THE HOUSE OF KILLERS

THE HOUSE OF KILLERS
SAMANTHA LEE HOWE

Rating: 2 out of 5.
I was very attracted to this book by the synopsis. Neva, a female assassin presented to the reader as a cross between Villanelle and Orphan X, sounded fascinating.
Ultimately, however, I found the book lacking in substance and containing elementary errors. 
Neva is described as an emotionless killer, having been conditioned in some way as a child. This was never fully explained; there were just vague references to brainwashing and injections. She's very young, early twenties, and begins to shake off her conditioning, for a reason I never fully understood. She then takes on the might of the organisation that created her.
She has mysterious 'sources', very rarely named or described, who she calls on every time the plot needs moving on. I found it hard to accept how she had acquired all these sources in a relatively short period of time and while under the influence of her masters.
I felt that the author had done some sketchy research but had not enlarged on it. Neva finds a car, 'hot wires it' and drives off; in the morning she looks under the car in case there's 'something' there. Another character 'does something' on a computer to move the plot along. Suddenly she has a 'storage unit' when she needs to acquire something to move the story along. She goes to an opera where they 'sing songs'.
The ending is, frankly, incredible. The author move characters around willy nilly to fit her denouement.
I was impatient to get to the end of this book so I could put it behind me. I gather it is part of a series. I can only hope that the author gives serious consideration to rounding out her characters, making them more realistic and gives a more solid, believable background.
I voluntarily read and reviewed an advanced copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE

Today I’ve been working with the remove background tool in Photoshop. I want to use this photograph of Devonn on the front cover of Ashes on the Tongue, due for publication around Easter time. I was having great difficulty in separating her hair from the black background and was on the verge of giving up when I attended a Zoom lecture last night at Nottingham & Notts Photographic Society where John Bermingham drew my attention to this neat little tool.
This is a quick and dirty practice run on a very low res photograph but it has encouraged me enormously. That’s the trouble with Photoshop, it’s so bloody enormous that the answer to a problem can be right under your nose and you don’t know it. Move the slider to see the results.

This original painting, Tirkane Road, Maghera, is another image I am using for the Ashes on the Tongue cover and the reason why I was so anxious to separate Devonn’s hair from the background.
It’s by George A Gourley, an Irish artist, who has given me permission to use it. I am delighted because it has just the right feel for the era I am writing about.

TALL BONES

TALL BONES
ANNA BAILEY

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A missing teenager, an unhappy home life and a selection of suspects within a small town. We’ve been here before but Tall Bones rises above the average thriller.
The author tells a good story and is adept at inter-weaving characters and events. There are not many (if any) likeable characters in the book and this gave me pause for thought a few times but it did not detract from my enjoyment of the book as it was always clear that, to a large extent and with very few exceptions, their futures were destined to follow that of their parents in the depressed area they lived in.
A bit of a grim read; I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it but it did leave a lasting impression.
I would like to thank Netgalley, Random House UK, Transworld Publishers and Doubleday for an advanced digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

UP, UP AND AWAY

Up, Up and Away was one of those whimsical pictures that ‘just appears’. I was keen to do something lighthearted and with a bit of colour, as a lot of my pictures can be, shall we say, a bit on the sombre side. Vicky May, the model and a talented actress who has appeared in the West End of London, had brought along this patterned dress and the umbrella was leaning on the wall in the corner of the studio. Along with Vicky’s hairstyle and shoes, the whole thing was taking on a decidedly upbeat and quirky feel.

I felt a ‘Mary Poppins’ coming on and dug the red ribbon out of my props box, quickly shooting the dangling foot.
It wasn’t until I was assembling the whole thing a bit later that I remembered the squawking gulls (a little bit of faffing required on their beaks) and so they were added in, looking suitably shocked at this strange creature floating in their air space.
The only thing left to do was add a cheerful sky and there it was – one of the quickest composites I’ve ever done and it still makes me smile.

MIRRORLAND

MIRRORLAND
CAROLE JOHNSTONE

Rating: 5 out of 5.
This is the story of twin sisters, so close that they can read each other’s thoughts and even have an affect on how the other behaves. Ellice is the elder, the poison eater, taught by her mother to always protect Catriona, her younger sister.  They share a house with grandfather, every room an encapsulation of a fairy story, a legend, a circus … A truly magical childhood. But is it?
As an adult, Catriona flees their home city of Edinburgh, running from dark secrets and bitter betrayals. She returns to her childhood home after many years when she gets news that Ellice is lost at sea, presumed dead. She refuses to believe this because of their close bond and revisits the horrors of her past in an effort to discover just what has happened to her sister.
In the beginning, because of the intricate descriptions of the house and the atmosphere created by the author, I thought I was in a Gothic novel 
with supernatural overtones. This was enhanced by the appearance of mysterious letters, emails and clues. Slowly, however, the horrific history of the twins’ family is teased out, the story moving from present to past and back until that ‘gasp of breath’ moment hits like a sledge hammer.
On a personal level, I would have preferred the book to end before the final reveal but it’s not my story.  This is one of the most intelligently written and plotted novels I’ve read in a long time. There is an extraordinary cast of wonderful characters (just don’t go thinking you know or understand any of them) and so many literary cul-de-sacs that I was enthralled by every page.  Highly recommended and the sort of book that bears a reread to pick up even more of the highly nuanced plotting.
I voluntarily read and reviewed an advanced copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

THE SEARCHER

THE SEARCHER
TANA FRENCH

Rating: 1 out of 5.

An American cop retires at the early age of forty eight and buys a ramshackle house in Ireland with the aim of doing up and recovering his lost peace of mind. His marriage has collapsed apparently because his wife no longer wants to be the wife of a cop (after more than twenty happy years) and because of an incident where the pursuit of a black suspect, who wasn’t hurt in any way, sickened him against his job. This is Chicago, where the death rate is high and cops have thick skins. He also has a moody daughter, although it’s never explained why.
So far so Quiet Man. If only.
A sulky thirteen year old kid starts hanging round his house and, for some reason, the cop entices the kid onto his lawn and starts teaching him woodwork on an old desk. He also teaches the kid to kill rabbits. After some time, the kid reveals that his older brother is missing and he wants the cop to find him so, after an initial refusal, the cop agrees, mainly because the kid throws eggs at his house.
Pause.
We are now halfway through this long book (over 400 pages) and we’re still waiting for the thriller we were promised. There are lots of descriptions of the Irish countryside, how to renovate an old desk, debating over whether
Until she turns up at his door one night, having been brutally beaten.

to adopt a pub and an abundance of whimsy and Oirishisms from his neighbour and from the local matchmaking shopkeeper.
After a lot more of nothing much happening, the cop finds out that the kid is, in fact, a girl so he tells her he can’t go on with the ‘investigation’ and that she can’t come back to work on the desk any more.
SPOILER STARTS HERE.
It transpires that her feckless mother – abandoned by her husband, six kids – did it. Not because she meant the girl any harm but because the people responsible for the brother’s disappearance wanted the ‘investigation’ to stop. Instead of warning off the cop, they told the mother to beat the girl to a pulp or they would. So she did.
No. Just no.
This downtrodden woman, who wouldn’t say boo to a goose, half kills her own child on the say so of the local bullies and doesn’t even come looking for her when she stays at the cop’s house. Not only that, but the cop feels sympathetic towards the mother.
SPOILER ENDS
The end, when it comes, is unrealistic, a damp squib that, quite frankly left me incredulous.
In departing from her usual Dublin-based Murder Squad, I’m afraid Ms French has lost the plot, both figuratively and literally.

GAIL FORCE

STAND AND DELIVER
VICTORIA
FEAR NOT THE DARK

I met Gail Noble through a multi-photographer / multi model day and was instantly impressed by her unique ability to lose herself completely in a character.

We went on to do a couple of shoots after that where we could explore different ideas, aided by the fact that she is also a very talented seamstress, able to create her own costumes, as in the portrait of Gail posing as Queen Victoria. The background to Her Majesty is an interior shot from Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire.

We has fun with Stand and Deliver, making full use of a wind machine, although I’ve lost count of the number of people who have told me she’s holding the knife in he wrong way. She looked pretty determined to me so I wasn’t going to argue with her! All I did to this one was add a few trees and a bit of mist.

Fear Not the Dark was taken at the initial shoot mentioned above and is a (nearly) straight shot, only needed the addition of a flame in the lamp.

A FEW WINTER BIRDS

As we’re still confined to barracks with not much hope of any bird photography on the horizon, I’ve collected a few winter birds taken in the East Midlands (UK) over the last few years. We can only hope that one day we’ll be out in the sunshine again listening to birdsong.

LITTLE OWL
WAXWING
GOLDFINCH

Hope is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all …
Emily Dickinson

SHORT EARED OWL
GOLDFINCH
WREN

DINNER FOR BILLY

IMAGE FROM IMGFLIP, UNATTRIBUTED

Billy lived alone in a corridor and wore blue silk drawers. On wash day, Mammy closed the curtains on our kitchen window so she couldn’t see them on Billy’s clothes line. He had a matching vest, a bit frayed at the edges, but without the faint brown stain on the drawers.
He was a Roman Catholic and we were Protestants, but Mammy did her duty and sent me round to Billy’s house every Sunday with a bowl of stew. I had to go out of the front door, which opened directly on to the street, because what was the point in doing a good deed if nobody knew about it?
It was only a few steps to Billy’s front door, just enough time to shove a couple of spoonfuls of stew into my mouth and return the spoon to the bowl. Sometimes, he was waiting behind the net curtain and opened the door before I could kick it.
“Hurry up, get in. I can see Ma McCracken’s curtains twitching.”
“Mammy said can you wash the bowl before you give it back.”
She didn’t, but I never missed a chance to practice my dumb insolence.
“Off you go, out the back way.”
I liked going through Billy’s long, narrow house, surely some kind of architect’s mistake. The narrow living room, barely wide enough to accommodate the front door and the window, led into the bedroom.  A glowing Sacred Heart adorned one wall, above a dresser with dusty vials of Holy Water.
Billy was going to Hell, but I wasn’t quite sure why, only that it was something to do with the Pope. His window always got smashed on the Twelfth of July, but he never told the police. No point. My Da fixed it for him and Billy slipped him a bottle of whiskey when Mammy wasn’t looking.
A tiny scullery beyond the bedroom opened on to the communal garden. A quick hop over the dividing wall and I was home again, job done for another week.
One Sunday in November, after taking Billy’s dinner to him, I overheard a conversation between Mammy and my older sister, Frances, who was getting married in a few weeks. Frances could whinge for Ireland.
“Do we have to invite Billy to the wedding, Mammy?”
“Yes, we do. What would the neighbours think if we didn’t ask him?”
“But he’s – you know –”
“I know, but maybe he won’t come.”
But Billy did come, in spite of being “you know –”. His hair was freshly permed and his overcoat had a velvet collar, which proved to be quite the talking point. I watched him like a hawk all day, but couldn’t work out what “you know –” could possibly mean.
January blew in with sleet and snow. Mammy stepped up Billy’s dinners to twice a week. Well, it was the Christian thing to do. The snow was too deep for me to walk a mile to school, so I was left alone in the empty house while Mammy and Da went to work.
The letterbox thumped and a handful of letters shot through on to the floor. I picked them up and had a quick shuffle. We didn’t get many letters as such, usually just bills, but today there was a lavender-perfumed envelope addressed to Mr. W. McParland of number 22a, Reilly Street.
Well, this was interesting.
We were number 22 and, for the briefest of seconds, I considered walking next door and poppng it through the letterbox. But, lavender perfume? Maybe it was a love letter. Maybe it had stuff in it about ‘you know –’.
No sooner had the thought crossed my mind than I had the envelope ripped open. The writing was flamboyant and written in purple ink with lots of curlicues. I could hardly contain myself, even as I struggled to read it.
My dearest William,
It seems so long since I last saw you, when we ran naked through the grass together.
Boy, this was good.
Unfortunately, that was the best bit. The rest was just a lot of boring arrangements to meet, so I skimmed over it until I got to the bottom of the page.
Yours, in loving friendship,
Harold
Harold? That wasn’t a lady’s name. Why would a man write that stuff to another man?
I was so engrossed in this conundrum that I didn’t hear Mammy come home.
“What’s that you’re looking at?”
“Nothing.”
She held out her hand “Let’s see nothing, then.”
I didn’t have to wait long for a reaction.
“Where did you get this filth?”
Unseen, I stuffed the envelope into my pocket.
“Uh, it was in the dustbin. It was on top when I took the rubbish out.”
Without further ado, Mammy turned on her heel and stormed out into the street, hammering on Billy’s door and shouting for him to come out.
He opened his door and, before he could speak, Mammy was in his face.
“You bloody pervert! You’re not fit to live near decent people! And leaving your filth where a child can see it, you’re evil.”
Billy stood open-mouthed, without a clue what she was talking about.
An interested crowd of neighbours were unashamedly gawking at the spectacle, which lent fuel to Mammy’s ire.
“Yes, you can all look! You don’t know what he’s been up to. Things with men!”
Things? What things? Running in the grass?
She caught sight of me, taking everything in and dying to know more.
“And you, get back inside. You’ve seen enough for one day.”
Back to Billy, now ashen-faced and trying to get his hands on the letter.
“Oh, no. This is going to the priest, he’ll know what to do about it.”
There was much, much more as the neighbours felt it was only right that they had a say in the matter. But I didn’t hear it, as the door closed behind me.
After that, there were no more dinners for Billy.

THE POET

THE POET
LISA RENEE JONES

Rating: 3 out of 5.
Detective Samantha Jazz has just returned to work after traumatically witnessing the murder of her father, who was also a detective, but a dirty one. She and her partner, Detective Ethan Langford are assigned to a murder case which takes place at a poetry reading.  She quickly determines that the killer is obsessed with poetry and assigns him the nickname of The Poet. 
Quite early on in the investigation, the computer expert finds a Professor Newman Smith who, for one semester, had a course called Abstract Poetry and Criminology. On the strength of this information alone, Jazz is convinced that Newman (she always refers to him by his first name) is their man and concentrates her investigation solely on him. For most of the first half of the book, Jazz charges about energetically trying to trap Newman in spite of lack of evidence and advice from several people who caution her to broaden her thinking.  
It is only when Newman is proved to be innocent of the killings and the investigation goes off in a different direction that I began to get invested in the story, although Jazz still isn’t any nearer to finding the elusive Poet. It is left to the sections written from the killer’s point of view to reveal a large part of his motivations. I felt a bit cheated because the denouement is all crammed into the final few chapters, revealed to Jazz almost by happenstance, so there was no build up of tension to keep the reader eager to know if their suspicions were right.
Overall, I felt that this was a book I should be really enjoying. Jazz is quite feisty, secondary characters are really well drawn in and there is a liberal sprinkling of red herrings and some deft touches of humour. Unfortunately, it was let down by an unrealistic plot which required too much of a suspension of belief for me.
I voluntarily read and reviewed an advanced copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

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