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Volume 7 – Issue 2 – Gallimaufry – Scottish Review of Books
by Lesley McDowell
Theresa Munoz

Volume 7 – Issue 2 – Gallimaufry

May 13, 2011 | by Lesley McDowell
Theresa Munoz

Glen Duncan
CANONGATE, £14.99 336PP ISBN 978-1847679444

Glen Duncan describes the mysteries of lycanthropy in The Last Werewolf, a smart entry into the horror genre. His hero Jacob Marlowe is a 200-years-old wolf man. As the last of his kind, he is a prize trophy for hunters. Eric Grainer, chief of the World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena, vows to kills Marlowe at the next full moon. To be fair, Marlowe once killed and ate Grainer’s dad. Marlowe is not your typical bloodthirsty fiend, however. The first third of the novel consists of his intelligent and charming account of his troubled existence. Marlowe describes the night he was infected with ‘the Curse’ in 1842 and the bittersweet glory of his first kill. The novel shifts into action mode when Marlowe’s closest friend is murdered, and he has to flee the country, Grainer close on his tail. Duncan’s sketch of this conflicted werewolf is gripping. Self-aware and humorous, Marlowe is candid about his transformation from mild-mannered gentleman into hulking, sex-crazed beast. The novel carries a sense of wonder and suspense until the end. TM

Rosalind K Marshall
SAINT ANDREW PRESS, £9.99 PP ISBN 978-0715209363

This accessible, short biography of Mary, Queen of Scots takes us through some of the central and most controversial ‘myths’ about her life. Some facts about her early life are dealt with speedily, as what we all want to know about are those disastrous decisions she made after (and including) her marriage to Lord Darnley. Did she have an affair with David Rizzio? Did she murder Darnley? Did the Earl of Bothwell abduct her? Historian Rosalind Marshall takes a simple approach that would work well in schools and would encourage interest amongst school pupils in the nature of regal authority in Scotland at this time. Her questions are phrased in colloquial terms, as are her answers, but she fills her book with facts and even those who might not know about the importance of the ‘casket letters’ beforehand can get a clear picture of the impression they created and how long it took for them to be exposed as false. There can be few heads of state subjected to as much myth-making as Mary has been and Marshall’s more modern approach has something to say about the power of rumour and gossip that a younger generation will no doubt appreciate. LM

Tara Womersley & Dorothy H Crawford
LUATH PRESS, £16.99 256PP ISBN 978-1906817589

This title will inevitably conjure up the image of Burke and Hare, murdering indiscriminately in order to provide Edinburgh’s School of Anatomy with enough cadavers for medical students to practise on, but it’s also a fascinating study of how science progresses, and why it sometimes does so at a seemingly slow rate. The story of Joseph Lister is an excellent example. Inspired by Pasteur’s work in Paris, he discovered that carbolic acid could kill germs that occurred post-operation, most especially in cases of amputation. He soaked his instruments in carbolic and noticed an immediate reduction in post-operative diseases, published his results in The Lancet, and was treated as a ‘quack’ by other scientists and doctors. Rivals like James Simpson dismissed his findings (professional competition perhaps blinding him), and it took years for his findings to be made general practice. Those who struggled in the face of public opprobrium, like Joseph Lister, deserve to be better appreciated than they are. LM

Karin Altenberg
QUERCUS, £20 304PP ISBN 978-0857382320

Altenberg, a Swedish archaeologist, has chosen the St Kilda of the early nineteenth century as the setting for her first novel. It’s a setting both rich and bleak, and that apparent contradiction is mirrored in her characterisation of her protagonists, Neil MacKenzie and his wife, Lizzie. They have come to St Kilda to bring Christianity to the heathens, but after her initial revulsion at the islanders’ primitive ways of living, Lizzie finds herself losing some of those Christian principles and gaining a different spiritual perspective. Altenberg focuses on the harshness of life and the dangers of the islanders’ way of living, especially when it comes to newborns. Lizzie loses her first three children to the island’s ‘eight-day sickness’ and her husband, constantly wrestling with his own demons and his relationship with God, cannot help her in her despair. Indeed, he makes it worse; when two naturalists visit, he puts down his wife’s cooking and makes her wait her turn. Altenberg has been a little tentative in her depiction of the couple; hints at discord and a sense of smothered rage are all very well, but she tends to swerve away from anything too indigestible. That said, she has a feel for the landscape and sympathy for the islanders’ way of life.  LM

Alasdair Macrae
NORTHCOTE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, £12.99 120PP ISBN 978-0746310762

The life and writings of Norman MacCaig, who died in 1996, are explored in this study of the poet. Retired lecturer Alasdair Macrae first encountered MacCaig’s work in the 1950s, and the two became colleagues at the University of Stirling in the 1970s. The opening chapter offers some interesting details about MacCaig’s life, such as the publication of his first book of poetry at the age of 33 and his relationships with fellow makars Robert Garioch, Hugh MacDiarmid, and Sydney Goodsir Smith. The subsequent chapters discuss various aspects of MacCaig’s poetry, such as the influences on his work, the significance of Edinburgh and Assynt in his poetry, and certain values he upheld in his writing career. Macrae maintains a respectful distance throughout the book – perhaps too much of a distance. Surprisingly, he is never critical of the poet’s work nor does he comment in detail on poetic form. Instead, he limits discussion only to the inspirations behind MacCaig’s poems and a light analysis of what the poet may have meant. Though this technique is fine to begin with, this reader hankered for greater discussion of themes, patterns and conflicts in MacCaig’s poetry. TM

Frances Bingham
TWO RAVENS PRESS, £9.99 200PP ISBN 978-1906120566

In Frances Bingham’s second novel, four exiles live on a remote island. An artist named Hesketh and her adolescent daughter Kezia have stayed on the island for ten years. Their neighbour is Crambo, a mute whom Kezia has taught to read. The balance of their beachfront life is disrupted when a recuperating ex-soldier, Fitz, joins the trio. Though Fitz is appealing to both Hesketh and Kezia, it’s soon revealed that Fitz is infatuated with a woman in London. Love triangles form between the characters. Their emotional strife is mirrored by the crashing sea. As the title suggests, the novel has a theme of running away from conflict. Bingham divides the narrative between Kezia, Crambo and Fitz. Kezia speaks in fragments separated by dashes, Crambo’s voice consists of run-on sentences, and Fitz’s sections are distinguished by elegant prose. However, because all of the voices are narrated in the past tense and share the same plaintive tone, it is still difficult to tell them apart. Though Bingham’s writing is evocative and musical, the novel goes flat before it ends. TM

Chris McCully
TWO RAVENS PRESS, £10.99 220PP ISBN 978-1906120573

Chris McCully relocated from England to Groningen in the North East of the Netherlands in 2007, a move that seems to have exacerbated an existing feeling of not ‘fitting in’. He uses fishing as a basis for exploring this feeling over a series of essays. McCully is a poet and has a keen eye for detail and a fine way of expressing what he notices and feels. His thoughts on decaying leaves, fresh water mussels, pike, zander, and other things he comes across while ‘outside’ are finely drawn and impressively knowledgeable. With lesser talents, poetic ponderings on identity, childhood memories, longing and loneliness could get tiresome, but McCully’s finely honed writing skills just about stave that off. In the end he decides that he belongs outside after all which would have been a fair guess at the beginning. That’s not to say the exercise is not worthwhile. Anyone who can characterise arriving back in England as becoming ‘part of the herd that sweats and munches on CCTV’ belongs on the outside and we are all the better for having him stationed there. TM

Stuart Clark
POLYGON, £12.99 272PP ISBN 978-1846971747

This is the first in a trilogy of novels about crucial moments in the history of scientific discovery – Clark’s novel deals with Johannes Kepler, an astronomer and mathematician who inspired Galileo, and who first established that the earth revolved around the sun. Successive novels will look at Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. There’s no doubting Clark’s knowledge, and the historical research he has accomplished to give his novel the appropriately authentic setting (fashion details, the right foods, and so on). It’s harder to make historical personalities come to
life, though, and while Clark does try to give Kepler depth with his illnesses and his sometimes fraught relationship with his wife, the depictions of Kepler and Galileo are one-dimensional. There is an opportunity for a novelist to create tension here, as Kepler and Galileo are both committing heresy, but the plot is occasionally hard to follow, with jumps in time and place, between 1612 and 1623, or Prague and Tuscany, and this tends to disrupt the build-up. Minor characters, like Kepler’s tutor or the young Cardinal Pippe, flit in and out of the narrative. You learn as you read Clark’s work, but as a novel it never comes to life. LM

Des Dillon
LUATH PRESS, £8.99 120PP ISBN 978-0746310762

Drink, brawl, sleep, drink, brawl, sleep….this plot line is on spin cycle in Des Dillon’s latest novel. Upon getting out of prison, middle-aged Stevie attempts to reconnect with his younger brother Danny, still a heavy boozer. Getting to know Danny again is the “experiment” in question and leads Stevie to reminisce about former times. The narrative shifts back and forth between the past and present, illustrating Stevie’s alcoholic and sober phases (which aren’t that different). Though Stevie is the principal character, the narrative largely focuses on Danny. He eventually becomes the third wheel in a relationship between a local boxer, Billy, and his girlfriend, Shelly. The local Asda become the trio’s favourite spot for panhandling. When a violent episode erupts between Billy and Danny, Stevie finds himself in the middle of the conflict. Dillon successfully conveys the devastating effects of alcoholism and how it tears apart a family. He seems to blame the men for all the trouble; in contrast, the female characters , such as the boys’ mother and Shelly , are kind and naive. Although Dillon hits all the right emotional notes, the novel becomes a series of binges and scuffles. TM

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