The Darkest Goodbye by Alex Gray

Alex Gray picI enjoy the crime novels that Alex Gray writes. She is surely the crown princess of Tartan Noir. The Darkest Goodbye is both tense and topical. It is the thirteenth book in Alex’s DCI Lorimer’s series and starts when young DC Kirsty Wilson, whose father is soon to retire from the force, is faced with two apparently unrelated deaths. Then another vulnerable person is murdered in their sleep, the police realise that it is only a matter of time before the next victim emerges and Detective Superintendent William Lorimer is called in to help DC Wilson investigate. Lorimer has worked with her father for years and DC Wilson respects him. She has less confidence in her appointed mentor, Len Murdoch.Alex Gray017_1

This case is big and it is about to get more personal than either of DC Wilson or Lorimer could have imagined. The Darkest Goodbye opens with two very different murders, one a slashing and the other an injection of morphine. The slashing victim, Francis Bisset, is a drug dealer and the morphine death of terminally ill Jane Maitland is first assumed to be natural until the toxicology reveals dangerously high levels the drug. More deaths are discovered and suggest the existence of a euthanist. Darkest Goodbye

Giving Kirsty Wilson, an almost fresh face in the series, equal billing in the narrative is a clever move as it moves the series on to a younger generation and brings a new, less jaded perspective as we watch her learning through some hard and fast experiences. I hope we see more and more of her as the series continues as she is smart, resourceful and clearly set to be going places.

I really enjoyed this crime novel and the topical plot. The Darkest Goodbye is darker than most Alex Gray novels, so, with that proviso, I recommend the fast paced police thriller.

Valerie Penny


Out of Bounds by Val McDermid

It has been a while since I read a Val McDermid novel, so I was delighted when she got to the top of my ‘to be read’ pile. Out of Bounds is a 2016 crime drama novel by Scottish crime writer Val McDermid. The novel is set during 2016 but because the main detective is in the Historic Case Unit the crimes being investigated were actually committed in 1994 and 1996.Out of Bounds

Four booze-addled teenagers and a stolen Landrover Defender result in DNA being traced that reveals a family link to an unsolved rape and murder some 20 years before. From the department of Scottish cold cases enters DCI Karen Pirie, insomniac scourge of villains who are foolish enough to think they have got away with murder. DCI Karen Pirie, on her fourth outing here, has an unorthodox approach to chasing evil-doers which frequently puts her at odds with her clunky male superiors. She is surrounded by dunderheads. Her second in command is particularly dense. However, she has a soft spot for him because he buys her donuts and presents no threat. Her Assistant Chief Constable is a different kettle of fish and Pirie has her work cut out trying to sidestep the curve balls he regularly sends in her direction.

The DNA lead is just one of a number of challenges that she must pursue. Her nocturnal rambles regularly take her past a group of Syrian refugees who gather together at night by an Edinburgh canal in the absence of anywhere more congenial in daylight hours, which adds a genuine note of pathos and timeliness. Finding somewhere for them to congregate is added to Pirie’s to-do list, alongside tracking down the DNA suspect and unravelling another historic conundrum involving a planeful of famous folk who were killed when it mysteriously exploded midair decades previously.

McDermid’s grasp of police procedural is both slick and assured and the helpful contactsVal McDermid pic Pirie has moves the story along nicely. I very much enjoyed Out of Bounds and highly recommend it. Several other novels by Val McDermid are reviewed on this site, including: Cross and Burn,, Torment of Others, and The Skelton Road, I will not leave it so long before I treat myself to another outing with a novel by Val McDermid.

Valerie Penny



The Fear Index by Robert Harris

Robert HarrisI enjoy books by Robert Harris and was delighted when The Fear Index was recently book of the month at my book group. Ths novel deals with the world of finance, at its worst. The hero of The Fear Index is a brilliant physicist called Dr Alex Hoffman who seems to lack empathy with those around him.

He is frustrated by a thankless research job at Cern’s Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, so teams up with a suave investment banker with persuasive people skills to create a hedge fund on the banks of Lake Geneva.

The unique point about this hedge fund is that it makes decisions based not on human interaction but on predictions derived from a complex computer programme. For a long time, the computer can do no wrong. Hoffman is soon living a life of empty luxury in CernGeneva: he estimates his personal wealth to be “one billion, ballpark”, he lives in a $60m lakeside house, and is married to Gabrielle, a beautiful artist, with whom he seems to have little in common.

Then an intruder breaks into Hoffman’s home and assaults him, injuring his head. This sets in motion a spiral of paranoia and violence that leaves our hero questioning the cause of it all and his computer programme tries to leave the world of probability behind by predicting fear as a motivation, and then uses this information to short-sell stocks. Indeed, the premise proceeds on the basis that Hoffman’s computer predicts not only volatility but also pinpoints when investors will stop acting rationally and fear will take over.

Fear IndexThis is where, for me, Harris goes one step too far. For the past 25 years I havebeen aware of finance houses hoping to predict stocks based on chaos theory, artificial intelligence, neural network and real-time linguistic search. They’ve had very little success.

Harris is a master of pace and entertainment, and The Fear Index is a thoroughly enjoyable book. A lot of research has gone into it – from the rare-book market to hedge fund investors – and I enjoyed The Fear Index. I recommend it and have no doubt that I will read other books by Robert Harris.

Valerie Penny


Even Rain is Just Water by Lynette Davis book review by guest author Yecheilyah


Lynette DavisThis book review was first published by Yecheilyah in Pearls Before Swine on 7 July 2017 at


Title: Even Rain is Just Water: A Memoir of Rejection, Revelation & Redemption


Author: Lynette Davis

Print Length: 296 pages

Publisher: Reflections Books; 1 edition (May 30, 2017)

Publication Date: May 30, 2017

Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC

Language: English


*I received this book as a gift from the author*

When I first read the title of this book, I knew that I would read it. With a powerful statement, as Even Rain is Just Water it had to be good. I was not disappointed. Lynette Davis gives us a riveting account of her life as the victim of emotional abuse at the hands of someone who is to be a girl’s first teacher, supporter, and motivator. Her mother.

The testimony switches back and forth between Lyn’s experiences as a child and as an adult, both of which include some form of emotional abuse and neglect. Lyn’s mom treats her sister Vanessa better than she treats her and at just three years old Lynette concludes that she is unwanted and unloved. One of the most heartbreaking moments for me was when Lyn and Ne-Ne were at her mother’s friend’s house eating some good food and Lyn approaches mom to ask for more potato salad. The way in which she asked was filled with such innocence that it made my heart melt. As someone who has worked extensively with children, I can just hear the tiny voice ask, “Can I have some more ‘tater salad, please?” To my astonishment, Lyn was chastised for saying ‘tatersalad instead of potato salad.

There were many of such incidents as this one that made Lyn bow her head in shame. Ella’s sisters also seemed to give her the same treatment, like Aunt Cleo using Lyn and Ne-Ne as if they were her personal servants, promising to take them shopping only to have them washing her dishes. I wanted to jump through the book and tell her about herself. That was bogish all the way around.Lynette Davis Book

When we got to Lyn’s adult life and her marriage to Ray, things did not look much better. Ray seemed to check out and Ella treated her grandchildren with the same level of disdain as she did their mother. Despite all this, Lynette does not lash out or rebel the way we may think. Lyn is kind, compassionate, and takes the abuse with a strength that not many people in this world understand or that many people could appreciate. It takes strength and courage continue on to be a kind-hearted person in a cruel world.

What I absolutely loved was how Lynette gave us a glimpse of the time by the many historical events that happened and what she was doing when it happened. Everything from the death of MLK, the Rodney King beating and even the shooting and eventual death of Tupac. As Lynette lived her life, all these things were happening around her and we get to witness them in real time. She even did this with the music. The New Millennium craze was funny when her friend said, “They didn’t believe Noah either.” I remember that time and how hyped everyone was that the world was coming to an end. These kinds of historical events infused into the narrative as well as the music of the time, for me, provided the story with light and was refreshing amidst the suffering.

Overall Rating: 4/5


Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester

fragrant harbour Hong Kong 1The most recent book to be read in my book group was Frangrant Harbour by John Lanchester. It was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. John Lanchester is the author of four novels and three books of non-fiction. He was born in Germany and moved to Hong Kong. He studied in UK. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and was awarded the 2008 E.M. Forster Award. He lives now in London.

Fragrant Harbour is, as its title would suggest, based in Hong Kong. It is a fictional fragrant harbour bookstory reflecting the history of Hong Kong since the 1930s told through the interlinked stories of four very different protagonists, full of rich descriptions and colourful characters, who reflect the changing nature of the society there. It gives an overview of the city’s history while telling a story as well. I did learn a great deal about Hong Kong from the 1930s through the 1990’s, but I did not find the story compelling. Reading Fragrant Harbour was a bit of a plod.

The tale is told through the voices of four different characters- a young woman from England who’s climbing hand over fist up the career ladder, a fragrant harbour authorChinese businessman on the brink of failure, a nun, and a man from England who manages and then owns his own hotel. Their stories all intertwine, and the choices they ultimately make raise questions about integrity, responsibility and compromise. Some of the characters are more well-developed than others, but Lanchester seems to shy away from digging deeply into the psyche of any of them, which left me feeling unsatisfied and made me wonder what I was missing since novel was included on the New York Times Notable Books list for 2002.

A long section of Fragrant Harbour reads like a history lesson of Hong Kong. Then, later the plot twist involving two of the major characters seemed to me to contain two main issues: firstly, it doesn’t really ring true for the characters and secondly, it seems to me to be an example of the author keeping information from the reader just to create a twist. That is cheating! This final section, therefore, is probably the weakest and dragsFragrant Harbour Hong Kong 2 the book down. It reads rather like a slightly stilted report of a business deal. The most interesting part would be how the grandfather reacts to the new business deal, but the book does not deal with this.

Fragrant Harbour did not seem to be so much about the Chinese experience of Hong Kong but how the Western world viewed it. Perhaps it would work better for anyone who has lived in Hong Kong, but it was not a book that I particularly enjoyed and on the basis of this, I would not seek out other books by John Lanchester.

Valerie Penny


Structuring A Novel: Chapters by guest author Lynette Davis

This article by Lynette Davis was first published on Writer to Writer on 22 May, 2017 at

When you get an idea for a novel it seems easy to develop it but once you start working writing bookson it, it turns into a jungle, a mess. You might find yourself trying to figure out how simple things work or trying to find explanations for some complex scenes you want to write but aren’t sure how they really fit in.

When plotting your novel you decide on where the hits are (emotional hits, twists, etc), but to make some order in all of it, you should spend some more time developing the structure, the plot and the story-lines.

I have a word-count method I use when writing stories and novels (helps more with novels) that is only ever meant to serve me as a guideline to where I am going.

To make something out of the mess in the author’s head, there are a few tips that will surely help looking at upcoming novels in a way that is less confusing.

First thing you must do is have a length in mind (note, length is measured in words, not pages – pages vary too much). To help you get an idea of how long your novel should be, use the link above.

Now that you’ve decided on the length of your novel and have your rough outline, it’s time to divide your novel into chapters. Chapters are parts of a novel that function like gears – every chapters brings a little bit so that the whole thing can work. Chapters are never just thrown in – more often they get thrown out if the whole thing can work without them.

writing penHave an approximate length decided for every chapter. I divide the number of words with the number of words I intend to have in each chapter (stay with me, it changes greatly afterwards) and that gives me the number of chapters. Say I want to write a fantasy novel of 100,000 words with every chapter at c. 2000 words – I get the space of 50 chapters. That’s an approximate number I work with.

Bear in mind, not every chapter is the same length – it’s not the 19th century. This calculation will dramatically change when you start describing your chapters.

Every chapter is a special story in one way or another – a chapter is either a series of scenes that go one after another in a logical way or is a perspective of a character in a scene – when the perspective changes so does the chapter.

Quick tip: keep your chapters short in a sense that you ELLE (I just used it as a verb) (enter late, leave early) – so, start your chapter with action, leave explanations for later or make them a logical conclusion from previous events, and exit on a cliffhanger.

Now that you’ve done all of that, look over your plot and describe chapters one by one. While doing this you’ll see that those 50 chapters are too much/not enough to tell the story. You’ll know how many words you’ll need to set up the events when you start describing chapters and the whole math of writing your novel is done – it will be smooth sailing from there.wrting typing

Don’t hold back while describing chapters. If you get inspired, write a scene from the chapter you’re describing and if it still works when you start writing the novel, leave it in.

It all gets polished nicely after you finish your first draft. You’ll do some cutting and adding again and again until you realize your novel is done.

So don’t give up, keep working and keep writing!

Lynette Davis



The Silk Merchant’s Daughter By Dinah Jefferies

Dinah JI recently read The Tea Pleanter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies and reviewed it on this site at So when a friend recommended another book by Dinah Jefferies, The Silk Merchant’s Daughter, I was keen to read it, so I took it on holiday with me.

Dinah Mary Jefferies is a British novelist, short story and article writerwho was born in Malacca, Malaysia in 1948 and she gives her novels exotic backgrounds. She is fast becoming one of my new favourite historical fiction writers. The Silk Merchant’s Daughter has a back ground in the Vietnamese War. In this novel, the author has created a beautiful story set during the fifties of Vietnam under French rule. Although I consider myself a history lover, I had known little of the war in which the French attempted to conquer the Vietnamese.

In 1952 Nicole was an eighteen year old half French, half Vietnamese woman living with her French father and older sister Sylvie. Nicole had always felt overshadowed by Sylvie and when Sylvie was given the family silk business to run on her own, with Nicole only receiving an old silk shop which had long been vacant, she was once again reminded of how inferior she was. She was resentful but determined to show her father that she could make her business a success without his help.

Her silk shop was located in the Vietnamese quarter of Hanoi; when she first visited sheDinah J book was shocked at the state of the shop but with hard work had it looking pristine. But she was nervous as well – the area was filled with rebels who were determined to end the French rule and the threat of war seemed imminent. Her father disagreed of course – he was disdainful of her worries, as was Sylvie. But Nicole was to discover a shocking truth about her family that changed her life forever. And in doing so saw her become involved with Tran, one of the Vietnamese rebels.

With Mark, an American silk trader making her heart flutter and Tran offering her a solution to her conflicted emotions, she had no idea who to trust. Nicole was uncovering secrets she had no desire to know; but once learned she had no idea what to do with them.

The Silk Merchant’s Daughter is a captivating tale of dark secrets, sisterly rivalry and love against the odds, enchantingly set in colonial era Vietnam. I really enjoyed the book and highly recommend it to anyone looking for a really good read.

Valerie Penny


Time of Death by Mark Billingham

mark billinghamI bought Time of Death from Mark Billingham last year at the Bloody Scotland Crime Writers’ Festival, but my “to be read” file was so big it took me several months to get around to reading it. Mark Philip David Billingham is an English novelist, actor, television screenwriter and comedian whose series of “Tom Thorne” crime novels are best-sellers in that particular genre. I normally enjoy his books, but I found this one less interesting than most.

This is the thirteenth Tom Thorne novel, so Mark is probably entitled to an occassional “pot-boiler”. Time of Death is a story of kidnapping, the tabloid press, and of mistaken identity. Tom Thorne is on holiday with his girlfriend DS Helen Weeks, when two school girls are abducted in Helen’s home town Polesford in Warwickshire. This is a place full of secrets, where dangerous truths lie buried. When it’s splashed all over the press that family man Stephen Bates has been arrested, Helen and her partner Tom Thorne head to the flooded town to support Bates’ wife – an old school friend of Helen’s – who is living under siege with two teenage children and convinced of her husband’s innocence.

The plot is complex and there are, of course, a few red herrings to keep you on your toes.Mark Billingham book There are a couple of story arcs but I felt Helen’s personal story was a bit predictable, considering the issues in the news currently. It felt lazy, albeit that she brings attention to contemporary problems prevalent in our society. I did not feel it advanced the story. I love the characters of Helen, Thorne and Hendricks and have become very comfortable with these characters, their banter, their humour, sarcasm and intelligence, so I was saddened by this departure.

The police believe they have their murderer in custody, but one man believes otherwise. With a girl still missing, Thorne sets himself on a collision course with local police, townsfolk – and a merciless killer. In Time of Death Mark Billingham has provided the reader with another well written, complex narrative that speaks to issues in the news today. The main plot is tense with realistic scenarios and main the characters are finely drawn and three dimensional who feel like people you know. The ending is satisfying as regards the original case of the missing girls which is cleared up. However, there is more going on that reaches beyond the last page of this novel that is not dealt with.

I was disappointed in Time of Death, but that is only compared to the very high standards Mark Billingham sets himself. I look forward to his next novel with renewed enthusiasm.

Valerie Penny



All the Nice Girls by Joan Bakewell

hilda_fleming_1296940fThis novel was recently book of the month at our local book group. I was interested to read it because, although I know Joan Bakewell as a presenter and author of factual works, I did not know she had written any novels. Although this novel was set in North West England, with a back ground of World War II, the girls school that is described in it was very reminiscent of the school I attended which was led by the redoubtable headmistress Miss Hilda Fleming. It is fair to say Miss Fleming in no way resembled Cynthia, one of the main protagonists of the story.  All the Nice Girls

Cynthia and Josh, the main protagonists with their tragic story, were quite well drawn but the rest never became more than cyphers and stereotypes for me. The wartime setting is well done, but that doesn’t make it a great book. The story’s a good one, well told, and this is an entertaining enough read with attempts to tackle some of the social issues of the day.

The novel also jumps from the period of the war to the present day in two threads and I tend not to be drawn to stories like that. However, I did quite like the little twist at the end of the book.

all the nice girls joanThis was not a great book, but I enjoyed it because it was so evocative of its time and the memories that returned to me as I read All the Nice Girls by Joan Bakewell. it is worth a read.

Valerie Penny


A Review of Katherine McCord’s Run Scream Unbury Save by guest author Sonya Huber

This article was first published on 11 May, 2017 on Brevity’s Non-fiction Blog,

Katherine McCord’s book Run Scream Unbury Save winner of the 2016 Autumn House nonfiction prize chosen by Michael Martone, is a whetstone of a fragmented and poetic memoir in bursts and paragraphs. You will emerge from each page emboldened to capture the exact this-ness of your day as a shadowbox-diorama with that exact plastic dinosaur and this exact wad of sponge for trees you colored insufficiently with a green marker (remember?). McCord’s work is “stream of consciousness,” but not a cup of tepid pondwater of raw free-writes or the journal stuff of “why am I sad today?” That stream isscream not the first pass but the final barrel-roll through the linebackers of an extended sports metaphor that flails like a wipeout on an icy sidewalk because what do I know about football anyway? McCord’s layered entries glance off narrative threads having to do with her family, crafting, her sister, texting, wasps, writing, the CIA, seasonal affective disorder, dreaming in horses, and teaching, among a million other things. The binding material here is a voice that flutters like a bird-heart, hurtling the gaze of the reader through the sky and dropping all pretense of packaged experience, opting instead for revelatory and intimate association.

Stream of consciousness as a phrase (William James, Principles of Psychology, 1890, thx Google) was first used in a literary sense to describe the work of Marcel Proust, James Joyce (i.e. in Ulysses) and the work of Virginia Woolf (see The Waves for some awesomeness). Stream of consciousness reconstructs with careful attention and precision the feeling of thought with all its bright sparks and twists and rapidity. In contrast, my typical journal entry starts like this: “I’m feeling shitty and I’m not sure why,” (though it’s always vague catastrophes impending that I am sure I can predict) followed by an attempt to talk myself down from whatever current fear I’ve got whipped up into a healthy meringue. But the “meringue” in that last sentence—I wouldn’t journal with that word; that’s me talking to you, not me talking only to me. Beyond the sinkhole of my journal, the associations captured by stream of consciousness present a portrait of a moment and a mind. What I don’t write in my journal is this: These days I’m afraid because Trump just announced an increase of troops into Afghanistan. And that country—never been there—makes me think about the Soviet invasion of as reflected through the 1980s in Mr. Joe Miller’s history class (cinder-block painted in so many layers of yellow that it had started to look over the years like glossy cheese). The 1980s were also about fears, and the cassette “Songs from the Big Chair” from the band Tears for Fears, waiting for the bomb with every day being the day before the day after, and I felt like maybe those dark-eyed men wearing tons of hair gel understood. But what Big Chair? I could wonder about it for hours as if knowing which chair would keep us alive. What kept us alive in the era of the Big Chair was dumb luck, I assume, plus not having an erratic tyrant in charge with a hair like an orange meringue. (Too much? Or not enough? If I apologize, my dead socialist relatives will unbury themselves, run/scream/buy plane tickets, reconstruct their own skeletons to ship their German skulls over the ocean just to look me in the eye with their eye sockets and ask, “Too much?”)

There is something in the details that will save us in the face of the vague and imprecise erasure of the world. Details—like a horse trough somehow painted with glitter that McCord’s daughter uses to store her clothes in—offer the solace of the particular and the real. McCord’s details dredge this “stream of consciousness” that pursues its own fluid self with avid reckless attention, steering always away from abstraction and vagueness of emotion toward the shocking vivid precision of remembered sights, sounds, smells, slants of light, feelings, and street corners. McCord’s short entries string together, given a sense of propulsion precisely by her own breathless quest for honesty, confiding in the reader that she can’t quite find the thing she means to say and so she returns on each page with another angle, refracting and pursuing the quickening edge of life and consciousness itself.

Sonya Huber