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

Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li

My sister gave me this book for Christmas. Although it was described on the cover as a “thriller”, a genre I enjoy, it is not a book that I would have picked up for myself. The author, Yiyun Li is a Chinese American writer who was born in Beijing, China on 4 November 1972. She was educated at the University of Beijing and the University of Iowa.Yiyun Li She is a writer of some note and her debut short story collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers won the 2005 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her debut novel, The Vagrants was shortlisted for the 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Indeed, her books have been translated into more than twenty languages. She was selected by Granta as one of the 21 Best Young American Novelists under 35, and was named by The New Yorker as one of the top 20 writers under 40. She now lives in Oakland, California with her husband and their two sons.

So, when I settled down to read Kinder Than Solitude, I was not sure what to expect. The story is set in Beijing and parts of the USA. It is definitely a long, slow burn. Possibly too long.

The story starts with one of the main characters, Boyang, making the funeral arrangements for his friend, Shaoai, who has died after 21 years of poor health. Boyang was one of three friends, Moran, Ruyu, and himself. When they were young, they were involved in a mysterious ‘accident’ in which Shaoai  was poisoned.

Now the three friends are adults, separated by time and distance but united in guilt and suspicion by that incident. Boyang stayed in China, while Moran and Ruyu emigrated to the United States. All three remain haunted by what happened.

Kinder than SolitudeKinder Than Solitude tells a simple story, and it lends itself naturally to the double time frame structure of countless mysteries in which present lives are rocked by the reverberations of a crime buried deep in the shared past of the main characters. Kinder Than Solitude aims high as a literary thriller. I do not think it fulfils either aspect of that hybrid genre. The reason for that is that much of the book is terminably dull. The present lives of the three survivors, Moran, Ruyu and Boyang, which occupy a large chunk of the book, are required by the plot to be punitively bleak and sterile – the spiritual equivalent of Shaoai’s physical poisoning. Moran and Ruyu have moved to the US while Boyang stayed in Beijing, caring for Shaoai.

The depictions of Moran and Royu’s lives in the New World offer little reward for the effort of following them through their green-card marriages and sad divorces. They have boring jobs and growing isolation. Althoughtheir lives are true to a certain Middle-American blandness of tone and texture, in itself that is not enough to make them or the novel interesting.

Throughout the book, Yiyun Li  has a habit of adopting a moralising authorial commentary that clogs the flow of the story, and casts an aura of ponderous solemnity over the action.About halfway through, at last, things picked up a bit. The three survivors have begun to emerge to make different claims on the reader’s sympathy: sweet-natured Moran with her possibly culpable innocence; Ruyu, a study in deliberate cold heartedness and Boyang, doomed to an ineffectual decency. Meanwhile, the crime itself has begun to accumulate resonances that turn it into something more than just the hook for a gruesome thriller.

Tiananmen Square

The reader learns that Shaoai was a political rebel. She was a supporter of the Tiananmen Square protest movement. Before her poisoning she had already sacrificed her own future for the sake of that brutally suppressed revolt and she was bitter at the cowardly silence of her fellow students after the massacre. Shaoai taunts and goads them mercilessly. Thusm her murder compels a political reading. In her, the hopes of a more open China are extinguished. Shaoai is shown as a difficult, unlikable teenager, with a gift for spreading misery.

Yiyun Li is certainly a capable writer, and I am glad I read this book because I had never read any of her work before. Having said that, I found Kinder Than Solitude very dull and the clever ending was not enough to save it for me.

Valerie Penny

No Safe House by Linwood Barclay

Linwood Barclay

I have enjoyed every book by Linwood Barclay that I have read. He is an American-born Canadian author who was born in Darien, Connecticut, USA in 1955. Barclay is a noted as a novelist, humourist, and columnist. His popular detective novels are bestsellers in Canada and internationally, beginning with No Time for Goodbye in 2007. Several of his books, including No Time For Goodbye, are reviewed on this site. See: It was my older daughter who recommended No Time for Goodbye to me when we were on holiday in Majorca. Since then, I have enjoyed several of his books. The most recent was No Safe House.

No Safe House picks up the story of Terry and Cynthia Archer and their daughter, Grace, No Safe Houseseven years after No Time for Goodbye leaves off. The first book does not have to be read to understand this one, but the events of the first book are mostly disclosed here making reading No Time for Goodbye first, for the sake of enjoyment, advisable. The whole roller coaster ride of the story of No Safe House spans the course of only 24 hours. It is a tense thriller that winds threads of several stories into an exciting whole.

Although several years have passed the Archers, and especially Cynthia, are still struggling with the ordeal they lived through. The criminal, Vince Fleming, is still on the periphery of their lives, Indeed Terry taught Vince’s stepdaughter, Jane Scavullo, who was a few years ahead of Grace at high school. Vince’s continuing presence in the Archer’s lives is to the discomfort of Terry Archer, and the continuing guilt of Cynthia. When their teenage daughter Grace gets involved in a break in and possible shooting, Vince re-enters their world and this time Terry is determined not to be dependent on him to solve their problems.

bloody scotlandLinwood Barclay has a great ability to juggle several storylines and still make room for a twist at the end. He is also able to portray ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events and what that unaccustomed pressure causes them to do. So, as to the solution, Barclay got me once again and came so out of the blue that I would never have seen it coming: still, it made perfect sense.

I enjoy Linwood Barclay’s writing and was very pleased to meet him at last year’s Bloody Scotland Crime Writer’s Festival. If you enjoy a good thriller, No Safe House is for you.

Valerie Penny

The Dark Horizon by Simon Hall

Now, I have a difficulty reviewing The Dark Horizon by Simon Hall and it is this: He is the man mentoring the draft of my first novel. I will meet up with him at the Swanwick Writer’s Summer School later this year for his advice. Should my review of Simon’s novel be gentler than usual. Life is not like that! I have asked Simon to be brutal (even if I cry!). So, sorry Simon, I will do as I will be done by! swanwick outside

Although Simon Hall is best known as a Crime Correspondent for the BBC, he is also the author of The TV Detective novels. The Dark Horizon is the first novel by Simon Hall I have read. The central character, Dan is a TV journalist caught between the demands of the two women in his life: his editor, Lizzie and his partner, Claire.Simon Hall

He is required to report on two major stories in Plymouth, England.

The first is of a local person who dresses up and leaves bags of money at apparently random places and times. Dan promises his friend, El that he will help him discover who the cashman is and why the money is being distributed. Some of the scenes between Dan and El are very funny, but I did not really think the character of El added much to the story.

The Dark HorizonThe second is the construction of Resugam a huge shooping mall on that destroys an area of natural beauty. There are objectors demonstrating against Resugam all the time. Deaths of a site guard, and a popular demonstrator result in raised feelings and an increased sense of foreboding as the opening of Resugam approaches. Bloodshed and death leave a trail of misery. However, Dan finds the murderer much closer to home than he expects.

The narrative of the story in The Dark Horizon twists to and fro as the author weaves his plot lines together to form an interesting conclusion. Do I have to read more novels by Simon Hall? No. Do I want to read more novels by Simon Hall? Yes, indeed.

Valerie Penny