The Skeleton Road by Val McDermid

The Skeleton Road (Inspector Karen Pirie, #3)

The Skeleton Road by Val McDermid is the third of her DCI Karen Pirie novels. Investigating the identity of the skeleton found, with a bullet hole in its skull, on the rooftop of a crumbling, gothic building in Edinburgh takes Karen and her Historic Cases Unit into a dark world of intrigue and betrayal during the Balkan Wars in the 1990s.

It begins slowly, introducing rather a bewildering number of characters one after the other. It moves between the past and the present in Scotland, England and Croatia, told through different viewpoints, and interweaving the sequence of events in the past and the present in a way that I found rather disjointed. Dr River Wilde a forensic anthropologist, discovers that the skeleton is a male, he’d been dead between five and ten years and his dental work shows he was originally from one of the Eastern bloc countries.

It’s a complex story with several strands, including the search for war criminals through the work of two lawyers at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Karen’s investigations take her to Oxford and then to a small village in Croatia, a place scarred by fear, where people have endured unspeakable acts of violence.

At times I thought I was reading an account of the wars and the search for justice and revenge rather than a murder mystery. Even given the traumatic events it describes I didn’t feel there was much tension in the search for the killer and I was able to figure out who it was fairly quickly. I enjoyed the sections focusing on Karen’s and her assistant DS James, ‘the Mint’ Murray’s detective work, and I liked all the details of her relationship with her partner, Phil (also a police officer, now working on a different team).  But I didn’t enjoy this as much as the first two Karen Pirie books – in fact I think the first book, The Distant Echo is by far the best.

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown (11 Sept. 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1408704579
  • ISBN-13: 978-1408704578
  • Source: a library book
  • My rating: 3*

The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson

The Other Side of the Bridge

The Other Side of the Bridge is a beautiful book set in  in Northern Canada about two brothers, Arthur and Jake Dunn who grow up on a small farm near Struan (a fictional town) in the 1930s. The brothers are poles apart in nature. Arthur is older, shy but reliable and hardworking, whereas Jake, the younger brother is handsome, reckless, unreliable and a troublemaker. Their story spans the 1930s and 1940s as they grow up through the Depression years and the Second World War, up to the early 1960s.

It’s also the story of Ian, Dr Christopherson’s son, beginning in the late 1950s when he became infatuated with Arthur’s wife Laura. I think the dual time frame works well, moving almost seamlessly between the years, and the characterisation is excellent. I was totally engrossed in the story and able to visualise the scenery, including the Ojibway reserve where Ian’s school friend Pete lived:

He [Ian] cycled down Main Street to the outskirts of Struan, which took all of three minutes, and then out along the road to the Ojibway reserve, which took a further five. The reserve was spread along the shore of a bay, with a point of land jutting out into the lake between it and Struan, a symbolic barrier as well as a geographic one. The road ran out of pavement half a mile before it reached the reserve, and the land itself was so low it would grow nothing but bulrushes and bugs – black flies by the million in early summer then mosquitoes big enough to pick you up and carry you away. The reserve store, though where Peter Corbiere lived, was situated right down by the lake, which meant it got the benefit of the wind and was less buggy than the rest. Pete’s grandfather was sitting on the steps when Ian arrived, smoking and staring off into the woods. He had scars on his fingers from letting cigarettes burn down too far. (page 18)

There is much joy in this book mixed in with immense sorrow and pain. The title of the book refers to the time before and after a shocking incident on the bridge  – a roughly made bridge across the river that separated the Dunns’ and their neighbours, the Lintz’s farms. It was a shortcut that saved more than a mile. The River Crow was fifteen feet below the bridge as it boiled its way over rocks. That incident changed not only Arthur’s and Jake’s lives but its effect lingered on the their community the rest of their lives.

The Other Side of the Bridge is Mary Lawson’s second novel. I loved her first, Crow Lake (which I read ten years ago) and I love this one just as much. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. It was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2006, which was won by Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss.

Reading Challenge: the 21st book I’ve read this year for Bev’s Mount TBR 2017 – a book I’ve had for 10 years.

Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

Publication: 19 October 2017, Harper Collins

Source: Review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 5*

Fair of Face by Christina James

Tina Brackenbury and her baby daughter Bluebell are dead …

Fair of Face

Fair of Face is the sixth novel in the DI Yates series and  I think it stands well on its own. It is not a book you can read quickly as there are plenty of characters and several plot threads that need to be kept in mind. It is an intricately plotted mystery, re-assessing a crime from the past whilst investigating a present day murder, set in Spalding in Lincolnshire. I  didn’t find it an easy book to review.

The book begins with Tristram Arkwright, a prisoner in HMP Wakefield. He works in the prison library and is secretly in correspondence with Jennifer Dove, a bookseller who regularly supplies the prison. Jennifer is bored and finds Tristram a welcome diversion. He, meanwhile, is planning an appeal against his sentence insisting he is innocent.

Tina’s 10 year old foster daughter, Grace Winter was staying with a friend, Chloe and arrives home as DI Tim Yates and DS Juliet Armstrong are beginning their investigations into the deaths of Tina and Bluebelle. Grace acts strangely and doesn’t seem very upset by the murders and asks to see the bodies. But Grace has had a difficult life as this isn’t the first murder that she has encountered. Four years earlier her mother, sister and grandparents had been killed at their farmhouse and Grace had escaped by hiding in a cupboard. Grace was then adopted by Amy Winter, and only later sent to live with Tina. Her friend, Chloe, also has a troubled background, with brothers who are regularly in trouble with the police. She is noticeably intimated by them and by Grace. As both girls are only 10 years old the police work with Social Services in order to question them

I struggled for a while to sort out the relationships between all the characters and the relationship between the opening chapters and Tina and Bluebell’s murders. The narrative switches between the first person present tense (Juliet) and the third person past tense, which I found a bit awkward until I got used to it. And I was confused by characters with similar names – Tom and Tim for example – regularly having to check who was who. I also failed to see relevance of Jennifer Dove’s character in the opening chapters. But despite these drawbacks I enjoyed the book and was eager to solve the mysteries.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy of the book.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Salt Publishing (15 Oct. 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1784631086
  • ISBN-13: 978-1784631086
  • My rating: 3*

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Days Without End

Hardcover, 259 pages, published October 20th 2016 by Faber & Faber
Source: Library Book
My Rating: 5*



After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. Having both fled terrible hardships, their days are now vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in. Then when a young Indian girl crosses their path, the possibility of lasting happiness seems within reach, if only they can survive.

My thoughts:

This is without doubt one of the best books I’ve read this year. I was spellbound, the storytelling is superb, the characters are unforgettable, and the setting comes across so vividly that I had no difficulty in imagining the locations. Add to that the narration written in Thomas McNulty’s own uneducated voice, fluent and richly descriptive and so easy to read, despite the mix of Irish and American slang.

Thomas is writing, looking back on their lives, to a time when it seemed that years of their lives were endless:

Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on for ever, all rested and stopped in that moment. Hard to say what I mean by that. You look back at all the endless years when you never had that thought. I am doing that now as I write these words in Tennessee. I am thinking of the days without end of my life. (page 39)

He is a young Irish immigrant, 17 years old when he and his friend John Cole volunteered to join the US army. Thomas, had left Sligo, starved and destitute, for Canada and then made his way to America where he had met John under a hedge in a downpour and they became friends and secretly lovers for life. He describes John Cole as ‘my love, all my love.‘  They began their life together working in a saloon in Daggesville, dancing and dressed as girls, until they were seventeen and they could no longer pass as girls:

But nature will have his way and bit by bit the bloom wore off us, and we was more like boys than girls, and more like men than women. John Cole anyhow in particular  saw big changes in them two years. He was beginning to give giraffes a run for their money, height-wise. Mr Noone couldn’t find dresses to fit him and Mrs Carmody couldn’t stitch fast enough. It was the end of an era, God knowed. One of the happiest works I ever had. (Page 12)

The fact of their love underlies the whole book. But the next stage of their lives was so different, fighting in the Indian wars against the Native Americans as the settlers moved west and then in the Civil War. I’m not keen on reading about wars, battles or fights of any kind but I found the descriptions in this novel were exceptional, truly heart-rending, although I would have preferred fewer scenes of war and massacre. Barry doesn’t spare the details and clearly depicts the horror and waste of war, commenting in Thomas’s voice: Killing hurts the heart and soils the soil (page 225).

After the wars have come to an end they leave the army and the rest of the book follows their lives together with Winona, a young Indian girl, who they come to regard as their daughter. But danger is never far away …

In a way I thought it was odd how this book held my attention. I was surprised by a number of things – the very long paragraphs, sometimes extending to several pages  – the strange grammatical errors and figures of speech, and at times passages written in the present tense. And yet, Barry’s prose is so lyrical and poetic that I think this is what made the book so compelling to read. Each time I picked it up to read I became lost in its pages. It is not perfect, but then I often find that that doesn’t matter when I’m so totally captivated by the writing, which is why I’ve given this book 5 stars.

Amazon UK link

The Square and the Tower by Niall Ferguson

Published: Penguin Books (UK), 5 October 2017, 535 pages

Source: review copy from the publishers via NetGalley

My Rating: 2*


What if everything we thought we knew about history was wrong? From Niall Ferguson, the global bestselling author of Empire, The Ascent of Money and Civilization, this is a whole new way of imagining the world.

Most history is hierarchical: it’s about popes, presidents, and prime ministers. But what if that’s simply because they create the historical archives? What if we are missing equally powerful but less visible networks – leaving them to the conspiracy theorists, with their dreams of all-powerful Illuminati?

The twenty-first century has been hailed as the Networked Age. But in The Square and the Tower Niall Ferguson argues that social networks are nothing new. From the printers and preachers who made the Reformation to the freemasons who led the American Revolution, it was the networkers who disrupted the old order of popes and kings. Far from being novel, our era is the Second Networked Age, with the computer in the role of the printing press. Once we understand this, both the past, and the future, start to look very different indeed.

My thoughts:

Subtitled ‘Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power‘, this is described as ‘a whole new way of imagining the world’ as it’s possible that we’re missing information about networks because it’s not recorded in historical archives. But what I found in this book is rather different, being a run through history in what seemed to me a disjointed way, albeit very detailed, with network diagrams and many footnotes. I found parts of it quite tedious, especially the early section detailing the research on the history of networking. If I hadn’t requested the book from NetGalley I would have not bothered reading any more. Fortunately I found some sections were more interesting (such as on such varied topics as social media, the Illuminati, the Reformation, European Royal families, the Cambridge spies, Al Qaeda, ISIS and Trump to name but a few) and I did finish the book.

Ferguson states that his book seeks to learn about the future mainly by studying the past, in particular by looking at the importance of networks in the past that had been at times very powerful. But by the end of the book I didn’t feel too enlightened in that respect as often the distinction between hierarchies and networks is blurred – there are networks that are hierarchical and hierarchies that are parts of wider networks. As Ferguson acknowledges, the dichotomy between hierarchy and network is an over-simplification.

I requested this book when I saw it on NetGalley because history is a subject that I find fascinating, and the blurb interested me. However, although there are sections that I did find interesting, mainly those written as conventional narrative history, overall I was disappointed. I think it is disjointed with sections that don’t seem to me to have much connection with the main theme, overstretching the analogy. To summarise – I don’t think such theoretical historical analysis is for me.

My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a review copy.

The Vanishing Box by Elly Griffiths

Publication date: 2 November, 2017, Quercus Books

Source: review copy via NetGalley

My rating: 3*


Christmas 1953. Max Mephisto and his daughter Ruby are headlining Brighton Hippodrome, an achievement only slightly marred by the less-than-savoury support act: a tableau show of naked ‘living statues’. This might appear to have nothing in common with DI Edgar Stephens’ investigation into the death of a quiet flowerseller, but if there’s one thing the old comrades have learned it’s that, in Brighton, the line between art and life – and death – is all too easily blurred…

My thoughts:

This is the fourth book in the DI Stephens and Max Mephisto series. Known as the ‘Magic Men’ they had been part of a top-secret espionage unit during the War.

It is set in 1953 at Christmas just a few months after the previous book in the series, The Blood Card and magician Max Mephisto is still sceptical about performing magic on TV with his daughter Ruby in a show called Magician and Daughter. Meanwhile his old friend, DI Edgar Stephens and his team are faced with solving the murder of Lily Burtenshaw, who had been strangled and found in her room tied to a chair, leaning forward and pointing to an empty crate with ‘King Edward Potatoes’ written on the side.

Max and Ruby are performing at the Brighton Hippodrome using a human sized version of the Vanishing Box in their act. The variety show also includes an act called the Living Tableaux, showing scenes from famous paintings or classical statutory, posed by a troupe of showgirls, naked apart from skimpy flesh coloured pants. Two of the showgirls, Betty and Janette, have become friends with Lily and are lodging at the same boarding house, but Edgar wonders if there is another connection between Lily and the Living Tableau? There is something so theatrical about the way the body was posed. Edgar and his two sergeants, Emma Homes and Bob Willis, begin their search for the killer, looking for motives and suspects. Then more murders are discovered and it becomes a desperate hunt to find the killer before he/she strikes again.

I enjoyed this book but for me there is too much focus on the main characters and their relationships. Edgar is engaged to Ruby, although Max is still not too happy about it.  However, his work means he isn’t able to spend much time with her. Meanwhile Emma’s feelings for him are getting stronger and their relationship deepens as she is drawn into deadly danger. Max’s relationship with Mrs M, his landlady in Brighton, is winding down and he is attracted to Florence, another one of the showgirls.

I liked the insight into the 1950s, particularly the theatre life. Illusion and misdirection play a large part – from the acts in the variety show to the murders, and all is not what it seems. The misdirection in the form of several twists and turns threw me off course.The clues are there, if you can but see them, yet I still had little idea who the killer could be until very near the end.

My thanks to Quercus Books and Netgalley for an advance review copy of this book ahead of publication on 2nd November.