The Beast on the Broch – on the Pictish Trail

Image result for Beast on the Broch
The stunning cover for The Beast on the Broch, illustrated by Dawn Treacher

Out Tomorrow!

First off, a quick review:

The Beast on the Broch appealed to me as soon as I heard it would form part of the Cranachan Yesteryear list. What’s not to like: Pictish times (good!), a mythical beast (good!). Monks and Vikings and battles and chases, a bit of intrigue (goooood!). Yes – please, I’d like to review it, I said.

My son is now eleven. It seemed a good opportunity to take a break from Alex Rider and to read something together again instead of leaving him to his own devices with the Evil Emperor Penguin or whatever.

From the beginning, he was hooked. And so was I: outraged at the Dalriadans’ cheek, terrified and fascinated with Talorca’s discovery of the Beast, on the edge of my seat as events unfold, ever more dramatic, with the stakes climbing higher and higher with every chapter. Fulton does not shy away from the gruesomeness of life (and death) in Pictland, but neither does he stop there – modern readers will be able to sympathise with the wronged heroine when she confronts bullies, is at odds with her mother and defies authority to take things into her own hands, for good or for ill.

The strength of The Beast on the Broch, for me, lies in the simple way that it resurrects a world about which we know little, and yet renders it completely plausible. As a devotee of Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, it’s what I long for in a book – to be taken to a world which fascinates me by being different, while also holding up a mirror to my reality. Enough difference to divert, enough plausibility to identify – and ultimately to care. It’s a fine line.

John Fulton doesn’t just find the balance on this tightrope.

He dances on it.

What we did next: The Pictish Trail

Inspired by our reading of Talorca’s tale, we decided to do a day trip up the coast and check out the Pictish Trail north of Inverness. Of course we wouldn’t be able to fit it all in, but both of us were intrigued by the mysterious depictions of the Beast.

WP_20160808_13_50_45_ProThe Tarbat peninsula was our natural starting place. Not only is the book set there, but it also is home to the excellent Tarbat Discovery Centre, an excellent introduction to the history of the area, housed in a converted church which was built on the ruins of the very monastery which features in The Beast on the Broch. There was no shortage of Pictish objects and artefacts which allowed us to picture Talorca’s life in more detail. The excavated areas, when combined with the tale that had already been placed in our imaginations through the book, made it easy to picture the village, and for those who may need a little help, the interactive programmes upstairs, including a computer 3D tour of a Pictish village, went a long way. It is to my shame that we spent as long in the gift shop as in the main display area. It isn’t huge but stocked such unusual jewellery and stationary, plus an incredibly tempting range of pictish-inspired pottery.

It began to rain and we still had a few chapters of the book to finish, so we sat in the car and read, while looking out over the same choppy sea that Talorca must have navigated to stake her nets.

WP_20160808_15_07_55_ProThe author’s note in The Beast on the Broch made it clear that John Fulton grew up in the lighthouse. It would have been a waste not to check it out, we decided, and drove a few minutes to Tarbat Head. What a dramatic location, causing a wave of genuine childhood envy in me.

It had stopped raining, but the wind made this mother of a nervous disposition reluctant to do any kind of clifftop walk. Instead, we headed down into a sheltered cove and unpacked out kindling and sausages. Let me tell you, there is absolutely nothing like the mixture of sea air, fresh cooked sausages on buttered rolls and sunshine battling its way through dark clouds. Close your eyes, and it’s what the Picts might have heard in this very place: rolling waves and crackling fire.

We drove on to the Shandwick Stone, our final stop of the day, if you don’t count a bit of seal-spotting at the Storehouse of Foulis on the way back.WP_20160808_15_42_20_Pro

Shandwick Stone is odd, like a wee bus shelter on the top of a small hillock overlooking the sea. Encased in a glass box to prevent further wear and tear, the Beast, carved into the huge upright stone jumped out at us as soon as we were able to decipher the faded chiselled lines.

And I understood. Fascinating as ordinary Pictish life may be, we humans are hardwired for mystery, aren’t we? Throw in something we can’t explain, and that’s what we’ll remember, ponder, agonise over, replay in our minds. Boars and people and cows don’t fire up the imagination like a Beast.

Like John Fulton says, it had to be about the Beast.

Guess Where?

So there you have it – my favourite weekend of the year:

Books, authors, like-minded enthusiasts, inspiration by the shredderload, and living proof that it can all be done! Writers start out from all sorts of places, but this kind of event brings them together.

A last piece of gold as I mine my way back to Run-of-the-mill (see previous blog post Limboland).

Oh, and look out for this:

A bit of an exciting new blog development on the way next week.

Actually… more of a super-scary new blog development …

If you’re me!

More in a few days…

Mind Games…

Anyone looking for a really unusual activity for those summer weeks? A project to keep teenagers amused, perhaps? A creative outlet for you alone? Bit of techy-savvy film wizardry? All of the above…?

Well! Have I got an idea for you!

Author Teri Terry (I know – really, that’s her name!) has launched a competition, open to anyone at all, to make a trailer for her new novel for teenagers Mind Games. The Prize? She will come in person to visit the school/library you nominate, do a reading and Q&A event and book signing.

It’s pretty straightforward:

Step 1: Read Mind Games. Obviously. I actually really enjoyed the Slated trilogy, so I look forward to reading this one.

Step 2: Be creative! Make/animate/film a trailer for the book. There are zillions of book trailers on YouTube. Have a look at the one for Slated:

Step 3: Upload to YouTube and post a link to it in a comment on Teri’s blog. All the details are right here:

Go on! Be a trail(er)blazer!


So we got to Paris.DSCF1844

Let me tell you – all they say about Paris in spring is true.

But that’s not what I’m going to write about. This’ll be the first, but probably not the last, book recommendation on this blog.

When going anywhere for leisure, I like to track down a book set there. It really does something for me: to be in a place – both in my imagination and for real. Does that make sense? Well, it does for me. I have fond memories of reading Graham Greene in Monaco, for example, within a stone’s throw from the casinos he so vividly described.  This time I did better: a teenage romance set in Paris for the girls, a crime novel for the husband, a middle grade French mystery for the boy. And me? I went with that amazing thing – a bookseller’s recommendation. I tell you, we ignore them at our peril!

So I found myself snuggling up with The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery; a wonderful dual narrator slice of Parisian life, told from the point of view of a 54-year old widow and a 12-year old girl. It’s distinctive storytelling, ringing with French speech patterns and bringing to life what I saw as I walked through the Parisian neighbourhoods it described.

In it, I found an interesting quote describing the process of reading as the narrator recalls watching older children devour books at school:

“Sinking deeper into silence, they were able to draw from the dead paper something that seemed alive.”

Now, writers and readers, that’s something worth being part of.

Remember? A Promise Kept…

Do you remember anything about 2013? Anything? Anything at all?

Uncharacteristically for scatty me, I do remember the summer of 2013 in technicolour detail.DSCF0978

The damp and misty morning in our tent on a Durness campsite when I borrowed my husband’s phone to check emails for the first time that week.

Reading that I had been shortlisted for that year’s Kelpies Prize.

Walking the dog along the clifftop trail with the fog so low over the sea that I couldn’t see the water. Hiding the Atlantic as well as my surely bright future as a published author. It’s the closest I’ve come to floating with joy.

Skip ahead a few short weeks to the end of August and the cold-ish height of a Scottish summer in Charlotte Square at the Edinburgh Book Festival. The photo at the top of my blog posts was taken on that day, and you can probably see the anticipation on my face. Two minutes later, I met Alex McCall, my nineteen-year-old fellow shortlistee, along with the lovely Shona McQuilken.

The people gathered. Extracts were read. I shook hands and nodded and smiled. I recognised faces I’d seen on the back covers of books. To be honest, a lot of it was a blur, until they announced Alex McCall as the winner.

The reason all this has been on my mind again? This week, Alex was announced as the Winner of the Scottish Children’s Book of the Year Award, voted for exclusively by child readers. He has done so well and I’m really, really pleased for him.

Image result for alex mccall robot chickensAlex McCall, 21 years-old and still at university, has won the Younger Readers category of the Scottish children’s book awards with his first novel Attack of the Giant Robot Chickens.

But it gets better: Not only is he an excellent writer. He keeps his promises. On the Kelpies Prize night, visibly shaken by his own success, he promised my 7-year old son a signed copy of the book once it was published. We heard no more. Months later, the following spring, a package arrived with a lovely dedication. He must have got our address from the publishers. What a lovely role model he is for young people and I look forward to reading what he comes up with next!