Friday 27 October 2023

One Man's Opinion: THE UNPICKING by DONNA MOORE



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, na├»ve 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 imagined.

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.

Monday 23 October 2023

One Man's Opinion: WITCHES COPSE by MATH BIRD

 


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.  

 

Thursday 19 October 2023

One Man's Opinion: PINE by FRANCINE TOON



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.