Book Review: Human Rites by JJ Marsh

Its publication day today for the latest in the wonderful Beatrice Stubbs series of crime thrillers.

Human Rites 3

And it’s another absolute cracker!

An exciting  and well-paced plot, another combination of great settings, and the introduction of several great new characters all ensured that this was as gripping a read as its predecessors.

This is latest book in JJ Marsh’s series of European based crime thrillers. As before it features, Scotland Yard’s Detective Inspector Beatrice Stubbs. It had a lot to live up to in terms of my expectations as I’ve read and very much enjoyed the three previous books. It didn’t disappoint.

There are beautifully described and fascinating settings, compelling, suspenseful and twisting plotlines and a cast of wonderful characters both familiar and new.

You don’t have to have read the earlier books in order to follow this one. Like the rest of them this one will also work as a standalone, but it is nice to be re-united with characters you’ve become fond of. Beatrice’s  old friend and neighbour, Adrian, is back, as is his now-ex lover Holger. Her grumpy boss Hamilton and her not-living-together yet partner Matthew also feature once more.

However, there are also some captivating new characters too. What’s not to love about the septuagenarian art expert, Frau Professor Eichhorn who has a Howard Jones hairstyle and wears a red coat and black boots? Then there’s the hairy and adorable Daan and his crazy husky, Mink. There’s Cucinca, Adrian’s new assistant in his wine shop, described as Bow Bells meets Bucharest and who makes a disproportionately big impression considering her short amount of page time. Likewise Tomas, the socially awkward,  computer data-analyst  member of the German police team who is another relatively minor but memorable character. And what a wonder is the tastily handsome, but also  nuanced and layered, character of German Detective Jan Stein.

The plot has two main strands.

There is the criminal investigation which, as before, requires D.I. Stubbs’s to leave her London base and travel to Europe to work in co-operation with colleagues there. This time the crimes requiring investigation are a series of art thefts in London, Amsterdam, Berlin and Hamburg. These are aggravated burglaries that seem to be efficiently organised and co-ordinated, and also seem to target a very specific form of German Expressionist art.

Added to this there’s unrelated problem of a possibly malevolent stalker threatening the wellbeing of Adrian one of Beatrice’s closest friends. He decides to accompany Beatrice when she goes to Germany. By getting away  from the stress and fear of the situation, he hopes he can regain some perspective on the reality of any threat to his wellbeing. And he can also visit his ex-lover, Holger, who lives in Hamburg and with whom he is still on good terms.

These two storylines provide a good balance to the action. There’s the logic, control and rationality of the police investigation with its insights into the methods and teamwork employed. And alongside there’s the fear, suspense, suspicion and twists of the stalking situation.

And then there are the wonderfully described settings. The action takes place  mainly in Hamburg and on the island of Sylt which sits just off Germany’s north-western tip.

Hamburg in the December snow, with its wide streets, its waterways and bridges, and its spires, museums and galleries is so beautifully described that I’ve now added it to my ‘cities to visit’ list. And, there’s a moment in the book, when the sighting of a sinister figure against this backdrop recalled for me the mysterious appearances of the small, red-hooded figure in Venice in the Daphne du Maurier story Don’t Look Now.

Then there’s the island of Sylt. It is vividly presented as a beautiful but remote and windswept place, the perfect location in which to isolate a character in potential danger.

Woven throughout the action there are small but significant moments, moments of introspection such as when Beatrice reflects on her bipolar condition when she’s introduced to the concept of an ‘inner pigdog’ (yes, you read that right), and when she contemplates her approaching retirement from the police force and finally settling down to live with her partner. There are also unexpectedly poignant moments––one in particular stands out as it’s so unexpected but affecting. And the issues raised by the characters, their motivations and situations, also cause the reader to reflect on friendship, compassion and love, on the facts of ageing and mortality, but also on greed, obsession and hatred.

And finally, as an already smitten fan of Beatrice Stubbs, I was delighted to see several new Beatricisms. I counted six instances of her taking a well known saying and mangling it to great comic effect – for example the description of something as being ‘no more exciting than watching pants dry’.

And I also learned two new words––imbiss which is a German word meaning snack and spheniciphobia which is the fear of nuns or penguins. Who knew? Not me.

But what I do know is that Human Rites is a first class novel and is in the running for my favourite read of 2015.

Type of read: Glass or two of Barolo or other quality red wine to hand, curtains drawn against the wet, windy night, log fire, comfy chair and dog curled up at your feet. Relax in the lamplight and enjoy!

Human Rites is published by Prewett Publishing and is available as an e-book and as a paperback.

I was given a free, pre-publication review copy as I’ve reviewed previous books by this author. There was no pressure either to write a review or, if I did, that it had to be positive.

Book Review: The Girl on the Ferryboat by Angus Peter Campbell

Girl on the Ferryboat

Genre: Contemporary fiction

I had already read a previous book by Angus Peter Campbell, Archie and the North Wind,  I reviewed it here. So I came to read this one expecting great things. I wasn’t disappointed.

The writing is lyrical. Yes, there are smatterings of Gaelic, but this in no way interferes with the reading of the book in English, on the contrary it adds another layer of texture to an already beautiful work of prose.

There’s a sort of magical realism quality to the telling of the tale. It’s a story of love––of love and its possibilities––of lifelong love, of love lost, love unrequited and love found. And intertwined with the lives and loves of the characters there are the opposing forces of chance and fate.

The main character, Alasdair is prompted to look back over his life after a chance re-encounter with Helen whilst travelling on a Hebridean ferry. The two had first met on a similar ferry crossing about forty years before. That meeting had been brief as they passed each other and exchanged a few words on the staircase between decks on board. But it had made an impression on them both. Alasdair reflects on what might have been and what has been. He recalls the time in his youth when, on leaving university he returned home from Oxford to the island of Lewis and worked with a local boat builder to build a boat for a couple of elderly neighbours. These elderly neighbours had experienced a long and happy life together and still had hopes, plans and dreams. He then recalls his own experiences of love––of his first love and then his own long-lasting and happy marriage which ended with his wife’s death. Helen’s story is also told. Indeed there’s a lot of head and time hopping but the whole remains coherent.

The Scottish Hebrides, especially the island of Mull, are beautifully represented as are the ways of island life. But this is no parochial tale. On the contrary the characters are well travelled and worldly wise. Yes, it’s an introspective story, but it’s also outward looking and universal at times.

And although there’s a wonderful magical wistful a quality to the story, the nostalgia is never hopeless. On the contrary the mood is one of acceptance and of hope. Alasdair acknowledges that misunderstandings can have long term, sometimes negative, implications on a person’s fate. But he also recognises that active decision making can lead to positive effects.

This book is a short, poignant, sweet but not sickly, journey through the lives of its characters. in places it reads like a memoir.

Campbell has crafted a tapestry––a tapestry where some of the panels are rather abstract yes, but the whole is well stitched together. It could have got horribly messy but it doesn’t. And, ultimately as with any art,  it’s down to the reader to interpret the meaning.

Type of read: Evening, in a quiet room – just the sounds of a ticking clock and a crackling fire, curtains drawn and with a whisky to hand.

The Girl on the Ferryboat is published by Luath and is available in hardback, paperback and e-book formats.

Book Review: The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

Jessie Lamb 2

Genre: Contemporary earth-based science-fiction

This is Jane Rogers eighth book, but it’s the first one that I’ve read by her. The Testament of Jessie Lamb was a bestseller and Man Booker nominee when it came out in 2012 and I’m ashamed to say it’s been languishing on my Kindle since then. But at last I recently got round to reading it and I’m very glad that I did. A reviewer writing in Scotland’s Herald newspaper described it as The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood) colliding with The Children of Men (PD James) and to me that seems very apt.

It’s a deeply unsettling tale set in the near future and tells of humanity facing extinction. Due to a bio-toxin having been released, presumably by bio-terrorists although this isn’t fully explained, a disease known as Maternal Death Syndrome or MDS now afflicts any woman who gets pregnant. The disease is a sort of cross between CJD and AIDS and is always fatal. Research into a cure is ongoing but in the meantime all that can be done to protect fertile women is to give them a contraceptive implant. And with no babies being born, humanity’s future existence looks to be doomed.

The story is told by a first-person narrator, teenager Jessie Lamb. She experiences all the usual teenage angsty stuff – parents who don’t understand her, issues with friends, the rush and the awkwardness of first love, and a need to strike out, rebel and be herself. But this is all overlaid and undermined by the presence of the deadly MDS.

When a vaccine that will ensure very young, i.e. under sixteen-and-a half-years-old, surrogate mothers will be able to be implanted with and carry to term pre-MDS frozen embryos, it seems like there might be hope. But it will come at a price. The vaccine only protects the babies. The surrogate mothers will still succumb to MDS and they will die.

Jessie decides to volunteer herself as a surrogate. It’s part selfless act, part naive, part rebellion and it’s a heart-wrenching read as the reader follows Jessie’s feelings and her parent’s and friend’s reactions to her decision.

The author raises other questions about how human’s have messed up. There are subplots dealing with green and ecological matters, with vegetarianism and animal cruelty. They didn’t seem to me to be entirely necessary and sometimes they were a bit clunky in their intrusion into the main story. But that would be my only complaint.

Type of read: Overall this is an excellent, thought-provoking and intriguing, if rather scary, read. Read it in a well-lit room with a dram or two of good whisky to hand.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb is published by Canongate and is available as a paperback, an ebook and as an audio-book.


Displacement: The Novel’s Emotional Turmoil

From the upheaval of loss to insight, acceptance and love

Displacement Cover MEDIUM WEB - Copy

This is the second of two posts where I share a bit about why I chose the theme of displacement for my novel of the same name. In the first post I talked about physical displacement – displacement from home and country. In this post I’m going to look at the emotional aspects explored in the novel.

Rachel, one of the two main characters, is a fifty-something woman. She lives alone on the Isle of Skye, one of the Hebridean islands off Scotland’s west coast. Her home is on a small farm, or croft as it’s called in the Scottish highlands. And as well as looking after her sheep, she also works as a children’s book illustrator and writer. Rachel has been through a lot of upheaval in her life––divorce, grief after the loss of her soldier son, killed in Afghanistan, and then as the story begins, the loss of her mother who she’s been living with and caring for.

And the other main character, is newly retired Edinburgh police detective, Jack. He’s coming to terms with his retirement, has just had heart surgery, and is feeling stuck in a relationship that has run its course. Like Rachel he is divorced. At the start of the novel he has just bought a rundown cottage in the (fictional) Skye village of Halladale. He plans to do it up and to use it as a holiday home.

Both Rachel and Jack have lost their way emotionally. Both of them need to come to terms with the changes in their lives and to find a new way of living. During the course of the novel both of them explore new ways of life.

Rachel goes to Israel-Palestine, where her brother lives. She wants to explore her Jewish heritage and to see if she too can settle and make a new life in the Middle East. And the people she meets there certainly open her mind to new ways of living and new possibilities. There’s Hana, a Palestinian woman who owns a guest house on the West Bank where Rachel spends a few days. The conversations Rachel has with Hana are life-changing. And then there’s Eitan, an artist, and best friend of Rachel’s brother. Eitan reawakens in Rachel what it is to be a woman and a person in her own right––not just a mother, daughter or ex-wife.

Jack meanwhile finds working on his cottage to be therapeutic. He also finds walking in and photographing the stunning Skye landscape provides him with time and space to decide what’s next now he’s retired.

And then there’s the relationship between Rachel and Jack. They establish a strong friendship before Rachel leaves for Israel and it’s a friendship that benefits both of them emotionally. But there’s also a complication––an undercurrent that both of them sense but neither acknowledge––they are strongly attracted to each other. Beginning a new relationship isn’t something either of them wants and it’s this emotional complication that drives the narrative of Displacement forward.

At its heart Displacement has the question of whether Jack and Rachel can become new anchoring points in each other’s previously turbulent lives.

Displacement: From the Hebrides to the Middle East and back

The reasons behind the plot and settings of my second novel

Displacement Cover MEDIUM WEB - Copy

When I wrote Displacement, I wanted to explore what knocks people’s lives off course, what pushes them out of their normal place and space. I also wanted to examine the consequences of both physical and emotional displacement. In other words i wanted to look at what happens when people are forced by circumstances to change their location – both external and internal.

At the emotional level, I wanted to explore the displacement caused by grief, betrayal, illness and ageing and I’ll share more of the background to this in a subsequent post. But I also wanted to explore the long term consequences of physical displacement, of what happens when people are forced to abandon their home and culture in order to stay alive – and that’s what I’m looking at in this post.

When I came to write Displacement, three examples of the forced movement of people were in my mind – two from the relatively recent past, and one that has existed since the 1940s and continues to the present day. The first was the forced eviction of people from their land in the north of Scotland. The evidence of the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries is still visible today. And this, combined with the earlier punitive measures put in place by the victorious Hanoverian side following the Battle of Culloden, meant that Gaelic culture came close to being eliminated. The wearing of tartan was outlawed as was speaking Gaelic. The organisation of Highland society by the clan system came to an end and thousands of Scots were forced to emigrate to Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand.

The second example of the forced displacement of people that I had in mind was the much deadlier clearance of a whole culture that was wrought in Nazi Germany. I saw an item on Scottish television marking the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport that took place just before the second world war. This happened when Great Britain agreed to accept 10,000 Jewish refugee children from Germany and Austria. The children were taken in by British families and most never saw their parents again as they died in the Holocaust. Some survivors of the Kindertransport were interviewed about their experiences of arriving in and growing up in Scotland in their adoptive families. Their stories of stoicism and survival made quite an impression on me.

And the third example is that of the plight of the Palestinian people displaced from their homes by the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 following on from the end of the Second World War.

I brought the three together in Displacement by making the late mother of the main female character, Rachel, a Kindertransport survivor who was taken in by a family in Glasgow and who later married a native of the Isle of Skye (in the Scottish highlands) and settled there. Rachel lives on Skye, but her brother has followed his Jewish heritage and emigrated to Israel-Palestine.

And because of the significant emotional upheavals in Rachel’s life, she decides to visit her brother in his adopted homeland and see if she too can find a renewed sense of home by being there.

Hence the action in the novel moves between these two very different places and addresses many layers and levels of displacement as Rachel tries to decide where in the world her future lies.

And I was able to describe both settings from experience.

I’m a Scot and I live in the Scottish Hebrides so I’m steeped in that environment and its history. The wild and often challenging landscape, the resilience and resourcefulness needed to survive here, and the still visible evidence of whole townships abandoned and left to crumble when the inhabitants were forced off their land – all lend themselves to the exploration of the themes of upheaval and displacement .

I’ve also been to Israel-Palestine several times. It’s a country that fascinates me and it’s certainly no stranger to upheaval.

My link with the Middle East dates back to when I was fourteen and to my high school days in Edinburgh. A new girl joined the class and I was the one who volunteered to look after her. The new girl was Revital and she was an Israeli. Her father was doing a PhD at Edinburgh university and had brought his family with him for the duration. Revital and I quickly became friends. So much so that after she and her family returned home we kept in touch and in 1975 during my long summer holidays from university I travelled to Israel to visit her. As she was doing her national service at the time we could only meet up at certain times, so I worked on a kibbutz for a bit and did a bit of travelling. The kibbutz was on the Golan Heights – something I didn’t tell my mother who was worried enough about me visiting what she saw as a very dangerous country. I wasn’t worried though; I had the invincibility of youth. And I was smitten by the place – its beauty, its ancient landscape and its vitality.

I’ve revisited since then. One trip was in 1993 and coincided with the optimism which followed the signing of the Oslo Accord. The Palestinian flag flew from balconies, houses and cars – something that would have been illegal before the Accord. The atmosphere was relaxed, peace seemed to have been established. Revital and her husband were activists for the peace settlement and knew there was still a lot of work to be done, but were hopeful that they could now live and bring up their children in a new, constructive and co-operative society with all their neighbours regardless of background, religion, or race. Fast forward to my most recent visit in 2012 and the situation had deteriorated to worse than before 1993. All optimism for a peaceful and fair settlement was gone. Revital and her husband continued to work for a peaceful solution, trying to raise awareness amongst their Israeli friends of the true plight of the Palestinians. Her husband, an academic has written several books on the subject and speaks on it all over the world. You can view one of his many talks here And Revital is part of Machsom Watch – who in their own words are

a volunteer organization of Israeli women who are peace activists from all sectors of society. We oppose the Israeli occupation in the area known as the West Bank, we oppose the appropriation of Palestinian land and the denial of Palestinian human rights.  We support the right of Palestinians to move freely in their land and oppose the checkpoints which severely restrict Palestinian daily life.

 And amongst other things they, ‘conduct daily observations of Israel Defense Force checkpoints in the West Bank and the hamlets in the Jordan Valley.’ (taken from the Machsom website at

When I visited in 2012 I accompanied Revital on one of these checkpoint observations. It was a bit scary – I’ve not been that close to a soldier on active duty before or to an automatic weapon – but it was an interesting and enlightening experience. Palestinians, including the elderly, the sick, and the pregnant are given a lot of hassle while just trying to go about their ordinary daily business such as visiting family or attending hospital appointments.

So all of the above was in my head as I wrote the novel and I incorporated some of my own experiences into the story – from Rachel’s life as a crofter to the realities of life in the Middle East.

Footnote re current refugees:

I’m not a historian, a politician or an activist, so I wrote simply as a human being reflecting on the plight of other human beings and on the injustices of enforced displacement inflicted by some of us on those we perceive as ‘other’.

But, as I mentioned above, I’m only too aware of the plight of refugees from Syria right now as they try to get Europe. I’ve donated to charities and written to my MP – as I’m sure many of you will have – and I will continue to do whatever else I can to help, albeit in a small way. I’m particularly proud that my relatively small and remote community is, as I write this, collecting desperately needed items for those refugees and as soon as there’s enough to fill the articulated lorry that is on standby, these items will be driven to Greece for delivery to those who need them.

So by way of acknowledging displacement as an ever-present and often devastating fact in human life, I thought I’d end by including the cartoon below. It has been shared a lot on social media recently in relation to the recent deaths in the Mediterranean and to the refugee crisis in general. (The cartoon is actually from 2014 and was created Australian cartoonist and fellow wordpress blogger Simon Kneebone, in response to the time when boatloads of people were trying to reach Australia from Indonesia.)



Book Review: Mariah’s Marriage

Mariahs Marriage 2

Genre: Historical Fiction

Charming, beguiling, captivating – all words I most likely used when I reviewed author Anne Stenhouse’s previous book, Bella’s Betrothal. And they most certainly apply to Mariah’s Marriage – both the story and its heroine.

Mariah is a young woman living in nineteenth-century London. But the accepted and expected pursuits of a lady of her age and class are not for her. Mariah is independent and ahead of her time in her outlook. She teaches poor children who would otherwise have no education. Her commitment is wholehearted. The she meets and falls in love with Tobias Longreach (I just love Anne’s choice of character names). But pursuing this relationship brings her work into question and even endangers her life.

Great storytelling, conscientious attention to detail, credible and interesting characters all make for an absorbing read. And there’s plenty suspense, intrigue and romance too.

A warm and satisfying read.

Type of read: Romantic enchanting escapism. A curl up with your e-reader of choice and a glass of something red and full-bodied and prepare to indulge in some delightful escapism.

Mariah’s Marriage is published by MuseItUp and is available from Amazon and other e-book outlets.

Book Review: City of a Thousand Spies

City of 1000 Spies2

Genre: Spy/Romance Thriller

This is the third in the ‘Conor McBride’ series but it’s not necessary to have read the previous novels Deceptive Cadence and The Silent Chord in order to enjoy this excellent book. However, if you haven’t read them I do urge you to so.

City of a Thousand Spies sees Kate now also working for MI5 along with Conor. They’re still doing their day jobs of hotel keeper and classical violinist respectively. Indeed Conor’s role as a musician will provide their cover for their next mission. A mission that takes them to the beautiful city of Prague. And it’s a mission that develops into something much more complex and dangerous than either of them had anticipated.

The author describes Prague vividly and well. The atmosphere and the pace are pitched as perfectly as Conor’s violin. The characters are fascinating and very well drawn. There’s suspense, peril and such poignant romance. What’s not to love. For me, it’s definitely in the ‘couldn’t put it down’ category.

Type of read: Romantic and exciting. A wet Sunday afternoon, curled up on the sofa, coffee and cake to hand, kind of read – and a do-not-disturb sign on the door.

City of a Thousand Spies is published by Kiltumper Close Press and is available as a paperback and as an ebook.