Monday, 30 March 2020

Guest review by Karen McCombie: FOLK by Zoe Gilbert


"Hurray for stepping out of your comfort zone and trying a genre you’re never normally attracted to ..."

Karen McCombie writes full-time for children and teens. Most of her books are contemporary, but her latest novels – Little Bird Flies and Little Bird Lands – are set in 1860s Scotland and America respectively. Carnegie-nominated Little Bird Flies is an adventure set on a remote Scottish island, with a backdrop of the Highland Clearances, a dark period in British history which saw many poor crofting families from the Highlands and Islands forced to emigrate to survive. Newly published Little Bird Lands – Karen’s 94th book – follows the fortunes of Bridie and her family as they settle first in New York, before a true-life terrorist attack sees them on the move once again, hoping to find somewhere to call home.

If you ask me what genre of film I like the least, my knee-jerk reaction would be to forcefully yelp “musicals!”, and yet Cabaret is one of my favourite ever movies. There are a whole host of bands I’m not keen on, but then I’ve had the chance to see several play live and their music suddenly all makes sense. Fantasy is something I’m not too keen on either, but after my husband Tom read out a pithy review of Game of Thrones in Rolling Stone magazine – “Fantasy for people who hate fantasy” – I gave it a try and was a devotee of all ten series.

Which brings me to my book choice… Tom bought me Folk  by Zoe Gilbert as a birthday present. The cover – like a trippy William Morris print, complete with roses, birds and speckles of blood – was a thing of beauty. But once I read the back blurb my heart sank a little. It was a collection of short, folkloric stories, neither of which I’m particularly a fan of. Anticipating my slight dip in enthusiasm, Tom burst out, “It’s got great reviews. I bet Kate Bush would love it!” Curse him, he knew that would hit a nerve!

And so I dived into the world of a remote island life, with interweaving tales of the community stretching lazily over years, and I didn’t want to leave. Life on the island is full of wonders and it is harsh; straight from the offset we see a playful ritual for the village teenagers go tragically wrong, with youthful Crab Skerry scuttling after the other boys through a cluster of gorse bushes in search of ribbon-strewn arrows shot by the girls. In other stories, grandmother Win is trying to keep her granddaughter Plum safe from the strangest of strangers, little Iska worries and wonders why her mother seems like a changeling, and Verlyn Webbe shyly shows Linnet Lundren his disabled, feathered arm.

One of my favourite stories of the collection is The Swirling Cleft. Young Gad resents her newborn sibling and the shawl of mist that her step-mother Sil insists on wrapping around it, with almost devasting consequences. But Sil isn’t quite of this world; “In their house, there are warm smells, burned porridge and sheep’s wool and chimney soot, and there are cold smells, like Father’s rainy boots, and muddy flagstones and sodden thatch. Wherever Sil has been, though, there is a trace of seaweed in the air, of salt sea-fog and the insides of shells.”

With that glimpse, you can see that the author’s prose is gorgeous. Sometimes it’s simple and affecting, sometimes as plump and juicy as the fruit growing in the island’s hedgerows, sometimes it’s just downright dreamlike and delicious. But always, Gilbert keeps the reader rooted in a recognisable reality, so even the most magical of events feels tangible and true.

So hurray for Folk. And hurray for stepping out of your comfort zone and trying a genre you’re never normally attracted to. After all, you never know the delights you’ll find there.

Folk is published by Bloomsbury. Jacket design by David Mann, illustration copyright iStockphoto.

See also: A Telling of Stones by Neil Rackham, reviewed by Graeme Fife

Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre Sullivan, reviewed by Yvonne Coppard

Seven Miles of Steel Thistles by Katherine Langrish, reviewed by Penny Dolan




Monday, 23 March 2020

Guest review by Cindy Jefferies: EMPRESS DOWAGER CIXI by Jung Chang



"...what an accessible writer Chang is ... scrupulous in her research but brings the story alive by her vibrant style."


First published in 2001 for children, Cindy Jefferies found success with her Fame School series with Usborne Books, obtaining 22 foreign rights deals. Latterly writing fiction for adults as Cynthia Jefferies, her first title The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan was published in November 2018. Her second title The Honourable Life of Thomas Chayne came out in November 2019 and is set during the English Civil Wars.

At the end of Jung Chang’s biography of the Empress Cixi, Chang says “looking back over the many horrific decades after Cixi’s demise, one cannot but admire this amazing stateswoman, flawed though she was.”

In modern China Cixi is not admired but Chang has done much painstaking research and has a different story to tell. Cixi was born in 1835. At 16 she was chosen to be a concubine of the Emperor Xianfeng, who was 19. Cixi had caught the young emperor’s eye and was one of several accepted. She was very ambitious, interested in politics and highly intelligent but the life she undertook was not for the faint-hearted and she was not chosen to be the Empress, but was ranked on the sixth of eight rungs for concubines.

Enclosed in the harem she became friends with the girl chosen to be empress. Having lost the Opium war against the British, the country was now obliged to accept imports of damaging opium, made in India and a valuable export for the British although it was banned in the UK. There was also the largest peasant rebellion in Chinese history, due to terrible famine. Cixi had opinions about all this, but voicing them could have led to her execution.

The emperor was frail and it was of great moment when Cixi gave birth to his first son. She was elevated to just below Empress Zhen in rank. When the Emperor died in 1861 his only son was five and the country was in a terrible situation. The Emperor had a closed door policy, but Cixi could see that this was making China weaker. Extraordinarily, with Empress Zhen supporting her she overthrew the regents in a bloodless coup and as Empress Dowager, she became the ruler of China, sitting behind the yellow silk screen behind the throne.

The story of the rule of Cixi must place her as one of the greatest female rulers in history. During her long life she steered this vast country from a medieval state to a modern one, introducing the telegraph, trains, modern education and governance and a more humane legal system. She fought wars, revolt, betrayal and made some mistakes. But she loved her country and believed in its people. European nations and Japan took brutal advantage while China slowly embraced the 19thC. Britain has little to be proud of at this time, with a few individual exceptions.

Anyone who has read Wild Swans will know what an accessible writer Chang is. She is scrupulous in her research but brings the story alive by her vibrant style. Just shy of 500 pages, I found the book almost unputdownable. China today is a superpower, and it seems the present ruler Xi is determined to be as absolute as Cixi, and to rule for life. But where Cixi wished her nation to become a democracy, Xi shows no sign of giving his people similar freedoms. I found myself wondering what the Empress Dowager would think if she could see her country now.

Empress Dowager Cixi is published by Vintage.



Monday, 16 March 2020

Guest review by Sally Prue: EMMA by Jane Austen


"So all in all I have decided not to go to see the new film of Emma, delightful though it may be. It would, I’m afraid, trample on my dreams."

Sally Prue is a writer for children of all ages, from picture books up to Young Adult fiction. Her novel Cold Tom won the Branford Boase Prize and the Smarties Silver Award, and Song Hunter won the Historical Society’s Young Quills Award. Her other jobs have included being a Time and Motion clerk, an accompanist, and a piano and recorder teacher. Sally is married, has two grown up daughters, and lives on the edge of a small but very beautiful wood in Hertfordshire, England. She blogs at The Word Den. She is also to be found on her website and on Twitter: @sally_prue.

I was quite looking forward to the new film of Jane Austen’s Emma (yes, there are other Emmas: Charlotte Bronte’s, for one). 

Emma is probably the finest book I’ve read. I wouldn’t quite recommend it as a comfort read, but it’s a great book for clearing the mind of the detritus of modern life.

There’s no one like Jane Austen for resetting the moral compass.

So, anyway, I was quite looking forward to the film of Emma. But then I came across an interview with Eleanor Catton, admitting that when she accepted the commission to write the screenplay she hadn’t read the book.

Now, I’ve probably read Emma a dozen times, and I’m still discovering stuff: not just the odd joke, but really important things like, for instance, the solution to the problem of Mrs Elton. Mrs Elton, for those who have not yet had the irritation of knowing her, is one of those people who Knows Best. In this, it has to be said, she rather resembles Emma herself, and the difference between the manifestations of their pride, condescension and motives is a complex and interesting one. Anyway, Mrs Elton irritates the hell out of more or less everyone, causes a lot of grief with her meddling, and then gets off scot free … or so I thought the first seven times I read the story. But Austen actually condemns Mrs Elton to a terrible (though much-deserved) fate; and the fact that this fate won’t strike her until long after the book ends just goes to illustrate what a work of consummate genius Emma is.

Still, Eleanor Catton is a much-lauded writer, and perhaps she managed to spot all the vital subtleties first time.

But then I read an interview with the costume designer, full of joy at the sumptuousness of the costumes Emma and her friends would have worn; and then there was another interview (I think with the director) explaining that nowadays Emma would be spending her life on Instagram showing off the latest fashions. Now, in the book even the most critical of Emma’s acquaintances believes her to be not personally vain, and the general community of Highbury (and Emma is a book set very firmly in its community) is nearly all of it slightly hard-up and full of cheerful stratagems for remaining respectable. Even the cake at the wedding which opens the novel is shared around the town. As for the wedding at the end of the book, that, too, is distinguished by its lack of show:

The wedding was much like other weddings, where the parties have no taste for finery or parade; and Mrs Elton … thought it all extremely shabby, and very inferior to her own. – “Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business! Selina would stare when she heard of it.”

So all in all I have decided not to go to see the new film of Emma, delightful though it may be. It would, I’m afraid, trample on my dreams.

And what is so completely dreamy about Emma?

For a start, it is very funny indeed.

It’s full of interesting and believable characters, with some of whom you’ll fall in love.

The plot is mind-boggling and has been called the first detective story (though it is a detective story where the identity of the detective is itself for a large part of the book a mystery).

It employs (and quite possibly invents) two revolutionary literary devices, stream-of-consciousness and free indirect style, and it has great fun with them, while never forgetting that it is bad manners to baffle or alienate the reader.

It has a really proper ending.

Oh, and it is quite possibly the finest novel ever written. The name Austen is a version of Augustine, which means great or magnificent. Fair enough, I’d say.

And the solution to the problem of Mrs Elton?

Well, it took me about seven readings to notice it, but you might get it first time.

It’s well worth the trouble.


Have you seen the new film adaptation? What did you think? Please tell us in the comments!

See also: JANE FAIRFAX by Joan Aiken

LONGBOURN by Jo Baker

Monday, 9 March 2020

Guest review by Julie Cohen: SAGA by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples


"At its best the marriage of words and pictures can accomplish some extraordinary storytelling that can’t be achieved by words alone."

Julie Cohen grew up in Maine and studied English at Brown University, Cambridge University and the University of Reading. Her award-winning novels have sold over a million copies worldwide, and she has twice been selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club in the UK. Julie runs an oversubscribed literary consultancy which has helped many writers go on to be published. She is a Vice President of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, founder of the RNA Rainbow Chapter, and a Patron of literacy charity ABC To Read. Her bestselling novel Together has been translated into eleven languages and optioned for television adaptation; The Two Lives of Louis & Louise was long-listed for the Polari Prize and has been optioned by Enderby Entertainment as a feature film. Her first historical novel, Spirited, will be published in July 2020. She lives in Berkshire with her family and a terrier of dubious origin.

Twitter: @julie_cohen

I don’t remember how I got hooked on Saga. I’ve always loved graphic novels and comics. People who don’t read them think they’re all about superheroes and violence, but at its best the marriage of words and pictures can accomplish some extraordinary storytelling that can’t be achieved by words alone. Comics look simple, but their narrative can be incredibly complex. I was already a fan of Art Speigelman’s harrowing and beautiful Holocaust memoir Maus, and Neil Gaiman’s collaboration with various artists on the sprawling, mythic Sandman. I’m also in love with Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis or Un Ocean d#Amour by Grégory Panaccione and Wilfrid Lupano. And then there’s my current favourite, Alise Oseman’s gay teenage love story Heartstopper. 

Saga is special, though. It’s an epic space opera. It’s episodic, with a new volume in a continuing story coming out every year or so. Every volume starts with a dilemma, and ends on a cliffhanger, and in between is a convoluted, surprising story told across a diverse and inclusive cast of aliens, creatures, ghosts and machines.

At its heart, Saga is a Romeo and Juliet story. Alana, who has wings, is a soldier from the planet Landfall. Marko, who has horns, is a soldier from the moon Wreath. Their worlds have been at war since time immemorial, pulling in most of the galaxy to take sides and fight. Alana and Marko meet when Marko’s a prisoner of war, and Alana is his guard. Against all odds, the two of them fall in love. In fact, they bond over a trashy romance novel, which both of them can see is actually a revolutionary text about reconciliation and galactic peace.

The series begins when the couple are on the run and Alana is giving birth to their child, Hazel. Hazel is an impossible child - no one believes that Wings and Horns can ever get along, let alone procreate - and her existence is cause for Wings and Horns and all of their associated allies and enemies, assassins and journalists and bureaucrats and mercenaries and opportunists, to hunt the family across the galaxy. Alana, Marko and Hazel are joined by various characters including a ghost babysitter, disapproving in-laws, a robot prince with PTSD, an ecological spaceship, a transgender ex-con, and a race of religious meerkat-like sentients who are facing extinction. Other storylines involve a lovelorn assassin with a lie-detecting cat, a young girl rescued from sexual trafficking, a gay journalist couple from a homophobic amphibious planet, and the story of the war itself, which has become self-perpetuating, with its own economy, ideologies and so, so many casualties.

As a space opera, it has lots of action, tons of sex, and some pretty devastating character deaths. It’s fast-paced, both funny and sad, and the art is frankly gorgeous. We’re used to serials on television but it’s fun to read a serialised story—although be warned, the cliffhanger ending of Volume 9, the latest volume, is a shocker. And Vaughan and Staples have taken some time off the series to pursue other projects, so I’m not sure when it will be resolved.

Although it’s fast reading - there are very few words per page, after all - I find that it stands up to rereading and it’s an annual treat of mine to reread the entire series before I read the new volume. And one of the pleasures of Saga, like any cult classic, is to unexpectedly find fellow fans of the series.

As with all good science fiction, Saga is really about the world we live in now. It’s about mindless nationalism and how war benefits people in power whilst destroying the rest of us. It’s about how romance novels are seriously underrated. It’s about intolerance and prejudice. It’s about the effects of violence, not only on the victim but on the perpetrator. More than anything, it’s about the love between a couple and for their child, and what it means to be a family.

Saga is published by Image Comics.


Monday, 2 March 2020

Guest review by Sue Purkiss: SIGHTLINES by Kathleen Jamie



"... the reader is right there with her, feeling the force of a wind strong enough to knock you over, seeing how gannets glint against a storm cloud, shocked at the speed with which killer whales slice through the water."

Sue Purkiss writes for children and young people. She has been a Royal Literary Fellow at Exeter and Bristol Universities, and has also taught English and worked with young offenders. Her latest novel for children, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley, is an adventure story set in the Himalayas at the end of the 18th century, featuring plant hunters, a sacred mountain – and its mysterious guardian! For more information, see Sue's website. She also has her own literary review blog, A Fool on a Hill (where this review first appeared), and is a contributor to The History Girls.

A couple of months ago, I mentioned to a friend that I was about to go on a course on nature writing (at Ty Newydd – I wrote about this on my blog). She chuckled, and said, “Oh, but nature writing’s so boring, isn’t it?”

I was taken aback and lost for words. Now, I would say to her: but what do you even mean by nature writing? How could it be ‘boring’ to read about something which I know she loves, just as I do? How could she not be interested in reading about what gives life to us, and makes our planet apparently unique - and how it is under profound threat?

Or perhaps I’d just give her this book by Kathleen Jamie and say, “Just give this a try. Go on – do.”

Kathleen was one of the tutors on the Ty Newydd course. I had heard of her before, but though I’d given this book to a couple of other people as a present, I hadn’t actually read it myself. I’ve just remedied this, and have found it completely engrossing – and therapeutic. It’s autumn, which is a beautiful season but has at its heart the fading of things – the fading of light, the falling of leaves, the gradual death of flowers. Of course it’s not all bad – there are birds that arrive as well as those that depart, and there are already buds on the bare branches. But still – it’s a season when it’s easy to succumb to a generalised feeling of sadness. And there are one or two things going on in the outside world which are also just a tad worrying.

So there have been mornings when I’ve woken up feeling gloomy. But as soon as I begin to read a chapter of Sightlines, I am taken into another place - and what a relief that is. That is perhaps a cliché: certainly, it’s my stock, easy answer when someone asks me what I like about reading: “A book can take you into another world…” But in this case, it really feels true. The book is a collection of essays. In most of them, Kathleen travels to Scottish islands, though there’s also one where she goes to a Norwegian museum and reflects on whale skeletons (in other essays, she writes about encounters with living whales); another where she decides she needs to see inside the body, not just outside, and examines pathogens under a microscope; another where she recalls an archaeology dig, from which the discovery of the ancient skeleton of a young girl lingers in her mind.

Wherever she goes, she is supremely attentive. She looks, she listens, she tastes, she touches, she thinks, she explores, she reflects. And she does this so effectively that the reader is right there with her, feeling the force of a wind strong enough to knock you over, seeing how gannets glint against a storm cloud, shocked at the speed with which killer whales slice through the water.

But she doesn’t simply describe what she sees. She muses, considers, makes analogies, asks questions. The reader follows not just her physical journeys, but the path her thoughts take. At the back of it all is an awareness of transience. As she says in the book’s final paragraph: "There are myths and fragments which suggest that the sea that we were flying over was once land. Once upon a time, and not so long ago, it was a forest with trees, but the sea rose and covered it over. The wind and sea. Everything else is provisional. A wing’s beat and it’s gone."

(She is flying in a helicopter as she leaves a remote, storm-swept island, where she had found a dead swan, describing its outstretched wing as a full metre of gleaming quartz-white, a white cascade: the swan’s wing, the wind, the helicopter flight – they all link into a chain of thought.)

Boring? Not remotely.

Sightlines is published by Sort Of Books.

See also: The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, reviewed by Sue Purkiss

A Telling of Stones by Neil Rackham, reviewed by Graeme Fife

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, reviewed by Paula Knight

Monday, 24 February 2020

STARVE ACRE by Andrew Michael Hurley, reviewed by Adèle Geras


'The last scene is one that you will not ever forget. I guarantee this. Please, if you’re the kind of reader who does this, do not turn to the end first. Please …'


Adèle Geras is the author of many books for children and six novels for adults. Her seventh novel, Conviction, will appear in early 2021 published by Michael Joseph under the pseudonym, Hope Adams. She lives in Cambridge.

Andrew Michael Hurley has written three short novels. They’re all disturbing but this latest is the most worrying of all.

His work is not to everyone’s taste, and I know one person who actively shudders when she utters the names of his books, but I love them. What most appeals to me is the weaving together of careful, vivid writing about specific places, strange interactions between human beings and other human beings and also between people and …I don’t know what to call it. The Unnatural. The Supernatural. Other Forces. Ghosts. Folk Memory... take your pick. Some reviewers have referred to the genre Hurley writes in as ‘folk horror.’

Starve Acre is short enough to be a novella. Its story would be harrowing even with no supernatural elements. A couple, Richard and Juliette, are recovering from the death of their very young son, Ewan. They’ve moved into a house belonging to Richard’s parents. There’s a field close by called Starve Acre, that no one in the area will even approach. A giant gallows tree grew there long ago. Now, the field is barren. Centuries ago, three young men from the village were hanged there for crimes committed under the influence of Jack Grey, a malign presence, like some kind of devilish Green Man. Everyone shuns the field.

‘Local lore had it that the divine reprisal had not ended with the tree but had spread out across the common in a poisonous ripple, turning the grass black, seeping down into the earth like oil, suffocating the life out of the place.’

But Richard, an academic, assuages his pain at his son’s death by exploring: digging in the field eager to find the roots of that tree. He comes across the skeleton of a hare and takes it carefully home where he puts together the hare’s bones, like some horrid jigsaw puzzle. Juliette spends a great deal of time in what was Ewan’s room, weeping and recording what she’s sure is his voice, his presence. To her, he’s not dead at all, but still in the house. I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s a group of people, led by one Mrs Forde who might be able to help Juliette come to terms with her bereavement. They’re called The Beacons and they’re…. shall we say unusual? Hurley is very good with gatherings of odd people…they appear in all his novels.

We also learn that `Ewan is not just any child. He can’t even be classified as a ‘difficult’ child or one who’s suffering from autism, say. He is very much more than that…

And the hare that Richard has assembled becomes hugely important.

The last scene is one that you will not ever forget. I guarantee this. Please, if you’re the kind of reader who does this, do not turn to the end first. Please…

One reason for reading about tragic events is to give relief to the reader, through what the Greeks called catharsis. The pity and terror you feel for others helps you to confront your own sorrows. But where the pity is mixed with so much horror, it’s harder to be comforted. When the whole is written so powerfully and beautifully, the weight of the prose, and the bringing into your mind of a complete and carefully described landscape is a special kind of pleasure.

I read this book on my Kindle and I see I’ve underlined something…it shows up blue as I go through the pages. This is what it says and it’s a good motto for the whole novel:

‘What you go searching for and what you find aren’t always the same.’

Starve Acre is published by John Murray.




Monday, 17 February 2020

Guest review by Graeme Fife: A TELLING OF STONES by Neil Rackham



"Fireside lure ... the heady smell of peat, the slight shifts on the chair by the hearth, the storyteller’s enhanced view through the refining aperture of the stone..."

Graeme Fife has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines, and is now a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography and works of history. Great Cycling Climbs, which brings together his books on the French Alps, is published by Thames and Hudson. He says, 'I urge everyone to buy from their independent bookshop, if they're lucky enough - as I am - to have one nearby. If not, by any means possible to counter the sprawl of the online consumer graball.'

A legend told on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides talks of a storm and a shipwreck – no rarity in those gale-lashed waters – and a princess drowned in a pool below Baile na Cille on the island’s windswept west coast. A princess by her clothes but, strung round her neck, a seeing stone, destined one day to come into the possession of the Brahan Seer.

The story triggered a devouring curiosity in Rackham, who was drawn to the island through lifelong friendship with Catriona Nicholson, in whose cottage near Baile na Cille, where ‘a peat-brown river frets at the edge of the sea’, much of the book was written.

A seeing stone has one or more natural holes piercing it. A small aperture focuses the vision to close definition of distant objects – think the pinhole in a camera obscura – so it’s not surprising that these stones acquired a certain mystique. Not only could an early sailor use one as a sort of proto-telescope, but those with that other sight, the power of divination and prophesy, might associate their powers of foretelling with privileged touch and use of the stone. For, as Rackham tells us, where ‘all stones hold a remembrance of the past, Seeing Stones, or stones of vision, hold memories within them of things yet to come’. This reference to the fluidity of memory – proleptic and analeptic - is central. We dwell in the continuum of memory, whose eddies and currents tug our imagination through the enchantments, the bewitchments, of both light and shadow. The Latin for story, fabula, gives us fabulous, remember, and Rackham’s narrative is charged with the interweave of time and the magic of the stones, the constants of the sea, its everlasting presence and the unpredictability of its moods, of storm-knots and calms, of the troublesome gift of the sight…

The legends grew and the seeing stones acquired a potent force in the island’s saga which extends far across the flint-backed ocean to the other islands and the old kingdoms of Norway and Iceland. The introduction to this fascinating delve into the lore and the Hebridean spinning of magic and metamorphosis – young women into creatures of the briny flood - tells us ‘princes, pedlars, crofters, selkies and the Lewis Chessmen all encounter the awesome power of the Seeing Stone. Even the Blue Men of the Minch who drag folk and ships to a watery death cannot defeat it’.

You know about selkies…? Find them here.

The Brahan Seer, the Lewis Chessmen, The Blue Men of the Minch, that treacherous northern Charybdis, the choppy maw ready to engulf any unwary vessel and its crew…ah, but it’s tempting to reel off the stories recounted in this most absorbing, fascinating book, but this is a review, not the Reader's Digest version.

I begin with the scope and range of its telling. Rackham is a good companion. He tells the stories in an unaffected style, allowing the seduction of their fireside lure to entice without any need to embellish. The heady smell of the peat, the slight shifts on the chair by the hearth, the storyteller’s enhanced view through the refining aperture of the stone. As all good stories begin, there is that moment when the story-teller says, or gestures, behold…The tale of the Seeing Stone leads us into a fine mesh of myth and the importance of myth, for there is no tale without some hinterland of mortal disquiet or rapture, tragedy or wonderment. How else do we make sense of the perplexing riddles of our life but in the fabric of story? Stranger than fiction? You betcha.

Laced through the rich lore which accompanies the stories per se, here, too, are animadversions ‘on the nature of: Foretelling with Stones…Second Sight…Celtic Knots… Ravens…the Penalties of Foretelling…’ this last springing from the moving story of Brahan the Seer, himself.

As in other ancient cultures, a dangerous confrontation may be averted by the challenge of riddles – the Blue men of the Minch fling a cryptic rhyme at the Princess aboard the threatened boat. Undeterred she answers and they, knowing they’re beaten, ‘uttered loud curses and, slipping from the bow, disappeared beneath the waves’.

'It has been said of chance,’ Rackham writes, ‘that although it may be too intricate to understand, it is never without its own purpose.’ Wow. And, my word, what a concluding sequence...when 'all was caught in an eternity of stillness'.

My highest praise of this book, illustrated with superb line drawings by Alisdair Wiseman? It took me, last week, to Lewis.

A Telling of Stones is published by Acair

See also: Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown, reviewed by Graeme Fife

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, reviewed by Paula Knight

Moby Dick by Herman Melville, reviewed by Graeme Fife



Photographs by Graeme Fife