Saturday, 24 September 2016

Unsafe Acts by Bill Kirton Review: Jan Needle

Unsafe Acts, which features Aberdeen detective Jack Carston, has got the lot for thriller fans - except mindless violence. Bill Kirton's violence comes from the harsh world of the offshore oil industry, and is a product of the cruel environment, both physical and mental. A rig safety officer is beaten to death because his colleagues think he's gay, although in fact he is in a long term relationship with a prostitute whom he wants to help bring up her little son. 

This woman, his spiritual and physical comfort when he comes ashore on leave, is quickly murdered too. It is vividly upsetting.

Investigating the tragic acts, helped and sometimes hampered by his colleagues, Jack Carston soon picks up on deeper corruptions and crimes. Oil is all about vast sums of money, and when a rig begins to show signs of failing, the money men (in America) have interest only in the bottom line. Corners must be cut. Dangerous and illicit acts must become the norm. The woodwork is infested. The worms are coming out...

This book is not 'just' a thriller. Carston's attitude to crime, criminals and colleagues is refreshingly unlike that of any other DCI I've ever met in fiction, and there are four more books out there waiting for me to devour. 

I can hardly wait.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

In Too Deep by Jan Needle review by Bill Kirton

This is a quick, highly entertaining read which will appeal to different audiences. For those who know nothing or little of the background to the true story of Buster Crabb, it’s a short, fast-moving combination of spying, crime, adventure and political power games, told in an unadorned, muscular vernacular. The characters are skilfully drawn, express their opinions in a no-holds-barred way and, with few exceptions, somehow conspire to let the whole adventure go ahead without doing too much to prevent it.

However, those familiar with the history of 20th century Britain and particularly with this embarrassing episode, which occurred back in the time of Anthony Eden, will enjoy the greater complexity Needle achieves. His take on the story and his insertion of characters such as Bond creator Ian Fleming, Eden himself, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt and others into it gives him scope for plenty of tongue in cheek descriptions of meetings, conversations and examples of the incompetence of those overtly in control. There’s nothing gratuitous about it; those people were around, actually occupying the positions of authority and power he describes. But his hindsight and sense of humour gives him plenty of scope for satire, which he uses to great effect. Anthony Blunt’s predilections earn him the title of ‘Queen Mother’, the little cameo of Ian Fleming reveals him to be an unpleasant writer of ‘penny dreadfuls’, and I hope very sincerely that the source Needle identifies for the title of his story for children, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, is true.

Beyond all this, though, the timing of this publication must be deliberate. Back then, as now, Old Etonians were in charge and the British class system was solidly entrenched. The strange assumption that an Etonian education prepares one for high office is subtly questioned here as all those responsible for the enormous cock-up of the whole Crabb episode show themselves as ill-informed incompetents who hurry to shift the blame onto others, who, naturally, are further down the pecking order. Needle is too subtle a writer to make any direct comparisons or references, but the parallels between this escapade and events of the past few months are blatant.

So it’s a good, lively read but at its centre there’s the bitter and still relevant truth that those at the top play their little games and care little for the victims who have to live, and die, with the consequences.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

A powerful plea for ‘more than haphazard goodwill’.

Other reviewers have outlined the background to this publication and stressed the close professional interest Ms Jones has had in Margery Allingham. This first publication of Allingham’s The Relay with elucidations and additional commentary by Ms Jones brings the two together into a far more personal relationship as both experience and write about the demands, frustrations and, yes, occasional pleasures of caring for older people with dementia.

Ms Jones conveys the crises of old age with the striking image of ‘a shipwreck in slow motion’ and few of us need to be reminded of how challenging it must be to witness such a process at first hand. Indeed, Allingham warned that ‘the problem of old people was one which must be approached with more than haphazard goodwill’.

The subject is distressing and, even though there are plenty of tender, touching moments and even injections of humour by both writers, in essence this is an acceptance of some painful and inescapable truths, an analysis of the interactions between those suffering from the condition and their carers, and an attempt to propose approaches which see the whole process in a broader context. More than that, the perspectives of the two writers, separated by some fifty years, chart society’s changing attitudes to old age (as well as some which persist), and illustrate very starkly how much further we need to go not only in the provision of care but also in our understanding of the dynamics of the relationships involved.

Although she does refer to the specifics of her own situation as part of a caring solution, there is a deliberate detachment in Allingham’s account. She seeks to discard stereotypes and proposes structured relationships and solutions based on two-way processes. In order to help her analysis, she uses generalising terms – ‘old people’, ‘Care’ (her word for carer). What makes the book work so well, however, is the way the clear-minded analysis is then peopled and personalised by Ms Jones’s reflections on it and her day to day experiences with her mother. Both writers are telling painful truths and yet they manage to penetrate beyond the stereotypical image of a sad bewildered sufferer and a helpless, frustrated ‘Care’. In Ms Jones’s exchanges with her mother she feels that she’s ‘transferring scraps of her identity across to me’. Allingham warns that ‘Old people sometimes take lives without noticing it. It is up to everybody to protect his own.’ The concept of what ‘home’ means to sufferers is examined. What is it? The Almighty? The place where they grew up? Some other part of their life? Death? Or do they just want to get back to being who they used to be? When brains work less efficiently, when memories vanish or merge, normal reality offers no answers or remedies.

The book will touch you but it will also set you thinking, make you question some of the assumptions you make about age, personality, inter-generational communication. The writing is beautiful, often very simple, and the two voices draw you into a complex counterpoint, present you with a universal situation which is personalised by little memories, touches, moments of lucidity and, above all, the cruel paradox of how love can generate so much pain. 

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

The Seven Year dress by Paulette Mahurin

Reviewed by Chris Longmuir

The Seven Year Dress was a moving story that cannot fail to draw the reader into the horrors of the holocaust.

We meet Helen Stein in the 1920s when life was good for her, although the shadow of Hitler’s Nazi Germany was creeping insidiously into her life. At first, these changes are unnoticeable and the disbelief of many of those who will be affected is well depicted. It is this disbelief that prevents many of them escaping while there is still time to do so.

Helen’s father, a well-respected attorney working for the government, loses everything, even his life. Her friend Max joins the Hitler Youth and then the SS, in an attempt to hide his homosexuality. But it is Max who comes to Helen’s rescue by hiding her in the cellar of his family’s farm, and he pays the price for this with his life. Helen and her brother remain in the cellar for 4 years before they are captured and sent to Auschwitz, where Helen, the only survivor of her family remains for the next three years, enduring all sorts of horrors before being rescued by the Russians.

Helen’s life is one of hardship, persecution, and torture, but her will to live ensures she is a survivor. This book is not easy to read, but I’m glad I did. 

Chris Longmuir

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Point of No Return by Diana J Febry

Reviewed by Chris Longmuir

Point of No Return was an enjoyable read. It starts off with a fast paced back story to the investigation concerning Digby, a young man contemplating suicide following an accident which kills his friend. He subsequently hangs himself in front of the house of the man, James Palmer, he blames for causing the accident. The suspense during this opening section was almost unbearable and the character of Digby, drew me in.

The main part of the story takes place two years later when James Palmer is being stalked and harassed by ever increasing violent incidents concerning himself and his family. This part settles into a cosy investigation by DI Hatherill and his colleague Fiona. They follow a trail of mystifying clues until the final resolution is reached after life threatening scene involving DI Hatherill.

I enjoyed this book, it was a satisfying read.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Beloved Old Age - and what to do about it, by Julia Jones and Margery Allingham (publ. Golden Duck)

This is a really unusual book which defies genre boundaries, usually a recommendation in itself. Julia Jones is the biographer of Golden Age crime queen Margery Allingham and as such, has been lucky enough to be entrusted with access to her documents. Among them was an oddity, Allingham's very last book, unpublished, and a departure from her popular murder mysteries. 'The Relay' is about ageing, the problems of ageing, and how to deal with them within the family. Julia Jones has prepared this book for publication but added an enriching layer to it, in interweaving her own account of living with her mother's dementia and the changes it dictates to their and their family's lives. How to deal with ageing - now a hot topic with greater longevity, though there were plenty of tough old birds male and female who'd survived childhood infections and went on living a long long time. Margery had a very highly developed sense of responsibility and though a highly successful novelist, she ended up supporting a useless git of a neither use nor ornament husband and various other family members and hangers-on, while writing her heart out to outrun tax demands and keep them all in the style to which they felt entitled to become accustomed. Still, she never seems to have considered ditching the old dears but ended up evolving a system to enable 'the relay' to continue. By this she means, allowing the experience, wisdom, stories and any other accumulated life material to be absorbed into the family before the old depart.

Uniquely in my experience, she writes of looking after one's own family oldies as a privilege, and a vital part of the family, not just a duty or a burden, though she acknowledges the enormous stresses involved. Poor Margery seems to have had a nasty mother who enjoyed putting her down, but even she gets taken in. So Margery and her sister set up a home for their mother, and two aunts, in a cottage over the road. Margery calls this system a 'dower house' system which nowadays makes it all sound very posh and upper class, but she was referring to an old tradition whereby the older generation live out their days in a nearby house, with support from family. What we'd now perhaps call a 'granny annex' which is patronising rather than posh, not much of an improvement vocab-wise. With great honesty, she describes how to set up such a system - it's vital to have someone professional looking after them, a housekeeper/home help, to take some of the personal stress from family. I was much struck with the points she made, back then when almost everyone had servants who wasn't one, that this person's salary should be the largest part of the expenditure by far, and they should have adequate time off covered by family members. So many people now who work caring for elderly people are on minimum wage. We have no respect for carers either family struggling alone or paid carers.

This would be interesting in itself as a book, but Julia Jones has added her own experiences and her personal responses to her own 'relay race' with her mother in journal-like entries which comment on Margery's writing too.  Many many of us have had to cope with forms of dementia and other disabilities in our older loved ones. Julia writes with searing honesty of when she struggles to cope, when she loses patience, and also of the joys and humour and special moments of intimacy they share. Julia has been co-running 'John's Campaign' with Nicci Gerrard, to fight for the rights of those with dementia to have family or carers with them in hospital to preserve their identities and care for them properly. We still have a long way to run in this race, and this book is fascinating, moving, beautifully written by both Margery and Julia, and really thought-provoking. Sadly, Margery died aged just over 60, worn out, and so didn't become the dowager herself, but her writing passes on the baton of her creativity and thoughts to us now that Julia Jones has written this book and edited Margery's part of it.

I kept wanting to carry on the 'relay', reply to Julia's meditations on Margery's chapters sparked memories of how I coped with my mother's dementia and the research I did into neuroscience to write poetry about it. Perhaps the book could be blogged one day with the facilities for people to add their own wisdom and experience of being old, and being the next one down waiting for the baton. Claudia Myatt who designed the beautiful cover wrote a very moving song about Julia's mum, and so we share our voices and our experiences and express them in art.

Valerie Laws

Saturday, 18 June 2016

The Graveyard of the Hesperides by Lindsey Davis: reviewed by Karen Bush

Apologies once again for the decidedly dodgy photograph, but I'm too busy to faff around looking for images, cropping, copying, pasting and all that faff - I'm really busy writing, reading and editing at the moment and this is the quickest as well as the laziest way to do it.
      Right, apologies out of the way, and on to the book itself. Like a lot of other Falco fans I was sad when the series came to its inevitable end ... I pounced on the Falco companion, and loved the novella about his adopted son which appeared as an ebook (note to self - review it later) But I was a bit anxious when the first Flavia Albia book came out. Would it be as good as the Falco books? Would I be disappointed?
      I jumped on it when it first arrived, and reckoned that it was not dissimilar to the first Falco book, The Silver Pigs: good enough to make you want to read the next in the series, but not, perhaps, likely to be your favourite one. But you have to start somewhere in introducing a new series and setting the scene: for those familiar with the Falco novels, this is set several years after Flavia Albia fled his house and set up in his old abode at Fountain Court as an informer. 
     This is now Lindsey Davis' fourth Flavia Albia book; each has got better, and now in this latest, she has finally hit the same winning form that she had with Falco. The humour that was always in evidence with Falco has resurfaced fully again: and although we are given more glimpses of Falco's family life than in previous books, it is our heroine and her betrothed that really grabs our interest now - we still love Falco and his bonkers family, but now we love the prickly Flavia too. And yes, in this book, Flavia is to be married - not her idea, but that of her intended, Manlius Faustus. The characters and their interaction are of course, what lifts Lindsey Davis' books above the mere 'crime solving in a different century' genre: they have meticulous research, the crimes all sound feasible as do their solutions, but above all, they are character driven. They feel real, you care about them, and you want to know more about them.
     It's a great read - don't be afraid to jump straight into it even if you haven't read the others, as all is explained sufficiently if you don't know the background - and there is a completely unexpected, totally appropriate and explosive grand finale. Loved it. More, please!