Top Ten Tuesday – Books set in Scotland

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Top ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.  This week they have given a little bit of a free rein with the choice of a Top Ten set wherever you choose. After what was probably excess consideration, I decided on a Top Ten set in Scotland.

  1. Emotionally Weird – Kate Atkinson. It’s a while since I read this one. Effie is desperate to know who her father is but her mother isn’t about to give her the details straightaway. What follows are typical Atkinson characters and strange tales.
  2. The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks. Perhaps the ultimate Scottish novel. Frank, the narrator is disturbed, describing the strange rituals and killings he has carried out.
  3. White Nights – Anne Cleeves – I’ve only read two of this series so far and I preferred this one to the first because it the main characters seemed more fully drawn. The Shetland setting is important to the story with the constant light of the summer months affecting people’s mental stability.
  4. The Trick is to Keep Breathing – Janice Galloway. Joy, the narrator, is depressed and struggling with her job, her boyfriend and life in general. The narrative reflects her fractured thought processes.
  5. A Disaffection – James Kelman – This is one of my favourite books of all time. Patrick, a teacher, becomes sickened by his job, his life – everything really – and slowly goes about destroying everything he has.
  6. The Distant Echo – Val McDermid – This was the first McDermid I read and it was compelling from start to finish. Four friends are suspected of a murder but there is no evidence. Now, twenty five years later, the case is reopened and a stranger is out for revenge.
  7. Rebus series – Ian Rankin. It is impossible for me to pick a favourite from these books. They are all superb and definitely could not be set anywhere else. Rankin’s descriptions of Edinburgh and the surrounding area are one of the main reasons I keep returning to this series.
  8. The Devil’s Carousel – Jeff Torrington. A series of stories set in a car plant in Renfrewshire, this is as funny as it is depressing.
  9. Morvern Caller – Alan Warner – Okay, so this is only partly set in Scotland but it is still Scottish through and through. Morvern wakes up to find her boyfriend has committed suicide but her reaction to this is not what you would expect. Superbly disturbing.
  10. Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh – The first and still the best of Welsh’s novels. This completely blew me away the first time I read it and every time I have re-read it since. There is still nothing like it.

The Non Fiction Challenge – If This is a Man / The Truce – Primo Levi

2016 Nonfiction Challenge

Genre: Autobiography, History

Narrative Style: First person account

Rating: 5/5

Published: This edition published 1979, first published 1958Unknown-1

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Levi was arrested as part of an Italian Anti-Facist movement and then sent to Auschwitz where he remained for the last year of the war. If This is a Man is his account of life in the camp, The Truce details the liberation of the camp and his incredible journey home. 

Reading Challenges: The Non Fiction Challenge.

I inherited this book a couple of years ago and I’d wanted to read it for longer than that so when the Non-Fiction Challenge came along, it was the excuse I’d been waiting for. Reading about the concentration camps was never going to be easy so I was glad of a reason to make me pick it up.

In one way, it wasn’t as awful a read as I might have expected. In If This is a Man, Levi focuses on the will to survive and the different strategies that are employed by his friends and fellow prisoners. Like in Schindler’s List, the emphasis is on survival and overcoming so the book becomes a description of the strength of human nature.

This is not to say that Levi avoids writing about the horrors of the camp. He describes them in calm, rational manner that almost makes it harder to take than if he were angry. In the afterword, he says that he felt he had to bear witness and relate it in as factual a way as possible. In this he is successful and the reader is given a clear picture of what life was life. He does not flinch from details but also does not become overly emotional about them. Quite how he has achieved being so lucid and calm is beyond me but without a doubt it is what makes these books so powerful.

The Truce detailed his journey home. You might imagine – and I certainly did – that once the camp was liberated, that would be the end of it. But , of course, Europe was in complete disarray at the end of the war and so there were plenty of difficulties still to be overcome.

The map at the beginning of the book shows the ridiculous nature of the journey, heading at first in completely the wrong direction, into Russia. The journey was not without hardships but they are of a different nature because Levi and his fellow travellers know they are now free. This creates a different atmosphere to that of If This is a Man, a more positive and hopeful one.

Again, Levi details the many strategies used in order to survive and there are many interesting characters – some from the camp, some new – to interest the reader. It is more entertaining than the first book. I’m glad I read them together as after the horror of the camp, it was good to know that Levi managed to get home to his family.

Eclectic Reader Challenge: Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson

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Genre: Adventure, Classics

Narrative Style: First person

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1883Treasure-Island

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Jim Hawkins is tasked with telling the story of how he came into possession of a treasure map and then how he took to sea to get the treasure. He comes into contact with a host of exciting characters along the way – Long John Silver, Ben Gunn and Captain Flint to name but a few.

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge – Set on an Island. (I know that it isn’t entirely island set but the island is such a crucial part of the story, I decided to stick with it.)

When I mentioned that I was going to read this book, my husband was astonished that I hadn’t read it, as he had, as a child. I pointed out that Treasure Island wasn’t the sort of book that was bought for female children. I got Little Women, Anne of Green Gables and Black Beauty (a list confirmed when speaking to female friends who are my age). And then once I was buying books for myself, it retained some of its boyishness and I assumed for a long time that I wouldn’t like it.

This was not the case. This is a very enjoyable adventure story. I’m not sure, however, that I would have liked it aged 12 when I was reading Little Women. The single female character is Jim’s mother and she is barely in it. I’m not so in need of female companionship in a book now though.

The story itself is straightforward. Jim comes into possession of a treasure map and with the aid of Doctor Livesey, Squire Trelawney and Captain Smollet sets out to find the island and then the treasure. There are many bumps along the way but as this story is being told in hindsight, it is apparent Jim will survive. Not that this means there is no tension, there are plenty of moments when you wonder how Jim will escape but escape he does.

The best – and probably most famous – character is Long John Silver. He is superbly amoral, shifting allegiance so frequently, it is impossible to get a handle on him. He seems genuinely affectionate towards Jim but this may just be part of his ploy to avoid the rope. I like the fact that this is read by children and it isn’t just a straightforward morality tale.

I did find the ending a little bit disappointing but possibly only because I didn’t want it to be over. This is really good fun with an exciting plot and larger than life characters. Well worth anybody’s time.

The Non Fiction Challenge – Just Kids – Patti Smith

2016 Nonfiction Challenge

Genre: Autobiography / Memoir

Narrative Style: First personUnknown

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2010

Format: Paperback

Reading Challenges: The Non Fiction Challenge

Synopsis: Patti tells of her relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe and their time in New York in the late sixties and early seventies, just before both of them became famous. 

It is apt that I discovered Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe together and to me they have always come as a pair. In 1992, my then boyfriend bought a copy of Horses (On vinyl, of course. That’s the sort of students we were.) and we rushed home to listen to it. The music blew me away. I had never heard anything like it. But I was also really taken with the photo of Patti on the front (taken by Mapplethorpe) which seemed to encapsulate something of the music. Patti was all PattiSmithHorsesmasculine elegance, a look I was trying – with less success – to pull of myself. (This was a time when I thought I was Jim Morrison and wandered around in outsize men’s shirts and leather trousers.) I quickly discovered it was by Robert and was soon as fascinated by his photography as I was by Patti’s music.

I knew a little of their relationship already, having read a biography of Patti Smith some years ago but it was interesting to hear it from the horse’s mouth, as it were. It isn’t just the relationship between Patti and Robert that is so interesting but also her description of the times which saw them mixing with Warhol and the members of The Factory and staying at the Chelsea Hotel to name but two things.

Of course, the whole thing is tinged with sadness. At the end, Patti says that Robert asked her to write the story of them and it had taken her until then to be strong enough to do it. (He died in 1989 and this was published in 2010) Her longing for Robert to still be alive is in every word of this and it seems apparent that she misses him still. When I was approaching the end, I found myself preparing for the horror of his death. My relationship with his work has always been tinged with sadness as by the time I discovered him, he was already dead and I was sad to think there would never be any new work from this amazing artist. It was an emotional end and not at all easy to read. You get a real sense of how difficult it must have been for Patti to carry on afterwards.

 

Eclectic Reader Challenge 2016: The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

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Genre: Paranormal Romance, Magic Realism

Narrative Style: Third person from a variety of view points. Non-chronological

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2011Unknown-1

Format: Kindle

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2016 – Genre paranormal romance

Synopsis: Celia is trained by her father to take part in a mysterious magical competition. She is bound by the scar on her finger. She has no idea what the rules are or who her opponent will be. Marco is rescued from an orphanage by a strange man who trains him in the art of magic. He too has a scar. 

The Cirque de Reves appears in towns with no warning. It is the most amazing thing that people have ever seen. They go back night after night as there is always more to explore. Then the circus disappears just as suddenly. Could this be the playing field for two extraordinary young illusionists?

I was dreading this genre, conjuring up as it did images of vampires and ridiculously twee films. I’m not really a romance fan and the addition of some supernatural creature didn’t make it any more appealing. When I started to read The Night Circus, I didn’t realise that it would fit but it soon became apparent that this was a romance.

From the start, there is a magical atmosphere. Celia’s father is an entertainer, a magician who has to make his illusions less good so that the public think it is not real. His training of Celia is ruthless. He is determined to win the game and Celia is his pawn. Marco is trained in a different way but his trainer – the mysterious man in grey – is equally determined. The stage is set straightaway for a magical battle.

Admittedly, the pace is slow but I liked that. There was so much illusion, so much beautiful description that it would have been a shame to miss out on it. The circus is almost like another character in the book as it quickly takes on a life of its own. We learn of the different personalities and are given hints of future events. The act of reading this book was not unlike a visit to the circus. You want to take it slow so you can take in every detail.

The romance is equally slow burning. It takes a while for Marco and Celia to realise they are adversaries and then when they do, they are frightened by the intensity of feeling when they are together. Finally, they discover that the only way to end the game is for one of them to die. They realise they have to find a way to escape.

I did find the changing chronological sections a little confusing. I spent a lot of time looking back at chapters to see when they were set. However, I think that it worked. The importance of the character of Bailey becomes apparent and I realised why Morgenstern had structured it the way she had.

This was one of those books that I didn’t want to finish. It was so beautiful, I felt really sad leaving it behind. Still, it is good to think of the circus carrying on, appearing suddenly to charm people before disappearing into mystery again.

Eclectic Reader Challenge 2016 – The Kraken Wakes – John Wyndham

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Genre: Dystopia, Disaster

Narrative Style: First person

Rating: 4/5Unknown

Published: 1953

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: The first sign that anything is amiss is when strange globes start to appear over the sea and then sink under the waves. Nobody thinks anything of it at first but then ships start to disappear and worse, islands start to be attacked. Mike Watson and his wife, Phyllis are caught in the reporting of the events as they quickly escalate. 

Unlike a lot of disaster style fiction, this novel takes you through events as they happen rather than what happens afterwards. At the beginning, Mike and Phyllis Watson are watching icebergs flow past them. Clearly something has gone very wrong. They decide that an account needs to be written of what has brought the world to this sorry state.

There are three separate stages to events. The first is the seemingly harmless phenomenon of strange red balls in the sky that seem to disappear under the waves. Next ships start to disappear and attempts at discovering what may be beneath the waves end with ships being destroyed along with strange creatures starting to invade islands and coasts. When people start to fight back and the creatures are curtailed then the icebergs start to mysteriously melt and the flood waters start to rise.

Mike and Phyllis are journalists and this is apparent in the report that Mike writes. There is a distance between them and events – with them often reporting back about events that they have not actually seen. Consequently the reader is a little distanced from it as well. There was little in the way of emotional response from Mike even when he describes having to get away from it all because he is stressed by events.

Wyndham allows Mike to comment on world affairs and reactions and this is much more successful. The comments about Russian and American reactions and about Government propaganda were apt and clever. The character of Bocker, who in the beginning prophesies doom, goes through many stages in the book – starting off being ostracised until finally he is the only one who has actually got anything right. This shows how the media works to create heroes and villains when it suits them.

I found the ending a bit disappointing. Perhaps because it seemed a bit too neat. It reminded me a little of my disappointment at the end of H G Wells The War of the Worlds. It was almost like a cheat. Or like Wyndham had got fed up with telling the story. Apart from that, this was a very enjoyable and very clever tale of disaster and the way that Governments respond to them.

Eclectic Reader Challenge 2016 – Joyland – Stephen King

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Genre: Crime, Supernatural

Narrative Style: First person recount

Published: 2013 – part of the Hard Case Crime series9781781162644

Rating: 3/5

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Devin Jones takes a summer job at Joyland funfair and discovers the ghost of a girl murdered on the ghost train. After he and his friend Erin investigate, they discover other girls killed while the carnival was in town. Was there a serial killer on the loose?

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2016 – genre Serial Killers

That synopsis makes this story sound a whole lot more exciting than it really is. I was hoping for a hard boiled crime story with some blood and gore on the side. I haven’t read any Stephen King for a while (in fact that last one I read was probably Needful Things when that came out in 1991) but I was hoping for good things.

To be fair, a lot of the things that King is really good at are present here. The sense of Devin looking back on his life with a sense of nostalgia and pain was very well written. Devin himself was believable and likeable. The ghostly elements were quite well handled and I was willing to suspend my disbelief.

The problem was there was just too much other plot going on. The ghost is introduced quite early on and then there is a lot of setting the scene with Devin explaining about his soon to be ex-girlfriend. I kept thinking, when are we going to get on with the action. In the middle, there is a flurry of activity and we learn that there is indeed a serial killer but this is quickly put on the back burner again.

This is supposed to be a crime novel but it really wanted to be a romance. The story of Devin and Annie and her disabled son Mike was necessary to the plot but I felt it took up too much time. It really slowed the pace. As a consequence, when the killer is revealed at the end, it seemed rushed and unbelievable. I didn’t spot who the killer was although the clues were all there. That wasn’t the problem. I don’t want to give any spoilers but I found it unsatisfactory.

I haven’t read any of the other books in this series but in this case Hard Crime is a misnomer. There is nothing hard about this book. It is completely soft and the ending was overly sentimental and corny. I couldn’t help feeling that King could have done better.

Finally, I feel the carnival setting was ultimately wasted. Carnivals are a little strange and sinister at the best of times. This could have been exceptionally creepy. Instead, it is all giant dogs dancing the hokey cokey and disabled kids getting the ride of their lives. Too sweet for my tastes, I’m afraid.