Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

I had been looking forward to reading this novel for some considerable time.  I am intrigued by Russian literature and love 19th century novels.

I had one major issue with this novel.  Its length.  Dear God, where was Tolstoy’s editor?  People had more leisure time and read more then, I get it, and this certainly would have kept you going through the winter, but I found reading it when I was tired was not ideal, and my patience was sorely tested on occasion.

In saying all of that, I can completely see why it is a classic.  The writing is sublime, the descriptions of both fatal events and turning points in the novel are breath taking in their brilliance.  “He stepped down, avoiding any long look at her as one avoids long looks at the sun, but seeing her as one sees the sun, without looking.”

As a writer, Tolstoy was a master.  Of that thee is no doubt.  As an entertaining read, I would say you need a lot of time and a lot of patience.

I can’t even begin to do a resume of the plot, so I will focus on the main characters.  Anna Karenina is a wonderfully complex character who has the misfortune to fall in love with the wrong man – the dashing Vronsky.   Is she a heroine or a tragic figure?  I believe she is a bit of both.  Beautiful, enigmatic and passionate, she is never dull.  Her passions rule her life and her jealousy is her ultimate undoing.   The descriptions of her increasing jealousy were some of my favourite scenes in the book.  Who hasn’t at times become paranoid, fearful and jealous when they are passionately in love? However, the lengths to which she goes, and her increasingly bizarre behaviour as her life spirals out of control, led me to wonder if she had actually gone insane.

I apologize – without having read the book, none of that probably makes any sense.  Suffice to say, she seeks a divorce so she can marry her lover Vronsky, but she is unsuccessful, leading to her being ostracized from society as well as losing custody of her son.  She is a victim of society’s rules in Russia in the late 1800s, but she was well aware of how society works and made the choice to proceed anyway.  In that sense I admired her courage but also felt she had brought her troubles to her own door.   Overall though, I am a sucker for a passionate love affair and certainly understood why she left her husband.

My second favourite character in the book was Levin.  A deep-thinking landowner, who is willing to work his land alongside the peasants in one scene, while holding his own in the highest society in the next.  Levin is a thoughtful, kind, intelligent man and I loved his story, but could have done without the never-ending descriptions of Russian society, and the differences between life in the country and life in the city.

This novel has everything you would expect from a sweeping Russian novel – family betrayals, love affairs, a commentary on society, poverty, wealth, jealousy, politics, life and death.  All the themes are covered.

Overall, I am delighted to have read this novel, but if I was to read it again (which I probably never will) I would read it when I had the time and space to reflect a bit on it.  An ideal holiday read.

So I have come to the final book in my ‘list of betterment.’   It is ‘The Ginger Man’ by J P Donleavy.  An Irish classic.  I will enjoy reading this one over the festive season along with something a bit lighter too.  Happy Christmas and thank you to all of you who have followed and commented on my blog.  It is growing slowly but surely!!

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

wide sargasso sea by Jean Rhys

The latest novel in my ‘list of betterment’ is one I have been meaning to read for a good while.  The novel was published in 1966.   Rhys was fascinated by the novel Jane Eyre and more specifically by Bertha, who was Rochester’s first wife – the mad woman in the attic.

The novel is set in Jamaica and the West Indies.  Antoinette is a Creole who lives with her mother and brother.  They face hatred from the locals and after their estate is set alight and Antionette’s brother dies, Antoinette is taken to stay with her aunt.  She later discovers that her mother had descended into madness due to the death of her son.

The narrative is divided into three parts.  The first part is told by Antoinette Cosway (as she is re-named in this novel) the second part is told by Rochester, and the third part is told by Antoinette after she is brought to England and locked up in the attic by Rochester.

Antoinette’s family are descended from slave owners and despite no longer being so, are hated and reviled by everyone in Coulibri, the estate and town where they reside.   They face daily antagonism and apart from their loyal nanny Christophine, (who herself practises a form of witchcraft called ‘Obeah’ and gives rum to drug and soothe Antoinette) they have no friends or support.

Antoinette’s step father knows Rochester’s family and he is set up as a likely suitor for Antoinette, but in truth he marries her solely for her inheritance.  A cold Englishman, he is never named by the author and it is clear from the start that he has no intention of treating his new wife with anything other than scorn and cruelty.  Despite the passion between them, he takes what he wants and then refuses Antoinette the love she so desperately craves.

This is a multi-layered complex novel dealing with the politics of Jamaica, oppression, slavery, and the Gothic telling of Antoinette’s descent into madness.

What I loved most about this book was the exquisite prose, and how Jean Rhys depicts in sublime detail the oppressive nature of the setting and the characters trapped within it.  For those who have read Jane Eyre (what do you mean you haven’t?!) and always wondered why Bertha had been driven insane, this novel will provide some answers.  What Charlotte Bronte would have thought of it, one can only imagine!

The final part of the novel brings us to the final descent into madness of the now called ‘Bertha’ who is kept in the attic by Grace Poole.   Haunting and unbearably poignant, Bertha or Antoinette hallucinates visions of the Jamaica she loved, despite the cruelty she encountered there, and in her final act she seeks to revenge those who have held her prisoner, both literally and metaphorically.

A stunning classic.

The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor

The cottingley secret

As Tom Cruise’s character famously said in the wonderful film Jerry Maguire: ‘We live in a cynical world.  A cynical world.’   And never more so than now it seems.

So, upon receiving my copy of The Cottingley Secret, I knew I would have to leave my cynicism at the door if I was to stand any chance of enjoying this novel.

The novel weaves between the past and present day.  The past story begins in 1917 and is told from the perspective of nine-year-old Frances Griffiths, who has been torn from her secure life in Cape Town to move to Cottingley in Yorkshire with her mother.  The move is due to her father having joined the war.   Frances and her mother are to live with Frances’s aunt Polly, Uncle Arthur and her cousin Elsie.   Elsie is seven years older than Frances, but the two become firm friends.

On her first night in Yorkshire Frances hears an unexpected noise and Elsie explains that there is a waterfall at the beck in Cottingley Woods, situated behind the house. This is where Frances will have her first sighting of the fairies and where her life is to change forever.

Meanwhile, in the present-day, Olivia Kavanagh has her own sorrows to seek.  Following the death of her Grandfather, her beloved ‘Pappy,’ she returns to Ireland leaving behind her fiancée Jack and her high-flying life in London.  In his will Pappy has left her his second-hand bookshop ‘Something Old.’  Olivia is left to sort out the family affairs and visit her beloved Grandmother who is in a home suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.  When Olivia finds Frances’s story and discovers a connection, their lives become inextricably linked.

The narrative weaves seamlessly between the past and the present as we follow the ever-growing complications in the lives of both Frances and Olivia.   The author lets the narrative unfold as gently and slowly as the beck that flows through the woods.

The novel is full of delightful snatches of poetry and I nearly cried upon reading lines that my father used to quote to my brother and me all the time. Frances hears them initially from Mrs Hogan:

“Up the airy mountain/Down the rushy glen,/ We daren’t go a-hunting/For fear of little men.”

I had always thought these lines were from Robbie Burns, so was surprised to discover they were actually written by William Allingham!

Frances and Olivia both adore fairy rhymes and stories, and there are many references to both throughout the novel, adding to the sense of magic.

Spoiler alert: (skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t’ want to know the secret!) If you don’t know the real story of the Cottingley fairies, Frances and Elsie take fake photographs of the fairies in order to silence Aunt Polly, Uncle Arthur and Annie (Frances’s mother) who have been giving out to Frances for spending so much time at the Beck.  She blurts out that she has seen fairies (true) but of course proof is required, and when Uncle Arthur invests in a camera, the plot is hatched.   I won’t give away any more, suffice to say, it is a secret that grows ever more complicated with the passing of time.

I felt for Frances throughout, having to live with the burden of what she had done, and that she had in fact seen fairies made it all the more poignant.  To ease that sadness though, there was the mysterious ‘fifth photograph’ which, although it remains with a question mark, may yet prove to be authentic. Now if that isn’t magical, I don’t know what is?! End of Spoiler!

The prose is elegant, and it is clear that Hazel Gaynor loves both the story and her characters, as it shines through in the writing.  This is a book that brings warmth, reassurance and a little bit of magic to the imagination. I was reminded of the joy of losing myself in fairy stories as a child, and the absolute wonder these stories have on the imagination.  Hazel Gaynor imbues her characters with typical Yorkshire and Irish warmth and kindness, and there are plenty of interesting sub plots; such as that of Ellen Hogan and her missing daughter Aisling.

It is also fascinating to read the story behind the story. Hazel Gaynor lets us in to her thought process in the author’s notes, as to why she created some of the fictional characters:  ‘What if there were others in Cottingley who also believed in fairies? It was these questions, and the generational connection between Christine and Frances, that led to the creation of my fictional characters Ellen, Martha and Olivia.’

For me (again the cynicism – sorry!) there were a few too many convenient co-incidences making life that bit ‘too easy’ for the characters.  But that is a tiny gripe of a wonderful novel. The mystery of the two girls and their prank, and it being based on a true story makes it a fascinating tale, and when you add Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to the mix, it is an incredible story.

Hazel Gaynor has found an imaginative and unique way of bringing a true story to life within a fictional world.  An intriguing mystery alongside a piece of magical fiction.  This is a beautifully written piece of nostalgia with a dollop of magic on the side.   Gorgeous!

Many thanks to Harper Collins for sending me a review copy.



All The Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker

All the Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker

All The Wicked Girls is Chris Whitaker’s second novel.  Following on from his highly successful debut ‘Tall Oaks’ which was published in 2016.

The blurb goes:  Raine sometimes complains that nothin’ exciting is ever gonna happen in Grace again.

Daddy told her careful what you wish for.

Everyone loves Summer Ryan.  A model student and musical prodigy, she’s a ray of light in the struggling small town of Grace, Alabama – especially compared to her troubled sister, Raine.

Then Summer vanishes.

Raine throws herself into the investigation, aided by a most unlikely ally, but the closer she gets to the truth, the more dangerous her search becomes.

And perhaps there was always more to Summer than met the eye…’

Every once in a while, an author comes on to the scene who has something special.  I believe Chris Whitaker is such an author.   What makes him special?  His ability to write character and voice which is so authentic and visceral, that as a reader, you become completely engrossed in the story, you come to genuinely love the characters, and temporarily forget they are not real.

Whitaker has the Alabama drawl, the Alabama setting and heat, and the Alabama character so perfectly fine tuned, that I had lost myself in the town of Grace within a few short chapters.

The novel is divided into the chapters that are narrated by Summer herself – these are short chapters, with just enough information to keep us tantalized as the mystery unfolds.  The other chapters are told in the third person, but they are so tightly narrated they feel as if the various main characters are talking to us directly.

At the heart of this novel is not just a murder mystery, but a story, or should I say several stories of friendship.  The friendship I was most drawn to was that between two teenage boys who help Raine to look for Summer – Noah and Perv.  Their friendship goes above and beyond, and the love and respect they have for each other is incredibly touching.  Both have unique frailties and issues (can’t give away any plot spoilers) and to buoy each other up they use catch phrases like: ‘we’re brave.’ Or, ‘we’re fierce and we’re brave.’

After one of the many scrapes they get into, which they inevitably lose, there is an adorable exchange between the two:

‘I had him,’ Noah said.

‘I know you did,’ Purv said. ‘I had your back.’

‘I know you did.’

Raine and her sister Summer also have a uniquely close bond, and as we come to know the character of Raine, our sympathy grows as we understand how Summer is more than a twin, she is an integral part of Raine’s life, connected in so many ways.

Against this backdrop of messed up lives we have the town of Grace itself.  A low down dirty place, where houses are dilapidated, streets are dirty and the town believes the end is nigh, as a predicted storm turns the sky dark and remains that way for weeks.

It is a suffocating atmosphere and the author brilliantly builds the tension of the story, as they sky grows darker, the air grows hotter, and the atmosphere becomes so oppressive you can nearly smell the fear-induced sweat.

As with many small towns in the deep south, religion is a way of life.  In Grace, the recently retired Pastor Lumen breathed his own brand of hell fire.  The current pastor Bobby is a different man altogether, but cannot escape the torment of his violent past.   The irony of Grace is that the majority of the town turn up for church on Sunday before leaving and committing a multitude of sins, ranging from adultery to murder.  Like the river that runs through the town, they think by stepping into the church, their sins are miraculously washed away.

This is a novel that fulfills its purpose on every level; the setting, the characters and the story are all uniquely woven to form a masterful piece of work, and one which will live in my memory for a long time.  If ‘Tall Oaks’ was a successful debut, then ‘All the Wicked Girls’ deserves all the plaudits, awards and adulation I know have begun, and I hope will continue.   An incandescent novel.

Atomised by Michel Houellebecq


OK, so first off.  I now understand that you are not supposed to like this book.  It is supposed to be depressing and a vivid look at the dysfunctional state of society.  I wish I had known that before I started reading it!  Houellebecq is a French writer who does not shy away from any controversy.  He is nasty and dirty, and I am afraid as far from what I enjoy reading as you can get.

I read this book because Andy Miller wrote about it in ‘The Year of Reading Dangerously.’ He loved it so much, and as I thought his book was funny and clever, I decided to add it to my list.   Big Mistake. Huge.

I cannot express how much I loathed this book.  I apologize profusely for having recommended it, and I hang my head in shame if you actually went out and bought it.

I know there are all kinds of commentaries on the state of society and the plight of human beings.  There is much philosophy thrown in to enliven the boredom of a story where little happens.  There will be those who say – ‘stupid woman, you just don’t get it.’

But therein lies the problem.  I do get it, but I hate it anyway.

Two brothers – one a scientific genius, one a social drop out who is utterly obsessed with sex (don’t even get me started on the smut in this book – gratuitous and unnecessary.)

The novel follows their depressing, desperate lives as they find love, lose love, try and fail to have sex, and contemplate suicide.  You know what, within five minutes I hated them both, and that was my problem with this novel.  How can you enjoy a novel when you hate the two main characters.  I felt no sympathy for them, they were just two pathetic specimens trying their best in this mad world.  Who cares?

There were a few funny moments but God knows the novel needed them.

I know the point of a book review is to be objective and look for the balance.  Sorry I have failed miserably here.  I just don’t care enough.

Not one I would recommend.

Review of Suitcase Number Seven by Ursula Kane Cafferty

Suitcase Number Seven

The author of this unique story, Ursula Kane Cafferty and I became acquainted through the wonder of Twitter – a useful platform when used responsibly!  We had both written books about a rugby player.  I was struck by the similarities.  Her uncle Tom Cleary was not just a supremely talented rugby player, but he was much more than that, and so is his story.

Suitcase Number Seven was written after Ursula found a suitcase belonging to her uncle after he died in 1997.  It was a simple suitcase with the number 7 on it – a poignant reminder of his rugby playing days.  Ursula was amazed to discover that her uncle Tom Cleary had kept a record of his life in this small suitcase.  As Ursula tells it:

‘When we reached the bottom of the case, it was lined with a green plastic property bag from the hospital where I worked and where Tom had first been treated a year earlier.  The hair stood up on the back of my neck and a shiver ran down my spine as I realized Tom had known he was dying during the past year of his illness and had sorted out what he wanted us to have and see.  His story.  It was then I knew I had to write this book.’

Suitcase Number Seven is told as a fictional memoir, only in the sense that Tom’s life is recreated by Ursula.  The chapters are entitled either ‘Ursula’ or ‘Tom.’  Those written by Ursula are her account of what she remembers about spending time with her uncle, and the wonderful times (and sometimes difficult times) they had.  It is also a well-researched story of the life of an incredibly talented sportsman.   The chapters entitled ‘Tom’ are told as if Tom were telling them himself.  This gives the reader an intimate account of one man’s hopes, dreams, triumphs and struggles.

Tom Cleary was born in 1930 and spent the first 15 years of his life growing up in Carrick-On-Suir in County Tipperary.  At 15, as tradition in his family dictated, he was sent to boarding school at Castleknock College in Dublin.  After a nervous start, he discovered his love of rugby.  He took to it like a duck to water and was a ‘natural talent.’  However, he was not just gifted at rugby but he also excelled in both tennis and table tennis.  He won numerous trophies for tennis including the junior cup, and also played on the Senior cup team despite his tender age.

Tom Cleary became known as a sportsman with flair, natural talent and speed. This all began at Castleknock College, where he was popular with both sexes and had a wonderful time filling his days with sport.  He was no slouch academically either.

As Tom neared the end of his education at Castleknock he was now playing as scrum-half, not only in the school’s team, but he played against Ulster in the blue of Leinster in an inter-provincial match.  He was also on the team that won the Leinster School’s Senior Cup in 1947 against Blackrock College.

He continued to excel in tennis.

In adulthood Tom became an accountant and got a job in Limerick.  It is here that he was to find the team to which he gave his heart and soul – Bohemians.  He excelled there, captaining the club and making some lifelong friends along the way.

Despite all of Tom’s success the one thing that eluded him was an Irish cap, although he was on the reserves for Ireland 17 times.  It is an ambition that he never achieved.    In reading the book it is clear that it was an absolute travesty that he was never given this honour.  A total injustice which he bore with great equanimity.

Ursula portrays a man who was shy, kind and a true gentleman who tragically became dependent on alcohol, due to struggles with low self-esteem and shyness.

That she was brave enough to tell the full story is a credit to her and in no way diminishes his reputation, if anything, it makes us realize how a person can be hiding sorrows and issues about which we may be entirely unaware.

Although there is much for rugby fans to enjoy in this book, this is much more than a book about rugby.  It is a story of one man’s struggle to believe in himself and find self-acceptance, after knockbacks in both the world of sport and in his own romantic life left him rudderless and isolated, despite the love of family and friends.

The sadness of this book is that Tom Cleary was loved so well by so many, and for many years he couldn’t see it or perhaps couldn’t appreciate it.  The joy of this book is that near the end of his life he found joy and understood that sometimes love of family and friends is all that matters.  He also understood that giving is receiving.

This book is a moving account of one man’s journey from sports hero, to lost soul, to final redemption, and belief in the power of life and love.

I want to end with two verses from a wonderful poem that Ursula wrote at the end of the book entitled ‘If Only’ which, in my opinion is worth the price of the book alone!  These are the final two verses:

‘So this was Tom’s life story, it’s a tale of ups and downs,

A tale of joy and happiness, but also tears and frowns.

I am very determined, that this book will serve to tell,

That success, it is not everything….and failure isn’t hell.


So to use the words of Grantland Rice, a sportswriter of note,

(I found it in Tom’s suitcase, this simply perfect quote)

“For when the one great scorer comes to write against your name,

He marks – not how you won or lost – but how you played the game.”

For further information on Suitcase Number Seven, check out the following links:

Ursula on Twitter – @ukanecafferty

Ursula on Facebook:

Ursula’s website at

The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham

The razors edge

Buy on Amazon

When I was in my early twenties my father recommended Somerset Maugham to me.  I remember reading ‘The Razor’s Edge’, but truth be told, twenty odd years later I couldn’t remember much about it.

Maugham wrote the book in 1944 and there has been much speculation over the years as to where he got his inspiration for the main character of Larry.

The book is narrated by Maugham himself, who wanders in and out of the story at will, as he follows the lives of a group of characters over a twenty-year period. The story begins in Chicago in 1919.  Larry Darrell had been a pilot during the first World War. He is engaged to Isabel who adores him.  Isabel’s uncle, Elliot Templeton is a snob and a social climber.  He wants a good match for Isabel.  When Larry shows no signs of wanting to work, and turns down a good job offered by the father of his friend Grey Maturin, Elliot is concerned.

Larry wishes to travel and to, as he calls it, ‘loaf’ but Isabel is used to having money, so after trying to persuade Larry to get a job, to which he obstinately refuses, they break off their engagement and she marries Gray Maturin a very successful stock broker.

Larry sets out on a spiritual quest to try and find the purpose of his life and life in general.  The reason for this is as enigmatic as Larry himself.  Could it be due to the incident that happened during the war, where a friend died saving his life? We know it affected Larry deeply but he seems as unsure of his path as everyone else.

Without revealing any more of the plot, the novel weaves a fascinating path as it follows the lives of all of the main characters, as mentioned above.   There is also another important character called Sophie, who reveals more about Isabel’s character to us than any dialogue could ever do.

Maugham manages to balance a beautiful clear fluid style with an engaging narrative.  This is most definitely a character based novel.  If you are looking for action, this is not the book for you.  However, if you like a good psychological drama, where characters flaws, fears, secrets and desires are gradually revealed through a series of circumstances, then look no further.

For a taster of Maugham’s wonderfully easy narrative style and characterization, his early description of Elliot Templeton is a good example:

“He was a colossal snob.  He was a snob without shame. He would put up with any affront, he would ignore any rebuff, he would swallow any rudeness to get asked to a party he wanted to go to or to make a connexion with some crusty old dowager of great name.”

This novel is right up my street.  I love novels that contain deep characterization and exploration of a character’s motives, which this novel has in abundance.   It also has wonderful settings in Paris, the Riviera and Chicago.

I feel I cannot do it justice with a simple book review.  I would suggest giving it a go.  It is the sort of novel I feel you will either love or hate, and you should know pretty quickly.

I personally think Maugham is a genius and I might even be tempted to try and read ‘Of Human Bondage’ now, which is a tome and a half!

Please do let me know if you have read it.  I think it is my favourite from my list of betterment so far and a novel I will definitely re-read.  How did you like it or did you hate it?  If so, why?

Next month’s list of betterment read is Atomised by Michel Houellebecq.  This one I am reading because Andy Miller from The Year of Reading Dangerously raved about it.  I am not so sure?!  For the full list of my reading goals for 2017 see here:

The List of Betterment


The Accidental Wife by Orla McAlinden

the accidental wife

At the beginning of this set of short stories, Orla McAlinden writes an author’s note which beautifully captures the essence of this book.  After stating that the characters and stories are all fiction she goes on to say:

‘However, the scenarios which fill these pages are familiar to my peers.  We shared the same fears: the stranger in the yard, the late-night knock at the door, the child who leaves home in a school uniform and returns in a closed coffin.  I have not told “your story” except to the extent that your story is also my story, and that the deeds of four dark decades have collectively become our story.’

Well, I can tell you something for nothing – if you are from Northern Ireland, those words are most definitely going to send a chill down your spine and resonate in the strongest imaginable way.

After reading such an eloquent description of her stories, I couldn’t wait to get started, but my fear was whether they would tip over into what can sometimes become a cliched tired view of Northern Ireland, a possibility when writing about the history of this small country.  Fortunately, I had nothing to worry about whatsoever.

Orla McAlinden has written a beautiful book of short stories which perfectly captures the tone, the voice and the lives of those who grew up in the North.  Being from Portadown, she had first-hand experience of life in the north, but her knowledge of farming (not sure where that comes from?!) and her ability to express both rural and city living with such an accurate eye, meant I read these stories repeatedly wanting to shout out – “Yes! Yes! I know exactly what you mean!  Sure, isn’t that just what the north and the people there are like!”

The stories revolve around the McCann family.  The author does a clever interweave of the stories, slowly connecting father and son, wife and daughter, families and communities.  However, the stories can also be read as separate pieces.  McAlinden nails the atmosphere of the troubles with a visceral authenticity which is uncanny.

The opening story ‘Strike’ pulls no punches.  Joan McCann is pulled over by a group of masked hooded men, while taking her son Rory to school.  However, it turns out to be (as do most of her stories) more complex than at first thought – Joan is taking her son to school despite a strike by The Ulster Workers council who have placards stating:

“Ulster Workers Council, No power-sharing, General Strike, In God we Trust.”

When Joan is determined not to be threatened by them, she decides to go about her business as usual, but her values, her religion and her views are shaken by her husband’s rough words and truths that she has been trying to avoid.    A cracker of a story to start this wonderful collection.

The author doesn’t shy away from using cultural references and the language of the people, and it is this that makes this collection unique and memorable.  I am sure for anyone outside of Ireland who reads the collection, they may have to check Google for a couple of references, but it is an education as to what Northern Ireland was like from the seventies to the present day.

The award-winning story ‘The Visit’ is a harsh look at the realities of dealing with paramilitaries and the lengths some people would go to in order to protect their land, their livelihoods and themselves.  Raw and poignant as most of the stories are, this one is particularly sad, when you see that at times good people were forced to take matters into their own hands, and suffering was an inevitable part of that.

My favourite story in the collection is a story entitled ICE.  Told from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy, it tells the story of how his life changes forever, with the arrival of a PSNI officer to their door.  Their father has gone missing.  It turns out he has run off with 4 million pounds from the client account of Jordan and McCann where he works as a lawyer.  Mark has always minded his mother and his three-year-old sister Siobhan.  ICE stands for ‘In case of Emergency’ which is how Mark’s father’s number is listed in his phone.  As he calls and calls and gets no response, he has to resign himself to the fact that his father is gone.  As his mother falls apart, it is the twelve-year-old Mark who is the only one who seems able to manage the family.  He has had to grow up far too fast (as many children did during the troubles.)  The language in this story is evocative and unbearably sad as Mark talks to his father in his head:

I’m tired Daddy, and I can’t do this on my own. I’m sorry for all the crap I put you through, for all the contradicting and the arguing and the always having to be right. I’m sorry I drove you away.”

As the news breaks, Mark’s family must flee to their Auntie Liz’s house.  We are reminded of the resilience of children as Mark learns to stand on his own two feet. When Liz is putting all the weight and responsibility on Mark he has a dig himself, saying:

“That’s right Liz.  You and me and Mum.  Against the world.” And it was nearly worth it, the whole shitty mess, just to see the blood drain from her face.”

What makes this collection of stories stand out for me and lift it from good to superb, is the use of language.  The Northern Ireland colloquialisms, some that brought a tear to my eye, as I remember my dad used to say them, such as ‘Houl yer whisht’ and  you lazy wee blirt (never said to me I am glad to say!)

The stories are such an authentic portrayal of Northern Ireland, from the middle-class families where appearance is everything, to the struggling farmers whose grit and humour get them through each day. If you want to get a sense of the character and tenacity of Northern Irish people, and the struggles they endured, this is a must read.

‘The Accidental Wife’ is a wonderfully evocative debut of short stories and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  I understand Orla McAlinden’s first novel is set in County Kildare in the 1800s.  I look forward to that, but I am also going to put in a request to the author.  Can we please have more of the Johnson family, especially 12 year old Mark?!

The Mayfly by James Hazel

The Mayfly (1) The Mayfly (buy here on Amazon) 

(If you wish to skip the review – but why would you?! Then please scroll down to see an author interview which gives a fascinating insight into the writing of this novel.)


Every crime fiction series of note that has lasted the test of time has one essential element – a protagonist that the reader can believe in.  A character who will intrigue and with whom we will empathize and wish to see succeed in his mission.  Charlie Priest, the ex-detective inspector turned successful London lawyer, more than ticks these boxes.

The novel follows a complex storyline with many interweaving plot lines, but it is so well structured as to make it easy to follow.  The novel jumps between the present day and a second but equally strong story line that takes place at the end of World War II, involving another complex character – that of Colonel Bertie Ruck.

Bertie Ruck is investigating a Dr Schneider, a Nazi doctor, who was responsible for experimenting on and poisoning prisoners during the war.  The sinister element of the novel begins here and never falters, as Ruck’s life and that of Dr Schneider form an essential part of the modern-day dilemma in which Priest finds himself.

From the start both storylines steam ahead without ever flagging.  However, this is no flimsy action- packed thriller without substance.  For what separates Hazel’s book from many lesser crime fiction novels is the attention to detail and depth of his characters.  Each character is vividly portrayed, as we delve deeply into their world and find ourselves rooting for some and detesting others in equal measure.

Charlie Priest has a family.  His brother William is in a psychiatric ward after committing several murders.  Charlie has not given up on him and visits him once a month.  Charlie suffers from dissociation disorder which means he can suddenly find himself disconnected from reality and unaware of his actions or what is going on around him.  This vulnerability enables him to empathize somewhat with his brother.  For although he can never condone his brother’s actions, he can understand to some extent what it is to be completely out of control of your own mind.

Charlie’s sister Sarah has not been able to come to terms with Will’s actions.  She has wiped all traces of him from her life, but is a strong support to her brother Charlie and is always there for him.  Her daughter Tilly enables us to see Charlie’s softer side when he interacts with his niece.

The family of Charlie and his colleagues at the law firm Priest and Co enable us to anchor the characters in a real setting, so that when the narrative hits the points where we have to suspend our belief, we can still believe in Charlie and his family and friends.

The central theme at the heart of the novel is the evil perpetrated not just during World War II, but by modern day sociopaths who seek fulfilment at any cost.  The story begins with an intruder to Charlie Priest’s house, the step son of a man who runs a large pharmaceutical organization. The intruder is desperately seeking a data memory stick with names on it, about which Priest knows nothing. This episode is only the first step in a complicated investigation that will take all of Priest’s abilities to solve.

The title of the Mayfly is beautifully interwoven into the narrative and takes on a deep significance as the story unfolds.   As the body count mounts, so does the tension, added to the desperate search for the USB stick and the question of its significance.

Fortunately, Charlie has some very smart colleagues to help him.  The smartest, and the heroine of this novel is the intriguing and lovely Georgie Someday.  Smart, sassy and addicted to the thrill of the chase, she is Priest’s right-hand woman and is there for him every step of the way.   As a woman character I loved her grit, her tenacity and her fearlessness.  Yet she reveals enough flaws and weaknesses to make her human.   Whether her last name is a cheeky teaser by the author remains to be seen, but she is too good a character to leave out of future books in my opinion.

The two parallel stories grow in intensity and the level of fear ratchets up as the novel progresses.  The references to the horrors carried out during World War II by Nazi doctors are horrific, and give an insight into the terrifying evils that were perpetrated during the war.  James Hazel pulls no punches and the reader is left in no doubt as to the lengths to which humans will go to satisfy their depravity, all in the name of a completely perverted and utterly warped belief system.

If there was the rare occasion when people seem to coincidentally have the information that Priest required (Sandra Barnsdale for one) it is easy to forgive, given the complexity of the overall plot and the number of characters and storylines.

The final chapters are chilling and thrilling. James Hazel creates utter spine chilling fear with just a few short sentences:

‘Can you scream….?’ He whispered softly.  ‘Can you scream? I hope so.  Because people have paid me a lot of money to hear you scream tonight?’   (I removed the name so as not to give any spoilers.)

This is a heart thumping page turner with a difference.  It has depth.  The characters are brilliantly portrayed and the narrative is beautifully paced and written with intelligence and heart.

I believe there is to be a second novel featuring Charlie Priest. He will be a character who will win a legion of fans for James Hazel, and deservedly so.    A heart stopping, intelligent crime novel.  Most definitely one to watch.


Interview with the Author: James Hazel:

  1. As a reader, what authors did you love to read as a child, and do you think this influenced your later passion for writing?

I remember reading the Chronicles of Narnia series at a young age and just being mesmerised by the sheer enormity of C S Lewis’s world. More importantly, I also remember watching various TV and film adaptations and, for the first time, realising that most things I watched came from books. This was a trigger for me. I don’t think it was necessarily the moment I decided that I wanted to be a writer, but it was certainly the moment when started to realise how important literature was to me.

  1. When did you first become attracted to writing Crime Fiction and why?

I was relatively late to the party and my interest in crime fiction was really kindled by my wife, who is vastly more intelligent and well-read than me. During most of my twenties I was reading horror and supernatural thrillers (the weirder the better) and, whilst I still enjoy the occasional freaky outing, Jo introduced me to crime fiction and I’ve never looked back.

  1. I learnt a great deal about World War II from my father who had a lifelong interest in the war (having lived through it,) so I wondered where your interest in World War II began, and why it became a pivotal part of this novel?

This started when I was five years old and my grandfather started to tell me about his experiences in the war. My mum was called into school one day and asked about him because I’d told all my teachers he was a prisoner. I think I’d triggered a safeguarding alert. In fact, he had been a POW for most of the war Stalag 18A, a POW camp at Wolfsberg, Austria, having been captured in Greece in May 1941.

One particular story he told me still sends a shiver down my spine. On the 28th December 1940, the HMT Orcades arrived at Suez and the troops, Grandad included, were lined up to embark on one of two ships to Greece. Just before boarding, someone who knew Grandad called him over to the other ship: a regiment there needed a driver. He swapped ships at the last minute. It was to become the most important decision of his life. The other ship was sunk and the troops on it were lost to the sea.

A different ship, a different decision, and I would never have been born. Ever since then I’ve been fascinated by the war, and the role that fate plays in all of our lives.

  1. Your main character Charlie is complex, in that he is both incredibly smart and at times sure of himself, yet also with a uniquely vulnerable side. Where did you draw inspiration from for this character?

Charlie Priest is a mish-mash of people. First and foremost, he isn’t me. I’m not that cool. There’s bits of me in there, a little, but not much. Charlie is kind of the guy I would want to be if I was infinitely more confident and brighter. He’s like a bespoke fictional role model that I drew from various elements of other characters, from James Bond to Sherlock Holmes to Harry Hole and maybe a bit of Luther too.

  1. This novel is a fascinating mix of the past and present. Could you share some insights as to how you came up with the concept for this story?

It’s a difficult process to breakdown but I guess it went something like this:

  • Create an antagonist that everyone will find universally detestable;
  • Confuse the nature of the antagonist through the introduction of a secret society or cult to exacerbate the sinisterism;
  • Give the antagonists a diabolical motivation, something utterly abhorrent so as to really make the reader want to see the hero prevail;
  • Make the secret society a paedophile ring;
  • Abandon the idea of the paedophile ring because it’s been done before and come up with something else. Something worse;
  • Write The Mayfly

6. Could you name three authors who would be among your top ten favourite authors of all time?

Okay, here goes, in no particular order:

Antony Horowitz – because of his breath-taking ability to not only write novels in his own voice but in the voice of other writers who are, on their own merits, masters of the craft

Val McDermid – The queen of crime has few rivals when it comes to her ability to portray the ugly reality of crime but without it ever being overkill

Stephen King – because nobody tells stories like Stephen King. Nobody.

Thank you for your time James.

I think we can all agree this is a fascinating insight into  both the author and his thoughts behind the writing of this novel.   Away and buy your copy now!





Review of Stoner by John Williams


Stoner to buy on Amazon UK

Described by The Sunday Times on its cover as ‘The greatest novel you’ve never read,’ Stoner by John Williams is a superb piece of prose fiction.

First published to little acclaim in 1973, thanks to John McGahern for one, it enjoyed a successful renaissance in 2003.   I first read it a few ago at a book club, and enjoyed it so much, I decided to read it again and review it here.

An only child, brought up on his parents’ farm in Missouri, William Stoner led a small sheltered existence.  In 1910, he goes to the University of Columbia, Missouri, to study agriculture, so that he can help his father out more on the farm.  However, during one semester when he has to take an extra subject, he takes a course in English Literature and falls in love with language and literature.  His life is changed by his professor Archer Sloane who recognizes a fellow traveller and encourages his passion.

Much to his parents’ dismay, he abandons his studies in agriculture and instead pursues a degree in English literature, followed by further academic studies, in order to become a professor of English literature himself.

This is a simple story of one man’s life and the struggles he faces.  Written in the third person, the narrative style is factual and understated, but with such an elegant beauty that it rendered me tearful on several occasions throughout the novel.

William Stoner is a quiet man, full of integrity, who builds his life on solid principles and values. Sadly, there are always those who would seek to take advantage of such goodness.  Stoner’s wife Edith is one such character.  She is so manipulative and evil towards her husband that you are desperately hoping he gives her a good clout.  He is too good a man for that.  He faces everything she throws at him with equanimity and good humour, and this is frustrating at times, if not admirable.

When Edith seeks to separate his daughter from him, I was disappointed in him for the only time throughout the book, for not standing up to her.

Stoner faces challenges from both students and professors at the university.  He remains true to his principals at all times when refusing to pass a student – Charles Walker, for work that does not deserve to pass.  In doing so, he incurs the ongoing hatred of a fellow professor called Lomax, who tries to ruin Stoner.  Stoner quietly continues to stand by his values, do what is asked of him (even when it is horribly unfair) and heroically does so without complaint.

There are times during the novel when you wonder how much more the poor man can take.  He does at times question this himself:

“He had come to that moment in his age when there occurred to him, with increasing intensity, a question of such overwhelming simplicity that he had no means to face it.  He found himself wondering if his life were worth the living; if it had ever been.”

He finds happiness later in life with Katherine Driscoll, a student, and as we cheer him on, we know that yet again he is fated to lose the one true love of his life.

Whether you feel Stoner is a weak man or a hero, you cannot doubt his integrity, goodness and calm perseverance through the unfair blows of fate he is dealt.  He is not without passion and has given love as well as receiving it. He reflects on the love he has given:

“But he was not beyond it, he knew and would never be.  Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there.  In his youth he had given it freely, without thought; he had given it to the knowledge that had been revealed to him-how many years ago?-by Archer Sloane; he had given it to Edith, in those first blind foolish days of his courtship and marriage; and he had given it to Katherine, as if it had never been given before.  He had, in odd ways, given it to every moment of his life.”

I loved this book as much, if not more, on a second reading.  The narrative pace is as perfect as I have ever read in any novel.  It is the understated elegance of the prose and the sadness of one man’s heroic struggle against those of ‘meaner natures and lesser minds.’   I cannot recommend it highly enough.  It deserves the status of a classic.

As ever, feel free to share your views on the novel.  I would love to hear them!

I am having a little break from my list of betterment, but in July will return with the next book on my list, which is ‘The Razor’s Edge’ by Somerset Maugham.  It was supposed to be ‘Of Human Bondage’ by Maugham, but I have read that and couldn’t put myself through it again!  I read ‘The Razor’s Edge’ over 20 years ago, so can’t remember a thing about it.  Let’s see how I get on this time!

Feel free to read along or share your current reads.  Any books that have changed your life lately? Don’t keep it to yourself – be kind and share!