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Scotland is well known for producing a wealth of crime fiction and many amazing books are published every year. There are so many to choose from it can be hard to know where to start, but there is a literary prize which is dedicated to celebrating Scottish crime fiction.

This Friday (18th September 2020), the winner of the McIlvanney Prize - Scottish Crime book of the year will be announced as part of the Scottish crime fiction festival – Bloody Scotland dedicated to all things Scottish crime related (running digitally this year).

A couple of weeks ago the four book shortlist was announced and I decided to challenge myself to read them before the winner is announced. Considering they're all technically the same genre, there's a real variety of subjects and styles between these novels and I really enjoyed each of them. Here is a closer look at each of the shortlisted books.

The Art of Dying – Ambrose Parry - Canongate

Having really enjoyed the first in this series (The Art of Dying) I was keen to pick up with the characters of Dr James Simpson, Dr Will Raven and Sarah Fisher.

Set in Edinburgh in 1849, Dr Simpson is espousing the use of chloroform for virtually every ailment going – operations, smaller procedures, toothache, or perhaps most controversially as a way to liven up a dinner party by mixing it with sparkling water!

Will Raven his apprentice has just returned from a year travelling around Europe learning from great doctors across Europe. He returns a Doctor rather than apprentice and is shocked to find former housemaid Sarah Fisher has married. She is now officially an assistant to Dr Simpson – administering chloroform – and trying to learn all she possibly can about the field of medicine.

As they go about their routine care, patients are dying across the city with no obvious cause. Will and Sarah have to join forces to try to discover the truth behind these deaths and clear the name of Dr Simpson. A strong female character, refusing to remain in the uneducated box society thinks she belongs and a young doctor who seems to attract trouble, make for an entertaining and gripping story.

A Dark Matter – Doug Johnstone – Orenda

A story about family relationships with a particular focus on mother-daughter relationships, this is crime fiction with a difference. At the start of the book, the Skelf family are holding an unorthodox funeral for Jim Skelf following his sudden death. Now 3 generations of women (Dorothy, her daughter Jenny and granddaughter Hannah) are left with the task of running the family business – a well-known funeral-home with a bit of Private Investigator work on the side.

Each woman, ends up involved with an investigation she can’t leave alone, whilst also trying to deal with grief and continuing to run the funeral-home. Dorothy starts to question whether Jim had been keeping secrets from her for many years, Jenny becomes involved in an adultery case and Hannah investigates her flatmate who unexpectedly goes missing.

I love a story with a strong female protagonist, well this book has 3 – with the story being told from each woman’s perspective in alternating chapters. I was drawn into the book and can’t wait to read the next in the series to see what comes next for the Skelf women.

Whirligig – Andrew James Greig – Fledgling Press

The cover of this book has such a clever design – a tree made from gears. Reading the book, the significance of this image becomes clear. The huge, old oak tree is where the first dead body is found and as the deaths mount up, the police find delicate and intricate clockwork mechanisms, which have been carved from bone, at the scene of each crime.

Set in an unnamed small Highland town, featuring a police force that never expected to become the centre of a murder investigation, the case is run by DI James Corstorphine. As the story progresses, it becomes clear there is potentially a link between this case and the town's old orphanage, which used to be run by the Sisters of Holy Mercy. DI Corstorphine and his team find there has been a cover up of not so distant past crimes and he has to dig deeper and quickly before his investigation is shut down.

Although the murders and the rationale behind them are extremely dark, this book was a real page turner, which kept me reading to find out how it would all come together.

Pine – Francine Toon – Penguin

This is such an atmospheric, creepy book set on the edge of a forest in Highland Scotland. This is less pacy thriller, more slow build with an ever increasing sense of unease.

The story is told from Lauren’s 10 year old perspective. She lives in a remote part of Scotland with her father who has a drink problem and has struggled to look after her ever since his wife disappeared. She doesn’t know what happened to her mum and no one will tell her, but she knows people talk about her family.

The book starts at Halloween – a suitably ghostly evening with a ghostly event as she & her father find a woman dressed only in a white dressing gown by the side of the road. As the story builds, Lauren continues to flounder, trying to make sense of the world around her and deal with bullying at school. When an older teenager she looks up to disappears, the sense of doom increases further.

Quiet yet tense with wonderfully atmospheric descriptions, I found myself turning the pages through this novel, with such an unsettling feeling throughout.

Cosy wee reads, is all about celebrating Scottish fiction and I can't wait to find out which of the shortlisted books wins the prize. The books mentioned in this blog post are the type of crime fiction you can expect to find in a cosy wee reads package. You can find out more about subscriptions and one-off gifts here.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton

Sara Collins

Once I heard that one of Sara Collin’s inspirations for Frannie was Jane Eyre, how could I not pick up this book. I’ve loved Jane Eyre since the first time that I read it as a teenager and still love it now. Sharing a love of books, a desire to better herself and not accepting her current position as the final one, the determined characters of Jane and Frannie have their obvious similarities.

The book opens in 1826 with Frannie's trial at the Old Bailey on the charge of the brutal double murder of Mr & Mrs Benham. Frannie doesn't remember what happened that night & can't believe she could have murdered the only person she's ever truly loved. The novel is Frannie's story which she is writing down for her lawyer. She says at the start of her story: “In truth, no one expects any kind of story from a woman like me. No doubt you think this will be one of those slave histories, all sugared over with misery and despair. But who’d want to read one of those?”

She goes right back to the beginning, to Paradise, Langton’s sugar plantation in Jamaica where she grew up as a slave, where she learnt to read and where she was forced to be an apprentice for Langton’s unethical scientific studies. She is brought to London, but still isn’t really free as Langton gives her to Mr Benham as a gift. Her story continues through her time in London, including her secret relationship with Madame Benham, and culminates in the outcome of her trial.

This is a wonderful, gothic novel with an extremely strong, female lead character. I loved that Frannie refused to bow down to pressure to conform. She refused to keep quiet and accept her fate. She spoke out in unexpected ways: “…in the whole sum of human history, by what order have you white men been wrong more often than you’ve been right?”

Sara Collins wished to write an historical love story with a strong, angry, black woman as it’s heroine. She wanted to explore the issue of women being controlled by men (through marriage or ownership) and how this unites women. And she wanted to write a story about a woman who happened to have been a slave rather than a story about slavery & victims. She has certainly achieved all of these things in this incredible novel.

The festive season is well under way and as a book lover what better way to celebrate than with a festive read or two. This December I’ve decided to read Christmas themed books in a few different genres. So, here’s a list of what’s on my festive book stack this year! If you’re looking for a holiday read, then I hope this list inspires you.

Jenny Colgan – An Island Christmas

Jenny Colgan always offers a feel good, cosy reading experience and in this Christmas themed new release she returns to the Scottish island of Mure and I can’t wait to get stuck in. Here’s the blurb:

"Christmas on the remote Scottish island of Mure is bleak, stark - and incredibly beautiful.

It's a time for hunkering down, getting cosy in front of whisky barrel wood fires, and enjoying a dram with the people you love - unless, of course, you're accidentally pregnant to your ex-boss, and don't know how to tell him. In what should be the season of peace and goodwill on earth, will Joel think Flora is a bearer of glad tidings?

Meanwhile Saif, the doctor and refugee from war-torn Syria is trying to enjoy his first western Christmas with his sons - but without his missing wife. Can the little family possibly find comfort and joy?

Travel to the beautiful northern edge of the world and join the welcoming community of Mure for an unforgettable Christmas."

Whitley Strieber – The Christmas Spirits

Set in Chicago, this is a modern retelling of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. This was the first of my Christmas reads and I really enjoyed it. George Moore is an extremely wealthy, workaholic commodities trader with a reputation for being a miser. Obviously, I already knew the plot, but I found this to be a quick, fun ghost story and enjoyed the updated setting with the original plot – clearly there are still Scrooge’s out there! A great reminder of the meaning of Christmas.

Kate Atkinson – Festive Spirits

I really enjoy Kate Atkinson's writing and this didn’t disappoint. Containing 3 short stories, which can easily be read in one sitting, this book is perfect for the season – as long as you’re not looking for picture perfect life. She manages to succinctly depict the characters thoughts in each story and with humour and sharp writing shows their reality rather than their public face. I don’t want to say anything about the actual stories as they’re so short. If you’re a fan of Kate Atkinson’s books, then I totally recommend picking up this little book and as a bonus £1 from every sale is being donated to Sightsavers.

M. B. Shaw – Murder at the Mill

If you’re looking for a cosy crime read this Christmas, then this could be just the thing. Written by Tilly Bagshawe under the name M. B. Shaw, this is a contemporary murder mystery and I was totally drawn into the story. Iris is someone that people open up to and after a body is discovered on Christmas day she puts her skills to use as an amateur sleuth. She gets behind the public face of the family and discovers a multitude of lies and secrets. Here’s the book description:

"A picture hides a thousand lies . . . And only Iris Grey can uncover the truth.

Iris Grey arrives at Mill Cottage in a picture-perfect Hampshire village, looking to escape from her crumbling marriage. She is drawn to the neighbouring Wetherby family, and is commissioned to paint a portrait of Dominic Wetherby, a celebrated crime writer.

At the Wetherby's Christmas Eve party, the mulled wine is in full flow - but so too are tensions and rivalries among the guests. On Christmas Day, the youngest member of the Wetherby family, Lorcan, finds a body in the water. A tragic accident? Or a deadly crime?

With the snow falling, Iris enters a world of village gossip, romantic intrigue, buried secrets and murder."

Nancy Mitford – Christmas Pudding

This book is the Christmas pick for my book club. I haven’t read this one yet (luckily I’ve got a week to go until book club!) but I’m hoping it will provide the funny Christmas spirit we are seeking. Here’s the blurb:

“The formidable fox-hunter Lady Bobbin is holding a Christmas house party. Attendees include her rebellious daughter Philadelphia, a pompous suitor, a couple of children poring over newspaper death notices, and a dejected writer whose first serious novel has been declared the funniest book of the year. Add to the mix beautiful ex-courtesan Amabelle Fortescue and her guests staying in a neighbouring cottage and you have a ribald tale of true love and false fidelity, hijinks and low morals, not to mention the consumption of a considerable quantity of Christmas spirit.”

If you’re still looking for a unique Christmas gift for a book lover in your life, then there’s still time to order a surprise book gift or book subscription box from cosy wee reads. The last order date for Christmas delivery is Sunday 16th December. Click here to find out more.

* For clarity, all the books we send out in cosy wee reads packages have some connection to Scotland. However, this doesn’t apply to all of the books listed above – this is my personal festive reading list.