Category Archives: Scotland

Review: ELEMENTAL by Amanda Curtin

ElementalAmandaCurtinI’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt and presume that Amanda Curtin did not set out to deliberately cause me the messy embarrassment of unexpected tears in public. I’ll concede that she wasn’t to know that the tale of Margaret Duthie Tulloch – or Fish Meggie as I will always think of her – would have me sobbing uncontrollably and mumbling about allergies. Though if I’m to be scrupulously honest it wasn’t the story itself – achingly sad though much of it is – that made me cry but rather Meggie’s acute observations about her world and the exquisite prose Curtin has used to express her character’s thoughts. Laced with terms from several local Scottish dialects the book is a sheer delight for lovers of the written word.

Meggie was born of sea people in a tiny village in far north-eastern Scotland in 1891. As if the life of unrelenting poverty and hard work expected by all who were born in that place at that time wasn’t grim enough, Meggie suffered the additional curses of being female and having red hair, which according to local beliefs made her a danger to any fisherman, especially if she crossed his path just before he went to sea. Eighty-odd years after her birth Fish Meggie is ill and decides to write her story – or some of it anyway – as a present for her granddaughter and so begins to fill three notebooks with her memories.

In ELEMENTAL there’s not a trace of the twee romanticisation of poverty and hardship that infuses a lot of the historical fiction I’ve read. Meggie’s life begins with a different kind of childhood from the one we think of as normal today

Loved you were, aye, in the way of those days, a careless kind of love that took all manner of things for granted. But if you had a thought in your head there was none who would stoop to hear it and none to say you mattered the peeriest thing. And if you were a girl, you’d get used to that, aye. You would forever be the last, in a world where the words of men and the ways of shoalfish and the direction of the wind were what mattered.

I canna imagine a child of today taking it into their head that they were not the centre of all else. That the world was not waiting for the next thing they might say (p13-14)

Allowed to go to school only because the law demands it Meggie does develop a devotion to books which lasts her whole life and she also knows the love of her mother, her older sister Kitta and, for a time anyway, that of a stray dog who adopts her as his very own. But with her father and brothers gone fishing for much of the year the only man she has much contact with is her grandfather – a hate-fuelled, ignorant man who makes young Meggie’s life far harsher than it needs to be. As if living amongst a people “steeped in the ins and outs of restraint” and being expected to perform endless hours of back-breaking chores in freezing temperatures weren’t bad enough.

Sorrows do follow Meggie as she breaks away from her dreaded village for a life on her own which eventually takes her across the world to Western Australia but there is laughter and family and a love story too that combine to save ELEMENTAL from falling into the wallowing, misery-lit category of fiction.

As is usually the way though it was the things to which I could personally relate which sent me scuttling for tissues in the aforementioned sobbing incident. I was not quite two years old when the last of my grandparents died so I have no personal experience of any of the grandparental relationships Meggie describes but as both of my parents now have a form of dementia her observation about the differences between memory (a transient, unreliable kind of fact list) and memories (individual versions of the truth which stay with us forever) knocked me for six. As did her notion of her more elusive parent “A father was little more than an idea to me…a man-shaped shadow by the fire”. I stopped reading in public after that.

In case you’re in any doubt I adored ELEMENTAL. Even though it made me cry. In public. Even though I felt physically bereft at the early loss of the narrative voice of Meggie when the book abruptly switched to the voice of her granddaughter and her daughter-in-law for its conclusion.

It is a beautiful book.

Thanks to Angela Savage for her heartfelt recommendation of this book that might not otherwise have crossed my radar.

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awwbadge_2014This is the fifth novel I’ve read and reviewed for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge. Check out my challenge progress and/or sign up yourself

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Publisher University of Western Australia Publishing [2013]
ISBN 9781742585062
Length 436 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone

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Review: THE HANGING SHED by Gordon Ferris

TheHangingShedFerrisGor4861_fDouglas Brodie is a well-educated (courtesy of a scholarship), working-class bloke who’s been a student, a policeman, a soldier and, in the year since WWII ended, has tried to make a career as a reporter. At the start of the novel he is drawn back to his past by a plea from an old friend. Hugh Donovan is convicted of murder and is due to hang in four weeks but claims he is innocent. Brodie and Donovan had fallen out many years before but his childhood friend’s desperation at his plight is enough to prompt Brodie’s return to Glasgow to see if there’s anything he can do.

Even in the crowded space of crime fiction set in the post war period THE HANGING SHED stands out as above average with its strong characters and compelling plot,neither of which always behave as expected. Brodie is a complicated man who has clearly been deeply affected by his wartime experiences but the traumas of his youth are also haunting him. He feels his old friend betrayed him when they were teenagers and so does not immediately warm to the idea of helping him. The depiction of Brodie working his way through the emotions connected to this betrayal was very realistic and one of the highlights of the book for me.

Ferris deals cleverly with the story and doesn’t dwell on the most horrific elements which include the crime that Donovan is convicted of being the murder of a young boy and the disappearance of four others. There are no gruesome descriptions or other sensationalising of this aspect of the story for which I am grateful. Along with Hugh’s lawyer, a young woman called Sam Campbell, Brodie tries to piece together what really happened by re-tracing Hugh’s steps and learning about his post-war life which is shown to be a pretty grim existence due to his extensive injuries. Slowly the pair come to realise that a combination of a ruthless criminal gang and police corruption have played a large role in the case but they struggle to gather enough evidence in time to prevent Hugh’s execution.

For me the last third or so of the novel became a little unrealistic – more a Hollywood thriller type of storyline with lots of in the nick of time escapes and a rapidly mounting body count – but overall I found it very, very readable and will look forward to the next installment of the series. The setting is depicted so evocatively and the central characters are so interesting that I can’t imagine too many readers who would not enjoy THE HANGING SHED.

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Publisher Corvus [2011]
ISBN/ASIN 9781848877596
Length 314 pages
Format Paperback
Book Series #1 in the Douglas Brodie series

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Review: CRUCIBLE OF SECRETS by Shona MacLean

CrucibleOfSecretsMacleanAudioReaders first met Shona MacLean’s 17th Century academic Alexander Seaton when he was teaching at a school in the Scottish town of Banff in 1626 and then followed him on a quest to Ireland a couple of years later. In CRUCIBLE OF SECRETS (or just CRUCIBLE I think in the UK) it is 1631 and Alexander is back in Scotland, now a Master at Marischal College in Aberdeen. When the college librarian is murdered in a rather gruesome way Seaton is asked by the principal to investigate matters with a view to ensuring that nothing about the man’s death (or life) emerges to damage the college’s reputation.

The brilliance of MacLean’s first novel in this series, THE REDEMPTION OF ALEXANDER SEATON, was such that it allowed me to give the series another chance after being pretty disappointed with the second book (I was so underwhelmed I didn’t even bother to review it). I’m chuffed to report that, for me, MacLean was back on form with this instalment, focusing on the things she does very well.

The first of these is to depict a very enveloping setting. The novel transports the reader back in time to the all–male colleges of the era, a world in which justice is dealt with more speed than accuracy and one must live one’s life according to a long, and strict, set of rules. MacLean explores this element particularly well by placing several characters in what would today be minor trifles but were then major crises and watching these scenarios play out is completely captivating. At one point for example Alexander’s wife Sarah becomes virtually catatonic at the hint that his investigation might be leading him to have something to do with a secret society; it might sound silly that such a thing could cause worry but MacLean does such a good job of building the drama that we too believe a single word on a piece of paper is deathly dangerous.  I adored visiting 17th Century Scotland but I’ll admit to being rather pleased to return to the 21st Century.

Another of MacLean’s great skills is her development of imperfect, credible characters. At the start of this novel Alexander seems to be at his most settled, having redeemed himself for past poor form, survived the dramatic events of finding out he is part of a family that half of Ireland wants to wipe out and finally having married the woman he loves and secured the job he has dreamed of. But he is soon tormented by jealousy which threatens to cripple him and this thread, exploring as it does the notion we are often our own worst enemies, is expertly woven into the novel and makes Alexander far more ‘normal’ than he might otherwise be. Other people in the novel are also driven by strong emotions – love, fear, hatred – and MacLean makes them all, even the awful ones, very real.

To top it all off CRUCIBLE OF SECRETS has a ripper of a plot that appears at first glance to be treading a well-worn path but which MacLean takes in unexpected directions. The clever kind that have you mumbling that you’d have worked it out yourself if only it wasn’t so swelteringly hot (or maybe it’s only me that likes to think myself cleverer than I really am). I thoroughly recommend this novel and though I would urge you to read the first book of the series because it’s truly brilliant I do think you could easily start the series with this one as it does provide enough back story for you to understand what drives Alexander Seaton. If you’re an audio book fan the narration of this one by Scottish actor David Monteath is a treat.

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Narrator David Monteath
Publisher Audible Inc [2012]
Length 10 hours 4 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #3 in the Alexander Seaton series

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Review: THE SEA DETECTIVE by Mark Douglas-Home

TheSeaDetectiveDouglasHo17331_fCal McGill, with his aptly named business Flotsam and Jetsom Investigations, is an expert on ocean currents and other influencing factors to the point that he can identify where a body (or anything else) which has washed ashore originated from and, as importantly, where it could not have come from. To that end he is employed here on several investigations including some severed feet appearing randomly on European beaches and a heartbreaking search for the truth about what happened to an unidentified young girl whose body washed ashore some years earlier. He is also determined to uncover the truth of his grandfather’s death which occurred during the second world war.

When I am perusing the best seller shelves at my local chain store I often think the only thing that matters in getting a book published these days is having an interesting premise. Whether or not you can follow up with characters, storyline and interesting themes seems irrelevant but happily THE SEA DETECTIVE delivers all of those in addition to its unique premise. It’s a delightful read.

When we’re introduced to Cal he is worrying that he has no escape route from some nefarious night time activity in which he is engaged. The commentary manages to be both suspenseful and funny and there’s genuine surprise when we learn exactly what Cal was doing. This quickly establishes Cal as an interesting character – intelligent, committed, practical and droll – and he only grows more so as we learn more about him. Other equally well drawn characters abound including a boorish Detective Inspector, a terrified young Indian girl who has escaped from horrendous abuse and an intelligent but not physically beautiful policewoman whose boss (the aforementioned DI) is far too narrow-minded to take advantage of her skills.

They play out their roles in a complex but very satisfying storyline that weaves many elements together and keeps the reader (well this one at least) thoroughly gripped throughout. There are some genuinely fascinating topics raised in the book, an exploration of the alarming fate that awaits many Bedia girls in India for example, but any information about them is imparted lightly and credibly by the characters with the author’s voice entirely absent. Of course this should always be the case but often isn’t. I imagine Douglas-Home’s background in newspapers plays some part in enabling him to write readably, with a nice mix of depth and pace.

In short this is a terrific read that entertains, engages and informs.  There is even a fabulous sense of place, particularly the remote Scottish island that is Cal’s ancestral home. Highly recommended.

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Publisher Sandstone Press [2011]
ISBN 9781905207657
Length 280 pages
Format hardcover
Book Series standalone?

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Review: BIRTHDAYS FOR THE DEAD by Stuart MacBride

I finished listening to Stuart MacBride’s BIRTHDAYS FOR THE DEAD a couple of days ago and I didn’t like it. Lots of people have recommended the author to me and with reviews like this one I thought I might enjoy the book even though it features a serial killer (been there, done that, got the t-shirt). Alas I struggled to find the book even vaguely credible and thought the protagonist a crushing, arrogant bore. As always I’m sure my reactions say more about me than they do about the quality of the book but it was definitely not one for me.

It has an audacious premise which I wholeheartedly failed to ever buy into. It is that there is a serial killer active around the mainland UK who each year for many years has been kidnapping a 12-year old girl, torturing her then killing her on her 13 birthday. Every subsequent year each girl’s parents receive a home made birthday card featuring progressively more gruesome pictures of their respective daughters as they die. One of the policemen working the case is Detective Constable Ash Henderson whose own daughter, Rebecca, disappeared when she was 12, five years ago as the book opens. But Henderson has not told anyone that he too receives the photo cards on Rebecca’s birthdays and that therefore she was a victim of the sadistic killer. Henderson’s ex-wife, his other daughter and his colleagues all believe Rebecca simply disappeared or, as the ex-wife says ‘abandoned us’.

Even if I were to accept that Ash Henderson is probably self-absorbed enough to think his need to stay on the case more important than anyone else’s right to know what had happened to their own family member I couldn’t swallow the rest of this premise. Particularly his ex-wife’s blasé acceptance of her daughter’s status as a runaway. Even if there wasn’t a handy serial killer to blame wouldn’t most parents believe that a child of that age had been the victim of some other ‘normal’ criminal rather than a runaway? And did no one on the investigating team ever contemplate that Rebecca – who disappeared at 12 – might have been a victim of a killer with a dedicated interest in 12 year olds? Especially as she went missing in the only year the serial killer is thought not to have kidnapped anyone during his reign of terror? .And before you start muttering “it’s fiction you know, it doesn’t have to be realistic” I know that but, for me at least, an author has to establish a world in which I believe the things that he or she is telling me could happen and MacBride didn’t pull that off in this instance. He described a series of increasingly preposterous events against the backdrop of a very real world and none of it sounded plausible even for a moment.

I suspect the failure of the book to meet my personal ‘ring of truth’ test would not have bothered me nearly so much if it weren’t for anti-hero Ash bloody Henderson. It’s not as if he struggles with the ethics of whether or not to tell his family the truth about Rebecca he just knows he is right not to. Aside from the patronising arrogance of this secret-keeping, he is corrupt and endlessly violent and hangs out at strip clubs and I just couldn’t stand him. The fact that he occasionally produces a nicely sardonic patter doesn’t nearly make up for the tedium of spending time with him as he looks around for a new face to smash his fist into. I like a flawed character as much as the next crime fiction fan but that phrase suggests, at least to me, that there are some un-flawed parts of the character as well. I failed to find any in the violent, arrogant, juvenile, narcissistic mess that was Ash Henderson..

I’m sure there are many readers who won’t react as I did to this book. They won’t have read their fill of serial-killer books featuring tortured souls on disgusting quests that require the mutilation of innocent people. Their stomachs won’t churn at the gratuitous beatings, killings and torture that virtually every character in the book is subjected to. They’ll see Ash Henderson as a witty anti-hero whose antics are justified. I hope those people enjoy the book. Because I can see why it is that people have recommended this author to me. His writing is good, filled with wickedly accurate observations about human behaviour and there’s a vein of dark humour that I did enjoy, particularly as personified in the character of Dr Alice MacDonald, the quirky profiler that all serial killer stories demand. She has a plethora of phobias, almost becomes an alcoholic out of politeness and has a string of the best funny lines of the book. Although she is an archetypal character I found her genuinely engaging and enough of a treat that I am not sworn off of books by this author. But next time I’ll check reviews for the violence level and the presence of serial killers.

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Other opinions are of course and as always available. Online reviews of this one are mixed but here are some very positive ones to counteract all of my ramblings including those at Euro Crime, Herald Scotland, Literary Treats

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My rating 2/5
Narrator Ian Hanmore
Publisher Harper Collins [2012]
Length 14 hours 12 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone
Source I bought it
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Review: A DARKER DOMAIN by Val McDermid

If the world could be ordered to my specific tastes all books would be available in audio format and all of those would be read by people with Scottish accents, even the ones set in outback Australia. I blame my mother’s crush on Sean Connery (and the fact a portion of my developmental years was spent in darkened theatres watching his movies instead of going to kindergarten) for the fact I find it the very best way to hear English spoken. I was pre-disposed then to liking A DARKER DOMAIN, one of Val McDermid’s standalone novels, given it is narrated by Scottish actress Eilidh Fraser. Happily the story is a damned fine one too which made my listening experience complete.

Being something of a latecomer to the Val McDermid appreciation society I was, once again, impressed with the superior storytelling skill on display in this big novel that a lesser author probably couldn’t pull off. It opens in the contemporary setting of the Fife Constabulary cold case unit. DI Karen Pirie is asked to track down Mick Prentiss who has been missing for more than twenty years, since the brutal miner’s strikes of the 1980’s when he was thought to have gone to work as a scab in Nottingham. But now that his daughter is desperate for a bone marrow donor for her very ill son she cannot find a trace of her father and turns to the police for help.

At the same time Pirie is given a much higher profile missing persons case to re-open. The local laird is Broderick Grant and twenty years earlier his only daughter and her baby son were kidnapped and held for ransom. However the exchange went horribly wrong which resulted in the daughter’s death and the grandson’s permanent disappearance. Now  a journalist has found some evidence that provides a concrete link to the old case and Grant wonders if he can find out what happened to his grandson once and for all.

These historical stories unfold concurrently throughout the novel, often hinting at how they will connect but I’m sure (at least I hope) I’m not the only reader who made several errors of guesswork before stumbling across the actual connections. McDermid really is a master of this kind of twist-filled plot because it is, at least until just before the end, continually surprising while maintaining a credibility that is often lacking from this kind of book.

But underneath the rollicking plot there is a real depth, particularly as McDermid describes life for the striking workers and their families. This is a subject I’m not terribly familiar with (in my defence I was 16 at the time and lived half a world away) but the details of day-to-day life included here had a very authentic feel to me. The real poverty being experienced by the striking workers, their disappointment in the strike’s leaders, the good and bad sides to the power of the local community are all deftly depicted and really made me feel like I have some small sense of this turbulent period. I’d recommend the book for this if nothing else.

The characters in the book are also enjoyable to meet, even the unpleasant ones like Broderick Grant who uses his money and influence in the way that such people often do. There are two strong female characters though in Karen Pirie and the journalist involved in the Grant case, Bel Richmond. Pirie is particularly engaging as she is constantly skating on thin ice with her superiors but because she has a history of good results she gets away with most of her unorthodox behaviour. And she does have a good offsider in DS Phil Parhatka who is, sometimes, able to reign in her wilder ideas.

McDermid somehow manages to avoid the sickly sentimentality that could easily overwhelm a book that tackles the kind of emotional storylines and themes as this one does. The undercurrent of dark humour probably helps, as does its almost entire lack of judgement about the people involved in the story and the actions they take. The more I read the more I realise just how rare a thing this is and the more I am grateful for those books which achieve it.

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A DARKER DOMAIN has been reviewed at Aust Crime FictionPetrona, Reviewing the Evidence

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My rating 4/5
Narrator Eilidh Fraser
Publisher Whole Story Audio Books [2009]
Length 11 hours 54 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone
Source I bought it
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Review: THE BLACKHOUSE by Peter May

Of late it seems to be the books with a really strong sense of their time or place that hold my attention. I suspect it has something to do with my yearning for a holiday I can’t have just at the moment. Not that I’m sure I would choose to have a holiday on the island of Lewis as depicted in Peter May’s THE BLACKHOUSE. While undoubtedly a spectacular place physically, May has depicted one of those remote settings full of troubled souls that makes this city girl quite comforted by the anonymity and crowds of urban sprawl. But I am a sucker for visiting such places virtually.

It is the story of Finn MacLeod, an Edinburgh-based detective who has just returned to work after a family tragedy. He is sent to the island because a murder there bares a strong resemblance to one he investigated several months ago in the city and as he is from the island originally he is thought (by the police computer system) to be the obvious person to investigate. Finn is ambivalent about the case, wanting to be away from his present circumstances where grief is overwhelming but reluctant to travel to the place he left 18 years earlier which still holds many memories, not all of them pleasant. So it is with a sense of foreboding mixed with curiosity that he – and we readers – set out on our travels.

The murder victim was the school bully of Finn’s childhood and few people have a kind word for the adult he became so there is a plethora of suspects in his brutal murder. But as is the way of things in small communities the secrets must be uncovered slowly and, in this instance, involve Finn re-living his own history of old friendships, a great love and some hazily remembered but significant events. May has created a group of very intense and credible characters for us to get to know over the course of these events: all of them with human frailties and secrets small and large that are revealed compellingly.

The book is told in two intertwining narratives: one a historical one which delves into Finn’s personal history and the recent history of the wider island community. We learn of Finn’s great childhood friendship, which was eventually tested by the girl both boys loved, and about the harsh environment and the ultra religious community. The annual guga hunt, where a dozen local men are selected to go to an off-shore rock to hunt the nesting birds which are a local delicacy, plays a pivotal role in the community and, at least for one year, in Finn’s life though it takes almost the whole book for all the details of this event to unravel.

In the present-day story which follows the investigation it is comparatively easy to see where the story is heading (if you’re a regular crime fiction reader anyway) but because we are meeting many of the people who have been introduced in the historical narrative it remained a compelling story for me. I was thoroughly hooked on wanting to see how the two versions of each character and the village community (which is a character of its own) would be connected.

This is a hard book about which to convey all the reasons I stayed up late into the night to finish it. Suffice it to say that it is a psychological study of an insular society and the lives, choices and actions of its key players. I found it totally engrossing and am looking forward to the second book in what is to be a trilogy. Happily for me a copy of that arrived on my doorstep this very afternoon.

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THE BLACKHOUSE has been reviewed at Petrona (the review which prompted me to buy the book) as well as CrimepiecesEuro Crime and The Lit Witch

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My rating 4.5/5
Publisher Quercus [2011]
ISBN 9781849163866
Length 498
Format paperback
Book Series #1 in a trilogy
Source I bought it
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Review: The End of the Wasp Season by Denise Mina

In Glasgow a young woman is murdered in her home, her face so badly damaged that even hardened police struggle with viewing the body. Almost immediately readers meet the two teenage boys who are responsible for the hideous crime (though there is doubt about which of them was more directly involved) and therefore we are less concerned with whodunit than why. The police, led by five months pregnant DS Alex Morrow, have to establish who committed the crime as well as work out a motive and so we follow their somewhat haphazard investigation. Very early on we also learn that the father of one the two boys has hung himself and we wonder what, if anything, that has to do with the murder; again we are primarily concerned with the motivation for the act and the impact it will have on the people left behind.

The people who populate The End of the Wasp Season are well drawn even, or perhaps especially, when they are the kind of black-hearted souls most of us would run a mile from. Individually, they are very complex and memorable people and I am especially impressed with the way Mina manages to make short term characters come alive so quickly. Thomas Anderson, the boy whose father has committed suicide, is a most believable boy on the cusp of manhood with his conflicting emotions and oscillation between childish behaviour and more mature thinking (of course the dose of insanity is less usual but with parents like his it’s not entirely surprising). Another memorable character is Kay Murray who is loosely connected to the case because she was the carer for the murdered woman’s mother. She was also a school friend of Alex Morrow’s though is now a single mum to four children, works as a cleaner and lives in a small flat, all of which is in contrast to Alex’s life which causes some tension between the two women, especially when suspicion is thrown onto Kay’s children. She has to struggle with her own pride and fight for the rights of her family and she is credibly depicted throughout the process.

On the whole though I found the book a little flat and in the several days since I finished it I’ve struggled to work out why. Firstly there is the fact that collectively, the characters do conform to pretty broad and annoying stereotypes (rich people are bastards, bosses are bastards, poor people are good-hearted & hard-working). Aside from the fact it made their actions and the outcome of the story fairly predictable this also wearied me more than a little. Perhaps I read too much into things but I sensed a tone of underlying hatred for anyone who isn’t dirt poor and it turned me off in the same way that blind acceptance of any stereotype makes me switch off.

The other element that may well have been entirely realistic but that nevertheless was disheartening and made the book feel quite cold was the attitude of the police. Throughout the book Alex has to work incredibly hard to get anyone else in the entire force to give a damn about the murdered woman and hence to get off their forever-complaining behinds and do a moment’s work on the case. Admittedly their boss is a hateful, bullying SOB but that doesn’t entirely explain their behaviour and work ethic. I kept thinking how lucky I am not to work with such a lazy, unthinking bunch of whiners.

This feels like a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde review as on the one hand I thought the structure of the novel clearly tried to do something new and generally succeeded and the individual characterisations were tremendous. To balance this out though I found the rest of the book a bit lacking. The ease with which the plot could be predicted and the nastiness of the tone at some points left me a bit cold. Having absolutely adored two of Mina’s other books I definitely won’t be giving up on her but I think I might be done with this particular series.

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The End of the Wasp Season has been reviewed at Mysteries in Paradise and Reviewing the Evidence where both reviewers were more enamoured of the book than I am.

My reviews of Still Midnight (the first Alex Morrow book), Garnethill and Exile

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My rating 3/5
Publisher Orion Publishing [2011]
ISBN 9781409112013
Length 404 pages
Format eBook (kindle)
Book Series #2 in Alex Morrow series
Source I bought it

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Review: Exile by Denise Mina

The second book of a trilogy, Exile continues the story of Maureen O’Donnell, abuse survivor, ex-mental patient, reluctant volunteer shelter-worker and genuine heroine for the age. Having survived the dramatic events depicted in Garnethill Maureen is spending her days trying not to cry and volunteering in the office at the Place of Safety women’s shelter. When Ann Harris, one of the women who had stayed at the shelter after supposedly being beaten by her husband Jimmy, goes missing no one but Maureen’s best mate Leslie seems bothered. When Leslie involves Maureen in the search for Ann, Maureen soon learns that all is not what it seems in Ann’s life.

I’ve put off plucking this book from my TBR pile for ages. Though there was a little apprehension that it might not live up to its predecessor (one of my top ten reads of 2009) my main reason is that I wanted to save it for a time when I needed a guaranteed great read. Happily my ‘second book’ apprehension was completely unfounded and Exile delivered on its promise of being an absorbing, gut-wrenchingly sad and darkly funny book.

It’s hard to know which of the dozens of brilliant things about this book to highlight in a short review but I have to comment on the writing which is superb. It is richly descriptive without an ounce of floweriness or unnecessary length and seems to leap off the page in its desire to be read, savoured and rolled around one’s tongue. There are gems scattered all throughout the novel but perhaps they’re illustrated best in Mina’s descriptions of her characters. Leslie is introduced with “…[her] hair was short and dirty and stuck up like a windswept hampster’s…She walked into every room as if she was there to get her money” while one of the policemen is described as “…an officious prick with a Freddie Mercury moustache and the social skills of a horny lap-dog”. That’s my kind of imagery.

The characters are another standout feature of the novel. For me Exile is about an underclass of abandoned, abused and abjectly poor women who are heroes in exactly the way those our society labels as such never really are. Maureen is the kind of person you want to wrap in a hug due to the traumas she’s been through, then you would re-think the folly of hugging a cactus. She launches into everything at an often reckless full-throttle and is dogged, loyal and though plagued by self-doubts I’d want her on my side in any fight. Then there’s Leslie’s mother, having raised two generations of kids virtually on her own and nearly dropping with age and fatigue she is ready at a moment’s notice to go to the aid of Ann Harris’ 4 children to save them from going into care. Even Maureen’s own clinging, alcoholic of a mother sobers up when it looks like her grandchild will need her intervention. These are people I won’t forget in a hurry.

Finally there’s the story itself. Against the backdrop of Mina’s brutal, sad and violent Glasgow an utterly compelling tale unfolds. It’s only crime fiction in the loosest possible sense, being more a story of intertwined lives of desperation, courage and surviving bastardry in all its forms. And for me the thing that saved it from being worthy misery lit, which a book tackling such subjects as this one does could easily become, is the vein of dark but totally credible humour evident from beginning to end. As if Mina is saying this is how real people do it.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I reviewed the first book in the trilogy, Garnethill, in 2009

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 5/5
Author website
Publisher Bantam Books [2000]
ISBN 9780553813272
Length 446 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #2 of Garnethill trilogy
Source I bought it

Review: Pandaemonium by Christopher Brookmyre

I have been reading pretty solidly for 39 years and by now I have a fairly good idea of the kinds of books I like and the kinds of ones I don’t. But not wanting to be entirely predictable I occasionally try something that I think will not be my sort of thing. Just in case. Usually this works out as expected. For example I thought Eat, Pray, Love would be utter pants and it was. But there was a slim chance that it might not have been so I gave it a go. For another example I didn’t really expect to like a horror story in which most of the plot is driven by teenagers (horror being something I grew out of when I was about 20) (around the time I last had a lot to do with teenagers en masse). But in this instance the slim chance was in my favour. I loved Pandaemonium.

The story is a simple one. The senior students of St Peter’s Catholic High School are taken on retreat to a remote spot in the Scottish highlands because one of their classmates stabbed another one of their classmates to death and someone in authority thinks that a bit of hiking is just the thing to get them all over their ordeal. Unfortunately their camp site is next door to a mysterious Ministry of Defence facility at which experimentation goes awry in a major way and the gates of somewhere closely resembling Hell are opened to unleash creatures intent on killing all humans they encounter. The kids therefore have to stop their dancing and snogging and fight for their lives with not much more than their wits and a rolled up tea towel.

A little bit more than half of the story takes place before the fighting of monsters begins which should be a point against the book but Brookmyre takes care to paint such vivid and varied portraits of the children, their teachers and even some of the military types that by the time the monster-fighting started I was heavily invested in the survival of the characters. Their secrets, heartaches, crushes and worries are so credibly human that you can’t help but fall in love with them collectively and hope they’ll triumph over the daemons which you know are just around the corner.

And while on a surface level the language and the violence (I’ll be honest, neither are for the faint-hearted) might lead some to think the book is just cursing and gore there is another level to it. There is the gently laid out moral tale that you wish all teenagers could be made to understand without having to go through the trauma of seeing their friends mutilated beyond recognition. And then there is the deep and very thoughtful questioning of both the trappings of organised religion and the very nature of faith itself. This theme is also not for the faint-hearted though if like me you spent 12 unhappy years in a Catholic girls’ school you just might identify with one of the students and her musings

Most of the time Caitlin can just zone out during mass, let her mind drift so that the tedium passes quicker but occasionally she can’t help but pay attention and that’s when the sheer inanity of it really grates on her cognitive faculties…We believe in one God, the father the almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen, a.k.a the intelligent designer. The Vatican had latterly decided it could accommodate evolution within its view of creation, largely because it could no longer accommodate the embarrassment it was feeling by continuing to do otherwise, but it was adamant that acceptance of evolution didn’t preclude God from having started it. Yes, God set in motion this astronomically complex process but knew all along despite the infinitely branching possibilities created by an incalculable multiplicity of random factors that the end product would be mankind. Begging the question if that was always the plan why did he take the long way round instead of creating mankind right off the bat?…Having waited 9 billion years for earth to form then having held off for another 4 and a half billion for his chosen species to fully evolve he blows his wad early by sending down his Messiah during the Bronze Age? If he wanted us to believe in him and to live by his word couldn’t he have hung on another infinitesimal couple of millennia and sent his miracle working super hero ambassador in the age of broadcast media and other verifiable means of record instead of staking 13 and a half billion years work on the reliability of a few goat herders in an insignificant backwater of a primitive civilization?

Which of course brings us to the writing itself. It is bitingly clever, funny and quick and you sense that every individual word has been carefully considered before being slotted into exactly the right place. How else would a description of teenagers as “sophomoric mind clones pathetically enslaved by the tyranny of cool” come about?

Pandaemonium is undoubtedly not for everyone. If you don’t like rude language, horror-style violence or the questioning of religious dogma then I’d suggest you stay away. But if you can live with those things and enjoy great writing and human characters with all their foibles then give it a go. Even if it doesn’t sound like your kind of thing there’s a slim chance you’ll love it and sometimes taking a risk pays off.

What about the audio book?

Gorgeous. Simply gorgeous. Though (confession time) I might be a little biased. It is narrated by a Scottish bloke (Kenny Blyth) and I adore the Scottish accent. Seriously. A Scottish lad could read me the phone book and I would swoon. Heck I’d swoon even if it was a Scottish lassie. But still, it’s a delight to listen to.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating 5/5
Author website I couldn’t find one so head to Wikipedia
Narrator Kenny Blyth
Publisher ISIS Audio Books [2009]
ISBN N/A (downloaded from
Length 13 hours 3 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone
Source I bought it