First Chapter First Paragraph: A Darker Domain

Every Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros to share the first paragraph sometimes two, of a book that she’s reading or planning to read soon.

This week’s first paragraph is from one of the library books I featured in my last post. A Darker Domain by Val McDermid, the second Karen Pirie book.

A Darker Domain (Karen Pirie, #2)

 

It begins:

Wednesday 23 January 1985; Newton of Wemyss

The voice is soft, like the darkness that encloses them. ‘You ready?’

‘As I’ll ever be.’

‘You’ve told her what to do?’ Words tumbling now, tripping over each other, a single stumble of sounds.

‘Don’t worry. She knows what’s what. She’s under no illusions about who’s going to carry the can if this goes wrong.’ Sharp words, sharp tone. ‘She’s not the one I’m worrying about.’

Blurb (fromAmazon):

Val McDermid, creator of TV’s Wire in the Blood, mixes fact with fiction, dealing with one of the most important and symbolic moments in recent history.

Twenty-five years ago, the daughter of the richest man in Scotland and her baby son were kidnapped and held to ransom. But Catriona Grant ended up dead and little Adam’s fate has remained a mystery ever since. When a new clue is discovered in a deserted Tuscan villa – along with grisly evidence of a recent murder – cold case expert DI Karen Pirie is assigned to follow the trail.

She’s already working a case from the same year. During the Miners’ Strike of 1984, pit worker Mick Prentice vanished. He was presumed to have broken ranks and fled south with other ‘scabs’… but Karen finds that the reported events of that night don’t add up. Where did he really go? And is there a link to the Grant mystery?

The truth is stranger – and far darker – than fiction.

I’ve only recently become a fan of Val McDermid’s books and wish that I’d started reading them years ago.

What do think? Have you read this one or any of her other books? Would you keep on reading?

 

Library Books

I reserved these books over the last few months and, wouldn’t you know it, they all arrived practically together!

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A Darker Domain by Val McDermid. This is the second Karen Pirie book. I’ve borrowed it because I loved the first one, The Distant Echo. In 1984, in Fife, heiress Catriona Maclennan Grant & her baby son are kidnapped. The ransom payoff goes horribly wrong. She is killed while her son disappears without trace. 2008, Tuscany. A jogger stumbles upon dramatic new evidence that re-opens the cold case. For Detective Sergeant Karen Pirie, it’s an opportunity to make her mark.

Conclave by Robert Harris – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed other books by Robert Harris, so I’m keen to read this one about how a new Pope is chosen as the cardinals meet in the Sistine chapel to cast their votes. This is a novel and Harris depicts the cardinals as holy men – but ambitious and rivals to become the most powerful spiritual figure on earth.

The Hidden Life of Trees:What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben. I read Katrina’s review of this book and immediately thought it sounded an amazing book as I love trees. Wohlleben is a German forester and his book is about his love of trees and why they matter on a global scale. He makes the case that the forest is a social network – I like the idea that they communicate with each other – even if they don’t actually walk and talk like Tolkien’s ents.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry – I loved his book, The Secret Scripture and am hoping I’ll like this one too. Thomas McNulty and John Coles signed up for the US army in the 1850s and fought in the Indian Wars and then in the American Civil War. The book was awarded the Costa Book Award 2016 and won the 2017 Walter Scott Prize. It was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 – not that winning these awards automatically means that I’ll like it and I’m often not keen on books about war.

The Distant Echo by Val McDermid

I have only recently started reading Val McDermid’s books and after reading one of her stand-alone books, A Place of Execution, I decided to move on to her Karen Pirie books. The first one is The Distant Echo (first published in 2003) in which Karen doesn’t play a major role – only appearing in Part Two as a Detective Constable.

The Distant Echo

Blurb (Goodreads):

It was a winter morning in 1978, that the body of a young barmaid was discovered in the snow banks of a Scottish cemetery. The only suspects in her brutal murder were the four young men who found her: Alex Gilbey and his three best friends. With no evidence but her blood on their hands, no one was ever charged.

Twenty five years later, the Cold Case file on Rosie Duff has been reopened. For Alex and his friends, the investigation has also opened old wounds, haunting memories-and new fears. For a stranger has emerged from the shadows with his own ideas about justice. And revenge.

When two of Alex’s friends die under suspicious circumstances, Alex knows that he and his innocent family are the next targets. And there’s only way to save them: return to the cold-blooded past and uncover the startling truth about the murder. For there lies the identity of an avenging killer…

My thoughts:

The nightmare began when student, Alex Gilbey found Rosie Duff dying in the snow in the Pictish cemetery in St Andrews. He ran to the nearby housing estate to get help and finding a policeman in his patrol car told him what he had found. By the time they got back to the body, Rosie was dead, despite the efforts of Alex’s friends to keep her alive. He and his three friends were the prime suspects, both the police and Rosie’s thuggish brothers were convinced they were guilty. But DI Barney Maclennan and his team, including DC Burnside, WPC Janice Hogg and PC Jimmy Lawson (the policeman Alex asked for help) were unable to find enough evidence to charge them with the murder.

Nearly half the book concentrates on the crime and the initial investigation, going into detail about each character and the circumstances of the murder, ending dramatically with another death. I felt I knew all the characters but had little idea who had killed Rosie or why. The case lay dormant for 25 years.

In 2003 Jimmy Lawson, now an ACC, is in overall control of the cold cases squad and is keen to enhance his reputation by getting at least one result. He assigns DC Karen Pirie to the Rosemary Duff case and asks her to find the physical evidence, which is missing from the box it’s supposed to be in, before interviewing the original witnesses. A new character comes onto the scene – Graham MacFadyen – with additional evidence that the police were not aware of at the time. The second investigation begins, equally as in depth as the first. The four students, all now with settled careers, are questioned again.

I just couldn’t work out which one of them, if any, was guilty. I couldn’t believe any of them would have murdered Rosie. And then a vague suspicion grew in my mind and I revisited the events immediately after the body was discovered, only to dismiss my idea as fanciful. Val McDermid is so skillful in giving you the clues and then leaving you in suspense (or at least that was my experience). There is a major twist that completely threw me before the dramatic ending when I realised that my initial suspicion was correct after all.

  • Paperback: 576 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins (4 Mar. 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007344651
  • ISBN-13: 978-000734465
  • Source: library book
  • My rating: 5*

I loved this book and hope to read the next three books in the series as soon as possible. They are:

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

I read Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns for the What’s in a Name Challenge (in the category of a book with item/items of cutlery in the title). It’s a book that I’ve been meaning to read for years.

Description from the back cover:

Pretty, unworldly Sophia is twenty-one years old and hastily married to a young painter called Charles. An artist’s model with an eccentric collection of pets, she is ill-equipped to cope with the bohemian London of the 1930s, where poverty, babies (however much loved) and husband conspire to torment her.

Hoping to add some spice to her life, Sophia takes up with Peregrine, a dismal, ageing critic, and comes to regret her marriage ‘“ and her affair. But in this case virtue is more than its own reward, for repentance brings an abrupt end to the cycle of unsold pictures, unpaid bills and unwashed dishes . . .

My thoughts:

I quoted the opening and an extract from page 56 in one of my Friday Posts. Now I’ve finished the book I understand the opening sentence ‘I told Helen my story and she went home and cried’, because it’s such a sad and, in parts even a tragic, story. As the synopsis indicates this is set in 1930s London and Sophia and her husband Charles (both artists) live a life of poverty whilst he struggles to sell his artwork. Actually Charles contributes very little money and it is left to Sophia to earn whatever she can working in a commercial art studio and as an artists’ model.

Their marriage is blighted by Sophia’s money worries and Charles’s cavalier attitude to life. Things get worse when Sophia realises she is pregnant – Charles had told her before they were married he never wanted to have children – and she realises too late that her idea of birth control as being a matter of controlling your thoughts and thinking very hard, and saying ‘I won’t have any babies’ was quite wrong!  After the birth of Sandro, a harrowing experience that makes me so thankful for the NHS, their situation deteriorates even further.

Despite their circumstances, Sophia tells her story in a casual, matter of fact way, with much humour. Sandro is a small, sickly baby and Sophia was afraid he would die. She also thought that if she applied for free milk the council would take him away if on the grounds that his parents had no visible means of support. Charles is no help to her at all, he dislikes Sandro and wants him out of the way:

‘Babies have no feelings and would be just as happy in an orphanage as anywhere else.’ On the other hand, he would be much happier of the baby was out of the way, so to send him to a ‘home’ was much the most reasonable thing  to do. (page 71)

Theirs is a life of hardship and heartbreaking tragedy, but Sophia’s spirit is not broken despite the tragic events that descend upon her. From a lighthearted and comic beginning the mood of the novel darkens as it moves towards an inevitable tragic climax. What seems to make it even more tragic is the conversational tone in which it is all told, concealing such real pain. However, the novel does not end with tragedy – it is not all doom and gloom and as the opening page reveals Sophia survives to tell her story:

… it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now. I hardly dare admit it, even touching wood, but I’m so happy that when I wake in the morning I can’t believe it’s true. I seldom think of the time I was called Sophia Fairclough; I try to keep it pushed right at the back of my mind.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a semi-autobiographical novel as indicated by this note at the beginning of the book:

The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty.

Thankfully the really tragic events do not occur in these chapters. There are moments of comedy and humour throughout and the novel is written in a light, chatty style. It is a portrait of life in the Thirties, a life ruled by poverty and hardship and of a marriage destroyed by circumstances and personalities.

Barbara Comyns (1909 – 1992) began to write and illustrate her stories as a child. Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, first published in 1950 was her second novel.

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Virago (4 July 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1844089274
  • ISBN-13: 978-1844089277
  • Source:  library book
  • My Rating: 3*

Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge

Disquiet and dread permeate this novel

Harriet Said...

Blurb (from Amazon):

A girl returns from boarding school to her sleepy Merseyside hometown and waits to be reunited with her childhood friend, Harriet, chief architect of all their past mischief. She roams listlessly along the shoreline and the woods still pitted with wartime trenches, and encounters ‘the Tsar’ – almost old, unhappily married, both dangerously fascinating and repulsive.

Pretty, malevolent Harriet finally arrives – and over the course of the long holidays draws her friend into a scheme to beguile then humiliate the Tsar, with disastrous, shocking consequences. A gripping portrayal of adolescent transgression, Beryl Bainbridge’s classic first novel remains as subversive today as when it was written.

My thoughts:

Harriet Said is a dark story that turns child abuse on its head. It is an unsettling and chilling book, beginning as Harriet and her friend, an unnamed 13 year-old girl, run home screaming to tell their parents what had happened. Harriet says:

When I say run, you start to run. When I say scream, you scream. Don’t stop running. just you keep going. (page 2)

It is one of those books that, although it is well written and makes compulsive reading, can’t be said to be enjoyable and the characters are not at all likeable.

It is set just after the Second World War in the Formby sand dunes on the outskirts of Liverpool.  During their school holidays the two girls make their way to the beach each evening, where they become friends with a group of lonely, dispirited middle-aged men.  They are not naive or innocent, but neither are they fully aware of the consequences of their actions as they set out to manipulate the men, the ‘Tsar’ in particular. They want to gather ‘experience’, which they record in Harriet’s diary:

A year ago to be called a Dirty Little Angel would have kept us going for months. Now it was not enough; more elaborate things had to be said; each new experience had to leave a more complicated tracery of sensations; to satisfy us every memory must be more desperate than the last.

… We took to going long walks over the shore, looking for people who by their chosen solitariness must have something to hide. We learnt early that it was the gently resigned ones who had the most to tell; the frantic and voluble were no use. (pages 39 and 40)

It is Harriet who decides their actions and dictates what to write in the diary.

They peek through the windows of the Tsar’s house and watch as he ‘lay pinned like a moth on the sofa‘ underneath his wife as she ‘poisoned him slowly, rearing and stabbing him convulsively. This sickens the 13 year-old, who wants to be loved by the Tsar, but Harriet decides that he is weak and submissive, saying that he likes being a victim and must be punished in a way he doesn’t like. From that point onwards events move rapidly to a shocking conclusion.

I’ve read a few of Beryl Bainbridge’s books and each one has kept me engrossed. Harriet Said is the first one she wrote, based on a real event, and although she submitted it for publication in 1958 it wasn’t published until 1972 because of its subject matter – ‘What repulsive little creatures you have made the central characters, repulsive almost beyond belief!‘ wrote one editor. I found it a disturbing story as the manipulation escalated and everything began to spiral out of the girls’ control as childhood fled from them.

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Virago (6 Dec. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 184408860X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1844088607
  • Source: a library book
  • My rating: 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4 stars on Goodreads)

My Friday Post: Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge

Book Beginnings ButtonEvery Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires. Harriet Said...

My opener this week is from Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge. I’ve enjoyed all of Beryl Bainbridge’s books that I’ve read so far, so I’m keen to read this one – the first book she wrote and submitted for publication in 1958. However, it was rejected because of its content and was not published until 1972. It is set just after the war in a Liverpool suburb near the Formby sand dunes where Beryl Bainbridge grew up.

It begins:

When I came home for the holidays, Harriet was away with her family in Wales. She had written to explain it was not her fault and that when she came back we would have a lovely time.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

Friday 56

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

We rode the roundabouts, shrieking among the painted horses, riding endlessly round and round, waiting for the Tsar to come.

Blurb (from Goodreads):

Two schoolgirls are spending their holiday in an English coastal town: Harriet is the older at 14 and the leader of the two. The 13-year-old unnamed narrator develops a crush on an unhappily married middle-aged man, Peter Biggs, whom they nickname “the Tsar.” Led by pretty, malevolent Harriet they study his relationship with his wife, planning to humiliate him. Their plan quickly goes wrong, however, with horrifying results.

The Quarry by Iain Banks

The Quarry

Blurb:

Kit doesn’t know who his mother is. What he does know, however, is that his father, Guy, is dying of cancer. Feeling his death is imminent, Guy gathers around him his oldest friends ‘“ or at least the friends with the most to lose by his death. Paul ‘“ the rising star in the Labour party who dreads the day a tape they all made at university might come to light; Alison and Robbie, corporate bunnies whose relationship is daily more fractious; Pris and Haze, once an item, now estranged, and finally Hol ‘“ friend, mentor, former lover and the only one who seemed to care.

But what will happen to Kit when Guy is gone? And why isn’t Kit’s mother in the picture? As the friends reunite for Guy’s last days, old jealousies, affairs and lies come to light as Kit watches on.

My thoughts:

I enjoyed The Quarry, the last book Iain Banks wrote. He explained in this interview that it’s a fairly simple book with not many characters, with only really one location and “it doesn’t muck around with flashbacks or narrative order.” It is quite strange really because he had already written 90% of it before he was diagnosed with cancer. I’m sometimes a bit wary of novels on cancer, but The Quarry isn’t in the slightest a sentimental book, nor is it solely about cancer, or death, although Guy does rant about it. I particularly enjoyed his rants – as well as those about cancer he also rants about God, faith, miracles, politics, celebrities, the ‘hounding of the poor and disabled and the cosseting of the rich and privileged‘, the unfair society we live in and so on.

Kit and Guy live in a house that is gradually falling to pieces, situated on the edge of a quarry in the Pennines. Kit is the narrator so we see the events of the weekend when Guy’s friends came to visit through his eyes, as they reminisce about their time as film students and search through the house for a video tape they had made that could ruin all of their lives if it became public. And, of course, he wants to know who is mother is, is it Hol, Ali or Pris, or someone else?

Kit is my favourite character. He is ‘very clever, if challenged in other ways‘, meaning he is ‘on a spectrum that stretches from ‘highly gifted’ at one end to ‘nutter’ at the other.‘ He spends much of his time playing an online game called HeroSpace. I liked the descriptions of his rituals and his need for order – stirring tea and shopping in a certain order etc. Kit’s internal monologue on responding to conversations is also fascinating, illustrating his struggles to interact with people socially.

I read it quickly – it’s well written, easy to read and fast paced. The main characters, Kit, Guy and Hol are convincing characters, whereas the rest remained a bit blurred in my mind, despite the detailed descriptions of what they were wearing. The physical setting, whilst not actually precisely located, is good. I could easily visualise the house and its immediate setting next to the quarry, which plays a big part in the novel both as a physical entity and metaphorically – living on the edge of a precipice into which inevitably we will all fall.

I was gripped by the two strands – will they find the tape and what is on it and will Kit find out the identity of his mother? And Guy’s character is particularly intriguing. It’s an entertaining book, funny in parts, angry, sad and miserable in others and about relationships and secrets.

The Quarry is only the second book by Iain Banks that I’ve read. I’ve also read The Crow Road, which I thoroughly enjoyed, although I never got round to writing down my thoughts about it. I’m tempted to re-read it for comparison. I’ve started to read The Wasp Factory a few times and never got very far as other books pulled me away from it. So I’ll try that again and the only other book of his that I own, A Song of Stone.