July 12, 2019


Country Matters on Booksquawk

Planters’ and Potters’ Almanac, Part One

by Pat Black

Here’s a nice fresh bunch of the tulips I’ve been tip-toeing through this past while.

by John Lewis-Stempel
304 pages, Doubleday

I’d happily read JLS’s diaries every year. Well, not his secret diaries. That would be weird. I mean his nature diaries, which he cunningly disguises as books.

Thankfully, his publisher sees fit to release them on a yearly schedule. The books usually have a distinctive underlying theme, but the format is pretty much the same each year, and I’m happy with that.

Still Water is framed as a look at the life of ponds, particularly in Britain. Beloved of those Victorians who had a bit of garden space, these plashy holes in the ground are a haven for creatures such as frogs, toads, ducks, dragonflies, water boatmen, moorhens, coots, pond skaters and sticklebacks. And not forgetting a creature beloved of conservationists but perhaps less so of town planners and construction companies - the great crested newt, Britain’s funkiest animal. If anyone finds one of these amphibians on a building site, then you ain’t building no buildings, folks.

JLS’s pleasant, meandering style skims over the history of ponds and references to them in other literature (we learn that the word pescatorian was an insult in days of yore). It perfectly sums up the tranquillity of sitting in his own English garden, waiting for the sun.

We jump between a pond in Argenteuil, France, and the author’s own backyard in Herefordshire, but there are also entirely pond-free digressions. One of these takes in JLS’s interest in the First World War, and a walk he undertakes in the Lakes in memory of the men killed at the front more than 100 years ago. You won’t mind a bit.

The First World War is one of the author’s common themes, and he returns to it and several others in this book. Sometimes I read bits and pieces that I’m sure I’ve heard about before, whether in Meadowland, The Running Hare or The Wood. I’m sure JLS has previously mentioned his first memory: being bitten in the face by a dog. New information is the fight he gets into as a kid, and his father’s refusal to stop the scrap, plus the bloody steak he is given as a reward for putting on a good show. Fathers are such strange creatures. He also mentions his parents’ divorce, which I don’t think he did before, either. Similarly, we learn that the author was desperate to join the navy, like his hero, Sir Peter Scott, but this was ruled out owing to a lack of facility with numbers. I feel his pain.

In the present day, JLS channels Roger Deakin by trying some wild swimming in a pond. He gets covered in muck and beasties, and is perfectly happy with it - until he encounters a leech. Cue a digression about leeches, and the staggering observation that the leech quacks of olden times might have been onto something.

These personal reminiscences and digressions bring colour and comedy to an already rich meal. And if the author leans a little too hard on John Clare and Edward Thomas references… Well, most of us come back to our favourite things, whether in life or in writing. Hence, this review.

by JA Baker
224 pages, Collins

This one has been referenced in many of the modern era’s great nature books. It’s a slow-burner in publishing terms, written by a fiercely private man who tracked and recorded the movements of peregrine falcons through the flat countryside of his native Essex in the 1950s and 60s.

JA Baker’s slight volume is a condensed version of 10 years’ worth of journals. Championed by Robert Macfarlane and others after being out of print for a long time, The Peregrine could be described as a work of poetry rather than a conventional narrative. Taking a diary format, Baker’s masterwork underlines his remarkable gift for describing the exact same things in several different, but equally enthralling ways.

He can’t get enough of the peregrine’s stoop (or swoop, as muggles would call it), as the world’s fastest bird descends, tyrannosaur claws agape, to snatch other birds and mammals and then tear them to pieces. The language is sparkling, a visceral, immediate delight best consumed quickly. Like the bird itself, it’s all lean muscle.

Baker’s tone is curious. This book is as romantic as they come in terms of language, but there is not a shred of sentiment involved - and anthropomorphism is out of the question. The predator is brutal, and yet described as a thing of beauty. While Baker deplores humanity’s revelry in killing, he cannot help but luxuriate in it himself. The author asks us something like: ‘Blood red’ – was there ever a more useless description? What else could red look like that could match it better than the colour of blood?

He sees predation as a dirty business - all the more on humans’ behalf, because we have the luxury of being able to consider whether or not to kill, before doing it anyway. Even so, Baker has a kind of rapture when describing the falcon turning its prey into gore, strewn guts and feathers.

The author is not quite so keen on his own species. In light of his various disabilities and painful health problems, not least his myopia, you wonder if Baker gained a sense of freedom from watching the falcons on the wing. Perhaps he discovered the true meaning of ecstasy, or ekstasis, as Robert Macfarlane points out: being taken outside of ourselves.

There are signs of the environmental rage which has become close to the norm these days. The Peregrine was written in a time when the birds were being poisoned through the use of pesticides, after they had been shot as pests themselves during wartime. Baker deplores the use of chemicals, wholesale culling and other industrial horrors. Were he still alive, he would have been dismayed at our continued descent into the gargantuan act of self-harm that is the Anthropocene era, although not greatly surprised.

Going by Mark Cocker’s introduction, The Peregrine still attracts controversy. Some descriptions of the creature in the title do not tally with common observations by seasoned bird watchers. The amount of kills the raptor makes by Baker’s reckoning are under dispute, as is his observation of one of them eating worms. There is also a suggestion that Baker might have gotten confused with a kestrel, in noting hovering behaviour – something the peregrine apparently doesn’t do.

Countering this, Cocker asserts that it hardly seems likely that a person so deeply ingrained in the appearance and habits of his quarry would make such fundamental mistakes over details – or indeed fabricate them, as many have suggested. Perhaps it was just as he described it, at one particular time, with one particular bird?

Either way, if you’re a lover of gorgeous descriptive prose, I’d say these small details don’t matter too much. Baker is one of those writers with a great gift for making any scene, thought or image sparkly with unique light. If the price of making a true story gorgeous is Doubting Thomases getting sniffy about it, then it’s one he would have paid, no question.

by Roger Deakin
320 pages, Penguin

We were robbed of Roger. He might still have been merrily turning books out, as he might fashion a table and chairs from driftwood in his workshop. Even better, he would have been all over BBC4, any given weeknight. Fate had other ideas.

He might have turned his ire over pollution and corporate slovenliness into a fulminating masterpiece fit for 2019. I feel sure he’d have been involved in the Extinction Rebellion protests.

It’s nice to wonder about this. But we can only make do with what we’ve got.

Notes From Walnut Tree Farm is Deakin’s third and final book, edited together posthumously by his partner Alison Hastie and Terence Blacker from journals written in his last six years. It follows a diary format from January to December, although it meanders back and forth in time, with one date sometimes having more than one entry. So it’s kind of a “greatest hits” of Roger’s diaries.

Apart from some seasonal framing, the author has a free hand. I think this style suited him.

We get reminiscences about his childhood, recollections of his adventures both close to home and far away, and impressions of the farm in the title, a semi-wild Suffolk retreat he called home for the closing decades of his life. That’s the place with the moat, the one he swum around every morning in Waterlog. What a life!

We get Roger’s thoughts on sleeping in his little shed in all weathers, fixing the house up, and looking after any human or animal that passes through his front door. He details all the little creatures he loves, and their readily accepted invasions of his home, from the birds in the attic, to the cats prowling the yard, and the spiders stringing silk across his furniture. He’s the type of guy who would become anxious at the idea of crushing ants as he steps onto the path outside his front door every morning – in fact there’s a moment involving a tiny creature on the loose in his study that shows a childlike empathy with all creatures great and small.

Countering this, there’s his disdain for human agency and petty rules affecting his beloved Common. Gentrification also annoys him. If you’d won the lottery and bought a big country pile down the road from Roger, I suspect it might have taken him a long time to like you.

This might be my favourite of Roger’s books. And yet, I’m struggling to give you an overview of what it’s like. The best example I can give is one entry on the joys of what he calls jotting - writing freeform, and letting your observations, memories, fears, ecstasies and personal mysteries tumble out onto the page any way they choose.

Roger was a wanderer, a freebooter with a bit of a gypsy heart - and yet also an ardent conservationist, with a strong sense of home. More conservative, you suspect, than he liked to admit, but no lover of fences or the inequalities they contain, and certainly a detester of chauvinism and disrespect for nature. He was every inch the English radical, with tones that remind me of Orwell at his best. His influence is still strong among writers, readers and lovers of British natural history, part of a pantheon that grows year on year.

In particular, the 20 years since Waterlog came out have seen an explosion of interest in wild swimming. He definitely had a hand in this.

Going by the esteem he enjoys from his proteges and contemporaries, it’s safe to say Roger Deakin’s legacy is secure. Many have reported an odd sense of familiarity with the author through his work that they don’t quite get with other scribes. He feels like someone we know and like; that rare friend you might feel compelled to actually pick up a telephone and talk to.

In part two, we’ll check out Nan Shepherd, Robert Macfarlane, Kate Humble and Kate Bradbury. Although I suspect we might have to wait out the summer before I get there…

June 10, 2019


In which we check out the books everyone else did years ago

944 pages, Bantam
Audiobook narrated by Tom Sellwood

Review by Pat Black

A bit like with Wolf Hall, you might to avoid Wikipedia if you want to go through this book unspoiled.

I still think of Dan Simmons as an up n’ comer, hailed in banner quotes by Clive Barker and Stephen King as the next big name in horror. Then I realise that this happened 30 years ago.

In fact, Simmons is probably better known for his SF output, particularly the Hyperion series which has now attained classic status. Unexpectedly, The Terror marked a horror comeback for him, a bestseller that was turned into a well-received TV series. Its success, and that of its adaptation, must have been a lovely surprise. It is rare for a horror book not written by Stephen King to make such an impact; in fact I’d be tempted to call it a throwback to the horror boom of the 1980s, which spawned Simmons in the first place.

The Terror of the title is HMS Terror, one of two real-life British ships dispatched to find the north-west passage in the Arctic in the 1840s. But this is a strictly fictionalised account of that genuine story of hardship and tragedy in the tundra.

That’s because The Terror also refers to a monster - an immense predator, bigger and fiercer than a polar bear, which picks off the men aboard the ship after it becomes stuck fast in the ice.

The other ship in the expedition, HMS Erebus, is the lead vessel in the journey, commanded by Sir John Franklin. At the helm of its sister ship the Terror is Captain Francis Crozier, an experienced hand from a modest Irish background who gained his commission the hard way. He has to help Sir John keep command of all those men on board both icebound ships, with the big freeze showing no sign of relenting, their precious stores of food and coal slowly diminishing, and a monster stalking and demolishing them.

Taken purely as a historical novel, The Terror is beautifully detailed. There’s not one nook or cranny of the ships and life aboard them that goes unexplored. As a result this is a long, long book, the longest I’ve read in ages - but I suppose it had to be. It did drag in places. This is no fault of the author’s, just mine as a slovenly reader who is pressed for time these days. There are a lot of men’s deaths to be described, and it would do a disservice to hurry over their lives and temperaments before we get to their flesh and bones.

Personal conflicts and resentments build during the ship’s miserable years stuck fast. About halfway through, when Captain Crozier finally gives the men the order to abandon ship, these animosities turn deadly, as sour elements look to usurp his command.

The ill health and squalor of the men as they succumb to scurvy and starve to death is gone into in some detail. That alone is not for the squeamish; the bleeding orifices, the fallen teeth, the lost hair, the discharge, the grim bodily functions… man the sick buckets, lads! And of course, there are the awful effects of sub-zero temperatures: frostbite, lost limbs, gangrene, and the unforgettable detail of exposed teeth exploding in the ultra-frigid air.

What sets The Terror apart from any other novel of survival in one of the planet’s harshest environments is, of course, its creature. At first it is mistaken for an immense polar bear, but the men come to realise that it’s much bigger, much smarter, and much more aggressive than regular specimens of ursus maritimus. Bullets do not seem to harm the monster, and any attempts to ambush it or entrap it in a killing zone are easily thwarted.

It doesn’t take long for the men to become superstitious about their predator – and with good reason, because it is a supernatural being. This is a detail I didn’t like. I’d have preferred it to have been a natural enemy for the men to contend with, something that they might be able to kill. But this weird element is consistent with the lore of the Inuit population the sailors encounter, particularly that of the most problematic character in the book: the only woman on board HMS Terror, Lady Silence.

She is given this name owing to the fact she has lost her tongue at some point in life. A hunting party brings her on board after they mistakenly open fire on her and an Inuit man - possibly her father, possibly her husband. She takes refuge aboard the ship, and is given her own quarters by Crozier, for obvious reasons. It soon becomes apparent she can steal away and come back on board as she pleases, mystifying the captain and one or two interested suitors.

Of course, a big bunch of men crammed aboard an icelocked ship would take a very close interest in Lady Silence. So does the author. This brings us to an uncomfortable point.

For a book chiefly concerning men trying to survive in the Arctic, The Terror’s early section is cram-packed with nudie women. Not just Lady Silence, who has the habit of wearing nothing beneath her furs (which she often removes as cross-eyed sailors pass by a crack in the door). There are also love affairs recalled in flashback by the men, particular Captain Crozier, whose heart was broken before his mission to the Arctic. There are one or two other recollections, too, which help keep the boys warm at night.

The level of detail here does have the potential to disturb. It’s not quite at the level of “she boobed boobily down the stairs, boobs akimbo”, but I have to say it’s uncomfortably close. Simmons describes the women’s bodies, particularly their breasts, in almost microscopic detail. It’s closer to an anatomical textbook than a page-turning chiller.

If these descriptions were visual art, then they’d be macro photography. Skin would be shot at so great a magnification it would no longer be identifiable as such, like the surface of a barren alien planet, stretched and pitted beyond recognition. Individual strands of pubic hair would be rendered as the length, girth and texture of a tree from the Cretaceous period. Outcroppings of areolae would be indistinguishable from ancient battlements worn smooth by time and the elements, or the crumbling peaks of a mountain on Mars.

“Areolae” is a key word, in fact. It’s a signal. Whenever it appears in fiction, it’s probably more detail than you need - unless you’re reading an honest one-hander.

Maybe I’m being disingenuous. This is, after all, the male gaze; this is what many men want to look at, and this is their feelings when they do so. Perhaps to turn away from that, or to pretend it doesn’t exist, is fundamentally dishonest, whether in fiction or in life. There is a point where it causes harm, though. That point can sometimes be charted in the troublesome waters between the law of the land and personal tolerance.

It all depends on the reader. Some might see this exhaustive, obsessive rendering of male lust and objectification as an example of much that is wrong with the world. Others might see it as no big deal, even perfectly normal. I would say that after the third or fourth densely detailed description of a woman’s naked body, I was cringing. “Here we go again.”

Back to less problematic content, now: violence. The creature’s rampages take me right back to the books I read as a lad – honest-to-goodness monster mashing of the first order. I even detected a bit of Guy N Smith in there, as the white-furred behemoth flicks heads off shoulders the way you might launch a loose pea off a dinner table.

It’s soon established that the creature isn’t merely ripping the men apart for food. It seems to be doing so out of malice, taking particular pleasure in lopping off heads and leaving them on display for the search parties to pick out with their lanterns. One section, in which the men attempt to cheer themselves up on New Year’s Eve by setting up a masked carnival in a special marquee on the ice, is clearly set up for the creature to intervene - and it does. From this section onwards, the hopes of the expedition crumble.
Simmons grapples with one or two issues relevant to modern times. First of all, there’s snobbery. Crozier is a competent, tough, canny man, but owing to his Irish background he will never be accepted as a gentleman in British society. We might wonder how much has changed in the 170-odd years since.

Then there’s a very Melville-esque attitude to organised religion – questioning who or what we worship, and why. An epigram at the start of the book draws a clear line between Simmons’ monster and Melville’s white whale. Lady Silence and the creature seem to have a kind of spiritual symbiosis, one the master and one the servant. And the men, who readily take part in Christian observance on the decks of both ships at first, develop an atavistic worship of polar bears, believing it might offer protection from the creature. Even Captain Crozier, who cracks down hard on this, can’t seem the resist deviating from the norm himself, quoting from the “Book of Leviathan” in his sermons to the men, rather than the bible.

Things become more brutal once the men are out on the ice, dragging supplies, injured shipmates and boats on sleds, looking for the leads that will take them to open water and a chance of survival. All the while, something hunts them.

Of course, cannibalism isn’t far away. In one delicious section, the ship’s surgeon Dr Goodsir attempts to put the men off any idea of carving up their colleagues for supper by describing in great detail what must be done in order to split a man’s bones down to the juicy marrow. Even as he speaks, he is shocked to find that he is drooling.

It’s disturbing to find that the two main human villains of the book are gay – “MORE PROBLEMATIC MATERIAL TO STARBOARD, CAP’N” – but Simmons balances this later on, clumsily, by having a “good” gay couple.

In fairness, Simmons is only telling it like it was - the 1840s were not enlightened times when it came to sexuality, and any men caught having sex with each other on board one of her majesty’s ships could face dire punishments, possibly even death. Something else for the poor blokes to worry about, as they spend years shut up in a ship in the Arctic with only other men to cuddle.

There are several well-executed shock deaths, particularly near the end as the survivors mutiny and seek to return to Terror camp, against their captain’s orders. But for me, among the most dreadful things about the men’s plight were the missed chances of salvation.

Hey, there’s some of the indigenous population - let’s make friends, they might give us some food and show us the way to go! Oh…

Hey, there’s some open water, let’s get back to camp and tell the rest of the guys about it! Oh…

It’s an irony too far - as if Captain Scott bid his men farewell, stepped out of his tent, tripped over a sign reading “Rescue This Way” and fell through a hole in the ice… just as a ship appeared on the horizon.

There is a very strange ending to this book. I can’t spoil it of course, but it took us into unusual territory, changing from a story of grim military survival into one more akin to Robinson Crusoe, augmented by the myths, legends and spirituality of the Inuit people. The ending was satisfying, but I wonder if more brutal editors might have cut it by roughly 80 pages.

By the time The Terror reached its conclusion, I felt a bit exhausted (though not quite so malnourished). I’d had it on in the car since the start of last winter. The irony was particularly grim as I drove through the howling wind and sleet of January while I listened to a story about a bunch of blokes stuck in the freezing cold. We’re getting into summer now, and it’s only just done. Thanks to my commute now being reduced, it took me a lot longer to get through the 28 and a half hours’ listening than I’d have liked.

Great credit must go to Tom Sellwood for his vocal performance on the audio version, particularly his note-perfect take on the myriad British accents aboard ship. Because of this, we never once lose the place where the many characters are concerned.

A special mention must be made of his game attempt at singing Inuit songs, in falsetto as a woman. That’s dedication.

Time spent on board The Terror was never time wasted, and I always looked forward to returning to find out what happened. It’s a good, big, meaty novel - like the defrosted thigh of a caulker’s mate - and much like a good dinner, I missed it when it was gone.

May 13, 2019


by P.R. Black
Aria, 474 pages

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

I suppose I’d better start with a disclaimer. I have never met Pat Black.

We have, however, known each other for about ten years. We first stumbled across one another’s writings on the Authonomy webpage. I was flinging about rough drafts of the first two Forrester adventures. He was pushing his giant monster novel “Snarl”. We hit it off over a shared love of goofy horror movies, Spielberg’s masterpiece “Jaws”, and not-so-subtle Star Wars references. When several refugees from Authonomy set up Booksquawk, Pat and I were invited onboard and the bromance continued. He’s always been encouraging of my scribblings, kindly reviewing them on this site and promoting them on his own. I’ve always been impressed by the quality of his short fiction and frustrated by his unwillingness to release “Snarl” into the wild. Several years ago, we collaborated on a totally unauthorised adaptation of Hammer horror movie “The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires”. It was a ridiculously easy novel to write, not just because of our near-obsessive familiarity with the source material, but because we genuinely ‘get’ one another’s writing style and gave each other space within the pages to do our own thing without stepping on the other’s toes. You’ll never get to see that book, by the way. We trampled gleefully through the hallowed halls of Hammer without permission and if we were to try and set that one free, I reckon their lawyers would smell blood. Undeterred, Pat and I have spent a few years throwing ideas back and forth for another collaboration. We’ve even raised the idea of meeting up in person to ‘flesh out’ the storyline over a few single malts. It hasn’t yet happened.

No, I’ve never met Pat Black. But it’s safe to say we’ve got history together.

The Family” was scooped up by digital publisher Aria and marks Pat’s move into the big-leagues. Obviously, I was thrilled to hear he had secured a publishing deal but my excitement was dampened somewhat when I heard it was for a thriller and not one of his more esoteric pieces. I’ll happily read anything, but I’ve always felt modern thrillers to be a little bit on the generic side. They’re the kind of books you pick up at an airport or train station newsagents along with a prepackaged sandwich and a can of Coke. It’s a wonder that they don’t include them in the meal deals. Crisps, sandwich, drink, paperback. These thrillers are a bit like the sandwich in that you know exactly what you’re going to get. The central character will be a police officer or a journalist. Possibly divorced, maybe alcoholic, almost certainly physically or emotionally scarred in some way. There will be a killer. He or she will be both completely psychotic and preternaturally clever. Crimes will be committed, red herrings will be scattered throughout the story. Nobody will believe the hero but their dogged pursuit of the truth leads to a shock unveiling of the killer’s identity at the novel’s climax.

“The Family” does make use of some, if not all, of these tropes. The central character is Becky Morgan, a journalist who is on the trail of the murderer who butchered her family twenty years ago on a holiday in France. She’s understandably scarred by the experience, both physically and mentally. She’s seeing a therapist and is also a recovering alcoholic. The killer is both batshit bonkers and manages to fool British police and interpol by covering his tracks. The plot is twistier than a bowl of ramen noodles and the big reveal is suitably ridiculous in its unpredictability. What makes “The Family” stand out from all the other cookie-cutter thrillers is the way in which the author has put his own indelible mark on these familiar tropes. This is the point at which my admiration for Mr Black’s writing goes stratospheric, he makes this tired old genre feel fresh. And how, you might ask, does he do this? Well, I’ve mentioned before that Pat’s a horror nerd and this comes through in his writing. The killer wears a creepy mask made of animal bone and slaughters people in pseudo-ritual sacrifices. Violence in the novel (of which there is quite a lot) is handled coldly and clinically. Black does not shy away from the grisly details and there are a couple of moments in the novel that go to very dark places. What is more powerful about these moments is the speed at which the author takes us there. This is classic horror writing - we are lulled into a false sense of security before the rug is pulled from beneath us and we plunge into a moment of pure, unrelenting terror. There is one moment in particular in the book that really blew me away with its sheer coldness. It came out of nowhere and left me feeling sick to my stomach. I’ve seen a couple of negative reviews of this book from some tender souls over at Goodreads. I can’t help but feel they’ve missed the point. This is a thriller about a serial killer. It isn’t meant to be nice and leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. It’s meant to take you on a ride: a terrifying ride into a world of violent crimes, the dark web, ritual slaughter, and acts of white-knuckle desperation.    

The plot is suitably convoluted and I challenge anyone to make an accurate prediction of where this one is going. Red herrings abound although the pace of the narrative never lets up. This is another aspect of the book that I feel is linked to Black’s background in horror. Horror never lets up - the best horror stories are relentless and leave the reader feeling like they’ve been through an emotional meat-grinder. This is why the short story is so well-suited to horror. Thrillers are less of a sprint and more of a marathon. They work best when they have quiet moments to give the reader time to relax and catch their breath before plunging into another set-piece. “The Family” doesn’t really slow down. There is something about the pacing of this book that is positively unnerving. We learn early on that even in the quiet moments, things are capable of going bad very quickly and this means that the reader is never allowed to get comfortable. Again, this translates as a somewhat uncomfortable read, where the reader becomes (like the central character) hypervigilant and twitchy.

Although the character of Becky sounds like she’s in the running for cliche-of-the-year, it’s a testament to Black’s skill as a writer that she emerges from the pages as a fully-formed person. She’s not exactly likeable and her single-minded determination to avenge her family certainly has echoes of Lisbeth Salander’s lack of empathy. The sub-plot of her struggle with alcohol is handled sensitively and, most importantly, it never dominates her identity - it is there, as a facet of her character, but not the be-all-and-end-all of her. This hint at her addictive personality does, however, go some way to explaining her unrelenting drive to get to the bottom of the mystery. It’s not that she doesn’t want to let go of the past… she’s incapable of doing so.

Other characters are similarly well-rounded. Computer hacker Rupert, whose attempts to remain anonymous when chatting online to Becky provide some blessed, if brief, comic relief. Kindly friend of the family, boss, and occasional father figure, Jack Tullington is an instantly likeable (and hence incredibly suspicious) character. One character who I wanted to see more of was gangly tech whizz-kid Bernard, whose appearance in the final half of the book keeps the plot moving at a clip, but he is not really given enough space to become fully fleshed-out. This is, of course, a minor quibble. It’s rather like saying you don’t like “The Empire Strikes Back” because you never hear Lobot speak (and there’s my obscure Star Wars reference).

“The Family” is a highly accomplished thriller that ticks all the necessary genre boxes while also bringing a level of tension and gore that one would expect from a horror novel. It’s a twisted, often brutal thrill-ride that is never less than gripping. Aria have done well to snap up Mr Black and his refreshingly horrific take on the modern thriller. We folks at Booksquawk have known of his talents for years and it’s great to see one of our own get an opportunity to reach a wider audience (and then horrify them).

Now, if only someone could get around to publishing “Snarl”...

Hereward L.M. Proops

May 10, 2019


by Jack O’Donnell
336 pages, Unbound

Review by Pat Black

Charles Dickens observed that ghosts have a tendency to remind us of our own past. The ghost in Jack O’Donnell’s Lily Poole certainly does this with me.

Lily Poole is set in Clydebank in the 1970s – with time for the odd jaunt in and out of Gartnavel hospital in Glasgow, just 15 minutes away by train, and the hotel with the boating pond just behind it.

The story focuses mainly on John, a troubled young man of about sixteen. He’s fresh out of school, and prospects.

On one cold, snowy morning he stumbles across a little girl called Lily Poole, who pleads with him to take her to school. Whatever else he might be suffering from, John’s a decent kid, and agrees to walk the distressed wee puddin’ to her classes. The only problem being, no-one can see Lily but him.

The pair build a rapport. John shows up at the school gates every day – drawing the attention of various authorities, who see this behaviour as the activity of a pervert. Is John a pervert, in fact? The story begs the question more than once.

After a good old retro doin’ from the polis, John is packed off to the mental health unit at Gartnavel. There, he meets Janine, a fellow resident, who takes more than a shine to him. Although she manipulates and exploits John, he readily becomes her lover and gets involved in her various sub-plots involving the staff. Who wouldn’t?

Meanwhile, back home, John’s mother and father deal with what has happened to their son – the father going through the motions, one of many men from that time and place who were less bothered about family life in general, despite having lots of children. John’s mother Mary is more attuned to the business of day-to-day life with his younger sisters as they go through school.

Hovering in the background is Lily, whose influence seems to seep into other people in the house, a phantasmagorical infection that John passes on.

Soon, uncanny and seemingly supernatural things happen, tapping into the Scottish literary tradition of the second sight – ancient as unearthed bone, even older than two-faced old antisygysy.

The ultimate riddle of who Lily was, what happened to her and what lies behind John’s obsession with her, plagues us as much as him. Anyone looking for easy answers might be best advised to avoid this book. There’s no Taggart moment, no “eureka” epiphany delivered to a breathless leadership by a policeman in a good quality coat. The book makes us question how we process grief, the passing time, guilt and shame, and what mental refuges we might seek when reality makes little sense. Either that, or it’s a prank.

It’s an odd novel. John’s mania and his queasy obsession with Lily prompt questions from the start. There’s a story of murdered girls in the background, a suggestion that John’s motives might be less than pure, that his sleepwalking and fugue states might point towards a dark trigger ready to be pulled. If John didn’t kill those wee girls, then who did? There’s a killer on the road…

What I liked best about Lily Poole was the detail – pungent bits and pieces I recognise from a past life. Kitchens with washing hung from pulleys, marinated in the steam off that night’s potatoes. A massive pot of soup in the depths of winter, underlit in blue flame like a Halloween ghoul in torchlight. The chip pan, a discoloured totem that might have been dredged from a wreck tucked in 200 metres of water, even down to the congealed slime packed inside, to be reused over and over again. Battle-skidded Y-fronts not changed in an age. Buses and trains, their numbers and liveries a folk memory now, the only unchanged thing being the destinations. That odd time warp effect in considering ticket inspectors, security guards, ward sisters and receptionists who annoyed us - bureaucracies that have been changed by the digital age, but not improved.

I was also struck by the realism of the brittle, chaotic love affair on the hospital ward. No good can come of such a relationship, as even the most deluded come to recognise. But John and Janine dive right into that toxic brew. You could say they’re romantics, but you’d probably stop yourself before you said it. A wee cuddle at night can mitigate all manner of hells.

This book doesn’t take you down familiar paths. It is hard to categorise. I guess you could say it’s a crime novel – most Scottish novels are crime novels in some way. In less confident hands, John might have been portrayed as a great artist, his mental health problems sublimated as a creative superpower, madness transubstantiated into something awesome. For O’Donnell to do so would have been hackneyed, so he doesn’t.

Also, John’s relationship with Janine could have gone down the route of quirky romance. There’s nothing wrong with quirky romance, but… that wouldn’t have been a good fit for this book. This would have turned John and Janine’s fling as a proper love affair - and by that I mean, something that only really happens in books. The author steers clear of that stuff. We’re all better off for it. It feels lived-in, real. I can’t pay a higher compliment.

There is a lot of humour here, but it reminds me of an observation a comedian friend of mine once made. “Bleak: An ancient Scottish word, meaning ‘funny’.” The biggest laugh in the book comes when one of the characters receives some life-changing news. It’s the blackest irony, but it is funny; or at least, I did laugh. How Scottish can you get?

Read our author interview here.


Pat Black speaks to Jack O’Donnell, the author of Lily Poole.

Pat Black: What real-life events inspired Lily Poole?

Jack O’Donnell: The start of Lily Poole is pretty much how it happened. I went down the shortcut to sign on the buroo one morning. It had been slippy and had been snowing. I got to this bit of the road where a primary school boy stood frozen, not sure whether to go forwards or backwards. I guess if I was writing a novel I’d say he was greeting. He might well have been, I can’t remember. I took his hand and took him down to St Stephen’s school. He gave me a great line, ‘big people don’t understand’. There’s a book in there somewhere.

PB: You’re a prolific short story writer. Apart from “it took longer”, how different was the experience in writing a novel?

JOD: I guess we all do the same things. We write short stories and then novels. I don’t do anything different. I write short stories and some of them turn into longer stories. Lily Poole like most of my other stories is a collection of short stories packaged as a novel. It’s a novel by deceit.

PB: This story plays with the ideas of second sight, tying in with Scottish mythology. Is Lily Poole a ghost story?

JOD: Lily Poole is a ghost story. But only if you believe in ghosts.

PB: Tell us how Unbound works.

JOD: Unbound works by crowdfunding. Unbound is a publisher and they were looking for material. ABCtales were looking to make some money, so they offered them some potential clients. Luke Neima, who is now with Granta, was reading my first-draft stuff, and he put my name forward. I wrote about it here.

What that means is until they get the money up front they won’t publish your book. It’s like when you used to get a Provie loan and went to pick up your new jacket and Doc Martens from Dees. But you need to have paid for them in advance. It’s an old/new idea. I fucking hated it. What you end up doing is shaking down everybody you’ve ever known for money. I must admit to cheating and giving the book to customers that pledged and in return I’d cut their grass. Sssshhh, don’t tell those that pledged and I never cut their grass, but got a signed copy instead.

PB: What’s next for you?

JOD: I’ve not really got any writing projects lined up. I just write stuff. I’ve been trying to sell the last novel I wrote to publishers. Trying to get an agent. But that’s not really writing. That’s the business of writing, which is something completely different. I’m currently writing the follow-up novel to the unpublished novel I can’t get published, which is pretty stupid in anyone’s language. And I was thinking about looking again at one of my first drafts of Bill and the UFO, which is more a kid’s book, about angels that disguise themselves as aliens to fit in. Well, it’s not really about that. I can’t really remember what it’s about, but I got kinda fond of not remembering it as it was.  Sometimes I surprise myself and realise some of the stories I’m reading I wrote. That’s worrying, too. Some of the first drafts are terrible. Well, most if not all. I can’t remember all of Lily Poole, but there were multiple drafts.

Most of my first-draft stories or poems go up on ABCtales. I also blog on ABCtales and Wordpress: https://wordpress.com/post/odonnellgrunting.wordpress.com/3622

But I’m word blind in the sense that I can’t spot the difference between what I’ve written and what I think I’ve written. It’s a bit like laughing at your own jokes. Only other people can tell you, ‘honestly, they’re not funny’. Fellow writers at ABCtales are too polite to say it’s crap. I’ve got to tell myself it’s crap, but just get on with it. That’s what writers do. Well, I think they do. The next time I meet a writer I’ll ask him or her.

Read our review here.

February 23, 2019


Pat Black inteviews DA Watson, the author of Cuttin’ Heads.

Booksquawk: It goes without saying that music is the lifeblood of Cuttin’ Heads. What music scenes fed into the idea behind the story?

DA Watson: Well the whole idea for the book has its roots in blues mythology, specifically the legend of Robert Johnson, but a lot of the scenes in the story are directly lifted from my own experiences playing in bands. Rather than a specific genre, I tried to make the story more about the live music scene in general, the scene populated by all those unknown bands you’ve never heard of, what that life is like, and what the musicians who live in that world want to get from it. In terms of genre, other than country. Really I just tried to squeeze in a nod to every kind of music that I have a liking for. In that way, I like to think it has a bit of a punk rock ethos to it!

B: It’s a very west of Scotland book, particularly strong when it comes to Glasgow. How did you find rendering the place in fiction? Did you find yourself having to stay away from cliché?

DW: Not really. Again, it was really a case of write what you know, and the setting of Inverclyde where the band are based is where I grew up and still live, so hopefully what people read is what the place is actually like. I guess the ned character in Ross’s first chapter is something of a cliché, but aren’t they all? Glasgow was just written “as is” with references to venues I’ve attended and played gigs at like the Barrowlands and The 13th Note, so it was really just drawing on memory.

B: There’s one crucial element in books about music which is missing – sound. How did you approach the difficult task of describing the noise Public Alibi makes for readers while still making the story accessible?

DW: That was probably the hardest thing about telling the story. It was tricky to stay away from overusing “muso” terms and jargon, so I had to come up with a bunch of similes that would be relatable to readers that don’t have that background; things like Aldo hitting the second overdrive switch on his footpedal, and the tone of his guitar changing like a sports car going up a gear. I liked how that one sounded. There’s a line later on comparing his gently weeping guitar to Gappa Bale’s violin “shrieking like a gang rape victim.” Probably not so elegant, but I thought it got the message across…

B: No more heroes?

DW: Put it this way, Dudley Do-Right characters do my head in, with their unflinching moral compasses! I much prefer the basically good guy who has a dark side and the potential to be a bit of a dick. I just think flawed characters are so much more interesting, and more importantly, real. I think with that type of character, it might be a little harder to really warm to them, but because they’re not perfect, they’re more relatable, and you end up rooting for them all the more. I do anyway.

B: The devil has all the best tunes, but only in music is there the divine. Discuss.

DW: Oooo, good one. I guess if you believe in heaven and hell, which I personally don’t, then yeah, you’d likely imagine notorious nutbags like Jim Morrison and Bon Scott rocking out in The Pit, but then again, were they really evil? They were no angels but I wouldn’t put them in the same bracket as rapists, murderers and people who don’t indicate on roundabouts. That said, I can’t really see them floating about on fluffy white clouds, gently plucking at harps either. Also, there’s been no love lost between the church and music though history. The tritone, or the Devil’s Interval, two notes which combined are the root of blues and heavy metal, being banned by the church a few centuries back, Madonna being excommunicated for her saucy shenanigans in the video for Like a Prayer, Ray Charles being lambasted for daring to mix gospel and blues, creating what we now call soul music, and the outrage metal bands like Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath caused amongst  the cloth. In a non-religious sense though, I would agree that music in its purest instrumental form is divine, as it’s just a combination of tones and rhythms, that can transport you, make you laugh, cry, rage, make your skin prickle and your heart race. Yeah, music can be divine. Apart from manufactured pop bands of course.

B: What’s next for you?

DW: I’ve currently got my fourth novel, a semi-supernatural western, out on submission, and have just started the fifth, which is based on the 17th century witch hunts which took place in my home village of Inverkip. I’m also appearing at Scotland’s first horror, sci-fi and fantasy book festival, the Cymera Festival in Edinburgh in June, and have a couple of poetry night gigs lined up, one at the aforementioned 13th Note in Glasgow.

Many thanks to Dave for his time. Read our review of Cuttin’ Heads here.

February 22, 2019


by DA Watson
352 pages, Creativia

Review by Pat Black

Everyone knows the devil has all the best tunes, but it seems he’s got all the best deals, too.

Cuttin’ Heads is the story of Public Alibi, a three-piece rock band based in the west of Scotland. They play pubs and small venues all over the country, as well as some of Glasgow’s bigger venues. They sustain themselves on belief and a bit of ability, but not a whole lot else.

Aldo is the singer, guitarist and chief songwriter. He admits that music is his passion and joy, and everything else suffers as a result. He has one great big failed relationship behind him, and among the wreckage of this he finds time to spend with his little boy, Dylan. He acknowledges that he could be a better father. When we meet Aldo, he’s lost yet another pointless data/telesales job, which he needs to fund his ambitions (having no lifestyle to speak of).

On the bass is Ross, a hospital porter from a troubled background. He is a friendly bloke, but also as hard as they come. Any bams attempting to kick off in casualty soon find their pressure points tweaked and possibly their backsides kicked for good measure. But Ross is a fundamentally decent person who happens to have been brutalised when he was a child.

Then there’s Luce, the drummer. She’s from a strong Italian-Scots Catholic background, and her mother doesn’t like her daughter being in thrall to the devil’s music. Talented and bright, Luce lectures at a music college during the day and holds tutorial sessions at the weekend.

Public Alibi have their fall-outs, but they are a tight unit, and loyal to the core. If they’ve got a show to play, they’ll pack themselves and all their gear into Luce’s car - “the Tardis” - and drive to wherever they need to go. That might be Dundee on a Tuesday night; so be it.

If you are the type of person who looks at the bottom line of any endeavour and very little else, then what Public Alibi do with their spare time will look like madness. But every creative person will instinctively understand the band’s frustrating struggle to balance paying the bills with following a muse.

They are all 27 years old, and that’s significant. 

A question many of us following a creative dream might ask ourselves: what would you sacrifice for the sake of success? Or, never mind success: away from any idea of bright lights, festival headline slots, awards shows, endless clickbait articles and covers on whatever magazines still exist, what would you give up just for a chance at being able to create art that provides you with a living?

A dark question, which might prompt some dark answers.

This is the predicament Public Alibi find themselves in when they are approached by Gappa Bale, a devilishly handsome man who has a deal for the band which is too good to be true. On the strength of a show at Glasgow’s 13th Note, Bale offers them a plum gig supporting one of the country’s biggest bands at the Barras, on top of a wodge of cash, and a glimpse of the unholy grail: a record deal.

This is the dream, offered up on a plate. Ross and Luce are sceptical about how quickly and smoothly this has all happened, but for Aldo, this is all of his prayers answered.

Although it looks like his prayers might have taken a wrong turn.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Gappa Bale isn’t what he seems. Cuttin’ Heads is a supernatural horror novel with music as its theme. Bale’s deal takes the band away from Glasgow to a strange place in the Highlands, where they’ll record their debut album. Weird things happen almost immediately to the band, but the big bad stuff really crystallises after their Barras support slot when Public Alibi gain an instant, fanatical following which grows to legendary proportions.

However, Bale’s record deal is looking for something a bit more fundamental than downloads, streaming, record sales and concert revenue. Public Alibi are soon fighting for more than just their lives.

Cuttin’ Heads refers to the practice of humiliating a fellow musician with your superior ability. Think Ralph Macchio vs Steve Vai at the end of Crossroads. But in this book, it takes on a more literal meaning. There is some brutal violence in DA Watson’s novel, as well as some nasty, uncanny scenes as diabolism moves front and centre in the lives of Aldo, Ross and Luce. Watson doesn’t soft soap the nastier elements of his tale. There’s one very tense scene involving a child and a moment’s distraction which every parent will recognise and dread. This might be one of the most horrifying things I’ve read in a long time.

The book grips on a visceral level, whether that’s Ross using his krav maga skills to put the manners on some idiots, or Gappa Bale’s dread power manifested in blood. There’s also a cleverly-rendered moment of terror where Luce is at the mercy of a crazed crowd – a nod towards the brutality and raw sexism some women face to this very day for simply being artists and performers.

Music flows through the story, and this presents DA Watson with a problem. How do you represent music in a novel – the one format where the key medium, sound, is absolutely void?

Very skilfully, is the answer. Watson peppers his story with plenty of musical references and clues, but he focuses more on the feelings engendered by Public Alibi’s tunes, rather than minutely detailing what they might actually sound like. This is a difficult trick to pull off, but he manages it. We all like music… don’t we? Actually, I’ve met one or two people who don’t. I cannot 100% trust those people.

It’s a very Glasgow-centred novel, although there are nods to Inverclyde, where the author hails from. I’m from Glasgow but haven’t lived there for a long time, and it’s starting to fade. How do you describe this city? It’s a place that, when it sees you, might run at you full-pelt, perhaps to kiss you, or perhaps to give you a tanking. A place just as likely to render you into a burst bag of mince as it is to make love to you; as likely to bray laughter at you, as clap you on the back, welcome you home, and ask what you’re drinking. Like any other city on earth, I suppose.

But Watson’s prose conjures the place by harkening towards the rhythms of speech – of patter – in Glasgow. He does this without resorting to representations of the vernacular, as we see in other Scots authors such as Irvine Welsh, James Kelman or Tom Leonard. So Watson talks about square gos, pure bams, and other idiomatic and four-lettered things, but the prose is still welcoming to people with no link whatever to the west of Scotland.

The references to the music venues – the 13th Note, King Tut’s, and the Barras – made me nostalgic. One thing I miss terribly about Glasgow: everyone plays there. This is something I took for granted. I don’t get that where I am now. If I want to go to a show it usually means a hundred quid dropped at a hotel and a half day off my work. How spoiled I was!

Watson conjures a sense of the uncanny and the diabolical, which relates so easily to music. All the touchstones are there, from Robert Johnson’s hellhounds and his reputed deal at the crossroads, through to references to Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and all the other members of the 27 Club.

There’s even a direct nod to Jimmy Page’s Loch Ness residence, Boleskine House – previously owned by Aleister Crowley, of course. “Don’t go up there,” I remember being told by a taxi driver, when I visited Loch Ness. “Weird things go on up there, mate. It’s not a joke.”

Rock n’ roll is the devil’s music, and everyone knows the maleficent folklore of pop music, from Altamont to plane crashes, accidental suicides, a plague of drug deaths and many other unpleasant outcomes besides. But perhaps Watson’s abiding gift in this book is the sense that music is a great bonus for human beings. A good song, like a good novel, has the touch of the divine, not the diabolical, no matter what its subject matter. Cuttin’ Heads is a smart, enjoyable fantasy.   

Read our author interview here.