Sunday, 19 January 2020

The Home by Sarah Stovell

Today is my stop on the blog tour for The Home, the brand new book from Sarah Stovell. My thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part. I'm delighted to have an excerpt from The Home to share, which you can find after the book information below.

The Blurb:

A dark and emotive thriller which shines a light on the troubling issue of children in care, The Home marks the return of Sarah Stovell, author of the 2017 international bestseller Exquisite.

When the body of pregnant, fifteen-year-old Hope Lacey is discovered in a churchyard on Christmas morning, the community is shocked, but unsurprised. For Hope lived in The Home, the residence of three young girls, whose violent and disturbing pasts have seen them cloistered away.

 As a police investigation gets underway, the lives of Hope, Lara and Annie are examined, and the staff who work at the home are interviewed, leading to shocking and distressing revelations … and clear evidence that someone is seeking revenge.

A dark and devastating psychological thriller, The Home is also a heartbreaking and insightful portrayal of the underbelly of society, where children learn what they live … if they are allowed to live at all.

The Home was published as an eBook on 28th November 2019 by Orenda Books. The paperback version will be released on the 22nd of this month. You can buy or pre order your copy from the publisher (eBook only), Waterstones (paperback only), Amazon and all good booksellers. 


This isn’t a proper interview room, not like the ones you see on TV, with hard chairs and no windows and mean-faced coppers. This is a room designed especially for people like me: young suspects they don’t want to frighten. They’ve put sofas in here and plants, and a rug and a small table with mats to rest your drinks. You can see it’s meant to be comfortable, and they’ve even got women officers to interview me so I don’t get too agitated. Non-threatening. That’s the sort of word they’d use to describe it, but it’s actually bollocks. They want to put you at ease and make you talk, but there’s nothing more threatening than a room designed to be non-threatening so you’ll be tricked into saying too much and getting arrested. Sinister, that’s what I’d call it. Sinister as hell.

The whole day has been a blur. All I know is that she’s dead. My girl is dead, and they forced me away from her. Then they brought me here, where they gave me tea made with crappy teabags, as if that would be enough to calm me down and make me talk.

We’ve been at it for hours.

‘Please tell us your name.’

‘It’s none of your business what my name is.’

‘We are the police and we found you beside the body of a young girl. It is every bit our business what your name is.’

‘Blah, blah, blah.’

That annoyed them.

I can tell they’re drawing on every bit of their patience. They’re going to need it.

‘We need to talk to you,’ one says. ‘When you’re ready, we’ll have to ask you what happened and who the girl is, so we can let her family know.’

I stay silent. They’d found no ID on her body. Nothing at all. All they know is that she was young and blonde and she doesn’t match any of the missing persons on file. They don’t even know she’s pregnant. I suppose the whole future of this case relies on me now, but I’m in no fit state to co-operate. Look at me, I want to say to them. I’m insane with grief.

‘Was the girl who died a relative of yours?’

I shake my head.

‘A good friend, then?’

Again, I shake my head.

The officers stop the questions and hand me more tissues. My face must be a mess. They see my tears as suspicious, I can tell. I’m meant to be hollowed-out and silent with shock.
After a while, they try again. ‘We understand your distress,’ one of them says.

I want to shout at her. No, you don’t. You haven’t got a clue. She’s dead and I am here, and I don’t know how I’ll ever bear this.

But I don’t say it, so she carries on. ‘But it’s really important we find out who this girl is. Her family will be worrying and we need to tell them the truth as soon as we can.’

I don’t know what comes over me then. It’s like I’ve left my body and I’m watching myself from somewhere above the spot where I’m sitting. I look straight at the two of them. ‘Fuck off,’ I’m spitting. ‘Just fuck off. She hasn’t got any fucking family.’ Then I hold out my hands as if I’m reading a book and recite, ‘Roses are red, violets are blue. No one gives a shit about the end of you.’

With no warning, her voice suddenly fills the room. What about you? she asks. Do you give a shit? Are you sorry?

I look around at the police officers to see if they’ve heard it, too, as clearly as I just did. They don’t seem to have. They’re sitting there, sympathetic but tough, ready to charge me with bad behaviour.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. It should never have come to this.

Wow, how good does that sound? So intriguing! Really looking forward to getting stuck into this one. 

The Author:

Sarah Stovell was born in 1977 and spent most of her life in the Home Counties before a season working in a remote North Yorkshire youth hostel made her realise she was a northerner at heart. She now lives in Northumberland with her partner and two children and is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Lincoln University. Her debut psychological thriller, Exquisite, was called ‘the book of the summer’ by Sunday Times.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

A Dark Matter by Doug Johnstone

Breakers by Doug Johnstone was one of my books of 2019 so I was really excited to read his brand new one, A Dark Matter. It didn't disappoint. I'm delighted to share my review as part of the blog tour and my thanks go to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me. I read and reviewed from my own purchased copy.

The Blurb:

After an unexpected death, three generations of women takeover the family funeral-home and PI businesses in the first book of a brilliant, page-turning and darkly funny new series

The Skelfs are a well-known Edinburgh family, proprietors of a long-established funeral-home business, and private investigators. When patriarch Jim dies, it's left to his wife Dorothy, daughter Jenny and granddaughter Hannah to take charge of both businesses, kicking off an unexpected series of events.

Dorothy discovers mysterious payments to another women, suggesting that Jim wasn't the husband she thought he was. Hannah's best friend Mel has vanished from university, and the simple adultery case that Jenny takes on leads to something stranger and far darker than any of them could have imagined. As the women struggle to come to terms with their grief, and the demands of the business threaten to overwhelm them, secrets from the past emerge, which change everything... It 's a compelling and tense thriller and a darkly funny, warm portrait of a family in turmoil.

A Dark Matter was published as an eBook on 23rd November 2019 by Orenda Books. The paperback version will be released on 23rd of this month. You can buy or pre order your copy from the publisher (eBook only), Waterstones (paperback only), Amazon and all good booksellers.

My Review:

As I mentioned at the top of this post, I loved Johnstone's last book, the McIlvanney Prize shortlisted Breakers, so had high expectations for this one. A Dark Matter focuses on another, very different,  Edinburgh family and I loved it just as much.

Following the death of Jim Skelf, his wife Dorothy, assisted by daughter Jenny and granddaughter Hannah, takes over both his businesses - the funeral home and the private investigations. The women are assisted in the funeral business by employees Archie and Indy, Hannah's girlfriend. All of them, but particularly the Skelf women, are trying to process their grief at Jim's death whilst finding their feet with these new businesses. And the three women find it very difficult, each reacting in different ways.

There is a lot going on in this book, with three or four different story lines running through it. This provides lots of supporting characters but the book is really about Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah and each chapter focuses on one of the women.

I loved Dorothy right away. Strong and practical, she knows what she needs to do and gets on with it. She keeps her grief in check, only occasionally letting it spill out. And I smiled at her choice of hobby, given the author's involvement in the Fun Lovin' Crime Writers. Jenny is harder to like, at least initially, as I found her quite irritating as she tries to adjust to her new life. I warmed to her as the book progressed although I facepalmed at one or two of her decisions. Hannah brought out the most emotion in me. I loved her passion and desire for truth, and felt her grief. I would defy anyone not to like Indy, and Archie is a stoic, reliable presence, a constant in all their lives. 

There are so many things I love about this book. I was fascinated with the workings of the funeral business. How both businesses were run from the kitchen table. I loved that the three main characters are women, strong ones at that. Four, if you count Indy. I loved that it featured a real, deep platonic friendship between a man and a woman, something that is rarely featured in books (at least the ones I read) and which is often misunderstood in real life. I loved that amongst the fear, lies, crimes and death, this is a book  about trust, family, and how to live.

Johnstone gets people. He writes them well. They are fully formed on the page, enabling us to know them and relate to them. And this is true of the minor characters too, even those who don't feature for long. There were some real emotional, moving moments in the book, often, although not always, around the kitchen table. I wanted to cry for Hannah as she searched for missing Mel whilst grieving for her grandfather, and Indy tugged my heartstrings more than once. There is a moment when Dorothy thinks about all the people they have buried or cremated over the years which just made me stop and reread the passage. I found it sad, hard hitting and powerful.

Of course, this is also a crime story, and the conclusion of the main thread blew me away. I just hadn't seen it coming, and the denouement was something else. And I loved the other mysteries that weaved their way around this one, each with it's own little cast. Not a word was wasted and I sped through the book in two days. I adored it, and I'm delighted that it's the first in a series, because I'm not ready to say goodbye to the Skelfs just yet. 

The Author:

Doug Johnstone is the author of ten novels, most recently Breakers (2018), which was shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize 2019 for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year. Several of his books have been bestsellers and award winners, and his work has been praised by the likes of Val McDermid, Irvine Welsh and Ian Rankin. He’s taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions – including a funeral home – and has been an arts journalist for twenty years. Doug is a songwriter and musician with five albums and three EPs released, and he plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a band of crime writers. He’s also player-manager of the Scotland Writers Football Club. He lives in Edinburgh.

Sunday, 5 January 2020

When Stars Will Shine compiled by Emma Mitchell

Today I'm delighted to shine a light on this fabulous collection of  stories raising money for Help For Heroes. I have the paperback edition of the book and it is gorgeous. There is such a variety of stories in it I can't wait to dip in. Released in early December, it's full of seasonal tales suitable for these chilly winter months. 

When Stars Will Shine is a collection of short stories from your favourite authors who have come together to deliver you a Christmas read with a twist.

With true war tales that will break your heart, gritty Christmas crimes that will shake you to your core, and heart-warming tales of love lost and found, this anthology has something for everyone. And, with every penny made being sent to support our troops, you can rest assured that you’re helping our heroes, one page at a time.

From authors such as Louise Jensen, Graham Smith, Malcolm Hollingdrake, Lucy Cameron, Val Portelli, and Alex Kane, you are in for one heck of a ride!   When Stars Will Shine is the perfect gift for the bookworms in your life!

A Note from Emma Mitchell:

As the blurb tells us, When Stars Will Shine is a multi-genre collection of Christmas-themed short stories compiled to raise money for our armed forces and every penny made from the sales of both the digital and paperback copies will be donated to the charity.

Working closely with Kate Noble at Noble Owl Proofreading and Amanda Ni Odhrain from Let’s Get Booked, I’ve been able to pick the best of the submissions to bring you a thrilling book which is perfect for dipping into at lunchtime or snuggling up with on a cold winter’s night. I have been completely blown away by the support we’ve received from the writing and blogging community, especially the authors who submitted stories and Shell Baker from Baker’s Not So Secret Blog, who has organised the cover reveal and blog tour.

There isn’t a person in the country who hasn’t benefited from the sacrifices our troops, past and present, have made for us and they all deserve our thanks.

It has been an honour working on these stories, and I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I have.

Full Contents:

Fredrick Snellgrove, Private 23208 by Rob Ashman
Four Seasons by Robert Scragg
The Close Encounter by Gordon Bickerstaff
Believe by Mark Brownless
What Can Possibly Go Wrong? by Lucy Cameron
Mountain Dew by Paul T. Campbell
The Art of War and Peace by John Carson
A Gift for Christmas by Kris Egleton
Free Time by Stewart Giles
Died of Wounds by Malcolm Hollingdrake
The Christmas Killer by Louise Jensen
The Village Hotel by Alex Kane
A Present of Presence by HR Kemp
The Invitation by Billy McLaughlin
Brothers Forever by Paul Moore
Girl in a Red Shirt by Owen Mullen
Pivotal Moments by Anna Franklin Osborne
Uncle Christmas by Val Portelli
Time for a Barbeque by Carmen Radtke
Christmas Present by Lexi Rees
Inside Out by KA Richardson
Penance by Jane Risdon
New Year’s Resolution by Robert Scragg
Family Time by Graham Smith

When Stars Will Shine is available to in digital and paperback formats and on Kindle Unlimited.

For more information, please contact Emma Mitchell:

Thursday, 2 January 2020

My 2019 In Review

Let me start by wishing you all a very happy new year and I hope those of you that celebrate had a great Christmas.

I left writing this review, and picking my top books of 2019, until the very end of the year because I was still reading and didn't want to miss anything! I'm going to talk a bit about my year, the books that made the biggest impression on me and my booky resolutions for the year to come.

2019 was an up and down year for me. I began the year struggling with tiredness, but in January  started a job which I absolutely love, working with people who have a dual impairment in vision and hearing. Unfortunately, my tiredness worsened and I experienced one or two other physical symptoms which led to a short stay in hospital in June. It transpired that all these symptoms were linked to poor mental health. My anxiety has risen, confidence has fallen, and I haven't yet been well enough to return to work. However, recovery is underway and the plan is to return to work in February, which is brilliant.

All of this has affected my reading and reviewing, although books have often been my refuge. I didn't read as much as I'd  have liked to but finished 102 published books, with the 103rd running over into this new year. I also read an as yet unpublished book which is going to do brilliantly. However, not all of them have appeared on the blog and my Goodreads list only shows a fraction of them. So

Booky resolution No 1: Write my review as soon as I finish the book, and copy it straight across to Goodreads and Amazon (if it's after publication day). Also to resolve an ongoing issue with Amazon regarding some reviews. 

During the year, I had the opportunity to take part in the blog tours for some really fantastic books. I am hugely grateful to all the tour organisers who invited me to be involved. I enjoyed every single one, but did find they took a lot of time and I was neglecting my own books. So

Booky resolution No 2: Say yes to fewer blog tours and read some of my own books (and those sent to me by lovely authors as I'm way behind with those too).

I'm not hugely optimistic about keeping this one. I decided not to take on any tours for December and January. Whilst I took a full blogging break in December, I am signed up for 5 tours in January, plus a Bookstagram one! 😂 But we'll see...

Despite my health difficulties, I did get to Bute Noir in August, my first time at the small crime writing festival held on the beautiful Isle of Bute. The sun shone for us, and I had a great time. I wrote a wee piece about it here. At the end of September, as is now tradition, I headed to Stirling for the always fantastic Bloody Scotland. I am very thankful for the friends who supported me at these events.

Booky resolution No 3: Try to get to at least one other new book festival, finances permitting.

Finally in this wee bit, a shout out to all my awesome fellow book bloggers. My wee blog is a tiny fish in a big pond, and the only reason it gets as many views as it does is because other bloggers are kind enough to share my reviews on social media, primarily Twitter, for which I'm hugely grateful. I try to reciprocate, but I'm not terribly organised, so

Booky resolution No 4: Be a better, more organised, more supportive member of the blogging community.

My Top Books of 2019

So that was my 2019 in brief, and my aims for this new year (which also include better planning ahead and a wee overhaul of the blog). But what about the books I read over the last twelve months? I was so lucky to read some outstanding ones during the year. I've picked sixteen that really stood out for me, but could easily have added another ten or so. However, these are the ones that made the cut, listed in the order I reviewed them. You can read my original reviews by clicking on the book titles.

I almost started and ended my year with Matt Wesolowski. His debut, Six Stories, published by Orenda Books, was my third read of the year, whilst Beast, the fourth in the Six Stories series is my 19/20 crossover read. All three of his books that I finished could easily be on this list, but I have picked Six Stories, because I hadn't read anything like it before. For those that don't know, it's written as a podcast - so original. You can also see my reviews for Hydra and Changeling (probably my favourite of the three, but it's a close call).
'I have never before read a book quite like this one. The podcast presentation is genius. I totally felt that I was listening to it rather than reading the words on the page. As a genre debut, this is phenomenal. It's well paced, intelligent, absorbing, beautifully written, atmospheric, dark and creepy as anything.'

If Only I Could Tell You by Hannah Beckerman, published by Orion, was a February read. A change from my usual diet of crime, this was a beautiful, emotional family drama about five strong women.
'I read this from beginning to end in one sitting, staying up way, way too late! It's an exquisitely written book. The feelings of all the women involved, but particularly Audrey and Jess, are beautifully described.'

A new book from a favourite author was a March treat. Thunder Bay by Douglas Skelton is his first book with new publisher, Polygon, and it's fab. Set on the fictional Scottish island of Stoirm, it focuses on journalist Rebecca Connolly and her investigation into a death on the island fifteen years earlier. When I read it, it had a beautiful purple cover, but it now has a brand new look ready for the publication of the follow up, The Blood is Still, in March.
'This is a story of secrets and lies, and the danger that both can bring. It's about finding the truth, whatever consequences that might bring. It's beautifully written, descriptive and atmospheric. The pacing is perfect, and the conclusion unexpected.'

April was a great month for cracking review reads. First of my picks from the month is The Passengers by John Marrs, published by Del Rey/Penguin Random House. Set in a near future where automatic driverless cars have been introduced, it's genuinely scary.
'It's original and brave and more than a little frightening, set in a plausible future, touching on the advance of technology, the power of social media and mob rule. But it's very human and emotional too and shows how little we need to know about people before we make judgements on them.'

Savage Games by Peter Boland (Adrenalin Books) is the second in the series featuring retired soldier John Savage. What starts out as a simple favour for an old friend's son soon turns into something much darker. You can also read my review of the next in the series, Savage Children, which came out last year as well.
'It's exciting, gripping and dark. Violent and shocking in places. But it's very human, with plenty of emotion. Basically, I loved everything about this book!'

Next up from my picks is No Man's Land by Neil Broadfoot (published by Constable). This is the first in a new series set in Stirling featuring Irish former soldier Connor Fraser.
'Connor Fraser is a new hero, reminiscent of Reacher or Bourne. No Man's Land is fast paced and filled with believable characters who remind us that we don't always know who to trust. It's tense action packed and exciting. And bloody. Very bloody.  I loved it!'

A change of direction for my next choice. Our Life in a Day by Jamie Fewery (Orion) is a love story about Tom and Esme, who are about to celebrate ten years together.
'It's a 'real'  love story, in that it feels very believable, between two flawed individuals. Beautifully written, with all the moments, good and bad, described with delicacy and emotion. In fact, this is a book full of heart. An accomplished debut.'

My last pick from April (told you it was a bumper month!) is the latest from one of my favourite authors, Mason Cross, writing here as MJ Cross. What She Saw Last Night, published by Orion, is his first standalone after five Carter Blake novels, and opens with a murder on the Caledonian Sleeper.
'I raced through it in a day. It's a character driven thriller, with a hugely believable and relatable protagonist and strong supporting players. An unusual and cracking story line. An absolute winner from MJ Cross.'

Breakers is written by Doug Johnstone and was published by Orenda Books in May. It tells the story of Tyler, a young housebreaker from one of the roughest parts of Edinburgh.
'Breakers is violent, bleak, brutal, and sad, but also tender, hopeful, beautiful and full of heart. I went through an emotional rollercoaster reading it. The writing is taut - not a word is wasted. It's pacy with plenty of action But, for me, this is the tale of a young man in an impossibly difficult situation trying to do the right thing for those he loves.'

My Silent Daughter by Emma Robinson was published by Bookoutre in August. I reviewed it as part of the blog tour, when it was called Where I Found You. Three year old Ruby isn't speaking, and mum Sara just doesn't know what to do. Husband Mike is useless and her mother-in-law just interferes, but the two women are forced to bond.
'For me, this book is about recognising that we are all unique. It's about sometimes reshaping our ideas for the future. It's about celebrating the small things. And it's about family, friends and asking for help. It's not soppy, gushy or preachy, but an accessible, relatable tale of love, friendship, acceptance and hope.'

In The Silence is the debut novel from MR Mackenzie (Bloodhound Books) and features criminology lecturer Dr Anna Scavolini. On her first night back in Glasgow after ten years away, Anna comes across an old friend stabbed and dying in a Glasgow park.
'I really liked Mackenzie's style of writing - he has a real way with words. In The Silence is a cracking read and a great debut. It's brilliant to see a strong woman, two actually, taking centre stage. Mackenzie has taken an issue which is often featured in crime novels but covered it in a fresh way and with style.'

I binge read Johanna Gustawsson's three Roy and Castells books (Orenda Books) in September  in preparation for a blog tour. Again, all three could have been included here, but I have gone with the third book, Blood Song translated by David Warriner as it was the one with which I had the biggest emotional connection. Set in present day London and Sweden, and Spain in 1938 during the Civil War, it centres around the murder of a wealthy family. You can also read my reviews of Block 46 and Keeper, the first two books in the series.
'The story is intelligent and complex, the two timelines are eventually wound together, and I read the book almost in one sitting, I was so hooked. Beautifully written, I didn't predict the ending at all, and there was one particular moment that was a complete shock. I felt this was the case that touched Emily and Alexis the most - it certainly affected me the most.'

Action and adventure next. Marah Chase and the Conqueror's Tomb by Jay Stringer, and published by Pegasus Books in July, but I didn't manage to review it until October. Disgraced archaeologist Marah is given a chance to redeem herself by MI6, but to do so she must undertake a dangerous mission.
'It's an adrenaline filled story from beginning to end, with moments of genuine peril, when my heart was in my mouth. And there are some epic, and varied, chase scenes! I loved every minute of this read - it's loads of action packed fun. A great, imaginative story, brilliantly written.'

November was another bumper month for strong books. Nothing Important Happened Today by Will Carver and published by Orenda Books opens with nine strangers simultaneously jumping to their deaths from a London Bridge. They are part of The People of Choice.
'This was unlike any other book I've ever read. It's not an easy read but totally worth it when it all comes together. It makes you uncomfortable, and it's hard to say it was enjoyable as such. But it is absolutely unforgettable. It gets your head in a spin. It challenges you. It challenges your apathy. How you relate to the world around you and how much you miss. It has harsh, but relevant, things to say about social media. It's also really, really clever. And unique.'

Oi! by Snowball (UK Book Publishing) is the only non fiction book on my list. A harrowing, personal story of abuse within the British childcare system in the 60s, 70s and 80s, this was definitely my hardest read of the year, but the most impactful. It's the book I talk about more than any other on the list.
'Oi is a difficult read that took me a while to finish but it's a story that needs to be heard. It has been written with an adult take on childhood memories of hugely traumatic events, but what shines through is Snowball's refusal to bow down or be silenced, and his strong sense of right and wrong. It will stay with me for a long time. It was a privilege to read it.'

And the subject of my last review of the year makes the list, as it's yet another unique book. Stephen Watt's Fairy Rock (published by Red Squirrel Press) is the first crime novel to be written entirely in verse! It tells the stories of four young people growing up in the Bridgeton area of Glasgow which is rule by a vicious, violent crime family.
'These poems are raw and dark. So dark. But there is such a beauty to the writing that they are a joy to read. This is poetry at its most raw, visceral and beautiful. The whole concept of a novel entirely in verse is original and brilliant, and Stephen Watt totally delivers.'

So there you have it. Sixteen books that made an impact on me in 2019. There were lots more that I read which were brilliant, and too many that I didn't get around to reading, but there is always this year! I haven't been organised enough to look too far ahead into this new year, but I'm looking forward to finishing Matt Wesolowski's Beast, which is out in paperback in February. Out this month is A Dark Matter, the start of a new trilogy from Doug Johnstone. As already mentioned, March sees the release of Douglas Skelton's The Blood is Still, and the new one from Mason Cross, Hunted, should be out in April. And I know there will be a ton of other great books for us to choose from through the year.

Finally, I know this is a book post, but just before I go I want to mention My Top Film of 2019. A buddy movie with real warmth and heart, The Peanut Butter Falcon was made on a small budget and had a limited release in the autumn. It's coming out on DVD in the UK in March and I think it might be available on Amazon Prime in due course. I laughed, I cried and I celebrated as I watched the film, and have raved about it ever since to anyone who will listen!
'It's quirky and  heartwarming. Please see this beautiful movie, however you can. You will be a better person for it. It's a film about friendship, love, hope, redemption, challenging disabilities and the family we choose. And wrestling.'

A big thank you to all the publishers, authors, blog tour organisers and bloggers I have worked with for your support, and often patience, over the last twelve months. And the hugest thank you to the people who cared for me, encouraged me and picked me up when I was down - you know who you are - I couldn't have done it without you. Here's to a happier, healthier 2020! 

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Fairy Rock by Stephen Watt

Regular visitors to this blog will know that whilst I love crime fiction, I'm also partial to a bit of poetry. So I jumped at the chance to read Fairy Rock, the first crime novel written entirely in verse! My thanks to Kelly Lacey at Love Books Tours for inviting me and to the publisher for my review copy.

The Background:

"In 2017 Andrew Smith, then Director, now Chair of the Scottish Writers’ Centre, came up with a dynamic idea to run a Twitter campaign inviting poets to pitch an idea and the winner would have a poetry pamphlet published by the SWC’s publisher partner, Red Squirrel Press. Poet, critic, essayist, editor, designer and typesetter Gerry Cambridge, poet Sheila Templeton, writer, musician and Editor of both Postbox Press (the literary fiction imprint of Red Squirrel Press) and Postbox International Short Story Magazine, Colin Will, and myself took part in a panel at the SWC, ‘How to get published’ in October 2017. Andrew received many entries, a shortlist was drawn up, Stephen Watt subsequently won and persuaded me to publish a full-length collection."
— Sheila Wakefield, Founding Editor, Red Squirrel Press

The Blurb:

Glasgow is correctly lauded for its wonderful characters and hospitality but at the turn of the Millennium it was dubbed the ‘Murder Capital of Europe’ with sectarian divisions and organised crime rife in the city. Four of its natives have been raised around the city’s Bridgeton area, cultivated by its ill-omened beliefs, and now have to separately find a way to subsist. But one crime family firmly believes in the tradition of torture and a novel way of disposing of its detractors. Who will emerge smelling of roses -or end up pushing the roses up from the earth below?

Fairy Rock was published on 21st September 2019 by Red Squirrel Press and you can purchase it here.

My Review:

Whilst I have read many collections of poems which are linked by the subject or theme, I was intrigued to see if a  collection which told a story would work. And it absolutely does.

Fairy Rock focuses on the Bridgeton area of Glasgow which is ruled by a crime family with a novel and unique murder technique. The opening poem sets the scene and tone with a flashback to the late 70s, and then the rest of the story is set in the recent past and present day. We see Danny, Deek, Seamus and Claire as they grow up in this hostile environment, each carrying their own baggage and looking at a none too bright future.

These poems are raw and dark. So dark. They feature incest, sexual abuse, drug taking, sectarianism, knife and gun crime, murder and ruthless, brutal violence. But there is such a beauty to the writing that they are a joy to read. I've picked a couple of (non gruesome) examples to illustrate my point:

'Merchant City girls clad in shimmering Diana Ross silver coats
pulled over their bleached-blonde heads
to protect them from the downpour giggled and hallowed
between flashing, sparky bars
like shooting stars gliding in the dark.'

'Her child dissolves into the small digital window
which is his world, lit by the crude bare bulbs
framing a lapsed Swimming World poster on the glass.'

There are so many more examples I could have chosen but I want you to discover them for yourselves by reading the book. It's hard to pick a favourite poem as they are all so good, but I was drawn to a couple of the early, dark poems - CANDLES and ORPHANAGE. TABLOID HAIKU also deserves a mention - as the name suggests, it is a newspaper headline in the form of a haiku. Genius.

For all the grimness there is an element of, admittedly dark, humour in some of the poems. And the characters and scenes are so vividly described, you can't not enjoy the writing. I love just outside of Glasgow and know some of the areas mentioned, and I just loved the whole Glasgow vibe that runs throughout.

This is poetry at its most raw, visceral and beautiful. The whole concept of a novel entirely in verse is original and brilliant, and Stephen Watt totally delivers. The man can write. A triumph. 

The Author:

Stephen Watt was born in the Vale of Leven in 1979. His awards include first prize in the Poetry Rivals Slam, the StAnza International Digital Poetry Slam, and the Tartan Treasures award. Notable collections which he has curated include the Joe Strummer Foundation collection Ashes To Activists (2018) and the James Watt bicentenary booklet Horsepower (2019). He is Dumbarton Football Club’s Poet-in-Residence and was appointed the Makar for the Federation of Writers (Scotland) in 2019. He lives in Dumbarton with his wife Keriann and pug Beanz.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

What She Saw Last Night by MJ Cross

MJ (Mason) Cross is one of my absolute favourite authors and so I'm delighted to re share my review of What She Saw Last Night as part of the blog tour. Many thanks to Tracy Fenton of Compulsive Readers for inviting me to take part. I read and reviewed from my own copy of the book. Elsewhere on the blog I have a guest post from Mason, an edited extract from the book, and a Q&A with the author.

The Blurb:

No one will believe ... WHAT SHE SAW LAST NIGHT.

Jenny Bowen is going home. Boarding the Caledonian Sleeper, all she wants to do is forget about her upcoming divorce and relax on the ten hour journey through the night.

In her search for her cabin, Jenny helps a packed woman with a young girl she assumes to be her daughter. Then she finds her compartment and falls straight to sleep.

Waking in the night, Jenny discovers the woman dead in her cabin ... but there's no sign of the little girl. The train company have no record of a child being booked on the train, and CCTV shows the dead woman boarding alone.

The police don't believe Jenny, and soon she tries to put the incident out of her head and tells herself that everyone else is right: she must have imagined the little girl.

But deep down, she knows that isn't the truth.

What She Saw Last Night was published by Orion Publishing in eBook and trade paperback formats on 18th April 2019 and will be realised in paperback on 28th November 2019, and can be purchased from Waterstones, Amazon UK and other good booksellers.

My Review:

I have long been a fan of MJ Cross, and his Carter Blake series which he wrote as Mason Cross. You can click through to read my reviews of The Killing Season and Presumed Dead, books 1 and 5 in the series. The others have all been read, but not yet reviewed. In fact, it was an appearance of his at Bloody Scotland, and my subsequent reading of The Killing Season and The Samaritan that reignited my passion for books, and particularly crime and psychological thrillers. So I owe Mason a big thank you!

I was excited, and a little bit nervous, to hear he was going to be writing a standalone book, far away from the world of Carter Blake, and set back in the UK. I needn't have worried. What She Saw Last Night is very different from the Carter Blake books, but just as good.

Jenny Bowen is travelling back to Scotland from London on the Caledonian Sleeper, following the recent death of her father. Waking in the night to use the bathroom, she finds the young woman two compartments along lying dead, but can't see the little girl who had been with her when Jenny boarded. It turns out there is no record or CCTV coverage of the little girl, who just seemed to have vanished into thin air. Neither the railway staff nor the police believe Jenny, and think she must be mistaken.

She tries to believe them, tries to forget about the little girl and get on with things in Scotland. But she can't. Just can't. She has to know what happened. So, with very little information, she begins to investigate on her own. But it turns out that she might have an ally in the police after all. Which might just come in handy...

Jenny is brilliant. She's just an ordinary woman who ends up in an extraordinary position. It could be you or I. I've spent a lot of time thinking about that since I read this. What would I have done in Jenny's position? Would I have chased after the truth? I'd like to think so, but I'm really not sure... But Jenny is determined, tenacious and thorough. Brave too. She's a great protagonist, and beautifully written.

From the other key players, Mike Fletcher deserves a mention. A straight up, dependable guy with a nightmare of a boss, he can sense when something's not quite right. And Klenmore is an enigma that we know little about. Both are well written characters, as are all of the cast.

Scene setting is, of course, very important, and Cross does it very well. He has clearly researched the Caledonian Sleeper and it was easy to picture in my mind. As was the busyness of London (a place I don't know well) and the isolation of the house up in Inverkiln.

The book is beautifully paced. It's a bit like riding a train, which sets off at a steady rate, before speeding up and hurtling towards it's final destination. Well, not quite like that, but I'm trying to stick with the train thing! Certainly the ending is full of tension and action, but there are also a couple of heart stopping moments along the way, as Jenny's questions open up a whole can of worms.

So, What She Saw Last Night isn't necessarily action filled in a traditional way, ie. guns blazing, doors being kicked in, etc, there is plenty going on, and I raced through it in a day. It's a  character driven thriller, with a hugely believable and relatable protagonist and strong supporting players. An unusual and cracking story line. An absolute winner from MJ Cross (who will always be Mason to me, I'm afraid)! And it needs to be made into a movie!

The Author:

MJ Cross is a British novelist. Writing as Mason Cross his debut novel The Killing Season was longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Book of the Year 2015. His second novel, The Samaritan, also featuring his inimitable lead character Carter Blake, was selected as a Richard & Judy Book Club pick. Mason has written a number of short stories, including A Living, which was shortlisted for the Quick Reads 'Get Britain Reading' Award and 'Expiry Date', published in Ellery Queen. He lives near Glasgow with his wife and three children.

Mason’s most recent Carter Blake novel, Presumed Dead, was longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize 2018.

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Had a look through my pics and think this is my fave - it makes me smile! 

Monday, 25 November 2019

Oi by Snowball

I was fully booked for blog tours for this month when I heard about Oi. But as soon as I read the information about the book I knew it was one I needed to read and talk about. You'll see why below. Thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me onto the tour and to the author for my review copy.

The Blurb:

This is a harrowing personal voyage into the 1960-80s childcare system as experienced first-hand by the author and many like him.

It was a brutally horrific system that made countless victims of the very children it was designed to protect. These brutally horrific regimes, founded upon extraordinary levels of inhumanity, cruelty, violence, fear, and intimidation brought children to their knees, brutalised, cowed and often in fear for their very existence. It was a stark, depressive, and oppressively dysfunctional system, that imposed perpetual physical suffering and mental hardship, upon its most vulnerable charges. It was a pernicious cycle of ritualised systematic abuse, inflicted on some of the most vulnerable children society could offer up.This was the environment that the ‘Unfortunates’ found themselves embedded in during the 1960s.

It was a system that lacked care, thought, and all things humane. A system where the imposition of brutal physical and sexual abuse had become normalised, legitimised, embraced and ultimately, forcefully accepted. This was life in a local authority home. These were the homes of ‘the Damned’, where a catalogue of daily horrors were inflicted for the personal pleasure of those charged with the care of this hidden, and often forgotten, sub-culture of children who, through no fault of their own, were forced to embrace these traumas, and endure a fight for their very survival.

Oi was published on 18th November 2018 and you can by it from Waterstones and Amazon.

My Review:

Oh my goodness. I'm really not sure I can do this incredible book justice. I am fortunate to have no experience of the British childcare system past or present, and so Oi was a real eye opener for me. It has stuck with me, and tears fill my eyes every time I talk to someone about it.

Oi tells the true story of one young boy's journey through the childcare system from the end of the 60s through to the 80s. And it's absolutely heartbreaking. And harrowing. But it's also a tale of that young man's resilience in the face of the most awful circumstances. There are so many things I want to say about this book - the picture below will give you an idea - but I will try to keep it focused.

The story opens when Snowball is about six years old. He is part of a large foster family and feels secure, happy and loved. His walk home from school is described so vividly. He's the only black face in the community, but experiences no hostility because of it, just a kindly curiosity. This happy existence follows his hugely traumatic first year of life when he was abused, burned and scalded by his drunken mother. He was lucky to survive and I think this was an early show of the resilience and strength that would mark his survival in later years.

Everything changes when he is suddenly ripped from his foster home and taken to a care home, never to see any of his foster family again. On his first night in his new home he needs the loo, and ignoring the warnings from the boys in his room, heads off to the toilet. On the way back, a cuff across the head from the home manager sends him flying into the wall opposite. And that's just the beginning.

Oi catalogues abuse upon abuse - mental, physical and sexual. This abuse was carried out by those tasked with caring for these kids, who had all arrived damaged. One young boy walking around with blood dripping from his arms from self harming. A bright young girl whose light is dimmed by systematic sexual abuse. Care workers using food deprivation as a punishment. There is story after story, and they are all heartbreaking. I cried so much reading this book.

These children were let down, and let down repeatedly by everybody who should have been caring for them - the staff in the homes, social workers, teachers, police, pretty much everyone. Traumatised kids pushed into a brutalized regime.

In one of the homes in which Snowball lived 'everything and anything was either controlled, abused or simply broken. Property and children alike.' The same home 'operated on the core principle of institutionalised abuse. Whether it was mental, physical or sexual, the entire operation was predicated on the belief that control could be maintained by violating children.' Snowball refers to it as a home for 'the unwanted and the wretched.' And this home was in no way unique.

There are exceptions, but they are few and far between. The occasional kindly care worker, who wouldn't beat the kids, a nice policeman and the one decent home where Snowball lived, and had possessions he could call his own. Tears filled my eyes as Snowball is completely overwhelmed at the thought of writing a letter to Santa, hardly daring to hope that he might actually get a gift.

But these moments of kindness are far too few in a very bleak landscape. The abuse continued and I was horrified to read about it being ignored by everyone, even when evidence is presented.

Oi is a difficult read that took me a while to finish but it's a book that should be widely read. It talks about all kinds of abuse in detail so it might not be for everyone, but it is a story that needs to be heard. It has been written with an adult take on childhood memories of hugely traumatic events, but what shines through is Snowball's  refusal to bow down or be silenced, and his strong sense of right and wrong. It will stay with me for a long time.

I have no idea how Snowball survived those first sixteen years but I'm delighted that he did and made a success of his life. I can't help but wonder about the other children mentioned in the book. Of course, such abuse should never ever have happened, and the awful thing is that it still goes on in our care system. We need to be aware, we need to talk about this. We need to be shocked, we need to be angry. Those responsible must be held accountable.

There is so much more I could say, but I'm going to finish here. Thank you David for telling your story. It was a privilege to read it.

The Author:

The author, David Lee Jackson (1964 – Present) was born in Withington, Manchester in England, into an impoverished black family.  Within months of being born, he found himself on the wrong end of abusive parenting, being hospitalised and close to death.

Eventually recovering and well enough to be treated as an out-patient, he was placed into foster care, where he was loved and he began to thrive. Unforeseen circumstances forced him from this loving home, and he found himself at the brutal and often criminal mercies of an abusive and violent childcare system.

The 1960s and 1970s British Childcare System cared little for the children under its control.  It was a brutal, degrading, violent and occasionally deadly environment, into which children were not only thrown like lambs to the slaughter, but were then expected to emerge as competent, capable, contributing members of the society that had so shamelessly failed them at every juncture.

He survived by navigating his course through one violent and abusive encounter after another. Living on his wits, and his fists where necessary, and longing for the day he would finally be freed from this physical and psychological turmoil. David survived, educated himself, obtaining an Honours Degree in Psychology and a Master's Degree in International Business. He has been an elected public official, served on a number of charity boards and forums, and is an active campaigner on social justice and equality issues. David has worked in the criminal justice system, working with drug-addicted offenders, many with shared or similar backgrounds to his own, and he is a well-travelled and widely respected project management consultant.

In 2018, David (under the name Snowball) published the widely praised and much talked about book, 'Oi' through the Amazon network, in which he detailed in all its brutally cold and horrifically ignoble glory, the horrifying levels of abuse, brutality and criminality that he encountered, while being raised in the British Childcare System throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The book itself is a testament to the enduring resilience of all children living through adversity and both physical and psychological hardship, and an indictment of the casually brutal and often criminal systems, that inflict relentless brutality upon children it has been charged with caring for.

Reviews included:
…..Harrowing, brutal and truthful!  Buckle up and read Snowball's heart wrenching account of a life that no child should ever experience- prepare to be shocked to the core, be ready to feel every emotion…..(Brenda Lee)
……one of the most emotional journeys you will ever take with a child who survives unbelievable childhood adversity. At times it is almost too painful to witness, it truly is a tribute to the child and the man who wrote it……Amanda Knowles (MBE)
…..this book is as epic as it is painful read at times and extremely sad!  It illustrates a time when Victorian child care was still in evidence even in the 60s, 70s & 80s and children were definitely to be seen and not heard……...this book will educate……Anon

David is currently resident in the United Kingdom, where amongst other professional endeavours, he has embarked on a blossoming career as a Keynote Speaker and Motivational Presenter. He has an adult son and enjoys the comfort of a vast extended family, that is spread across the entirety of the United kingdom.

To quote David in words he would choose himself:
………….Life has been a tough ride at times. It would have been easy, and acceptable to simply give up, to shrink, to fade away as expected.  However, there is an irrepressible force inside all of us called the Human Spirit, and it constantly screams at me, 'David, you may not be responsible for being down, but you are responsible for getting back up again' …………………and so I get up.

The Home by Sarah Stovell

Today is my stop on the blog tour for The Home, the brand new book from Sarah Stovell. My thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for i...