Clare Carson- The Dark Isle

Sam grew up in the shadow of the secret state. Her father was an undercover agent, full of tall stories about tradecraft and traitors. Then he died, killed in the line of duty. Now Sam has travelled to Hoy, in Orkney, to piece together the puzzle of her father’s past. Haunted by echoes of childhood holidays, Sam is sure the truth lies buried here, somewhere. What she finds is a tiny island of dramatic skies, swooping birds, rugged sea stacks and just four hundred people. An island remote enough to shelter someone who doesn’t want to be found. An island small enough to keep a secret…

Having been utterly bewitched by Orkney Twilight and The Salt Marsh , it was with some trepidation that I embarked on The Dark Isle as I desperately wanted to be as in awe of this book as the previous two. I’m pleased to say that my fears were completely groundless and Clare Carson has triumphed once again…

The Dark Isle moves seamlessly between two timelines spanning the intensely hot summer of 1976, and the political unrest of 1989, with the poll tax demonstrations firmly rooting us in this particular period. Likewise, the story pivots between London and Orkney within both periods of time, with Carson once again demonstrating her particular skill in scene setting and atmosphere, so unlike other books with split timelines , the reader is instantly transported to, and settled within the locations, even without the date stamps on the chapters. Carson’s depiction of landscape, weather and nature,  is completely entrancing as ever. The rugged wilderness of Hoy which seems to teeter on the edge of the earth is as vital and real as the suburban streets of London that Sam frequents in her formative years, and affords Carson ample opportunity to showcase both, and how they impact on, and play such an important part in Sam’s realisation of the world as a whole, and within her own troubled and secretive family history.

In the London scenes, Carson adopts the viewpoint of a flaneur, with the careful demarcation of Sam’s stomping grounds both as a child and as a young woman. In the wilds of the Scottish Isles, Carson casts Sam as an old style explorer as she works to uncover real history through archaeology, and her own personal history whose secrets lie buried in this  mystical and  unforgiving terrain. The locations are absolutely intrinsic to the development of the storylines, and play as much of a role as any character contained within its pages. There are precise and naturalistic descriptions of flora and fauna which flow beautifully in and out of the narrative, giving a sharp vitality and visual panorama to the reader. Carson weaves in mythical tales, adding to the sense of unknowing that permeates the book, and subtly enlightening the reader on folklore which still remains totally in keeping with the story.

Sam is a complex and engaging character, and this book is no exception. There’s a quote that says “Be like a spy. Keep your true self hidden,” and one that Sam along with other characters all seem to adhere to. With her father’s influence, as a shadowy and secretive undercover operative, I found it fascinating how despite losing him some years previously this influence has steadily increased in her own psyche, and how the more subtle aspects of his personality are revealed in Sam from time to time. She is resourceful, determined, not unnaturally brave, and refreshingly susceptible to the duplicity of others. There’s a realism and truthfulness to her character, that makes us admire her gumption, and empathise with her less glorious moments of naivety, and I have a great affection for her as a character. So as not to unwittingly reveal anything, all I would say to the other protagonists who encourage or seek to thwart Sam’s efforts, is that you will be surprised and frustrated by their various deceptions, and most importantly as you’re reading…trust no one…

I suspect that I will have a similar trepidation when I read Clare Carson’s next book, having been so enamoured with this series to date, but I’m willing to endure it! The Dark Isle is another great addition to this beautifully written series, and I would recommend all three books heartily. Great storytelling, pitch perfect plotting, and a wonderful sense of time and place. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to the author and Head of Zeus for the ARC)

 

Russel D McLean- And When I Die

CpcRLrnWYAAiAxqBorn into one of Glasgow’s most brutal crime syndicates, Kat Scobie has fought long and hard to forge her own path in a world where no choices are given. She thought she’d escaped. She thought she was different. But as her relatives gather to mourn the death of their most feared son, Kat is drawn inexorably back into their hellish world. And she’s not the only Scobie who resents the family dynamic. Because Ray Scobie isn’t dead. He’s near fatally wounded and hell-bent on revenge, and he knows his own father ordered his murder. Now the only person who can stop the carnage is Kat’s ex-lover John, a cop who’s so deep undercover he’s started to lose himself. With his cover crumbling around him, John’s about to discover that families can be murder…

And When I Die from Russel D McLean proved an interesting read from the outset, treading the path of established gangland writers, Martina Cole, Kimberley Chambers et al, by focussing mainly on a female character either at odds with, or fully immersed in the male-centric power of a gangland family. Not being a fan of the aforementioned writers, what McLean provides here is a refreshing antidote in a usually cliché filled genre, in this tense gangland thriller set in the seedy underbelly of Glasgow.

Told from different narrative viewpoints, what McLean perfectly executes is a sensitive and believable depiction of a woman torn between family loyalty, but ingrained with a desperate need to cut these ties and strike out on her own. Kat Scobie had temporarily escaped her violent background, and the relationship she had formed with unbeknownst to her an undercover police officer, John Grogan who so easily infiltrated her family. Returning to Glasgow for the funeral of a family member, Kat is drawn back into the power play of her family, and John’s influence, at considerable physical and emotional stress to herself. She proves an incredibly empathetic and noble character, with a fierce sense of loyalty to one relative in particular, Ray, who finds himself physically threatened, and forced into a violent course of action, inveigling Kat in his personal vendetta. She finds herself increasingly conflicted, and McLean’s characterisation of the emotional turmoil she experiences is absolutely spot on throughout, effortlessly taking the reader with her, and enabling us to fully experience the gamut of emotions she experiences and seeks to come to terms with. McLean carefully interweaves incidents from her past, to bolster the ties between herself and Ray, and there is a taut and uncompromising journey for her as the book progresses.

Equally, McLean imbues his tough male protagonists with a conflicting range of emotional and violent impulses. Ray has a little understood physical condition that negates his ability to feel pain, and undercover officer Grogan is beginning to lose all sense of self due to his deep infiltration into the dark and violent world of the Scobie family, but increasingly conflicted by the powerhouse of emotions that Kat raises within him. McLean carefully manipulates the dialogue and rhythm of speech in his male characters, and in a similar style to fellow countryman Malcolm Mackay, exhibits a wonderful pared down, rat-a-tat rhythm to the prose. With Kat, there is more enhanced interior and exterior monologue, reflecting the differing emotional sensibilities between her and the male characters, and her deeper examination of the inherent danger she finds herself drawn into on her return to the family fold. In his characterisation of both Ray and Grogan, the reader is pivoted from feelings of repulsion to empathy and back again, as both demonstrate a kind of twisted nobility, counterbalanced by selfishness and a violent impulse to survive in this dark world.

McLean was a completely new to me author, and having a previous five thrillers to his name, is a writer I shall be definitely be seeking out again on the basis of And When I Die, a compelling, spare, thoughtful and at times brutally violent thriller. How could I have missed out on him? Recommended.

(With thanks to Saraband for the ARC)