In Bitter Chill – Sarah Ward

BLURB: Bampton, Derbyshire, January 1978. Two girls go missing: Rachel Jones returns, Sophie Jenkins is never found. Thirty years later: Sophie Jenkins’s mother commits suicide.

Rachel Jones has tried to put the past behind her and move on with her life. But news of the suicide re-opens old wounds and Rachel realises that the only way she can have a future is to finally discover what really happened all those years ago.

This is a story about loss and family secrets, and how often the very darkest secrets are those that are closest to you.

Sarah, as most of you will probably know, is one of the stalwarts of the blogging community. She was one of the first people to leave a comment on my blog, which is such an amazing thing to see – to know that someone out there has read your words and it might be worth carrying on with this blogging lark. Her own blog, Crimepieces, is one where, for me, the recommendations are spot-on, particularly when it comes to Scandinavian fiction, and she is a judge for the prestigious Petrona Prize for translated Scandinavian/Icelandic fiction.

I was delighted to hear Sarah had written a book and (the important bit! – as probably a fair proportion of bloggers have written a book, or part of one) was getting it published – by Faber & Faber, no less! I wasn’t hugely surprised, though, as you can tell from her blog she has a talent for writing (there are at least four bloggers I’m aware of who I think capable of writing a book; one specifically, and when I told him that, several weeks later he confessed he had a book deal, too, and had been dying to ‘fess up, but would then have to kill me. Obviously.)

Anyway, enough blogging chat, and to the book. In Bitter Chill is set in Derbyshire, in a small market town on the edge of the Derbyshire Peak District called Bampton, which I’d assumed was an invented name but Google maps tells me it’s real (it sounds picture perfect lovely, actually, ideal for a walking holiday, and is a place Sarah clearly knows well.) The story begins in 1978, with the kidnapping of two 10-year-old schoolgirls, Rachel Jones and Sophie Jenkins. Rachel manages to escape, but was drugged and is traumatised, and remembers very little of her experience. Sophie, however, is never seen again, with the presumption being that she was murdered. Thirty years on and Rachel still lives in the area, having returned after uni, and works for herself as a genealogist, researching peoples’ family trees.

On the thirtieth anniversary of Sophie’s disappearance, her mother, Yvonne Jenkins, books herself into a local hotel and commits suicide using Valium and vodka. After her suicide, the DI, Francis Sadler, orders another look at the original investigation, to see if anything was missed, or if fresh eyes would benefit it, and also to answer the question of why Sophie’s mother waited exactly 30 years, still living in the same house in case Sophie came home, before committing suicide. Bizarrely, I thought, he told them not to go too deep into the original case files, but DC Connie Childs – who very quickly became my favourite character – was soon into everything she could find connected with Rachel and Sophie’s childhood, convinced the reason for their targeting – the police believed these two girls, or one of them at least, was deliberately targeted – could be found in the past, possibly well before 1978. Connie’s colleague, DS Damian Palmer, is soon due to go on leave to get married, but seems stressed and unhappy, rather than looking forward to it, but we don’t learn why – hopefully the follow-up will fill us in on that little mystery. There’s a little tension between Connie and Damian to be Sadler’s favourite detective, but they aren’t overly competitive. Connie may have the lower rank, but she’s local, unlike Palmer, which gives her great advantage in knowing who’s who in the area, and where everything is, what I was before – the sort of things you taken when you live somewhere all your life. Not usually useful, but in policing, it could be.

Two things struck me when I’d read In Bitter Chill that I really liked. The first was the nostalgia for things from the late 70s, like these awful knee length socks we wore, with lacy patterns up the side (probably from Woolworths!) I think Austin Allegros got a mention too! The other was that pretty much all the violence took place off the page – there were no graphic descriptions of it, or of post mortems, and I was surprised how refreshing I found that. The book was basically a puzzle to be solved, not unlike a Golden Age murder.

There aren’t many father figures in the book, which would definitely, where I lived, be something that was spoken about. (My upbringing was so sheltered, when my best friend told me when I was nine that her parents may be getting divorced, I had to ask her what it meant.)

Sarah has a wonderful eye for the surrounding Derbyshire Peak countryside, and her love of it is easy to see. It actually made me want to visit the area and explore! I found the weather really well-described, and this description added atmosphere, as well as a touch of menace, to the investigation, as it got colder and snowier, and we moved towards a conclusion.

As the case heads towards some kind of resolution, with Rachel getting flashes of memories from the original kidnapping, a couple of excellent red herrings are flung in, just to confuse things (I fell for one, as I suspect lots of others did too – just maybe not the same one!) This was a wonderful debut, and I’m delighted for Sarah it’s doing so well. If you haven’t read it yet, I’d definitely recommend you get your hands on this book, by a fresh new voice on the crime fiction scene.

And I’ll be looking forward to getting to know some of the characters better in Sarah’s follow-up, A Fragile Spring.

I’d like to thank Sarah for sending me a copy of the book.




Dust And Desire – Conrad Williams

This review was first published in the blog magazine (blogozine?), Shiny New Books. If you haven’t signed up for it, I urge you to do so – it’s got some great reviews, and book recommendations that will ensure everyone will find something that just has to be added to their Wish List!

BLURB: An extraordinary killer has arrived in London, hell-bent on destruction. Joel Sorrell, a bruised, bad-mouthed PI, is a sucker for missing person cases. And not just because he’s searching for his daughter, who vanished five years after his wife was murdered. Joel feels a kinship with the desperate and the damned. He feels, somehow, responsible. So when the mysterious Kara Geenan begs him to find her missing brother, Joel agrees. Then an attempt is made on his life, and Kara vanishes… A vicious serial killer is on the hunt, and as those close to Joel are sucked into his nightmare, he suspects that answers may lie in his own hellish past.

Dust And Desire is the first in a trilogy (the other two are out next year) featuring London-based Private Investigator Joel Sorrell. Joel is an ex-policeman whose life went to pieces when his wife, Rebecca, was horribly murdered, and he left the force before he was asked to leave (be warned – this book has some pretty gruesome scenes, and plenty of bad language, so it’s definitely not for you if you don’t like either in your reading.) If that wasn’t bad enough, three months later his daughter Sarah, who is only 13, disappears.

Three years on and Joel has found no trace of her, but runs his own PI business, part of which consists of helping others by tracking down their missing loved ones – as well as other business. The fact that he advertises by putting cards in telephone boxes, pub toilets, bus seats, specifically targeting the desperate who can’t go to the police, then picks up his responses from a PO box, suggests a lot of his business isn’t entirely orthodox, but the case he picks up at the beginning of this novel appears relatively straightforward.

He’s approached by Barry Liptrott, a bit of a scumbag who moves on the fringes of Joel’s world, asking him to help out a girl called Kara Geenan, who’s looking for someone to track down her brother.  She’s convinced he is in trouble, despite the fact she dropped him at home the previous night. Sorrell could do with the work, and the money, so takes on what seems an easy job. But, as you can imagine, it turns into anything but…

The boy he’s looking for is called Jason Phythian, and is only 18. Furnished with his address and the places where he allegedly hangs out, Sorrell heads home, almost immediately regretting taking on the job. But the next day he heads out looking for Jason. But, as we soon discover, Jason’s no normal 18-year-old, off drinking with mates or holed up with a girl he’s met. His hangouts seem to consist mostly of strip clubs, and a restaurant that, when Sorrell goes to see if Jason’s there, is having a Swinger’s Night. This restaurant, despite apparently being one of the hot places to currently eat in London, is run by a gangster called Danny Sweet, who runs bare-knuckle boxing bouts in the cellar. When Sorrell heads down there, asking for Jason, he’s told that new customers must fight first night. So he does exactly what any man in such a situation would do – he kicks his opponent in the privates and does a runner!

After a few drinks with his photographer mate Nev, the next place he tries is what Kara claims is Jason’s home address. When he knocks on the door, a light goes out, and, with the house door lying open, he enters, saying he’s there at Kara’s request, and that she’s worried. The next thing he knows, he’s being attacked from behind, with an arm round his throat and someone ‘hammering open his skull.’ If not for Nev quickly following him from the pub to see if he wanted to accompany him on a photographic job, he’d be dead. It seems the hunter has become the hunted – Joel’s been set up. He needs to find Kara, and Liptrott, and see who it is that harbours such a horrendous grudge that he wants Joel dead, as Joel is convinced that was his attacker’s intent. So he disappears from hospital, determined to discover why he’s become the target of a psychopath.

Unsurprisingly, Kara Geenan has gone AWOL. Tracking down her workplace through one of Liptrott’s chums, he finds she’s cleared out of there sharpish, emptying the till on her way. However, the landlord, from looking at her mobile phone’s numbers and a rail ticket, is convinced she has connections in Liverpool . Liverpool lies in Sorrell’s past, and it’s a time he’d definitely rather forget. Liptrott proves a bit easier to track down – he’s at home. DI Ian Mawker – the same policeman who’d visited him in hospital after the attack at ‘Jason’s’ house – phones and asks him to visit a flat, which turns out to be Liptrott’s. He’ll be no help to Joel though – someone’s got there first and murdered him, in a truly hideous manner. Mawker has some questions for Joel, as he’d heard he’d been on the lookout for Liptrott, so Joel has no choice but to pour the whole sorry story out to Mawker – who, coincidentally he’d been at police college with.

Sorrell is convinced the answer lies in the distant past, in Liverpool, so heads up there. The body count continues to rise, and some of them are older murders, but their sheer brutality suggests the same hand was responsible for all of them – ‘Jason Phythian’, or whatever his real name is. Once he’s found out all he can in Liverpool, he heads back down to London, for the final reckoning with his nemesis. Like all the action scenes in the book, it’s brilliantly written.

This is the kind of book that has to be prised from my hands, as the action really is non-stop. Conrad Williams, who is apparently a fairly successful horror writer (I can believe that!), has created a fantastic character in Joel – he’s smart-mouthed, and often very funny, which helps to lighten the violence. He’s not some superhero; in fact he often takes second prize in the various contretemps his mouth finds him in, which makes him a more sympathetic character. A possible romance ends up going badly wrong in his quest for the truth. You feel he’s trying to fix anything he’s asked to, as he cannot fix the one thing he most wants to – his wife being dead, and his daughter missing. I think every reader will find a soft spot for him. I personally can’t wait for book two, Sonata Of The Dead, which is due out in July 2016. So if you like your crime “gritty and compelling”, as Mark Billingham says on the cover, this one’s definitely for you.


Blog Tour – The Exclusives – Rebecca Thornton

BLURB:  1996. Freya Seymour and Josephine Grey are invincible – beautiful and brilliant, the two best friends are on the cusp of Oxbridge, and the success they always dreamed they’d share.

2014. Freya gets in touch, looking for a conversation Josephine has run away from for eighteen long and tortured years.

Beginning with one ill-fated night, The Exclusives charts the agonising spiral of friendship gone wrong, the heartache and betrayal of letting down those closest to you and the poisonous possibilities of what we wouldn’t do when everything we prize is placed under threat.

And in the end, as she realises she cannot run for ever, Josephine must answer one question: is it Freya she cannot face, or is it her own darkest secret?

The Exclusives is Rebecca Thornton’s powerful debut novel about friendship and tragedy at an exclusive boarding school.

The Exclusives, the debut novel by Rachel Thornton, another alumni of the Faber Academy, is the story of two best friends, Josephine and Freya. Their fathers grew up as best friends, and encouraged the girls to have a similar relationship. There are no mother figures on the scene – Josephine’s mother has succumbed to severe mental illness (and her daughter was terrified it would be genetic), and Freya’s mother had died of cancer 3 or 4 years previously, and she has a brother, Leon.

The book moves well between 1996, their final school year, and 2014, when Josephine, now an archaeologist working in Jordan, gets an e-mail from Freya, asking if they can meet, despite an 18-year gap in contact. Initially Josephine puts her off, seeing no point in digging up the past (ironic for an archaeologist!) But she eventually decides to bite the bullet, as she is so stressed at not knowing what Freya wants to say she’s making herself ill. It seems easier to get it over with rather than keep torturing herself indefinitely.

Now, I don’t know any of your family backgrounds, and you don’t much about me, except what I say on the blog, but I very much doubt many of us, if any, could relate to the world these girls live in. Josephine’s father is Permanent Secretary, and spends all his time with “the PM”, and has to dash off when his phone rings, and is almost always abroad when his daughter is home from school. Trying to help fix the country is more important than fixing his own family. As a result, she has a room at Rollo’s (Freya’s dad, who also does something very Establishment and lucrative), and it’s her second home.

One night, on their last “exeat” (which appears to mean a weekend at home – there are lots of such strange school names for things! No tuck, though!), the girls decide to have a wild night out in London. It’s a last hurrah, as when they return the prefects, of which Verity is one, Deputy Head Girl, Verity Green space, Josephine’s nemesis, and Head Girl Josephine (who’s also magazine editor) are expected to act as an example to the other girls. They’re hugely prestigious and responsible positions, as well as aiding university applications. So they head out to a club, and the night is certainly wild…

Problems start the very next day when they react differently about the night’s events: one wants to bury her head in the sand, and forget everything that happened; the other feels talking it over would be more therapeutic and certainly make her feel better. They part on bad terms – but one of the girls doesn’t realise how angry her old friend is. So the big gossip once they’re back at school is, Freya and Josephine have fallen out. And Freya’s new best friend? Verity, Josephine’s main rival academically, and for the Anne Dunne Scholarship. This guarantees entry at Oxford without all the usual interviews, assuming the required exam results are attained.

After that, we have – at last – the real page-turning portion of the novel – revenge, recriminations, sexual accusations – which are possibly ruinous. But who was responsible? And have they covered their back – completely? There’s a wonderful nail-biting scene, featuring a school meeting amongst the possible guilty parties, their parents, and some of the staff…I was literally cringing for the character! Yet she was still, desperately, in her head, trying to find a way out. For her, the possibility of failure just did not exist. Possibly as it had never happened to her before.

Then it’s to 2014, and the first meeting between the former best friends in eighteen years. Who knows exactly what? What are each’s intentions? Will one end up seeking revenge on the other? It does take quite a while to get to this point, but it’s easy to keep turning the pages, as the prose was nicely straightforward, and felt like a – highly intelligent – teenager’s mind.  The author presumably knows this world well. If I had a criticism, it was that the girls were taught they only had one shot at academic success, and there are no second chances in life, which is a dreadful message to pass on to girls at such a vulnerable and psychologically intense time of their life. Most of the responsibility for that appears to lie at the door of parents’, and the school. You can see that it wouldn’t be impossible to crack under the pressure.

So I think I’ll revise my dreams of the Chalet School (my personal favourite fictional boarding school) – if this is what boarding school does to children/teenagers, they can keep them!

Cleo at CleopatraLovesBooks, whose review I’ve just read, and you can link to there, commented on the excellent releases from Twenty 7, a relatively new imprint from the Bonnier Group which concentrates on debut novels. They also publish then in e-book format a few months before the paperback is released. I wouldn’t have thought to mention it myself, but she’s right – the Twenty 7 novels I’ve read have all been of an excellent standard, so kudos to them for that! (And to Cleo for pointing it out!)

PS I did wonder if Rebecca Thornton is an alumni of Oxford, as it was the only university mentioned, apart from someone saying “Oxbridge” once!

Very enjoyable (and made me glad I was no longer a teenager!)

The Exclusives was released on e-book on December 10th, £4.74, and will be available in paperback in April, £7.99.




The Last Days Of Disco – David F Ross

BLURB: Early in the decade that taste forgot, Fat Franny Duncan is on top of the world. He is the undoubted King of the Ayrshire Mobile Disco scene, controlling and ruling the competition with an iron fist. From birthdays to barn dances, Franny is the man to call. He has even played ‘My Boy Lollipop’ at a funeral and got away with it. But the future is uncertain. A new partnership is coming and is threatening to destroy the big man’s Empire …Bobby Cassidy and Joey Miller have been best mates since primary school. Joey is an idealist; Bobby just wants to get laid and avoid following his brother Gary to the Falklands. A partnership in their new mobile disco venture seems like the best way for Bobby to do both at the same time. With compensation from an accident at work, Bobby’s dad Harry invests in the fledgling business. His marriage to Ethel is coming apart at the seams and the disco has given him something to focus on. Tragic news from the other side of the world brings all three strands together in a way that no one could have predicted. The Last Days of Disco is a eulogy to the beauty and power of the 45rpm vinyl record and the small but significant part it played in a small town Ayrshire community in 1982. Witty, energetic and entirely authentic, it’s also heartbreakingly honest, weaving tragedy together with comedy with uncanny and unsettling elegance. A simply stunning debut.

This is a book I’ve had for a few months but I think I’m so enamoured with crime fiction I find it hard to read anything else! The Last Days Of Disco takes us back to Kilmarnock in Ayrshire in 1982 – a time I associate with Grange Hill, Tucker’s Luck, and 3,000,000 unemployed. The book is ostensibly about Bobby Cassidy and Joey Miller, two mates who want to enjoy their final school holidays by having a laugh, making a few quid (any which way they can), and, of course, getting a bird.

While they provide the humour and high jinx, Bobby’s family are always nearby, and that provides the emotional heart of the book. There’s Gary, who joins the Army in a misguided attempt to impress his Dad, with whom he feels no connection; he ends up being sent to the Falklands. Hettie, the youngest and the clever/arty one of the family, is close to both her brothers. Ethel, their mother, doesn’t feature a great deal, but it is clear she suffers from anxiety, and is estranged from her only sister. For me, the hero of the book is Harry, a real family man who will go above and beyond to see his family is alright. Despite having lost three fingers, he still grafts as a school janitor, and refuses to let it stop him doing anything.

But don’t let that last paragraph mistake you into thinking there are “heavy” family scenes – every page has a laugh on it. As Bobby and Joey’s disco, Heatwave, starts to get a good reputation (after quite a few little disasters), Fat Franny Duncan hears of these Young Turks threatening his status as top man on the Ayrshire entertainment scene. As well as a disco, he also has a stable of utterly dire sounding acts, the worst of which has to be the “paedophile” kids entertainer who gets complaints at a kids’ party by tying balloons not into puppies but into shapes resembling male genitalia.

When it is revealed that the real Ayrshire “Big Fish”, Doc Martin, plans to open a nightclub called The Metropolis under a high-rise car park in the town, Franny decides it’s time to put an end to Heatwave’s aspirations so the Saturday night residency is his. There’s one big difference between Franny’s view of being a DJ compared to Heatwave’s – Franny’s in it for the cash, whereas Bobby and Joey are in it for the music and the buzz and the girls (and the cash too, of course!) Even quiet Joey’s got a girlfriend. Franny tries various tricks to put them out of business, and they may on occasion be down – but will he manage to put them out of business for good, and have the Kilmarnock and area entertainment scene all to himself?

A family secret that’s been hinted at from the beginning rears it’s head later in the book, as events take a more sombre turn. Every family has skeletons in the closet; some big, some not so. This book shows us it’s how they’re dealt with that’s important, not what they are.

Most of the dialogue is in Ayrshire slang, but it’s easy to pick up, and you’ll soon be roaring with laughter at the lads’ antics. You may well shed a tear, too. Doubtless it’ll make you think of the last couple of great summers before you left school, and what you were up to.

David F Ross may be a new name on the Scottish writing scene, but his skill at writing good comic scenes – which is actually very difficult – suggests he has a great future in front of him. This book’s the perfect pick-me-up for when you’re feeling down. If, like me, you’ve made the mistake of not reading it before now, then, as Fat Franny would say, “Sort it. Now.”

4 stars – highly recommended.

Some sex scenes and plenty of bad language (but what do you expect? It’s set in Scotland!)

With thanks to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books for the review copy, and apologies for the time it took to read and review it!