God’s Country by Kerry Hadley-Pryce @Kerry2001 @saltpublishing @RichardsonHelen

Source: Review copy
Publication: 15th February 2023 from Salt Publishing
PP: 160
ISBN-13: 978-1784632656

In this delicious tale a funeral provides the impetus for a
claustrophobic narrative packed with threat and paranoia.
Guy Flood returns to the Black Country with his girlfriend, Alison, to attend his
identical twin brother’s funeral. The reasons he left, and the secrets he left
behind, slowly become clear. A chilling dark fiction, dominated by unknown
and all-seeing narrator

I delighted to be joined today by Kerry Hadley Price who has become synonymous with menacing fiction from the Black Country. She writes about her love of the area and why Black Country Noir is at the heart of her books.

Over to you, Kerry!

I love the Black Country. There, I’ve said it. And I’m from the heart of it, so I’m allowed to say what I’m about to say: it’s such a weird place. Unsettling. What’s that all about? It’s a place, for sure, somewhere the other side of Birmingham stretching more or less out towards Worcestershire and Staffordshire and Shropshire. It’s all very vague.

There is some literature that suggests that the Black Country exists in the minds of those who live there. I love that. And importantly, no-one can really agree on where, or what, it is exactly. In some ways, it‘s a concept, rather than a place – I mean there’s no Black Country Metropolitan Borough Council, or Republic of the Black Country, yet there’s a flag and even a special Black Country Day (14th July, by the way).

There’s a fierce pride, and don’t get me started on the dialect (or dialects), and, of course, I live there, I’m from there, so when I’m out walking or running, I look for edgelands of edgelands – hidden places – which are easy to find, if you’re in the know, where there’s a kind of haunting post-apocalyptic feel. The industrial ruins that lead out to the surprising green borderlands, and the urban farms, and the nature reserves next to the pitheads, these are the places I wander through. Of course, I think that writers’ minds are open to feelings about places, similar to those whose minds are open to being hypnotised. I think that’s the nature of the writing beast.

Some people gather inspiration from standing on a beach, or looking out over a mountain top, or walking in a forest, but for me, there’s enormous beauty in the Black Country urban landscape. There’s something profound.

In literature, I think there’s still a London-centric bias, particularly in fiction, and I think that there tends to be a stereotypical approach to the representation of anywhere else – by which I mean, for example, the Black Country, if it’s considered at all, is perceived perhaps as a grim, rundown place, with dirty canals populated by poor working-class folk.

On the one hand, I think that’s a shame, and a bit of a cop-out, but I also quite like the slight ‘underworld’ feel of underrepresentation and the misunderstanding of it all. Fiction that comes out of the Black Country is a bit like anti-literature… which brings me to Black Country Noir. This is my writing territory: it’s more than just writing set in the Black Country, it has a sensation of the place, with the feel of the characters being slightly out of place themselves; there’s a sense of borderlessness that scratches the corners of discomfort.

In a place like the Black Country – in fiction, anyway – maybe characters can get away with doing things they might not elsewhere, living, as they do, in this edgeland aesthetic. Black Country Noir allows for a particular sense of foreboding, a feeling like trespass or that deep breath of expectation, of preparation, you take in that’s like excitement, almost – perhaps it’s a genre yearns for it.

When I wrote God’s Country, I spent a lot of time walking, exploring and experiencing parts of the region I thought I knew as part of my writing process. Guy Flood’s story, of how he’d left his Black Country, of how he’d felt he’d escaped, only to have to return to his identical twin brother’s funeral, came to me slowly.

In Black Country Noir, escape from the region feels almost impossible, so Guy, returning to his childhood home here – a farm, of all places – is hard for him, especially in the circumstances. He returns with his girlfriend, Alison, who has never been to the region and knows only what Guy has told her – or not told her – about the place and his family. There are secrets that unfold, and there are secrets that remain hidden, because some secrets should never be revealed, especially here, in the Black Country. And it’s through Alison’s voice that we experience it all, all the darkness of it.

She’ll tell you as much as she knows, or as much as she can bear to tell you, that is.


KERRY HADLEY-PRYCE was born in the Black Country. She worked
nights in a Wolverhampton petrol station before becoming a secondary
school teacher. She wrote her first novel, The Black Country, whilst
studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing
School. She is currently a PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan
University, researching Psychogeography and Black Country Writing.
God’s Country is her third novel She lives in Stourbridge and tweets

The Lost Girls by Kate Hamer @kate_hamer @FaberBooks

Source: Review copy
Publication: 16 February 2023 from Faber & Faber
PP: 368
ISBN-13: 978-0571336715

My thanks to Faber and Faber for an advance copy for review

Lost, she narrowly escaped disaster.

Beth is desperate to return to normality. After a years-long ordeal, her daughter is finally home and safe. But Carmel has questions she can’t ignore about the cult that kidnapped her, and about the preacher who gave her another girl’s name.

Found, she must survive a miracle.

Digging into her past, Carmel uncovers secrets which suggest that she wasn’t the only lost girl – and which puts her in danger all over again. While her mother struggles to salvage the safety they’ve only just found, Carmel tries to come to terms with who she has become. One question, a mystery at the heart of her disappearance as a child, haunts her:

What happened to the other lost girls?

Kate Hamer is a beautiful writer. She conveys beautifully both the fragility and the strength of her characters. Reading about Carmel and her mother, Beth is like walking on thin ice. You find yourself holding your breath, wondering which one is going to crack first and plunge into deathly cold waters.

I have not read The Girl in the Red Coat and did not realise The Lost Girls was a return to those characters. I’m not sure it matters, because from the beginning I was caught up in Kate Hamer’s exquisitely painful prose.

Carmel Wakeford was kidnapped when she was only 8 years old. Taken out of the country to the United States, she was taken by a Preacher who used her in his travelling preaching sessions. He renamed her Mercy and together they spent 5 years visiting mainly rural fairs.

Then Carmel was rescued and brought home to her mother, Beth, and the pair now live in England. But Carmel has to live with the blaze of publicity that accompanied her return and to know that her life is the stuff of tabloid fodder that never really goes away. She will forever be that ‘lost girl’.

Beth doesn’t really know how to relate to Carmel. She doesn’t really understand what Carmel went through and she knows her daughter is a very different young woman to the girl she lost. But though Carmel left a trail pointing to her real name wherever she went in the States, she knows that she was not the first Mercy to have preached alongside this man. On her return to her mother, isolated, angry at her mother for losing her, she becomes obsessed about what could have happened to the other Mercy – the one she replaced.

The Lost Girls is told from the perspective of the original Mercy, Carmel and Beth. Mercy’s story is harrowing. She has a harsh upbringing and turned to the church as a way of finding a loving home as much as anything. Each of these women is searching for something to anchor them and make them feel seen and comfortable in their situations.

Carmel is so desperate to find out what happened to Mercy that she does the unthinkable and in so doing, she fractures the uneasy peace between mother and daughter.

The Lost Girls explores, sometimes very painfully, the relationship between mothers and daughters.  No-one blames Beth for Carmel’s disappearance more than Beth herself. As both women struggle to re-establish their relationship, the reader feels the pain that flows through both these damaged characters. Yet there is redemption in that pain and Carmel’s quest for answers is her way to help herself repair the emotional connection between her and her mother.

Verdict: Poignant and beautifully expressed, The Lost Girls is an intense and unsettling novel about the complex relationship between mothers and daughters; about the pain and redemption to be found in facing trauma and learning how to survive. It is haunting, emotional, and sometimes really painful and it touches the heart. It has fantastic writing, superior plotting and is a deeply engrossing read.

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Kate Hamer’s first novel The Girl in the Red Coat was shortlisted for The Costa First Novel Prize, the British Book Industry Awards Debut Fiction Book of the Year, the John Creasy (New Blood) Dagger and the Wales Book of the Year. It was a Sunday Times bestseller. Kate won the Rhys Davies Short Story Prize and she has had short stories published in anthologies such as ‘A Fiction Map of Wales’, ‘New Welsh Short Stories’ and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She’s written articles and reviews for The IndependentThe Mail on Sunday and The New York Times. Kate grew up in the West country and rural Pembrokeshire and now lives with her husband in Cardiff.

Make Me Clean by Tina Baker @TinaBakerBooks @ViperBooks

Source: Review copy
Publication: 16 February 2023 from Viper Books
PP: 400
ISBN-13: 978-1800811805

My thanks to Viper Books for an advance copy for review

Maria is a good woman and a good cleaner. She cleans for Elsie, the funny old bird who’s losing her marbles, with the terrible husband. She cleans for Brian, the sweet man with the terrible boss. She cleans for the mysterious Mr Balogan, with the terrible neighbours.

If you’re thinking of hiring her, you should probably know that Maria might have killed the terrible husband, the terrible boss and the terrible neighbours. She may also have murdered the man she loved.

She didn’t set out to kill anyone, of course, but her clients have hired her to clean up their lives, and she takes her job seriously – not to mention how much happier they all are now. The trouble is, murder can’t be washed out. You can only sweep it under the carpet, and pray no one looks too closely…

I loved Tina Baker’s previous book, Nasty Little Cuts and I’m very pleased that Make Me Clean has the same sharp prose, brilliantly drawn characters and acute observations.

This is Maria’s story and we move back and forth in time and as we learn more about her life, why she chooses to wear a buzz cut and how she came to be a domestic cleaner.

Maria’s life has been turbulent, to say the least. She’s lived in caravans, even for a while in the Basque country, and now she spends her nights in a small bedsit, or overnight caring for Elsie, an elderly woman with dementia for whom she also cleans.

Maria is both an exceptionally diligent cleaner and a caring person. Her clients like her because she gets on with the job and also offers a non-judgmental listening ear when they need to spill their woes. She gets on well with her clients because she isn’t obtrusive but at the same time she is there is they need to vent.

Maria really Likes Elsie, a wicked, funny old lady who might be suffering from memory issues, but who is still and excellent judge of character with a delightfully sarcastic turn of phrase. Sometimes she’s like a naughty child. At others she can be frightened and bewildered, but Maria loves Elsie and her cats. Maria and Elsie share a secret; but Maria wonders how long it will be before Elsie blurts it out.

I think what attracts me to Tina Baker’s writing is that she tells it like it is. She is not one for sugar coating and in this novel she deals with some dark themes including control, toxic masculinity and domestic violence. But into this dark and often menacing mix, she adds tenderness, caring and a lot of laughter.

Make Me Clean is a delicious concoction of marigolds and murder. Maria is a three dimensional character with warmth, She has been through a lot for one so young and she may now be poor and alone, but she is no-one’s pushover. If anything, her empathy for her clients gets her in more of the hot water that she’s so used to.

Verdict: Dark, sometimes brutal, honest and yet full of wit and warmth, Make Me Clean is another gripping read from Tina Baker.

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Tina Baker was brought up in a caravan after her mother, a fairground traveller, fell pregnant by a window cleaner. After leaving the bright lights of Coalville, she came to London and worked as a journalist and broadcaster for thirty years. She’s probably best known as a television critic for the BBC and GMTV. She has written three books Call Me Mummy was Tina’s first novel, followed by Nasty Little Cuts and now Make Me Clean.

The Dead of Winter by Stuart MacBride  @StuartMacBride   @TransworldBooks

Source: Review copy
Publication: 16 February 2023 from Transworld
PP: 352
ISBN-13: 978-1787634923

My thanks to Transworld for an early copy for review

It was supposed to be an easy job.

All Detective Constable Edward Reekie had to do was pick up a dying prisoner from HMP Grampian and deliver him somewhere to live out his last few months in peace.

From the outside, Glenfarach looks like a quaint, sleepy, snow-dusted village, nestled deep in the heart of Cairngorms National Park, but things aren’t what they seem. The place is thick with security cameras and there’s a strict nine o’clock curfew, because Glenfarach is the final sanctuary for people who’ve served their sentences but can’t be safely released into the general population.

Edward’s new boss, DI Montgomery-Porter, insists they head back to Aberdeen before the approaching blizzards shut everything down, but when an ex-cop-turned-gangster is discovered tortured to death in his bungalow, someone needs to take charge.

The weather’s closing in, tensions are mounting, and time’s running out – something nasty has come to Glenfarach, and Edward is standing right in its way…

Stuart MacBride took a year off to recharge his writing batteries and now he is back with an enormous, scabrous, bang.

He has created, in his two principal characters, a new duo that will have you both laughing and crying all the way through. DI Victoria Montgomery-Porter, known to her colleagues as ‘Bigtoria’ – though never to her face – and D.C. Edward Reekie are charged with taking a notorious prisoner from HMP Grampian to Glenfarach. Mark Bishop is dying and he is to join other ageing and infirm prisoners who are deemed unsafe to let into the general population.  Glenfarach is akin to an old people’s home for ex-cons, all equipped with ankle trackers, living out their time in an isolated, self-contained village in the heart of the Cairngorms.

Here you will find the worst of the worst. Here is where the child pornographers and paedophiles get sent on release. The most violent of offenders, around 200 of them, will live out their days in this place surrounded by CCTV cameras and a big barbed wire fence.

It is, of course, the dead of winter and the weather is foul as Bigtoria and Reekie set out. Once they get to Glenfarach, and drop Bishop into the care of Glenfarach’s D.S. Erin Farrow it’s clear that they aren’t getting back to Aberdeen until the snow storm ends. Inevitably communications go down and Bigtoria and Reekie find themselves with a murder on their doorstep and a missing social worker.

Stuart MacBride’s writing is that wonderful mixture of grotesque characters mixed with violent crime and a liberal dose of both numptiness and grumpiness that regular fans have come to know and love.

MacBride has a litany of glorious phrases that sing in the midst of a lot of violence, gore and the worst excesses of human behaviour so that the reader finds themselves laughing out loud even as the horrifying events create tension, chills and very real gasps of horrified disbelief.

It’s a winning formula and MacBride keeps just the right amount of double dealing and duplicity in between the bloody violence and the laughter to keep us wondering what exactly is going on.

Verdict: Sarcastic, witty, violent, dark and laugh out loud funny, this is Stuart MacBride with a new duo that I fervently hope we will meet again.

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Stuart MacBride is the Sunday Times No.1 bestselling author of the Logan McRae and Ash Henderson novels. He’s also published standalones, novellas, and short stories, as well as a slightly twisted children’s picture book for slightly twisted children. Stuart lives in the northeast of Scotland with his wife Fiona, cats Gherkin, Onion and Beetroot, some hens, some horses, and an impressive collection of assorted weeds.

The Last Remains by Elly Griffiths @ellygriffiths @QuercusBooks

Source: Purchased audiobook
Publication: 31st January 2023 from Quercus
Listening time: 9 hours 48 minutes

Ruth and Nelson are working on a murder case in which Cathbad emerges as the prime suspect. Can they uncover the truth in time to save their friend?

Elly Griffiths understands her readers so well. Approaching the last (at least for now?) book in her fantastic Ruth Galloway series was always going to be difficult. But superb writer that she is, she knows exactly what we are looking for and delivers it in spades. (sorry/notsorry).

All the relevant characters play into The Last Remains, including Cloughie. This book is very much in the present day, but harks back to the beginning. Things are coming full circle and we are thrilled and delighted to know it.

I love this series with a passion and have followed the trials and tribulations of Dr Ruth Galloway’s relationship with DCI Nelson along with thousands of others. I choose to listen rather than read because of the wonderfully golden, dulcet tones of Jane McDowall who will forever be the voice of Ruth Galloway for me.

The Last Remains is everything you wanted it to be. Cathbad is up to his neck in it. Ruth has been given cause to rethink her career and is pondering a move to another country. Nelson is doing what he does best and failing to connect and express himself the way we have wanted him to for the last 15 books.

I set aside a whole day to concentrate on The Last Remains and it was so worth it. The combination of Norfolk archaeology, a contemporary crime and a cold case all come together to produce the perfect combination of old and new with danger, personality, disaster, left field declarations and an altogether wonderfully arranged finale.

Verdict: Elly Griffiths leaves my heart a little bit broken and I’m feeling bereft because I have a hole in my heart now that needs to be filled. But in terms of a fitting end to a magnificent series, I’d have to say that Elly Griffiths has done us proud and I not only have no complaints, I bloody loved it!

Audible                  Bookshop.org                         Waterstones                     

Elly Griffiths is the bestselling author of the Dr Ruth Galloway Mysteries and the Brighton Mysteries. She has won the CWA Dagger in the Library, has been shortlisted five times for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, and longlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger for The Lantern Men. Her new series featuring Detective Harbinder Kaur began with The Stranger Diaries, which was a Richard and Judy book club pick and won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in the USA. It was followed by The Postscript Murders, shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger and Bleeding Heart Yard. Elly has two grown-up children and lives near Brighton with her archaeologist husband.

Red Dirt Road by S.R. White @headlinepg @Louiseswannell

Source: Review copy
Publication: 16 Feb 2023 from Headline. Available now in e-book
PP: 320
ISBN-13: 978-1472291158

My thanks to Louise Swannell and Headline for an advance copy for review

One outback town. Two puzzling murders. Fifty suspects.

In Unamurra, a drought-scarred, one-pub town deep in the outback, two men are savagely murdered a month apart – their bodies elaborately arranged like angels.

With no witnesses, no obvious motives and no apparent connections between the killings, how can lone police officer Detective Dana Russo – flown in from hundreds of kilometres away – possibly solve such a baffling, brutal case?

Met with silence and suspicion from locals who live by their own set of rules, Dana must take over a stalled investigation with only a week to make progress.

But with a murderer hiding in plain sight, and the parched days rapidly passing, Dana is determined to uncover the shocking secrets of this forgotten town – a place where anyone could be a killer.

I really did enjoy this book. It’s a crime investigation with a difference. There are two savage murders in a small town and it takes an outsider to come in and through observation and asking questions from left-field, to try and establish what has occurred. Because this small town, with just 50 inhabitants, does not seem to want to know who committed these crimes.

There is not much love lost between Detective Dana Russo and her boss, Anton McCullough. She knows he’s just waiting for the right excuse to get rid of her, so when he assigns her to the Unamurra case, she knows he thinks she’s on a hiding to nothing.

She’s given just 48 hours to travel to the far distant town of Unamurra. It’s not much more than a small village with one shop, a pub and 50 inhabitants. It’s a place where the penniless go to live cheaply, because property is cheap and run down and there’s nothing to spend your money on.

Two men are dead. Larry Muir, a farmer, was first, then Tim Maguire, husband of Annie Maguire, the pub owner was next. This case has already been investigated by local detectives and they found nothing.

Suspicion falls on the one outsider, an artist named Axel Du Bois, whose angel art installations are what laughably passes for government assistance with economic development – in the hope that these moveable installations will attract tourists to the area. But this is an area where no-one passes through, it is drought ridden; a town of ramshackle buildings, poverty and nothing to see here.

These life-size angels are mounted on large frames which move around the town – only this last time it was a real body on the frame.

Russo has to set off straight away and as she visits the local Police Commander before heading out to Unamurra, she finds he is not confident in her ability to succeed where his officers have previously failed.

With little to go on, she heads for Unamurra in the company of the area’s one policeman, Able Burillo. Russo has noted that Able did not seem to be included in the previous investigation and she muses on why that is and how much he is to be trusted.

Unamurra, when she finally gets there, is as closed a community as she has found. No-one wants to chat, far less help. The angel artist, Axel DuBois has gone to ground, though an honour guard of angels is at the entrance to the town to welcome Dana as she arrives. With a complete lack of co-operation and a previous ineffective investigation, Dana has to deploy alternative methods to catch her killer/s.

Red Dirt Road is a psychological novel. Dana’s process of deduction is more akin to that utilised by Conan Doyle than Agatha Christie. Though she’s not sizing up cigar ash, she does spend her time thinking more about motivation and less about means. Spurred on by the help she gets from her dear friend Lucy back at base, Dana focuses on the challenge she has been set, which has been described to her as akin to the Star Trek Kobayashi Maru test.

As the clock ticks, Dana’s psychological profiling comes to the fore but she keeps her cards close to her chest and it is not until she’s ready to act that she brings Able into her thinking.

S.R. White is excellent at conveying the dry, dusty territory and the run down community that is Unamurra. The thankless task of being a farmer in the middle of a red dust desert during a period of drought is shown in all its heart-breaking misery.

Dana herself is strong thinker and an intuitive and empathetic listener. Her unorthodox approach to solving this case is novel but amounts to profiling the killer. The conclusion builds on Dana’s thinking and both satisfies and shows us that when the chips are down, her instincts are sound.

Verdict: This is a slow burn of a book with lots of tension and an edginess that sits on our detective’s shoulders keeping the unpredictability high. You really feel you are immersed in the dry, dusty outback. I loved Detective Dana Russo and her unorthodox methods. I certainly want to go back and read SR White’s previous books in this series. Highly recommended by me.

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S. R. White’s debut novel, HERMIT, was a top ten bestseller in Australia and nominated for the Crime Writers’ Association award for the best crime novel by a first-time author. He now lives in Queensland, having worked for a UK police force for twelve years before taking an MA in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University.

The Space Between Us by Doug Johnstone @doug_johnstone @OrendaBooks

Source: Review copy
Publication: 16 March 2023 from Orenda Books
PP: 300
ISBN-13: 978-1914585449

When three people suffer strokes after seeing dazzling lights over Edinburgh, then awake completely recovered, they’re convinced their ordeal is connected to the alien creature discovered on a nearby beach… an adrenaline-soaked, deeply humane, life-affirming first-contact novel from one of Scotland’s most revered authors…

Lennox is a troubled teenager with no family. Ava is eight months pregnant and fleeing her abusive husband. Heather is a grieving mother and cancer sufferer. They don’t know each other, but when a meteor streaks over Edinburgh, all three suffer instant, catastrophic strokes…
…only to wake up the following day in hospital, miraculously recovered.

When news reaches them of an octopus-like creature washed up on the shore near where the meteor came to earth, Lennox senses that some extra-terrestrial force is at play. With the help of Ava, Heather and a journalist, Ewan, he rescues the creature they call ‘Sandy’ and goes on the run.

But they aren’t the only ones with an interest in the alien … close behind are Ava’s husband, the police and a government unit who wants to capture the creature, at all costs. And Sandy’s arrival may have implications beyond anything anyone could imagine…

It’s now got to the point where I will read anything Doug Johnstone writes, such is his grasp of writing characters and relationships. The Space Between Us is a brilliant example of his art. Part Close Encounters, part Local Hero, this is a novel that begins in North Berwick and ends in Ullapool with a galaxy far, far away in between.

The Space Between Us works on so many levels. It is full of humanity. I suppose technically it is sci-fi, but it is also so much more. Doug excels in looking at the human race in relation to the rest of the universe, giving a real sense of perspective as to who we are and how our actions impact on each other, as well as making us think about how we treat each other.

A group of people suffer a mysterious striking down. Some die, but a few, Lennox, Heather and Ava, miraculously recover. And when they do, they find themselves coming together to try and understand what has happened to them. It all centres around a cephalopod they find washed up on a beach and whom they call Sandy.

They find they have a curious connection to this creature and a strong will to ensure that Sandy survives. That’s nowhere near as easy as it should be because Sandy seems in poor shape and this small group of people are not the only ones interested in the creature, but the others seem less concerned with Sandy’s welfare and more with capturing it for their own nefarious purposes.

Ewan is a journalist. He senses a big story behind this occurrence and is baffled by why these three should be stonewalling his questions. But the more he learns, the more he feels a connection to these people and to Sandy.

Doug Johnstone draws a profound and quiet connection between each character and Sandy and especially between Lennox and Sandy whose contact is very special. It is his ability to speak to big themes such as our place in the universe that makes this first contact novel so special. He does so by examining the relationships between each of these well drawn characters; showing us that they all have much more in common than they do differences. That’s at the core of this special book.

What binds these people is more than a remarkable recovery. Each is struggling with their own problems and all are suffering from a lack of real caring, human contact. These are scars that run deep and finding each other is only the start of their journey towards healing.

Our cephalopod, Sandy, is no different. They have found themselves homeless – forced from their home and looking for a safe place to live without fear. They are refugees and first we need to understand them, learn how to communicate with them and finally, find a way to live side by side with them in harmony.

It’s a lesson that applies to more than extra-terrestrial cephalopods. In understanding what Sandy needs, so we are helped to come to terms with our own need for compassionate connections. We understand that we require close contact in order to feel compassion and enjoy mutually supportive relationships and that showing love and support is a good start to healing ourselves as well as others.

The gap that is the space between us has to close if we are ever to realise the true potential of the human race.

Verdict: This book is terrific and is something of a masterpiece. It is compassionate, full of love and hope and yet provides a tense and adrenalin fuelled chase across Scotland. Johnstone provides a thought–provoking look at how we treat those who are different. In the process we fall in love with Sandy who helps us to realise that some themes are truly universal and the space between us needs to be closed if we are to survive and thrive.

Orenda Books                                  Waterstones                                     Bookshop.org

Doug Johnstone is the author of fourteen previous novels, most recently Black Hearts (2022). The Big Chill (2020) was longlisted for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year and three of his books, A Dark Matter (2020), Breakers (2019) and The Jump (2015), have been shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year. He’s taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions over the last decade, and has been an arts journalist for over twenty years. Doug is a songwriter and musician with six albums and three EPs released, and he plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a band of writers. He’s also co-founder of the Scotland Writers Football Club, and has a PhD in nuclear physics. The Space between Us is Doug’s first foray into science fiction.

Clara and Olivia by Lucy Ashe @LSAshe1 @OneworldNews @PointBlankCrime @RandomTTours

Source: Review copy
Publication: 2nd February 2023 from Magpie
PP: 352
ISBN-13: 978-0861544080

My thanks to Magpie and Random Things Tours for an advance copy for review

“Surely you would like to be immortalised in art, fixed forever in perfection?”

Sadler’s Wells, 1933.

I would kill to dance like her.

Disciplined and dedicated, Olivia is the perfect ballerina. But no matter how hard she works, she can never match identical twin Clara’s charm.

I would kill to be with her.

As rehearsals intensify for the ballet Coppélia, the girls feel increasingly like they are being watched. And, as infatuation turns to obsession, everything begins to unravel.

Lucy Ashe’s novel is set in the world of ballet in 1930’s London. It was an exciting time for anyone interested in this art form. It was the beginning of something extraordinary – the leadership of two women combining the might of the Old Vic and its formidable leader, Lilian Baylis  who had been presenting accessibly priced drama and opera and Ninette de Valois, who ran her ballet school with the Vic while Bayliss brought her plans for Sadler’s Wells to fruition.

Lucy Ashe’s novel captures the atmosphere of excitement so well, populating her book with historical authenticity and with the names that went on to become so famous in this artistic world. I particularly enjoyed the introduction of the young Margot Fonteyn.

Clara and Olivia are identical twins, at least in appearance. They are in the corps de ballet and working on a production of Coppelia. Though the girls look identical, their personalities are a little different. Growing up, the girls have had to rely on each other and so are close. Clara is stepping out with pianist Nathan. Once a child prodigy, he now works at the ballet as a musician. Olivia has an admirer, too, albeit a silent one. Samuels‘s work brings him to the ballet regularly and he lives for the moments when he can see his favourite ballerina.

Lucy Ashe’s book brings us into the artistic world of ballet which means dedication, brutally hard work and single minded focus. It is what Olivia lives for, though Clara finds that her ambitions are a little broader. We get to know Clara and Olivia and to understand more about the different facets of their personalities and what they really care about. We also find out more about some of those whose work is indispensable to the ballet company and without whom there would be no dancing. Clara and Olivia has characters we can empathise with and whom we want to succeed, as well as some who feel decidedly cold and dangerously worrying.

I really enjoyed how Lucy Ashe did not fall into the clichéd trap that twins in novels can so often depict. This book is much more subtle and nuanced than that and it is the contrasting wishes of both these girls that are part of what’s important in this story. Instead Ashe focuses on artistic rigour, on theatrical superstition and on the thin line between artistic ego and obsession.

This produces a beautifully observed, authentic feel to the ballet elements of this story alongside a dark and fractured personality that brings an undercurrent of tension and fear to an excellent read.

Verdict: There is darkness, mystery and romance in this tense psychological thriller, alongside beauty, musicality and a little madness – just like the ballet. I really enjoyed this excellent read.

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Lucy Ashe trained at the Royal Ballet School for eight years, first as a Junior Associate and then at White Lodge. She has a diploma in dance teaching with the British Ballet Organisation. She decided to go to university to read English Literature at St Hugh’s College, Oxford (MA Oxon), while continuing to dance and perform. She then took a PGCE teaching qualification and became a teacher. She currently teaches English at Harrow School, an all-boys boarding school in North London. Her poetry and short stories have been published in a number of literary journals and she was shortlisted for the 2020 Impress Prize for New Writers. She also reviews theatre, in particular ballet, writing for the website Playstosee.com.

The Forcing by Paul E Hardisty @Hardisty_Paul @Orendabooks @RandomTTours

Source: Review copy
Publication: 16 February 2023 from Orenda Books
PP: 300
ISBN-13: 978-1914585555

My thanks to Orenda Books for an advance copy for review.

Civilisation is collapsing. Frustrated and angry after years of denial and inaction, a ‘government of youth’ has taken power in North America, and deemed all those older than a prescribed age responsible for the current state of the world, and decreed they should be ‘relocated’, their property and assets confiscated.

David Ashworth, known by his friends and students as Teacher, and his wife May, find themselves among the thousands being moved to ‘new accommodation’ in the abandoned southern deserts – thrown together with a wealthy industrialist and his wife, a high court lawyer, two recent immigrants to America, and a hospital worker. Together, they must come to terms with their new lives in a land rendered unrecognisable.

As the terrible truth of their situation is revealed, lured by rumours of a tropical sanctuary where they can live in peace, they plan a perilous escape. But the world outside is more dangerous than they could ever have imagined. And for those who survive, nothing will ever be the same again…

This book blew me away. It is powerful, brutal and its world building feels so real many of the events produce a visceral reaction. Paul Hardisty gives us a great deal to think about in relation to how we got to the world he has envisioned. I read this over Christmas and there’s a line in this book that is still making we ponder how things could be different. I’ll come back to that later in this review.

Paul Hardisty is well-placed to envision this future.(Honestly, take a look at his bio – I get tired just reading it) He has spent twenty-five years working all over the world as an environmental scientist and you can feel the anger in his writing as his words bite and savage the irresponsibility of those who allowed the climate crisis to develop.

The Forcing is told by Teacher. He is a rational man who spends a lot of time refusing to be drawn into conspiracy theories, disinformation and the fake news that every day confounds millions of people.  He and his wife May have one son who is now working for the new Government; a ‘government of youth’ that knows that the generation before is responsible for allowing the world to deteriorate to its current state and which is now holding them responsible by confiscating their property and assets and moving them out of their homes.

Where they are going is painted rather differently than it is in reality. Hardisty draws on previous terrible moments in the history of civilisation to show us how easy it is to re-invent the atrocities of the past.

But this is not a climate crisis book that preaches. It is a searing, tense and dramatic thriller that puts the reader into the position of Teacher and allows us to see what he sees and to experience the angst, pain and devastation that he witnesses and to make up our own minds about what these characters are living through.

Is this where the climate crisis will lead us? Paul Hardisty makes a compelling case based on facts and drawing on history and current events. It is no accident that big business has led us to see climate change activists as irresponsible nuisance makers while the pursuit of profit is what drives governments. Greed drives our progress to destruction just as it creates conflict and leads to wars.

Hardisty’s story is hard-hitting and sometimes very dark indeed. His writing is sharp and succinct and pulls you in to the story. He populates his story with characters that provoke profound emotions for good and bad, and his novel has real pace and verve as his characters try to escape a series of deadly regimes, some organised, others grown through self-serving ‘survival of the fittest’ battles. The adventures had me on the edge of my seat as much as the need to know what happens to the core team of characters he creates.

At the heart of this story is the paragraph that I am still thinking about today. “After the pandemic, there had been such hope around the world. Hope that perhaps, finally people would see the perils of ignoring science, the compounding dangers of inequality and global biodiversity loss, of delaying action on the really big challenges, the folly of putting the economy ahead of people, as if somehow we existed to serve the economy rather than the other way round.”

 That strikes such a strong chord with me that it seems self-evident that we are getting the fundamentals wrong. I believe that Paul Hardisty has, through this remarkable thriller, shown us that there are different paths we can take; that different futures are possible. The natural world can and will recover if we treat it as a priority. We have made so many mistakes, and continue to do so, but we can grasp that hope and try hard to do better. But first, we have to ensure that we make our law makers listen.

The Forcing is Teacher’s story. A story about what an ordinary man will do to protect his family and the importance of relationships that give us something to live for. There is love and a lot of loss in this engrossing, searing and very gripping thriller. But there is also hope and that’s what makes this so profound and so very moving. I love this book and have no hesitation in saying everyone should read it.

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Canadian Paul Hardisty has spent twenty-five years working all over the world as an environmental scientist and freelance journalist. He has roughnecked on oil rigs in Texas, explored for gold in the Arctic, mapped geology in Eastern Turkey (where he was befriended by PKK rebels), and rehabilitated water wells in the wilds of Africa. He was in Ethiopia in 1991 as the Mengistu regime fell, survived a bomb blast in a café in Sana’a in 1993, and was one of the last Westerners out of Yemen at the outbreak of the 1994 civil war. In 2022 he criss-crossed Ukraine reporting on the Russian invasion. Paul is a university professor and CEO of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS). The four novels in his Claymore Straker series, The Abrupt Physics of Dying, The Evolution of Fear, Reconciliation for the Dead and Absolution, all received great critical acclaim and The Abrupt Physics of Dying was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger and a Telegraph Book of the Year. Paul drew on his own experiences to write Turbulent Wake, an extraordinary departure from his high-octane, thought-provoking thrillers. Paul is a keen outdoorsman, a conservation volunteer, and lives in Western Australia.

The Only Suspect by Louise Candlish  @louise_candlish @simonschusterUK @LauraSherlock21

Source: Review copy
Publication: 2nd February 2023 from Simon & Schuster UK
PP: 432
ISBN-13: 978-1398509726

My thanks to Simon & Schuster UK and Laura Sherlock for an advance copy for review

Wrong time. Wrong place. Wrong man.

Alex lives a comfortable life with his wife Beth in the leafy suburb of Silver Vale. Fine, so he’s not the most sociable guy on the street, he prefers to keep himself to himself, but he’s a good husband and an easy-going neighbour.

That’s until Beth announces the creation of a nature trail on a local site that’s been disused for decades and suddenly Alex is a changed man. Now he’s always watching. Questioning. Struggling to hide his dread . . .

As the landscapers get to work, a secret threatens to surface from years ago, back in Alex’s twenties when he got entangled with a seductive young woman called Marina, who threw both their lives into turmoil.

And who sparked a police hunt for a murder suspect that was never quite what it seemed. It still isn’t.

No one else could have done it. Could they?

Louise Candlish’s The Only Suspect is a whole lot of enjoyment wrapped up in an intriguing domestic noir. This book has a dual timeline, switching between now and a period during the mid-1990’s. These two timelines are narrated by Alex and Rick respectively.

Louise Candlish does a great job of establishing her characters. Both Alex and Rick lead pretty dull lives; both are auditors. Rick is a trainee in a large firm and lives in a flat share. His life changes when he meets Marina, a temp who works in his building. After liking her from afar, he finally plucks up the courage to talk to her and they bond over some frozen yoghurt.

Alex lives in the suburbs with his wife. He’s happy enough, though the couple are coming to terms with the fact that they are destined to be childless and that’s hard – especially for Beth, Alex’s wife. But this comfortable life is threatened when Alex learns that a campaign his wife has been involved in, to create a nature trail close to their house, has been successful and that work is about to start on creating this trail.

Louise Candlish is excellent at creating normal, ordinary characters and then giving them dark and deadly secrets. Rick is a bit of a shy lad and as his relationship with Marina progresses and he falls ever more deeply for her, we can only watch with dread as it becomes more complex, tricky and then finally, fraught with danger.

What Candlish does really well is to make her characters ordinary and believable. I had empathy for hapless Rick, a love-struck young man and when things started to get tricky, I found myself urging him to think twice before getting further committed in this relationship as Marina starts to become ever harder to pin down.

Alex is less likeable. He is constantly on edge and his behaviour after he learns of this nature trail becomes ever more narky and erratic. It is very clear that he is hiding something and that whatever is going on he is caught up in something that is making him exceedingly antsy.

All this serves to ensure that both these central characters are caught up in increasingly tense situations. Rick takes on a new flatmate in Rollo – and while this seems to be a good thing for him, given Rollo’s easy, party going, approach to life, it still isn’t enough to distract him from Marina’s increasingly twitchy behaviour.

I love the way that Louise Candlish builds up a great rounded picture of her perfectly average characters and then she makes them jealous, gives them obsessions and finally pulls them ever deeper into dangerous situations. She fills her pages full of tense and tricky moments and leads her characters down dangerous paths and then makes those paths so twisty it’s no longer clear what direction we are headed in. Those ordinary people become more devious and grow ever closer to danger.

Verdict: If you read a lot of psychological thrillers as I do, you will see some of what is coming, but by no means all and even then, I found that I was so wrapped up in these characters that I needed to know how all this was going to end. And the ending, when it came was beautifully judged, damned surprising and altogether satisfying. The Only Suspect is a fabulously tense and surprisingly unpredictable read.

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Louise Candlish is the Sunday Times bestselling author of fourteen novels. Our House, a #1 bestseller, won the Crime & Thriller Book of the Year at the 2019 British Book Awards, was longlisted for the 2019 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, and was shortlisted for the Goldsboro Books Glass Bell Award. It is soon to be a major ITV drama made by Death in Paradise producers Red Planet Pictures. Louise lives in London with her husband and daughter.
Photo: Neil Spence

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