280pp, paperback, £8.99
Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside
Mothers and daughters have long provided inspiration for writers. Their complex, multifaceted relationships are like no others. Lilias, a jobbing actress, is the Lady Macbeth of the title in Ajay Close’s fifth novel. Now in her later years, Lilias was a reluctant mother to Freya, who spent her childhood being dumped on friends while Lilias was working, or helping out the landladies in countless theatrical digs. Freya has never known who her father is as Lilias refuses point blank to reveal his identity. It is hard not to be amused by Lilias even as she displays her innate selfishness. She is a narcissist and has a casual relationship with the truth, especially when it comes to her career. The world revolves around Lilias, or it should, and Freya is a bit-player in her mother’s life.
Now in her early forties, Freya and her husband, Frankie, are trying to have a baby and are going down the IVF route. It is costly but Frankie is a television sports reporter and Freya is a senior civil servant working for the Scottish government so they have the funds. They sign up with a private clinic out in the glorious Perthshire countryside and Freya is told she must live locally in order to visit the clinic daily. This, she is told, is the secret of their success. Freya sees the photos of dozens of cherubic babies pinned to the walls of the clinic and grudgingly agrees. There is a business-like brutality to the clinic. Vast sums of money are demanded and couples are put on a production line, desperately hoping there is a baby when they reach the end of it.
Freya is a fascinating character, seemingly well-adjusted in spite of her peripatetic childhood and hoping to give a child a very different upbringing to her own. She is often the adult in her exchanges with her mother but Lilias can still cut her to the quick with the sharp side of her tongue. Working to create a family gives Freya the impetus to find out more about her own. She decides to look for her father which enrages her mother but Lilias has one more great dramatic role to perform. The past echoes in the present as Freya, unwittingly, seems to be reliving her mother’s life during Lilias’s pregnancy, which is told in vivid flashbacks.
Frankie has adored Freya since they were children but the IVF process takes its toll on their marriage. Freya displays some ambivalence about their relationship and her impulsive actions put it at risk. Frankie is also having a mid-life crisis as a younger colleague at work threatens his position, which only adds to the strain on their marriage.
Close is exploring important matters; nature and artifice, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, loyalty and betrayal. Her prose, as usual, is beautifully polished but this is her most emotional novel to date and is partly inspired by her own experiences. As a picture of a marriage crumbling under pressure it is melancholy and all too genuine. However, it is the rounded and byzantine relationship between Freya and Lilias that lingers long in the mind.
346pp, hardback, £12.99
Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside
Nicole Dennis-Benn goes behind the bright sunshine, golden sands and blue seas of Jamaica that visitors see to explore the lives of four very different women. Beyond the tourist traps, many Jamaicans are struggling to survive as new developments threaten their already impoverished lives. Those who can leave, those who can’t wait and worry.
Margot lives in a shack in River Bank, with her mother Dolores, younger sister Thandi, and her silent grandmother Merle. Margot works at a tourist hotel, supplementing her salary by providing ‘personal services’ to the rich men who book in. Dolores sells souvenirs and trinkets to the visitors who arrive on cruise ships, but business isn’t good. Both women work to send fifteen-year-old Thandi to an expensive school, vowing that she will have a better life than either of them have known. Thandi, who has to deal with her mother and sister’s expectations that she will become a doctor and leave River Bank far behind, wants to be an artist. She also fall in love with a local boy of whom Dolores disapproves.
Margot may prostitute herself with guests and her boss, but it is Verdene, the village outcast, who holds her heart. Verdene lives alone in a pink house, shunned because she was caught with another girl at college and sent abroad in disgrace. Verdene came home when her mother died but she is still considered a witch by all save Margot. Their love puts them both in serious danger. The girl that Verdene was with at college was raped and murdered when she went back to her home town. Verdene worries that Margot may be subject to the same fate, so their affair is conducted under the cover of darkness.
Dennis-Benn excels in laying bare the love/hate nature of the relationships between the women. Margot and Dolores are constantly sniping at each other, trying to score points and have the last word. There is an unspoken anger hanging in the air between them that is almost tangible. Dolores feels that life has dealt her a bad hand and can’t understand why her daughters aren’t more grateful to her. Margot feel she owes Dolores nothing, having sacrificed her young body to earn the money that will be her passport out of River Bank and away from Dolores. Both women adore Thandi but the daily pressure they put upon her to do well at school is taking its toll.
Dennis-Benn roots the story firmly in Jamaica by using local patois in speech which has a musicality and poetry all of its own. Through Thandi she shows the discrimination against girls with dark skins and the lengths some will go to in order to have the light brown skin that is considered beautiful. It is another desperately sad example of healthy young women being told they are not enough in themselves.
Here Comes the Sun is a wonderful exploration of the very particular world in which these four women find themselves. All of them are looking for a better life away from the poverty of River Bank, all of them wanting to share in the seemingly perfect lives of the rich tourists. It is a very different view of Jamaica, but it feels more honest and authentic than the glossy travel brochures.
Review: Cross Purpose, by Claire MacLeary, Contraband, and Ed’s Dead, by Russel D McLean, Contraband
Russel D McLean
Review by Shirley Whiteside
TWO middle-aged women may not seem the ideal protagonists for a crime novel but in Claire MacLeary’s debut they offer a refreshingly different approach to the private investigator genre. The setting is respectable suburban Aberdeen and the city’s dank housing estates with their drug dealers and feral children. MacLeary’s double act are not exactly Cagney and Lacey but that is what makes them so interesting. Maggie Laird is the prim widow of a disgraced police officer who eked out a living as a private investigator when he was flung out of the police for corruption. Her next door neighbour, Wilma, is brash and gaudy but she has the street smarts that Maggie lacks. When Maggie discovers she has been left with debts that her part-time job will not cover, Wilma encourages her to take over her late husband’s clients. Maggie agrees but with two conditions. Firstly, Wilma becomes her partner, and secondly that they set out to clear her husband’s name. This odd couple rub along, knocking the edges off each other and discovering as much about themselves as each other. Maggie begins to let her guard down while Wilma shows that she is far more capable than either of them could have imagined. Murder, drug dealing, vicious gangs and dodgy policemen: the women take them all on in their own fashion. MacLeary has created a fast-paced tale with enough sub-plots to sustain the reader’s interest from first to last. Maggie, with her skelly eye, and Wilma with her spray painted leggings, make a formidable duo and there is plenty of scope for MacLeary to continue the adventures of the Aberdonian quines.
Russel D McLean’s seventh novel is set in Glasgow and features Jen Carter, a failed writer who has become a bookseller. McLean knows plenty about Jen’s job, being a former bookseller himself before turning to writing full time. Ed, Jen’s boyfriend, is not the reliable type and has some dubious connections with Glasgow ‘businessmen’. One night Jen accidentally kills Ed and instead of calling the police and explaining, she decides to dispose of Ed’s body. She calls Dave, Ed’s stoner flatmate, and they get rid of the body. They split Ed’s loot; Jen takes his stash of cash while Dave takes custody of the drugs. At first it seems as if they have managed to get away with it but the money and the drugs didn’t actually belong to Ed and their rightful owner wants them back. Jen finds herself being chased by a hitman, gangsters, journalists, and crooked policemen. As the bodies pile up the tabloid press name her The Most Dangerous Woman in Scotland.
There is a lot of violence in this novel, and some of it is brutal, but McLean provides enough characterisation and pitch black humour to stop it sliding into a kill-fest. Solomon Buchan, who rules the city by instilling fear in his employees and victims alike, promises bloody vengeance on anyone who crosses him. Michael, a corrupt cop, is living too close to the edge and making too many mistakes for Buchan’s liking. Dave, Ed’s supposed friend, shows an unlikely entrepreneurial streak that only serves to plunge him further into trouble. The most intriguing character is Jen Carter, who starts off living a normal, anodyne life with a charming but dodgy boyfriend, her dreams being pushed on to the back burner as she sells books instead of writing them. Her instinct to call Dave rather than the police when she kills Ed seems odd, as is her agreement to go along with his rather gory plan. She lies and cheats like a pro and stands up to Buchan when no one else will. Death follows her around like a bad smell but she never seems broken by her losses. Is she really an innocent caught up in other people’s deadly games or does she have hidden depths? It is this dichotomy that makes her so fascinating. McLean has left the door open for Jen to return for another duel with the bad guys.
Contraband, an imprint of Saraband Books dedicated to crime and thriller novels, has already had major success with Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project. These novels will enhance their reputation for publishing gripping Scottish crime novels.