Phoebe Wynne – Madam

Phoebe Wynne – Madam

Rose Christie cannot believe it when she is offered a job at the prestigious boarding school Caldonbrae Hall, set on a recluse peninsula above the Scottish cliffs. They haven’t hired new staff for more than a decade and the Classics teacher is a lot younger than her colleagues, much closer in age to her students. School does not only cater for her, but also for her mother whose health is deteriorating and who thus can get the best medical care. The rules at the institution are strict and not easy for Rose to figure out, too different is her new work place from the schools she worked before. Yet, she soon gets the feeling that what is advertised as tradition is much more an overcome idea of the world in which women are reduced to being pretty and just longing for being married. Only in her classroom can she talk about the female heroines of the ancient world that have always fascinated her – yet, this is not a way of thinking which is tolerated there and soon Rose finds herself deep in trouble.

Phoebe Wynne’s debut novel “Madam” combines the classic boarding school novel with elements of Gothic fiction and also classic literature. She sets the story at the beginning of the 1990s thus offering a world without the world wide web when it was still possible to keep young women secluded from the outside and thus possible to control what they have access to. Free spirits just like Rose, taking feminist standpoints, were not part of the school’s personnel and it becomes quickly obvious why.

At the first glance, Caldonbrae Hall is a highly admired and impressive institution. The girls come from the noblest families and seem to be well-educated in their manners. Yet, Rose soon detects that there is also something lacking, an aspects she considers crucial in her teaching: free thinking. The pupils all seem to follow are a very limited view of the world and do not develop any aspiration for themselves. Most astonishingly, it seems as if they are happy with the choices that are made for them.

The Gothic novel elements – the virginal maidens, the castle like school with its old walls, a threat which is difficult to locate, the gloomy weather with frequent storms, people hiding crucial information, and most of all, the story of some girl’s mysterious death the year before – all contribute to an unsettling atmosphere which can be felt throughout the novel. Rose quickly realises that she needs to flee but is successfully kept from doing so.

Rose’s heroines, the stories of ancient goddesses and nymphs like Daphne, Antigone, Dido or Lucretia, are wonderfully integrated into the novel and a stark contrast to the girls’ views. This is what I liked most about the novel since it nonchalantly underlines that you still can learn something from these old stories and find role models even though times have changed a lot.

A novel I totally enjoyed indulging in which combines classic literature with a bit of mystery.

Alan Parks – The April Dead

Alan Parks – The April Dead

1974 and Glasgow is shaken by homemade bombs. What so far was only known to happen in Northern Ireland, now also seems to have reached Scotland. Detective Harry McCoy is assigned the investigation, but first, he needs to head to the prison where his oldest friends Stevie Cooper is released. Harry tells him to keep his head down for a couple of days, despite knowing Stevie’s character only too well. Thus, he starts a series of gang feuds in Glasgow’s underworld which adds to the mysterious bombings. And there is another case which Harry tries to solve: an American father is looking for his son who disappeared while being stationed with the navy in Scotland. Just like always, all things happen at the same time and McCoy has another couple of challenging days ahead.

Following the Harry McCoy series from the first instalment, I have since been a huge fan of Alan Park’s novels. The first two, “Bloody January” and “February’s Son” presented us the protagonist of the series and his family background and link to the underworld, “Bobby March Will Live Forever” focussed a bit more on the police world in 1970s Glasgow, the latest book is again brilliant in creating a special atmosphere and gives insight in how, at times, the truth needs to be adapted to the needs while not losing sight of rightfulness and justice.

The bombings plot is quickly linked to a paramilitary army which, of course, strongly reminds of the IRA. A charismatic leader who abuses his followers to accomplish his mission in a complex political environment is perfectly chosen for a crime novel. The missing son is an interesting addition since this illustrates the family pressure which was much stronger five decades ago than today.

Undoubtedly the most fascinating aspect was this time how McCoy is torn between his conviction as a member of the police and his bond with Cooper, himself the number one of Glasgow’s underworld. McCoy is not actually afraid of what Cooper might be willing to do to him, but he shows respect while making his point as a detective, at the same time. Even though he follows his instinct, which is often totally right, he is also at fault at times and has to cope with the consequences and challenge his sense of justice.

Another enjoyable and suspenseful novel which is not only highly complex but cleverly made-up with a careful rhythm and thus, for me, one of the best crime series at the moment.

Andrew O’Hagan – Mayflies

Andrew O’Hagan – Mayflies

Tully Dawson is the best friend one could ever wish for. When James’ struggles with his parents become unsupportable, he takes him to his home. Their friendship is based on music and the bands they admire and what both of them are sure of: they never want to become like their fathers. Ayrshire sooner or later becomes too enclosed, simply too small for them, so together with some friends they plan a weekend in Manchester, one of 1980s hot spots of music. And they do have the time of their life in only a couple of hours. Even though they all move on afterwards, the friendship between Tully and James goes deeper and even though they live on different ends of the island, thirty years on, James is the person Tully calls first when he has bad news.

“I suppose we could have (…) asked his opinion, but being young is a kind of warfare in which the great enemy is experience.”

Andrew O’Hagan’s novel oscillates between celebrating youth and the time of total light-footedness and the darkest side of human life. In the first part, we meet a bunch of youngsters for whom the Tenth Summer festival at the G-Mex centre in Manchester is the biggest event in their life so far. In 2017, they have not only aged but also acquired another attitude to life. Both have their time and place, it is the privilege of the teenage years to be carefree and live for the moment, harsh reality will come later, and it does.

“ ’It’s like an explosion of life happening and then it’s gone,’ he said. ‘We had our time, buddy. I’ve come to terms with it (…)’”

What I enjoyed most was to see how James and Tully had formed a bond for life. They shared the good times and also the bad ones. Nothing, not even their wives, could come between them since only with each other they could talk openly. Tully is a truly charismatic character which you come to like immediately which makes it even sadder to see how fate does not grant him more time on earth. The end is deeply moving, but seeing how full of emotion and life the first part war, you can accept it even if you don’t like it. It raises some very core questions each reader has to answer for himself, the way O’Hagan confronts us with them, however, is brilliant.

Denise Mina – Conviction

denise mina conviction
Denise Mina – Conviction

Just like every day, Anna McDonald gets up in the morning and turns on a podcast to relax before the usual commotion of her family starts. This morning, however, will be completely different. First, she learns in a true crime podcast that her former friend Leon has been murdered on a boat off the French coast, then, her husband tells her that he’s going to run away with her best friend Estelle taking their two girls with them. When Estelle’s husband Fin Cohen, a famous musician, turns up and a photo of the two of them goes viral, her carefully built life crumbles and falls. It will not be long before someone will recognise her, before those people that she has hidden from for years will finally find her, before it all will start again. She needs to run away again, but before, together with Fin, she will find out what happened to Leon and if the person she supposes behind it all is still looking for her.

Sometimes you start a novel, expecting it to be entertaining and gripping, but then you are literally dragged into it and cannot stop reading. That’s what happened to me with “Conviction”, once I began reading, I was spellbound and fascinated and absolutely wanted to know what all this was about. Due to Denise Mina’s clever foreshadowing and the high pace of the plot, you don’t get a second to relax and breathe deeply, as the protagonist runs, you are tagged along and eagerly follow.

Denise Mina does not waste any time, the story starts like a bull at the gate and before you are even the slightest oriented, you are already in the middle of the mess that Anna is experiencing. Choosing a first person narrator was some clever decision as thus, we only get her perspective, only what she wants to share and which leaves the reader in the dark for quite some time. At first, she seems to be totally overreacting until you realise that there is much more behind it all. The good and dutiful housewife obvious is entangled in some unbelievably big conspiracy with powerful people far beyond any law enforcement.

A proper page-turner with unexpected twists and turns which also has some witty and comical bits and pieces to offer.

Alan Parks – Bobby March Will Live Forever

alan parks bobby march will live forever
Alan Parks – Bobby March Will Live Forever

A heat wave is rolling over Glasgow in July 1973 and just so is the drug business booming. One of the victims is Bobby March, the city’s greatest rock star, found dead in a hotel. Yet, this goes more or less unnoticed since the town is holding its breath with looking for young Alice Kelly who has disappeared into thin air. Her parents are neither rich nor famous, no ransom has been demanded, so everybody fears she might have been killed by some random perpetrator. With his boss Murray away and Raeburn in charge, life at Glasgow police becomes unbearable for Detective Harry McCoy who is ordered to the most loathing jobs. With the heat not going to cool down, the atmosphere is getting more and more tense and it is just a question of time until the necessary explosion comes.

The third instalment of Alan Parks’s series set in the 1970s Glasgow is by far the best. In the first, “Bloody January”, we get an idea of the city slowly declining, in “February’s son”, we learn about the underworld and their connection with McCoy. Now, the focus is set on the police who have the hardest job imaginable to do. Apart from the very personal aspects in this novel, again Alan Parks managed to create a brilliant atmosphere which gives you a feeling of the city and the constraints the inhabitants have to live in.

The plot combines several lines all equally thrilling and suspenseful. Apart from the kidnapping story – which will have much wider repercussions than apparent at the beginning – and McCoy’s personal war with Raeburn, there is also the ominous death of rock star Bobby March which gets unexpectedly personal for McCoy, too (and serves to continue the witty naming of the series). Added to this, Harry is asked by his boss to secretly look for his niece, 15-year-old Laura has been in trouble for quite some time, but now her disappearance seems to be more serious. All this is poured over McCoy and leads to a fast-paced story which you have to follow carefully in order not to get lost. Yet, the skilful and clever detective can connect the dots and bring all cases to an end.

The character of Harry McCoy is a fantastic protagonist. On the one hand, he is totally down to earth and knows how to talk to people no matter their background. He is an excellent policeman yet blends in easily with the underworld and its shady figures. On the other hand, he is totally loyal to his colleagues and has very high standards when it comes to police work and law and order. He knows where not to look too closely, but he is also determined when it comes to crossing a red line. Thus, his pragmatic but straightforward approach to his work makes him a sympathetic and authentic character.

A superb read which combines a great protagonist with a complex plot and lives from the stunning atmosphere the author creates.

Douglas Stuart – Shuggie Bain

douglas stuart shuggie bain
Douglas Stuart – Shuggie Bain

Agnes had so many hopes for her life. Her first husband was simply a disappointment, too well-behaved, too boring. With Shug Bain things could be different. But soon she wakes up still in her childhood room with her parents, aged 39 and mother of three kids. Shug promises a better life and rents them a home in a run-down public housing area on the outskirts of Glasgow. Yet, Shug does not really move in with his family, he is driving his taxi more and more often and spends his free time with other women. Soon enough, Agnes finds comfort in alcohol, her new neighbourhood is the perfect place to drown your thoughts and worries in cans of beer. Shuggie’s older brother Leek and his sister Catherine can distance themselves from their always intoxicated mother, yet, Shuggie is too young and for years, he hopes that one days, Agnes will be sober and they will have a life like any normal family.

Douglas Stuart’s novel is really heart-wrenching. You follow Shuggie’s childhood in the 1980s, a time when life was hard for many working class families who often did not know how to make ends meet which drove many fathers and mothers to alcohol. Shuggie’s love for his mother is unconditional, he is too young to understand the mechanisms behind her addiction and to see what it does not only to her but also to him. It would be too easy to blame Agnes for the misery she brings to herself and her son, she too is a victim of the time she lives in and the society that surrounds her. Industrial times are over in Scotland and the formerly working class turn into a new underclass.

It is not the plot that stands out in this novel, actually, all that happens is a downward spiral of alcoholism and decay that leads to the necessary end one would expect. Much more interesting are the two main characters, mother and son, and their development throughout the novel. Agnes tries to preserve her pride, to be the glamorous and beautiful woman she has once been and who has always attracted men even when times get tough. She keeps her chin up as long as she can – at least when she happens to be sober.

Already at a young age Shuggie has to learn that life will not offer him much. His family’s poverty and his mother’s addiction would be enough challenge in life. However, the older he gets, the more unsure he becomes about who he actually is. As a young boy, he prefers playing with girls’ toys and later he does not really develop an interest in girls either which makes him an easy target of bullying. No matter how deep his mother sinks, he always hopes for better days, days with his father, days without hunger. He is good at observing and even better at doing what is expected of him. He learns quickly how to behave around the different men in their home, how to hide his life from the outside world. In Leanne, he finally finds somebody who can understand him because she herself leads exactly the same life. They only long to be normal, yet, a normal life is not something that their childhood has been destined to.

Quite often you forget how young Shuggie is, his life is miserable but he has perfectly adapted to the circumstances. Douglas Stuart provides insight in a highly dysfunctional family where you can nevertheless find love and affection. It is clear that there is no escape from this life which makes it totally depressing. Somehow, the novel reminds me of the “Kitchen Sink” dramas with the only difference of being set in the 1980s and shown from a female perspective. Agnes is not the angry young woman; she is the desperate middle-aged mother whose dreams are over and who provides only one example to her son: do not expect anything from life or anybody.

An emotionally challenging novel due to its unforgiving realism.

Alan Parks – February’s Son

alan-parks-february's-son
Alan Parks – February’s Son

It’s been three weeks since the events of that bloody January. Harry McCoy is about to return to work with the Glasgow police hoping for some more quiet times. But when Murray calls him in early, he knows that it must be serious: a young football stars has been found, not just killed but also mutilated. It is obvious quickly that his fame as sports stars wasn’t the reason for his killing, it is much more his engagement with the daughter one of Glasgow’s underworld bosses. And then it all gets very personal: Harry’s past is going to catch up with him and the eager policeman loses control.

I already really liked the first instalment of the Harry McCoy series, but the second was actually even better. This is especially due to the fact that the protagonist gets more contours, becomes more human and thus his character and decision making becomes understandable. The development and insight in this character was for me the strongest and most interesting in reading “February’s Son”.

Again the murder case is quite complex and all but foreseeable. Different cases are actually linked and it takes some time until you understand their connection and their particular relevance for McCoy. The whole series is set in 1973 which means there is a fairly different atmosphere in comparison to many novels set today. Glasgow is an all but friendly town constantly at war, the police’s job is to prevent the worst, not to take care of minor misdoings and therefore, they sometimes need to find less legal ways to keep the upper hand. The tone is harsh at times, certainly nothing for the highly sensitive. Fights are part of everyday life and a bleeding nose is nothing to worry too much about. Yet, this all fits perfectly and creates an authentic atmosphere of a time long gone. It will not be easy to outstrip this novel with a third.

Alan Parks – Bloody January

Alan-Parks-bloody-january
Alan Parks – Bloody January

‚It can‘t have been that bad.‘ But it was.

January 1973 first brought a promotion to Detective Harry McCoy of Glasgow police, but then things wrecked havoc. When Howie Nairn, a prisoner in the Special Unit of Barlinnie wants to see him, he is a bit irritated. Why especially him? And what does he have to say? Nairn tells him to take care of a certain Lorna who works in a posh restaurant and is likely to be killed the next day. McCoy doesn’t really believe him but nevertheless sets out to search for her. In vain. He can only watch how the young woman is shot in central Glasgow by a man who then commits suicide. Quite a strange thing, but things are going to get a lot more complicated and soon McCoy has to realize that the laws aren’t made for everybody.

Alan Park‘s first novel of the McCoy series lives on the atmosphere of 1970s Glasgow. The city hasn’t turned into the town it is today but resembles a rather run down place where police and gangland work hand in hand – have to work hand in hand if they want to solve any case at all. McCoy is rather unconventional in his work, but he certainly has the heart in the right place and fights for justice.

There are two things I really liked about the story: on the one hand, it is quite complicated and all but foreseeable, on the other hand, Alan Parks‘s has chosen inconvenient aspects which he puts in a different light which shows the complexity of reality and that live is not only black and white but full of shades of grey. McCoy can work for the police but maintain good relationships with old friends who control the criminal world. The recognized upper class are not the good-doers but also have their dark sides. And many people struggle to make a living, wanting to be good but at times have to ignore their own values simply to survive.

A novel which is full of suspense, with a convincing protagonist and perfectly crafted atmosphere of a dark Glasgow.

Kirsty Logan – The Gloaming

kirsty-logan-the-gloaming
Kirsty Logan – The Gloaming

Peter, a boxer, falls in love with Signe, a ballet dancer. This unusual match somehow triggers nature and becomes something very special. Signe soon falls pregnant, but of the three babies, only one, Islay, survives. After they had their second daughter, Mara, they move to a remote Scottish island into a huge house. This is where their third kid, the long awaited boy, Bee, arrives. Yet, the forces of nature demand donations and soon the rough sea catches young Bee and leaves the family devastated. Islay flees the haunted island as soon as she can. Mara remains there with the parents not only grieving but also deteriorating more form day to day. With the arrival of Pearl, the chance for Mara to have a more positive look on life suddenly opens up. But Pearl is mysterious and she, too, has a close connection to the earthly forces.

“The Gloaming” is an outstanding novel. It is not exactly fantasy, nor can it completely be classified as a kind of fairy tale. It is somewhere in between the reality as we know it and hardly palpable forces that come from the earth. They are not supernatural, quite the opposite, they are natural and thus guide the characters and decide on what happens. It is somehow close to very old cultures, old folkloristic sagas and beliefs that revive and are called back to the people’s memory.

What I liked best about the novel was the way Kirsty Logan created the atmosphere. Throughout the novel, you have the feeling that there is something about the island or the house, something beyond the characters’ control. It is spooky somehow and gives you the creeps at times. On the other hand, there is a sadness and melancholy which weighs especially on Mara and with is often hard to support.

There is something magical in the novel, yet, it wasn’t exactly the kind of book I love to read.

Val McDermid – Out of Bounds

val-mcdermid-out-of-bounds
Val McDermid – Out of Bounds

Karen Pirie, Detective Inspector with the historic case unit of Scotland‘s police, reopens a cold case when an accident with several teenagers shows DNA links to a 20-year-old unsolved murder. A male relative of the young driver, now in coma, can be connected with Tina McDonald’s case. Yet, things are not as easy as it seems first: the driver was adopted and getting access to the files will require a lot of persuading. At the same time a supposed suicide attracts Karen’s attention. What makes her doubt this explanation is the fact that the victim’s mother was killed in a never fully explained plane crash. IRA terrorists were suspected at the time, but nobody has ever been convicted and murder normally does not run in families. Even though it is not her case, she starts digging not knowing what she is going to unearth…

“Out of bounds” is a novel in the series of the Cold Case Squad of Fife centred around Detective Inspector Karen Pirie. Even though, I did not know one of the preceding novels – “A Distant Echo” (2003), “A Darker Domain” (2008), “The Skeleton Road” (2014) – I did not have any major problems getting into the story. There are some hints to Karen’s private life in the past, she seems to have lost her partner not too long ago, but this is not crucial for the plot or to understand the character’s action.

The two cases that the protagonist works on are both attractive crime scenarios: one solved by a DNA match which does not turn out to be as simple to solve as expected and going into details of biology and genetic engineering as well as legal questions about which information connected with adoptions should be provided to whom. This is found most interesting for the case since it forces you to make up your mind about such a situation and how you would opt. The second case is not too far thematically from this one since here also questions of parenthood and DNA proof pop up. Nevertheless, this is much more complicated than the first.

All in all, the story moves at a high pace, shifting from one case to the other, providing a bit of information here and then going on somewhere else – this seems quite authentic in police work, since there is always some waiting time when you have to look at something different. As presumed, Val McDermid manages to solve both cases without leaving and questions unanswered. As always with her, we do have another crime novel full of suspense which does not need any blood or excess of violence to get keep your attention.