Patrick Robertson: A Tale Of Adventure
pp201, ISBN 1904598455
Travel, they say, broadens the mind, but what does it do to one’s morality? A case in point is the titular ‘hero’ (one uses that term advisedly here) of Brian Hennigan’s really quite amusing first novel. Patrick Robertson is a travelling salesman for the Twenty-First century, plane-hopping instead of hoofing it door to door. A machine-tools salesman, his chirpy manner is at odds with his booze cravings and confession of screaming in his sleep. His smooth life of business class and mini-bars is interrupted when in a case of mistaken identity he is kidnapped by a group of eco-terrorists in Bangkok. To his chagrin, he discovers he is not the first Patrick Robertson they’ve taken wrongly. Always ready with a nugget of workplace wisdom (“The best resources are, of course, Other People. Other People are the crash test dummies of effective management”), Patrick transfers his free market ideas from selling drill bits to surviving in the jungle his abductor take him to, with ruthless results. When his actions lead to the deaths of the eco-terrorists and fellow victims alike, Patrick fails to see any link between his actions and their consequences, a neat and unlaboured parallel with the way in which the business community Patrick calls home operates.
Fakers, Forgers & Phoneys
pp416, ISBN 1845962109
“Surely men with plenty of money and no brains were made for men with plenty brains and no money.” These words, written in the notebook of the Tichborne Claimant, one of the 19th Century’s more outrageous con men, could almost be a collective mission statement for the fakes and phoneys the late Mag-nusson profiles in this spry collection. I say almost because not everyone featured was a crook. Magnusson runs through the fake fairy photos that left Arthur Conan Doyle with a red face and, more compellingly, the tale of Ellen and William Craft, pre-emancipation African-Americans who escaped captivity by posing as a white master and his slave. On the whole however, Magnusson sticks with the criminals, posing but never really answering the question of what psychological forces drive a man to fake Old Masters or ancient poetic epics. Where Magnusson picks up points is the strength of his research. This reader knew about the so-called ‘Turk in the Cabinet’, a late 18th century automaton that played chess supposedly. The hoax travelled Europe and America for eighty years before Edgar Allan Poe, of all people, figured out how it was done. Fascinatingly, Edward Cartwright, it transpires, saw the Turk and was inspired to invent the weave-loom, boosting the Industrial Revolution.
The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox
HEADLINE REVIEW, £7.99
pp224 ISBN 0755308441
“You don’t get banged up for sixty years for nothing,” one character comments during The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox. The sad fact, as demonstrated by the fate of the title character, is that you can, or rather you could if you were a woman. As Maggie O’Farrell reveals, in the earlier part of last century, all you needed to lock up an awkward female relative was a doctor’s signature. The reader is as horrified to learn this as Iris, Esme’s grandniece. With a vintage dress shop to run and frustrated love for her stepbrother, Iris has enough problems without looking after an elderly relative she had no idea existed. But the institution Esme has been locked away in all her life is closing, and Iris can’t turn her back on the elderly woman, unlike her family who never mentioned her again once she was locked away. O’Farrell cuts between Esme’s childhood and the present day. The bleakly snobbish Edinburgh of the Thirties, where matrons patrol the streets with, to borrow Muriel Spark’s phrase, “predestination in their smiles”, is contrasted with our era. Although decidedly more unbuttoned, it has its own way of breaking the hearts of young women.
pp544 ISBN 1841584770
In the way that Ed Wood Jnr is often mistakenly described as the worst film director of all time, William McGonagall is not the worst poet. No one who has given so much pleasure, even if inadvertently, can be said to be strictly the worst. There are bores, sometimes celebrated bores, who are more convincing candidates for the post of ‘the worst’; that said, over five hundred pages of McGonagall is a bit much for anyone other than the most avid consumer of the bard of Dundee. Which prompts the thought that it was just as well he resided in Dundee; he was such a compulsive rhymer, he’d have been stuck if he came from anywhere less assonant (see his unhappy attempt to couple ‘Edinburgh’ with ‘sorrow’). Editor Chris Hunt provides a solid biographical introduction to the man he calls “Scotland’s alternative national poet”. Students were early ‘fans’ of his work, showing then as now their almost bottomless appreciation of kitsch. The serious point to make about MacG-onagall is that he was a handloom weaver who schooled himself in Shakespeare; one wonders how much of his student followers’ mockery was down to his verses and how much to the fact he was a working class man with literary ambitions?
HAMISH HAMILTON, £12.99
pp256 ISBN 0241143446
McCartney’s debut is an appealing tale of young love. Bell is a student spending her summer working for the exotically-named Velvet, who owns a high-class restaurant on Mackinac Island north of Michigan. There, she falls in love with another waiter, Bryce, and the two spend a highly-charged few months together. Running parallel with this poignant teenage love story is another tale centred on an older Bell who has survived breast cancer. Her husband has died while her daughter is recently divorced. While she is waiting for bad weather to subside so that she can move out of her home, she reminisces over that summer and the catastrophe that occurred towards the end of an apparently idyllic time. A more sombre way of setting the hopes of youth against the disappointments of old age could scarcely be imagined, and McCartney handles it well, largely eschewing sentimentality for realism in the mature narrative, while successfully portraying the eroticism of young love in the younger one. The prose in both narratives can be a little too pared-down, however, giving her writing a flat register which is not always engaging; she also often includes irrelevant details. But, on the whole, this is a promising debut.
Writing In The Sand
LUATH PRESS, £12.99
pp480 ISBN 1905222475
The village of Cromness on the Dark Isle is the fictional setting for Dunn’s tale of fishy goings-on amongst odd island-types – a sort of Hamish MacBeth meets Doctor Who if you will, although without quite the appeal of either. Dunn assembles a massive cast for so small a place: there is the obese but formidable fortune-telling Alice and her phoney assistant Doreen, who prefers pleasuring the men of the village under boats in the dark to telling their fortunes; the pious Rev Dumfry who can’t resist Doreen’s charms no matter how hard he tries; the ruthless landowner Mr Mor who wants to improve the local football team’s chances by, shock horror, buying someone from outside the island; Jimmy Bervie, the fisherman who writes to the Dalai Lama with his concerns about the island; the uneasy, returning islander George
MacLear; the Celtic academic Dr Lorraine MacDonald who soon becomes entranced by Alice’s tales which undermine all her scholarly work. And that’s just to name a few of them. All in all, it’s a cacophony of voices that tends to drown out the larger picture Dun attempts to paint.
She Is But A Woman: Queenship In Scotland 424-1463
JOHN DONALD, £25
pp272 ISBN 085976656X
This is a truly fascinating account of a little written-about subject – medieval queenship in Scotland. Downie rightly points out the negative effect that the drama of the 16th century has had on discussion of those prominent women prior to Mary, Queen of Scots. But, apart from St Margaret, wife of 13th king Malcolm, few have received much attention. Downie takes Margaret as a model of the prefect medieval queen, who, along with Christine de Pizan’s advice manual to medieval courtly ways, The Treasure Of the City Of Ladies, provides a starting point for his analysis of the impact of two queens – Joan Beaufort, wife of James I, and Mary of Guelders, wife of James II. She does not attempt a feminist rewriting of history, but does show the importance of a ‘good’ queen in the medieval period, even one who was not ruling alone, but merely a partner. Downie delineates the powers a queen had, drawing a distinction between power and authority. She argues effectively for the political influence that Joan Beaufort in particular had with her husband. An accessible read that never simplifies its subject.
River Of Memory: Memoirs Of A Scots-Italian
MERCAT PRESS, £9.99
pp240 ISBN 1841831069
Pieri has a wonderfully attractive voice and an easy story-telling manner which belie the difficulties he had growing up in Scotland, the country his Tuscan family emigrated to when Pieri was only three years old. The harshness of life before the Second World War, working alongside his brother Ralph in his father’s fish and chip shop, Glasgow’s famous Savoy, could barely have prepared him for the horrors of internment during the war, and it’s this period in his life which stands out in an otherwise upbeat account of the immigrant experience in 20th century Glasgow (hard work, some business risks, marriage to a local girl, raising a family). Pieri recalls in detail being arrested in the middle of the night after Mussolini’s declaration of war and being shipped off to Canada where soldiers barked orders at them in German because nobody told them their prisoners were raised in Scotland and spoke English. The looting of his family’s shop by an angry Glaswegian mob does not prevent Pieri form returning to the city to make a go of things there; ironically he says that after the war, racism was much less in evidence. Touching and unsentimental.
Queen Mary’s Women
Rosalind K Marshall
JOHN DONALD, £10.99
pp224 ISBN 0859766675
So much has been written about Mary Queen Of Scots it’s difficult to find a new angle to take on her. That Rosalind Marshall has managed to do just that is commendable, even if much of this material has been covered elsewhere (the story of the four Marys, her relationship with her first mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici, her mother’s powerful Guise family). In addition to these familiar figures, Marshall introduces us to Mary’s French ladies-in-waiting, whose lives often followed a path just as colourful and violent as hers did; one lady, Anne Chabot, saw five sons die in duels, battles and drunken quarrels. With so much focus on Mary’s men (the Dauphin, Darnley and Bothwell), Marshall provides a refreshing take, reminding us just how women-centred the world was for a 16th century queen, no matter how much it was ruled by men. This is a straightforward account that does not seek to upset past interpretations of Mary, preferring instead to add to them.