New from Joe Clifford, A Moth To Flame
Rosa Santiago, a healer who relies on the natural resources of her island, is helping yet another army deserter to escape, only this time things are different. She cares for the soldier, for a start, and he has news of a mysterious plague that is devastating the barracks from which has escaped.
General Corales, leader of the occupying forces, would rather spend time in his garden than in conflict. Now he has a terrifying crisis to deal with and a second in command who seems intent of undermining every decision that is made.
Sensing that this may be their time, the revolutionary forces rally for one more attempt to overthrow their oppressors. It won’t be easy for them to bring the different voices together, but the window of opportunity won’t be open for long.
Fever is available from:
The Unpicking tells the story of three generations of women, each the victim of cruel injustices that reflect the institutionalised prejudices of society and the harsh impact of economic structures.
In the opening section, set in 1877, we meet Lilias. She’s a
vulnerable teenager whose parents have just died and who has found a haven of
sorts in the form of her aunt, Evelina. When she falls in love with a gentleman
who is keen to make her acquaintance, all should be well. Lilias has her
mother’s inheritance and her new husband has several financial plans that are
bound to come to fruition in the not-too-distant future. A growing sense that
all is not well begins to build, then creeps along as the story unfolds.
Husband, Arthur, may not be the fine man Lilias felt she met. His business
acumen may not be all that it seemed. He might need to access Lilias’s
inheritance more quickly than he first anticipated, though Aunt Evelina may
have other ideas. Unfortunately, Arthur has all the cards simply because he is
a male of wealth in a twisted society. Clouds of foreboding grow until they
finally break and the storm pours misery everywhere. We soon find out that the
lunatics don’t need to take over the asylum- they built the thing in the first
place and are already in charge.
Skip a generation and we land in The Lock. It’s Glasgow in
1894. Clemmie lives in a home for young girls. As well as providing shelter for
the girls, it also provides the setting for appalling sexual abuse. Clemmie is
one of the older residents and feels it’s her duty to protect the newcomers
from their inevitable fate. Enter Jeannie, naïve and sad and a perfect target
for preying paedophiles. The weight of tension in this section becomes
unbearable as Clemmie needs to escape before her pregnancy shows, while also
needing to keep Jeannie safe. Clemmie uses an old connection to find a new home
in the slums of Glasgow. The injustices of poverty weigh heavily on her as she
struggles to make ends meet while lodging in the room already occupied by a large
family dominated by wee bairns. Still, she manages to maintain her loyalty to
her friend up until the last.
The Turnkey takes us to Glasgow in 1919. Clemmie’s daughter Mabel has landed on her feet. She’s living in luxury and is keen to make a difference
in the world. It’s a time of strikes and suffragettes and yet more inequity.
She’s determined to right the wrongs of history and battles to join the police
force where she is hidden away in an old broom cupboard to do meaningless work.
It doesn’t matter too much to Mabel as this gives her access to information that
may help her find out what happened to her mother. As she digs up information
about the past, she realises the case isn’t quite as cold as some would want it
to be. Mabel cleverly sidesteps prejudice to carry out her work and, like her
mother before her, opens herself up to dangers that she could never have
Each section of The Unpicking tells a compelling tale.
They’re peppered with the perfect amount of historical detail to bring flavours
to the pot, while the nightmares of the situations darken as if walls are
slowly drawing in, until the space is so small that things become disturbingly
claustrophobic. It’s a satisfying mix that has a reader coasting along enjoying
time and place one moment and nervous about turning the page the next.
As a counterbalance to the atmosphere and action, there are
ripples of humour and each of our lead characters, in spite of their courage,
strength and determination, has a gentleness at her core that’s impossible
not to admire.
The Unpicking will open the doors to many a heart. Why not
give it a try? It might be yours that opens.
You don't read a book about witches for a decade, then take on two at once. What's that about? Perhaps it was just my good fortune.
This time, the book came in the form of an audio version over at Audible. Listening to novels isn't my usual style. Though I love spending time with my radio, I find that the focus required to follow a longer story is something else. I've learned that the only way that I can concentrate fully on a story is to do nothing, which I managed to do on this occasion; perhaps it's a testimony to the writing of Math Bird and the nimble-in-voice Emma Stansfield that I did.
There are various sections to Witches Copse that offer different angles of the piece.
Our main force in this book is Dates, a tough woman killer whose services are for hire. On this occasion, she's taken on by Quentin Quimby, an arrogant barrister with a taste for the dark arts. He sends Dates to Wales to back up the pair he's already sent down there, a researcher and a hard man. Things aren't going so well for them. The hard man has turned to jelly on account of the voices in his head, courtesy of a local woman who is in tune with nature among other things and the barman at the place where they are staying is at the end of his tether.
Dates is stubborn enough to survive the Welsh torment that unfolds and returns to Quimby to pass on the news, not that he's entirely happy about the outcome. It wasn't what was expected, after all.
Next we follow the history of the story, something that goes back through generations, the posession of women and their brutal treatment by the authorities. It's all rather spellbinding as well as being chilling.
From here, there's a turn in proceedings. Dates shifts from victor to victim and the tale is turned on its head. It enters a space familiar to me from the Hammer House of Horror films I watched as a child. It captures all the mood, pomp and ceremony along with the hammy over-playing of parts. Things don't look good for Dates until layers of personal politics come to the fore and offer her a slither of hope. As she only really knows one way of going about surviving, there's plenty of raw action to follow.
I did enjoy this one quite a lot and know that if you're more of a horror fan than I am, this will really light some candles in the pentangle. My personal preference was for the first half of the tale, driven by mystery, possession and folklore. The more it entered familiar territory, the less engaged I was, though Bird turns it all on its head in a way that I found refreshing.
If you're after something dark and spooky for Halloween and you enjoy the adrenalin rush of action stories, this one's definitely for you.
I remember the release of this one, how I loved the cover and the name. My curiosity deepened when it won the McIlvanney Prize for the Scottish crime book of the year back in 2020. I'm not sure where the time went.
I finally lifted Pine from the pile and began.
As with so many of the books I read and the films I watch, I had little idea of what to expect. I enjoy the sense of being dropped into totally unfamiliar places and will often avoid blurbs until I'm deep into a story. Pine, I have to say, was as refreshing in terms of its freshness as I might have hoped. Imagine that feeling when you finally plunge into the icy water having stood up to your knees for an age waiting to pluck up the courage; there are pains in private places and your skin burns as if it's been sandpapered off, yet there's a real exhilaration and you keep going until your body finds equilibrium. It was something like that.
I landed in the present tense, observing a father and daughter in an isolated part of Scotland. There's an intensity to both the characters and a dark and smoky-scented mist that swirls around each character and their isolation isn't entirely due to the small-worldliness of their geographical location.
Initially I was concerned that the quality of the writing and the perspectives would be impossible to maintain. There were a couple of tiny, barely perceptible, stumbles where I worried that fragments of the past that were being shown would become trip hazards throughout, but I needn't have worried. Instead, I became drawn into the story and its supernatural shadows until I really couldn't put it down.
Naill is the father. He's probably an alcoholic and is certainly depressed. The disappearance of the love of his life has hollowed him out. He's good with his hands, is musical and wants to do better, yet his pain always wins out and drags him into the self-awareness that he's an awful parent.
Lauren is the daughter. A primary school child who looks up to the older pupils on the school bus and is bullied by her peers. She has a best friend with whom she is building a shelter in the local woods, a mysterious box of spells, crystals and Tarot cards left behind by her mother and an ability to see beyond the physical world.
While out driving one night, a broken woman appears in front of their car. They pick her up and Niall tends to her wounds. In the morning, the woman is gone. Lauren is curious as to what as happened, but Niall appears to have forgotten the entire incident.
Naill will soon receive a call from a neighbour who believes his ex-wife has made an appearance. The neighbour will recall nothing of this when asked.
And unusual things happen. Circles of stones appear in Lauren's life. Her bedroom is tidied by an unseen hand. Something in the house smells unpleasant, but there appears to be no source. There are warnings and a sense that something terrible is about to happen in the community. Which it does.
Pine's a wonderful thing. The quality of the writing is excellent. Toon creates a multi-dimensional world of exteriors and interiors in a way that suggests she has Lauren's magic box at her disposal. The story is beautifully woven together and the build-up of momentum and tension is paced to perfection.
As I mentioned, this was the winner of the Scottish crime book of the year not so long back. If I'd have been among the nominees (yes, I know, that's never going to happen) I might have come away from Bloody Scotland with a touch of bitterness. Yes, there is crime in this book, but it's not a crime novel in the way I have come to understand them. That said, I would also have come away thinking that the best book romped away with the prize and wishing that I could pen something as powerful and captivating before my mind goes.
So, if you've not read this yet, I urge you to take the plunge. It's fantastic and deep and enthralling right until the end.
This was an interesting one for me. It brought two of my favourite things, the 87th Precinct books and Lt. Columbo, together in a way that I wasn't expecting. The blurb hinted at the connection, but it took me until the first illustration of the piece of a photograph to confirm that they were going to be very similar indeed. It took me a little more reading to realise that they were almost identical, the main difference been the switching of parts so that Columbo was now Detective Arthur Brown (or vice versa).
Essentially, two bodies are found and it's clear that they killed each other. There's not much to go on, the only strange thing being the oddly-shaped piece of a snapshot in the hands on one of the victims.
In steps insurance investigator, Irving Krutch (played by Ed Begley Jr in the Undecover episode from Falk's tenth season). He's up to speed on the photograph puzzle, owning a piece himself. When all the pieces are put together, it will lead to the finding of $750K stolen from a bank several years earlier. Krutch wants to find all the pieces to clear his reputation at work and suggests to Brown and Carella that they would make a good team.
The problem for me is that I couldn't separate the book from the TV episode. My mind was constantly creating clashing images and any tension or attempts at problem-solving were undermined by knowing what was just around the corner.
To complicate matters, I watched How To Dial A Murder, where I bumped into Ed Begley Jr again, this time in the role of a police officer.
Trying to unscramble it all became impossible. Let me say that I love the Undercover episode and I also really enjoyed the book.
There are only a few differences between the adaptation and the book as far as I can tell.
First of all, the way the criminal is pinned down is totally altered. The TV version comes up with a slightly unlikely piece of detective work as it seemingly was unable to use the actual ending, possibly because of the potential for controversy.
And second, and a big miss from the adaptation, there are the racist events that Brown encounters while doing his job (including a terrific observation from a prostitute who attempts to dig herself out of trouble by offering Brown oral sex, commenting that the colour of the male appendage makes no difference to her and contradicting her opening lines in the process- go check it out). To me, this tips the win to the novel and I'm sure if I'd read it before watching that this feeling might be even stronger.
All in all, it was great to be back with the 87th again even if this isn't among the best; I'm already looking forward to the next.
'Rico was a simple man. He loved but three things: homself, his hair and his gun. He took excellent care of all three.'
Takes me back, this, to the days when Saturdays were black and white and to trips to the Scala cinema in Kings Cross where a double or triple bill of gangster movies ranked among my favourite passtimes.
All these years later, I've finally caught up and read the book.
It's a terrific tale, always growing and moving forward, like Rico himself, written in a simple style that captures description and mood with plainspeak and aparent ease.
Rico is rising through the ranks. From nothing, he soon takes over his gang based upon his cold menace, violent actions and clever calculations. Needless to say, he makes enemies along the way. He also ignores his orders during a heist and plugs a policeman mid-robbery. It's clear from then on that this is going to haunt him and, indeed, will eventually lead to his downfall.
There's an interesting cast of characters surrounding our protagonist, most of them with a nickname that gives you everything you need. They're all pretty exaggerated. Characatures if you like. It's not that they're not three-dimensional, more that they're distilled downed to their essences - loyal-to-a-fault, bitter, yellow, hard, straight etc.
When he gets to meet the big players, Rico realises that his eyes are bigger than his stomach. Perhaps its his drive to rise further that leads him to errors of judgement. Whatever it is, he's soon on the run and the cops are determined to get their man. His demise is tense and offers a great contrast to the opulence of his dreams and past status, as well as showing us where he came from in the first place.
I thoroughly enjoyed this and it was everything I expected. Not that it was without its challenges. I found some of the dialogue tags (or sometimes the lack of them) difficult to follow and the runs of adjectives could have been cut from three or four to one or two. Even so, it's fast-paced, efficient and a wonderful discription of a disintigrating human mind. I'm sure if I knew my Shakespeare, I might venture to add Shakespearean to pack it into a nutshell.
Punchy writing, brutal clarity and really enjoyable.
To finish, a Big Boy quote just for fun:
'I got a library too and a lot of other stuff that ain't worth a damn. I was talking to a rich guy the other day and he said I was a damn fool to buy real books because he had a library twice as big as mine and dummy books. What the hell! If a guy's gonna have a library, why, I say do it right. So there you are. I got so damn many books it gives me a headache just to look at 'em.'