Posted in Uncategorized

Banking on Murder by J.D.Whitelaw.

Publisher: Red Dog Press (29 Nov. 2020). ISBN: 978-1913331962

Well this book was a great surprise. I absolutely loved it. Three quirky sisters, a detective agency, a troublesome client and the backdrop of Glasgow just to finish it off. What’s not to love? I read it in two days, because it was just so much fun I couldn’t put it down. Now all I need is for someone to turn it into a Sunday evening series starring Kelly McDonald, Laura Fraser and Jessie Buckley and I’ll be content.

Martha is the eldest sister, slightly frumpy and very much a mother figure for her two younger sisters, Helen and Geri. She is dependable and the real business-like sister who keeps the agency ticking over. Helen is more of a mystery, but certainly has brains as the academic of the outfit. It turns out she’s also a very able dancer when she’s had enough to drink. Geri brings youth knowledge to the team as she’s the student of the trio. She may lurch in like she’s had no sleep, but she’s very sharp and knows how to use social media to the agency’s advantage. They’ve been requested at the home of Tracey Coulthard, who lives in a very smart home in a wealthy suburb of Glasgow. They arrive to find a maid, May, who is very worried about her employer who seems to be overwrought. They can hear screams and smashes coming from the bedroom. Mrs Coulthard is in bed crying, naked from the waist up and the fact that people are in her bedroom doesn’t seem to faze her at all. She offers the sisters £20,000 to find out the truth about her husband Gordon and his ‘extracurricular’ activities. This is the Parker sister’s meat and drink, most of their work is detecting whether partners are being unfaithful. However, the level of distress from this particular client is worrying Martha particularly. What might she do if they find out something she doesn’t want to hear? Martha senses a whole lot of trouble packaged alongside that cold hard cash.

The sisters manage to get themselves invited to a party for Gordon Coulthard’s company. Helen throws herself into the fray and Geri starts getting to know Gordon’s right hand man. As usual though, the sister’s don’t investigate quietly. Helen proceeds to get blind drunk and get a little over familiar with guests. In trying to find out more about Gordon, Martha ends up in a brawl with a statuesque blonde called Estelle who seems to be claiming that Gordon is her fiancé. She does indeed have a huge diamond on her finger and Martha is horrified, especially when Estelle starts dragging her round by her hair. As she fends her off, Martha tries to fathom why he would get engaged when he’s still married and be so open about it? This will mean the girls having to break the news to Tracey, setting in motion a chain of events that will end in murder.

I loved how the sisters worked in conflict, but somehow in unison. As Martha feels responsible for Tracey and what’s happened, Helen and Geri point out that they’ve done what they were paid for and can withdraw from what is becoming a media circus. Martha struggles a bit with the physical aspects of the job, leading to some amusingly clumsy moments. When chasing a suspect she falls through the fence they’ve just jumped over and when listening at a skylight she manages to fall straight through! More seriously, she runs up several flights of stairs to Coulthard’s penthouse and ends up in hospital with chest pain. I loved how Martha berates Geri for being ‘friends’ with Gordon’s colleague, but has to take it back when she realises how thoroughly she’s been stalking him on social media. I also enjoyed the introduction of Detective Pope, a stern Glasgow cop whose wheezing can be heard from the next room. Despite the asthma, she’s a tough customer and seems to be the sensible figure, there as a counterpoint to the sister’s madcap romp through this case. Yet, I could see an affinity growing between them, particularly Pope and Martha whose scenes are filled with sarcasm and wit. I’ll be interested to see how this develops.

Despite a few twists and turns, I did solve the case before the end, but I’m not sure it was meant to be a complex puzzle. This was an introduction to the sisters and their dynamic, and I will certainly be looking forward to their next adventure. This was was a wild ride that didn’t let up as the sisters were pulled from one side of Glasgow to the other. There’s no time to breathe, with the wheezing Pope almost collapsing in their wake. There’s just enough of a sprinkle of Christmas in the background too. I think there’s much more to come from Helen, and so much more about the Parker’s lives outside the agency. I thought this was a thoroughly enjoyable read, with incredibly engaging characters and so much promise for the series to come.

Meet The Author

J.D. Whitelaw is an author, journalist and broadcaster. After working on the frontline of Scottish politics, he moved into journalism. Subjects he has covered have varied from breaking news, the arts, culture and sport to fashion, music and even radioactive waste – with everything in between. He’s also a regular reviewer and talking head on shows for the BBC. Banking on Murder is the first of three Parker sister novels. They follow his hugely successful HellCorp series. His debut in 2015 was the critically acclaimed Morbid Relations.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn

Published: 7th Jan 2021

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

ISBN: 978-1471193408

Maybe it’s because I have a disability or because I worked on a PhD in Disability Theory, but I love books like this that cover a familiar part of history but from a disability perspective. The author has given herself freedom to create by using an interesting and unusual character, through which she can tell the story of a very tumultuous period of history. The book is set in the 17th Century, prior to the Civil War, in the royal court of King Charles I. Nat Davy is based on Sir Jeffrey Hudson, immortalised with the Queen in a painting by Van Dyck. Nat wants to be ‘normal’, but even when he reached adulthood he was only eighteen inches tall. He was born in Oakham and when the circus visited the town he was almost sold to them by his own father. However, his eventual fate is even more bizarre! He is sold by his father to the Duke of Buckingham and taken to the court of King Charles 1st. The Duke had him put into a pie to surprise Queen Henrietta Maria, who is only 15 and desperately unhappy and homesick. Nat becomes her ‘pet’ and he joins an existing menagerie of dogs and monkeys. However, the Queen and Nat are are both outsiders and they are both lonely, so the two form a bond, becoming close friends. I loved that he is seen as a harmless pet in the court, when actually he’s in a very powerful position; he has the ear of the woman who could trigger a Civil War. He will never be accepted by other boys his age at court, he can’t participate in masculine pursuits like hunting, but he is about embark on an epic adventure – much greater than his size might suggest.

Queen Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson (1633)

Nat becomes the Queen’s closest protector and I found it fascinating that she trusts him in this role. They go on the run and he is looking after her all the way, determined to keep the Queen safe. There is something very satisfying in the fact he is underestimated at every turn, but always manages to surprise people. He has two friends, Henry and a girl named Arabella who is the most beautiful young woman at court. Nat loves her, but would she see past his disability and return his love? Nat wonders if the best plan would be to see her marry Henry, then he could still keep her close. Even now, the subject ołth disabilities as sexual beings, capable of being desired. The fact that this is the 17th Century shows us these types of relationships did possibly happened, just quietly and in the background. However, this wasn’t the most successful part of the novel. The success is in the way Nat copes in this world, considering how hard it can still be to be different in the 21st Century. Even though he is physically small, he stands head and shoulders above anyone else in the book.

The first part had the most pace and set the scene beautifully. The rest of the novel is slower and didn’t fully hold my attention in the same way. The depth of research is undeniable here and I learned a lot about this period of history, beyond the basic Royalist/Roundhead split. I loved that the author drew a parallel between Nat’s servitude and the situation the Queen is in. Even though she has riches and might seem lucky to some, she too is living in a form of slavery and this is why they connect. She was sent away from her home and loved ones, to marry a man she’d never met and didn’t love. I have seen reviews criticising the latter half for focussing too much on Nat’s love story, whilst glossing over huge historical events like the beheading of Charles 1st, but I think that misses the point. This isn’t the history of the royal court or the Civil War, that history has been written by the victors, who are primarily male, able-bodied and Parliamentarian. This novel is Nat’s story, not theirs and the biggest thing in his life is that he’s in love. That’s the whole point of ‘writing back’ – it takes a minority narrative and makes it centre of attention. It gives us a different window to view events through and imagines someone who would normally be without agency, having power over their own story.

Meet The Author

Frances Quinn read English at King’s College, Cambridge and is a journalist and copywriter. She has written for magazines like Prima and Good Housekeeping. She lives in Brighton with her husband and Tonkinese cats. The Smallest Man is her first novel.

Posted in Damp Pebbles Tour

Twenty Years A Stranger by Deborah Twelves

Lies do not erase the truth, they simply delay it’s discovery.

This turned out to be quite a difficult read for me, because I spent some time in a relationship with someone who had narcissistic personality disorder. By the end of our relationship I was thousand of pounds in debt and had found out he had been trying to bully a vulnerable member of my family into an affair. It was like we’d been living totally separate lives, with his only intent to further his own interests and leave my confidence in tatters. I felt like I’d had a relationship with someone who didn’t exist. Years of gaslighting had left me doubting my own experience, my version of events and even my ability to make decisions. I thought this novel explained the concepts of narcissism and gaslighting very well and I think the accuracy is down to this being a true story at heart. The author wanted get this right for other survivors. I think she did a great job.

The style took me a while to settle into, but once I did I found it hard to put down – mainly because I was furious with this man. I needed him to be found out and get his come- uppance. The story is told through the narratives of several different women, each of them having an intense relationship with a man. What soon becomes clear is that all of these women are talking about the same man and the breath-taking audacity of his schemes start to become clear. This is not just an emotional catastrophe waiting to happen, it’s a financial disaster too.

Deborah Twelves

This man uses each women’s personality and vulnerabilities to his advantage. His wife of twenty years, Grace, wants to have a child but he is not at all keen, so their relationship follows a pattern of arguments followed by him buying something to keep her quiet. These gifts range from a puppy to a an incredibly expensive Portuguese horse for dressage and holidays in St Barths. All I kept thinking was ‘how on earth is he paying for these things?’ They are already over-leveraged thanks to a house purchase that his wife has sunk all her cash into – he had promised to pay her back as soon as a big deal came through at work. They’ve also bought a barge, which was meant to be somewhere quirky and fun to live temporarily while the house was renovated. Now he doesn’t want to let go of it. There is barely any cash left, and at least one family member has voiced their doubt that he will ever pay her back.

With Jane, who he finds via an online dating app, he presents himself as the busy businessman, travelling all over the country. They have sex on the first date and he seems to sense in this woman, someone who will be manipulated or even exploited. From a light smack during sex, he is soon initiating her into bondage, role play, and creating videos. She seems willing to do anything to keep him, even going one further than Grace and getting passed his ‘no children’ rule by throwing her contraceptive pills away. She figures that if she’s the mother of his child, she will have more of a hold on him and his many assets. In fact, she’s clever enough to start working on getting some of those assets into her name – so he can hide them from Grace should he ever leave. What Jane and Grace don’t know is that there’s also a Lorraine, and a woman in America who already has a daughter with a man she knows as Matthew. His cheating is international. It only takes one woman to find out about the others. To take action and expose everything. Then Daniel/Matthew’s house of cards really will collapse. This reckoning comes in an email, informing the others of his deceitful ways. From here, each woman behaves very differently and I found myself desperate, particularly for Grace, that Daniel would pay.

I really did recognise some of the tactics used by Daniel in his fight to keep his assets. My ex also sought to represent himself in court and when it wasn’t going his way claimed to have been too mentally ill to represent himself and wanted to overturn the proceedings. He withheld his agreement on certain things to try and get me to pay off his debts. When he was diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder, it was not a surprise. One thing I learned in therapy after this relationship was that the only way to deal with a narcissist is to ignore them, keep any direct contact minimal and assert a right to privacy in all legal matters. As a result he never found out where I moved to, I had to cut off mutual friends and avoid social media. I soon realised any contact lead to attempts to manipulate, gaslight and cause harm. It took a long time to de-program myself and start to trust other people and even my own judgement. This man had come along when I was a widow, I was vulnerable and I had money. It turns out this was a pattern, and the women before me and after me were also widows. Therapy really helped me understand how to deal with him during the divorce and why he had been able to manipulate me the way he did. I had to realise my role in the relationship, why I’d accepted his behaviour and why I’d stayed.

Grace needed to have the same advice and support. Any attention from her, even negative attention, would feed his ego. I really wanted one of the women to realised just how dangerous he really was. The money would be nothing next to the sense of freedom gained from simply walking away and starting afresh. I felt that the writer really captured Grace’s pain and bewilderment at what was happening, whereas the other women felt less fleshed out. They mainly existed as a counterpoint to Grace – the main woman in his life. One of the creepiest things for me was when she visited one of Daniel’s other women and found the house an exact replica of her own, they even had the same type of dog. I found the response of Grace’s friends very true to life – it’s amazing, once the deception comes to light, how many people admit they never liked your partner or suspected he wasn’t all he seemed. In this case friends had noticed his bragging and arrogance, the dodgy business practices and the fact that they never really seemed to know what he did for a living. Grace is shocked to find out that most of their social circle only tolerated Daniel for her sake. Would she have listened if they’d said something sooner?

I won’t reveal the ending, but will admit to a bit of a surprise when the truth of Daniel’s business came to light. Whereas a lot of the book felt more like a memoir – someone conversationally recounting their experience – the ending felt more like fiction, perhaps a case of wish fulfilment in some way? I think there were areas where characterisation could have been better and where I wanted to be shown a place or experience rather than being told about it. I think in this case the most successful parts were the ending, the experience of sailing and Grace’s time spent with her animals in the country. In these parts I felt really immersed in Grace’s experience and they felt the most real. I hope that the author gained some closure in writing the book, because as a writing therapist I can really understand the healing that comes from putting your experience on paper and even from imagining different endings to the story. It’s a fascinating study in coercive control and psychological abuse in general. I kept hearing Grace wondering why there was no legal punishment for Daniel’s treatment of her and I remember feeling the same rage. There is also the concern that this person will move on and do it all over again. The Government published guidance on coercive control and emotional abuse in 2012, but it took till 2015 to bring this guidance into law. I have no doubt that had this law been available, Grace could have easily provided enough evidence of emotional abuse to take the case to court. Whether this would have made her feel better, I’m not sure. However, books like these, relating the experience, can raise awareness of just how damaging it can be.

Meet The Author

Follow this link to an interview with Deborah Twelves.

Deborah Twelves was born in Sheffield, but raised in Ponteland, Northumberland. She studied French and Spanish at Edinburgh University and taught languages for some years while living in France, Spain and Northern Quebec. She now divides her time between her  home in Pwllheli, on the Llyn Peninsula of North Wales and her family home in Northumberland but often travels abroad. She has a black Labrador called Nala and a black Lusitano horse called Recurso (Ric), who take up a lot of her spare time, although yacht racing, which she began at an early age with her father, remains her great passion.

Deborah has written many articles for the sailing press over the years and Twenty Years a Stranger is her debut novel, based on true events in her life.

It is the first book in the Stranger Trilogy. The other two books, Ghost of a Stranger and The Boy Stranger will follow soon.

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Published in paperback and digital formats by Fortis Publishing on 27th July 2020

Posted in Uncategorized

Three Seasons of Sadie by Richard Masefield

Publisher: Red Door Press

Published: 24th Sept 2020 (Paperback)

ISBN: 978-1913062019

I really enjoyed the warmth and humour of this lovely tale about a country boy, finding that the 1960s isn’t the oasis of free love and hedonism promised in the media. Sam Ashby is finding that youth culture isn’t quite reaching the depths of Sussex. In order to find some excitement he takes the job of Assistant Manager at Meads Theatre in Eastbourne. This hormonally charged 19 year old is about to find his world changing in ways he never imagined. Breezing into Eastbourne is star of stage and screen Abigail Compton who is about to sweep Sam off his feet and out of his Levi 501s (shrink to fit). This is the final book in Masefield’s quintet of Sussex novels, but easily stands alone without the reader feeling they’ve missed half the story.

Sam is one of those hapless and inexperienced characters that it’s impossible not to fall in love with. There were anecdotes that made me laugh out loud – much to the annoyance of my other half who had dressed dropped off to sleep! Wanting to give off the more moody and sophisticated aura of James Dean, Sam buys a pair of shrink to fit Levi’s 501 jeans. Using his landlady’s bathroom he wedges himself into the jeans and awkwardly lowers himself into the lukewarm water. What follows in one of the funniest scenes I’ve read this year. Having grown up in the middle of rural Lincolnshire, I could identify with Sam’s frustration with his small town teenage years. There’s never enough access to fashion, the latest music or films, and it’s a case of grabbing excitement where you can. For Sam that means taking a job in his local theatre where he might have access to the bright lights and celebrities passing through. The author beautifully captures that yearning to experience something more than boring day to day family life – even when that family is much loved. We just get itchy feet at Sam’s age, to find out who we are and have our own adventures. He certainly meets some interesting characters who tread the boards; lovies and divas!

I liked the sense of place that the author creates. Even though Sam would like to be wandering beyond Eastbourne, there is a definite fondness for the area. The author writes so warmly about the beautiful countryside, it made me want to visit the area. He treads a fine line between depicting a town on the edge of decline, but the countryside being s picturesque. There’s also a great sense of the period, seen through the fashion and the actors Sam wants to emulate. The theatre itself is a wonderful backdrop to Sam’s first experiences of management. It turns out that ‘assistant manager’ is more of a ‘dogsbody’ role and as props go missing and the lighting malfunctions, Sam is simply fire-fighting all day long. Is this normal or is someone trying to sabotage the show? Given the clashing egos on the production, it wouldn’t be a surprise! Sam juggles all of this with varying degrees of success and many laughs along the way, but will the show go on and will the beautiful Miss Compton be able to grace Eastbourne with her dramatic skills? This is a lively, funny, and good-natured romp of a book. At the heart of it, Sam is a great character. Sometimes I found myself rolling my eyes at his stupidity, but I couldn’t help but like him. He’s naive, but charming, and the backdrop of old thespians sharing their ‘war stories’ only adds to this charm.

Meet The Author

Richard Masefield comes from a family of writers – John Masefield was his cousin – and with a love of animals and the outdoors he decided at a young age that he would farm and write, if necessary both at once.
It took years of hard work before Richard could realise his dream, and in fact his first published novel was written while milking a herd of Friesian cows. He still lives on his farm in Sussex with his wife Lee and together they spend as much time as possible with their large family of children and grandchildren. Three Seasons of Sadie is part of a Sussex quintet including The White Cross, Brimstone, The Painted Lady and Chalkhill Blue. Each one is meant to be read as a stand-alone novel, they simply share a backdrop of the author’s beloved Sussex.

Posted in Netgalley

The Last Resort by Susi Holliday

Published: Thomas Mercer. 1st December 2020

ISBN: 978-1542020015

This is a deeply unsettling novel, set in a near future dystopia which reminded me somewhat of Westworld. It’s an opportunity that seven strangers can’t pass up when Timeo Technologies invites them to test out the very latest in leisure experiences. Our group of characters are promised a luxury getaway of their dreams, an adventure they’ll never forget. The last part is definitely true.

Amelia wonders why she’s been invited, especially when she meets the other guests who have more obvious benefits to Timeo – a social media influencer, a photographer, a games developer and a financier. They have nothing in common with Amelie who works for an NGO and prioritises helping others. Where do her skills fit in? However, as the trip develops it becomes clear that this seven have something else in common – each has a huge secret they wouldn’t want the world to know about. Every guest is fitted with a tracker that is symbiotic; it fastens into the skin behind the ear to tap into the body’s nervous system. Once activated it’s impossible to remove without causing damage, a sensation that made me feel really uneasy – I would be worried that it would give them control over me. Of course there is a downside. Instead of enhancing their island experience, or simply tracking where they are, this technology appears to harvest memories and then manifest the worst of them like a flickering projector film. Each person must relive a time when they behaved at their worst, knowing that every other guest can see it too. One character relives a time she attacked a girl with a glass in a nightclub. The guilt and shame is terrible and each person responds differently. As injuries and paranoia start to set in, Amelia begins to think that the only way to leave the game is to be the one left standing when the countdown ends. As each person makes their way to the big house, where a party is promised, true characters emerge and the group are split. Who will get there first and what will they have to do in order to get there?

I really enjoyed the opening chapters of the novel where we get to know the seven characters and they get to know each other. This was fascinating to read for a therapist like me, because we are only being introduced to everyone’s surface characteristics. The rest will slowly emerge. The author cleverly sets the scene with a sense of foreboding and although I wasn’t really invested in any particular character, I did start to worry about what was to come. I enjoyed the set-up of the technology, it felt believable within the context of real innovations mentioned in the narrative. This felt like the future, but not too distant. I did think the entire island was virtual for most of the narrative, because the setting felt strange. The island itself felt warmer and more tropical than an island off the south coast of the U.K. A couple of participants seem to have memories of the island and there were also moments that felt artificial, such as where Amelie noticed pixelation at the house. I wondered how far the device they were wearing created the environment and whether Amelie noticed differences because she was on an alternative type of tracker. It was more like a ‘Fitbit’ than the headset worn by the others and wasn’t quite as advanced.

To get the best reading experience I would definitely recommend reading in longer stretches. I had a lot going on when I started this and had to read in short bursts, so I did struggle to remember the characters and become fully immersed in the story. It was great to be able to read in long sections from then on and really lose myself in the story. I also think that in order to truly enjoy a story we need to engage with one of the characters, but I found that difficult to do in this novel. I really didn’t like anyone, even before their past was revealed. If anybody, I think Amelie was the one we were supposed to identify with, but for some reason this didn’t happen for me. This wasn’t just because these characters have done some terrible things, but because they felt as unreal to me as the island itself. These are not people I meet in everyday life, but then I live in a very rural part of the country and so my experience is possibly limited. Social media influencers and financiers are few and far between in Lincolnshire where you’re more likely to meet a farmer, gamekeeper or home carer. I really came away from it thinking this was a world far outside my social and economic experience.

This may say a lot about my character, but the most fascinating parts of the novel come when the characters are at odds with each other or under pressure. There’s a scene between Brenda, the banker, that’s almost Biblical! She is lured away to a quiet spot with a delicious looking picnic, but a nightmarish snake is lurking and starts to slowly wind itself around her leg. For someone with a snake phobia, this was a really vivid scene and hinted that perhaps the technology could root out each participants greatest fears. The following descriptions of Brenda’s leg, as the others try and get her to the big house before the poison takes hold, are horrific. In her pride she hasn’t wanted to tell them she was bitten, but her leg swells and changes colour dramatically and the tension created by the time scale on the injury really added urgency to the narrative.

I think the author had a brilliant premise. She has married our fear of modern technological advances with a good old-fashioned mystery in the style of Agatha Christie. You don’t know who is going to be picked off next. I did feel a bit side-swiped by the ending. It came suddenly and felt a little like the exposition of a Bond film with a villain hiding in his luxury home in an island, playing god with the guests lives. I think Susi Holliday is an incredibly talented writer. I struggled to fully engage with it though and it didn’t reach the heights of her last novel Violet which was one of my books of the year in 2019. However, if you like mysteries, morally questionable characters, and a bit of sci-fi thrown in then this might be the perfect book for you.

Meet The Author

.J.I. (Susi) Holliday grew up in East Lothian, Scotland. A life-long fan of crime and horror, her short stories have been published in various places, and she was shortlisted for the inaugural CWA Margery Allingham prize. She now lives in London (except when she is in Edinburgh) and loves to travel the world. She has written three crime novels set in the fictional Scottish town of Banktoun, which are a mix of police procedural and psychological thriller. They are: “Black Wood”, “Willow Walk” and “The Damselfly” – all featuring the much loved character, Sergeant Davie Gray.

Her serial killer thriller “The Deaths of December” (written as Susi Holliday), featuring Detective Sergeant Eddie Carmine and Detective Constable Becky Greene was a festive hit in 2017. Her spooky mystery “The Lingering” was released in September 2018, followed by “Violet” – a psychological thriller set on the Trans-Siberian Express – in September 2019. “Violet” has been optioned for film. Writing as Susi Holliday (again!) her next two releases, “The Last Resort” and “Substitute” are due out from Thomas & Mercer late 2020 and summer 2021 – both of these books are suspense thrillers with a technological element (a blend of Black Mirror, Tales of the Unexpected and The Twilight Zone).