Archive for the ‘penney stef’ Category

Let me start with my final event at this year’s AyeWrite, which featured two ex-journalists turned crime writers (Craig Robertson and Stav Sherez) both explaining that journalistic time pressures turned them away from their original trade. That pieces are frequently published that could be improved if time would just permit.

This preamble serves as an explanation as to why I can only provide this quick roundup of this year’s festival. Time for blogging has been scarce – reading and attending literary events does that, funnily enough.  And that is set to continue.  In the meantime I present the books I read for AyeWrite 2017 …..


…. bookended by two novels of epic proportions.

Starting from the bottom, Stef Penney’s eagerly anticipated 3rd novel, Under a Pole Star. Set in the mid-19th century, it is her paeon to the golden age of polar exploration but with a female lead explorer. Not historically accurate then. Still it is full of good things: exemplary descriptions of the arctic landscape, an intriguing investigation of the Innuit way of life, which had/has (?) no notion of privacy (solitude in such a climate inevitably meaning death), competitive rivalries between explorers seeking to make their name. All of which I found fascinating. BUT there’s a love affair and explicit scenes that I wish she (or her editor) had excluded. (And I said as much at the event.) Such content serves no purpose in a literary novel. Leave it to Harold Robbins or Jilly Cooper. Or have some kind of advisory note for the reader.

Actually the second epic demonstrates just how a great love can been portrayed (and understood by the reader) without recourse to extended XX-rated scenes. I finally read Dr Zhivago, now marketed as the greatest love story ever told, before attending the author’s grand-niece’s event. Anna Pasternak was presenting her book Lara, The Untold Love Story that Inspired Doctor Zhivago, and she spoke with more passion than I’ve ever seen an author display before. In biographies of Boris Pasternak, Olga Ivinskaya has been dismissed as a non-entity, of no importance. That’s the official line of the Pasternak family, whose purpose it serves to ignore her. Anna Pasternak is on a mission to rectify that. In fact, she argues that without Olga, Dr Zhivago would not have been completed. She made clear that Olga paid a heavy price for her love of Boris Pasternak, and suffered in ways that could have been avoided, had he behaved differently. “I don’t forgive him for that”, she said, “but I do understand him.”

Now I had resolved not to buy any books at this year’s festival, but that statement served the bait that hooked me. More bait in that it analyses biographical parallels and their influences on the novel. Which may help me because my reading of Dr Zhivago wasn’t issue free – particularly in relation to character development. More to follow once I’ve read Lara.

2nd from the top is Ron Butlin’s latest Billionaire’s Banquet. I’ve been on a mission to read all of Butlin’s prose since I was bowled over by The Sound of My Voice. According to its strapline Billionaire’s Banquet is an immorality tale for the 21st century. Make of that what you will! It is the story of how Hume (a unemployed philosopher), St. Francis (an ex-seminarian), and the Cat (a mathematician) become successful, but in order to do so, they must lose their moral compass and their absolute values. The novel starts in 1985 (mid-point of the Thatcher years, when the rich were getting richer and the poorer, including our main characters, poorer), jumps to 2005 (the year Scotland hosted of the G8 summit), before jumping again to 2016. In 1985 the 3 characters are sharing an Edinburgh tenement flat – one the author once lived in, though hopefully not in an understairs cupboard like his character Hume! By 2016, they are … that would be telling because those circumstances are made possible by the pivotal events of 2005, including the Billionaire’s Banquet of the title.

After establishing a successful butler service for the rich of Edinburgh’s New Town, Hume finds himself hosting this highly symbolic fundraiser, attended by Edinburgh’s hoi polloi. Ten lucky donors will receive refunds, and dine like billionaires, while the remainder will feed on rice and water, as a reminder that the rich feed off the poor. Unfortunately for Hume the event coincides with the London Bombing, and activists, in Edinburgh for the G8 summit, are outraged that the event is not cancelled to respect the dead. Hume is sabotaged by both external forces and internal – the hoi polloi are not as decorous you would expect –  and the resulting descent into mayhem is a hilarious and merciless piece of satire.

It also left me wondering at what point an immorality tale becomes an ammorality tale? Perhaps Hume, once he pins down Kant’s Perpetual Peace, would answer that?

In amongst the naughtiness and (advisory note alert) much profanity in the first two sections, the philosophy and the social politics (both – thankfully – worn lightly) is a portrait of the changing face of the Scottish capital. The Edinburgh of 1985 is markedly different from that of 2016, and the differences are documented, I suspect, quite thoroughly over the course of the novel. At times I was unsure whether Butlin was celebrating or lamenting, (perhaps both) but I can see myself using Billionaire’s Banquet as an unconventional travel guide during a future excursion.

Finally I was delighted that Stav Sherez was invited to AyeWrite! It provided the impetus to acquaint myself with his much lauded Carrigan and Miller series – starting with book 3. I wouldn’t advise anyone else to do this. I think it gives too much away about book 2. That said,The Intrusions is an unsettling read, based on the realities of the web, as we possibly don’t know them. Well, maybe we suspect them, given recent reports of how smart devices on the internet of things can be used to spy on individuals.

The intrusions occur when a “ratter” uses RATs (remote access trojans) to not only to spy on his victims but to play mindgames, to bully and intimidate. Once he has broken them down, he claims them and kills them horribly. The novel is a police procedural which follows detective sergeant, Geneva Muller, as she races to establish pattern, motive, and to fathom out the technology, not just to get one step ahead, but to avoid becoming the the next victim. There are internal pressures too. An audit has been instigated as a result of anomalies in the previous case, and the career of her boss, Jack Carrigan, is on the line.

I’m not yet invested in Jack Carrigan. That will most likely change when I’ve read the first two novels. For me the fascination of The Intrusions was the technology. The novel is a showcase for tools, some possibly imaginary (though I suspect not) that can both enable crime and prevent it – but at what cost to our privacy?  Or is privacy just an illusion these days?

Question from audience: Did your research change your behaviour? “Yes,”said Sherez. “There’s always a piece of blue-tac over the camera on my computer when I’m working.” And that’s why there’s now a piece over the camera on my device as I type this.


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Costa Book of the Year 2006 

One benefit of belonging to a face2face book group is the opportunity given to revisit an “old” favourite.  September 2007’s book was Stef Penney’s Costa Book of the Year winning novel, one which I originally devoured in three sittings earlier this year, prior to its win.

 Well, I loved it then and I loved it even more second time around.  This will definitely be one of my top 5 reads of the year.  

It is 1867 and Laurent Jammet is found – his throat cut, scalped also – in his wooden hut.  17-year old Francis Ross goes missing at the same time.  Search parties are sent to find him for he becomes a suspect – one of many.  Most of the motives centre around Jammet’s business dealings for he is part of a consortium attempting to break the Hudson Bay Company’s monopoly in the fur trade.  This mystery is good, very good indeed.

As the search parties trek through the Canadian outback Penney introduces us to a colourful cast of characters, a religious community with an adulterous relationship at the heart, the indigenous nation held in servitude by booze and the unscrupulous representatives of the Hudson Bay Company, further mystery and murder, ill-fated romances (some gentle, others not so)  and last, but not least, the wintery Canadian landscape.  Not the pretty wintery landscapes of the imagination, either.  Penney’s landscape is harsh, brutal, and very dangerous.

The snow does not stop, nor does the shrieking wind.  … It is pitch dark, but I do not think that I will close my eyes all night; what with the howling of the wind and the battering the tent is getting; it billows and trembles like a live thing.  I am terrified that we will be buried in the snow, or that the walls (against which the tent has been pitched) will collapse  and trap us underneath; I imagine all sorts of awful fates as I lie with racing heart and wide stretched eyes.  But I must have slept, because I dream, although I do not think I have dreamt in weeks.

Suddenly I awake to find – as I think – the tent has gone.  The wind is screaming like a thousand banshees and the air is full of snow, blinding me.  I cry out, I think, but the sound goes unheard in the maelstrom.  Parker and Moody are both kneeling, fighting to close the mouth of the tent where it has been torn free.  They eventualy manage to secure it again, but snow has gathered in drifts inside the tent.  There is snow on our clothes and in our hair.  Moody lights the lamp; he is shaken.  Even Parker looks slight less composed than normal.

Of course, since her win, much has been made of Penney’s agrophobia and the fact that she has never visited Canada; her novel, researched in the British Library.  It’s testament to both her research and imagination that her Canada is fully realised.  And the silent tribute she makes in naming two of her characters, Donald and Susannah, after original Canadian pioneers – shows she is not unaware of her debt to the material they left behind.

If her landscape is strong, so too are the complexities of the human relationships, none more so than those within the Ross family.  Angus, the head is a “sour dour old Scot” (to quote one of the book group), alienated from his son and incapable of showing affection to his wife. Mrs Ross, arguably the main character of the novel, is living through the disillusionment of middle-age.  Yet she’s a strong brave woman, setting off in the company of a half-breed tracker, William Parker, to find her son, never doubting in his innocence for a moment – although we as readers do.  The behaviour of the characters  is quite puzzling at times, yet there is an unbearable poignancy as their motivations are gradually revealed.  I swallowed hard when Angus’s face finally “melted”.

It’s hard to do this novel justice in a short review, there is just so much content. It’s epic in scale and very ambitious in range.  Perhaps too ambitious?  Certainly there were those in the group who thought the novel needed pruning.   Another criticism was that, although the Jammett mystery is solved, other mysteries are not and there are enough loose ends to provide a sequel.  But these are the criticisms of others – they certainly aren’t mine.  I enjoyed every page of the 466 that Penney delivered.  In fact, I would be quite happy to read another 466.  Here’s hoping that a sequel is more than a suspicion and that someone will turn this into a great film …


Perversely not the full *****.  For the title is one of the unsolved mysteries.  The wolves, while not aggressive towards humans, aren’t particularly tender either.  Explanations in comments please!

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