I read a proof copy of Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes back in April, when it was originally due to be published, but its release date in the UK was pushed back to July due to the pandemic. It tells the story of Clio Campbell, a one-hit-wonder Scottish pop star and political activist who takes her own life just before she turns 51, some three decades after a brief period of fame as the singer of the anti-poll tax anthem ‘Rise Up’.
Clio’s suicide isn’t a spoiler as it is revealed right at the beginning of the book when her body is discovered by her friend Ruth. The story then jumps back and forth in time looking back at Clio’s life with each part retold by a selection of people who knew Clio from very different perspectives. The non-linear story is slightly confusing initially, but I really got into it by the second half as the glimpses of Clio’s life through the eyes of others gradually come together to reveal an affecting character portrait of someone who is very vulnerable in lots of ways behind the outspoken public facade. Continue reading
If you enjoyed The Diary of a Bookseller, then the second volume of Shaun Bythell’s account of running a large second-hand bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland will definitely appeal. It is very much more of the same in terms of content, format and sense of humour with bizarre customer queries and the trials and tribulations of book dealing providing the main focus of his diary entries from 2015. Continue reading
2018 marks the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth and I have recently read her autobiography ‘Curriculum Vitae’ and one of her most famous novels ‘The Driver’s Seat’ which was first published in 1970. The main protagonist, Lise, is in her mid-thirties and is unhappy with her dead-end job. She hops on a plane to an unnamed southern European city looking for adventure and has a series of odd interactions with even odder people she meets along the way. Spark ingeniously drops a massive spoiler at the beginning of the third chapter in which it is casually stated that Lise “will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at Gate 14.” The narrative then continues as if this information had never been mentioned and the mystery of who the perpetrator is and how and why the murder occurs isn’t revealed until the final paragraphs. Continue reading
My first review of the year was of Kate Atkinson’s debut novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum which prompted me to make more of an effort to read the back catalogues of my favourite authors. It therefore seems fitting to end the year with a review of Atkinson’s third novel ‘Emotionally Weird’ which was first published in 2000 and tells the story of Euphemia (Effie) Stuart-Murray and her mother Nora who live on a remote Scottish island. Effie is telling Nora about her life as a student in Dundee living with her Star Trek-obsessed boyfriend Bob. However, Effie also has questions about her family history and what she really wants is for Nora to disclose who her real father is. Continue reading
‘The Diary of a Bookseller’ is Shaun Bythell’s account of running Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop which he bought in 2001 in Wigtown, Scotland’s national book town. While many book lovers may dream about spending all day every day working in a rambling Georgian townhouse stuffed with over 100,000 books, Bythell’s diaries from 2014 to early 2015 dispel a lot of the romanticised myths about running a bookshop, particularly when it comes to the realities of competing against a certain online retailer. Continue reading
Edinburgh is a UNESCO City of Literature (the very first in the world to receive the accolade in 2004) and in between going to events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last week, I visited a few of the literary attractions and bookshops that the city has to offer.
The National Library of Scotland
The National Library of Scotland has its main base in Edinburgh’s Old Town on George IV Bridge and is home to some 24 million printed items including one of the world’s largest collections of maps. As it is a research library, the reading rooms can only be accessed if you are a member but there are temporary exhibitions for visitors including displays of flyers and programmes from the Edinburgh Festival which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. The main exhibition running at the moment is ‘Enduring Eye: The Antarctic Legacy of Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Hurley’ which documents the Endurance expedition and rescue in 1914-16 and includes diaries, photographs, letters and other items from various archives. Admission is free and it’s well worth a look if you’re passing by. Continue reading
Shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, ‘His Bloody Project’ by Graeme Macrae Burnet tells the story of seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae, accused of committing three brutal murders in a remote village in the Scottish Highlands in 1869. Presented as a series of documents “discovered” by the author whilst researching his family history, the first half of the book consists of Roddy’s written statement in which he confesses to the crimes and gives his version of events leading up to the murders followed by an account of the trial and verdict. The identity of one of the victims is revealed at the beginning to be local constable Lachlan Mackenzie while the other two remain a mystery until the event itself occurs. Continue reading
‘The Panopticon’ by Jenni Fagan tells the story of Anais Hendricks, a fifteen-year-old young offender from Scotland who has spent all of her life in care and is more or less constantly in trouble with the police. After being accused of assaulting a police officer who ends up in a coma, she spends time in the Panopticon, an institution for chronic young offenders which takes its name from Jeremy Bentham’s suggested “circular prison with cells so constructed that the prisoners can be observed at all times”.
‘Under the Skin’ is a very difficult book to summarise without giving away too much of the plot. Essentially, it tells the story of Isserley, who drives around deserted areas of northern Scotland picking up well-built lone male hitchhikers. I really don’t want to tell you any more than that and if you’ve already read it, then you’ll understand why. If you haven’t, then you’ll have to forgive me for being so cryptic. You’ll just have to trust me when I say that the book is much more intriguing if you read it without any real clues about what will happen beyond the initial set-up. Continue reading
Set in Scotland in the 1860s, ‘The Observations’ by Jane Harris tells the story of Bessy Buckley, a feisty Irish girl who is taken on as a maid at Castle Haivers by Arabella Reid. Bessy has a number of secrets and is keen that her shady past doesn’t catch up with her. But it turns out that Arabella herself also has a dark history and her obsession with her former maid, Nora, who died in tragic circumstances, proves to be a catalyst for even more mystery. Continue reading
‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris tells the story of Harriet Baxter and her close friendship with the Gillespie family in Glasgow in the late 1880s while the International Exhibition was being held. However, when tragedy strikes the family, their relationship with Harriet quickly unravels and deep secrets are revealed. Harriet tells the story as she looks back on events whilst writing her memoirs in 1933 at the age of eighty but the story is not over as it soon becomes clear that a figure from Harriet’s past has re-emerged in her life.
I think the book’s real strength lies in Harriet’s biased narrative and the way in which Harris builds suspense and subtly manipulates the reader’s expectations and perceptions of the characters. The first 100 pages or so definitely lull you into a false sense of security because of the supposed innocence with which they are written. I love unreliable narrators and this one does not disappoint. Continue reading