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Jim Drever is a stillman at an unnamed distillery in the Scottish Highlands. It is a solitary job, allowing much time for introspection between recording measurements of alcoholic strength in the logbook. Jim’s job is important; he is respected in the workplace by his colleagues and the management. He has a perfect family; a wife, a daughter who is about to get married; and a younger son. Jim has a placid nature; he has no great wish to travel or see the world; he simply accepts the cards that life has dealt him. But beneath the calm exterior, Jim has a lot going on. He is haunted by a visit he had made overseas some years ago to clear up his estranged mother’s affairs. He has a mysterious e-mail he dares not open. He is bored by his family. He has an expensive wedding to plan, and the distillery is working on short time. Jim is a smart man, but for the most part he wastes his wisdom on quiet observation, letting events take their own course. The reader is left wondering just how sustainable this strategy is going to be as things go from bad to worse. The novel has three distinctive strands: (a) the here and now, heavily focused on the distilling process, snow and the selection of kilts (b.) the trip to Cuba some years before; and (c.) the sometimes opaque diary of Jim’s dead mother. The three strands work together well; in particular, the sunshine and vitality of Cuba offer a contrast to the cold and cheerless Scotland. The diary is the crucial bit storywise, but it is also the least engaging part of the piece. Jim’s dead mother never quite comes alive, never really feels real. Perhaps even worse, it feels a bit contrived. Overall, The Stillman is a good novel. Like its protagonist, it is unspectacular, solid, and with hidden depths. It is a short read, well paced and quite charming. ****0
Murphy was 74 when she started these three trips to Cuba. The first in 2005 with her daughter and three grandchildren the other two visits were on her own. She hiked, hitch hiked, travelled by train, and bus and crammed into over full cars and lorries as she made her way around the island. Staying with local people in Casa Particlulares (Cuban equivalents of B&B, just don’t expect many with ensuite facilities – outside loos were common in some of the remoter areas) as always she eschewed the tourist hotels and went native. Filled with her consummate prose, this depiction of life in a changing Cuba is a fascinating insight into the history and the then current way of life for many Cubans. This is a fascinating overview of a nation that has suffered at the hands of the Americans and their obsession to see all countries reduced to their ‘Capitalism Rampant’, their I’m alright Jack, f... you attitude to the rest of the world. Murphy is an opinionated writer but she is one of the most experienced travel writers in the world who also reads extensively on the history of the region/s she is visiting. Both entertaining and informative, Murphy is an excellent guide to this island where socialism was tried, tested and survived.