Posted in Book Reviews

1588: A Calendar of Crime Review

SHIRLEY McKay has written five novels in the popular Hew Cullan series, each set against the backdrop of a major political event. Cullan’s latest adventures are set in the year the Spanish Armada tried to invade England and depose Elizabeth I. There are five tales marking key points in the calendar – Candlemas, Whitsunday, Lammas, Martinmas, and Yule – tracing a year in the life of the young scholar, lawyer and sleuth in his St Andrews home.

Candlemas, featuring the suspicious death of Blair the candlemaker in his crackling house, introduces some of the less pleasant aspects of 16th-century life. The process by which tallow candles were made is explained, from the flesher cutting the fat off farm animals to the candle maker preparing it for his candles. Thanks to McKay’s vivid writing the foul smells of boiling animal fat and burning tallow seem to rise up from the page. Cullan’s sure and steady investigative technique discovers the truth, but it is not as black-and-white as he and his friend Dr Giles Locke might wish.

Whitsunday sees local dignitary Lord Justice Semphill dance naked during the night before transforming into a rook. As Cullen investigates, McKay weaves in the fear of witchcraft and various superstitions of the time. It is well done; understated but informative. Meg, Cullen’s sister and an expert in using herbs, helps him to unravel the mystery which includes “an ointment prescribed for griefs of the fundament”. It is an amusing story with the dark subtext of witchcraft lending it added complexity.

McKay has a splendid knowledge of the Scots tongue that comes to the fore in Lammas, with the exchanges between Elspet, in service in the harbour inn, and Walter Bone, her boss. She calls him “Sliddershanks” on account of his crippled legs, while he calls her “Mimmerkin” because of her small and slight stature. He tells her she is not the kind of woman to serve the customers in the bar, being a “pin-hippit runt”, so she works mainly in the kitchen. The Lammas Fair brings excitement and the chance of romance to St Andrews, although for some it has lost its charms. “Fairs are for lovers and bairns, and I am fair trauchled wi both,” says Canny Bett to Cullan. The fear of a Spanish invasion looms large, and as Martinmas comes around so too does Halloween. The veil between the living and dead worlds grows thinner and strange things happen in St Andrews. Cullan and his friends must discover what’s afoot. Are those ghostly figures really the beginning of a Spanish invasion?

Yule again shows McKay’s excellent grasp of the everyday lives of 16th-century Scots. Children learn songs to sing at the nativity and all through the houses the best food and drink that could be afforded is made ready. Treats like minchit pies – filled with fruits, spice and strips of flesh – coloured tarts, marchpanes and gingerbread are made, a surfeit of which causes a “belly-thraw”. However, the festive season doesn’t mean that Cullan’s skills are any less in demand.

McKay makes it easy to slip into 16th-century St Andrews, the sense of place and time is so strong. Mary, Queen of Scots, has been beheaded just the year before and her son, James VI, is King of Scots. Elizabeth Tudor is trying to avoid outright war with the Spanish by using her wits and the information her legion of spies bring her. Cullan, an honest if sometimes staid hero, stands between the old ways, full of superstitions and folklore, and the progressive ideas his education has taught him. McKay is developing Cullan’s private life with his wife, Frances, but for much of the time he is the vehicle through which the reader observes the solution to the mysteries. This means that the other characters are more active and rounded but Cullan is a likeable and reliable guide to the goings-on in Fife’s cathedral town. McKay’s novel in five books is a fascinating evocation of the everyday life of ordinary Scots in the 1500s as well as being a series of first-rate stories. Her use of language is a delight, the sinewy and expressive Scots words aiding the creation of Cullen’s very realistic world. For anyone struggling with the lesser-known words – bumbaise, caquetoire, limmar, pilliewinks – the volume includes a helpful glossary. This is an impressive addition to the Hew Cullan series, and McKay is to be congratulated for the continued quality and inventiveness of her tales.

1588: A Calendar of Crime: A Novel in Five Books by Shirley McKay is published by Polygon, priced £14.99

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Posted in Book Reviews

Dark Water – Herald Review

Review: Dark Water by Sara Bailey

Nightingale Editions, £8.99

Review by Shirley Whiteside

Dark water is a diving term that is used when a diver no longer knows which way is up and which is down. It is a fitting title for Sara Bailey’s debut novel, a haunting tale of teenage obsession and betrayal where things are not quite as they first seem.
Helena returns to her childhood home on Orkney after many years away, a glossy metropolitan version of her former self. She is back to look after her father who is very ill, and to help her step-mother. As soon as she steps onto the island news of her return seems to spread by osmosis. This feature of life on a small island immediately sets the scene for the rest of the story. Bailey creates a suffocating atmosphere where secrets are almost impossible to keep. But there are some hidden truths yet to come to light, such as the mysterious disappearance Anastasia, Helena’s best friend, who never returned from a moonlight dare to swim between the ship wrecks around Orkney. Helena fled the island soon after Anastasia vanished, and her return dredges up painful memories.
The intense nature of the teenage friendship between Helena and Anastasia is worryingly obsessive; writing notes to each other in their own blood, and promising to stick together, “through sick and sin”. When boys enter their world, a fissure forms that slowly widens, stretching the girls’ loyalty to each other to breaking point.
Helena narrates most of the story, with some sections told in the third person, and it works well, giving characters such as Dylan, Helena’s first love, more breadth and depth. The flashbacks are particularly well handled with the wild swoops of over-confidence and then crippling shyness showing how confusing the mid-teenage years can be. The supporting characters are carefully drawn, especially Helena’s ailing father and worn-out step-mother. Gloria, a family friend and near-neighbour who has taken over Anastasia’s old home, is wonderfully blunt and pushy.

In Bailey’s hands, Orkney becomes a character in its own right. The very particular light, the constant wind and unpredictable weather, and the savage beauty of the landscape form a dramatic backdrop to her story. The scenes where the teenage girls skinny dip in the still-cold summer seas are dreamlike as they swim in and around the ship wrecks that once protected Orkney’s natural harbours from Nazi invasion. Lying on the rocks to dry out, they share their deepest secrets and hopes for their futures that lie far away from Orkney’s shores. Their plans always include each other.
This is not a fast-paced thriller but Bailey does control the flow of information skilfully, and it never drags or feels padded out. Instead, it is a slow-burn, psychological study that is both gripping and emotionally involving. It is well plotted and it is hard to believe that this is Bailey’s debut. It feels like a story that has waited a long time to be told and has resonances with her own recent return to Orkney after a long time away.

Posted in Book Reviews

The House on Bellevue Gardens – Book Oxygen Review

The House on Bellevue Gardens

Rachel Hore

Published by Simon & Schuster, 25 February 2016

464pp, hardcover, £14.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

 

Rachel Hore’s eighth novel is a warm tale of ordinary people navigating their way through the complexities of life in a big city. Each character narrates his or her own story, which gives a welcome sense of intimacy and brings their individual dilemmas into sharp focus.

In a quiet London square stands a charmingly shabby house, the only one that has not been split into flats. This is number eleven, Bellevue Gardens, home to Leonie Brett and her collection of waifs and strays needing some TLC in order to face the world again. Leonie charges nominal rents to her tenants and provides a shoulder to cry on for free.

Peter, an artist, lives in the basement and came as a sitting tenant when Leonie inherited the house from a close friend. He is gruff to the point of rudeness but Leonie knows he is troubled and feels responsible for him. Bela and Hari, an elderly couple, are quiet and almost invisible, rarely venturing out of their room. Then there is Rick, a shy young man who works in a supermarket but really wants to publish his graphic novels.

Leonie is pining for the return of her grandson, and is horrified to learn that her stay at Bellevue Gardens is under threat. The flashbacks to her life as a top model during the Swinging Sixties are fascinating. Falling for an up-and-coming photographer, Leonie is swept up in the excitement of the fashion world and soon the two become a formidable team. However, Leonie tires of the early starts and constant travelling and Hore precisely shows the disintegration of her marriage.

Two new arrivals at the house are Rosa, a Polish woman looking for her brother, Michal, and Stef, a nervous young woman who has lost her identity in a suffocating relationship with the controlling Oliver. The only way she can break away from him is to hide and Bellevue Gardens becomes her sanctuary. Slowly, she regains her sense of self and revives the plans and ambitions she had before Oliver took over her life. Stef’s story is sensitively handled although not wildly original, and Hore avoids any easy or schmaltzy solutions. Falling for Stef gives Rick the impetus to follow his own dreams which lie far away from supermarket shelves. Meanwhile Rosa is uncovering family secrets which she hopes will lead her to much-loved Michal and is surprised to find so much compassion in an alien city.

Hore blends her characters into an uplifting story of people gaining confidence from each other and discovering their path to happiness. There are obstacles in their way but each finds their courage to change and move on with their lives. Hore’s writing style is relaxed and conversational which results in a tale that glides by easily with its message of courage, inspiration, and the right to follow your own star. This novel would make a great holiday read with its many story strands and cosy setting.