Review of ‘No Stranger to Death’ by Janet O’Kane

scottish_borders‘No Stranger to Death’ is cosy crime at its cosiest, but with incest and paedophilia, AIDS and S&M thrown in.  Set in Westerlea, a village on the English-Scottish Borders, all the characters live in the village (or have lived there recently) and know each other.  The main character is Dr Zoe Moreland, a general practitioner, a newcomer and recently widowed, who chances upon the first body on burnt out Guy Fawkes bonfire whilst out walking her dog, then upon the second body (husband of the first one) a few days later.  Zoe and her friend, Kate, decide to solve the crime, but tension rises when Zoe narrowly escapes a serious accident due to brake failure on her car. It appears that murderer has interfered with them.

Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian’s Wall

On the romantic side, Zoe has recently struck up a friendship with craggy kitchen fitter Neil Pengelly, who has recently arrived from Cornwall.  Both of them blow hot and cold and disregard the feelings of Neil’s brother, Peter.   Also, Kate discovers to her embarrassment that the detective investigating the murders is her previous (and long abandoned) ex-boyfriend, Erskine Mather, whom she (hilariously) calls ‘Skinny’.  He is one of the most distinctive characters in the story, immaculately turned out and with a wonderful dress sense, rigidly proper, as well as being good at his job.  Such a contrast to your usual shambling Noir detective.  In addition, Zoe’s position in her GP practice hangs on a knife edge, because, although the senior partner, Paul, is friendly and helpful, the other partner, Walter, is rude and hostile.  We are told, in the blurb, that the author is intending to write a series and you can see, Dear Reader, how this sort of storyline could run and run.

The plot (of the current book) is tight and well-constructed, with characters and their lives flitting in and out of the story, and no loose ends… for seven-eights of the book.  However, although the author lay one small hook very late in the story and there were no actual inconsistencies earlier in the plot, the identity of the murderer was a complete surprise.  Ditto, the very last few page, which, I suspect, Janet put in as a taster for the next book.

An interesting element to ‘No Stranger to Death’ was the inclusion of a major character who was disabled – Kate who was profoundly deaf.  Cath Nichols wrote a very interesting article about representation of disabled characters in Mslexia Issue 65 (March/April/May 2015).  I think Cath would have approved of the way Janet wrote Kate because she had a ‘normal’ character, and a ‘normal’ life as a single mother, which was not defined by her disability, even

Road on Scottish Borders
Road on Scottish Borders

though the reader was made aware that Kate could lipread, that she had to face speakers in order to to lipread and that people needed to tap her on the shoulder to attract her attention.  Although she figured in the book largely as Zoe’s side-kick, she had her own views on things and argued with Zoe frequently.  Moreover, her ability to lipread came in handy in their detective work.  Kate was definitely not there for reasons of political correctness, nor was she saintly like ‘Cousin Helen’ in ‘What Katy Did’ or magically ‘cured’.

So, Dear Reader, would I recommend ‘No Stranger to Death’?  Yes, for a nice gentle read.  Will I look out for the next in the series?  Oh yes.

An Evening With Pam Ayres… and Other Things

Last night, we went to the theatre with our friends Helen and Nigel for An Evening with Pam Ayres.  Their choice.  Remember Pam Ayres?  She was a fixture on our televisions towards the end of the 1970s and the 1980s, reciting humorous verse.  That being the frenetically busy period of my life when I was getting married and having babies, I hardly noticed her.  I wish I had.  I should have.  Humorous verse, read by a woman?  Come on, bluecity, that was you all over.

What struck me most about Pam was her modesty.  This wasn’t about her working-class beginnings;  all too many writers reckon they came from humble beginnings and become insufferable on the subject.  On the stage by herself for over two hours entertaining us with her poems and stories of her life, Pam’s message was not ‘Aren’t I marvellous?’ but ‘I’ve been so lucky.’  In her message on the theatre programme, she writes that it’s important to write about things with which people can identify.  I quote (from the programme) ‘I don’t think it matters how ordinary the subject is, as long as you approach it from an original angle.’  She also mentions the ‘fascinating rhythm’ that words have ‘within themselves’ and how this can be harnesses to make a ‘marvellous bouncing tune’.  Thank you, Pam, for a lovely evening.

'Last Hot Chocolate in Mostar'.  Image on 'Youth Imagination' cover.
Image for ‘Last Hot Chocolate in Mostar’ on ‘Youth Imagination’ cover.

On another subject, a few weeks ago, I was thrilled to learn that ‘Last Hot Chocolate in Mostar’ has been accepted by ‘Youth Imagination’, one of the magazines published by the American Silver Pen writing forum. I was starting to believe that ‘Last Hot Chocolate’ was untouchable, too dangerous for all those ezines on Duotrope, who reckon themselves so ‘eclectic’, ‘cutting edge’ and ‘shocking’.  They wouldn’t go near at story which featured a paedo as a major character.  Here it is on the home page of Youth Imagination’, a YA ezine dedicated to ‘remarkable stories that explore the issues, the grit, and the character of teens and young adults‘.  I read around their mag before subbing (obviously) and their stuff is impressive.  As someone who doesn’t get much time to write these days, or to sub much, I am well chuffed to be there.   And I earned $10, increasing my earnings from writing during this financial year (which is about to close, btw) by… er… 100%.  Weeell, Dear Reader, I’m not in it for the money.

I have been trying to sub my story to the Mslexia Women’s Short Story Comp this afternoon but I can’t get on to the link.  The deadline is tomorrow (extended from last week).  As we all know, Mslexia comps always attract a lot of entries – a few too many for their poor old server this time, methinks.  I may try again tomorrow.  Or I may not.  It’s £10 and… get real, Charlie… probably out of my league.

Why Do We Sight See?

What do we want when we go sightseeing?

When I returned from a holiday in Poland in 2008 and excitedly told friends back home that we had stood in

Solidarnosc Square, Gdansk
Solidarnosc Square, Gdansk

Shipyard Square (now Soldiarnosc Square) in Gdansk, younger people asked ‘”What?” and others “Why?”  Only one person, a soprano in our church choir, a few years older than me, allowed her jaw to drop and gasped  “Wow.”   To me, ‘Wow’ was the only appropriate response.   Even though it had been spitting with rain at the time and all there had been to look at was a huge, ugly and rusty monument and a red and white banner and a couple of photographs of Pope John Paul II, festooned with ribbons and tied to railings.  (Tied to railings?  Everything had been tied to railings in 1980.)

Cut to a few years later, to us standing on a Berlin pavement listening to our tour guide talking about the Topography of Terror (Nazi) museum in front of us, when we realised we were standing right next to a half-ruined brick wall, with jagged gaps in it, as if people had tried to climbed through it.   Actually, a couple of decades ago, people had battered their way through it.  “Don’t look at the Wall!” cried our guide, who had once been a teacher.  “You are not allowed to look at the Wall yet.”

This coming summer we’re going to Cavendish in Prince Edward Island, Eastern Canada,  myself in search of a lump-in-the-throat moment, although probably not heart-stopping.  PEI is, of course, the setting for L M Montgomery’s ‘Anne of Green Gables’ and Cavendish the village on which Anne’s village of Avonlea was based.  My husband asks me what I expect to see.  A red-haired girl with plaits, of course, wearing a hat decorated with wild flowers.

elinor300
Plaque to Elinor Brent-Dyer in Pachenau, Austria.

Yes, I know what you’re going to say, Dear Reader, that at least the Shipyard and the Berlin Wall are real, but that ‘Anne of Green Gables’ is just a book.   (What, really?)  Now you’re reminding me of how, last summer,  I charged around Pachenau (in the Austrial Tyrol) where the first Chalet School stories were based, seeking out a plaque to Elinor Brent-Dyer (author of the Chalet School series).  Please don’t tell my one and only husband that I want to visit the Bronte’s place in Haworth.

Often, we don’t know what we’re supposed to be seeing until we arrive.  There’s nothing wrong with this as hearing/reading/seeing things on the spot is a good way to learn, but this doesn’t provide the wow hit, which will have been warmed up by months of anticipating and imagining.  Let’s be honest, when we’re visiting a new place, we frequently miss the best bit through not knowing about it or where to find it, and sometimes we’re too hot/cold, tired or in need of the loo, and waste our time in the loos, gifte shoppes or cafes.  Other times it’s the people who are the most interesting, like the time I queued for the toilet with a wedding party, including bridesmaids and bride, at a park cafe in Potsdam.

There are also the things we take for granted.  When our son was a choirboy,  we drove every week (sometimes twice a week) along the Embankment, glimpsing the Houses of Parliament as we turned into Whitehall and then into Westminster Abbey.  Just the cradle of our democracy, Dear Reader.  Oh, and sometimes we like to walk around Flatford Mill and look at Lott’s Cottage; there was a bloke from around there called John Constable who painted, quite good really.  I also recall, many eons ago, rushing through St Peter’s Square in Manchester thinking only of getting a seat in the Central Reference Library, and not at all of the Peterloo Massacre that took place there in 1819.  (What was I studying in Manchester?  History!)

We’ve visited Auschwitz, Red Square, the Empire State Building, lots of castles, monuments, cathedrals and museums – some more interesting than others.  In 1994 we wandered around the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York; having no inkling of what would happen seven years later, they didn’t seem particularly interesting.  Two years ago, we walked around sites in Hue, Vietnam, where significant events had taken place during the Tet Offensive, but, at that time, I knew nothing about the Tet Offensive, even though I had been alive (a child) when it all happened.

I’m trying to answer for myself a question I’ve been asking for a long time, which is, why do we travel and what do we hope to experience?  Although we want to be thrilled by seeing something exotic and different, the heart-stopping moments come about when we are joined with something with which we have a personal connection.   I remember the Berlin Wall and growing up with a sense of outrage that East Germans were imprisoned against it.  I recall remember following Solidarnosc’s short but cheeky rebellion against Communism in the newspaper as I travelled on unreliable suburban London trains, to and from a job which was boring me rigid. I read ‘Anne of Green Gables’, and the Chalet School series – on the recommendation of my beloved mother – when I was a naive and awkward twelve year old, struggling to cope with a new secondary school.