Posted in Book Reviews

Burnout by Claire MacLeary – Sunday Herald

CROSS Purpose, Claire MacLeary’s striking debut novel, introduced Harcus & Laird, an odd couple of middle-aged Aberdonian quines turned private investigators. It was longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year. In Burnout, Maggie Laird and Big Wilma Harcus return, rebuilding the private investigations company that Maggie’s late husband ran after his dishonourable dismissal from the police force. Maggie hasn’t given up hope of clearing her husband’s name but in the meantime she has to work as a private investigator to pay the bills that her part-time job at a local school doesn’t cover.

She meets with Sheena Struthers, a well-to-do woman from an affluent area of Aberdeen, who thinks her husband is trying to kill her. Maggie is surprised but sympathetic, seeing a little of herself in Sheena. Wilma, on the other hand, is furious that she has accepted Sheena as a client, the pair having agreed to stay away from domestic cases. ‘Ah’m only tryin to protect you, ya feal quine,’ says Wilma. The most serious disagreement of their fledging partnership threatens both their personal and professional relationships. By showing their differing reactions to Sheena’s problem, Maggie compassionate and Wilma doubting, MacLeary has added depth to both characters. Maggie is also trying to support Ros, a young teacher, whom she befriends during breaks at school. Ros is suffocating in a marriage where her narcissistic husband calls all the shots but she is trying to make it work for the sake of their baby son.

Wilma juggles Harcus & Laird cases with a job as a cleaner at a local hospital. She relishes getting out and about, following up on insurance claims to establish whether they are genuine or fraudulent. This means that Wilma is rarely at home and Ian, her usually easy-going husband, is far from happy. With the growing distance between herself and Maggie, Wilma struggles to cope.

After several meetings during which Sheena provides little evidence for her husband’s alleged murderous tendencies, Maggie tries to point her client towards a doctor. When Sheena is later found unconscious in her own home, Maggie wonders if she has missed a vital clue. She is interviewed by DI Chisolm, formerly a colleague of her late husband, who is investigating Sheena’s case, and also calls on DS Burnett, who has long carried a torch for her, to help with a personal matter.

The Aberdeen setting provides an interestingly tough background and MacLeary doesn’t shy away from using strong language appropriate for her characters. She touches on current social issues, such as violence against women and the discrimination they face, particularly when dealing with public bodies such as the police. Working-class Wilma’s surprising lack of confidence allows MacLeary to explore class, an issue that continues to haunt British society. But she also leavens the tale with some welcome humour, Wilma seeing the funny side of even the most troubling circumstances. Harcus & Laird’s second outing is as absorbing as their first. This is a thoroughly entertaining series that could run and run.

Burnout by Claire MacLeary is published by Contraband, priced £8.99

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Posted in Book Reviews

Hotel Silence – Book Oxygen Review

Hotel Silence

Auour Ava Olafsdottir

Published by Pushkin Press 22 February 2018

224pp, paperback, £9.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

 

Jonas is a middle-aged man in crisis; getting tattooed is just one sign of his malaise. The anchors of his life have come loose and he is not sure there is a reason to go on. His wife has divorced him, but not before telling him that his twenty-something daughter, Gudrun Waterlily, is not his biological child. His mother has dementia and is sliding into another world. Her lucid moments are becoming more and more rare, and Jonas misses the woman she was. He decides to end it all and calmly contemplates his options. He feels he can’t subject Gudrun Waterlily to the horror of finding his body and decides to disappear, choosing to travel to Hotel Silence, in an unidentified war-torn country, currently experiencing a lull in hostilities. He takes a toolbox and drill with him in case he decides to hang himself and needs to put up a hook.

Icelandic author Olafsdottir’s prose is pleasingly, engagingly spare as she allows things to be left unsaid between the various characters and in the narrative as a whole, leaving gaps that readers must fill in for themselves. Considering the initial subject matter – suicide – this novel is by no means a glum or depressing read. The author has gifted Jonas with a dry wit and an often funny, matter-of-fact attitude to ending his life.

Unexpectedly, Jonas finds life amongst people who have suffered great losses and hardship gives him a new perspective. Hotel Silence, run by brother and sister, Fifi and May, is rundown and in need of many small repairs. Toolbox in hand, Jonas starts to enjoy the feeling of being needed again as he fixes problems around the hotel. He befriends May, who has a young son, Adam, and feels he has a place in the world again. The locals, many of whom are physically and mentally scarred, make Jonas re-assess his life and his decision to end it. Whilst he feels cast adrift, these people have faced the ghastliness of war and yet they do not talk about the past, only their plans to rebuild their shattered lives. He also reads his student notebooks and rediscovers himself as a young man.

Hotel Silence (winner of the Icelandic Literature Prize) could easily become a run-of-the-mill story of one man’s search for redemption but Olafsdottir makes sure that there are no simplistic, happy endings for everyone. Jonas’s spiritual journey from depression to a kind of normality is echoed by the attempts of the locals living around Hotel Silence to return to their pre-war lives. A sense of hope for the future is present in the latter part of the novel, in contrast to the opening chapters. In Jonas, Olafsdottir has created a rounded, humorous character and it is a pleasure to spend some time in his company.

 

 
Posted in Book Reviews

The Sealwoman’s Gift – Herald Review

Review: The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

This is an impressive debut from Sally Magnusson who seems to have inherited her Icelandic ancestors’ talent for beguiling storytelling

This is an impressive debut from Sally Magnusson who seems to have inherited her Icelandic ancestors’ talent for beguiling storytelling

The Sealwoman’s Gift

Sally Magnusson

Two Roads, £16.99

Review by Shirley Whiteside

In the 17th century, Barbary pirates prowled European waters, abducting men, women and children and selling them in the slave markets of Algiers and Morocco.

In 1627, pirates raided Iceland and the Reverend Olafur Egilsson, his wife and their children were taken from the small coastal island of Westman along with some 400 of their friends and neighbours. After a long and difficult voyage aboard an overcrowded ship, they arrived at the Algiers slave market. The islanders were sold but Egilsson was freed so that he could go to the King of Denmark, Norway and Iceland to petition for a ransom for his compatriots. Egilsson wrote about his experiences in The Travels of Reverend Olafur Egilsson: Captured by Pirates in 1627, but there are no records of how Asta, his wife, fared in a foreign land. For her debut novel, Sally Magnusson has given voice to Asta and she emerges as an intelligent, courageous woman making the best of what life has thrown at her.

Asta has been contentedly married to the much older Egilsson for several years. They have three children and a fourth on the way. Life on Westman is hard. The weather is frequently bleak and feet never seem to dry. Egilsson is a good and godly man, preaching the Lutheran word to his flock and chastising Asta for her belief in elves, the invisible people and her love of the old Icelandic sagas. When the pirates appear only a handful of islanders manage to hide. Some are killed, but Egilsson, Asta and two of their children are rounded up with the others. Conditions on the pirate ship are appalling and Magnusson skilfully evokes the filth, stench and claustrophobic atmosphere as Asta gives birth to a son she names Jon. While on board, Oddrun, a crone who claims to be a sealwoman and has visions of the future, gives Asta a warning that will take her years to understand. “You remember Gudrun from the Laxdaela saga?” she croaks. “Do not do as Gudrun did.”

The islanders’ arrival at the slave market sees them treated like livestock. Magnusson shows their fear and humiliation as they are examined and have their teeth checked. Asta sees her son Egill being bought by the Pasha and Egilsson is sent to negotiate a ransom. Meanwhile she and her daughter and baby son are bought by Ali Pitterling Cilleby, a rich Moor who lives in the dazzling white city of Algiers.

In the harem, Asta is overwhelmed by the riot of colours and fine fabrics as Magnusson subtly contrasts Asta’s new life with the grey island existence she has left behind. The habits and customs of the Islamic household are viewed through Asta’s frequently astonished eyes. Food is so abundant that the excess is fed to the animals in the evening and the variety of fruits and spices are a revelation to someone who has spent most of her life surviving on fish and eggs. With the hot sun and beautiful gardens, Asta’s life in the harem takes on a dream-like quality.

Cilleby takes an interest in Asta and her Icelandic sagas, summoning her in the evening to talk while he relaxes with his coffee and pipe. Through Asta, Magnusson gives tantalising summaries of the sagas but none is told in full. This is disappointing in a novel where stories are so important. The sagas are Asta’s link to her old life, her comfort when she thinks about her husband and son and wonders if they have survived. Stories are also important to the other women in the harem, the Arabian Nights being as essential to their lives as Asta’s sagas are to her. After several years, Asta has become reconciled to her life in Algiers but when news arrives that a ransom is being paid she has to make a heartbreaking decision.

Magnusson has chosen a fascinating and little-known historical event as the starting point for her tale of surviving, and even thriving, against the odds. She adds a much-needed female perspective to Egilsson’s memoir of his journeys, providing Asta with a fully rounded personality and a curious mind to explore the new world she finds herself in. What doesn’t change, of course, is that Asta is subject to the rules and regulations of men whether she is in Iceland or Algiers.

This is an impressive debut from Magnusson who seems to have inherited her Icelandic ancestors’ talent for beguiling storytelling.

Posted in Book Reviews

Bloody January and I’ll Keep You Safe – Herald Reviews

Bloody January

Alan Parks

Canongate, £12.99

I’ll Keep You Safe

Peter May

Quercus, £18.99

Review by Shirley Whiteside

TARTAN Noir may be a useful marketing term that helps sell Scotland’s many crime writers to the world but it fails to show how varied their books are. Two new novels give a flavour of the stylistic diversity being produced.

Bloody January, a gripping debut novel by Alan Parks, is set in Glasgow in the first few weeks of January, 1973. When a teenage boy shoots a young woman dead before turning the gun on himself, it is left to dishevelled Detective Harry McCoy to find out why. With Wattie, his new sidekick in tow, he is determined to find out why two teenagers died in such a shocking way. Was it a random killing by a boy high on drugs or was the girl a planned target? McCoy’s Glasgow is a dark, brooding city, where the line between the police and the underworld is frequently blurred. He uses drugs to keep himself awake during long shifts, and relaxes with a joint with Janey, a prostitute, when his work is over. Parks peppers the dialogue with industrial strength swearing but it never feels gratuitous, being perfectly in keeping with the patter of the various characters he has created. McCoy haunts some of Glasgow’s grubbier corners, from down-at-heel pubs to greasy cafes and dangerously derelict buildings hiding lucrative criminal enterprises. He goes to Paddy’s Market looking for an informant, and Parks takes the opportunity to explain the history and hierarchy of the market, with better goods being sold under the bridge away from the worst of the weather. This kind of insider knowledge grounds the story firmly in the Glasgow of yesteryear, long before it became miles better and a cultural hot spot. McCoy’s investigations lead him to the Dunlop family, one of the richest and best connected families in the city. Their public face is one of sober respectability but behind the scenes they are corrupt and ruthless. Warned to stay aware from the family, he is determined to do whatever it takes to solve the murder-suicide of two young people. McCoy joins a distinguished cadre of hard-boiled detectives, loners who prefer to do things their own way, and he is an intriguing addition to the canon.

Peter May returns to the Hebrides for his latest tale which features husband and wife, Niamh and Ruairidh Macfarlane. The Macfarlanes are in Paris to promote their unique cloth, Ranish Tweed, a lighter and more colourful version of Harris Tweed. Niamh receives an anonymous email saying that her husband is having an affair, which seems to explain the recent tension between them. Shortly afterwards, she witnesses the car Ruairidh is travelling in explode. Still in shock, she is questioned by Parisian police and realises that they suspect she might have had something to do with her husband’s death. Eventually she is allowed to return home and takes her husband’s remains, stored in a coffin meant for a premature baby, back to Lewis. Back home she has to negotiate family politics when all she wants to do is grieve for her husband.

The present day story is told in the third person, whereas Niamh relates the story of her relationship with Ruairidh and the growth of their business. This works well and offers essential background information about the couple from Niamh’s point of view. As a young child Niamh had fallen into a bog and was in danger of being sucked under. It was Ruairidh who slithered out on a wooden plank to save her. ‘I’ll keep you safe,’ he said.

May has conducted extensive research into the Hebridean weaving business, giving his tale of the fictional Ranish Tweed a solid foundation. He explains the different looms that are used, how the cloth is made at home by islanders, then finished in the local mills before being sold around the world. His descriptions of the Hebrides are lyrical and the changeable weather echoes Niamh’s erratic state of mind. Yet some of May’s characters are disappointingly clichéd. For example, Lee, the outrageous and self-indulgent fashion designer who gives them their first break, and Ruairidh’s mother, the archetypal disapproving mother-in-law. Niamh is well-rounded, her sorrow and confusion eliciting genuine sympathy. Even so, the latter section of the novel seems to lose its way. Niamh is still beset by problems but the denouement, when it finally arrives, is implausible. It undermines the mystery and tension that May has meticulously built up to that point, and the story ends with a whimper rather than a bang.

Posted in Book Reviews

The Soldier’s Curse – Book Oxygen Review

The Soldier’s Curse

Meg and Tom Keneally

Published by Point Blank/Oneworld 2 November 2017

356pp, hardback, £14.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Click here to buy this book

 

Tom Keneally, winner of the 1982 Booker Prize with Schindler’s Ark, which was later adapted into the Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List, here joins forces with his eldest daughter, Meg, a journalist, in the first of a new historical crime series set in nineteenth-century Australia. The simmering tensions in a British penal colony ratchet up with the mysterious death of the commandant’s beautiful young wife. Who could have murdered the sweet-natured Honora?

It is 1825, and Hugh Llewellyn Monsarrat finds himself working as a clerk to Major Shelbourne, the commandant of Port Macquarie penal colony which is situated down the coast from Sydney. Monsarrat was sentenced to be transported from England to Australia for fraud – he had been pretending to be a barrister – but his talents as a clerk mean he has mostly avoided the back-breaking work to which most convicts are subjected.

Monsarrat is a fascinating character and in flashbacks the Keneallys slowly reveal his life before transportation. He is educated but poor, and has a restless streak that leads him into the kind of risky behaviour resulting in his sentence. He knows he is lucky to be in the privileged position of clerk to the major.

Monsarrat’s only real friend in Port Macquarie is Mrs Mulrooney, who is housekeeper to Major Shelbourne and devoted to his wife, Honora Shelbourne. Each morning before taking up his pen, he visits Mrs Mulrooney’s kitchen for a cup of tea and lively conversation. Mrs Mulrooney was also transported but she has earned her ‘ticket’, meaning she cannot leave Australia but is considered a free woman within its confines. She is an illiterate Irish woman but her mind is sharp and her observations are keen. When Honora sickens and dies, Captain Diamond, a nasty and vicious man, arrests Mrs Mulrooney on a charge of murder. Monsarrat tries to find a way to exonerate his friend but Captain Diamond is hell-bent on hanging the woman. Monsarrat uncovers the identity of the murderer but can he bring the person to justice before Mrs Mulrooney is executed?

The novel’s extensive but never intrusive historical detail brings the penal colony to life, and contacts with the Birpai, the local Aboriginal people, demonstrate how arrogant Europeans took their lands without a second thought. The mix of people living in the colony is also interesting. There are professional British soldiers, men and women who had earned their tickets, special convicts like Monsarrat whose talents afforded them certain privileges, and ordinary convicts who toil in work gangs until infection or exhaustion kills them. As a person could be transported for the most menial of crimes, it was a cruel and brutal form of punishment. Daily life is well depicted, with each person in Port Macquarie knowing their role in the running of the colony. The descriptions of the flora and fauna of nineteenth-century Australia also root the story in a very particular time and place. It is beautiful, but for many it is a prison nonetheless.

The Solder’s Curse is an absorbing tale with a very likeable hero in Monsarrat. That the Keneallys are planning to feature him in further adventures is very good news indeed.

Posted in Book Reviews

Sugar Money by Jane Harris Review

Jane Harris’s new novel is a gripping tale of colonial cruelty and slavery

Sugar Money is narrated by Lucien, a teenage slave Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sugar Money is narrated by Lucien, a teenage slave Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

FOR her third novel, Jane Harris takes an obscure true story and turns it into a gripping tale of colonial cruelty set in the Western Antilles in the late 18th century. Enthrallingly narrated by Lucien, a teenage slave, the story begins in Martinique and travels to Grenada where the British have instituted a particularly brutal regime for the enslaved. Harris has said she that visited Grenada during her research and the evidence of this is abundantly plain in the sense of place and time she evokes.

Lucien and his older brother, Emile, live on Martinique, slaves of les Frères de la Charité, a French religious order running a hospital on the island. In order to keep the hospital afloat, the Fathers have indigo and sugar cane plantations, tended by their slaves. By the standards of the age, the Fathers are not particularly harsh towards their charges, but the slaves live in primitive conditions and have no say in their fate. They can be bought, sold, or rented out in order to generate more money for the hospital.

In 1742, the Fathers had been drafted in by the French Colonial Government to run a hospital in Fort Royal, in neighbouring Grenada. When the superior Father died, the government took over the running of the hospital once again and sent the Fathers back to Martinique, but made them leave their slaves behind. In 1763, the British invaded Grenada and took over the hospital and the slaves, subjecting them to a vicious regime with ferociously harsh punishments for the slightest infraction.

Father Cléophas wants the slaves brought to Martinique, and decides that Emile and Lucien should go to Grenada covertly and persuade the slaves to escape from their British masters. For Lucien, it seems like a grand adventure but the more experienced Emile realises how much danger they are placing themselves in. Father Cléophas knows that Emile is desperate to see Céleste, the woman he loves, and despite his misgivings, Emile will do his best to bring Céleste to the relative safety of Martinique.

The relationship between the brothers forms the heart of Harris’s story and even as they bicker, the bond between them remains strong. When the illiterate Emile struggles to read a parchment that Father Cléophas has given him, Lucien empathises. “A pang seized my heart as I watched him squint at that page.” Lucien often feels that Emile is trying to side-line him and claim any glory for himself when, in fact, Emile is trying to protect his young brother. Lucien’s childish need to prove himself a man leads to trouble for both, but he remains likeable and sympathetic throughout.

Language plays an important role in the story. Lucien is sent on the secret mission because he speaks some English which may prove useful if the brothers are stopped by British soldiers. The French refer to the British as “the Goddams”, and their slaves speak a mixture of pidgin French, English and Kréyòl, forming a colourful patois. There is a pleasing rhythm to the slaves’ vivid and descriptive dialogue. France becomes “Fwance”, “kickeraboo”means dead, and “Chyen pa ka fè chat” means “dogs don’t make cats”. “Mwen ni bel poisons!” shout the vendors at the St Pierre harbour market where Lucien has often tried to buy fish or other goods, “paying in sugar, tomorrow self”.

Harris does not shy away from the horrendous conditions slaves are forced to endure, and the punishments meted out. Lucien, barely in his teens, already has a “back ridged with an island of scars, a map of tyranny,” thanks to Pillon, the violent man who fathered him. On Grenada, the brothers see a slave standing naked all day in the sun and trying not to let his ear, which is nailed to a wall, rip open. The callous inventiveness of the Goddams’ punishments is horrifying. Filling a slave’s mouth with human excrement and sealing it shut for several hours is one of their more disgusting methods. Although the Goddams are often referred to as English, there are Scots running plantations and overseeing the slaves. It is subtle, but Harris demonstrates that Scots were deeply involved in slavery.

This is a novel that celebrates the incredible capacity of humans to pursue lives filled with love and courage in the face of overwhelming cruelty. Harris’s novel may be set some 250 years ago, but it has a key relevance to the modern slavery that still blights our world.

Sugar Money by Jane Harris is published by Faber & Faber, priced £14.99

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