The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly

I cannot remember the last time I read a book that I could not put down before I read The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly. It is superb. It is so hard to believe that this was a debut novel, but it was. I have read other novels by Erin Kelly, The Ties That Bind is reviewed here: .

Erin Kelly was born in London in 1976 and grew up in Essex. She read English at Warwickthe-poison-tree-erin University and has been working as a journalist since 1998. She has written for newspapers including the The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Express and magazines including Red, Psychologies, Marie Claire, Elle and Cosmopolitan. She also lectures at Swnawick Writers’ Summer School. She is a generous teacher.

However, although The Ties That Bind was an excellent book, The Poison Tree gripped me even more. I read it in one sitting and did not get to sleep until 4.15 am. I always joke that Erin Kelly owes me a night’s sleep! swanwick outside

The Poison Tree is unusual because it is told in the present tense by Karen. She is at university in London in the 90s and shares a house with four other girls. They are all very sensible, with steady boyfriends, playing tennis at the weekends and doing nothing more rebellious than sharing a bottle of white over their homecooked meals.

the-poison-treeThen, Karen meets Biba who is a beautiful, carefree aspiring actress, and Karen finds herself sucked into Biba’s world which is so unlike her own. Karen spends the summer living in Biba’s rambling Highgate home with an assortment of characters including Biba’s over-protective brother Rex.

The action flits from the summer with Biba, to ten years in the future. We know from the blurb on the back that the summer ended in a double murder. The reader pieces together what happened all those years ago at the house in Highgate as the author sucks them into Biba’s world. As the author explains a lot about the characters, the reader, and Karen find themselves fascinated by the exciting life Biba leads.

This book has been converted for TV already and I really enjoyed The Poison Tree. It is an intriguing read and it is all cleverly put together. I did not see the final twist, but cannot help but wonder how a person as delightful as Ms Kelly can think of such  dark tales. I will definitely check out more from Erin Kelly.

Valerie Penny



The Suitable Inheritor by Pushpendra Mehta

pushpendraPushpendra Mehta kindly sent me a copy of his debut novel, The Suitable Inheritor and asked me to review the book. I like and respect Pushpendra and am always a little wary about reviewing a book in these circumstances. I am always honest, even if the author is a friend or acquaintance. This sometimes causes problems!

The author was brought up in India but now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. He is an alumnus of Northwestern University, a private research university based in Evanston, Illinois, with campuses in Chicago, Illinois, San Francisco, California and Doha, Qatar. He has also studied at Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics and has wrtten some well received academic books, The Suitable Inheritor is his first novel.

The Suitable Inheritor is a book of two halves. In the first half, it tells the story of Michael Elliott who travels from his home in Chicago, Illinois, USA to Lima in Peru to meet with the pre-eminent life-style guru. The guru is terminably ill and explains that he needs someone to take over his firm. As Michael learns more about the business he also becomes aware of the importance a beautiful woman named Dorothy had in the development of thepushpendra-novel business.

In the second half of the book the reader learns that not only is Michael a suitable inheritor to the business but also that Dorothy has an inheritor to the influence she had over the business. The passion and romance in the second half of the book makes for a fast-paced ending to the story.

Although The Suitable Inheritor is somewhat one dimensional, in that there is little character development nor any variation in the speech patterns of the various characters. However, writing a novel is about telling a story and the story did engage me. I kept turnng the pages wanting to know what happened next to the characters and between Dorothy and Michael.

I enjoyed The Suitable Inheritor and would read another novel by Pushpendra Mehta.

Valerie Penny



Death Message by Mark Billingham

Before I attended the Bloody Scotland Crime Writers’ Festival this year, I had to complete bloody scotlandDeath Message by Mark Billingham that I had bought even longer ago and had forgotten about. I enjoy Mark Billingham’s novels, so I made time to complete this book too.

Mark Billingham was born and brought up in Birmingham. Having worked for some years as an actor and more recently as a TV writer and stand-up comedian. His first crime novel, Sleepyhead was published in 2001. It is revewed on this site at It was an instant bestseller in the UK. It has been sold widely throughout the world and was published in the USA in the summer of 2002. The series of crime novels featuring London-based detective Tom Thorne followed and an acclaimed television series based on the mark-billThorne novels was screened on Sky One in Autumn 2010, starring David Morrissey as Tom Thorne.

A new series, based on the novels In The Dark and Time Of Death  screened on BBC1 in 2016. Mark lives in London with his wife and two children. He is currently writing his next novel.

Death Message is the seventh in the series of novels about Tom Thorne. The “death message” is what cops call those harrowing moments when they must tell someone that a loved one has been killed. The novel starts when Thorne receives a picture sent to his phone by a number he does not recognise. The photos showed Thorne’s area of expertise. He knew a dead man when he saw one, but  also, Thorne does not know the victims, nor why the photos are being sent to him. Thorne is a Detective Investigator with savvy and a heart, very human, so th reader relates to him easily, sprouts goose bumps when he is in deep trouble, and once they begin a Thorne novel, they usually cannot put it down until the end. He seems like an old friend, one the reader knows well but still cannot predict exactly what he will say or do next.

death-message-bookHowever, although Death Message is a solid crime story in the series it never excels like some of the previous novels in this series have. The hunt is on as Thorne is being messaged videos of people being murdered/their murdered bodies as an ex-convict looks to wreak revenge on those who caused him to be sent down for a crime he did not commit. Things are quite interesting as the lines of communication between Thorne and the bad guy are kept under wraps as Thorne believes there to be some “dirty cops” in on the act and he wants to fly solo.Not a good idea.

Throne searches his past and recalls a man he had once sent to prison for life. Even behind bars, the most dangerous psychopath Thorne has ever faced is still a master at manipulating others to do his dirty work for him.  Thorne must act fast because the photos keep on coming, and the killer’s next target is someone the detective investigator knows very well.

I normally rate Mark Billingham as amongst my favourite authors, and I still do, but Death Message, although a good read,  is not one of his better novels.

Valerie Penny

The Good Life by Martina Cole

Martina Cole is an English author who was born and brought up in Essex. She is the bloody scotlandbestselling author of fourteen novels set in London’s gangland, and her most recent three paperbacks have gone straight to No. 1 in the Sunday Times on first publication. Total sales of Martina’s novels stand at over eight million copies. I was delighted to meet her at the Bloody Scotland’s Crime Writers’ Festival last year and am pleased she is on the programme again, this year.

The Good Life is an interesting book in which the central character truly does learn, grow and change his life by the end of the novel. Cain Moran lives a life of crime. Jenny Riley is a naive, young girl. The novel tells a love story revolving around Cain and the love he has for Jenny. Cain is a face in London, England who seems to have it all.

In her turn, Jenny is not interested in Cain’s hard man reputation all she wants is to be with him. For Cain, loving Jenny Riley was the easy part; it was telling his wife, Caroline, that he wanted a divorce that was going to be the killer, because when Caroline  said ’til death us do part’, she meant it. When Cain is sentenced to life in prison it seems that Caroline might have got her wish. martina cole 2

Caroline enjoyed The Good Life with Cain and loved the reflected glory she commanded as his wife. Jenny is not interested in the money or infamy Cain brings, although she does grow used to it and does miss it when he is sentenced to twenty-five years in jail, but not nearly as much as she misses him. All Cain and Jenny know is that if their love can survive such separation, then one day they will have a chance at The Good Life together again.

The Good Life - BookI liked Cain from the outset, although Jenny did not seem to be the right type of person for him, I grew to respect her loyalty to her man and her family. The Good Life is set over decades, which works for me and I love the fact that the reader sees a snippet of the future at the very beginning of the book. We then see Cain’s life progress over the years and this is a story that held my interest from the beginning to the end.

The Good Life by Martina Cole tells a great story and an easy read. I enjoyed it, although some of the graphic detail of murders were a bit difficult. If you are not easily offended by bad language or violence, you might enjoy The Good Life too.

Valerie Penny





Poems by Maya Angelou

It was my friend Maureen who introduced me to Maya Angelou’s poetry when she gave me a copy of her book, Poems, some years ago. I am surprised to see that I have not yet reviewed the book, because it is one of my constant companions. Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was an American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist who was born in St. Louis Missouri, USA on 4 April 1928. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years until her death in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA on 28 May 2014.

The wisdom, humour and emotion of Maya Angelou’s work bear a lilting rhythm completely her own. Her poetry is born of her back ground in black church singing and preaching. There is also the music of soft mother talk, salty street talk and also her love of literature and life.

If you have a chance, do pick up a copy of Poems by Maya Angelou. Every line is lyrical magic. I heartily recommend it.

 Valerie Penny

Amongst my favourite poems in this collection are:

Awaking in New York

 Curtains forcing their will   New York

against the wind,
children sleep,
exchanging dreams with   
seraphim. The city
drags itself awake on   
subway straps; and
I, an alarm, awake as a   
rumor of war,
lie stretching into dawn,   
unasked and unheeded.
PoemsThe Lie
Today you threaten to leave me.
I hold curses, in my mouth,
which could flood your path, sear
bottomless chasms in your road.
I keep behind my lips,
invectives capable of tearing
the septum from your
nostrils and the skin from your back.
Tears, copious as a spring rain,
are checked in ducts
and screams are crowded in a corner
of my throat.
You are leaving?
Aloud, I say:
I’ll help you pack, but it’s getting late,
I have to hurry or miss my date.
When I return, I know you’ll be gone.
Do drop a line or telephone.

The Skeleton Road by Val McDermid

Val McDermidI have read several books by Val McDermid over the years and I have enjoyed them. The Torment of Others and Fever of the Bone are reviewed on this site:, She is a noted Scottish crime writer, whose writing has won many awards. McDermid is best known for a series of suspense novels featuring Dr. Tony Hill. However, Tony Hill did not appear in The Skeleton Road. The chief protagonist is a police detective, Karen Pirie.

The story in The Skeleton Road  begins in Edinburgh, a city I know well. A skeleton is discovered on the roof of a building. The investigators are surprised to find that this is not The Skeleton Road Bookthe result of a recent crime but a death occurred and remained hidden and unknown for many years.

The emphasis changes when unexpected connections to the Croatian military come to light. The Skeleton Road is intriguing and chilling. The depiction of the atrocities committed during the Balkan war by all parties are vivid. However, this is also a murder mystery and a love story.

When evil has no borders and the past refuses to stay in the past, everyone involved is placed into new and unforeseen danger. This narrative cleverly reveals that anyone is capable of brutality or revenge. This is a powerful, and at times, harrowing read. I recommend it to those of a strong disposition.

Valerie Penny


The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson

I have read several books by Bill Bryson, Made in America is reviewed here: So, when I noticed his new novel The Road to Little Dribbling was out, I made a point of purchasing it. This book is a follow-up to Bryson’s book Notes from a Small Island, which I enjoyed. The Road to Little Dribbling re-visits some of the same places as Notes from a Small Island andBill Bryson new ones too. Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, USA in 1951. He settled in England in 1977, and worked in journalism until he became a full time writer. He lived for many years with his English wife and four children in North Yorkshire. He and his family then moved to New Hampshire in America for a few years, but they have now returned to live in the UK.

It was a long time since I had read one of Bryson’s travel novels, indeed, this is his first travel book in fifteen years, and I was so happy to have secured the new book. So, Bryson records again, a long-awaited, brand-new journey around the UK.

The Road to Little Dribbling begins with an amusing story of Bryson being hit on the head by a parking barrier and then another when he meets with his publisher to discuss ideas for the next book, that it would be a good idea to travel around Britain again. It was a good idea.

Road to Little Dribbling BookBryson writes some amusing anecdotes of travels around the UK, which made me chuckle. and about different places to those he had visited before, but you also revisits a few spots. I especially enjoyed the stories about the Seven Sisters and Runnymede, and he does include interesting details about whatever region visits, he even deals with some current events. Overall it was a delightful read but it contained far too little about Wales and Scotland.

However, compared to some of Bryson’s earlier books, The Road to Little Dribbling was a bit disappointing. This book just lacked something. I finished this weeks ago and since then I have been struggling to put into words why I found it wanting. Bryson did seem a little less charitable and a little more political than in previous books. Also, there just was not as much richness in this book. The Road to Little Dribbling was superficial in a way that Bryson’s previous travel memoirs were not.

I still enjoy Bryson’s writing and will likely read whatever book he writes next, I am just not sure that I will rush to buy it so quickly.

Valerie Penny

The Last Fighting Tommy by Harry Patch & Richard van Emden

I usually avoid books with more than one author. However, I was interested to read about Henry (Harry) Patch, an ordinary man who got coaught up in both World War I and lived Harry Patchthrough World War II. I found a book written about him just after his death. However, I then noticed The Last Fighting Tommy: The Life of Harry Patch, the Oldest Surviving Veteran of the Trenches. Harry Patch was the last British soldier alive to have fought in the trenches of the First World War. He was one of very few people who could directly recall the horror of that conflict.

The delightful thing about this book is that the chapters about Harry’s life are by him. The historical chapters and historical background is provided by Richard van Emden who is a British author and television documentary producer. He specializes in the First World War. The Richard van Emdenpersonal account and a knowledgable historian, is a good combination. The strength of this book lies in the ordinariness of its subject. History is full of hype, stories sold as block-busters, embellished beyond plausibility, myth usurping truth. Not so thoughout The Last Fighting Tommy.

Harry was born in 1898, during the reign of Queen Victoria and a year before my maternal grandmother. His childhood was spent in the Somerset countryside of Edwardian England. He left school in Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry1913 to become an apprentice plumber but three years later was conscripted, serving as a machine gunner in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. Harry Patch comes across as a sensitive, humble man.  Apparently he did not want to tell his story. However, by pure accident, he became the single living connection to an unimaginable experience in another time: life in the World War I trenches. He  was persuaded to tell his story; understated, honest, un-heroically.

He describes life in the mud and trenches during the Battle of Passchendaele. He saw a great many of his comrades die, and in one dreadful Passchaendale Mapmoment the shell that wounded him also killed his three closest friends. In vivid detail he describes daily life in the trenches, the terror of being under intense artillery fire, and the fear of going over the top. A large part of the book covers Harry’s experiences in World War I as he was forced to give up on his career and go to fight. The chapter about when he went over the top is mesmerising as it captures one man’s experience of the horrors of the war, rather than an overview that we usually get. Then, after the Armistice he explains the soldiers’ frustration at not being quickly demobbed. This led to a mutiny in which even Harry was caught up.  The Last Fighting Tommy is not a history book, it is a book about one man’s experiences of history, although the co-author, Richard van Emden does provide relevant historical detail and The Last Fighting Tommybackground.

Harry shared with the reader about his whole life without boring them with every little detail: he revealed what he thought would be most interesting and it works really well. There is a great section on World War II where Harry describes being a firefighter and dealing with the aftermath of the bombings on Bath. World War II saw Harry in action on the home front as a fire-fighter during the bombing of Bath. He also warmly described his friendship with American GIs preparing to go to France, and, years later, his tears when he saw their graves.

Late in life Harry achieved fame, meeting the Queen and taking part in the BBC documentary The Last Tommies, finally shaking hands with a German veteran of the artillery and speaking out frankly to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair about the soldiers shot for cowardice in the First World War. This was a well-done book which told the life of an ordinary man who lived through extraordinary things. On the one hand it is history told through the eyes of someone who was there, whilst on the other hand he represents all the men who fought in the trenches. I found The Last Fighting Tommy a fascinating read and highly recommend it to all who enjoy history and biographies.

Valerie Penny




The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

kenneth grahameThe Wind in the Willows is normally considered to be a children’s novel. It was written by Kenneth Grahame and first published in 1908. As a children’s book, I was surprised that it was the subject of study at Anne Scott’s summer literature class. However, apparently Grahame himself said that it was not a book for children. Ms Scott certainly brought a new thoughtfulness to the novel.

It was interesting to learn about the author who, although Scottish born, lived much of his life in England.The Wind in the Willows is the work of a writer who found success in the 1890s as a young contemporary of Oscar Wilde. Grahame was also an admired contributor to the literary quarterly The Yellow Book. Although employed by the Bank of England, Grahame, still in his 20s, was publishing stories in literary magazines, work that became collected in Dream Days (1895) and an even more successful publication, The Golden Age (1898).

In 1899, Grahame married. It was not a happy marriage. He and his wife, Elspeth,had one son, Alastair, who was troubled with health problems and a difficult personality. When Grahame finally retired from the Bank in 1908, he concentrated on the stories he had alistair grahametold his son, the stories of the Thames riverbank on which Grahame himself had grown up. The Wind in the Willows began as bedtime stories and letters addressed to Grahame’s troubled son, a sickly boy known as “Mouse” (a nick name the boy loathed) who possibly inspired the wilful character of Mr Toad and who eventually committed suicide, aged 20, while at Oxford. The Wind in the Willows is a far more interesting book than its popular and often juvenile audience might suggest.  The story is alternately slow moving and fast paced, it focuses on four anthropomorphised animals in a pastoral version of England.

Wind in the WillowsThroughout The Wind in the Willows two tales are tightly interwoven. There are the adventures of Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad of Toad Hall with his canary-coloured caravan, the succession of motor cars, and the climactic battle for Toad Hall. At the same time, there are Grahame’s lyrical explorations of home life (“Dulce Domum”), river life (“Wayfarers All”) and childhood itself (“The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”). The Wind in the Willows also makes a powerful contribution to the mythology of Edwardian England through its evocation of the turning seasons of the English countryside, from the riverbank in summer to the rolling open road, and through its hints of an imminent class struggle from the inhabitants of the Wild Wood illustrated by the stoats and the weasels.

The Wind in the Willows deserves recognition as a novel in which adult readers will find windwisdom, humour, entertainment and meaning, as well as many passages of great literary power, together with characters who live on in the unconscious knowledge contained in English literature. It is a book I have always loved. Thanks to Anne Scott’s marvellous course, I now understand it better too.

Valerie Penny


Being West Kilbride by Stephen Brown

When I first met my husband, he told me he lived in West Kilbride. I had never heard of the village so assumed I had misheard him and said “East Kilbride?” back to him. He replied, “No, West Kilbride, I know where I live.” That established, he as been patient and dogmatic in equal measure ever since.Stephen Brown.

The author of Being West Kilbride, Stephen Brown, originally trained as an accountant but is now a business owner based on the west coast of Scotland. He lives in West Kilbride, and has done so for most of his life. Brown is passionate about the village and its history. As a result of this, he has tried to Being Wset Kilbrideplay an active part in its development and regeneration. Brown has also written a book on internet gaming.

Being West Kilbride details the history of the village, explains place names and tells about various arifacts and points of interest in the village and around it. This is a mercifully slim volume which I found difficult to complete. However, as the subject is my husband’s village, and he bought me the book, I did finish it.

Should you have an interest in this area of Ayrshire, Scotland, Being West Kilbride is doubtless a useful resource. Otherwise, it is a rather parochial book that is unlikely to be of interest.

Valerie Penny