Scotland


aground
Photo by Mike138 used under a Creative Commons license.

Bella Bathurst, The Wreckers (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).
For centuries, inhabitants of Britain’s coasts have supplemented their livelihoods with the goods and material from shipwrecks. The march of technology — lighthouses, steel hulls, GPS — has made the seas safer, but far from safe, and wrecks still come ashore, though fewer coastal communities can rely on a steady flow of them. Bathurst’s book travels around England to the most dangerous locales for shipping: the Goodwin Sands, off Kent; Pentland Firth, off northeast Scotland; the Scilly Isles; the West Coast; the Thames, where man was a bigger threat than nature; Cornwall; and the East Coast. Bathurst also wrote a terrific book about Scottish lighthouses.

Google BookSearch gives you a preview, and the author offers this from the introduction. Pedro Caleja has an excerpt too. Kathryn Hughes (The Guardian) says it is, appropriately, a kind of shimmering net of possibility rather than a definitive documentary account. Michele Hewitson (New Zealand Herald) calls it a treasure. Bill Saunders (The Independent) says Bathurst has opened a magic casement on to a lost world on the edge of living memory. Michael Upchurch (Seattle Times) says it’s irresistable. Andro Linklater (The Spectator) cannot recommend it too highly. Philip Marsden (The Times) says is it more than a collection of fine yarns and colourful facts. John Schauble (The Age) calls Bathurst a competent journeyman storyteller. Sara Wheeler (The New York Times) says Bathurst an accomplished stylist. Puke Ariki’s reviewer says the book pares the romance from the business of ship-wrecking to reveal an ugly world of avarice and brutality. Piers Brendon (The Telegraph) says one doesn’t know how much of it to believe. Tim James says it is among the finest writing on Cornwall.  Jay Taber was enthralled by the detailed descriptions of the geologic and maritime factors that contributed to the colossal tonnage of flotsam and jetsam on the shores of Scotland, England, Cornwall, and Wales, not to mention the Orkneys and Hebrides. Peter Ross interviewed Bathurst for the Sunday Herald. You can listen to this interview with her on NPR.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

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Fringed
Photo by m4r00n3d used under a Creative Commons license.

Kate Atkinson, One Good Turn (Little, Brown, 2006).
Private detective Jackson Brodie makes a return appearance (we met him first in Case Histories), this time in Edinburgh, where his girlfriend Julia is appearing in a Fringe Festival production.  Brodie is witness to a routine fender-bender which turns ugly, and the chain of events it touches off are hardly mundane.  As trouble ensues, Atkinson switches the point of view repeatedly between strangers whom events have thrust together, including Edinburgh police inspector Louise Monroe.  The result is perhaps more literary than most mysteries, with an emphasis on character development and dialogue.  A genre-bender, and my favorite of Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books.

Google Book Search gives you a preview.  Janet Maslin (The New York Times) says Atkinson’s characters are all interestingly off-balance.  Liesl Schillinger (The New York Times) calls Atkinson’s writing bleakly funny.  Laura Miller (Salon) savored the tart, quirky character portraits.  It’s the most complicated plot Becky has encountered in a long time.  Justine Jordan (The Guardian) says Atkinson interweaves stories with panache.  Nancy Fontaine compares it to a rich, chocolate dessert.  Cate Ross was reminded of the ourobouros (careful: spoilers).  Mary Whipple smiled at the plotting and twists of fate.  Amanda Craig (The Independent) says Atkinson is splendid at the stuff of people’s lives.  Dana Kletter (The San Francisco Chronicle) says a melancholic atmosphere pervades the novel.  Claudia FitzHerbert (The Telegraph) calls it an action-packed cartoon of a book in a flimsy throwaway frame.  Norah Piehl says crime-novel purists would not call it a mystery.  B. Morrison found it confusing but still a good read.  C. Max Magee calls it antic and madcap.  Veronique De Turenne (NPR) calls it a Rubik’s Cube of a book.  W.R. Greer calls it one fine novel.  It knocked off Thomas Pynchon in the 2007 Tournament of Books. David Thayer says great swathes of it are fun to read, others are frustrating.  Ellen liked unexpected twists and turns.  Mel says Atkinson’s stories begin like shattered vases, but then they fit together.  Sam Sattler says the story is bigger than the sum of its parts.  Ladyslott calls it a very enjoyable and literary mystery.  The Nag is one of several to liken the plot to matryoshka nesting dolls.  Sam Smith calls it a book about coincidences.  Jenny says it revolves around coincidences.  Chris Marshall calls it a load of rubbish.  Jo calls it brilliant.  Shelly says it’s not a traditional mystery.  Margaret likes Atkinson’s gently amusing detachment.  Atkinson is asked about her portrayal of Edinburgh in this interview on NPR.  Listen to Atkinson read from the book on KQED.  Or listen to Atkinson discuss the book on the Bat Segundo Show.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Anne Brontë's grave
Photo by lant_70 used under a Creative Commons license.

Daniel Hahn and Nicholas Robins, eds., The Oxford Guide to Literary Britain & Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2008).
In his review in the Financial Times, Mark Ford writes:

This wonderfully informative volume, published in 1977 and now fully updated to include references to recent books such as Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane , has entries on every town or district that has ever enjoyed even 15 minutes of literary fame, or played any part in the biography of a celebrated writer. Its photographs are fascinating too: Mrs Conrad serving Joseph tea in his study at Orlestone, Brendan Behan in his cups at the Fitzroy Tavern, PG Wodehouse proudly behind the wheel of his motor outside Hunstanton Hall in Norfolk.

The book is arranged in alphabetical order within geographical sections. It opens with Adlestrop. Edward Thomas’s 16-line poem named after the tiny town where his train stopped one late June afternoon captures much about our fascination with the connections between names and places. Steam hisses, there is not a soul on the bare platform: “What I saw / Was Adlestrop – only the name.” But as he recalls the moment, he remembers also that during the minute his train stopped there

A blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

The mixture of the banal and the mythical evoked in Adlestrop is in many ways akin to that experienced by today’s literary pilgrim: here we are in Max Gate, in Haworth Parsonage, in Dove Cottage, in search of some ineffable spirit of the writer, of the nation itself. And yet we’re surrounded by other tourists, listening to a guide who tells us Dorothy Wordsworth had wooden teeth, and half- wondering what postcards to buy.

You can read all of Ford’s review here. (One minor mistake in it: The co-author’s name is Nicholas Robins, not Rolin.) This is the third edition; the first edition was published three decades ago.

Here is Hahn’s bio. Here is the publisher’s description. Toby Barnard (Times (UK>) writes that conjurors of place through words are the business of this Guide. Patricia Craig (The Irish Times) is generally positive but notes that parts of Ireland come in for cursory treatment. Sam Jordison (The Guardian) says it’s a treasure trove of anecdotes, quotes obscure and reassuringly familiar, odd poetry and literary pub trivia. Boyd Tonkin (The Independent) says it delivers an addictive tour of the topography of the word. According to Roy Johnson, it’s packed with little gems.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Islay border collie at work
Photo by Calypso Orchid used under a Creative Commons license.

Donald McCaig, Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men: Searching through Scotland for a Border Collie (HarperPerennial, 1992).
McCaig runs sheep in Virginia, and competes in sheepdog trials on the side. In 1988, when McCaig’s sheepdog, Pip, starts to grow old, he travels to Scotland to visit with breeders, attend trials, and find a bitch. Before he’s through he finds Gael, but the book focuses more on his travels in Scotland than on how Pip and Gael get along back in Virginia. Border collies are smart and good at the job of moving sheep, and if watching them do their thing is your sort of thing, then you’ll enjoy this book. If you’re a cat person instead, maybe not so much.

Google Book Search has an excerpt and other material. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt reviews it in The New York Times. Jon Woolf reviews it in a more dog-oriented venue. And Christopher finds some advice from McCaig on training stockdogs.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

lighthouse
Picture of a Scottish lighthouse by mike138 used under a Creative Commons license.

Bella Bathurst, The Lighthouse Stevensons (HarperCollins, 1999).
Centuries ago, the Scottish coast was dangerous for shipping, in part because of the hazards of sailing, but also because lanes and hazards were not marked. A solution to the latter was the calling of members of four generations of the family that also produced Robert Louis Stevenson. The lighthouse Stevensons built manned lighthouses around — and in many cases, off — Scotland’s coast. On top of the obvious engineering challenges, the Stevensons had to overcome various human obstructions, such as the opposition of “wreckers” who made a living from cargo off doomed ships. It all makes for a compelling story that will lead you to look at rocky shores with new respect. As with the Scottish coast, a healthy dose of Scotland lies just behind it. The book won the 2002 Sally Hacker Prize for science writing.

Bathurst’s website excerpts the book’s introduction. Aly Burt says it’s one of the 100 best Scottish books of all time. Here are reviews from Richard Cook (The Guardian), Ian Dunlop (The Spectator), Raye Snover (The New York Times), Chriss Cornish, and Infra Consulting LC. Sharma Krauskopf rates the book four thistles. Becca found a good place to read it. Here is the web site of the Northern Lighthouse Board.

Buy it at Amazon.com.