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Before I Saw You by Emily Houghton.


Alice and Alfie are strangers. But they sleep next to each other every night.

Alfie Mack has been in hospital for months recovering from an accident. A new face on the ward is about as exciting as life gets for him right now, so when someone moves into the bed next to him he’s eager to make friends. But it quickly becomes clear that seeing his neighbour’s face won’t happen any time soon.

Alice Gunnersley has been badly burned and can’t even look at herself yet, let alone allow anyone else to see her. She keeps the curtain around her bed firmly closed, but it doesn’t stop Alfie trying to get to know her. And gradually, as he slowly brings Alice out of her shell, might there even be potential for more?

This book has some wonderful characters that it’s very easy to fall in love with. Alfie, who is recovering from an amputation is delighted to be getting a new neighbour in his hospital bay. The bay has a happy, friendly, atmosphere with a close knit group of patients convalescing over a long stay in the unit. On Sundays Alfie’s mum and dad come in with a Sunday dinner for everyone! However, a happy and chatty bay is exactly what Alice dreads. She doesn’t want to socialise or have a natter with other people. They’d have to see her and she doesn’t want that. In fact the ward sister, Nurse Angles, has to make a promise in order to get her moved into the ward. When she has to go down to physiotherapy, everyone else in the ward will have their curtains closed. Not everyone is happy about it, but they all promise Nurse Angles because she’s so hard to refuse. Alfie is undeterred though, he has always been a cheerful little soul and makes it his mission to get Alice talking.

The thing I enjoyed most about this was that the author didn’t just concentrate on the physical damage done by their accidents. She makes it clear that the emotional scars are potentially even more damaging and more difficult to manage because they can’t be seen. Alfie wakes up screaming some nights and sweating, hoping he hasn’t woken the whole ward. For him there’s the addition of survivor’s guilt, because he wasn’t the only one in the accident where he lost his leg. She describes his journey thus far to make it clear that it isn’t as easy as strapping on a prosthetic and becoming a Paralympian! That meant a lot to me as someone with a disability who works as a counsellor with people who have a chronic illness or disability. Many people don’t realise the healing that has to happen, that getting used to a prosthetic means chafing to the skin, possible skin breakdown, and pain in the leg, but also the rest of the body as it gets used to moving in a different way. Mentally, he will have to get used to a change in how others see him, how he sees himself and his masculinity. We all have an image of what we look like in our head. When you acquire a disability, as opposed to being born with one, that self-image remains the same until you catch sight of yourself in a mirror or window. That’s a pivotal moment, because the new reality of how you look can be a shock. Alfie has had to let go of that image, and is building up a new sense of self that includes his disability.

Alice has to take the same psychological journey, arguably more difficult because she’s a woman. Once Alfie gets used to his prosthetic, and improves his mobility, people may not realise he has a disability. Alice’s burns are on her face and hands. There’s nothing she can do to cover them up completely and this affects everything – not just dealing with the change herself but dealing with how others now see her. It will change how she feels as a woman, and she will worry about whether men will see her as desirable. We hear a lot of Alice’s inner monologue so we really do get the enormity if what has happened to her. I felt choked up for Alice. It’s a really big deal if Alfie can get her talking. There’s a point when he needs comfort and Alice gives him her hand under the curtain. This us Alice trusting him, her hands are damaged and she’s openly giving them to him, which shows an enormous amount of trust. She seems all alone in the world. She hasn’t even let her best friend know because she’s living so far away. Her mother eventually arrives though, and shows within seconds why Alice wouldn’t want her to visit. When Sarah does find out she arrives like a whirlwind of love and care for her best friend.

I’ve had long stays on hospital rehabilitation wards and I’ve never experienced one like this. There are some aspects of hospital life that would never happen on any of the rehab wards I’ve stayed on recently, such as the Sunday dinner. Although, one I stayed on in the late 1990s let my parents bring my dog to the day room for cuddles once a week. I did recognise Nurse Angles though – she seems formidable but really she cares deeply for her patients. I’ve come across the odd matron or ward sister who is like this – one particularly fierce German night nurse, during a long stay in 1995, used to bark at everyone and seem very strict, but would let my hospital friend Tony and me, stay up late to watch the rugby World Cup. She even brought us illicit toast and tea when it was quiet! I think the strength of this novel is in its characters. I enjoyed Alfie’s mum, who is a force of nature albeit a kind one. Alfie is like a big puppy, playful and clumsy but ultimately good and kind. Alice is more complicated and it’s interesting peeling away each layer like an onion. Her accident and subsequent injuries are transformative and I kept thinking how lucky she was to have ended up in a bed next to Alfie, who seems to spread happiness, despite the difficulties he faces physically and mentally. These characters kept me reading. They felt real to me. I also really appreciated the author’s obvious understanding of the psychology of acquired disability. Despite heavy subject matter the author managed to keep a light, easy feel to the novel and that’s a difficult thing to achieve. I found myself rooting for both of them and sorry when their story ended.

Meet The Author

Emily Houghton was a digital specialist, but is now a full-time creative writer. She originally comes from Essex but now lives in London. Emily is a trained yoga and spin teacher, completely obsessed with dogs and has dreamt of being an author ever since she could hold a pen.

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Life in Pieces by Dawn O’Porter

Over New Year I gave myself a short break from fiction because my concentration was poor and I couldn’t take in long, involved storytelling. This was due to a combination of events: I was affected by a mistake with my prescription medication; I was getting ready for Christmas with plans constantly changing; I had two chatty and excited stepdaughters in the house; we’d cancelled our wedding; and we’re mid – moving house. There were days that felt like nothing went right and I simply had no room in my brain or energy in my body. It felt like the ‘perfect storm’ of circumstances. This is the position that writer and broadcaster Dawn O’Porter found herself in last spring – only on a much more devastating scale. Just before the country went into lockdown Dawn received the news that her best friend, the super-talented and funny Caroline Flack, had taken her own life. She received this news out in LA where she now lives with her husband Chris O’Dowd and their two small boys. Shortly afterwards LA went into lockdown, followed by riots protesting the killing of George Floyd. Through all of this she was finding it difficult to write and like many of us decided to write a small blog each week – in Dawn’s case for Patreon subscribers. This book is the result of those blogs.

I love books like this, because they give me short sections to read that don’t require a lot of brain power. Reading like a diary, Dawn goes through the mundane, funny and terribly painful aspects of each day. Determined to keep her grief from her children, and unable to travel until the funeral date was definite, meant having to find ways of coping. Of crying in private, but being able to be mummy at a moment’s notice. She withdrew from social media and, once the funeral had taken place, the home became her whole world. It wasn’t that she could put the loss to one side, she felt Caroline in her head every moment every day. Having been very critical of celebrities who shared Caroline’s last messages after her death, the author manages to tread a fine line by joyfully reminiscing about her friend while not talking about her death and the circumstances surrounding it. This is not a book about Caroline, it is very firmly a book about Dawn and her own experience of the past year. It isn’t just about grief either, it’s about suddenly being a full-time Mum while trying to find space to create, how it feels to be British living in LA, and the huge social upheaval on their doorstep during the riots. Each section is the equivalent of a Polaroid snapshot of this extraordinary time.

Dawn has a such a definite and accessible narrative voice – she is brutally honest about her experiences whether they be physical or whether she’s relaying her complex interior monologue. I had the feeling nothing was censored and I could identify with those chaotic ‘family in lockdown’ moments even if the children in my house are more teenage than toddler. Those dilemmas of whether we bother to dress and groom or not, do we keep a set routine or do as we please, keeping up with exercise and eating well or just eating like it’s Christmas. Sadly, I think I largely failed in these challenges! I understood Dawn’s sense of only dealing with what’s in front of us – even if what’s in front of us is a shitstorm of tearful children, shitting animals, followed by puking animals and the inability to find a food delivery slot anywhere! These are common to everyone’s experience of the year. We’ve spent time with the same people every day, potentially doing the same things over and over. This heightens everything – tensions, emotions, worries. If we’re struggling with difficult emotions it forces us to face them, there’s no escape.

Between stories of disasters with the boys, food adventures and concerns about lockdown drinking, come global concerns. Dawn talks about her wardrobe and since we share a love of vintage this is something I really enjoyed, but it was interesting to think about in terms of the environmental impact of fashion – something I’ve been concerned about for a few years now. Her exploration of the riots in her neighbourhood stood out particularly to me. Again, her worries are at family level. Rioters are directly outside their home, the bins are set alight and she talks of keeping an emergency bag in case they have to leave in a hurry. Yet she is hugely sympathetic to the cause, profoundly moved by the terrible footage of a man begging for his life, and both she and Chris join the protests where they can. She writes eloquently about our white privilege, and how her black friends keep her on track when she’s not understanding something – if more of us admitted not knowing, a better dialogue would emerge. I went from laughing about a household mishap to grab a pen and note down some reading she recommended about white fragility. I think this is what I enjoy most about being in Dawn’s company – there’s room for silliness, raw honesty and emotion, then profound reflections on the bigger problems our society faces. It’s like a long evening with your best friends. My favourite anecdote involved a very famous red haired actress and our British humour about ‘gingers’ really not translating! This was a great read and I was sorry when it ended.

Meet The Author

DAWN O’PORTER lives in Los Angeles with her husband Chris, her two boys Art and Valentine, and her cat Lilu and dog Potato.

Dawn started out in TV production but quickly landed in front of the camera, making numerous documentaries that included immersive investigations of Polygamy, Size Zero, Childbirth, Free Love, Breast Cancer and the movie Dirty Dancing. Further TV work included This Old Thing, a prime-time Channel 4 show celebrating the wonders of vintage clothing. 

Dawn’s journalism has appeared in multiple publications and she was the monthly columnist for Glamour magazine. She is now a full-time writer of six books – although she would probably have written sixteen if it weren’t for her addiction to Instagram Stories. 

Most recently, Dawn has written the script for Especially for You, a jukebox musical using the infamous Stock Aitken and Waterman back catalogue. The show will open with a national tour in early 2020.

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Most Anticipated 2021! Unwell Women by Elinor Cleghorn.

Publisher : Weidenfeld & Nicolson (10 Jun. 2021)

ASIN: B08HMN732X ( Kindle Edition)

My interest in this book is twofold: first the cover made me stop and look because it reminded me of the art of Frida Kahlo, and secondly, I am an unwell woman. I have been diagnosed with relapsing remitting Multiple Sclerosis for the past 25 years – ooh my silver anniversary, what do I get for that? Since then my health has deteriorated, mainly due to a back injury I sustained when I was 11. I did a somersault and landed awkwardly, causing two fractures to my spine. I was very lucky to be upright and walking, but scar tissue, muscle damage and deteriorating discs have caused so much stiffness and instability. This is managed with injections in my spine for pain and a regular procedure my compressed nerves are severed to stop nerve pain radiating into my pelvis and legs. It’s a lot to deal with, and I truly don’t know how I’m going to wake up every morning. I just wake up, take the medication and see what I can manage that day. I’ve just had a week where even looking at this screen would be impossible because of optic neuritis.

In my many years in the ‘kingdom of the sick’ and working as a counsellor for people with chronic ill health, I’ve noticed a major difference in how men and women, with exactly the same ailments, are treated. This book traces a history of women’s ill health and the treatment of it, for many years solely by a male medical profession. To quote the blurb:

‘In Unwell Women Elinor Cleghorn unpacks the roots of the perpetual misunderstanding, mystification and misdiagnosis of women’s bodies, and traces the journey from the ‘wandering womb’ of ancient Greece, the rise of witch trials in Medieval Europe, through the dawn of Hysteria, to modern day understandings of autoimmune diseases, the menopause and conditions like endometriosis. Packed with character studies of women who have suffered, challenged and rewritten medical orthodoxy – and drawing on her own experience of un-diagnosed Lupus disease – this is a ground-breaking and timely exposé of the medical world and woman’s place within it.’

‘We are taught that medicine is the art of solving our body’s mysteries. And as a science, we expect medicine to uphold the principles of evidence and impartiality. We want our doctors to listen to us and care for us as people, but we also need their assessments of our pain and fevers, aches and exhaustion to be free of any prejudice about who we are, our gender, or the colour of our skin. But medicine carries the burden of its own troubling history. The history of medicine, of illness, is a history of people, of their bodies and their lives, not just physicians, surgeons, clinicians and researchers. And medical progress has always reflected the realities of a changing world, and the meanings of being human.

In my own experience, I have found the world of neurology, clinical, abrupt and sexist. My diagnosis is old now and I have had new neurologists interrogate me on who diagnosed me, why and where – almost as if I’ve made it up out of thin air. I’ve been patronisingly asked whether I might ‘weep’ a lot, or have fatigue and pain due to being depressed. I asked if they’d send me to psychiatry if they felt it was all in my head – I didn’t care whether it was a mental illness, I just wanted to be treated and helped to get better. Once I asked for a referral the consultant backed down and said it’s definitely physical, because we have clinical evidence. I remember thinking that this was a complete ‘mindfuck.’ I started to question my own sanity, if I had a symptom I would wonder if it was real or in my head. Was I making myself ill and for what reason? A change of neurologist and several years of therapy helped me to see that the previous team had been quite abusive and manipulative. My rehabilitation consultant admitted that there was an old trend in neurology of not telling people with early MS about their diagnosis – the thought being that if you didn’t know you had an illness, you wouldn’t act as if you have an illness. Apparently, according to my old team ‘some women give up if they’re told they have a disability’.

I trained over many years in mental health work, and have worked as an advice worker, advocate and now a counsellor for people with disabilities. I have heard the same story told by so many women: being told they need to get a hobby or go out more; that they need anti-depressants when they don’t feel depressed; that maybe they need to have children (?); or that maybe, like the Victorian hysterics, this is all in their heads. My own favourite is being told to get rid of my cats so I could have children, when I have a diagnosis of Hughes Syndrome which causes recurrent miscarriage. My main area of work is reprogramming women who have all eventually been diagnosed with serious health conditions like Lupus, MS, Lyme Disease, Degenerative Disc Disease. All of them once told they were hypochondriacs and hysterical about their normal everyday aches and pains.

One of the ladies from my ‘Authentic Self’ workshop, was so scared of making a fuss about her pain that when she injured her leg on holiday she carried on. She walked on a fracture for four weeks because she’d been made to feel she made too much fuss about the pain she suffered from fibromyalgia and degenerative discs. Women should not be made to feel this way by the medical profession. Not once has a male come to me with the same story. Not one. In a BBC article ( link below) the same stories come up in relation to heart and gynaecological conditions. Women who reported to emergency rooms in acute pain were less likely to be prescribed pain relief, and where it was prescribed it took much longer to reach the patient.

‘This can have lethal consequences. In May 2018 in France, a 22-year old woman called emergency services saying her abdominal pain was so acute she felt she was “going to die.” “You’ll definitely die one day, like everyone else,” the operator replied. When the woman was taken to hospital after a five-hour wait, she had a stroke and died of multiple organ failure.’

I’m looking forward to reading about where these ideas about women’s health come from. I’d hoped once to write this book, but sadly my health meant PhD work on disability being put to one side. I feel this will demystify why women are treated this way and I hope to buy several copies to give to my friends and clients in the future. This book is not just anticipated, it is needed.

Links and Further Reading

Havi Carel. Illness. Routledge; 1st edition (20 Aug. 2008) – this a brilliant look at the ‘lived experience’ of chronic illness, the philosophical background to how we view illness, and the author’s own experiences as a woman and a patient. Utterly brilliant.

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Madam by Phoebe Wynne

Publisher: Quercus (18 Feb. 2021) ISBN: 978-1529408720

Why is it always so hard to write a review when the book is so good? It’s as if I have to wrestle with it for ages, in the hope of doing it justice! All I can do is try and put across all of the reasons I liked it. In fact, I loved everything about this feminist gothic novel from start to finish. First the setting – the eerie, almost otherworldly atmosphere around Caldonbrae School, the strange weather conditions suggesting it’s own micro-climate, and the school’s position as an English outpost (or invader) in Scotland. It’s appearance is like a hulking beast on the coastline, something that shouldn’t be disturbed lest it swallow you up. Secondly, there’s our main character Rose, addressed at all times as ‘Madam’ and finally the dark secret her predecessor tried to uncover at the heart of Caldonbrae, before it was Rose’s turn to fight it’s terrible tradition.

For 150 years, Caldonbrae Hall has sat as a beacon of excellence in the ancestral castle of Lord William Hope. A boarding school for girls, it promises a future where its pupils will emerge ‘resilient and ready to serve society’. Rose Christie, a 26-year-old Classics teacher, is the first new hire for the school in over a decade. At first, Rose feels overwhelmed in the face of this elite establishment, but soon after her arrival she begins to understand that she may have more to fear than her own imposter syndrome. When Rose stumbles across the secret circumstances surrounding the abrupt departure of her predecessor – a woman whose ghost lingers over everything and who no one will discuss – she realises that there is much more to this institution than she has been led to believe. As she uncovers the darkness that beats at the heart of Caldonbrae, Rose becomes embroiled in a battle that will threaten her sanity as well as her safety.

This novel was incredible from start to finish. I loved it. Straight away I noticed echoes of two of my favourite books; Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. The younger girls school uniforms reminded me of the aprons of Lowood School. The constant references to the previous classics teacher, and the mystery surrounding what happened to her had definite echoes of Rochester’s wife – hidden from view in the attic for being other than the perfect, meek and gentle wife he wanted. What exactly does this school expect of the teachers and how did Madam fall from grace so spectacularly? The training at the school starts to feel more sinister as time goes on. It begins to feel as if they’re trying to shape young women in a very old fashioned image; teaching them how to stay it in their place and be the 19th Century ideal of the ‘Angel in the House’. Although there’s something a lot more knowing about these girls, they put on this ideal as if its a disguise, designed to please but very aware it’s a conceit sure to reap the rewards of wealth and privilege. The previous ‘Madam’, whose name is Jane, is like the ghostly presence of Rebecca, still holding sway over the girls – especially Bethany who seems to have developed an obsession with her teacher. Jane seems to be everywhere Rose turns, but tantalisingly just out of reach. The author creates an edgy and eerie atmosphere where you feel she might be just ahead of Rose, her gown swishing round the corner.

Rose tries to understand the place she’s come to teach. There is a sense in which this school is a complete culture shock – like a child affected by poverty or a tough inner city environment being expected to thrive at Oxford or Cambridge where there’s an etiquette and language that’s alien to most outsiders. She has to muddle through this aspect of life at Caldonbrae and it makes sense to her if the purpose is to educate and prepare the girls for further education and professions like the law and politics. Yet, alongside this traditional, classical education there are hints of the old ‘finishing school’ where attributes like poise, social etiquette and deportment are deemed equally important. What exactly is she preparing these girls for?

As the secret starts to come to the surface so the tension of the novel rises. Is Rose being trained too? An outsider brought in to see if new teachers can be moulded to the school’s purpose. As Bethany’s attachment to Madam becomes clearer she seems to stalk Rose. and the reader isn’t sure whether she resents Rose being in the place of her former favourite or whether she has simply transferred her affections. When she makes allegations about Rose she threatens her whole future at the school, but is Bethany trying to harm her or warn her? A strange hierarchy operates amongst the girls who know themselves to be the elite performers and those who don’t make the grade are offered inducements to improve, but these inducements can be threats as well as rewards. The horror of a young woman having her head shaved for performing badly is enshrined in patriarchal systems and is designed both to shame the woman and act as a warning to others. Rose guesses what might be happening, before the secret is fully revealed but it’s such an alien and deviant concept in modern society that she can’t believe it could be true. Could she ever be complicit in such a scheme? I found myself wondering how far the girls are ‘groomed’ into accepting this future or how many are knowingly acquiescing to it for the rewards of wealth, status and family honour. Rose is backed into a corner, by fear of what may have happened to her predecessor certainly, but also the knowledge that the school can reward her far beyond what she’s imagined. Her mother, severely disabled by multiple sclerosis, is placed within a state of the art care facility. Can Rose be bought, or will she try and walk away? However, does anyone walk away from Caldonbrae unscathed? Could Rose, as quiet as she seems, finds a way to walk away, but also bring down the whole system in her wake. This was an incredible, unputdownable, novel full of gothic atmosphere, and dark, patriarchal, purpose. However, there is also a feminist heroine ready to shine a light on long held secrets, even at the risk of that light becoming a burning flame.

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Christmas with The Conduit by Wes Markin.

A DCI Michael Yorke Thriller

Publisher: Dark Heart Publishing 15th December 2020


I’ve never read Wes Markin before and what a way to start. This is book 6 in the DCI Michael Yorke series and what an introduction! This author is certainly not for the faint hearted and this isn’t a cosy Christmas murder mystery. For this final instalment an old foe reappears at Christmas, tearing Yorke away from his family and bringing him closer to finding a lost friend and colleague.

If you fail to stop a killer, then they will only grow stronger.

DCI Michael Yorke and Emma Gardner are still plagued by guilt over their failure to catch the murderous psychiatrist known as the Conduit, and the loss of their former colleague to insanity. On Christmas Day, following a brutal massacre in Leeds, Yorke and Gardner find themselves once again chasing the ruthless puppeteer, believing that they have the initiative. But as the two investigators draw closer to the Conduit, they quickly discover that they were never truly in control, and completely vulnerable to what comes next. A rising tide of psychological warfare and the horrendous truth behind the fate of their former colleague.

I wonder, considering I’m a therapist, whether I should worry about the amount of books I’ve read recently featuring murderous psychologists/psychiatrists! I choose to think it’s a literary representation of the fear people often have about therapists – what we might magically discern about someone and how terrified they are about facing their fears. This particular sociopath is terrifying, but hides behind the tweedy and beardy disguise of a psychology lecturer. However, behind the new identity, lies the same twisted philosophy. The Conduit believes he can ‘heal’ psychological trauma by using hypnotherapy to take the patient back to the moment of trauma and changing the narrative. Yet the narrative is changed to something destructive and violent, shattering the psyche and planting the darkest rage, paranoia and thoughts of revenge.

The opening is Christmas Day at a nursing home for elderly people in Leeds, where Bernard is looking forward to spending the day with the new lady in his life. He’s been incredibly lonely since his wife died and he is grateful to find love again so late in life. Bernard struggles with PTSD following active service in the Falklands War, where both his friends were shot and killed in front of him. Every so often, loud noises or voices can take him straight back to the battlefield and the chaos of war. On this day, as his fellow residents start gathering for lunch, he receives a text message. From there it’s as if a switch has been thrown in his brain and his fellow residents and nursing staff become the Argentinian soldiers he faced that day back in the 1980s. He collects and gun from his room, makes his way back to the dining room and starts to gun down the soldiers who killed his friends and have come back for him. It’s only after multiple fatalities that Bernard returns and sees the full horror of what he’s done. He doesn’t link it to the genial man with the beard he’s been running into on his daily walk in the park. The man who offered to help with his trauma, if Bernard would trust him and open his mind to him. With no other choice, Bernard turns the gun on himself.

This terrible act drags DCI Yorke away from his family; his patient wife is understanding but he worries about how long this might last. He’s already had one shock this morning, his adopted teenage son has announced his engagement and Yorke isn’t sure he was supportive enough. He also has his previous colleague, Emma Gardener, on his coat tails. She believes Leeds is where her partner Mark Topham is, on the run since his violent reaction to the murder of his partner. Can Yorke really take her with him, when she’s no longer a police officer? Will they be able to unmask The Conduit before he takes over another mind and shatters even more lives? There is also the subplot – a female prisoner, victim and conspirator of The Conduit, having sessions with a prison psychiatrist. A game of cat and mouse seems to ensue between them, that becomes very dark and twisted.

The writing has an addictive energy within it, that means you can’t put it down, even when the horror you’re witnessing is too much. I would definitely suggest trigger warnings for violence and sexual violence. Sometimes, it’s not easy to read. Yet you can’t look away. The author is incredibly skilled at building up tension and it becomes unbearable towards the end. There are so many twists – I thought he’d be caught any minute, then he would elude them again. The way The Conduit burrows into people’s minds and unearths their greatest trauma is very disturbing. These people really have endured terrible experiences and watching this man re-traumatise them made me so angry. I was also horrified by the treatment and horrifying truth of his loyal dog. Yet I did find myself enjoying it. If you have met DCI Yorke before, I’m sure you’ll have been waiting for this novel. If not, this novel stands alone well, but why not look out for the whole series. But be prepared to read them all in one go because you won’t be able to stop once you’ve started! If you like your thrillers darker than dark, and your heroes and heroines battle scarred but steadfast and determined, then this is the perfect book for you.

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Scrap: Kwansabas by Van G. Garrett

This book is for those who communicate thunder, rain, sunlight, hope, and pain with their hands.

When I was a baby my Dad used to help make ends meet by bare knuckle fighting at horse fairs. He would travel with local gypsies to fairs like Appleby and fight for them against other travellers. Then he would bring home wads of cash and the odd cut to his lip or round his eyes. Before I was born Dad was in the army and they saw the potential to train him as a boxer. He was the ABA champion at his weight and would have gone to the 1968 Olympics, except for a terrible incident where other soldiers attacked him in the night and threw him from a first floor window onto concrete. He suffered a head and neck injury, and never boxed again. I’m not sure I could ever have watched him box. To me, my Dad is my big cuddly and protective bear of a man. I couldn’t imagine him being aggressive or ruthless, even though he always tells me it’s a controlled aggression. This book of poetry lets us inside the mind of a boxer before and during a match.

Each short stanza cleverly gives the sense that the poem is split into rounds and there is sometimes even a bell punctuating the last line. These are short lines, and short punchy words suggesting the rhythm of a fight – dancing feet, short sharp jabs and staccato movement. This is a debut fight, so there’s no experience for him to fall back on. He’s never felt the bright lights of a proper ring with an audience. We hear his self talk: the talking up of the ‘golden road paved to a win’ but underneath there’s doubt and fear. Then he pulls it back and sounds like his own coach – this isn’t how I do things, I trained, I know what I’m doing, I didn’t come here to lose.

There are beautiful little insights into how it feels physically to take take a punch. I loved the image of the boxer back in his corner, the yelling of the coach and how the ‘water feels like gold, red bee stings.’ I also like his description of taking blows to the head, and the ringing in his ears. He needs the corner again and shake them off, reassess his game plan. He talks himself up, he can beat him because the opponent ‘wants’ to fall. He’s wobbly. It won’t take much. He needs to ‘try to turn his face to a puddle on the canvas’. It’s as much a mental battle as a physical one as the boxer reminds himself that he has a game plan, he just needs to follow it. His opponent is undisciplined: ‘Comes out with loose cannons on fire / Swiping air, wild with no game plan.’ Winning is about being sure of your own game and preparation, but finding chinks of weakness to exploit.

This was an interesting poem, full of insight into how a sportsman thinks and formulates a game plan. The rollercoaster of emotion from self-doubt to almost reckless confidence was fascinating. I could imagine my Dad when he started at 16, trying to keep his fear in check and follow his training. One line that resonated with me more than any of the others when I think of my Dad.

‘The bulbs from bright lights smack me/ as sweat shines like brand new money.’

He once told me that he was fighting in a club, the ring surrounded by tables where men and women in evening dress were shouting and almost baying for blood. It made him uncomfortable that his sweat and brute force were a currency, no more than a paid entertainment to them. That they might bet more than he was being paid to feel sick, to feel pain, to shed blood. This boxer’s thought that his sweat is money reminded me of that story and made me think this is a thought common to many fighters. I was amazed that in this relatively short poem, I could find so many connections between this young fighter and my father.


The Kwansaba is a genuinely African-American poetry form. Created during the peak of the Black Arts Movement, in coordination with the creation of Kwanzaa itself, a kwansaba is praise poem that is seven lines long with seven words in each line with no word longer than seven letters. Given the significance of the number seven to Kwanzaa, the celebration’s meaning is literally built into the poem.

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Cover Reveal! The Curious Dispatch of Daniel Costello: Stonebridge Mysteries 1 by Chris McDonald.

Today I’m taking part in the Red Dog Press Cover Reveal for Chris McDonald’s book The Curious Dispatch of Daniel Costello.

Wedding bells are chiming in the idyllic, coastal town of Stonebridge. For Sam and Emily, it should be the happiest day of their lives. But on the morning of the ceremony, the best man is found dead. The police quickly write his death off as a tragic accident, but something doesn’t seem right to wedding guest and groomsman, Adam Whyte.

Armed with an encyclopaedic, but ultimately ridiculous knowledge of television detective shows and an unwarranted confidence in his own abilities, Adam and his best friend (and willing Watson) Colin, set out to uncover what actually happened to Daniel Costello.

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Publication date: January 12th 2021

Meet the Author

Originally hailing from the north coast of Northern Ireland and now residing in South Manchester, Chris McDonald has always been a reader. At primary school, The Hardy Boys inspired his love of adventure before his reading world was opened up by Chuck Palahniuk and the gritty world of crime. A Wash of Black is his first attempt at writing a book. He came up with the initial idea whilst feeding his baby in the middle of the night, which may not be the best thing to admit, considering the content. He is a fan of 5-a-side football, heavy metal and dogs. Whispers in the Dark is the second installment in the DI Erika Piper series, and Chris is currently working on his latest series, The Stonebridge Mysteries, to be published by Red Dog Press in 2021.

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Cover Reveal! The Red Admiral by Matthew Ross.

#TheRedAdmiralsSecret #CoverReveal @mattwross @RedDogTweets

Publication: 3rd February 2021. Publisher: Red Dog Press.

A Premier League bad-boy murdered at his newly refurbished home; a teenage runaway’s corpse uncovered on a construction site; a gunman shoots up the premises of the local gangland boss – all of them projects run by beleaguered builder Mark Poynter. Can he fix it?

Things seem to be on the up for builder, Mark Poynter. Mark’s got himself a nice little earner taking care of the sizeable property portfolio built up from the career earnings of former Premier League bad-boy and local celebrity, Danny Kidd. But when Danny Kidd puts an interested party’s nose out of joint by using his star status to gazump them on a development site – the derelict Admiral Guthrie pub – things turn ugly and incendiary, leaving Mark to deal with the consequences.

Meanwhile local villain, Hamlet, uses his subtle persuasion to dupe Mark into unwittingly help him launder vast sums of dirty cash but when it drags the area to the brink of gang warfare, Mark’s help is needed to try and broker a truce.

At the Admiral Guthrie secrets from the past meet conflicts of the present – will the rising flames reduce Mark’s future to ashes?

“The Red Admiral’s Secret” is the second in the series of darkly comic crime fiction novels featuring the beleaguered builder Mark Poynter, aided and hindered in equal measure by his trusted crew of slackers, idlers and gossips, and the lengths they go to just to earn a living.

Meet The Author

Matthew Ross was born and raised in the Medway Towns, England. He still lives in Kent with his Kiwi wife, his children and a very old cat.He was immersed in the building industry from a very early age helping out on his father’s sites during school holidays before launching into his own career at 17. He’s worked on projects ranging from the smallest domestic repair to £billion+ infrastructure, and probably everything in between.A lifelong comedy nerd, he ticked off a bucket-list ambition and tried his hand at stand-up comedy. Whilst being an experience probably best forgotten (for both him and audiences alike) it ignited a love for writing, leading to various commissions including for material broadcast on BBC Radio 4 comedy shows.

Matthew moved into the longer format of novel writing after graduating from the Faber Academy in London in 2017. ‘Death Of A Painter’ was his first novel and the first in a planned series of stories featuring Mark Poynter and his associates. Matthew enjoys reading all manner of books – especially crime and mystery; 80s music; and travelling and can’t wait for the next trip to New Zealand to spend time with family and friends.

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Use the link below to purchase Mark Painter’s first novel in this series direct from Red Dog Press at 25% .

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The Synonym Tables by Jennifer Roche.

Published: Jan 15th 2021 The Poetry Question

The Synonym Tables invite the reader to examine language closely and investigate how it shifts over time. By extracting synonyms that are deemed “most relevant” by for common words used today and comparing them to synonyms for the same terms from a 1947 textbook via the scientific format of a table, the reader is asked to consider how the tool of language evolves, shrinks, expands, and fails.

I agreed to read this new volume of poetry because I am fascinated with how language changes and how it’s used. I rarely get political on the blog, but where we see changes in language everyday is the media and in politics. I have a disability and if we think about the language around people with illnesses and disabilities, there has been a shift. In fact activists think it has changed significantly in the last fifteen years. There was a move away from using neutral terms towards words that insinuated blame. Here Roche closely examines words surrounding certain subjects – health, employment, status – in order for the reader to see if: there’s a difference; whether tone or agenda has changed; to look for patterns. The main aim is to give the reader food for thought.

There were a few differences the stood out to me. The first table/poem tackles synonyms for poverty and I was interested to see how words had become ‘sanitised’. Instead of ‘destitution’, in 2020 we used the word ‘debt’. It had me thinking about what those words mean. Destitution conjures up images of extreme poverty, having absolutely no resources to draw on. Debt doesn’t quite conjure up the same image, possibly because it has become the norm to live with a certain amount of debt. When I think about destitution I imagine people in rags, no food and possibly no shelter. It conjured images of Victorian orphans. Destitution is something that happens to people, whereas debt carries an amount of blame – it’s something we get ourselves into. Destitution can only be rectified by others helping and giving. Debt is something that carries individual responsibility; only the debtor can rectify the situation. We give to the destitute, but look down on the debtor. We make programmes about bailiffs and watch as they chase down the debtors and take away people’s belongings, There’s a lack of compassion in the word ‘debt’.

In another table the author compares words for ‘opulence’ and there are far fewer words in 2020 than there were in 1947. I always think of opulence in terms of interiors – velvet and silk cushions, a richness in colour from jewel like tones, and chandeliers casting a warm glow over everything. It makes me think of stately homes. To see that our 2020 synonym is ‘worth’ made me feel a bit cross. I didn’t like the idea that riches were comparable to worth. I’ve always been taught that everyone is of the same worth, no matter what they have. I know we live in a world where money equals status, but it shouldn’t equal worth. The synonyms associated with femininity and masculinity were also interesting. On Strictly Come Dancing recently, there was a bit of uproar among feminists when Shirley Ballas kept describing Maisie has powerful. She also commented that about her being ‘feminine but strong’ as if the two things didn’t usually fit together. I saw many women on Twitter change the but for and, being feminine is not one set of traits. So it was interesting to note that in 2020 our thesaurus synonym for feminine is ‘soft’. Equally a word that has crept into our synonyms for masculine is ‘muscular’. This shows that men are now equally judged on appearance to women. There is now an ideal body and appearance for both sexes, written into the language.

From my own disability perspective there were two things I found disturbing in the comparison table. Of course there are many more synonyms for illness in 2020 – for good reason where it’s referring to whether someone’s illness is a virus or an infection. The word ‘syndrome’ also makes an appearance – referring to a bundle of symptoms that have unknown cause, but significant effect on the body. However, when I came across the word ‘defect’ it made me feel very uncomfortable. It signifies a fault with that person instead of a difference or variety. When things are defective we either have them fixed or throw them away. Then I saw the table for synonyms of healthy, and there were some instances where the words didn’t differ at all. Words like ‘robust’, ‘vigorous’ and ‘hearty’ were present both times. However, it was one of the extra words in 2020 that shocked me. In a time where I see use of this word being pulled up all the time when referring to sexuality or gender, one of the synonyms for healthy was ‘normal’. In a medical environment I can understand doctors having to use a word for when someone is functioning at peak condition. Medicine is very much about classification – another reason for the word ‘syndrome’ making an appearance, where someone does not fit an existing or traditionally detectable illness pattern. So, doctors must have a word for the body, that functions within acceptable levels of fluctuation. There’s never just ‘normal’ in the medical world because we all vary so much, so someone’s blood pressure might be ‘within the parameters of normal’. I love it when doctors use that phrase because it tells me that they allow for variations even within a healthy body. However, when we say normal without that caveat, it says that anything different from this narrow field of human functioning, is abnormal.

This very unconventional book of poetry shows us that far from being ‘just words’, the synonyms we choose are very important. Words are very powerful and the ones we choose are fraught with meaning and betray a political, social and economic outlook. It changes the whole meaning of what we say. Someone out of work and struggling financially can be seen as needing help or alternatively as ‘workshy’ or someone to look down on. Someone with a disability can be seen as a hero in context of being injured in military service or a Paralympian. However, when written about in the context of claiming disability benefits, I’ve seen the media use derogatory and offensive language. So, language matters and in the synonyms that we see in a Thesaurus we have to remember the context around their inclusion. We must think about the point in history and the socioeconomic factors in play at that time. It’s worth further study to look at where these synonyms are used most and what effect they have on the piece of writing and the reader. I found these unconventional pieces of poetry interesting and it left me wondering why the author had included certain words and how she’d chosen to place them. Perhaps the particular words I’ve chosen, jumped out at me due to how they’re placed. Maybe the poet wanted to create a certain effect in the reader. It reminds us we should always be aware of the intention behind language when reading. For me this was a fascinating look at the words we use and why.

Meet the Author

Jennifer Roche is a poet, writer, and text artist who lives in Chicago, IL. She is the author of “20,” a chapbook of erasure poems from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Alternating Current Press). Her work has also appeared in Storm Cellar; Tule Review; Footnote: A Literary Journal of History (#2); Oyez Review; Rain, Party & Disaster Society; and Ghost Ocean. The Chicago Guild Literary Complex named her a “Writer to Watch in 2019 & Beyond,” and she was a 2016 Charter Oak Award Semifinalist for Best Historical writing

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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.