Posted in Book Reviews

The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter – Herald Review

The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter
John Pipkin
Bloomsbury, £18.99

AMERICAN author John Pipkin’s second novel is set in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and chiefly concerns the fate of two women called Caroline. Caroline Herschel is based on a real person, while Caroline Ainsworth is Pipkin’s invention. Their stories are set in a time when exploration of the sciences flourished, especially the study of the night skies, provoked by The Great Six-Tailed Comet of 1744. Visible in London for weeks, it scared some into believing, “that there is a hole in the sky’s vault leaking the bright essence of heaven itself.” It was also a time of revolution. The recent French Revolution was descending into a blood bath while discontent in Ireland grew.

Caroline Ainsworth has grown up in the comfort of a grand house in rural Ireland with her widowed father, Arthur. He has become obsessed with astronomy and Caroline, considered unmarriageable because she has a withered arm, becomes his willing helper. She is faster than her father when it comes to the complex mathematics involved in plotting and predicting where the planets should be. Together they dedicate their lives to probing the night skies and recording their observations. Arthur is convinced that a new planet is waiting to be found, one he calls Theodosium, after his late wife, Theodosia. When musician and amateur astronomer William Herschel declares that he has found it, Arthur loses all reason. He looks at the sun through his telescope in a vain attempt to prove Herschel wrong and before long is blind. When Arthur sickens and dies, Caroline finds out the truth of her origins. Left penniless and feeling betrayed by Arthur, she leaves for London and a new life.

For anyone not familiar with astronomy, but also for those who are, Pipkin’s detailed explanations of how Arthur and Caroline study the night skies will prove fascinating. Their instruments are basic and their telescopes are crudely made by local tradesmen. The long, slow process of casting and polishing the special mirrors used in telescopes reflects the the long, slow process of mapping the planets and stars.

Caroline Herschel was the sister of William Herschel who became Astronomer Royal to the court of George III. Initially, William came to Bath to pursue a career in music but soon his hobby became all-consuming after he discovered the planet Uranus. Caroline’s growth had been stunted by contracting typhus and she had the tell-tale scars of smallpox on her face. Like the other Caroline, she was judged unsuitable for marriage and became a drudge in her mother’s house. William brought her to England and she became his housekeeper and soon his assistant as they investigated the skies. Caroline meticulously noted down William’s observations, what she called, “minding the heavens”. Although overshadowed by her brother, Caroline would go on to discover eight comets and received a small stipend for her work from the king. She was the first woman to be paid for her work in astronomy.

Arthur Ainsworth was obsessed with discovering binary stars, pairs of stars that help astronomers map the heavens. Pipkin weaves this theme of couples into the novel. Caroline and Arthur Ainsworth, Caroline and William Herschel, Arthur and William, and most prominently, Caroline and Caroline, whose lives closely mirror each other. Then there is Caroline Ainsworth and Finn, the blacksmith’s nephew with whom she falls in love and who brings her back to Ireland as rebellion breaks out.

The 1798 Irish rebellion against British rule, inspired by the French and American revolutions, was a bloody and brutal affair that lasted four months. Pipkin does not shy away from describing the cruelty and horrors committed on both sides. As Finn is forced to join the rebels, Caroline Ainsworth patiently waits for his return.

Until the latter stages of the novel, it feels as if one strand of the story isn’t relevant and the effect is a little disjointed even when it is resolved. The tale is told in the third person, focalising on each of the main characters in turn. However, the authorial voice is strong which means that the characters sometimes feel as distant as the stars they observe.
Pipkin’s novel is a lyrical meditation on what it means to be human in an ever changing world. The vastness of the heavens is matched by the passions of the men and women who explore it. Beautifully written with layers touching on science, politics and social change, it is a novel to be savoured and not rushed.

Posted in Book Reviews

1588: A Calendar of Crime Review

SHIRLEY McKay has written five novels in the popular Hew Cullan series, each set against the backdrop of a major political event. Cullan’s latest adventures are set in the year the Spanish Armada tried to invade England and depose Elizabeth I. There are five tales marking key points in the calendar – Candlemas, Whitsunday, Lammas, Martinmas, and Yule – tracing a year in the life of the young scholar, lawyer and sleuth in his St Andrews home.

Candlemas, featuring the suspicious death of Blair the candlemaker in his crackling house, introduces some of the less pleasant aspects of 16th-century life. The process by which tallow candles were made is explained, from the flesher cutting the fat off farm animals to the candle maker preparing it for his candles. Thanks to McKay’s vivid writing the foul smells of boiling animal fat and burning tallow seem to rise up from the page. Cullan’s sure and steady investigative technique discovers the truth, but it is not as black-and-white as he and his friend Dr Giles Locke might wish.

Whitsunday sees local dignitary Lord Justice Semphill dance naked during the night before transforming into a rook. As Cullen investigates, McKay weaves in the fear of witchcraft and various superstitions of the time. It is well done; understated but informative. Meg, Cullen’s sister and an expert in using herbs, helps him to unravel the mystery which includes “an ointment prescribed for griefs of the fundament”. It is an amusing story with the dark subtext of witchcraft lending it added complexity.

McKay has a splendid knowledge of the Scots tongue that comes to the fore in Lammas, with the exchanges between Elspet, in service in the harbour inn, and Walter Bone, her boss. She calls him “Sliddershanks” on account of his crippled legs, while he calls her “Mimmerkin” because of her small and slight stature. He tells her she is not the kind of woman to serve the customers in the bar, being a “pin-hippit runt”, so she works mainly in the kitchen. The Lammas Fair brings excitement and the chance of romance to St Andrews, although for some it has lost its charms. “Fairs are for lovers and bairns, and I am fair trauchled wi both,” says Canny Bett to Cullan. The fear of a Spanish invasion looms large, and as Martinmas comes around so too does Halloween. The veil between the living and dead worlds grows thinner and strange things happen in St Andrews. Cullan and his friends must discover what’s afoot. Are those ghostly figures really the beginning of a Spanish invasion?

Yule again shows McKay’s excellent grasp of the everyday lives of 16th-century Scots. Children learn songs to sing at the nativity and all through the houses the best food and drink that could be afforded is made ready. Treats like minchit pies – filled with fruits, spice and strips of flesh – coloured tarts, marchpanes and gingerbread are made, a surfeit of which causes a “belly-thraw”. However, the festive season doesn’t mean that Cullan’s skills are any less in demand.

McKay makes it easy to slip into 16th-century St Andrews, the sense of place and time is so strong. Mary, Queen of Scots, has been beheaded just the year before and her son, James VI, is King of Scots. Elizabeth Tudor is trying to avoid outright war with the Spanish by using her wits and the information her legion of spies bring her. Cullan, an honest if sometimes staid hero, stands between the old ways, full of superstitions and folklore, and the progressive ideas his education has taught him. McKay is developing Cullan’s private life with his wife, Frances, but for much of the time he is the vehicle through which the reader observes the solution to the mysteries. This means that the other characters are more active and rounded but Cullan is a likeable and reliable guide to the goings-on in Fife’s cathedral town. McKay’s novel in five books is a fascinating evocation of the everyday life of ordinary Scots in the 1500s as well as being a series of first-rate stories. Her use of language is a delight, the sinewy and expressive Scots words aiding the creation of Cullen’s very realistic world. For anyone struggling with the lesser-known words – bumbaise, caquetoire, limmar, pilliewinks – the volume includes a helpful glossary. This is an impressive addition to the Hew Cullan series, and McKay is to be congratulated for the continued quality and inventiveness of her tales.

1588: A Calendar of Crime: A Novel in Five Books by Shirley McKay is published by Polygon, priced £14.99

Posted in Book Reviews

Rather be the Devil Review

Rather be the Devil
Ian Rankin
Orion Books, £19.99
Review by Shirley Whiteside

IAN RANKIN returns to his most famous character, John Rebus, for another tale about the seamier side of Edinburgh. Taking its title from a John Martyn song, it is a story about power and greed, liberally doused with violence and betrayal. It brings Rebus together with his former foe, DI Malcolm Fox, and loyal friend, DI Siobhan Clarke, as he works a cold case. It also reintroduces Gerald Morris Cafferty, a man who once and possibly still does rule the city’s underworld, into Rebus’ life.

Rebus may be retired but the itch to investigate has not left him. Some 40 years before, the beautiful Maria Turquand, an Edinburgh socialite, was murdered in her hotel room at the same time as local-boy-made-good rock star, Bruce Collier, was staying in the hotel with his entourage. The scene was chaotic and Maria’s murderer was never found. Keen to find answers, Rebus asks Clarke to slip him the Turquand files and begins sifting through them looking for clues.

Rankin’s portrayal of the retired Rebus is suffused with melancholy. He should be content, with his work-day worries over and a deepening relationship with Deborah Quant, a police pathologist, but he’s not. His inability to let go of his job and relax into a new way of life is sad. On doctor’s orders he is giving up smoking and cutting down on his drinking, which shortens his temper while potentially lengthening his life.

The main action involves DI Clarke and DI Fox. Clarke is still miffed that Fox got a posting to the Scottish Crime Campus that she wanted and reluctantly agrees to work with him on the murder of a pub bouncer. Rebus becomes a witness as he was the last person to speak to the deceased in the course of his Maria Turquand investigation. Rebus takes full advantage of the opportunities that being inside a police station again offer, from information to chocolate biscuits. However long after he has reason to be there, Rebus turns up again and again in the station, which rather undermines the sense of realism that Rankin uses to underpin his tales.

Clarke and Fox are also investigating an attack on Darryl Christie, an up-and-coming local gangster and suspect that Rebus’ arch enemy, Big Ger Cafferty, might be clipping the upstart’s wings. This gives Rebus the chance to catch up with his old adversary, the one criminal who always got away, who is now “the respectable ex-gangster around town”.

Clarke and Fox make a good team, their differences in approach complementing each other. They work as equals, which makes them a more appealing double act than Clarke and Rebus, with Clarke no longer the sidekick. Yet she remains a rather under-developed character, lacking the kind of personal or inner life that would flesh her out. She is a smart police officer but not adroit enough to negotiate the politics that would have got her the job she wanted. Fox, although tightly buttoned up, is an intriguing character and his relationship with his wayward sister subtley reveals a lot of his backstory and explains why he is normally so by-the-book. Other characters, however, are cardboard cut outs; DI James, Clarke and Fox’s boss is typically pompous, Darryl Christie, is an archetypical young criminal looking to take over Edinburgh’s underworld, and Big Ger Cafferty, who looks like a cartoon thug but has the nous of a wily barrister is no more three-dimensional.

There is a sense of glee as Rankin takes pot shots at bankers and others in the Edinburgh elite. The activities of a scion of a famous banking dynasty, amoral and slippery, are cleverly juxtaposed with those of the professional criminal class. As this suggests, Rather be the Devil is not a crime novel full of desperate chases or explosive revelations. It is the steady untangling of many different strands in order to reach a conclusion on the murders of the bouncer and Maria Turquand. Rankin’s use of language is not remarkable but it does suit his characters, and he has a nice line in sarcastic humour. When Fox is asked how he takes his tea, he says, “Without saliva, preferably.”

While being marketed as a Rebus novel, it actually belongs more to Clarke and Fox. Rebus is a shadowy figure, a metaphor perhaps for the shadow he calls Hank Marvin, which glowers over him throughout the story.

Posted in Book Reviews

A World Gone Mad – Review

Book Review: Pippi Longstocking author’s journals paint a vivid picture of the Second World War

ASTRID Lindgren is best known for her Pippi Longstocking children’s books, which have sold in their millions all over the world. Pippi’s irreverent attitude immediately appealed to children. Stieg Larsson, author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, said that he based his iconic character Lisbeth Salander on her.
In 1939, Lindgren was a 32-year-old office worker living in Stockholm with her husband and two children, a middle-class family living a happy and comfortable life. When the Second World War broke out she followed its progress with a passion, writing a diary into which she pasted reports and articles from the newspapers. From the first months of the “phony war”, to the incredible bravery of her Finnish neighbours, her diary provides a unique view of the rising conflict as seen from a neutral country. On one side the Finns are fighting a brutal war against the Russians, and on the other Norway becomes a Nazi puppet state presided over by the notorious Quisling.

It is shocking to see the war through Lindgren’s eyes, where the Nazis seem like a better option than the Communists hammering on Finland’s flimsy defensive lines. Surprisingly, in the early days of the war Lindgren has rather a low opinion of the British war effort. She feels the British should be doing more to help Finland and Norway, even as Sweden officially refuses to become embroiled. “There’s a lot of bitterness about Britain and its feeble assistance,” Lindgren notes in May, 1940. She is constantly amazed by the indomitable spirit of the Finns, fighting a much larger army and miraculously holding them at bay, and the dogged endurance of the Norwegians who suffer terribly under Nazi occupation.
Rationing plays a big part in Lindgren’s life as she compares the generous rations meted out in Sweden to meagre supplies in other countries. There seems to be a large measure of guilt on her part, as time and again she notes how lucky Swedes are to be warm and well-fed even in the depths of the harsh winters of the early war years. As she writes about her everyday life, she notes that her children still have birthday cakes and presents while children in Greece are facing starvation. She writes: “Why, our rations are pure gluttony, though we think them stingy.”
As well as getting her information from newspapers and radio, Lindgren’s job at the Postal Control Division gave her access to scraps of news from all over Europe. She steamed open envelopes to read the contents, blacking out anything that mentioned military locations or classified information. Although her work was confidential, it didn’t stop her copying parts of letters into her diary or musing on the news of the war the correspondence often contained. A letter written by a Norwegian woman in 1943 infuriates Lindgren with her claim that everything in Norway is good and the Germans aren’t getting in the way. “I’ve never heard anyone else make such grotesque assertions,” writes Lindgren. Being able to draw on the voices of so many different people’s hopes and fears enables Lindgren to paint a vivid and intimate picture of ordinary people in extraordinary times.
Although she had yet to express any literary ambitions, it is clear from her diaries that Lindgren was a talented writer. She had an eye for detail, and a sharp sense of humour amidst all the horrors she wrote about. She started to entertain her daughter, and then her daughter’s friends, with stories featuring Pippi Longstocking, and in 1945 the first Pippi book was published and became an immediate classic of children’s literature.
Lindgren’s diaries were published posthumously, which is a pity as she deserved to know they would be received with critical acclaim. In the Swedish version there are facsimile copies of the articles that she cut and pasted into her diary. In this, the first English version, there is just a short description of them, which is an odd omission.
Also, the translator has replaced Lindgren’s references to England with Britain, an unnecessary modernising of a term that was universally used and understood to mean Britain at the time.
Nevertheless, in the midst of a world gone mad, Lindgren’s diaries show a compassionate and curious woman trying to fathom the horrors of war through her writing, and leaving behind a wonderful insight into life during a global conflict.
A World Gone Mad – The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939-1945, Translated by Sarah Death is published by Pushkin Press, priced £18.99

Posted in Book Reviews

Dark Water – Herald Review

Review: Dark Water by Sara Bailey

Nightingale Editions, £8.99

Review by Shirley Whiteside

Dark water is a diving term that is used when a diver no longer knows which way is up and which is down. It is a fitting title for Sara Bailey’s debut novel, a haunting tale of teenage obsession and betrayal where things are not quite as they first seem.
Helena returns to her childhood home on Orkney after many years away, a glossy metropolitan version of her former self. She is back to look after her father who is very ill, and to help her step-mother. As soon as she steps onto the island news of her return seems to spread by osmosis. This feature of life on a small island immediately sets the scene for the rest of the story. Bailey creates a suffocating atmosphere where secrets are almost impossible to keep. But there are some hidden truths yet to come to light, such as the mysterious disappearance Anastasia, Helena’s best friend, who never returned from a moonlight dare to swim between the ship wrecks around Orkney. Helena fled the island soon after Anastasia vanished, and her return dredges up painful memories.
The intense nature of the teenage friendship between Helena and Anastasia is worryingly obsessive; writing notes to each other in their own blood, and promising to stick together, “through sick and sin”. When boys enter their world, a fissure forms that slowly widens, stretching the girls’ loyalty to each other to breaking point.
Helena narrates most of the story, with some sections told in the third person, and it works well, giving characters such as Dylan, Helena’s first love, more breadth and depth. The flashbacks are particularly well handled with the wild swoops of over-confidence and then crippling shyness showing how confusing the mid-teenage years can be. The supporting characters are carefully drawn, especially Helena’s ailing father and worn-out step-mother. Gloria, a family friend and near-neighbour who has taken over Anastasia’s old home, is wonderfully blunt and pushy.

In Bailey’s hands, Orkney becomes a character in its own right. The very particular light, the constant wind and unpredictable weather, and the savage beauty of the landscape form a dramatic backdrop to her story. The scenes where the teenage girls skinny dip in the still-cold summer seas are dreamlike as they swim in and around the ship wrecks that once protected Orkney’s natural harbours from Nazi invasion. Lying on the rocks to dry out, they share their deepest secrets and hopes for their futures that lie far away from Orkney’s shores. Their plans always include each other.
This is not a fast-paced thriller but Bailey does control the flow of information skilfully, and it never drags or feels padded out. Instead, it is a slow-burn, psychological study that is both gripping and emotionally involving. It is well plotted and it is hard to believe that this is Bailey’s debut. It feels like a story that has waited a long time to be told and has resonances with her own recent return to Orkney after a long time away.

Posted in Book Reviews

The Turncoat – Review

More than 500 died and 600 were seriously injured in Clydebank in two nights of bombing by the Luftwaffe in March 1941

ON THE night of March 13, 1941, German bombers targeted the shipyards and munitions factories in Clydebank, trying to disrupt the British war effort.
Houses close to the docks and factories were bombed out. The Luftwaffe returned the following and deliberately targeted civilian housing, hoping to break the people’s spirit. Clydebank was flattened with only seven houses escaping damage, leaving 35,000 people without a home. More than 500 people died and more than 600 seriously injured, while hundreds more suffered less acute wounds. The Clydebank Blitz was somewhat overshadowed by the tragic events taking place all over the world but it was one of the most devastating attacks on home soil. Historian Alan Murray takes these facts and weaves around them a plausible thriller featuring army intelligence, the IRA and Hitler’s deputy, Rudolph Hess.

The novel opens with a prologue detailing the death and destruction wrought on Clydebank, immediately catapulting the reader into the chaos of 1941. Murray quickly moves his main characters into view as they investigate the suspicious death of their informer, Billy Dalgleish, in Partick. Major George McLean and Sergeant Danny Inglis come from Room 21A, military intelligence, which gives them the freedom to investigate wherever they see fit.
The Major is a former journalist at the Glasgow Herald, an educated and well-read man, who hopes to return to his old job when the war ends. Inglis is more of a loud-mouth, never afraid to get his hands dirty should a suspect require some not-so-gentle persuasion. Both are veterans of the Great War and together they scour the west of Scotland for spies and traitors.
They report to Brigadier Ewen Stuart, a posh old buffer, who at first seems to be a caricature. However, there is a sense that Murray is having a bit of fun with this character, peppering his pompous dialogue with French phrases. He talks about “La Not-So-Grand Guerre” and asks his aide to do things “toute de suite” and keep things “entre nous”. He provides some light relief and may not be quite as ineffective as he seems.
The plot revolves around a whisper that the second night of the Luftwaffe bombing run was so accurate and destructive because the Germans were being fed information from someone in Clydebank. The only strangers in town happen to be two Irishmen, “Cafflicks” passing themselves off as “Proddies” to get a job on the docks. The Major suspects that the IRA might be helping the Germans out. They organise a manhunt to find the men before they escape back to Ireland and try to find Chrysalis, the mastermind behind the spying operation.
Meanwhile, Rudolf Hess crash lands in Scotland, and military intelligence must find out why.
They are joined in their investigations by the very proper Finola Fraser, a reporter for the Glasgow Herald who has a nose for a story and network of people happy to tip her off to anything newsworthy.
“She’s very solid. Middle-of-the-road. A daughter of the manse, you know,” the Brigadier said. “She’s the right type.”
Again, Murray teases as Finola Fraser seems like a parody but turns out to have hidden depths.
The circles that the Major and Inglis observe in the course of their work are less than glorious. Murray paints this parallel universe well, peopling it with black marketeers and petty criminals happy to inform on their colleagues for the right price. He creates a realistic atmosphere of anger, sadness and determination around the destroyed Clydebank, as the community refuses to give up. As a historian, Murray is well-placed to sprinkle telling historical facts throughout the tale, adding to the strong sense of time and place. The privations of rationing mean that even the Major and Inglis are happy to buy cigarettes and whisky from the black market.
There are echoes here of the television series, Foyle’s War, and Murray’s novel unfolds at the same stately pace. This suits the era well, a time when communication was slow and difficult and forensics were basic. Murray’s characterisation is a bit thin at times but a complex plot and plenty of authentic details make for an absorbing and informative read. The Major and Inglis complement each other well and Finola Fraser adds a sharp intellect and a splash of glamour. These are characters that could easily support a number of sequels if Murray is minded to give them another outing.

The Turncoat by Alan Murray is published by Freight Books, priced £9.99.

Posted in Book Reviews

Cartes Postale from Greece – Book Oxygen Review

Cartes Postale from Greece

Victoria Hislop

Published by Headline Review 22 September 2016

429pp, hardback, £19.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Click here to buy this book


This is Victoria Hislop’s sixth work of fiction, and rather than a novel it is a series of short stories and vignettes framed within two narratives. Filled with photographs of Greece, it’s a charming book designed as the ideal read for busy people or those on holiday.  The comforting, conversational style means it easy to put the book down for a while and then pick up the threads of the stories again.

It opens with Ellie, a newcomer to London who is feeling lonely and isolated, wondering where the bright lights and beautiful people are hiding. One day a postcard arrives from Greece, signed ‘A’. Ellie assumes that the postcard is meant for a previous occupant of her rented basement flat, but the postcards keep arriving and Ellie begins to look forward to them. The collage she makes of them brightens her miserable home and she is dejected when, after six months, they suddenly stop. Although Ellie is the first frame for the short stories, Hislop does not dismiss her with a thumbnail sketch. Ellie is given a backstory, and her feelings of isolation are authentic. The postcards from the mysterious ‘A’ fill a clearly outlined emotional void and Ellie’s sudden decision to see Greece for herself does not feel forced.

Just as Ellie is leaving for the airport a notebook arrives and she stuffs it into her bags. She soon discovers that ‘A’ has written it, recording his journeys through Greece and his feelings about the woman to  whom he had addressed the postcards, who seems to have left him. So begins the second frame, as ‘A’ travels through Greece and relays the stories, myths and gossip that he hears. The stories range from funny to touching and scary, and each is a short, self-contained tale. Hislop manages to convey the rhythms of Greeks speaking English without lapsing into parody, which is a relief. The character of the country comes through strongly as do the events that shaped it, such as the Turkish occupation and the atrocities committed during the Nazi occupation in World War II. The current financial crisis is well covered, as are the blood feuds of ancient and modern times.

‘A’ spills his anguish into the notebook as he tries to heal his heartbreak. Slowly he begins to put things into perspective, taking a more philosophical view of the break-up of his relationship. Greece, a beautiful and diverse landscape, works its magic and brings him a measure of peace.

The many photos scattered throughout the book show Greece in its various guises. At times if feels as if there are perhaps too many images. It is said that radio has the best pictures and that often applies to books too. The book’s ending is rather too neat and tidy but it will appeal to romantics. ‘A’s story may be sad but the book closes on a positive note for him and Ellie.

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For Those Who Know the Ending by Malcolm Mackay – Herald Review

Review – For Those Who Know the Ending by Malcolm Mackay

Shirley Whiteside

For Those Who Know the Ending

Malcolm Mackay

Mantle, £16.99

Malcolm Mackay, an award-winning Hebridean author, cites Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain amongst his favourite hardboiled writers, and you can feel their influence on his sixth novel, set in contemporary Glasgow. He creates a world where being a hit-man is a career choice, one with the opportunity to travel and see the seedy underbelly of different cities. With these familiar elements, Mackay’s tale could easily become a tired tale full of clichéd characters. Instead, it is a fast-paced, page-turning journey through a nightmarish world of ruthless men.

Martin Sivok arrives in Glasgow from the Czech Republic: “First day off the plane in Glasgow and he realised he had learned the wrong English.” He’s a hit-man without a home, trying to gain a foothold in the city’s crime scene. It’s not easy to become part of an industry that relies on trust, loyalty, and personal recommendation. Sivok finds himself doing low-level jobs with low-level pay. He needs to move up the food chain and earn serious money, especially now that he has more or less moved in with Joanne Mathie, and finds himself happily settled with her. He reluctantly hooks up with Usman Kassar, “thin as a rail, smooth cheeked and full of grins”. Kassar is a small time criminal with big time ambitions. Together the two plan to pull off a daring heist, putting them firmly in the cross-hairs of the Jamieson family, one of the most feared criminal families in the city. This brings Nate Colgan into the picture, “security consultant” for the Jamiesons, and a man who knows how to unleash the darkness inside himself. He also knows that if he doesn’t sort out the Jamiesons’ little problem, he could be on the receiving end of their fury. Not only do the Jamiesons want their property back, they want to make an example of those who have dared to move against them. And so the game begins, but not all playing know the ending.

Mackay’s setting is Glasgow, a city that he has only visited a handful of times, and it shows inasmuch as the story could be taking place in any large urban environment, and the absence of Glasgow’s distinct personality is jarring.

Although the main characters are criminals of one kind or another, Mackay contrasts their violent, brutal work with everyday lives that are ordinary to the point of being dull. They have bills to pay, relationships to make work, and children to care for. The only extraordinary thing about them is their job, and even then they have to dress appropriately and turn up on time. In this scenario, even the most ruthless men have some redeeming qualities, blurring the line between good and bad until it becomes a vague, grey smudge.

Mackay’s writing is clean and spare, with flashes of dark humour, as when he describes a wannabe gangster trying to impress a woman: “She gave him a look that a beautiful woman would give a pathetic, thirteen-year-old boy and got up”. His sentences are often short, almost staccato, as you might expect from a fan of hardboiled fiction. Some of the minor characters are thumbnail sketches but Mackay gives his main characters plenty of light and shade with a pleasing economy of words. Women do not feature strongly in the main action. They are wives, girlfriends, and daughters, looking the other way while the men go about their business, and waiting for them to come home in one piece. The men’s personal relationships do however provide a glimpse of the person behind their frightening exteriors, showing that they are capable of more than anger and violence.

A cast of characters is included which is useful in determining who’s who (and who’s after whom) in the incestuous world of professional criminals. Mackay handles the material well, revealing how each character fits into the whole and succinctly explaining the various vendettas, loyalties and betrayals. It is a quick read, but not one for those who enjoy the cosy end of the crime genre. There is violence and suffering but those involved accept it as an occupational hazard. Mackay has produced a satisfyingly twisty tale but his real skill lies in making monsters not only human, but characters that deserve a little sympathy for their brutal lives. It is this moral ambiguity that makes this novel such a gripping read.

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The Museum of You – Book Oxygen Review

The Museum of You

Carys Bray

Published by Hutchinson 16 June 2016

360pp, hardback, £12.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside



Clover Quinn is twelve years old, and this is the first summer that her dad, Darren, has trusted her to stay at home alone during the school holidays. He is busy driving a bus from Southport to Liverpool and back, twice a day, worrying about his daughter, re-examining her every action, and wondering whether she is happy. Becky, Clover’s mother, died when her daughter was just weeks old so it has always been just the two of them, muddling along in the shadow of Becky. Darren never talks about his wife and his daughter isn’t sure how to ask about her.

Clover has been enjoying visits to various museums with the school and decides to curate her own exhibition, made up from Becky’s things which are still stored in the spare room. It is her way of getting to know her mother and a surprise for her father. Bray intersperses the narrative with Clover’s lists and plans for her exhibition which are delightfully detailed and charmingly naive. As Clover gathers specific items, she learns things about her mother that her father has kept secret and is torn between loyalty to him and wanting to know about Becky. Bray subtly shows how Clover is missing a vital piece of her life without being mawkish or overly sentimental.

Clover is an endearing character, sometimes wise beyond her years, sometimes just a little girl who wants a mum. She is bright and resourceful, full of ideas and questions about the world. She is a plucky girl and it is easy to both empathize with her loss and admire her determination to do something about it. There is a simplicity to her thinking that is in keeping with her tender years, the kind of childish logic that sadly doesn’t survive the teenage years.

At times, Darren seems less capable than his daughter, and if there is one criticism about the novel it is that Darren’s voice is not different enough from Clover’s. Darren has sacrificed his own dreams to care for his daughter, the child he and Becky didn’t even know was on the way. His world has become very limited, built around Clover and her happiness, and his deep-seated loneliness is gently inferred.

Bray’s supporting characters add colour and interest to the story, particularly the Quinn’s neighbour, Mrs Mackerel. She has a habit of speaking loudly and precisely when making a point, which Bray shows by capitalizing parts of her speech. She provides the light relief in the story, an interfering woman whose heart is in the right place. She often looks after Clover, a sort of substitute aunt or grandmother, and anchors the Quinns in their neighbourhood.

Bray has written a compassionate story about fathers and daughters, painting an affectionate picture of a girl approaching puberty who misses the mother she never knew. It is a charming read with surprising emotional depths.

Posted in Book Reviews

The Sun King Conspiracy – Book Oxygen Review

The Sun King Conspiracy

Yves Jégo and Denis Lépée

Translated from the French by Sue Dyson

Published by Gallic Books

448 pp, paperback, £8.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Click here to buy this book


It is 1661. In England, Charles II is being restored to the British throne, but in France, where the young Louis XIV – the future Sun King – rules, there is a underlying spirit of unhappiness and unrest.

At times, Jégo and Lépée’s story reads like a Dan Brown novel set in the seventeenth century, with obscure clues and baffling mysteries to be unravelled. There is a raid by a mysterious religious group searching for incriminating papers in the possession of Cardinal Mazarin, Chief Minister of France. Mazarin has been guiding Louis XIV throughout his kingship but now Mazarin is dying and all around the court men are jostling for position, keen to succeed him. The cardinal and the king’s mother, Anne of Austria, will go to any lengths to protect Louis from factions trying to prove that the king is the cardinal’s son and not the offspring of Louis XIII.  If that rumour were to be believed, France would be plunged into disarray. So begins a game of cat and mouse featuring a number of real historical characters, including Fouquet, Colbert, and Molière.

There’s also a mysterious religious brotherhood with a secret to secure, a secret that goes back to the time of Christ. These characters swish around in dark cloaks, hiding in the shadows, appearing and disappearing just as quickly. No one is to be trusted, not with what it is at stake. Who they are and their purpose is only slowly revealed.

In the midst of the swirling conspiracies lands Gabriel de Pontbriand, who has escaped his dull, middle-class life and run away to Paris to become an actor. His break comes when he is appointed secretary to the great playwright, Molière. Gabriel lives in a dingy room in a poor part of Paris but working in the theatre makes any privations worthwhile. One day, some of Mazarin’s secret papers fall into his hands. Gabriel  does not know who has stolen the papers nor who is behind the ruthless attempts to retrieve them, but now he is unwittingly drawn into the search for proof of Louis’ parentage

This novel could easily translate into the kind of sumptuous period film that the French produce so well. The details of the grand houses and the comfortable lives of the aristocracy contrast sharply with the poverty of the ordinary people of Paris. The social mores of the court are well observed as is Louis’ transformation from boy king to the legendary Sun King of France.  This is a fun, swashbuckling romance liberally doused with secrets, lies, betrayal and lust. Whether it is historically accurate is rather beside the point, although the inclusion of real historical figures does add greatly to the sense of time and place. It is a fast-paced romp through seventeenth-century Paris, but with enough research and depth to keep most lovers of historical fiction gripped.