FictionFan’s Book Reviews

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Tuesday ’Tec! The Invisible Assistant (An Eli Marks Short Story) by John Gaspard



Eli Marks is a stage magician with a penchant for getting mixed up in murder, often via his ex-wife, the delightfully named Assistant District Attorney Deirdre Sutton-Hutton and her new husband, Homicide Detective Fred Hutton. The books are full of humour and, though set in the present day, have plots that are reminiscent of Golden Age mysteries, with clues, suspects, red herrings, etc. Having loved each of the full-length Eli Marks novels, I couldn’t resist seeing if John Gaspard could work the same magic in a short story, so this Kindle short seemed like a perfect pick for this week’s…

Tuesday Tec2

The Invisible Assistant

by John Gaspard


John Gaspard
John Gaspard

Eli is performing at a corporate event and needs two members of the audience to come up on stage to help out with his next trick. To his less-than-thrilled surprise, one of the reluctant volunteers turns out to be none other than his ex-wife’s new husband, Detective Fred Hutton.

…I launched into my Cards Across routine, counting three cards into Melissa’s outstretched hand, and then seven cards into the hand that Homicide Detective Fred Hutton had reluctantly put forward. I caught his eye as I finished counting the seventh card, and the icy stare he gave me told me exactly how much he was enjoying his time onstage.

The trick involves Eli calling on his “invisible assistant” as the cards magically transfer themselves from one volunteer’s hand to the other’s.

(Eli’s trick is a little different to this one, but the basic idea is the same.)

After the performance, Eli’s ex-wife Deirdre explains that she and Fred were in the audience because she wants to ask his advice about an apparent murder/suicide case they’re working on. Two men were found dead in a house – one, Harley Keller, upstairs, shot through the chest, and the other, Josiah Manning, downstairs, shot in the head and with a gun lying at his feet. It seems obvious that Manning must have shot Keller first, then gone downstairs and shot himself. Fred’s happy with that theory, anyway, but Deirdre doesn’t buy it. Keller was a pro-suicide campaigner, believing people should be allowed to take their own life whenever they wanted. But Manning was passionately anti-suicide. The two men had clashed in public debates on the subject.

“So [said Eli], let me get this straight: The anti-suicide guy, who believed fervently in the sanctity of life, murdered the pro-suicide guy and then to top it all off, he killed himself?”

“That’s what the police believe,” Deirdre said, throwing a sidelong glance at her husband. He did not return it.

Now Deirdre wants Eli to see if he can come up with an alternative explanation…

“On occasion you’ve offered a unique perspective that I think could be useful in this instance.”

“I believe the phrase you used when we were married was, ‘You have a bizarre way of looking at things.’”

“Yes,” she said, leaving it at that.

So the bickering Deirdre and Fred take Eli along to the crime scene…

From my vantage point in the front seat of my car, I could see them talking in the front seat of theirs. And from where I sat, it did not look like a happy conversation…

…on the few occasions I had witnessed these arguments, I had to restrain myself from saying something along the lines of, “Jeez, you left me so you could argue with him? You could’ve skipped the divorce and continued arguing with me.” But I wisely never said that. At least, not so far.

* * * * *

This is just as much fun as the books! The short format obviously doesn’t allow for the complexity of plotting of the novels, and regular readers already know these three characters and the dynamics amongst them, so there’s no need for much character development. But all the usual humour is there and, as usual, Eli’s knowledge of stage magic plays its part. I didn’t work it out, or even get close, but found it nicely satisfying when all was revealed. Gaspard is great at this kind of “impossible” crime, where the fun is in working out how it was done, and the method is always beautifully quirky. The books are usually whodunits too, but the length restrictions of this one means there are no suspects beyond the two victims themselves.

It works perfectly as a standalone, either as a little treat for existing fans impatiently waiting for the next book, or perhaps as an introduction to Gaspard’s style for newcomers. It is very definitely a short story, not a novella – I’d say it took me about twenty minutes or so to read. But I was smiling for longer than that…

* * * * * * *

PS – After I’d posted this, the author John Gaspard kindly popped in to the comments to leave a link to where you can listen to this story for free. I’ve sampled it and love the narrator’s voice – just right for the story. Here it is… click on the red button to play…


Or for the e-book version…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The books in the series

The Ambitious Card

The Bullet Catch

The Miser’s Dream

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating:❓❓❓❓❓

Overall story rating:     😀😀😀😀😀

It's a Poirot!
It’s a Poirot!

Echoes of Sherlock Holmes ed. Laurie R King and Leslie S Klinger

The game’s afoot…


echoes-of-sherlock-holmesIn their introduction, the editors explain that they asked the contributors to this anthology for stories “inspired by Holmes”, and the contributors have risen to this challenge with a huge dollop of originality and imagination. There are 17 stories, some just a few pages, some more substantial. There are plenty of well known names here – Denise Mina, Anne Perry, John Connolly, et al, along with some I hadn’t come across before. I always enjoy this type of anthology as a way of being introduced to writers of whom I may have heard but not so far read – in this one, both William Kent Kreuger and Catriona McPherson fell into this category.

The standard is remarkably high, both in terms of creativity and writing. Of course, the quality is variable and my own preferences meant that I enjoyed some of the stories more than others, but well over half the stories achieved 4 or 5 star status from me, and of the rest only a couple seriously disappointed. What I liked most was that, because the focus was on inspiration rather than pastiche, each story went off in directions that surprised and often delighted me. Some have based Holmes in the present day, or had their protagonist be inspired by Holmes and attempt to use his methods. Some have looked at stories in the original canon from a different angle. Some concentrate more on aspects of Conan Doyle’s life. And some have really used the original stories as a springboard to leap off into imaginative worlds of their own. Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most…

Holmes on the Range by John Connolly – This is the first story in the book and immediately gave me the feeling I was in for a treat. The Caxton Private Lending Library is a place where the characters of great books go when their authors die. (Isn’t that already just such a brilliant idea?) But one day, something very odd happens – although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is still very much alive, Holmes and Watson appear in the library following the events at Reichenbach Falls. They settle in quite happily and all is well, until ACD is persuaded to resurrect Holmes. What will happen when ACD dies? Will the library end up with another Holmes and Watson? Holmes sets his brilliant mind to finding a way out of this dilemma… A lovely conceit with lots of fun references to literature in general and the Holmes stories in particular, this is extremely well written and well told.

holmes rathbone

Before a Bohemian Scandal by Tasha Alexander – This tells the story of the Crown Prince of Bohemia and Irene Adler, and how she came to have the cabinet photograph that caused all the trouble. Very well told, and remains reasonably true to the spirit of the characters – Irene Adler showing all the spirit and intelligence that led Holmes to think of her as the woman.

The Spiritualist by David Morrell – It’s the latter days of ACD’s life. He has opened a spiritualist bookstore but can’t convince a disbelieving world that it is possible to communicate with the dead. One night when he can’t sleep, he is visited by the ‘ghost’ of Holmes, who takes him back through his life to try to work out why he has become so convinced of the truth of spiritualism. Very well written, and quite moving as we learn of the various tragedies in ACD’s life – his father dying in an asylum, the early death of his beloved first wife, the death of his son in WW1. A great story.

Mrs Hudson Investigates by Tony Lee and Bevis Musson – Ha! Suddenly in the midst of all these written stories a fun little graphic story appears! After Reichenbach, Mrs Hudson and Irene Adler team up to foil the nefarious plans of Moriarty’s housekeeper! The story is silly, but intentionally so, and the drawings add loads of humour. This is a nice little sorbet to cleanse the palate between courses.


Raffa by Anne Perry – This may be my favourite of all the stories, though it’s a close call. Actor Marcus St Giles is the latest TV Holmes. One day he is approached by a distraught little girl who believes him to be the real thing. She tells him that her mother has been kidnapped and begs for his help. He takes her to the police, but they think he’s pulling some kind of publicity stunt so refuse to believe him. So Marcus is forced to try to solve the case himself, with the help of his friend, the TV Watson. Great writing and quite touching in places, but with a humorous edge. The thing that makes it special is seeing Marcus’ character develop as his growing feelings of responsibility towards the little girl overcome his rather spoiled, bored attitude at the beginning of the book.

Understudy in Scarlet by Hallie Ephron – An actress is invited to, she thinks, reprise her role as Irene Adler in a remake of the earlier film that is now a cult success. But when she arrives on set she discovers she has actually been cast as Mrs Hudson and is expected to act as a mentor to the beautiful younger actress cast as Irene. Swallowing her pride, she agrees. But it’s not long before things begin to take a sinister turn… Lots of fun, well told and with plenty of Holmes’ references, but making no attempt to pastiche.


As you can see, there’s plenty of variety in the approach the contributors have taken. Although not every story is 5-star, the standard overall is excellent, and I’m sure will please any fan of the originals as much as it pleased me. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pegasus Crime.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 100…

The 100 Book Tag

Since this is the 100th TBR Thursday post, I thought I’d do something a bit different and create a little tag! This way I’m sure to only get questions I can answer…surely…

What is the 100th book on your TBR list? (In the unlikely event that you don’t have 100 books on your TBR, what book’s been on there longest?)

Dissolution by CJ Sansom – a re-read! I’d really like to re-read the entire Shardlake series from the beginning – without a doubt my favourite historical fiction series of all time.


Open your current book to page 100 (or randomly, if you don’t have page numbers on your e-reader) and quote a few sentences that you like.

“Be careful in the hunt, ye mates. Don’t stave the boat needlessly, ye harpooners; good white cedar plank is raised full three per cent within the year. Don’t forget your prayers, either. Mr Starbuck, mind that cooper don’t waste the spare staves. Oh! And the sail-needles are in the green locker. Don’t whale it too much a’ Lord’s days, men; but don’t miss a fair chance either, that’s rejecting Heaven’s good gifts. Have an eye to the molasses tierce, Mr Stubb; it was a little leaky, I thought. If ye touch at the islands, Mr Flask, beware of fornication. Good-bye, good-bye!”

From Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

M-D is without doubt up there with the most boringly tedious books I’ve ever read, and I doubt I’ll be finishing it. I quite like this quote, though, for the nicely mixed concern for the souls of the sailors and the profits of the voyage. It reminds me a little of poor Shylock and his “My daughter, oh my ducats” speech. Plus, “beware of fornication” made me laugh…


When you are 100, what author(s) do you know you will still be re-reading regularly? (This should be an easy one for those of you who are already over 100…)

I don’t know if I’ll have time for re-reading, since I’ll probably be about half-way through Moby-Dick by then, but…

Austen, Dickens, Wodehouse. I can’t imagine life without these three writers. However, I hope I’ll still be reading new stuff too. By that time, I hope some of the exciting new, young writers of today will be respected heavyweights in the world of fiction – Patrick Flanery, Suzanne Rindell, Emma Cline, Aatish Taseer, Hannah Kent – and new generations will have followed them into the spotlight. Exciting, isn’t it?

Link to your 100th post (if you’re a new blogger then link to your tenth post, or any one you like). Do you still agree with what you said back then?

Sadly, my 100th post was a slate of The Village by Nikita Lalwani – and yes, I still agree with every word I wrote back then… and I still shudder at this quote from it…

She could hear the hysteric sound of the water pump, calling her with the pleading sound of a trumpeting animal, curtailed after several pushes only to be started again.

It’s a pity it’s a rip though, because contrary to popular belief I like or love by far the majority of books I read…


Name a book you love that has less than 100 pages. Why do you love it?

The Visitor by Maeve Brennan. I said in my review “It is a wonderful study of loneliness, self-absorption and selfishness, of thwarted love, both romantic and familial, and of a longing for that nebulous thing we call ‘home’.” This short novella shows that it’s not necessary to use hundreds of pages of waffle to create fully-rounded, unforgettable characters, nor to say something profound about human nature. (*glances askance at Moby-Dick*) I’ve grown to appreciate the novella form more and more over the last few years – the length of the book should be determined by the complexity of the story to be told. (Donna Tartt et al, please note.)


If someone gave you £100, what would be the five books you would rush to buy? (Should there be any change, please consider contributing it to the FictionFan Home for Unwanted Chocolate…)

Since my wishlist currently has about 200 books on it, this was not an easy choice, but I’m always looking to add books that will meet my various challenges and eclectic tastes…

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Part of my 5-star list – authors I have loved and would like to read more of. Rushdie got on the list for wowing me with the delicious Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay. My Film of the Book wishlist is massive and growing! I loved this film when I saw it as a teenager, and have never seen it again since. And the book has been highly recommended by several people. So I’d splash out and buy both book and DVD.

A Daughter’s Love by John Guy. Guy is one of my favourite historians, specialising in the Tudor era, and I’ve read nearly all of his major books now except this one, about Margaret, daughter of Thomas More.

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain – on my Classics Club list and yet another Film of the Book entry, though in this case it would strictly speaking be the book of the film, since I’ve seen the film multiple times and love it, but have never read the book.

The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw. The Great American Novel Quest has gone horribly wrong recently with several abandoned for the crime of being intensely dull (*doesn’t mention Moby-Dick*), so I urgently need a good one to get back on track. This one sounds like it could be great.

What book do you expect to be reading 100 days from now?

I’m tempted to say Moby-Dick, but…

Tricky since I’ve only planned up to the end of December, but looking at outstanding review copies, I think I’ll be reading Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash – I very much enjoyed his earlier book The Cove, so have high hopes for this one.


The Blurb says: Les, a long-time sheriff nearing retirement, contends with the ravages of poverty and crystal meth in his small Appalachian town. Nestled in a beautiful hollow of the Appalachians, his is a tight-knit community rife with secrets and suspicious of outsiders. Becky, a park ranger, arrives in this remote patch of North Carolina hoping to ease the anguish of a harrowing past. Searching for tranquility amid the verdant stillness, she finds solace in poetry and the splendor of the land.

A vicious crime will plunge both sheriff and ranger into deep and murky waters, forging an unexpected bond between them. Caught in a vortex of duplicity, lies, and betrayal, they must navigate the dangerous currents of a tragedy that turns neighbor against neighbor—and threatens to sweep them all over the edge.

Looking at The Guardian’s list of “The 100 greatest novels of all time”, how many have you read? Of the ones you haven’t, which ones would you most like to read? And which will you never read?

Tragically, I’ve only read 38 of these, mostly older ones. The one I’d most like to read is either Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, having been blown away by Beloved, or Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, just because it sounds so good. I will never read Ulysses (I have an unaccountable dislike of gobbledegook) or As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (once bitten, twice shy!).


Free Question – Create a 100 themed question of your own choice and answer it.

OK – my question is: Which TV adaptation of a book could you watch 100 times? (Oh, you knew he’d be here somewhere…)

darcy and lizzie

List your 100 favourite books.

(Kidding! Unless you really want to, of course…)

* * * * * * *

And in the spirit of the theme, I tag the first 100 people to read this post…

That means YOU!😉

Black River Road by Debra Komar

A question of character…


black-river-roadOne day in 1869, well-to-do architect John Munroe drove his mistress, Maggie Vail, and their baby daughter out in a cab to Black River Road near Saint John (in Canada). All three got out, ostensibly to visit friends, and later Munroe returned alone. He told the cab driver that Maggie would be staying with the friends. Some months later, the putrified and unidentifiable remains of a woman and child were found by people out picking berries near Black River Road.

Debra Komar starts this true crime story by discussing the trial of Jeffrey Dahmer, and the court’s decision that, despite the nature of his crimes, he was sane and could be held responsible for his actions. This decision was reached on the basis of evidence from Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist, who developed the theory of “universal lethality” – that all people have it in them to kill, and it is only social institutions that train us not to. Komar suggests that before this, character played a large part in criminal trials, including John Munroe’s, at a time when forensic science was still in its infancy. There was, she suggests, a widespread feeling that men of good character (aka rich people) wouldn’t commit horrific crimes, and that moral degeneracy was the preserve of the poor.

Komar then takes us back to tell us the story of how Munroe and Maggie became involved. Munroe was the spoiled child of an indulgent father. By the time he met Maggie, he was an upcoming architect who had married well, but for social position rather than love. His wife, however, didn’t show him the adoration he felt he deserved, so Munroe looked elsewhere. Poor Maggie – unmarried, overweight, and not very attractive – was willing to adore him as much as he liked. When the inevitable happened and her child was born, Munroe attempted to dump them, but Maggie wasn’t so easily dumped. Munroe played hot and cold with her, sometimes turning up unexpectedly, other times writing to her that she should stop contacting him. And then Maggie and child disappeared. Maggie’s sister received a letter, purporting to come from the illiterate Maggie, to the effect that she had met another man and gone off to Chicago to marry him.

This part of the story is very well told, giving a real feel for the coldness of Munroe’s character, and the rather desperate attempts of Maggie, now with a ruined reputation, to force him to meet his obligations to her and their child. The focus of the book is very much on this particular story, but we do get some idea of the wider society of the time, with the usual hypocritical gender bias that despised and ostracised an unmarried mother while cheerfully continuing to respect a male adulterer.

The story then moves on to the investigation and subsequent trial, with Komar showing at each stage how Munroe’s respectable position in society led to a widespread refusal to accept his possible guilt. The newspapers ran stories in outraged defence of him, and thirty-five people were called to give evidence of his good character, even though some of them barely knew him except through business dealings. The problem of identification added a layer of difficulty to the prosecution, and Komar gives dramatic, well written accounts of witnesses having to identify pieces of clothing or, gruesomely, the hair of the corpse.

An interesting crime story, well researched and well written. Komar’s decision to leave all reference to her sources to the notes at the back means there’s a good flow to the narration of events. The fairly narrow focus on the crime keeps the book down to a fairly shortish length. However, it also means we don’t get an in-depth picture of the society, nor of Munroe’s life beyond the crime – for example, we learn little about his relationship with his wife and legitimate children, before or during the trial. Within those limits, though, it’s an enjoyable read that I recommend to fans of true crime.

A re-enactment of the finding of the bodies...
A re-enactment of the finding of the bodies…

* * * * * * *

Spoiler ahead – if you don’t want to know the result of the trial, stop reading now!

True crime books tend to want to make a point and sometimes that rather works against them. I felt this was a case in point. During the trial, as many people were as willing to accuse Munroe as to defend him, though undoubtedly the establishment rallied round him to a large degree. But the police arrested him promptly, the trial allowed a good deal of leeway to the prosecution as well as to the defence, and when the question was finally put to the jury, they found him guilty in under an hour. If the argument is that good character was a strong defence, then it doesn’t seem to have worked in Munroe’s case. Despite appeals from his father, the government promptly refused mercy and Munroe hanged.

Debra Komar
Debra Komar

I had my doubts from the beginning, in fact, as to how well Komar would be able to make the case, because certainly Munroe was not the first “respectable” murderer to hang, nor the last. My cynical nature started out thinking that most humans probably had worked out long before Dietz made it a “theory” that murder is not the exclusive preserve of the obviously insane or degenerate, and I felt the outcome rather proved that than otherwise. This was a story that was interesting enough in its own right – it didn’t really need to make a point. In fact, I felt it made a quite different, and equally interesting, point – namely that, if the prosecution have good evidence, then juries are well able to judge guilt despite a defendant’s previous character, social position or the moral outrage of the press and establishment.

Overall, I’d have been happier to see rather less emphasis on that angle and a wider look at society and Munroe’s life instead. But these things are always subjective, and a different reader is quite likely to feel differently. I enjoyed it despite this reservation, and recommend it both for the story of the crime and as an interesting look at how the Canadian justice system worked at that time, quite efficiently it seems.

Debra Komar was recommended to me by the lovely Naomi at Consumed by Ink. Thanks, Naomi!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Goose Lane.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! Doom of the House of Duryea by Earl Peirce Jr

Get out the garlic…


Vampires have been done to death in recent years – it turns out it’s not a stake that kills them after all, it’s over-exposure. However they have been a mainstay of horror more or less since the genre began, so time to don a thick scarf and go off to meet some, in this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

Doom of the House of Duryea
by Earl Peirce Jr

Can't find an author pic this week, so this'll have to do...
Can’t find an author pic this week, so this’ll have to do…

Young Arthur Duryea has come to a hotel to meet his father for the first time in twenty years. He has been living with his Aunt Cecilia, who has filled his head with tales of horror concerning his father, but now Cecilia is dead, and Arthur has come to believe her stories weren’t true.

“Ever since I was twelve years old I have disbelieved Cecilia’s stories. I have known that those horrible things were impossible, that they belonged to the ancient category of mythology and tradition. How, then, can I be indignant, and how can I hate you? How can I do anything but recognize Cecilia for what she was—a mean, frustrated woman, cursed with an insane grudge against you and your family? I tell you, Dad, that nothing she has ever said can possibly come between us again.”

His father Henry wants them to spend some time together in an isolated lodge in Maine to get to know each other again. But first he wants to be sure Arthur truly understands the events of twenty years earlier, and still trusts his father, so he tells him what happened…

“You must know that true basis to your aunt’s hatred. You must know of that curse—that curse of vampirism which is supposed to have followed the Duryeas through five centuries of French history, but which we can dispel as pure superstition, so often connected with ancient families. But I must tell you that this part of the legend is true:

“Your two young brothers actually died in their cradles, bloodless. And I stood trial in France for their murder, and my name was smirched throughout all of Europe with such an inhuman damnation that it drove your aunt and you to America, and has left me childless, hated, and ostracized from society the world over.”

No other explanation was ever found for the death of the two boys. Arthur had also been in the house that night, but in a locked room (hmm) so he survived. Despite this tale of horror, Arthur feels his father could not have done such a thing, so agrees to the trip.

Nothing to do with this story but... well... who cares?!
Nothing to do with this story but… well… who cares?!

However, once in their lodge far from other humans, when the night is dark and a storm is raging outside, things look rather different. Arthur is feeling tense and headachy and his throat hurts, all symptoms he puts down to his father’s stew (hmm) until he comes across a book in his father’s belongings which tells the legend of the curse of the Duryeas…

But this vrykolakas cannot act according to its demoniacal possession unless it is in the presence of a second member of the same family, who acts as a medium between the man and its demon. This medium has none of the traits of the vampire, but it senses the being of this creature (when the metamorphosis is about to occur) by reason of intense pains in the head and throat. Both the vampire and the medium undergo similar reactions, involving nausea, nocturnal visions, and physical disquietude.


* * * * * * *

Well, this is quite fun! It was originally published in the Weird Tales magazine in October 1936. In truth, it’s not the best written story in the world, with quite a lot of unexplained things stuck in to make the story work – like why one baby would have been sleeping in a room barred from the inside, for example, while the other two were in a different nursery, nicely accessible to any hungry bloodsucker who might be passing. The twist is fairly obvious from early on too. It’s important not to overthink it, really…😉

Original spoilerish illustration from Weird Tales
Original spoilerish illustration from Weird Tales

But nonetheless it’s quite an enjoyable read, with an original feature (to me, at least) of the vampire only succumbing to his worst nature when a “medium” is present, who must be another member of his family, and only feeding on members of his own family too. (One tries hard not to feel it’s miraculous the family has managed to survive this long…) And the climax is quite well done, using the storm and Arthur’s growing fear to get a nice bit of horror going.

If you’d like to read it, here’s a link.

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯😯😯

Overall story rating:           😀😀😀

The porpentine is fairly relaxed about his one...
The porpentine is fairly relaxed about this one…

Out of Bounds (Karen Pirie 4) by Val McDermid

Murder in the family…


out of boundsWhen some drunken lads steal a Land Rover and then crash it, a blood sample is taken from the driver and routinely checked for DNA matches. The results show a familial match to the perpetrator of a horrific unsolved rape and murder from 1996, so DCI Karen Pirie and her cold case team, consisting of herself and one DC, reopen the case. However it becomes more complicated when they discover the car crash victim was adopted, so they will have to seek the Court’s permission to access his birth records. Meantime, a young man called Gabriel Abbott is found dead from a gunshot wound in a park, a death that the investigating officer is eager to call suicide and close the case. Karen’s not so sure, and when she discovers that Gabriel’s mother was herself murdered over 20 years earlier, she finds herself drawn to try to solve the older case and see if it impacted in any way on Gabriel’s death.

I really like this new series of McDermid’s. She has always been one of my favourite crime writers, but I tired eventually of the Tony Hill series, so I’m delighted she’s gone off in a new direction. These books are strictly police procedurals, told in a straightforward linear fashion with no flashy gimmicks or unbelievable twists. I’ve only read one other in the series, The Skeleton Road, which had a plot-line that took us back to the Serbo-Croatian war and was as much about the horrors of that as about the crime under investigation. While I enjoyed it very much, in truth I prefer to get my history from history books, so preferred this one which is more traditional in style – a crime or crimes, suspects, motives, clues, red herrings, etc., but all set firmly in the present and with a totally authentic feel to the investigation.

Karen Pirie is an excellent character, perhaps my favourite of all the various lead characters McDermid has created over the years. She is refreshingly non-maverick, working within the rules and procedures of contemporary policing, and getting on with her colleagues on the whole. Somewhat tediously, she has the usual useless boss who’s always trying to do her down, but she gets round him with a combination of wit and manipulation, instead of the rather unbelievable outright defiance and belligerence that so many fictional detectives seem able to get away with. She thinks her young assistant Jason is “thick”, but is nevertheless a good, supportive boss to him, and during the course of this book, as he matures into the role, she finds she’s beginning to appreciate him more. And again unlike many of the loner detectives of today, she has a few good friends and a normal social life outside work.

In this book she is still grieving after the events at the end of the last one. (I’m leaving that deliberately vague to avoid spoilers – the books work perfectly as standalones and don’t have much of a continuing story arc, but like most series they’re probably best read in order.) But her grief is shown believably, without wallowing. It recurs from time to time but lessens as time goes on, and Karen handles it without taking to drink or beating people up or all the other things our dysfunctional detectives usually do.

Val McDermid
Val McDermid

There’s also a strand in the book about some of the Syrian refugees who have come to Scotland fleeing from the horrors in their own country. McDermid handles this very well, showing them not as potential terrorists, rapists, murderers or religious fanatics, but as normal people who have seen and experienced terrible things, but survived, and who now want to find a way to build new lives for themselves and their families in a safer place.

The plotting is great, with enough complexity to keep the reader guessing but without ever straying far over the credibility line. Although there are two separate cases on the go, McDermid juggles them well, never letting one be forgotten at the expense of the other. And personally, I’m delighted to see her set a series in her native Scotland. She doesn’t shine a light on the political zeitgeist in quite the way Rankin often does, but she creates a clear and authentic picture of contemporary Scotland, particularly with regards to policing and justice systems.

All-in-all, an excellent read which I highly recommend. I’m hoping this series will have a long run.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link


The jingle jangle morning…

Congratulations to Bob Dylan!

At last – a Nobel Prize for Literature winner I’ve heard of! An inspired and inspirational choice by the Nobel people – Bob Dylan is surely one of the greatest poets of the last century and it’s great to see his song lyrics being rightly recognised as a form of literature.

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
Yes, and how many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea?
Yes, and how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, and how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, and how many deaths will it take ’till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

All along the watchtower
Princes kept the view
While all the women came and went
Barefoot servants, too
Outside in the cold distance
A wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching
And the wind began to howl

Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’
I was layin’ in bed
Wondrin’ if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red
Her folks they said our lives together
Sure was gonna be rough
They never did like
Mama’s homemade dress
Papa’s bank book wasn’t big enough
And I was standin’ on the side of the road
Rain fallin’ on my shoes
Heading out for the east coast
Lord knows I’ve paid some dues
Gettin’ through
Tangled up in blue

Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed
Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed
Whatever colors you have in your mind
I’ll show them to you and you’ll see them shine.
Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed
Stay, lady, stay, stay with your man awhile
Until the break of day, let me see you make him smile
His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean
And you’re the best thing that he’s ever seen.
Stay, lady, stay, stay with your man awhile
Why wait any longer for the world to begin
You can have your cake and eat it too
Why wait any longer for the one you love
When he’s standing in front of you.
Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed
Stay, lady, stay, stay while the night is still ahead
I long to see you in the morning light
I long to reach for you in the night
Stay, lady, stay, stay while the night is still ahead.
Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time
Far past the frozen leaves
The haunted frightened trees
Out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there ain’t no place I’m going to
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you
Shadows are fallin’ and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep and time is runnin’ away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal
There’s not even room enough to be anywhere
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.
Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writin’ what was in her mind
I just don’t see why I should even care
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.
Well, I’ve been to London and I been to gay Paris
I’ve followed the river and I got to the sea
I’ve been down on the bottom of the world full of lies
I ain’t lookin’ for nothin’ in anyone’s eyes
Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.
I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m movin’ but I’m standin’ still
Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.

TBR Thursday 99…

Episode 99…

The TBR has leapt up this week by 3 to 181. I’m in one of my periodic reading slumps but oddly not in a simultaneous acquiring books slump! But if only I can manage to get through Moby-Dick and Louis XVI, it’s bound to start falling dramatically…

Should I ever get to the stage of being ready to start another book, here are some that are languishing on the list…


the-long-long-life-of-treesCourtesy of Yale University Press via NetGalley. Having watched way too much politics this year, I feel a need to be inspired by nature…

The Blurb says: Since the beginnings of history trees have served humankind in countless useful ways, but our relationship with trees has many dimensions beyond mere practicality. Trees are so entwined with human experience that diverse species have inspired their own stories, myths, songs, poems, paintings, and spiritual meanings. Some have achieved status as religious, cultural, or national symbols.

In this beautifully illustrated volume Fiona Stafford offers intimate, detailed explorations of seventeen common trees, from ash and apple to pine, oak, cypress, and willow. The author also pays homage to particular trees, such as the fabled Ankerwyke Yew, under which Henry VIII courted Anne Boleyn, and the spectacular cherry trees of Washington, D.C., Stafford discusses practical uses of wood past and present, tree diseases and environmental threats, and trees’ potential contributions toward slowing global climate change. Brimming with unusual topics and intriguing facts, this book celebrates trees and their long, long lives as our inspiring and beloved natural companions.

* * * * *


black-widowCourtesy of Grove Atlantic via NetGalley. I had already requested this long before it won this year’s inaugural McIlvanney Prize at Bloody Scotland. It will be my introduction to Brookmyre…

The Blurb says:  Diana Jager is clever, strong and successful, a skilled surgeon and fierce campaigner via her blog about sexism. Yet it takes only hours for her life to crumble when her personal details are released on the internet as revenge for her writing.

Then she meets Peter. He’s kind, generous, and knows nothing about her past: the second chance she’s been waiting for. Within six months, they are married. Within six more, Peter is dead in a road accident, a nightmare end to their fairytale romance.

But Peter’s sister Lucy doesn’t believe in fairytales, and tasks maverick reporter Jack Parlabane with discovering the dark truth behind the woman the media is calling Black Widow…

* * * * *


the-dark-flood-risesCourtesy of Canongate via NetGalley. I should probably have read one of Margaret Drabble’s earlier novels as my introduction to her work, since late novels often work better for existing fans. However it sounds intriguing, so fingers crossed…

The Blurb says: Fran may be old but she’s not going without a fight. So she dyes her hair, enjoys every glass of red wine, drives around the country for her job with a housing charity and lives in an insalubrious tower block that her loved ones disapprove of. And as each of them – her pampered ex Claude, old friend Jo, flamboyant son Christopher and earnest daughter Poppet – seeks happiness in their own way, what will the last reckoning be? Will they be waving or drowning when the end comes?

By turns joyous and profound, darkly sardonic and moving, The Dark Flood Rises questions what makes a good life, and a good death. This triumphant, bravura novel takes in love, death, sun-drenched islands, poetry, Maria Callas, tidal waves, surprise endings – and new beginnings.

* * * * *


slaughterhouse-fiveConsidered one of the great classics of science fiction, but published too late to make it onto my Classics Club list. This has been sitting on my TBR for close on two years, so time it made its way to the top of the heap…

The Blurb says: Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut’s) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.

Don’t let the ease of reading fool you – Vonnegut’s isn’t a conventional, or simple, novel. He writes, “There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.”

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

* * * * *

On another note, my favourite piece of spam for this week…

“WOW just what I was searching for. Came here by searching for sex engineering jokes.”

Eh?!? Sometimes Google worries me…😉

The Schooldays of Jesus by JM Coetzee

The naked emperor…


the schooldays of jesusAfter fleeing from Novilla at the end of the last book, Simón, Davíd and Inés arrive in Estrella. While there, Simón will agonise endlessly over how to get a decent education for Davíd, Inés will get a job in a dress shop, and Davíd will become even more obnoxious than he was in The Childhood of Jesus. The pseudo-religious symbolism will be replaced by a load of pseudo-mumbo-jumbo about numbers. And the hollowness of book 1 will turn into a vacuous vacuum in this one.

When I slated The Childhood of Jesus for being essentially empty of all meaning, many Coetzee fans told me not to give up on him – they assured me that really he was a wonderful, intelligent writer with plenty to say. So I gave him a second chance. I find it hard to believe, but this book is actually even more meaningless and shallow than the previous one. If ever there were a case of the emperor’s new clothes, this is it – Mr Coetzee is running naked through the streets, hoping people will still think he’s dressed in robes of gold and purple. Ironic really, since if this book does have a point, it is that the people of this strange country in which our tedious trio have washed up seem willing to worship Davíd despite him being an obnoxious and rather unintelligent spoiled little brat, who frankly should have been sent to bed with no supper at the end of chapter 1, book 1, and not allowed out till he apologised for existing.

Since this is a sequel, the following paragraphs will contain some spoilers for the first book.

emperor-no-clothesAt the end of The Childhood, it was left with Davíd and his surrogate parents fleeing Novilla because the authorities there wanted to put Davíd in some kind of institution, considering his behaviour disruptive. The suggestion, subtly given in the title, was that Davíd was some kind of Messiah, perhaps even actually Jesus, and as he fled he began to pick up followers who recognised his frequently touted but never shown exceptionality. This second book promptly drops all that, and drops other “important” symbolism from book 1 too, such as Inés, the virgin mother in The Childhood, now apparently being a sexually experienced woman (without having had sex in the interim I might add – miraculous!).

Simón, devoted to Davíd and convinced of his exceptionalism in book 1, is now finding that the child is simply difficult – something I feel the rest of us had worked out long before. Davíd shows no affection for these adults who have cared for him and promptly demands to become a boarder at his new school, where they are teaching the children how to call down numbers from the stars via dance. (That sentence alone should surely be enough of a warning to avoid the book at all costs.) Davíd instead gives his love to a weird caretaker, whose main attraction seems to be that he shows the schoolboys lewd pictures of women. But things all go horribly wrong and we have some jejune philosophising on justice and rehabilitation. After avoiding the overt but silly religious symbolism of the first book throughout nearly all of this one, Coetzee then reverts to what must surely be mockery by having Davíd offering redemption if only people would believe in him.

JM Coetzee
JM Coetzee

It is readable because Coetzee is a good storyteller. He manages to create a constant impression that he’s just about to say something meaningful, which keeps the reader turning the pages in hope. But sadly he has nothing meaningful to say, so he fills the space with a lot of pseudo-philosophical absurdity, occasionally humorous but always with a kind of supercilious sneer hidden not very thoroughly between the lines. When discussing book 1 with a fellow reviewer, I joked that Coetzee was probably having a good laugh at all the thousands of people vainly trying to find a coherent meaning in the novel – the joke’s on me for being daft enough to read book 2! Ugh! Needless to say, it was longlisted for the 2016 Booker… an institution always willing to see gorgeous robes where none exist, so long as the emperor has a well-known name.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Other Wing by Algernon Blackwood

Wandering along the Nightmare Passage…


I have a recurring dream that happens whenever I’m feeling particularly stressed, which fortunately is quite rare. It’s not a nightmare exactly but it feels unsettling. I believe it’s quite a common stress dream. It varies, but the fundamentals are always the same. I am in a big house, which I know in my dream though I don’t think it’s based on a real place. It’s not a spooky house, but it’s full of long corridors and odd corners that lead to rooms that are never used. Someone is lost, and I am looking for them – usually a cat or dog, but sometimes a relative or friend. That’s it – I look for them and I can’t find them. Nothing bad happens and there’s no reason in the dream to think it will. Still, the wandering, looking and not finding leaves me uneasy…

So when I tell you this story made the hair on the back of my neck rise, you’ll understand why…

Tuesday Terror 2

The Other Wing
by Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood
Algernon Blackwood

It used to puzzle him that, after dark, someone would look in round the edge of the bedroom door, and withdraw again too rapidly for him to see the face.

Young Tim is a boy of about eight or nine years old, living with his loving family and servants in a big old Elizabethan mansion. Since his older brother went off to boarding school, Tim has slept alone. He’s not exactly scared of his mysterious nighttime visitor – in fact, if anything he thinks of it quite affectionately. Even though some strange things happen at night…

When the coals settled with a soft and powdery crash, he turned his eyes from the curtains to the grate, trying to discover exactly which bits had fallen. So long as the glow was there the sound seemed pleasant enough, but sometimes he awoke later in the night, the room huge with darkness, the fire almost out — and the sound was not so pleasant then. It startled him. The coals did not fall of themselves. It seemed that someone poked them cautiously. The shadows were very thick before the bars.

Tim often wonders where his night visitors come from – where they spend their days. One day, after a conversation with his mother, he decides that they must live in the Other Wing – a wing of the great mansion long closed off, and forbidden to the children. So, of course, Tim has imagined all kinds of things about the Other Wing…

He believed it was inhabited. Who occupied the immense series of empty rooms, who trod the spacious corridors, who passed to and fro behind the shuttered windows, he had not known exactly. He had called these occupants, “they”, and the most important among them was “The Ruler.” The Ruler of the Other Wing was a kind of deity, powerful, far away, ever present yet never seen. And about this Ruler he had a wonderful conception for a little boy; he connected her, somehow, with deep thoughts of his own, the deepest of all. When he made up adventures to the moon, to the stars, or to the bottom of the sea, adventures that he lived inside himself, as it were — to reach them he must invariably pass through the chambers of the Other Wing. Those corridors and halls, the Nightmare Passage among them, lay along the route; they were the first stage of the journey.

So one day, when his parents are away, he sneaks past the servants and in through the green baize door that is usually closed, but on this day is mysteriously open, to search for the Ruler who, he now believes, is his midnight friend. And to his surprise, the Other Wing is exactly how he had imagined it… and he finds himself walking along the Nightmare Passage, carrying his grandfather’s old walking stick, until suddenly a door opens…

For the door opened with instant swiftness half an inch, a hand emerged, caught the stick and tried to draw it in. Tim sprang back as if he had been struck. He pulled at the ivory handle with all his strength, but his strength was less than nothing. He tried to shout, but his voice had gone. A terror of the moon came over him, for he was unable to loosen his hold of the handle; his fingers had become a part of it. An appalling weakness turned him helpless. He was dragged inch by inch towards the fearful door. The end of the stick was already through the narrow crack. He could not see the hand that pulled, but he knew it was gigantic. He understood now why the world was strange, why horses galloped furiously, and why trains whistled as they raced through stations…

* * * * * * *

Ooh, this is good! It’s brilliantly written to get just that sense of unease of things half-glimpsed and not fully seen or understood. Tim’s youth means he’s beautifully unscared of things that leave the adult reader shivering deliciously. It’s not at all horrible or gory – fear not for little Tim, he will survive unscathed! In fact, one could almost think the whole thing had been a nightmare, if it were not for the… but no, that would spoil the story! You shall just have to imagine the ending…

Or perhaps you’d like to read it for yourself – here’s a link. It’s a bit longer than usual – about 7,500 words, but it’s worth it. Genuinely spooky, but also quite fun, and Tim is a great little hero, full of courage and goodwill. One for those of us who prefer our spookiness to come with a feel-good ending…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯😯😯😯

Overall story rating:           😀😀😀😀😀

terrified porpentine


Henry V: The Conscience of a King by Malcolm Vale

Peaceful pursuits of the warrior-king…


henry VIn his introduction, Malcolm Vale suggests that Henry V’s reputation as a warrior-king shows only one aspect of his character, and not necessarily the most important one in letting us understand the man. To make his case, Vale looks at Henry’s other activities – how he carried out the daily business of government, how he dealt with matters of the Church, his involvement in encouragement of the arts, etc. Since, unusually for the time, Henry often wrote letters in his own hand, Vale suggests that for the first time we get to hear the actual ‘voice’ of a monarch.

This book is neither a history of the period nor a full biography of Henry. It is an extremely detailed look at various aspects of Henry’s reign, but makes no attempt to tell his whole ‘story’. Because of its focus on Henry’s peaceful activities, it only touches on his wars in passing. It’s academic in tone and assumes some familiarity on the part of the reader with the events and main players of the time. It’s therefore not a book for beginners. Since I most definitely am a beginner to this period of history, I would have struggled badly had it not been for the fortunate circumstance that I very recently read a biography of Henry IV, which gave me some background to the political situation in England and Europe. However, this is not in any way a criticism of the book. Vale sets out his agenda clearly in his introduction and fully meets it.

Henry V - artist unknown. Vale speculates that the portrait is in profile because the right side of his face would be disfigured after the wound he received at the battle of Shrewsbury...
Henry V – artist unknown.
Vale speculates that the portrait is in profile because the right side of his face would be disfigured after the wound he received at the battle of Shrewsbury…

Each chapter covers one aspect of Henry’s reign. Vale starts with a look at how the daily business of government was carried out, showing the high level of personal involvement of Henry in decisions large and small. He shows how a bureaucracy grew up to streamline this and take some of the pressure off the King, and also to provide a consistent approach during Henry’s long absences in France. Vale goes into great detail over the uses of the various seals and signets and under what circumstances each was used. Henry is shown as having taken his duty as a monarch seriously, trying to provide justice and working closely with his council. Vale shows that, more than previous Kings, Henry’s own manual signature often appears on documents, suggesting that this was done as an extra indication of his personal will in certain matters.

Vale also discusses Henry’s involvement in Church matters, both at home and abroad. Henry is shown as genuinely religious, with a desire to support and protect religious establishments while expecting them to live up to their part of the bargain by curbing absenteeism, reforming some of the areas of abuse and tending to the cure of souls. Partly because of the weakness of papal authority due to the Schism, Henry had considerable power over appointments, and Vale suggests that he was effectively head of the church within his own territories, two centuries before Henry VIII’s break with Rome.

...but clearly that can't be right as we can tell from this later portrait. (Doesn't he look just like Kenneth Branagh? Yummy...)
…but clearly that can’t be right as we can tell from this later portrait. (Doesn’t he look just like Kenneth Branagh? Yummy…)

Henry’s interest in the peaceful arts comes under scrutiny too, showing his direct involvement in encouraging and even participating in them. It appears he may have composed music himself, as well as playing the harp. He read fairly widely, both religious and imaginative works, and commissioned translations. He also commissioned artistic work that formed part of the trappings of power – tapestries and textiles, ornamental and military metalwork, etc.

The chapter I found most interesting discusses Henry’s increasing use and promotion of the English language as his reign progressed. At the beginning of the reign, Norman French and Latin were still the languages of government, but from about the middle of his reign on, English begins to appear more often and Henry himself begins to write letters in that language. Vale suggests that this is a result of Henry’s desire to show that, should he succeed in gaining the crown of France, the two countries would remain separate, distinct entities with their own laws and identities. At that time, English was seen as an unsophisticated language without the vocabulary or nuance required of a language of government. Vale shows how much of the formal language was adopted wholesale from Norman French, either anglicised or literally translated. He also shows that even now, six centuries later, some of the phrases put into use in Henry’s time are still used in formal Parliamentary documents. This was the time of Chaucer and other early writers in English, and Vale discusses the literary development of the language, suggesting that the King’s influence in promoting English was crucial in its growth.

Hmm... yeah. Could be English. French or Latin, but my money's on Chinese...
Hmm… yeah. Could be English, French or Latin, but my money’s on Chinese…

In conclusion, I feel Vale makes his case that there was much more to Henry V than simply being the warrior of Agincourt fame. The research that has gone into the book is clearly immense and it is well written and presented. Obviously I am not qualified to judge the accuracy of the facts or conclusions, but I found it a convincing read. Personally I found parts of it a little dry and repetitive and perhaps too detailed, but I put that down to a mismatch between reader and book. In tone, I would suggest it is aimed more at the academic reader, or at least a knowledgeable and enthusiastic amateur, than at the casual reader. Nonetheless I learned a good deal, not just about Henry, but about governance of the time, the growth of the English language, and the relationships between monarchy, religious institutions and the Papacy. 4 stars for me, but I’m confident this would be a 5-star read for someone with greater pre-knowledge of the period.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Two for the price of one…


magpie-murdersSusan Ryeland, editor for Cloverleaf Books, settles down happily to read the new manuscript from their star author – Magpie Murders by Alan Conway. Susan may not like the author, but she loves his books, a series of Golden Age style mysteries starring Atticus Pund and his sidekick James Fraser. But she will find that on this occasion the mystery extends beyond the book, and murder might have leapt from the pages into real life…

This is a witty, clever take on the vintage mystery, with more than a nod to the Queen of Crime herself, Agatha Christie. It is in fact two books – the one involving Susan and “real” life, and the fictional book involving Atticus Pund and a gruesome murder in the village of Saxby-on-Avon. The format is weird and on the whole successful, and it’s certainly highly original and entertaining. After a quick introduction to Susan, the reader settles down with her to read the fictional book, which is then given in its entirety up to just before the dénouement. I must say it’s a fantastic take on a Christie murder – country house, lots of characters all with secrets and motives, a nicely unpleasant victim so we don’t have to venture into grief territory, some great clues and red herrings, an intriguing detective in the German-born Pund, and a rather charming if intellectually challenged sidekick in James. Like Christie, it gets that perfect balance between dark and light, depth and entertainment. It left me even more baffled than before as to why the Christie estate hadn’t got Horowitz to do the Poirot follow-ons – he’d have made a vastly better job of it than poor Sophie Hannah’s rather dreadful attempt.

The real life mystery is just as good and the links between the two are ingenious – some easier to spot than others. I did spot the giveaway clue in this story as it happened and so worked out the murderer fairly early on, but I was baffled by the mystery in the fictional book. Again in the “real” story there are plenty of suspects, all with good motives to have done away with the victim. (Forgive the vagueness – the plotting in this one is so intricate, and half the fun is in seeing how it works, so I’m trying hard not to give any accidental spoilers.) There are alibis to work out, connections to be made and misdirection galore. Susan is a likeable protagonist, and her love of books means there are endless references to various mystery writers – a treat for any fan of vintage mystery stories, but not at all problematic for anyone who hasn’t read widely in the genre. There are also lots of sly digs at the world of writing, publishing, book awards, etc., which add greatly to the fun. Both mysteries are fairplay, I’d say, and all the red herrings are explained in the end.

Anthony Horowitz
Anthony Horowitz

My hesitation about the format is a small one. I found that all the time I was reading the story within the story, I was conscious that another story was to come and that made me very aware that the fictional book was fictional. Normally, I can forget the fictional nature of a mystery and treat it as “real” but I found I was more distanced with this one, and I really wanted to know what was going to happen in the real section. Then, when eventually it flips to Susan’s story, I really wanted to get back to find out what happened in the final chapters of the fictional one! I found I wasn’t always totally absorbed in the bit I was reading for thinking about the other storyline. Of course, though this was the teensiest bit annoying, it also shows just how interesting both stories were.

However, when I reached the end and the two parts were each finished off beautifully satisfactorily, my minor discontent evaporated and I could wholeheartedly applaud the skill with which Horowitz had pulled the whole thing off. (Horowitz is one of very few authors who always seems to make me want to give him a standing ovation at the end for the sheer exuberance of his plotting. I imagine he must have had a whiteboard big enough to be seen from space to keep track of all the clues… ) Effectively it’s two books for the price of one – two complete mysteries, linked but separate, with different solutions but each feeding into the other. Again, as with his take on the Holmes mysteries, Horowitz has shown how effectively he can play with these much-loved, established fictional worlds, always affectionately but always with an original twist that prevents them from being mere pastiche. Great stuff, that I’m sure will be enjoyed by any mystery fan. Bravo, Mr Horowitz… encore!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 98…

Episode 98…

The TBR continues to hover in roughly the same position – this week, up 1 to 178. But I’m sure it’s going to start dropping dramatically any time now… I feel it in my bones…

Here are a few that will be rising to the top of the pile soon…

The Classics Club Spin winner…

passingThe number that came up on Monday’s spin was 1, so here it is. Good choice – short! And comes highly recommended by both the lovely heavenali and my good blogbuddy Lady Fancifull

The Blurb says: Irene Redfield, the novel’s protagonist, is a woman with an enviable life. She and her husband, Brian, a prominent physician, share a comfortable Harlem town house with their sons. Her work arranging charity balls that gather Harlem’s elite creates a sense of purpose and respectability for Irene. But her hold on this world begins to slip the day she encounters Clare Kendry, a childhood friend with whom she had lost touch. Clare—light-skinned, beautiful, and charming—tells Irene how, after her father’s death, she left behind the black neighborhood of her adolescence and began passing for white, hiding her true identity from everyone, including her racist husband. As Clare begins inserting herself into Irene’s life, Irene is thrown into a panic, terrified of the consequences of Clare’s dangerous behavior. And when Clare witnesses the vibrancy and energy of the community she left behind, her burning desire to come back threatens to shatter her careful deception.

* * * * *


himselfCourtesy of NetGalley. Picked entirely on the basis of the cover, the blurb and the publisher, this début novel is published by Canongate and sounds like it might be fun…

The Blurb says:  When Mahony returns to Mulderrig, a speck of a place on Ireland’s west coast, he brings only a photograph of his long-lost mother and a determination to do battle with the village’s lies. His arrival causes cheeks to flush and arms to fold in disapproval. No one in the village – living or dead – will tell what happened to the teenage mother who abandoned him as a baby, despite Mahony’s certainty that more than one of them has answers.

Between Mulderrig’s sly priest, its pitiless nurse and the caustic elderly actress throwing herself into her final village play, this beautiful and darkly comic debut novel creates an unforgettable world of mystery, bloody violence and buried secrets.

* * * * *


the-blood-cardCourtesy of NetGalley. The third book in Elly Griffiths’ new Stephens and Mephisto series. I loved books 1 and 2 so have high hopes for this one…

The Blurb says: Elizabeth II’s coronation is looming, but the murder of their wartime commander, Colonel Cartwright, spoils the happy mood for DI Edgar Stephens and magician Max Mephisto. A playbill featuring another deceased comrade is found in Colonel Cartwright’s possession, and a playing card, the ace of hearts: the blood card. The wartime connection and the suggestion of magic are enough to put Stephens and Mephisto on the case.

Edgar’s investigation into the death of Brighton fortune-teller Madame Zabini is put on hold. Max is busy rehearsing for a spectacular Coronation Day variety show – and his television debut – so it’s Edgar who is sent to New York, a land of plenty worlds away from still-rationed England.

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a-night-in-the-lonesome-octoberCourtesy of NetGalley. A new edition of this is being released by Farrago just in time for the spooky season and, since regular commenter BigSister (who just happens to be my big sister) says she reads this every Hallowe’en, I couldn’t resist…

The Blurb says: An overdue reissue of the last great novel by a giant of fantasy – essential October reading.

All is not what it seems . . .

In the murky London gloom, a knife-wielding gentleman named Jack prowls the midnight streets with his faithful watchdog Snuff – gathering together the grisly ingredients they will need for an upcoming ancient and unearthly rite. For soon after the death of the moon, black magic will summon the Elder Gods back into the world. And all manner of Players, both human and undead, are preparing to participate. Some have come to open the gates. Some have come to slam them shut.

And now the dread night approaches – so let the Game begin.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon.ok

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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Dirt Road by James Kelman

Road trip to the basement…


dirt roadA young boy and his father, grieving for the recent loss of the boy’s mother and the longer ago loss of his sister, go on a trip to visit relatives in America. While there, Murdo meets up with a family of musicians, who invite him to play his accordion (annoyingly spelled accordeon throughout in my advance reading copy, whether intentionally or accidentally I know not) at a gig in a couple of weeks time. Murdo assumes his father won’t want him to go. In fact, his father wants nothing more than to sit around the relatives’ house and read, while Murdo lies on his bed in the basement, bored out of his head, listening to one of the two CDs he has. At the point where I finally threw in the towel (33%) they had only left the house once, and that was to go to the mall for a couple of hours.

The writing is undoubtedly excellent. Although written in the third person, the reader is entirely inside Murdo’s head, listening to his thoughts. It’s not stream of consciousness in the sense of long complicated sentences. Quite the reverse in fact – the sentences tend to be short and plain. But we do see Murdo’s thoughts drift and circle. On a technical level, it’s beautifully sustained and the voice and emotions ring true. My only criticism of the style is that, for some obscure reason, Kelman, having decided not to “do” Scottish dialect, still substitutes the word “ye” for “you” all the way through. This drove me mad. Either do a Scottish accent or don’t!

James Kelman
James Kelman

But the real issue is that there is no discernible plot or story. I realise that’s all the rage these days in some quarters of the lit-fic world and that many readers enjoy lengthy studies of emotions we have surely all felt, but it bores me rigid. The book is purely character study and stylish prose, and that’s not enough to make a novel. The blurb describes it as a road trip, but to be a road trip surely involves going out of the house occasionally. While the journey to America is moderately interesting, once they reach their destination it becomes entirely static. There is no sense of place, other than that I could describe Murdo’s basement and the shopping mall in detail. But happily for you, I won’t.

The only questions are, will Murdo go to the gig or not and will he and his father learn to communicate with each other? After what felt like hours of nothing happening, I found I couldn’t care less, and certainly not enough to stay with him in his basement for another couple of hundred pages, listening to him go round in endless circles about what it’s like to be a bored, isolated and grieving teenager. So I abandoned it and feel much better now, ye know. Perhaps it becomes more interesting later – perhaps there even is the promised road trip. But I’m afraid I’d had enough. This trend for books which do nothing but wallow in descriptions of fictional grief is not for me. The quality of the prose makes my 1-star harsh, but if I find a book so tedious that I can’t face reading on, then it seems ridiculous to rate it any higher.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! Poor Old Bill by Lord Dunsany

The Captain’s curse…


Now the nights are drawing in and the spooks are stirring in readiness for their annual shindig, it’s time to indulge in some soul-harrowing, blood-freezing and raising of hair like quills upon the fretful porpentine. So to start the season nicely, here’s one you might not want to read while eating, for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

Poor Old Bill
by Lord Dunsany

Lord Dunsany
Lord Dunsany


On an antique haunt of sailors, a tavern of the sea, the light of day was fading… Talk was low and seldom, and I was about to leave, when a sailor, wearing ear-rings of pure gold, lifted up his head from his wine, and looking straight before him at the wall, told his tale loudly…

The sailor tells of how he and his companions were on a sailing ship in exotic, far distant seas. Their captain was a cruel man, and a strange one…

We all hated the captain, and he hated us. He hated us all alike, there was no favouritism about him. And he never would talk a word with any of us, except sometimes in the evening when it was getting dark he would stop and look up and talk a bit to the men he had hanged at the yard-arm.

One day, the ship arrived at some low nasty-looking islands, on which were little cottages with thatch reaching almost to the ground and small, queer dark windows…

And no one, man or beast, was walking about, so that you could not know what kind of people lived there. But Captain knew. And he went ashore and into one of the cottages, and someone lit lights inside, and the little windows wore an evil look.


The night after he returned to the ship, the men became aware that the Captain had acquired a new skill…

Next night we found that he had learned to curse, for he came on a lot of us asleep in our bunks, and among them poor old Bill, and he pointed at us with a finger, and made a curse that our souls should stay all night at the top of the masts. And suddenly there was the soul of poor old Bill sitting like a monkey at the top of the mast, and looking at the stars, and freezing through and through.

From then on, the cruel Captain made the men ever more miserable, casting their souls into the green water or to the top of the masts, or even to the cold, cold Moon…

It was quite dark when we got back, and we were very respectful to Captain all the next day, but he cursed several of us again very soon. What we all feared most was that he would curse our souls to Hell, and none of us mentioned Hell above a whisper for fear that it should remind him.

At last the men decided to mutiny, but poor old Bill talked them into partial mercy – rather than killing the Captain, they would leave him on a desert island with enough supplies to last him for a year. Poor old Bill! Little did they know that, even at a distance, the Captain would still have the power to curse them, preventing them from making landfall on any shore. And the Captain’s food would last longer than theirs…

It was horrible to us to think what a frugal man Captain really was, he that used to get drunk every other day whenever he was at sea, and here he was still alive, and sober too, for his curse still kept us out of every port, and our provisions were gone.

Well, it came to drawing lots, and Jim was the unlucky one. Jim only kept us about three days, and then we drew lots again…

Jim may have been unlucky, but not as unlucky as poor old Bill…


* * * * * * *

This is a great little story to bring the porpentine out of hibernation! Despite the hanged men and the cannibalism, it’s actually quite humorous because of the way Dunsany tells it. “Poor old Bill” becomes like a refrain running through it, just to keep you aware that however bad things seem, they’re going to get much, much worse. The language is perfect for this kind of tale, ornate and a little overblown. I understand he was a major influence on the porpentine’s old pal, HP Lovecraft, and there are certainly some similarities in style; but, in this one at least, Dunsany keeps to the point better than HPL usually does, and keeps his descriptions brief, though they’re no less effective for that.

I could imagine it as a campfire story, read aloud to bloodthirsty children, with them all gradually joining in each time poor old Bill gets a mention. In the story, the teller of the tale’s “wild eyes shone” the darker it got. I can imagine that Dunsany’s eyes may have had more of a twinkle while he wrote it – or perhaps a wicked glint. My first introduction to Dunsany – won’t be my last!

If you’d like to read it (approx 2000 words), here’s a link.


Fretful Porpentine rating:😯😯😯😯

Overall story rating:         😀😀😀😀😀

The Methods of Sergeant Cluff by Gil North

Behind the net curtains…


the methods of sergeant cluffAlthough Sergeant Caleb Cluff is still on leave following the events in the last book, when the body of a young woman is found, as the only CID man in Gunnershaw, he is called to the scene. A local man, he knows the people of the town, so he recognises the girl as Jane Trundle and is immediately aware of who the chief suspect will be – a young man who was in love with her despite her constant rejection of him. But Cluff isn’t convinced that Jack would do such a brutal thing and begins to cast his net wider, much to the annoyance of his superiors who’d rather get the case wrapped up quickly.

For the first thirty or forty pages of this short book, I was a bit uncertain of whether it was going to live up to the previous excellent one, Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm. There are a lot of indications that Cluff and the other characters know things about Jane and some of the other characters, but for what seems like quite a long time the reader is kept in the dark. Happily, however, before it becomes too annoying, this background knowledge is gradually revealed, and the plot begins to darken.

Sergeant Cluff is allocated a uniformed officer to work with him, PC Barker. But Cluff is really a bit of a loner and an early version of the maverick cop who has become so ubiquitous now. His methods are mainly to use his local knowledge, together with a bit of intuition and his deep understanding of the passions of the human heart, to help him decide who committed the crime, and then to silently intimidate and harass his suspects until they either confess or do something that incriminates them. He has a strong sense of justice, but doesn’t think the law is necessarily always the best way to achieve that. And while he has a moral code, his methods sometimes step well beyond what would have been considered acceptable even back in those less politically correct days of the early1960s. At loggerheads with several of his colleagues, it is only his habit of getting results that allows him to get away with his behaviour.

Gil North
Gil North

North’s writing style seems improved from the previous book – fewer staccato sentences and a better flow. The dialogue remains somewhat stilted, but I’m delighted to note that his obsession with describing the breasts of every female character seems to have disappeared. (Perhaps some kindly woman hit him over the head with a hardback copy of book 1 – if so, thank you!) The real strength of his writing comes in his descriptions of this industrial town – all blacks and greys and browns, dirt from the mills and factories, and poverty hidden behind a façade of respectability and net curtains. This is a town set in the midst of Yorkshire moors and farming country, though, and himself the son of a landowning farmer, Cluff is as at home with these prosperous countrymen as he is with the townspeople. Some of his insights into his characters are beautifully written – sparsely, but with truth and a real empathy for the narrowness and hardships of their lives.

Cluff climbed to his feet, a mourner at the death of a marriage that could not be broken while they lived, because this was Gunnershaw and they lived in Rupert Street and were middle-aged and had to exist, both of them, on the pittance the man earned, because, more than anything, they were respectable and the wife could not tolerate, if the husband could, what the neighbours would say. The man could no longer deceive himself about the extent of his wife’s disloyalty. Everything between them was finished and had to go on still, as it had always done.

The climax of the book heads towards the over-dramatic and dangerously close to the credibility line, but somehow it works. The plot becomes very dark, and Cluff’s behaviour, to put it mildly, is morally dubious, but it seemed to me to echo the amateur detectives of the old school, who would often allow justice to take its own course outwith the confines of the law. Again, as with the first book, I found that from halfway through I was totally hooked, unable to put the book down until I saw how it all played out. The current trend of lengthy crime novels had almost made me forget the pure pleasure of racing through a book in one or two breathless sessions, and yet there’s as much depth and plot in this as in most books that are three times as long; and considerably more tension. (I suspect that may be why the credibility issue doesn’t matter so much – there’s not enough time for the reader to dwell on the details.)

Excellent – I hope the British Library go on to publish the rest of the series.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, British Library via Midas PR.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Classics Club Spin #14

The fickle finger of fate…

classics club logo 2

The Classics Club is holding its 14th Spin, but it’s my first. The idea is to list 20 of the books on your Classics Club list before next Monday 3rd October. On Monday, the Classics Club will post the winning number. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by December 1, 2016. It will certainly be a challenge to squeeze another book into my already overstuffed pile of review books and GAN books that I’ve scheduled for autumn, but hey! Who needs sleep anyway? If the worst comes to the worst, I can always bump Moby-Dick off the schedule…😉

So here’s my list. I’ve selected it on the basis of mostly including books I already own, and have included some from all five of the categories in my CC list – American fiction, English fiction, Scottish fiction, crime fiction and science fiction. I’ve also tried to avoid some of the lengthier ones on my list…

1) Passing by Nella Larsen

2) Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

3) The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

4) Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

5) Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

6) Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West

7) Nada The Lily by H Rider Haggard

8) The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

9) She Who Was No More by Boileau-Narcejac

10) Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

11) Mildred Pierce by James M Cain

12) The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse

13) The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins

14) The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

15) The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison

16) The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

17) Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp

18) The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown

19) Cop Hater by Ed McBain

20) Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke

* * * * * * *

Most of these I’d be delighted to read. If I had to choose, I’d like to see Strangers on a Train come up, or Nada the Lily. There are only a couple I feel more ambivalent about, but I’m naming no names on the basis of tempting fate!

Which one would you like to see win?

TBR Thursday 97… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…


It’s the review copies that are the killer! If I could just stay away from NetGalley… and publishers… and authors! Every time I mention that I got a book for review in future, I want you all to shout BOOOOO!! very loudly. And the further from Scotland you are, the louder you must shout. Ready to give it a try? All together now…


Hey! Pretty good for a first attempt. Keep practising!

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in July, and I’ve been concentrating since then on the 20 Books of Summer challenge, so this one has been on the back-burner a little. But in the last couple of weeks I’ve travelled to a few places, so let’s see where I’ve been…


I had a rather harrowing trip to Kabul in the company of Khaled Hosseini in The Kite Runner. I thought my visit to the Vatican City might be more relaxing, but Robert Harris kept my pulse rate up in Conclave. Then off to post-WW1 Calcutta just in time for a nice murder in Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man. I also paid a return visit to New York, this time in the 1950s courtesy of Suzanne Rindell’s Three-Martini Lunch, and I’ve decided to swap it into my New York slot in place of Patrick Flanery’s I Am No One – though both are set in New York, Rindell’s book gives a better flavour of that vibrant city.

To see the full challenge, click here.

19 down, 61 to go!

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The Classics Club

classics club logo 2

So far, I’ve only read one from my Classics Club list, but it was a goodie. Now that you’re all going to help with my review copy addiction (BOOOOO!!) I shall have more time to concentrate on this challenge in the months ahead.


1 down, 89 to go!

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Completed Challenges and Events

The Agatha Christie Blogathon

I thoroughly enjoyed participating in this event run jointly by Little Bits of Classics and Christina Wehner. 4.50 from Paddington doubled for this event, along with the Film of the Book, Murder, She Said.


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20 Books of Summer

I finally finished reading and reviewing my 20 books, albeit nearly three weeks late in the end. But who wouldn’t want a longer summer anyway? Clicking the logo will take you to the final list…

20 books 2016

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Coming up…

So all in all it’s been a busy few months bookwise. I’ll be spending the next three months trying to clear some of these review copies (BOOOO!!), reading some GAN books, and generally clearing the decks a bit. But I will be participating in one event, again hosted by Christina Wehner, this time in partnership with Into the Writerlea

The Characters in Costume Blogfest


To find out more about it or to sign up, click the logo!

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Here’s to a great autumn of reading!😀

A Rising Man (Sam Wyndham 1) by Abir Mukherjee

Murder in the Raj…


a rising manThe corpse of a white man is discovered in an alleyway in an unsavoury part of Calcutta, and Inspector Sam Wyndham is assigned to investigate. It is 1919, and Wyndham has just arrived in India after recovering from injuries he received during the war, so he will have to depend for local knowledge on his two colleagues – Sergeant Digby, an Englishman with all the worst attitudes of imperial superiority and a grudge against Wyndham for getting the job he felt should be his own; and an Oxford educated Indian from a well-to-do family, Sergeant “Surrender-Not” Banerjee, so called because Digby finds his real name too difficult to pronounce. Back in England, Wyndham had worked in the CID and Special Branch, and had been recruited into the intelligence service during the war. It is his wartime boss, now posted to Calcutta, who has persuaded Wyndham to come to work for him there.

It is soon discovered that the victim is Alexander MacAuley, one of the many Scots working in the Colonial government. His eminent position there means that it is likely the murder was a political act, carried out by the terrorists seeking to achieve independence for India. Wyndham agrees this is the most probable motive but, being a conscientious officer, he is also determined to keep other options open and to look into MacAuley’s personal life. But this isn’t the only case on Wyndham’s plate – a train has been held up by a gang of men, again probably terrorists, who killed one of the guards. When it appears an infamous terrorist leader is back in Calcutta, Wyndham has to ask himself if the two events could be related.

According to the brief author’s bio on Amazon, Abir Mukherjee, I assume of Indian heritage, was born in London and grew up in the West of Scotland. I was intrigued to see how these different influences would play out in a book about India under the Raj, especially given the huge Scottish involvement in colonial India. The answer is brilliantly! Mukherjee knows his stuff for sure, and the picture he paints of Calcutta and the Indian political situation of the time positively reeks of authenticity. His British characters are equally believable and there are many references to Scottish culture that again have the ring of total truthfulness, and are often very funny. The dialects of the Scottish characters are excellent – they give a real flavour of regional Scottish speech patterns without being in any way hard for non-Scots to understand.

Abir Mukherjee
Abir Mukherjee

In truth, I feared in advance that the book might turn out to be something of a fashionable anti-Empire rant, but actually he keeps it very well balanced, steering a careful course between showing the iniquities of the colonial system without being too condemnatory of the individuals operating within it. Through the terrorist aspect of the plot, we hear about the rise of Gandhi and the Congress Party, and the move towards non-violent resistance. Wyndham is an enlightened man, but not anachronistically so. He is aware of the relatively tiny number of Brits in India, meaning that the co-operation of Indians at all levels is essential to the maintenance of the colonial system. So to him, fair play and even-handed justice are more than just desirable for their own sake, they are necessary tools in the struggle to maintain Indian support for the colonial government. Surrender-Not gives the educated Indian perspective. He is ambivalent about the question of independence but believes it will inevitably come, and that it is therefore the duty of Indians to prepare themselves so that they are ready to run their own country when that day comes.

But, lest this make it all sound like a heavy political snorefest, let me hastily say that all the historical and political stuff is done subtly, never feeling that it’s wandering into info-dump territory or veering towards the polemical. Mukherjee uses it to provide an authentic background, but the focus of the book is on the investigation and the development of the characters of Wyndham and Banerjee. The excellence of the writing means that the tone is light and the story entertaining, even though it touches on some dark aspects of life. And the personal outweighs the political – in the end, as with all the best detective novels, the motives lie in the murky depths of the human heart.

A great novel – hard to believe it’s a début. And I’m delighted that it’s apparently the first book in a series. I will be queuing up for the next instalment in Wyndham and Banerjee’s adventures – Mukherjee has leapt straight onto my must-read list!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Tale: Blink by Sabrina Hicks

Windows of the soul…

Usually I fill this Tuesday slot with ‘genre’ stories – horror, sci-fi, detective fiction. But there are also many great short stories that don’t fall into one of these genres, so today I’m adding a new category, simply called Tales.

One of the real joys of blogging for me is meeting some of the hugely talented people who inhabit the blogosphere. Today I’m delighted to be featuring Sabrina Hicks, whom many of you will know better under her blog nom-de-plume – desertdweller. Her short story, Blink, has won the Grand Prize in the 85th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition, so it seems a perfect choice to be the inaugural…


by Sabrina Hicks

Sabrina Hicks
Sabrina Hicks

When the rain came that morning and didn’t stop until final period, I knew it would be a long bus ride home. It hadn’t rained that hard since our last monsoon.

The tale is told to us by June, one of a group of eighth graders who are on their way home from school. Most of them have known each other for years, but there’s a new boy who’s just moved into the area, sitting at the back of the bus with his headphones on. Their grouchy bus driver isn’t happy about the weather conditions…

“For Christsake!” Mr. Kelly roared, as we pulled on to the ten-mile stretch of dirt road, now thoroughly soaked and slick with mud. He flashed his squinty eyes in the rearview mirror, making no effort to hide his contempt for the rural kids living forty minutes out of town. Not a mile off blacktop he began swerving and overcompensating on turns.


Soon he manages to drive the bus into a ditch and they know they’re now going to have a long wait for help to arrive. To help fill in the time, the narrator’s friend Maggie revives a game they used to play when they were younger – a staring contest.

Her eyes bulged at me.

“Really? Don’t you think we’re a little old for that?” I said, watching them swell like spikes of golden-brown wheat in the late sun. That’s how I remembered her eyes in fourth grade when I was crowned The Staring Champion, and it had been an accurate description. I remembered the eye color of most of the kids in my class at Kirkland Middle School, especially since there were only 47 eighth graders.

Once Maggie has been comprehensively defeated, Mr Kelly tells the new boy, Koaty, to move further up the bus away from the emergency door. The other students make room for him, but Maggie tells him half in jest that first he must beat the Staring Champion. At first June demurs, but soon finds herself gazing into Koaty’s dark eyes…

Koaty’s eyes were like the abandoned, endless well I sat by as a child, wondering how deep I had to go before I’d find the world I was sure laid beyond. I remember wanting to see the water, some reflection of sky, but it was too deep and dark, swallowing stone after stone, and when I called into it, my voice dissolved into an echo.

* * * * * * *


This is a lovely story with a huge amount of depth and feeling packed into a small space. It’s described by the Writer’s Digest as a young adult/children’s story, but in my opinion it works equally well for adults. There is an element of boy/girl attraction, but it goes much deeper than that, touching lightly on questions of race, on grief and loneliness, on empathy and connection. The characterisation is done subtly, with very little telling, and yet the reader gets a clear picture of the students, especially June, the narrator. We also learn a little about her life and get a real feeling of this rural, cattle-ranching country she lives in and what it means to her. Anyone who has read any of DD’s poetry on her blog will know that she uses language beautifully, and this extends into her prose…

His lashes trembled slightly, and I thought he would blink, instead his lips parted, curling to one side as he drew breath, and I wondered if he was reading my thoughts. I found dark eyes the hardest to read, but as I stared at him, I saw the cold stain of his mother dying and his father leaving, hardening his eyes, defiant and layered in anger. His mother, however, had gifted him with softness, seen in his lips and the delicate slope of his nose.

Great stuff! I hope sometime I’ll get the opportunity to review DD’s first novel (even if it means I have to get used to thinking of her as Sabrina Hicks!).

If you’d like to read the whole thing (about 2000 words), here’s a link…


Scheherazade Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐