Snow Light by Danielle Zinn – Review

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Book Description:

When Detective Inspector Nathaniel Thomas encounters a man attacking a young woman in a local park, the DI is unable to save her. Out of guilt, Thomas quits his job at Homicide Headquarters and relocates to the tiny village of Turtleville, where he regains control of himself and begins to enjoy life again. However, a year later, all the guilt and shame of the park murder re-emerges when a local hermit, Ethan Wright, is murdered with an unusual weapon and left on display in the centre of the village. For Thomas the situation gets worse when DS Ann Collins, a colleague from his past, appears to help with the case. But things become complicated when the victim’s identity is put into question.

Who is the victim? And why was he murdered? Thomas and Collins will find themselves trying to solve a highly unusual case and both may have more in common than they could have ever imagined.

 

My Review:

Bloodhound adds yet another fledging talent to its stable, and a hugely entertaining novel to their catalogue with Danielle Zinn’s Snow Light.

Opening with a flashback/nightmare scene relaying the lead character’s historic failure, Zinn wastes no time in placing her readers straight into the action in Snow light. It’s an often-used, but well utilised technique, in the crime genre and works well in this instance.

Employing Third-person, past-tense throughout, Zinn’s writing style is solid and unflashy, which for this type of story is most definitely a positive. This simple narrative style is perfect for the plot and for the characters, both of which could, for me, have lost a great deal of their vitality had another, or a variety of, POVs and tenses been employed.

Descriptive without getting bogged down in minutiae, Zinn’s writing style feels fresh and immersive, particularly when she allows her characters to do the talking.

For me, Zinn’s strength as a writer lies in her skilled use of dialogue, which is witty and, more importantly, feels natural in that it reflects and coveys the characters’ mind-set and intent and succeeds well in moving the narrative forward at pace. In those sections where the characters are allowed to exchange dialogue, Zinn’s writing shines and suggests a more seasoned writer than the debut novelist she is.

At times the narrative is, as is common with a first-time author, a little exposition-heavy at times. There’s rather a little too much telling, and just a tad not enough showing, but like any writer, Zinn will have developed a greater array of tools and skills with which to tell her future stories during the course of writing her debut.

Certainly, from a starting point, Zinn is a skilled novelist who will only continue to improve her considerable ability and whom already possesses a great deal more insight, skill in characterisation and realistic dialogue than many writers with several books under their belts.

A solid debut from a writer to watch.

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Snow Light is available now for Bloodhound Books and at Amazon 

 

Author Bio:

Danielle holds a BA (Hons) degree in Business and Management from New College Durham and after gaining some work experience in Wales and the USA, she settled down in Frankfurt am Main where she works as a Financial Controller at an IT Consultancy.

Born and raised in a small village in the Ore Mountains/Germany, Danielle was introduced to the world of English literature and writing from an early age on through her mother – an English teacher.

Her passion for sports, especially skiing and fencing, stems from her father’s side. Danielle draws her inspiration for writing from long walks in the country as well as circumnavigating the globe and visiting her friends scattered all over the world.

Mix everything together and you get “Snow Light”, her debut detective thriller combining a stunning wintry setting in the Ore Mountains with unique traditions, some sporty action and lots of suspense.

Links:

Amazon 
@DanielleZinn4

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Dig Two Graves by Keth Nixon – Review.

Tight plot? Check. Classic, damaged detective? Check. Punchy sentence structure? Check. Healthy dose of black humour and cynicism? Check.

Keith’s crime writer’s writer. A classic of his species.

His latest offering is a predictable leap forward in his development. Guided by Al Guthrie, Keith has fine tuned his finely-tuned skill set and story craft, producing his most accessible, tightly-edited and genre-perfect book of his catalogue to date.

Keith’s the best. Guthrie’s the best. Dig Two Graves is the best.

Be the best, read the best.

Dig Two Graves is available now from Amazon and Bastei Entertainment.

Painted Black – Preview

After a long break from writing, the longest I’ve taken in four years, I began writing this a couple of days ago without much clue as to what it was about beyond the first chapter. A few days (and three hours writing time later), I’m 7,300 words into my next novel, provisionally titled ‘Painted Black’, a psychological thriller. It’s good to be writing again. Hope you enjoy this short preview.

The following excerpt is from Mark Wilson’s ‘Painted Black’. Copyright mark Wilson 2017. It is unedited.Chapter One

Her red pen moving, right toe tapping along to an Indie track playing through her ear-phones, Frankie’s eyes flick up to the standard school-issue clock on her classroom wall. Ten minutes ‘til break.

On any other day the realisation would be welcome, today the looming interval is less a chance for coffee and a quick moan with her peers, and more a reminder that yet another hour in yet another day with too few has slipped past her and her to do list has barely been dented.

Reminding herself that she loves her job, Frankie shakes off the threatening despair at always having more work to do, of never quite succeeding to finish one task before another materialises and stands from her desk.

Frequent micro-breaks. That’s her thing just now. That and the comfort blanket of music whilst she works.  A few seconds of walking around the room and stretching, then back to work. Just enough of a pause to break the fugue. Just enough activity to reenergise before returning to her task. The music provides motivation and positivity, both badly needed for a twenty-first century teacher drowning in admin. Music and pacing, a poor substitute for a good glass of wine.

Avoiding disturbing her noise-cancelling earphones, Frankie slips her right hand behind her neck and push leans until vertebrae slide and crack back into position with satisfyingly sharp pain. Frankie checks the clock again, assesses how much she’s accomplished during her free period and resigns herself good-naturedly to taking almost half of her work home tonight to complete it in front of her latest Netflix binge.

Netflix and chill, she mocks her own life.

Netflix and mark jotter, drink wine and eat chocolate’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Returning to her seat, Frankie runs both hands back over her head, smoothing her hair- a subconscious habit her close friends find endearing- that seems to ready her, steel her between tasks or sometimes before speaking. Inadvertently, she knocks her earphones back from her left ear. Immediately she hears raised voices; kids from the classroom next door. 

Dougie’s classroom.

Surprise flickers across her face. Dougie’s kids are generally a quiet bunch. He runs a good classroom. Strict, but not unfair. Approachable, but a firm expectation of the standards he expects in his classroom. Moving to stand closer to their shared wall, Frankie expects that she’ll hear the sounds of a busy class, enjoying some active learning that Dougie’s dreamt up. Something prickles her subconscious. Something about the tone of the voices next door.

Muffled through the wall, she hears desks being screeched across the room, not unusual in an active classroom, and a few squeals from girls. Again, nothing unusual in a fourth year class where screams, groans, grunts, shouts and hollers form a large part of the teenage response vocab. The next voice, Dougie’s voice, sends Frankie racing to her classroom door.

Mid-stride Frankie’s fear is heightened by more racket coming through the wall and spilling out into the corridor.

“Harry…No!” – Dougie’s voice sounds shrill, desperate.

Frankie hears the door to Dougie’s classroom slam hard. A blur of movement passes the slim window of her own door at the moment she reaches for the handle.

Through six inch-wide glass, Frankie watches Dougie Black manhandle a boy whose face she can’t see from his room out into the hall. Pulling at her door handle, Frankie starts to open the door outwards. Almost immediately the teenage boy’s back smashes against her door, shattering the glass and sending the door crashing into her face. Frankie finds herself propelled backwards. Landing roughly on her rear, her hands find her face. Fingers working tentatively to her nose she feels wetness and tastes blood in the back of her throat. Through tears she watches Dougie use a strong forearm across the neck to press the boy hard into her door. Dougie’s face is twisted into an expression that Frankie wouldn’t have thought it capable of. Pain, confusion, anger and fear war in his features.

“No, Harry. No,” he shouts into the kid’s face. Frankie can’t see Harry’s Jardine’s face, only the back of his head, but she knows the kid well enough to recognise his build and his wild, red hair.

The boy’s shoulders are hunched over. The muscles in his back bunch and clench visibly under his school shirt. Several cuts on his back from where he crashed into her door are now bleeding.

The kid is fighting back against Dougie, and fighting hard. His left hand fires into Dougie’s face landing a solid blow, staggering the elder man a few steps back. Harry steps away from the door, the pressure from Dougie’s arm no longer pinning him. With shocking speed and efficiency he shoves Dougie with both hands, forcing him to the ground. A flash of metal in Harry’s hand stimulates something primal in Frankie’s brain. Landing astride his chest, Harry’s elbow dances like a fiddler’s mid-jig and his right hand darts in and out from Dougie’s torso.

Rising to her feet, Frankie struggles to shove the door open as Harry’s arm and hand continue to work at speed and with force. Dougie’s feet against her door prevent Frankie from opening it more than a few centimetres. A coppery, salty smell carries on the air that rushes in through the gap.

Only when fully standing, with her face pressed part-way through the gap where the glass had been, does Frankie get a proper view of how tilted her world has somehow become.

Sat on Dougie’s chest- one leg bent and kneeling the other straight and out for purchase- Harry torpedoes blows into Dougie’s torso, the fiddler’s elbow increasing the tempo of its action. The knife flashes before Frankie’s eye and splashes red across the carpet and wall with each strike. Abruptly Harry’s hand ceases its work. Dougie lies still, his legs straight and lifeless, beneath the boy.

With shocking, vicious speed Harry changes his grip, rotating the knife in his hand. Frankie’s screams echo along the corridor. Harry pushes several inches of steel into Dougie Black’s, lower chest in a determined stabbing motion.

Almost immediately, the instant the blade enters the prone teacher’s chest, Harry’s body gives a violent spasm then sags forward. Harry leans onto the floor with his right hand. Frankie watches him jerk once more then fall to the floor, a marionette with its strings severed. Landing on his side, parallel to his bleeding teacher, Harry’s head twitches to his left. From Frankie’s perspective it looks like an involuntary act, the action of a person waking to a nightmare. Both hands pressed to the doorframe, Frankie can feel the change happen. Harry comes to his knees slackly. His muscles relax, his head movement suggests his eyes moving between his hands and the knife in the teacher’s chest. All purpose, all violence has departed him. He looks smaller, deflated and weak and lost.

Frankie steels herself and pushes at the door. Discovering that it is still blocked by the dead weight of Dougie’s feet and legs, Frankie’s fear departs leaving her with a grim determination.

“Harry Jardine,” she yells shrilly.

 The boy’s head snaps around, startling her. His eyes are wide, uncomprehending. He can see what he’s done, but the kid is having trouble processing the facts.

Years of teaching teenagers, managing their behaviour puts Frankie into auto-pilot and the horror of the day ebbs a minute amount. Enough for her to function. When she speaks again, her voice is soft and calm.

“Harry, Move Mr Black’s legs,” she says. Her voice is steady and authoritative. Her heart hammers the inside of her ribcage.

The teenager blinks dumbly several times. Classroom doors open all along the corridor. Teachers’ faces emerge from their classrooms. Several step instantly back into their room, instructing their kids to return to their seats.

A few, the department head included, walk slowly along the corridor towards Frankie’s room. Their mouths slack, their eyes darting from Harry to Dougie and then Frankie. Masks of incomprehension morphing into controlled fear and shock.

Frankie flicks eyes flick from one face to another, before returning to meet Harry’s pale face and sunken eyes.

“Move his legs a little, son. I need to get out of my room and help Mr Black.”

An almost imperceptible nod does nothing to alter the panic that’s beginning to take hold in Harry’s eyes.

Frankie subconsciously braces herself for the boy to lurch at or attack her. She swallows the fear rising in her throat and paints a neutral expression on her face. It costs her a fragment of her soul something to do this.

“A nod at Dougie’s legs. “Harry.”

The boy has started to shake, but he reaches forward with both hands to shove at Dougie’s legs.

The Weight from the door immediately moves and Frankie slips smoothly through the doorway into the corridor.

Fighting every urge to be anywhere but near Harry Jardine, Frankie approaches the kneeling boy who has resumed his panicked scanning of Dougie’s prone form. A hand on each of his shoulders, she helps him to his feet as one might a child in need of consolation. Her eyes widen and fill with tears as she takes in Dougie’s wounds. Each of them deep and oozing or spraying dark blood.

Frankie straightens her back and moves Harry a few steps to her right. Lisa Ferguson, the department head, is stood nearby, having made her way silently along the corridor. Frankie looks behind Lisa. The other teachers in the department, six of them, are stood at their classroom doors, guarding the rooms, blocking the view through the glass sections. Kay McEwan is on her phone.

Lisa’s eyes meet Frankie’s. An unspoken exchange takes place.

Lisa wordlessly places an arm around Harry, leading him to the staircase beside Dougie’s room.

Frankie falls to her knees at Dougie’s side, hard enough to scuff both knees.

Reaching out to feel his forehead, Frankie’s hands tremble almost uncontrollably. She swears, demanding better of herself and reaches for a second time to make what in hindsight will seem like a pointless gesture. Holding her hand against Dougie’s forehead and then face, like she’s taking his temperature, Frankie shudders at the coolness of his skin.

Warmth spreads around her knees as blood pools. Frankie ignores it and searches his wounds. After counting six wounds, all deep, all bleeding, Frankie preserves her sanity by ceasing her examination. She knows that her friend is bleeding out. He’ll die before anyone arrives to help. Pressure, pressure on the wounds.

First aid raining nags at her.

Out loud she swears again, how the hell can I put pressure on all these wounds at once?

Frankie scans the wounds again, this time forcing herself to examine teach of them. She counts eighteen stab wounds and nine relatively deep slashes. Most of the wound are pooling blood. Two of them are spurting blood in long streams in time with Dougie’s heart beat. Each pulse delivers less blood.

Think…bloody think.

 Jan from the office, the school’s official first aider reaches her side. Shouldering Frankie aside, she immediately begins pressing her hands onto the two deepest wounds in Dougie’s abdomen, impeding the flow of vital blood. Jan is visibly rattled, her hands slip several times before she applies the right amount of pressure to slow Dougie’s bleeding, but not enough to slide off of his blood soaked body.

“Go find something to press on these wounds with,” she hisses at Frankie.

Frankie runs back into her classroom, Jan shouts down the corridor. “Has someone called an ambulance?” Despite her calm exterior, her tone betrays the panic she is feeling.

Searching frantically around her classroom, Frankie comes up short on anything suitable to act as a bandage or even a gauze to press on. Fuck, fuck, fuck…

 Her handbag, at the edge of her peripheral vison catches her eye. Two strides take her two it, ten more carry her back into the corridor to re-join Jan.

Unwrapping two of the four sanitary towels she’s brought, Frankie hands them to Jan who smoothly lifts one of her hands from Dougie’s wound, grabs the stacked towels and pushes them down onto the wound. Almost immediately the blood loss changes from steady leak to mere dribble. Together, the women repeat the process hindering the flow at the second site.

Jan swears several times, instructing herself roughly as she works. Her eyes dart busily form one wound to the next. Slashes, gouges and less deep stab wounds cry for her attention, but her efforts are best spent at the two deepest wounds she currently tends. Jan feels bile rise in her throat at her inability to do more for Dougie.

Press fuckng harder.

More pressure, you bastard.

Both hands firmly covering the pads, she throws a look Frankie’s way.

Thanks….What now?

Frankie stops short of shrugging. A moment later it occurs to her that she should check Dougie’s breathing and heart.

Jan lets out a long breath, grateful that someone other than just herself is doing something, is responsible for Dougie. She watches as Frankie leans an ear close to Dougie’s mouth, then takes his wrist.

“He’s cold,” Frankie cries. “His heart rate is really fast…So is his breathing.”

Jan’s brain delivers part of a lesson she attended two years previously.

“His blood pressure will be low, his body is diverting blood to his core. That’s why his hands and arms are cold,” Janice blurts, sounding like an instructional video.

“Okay, okay…” Jan repeats to no-one.

Each of them soaked in their colleague’s blood, each almost as pale as Dougie himself, Frankie and Jan look at each other for several long moments. Unbidden, hot tears streak down Jan’s face. As though given permission to accept or process the horror her world has become in under three minutes, Frankie’s own dams break. Acid tears wash a path through Dougie’s blood along her cheeks.

They nod at each other once, a wordless reassurance. Jan’s hands do not move a millimetre form their task of keeping Dougie’s wounds under pressure.

“You’re doing great,” Jan says quietly.

Frankie almost laughs. Instead she merely bobs a nod.

Her eyes leave Jan’s, searching Dougie’s body she ransacks her memories for something else she could be dong to stop the man belling out. No staggering act of surgical genius presents itself, so Frankie starts talking instead.

“It’ll be fine, you’ll be fine, Dougie. Just hold on. Stay with us.

Daddy Monster by Kevin Berg – Review 

With Daddy Monster, Berg has taken a massive step forward in his development. With debut, Indifference under his belt (and displaying an impressive array of skills for a first time writer) Berg has clearly tackled his follow up novel with an increased vigour. Technically more skilled than Indifference, berg’s second offering has lost none of the dark humour and often vicious plotting of indifference but contains much more heart and is infinitely better paced and plotted than his debut managed. 
Inventive, filthy, dangerous and properly black-humoured, Daddy Monster finds a confident Berg utilising all of his impressive skills, manky imagination and cracking dialogue, but also employing a more considered approach than Indifference which at times felt like a series of set pieces written to elicit a response or perhaps purge the writer. 

Not so in Daddy Monster. Berg has written a properly funny, often dark and incredibly impressive work that screams originality and vitality in a genre that badly needs both. 

Berg is simply the best kept secret in US indie-publishing. 

Skeletal by Emma Pullar – Review

Book Description:

Gale City is the last city in the world and under the strict control of the illusive Centrals.

When females reach adulthood, they’re given the chance to compete at Showcase for the honour of becoming surrogates for the Morbihan – a highly intelligent, obese race of people, unable to procreate naturally. All the other girls are excited to become hosts, all except Megan Skyla.

Convinced there’s more to life, Skyla teams up with an unlikely friend and they go in search of a cure for the Morbihan condition. Things don’t go to plan and their journey becomes a harrowing quest fraught with danger and deceit.

How can Skyla discover the truth when everything she’s been told is a lie? Can anyone in Gale City ever really be free?

Skyla is about to discover that freedom has a price and she’s going have the fight to survive.

Skeletal is a disturbing vision of the future and a literary thriller unlike any other. 

 

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Skeletal is available now from Bloodhound Books and Amazon

 

My review:

Skeletal, for me, was a real surprise of a novel. Set in a dystopian future, but one that is entirely plausible, Skeletal isn’t your typical Bloodhound novel, at least not on the surface.

Drawing on the influences of Philip K Dick, Suzanne Collins and Koushun Takami, Pullar has succeeded in forging something entirely new and utterly engaging in Skeletal.

Pullar’s dystopian world is well-drawn, desolate, threatening, dark in tone and seemingly hopeless, but somehow the reader is pulled along the narrative with hope and even humour as the string tugging them along despite the apparent bleakness of the setting And circumstances of the main character.  

In Skeletal, Pullar presents her readers with a world that smacks of her obvious influences; but whilst Pullar’s dystopia runs parallel to that of the worlds explored by Collins or Takami- presenting a split society of have and have nots, rich and poor, gluttonous and starving- unlike those authors mentioned previously, Pullar tackles these familiar settings, the social commentary associated, and the juxtapositions with a refreshing, often deliciously-dark humour.

Pullar’s main protagonist is downtrodden, for sure, she’s suffered and is aghast at the life led on the other side of the fence, but what she has in spades is vigour, the darkest of dark humour and a self-awareness that the much grimmer Katniss’s of the world have never possessed.

Utilising first-person, present-tense throughout, Pullar’s narrative coveys an urgency to the reader. It’s an excellent choice of narrative and suits the plotting perfectly, drawing the reader into the ever-present danger and fear of sky’s world and her position in it. For me, it lent a degree of suspense the novel may have lacked if written in a different Point of view or tense.

Pullar writes like a screenwriter. She introduces characters and scenes in a very visual manner, presenting them in their current circumstance or setting with no preamble or forced exposition. She asks that the reader accept unfamiliar terms and places and hierarchies and rules. She demands that the reader trust her and lose themselves completely in what’s unfolding. This works beautifully for Pullar and- for me- was a particular strength in her writing style.

This type of episodic, scene writing doesn’t always work in a novel, and can be difficult for some writers to pull off; Pullar makes it look easy and my God, it worked perfectly for this character and this plot.

Skeletal was, as I said earlier, a real surprise for me, simply because the genre is a slight (but welcome) departure from the type of novel I’ve come to expect from Bloodhound’s rapidly growing catalogue. What remains consistent though is Bloodhound have yet again discovered a skilled writer, who has crafted a very accomplished, imaginative and skilled novel.

 

 

 

Skeletal is available now from Bloodhound Books and Amazon

Author Bio:

Emma Pullar is a writer of dark fiction and children’s books. Her picture book, Curly from Shirley, went to number four on the national bestseller list and was named best opening lines by NZ Post. You can read her SJV Award shortlisted horror story, London’s Crawling, in the Dark Minds charity collection and her dystopian sci-fi story, Old Trees Don’t Bend, in The Anthropocene Chronicles. Emma has also written three shortlisted stories for Create50 which are awaiting the winner announcement. Her debut novel SKELETAL published by Bloodhound Books is due for release 27th October 2017.

Links: 

Twitter: @EmmaStoryteller

FB Page: Emma Pullar Storyteller

Instagram: @emmapullar_storyteller

Website: http://www.emmapullar.com/

 

Death Parts Us – Guest Post

Today I have a guest post from Alex Walters, discussing the setting for his latest work, Death Parts Us:

Book Description:

Twenty years ago, Jackie Galloway was a senior cop with a bad reputation. Then he ended up on the wrong side of the wrong people, and his career was ruined. Sacked and with no pension, he ends up eking out his last days on Scotland’s Black Isle, his mind lost to dementia, supported only by his long-suffering wife, Bridie.

 

Then Galloway is found dead. The police assume the death to be accidental, until Bridie Galloway reveals that her husband has been receiving apparently threatening letters containing only the phrase: ‘NOT FORGOTTEN. NOT FORGIVEN.’

 

DI Alec McKay is struggling to come to terms with life without his estranged wife Chrissie, and is living in isolation on the Black Isle. As a junior officer, McKay had been allocated to Galloway’s team and has bad memories of the man and his methods. Now he finds himself investigating Galloway’s death.

 

But when suspicion falls on him and more police officers are murdered, the pressure is on for McKay to solve the case.

 

Why would the killer seek revenge twenty years after Galloway left the force?

 

As McKay fights to link the events of past and present, he realizes that time is rapidly running out…

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Links:

Available now from Amazon and Bloodhound Books

 

Website: www.alexwaltersauthor.com/

Facebook: www.facebook.com/alexwaltersauthor/

Twitter: @mikewalters60

 

Guest Post:

MURDER IN THE BLACK ISLE

 

The Black Isle, as DI Alec McKay would be the first to tell you, is famously neither black nor an island. It’s the peninsular that juts out into the North Sea just north of Inverness, bounded by the Beauly, Moray and Cromarty Firths. As for the ‘black’—well, no-one really knows. One theory is that, because of its local microclimate, the Black Isle tends to be less susceptible to snow than the surrounding Highland region. Another, more intriguing theory is that the name refers to the area’s historical associations with witchcraft and the black arts. McKay, with the typical suspicions of a city boy, thinks the latter is more likely.

 

The area is less remote now than in the past, particularly since the opening of the Kessock Bridge over the Moray Firth in the early 1980s provided easier access from Inverness. But the Black Isle still carries an atmosphere all of its own. When I was seeking a location for a new crime series, I felt no need to look any further.

 

Although I was born in the English midlands, I’ve been making regular visits to the Scottish Highlands and Islands since I was a child. Quite what possessed my parents to drive up there so frequently in the days before motorways, I’ve no real idea, but they did it frequently. I have childhood memories of glorious scenery, empty beaches and—well, fairly mixed weather.

 

Even so, the Black Isle was unfamiliar to me until about ten years ago. It was just a name I’d driven by on the endless A9 heading even further north. Then, on a whim, we booked a holiday house in Rosemarkie and spent a couple of weeks falling in love with the place. We’ve spent a lot of our time there since, and we’re now in the process of making a permanent move (we’d already be there if it weren’t for the vagaries of the English house-selling system—suffice to say that an unreliable buyer may well come to an unpleasant end in one of my future books).

 

Location has always been an important element in my writing. My first three crime novels were set in the exotic environment of modern-day Mongolia. My subsequent Marie Donovan and Kenny Murrain series were located in and around Manchester, making use of both the urban settings and the surrounding Cheshire and Derbyshire countryside. I soon realised that the Black Isle offered a range of atmospheric backdrops that would provide the perfect setting for a new series.

 

The area packs extraordinary diversity within its small boundaries. Rosemarkie itself offers a strikingly beautiful beach, backed by woodland and fossil-filled cliffs. The village of Avoch (pronounced, with typical perversity, simply ‘Och’) is a working fishing village. Fortrose has its own ruined cathedral. Cromarty is an atmospheric jumble of narrow streets and vennels, offering striking views of the beauties of the Cromarty Firth and, more unexpectedly, the huge constructs of oil rigs being restored or dismantled in Nigg on the far side of the firth.

 

Apart from the sleazy Caledonian Bar, virtually all the locations described in the Alec McKay books are real (although sometimes lightly fictionalised to protect the innocent). The first book, Candles and Roses, begins in the eerie setting of the Clootie Well, a supposedly holy stream where the surrounding woodland is festooned with faded and rotting scraps of cloth. These are offerings left by visitors in the hope of securing improved health for ailing relatives or friends—the cloth has been wiped on the brow of the sick individual and, as the cloth rots away, so the illness is supposedly cured. Whatever the truth of that, the whole place has a disturbing atmosphere. Kelly, a young woman who appears in that scene, thinks ‘…the place was infested by ghosts, the spirits of those who clung on, earthbound by their last dregs of hope’. That was my feeling, the first time I visited, so what else could I do but leave a murder-victim there?

 

Of course, the real Black Isle is a tranquil place, untroubled by anything much more than the most trivial crimes. I’ve already managed incongruously to locate two serial killers in this most peaceful of rural environments. But that’s what crime writers do—think of Morse’s Oxford or Midsomer, apparently the murder capital of the UK. It seems to me that, for the reader, one of the incidental pleasures of crime fiction is often the contrast between the beauty of the settings and the horrors that are being enacted within them.

 

In this case, as in my Manchester-set books, the reader’s suspension of disbelief is helped by the proximity to an urban environment. McKay and his colleagues are based in Inverness—not a large city but one which offers a useful contrast to the quiet of the Black Isle and surrounding Highland countryside. The stories tend to have their roots in the city, even if the consequences play out in the country. In this fictional world, the Black Isle is somewhere people go to hide their secrets or to lose their past. Even McKay himself, in the latest book Death Parts Us, seeks bleak sanctuary there as his marriage disintegrates.

 

And, of course, like all locations that attract tourists, the Black Isle is a different place out of season. In summer, the place has a striking beauty, bathed in long light nights and wide translucent skies. In the winter, as the darkness closes in and the rain and wind whip in across the firths, the atmosphere is different again. Then his becomes a community closed in upon itself, focused on its own interests rather than the needs of visitors. That’s when secrets can breed and fester, and the seeds of future crimes are sown.

 

As I say, that’s what we crime writers do. We imagine what hidden truths might be lurking behind the curtained windows we pass, what dark thoughts might be crossing the minds of those we encounter in the streets. And from that we construct our narratives of murder and revenge, exploiting the otherwise-innocent world around us to help render them plausible.

 

It goes without saying that this is simply fiction. I hope that the good people of the Black Isle will forgive me for making use of their home in this way. The killings aren’t real. But the glorious, atmospheric settings are genuine, and I hope that in my writing I’ve managed to do them some justice.

 

An open letter to Nicola Sturgeon (from a teacher desperate to love his job again).

A departure from book business today:

Ms Sturgeon.

I voted ’Yes’ in the Scottish referendum. I’ve voted SNP (as well as Labour, Lib-Dem and Greens) I’ll probably vote SNP again. I’ve even been a member.

I’ve admired you as one of the most socially-conscious (and shrewd) politicians of modern times for several years. I’ve also been a Secondary school teacher for almost sixteen years and I implore you, in the strongest possible terms; utilise the resources, the well of skills and experts you have at your disposal, and please, please save our education system from the disaster that is CFE.

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In last six years I’ve witnessed, and been unwilling party to, an unprecedented decline in the organisation and standard of Scottish education. Simply, the system as it stands is not fit for purpose. It is demoralising, hobbling and utterly failing the children in our care; as well as lowering attainment and widening social inequality in our pupils.

 

For my own subject, Biology, the vast changes made to date have resulted in a course that is unreasonably difficult, lacking opportunity for practical activities, far too prescriptive, overly concerned with inconsequential minutiae and extremely content-heavy. In its present form the Nat 5 Biology course is a joyless, intimidating and gruelling experience for those who choose to study it. Success in the course is also only achievable for the very best of our pupils, leaving students who would have formerly attainted at a Standard Grade 3 or even a 2, with little hope of passing, and in many cases, unable to even sit the final exam.

In implementing CFE, Teachers were put to the task of designing and writing courses for the new Nat 4 and Nat 5 qualifications with no clear guidance on standards, or assessment structure. This resulted in every department in every school in Scotland designing their own versions of this course. The pupils’ experience of Biology Nat 5 in Scotland will be vastly different in standard depending on where they attend school and the course-writing skills of their teachers.

The powers that be, not happy with furnishing teachers with an ill-conceived structure and content, have further compounded this basic failure by changing that content and structure continually for the last five years. This means teachers haven’t taught the same material two years running yet.

This affects pupil experience in a drastic way. We simply don’t have the experience of the courses to suitably prepare our kids. On many occasions the course guidelines have been changed at the mid-way point of the year, severely hobbling the teachers’ ability to advise the pupils, and the pupils’ ability to pass the criteria demanded.

With Standard Grade, each pupil had an opportunity to sit exams at two levels, a chance to have a good day and attain a higher grade than they’d perhaps demonstrated throughout the year. With National 5, a large portion of our kids simply aren’t permitted to sit the final exam, dropping instead to the coursework-based Nat 4.

In an ideal world the National 4 qualification would be recognised as well-earned. The kids do indeed have to work to gain this award. The skills and knowledge needed to pass national 4 Biology are comparable to a good general grade pass under the old system. Despite this, as National 4 is currently unexamined, employers fail to recognise this achievement, and frankly so do the pupils’ themselves. National 4 is essentially the equivalent of a Grade 3 in Standard grade, but isn’t valued at all. Indeed, some of the kids pigeon-holed into Nat 4 would’ve been permitted, not just a general exam under the old scheme, but also a go at credit. Some may have stretched themselves and attained a grade 2. Now they don’t even sit the exam. Instead, they are in effect categorised as not academic and sat to one side as the certificate kids get taught how to pass the exam. This elitist approach is counter to any good teacher’s desire to provide the best opportunity for our children to succeed. I didn’t become a teacher to tell a portion of my kids hey aren’t good enough to sit an exam.

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Teaching in schools is a special privilege and a role that I’ve felt honoured to perform for most of my adult life. I love my job. I love being a good teacher and giving the kids the best chance I can provide for them to reach their potential and move onto the next phase of their lives with the academic and social skills I’ve assisted them in developing. Most teachers feel this way. At least they tell themselves they do because that’s the way they’ve felt in the past. Until CFE.

Today, right now in schools across Scotland, teachers are losing morale on a scale I’ve never seen and didn’t think could happen.

The current conditions for teachers are so gruelling that we are beginning to hate, to dread, stress over and now depart a role we loved so much but are growing to hate the manner in which we have to perform it. It’s not easy to demotivate teachers in this way, we’re virtually pre-programmed to toil on in hard times and make the best of our working conditions, because we need to perform at our best for the children in our care. We’re good at making do. Still, CFE has succeeded in making us feel as though we’re failing our pupils continuously.

No-one likes to feel like they’re failing, not at home and not at work. That feeling is especially crushing for teachers who have so many young people depending on their guidance. Knowing that you are not being permitted to do your job to the best of your ability is devastating to a teacher’s morale.

This isn’t a bleat from a teacher about pay, workload or lack of development time to write and rewrite courses continuously. It’s a simple fact. Teachers are demoralised, stressed and being ground down because we know that we are not doing the best that we can for the kids in our care.

We are being prevented by a sub-standard curriculum and never-ending bureaucracy from educating our kids properly. We are failing these kids. That is why we are growing to hate the job and the system that is forcing us to work so much less skilfully and effectively than we should be.

This is why teachers are leaving the profession. This is why prospective young teachers are taking one look at the profession and deciding against it, and why schools are struggling to fill key vacancies as evidenced by Trinity High’s recent attempt to recruit parent helpers. 

Recruiting a slew of young teachers trained for five weeks in the summer will not even begin to fix this. The issues with recruitment and retention of teachers stems from the fact that we are not empowered to do our jobs effectively.

Nicola, you must turn your face from the never-ending cycle of sound-bites, argument and counter-argument and endless campaigning, and begin to address the logistic and practical mess that CFE has become.

I implore you, recruit actual, practicing teachers, rather than educationalists to provide solutions for the current issues. Get them in a room and use their insight and expertise to fix the massive problems with CFE and give the children of Scotland an opportunity to enjoy and benefit from an education that will engage them in an inclusive way.

The disparity between the opportunities being offered to children from differing backgrounds, affluence, and academic ability is a disgrace. We must have more equality in the system. We absolutely require a school system that makes its children feel valued and provided for. That empowers its teachers to do the job to the standard we know is required and is not currently being attained.

What we require, right now, is a genuine, honest to God, fit for purpose education that all children can access. Head teachers, Principal teachers and classroom teachers (and many others across local authorities) are working very hard to try to make the best of CFE, but we need help. A lot of it.

Simply give us the means to do the best we can for our children. We don’t mind working hard for those kids. We generally thrive on that pressure. That teachers are losing heart, motivation and morale should scream loudly to your government how futile our efforts seem to us and how concerned we are that our education system is utterly broken.  

Let us do our jobs properly. Let us love being teachers again.

Mr Wilson

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Further reading.

http://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/schools-facing-major-crisis-as-teachers-reach-breaking-point-1-4559526

All views are my own and do not represent the views of fife Council or Dunfermline High School.