Book Beginnings: The Crow Road by Iain Banks

It was the day that my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.

A dramatic opening that caught my attention when I began reading Iain Bank’s novel The Crow Road. I’ve read on further and so far I’m intrigued and amused by this family saga of the McHoans, that switches about between the generations.

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

Sisters of Sinai by Janet Soskice

Sisters of Sinai

The full title of this book is Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels. This is biography so well written that it almost reads like a novel. In fact, if this was a novel I would think it was a most unlikely story of twin sisters in the latter half of the nineteenth century, travelling to St Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai where they discover one of the earliest copies of the Gospels written in ancient Syriac.

Janet Soskice has written a compelling account of two Scottish sisters – Agnes and Margaret Smith born in 1843 in Irvine, a town south-west of Glasgow. Their mother died two weeks after they were born and they were brought up by their father, John Smith. He was unusual in that he gave his daughters an unconventional education for that period. He approved of independence of mind and foreign travel. The girls had an aptitude for languages and mastered French, German, Spanish and Italian whilst they were still quite young – helped by visits to each country. Their taste for learning, travels and adventure was set for life with long hours of study and plenty of exercise. Add to this intensely-held Presbyterian beliefs and Bible study.

John Smith inherited a huge sum of money (today’s equivalent would be around £7 million) from a relative. He died when the twins were 23 leaving his fortune to them (which had built up considerably by then); they were very rich indeed. They decided to have a trip down the Nile. And that was just the beginning; their lives were transformed.

They learnt Greek, Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac and they returned to Egypt and Sinai many times, befriending the monks of St Catherine, despite their religious differences, and getting embroiled in disputes with Cambridge academics who were initially very reluctant to accept that these two middle-aged (by then) women with no university qualifications (women were not permitted to receive degrees from the university at that time), could possibly have found anything of value or interest to them.

What they discovered in a ‘dimly lit little room  below the prior’s quarters’ in the monastery was a dirty volume, its leaves nearly all stuck together, written in Syriac. It was a collection of lives of women saints, but written underneath that was something else that was clearly an earlier text – of the Gospels. This was a palimpsest – the earliest writing having been scraped off and overwritten at a later date, the old ink becoming visible at a later date through the effects of the atmosphere. This eventually proved that the Gospels had been written much earlier than had previously been thought, moving the date back to the late second century.

Not only is that remarkable in itself, but it is astonishing to me that these two middle-aged women travelled to Egypt, Sinai, Jerusalem and beyond at the latter half of the nineteenth century across the desert on camel or walking miles on foot. Their courage and resolve overcame all the difficulties they encountered, coping with physical discomfort and  dishonest dragomen abroad and the hostility and scepticism at home.

I would never have known of this enthralling book if it hadn’t been for Cath’s review of it on Read-Warbler. I was intrigued and looked for it in my library straight away and was delighted to find that there was a copy in another branch.  Biographies and historical books are probably my most favourite of non-fiction books and accounts of  the Bible and how it came to be compiled have long been of interest to me, but I hadn’t come across these two sisters before. Janet Soskine has thoroughly researched her subject and the book is complemented by a ‘select’ bibliography that runs to nearly 5 pages and an extensive index.

This is an excellent non-fiction book, just right for Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland 2014 Challenge.

Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway

I was browsing the biography section in the local library when I came across Leaving Alexandria: a Memoir of Faith and Doubt by Richard Holloway. I vaguely remembered that he had been an outspoken bishop who had resigned some years ago and I thought it would be interesting to read what had led up to his resignation. The blurbs on the back encouraged me to borrow the book:

This poignant memoir, written with integrity, intelligence and wit, lays bare the ludicrous and entirely unnecessary mess we have made of religion. (Karen Armstrong)


So compelling and so intense. Nobody, whether interested in religion or not, could fail to be intensely moved … What a deeply lovable man; and what a wonderful book. (Mary Warnock, Observer)

In the past I have read many books on religion, mainly on Christianity, but I am not currently a church goer and I know little about the Anglican Church and next to nothing about the Scottish Episcopal Church – Richard Holloway was the Primus of the latter. Reading Richard Holloway’s own account of his beliefs and doubts was without doubt an eye-opener.

Leaving Alexandria is fascinating. Richard Holloway grew up in Alexandria, a town in the Vale of Leven, north of Glasgow. At the age of fourteen he left home to train for the priesthood at Kelham Hall in Nottinghamshire, the mother house of  the Anglo-Catholic Society of the Sacred Mission, an order that trained uneducated boys for the priesthood in a monastic setting. Subsequently, he worked in Africa, the Gorbals in Glasgow, Boston, and Old Saint Paul’s in Edinburgh before becoming the Bishop of Edinburgh. His resignation in 2000 as the Bishop of Edinburgh came when he was 66.

He had a controversial career, dubbed the ‘Barmy Bishop’. He was an outspoken champion of progressive causes, but he had many crises of faith and at times was plagued with doubt, experiencing God as an absence. To me that sounds as though he wasn’t sure about the existence of God. He ponders whether religion is a lie and states that it is a ‘mistake’:

I was less sure whether God was also just a human invention, but I was quite sure religion was. It was a work of human imagination, a work of art – an opera – and could be appreciated as such.  The real issue was whether it should be given more authority over us than any other work of art, especially if it is the kind of authority that over rides our own better judgements. (page 343)

In the Epilogue he explained that he came to believe that

Religion is human, and like humanity it is both a glory and a scandal. It is full of pity and full of cruelty. Just like us. So is the Bible.

He went on that he had discovered his real dilemma:

I wanted to keep religion around, purged of cruelty, because it gives us a space to wonder and listen within. Purged of the explanations that don’t explain, the science that does not prove, the morality that does not improve; purged in fact, of its prose, religion’s poetry could still touch us, make us weep, make us tender, and take us out of ourselves into the possibility of a courageous pity. (page 345)

He resigned at odds with many strongly held Episcopal Church doctrines and beliefs, and precipitated by the publication of his book Godless Morality. It was because of the Church’s insistence on rules, its attitudes towards women and homosexuals, and its inability to understand the nature of myth. But he had struggled all the way through, feeling himself a disappointment, often knowing that he was a ‘double-minded man’ and ‘unstable, if not in all my ways, then certainly in many of my attitudes and opinions. Janus-like, I seemed able to look two ways at once, be in two minds about things.’  My question is not why he resigned, but why it took him so long, and how had he become a bishop at all?

There are many things about Richard Holloway that I like, but overarching them all is his compassion and his honesty. There are so many passages I could quote, including this one describing the opponents of women’s ordination:

‘Oh the miserable buggers, the mean-minded wee sods.’ (page 309)

I am sure that I have not really done justice to this book and refer to this review of Leaving Alexandria by Mary Warnock in The Guardian/The Observer 19 February 2012 and to an interview with Richard Holloway at the Gladstone’s Library 26 February 2012.

No Stranger to Death by Janet O'Kane

No Stranger to DeathMy thanks to Janet O’Kane for sending me a copy of her book,  No Stranger to Death, which I really enjoyed reading.  Once I’d started it I just wanted to keep on reading. I was surprised by how intricate and complex the plot is, with several sub-plots and a crowd of characters, all of whom are clearly defined. Set in the Scottish Borders, it also has a strong sense of location and it was refreshing to read a Scottish crime novel that is not set in Edinburgh, Glasgow or even in Shetland. It’s a fast-paced novel that kept me on the edge wanting to find out more.

No Stranger to Death begins with recently widowed Dr Zoe Moreland’s discovery of a body in the remains of a Guy Fawkes bonfire. Westerlea, a fictional village, is a place where everybody knows everyone, but even so it seems everyone has something to hide.  Zoe is new to the village, having moved from there from England to join the Health Centre as a GP and with the help of her new friend, Kate Mackenzie, she soon finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation. This is not a police procedural, although Detective Erskine Mather of Police Scotland is in charge of the investigation.

It’s not only the villagers who have secrets, as there is something in Zoe’s background that she wants to keep to herself and getting involved in a murder investigation is the last thing she wanted:

She had gone back to using her maiden name when she came to Scotland, but would that protect her against people whose job it was to dig up the past of anyone remotely connected with a sensational crime? (page 29)

As Zoe and Kate dig deeper quite a few nasty secrets come to light with almost disastrous consequences and Zoe is in fear of her own life. No Stranger to Death touches on some quite dark themes with an ending that took me by surprise.

Janet O’Kane lives in the Scottish Borders and she is currently writing a follow up to No Stranger to Death, again featuring Zoe Moreland. For more information see her blog – Janet O’Kane: Crime Fiction with a Heart and her Facebook page.

As well as being a really good book in its own right, No Stranger to Death meets the criteria for both the Read Scotland 2014 challenge and the My Kind of Mystery challenge.

The Wicked Day by Mary Stewart

The Wicked Day is a sequel to Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, telling the story of Mordred, King Arthur’s illegitimate son, who was foretold by Merlin as Arthur’s bane. It blends together fact and fiction as Mary Stewart explains in her afterword, Arthur was a real historical figure and she based her books on him using Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, written in the twelfth century and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, written in the fifteenth. Mordred, however, is probably as fictional as Lancelot.

I liked most of this book, the first part about Mordred’s early life is the best part. He grows up in the Orkneys, living with foster parents, until he is taken to the court of King Lot and his wife Queen Morgause as one of Lot’s bastard sons, unaware that Morgause, Arthur’s half-sister, is his real mother. This part of the book parallels the ending of The Last Enchantment but told from Mordred’s perspective.

All the characters from the legends are there, with the exception of Merlin – the High King Arthur, his beautiful Queen, Guinevere, his knights, Gawain and his brothers, AgravainGaheris and Gareth (Arthur’s nephews) and the sorceress, Morgause, still plotting against Arthur. Mordred is portrayed as a good person, courageous but misunderstood and controlled by his destiny:

If Merlin saw it written in the stars that you would be Arthur’s doom, then how can you escape it? There will come a day, the wicked day of destiny, when all will come to pass as he foretold. (page 240)

After a good opening third the book lost some of its appeal for me. Unlike the earlier books, The Wicked Day is narrated in the third person, which is probably why it seems less engaging to me. With the exception of the Epilogue, the passion and the magic are missing from the last part of the book which is a dry account of battles.

I wondered how Mary Stewart was going to resolve the story because in her version of it Arthur and Mordred, who is traditionally depicted as the villain, become reconciled to each other and Arthur acknowledges Mordred as his son and heir. Mordred is no villain, but not exactly a hero either. So, how come they ended up as enemies? She managed a plausible conclusion but I thought it was rather an anti-climax.

This is my third book for Carl’s Once Upon A Time VIII challenge and also qualifies for the Historical Fiction Reading challenge and the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge.

Added 17 May 2014:

Mary Stewart died in 10 May 2014 aged 97 – her obituary in The Telegraph describes her as an ‘author of romantic thrillers who wrote for love not money, and had an intuitive feel for the past.’

The Cabinetmaker by Alan Jones

When Alan Jones emailed me about reading his book The Cabinetmaker he described it as a gritty crime novel based in Glasgow that tells the story of a local cabinetmaker, Francis Hare, father of a murdered son, and John McDaid, a young detective on the investigation.

He went on to say that it contained some strong language, some sleazy police and a smattering of Glasgow slang, which did make me unsure I wanted to read it. But he also said that it combined Glasgow gang culture, sloppy policing and amateur football with fine furniture making and taking that into account I thought that it probably wouldn’t be your normal run-of-the mill crime fiction.

And I was right – it is different and I did like it, despite some of the language (which actually is no worse than in some other books) and there are no truly gruesome descriptions to put me off. In parts I thought it lost focus somewhat, the crime and justice aspects becoming a bit lost in a wealth of detail about football and furniture making, but apart from that it is a intricately plotted book which had me totally gripped. By the end of the book I realised that there is a purpose to those chapters beyond Alan Jones’s obvious love of football and furniture making. Within them lie the clues to what was really going on in Francis and John’s lives.

The Cabinetmaker follows John McDaid’s life from his first day as a detective up to his retirement in 2008, focussing on one crime – the killing of Patrick Hare, a student by a gang of thugs in Glasglow’s west end. The killers were tried but walked free.  From that point onward the story is of John and Francis and their search for justice.  Patrick’s death was a turning point in their lives and although they become friends through a shared interest in football and cabinet making, under pinning everything is their desire for justice.

There are many characters, including police and villains and at times some of them did begin to blur in my mind, with the exception of Francis, John and Sarah, Patrick’s girl friend, who all stand out as vivid and believable people. There are many twists and turns in the story, before the full truth is revealed. It’s a novel of loss and retribution.

There are four free sample chapters on Alan Jones’s website,, along with extra content including an interactive Glasgow map, an audio €˜Glasgow slang’ dictionary, a glossary of cabinetry terms and some videos of the €˜Street Cabinetmaking’ book launch.

Alan Jones (his pen name) is Scottish, living on the Clyde coast. I see from this interview on Omnimystery News that he is writing another book – I’ll be looking out for it.

The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart

Magic is the door through which mortal man may sometimes step, to find the gates in the hollow hills, and let himself through into the halls of the other world. (The Last Enchantment, page 121)

I love books that take me away to another time and place – The Last Enchantment (1979) by Mary Stewart is just such a book, magically whisking me back to the time of King Arthur and Merlin. This is not a book to read quickly, but a book to savour both for the story and for Mary Stewart’s descriptive writing.

I’ve been fascinated with the legend of King Arthur from childhood, the tales of the Sword in the Stone, the Knights of the Round Table, the Lady of the Lake, and of Merlin and so on. The Last Enchantment is the third book of the Arthurian Saga, a book of myth and legend and about the conflict between good and evil.

The narrator is Merlin and this book is set after Arthur has become the High King of Brtian, he has drawn the sword, Caliburn (Excaliber) from the stone and he is now plunged into battle against the Saxons , whilst Merlin is in a battle of a different kind, against Arthur’s half-sister, Morgause, the rose-gold witch. Merlin is now getting older and although he is losing his powers, they have not totally deserted him.

In fact this is a story of power, peopled by many richly depicted characters from Bedwyr, Arthur’s companion, who takes the place of Lancelot in this book, to Nimue (Niniane, Vivien), Merlin’s pupil who Merlin initiates into his magic powers. There is the story of Mordred’s birth (his mother Morgause had seduced Arthur), of Guinevere and her rape by King Melwas, and Merlin’s illness and recovery in the wild forest, and his incarceration in the Crystal Cave.

Above all, it is about Merlin and his relationship with Arthur and towards the end of the book with Niniane. As it narrated through Merlin’s eyes the battles that followed Arthur’s acsension are not the main focus of the book. He travels around the country and there is a helpful map on the endpapers of my hardback copy showing the routes he took and the places he visited.

Last Enchantment map 001

(I spent quite some time studying the map and working out what the places are called today.)

Merlin’s travels took him to numerous places including Dunpeldyr in the north-east, possibly on the site of the hill-fort on the present day Traprain Law, not far from Haddington and Dunbar, now in Scotland, then part of Northumbria; Caerleon (now the northern outskirts of Newport in South Wales); Galava (near present day Ambleside in the Lake District; and Vindolanda on the Great Wall of the Emperor Hadrian, where he visits his friend Blaise, to name but a few. It tells of how Merlin built Camelot on the hill then known as Caer Camel (caer is Welsh for fort or castle), a fictional place on a flat topped hill, not far from the sea and the Lake with its Isle of Glass.

Many years ago I read the first two books, The Crystal Cave (1970), about Merlin’s early days and The Hollow Hills (1973), in which Arthur learns who he is and becomes King.  I’d borrowed the books from the library, but never read the third book, so I was really happy when I found it in a library sale a few years ago for just 10p. I can’t think why I’ve not read it until this year, just too many other books clamouring to be read all at once, I expect.

Mary Stewart was born Mary Rainbow in January 1916 in County Durham. She currently lives in Scotland. On Goodreads I found this video of an interview with Mary Stewart in 1992 in which she talks about her writing and another interview with her in 1999, published by the University of Rochester. There are 2 other books following on from the Merlin TrilogyThe Wicked Da(1983), in which Mordred is the main character and The Prince and the Pilgrim (1995).

This historical fantasy is a perfect book not only for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge, but also the Once Upon a Time Challenge, the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and because Mary Stewart lived in Scotland the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge too.