Archive for the ‘Scottish Literature’ Category

Alistair MacLean was my favourite author during my teens. I continued reading MacLean’s books till my middle twenties, by which time I had read most of his books. After that I continued collecting my favourite books of his, but haven’t read them much. The last time I read a MacLean book was maybe around ten years back. ‘When Eight Bells Toll‘ was my most favourite book of his. Once upon a time, I used to read it often. I thought I’ll read it again.

The book starts with the legendary first page in which the narrator describes a gun called the Peacemaker Colt. The reader is lulled into a false sense of security and before the reader realizes it, MacLean plunges them into the abyss. This first page has often been quoted by thriller writers and taught in creative writing classes on how to write the perfect first page of a thriller. What happens after that – I’m not going to tell you 😊 Anything I reveal about the plot is going to be a spoiler. If you decide to read the book, I want the book to unfold its secrets and reveal its pleasures to you. So, no plot description here 😊

Reading a favourite of our younger years again is like stepping on a landmine. If the book hasn’t aged well, we’ll be disappointed, and it will spoil our earlier pleasant memory of the book. I have so many happy memories of reading ‘When Eight Bells Toll’ that I was worried. What happens if the book hasn’t aged well? What happens if MacLean has said something inappropriate which jars our 21st century sensibilities? I was thinking about this when I started the book. I needn’t have worried. The prose was as beautiful as I remembered it before. MacLean’s sense of humour sizzles in every page. Even when the bad guy is holding our narrator in a deadly grip and is trying to strangle him, our narrator is able to see the funny side of things, and it makes us laugh. I think MacLean’s dry humour is the biggest strength of all his books. There is no nudity, no kissing, no sex, no funny business in the story. If two characters are attracted to each other, they court each other in a courtly fashion through verbal sparring like in a Jane Austen novel. The conversations are fun to read. The descriptions of the sea and ships and nautical things are beautiful, authentic, and educational without being overwhelming. I loved most of the characters in the book. Even one of bad characters is cool. The narrator’s boss is called Uncle Arthur and he is kind of like M from the James Bond novels, but Uncle Arthur is better, much better. I am not a big fan of M, but Uncle Arthur is adorable and I loved him. If there is one complaint I have about the book, it is that the women characters are all depicted as damsels in distress.

I loved reading ‘When Eight Bells Toll’ again. It was vintage MacLean. The first two-thirds of the book was as good or even better than I remember it. I’m glad I read it again. I can say that it is still one of my favourites.

Alistair MacLean was one of the popular thriller writers of the 20th century. He was Scottish. I think it is important to acknowledge that. Many of his stories were set during the Second World War and the Cold War. MacLean served in the Royal Navy during the war, and he used that experience and his knowledge of ships and the sea in his books, which gave a realistic and authentic feel to his stories. I think the height of his fame was between the ’60s and the ’70s when many of his books were adapted into films. The most famous ones were ‘The Guns of Navarone‘, ‘Where Eagles Dare‘ and ‘Force 10 from Navarone‘. MacLean died in the late ’80s, when the Cold War was still on and the popularity of his books has steadily declined since then. It is sad because his books are great entertainment. His publishers have released a new edition of his books recently with Lee Child’s blurb on the cover. I hope that inspires new readers to pick up his books and enjoy them.

I’m sharing below the legendary first pages of the book. Hope you like them.

Have you read ‘When Eight Bells Toll‘? Which is your favourite MacLean book? Do you like thrillers?

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The Coral Island‘ by Scottish writer R.M.Ballantyne was one of the first books to come out in the genre, that used to be called ‘juvenile fiction’. These days we call it Young Adult literature. So, this was one of the first ever YA books. It came out in 1858. I read an abridged version of it when I was a kid and I loved it. I always wanted to read the full version. So I was happy to read it today.

The narrator of the book is Ralph Rover. When the story happens, Ralph is a teenager working in a ship. The ship is sailing to the South Seas. There are two other teenagers in the ship, Jack Martin and Peterkin Gay. Ralph becomes close friends with them. When the ship reaches the South Seas, it gets caught in the middle of a storm. Ralph, Jack and Peterkin end up shipwrecked on an island. What happens to them, and the adventures they have, form the rest of the story.

The book can be roughly divided into two parts. The first part shows the three friends in the island, and how they discover new things there, and how they survive there. It is like reading Robinson Crusoe’s story but with three teenagers instead of one grownup man, and instead of it being philosophical, it has new discoveries, adventures and lots of fun. In the second part, there are pirates and cannibals and further adventures. I loved the first part more than the second part. The description of the island and the flora and fauna in the first part was detailed and beautiful. Peterkin Gay was my favourite character in the book – he was talkative and funny and was a bundle of energy and lifted the spirits of his friends with his sense of humour. One of the things I loved about the book was that it gives a description of surfing in the ocean by the South Sea islanders. It was interesting that surfing originated as a sport in these islands before it spread across the world.

Being one of the pioneering books in its genre, we can spot the ways in which ‘The Coral Island‘ might have influenced future adventure books. For example, Jim Hawkins from ‘Treasure Island‘ looks like another version of Ralph Rover. There is a pirate in ‘The Coral Island’ who takes Ralph under his wing, who looks a lot like a combination of the pirate Bill and Long John Silver from ‘Treasure Island’. There is a pirate captain in this book who looks a lot like Wolf Larsen from ‘The Sea Wolf‘. It looks like R.L.Stevenson and Jack London (and maybe others too) were inspired by this book and might have borrowed elements from it.

There is some bad news, though. ‘The Coral Island’ hasn’t aged well, especially the second part of the book. There is a distinct religious tone which seeps into the second part and the caricaturish depictions of the South Sea islanders, mostly as people who are cannibals who eat each other, is laughable and jars our 21st century sensibilities. I think these were probably glossed over in the abridged version that I read as a kid.

For a hundred years, ‘The Coral Island’ was a popular adventure story among kids. Then in 1954, William Golding took the core story from this book and put those teenagers in an island, but instead of them having adventures, he made the story dark and bleak and made them do bad things. He called his book ‘Lord of the Flies‘. Golding’s book became big, it got into recommended reading lists in schools and colleges, and it won Golding the Nobel Prize. ‘The Coral Island’ and its author R.M.Ballantyne slowly faded into the mists of time. Today, except for this book, all of Ballantyne’s books are out-of-print. However, many of them are available as digital copies in Gutenberg.

R.M.Ballantyne was a very prolific writer and wrote more than 80 books, most of which were YA adventure stories like this one, set in different parts of the world. He did his research before writing a book – not like people do today by googling or searching in Wikipedia, but actually going to the places which were featured in the story, living there for a while, and sometimes working there. One can feel that authenticity coming through in ‘The Coral Island’ in his descriptions of the places and of nature. How he managed to do this extensive kind of first-hand research in the 19th century, when travelling was hard, boggles our imagination.

Ballantyne wrote a sequel to ‘The Coral Island’. I remember reading it as a kid. I’m not sure I’ll read it again. But Ballantyne has also written a couple of nonfiction books, one about his experiences in the Hudson Bay and another about his experiences in bookmaking. I want to read them. There is also a novel of his called ‘The Young Fur Traders‘ which I want to read.

Surprisingly for a YA book, ‘The Coral Island’ has some beautiful passages. I’m sharing some of them below for your reading pleasure.

“The morning was exceedingly lovely. It was one of that very still and peaceful sort which made the few noises that we heard seem to be quiet noises (I know no other way of expressing this idea) – noises which, so far from interrupting the universal tranquillity of earth, sea, and sky, rather tended to reveal to us how quiet the world round us really was. Such sounds as I refer to were, the peculiarly melancholy – yet, it seemed to me, cheerful – plaint of sea birds floating on the glassy water or sailing in the sky, also the subdued twittering of little birds among the bushes, the faint ripples on the beach, and the solemn boom of the surf upon the distant coral reef. We felt very glad in our hearts as we walked along the sands side by side. For my part, I felt so deeply overjoyed that I was surprised at my own sensations, and fell into a reverie upon the causes of happiness. I came to the conclusion that a state of profound peace and repose, both in regard to outward objects and within the soul, is the happiest condition in which man can be placed; for although I had many a time been most joyful and happy when engaged in bustling, energetic, active pursuits or amusements, I never found that such joy or satisfaction was so deep or so pleasant to reflect upon as that which I now experienced… My reader must not suppose that I thought all this in the clear and methodical manner in which I have set it down here. These thoughts did indeed pass through my mind, but they did so in a very confused and indefinite manner, for I was young at that time, and not much given to deep reflection. Neither did I consider that the peace whereof I write is not to be found in this world – at least in its perfection…”

“Rest is sweet as well for the body as for the mind. During my long experience, amid the vicissitudes of a chequered life, I have found that periods of profound rest at certain intervals, in addition to the ordinary hours of repose, are necessary to the well being of man. And the nature as well as the period of this rest varies, according to the different temperaments of individuals, and the peculiar circumstances in which they may chance to be placed. To those who work with their minds, bodily labour is rest. To those who labour with the body, deep sleep is rest. To the downcast, weary, and the sorrowful, joy and peace are rest. Nay, further, I think that to the gay, the frivolous, the reckless, when sated with pleasures that cannot last, even sorrow proves to be rest of a kind, although, perchance, it were better that I should call it relief than rest. There is, indeed, but one class of men to whom rest is denied – there is no rest to the wicked.”

Have you read ‘The Coral Island‘? What do you think about it?

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