March 23

Disclaimer – Renee Knight

DisclaimerWhat if you realized the book you were reading was all about you?

It is unmistakably you.

Worse, it is about something that you have never told anyone – anyone living that is.

 

Many thanks to Alison Barrow of Transworld for my review copy.

 

Catherine Ravenscroft is reading a book. As the story unfolds she realises that she is reading her own story, the character names have been changed but there is no doubt that this is a book about her. Unfortunately for Catherine this is not a flattering tale and her darkest secrets are being revealed and even worse the ending is genuinely terrifying as it portrays Catherine’s death.

How has this book made its way into her home? Who is the author that has been able to recount events that only Catherine can know about? And who else is reading the book?

Disclaimer is one of the books that I cannot discuss too openly in a review. A psychological thriller which you need to read for yourself to appreciate the impact of the twists and revelations. Renee Knight has delivered a tight thriller depicting a woman who is trying to retain a degree of control while all around her the life she has built for her-self is crumbling apart.

My (non-spoiler) thoughts in brief:

Initially it is easy to empathise with Catherine: someone is targeting her and she is scared. Then we meet author of the book and learn that there are two sides to every story and we start to question what we know about Catherine. A nice touch as I had been too trusting that Catherine was all she appeared to be – who is telling the truth?

Renee Knight does a masterful job of depicting Catherine’s descent into a fearful paranoia. Secrets will out but there will be pain and heartbreak before all the facts are known.

An unsettling story but one that will keep you reading late into the night.

 

Disclaimer is published by Doubleday on 9th April 2015.

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March 21

An American Caddie in St Andrews

American Caddie 3St Andrews, known around the world as ‘the home of golf’, is legendary, and its history and traditions are deeply embedded in the local community that has kept it going for centuries. The caddies on the Old Course are a font of knowledge and an institution in their own right.

Into this venerable institution steps Oliver Horovitz, a young American Harvard student – and keen golfer – on a gap year at the University of St Andrews. During this year, his most important discovery – by far – is that everyone at St Andrews plays golf – including very cute girls. When term ends, Ollie joins the St Andrews caddie trainee program and spends the summer awaking at 4.30am to line up at the caddie shack, looping two, sometimes three, rounds a day. After months of struggling to gain acceptance from the notoriously gruff, perpetually hungover veteran caddies, he finally earns his full caddie stripes.

Full of life and drama, this is a warm and insightful view of the vibrant characters who inhabit this world, along with all their idiosyncrasies; it is also a tale of growing up and finding one’s place in the world, against the brilliant green backdrop of the Old Course, and will appeal to golfers up and down the UK.

 

My thanks to Elliott & Thompson  for my review copy.

Check through my blog for non-fiction titles, you will not find many! This is not my genre of choice and it takes something pretty special to drag me away from my thrillers and crime books. An American Caddie in St Andrews is one of those special books – a story of a life and a young man living the dream.

Oliver Horovitz had a gap year prior to beginning his studies at Harvard. He travelled from America to the St Andrews, Scotland – the Home of Golf – with a view to joining the team of caddies that work on the many courses around the ancient Fife town.

Oliver HorovitzWe follow Oliver’s journey from his days learning the ropes as a rookie in the caddie pool; through to eventually becoming an accepted member of the team. He introduces us to the characters that he works alongside, his friends, the golfers and his family – in particular Oliver’s Uncle Ken who is a St Andrews resident and seemingly Oliver’s best friend.

I loved reading Oliver’s stories of the time he spent with Uncle Ken during his time living in St Andrews. Despite the highs and lows that Oliver endures through the telling of his story it is his Uncle Ken that is his constant reliable companion.

The important thing to understand about An American Caddie…you do not have to be a golf fan to enjoy this book. Obviously there is a fair bit of golfing chat going to crop up in a story set on golf courses but Oliver’s narration guides you through the detail you need to know. The beauty of this book is the rich diversity of characters we encounter – this is a book about people not a book about golf.

Reading An American Caddie in St Andrews was a delight. At the end of each season when Oliver returned to America you felt the heart wrench that Oliver did. You also share the elation on his return trips. We fear encounters with the fearsome St Andrews Caddie Master and we despair at the embarrassing antics of some of the OTT golfers that grace the famous Old Course.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough it is funny, heart-warming, compelling and (sadly) heart-breaking too. I doubt you will find a better narrator than Oliver Horovitz in any book you read this year.

If you have a golf fan in your family then An American Caddie in St Andrews should top your list of gift ideas – this is not a book to overlook and I would score it 5/5.

 

An American Caddie in St Andrews is published by Elliott & Thompson and is available in paperback and digital format.

http://eandtbooks.com/book/american-caddie-st-andrews

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March 20

After The Storm – Jane Lythell

After The StormSome secrets destroy you.

Rob and Anna have only just met Owen and Kim. Now they’ve boarded their handsome old boat to travel to a far off island in the Caribbean.

With only the four of them on board, it should be paradise: lazy afternoons spent snorkelling; long nights enjoying the silence and solitude of the sea.

But why does Owen never sleep? Why is he so secretive about his past? And why does Kim keep a knife zipped into her money-belt? Anna can usually get people to talk… but this time, does she want to?

 

Many thanks to Head of Zeus for my review copy.

 

Two couples on a boat in the Caribbean. They all have their emotional baggage, they do not all get on and at least two of the four characters do not want to be on the boat. Clearly there are going to be conflicts and clashes in After The Storm.

Having read the book over the last couple of days I think that this one may split the crowd. There are a lot of positive elements, however, I am not sure it will float everyone’s boat (sorry, sorry – terrible pun).

From the outset of the story Jane Lythell is building up the tension between her four key characters (Owen, Kim, Rob and Anna). For the majority of the book she places the two couples in the close confines of a dilapidated boat which is sailing around Caribbean Islands. Living in each other’s pockets for several days at sea places a strain on these four relative strangers and it is interesting to see how the author changed the group dynamics as the story progresses.

But as I read I kept waiting for something to happen. More tension was built up but still no trigger events. The boat docks on an island and the couples part for a while only to reunite when the tension level between them has simmered back down.   Repeat the slow build towards an inevitable explosion.

As the reader reaches the end of the novel we get the payoff. All the doubts and suspicions come to the fore, unexpected external factors suddenly play a significant role and everything kicks off. There are revelations which will shock and there are others which were clearly signposted from early in the book. It will either grab you and keep you flicking the pages to find what happens to our couples – or you will plod to the end just to see where the payoff was coming from.

I am afraid that I was not wowed by After The Storm and I only kept going as I was interested to see what would finally trigger the finale. In contrast (and I HAVE to mention this) I spoke with a friend who has also read the book and she thought it was magnificent – loved the characters, was distressed by some developments and was devastated when the book ended. As I said – a crowd splitter.

Not for me but I loved the Caribbean setting and I thought the author captured the setting and majesty of the islands brilliantly.

 

Twitter: @janelythell
Facebook: Jane Lythell Author
Jane’s blog: http://chroniclesofchloegreene.blogspot.co.uk/

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March 18

The Death House – Sarah Pinborough

The Death House

 

Toby’s life was perfectly normal… until it was unravelled by something as simple as a blood test.

Taken from his family, Toby now lives in the Death House: an out-of-time existence far from the modern world, where he, and the others who live there, are studied by Matron and her team of nurses. They’re looking for any sign of sickness. Any sign of their wards changing. Any sign that it’s time to take them to the sanatorium.

No one returns from the sanatorium.

 

Where to start with this haunting story?

We have a world very similar to our own – yet very different. Children appear to be susceptible to a mysterious ‘defective’ gene. They are all tested for the deficiency and for those that are identified as having the deficiency are shipped off to a remote island to live in virtual isolation in The Death House. There they will remain until their (undefined) illness triggers and they are taken to the sanatorium. They never return.

The main focus of The Death House is very much the children – nurses and teachers are peripheral characters. We are guided through the story by Toby, he is one of the older children in residence and holds a degree of influence over the younger kids. As is the way of any group factions and friendships are formed and, for the most part, the kids get on with life in their unusual out of time existence. I say out of time as there are references to old books, record players and old games – no videogames, mobiles or modern tech on show here.

There is the constant threat of illness and a trip to the sanatorium lurking over the whole story, however, for the majority of the reading you could be mistaken into believing you were reading a coming of age story or an updated take on the boarding school tales of our childhood. Imagine Jennings or Mallory Towers with the children boarding in The Shining’s Overlook Hotel.

The Death House is not the longest of books, however, Sarah Pinborough makes every page count. You care about all the characters, you fear the sounds in the night when children are removed from their dorms and taken to the sanatorium and you will love Toby’s story…right until the point where Sarah Pinborough hits you with a sucker punch that will leave you reeling.

There are so many unanswered questions in The Death House but it doesn’t matter – this is masterful writing, just go with it.

 

The Death House is published by Gollancz and is available now in Hardback and digital format.

http://sarahpinborough.com/

 

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March 15

The Distance – Helen Giltrow

The Distance(1)They don’t call her Karla anymore. She’s Charlotte Alton: she doesn’t trade in secrets, she doesn’t erase dark pasts, and she doesn’t break hit-men into prison.

Except that is exactly what she’s been asked to do.

The job is impossible: get the assassin into an experimental new prison so that he can take out a target who isn’t officially there.

It’s a suicide mission, and quite probably a set-up.

So why can’t she say no?

 

My most sincere thanks to Helen who sent me a copy of her book for review. As part of the Blog Tour to celebrate the paperback launch of The Distance, Helen kindly answered a few of my questions – you can see our conversation here: http://grabthisbook.net/?p=616

 

On the cover of The Distance is a quote from Lee Child which reads ‘Fast, hard and very, very good’ He is right – The Distance is all of those things.

Charlotte Alton (under the name Karla) trades in information. She knows people that can help her acquire information and she knows where the skeletons are buried (she also knows the guys who buried them).

Simon Johanssen is a hit man. He is to be smuggled into a secure facility compound (an experimental prison) and is tasked with killing one of the residents – assuming he can even find her.

The secure facility is known as The Program and is home to many extremely unsavoury characters; Johanssen has a struggle on his hands just to keep himself alive while he attempts to track down his target. However, problems arise when Johanssen finds that his intended victim is under protection of The Program’s ‘Kingpin’ figure – a man who believes Johanssen is dead and would be extremely unhappy to find that Johanssen is still very much alive.

Charlotte is responsible for co-ordinating Johanssen’s mission. She needs to find a way to get him inside The Program and ensure that his cover story is watertight. As the plot unfolds we see the extent of Charlotte’s network of informants and operatives and a cracking story (which began as a thriller) begins to morph into a deliciously suspenseful spy novel.

I loved Charlotte’s character, she was pitched perfectly and the balance between her life as Charlotte and that of her alter-ego Karla is fascinating reading. Powerful yet vulnerable – the opening chapter makes it clear that there are dark times in Charlotte’s near future.

With two key characters to follow (and a necessity to cover some historic events that outline how the players in the story bring substantial ‘baggage’ to their current predicament) there is a lot to keep track of. The ‘fast’ element of The Distance (for me) was the way that Helen Giltrow was able to switch the reading focus between past and present, Charlotte and Johanssen or events inside and outside of The Program.

The ‘hard’ element of The Distance should probably be expected if you have a facility full of dangerous criminals who are left to form their own community and who play by their own rules. At this stage the character of Bryce needs to be mentioned. Brice is the right-hand man of the aforementioned ‘Kingpin.’ He seems to delight in keeping his victims alive and slowly wearing them down by hurting them and then hurting them some more. Brice is not nice – but he is compelling reading.

I am finishing my thoughts on The Distance with the ‘very, very good’ part of Mr Child’s review – Yes. Definitely. Go read it.

 

The Distance by Helen Giltrow is published by Orion and is available now in paperback and in digital format.

 

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March 11

James Hannah Q&A (The A-Z of You and Me)

Today I am delighted to welcome James Hannah to the blog as we discuss his powerful novel The A-Z of You and Me.

 

We so-often hear that writers are advised to ‘Write about what you know.’ Have you drawn upon personal experiences for The A-Z of You and Me?

Indirectly. The point of working with a pre-existing structure – or rather, two of them, the alphabet and the body – was to render personal experiences largely redundant. I simply had a set of questions to answer:

Why would anyone be playing this A to Z game?

A to Z of you and meAnswer: My character wants to occupy his mind with stories.

Why?

Answer: Because he’s anxious.

Why?

Answer: Because he’s dying.

Why?

It was from these and subsequent questions that the story began to tell itself, without having to rely on any personal input from me.

However, I did find that the personal experiences began to accompany and attend to the main plot as I went along. The Amber and Sheila subplots in particular started to encroach on the main plot and see it on its way, and came from experiences I was going through as I was writing the book. But these experiences were by necessity reduced to their essential emotional drivers, which hopefully then makes them universal and relatable: they really could be happening to anyone – as indeed they probably will, to everyone, in some form.

How long did it take to bring The A-Z of You and Me from your original idea to now (the week of publication)?

My first notes were on 20 March 2008, so that’s very nearly seven years. But I’ve done a lot of other things too.

Can you share with us how it feels to see your first novel unleashed into the world?

I suppose I was hoping for positive responses and anxious about negative ones – but I’ve been surprised and moved by the depth of feeling and emotional openness with which some people have responded. Which is stupid of me really, because that’s what I set out to achieve. I feel a great deal of responsibility for working with subjects that have the potential to reactivate some difficult memories for readers.

I am trying to avoid plot spoilers, however, it is fair to say that this is not always a happy carefree story. How hard was it to find a balance against Ivo’s bleak situation and yet retain the “Comedy of Errors” element which lightens the story?

A great many people (a majority of people I know) tend to leaven extreme situations with humour. Humour is rarely far away from even the bleakest situation, because often humour is the very expression by one person to another of how very sad a given situation is. And it’s togetherness that almost inevitably creates opportunities for cheerfulness, even in the most utterly hopeless of circumstances.

Every town’s hospice has its name circulated in doomy whispers: “You don’t want to end up in St Andrew’s or St Leonard’s or St Catherine’s . . .” But when you get there, they can be places of great relief, togetherness and no little humour.

So it was, if not simple, then at least a straightforward task to give this book as much lightness and ease as I could. I used the working title of the book (‘The Body Comedy’) as an aide memoire to keep it funny wherever possible. Of course the end result is not quite comedy (as far as I can tell), but it creates poignancy and relief.

Much of the story is told through flashbacks as Ivo recalls significant events in this life. He does not sugar coat his past and the picture we get is of a man who believes that he has made mistakes. Did you try to make Ivo a flawed character or do you see him as a relatively typical guy who perhaps did not always made the best of the opportunities that arose?

Quite a few people have found Ivo to be immature for a 40 year old, which I find interesting. I see Ivos everywhere, in any friendship group. People in their late teens and twenties do stupid things and don’t look after themselves. There are entire industries founded on this constant. And it’s so common to see older men and women than Ivo sporting the styles they identified with in their teens and twenties.

As far as Ivo is concerned, when you use first-person narrative you see all of your character’s thoughts, good and bad, and so for me a fully-rounded, truthful character is always going to be flawed.

As for Ivo not making the best of the opportunities that arise, that is true, but I would also point out that he has no effective support and no role models.

I keep returning to the adage that you can choose your friends but not your family: I don’t think this is true at all. It can require deep personal resources to actively choose friends – it is far easier to remain inert with the default group of people. Ivo’s greatest challenge is to successfully make that leap of aspiration to Mia’s way of life.

I felt the three characters that brought out the best side of Ivo were Mia, Sheila and Amber – each countering the seemingly negative influence of Ivo’s group of friends. What did you want to be the single most important thing that each of these three women bring to Ivo?

I agree that these three bring out the best in Ivo, but I must admit, I didn’t set out for them to bring any qualities to him; it was when I brought them all together in improvisation that he seemed to drink up their presence, like they were nourishing him with something he desperately needed.

All three women demonstrate active characteristics – whereas Ivo is sunk by a passivity brought about by uncertainty, anxiety and plain circumstance. Ivo has a saving grace in his kindness and gentle perceptiveness; he wants to come out of himself, but he just doesn’t know how. I think Mia in particular sees that and seeks to nurture it. I have a sense that Mia thinks she can save Ivo from himself and his friends.

Was the body A-Z element always to be included or did that arrive during the writing process? Specifically I am keen to know if you started with a list of body parts and built the story around these or if you adapted a draft to include them?

This novel started out as a high-concept attempt to write a Gray’s Anatomy – an anatomical dictionary – in which the body described turned out to have a coherent narrative. So the alphabetical body parts were there from the beginning.

I wanted to let the body parts dictate where the story was going to go, and thereby create a narrative that was hard-wired into every reader’s experience. Everybody, for example, has sat too heavily on their coccyx and wanted to die; everybody has split their earlobe by wrenching off a tight-necked jumper . . . haven’t they? So The A to Z of You and Me started out as my attempt to write everybody’s story. Eventually though, Ivo’s story began to take over, and I let it do so.

I didn’t actually have a list of body parts to begin with, but in certain areas of the alphabet, there are only so many places you can go, so I started there. It’s very easy to break the unspoken bond of trust with the reader; if I had a chapter called ‘xiphoid process’ people wouldn’t see the artifice in what I’m doing, and lose interest.

Which authors do you find inspiring?

It changes. Roddy Doyle. Kurt Vonnegut. Derek Jarman. Bill Watterson. JK Rowling. Samuel Beckett. Stewart Lee. Maya Angelou. Eimear McBride. Dennis Potter. Roald Dahl. Douglas Adams. But some years authors I’ve really admired don’t move me at all. Susan Barker’s ‘The Incarnations’ is the best book I’ve read in recent times.

James Hannah (c) Claire CousinWhen writing do you have to set yourself daily word count targets or do you block out time specifically to work on a project?

I’ve really only finished this one novel, and it employed such a spectacularly uneconomical method, and took me such a very long time, I couldn’t present my writing method as anything other than ill-advised. I wrote in the only time I had, which was the last twenty minutes before going to bed, and now that’s the only time I can write in. It’s a problem.

Can you tell us what comes next from James Hannah?

I’m a husband and father, so I’m going to spend a reasonable time just being a husband and father.

 

My most sincere thanks to James.

The A-Z of You and Me is published by Doubleday and is available from 12th March in Hardback and in digital format.

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March 11

The A-Z of You and Me – James Hannah

A to Z of you and meIvo fell for her.

He fell for a girl he can’t get back.

Now he’s hoping for something.

While he waits he plays a game:

He chooses a body part and tells us its link to the past he threw away.

He tells us the story of how she found him, and how he lost her.

But he doesn’t have long.

And he still has one thing left to do …

 

The A-Z of You and Me is published by Doubleday. My thanks to Alison Barrow of Transworld Books for the opportunity to review this title.

 

Normally when I read a novel and a character is dying the focus of the book is to have the principle character track down a murderer. However, in James Hannah’s emotive novel The A-Z of You and Me it is the central character that is dying and the story follows his final days.

The central character is Ivo. When we first meet him he is in a hospice and is resigned to the fact he is here to see out the last days of his life. His carer (Sheila) has suggested that he try to identify a part of his body for each letter of the alphabet and asks Ivo can share a story or recollection about each. So beginning with ‘Adams Apple’ we embark on the narrative of Ivo’s life.

Through a series of flashbacks we share Ivo’s memories as he recollects significant events. We get to see how he recalls his interactions with his family and friends and how these friends reacted when Ivo met Mia who would become Ivo’s girlfriend. James Hannah has made Ivo a very real figure and we see how he makes mistakes, gets easily led astray by his friends and frequently how he seems to regret choices he made.

After each memory flashback we rejoin Ivo in the present day. His health deteriorates each time we return and (as we become more caught up within the story) it becomes hard to accept that this character we are travelling with and learning about, is going to die. He has Sheila for company in the hospice and she is a phenomenal character proving care, support and encouragement in Ivo’s dark times.

The strength of the story lies in the characters and how they behave. James Hannah has captured this brilliantly and it is impossible not to laugh through the fun times or despair when Ivo makes a decision that we know is the wrong one.

At one point I had to stop reading. I was on a train and I knew that something was about to happen in the story which I did not want to read – I particularly did not want to read it on a busy train! I waited till I was alone before pressing on and I was as traumatised as I had expected. Wonderful writing.

This may not be a story that everyone will ‘enjoy’ as the subject matter is tough reading. However, this IS as story that will stick with you. Especially the ending.

 

 

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March 10

Guest Post: David F Ross

David RossToday I am pleased to welcome David F Ross.

As part of the Blog Tour to celebrate the paperback launch of his exceptional novel The Last Days of Disco, David has kindly shared some recollections of his early musical influences.

 

The Thin White Duke Street

The Last Days of Disco is very nostalgic and much of that comes from the music of that time in the early 80s. There’s nothing else quite like a piece of music to pin-point a significant memory. From first days at school, to loss of virginity (one of these days I’ll finally remember where I left it…) to the birth of my children; all of the vivid moments in my life – good and bad – have had an associated soundtrack. Like the majority of you reading this, I suspect, music has an importance to me that’s often found bordering on the irrational.

From the eight years before 1972 that I knew her, my only remaining recollections of my mum involve music. Although not through the beat groups of the early and mid-sixties, surprisingly. My dad was a country and western fan, particularly of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. Their subliminal influence has left me with a natural tendency towards songs with a darkly descriptive background story. Glen Campbell was also a favourite of both my parents, as were the crooners. Sinatra, Crosby, Como and Martin were all regularly played on the big mahogany Marconi radiogram that competed for their attention in the opposite corner of the living room from its main rival, the black and white television set. Their records were the backdrop to my early years in the small fourth floor, brownstone top corner tenement flat where we lived, near Hampden Park on Glasgow’s Southside.

My dad especially, acquired lots of diverse records from various sources. The LP and singles covers for many of them are as vivid to me now as they were then. Old Blue Eyes, smiling, hair receding, calm and confident from the sleeve of ‘My Way’. ‘Little Old Wine Drinker Me’ with its Reprise logo in black on a black and white portrait of Dean below the heading ‘File Under Easy Listening’. Johnny’s gravity defying, brylcreem supported quiff with an attitude all of its own, live from ‘Folsom Prison’. The big red lipstick kiss on the cover of Connie Francis’ most famous record. Don and Phil Everly’s pearly white teeth and matching checked Arthur Montford jackets concealing the then little known fact that they despised each other. The Zombies brilliant and beautiful ‘Odessey & Oracle’, which remains one of my all-time favourite LPs. These records were the foundation for my interest in music and for this legacy at least, I am thankful to my dad. I loved these songs and still do but I inherited them. They’re not mine and the recollections that they prompt now often seem to belong to someone else.

My grampa had taken the death of his youngest child particularly badly. Despite their frequent, but generally good-natured arguments, they were very close. He’d lost weight and had suffered a minor stroke in the immediate aftermath of the funeral and it had forced him to retire. He also had a genuine fondness for my dad. Both worked in the transport industry; my dad for British Rail and his father-in-law latterly for Glasgow Corporation as a bus conductor on a regular route along Duke Street. An agreement had been reached where my grieving dad and I were to stay with his in-laws, partly to give the old man something to focus on but more practically because there really was no other viable option. My other grandparents were older, infirm and lived in a relatively small second floor flat in Tollcross.

Pollok was, and undoubtedly still is, an impoverished working-class enclave south west of the Clyde. My gran frequently lamented that it was home, very briefly, to Moors Murderer Ian Brady, but she had it mixed up with the more upmarket Pollokshaws. The house in Pollok was a three-bed-roomed one. It sat opposite the bus stop at the bottom of the hill on Braidcraft Road. My grampa was a keen gardener and the reasonably sized rectangular garden at the back of the house was a testament to his hobby. I loved the house. There were loads of places to hide and, with the garden I had a ready made football pitch and a net in the form of a five-foot-square wire plant climber. The flat we’d previously lived in had a shared drying green but no grass. There was always loose rubbish congregating around the concrete ‘middens’, and as a result, a large and uninhibited rodent population flourished.

My grampa was very proud of his garden. He spent hours in his small greenhouse at the bottom of the garden where he grew tomatoes. The greenhouse sat just behind the impromptu football net and on a few occasions, a fierce thirty yard shot from Derek Parlane went past the imaginary Evan Williams, bursting the net, and unfortunately the greenhouse glass. Each time my excuse was the same. A big boy did it and ran away. He’d thrown a stone from Levernside Road and it broke the glass. My grampa indulged this fantasy every time despite the fact that to the glass from Levernside Road would require an aim and trajectory ranking alongside the Magic Bullet Theory.

‘Starman’ was the first record I bought with money that could be considered my own. There’s my plea for coolness. My grampa had paid me for cutting his beloved grass with an old manual blade lawnmower. I made a terrible, patchy job of it but he kept his side of the deal anyway. But perhaps more accurately, the first record I was given was by a band named the Strawbs. The a-side was titled ‘Part of the Union’ but I quickly grew to hate it as it jumped at the start of the chorus. Years later I heard the song again and I fully expected it to go:

DSC_5361 David Ross 2010‘You don’t get me; I’m part of the U…part of the U…part of the U…part of the U…’ for days until someone eventually lifted the needle. At the age of eight, I blamed the record for its inability to get to the end of its grooves. I’d no idea that a blunt stylus was the real culprit. The bastards could sing it fine on the radio. Why did they only get the stutters in my grampa’s house? I’ve tried to excise this blundering, stammering shambles from my personal history, but it’s still there, at the back, hand up, protesting like a belligerent old shop steward.

‘David Bowie can get tae fuck, boy. Ah wis yer f…f…f…f…f…first.’

The image of David Bowie on Top of The Pops in the summer of ’72 was revelatory. My grampa wasn’t impressed but I was astonished. Years later, people would debate whether Boy George was male or female, but watching him then, Bowie didn’t even seem to be from the same species as me. I knew instantly where my ‘wages’ were going. The Bowie record had a green and white plain sleeve with, to my initial but short-lived dejection, no picture. The famous orange RCA label glowed through the circular cut out. Despite its aesthetic shortcomings, I came to think of it as a thing of beauty. I got it on a trip into Glasgow from Woolworth’s on Argyle Street but a different store from the one that had been there until the chain became extinct in the worldwide fall-out from the American sub prime credit crisis. It cost 24 new pence. Jim Murdoch and Ally Baxter were with me when I got it. Both were a couple of years older than me. Jim’s dad had taken us all into the city. I remember the two of them laughing because I’d bought a record ‘by a fuckin’ poofy cunt’. When I got back home, the two others went out to the back garden and were dummy fighting with each other. But I sat in the living room, silently staring at the big wooden box as Bowie’s voice came out of the speakers. To my utter delight, it did so without any speech impediment.

I idolised my grampa. He told brilliant stories. Ones where even years later as a young adult, I firmly believed he was right despite the obvious scientific or logical arguments against some of his more ridiculous ones. Once, when I was about nine years old, I asked him how colour TV worked, he told me that it wasn’t actually new technology. His explanation was that since the end of the Second World War, life was in fact monochrome. His explanation for this was that the Government was so taken aback by the euphoric reaction to the war ending that it became concerned that the years of struggling and post war rationing that would follow would be too much to bear. The Government then gave everyone injections that removed the colour from their skin and hair. After a period of time, people became so accustomed to the lack of colour that building materials became monochromatic, colourless foods like semolina predominated and television shows like the Black and White Minstrels emerged to reflect society’s disinterest with anything from the spectrum. TV, he argued with the conviction of a Nobel Prize winning scientist, simply reflected a more disheartened Age. Then flower-power came along and the people demanded their colour back so that the flora and fauna could be fully appreciated again. I used to sit open-mouthed when he told stories like this. My head would nod at bits where my own experience could back up the theory.

‘Semolina, you say…? Jesus, he’s right…! There’s a ton of that at our school.’

Another yarn was that air flight didn’t actually happen. You got on a plane, and while on it, teams of trained experts changed the surroundings outside. The plane didn’t actually go anywhere. The more dramatic the change in scenery, the longer you had to sit on the plane. I assumed that he meant that if you wanted to go to Africa, you had to sit on the tarmac for around 15 hours until the ‘crew’ had rounded up enough black people, safari animals and weird looking trees. Since I hadn’t been on a plane at this point, I’d no reason to question the wisdom of this old sage. Forty years later and I’m writing this now on a long haul flight back home from Singapore and a part of me still needs convincing that I’m not actually on a simulator.

I lived with my grandparents for three years before another move and a new phase of life began in Ayrshire. On the night before we left their house for good, the old man told me he had something for me. I sat expectantly, waiting for him downstairs while he disappeared upstairs for what seemed like an hour. When he returned, it was with a face whitened by talcum powder and with a shaky red lipstick flash drawn down his face. In his hand was the Aladdin Sane LP.

‘Mibbe ah wis wrang aboot this yin, aw along. He’s actually awright, son’.

I remember laughing so much, I pee’d myself. I can’t look at the LP’s sleeve now (or actually Heath Ledger’s ‘Joker’ in the Dark Knight Rises, such was the botched make-up job…) without seeing old James Fleming’s smiling face.

David Bowie and my grampa; The Thin White Duke Street. Heroes.

 

Disco coverThe Last Days of Disco by David F Ross is published by Orenda Books and is available in paperback and digital format now.  My review (score 5/5) can be found here: http://grabthisbook.net/?p=437

 

 

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March 5

Dark Country – Darren E Laws

Dark CountryThree related famous country and western singers are kidnapped over a period of 50 years. Only one body has ever been found.

Battling a debilitating illness, FBI agent Georgina O’Neil joins forces with newly licensed private investigator, Leroy La Portiere to find Susan Dark, the latest in the Dark family to go missing as she is on the verge of national stardom. But Georgina’s search for the truth is hampered by an illness which is affecting her judgement. Is there one perpetrator or is this a series of elaborate copycat crimes?

The hunt to find Susan leads them deep into a densely forested area as they follow a bloody trail and a deadly cat and mouse pursuit that will have fatal consequences for all.

 

Thanks to Caffeine Nights for my review copy

This is the second book from Darren E. Laws to feature Georgina O’Neil (the first was Turtle Island). In these circumstances I always like to give consideration within my review over whether the reader is disadvantaged if they have not read the previous story, in this case I would suggest you are not. There are clearly events from Turtle Island which are picked up again within Dark Country, however, they are introduced and explained at appropriate points in the story and you are given sufficient background to allow continuity and progression.

Dark Country has a great hook – three generations of one family are kidnapped over a 50 year period. Each of the abductees had established a successful career as a Country & Western singer and the latest kidnap victim (Susan Dark) was actually working on an album which would have featured her voice alongside that of her mother and grandmother.

The lead character is FBI Agent Georgina O’Neil. She has a debilitating medical condition which has impacted upon her ability to return to full active service with the FBI. Events in Dark Country find Georgina working with her friend Leroy La Portiere (a newly appointed Private Investigator) who has been enlisted by Susan Dark’s record producer to track down the missing singer.

One slight irk I had with Georgina’s illness is that she seemed to be in possession of recuperative powers only previously exhibited by Marvel Comics hero Wolverine – bouncing back from some major surgery to undertake a grueling cross country chase. Laws DOES acknowledge that Georgina is not in full health and IS suffering but this element of the story was a little too far a stretch at times.

All good crime stories need a bad guy and we certainly have that in Dark Country. Risk of Spoilers prevent too much detail at this stage, however, there are some nasty types to be found here. Descriptions of murders creep towards a horror feel at times (which is right up my street but may offend the more sensitive reader).

Events in Dark Country build to a really explosive conclusion with a mass standoff between the key players in a remote location. This played out really well and had me hooked as the end of the book approached. Just when I thought I had seen the story play out there was a nice wee twist to confound me further.

Dark Country is good fun but I wonder if killing off Country & Western singers may upset some potential readers? This is a good one for the horror loving crime fan. Review score of 3.5/5 – see it through to the excellent endgame!

 

 

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March 4

Guest Interview – Helen Giltrow (The Distance)

Today I am delighted to welcome Helen Giltrow to the blog. Helen has kindly taken time to answer a few of my questions about The Distance, her debut thriller which released in paperback last week:

The Distance(1)The Distance:

They don’t call her Karla any more. She’s Charlotte Alton: she doesn’t trade in secrets, she doesn’t erase dark pasts, and she doesn’t break hit-men into prison. Except that is exactly what she’s been asked to do. The job is impossible: get the assassin into an experimental new prison so that he can take out a target who isn’t officially there. It’s a suicide mission, and quite probably a set-up.

So why can’t she say no?

 

 

I have read many Colin Forbes and John Le Carré novels and I believe that spy stories are essentially about the pursuit and control of information. Would it be accurate to say that The Distance is a spy novel at heart?

I think that’s a good definition of a spy novel, and one that The Distance certainly fits. My main character is a woman called Charlotte Alton who steals and manipulates data, then sells it on to criminals. At the opening of the book she is approached by an old client, a hit-man, for help with a high-risk job inside a prison, for a nameless client. Suspecting some sort of trap, she must discover who his target really is and why they have to die.

The Distance didn’t start life as a spy novel. Originally I was planning to write something closer to an action-thriller / crime novel hybrid, with Charlotte Alton as a minor character. But she began to take over the plot, and as she did so, the spy-story elements came to the fore. I’m a fan of Le Carré, in particular the Smiley novels, so the chance to draw on that tradition in this book was too good to miss; readers who know those novels will certainly spot the references. But I think the earlier action-thriller incarnation is still visible, especially in the scenes told by the novel’s other narrator, the hit-man Simon Johanssen.

 

A significant proportion of The Distance is set inside a facility called The Program – can you outline exactly what The Program is?

The Program is an experimental, privately-run ‘secure community’, temporarily created in a run-down slice of east London suburb after an explosion in the prison population and a catastrophic series of riots that has put several jails out of action. Its ideological basis – that inmates are less likely to reoffend if they’re encouraged to take responsibility for their own lives while inside – underpins some real-world facilities for low-risk offenders. But applied here, on the cheap, and with violent and dangerous inmates, it’s going badly wrong. And that’s the environment Simon Johanssen has to enter, when he’s tasked with the killing of an inmate.

 

Your central character is Charlotte Alton, yet she also uses the name Karla. The two persona, by necessity, live very different lifestyles – did you have to think them as two different characters to ensure Karla (or Charlotte) acted in a particular way in certain situations?

Charlotte is one of those characters who turned up fully-formed on the page. I knew from the outset that she would speak and act in one way when she was wealthy, idle Charlotte Alton, and in another when she was the criminal information-broker Karla. In fact I think of both identities as disguises. This is a woman who spends a lot of time pretending to be someone she isn’t; there’s a whole layer of her personality and her emotions that she herself isn’t prepared to acknowledge, and that makes her fascinating to write about.

 

There is one character that appears to have no redeeming feature other than to be the clear villain of the book. Do you think that all stories need a character like Brice? Specifically a figure upon which the reader can hope to see some form of justice served?

Interesting question. Immediately it’s made me think of those crime novels is which justice isn’t done, and any resolution amounts to a messy compromise – because sometimes that’s the way life works …

I certainly felt there had to be a figure like Brice in this book. I was very conscious that I was asking the reader to invest in two characters who are criminals. Charlotte Alton facilitates crimes; Simon Johanssen carries them out. Both characters have a morality, but I felt I needed to bring in Brice – an out-and-out sadistic psychopath – to act as a sort of moral touchstone, and to cast those other characters’ moral values into relief. Brice is the distorted mirror image of Johanssen: while Johanssen kills ‘cleanly’ and is troubled by suffering, Brice prides himself on not killing; he just likes hurting people, a lot. In that way Brice serves to define Johanssen.

And while Brice is morally abhorrent, in some ways he’s an instrument of justice too. Johanssen himself has killed, and instinctively I felt he had to pay for that in the course of the story. When he enters the Program and comes up against Brice, he’s confronting – literally and metaphorically – his own past actions. For him it’s a sort of purgatory. The question is whether he can survive it.

 

How long did it take you to get The Distance from the original concept to a draft you were happy to let someone read?

A long time. The first glimmerings of that early crime / action-thriller hybrid story came to me in 2001, and I wrote a version of the opening then. That got shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger, but family upheavals meant work on the book had to be put on hold for long periods. By early 2009 – when I finally hit calm water – Charlotte Alton had become the lead character and I’d amassed a pile of scenes and notes, though you couldn’t call it a first draft. That’s when the serious writing started. A draft went out to beta readers in summer 2011, and to agents late in the same year.

 

Can we expect to see a return for Charlotte Alton?

I’m working on a sequel right now.

 

Do you have to set yourself a routine for writing?

I find I have to. I aim to put in three one-hour blocks in the morning, with 10-15 minutes in between; and another two or three hours from 3.30 pm onwards. (I’m useless after lunch.) I’m quite a slow writer so I need to put in the hours at my desk or the work doesn’t get done.

 

Orion AuthorsWhen not writing how do you enjoy spending your downtime?

I like running, but a calf strain has put me out of action for several months, and I’m only just getting back into the gym. In about a month I’ll probably start running again. I miss it – it’s my drug.

 

I am always fascinated to discover what other people are reading. If I were to see your bookshelves what could I expect to find?

A lot of crime fiction, across a broad range of subgenres, and literary fiction too. What’s interesting to me are the gaps. For a long period I couldn’t afford to buy books, so many of the books that I love and that have influenced me, I borrowed from the library. I often find myself looking for copies of them, only to discover I don’t actually own them.

 

What comes next for Helen Giltrow?

After the sequel to The Distance? More writing, for sure. I’ve been doing it since I was a child so I can’t see myself giving up now.

 

Once again, my thanks to Helen.
The Distance was published in paperback by Orion on 26th February and is also available in digital format.

You can find Helen on Twitter: @HelenGiltrow

 

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