Girl Zero by AA Dhand

I first met Amit Dhand last year at Swnawick Writers’ Summer School and was delighted to see him return in August to run a short course there. He also took part in an evening event with fellow crime writers, Simon Hall, Sophie Hannah and poet Alison Chisholm. Last year, I read, and reviewed on this site, his debut novel The Streets of Darkness. So I was looking forward to his second novel, Girl Zero.

The story starts with a most distressing scene and is relentless in its manipulation of the readers emotions. I do not like to give away spoilers, and have no intention of doing so here, suffice to say, Dhand’s hero, Harry Virdee, comes close to breaking point on several occasions. I must say that, although I enjoyed Streets of Darkness if anything, I enjoyed Girl Zero even more. It was a beautifully contructed novel with many satisfying twists as required by a satisfying thriller.

A.A. Dhand was raised in Bradford and spent his youth observing the city from behind the counter of a small convenience store. After qualifying as a pharmacist, he worked in London and travelled extensively before returning to Bradford to start his own business and begin writing. The history, diversity and darkness of the city have inspired his Harry Virdee novels.

Thae author continues to work as a fulltime pharmacist, in case his writing success is just a flash in the pan. I don’t think he needs to worry too much about that!

Val Penny

Being a Detective by Stuart Gibbon and Stephen Wade

Crime writers are, by the nature of their work, blessed with excellent imaginations. However, if you are writing a police procedural novel, you want the procedures to be as accurate as possible. Enter Stephen Wade and Stuart Gibbon with their new book Being a Detective. I am particularly pleased that Stuart Gibbon has taken time to visit my blog today.

Thank you for inviting me to feature on your blog, it’s great to be given the opportunity to talk about our latest book, ‘Being a Detective’ and how it came about.

My background is in policing, having spent 30 years in the service, working in the Metropolitan Police and then Lincolnshire. A large part of my career was spent as a Detective at various ranks. As a Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) I worked on a specialist unit as the lead Detective responsible for the investigation of Murder cases.

I retired from the police service in 2012 and, following a break to recharge batteries, set up my own consultancy service (GIB Consultancy) to help writers with police actions and procedures to ensure that their work is accurate and authentic. This service is now well-established with a varied client base. Authors tend to send me a list of questions to address or a section of their work to fact-check. Although the majority of my work involves helping crime writers, I have advised across a real cross-section of genres including sci-fi and romance. It’s hugely rewarding to be able to help writers and to play a small part in their writing journey.

I met crime historian Stephen Wade at a literature festival a few years ago and we have since become good friends. Our first book The Crime Writer’s Casebook was published in 2017 and has proved to be very popular, particularly with the crime writing community. I would describe it as a reference book which contains lots of useful information about crime, historical and current. It includes Chapters on Murder investigation, DNA, police custody procedure and includes a number of true crime case studies for context.

Our second book ‘Being a Detective’ was published in March this year. It’s a little different to the ‘Casebook’ as it’s written in an A-Z format and is a ‘Readers’ and Writers’ Guide to detective work past and present’. Once again it’s for crime fans and covers both historical and contemporary periods. You can find out how detectives were first used way back in 1842, read about the history of detectives and the challenges facing modern detectives today. The book brings us right up to date with sections on cyber crime, keyless car crime and DNA tagging to name but a few. It’s full of case studies and is intended to tell you everything you need to know about UK detectives. The book contains more than 100 sections identified in alphabetical order from the ABC principle of crime investigation through to Zombie knife. We hope that Being a Detective provides an interesting read for fans of the crime genre and becomes a useful addition to the bookshelf.

Many thanks for inviting me to feature on your blog, Val, it’s been a pleasure as always.

The Seagull’s Laughter by Holly Bidgood

I am delighted that the young, British author Holly Bidgood has agreed to join me today. Holly is celebrating her second novel with Wild Pressed Books, The Seagull’s Laughter, with a book tour with Love Book Tours.

The Blurb

Born in 1973 to a Greenlandic mother and an English-Explorer father, Malik has always been something of a misfit. He has one black eye and one blue. As a child his mother’s people refused to touch him and now his own baby daughter’s family feel the same way.

On his own now, Malik’s only companion is a guiding spirit no-one else can see, but one day a white man with a nose like a beak and a shadow like a seagull appears on his doorstep and invites him to England.

Martha has had enough of living with domestic abuse. She compares bruises with her friend Neil, who regularly suffers homophobic attacks. With Martha’s baby, they go on the run to Shetland, where Martha has happy childhood memories of summers spent with her aunt.

On their way up north in a camper van, they come across a dejected Malik, alone again after a brief reconciliation with his father’s family.

They arrive safely together in the Shetland Isles, but Malik still needs answers to the identity of the beak-nosed man who casts a shadow over his life, and must now embark on a further journey of his own.

The Seagull’s Laughter is an immersive read, intertwined with nature and the magic of Greenlandic folk tales.

Holly is 24 years old. She moved to Hull after graduating from UCL with a degree in Scandinavian languages. She has been writing since a very young age and as well as her novel, she regularly writes folk and fairytale-like short stories. Holly considers landscape, wilderness and interaction with the elements to be the driving force behind her writing, a passion which has taken her to Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Conceived during a visit to the Faroe Islands, her debut literary novel looks at friendship, loss and social change. It is set in the bleak wilderness of those islands during the second world war.

Excerpt from The Seagull’s Laughter

From the corner of my eye I noticed a tiny hand reaching for the basket of coals, and gently I moved the baby’s fingers away before she could blacken them with soot. I spoke to her soothingly in my own language, for a moment not realising that she would not understand. She seemed to enjoy the sounds I was making, watching the movement of my lips in fascination with round, bright eyes. I said the same thing again, and then she looked up at me, serious for a moment, before a wide smile spread across her cheeks and she waved the spoon above her head as though applauding my efforts. I could not help but laugh. She looked over to her mother – busy at the cooker – to share her enjoyment. The young woman laughed too, caught my eyes, and for one long second I felt as though the world had stopped in its tracks and the weight of it had been lifted from my shoulders. Her eyes were blue, the deep blue of the ocean, creased at the edges above cheekbones dotted with freckles and lips that seemed to wear the perpetual shape of a smile. Was it the spreading warmth of the fire that had brought a new pink to her cheeks?

I heard the slamming of a door opening with too much force – breaking the spell. Neil blundered into the room, clutching a jumper in one hand, his eyes turned towards the floor as though in search of something.

‘Martha, have you seen my socks?’ In the same breath he caught sight of me, as I knelt still on the floor surrounded by cushions. ‘Oh, morning, Malik. Sleep well?’ He smiled encouragingly, perhaps to show that he did not mind my having fallen to sleep in the midst of the hospitality he had shown me the previous evening.

I nodded mutely.

‘Cat still got your tongue, eh? Good, good. Martha! My socks?’ He strode over to the young woman, who was rolling her eyes at him, spoon in hand by the cooker.

‘I don’t know, Neil, why don’t you just keep them on your feet?’

I noticed the toe of a woollen sock peeping out from beneath a flower-patterned cushion, which I moved to the side and discovered the other one. I stood up, and clutching the socks in one hand I lifted the baby up into my arms, away from the stove.

‘Thanks, man,’ said Neil, grinning as I handed him his socks. The baby reached out her arms towards her mother, standing beside Neil, who took her from me almost apologetically. I mumbled something about the fire, eyes averted, then turned and ducked through the doorway and out into the fresh air.

The rain fell lightly, skittered across the water in thin curtains driven by the mounting wind. I took off my jumper and rolled my shirt sleeves up to my elbows, seeking the coolness of air on my bare skin, a call back to life from the drowsiness of the night and the numbness of my wearied soul. I gulped down the clear air, trying to swallow the lump in my throat: the longing for Eqingaleq and his guidance. I was truly lost now, captured within an infinite moment, unable to move forwards, cut off from everything that I had known before.

I stepped onto the bank of the canal. Felt the reassurance of solid earth beneath my bare feet. I sank to the ground where Neil and I had sat the evening before. I kept myself still, listening. I imagined I could feel the vibrations of the rain upon the earth, the relentless, rhythmical pounding of the shaman’s drum as he journeyed to the Spirit world. But it was so distant now, I could not discern the beat. I had journeyed too far.

The Tale of the Depressed Man by Mason Bushell

I am always thrilled to find an author new to me whose work I enjoy. It is a real treat. Mason Bushell is an English author from Norwich who writes The Workhouse Mysteries. As those of you who read my blog will know, my favourite genre is crime thrillers and mystery novels so I recently treated myself to the first novel in the series, The Tale of the Depressed Man.

The main protagonist is Holly Ward who works as waitress and manageress of her mother’s restaurant The Workhouse. However, Holly’s grandfather is a police detective and his interest in solving mysteries and putting things right has clearly passed to Holly too. This book had a really interesting storyline that used the backdrop of a restaurant as the location for the story: this really works. 

The opening chapter of The Tale of The Depressed Man was very entertaining and a brilliant way to start the book. The story goes straight into a bank robbery that goes wrong and a high speed car chase where the getaway driver gets more than he bargained for. Shortly after this Holly notices a man sitting at the bar in the restaurant looking really miserable. She tries to cheer him up and find out the reason for his sadness and the next thing she knows, she and her friends and family are involved in the search for the loot from the bank robbery and then a hostage situation.

There are some really strong characters in The Tale of The Depressed Man. I particularly liked Holly and her grandfather. I was kept entertained from start to finish – with a race against time to save a hostage situation, this was a clean, easy to follow plot that I’m sure crime readers young and old will enjoy. The Tale of The Depressed Man is an excellent crossover novel: it would benefit from additional editing but that did not spoil my enjoyement of the book and I look forward to the next story in the series.

Val Penny

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

I had A Man Called Ove by the Swedish author, Fredrik Backman, in my TBR (to be read) list for too long. However, when it became book of the month for my book group, the book suddenly became top of my list.

Ove is a quiet, practical, grumpy man who married a vivacious, outgoing woman who appreciated his qualities. Ove comes off at first as such an officious, stubborn busybody, you want to laugh at him and not with him. He is such a miserly haggler. The words “batteries not included” can put him in a rage. Anyone who doesn’t drive a Saab is an idiot. He is certainly not afraid of expressing his views on any subject, particularly people who break rules.

As the book progresses, the reader comes to see his bark has no bite, and his hunger to be needed is the grace in his core. His wife, Sonya, liked to talk, about books she loved or the delinquent kids she taught, and he liked to listen to her. He got sustenance from building her things, like bookshelves, or, when she became wheelchair bound after a tragic accident, constructing her an accessible kitchen or a ramp at her school.

Ove’s long grief over losing Sonja has recently been compounded by the feeling of uselessness he has after being forced into an early retirement. He is suicidally depressed, but life keeps intruding. He may snarl at a homeless cat ora young person or even at interruptions from his irritating neighbors, but he doesn’t resist much taking the cat in or helping these neighbours with their problems.  Ove thinks he just wants to say goodbye to life, but beginning to care about one thing leads to more and more threads that bind. I have a special place in my heart for writers who can make you laugh one moment and make you cry the next and Backman does just that. A Man Called Ove reads more like a series of short stories than a novel. I found A Man Called Ove most enjoyable and easy to read.

About the Author

Fredrik Backman is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of A Man Called Ove (to be a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks), My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, Britt-Marie Was Here, Beartown, Us Against You, and two novellas, And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer and The Deal of a Lifetime. Things My Son Needs to Know About the World, his first work of non-fiction, will be released in the US in May 2019. His books are published in more than forty countries. He lives in Stockholm, Sweden, with his wife and two children. Connect with him on Twitter @BackmanLand or on Instagram @backmansk.

Val Penny

Shopping Cart Annie by Cordy Fitzgerald

Shopping Cart Annie was given to me by a dear friend who knows the author personally, so I very much hoped I would enjoy the novel by Cordy Fitzgerald. The book is set partly in Colorado and partly in Afghanistan. It is a complex mystery which crosses continents and decades and deserves concentration and consideration.

The main protagonist is a retired schoolteacher and amateur sleuth, Dr. Inez Buchanan. This character is particularly well drawn so the reader knows her strengths and weaknesses and understands why she reacts as she does.

Inez receives a visit from her neighbor, Dolly David, which she considers strange as they do not know each other, however, Dolly goes to Inez because she needs her help. Years ago, Dolly’s granddaughter, Kadija Campbell, went missing from her college campus in Fort Collins, Colorado. The police believed that Kadija was dead, but Dolly has always held out hope that she is alive. A mysterious phone call reinforces her belief that Kadija is alive and hints that she is being held in Afghanistan.

Inez has great sympathy for Dolly but doubts she can do anything to help. Then, Dolly dies in a mysterious accident and leaves Inez as the executor of her estate. Dolly was worth billions of dollars, and Inez knows that her last wish would be for Inez to find Kadija at any cost.

Inez’s friend and FBI contact, Trace Mitchell, believes Kadija may be working as a spy in a terrorist cell. In the adventure that follows, Inez connects Kadija’s disappearance with strange happenings in the Middle East. There are powerful people who know more about the young woman than they are letting on, and Inez must discover the truth.

If you enjoy an interesting mystery with lively characters and complicated twists, Shopping Cart Annie is the book for you. Iyt would be an excellent book group novel as it would generate active discussion.

About the Author by the Author

I live in Colorado and feel fortunate to have both my grown sons live nearby. My first thirty years were spent in Washington, D.C. where relatives and family friends customarily had their own conspiracy theory about what really happens in government. As an only child, I read a lot and by high school, wanted to become a spy for CIA. I never applied, but instead read loads of book on the topic. With a Ph.D. in Education Administration, I’ve gained another set of tools to address my passion for investigative research and espionage.

Admittedly, Cordy Fitzgerald is a pen name. It belonged to my grandmother who died a few days after giving birth to my mother. I can’t tell from my mother’s birth certificate whether she was married at the time of the birth or not. But what is evident through the testimony of relatives now dead is that they were all dirt poor people in Culpepper, Virginia. I use the name now in a feeble but a most reverent attempt to add a few years of life to hers, albeit on the Internet.

Val Penny

Finding Nina by Sue Barnard

I recently treated myself to a pile of books by a group of my favourite authors amongst those books was the most recent novel by Sue Barnard, Finding Nina.

Finding Nina is a relatively short book, but that is not a critism. The novel deals with the life of a woman, given up for adoption and explores the emotions of her birth mother, her adotive mother and her own emotions as she matures. I find the raw and realistic way the emotions in this novel are discussed. The author really gets into the heads of the different characters.

I found the book extremely interesting. So much so that I read it in one sitting. I have already recommended it to several bookish friends and I do so again now.

Sue Barnard is a British novelist, editor and award-winning poet. She was born in North Wales but has spent most of her life in and around Manchester. After graduating from Durham University, where she studied French and Italian, Sue got married then had a variety of office jobs before becoming a full-time parent. If she had her way, the phrase “non-working mother” would be banned from the English language. Sue has a mind which is sufficiently warped as to be capable of compiling questions for BBC Radio 4’s fiendishly difficult “Round Britain Quiz”. This once caused one of her sons to describe her as “professionally weird.” The label has stuck. In addition to working as an editor for Crooked Cat Publishing, Sue is the author of four novels: The Ghostly Father, Nice Girls Don’t, The Unkindest Cut of All and Never on Saturday. She is also very interested in Family History. Her own background is far stranger than any work of fiction; she’d write a book about it if she thought anybody would believe her. Sue lives in Cheshire, UK, with her extremely patient husband and a large collection of unfinished scribblings.

Finding Nina is an original novel, published by Crooked Cat Books, where the characters are divinely shared and explored with the reader.

Val Penny

The Refuge by Jo Fenton

I have just finished the new novel by Jo Fenton, The Refuge, published by Crooked Cat Books. The novel is a sequel to her debut novel, The Brotherhood which is also reviewed on this site at .

The Refuge commences at the point where the Abbey has passed from the Brotherhood to Mark and Mel. The couple have also just welcomed their baby, Emma. They are determined that something good will come from the building and establish a refuge for those still living there as well as for abused women. Predictably, things do not go as smoothly as they had hoped.

The book explores the pressures the arrival of a new baby has on the lives of the parents. Jess, Mel’s sister, comes back into their lives and, for me, it is here that the most compelling scenes of The Refuge take place. The emotions that are explored within Jess, Mel, Mark and other characters are sensitively and realistically drawn. The exploration of the minds of the characters raises this novel from good to truly gripping.

I highly recommend The Refuge and hope the author will write further novels based around these fascinating characters.

Val Penny

When Your Characters Take Over by guest author Sue Barnard

I am delighted that my friend and fellow author has made time to visit my blog today and discuss the characters in her novels. I often hear my characters talking to me, and I’m glad I’m not alone in that. Thank you for this interesting article, Sue.

Nina’s story really began back in 2012, although at the time I had no idea about that. It stemmed from a conversation in my second novel, Nice Girls Don’t, in which mention was made of a baby girl, born in secret during World War Two, and given up for adoption. This baby girl was not referred to again in Nice Girls Don’t, but I realised afterwards that her existence left open the possibility of another story. What could have happened to her?

The baby was Nina, born in mid-November 1943, when World War Two was still at its height. Her mother Alice was seventeen and unmarried, and although the war had changed many things, the prevailing post-Victorian attitude to illegitimacy was not one of them. So one month later, just before Christmas 1943, Nina was handed over to a childless couple who formally adopted her and changed her name to Stella.

There have been occasions when I’ve stared at the words on my computer screen without any recollection of having written them, and I’ve been forced to the conclusion that the characters themselves have been telling me what to write. One such occasion was in Nice Girls Don’t, when one of the characters said something which went on to change the whole course of the story. And it happened again in Finding Nina. The final words of the scene which follows (just after Alice has given her baby away) must have come directly from Alice’s heart. On reading them I found myself in floods of tears, and for a long time afterwards I couldn’t bear to write any more.

14th December 1943

After forcing down a cup of dishwatery NAAFI tea, Alice boarded the bus for the grim journey back to the mother-and-baby home. Her mind was numb, and her heart felt colder than the chilly December afternoon. She neither knew nor cared if any of the other passengers were staring at her. Normally, she would have gone to any lengths to disguise the fact that she’d been crying – her mother had always drummed into her that crying in public was a sign of not coping. But today, such draconian diktats felt both pathetic and cruel.

The home’s minimalist Christmas decorations, hand-made by the residents from whatever scraps and oddments they could salvage, seemed trite and inappropriate. Avoiding the pitying glances of anyone she passed in the hallway, Alice trudged up the stairs to her room, picked up the small utility blanket from the cot beside her bed and held it next to her face. It still smelled of Nina.

Clutching the precious cloth, she slumped on to her hard bed. She had no idea how long she sat there, staring into space with no coherent thoughts, when eventually she was aroused from her stupor by a knock on her bedroom door. Looking up, she noticed for the first time that she was sitting in the dark.

“Alice? Are you all right? Can I come in?”

“Yes,” she answered, in a dull monotone.

The door creaked open to reveal the matron. Betty was a kindly person of indeterminate age, who seemed to mother all the girls and women in her charge, regardless of age or circumstance. She was carrying a tray bearing a teapot covered with a shabby tea-cosy, together with a milk jug, a sugar basin, and two cups and saucers. She kicked the door closed behind her, crossed the room in three strides and set the tray down on the small plain bedside table, before closing the curtains and switching on the light.

“What time is it?”

“Ten to five. I’ve brought you some tea. Put plenty of sugar in it if you want.”

Alice blinked. “But what about the rationing?”

Betty sat down on the bed and patted Alice’s hand, which was still clutching Nina’s blanket.

“Don’t worry about that. You need it today. It’s been brewing for about five minutes, so it should be good and strong by now.” She picked up the teapot and began to pour.

Alice was suddenly reminded of the phrase Shall I be Mother? This morning, she herself had been a mother. What was she now?


FINDING NINAis already available for pre-order. The book is officially released on 3 June 2019, when there will be an online launch party on Facebook, with guests, competitions and giveaways. To add yourself to the guest list, click here then select “Going”. See you there!


1943: A broken-hearted teenager gives birth in secret. Her soldier sweetheart has disappeared, and she reluctantly gives up her daughter for adoption.

1960: A girl discovers a dark family secret, but it is swiftly brushed back under the carpet. Conventions must be adhered to.

1982: A young woman learns of the existence of a secret cousin. She yearns to find her long-lost relative, but is held back by legal constraints. Life goes on.

2004: Everything changes…


Sue Barnard is a British novelist, editor and award-winning poet who was born in North Wales some time during the last millennium. She speaks French like a Belgian, German like a schoolgirl, and Italian and Portuguese like an Englishwoman abroad. She now lives in Cheshire, UK, with her extremely patient husband and a large collection of unfinished scribblings.

Her mind is so warped that she has appeared on BBC TV’s Only Connect quiz show, and she has also compiled questions for BBC Radio 4’s fiendishly difficult Round Britain Quiz. This once caused one of her sons to describe her as “professionally weird.” The label has stuck.

Sue’s own family background is far stranger than any work of fiction. She would write a book about it if she thought anybody would believe her.

Finding Nina, which is her sixth novel, is not that book.

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The Ghostly FatherNice Girls Don’tThe Unkindest Cut of AllNever on Saturday  Heathcliff 

The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon

The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon is one of those books that had been on my radar for some time, so when it was book of the month at my book group recently, I was delighted.

The Rose of Sebastopol is a story set in the mid nineteenth century at the time of the Crimean War. It tells the story of Mariella and Rosa who are cousins and friends from childhood.

In 1855 Rosa Barr who is a headstrong young woman, travels to the Crimea, against the wishes of her family. She is determined to work as a nurse bit she does not return.

Three people have been intimately connected with her. One, her step- brother, Max Stupeley, a soldier and adventurer; the second a Doctor Henry Thelwell, who is Mariella’s fiance. Henry is traumatized by the war, and harbour a secret passion for Rosa, and the third is Mariella herself. Mariella must now uncover the truth about what has happened to the missing nurse.

Mariella’s journey takes her from the domestic quiet of London to the foothills of Italy where she finds Henry seriously ill and she is devastated when she finds out about his infatuation with Rosa. She then travels on to the ravaged Russian landscape of the Crimea, where she struggles to discover what has happened to her captivating cousin and uncover the secrets of those who loved her.

Val Penny