are at odds. I can go with Ivar being the last man standing on his small island after everybody else chooses to leave, I can't quite imagine the size of it - maybe something like a thousand acres based on the number of sheep expected to live on it. I can imagine the climate, though I'm not convinced that Davies has, but the bigger issue is that the island has essentially already been cleared. I'm not even sure why the factor assumes that Ivar is still alive, but the small amount of land he uses to feed himself would have no discernable impact on the number of sheep that could live there and he'd be the ideal shepherd. The airy dismissal that such a role is required doesn't really make sense.

I spent far too long considering the logistics of getting a lot of sheep to the Island, the chances of losing a lot of sheep over the edge of the island, the chances of losing sheep to passing sailors, and if it would make economic sense to go so far to remove the wool and the quantities of unwanted rams each year. There's also the probability that a man who has spent so much of his adult life alone isn't remembering a language once spoken, but has developed his own language to describe the world around himself.

There's also the relationship between Ivar and John Ferguson, which initially seems to be framed in terms of a parent and child dynamic, first Ivar takes care of the completely helpless Ferguson, and then as Ferguson regains his strength and memories he seems to take a paternal interest in his companion, the pivot to a more romantic relationship between them again felt like trying to force too much into the small space of the book. 

You cannot always have it all even when you're the author, so for all the beautiful writing, this lived down to the expectations I came at it with. 

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Game Without Rules - Michael Gilbert

That's another week that's gotten away from me - we've been both short-staffed and very busy at work - it's been all I can do to stay awake long enough to eat and shower when I get home. Hopes of finishing a jumper I'm working on by next week have gone by the wayside.

I have managed to reclaim 'Game Without Rules' from my husband for long enough to write about it though. Michael Gilbert is one of my favourite discoveries from the British Library Crime Classics series, the three novels they've republished are all excellent (Death has Deep Roots, Smallbone Deceased and Death has Deep Notes). Gilbert wrote a lot, Mr. Behrans and Mr. Calder are recurring characters in a series of short stories - this collection spans the 1960s and for the most part I love them, but they're harder to recommend than the novels.

Mr Clader and Mr Behrans are Second World War veterans of the utmost outward respectability. They're also spies and assassins for British intelligence. Gilbert's style here verges on the clipped noir of a Raymond Chandler but with more humour and distinctly British. Written at the height of the Cold War for a generation whose morality had been shaped by a hot war there are things here that seem startlingly callous. It's a very effective way of creating an atmosphere and beats Ian Flemming's Bond novels hands down for me.

In the case of this particular edition, there are a couple of annoying typos which are a distraction. They don't bother me too much, but I know for some people it's enough to ruin a book. There are also some old-fashioned attitudes toward race which read oddly now. I wouldn't call it racism as such, it certainly doesn't seem to me that that was ever Gilbert's intention or way of thinking (though I'm not well qualified to judge) but it's definitely a colonial way of thinking, and 60 years or more after these stories were first written some of them have aged better than others. I don't find Gilbert offensive, but it seems worth saying that readers with more finely tuned sensitivities might.

There may be the death of some pets which I found extremely upsetting - as I was meant too, and again I feel like a fair warning is due. Otherwise if you like a bit of cold war espionage you're hitting gold with this book and you should buy it immediately. 

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Someone From The Past - Margot Bennett

I've been in a bit of a slump recently, sleeping badly and very tired, which has mad doing anything seem like exceptionally hard work. It's been all I can do to drag myself through a workday more often than not, and there doesn't seem to have been time for anything else. I think this might partly be due to the pills I'm taking to counter the symptoms of large fibroids - I'm 9 weeks in and the upside is I think they might be settling down and that just maybe I'll find a new normal. The downside is that it's taken this long and if this is the new normal it's not great.

Meanwhile the books have been piling up and I haven't known where to start or what my concentration would hold up to - but luckily I picked up 'Someone From the Past' this weekend, and I have been enthralled. I read and liked both of Margot Bennett's previous titles from the British Library crime classics series (The Man Who Didn't Fly was twisty and interesting, The Widow Of Bath - atmospheric British Noir) but for me this book leaves both of those standing.

'Someone From the Past' was published in 1958, our narrator, Nancy is 26, she's in love with Donald, but he's also been in love with her best friend Sarah, who makes an ill-timed re-appearence for Nancy just as it looks like Donald is about to propose. Someone has been threatening Sarah and she wants Nancy to find out before she marries serious money. The next day Sarah is dead, Donald is in it up to his neck, and Nancy is lurching from crisis to crisis as she tries to protect her man, evade the police, and find out who actually killed her friend. 

I loved this book for the way it shows 2 young women from outside of conventional society making their way up the social ladder on the fringes of bohemian post-war London. They meet working for a magazine publisher, they work their way up, go to parties, have affairs, and slowly reinvent themselves. Both women know it must be one of the men from Sarah's past who threatened her. Nancy knows it's someone she considered a friend, and maybe more, who must have killed her. 

The mystery is good, the clues are there for the reader to spot (I spotted the clues, but not quite the killer) and the characters, revealed in flashbacks, are nuanced and sympathetic, but it's the atmosphere and the friendship between Nancy and Sarah that make this so special. It's a view of the 1950s that I don't often see - and miles away from a Miss Marple vision. Nancy is a fast talker full of wisecracks and sarcasm - both women clearly live (or lived) by their own moral code which Bennett makes clear is just fine. For all the destruction Sarah's beauty leaves in its wake we never doubt her intrinsic loyalty or kindness, or the hard work that she's put into her magazine career. 

Bennett has Sarah make observations that feel important, but are too much of a spoiler to discuss here - but honestly, this has gone straight to the top of the list of my favourite books in this series and I absolutely encourage you to read it.