Kindred Spirits: The Royal Mile by Jennifer C Wilson

I first met Jennifer C. Wilson over a year ago at the writers’ inspiration the is The Swanwick Writers’ Summer School. Although she was already a published author, she is such an open, friendly person who works to nurture aspiring authors. It is hard to remember that Jeniifer is a marine biologist by training, who developed an equal passion for history whilst following the life of Mary, Queen of Scots on while on family holidays as a child.swanwick outside

Jennifer’s interest in creative writing ever since she enrolled on an adult educationJennifer C Wilson workshop. She then won the Story Tyne short story competition, in 2014. Her debut novel Kindred Spirits: Tower of London was published by Crooked Cat Publishing in October 2015. I very much enjoyed that book and was delighted when the sequel came out in April 2017. It is set in Edinburgh, Scotland, in and around the Royal Mile and follows Mary, Queen of Scots as she re-visits her subjects in her spiritual form.

Royal Mile, EdinburghI lived in Edinburgh for many years and know the city well. I found the descriptions of the city vivid and evocative and the story wove them together really well. The author creates interesting issues for Queen Mary’s ghost as well as for those of her ghostly court and subjects.


The story starts during the Edinburgh International Festival, in August when author takes the reader up and down Edinburgh’s historic Royal Mile. Royalty and commoners,Jennifer Book ghostly and human, exist together mingling together in the museums, cafes and former royal residences. From Edinburgh Castle on the extinct volcano that is Castle Hill to Holyrood Palace on the Abbey Strand, the reader will find is far more going on than meets the eye, in Kindred Spirits –  The Royal Mile. The author introduces ghosts of every era and background who make their home in the City.

We first meet Mary, Queen of Scots returning to the city for her annual visit. She is troubled by the lacklustre attitude of her father, King James V of Scotland, and decides to do something about it, with the aid of her ghostly accomplices. However, in death, as in life, her second husband, Lord Darnley is still a thorn in her side.

Kindred Spirits: The Royal Mile, published by Crooked Cat, is a good story with a great setting. It would be an excellent Book Club choice and I heartily recommend it.

Valerie Penny



Winchester Writers’ Festival 2017

simon-hall-photoI was recommended to attend the Winchester Writers’ Festival by the author, Simon Hall. Some of Simon’s books are reviewed on this site: The Balance of Guilt at and The Dark Horizon at I took his advice and attended the festival this year. I am glad I did.

West-Downs-0The Winchester Writers’ Festival runs over a long weekend in the middle of June. Those who attend on the Friday and Saturday have the opportunity to meet with 2 agents, editors or publishers on each of those days. There is no extra charge for doing so, but do book early to secure time with your preferred professionals.

I stayed at the en-suite student accomodation on the West Downs Campus. It was basic, west downs insidebut clean. The walk to and from the main university campus is up and down a steep hill, so I was glad a shuttle bus was provided for delegates at the beginning and end of the day.

The quality of the courses was high. On Friday I took a long course called How To Thrill and How to Kill, led by the author William RyanWilliam Ryan. William was called to the English bar after university in Dublin, then worked as a lawyer in the City. His novels, including The The Constant SoldierConstant Soldier are set in 1930s Stalinist Russia and have been shortlisted for the Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year Award, the CWA New Blood Dagger, the Irish Fiction Award and twice for the Ireland AM Irish Crime Novel of the Year Award. 

I also had the oppotunity to meet with an editor and an agent, the latter being Sarah Manning of The Bent Agency. She has asked to see me full manuscript. Now that is an exciting experience!

After dinner on Friday, Mslexia Magazine hosted a panel discussions with independent publishers. That was most interesting. It seems to me important that these members of the literary world should be supported.

winchester university diningThe catering at The Winchester Writers’ Festival is certainly better than average for mass catering. However, the quality of provision for those with mobility issues was poor. The dining room was up a long flight of stairs and the lift was not working while the festival was on. Some of the events were held in rooms where disabled access was not available.

On Saturday morning Lemn Sissay gave the Keynote Address. I had never heard him speak before, but I was very impressed. His talk was inspiring. Later in the day, I attended a series of talks on how to approach agents. How to write a Synopsis, The Agent and Submission Letter and The Agent’s Eye View. These talks were short but extremely useful. I also met with Linda Bennett of Salt Publishing and Jack Ramm of the Eve White Agency. lemnsissay

There was a Festival Dinner on the Saturday night which I attended with my friend and fellow author, Allison Symes. I enjoyed the evening greatly, but was sorry that my time at Winchester Writers’ Festival was draring to an end. This experience was extremely useful for enhancing my confidence as an author. i would highly recommend that aspiring writers consider attending the Winchester Writers’ Festival.

Valerie Penny





The Mill River Recluse by Darcie Chan Review by guest author Miriam Drori

Miriam photoIt is lovely to host a review today by my fellow Crooked Cat author, Miriam Drori. Miriam Drori’s own non-fiction book: Social Anxiety Revealed, published by Crooked Cat Books, will be released on August 22, 2017. For more information, see her accompanying blog. You can also visit Miriam’sMiriam Book normal blog and website, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

This is the only work of fiction I’ve come across in which the main character has social anxiety.

It’s a lovely, well-told story. It certainly kept me turning the pages. The story is believable, has believable characters and deserves to be read.

Darcie ChanHowever, I do have some reservations about it. Mary, the recluse, is the one with social anxiety. The reason for this is mentioned three times in the book (which I thought rather excessive) and relates to one terrible incident that occurred when she was sixteen. Mary also mentions that she was always shy, but I still think this is too easy. One incident, however bad, doesn’t cause social anxiety on its own. There has to be a lot more than that. I would have liked to have heard much more about Mary’s childhood and what led to her condition.

The consequence of Mary’s anxiety – becoming a recluse seen generally by only oneRiver Mill Recluse Book other person and later by two others – is a very extreme outcome of social anxiety. This is mentioned in the book by a professional who meets her and says, “I’ve never seen such an extreme case of social anxiety.” Most people with social anxiety don’t keep themselves completely hidden in that way. They force themselves to get out and function in society however much of a struggle that is. I think someone who reads of an extreme case like this could make light of the effort made by someone who appears to function fairly normally. It’s not as if characters with social anxiety overpopulate the world of fiction!

That said, this book is still a lovely read.

Odd Girl Out: Being Autistic in a Neurotypical World by Laura James

Odd Girl Out bookI read a review about Odd Girl Out in a newspaper. I have friends and have had clients on the autistic spectrum, but it is not really a condition I understand. So, the idea of reading a book written by a women with asberger’s syndrome, about life with the condition appealed to me.

The author, Laura James, has been married twice, has four children and a demanding job but she was in her mid-forties before she received a diagnosis of autism. This explained to her why she had often felt she was different or an outsider. Her book, Odd Girl Out, explains her feelings about life before and after the diagnosis.

Autism is a condition most predominantly associated with men. Estimates of the gender disparity of the condition vary, some place the ratio at four to one, others three to one (2015) or even 16 to one. The author’s late discovery comes as the National Autistic Society suggested autism has been significantly under-diagnosed in women and girlsand called for a change and improvement in diagnosis practices to combat this.

The main features of autism spectrum disorder are to do with social communication  and interaction, often varying depending on the age of the person. The broad list of symptoms can include difficulty using or understanding facial expressions, jokes, sarcasm or recognising and understanding people’s feelings. James prefers to think of the features of her autism as traits rather than symptoms because  she finds some of them are helpful while others she struggles with as they are difficult to live with.

Laura James identifies her ability to hyperfocus and spot trends and patterns as well as her logical approach to life not being ruled by emotions are traits she categorises as good ones. The sensory issues are more difficult for her. She can get overwhelmed by sounds, lights, smells and food textures and finds these can be exhausting. They cause her to have meltdowns or shutdowns, so that she either becomes non-verbal and needs to sit somewhere quietly alone for a while or she may become anxious and need to very quickly get out of the situation I am in. This can make her appear rude, or out of control to anyone watching.Laura-James-1000px

Similarly, the author often needs lists and notes to remind her to do things a non-autistic person might find easier to remember such as getting dressed, eating and cleaning her teeth. Socialising in large groups is difficult as are surprises, whether positive or negative. Recognising feelings is also difficult for James. She finds that they usually fall into only two camps: the good ones and the bad ones. The good ones she identifies as coming in pretty colours and feeling soft, like cashmere between my fingers. The author sees the bad ones in shades of green and are jagged and spiky, like a piece of plastic that catches your finger and makes you bleed. Therefore she tries to live life in neutral, trying to ensure there are no highs and no lows.

Many people with autism experience difficulties finding employment, the National Autistic Society estimates only 16 per cent of autistic adults in the UK are in full-time paid employment and 32 per cent in some type of paid work. James is an exception to this statistic as she has successfully carved a career as a journalist and she owns a communications agency. So, this book is extremely interesting for the facts and incite it offers. However, it is a bit plodding and not terribly exciting, a bit neutral, perhaps. Still, if you are interested in learning about living with autism, it is an excellent resource.

Valerie Penny



The Blackhouse by Peter May

Peter MayI first met Peter May some years ago in 2014, the year he won the McIlvanney Prize, for his novel  Entry Island at the Bloody Scotland Crime Writers’ Festival. He is a quiet, courteous man, but one whose work I had never read until The Blackhouse became book of the month for our book group. The Blackhouse is the first novel of The Lewis Trilogy by this Scottish writer. A suspense thriller, the action takes place mostly on the remote and weather-beaten Isle of Lewis off the coast of northern Scotland. Peter May with wife

Peter May was born in Glasgow on 20, December 1951. He is a Scottish television screenwriter, novelist, and crime writer. He is the recipient of writing awards in the UK, Europe and America. He is married to the Scottish screenwriter Janice Hally.

The Blackhouse is May’s most popular novel. It starts when a brutal murder on the remote Isle of Lewis bears the same modus operandi as a recent Edinburgh killing, Detective Fin MacLeod is sent to investigate.  Sergeant Gunn, a local policeman, knows the islanders, and keen for MacLeod to uncover the murderer embarks on a mission to both help him, and protect him.  Artair, Fin’s old school friend, learns of his return, but all Fin sees is what the island has done to his childhood friend as his own mistakes in Edinburgh catch up with him.

The BlackhouseGigs MacAuley, whom Fin remembers from his youth, prepares his men for the guga cull, an annual ritual that sees two thousand gannet adolescents killed to produce the island’s delicacy. Home to the gannet colony, the rock they journey to is a brutal creation of nature that threatens to destroy all that visit it. As Fin investigates, he scrambles to piece together the events that led to the brutality on the island. Events that unravel show him his past, his investigation and his future are all intertwined; it is a race to save his future from becoming another of the rock’s victims.

It is an exciting novel, enhanced by a fabulous setting. I am looking forward to reading the rest of this trilogy and highly recommend The Blackhouse.

Valerie Penny

10 of the Best Poems about Stars by guest author Dr Oliver Tearle

This article was first published on the Site Interesting Literature founded and edited by Dr Oliver Tearle, Lecturer in English at Loughborough University and freelance writer. It appeared on 28 July 2017 at

The best starry poems

Stars, like flowers and the moon and sunsets, are part of the ‘paint-by-numbers’ poetry toolkit: if you want to write a passable poem that sounds consciously ‘poetic’, you can, as S Club 7 put it, reach for the stars. But poets throughout the centuries have put the stars to more thoughtful and interesting use than mere poetic decoration, offering songs in celebration of the starry firmament and more pessimistic takes on the stars in the sky and what they tell us about ourselves. Here are ten of the best poems about the stars.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 14. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 14 is one of his ‘Procreation Sonnets’, which urges the Fair Youth, the addressee of the early Sonnets, to marry and sire an heir. The poem takes astrology as its (rejected) trope, and begins with the line ‘Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck’. Shakespeare rejects the idea of ‘Astronomy’ (which in Shakespeare’s time was still used more or less interchangeably with ‘astrology’, or divining the future by the stars) as a way of making predictions about the future. But although he may not be able to predict any man’s fortune by observing the real stars in the sky, he can prophesy the future by looking into the ‘stars’ that are the Fair Youth’s eyes…


William Wordsworth, ‘The Stars are Mansions Built by Nature’s Hand’. In this example of the Italian sonnet, Wordsworth celebrates the beauty of the stars in the night sky, seeing them as the abode of ‘the spirits of the blest’.

John Keats, ‘Bright Star’. This sonnet muses upon the fragility and inconstancy of human life. It doesn’t actually have a title, and instead is known by its first line, ‘Bright star! Would I were stedfast as thou art’, and sees Keats comparing his own condition with that of a star ‘stedfast’ in the night sky. Keats copied the finished version of the sonnet into a volume of The Poetical Works of William Shakespeare, placing his poem opposite Shakespeare’s A Lover’s Complaint. The first two words of the sonnet were used as the title of the 2009 biopic about Keats’s life, Bright Star, starring Ben Whishaw as Keats.

Emily Dickinson, ‘Ah Moon – and Star! In this poem, Dickinson does a bit of star-gazing, and concludes that, far away from her though the moon and stars are, they are not as far away as her beloved. The end of the poem is ambiguous, allowing for us to interpret this unspecified beloved as Jesus Christ, making this a religious poem (or, more accurately, a poem about religious doubt) as well as a fine poem about the stars.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The Starlight Night’. This sonnet by Victorian poetry’s most idiosyncratic writer entreats the reader to look up at the stars on a ‘starlight night’; Hopkins likens the stars to numerous things, from people or ‘fire-folk’ sitting in the night sky, to the eyes of elves, and to diamonds – ‘diamond delves’ likens the stars in the night sky to diamonds in dark mines or caves. ‘The Starlight Night’ was one of two poems which Hopkins sent to his mother as a birthday present, the other poem being ‘God’s Grandeur’. What a birthday present!

A. E. Housman, ‘Stars, I Have Seen Them Fall’. Like many of Housman’s poems, this one is untitled, so we’ve given its first line here. Although the stars seem to fall, they remain in the sky; although rain falls into the sea, the sea remains the same saltwater it has always been. Housman’s poem is about futility, and offers a less celebratory take on the stars in the night sky.

T. E. Hulme, ‘The Embankment’. In just seven lines, the father of English modernist poetry, T. E. Hulme, captures the mood of a ‘fallen gentleman’ sleeping rough by the Thames. Looking up at the beautiful night sky, the homeless and hapless man longs to grab the ‘star-eaten blanket of the sky’ and wrap himself in it for warmth. A sort of reversal of Oscar Wilde’s famous line, ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’: here, we can all look at the stars, but some of us are in the gutter…

Louis MacNeice, ‘Star-Gazer’. To look at the night sky is to look into the past: we are looking at stars, not as they are now, but as they were thousands, perhaps even millions of years ago. Written in 1967 but looking back to his eighteenth birthday some 42 years earlier, MacNeice’s ‘Star-Gazer’ thinks bigger than man’s three-score-and-ten, reflecting on the fact that some of the stars now bursting into life will never be seen by the poet, because they are so far away their light will only reach earth a long, long time in the future.

W. H. Auden, ‘The More Loving One’. Like Dickinson’s poem above, here we have another poem connecting the stars to unrequited love. Looking up at the stars, Auden says, he knows they are indifferent to him, but then if equal affection between two things – or between two people – is impossible, he would rather be ‘the more loving one’.Silvia Plath

Sylvia Plath, ‘Stars Over the Dordogne’. ‘Stars are dropping thick as stones’: so begins Plath’s poem about the stars, in which her speaker sits and watches the stars dropping into the landscape, prompting her to consider the universe, eternity, and other seemingly boundless things. A fine but lesser-known Plath poem that concludes our pick of the greatest poems about the stars.

Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah

Sophie Hannah had a fine reputation as a writer (indeed her poetry is taught in the GCSE syllabus) before she raised Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot from the dead. Generally I am not a fan of such derivative works and find them unnecessary. I do not understand why writers cannot create their own chararcter rather than borrowing them from other authors. However, unlike many other such revivals, Hannah’s work has received favouable reviews and seems to be endorsed by Agatha Christie’s trustees. Several of Christie’s book are reviewed on this site inculding: The Hollow at and Five Little Pigs With that preamble, when my mother gave me Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah, I decided to read it rather than donate it directly to my local library.Sophie Hannah

It is interesting to note that Closed Casket was published in September 2016  on the 100th anniversary of Christie’s first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The story starts when Lady Athelinda Playford plans a house party at her mansion in Clonakilty, County Cork, Eire.

As guests arrive, Lady Playford summons her lawyer to make an urgent change to her will which she intends to announce at dinner that night. She has decided to cut off her two children without a penny and leave her fortune to an employee who has only weeks to live. Among Lady Playford’s guests are two men she has never met. One, of course, is  the famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, and other is Inspector Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard. Neither knows why he has been invited.closed casket book

However, Poirot begins to wonder if Lady Playford expects a murderer to strike. He finds it strange that she should appear determined to provoke anger in the presence of a possible killer. When the crime is committed in spite of Poirot’s best efforts to stop it, and the victim is not who he expected it to be, only he will be able to find the culprit and solve the mystery.

Although I enjoy Agatha Christie novels and appreciate Poirot as a character, I did not enjoy Closed Casket. The character of Poirot did not quite ring true, nor did his relationship with Catchpool. I was not much convinced by the premise of the mystery either.

While I have no doubt that Hannah will find success with this book, because of its derivative nature, I cannot recommend it to Agatha Christie officionados, it will just irritate you.

Valerie Penny

Burning Air by Erin Kelly

erin Kelly picErin Kelly is one of my favourite authors. I frst met her a couple of years ago when she was tutoring at Swanwick Writers’ Summer School. She is an excellent tutor and wrote one of my favourite novels, The Poison Tree, which is reveiwed on this site at as is her novel, The Ties That Bind, so I was really excited when Burning Air came to the top of my ‘to be read’ pile. swanwick outside

The novel centre around the MacBride family. Lydia, the matriarch of the family has recently died, but the family decide to go ahead with their traditional visit to Devon for bonfire night at the beginning of November. Lydia’s death leaves a pall over the trip and her widower, Rowan, is drinking himself into a stupor. The family is in meltdown, with eldest daughter Sophie watching her marriage crumble, while mixed-race grandson Jake has the police breathing down his neck. There is one ray of optimism: Felix, Sophie’s brother, has brought along his beautiful new girlfriend Kerry, who charms the unhappy family. She appears to be a natural babysitter, and Sophie leaves her baby daughter in her care.Burning Air Book

When Sophie returns to the property, both Kerry and the baby disappear. Sophie is beside herself, panicking wildly wondering whether Kerry has taken the baby or whether both she and the baby have been abducted. This is every parent’s worst nightmare.

However, I found the final revelation in Burning Air  a touch underwhelming. This will not deter me from reading more novels by Erin Kelly as she has proved herself in other novels to be among the most accomplished and pin-sharp of writers at work in the crime genre. In truth, this novel is well worth reading, because, even if Burning Air is not Erin Kelly’s best novel, it is only because the others are magnificent.

Valerie Penny


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