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FictionFan (Kirkintilloch, Scotland)

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Almo Nature Rouge Dry with Chicken 750 g
Almo Nature Rouge Dry with Chicken 750 g
Price: £7.90

4.0 out of 5 stars One very enthusiastic cat, the other less so..., 21 Dec 2013
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I have two cats, neither of whom is particularly fussy, though they each have their own favourite foods. The Almo Nature has divided opinion - Tuppence thinks it's great and will eat it in preference to almost anything else she's offered, including all the things she likes best. Tommy will eat it, but he's not as enthusiastic and really prefers his normal wet food. So overall it certainly passes the taste test.

The bag is great - easy to open and with a seal that actually works. I have noticed that water consumption has increased dramatically, but that's probably not too surprising since they generally eat far more wet food than dry. Sadly, Tuppence's enthusiasm means I'll probably be forced to buy this on a fairly regular basis. I say sadly because it's very expensive - I'm afraid however much she likes it, she'll only be getting it as a supplement to normal food, rather than a replacement. And it's the price that has caused me to deduct one star. I may try one of the slightly cheaper ones in the Almo Nature range - Almo Nature Holistic Cat with Chicken and Rice 2 Kg for instance - and see if she likes that as much...
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 29, 2013 5:22 PM GMT

Leifheit 15 m Varioline M Indoor Clothes Dryer
Leifheit 15 m Varioline M Indoor Clothes Dryer
Price: £41.83

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great if you have room for it..., 20 Dec 2013
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The design of this clothes rack means that items are separate from each other rather than resting against each other as they do in a traditional concertina style rack. This means that things dry much more quickly, and I'm finding I'm using the tumble dryer considerably less than I used to. There's loads of space on it - I'm easily able to spread out a big load, or can get two medium loads on with still enough room for the items to air. There are also little clips along one side that will hold socks or underwear.

The frame is well built and folds down very neatly to a size that's easy to store. On opening, though, it is pretty huge - and this is its one drawback for me. The footprint is roughly 22" by 51" with the wings closed, and 61" with them open. It takes up more room than I really have available in my fairly small kitchen, so I have to put it up in my living room - not ideal, and therefore for me it gets only 4 stars. However, if my kitchen was large or I had a dedicated laundry room, then this would be great and well worth 5 stars.

Two small points - when opening it, the legs need to be firmly clicked into position. It can seem as if they're open, but unless you hear the click the thing will be unstable. Secondly if you don't need to use the wings then they can be folded back over the top once you've hung your stuff on the middle rails - this makes the rack a foot or so less wide if space is a problem.

The Hanging Judge: A Novel
The Hanging Judge: A Novel
Price: £6.17

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ladies and gentlemen of the jury..., 18 Dec 2013
When a gang-related drive-by shooting in Massachusetts results in the death of an innocent bystander, the government decides the case should be tried under federal rather than state law, so that the death penalty can be applied. The driver of the car was caught at the scene and, as a result of a plea bargain, will be the chief prosecution witness against the defendant, Clarence 'Moon' Hudson. Judge David Norcross is set to preside over the trial...

Michael Ponsor is a federal judge who, in real life, has presided over a death penalty case. This gives a real air of verisimilitude to this well written and intriguing legal thriller. The reader doesn't know whether Moon is guilty or innocent and, although privy to a little more information than the jury, on the whole is given the evidence as they are, during the course of the trial. For most of the book, this puts the reader into the position of being the thirteenth juror, having to decide what verdict to bring in. I thought that might leave things a bit up in the air at the end, but I'm glad to say that Ponsor manages to bring things to a satisfactory conclusion that still stays within the overall tone of realism that runs through the book.

The characterisation of the major players is very strong. Judge Norcross is a widower and finding himself attracted to a woman for the first time since the loss of his wife. We see the strains he is under, presiding over a case that is at the centre of political controversy over the death penalty. While there is criticism of the system in the book, all the lawyers are refreshingly portrayed as ethical, trying their best to get the right result for their client, be that the defendant or the government. The defence attorney, Bill Redpath, is a particularly well drawn character - a man who has both lost and won capital cases in the past, and whose experiences in Korea have left him opposed to killing whether sanctioned by the state or not. Moon is a young man who, after a typical deprived upbringing and a youth spent in gang-related crimes, seemed to have put all that behind him and has a new life with his young wife and baby. But now, Sandra has to question whether the man she loves and thought she knew has gone back to the life she thought he had left behind.

In his short introduction, Ponsor says that no-one should presume that any of the characters in the book should be taken to represent his own opinions on capital punishment. However, the fact that the main story is intercut with occasional chapters telling the true story of a miscarriage of justice that led to the hanging of two innocent men back in 1806 left me feeling that the overall tone of the book was anti-death penalty. But the pro/anti argument is only touched on lightly - this is mainly a legal procedural, and the thriller elements that play a part in the plot are kept well within the bounds of realism, making the whole thing believable and convincing.

Overall, after a dramatic beginning, I found the first few chapters a bit slow as the scene was set and the characters introduced, but after that I became more and more involved in the story, wanting to know the truth of the case and what the jury's verdict would be. The quality of the writing and storytelling made this an absorbing read, and I look forward to seeing more from Ponsor in the future. 4½ stars for me, so rounding up.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Open Road.

A Kingdom Far and Clear: WITH Swan Lake AND A City in Winter AND The Veil of Snows: The Complete Swan Lake Trilogy (Calla Editions)
A Kingdom Far and Clear: WITH Swan Lake AND A City in Winter AND The Veil of Snows: The Complete Swan Lake Trilogy (Calla Editions)
by Mark Helprin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £32.07

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Once upon a time..., 16 Dec 2013
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When the old emperor dies, his young son is given over to the care of a trusted servant who is told to keep him safe from the Regent who will rule till the Prince comes of age. The Tutor outwardly shows loyalty to the cruel Regent but secretly ensures that the Prince is given all the necessary training to fight for his crown if need be when the time comes. But as the Prince becomes a man, he falls in love with a woman who will never be accepted as a suitable bride, and tragedy is certain to follow...

Three linked novellas, the book starts with a retelling of the story of Swan Lake, set into a fantasy kingdom sited primarily in and around the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. In this version, the Regent, soon to be known as the Usurper, murdered the parents of Odette while she was a baby, but her nurse carried her into hiding where she has been ever since, until the Prince meets her while out hunting. The first novella tells the tale of Odette and the Prince, while the second and third tell the story of their daughter, as she first tries to regain the crown from the Usurper and then defend the city against his forces.

Helprin's prose is never less than flowing, often beautiful and occasionally overblown, with distinct shades of purple at points. The sadness and tragedy of the story is told against the backdrop of a fantasy world filled with inventiveness and imaginative humour, which serve to lift the reader out of the unremitting bleakness of the plot. There are satirical elements as Helprin takes sideswipes at various aspects of real world politics - the Usurper's kingdom bears some similarity to the totalitarian regimes of the mid-20th century. The role of the media as propagandists for the ruling regime is central to the story. Although wars take place over the course of the book, we don't see them - they happen offstage during the breaks between the novellas. Instead, Helprin concentrates on the personal stories of the three different narrators of each novella and of the young daughter of the Prince, as she grows up to lead the rebellion against the Usurper.

This is fundamentally a fairy story - it doesn't pay the reader to look too closely at the consistency of the politics or to wonder why the replacement of a totalitarian dictator by an absolute monarch is seen as a good thing by Helprin, himself a son of democratic America. There is an undercurrent of a religious theme but this is never fully developed and seemed to me to sit somewhat at odds with the overtly political and militaristic tone of the tale. And, as with many of the old fairy tales, there is no triumphant conclusion - I have seen many reviews saying the book contains an element of hope, but that wasn't my feeling at all. It seems to me the book is filled with bleakness and despair as two power-hungry factions battle for the kingdom regardless of the suffering and death of those they rule. If there is hope, it must be in the unquestioning loyalty and acts of heroism shown by some of the characters - mistaken loyalty, but perhaps still admirable.

The book itself is beautifully produced with 42 full-page illustrations by Chris van Allsburg. The font is large and clear, the paper is thick enough to be almost card stock and each page has a decorative banner at the head. Physically it would make a beautiful gift for a child of about eight or nine up but, although the imaginative world and wonderful illustrations may appeal to someone of that age, I'm not sure that the bleakness of the story will, especially if they like their stories to end with a convincing 'and they all lived happily ever after'. My own feeling is that the book is much more suited to an adult or 'young adult' audience.

I freely admit that fantasy is not one of my preferred genres and my struggles with what I saw as inconsistencies in the plot and 'message' of this book may not bother a reader who is more willing to give herself up to the different worldview that fantasy often demands. Overall, the quality of the prose and the inventiveness outweighed the weaknesses for me, and made this an enjoyable read, greatly enhanced by the illustrations and physical quality of the book. My 5 star rating is made up of 4 for the story plus an extra 1 for the book itself.

Elizabeth of York
Elizabeth of York
by Alison Weir
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.00

29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars May or may not, that is the question..., 13 Dec 2013
This review is from: Elizabeth of York (Hardcover)
At what stage does biography become pointless? I would suggest that the answer to that question is when the historical record doesn't provide enough information to allow for any real insight into or knowledge of the subject. And that, in a nutshell, is why I have abandoned this book at the halfway point.

Elizabeth of York probably had a fascinating life. She may have been in love with her husband, Henry VII. On the other hand, she may have been cruelly treated and suppressed by him. Or perhaps he loved her. Maybe she was seriously affected by the probable murders of her brothers. Or perhaps she was so ambitious for the throne that she tried to persuade Richard III, the probable murderer, to marry her. She may have conspired against Richard to bring Henry to the throne - a ballad written during Henry's reign suggests so, though that hardly seems like substantive evidence. Or perhaps she had nothing to do with it at all. She may have been influential on Henry in many ways following her marriage. Or she may have done little more than breed heirs. Interesting questions, and I was hoping for interesting answers - but there are none, as Weir freely and repeatedly asserts.

Weir has, I assume, done her best with the available material, but I'm afraid that still leaves Elizabeth as an unknown entity. In fact, I felt I knew her better from reading Thomas Penn's Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England, than I do now after reading chapter after chapter of lightly supported and indecisive speculation. It's good that Weir has made clear the lack of information rather than making assertions about her own beliefs as if they were truths. Admirable - but makes for a dull and rather pointless read. And I'm afraid Weir's writing style is not sufficient to carry the book - she writes in a dry academic fashion that, for me at least, fails to bring the characters to life and makes even the most dramatic episodes into a tedious recounting of conflicting sources, including extensive quotes; much of which I felt could happily have been relegated to the notes at the back for the use of any serious historian. As a casual reader, I hope for the historian to plough through the sources on my behalf and then present me with a well argued and convincing hypothesis.

The final point where I decided that I couldn't take any more was when Weir suggested that Elizabeth 'may have been influential in the development of royal pageantry'. The 'evidence' for this is that she would have seen the Burgundian-influenced pageantry at the court of her father, Edward IV. It's that crucial word 'may', with its unspoken implication of 'or may not'. I could as easily say 'Elizabeth may have been one of the world's foremost acrobats' and bring just about the same amount of evidence to bear - i.e., she doubtless saw tumblers and fools at her father's court too. And I'm afraid 'may' is one of the words most used in the book. (338 times, according to the Kindle search facility.)

So in conclusion this book 'may' be of interest to some people - in fact, clearly it is since it is garnering positive reviews. But I'm afraid I'm not one of them. Perhaps at some point I'll try one of Weir's books about a later period in history where enough evidence exists for the word 'may' to be replaced by something a little more substantial. In the meantime, I will assume, based on the evidence of this book, that Elizabeth of York may have to remain an enigmatic figure about whom too little is known to allow for an interesting biography to be written.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 15, 2014 9:28 PM GMT

Ten Lords A-Leaping (Father Christmas Mysteries)
Ten Lords A-Leaping (Father Christmas Mysteries)
by C. C. Benison
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.98

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Would have benefited from the guillotine..., 11 Dec 2013
While taking part in a charity parachute jump, vicar Tom Christmas (yes, that's right, Father Christmas) injures his ankle and is forced to stay with friends in the nearby manor house of Eggescombe Hall. This means he's on hand to do a bit of amateur detecting when one of his fellow guests is found murdered in the middle of the labyrinth in the ground of the hall. Well, he couldn't leave it up to the somewhat incompetent duo of Detectives Blessing and Bliss, could he? (Yes, that's right, Blessing and Bliss!)

This is a fairly cosy murder mystery with a country house setting, well written and with a good deal of light humour. Had it been roughly half the length, it would have been a very enjoyable read. Unfortunately it is so padded with unnecessary description and a huge cast of characters, most of whom are merely there to fill up space, that I found it a real struggle to get through. It took me about a third of the book to get the main characters sorted in my mind and even at the end I found I was still having to think back to work out who hated who and why. Partly that's because there are so many Lords and Ladies, all referred to sometimes by name and sometimes by title; partly it's because several of the characters don't really develop much of a distinctive personality until quite late on; and partly it's because most of the suspects (and the victim) are so unpleasant that I didn't really care whodunit. To add to the problems, there is also a sub-plot which clearly carries over from previous books and is referred to on and off throughout, but it isn't until near the end that we are told what happened before, meaning that this is a constant frustration and distraction for anyone coming new to the series.

There are good points. Tom himself is a very well developed character, and much less twee than his name suggests. We mainly get to know Tom's avidly curious housekeeper through the very funny letters she writes to her mother, which provide an on-going (and much-needed) summary of the plot so far every now and again. The plot hangs together fairly well, although it is pretty far-fetched, and there are plenty of suspects and red herrings. But overall, there is just too much of everything, and there were several points where I could have cheerfully given up.

I suspect that there is a good book in there struggling to get out but, for me, it didn't make it. However, I feel the series has potential in terms of the writing and Tom Christmas as a character, if only Benison (yes, that's right, Benison!) can work out how to apply a much tighter focus...and get rid of the silly names.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

Complete Ghost Stories (Wordsworth Classics)
Complete Ghost Stories (Wordsworth Classics)
by Charles Dickens
Edition: Paperback
Price: £1.89

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Christmas Spirits..., 10 Dec 2013
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The Christmas season wouldn't be complete without a good ghost story or two, and in this collection we get twenty. The centrepiece is, of course, the novella length A Christmas Carol, and we also get what is probably Dickens' next best-known ghost story, The Signalman, which is perhaps the most chilling tale in the book. The other stories range from several very short ones through to another novella-length one, The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain.

"When twilight everywhere released the shadows, prisoned up all day, that now closed in and gathered like mustering swarms of ghosts. When they stood lowering, in corners of rooms, and frowned out from behind half-opened doors. When they had full possession of unoccupied apartments. When they danced upon the floors, and walls, and ceilings of inhabited chambers, while the fire was low, and withdrew like ebbing waters when it sprang into a blaze."

The joy of Dickens' ghost stories is that they are truly family reading - not one of them would be unsuitable for reading aloud to a mixed age group. Many of them were first published in one of Dickens' periodicals, All the Year Round or Household Words and were very much intended for the whole family. Others (The Queer Chair, The Goblins who Stole a Sexton, etc.) are taken from the novels, mainly Pickwick Papers, and these are usually more humorous than scary. In fact, humour runs through the majority of the stories, with The Signalman and The Portrait Painter's Story being the main exceptions.

As with any collection, the quality of the stories varies a bit, but even Dickens' less good tales stand up well. The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain is, like A Christmas Carol, a morality tale; this time reminding us that sorrow and trouble are part of what makes us human, and with a strong social message about the dangers of allowing the continuance of an underclass excluded from things the rest of us take for granted - a message that relates almost as much to today's society, sadly. This story also contains who must surely be the most annoying of all Dickens sickly-sweet heroines, Mrs. Swidger, a woman so indefatigably happy she brings out all of my homicidal tendencies (which, I hasten to assure you, I restrict to fictional characters).

"So she rolled out the crust, dropping large tears upon it all the time because he was so cross, and when she had lined the dish with crust and had cut the crust all ready to fit the top, the Captain called out, 'I see the meat in the glass!' And the bride looked up at the glass, just in time to see the Captain cutting her head off; and he chopped her in pieces, and peppered her, and salted her, and put her in the pie, and sent it to the baker's, and ate it all, and picked the bones."

NB This is not a recipe for Christmas dinner.

In the shorter stories, Dickens often takes the opportunity to mock the spiritualism that was becoming so popular in the Victorian era, turning much of his humour on the mediums and table-rappers. There is also a recurring theme which suggests that Dickens believed many apparitions and hauntings owed as much to alcoholic spirits as the other kind. Overall this is a jolly little collection, filled with madness, murder, revenge and other such traditional Christmas fare; and, whether chilling or humorous, all written with Dickens' masterly story-telling skills. Whether you read one a night throughout the Christmas season, or splurge and read the whole thing over a few evenings, it's guaranteed to ensure that you Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

We Need New Names
We Need New Names
by NoViolet Bulawayo
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.99

32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Leaving in droves..., 9 Dec 2013
This review is from: We Need New Names (Hardcover)
I admit to being somewhat conflicted about my view of this book. Worthy of its shortlisting for the 2013 Booker, I agree, but I'm also rather glad it didn't win. Let me start by getting my criticisms out of the way and then I'll try to explain why I think it's very much worth reading nonetheless.

This is the story of Darling, a young girl living in a shanty town in Zimbabwe. When we first meet her, she is ten and spends most of her time with her little group of friends. Through them, we get a child's-eye view of the devastation that has been wrought on the country during the Mugabe period. At the half-way point, Darling is sent to America to live with her aunt in Michigan, and the second half is taken up with seeing the immigrant experience as Darling learns about this society that is so different from anything she has known.

The problem I have is that it feels a little as if Bulawayo has started by writing down a list of all the bad things we associate with Zimbabwe and then a similar list of all the downsides of the US. The book is episodic with each chapter being a little story on its own, and each story has a 'point'. So we get the chapter on Aids, one on female genital mutilation, then incest and rape, white people being run off their properties, the rigging of elections and the violence that goes along with that, and so on. In America, we get out of control kids, school shootings, porn, obsession with looks and weight, celebrity culture etc. It's a bleak picture of both countries with the over-riding feeling being that the grass isn't as much greener for immigrants as they expected it to be. It all feels a little contrived and amalgamated, and I couldn't help feeling that, firstly, it wasn't telling me much I didn't know and, secondly, that there was an almost exploitative and voyeuristic element to the stringing together of all of these horrors.


The writing is fresh and original and Darling and her friends are brought vividly to life, especially in the Zimbabwean section. With a less than thorough understanding of what's going on around them, they are the observers - the reader is the interpreter. Although there's never enough food to go round (except briefly when the NGOs pay their regular visits) there is a sense of community - a community that is tottering on the point of collapse, yes, but still hanging on to old traditions. Despite all the bad things happening around them, the children seem on the surface to be like children anywhere - breaking rules and taking risks, full of bravado when in their group, dreaming of a better future. Bulawayo very effectively uses the games they play to show the effect that their experiences have had on them - games based on the relative importance of countries with their own country low on the list, games of Find bin Laden; and gradually, as they witness more and more violent and irrational behaviour around them, the games darken too.

I found the American portion of the book patchier in its effectiveness, but Bulawayo gets across very clearly the difficulties of learning to live in a new culture, always speaking in a second language, and the longing for home. She writes very movingly about the people left behind in Zimbabwe, relying on the dollars that the immigrants send home. And she gives a believable and poignant picture of this young girl gradually losing touch with the friends and family back home, unable to explain to them what she is experiencing in the reality of this new world they have dreamed about.

I found Bulawayo's writing style hugely skilful in giving an authenticity to Darling's voice throughout and allowing her language to grow and change as she moves through adolescence. Although I had a problem with the tick-list of horrors, I still found myself moved deeply on several occasions, and in particular by the short chapter at the centre of the book - an interlude between the two sections, where Bulawayo describes the exodus of a generation from her troubled homeland in language so beautiful and evocative it could fairly be described as a prose poem.

So in the end, the quality of the writing and language, together with the emotionalism that Bulawayo achieves without ever allowing mawkishness to creep in, makes this a book that I am glad I have read and highly recommend. 4½ stars for me so rounded up to 5.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

So Brave, Young and Handsome
So Brave, Young and Handsome
by Leif Enger
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Good, The Bad and The Somewhere-In-Between..., 6 Dec 2013
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Monte Becket is struggling to follow up the runaway success of his first novel. Money is running short and he's facing up to the fact that he may have to go back to his old job in the Post Office. Glendon Hale abandoned his wife many years ago and now wants to go back to Mexico to find her and apologise. When Glendon asks Monte to accompany him, it seems like a way for Monte to postpone any hard decisions for a while. So with the blessing of his wife Susannah, he agrees to go. Along the way they pick up a third companion, young Hood Roberts, who dreams of the old West and wants to join the Hundred and One rodeo.

The story of a road trip that starts in Minnesota and eventually ends in California is also the story of a trip back in time. Set in 1915, each of the three characters is looking backwards - Monte with his book set in a, for him, imagined world of the old West; Hood, the young motor mechanic, who clings to the romantic idea of being a cowboy in a world that is moving on; and Glendon, the only one of the three with experience of the old days, a former outlaw of the Hole in the Wall era and still wanted for crimes committed years ago. Each of the three is searching for something in the past, and in a sense they each find what they're looking for - but perhaps not as either they or the reader might expect.

Into this mix comes Charlie Siringo, an ex-Pinkerton man, determined to hunt down Glendon for one final blast of glory. Siringo, somewhat oddly, is based on a real Pinkerton agent though, from what I understand, pretty loosely. In the book, he's the legal good guy but the moral bad guy, as the reader's sympathies are very much with the three fugitives. Well, we always did prefer Butch and Sundance to the Sheriff, didn't we?

The book is very well written with a fairly plain prose style that matches well with the story. The plot is secondary to the description of the gradually changing landscape, weather and lifestyle as the men move west, and characterisation is at the heart of the novel. The story is told in the first person from Monte's point of view and through him we see a gradual stripping away of layers as his initial impressions of the other three change.

The tale is a deliberately romanticised one, and really doesn't stand up to a critical eye very well. Monte's behaviour in particular makes no sense at several parts of the story, and the moral flip-flopping of the main characters is a bit unsubtle, leading to a lack of credibility. Siringo in particular becomes increasingly less believable as the book progresses until he ends up almost as a cartoon character. And as Monte drifts along, agonising over his own indecisiveness, I longed for him to discover the spirit of John Wayne or Henry Fonda and show a bit of heroism, or at least some backbone. As a result, the emotional involvement that I felt in the early part of the book had waned considerably by the end. However, the picture of the last days of the old West - or at least the old West as depicted in the cinema Western - is very well done and made this an enjoyable and nostalgic read overall, especially for anyone who fondly remembers the glory days of the cowboy movie.

Entry Island
Entry Island
Price: £3.80

85 of 85 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "The blood is strong.", 5 Dec 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Entry Island (Kindle Edition)
In the tiny community of Entry Island in the Gulf of St Lawrence, a man has been brutally murdered. The local police don't have the expertise to investigate such a serious crime, so the Quebec Sūreté send a team to the island. Unusually for this French-speaking province, the islanders are English-speaking, so his Scottish descent means that Detective Sime Mackenzie is included in the team to carry out interviews. But when Sime (pronounced Sheem) meets Kirsty Cowell, the wife of the victim and the chief suspect, he is struck with an unshakeable feeling that he knows her...although they have never met.

Peter May has been a long-term favourite of mine. As scriptwriter and producer, he was involved in some of the best television produced in Scotland during the '80s and '90s, before returning to his original sphere as a novelist. He has produced three main series of novels since then - his China thrillers, the Enzo Files set in France and most recently the Lewis Trilogy. Always with a steady following, he rocketed into the limelight when the Richard and Judy Bookclub picked The Blackhouse, the first of the Lewis books. (An overnight success story that only took half a lifetime to achieve!)

May's books are always meticulously researched with a very strong sense of place. But since he started writing about Lewis this strength has taken on an extra layer - it feels as if he is really now writing with his heart as well as his head. He spent a good deal of time on Lewis while producing a Gaelic-language drama serial, Machair, and he seems to have absorbed the landscape and the community of this remote and weather-beaten island until it has become an integral part of him. As a result, the Lewis Trilogy stood head and shoulders above his previous work, adding a feeling of emotional connection that had perhaps been absent in the previous series. I have been saying for the last few years that the trilogy was his best work. Until now...

Like the Lewis Trilogy, Entry Island has a double time-line - the present day investigation set in Canada, and a historical storyline set on Lewis. Sime, struggling with severe insomnia after the break-up of his marriage, begins to have vivid dreams about stories he was told as a child, of the life of his ancestor, also called Sime, on Lewis - dreams that seem to be connected in some way with his feelings of recognition for Kirsty. Through the original Sime's stories, we are given an account of the hand-to-mouth existence of the crofters, fishing and farming their tiny plots of land with barely enough to sustain their families. We see the very different life lived by the landlords - English-speakers in these Gaelic communities. And Sime tells us about the Highland Clearances - the barbarous and brutal dispossession of crofters already weakened by the potato famine to make way for more profitable sheep-farming. There is a feeling of biting anger in May's writing as he allows Sime to describe the inhumanity of this scar on British history - a history that led to the destruction of communities and a whole way of life, and to the involuntary exile of thousands of Highland Scots to the North American colonies, sent with nothing, to fend as best they could in the New World, if they survived the horrors of the voyage.

As the book progresses, we discover why these childhood memories have been awakened for the present-day Sime and gradually the links between the two time-lines become clearer. The present-day story provides some contrast and relief from the bleakness of the past, and for me present-day Sime is the most filled-out and believable character May has written. The quality of the descriptive writing is first-class and, though some passages are present tense, most of the book is written in the past tense. The plotting of the murder and investigation is well done and it wasn't till near the end that I began to get an inkling of the solution - a solution that I found satisfying on every level.

In my opinion, this is the best book May has ever written and one of the best crime novels I have read - with an authenticity and depth of emotion that reduced this sentimental lowland Scot to tears on more than one occasion. Hard for me to be completely objective about it, but I believe it will be just as effective for non-Scots, who are perhaps not familiar with this small part of history, and I'm very much looking forward to seeing how it gets reviewed elsewhere. Highly recommended.
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 29, 2013 5:19 PM GMT

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