Coffin Road – Peter May

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If you had killed someone you would remember. Wouldn’t you?

In his latest novel, which it goes without saying will be absolutely huge, his legion of fans will be delighted to see Peter May return to the Outer Hebrides, the setting which made him a huge star with the Lewis Trilogy. However, this one is not, I’m afraid, a police procedural featuring Finn Macleod and Marsaili – but please don’t let that put you off. Coffin Road is just as gripping a novel as any of his other works, far more ambitious and with a wider scope than the previous Lewis novels. It’s a book which will eventually bring together three seemingly unconnected people…and see their lives put at risk.

It opens with a man waking on a beach on Harris, wearing a lifejacket, not knowing who he is or what he’s doing there. Investigations in what is his nearby home (he’s helped there by a concerned neighbour) reveal his name is Neal Maclean. Neighbours arrive who he’s seemingly invited for a drink – Jon and Sally – and Sally rapidly makes it clear that Neal and she are having an affair behind Jon’s back. They ask how the book is coming along – Neal was apparently writing a book about the Flannan Isles mystery, which saw three lighthouse keepers disappear without a trace in 1900. Feigning tiredness, Neal gets rid of his visitors, and checks his computer. There are indeed pages and chapter headings for a book – but absolutely no text. What is Neal really doing in Harris? Turning the house upside down, he finds a well-used map marking a nearby path called the Coffin Road. It is the only clue he has to why he is on Harris, and decides to investigate it, along with Sally. But I’m not going to reveal what they discover there…That night Neal is attacked in his house by a man with a knife who seems intent on killing him. However, a second intruder intervenes and saves his life, but both are gone before Neal can figure out who they are or what their respective agendas are. What exactly is Neal involved in that puts his life in danger?

He decides to hire a RIB – his own boat having been lost when he washed up on the shore at the start – to go out to the Flannan Isles, as according to Jon and Sally he had made a number of trips there. While there, he discovers a brutally murdered man in the chapel below the lighthouse, and, terrified he could have been responsible, leaves the Isles immediately. Unfortunately, some tourists arriving shortly after him see him leave in a hurry, and the boat owner knows Neal.

Given the job of investigating the Flannan Isles murder is DS George Gunn (who briefly appeared in The Black House.) Is the man he knows as Neal MacLean, who has been living on the island for the past 18 months, writing, and going back and forwards to the Flannan Isles regularly, a murderer? If not, why do both he and the murder victim have bee stings on their hands?

Simultaneously, down in Edinburgh, a 17-year-old, Karen Fleming, is lost and rebellious since her scientist father’s suicide two years earlier. But she is given solid evidence by her godfather that he faked his death – but why would an apparently doting father do that? So Karen leaves home, searching for answers that will hopefully lead her to him. Her journey takes her to London, Glasgow, and eventually the Highlands, putting her in danger. Is her father really alive? If so, why the cloak-and-dagger disappearance if he loved her as much as he claimed to?

This book takes us places we really don’t expect – into the realms of big business and big money, biology and huge research grants where the findings are expected to be what the company want them to be. There are spies and conspiracies, and people who will do anything – even kill – to keep anyone who knows too much quiet. It’s a murder investigation, and it’s  And, throughout, May’s love of the Outer Hebrides shines through – the weather, the sea, the flora and fauna. It makes for a gripping thriller, with a nail-biter of a climax that will guarantee you’re unable to put it down. This one’s definitely not to be missed, but that goes without saying – it is a Peter May, after all!



American Housewife – Helen Ellis


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BLURB: Meet the women of American Housewife…
They smoke their eyes and paint their lips. They channel Beyoncé while doing household chores. They drown their sorrows with Chanel No. 5 and host book clubs where chardonnay trumps Charles Dickens. They redecorate. And they are quietly capable of kidnapping, breaking and entering, and murder.
These women know the rules of a well-lived life: replace your tights every winter, listen to erotic audio books while you scrub the bathroom floor, serve what you want to eat at your dinner parties, and accept it: you’re too old to have more than one drink and sleep through the night.
Vicious, fresh and darkly hilarious, American Housewife is a collection of stories for anyone who has ever wondered what really goes on behind the façades of the housewives of America…

This slim collection of a dozen stories by American novelist and short story writer Helen Ellis is something of a wee gem. With stories ranging from two pages to thirty-eight, they are darkly humorous, very arch, and highly sardonic, some dealing with the most bizarre and random subjects you could possibly think of. There are also some great quotes, which will give you a flavour of Ellis’s uniquely witty worldview.

The first, and shortest story, What I Do All Day, is about exactly that. It’s also a night she and her husband are having a party. “I study long-married-couples and decide that wives are like bras: sometimes the most matronly are the most supportive.” And, post-party, (I love this), “I fix myself a hot chocolate because it is a gateway drug to reading.”

The next story, The Wainscoting War, is a story comprising entirely of e-mails between two new neighbours who share a hallway. One of them wants to completely revamp their shared hallway. The new neighbour declares, “Just because life-size oil paintings of Biblical slaughter are framed in gold doesn’t mean they’re in good taste. Our hallway looks like a room at the Met that makes schoolchildren cry.” It results in all-out war: broken marriages and (I’m sorry!) dead cats. And only one resident remains, to welcome a new neighbour – by e-mail, of course…!

One of my favourites was Dumpster Diving With The Stars, which is a week-long Bargain Hunt-type show featuring “The Author”, who’s had one book published – 15 years previously – and her highly successful author friend, Amy Madeline. Amy’s books “are pastel with shoes or purses on the cover.” “The Author” is also on the show with a Playboy Playmate (“Her breasts sit on her torso like an old-fashioned alarm clock”), a Scientolologist couple (there to quash the gay rumours circling about him), a female tennis player who always wears stilettoes, and John Lithgow, amongst others. On the show, determined to win and disgusted by some of the show’s tactics, she goes all out for victory, and realises that, along the way, her writing muse may just have returned…

Southern Lady Code is two hilarious pages of what people really mean when they say certain things. Hello! Welcome To Book Club is about a book club where the priority is most definitely not reading books. The Fitter is about a Southern man who has inherited the male trait in his family of being able to tell a woman’s bra size by looking. He runs an in demand, well-known and lucrative shop from home with his wife, which is getting busier and busier, as his wife – and business partner – has cancer and The Fitter is “a catch.” But what can she do? How To Be A Grown-Ass Lady gives exactly that advice – like, “Accept it: you’re too old to drink more than one drink and sleep through the night.” Similarly with How To Be A Patron Of The Arts, which is deliciously snarky about women who use their husband’s money to buy whatever they’re persuaded is fashionable in the art world.

The four best stories are left until last. Dead Doormen is definitely my favourite, a black comedy about a wife with a unique and efficient way of dealing with problem doormen in her apartment building. Pageant Protection is another great offering, also blackly funny, about a service which relocates pretty trailer-park pageant queens with rich families in New York – apparently at their own request! I read Take It From Cats without reading the story’s title; when I went back and re-read it, it made perfect sense – some advice from our feline friends. Finally, My Novel Is Brought To You By The Good People At Tampax made me imagine a futuristic world where all novels are an advertising tool – rather like the way product placement has snuck into films and TV. This was a really frightening concept!

Witty and original, Helen Ellis’s short stories will hopefully make their mark in what is traditionally a difficult area in publishing. They’ve done well in the US, and there’s been quite a buzz about them here, so I hope they find the right fan-base – they definitely won’t be disappointed.

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