Gig review: An Evening with Mick Herron


On Wednesday evening of this week I returned to Waterstones Bookshop in Bath to listen to Mick Herron discussing his books and writing habits with Sarah Hilary. In preparation for the event I had read the first of Mick’s Slough House series of spy novels, Slow Horses (you may read my review here). Having enjoyed this first foray into his work I now wish to read everything he has written – oh for more time.

The event host was Waterstones’ Senior Bookseller, Steve Andrews, who impressed me by recognising and welcoming me when I arrived. He provided a glass of Prosecco and I took my seat.

Steve opened the discussion by introducing Mick as the finest espionage writer of our time, and pulling from his bag a recently acquired early proof of Mick’s next release, Spook Street. I made sure to approach Yassine, publicity manager at John Murray, to beg a copy for myself afterwards. I do hope he remembers to pop one in the post.

Steve invited Mick to give a reading. Chosen was a short section from Real Tigers, his latest book available for all to buy.


Sarah then took the helm. She is obviously a fan of Mick’s work. She commented that his character Jackson Lamb, the head of the band of misfits and mavericks banished to Slough House, is one of the greatest grotesques in fiction. Mick explained that what drives Jackson is his view that the Joes – spooks working in the field – must be protected at all costs. Mick doesn’t plot his novels; his characters dictate the action. Although he knows how each story will start he allows his characters room to breath and follows wherever subsequent ideas lead.

Sarah regards Mick’s characters as a team, a type of oddball family. The way their observations and interactions slot together are a joy to read. She asked if they whispered in Mick’s ear.

Mick informed us that Jackson shouts! There is so much more to him than his sometimes monstrous behaviour. Mick hopes that the reader will love each character even if rationally perhaps they shouldn’t.


One of the more amenable characters is Catherine Standish, a disgraced PA to a late senior spook. Sarah regards her as one of the best female characters in spy fiction. She asked Mick about any difficulties he faced writing a women.

Mick sees Catherine as the moral centre of the team. She is a recovering alcoholic, vulnerable but with a deep inner strength. He mentioned that in Real Tigers she is kidnapped and left with a bottle of wine. He was riffing with Hitchcock and the suspense of a ‘ticking bomb’ in a closed room. This allowed him to get inside Catherine’s mind, something that isn’t always possible in a thriller requiring tension and a fast pace.

Sarah mentioned that Jackson sometimes taunts Catherine but that his apparently crude actions end up displaying compassion. Things are rarely black and white and Mick is a master at showing the grey.

There was discussion of the humour in the novels, the cinematic openings and the crossovers of characters between each of Mick’s published works. Sarah commented that these characters are such a gift, the reader can’t help but want to get to know them better. Mick mentioned that contracts for television or film rights are for individual characters and these crossovers can be problematic when not all his books are to be included in the deal.

Here it was clarified that Mick has published two series – Oxford, and Slough House – as well as two standalone novels. Some of the crossover of characters occurred when it was unclear if a former publisher wished to put out the next Slough House book. Although screenplays have been written for a four part television series it is still unclear when this might be made.


Mick talked of how he names his characters, and how their personality and actions can slide into place once they have acquired the right moniker. I was highly amused by his take on the name River, his choice for a younger character which he struggled to find for some time. He does not regard River as a real name but rather as something invented by hippies or celebrities. I made sure to pass on through Sarah afterwards that this is the name I chose for my now eighteen year old son.

Mick told us that he does almost no research. His knowledge of the secret service has been gleaned from other spy novels or entirely made up. However, the building known in the books as Slough House actually exists. He passed around photographs as proof.

Mick is often asked if he has any personal experience of espionage, which he denies. The question amuses him as it was not something he was ever asked when writing about a personal investigator.

This led to a discussion about genre and where spy novels fit in. Mick sees crime as asking ‘what happens?’ whereas thrillers ask ‘what happens next?’

An audience member asked Mick how he had switched from character driven novels to action driven. He replied that he had removed his use of the semi colon. This cut out much of the imagery and increased the pace.

He was also asked where his characters came from. He claimed they were aspects of himself. He prefers to deal with issues and creates characters who will deal with these in different ways.

With no further questions the evening concluded with the signing of books and Mick was quickly surrounded. It is clear that, in Bath at least, he has a solid fan base. Given the quality of his writing this is only likely to spread.

Book Review: The Shogun’s Queen


The Shogun’s Queen, by Lesley Downer, tells the story of Okatsu, the daughter of a minor Japanese lord, who is taken from everything and everyone she knows to become wife of the most powerful ruler in the land, the Shogun. It is set in the mid nineteenth century when Japan was invaded by those they referred to as barbarians – well armed traders sent from countries in Europe and America. The cherished culture and rituals of the Japanese way of life was thereby changed forever.

Okatsu has never known poverty but, as the political machinations of the lords and princes of her region propel her ever higher up the strictly preserved social and political hierarchy, she discovers wealth beyond comprehension. Those who have acquired these riches and the power it brings are loath to risk relinquishing it. They will stop at nothing to strengthen and secure their position.

As a woman Okatsu has little choice in the course her life must take. Whilst she accepts this she also rails against the loneliness she must endure. There are few she can trust. She is watched constantly and is required to obey. When she grows close to her husband this is seen as a threat as well as a distraction by those who demand her compliance, whatever the cost to herself.

The world depicted is close to unimaginable for modern sensibilities and offers an insight into a way of life that those living it fought to preserve despite the gross inequalities. The powerful men kept palaces of women locked up for their own personal use. When a ruler died this household was required to take holy orders and spend their remaining days praying for their master’s spirit. Some of the women were chosen for their youth and beauty yet never spent time with the man who owned them and could never belong to another. They endured a life filled with sniping and backstabbing, locked up forever in a luxurious prison.

The descriptions of the barbarians are particularly interesting – how what is unknown is feared, as is change. There were plenty who were intrigued by the gifts presented by the invaders – telescopes, cameras, steam engines, weaponry – but they regarded the smelly, hairy, meat eating giants as uncivilised if dangerous buffoons.

I found the pace of the story slow at times, as was court life for the women at the time. There was much repetition as Okatsu grappled with her assigned quest, her loneliness and her feelings of betrayal. The treatment of children in the Shogun’s household was particularly difficult to comprehend.

The story is a fictionalised account of true events. Each of the characters existed and their roles are as accurately portrayed as remaining accounts allow. The author has a personal fondness for the area and was meticulous in her research.

For those interested in Japanese history and in the effects of the spread of western influences around the world this is a worthwhile read. As a story I would have preferred a tighter telling, but it is a fascinating window into a way of life where change was opposed, yet where it is hard not to regard such change as a progression.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bantam Press.

Book Review: Slow Horses


Slow Horses, by Mick Herron, is the first in a series of modern day spy novels featuring members of the British intelligence service put out to grass in a unit nicknamed Slough House. Their banishment to this premises is a punishment for a variety of on the job cock-ups and misdemeanours. Amongst them is River Cartwright, a young man harbouring bitter resentment at being shouldered with the blame following a failed operation. The unit is overseen by Lamb Cartwright, an overweight and often repellent individual who is not as incompetent as he encourages people to think.

The inaccurately named operatives of Slough House are incensed when one of their number is tasked with covertly obtaining information from a disgraced journalist. It is understood that they are given only the most menial and mind-numbing tasks, although each hopes that eventually they will be permitted a return to active service at Regents Park. River regarded his most recent job, collecting and investigating the contents of a rubbish sack, as simply another unpleasant test of his willingness to follow orders. When it ties in with what looks like real spy work he determines to find out more.

All attention then turns to the abduction of a young man whose bound and hooded image is uploaded onto the internet alongside a threat to behead him within forty-eight hours. River sees this as a chance to redeem himself but is denied the opportunity to become involved. Wondering if the abduction could in any way be related to the journalist, from whose home the rubbish sack was taken, he takes matters into his own hands. When his actions go catastrophically wrong each member of Slough House becomes involved.

Unsurprisingly, there is nepotism and corruption at the highest level. It is still shocking how far certain powerful people will go to further their personal agendas. The slow horses are not slick and efficient spies, but they are capable of using their training and wits. Their manoeuvrings are often unexpected but gratifying to read.

This is a tightly written, sardonic and grimly prescient work of spy fiction. It is also rather fun in a stylishly mordacious way. The author ensures that readers get behind his flawed and often flailing creations. This was my first foray into his work; I hope it won’t be my last.


Book Review: The Mountain in my Shoe

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The Mountain in my Shoe, by Louise Beech, tells the story of Conor Jordan, a ten year old boy from Hull who has been in multiple care homes throughout his short life and who has now gone missing. Also missing is his Life Book, a work in progress containing details of his fragmented childhood, created as a substitute for the memories parents share with their children. The book had been taken home by Bernadette, a young woman who volunteered to be Conor’s friend and who he has grown to trust. She cannot understand where the book has gone as only she and her husband, Richard, have been in their flat where it was hidden. Richard is a man who adheres to a strict routine but this evening he hasn’t come home from work. It seems that he too may be missing.

Bernadette is more concerned about Conor than Richard. She is angry with her controlling husband for choosing this night to disappear. She had finally plucked up the courage to tell him that she was leaving their marriage, had packed her bags and tidied their flat in readiness for her departure. It was only when she went to put the Life Book in her case that she realised it had gone.

Bernadette doesn’t have many friends. Richard discouraged her from going out other than to see to his needs. Her voluntary work has been her carefully guarded secret. She confided in Conor’s foster carer, Anne, that she was unhappy in her marriage. Now, during a fraught evening spent briefing the police and then searching for the missing boy, she opens up about her lonely personal life and plans for change.

Excerpts from the Life Book give details of Conor’s past. It makes for heartbreaking reading. The boy has been shunted from pillar to post through no fault of his own. His few years with Anne have been the most stable he has experienced. He is teased in school for his lack of family, and dreams of spending more time with his troubled birth mother. He wants to know who his father is. The only person he can open up to fully is his best friend, Sophie. Sophie knows how to keep secrets and does not withhold information from him as adults do.

The writing evokes the fear and confusion of a situation all parents dread, that their child should fail to come home from school. As darkness falls all are trying their best to stay positive. Richard’s whereabouts are still unknown but Bernadette cannot bring herself to care.

The writing is gentle yet delves deep into complex family dynamics. In seeing events recounted through the eyes of adults and then a child the reader is reminded that young people see both more and less than they are often credited with. Their priorities differ but they can detect strained atmospheres better than many of their elders. They struggle at times to understand that circumstances do not revolve around them. Many adults live in denial, constructing their own truths based on the life they desire. Each is the centre of their own personal universe.

The plot threads spiral out and are then woven back in to provide a tapestry of hurts never quite healed. In places I could not hold back the tears yet the strength found by the characters to move forward make this an uplifting read.

Conor is a convincing sometimes indecorous but nevertheless likeable creation. He may be troublesome in school, display occasional aggression, but it is hard not to be moved by his predicament. Books such as this can help generate empathy for the many Conors in the real world.

I enjoyed this book for its compassion and perception. It is a beautiful, heartfelt read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This review is a stop on The Mountain in my Shoe Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.


The Mountain in my Shoe is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.


Book Review: The Seven Trials of Cameron-Strange


The Seven Trials of Cameron-Strange, by James Calum Campbell, is the second book in the author’s crime thriller series featuring Dr Alastair Cameron-Strange, a medical practitioner with a history of attracting trouble. When the story opens he is in court facing a charge of manslaughter following the death of a patient. There are ethical dilemmas to explore but also a mystery surrounding the patient’s identity. The timeline then moves back a few months to explain how the doctor ended up in this situation.

Cameron-Strange has returned to his home country of New Zealand following the events recounted in the first book in the series. He hopes for a fresh start but is followed by two men working for the British government and with whom he has a history. They wish him to look into the death of a British man who collapsed whilst taking part in a reality TV show. The show is run by a company owned by Phineas Fox, a controversial American business tycoon seeking a presidential nomination. Fox is building a luxury hotel complex in New Zealand and much of the show is filmed on land surrounding this.

Fox brings to mind Donald Trump, whilst Cameron-Strange possesses abilities and a detachment reminiscent of James Bond. Making the protagonist a doctor rather than a spook or detective adds an interesting twist to what is a slick and fast moving thriller. His medical training is used to good effect in plot development, whilst the medical details make for fascinating reading. Cameron-Strange is a likeable maverick with his refusal to bow to those who expect subservience.

As well as being a doctor, Cameron-Strange is a qualified pilot and considers aircraft as some view cars. He is also a runner and his level of fitness is significant in surviving the trials he must face. The wily Fox invites him into his lair, believing that everyone has a price or may be coerced. He knows that the doctor is investigating his activities but believes he can retain control as he toys with his prey.

There are beautiful women and rescue missions yet somehow the cliches of the genre are avoided. Cameron-Strange makes choices that will put him in danger yet never comes across as a gung-ho would-be hero. His adherence to medical ethics ensures that he remains likeable. The female characters are granted intelligence and strength.

The writing is assured and the story constructed to retain interest. I read much of it on a journey and the time flew by. There is a place for stories that do not demand too much of the reader. This is an entertaining and engaging tale.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Impress Books.

Gig Review: Launch of Fleabag and the Ring’s End


It is always lovely to watch books being released into the wild that they may find new readers to appreciate their stories. Yesterday I travelled to Waterstones in The Mall at Cribbs Causeway, Bristol, to watch the incorrigible three legged talking cat, Fleabag, find more fans amongst the young clientele. His adventures have been chronicled in a trilogy of books written and illustrated by Beth Webb. You may read my review of this latest in the series here.

Beth had brought along a gorgeous looking cake, cat cookies, gluten free alternatives, and even some chocolate fleas for those who wished to partake. She soon had the attention of the excited children being treated to new half term reads.


 Beth talked of Fleabag and magic and lady knights and dragons before offering personalised bookmarks and signing books for those who wished to buy. As I am reluctant to post photos of children without their permission you must take my word for it that she had a rapt audience. I had managed to catch a few words with her beforehand but, much like at a wedding, there were many people wishing to spend time with the focus of the show and it would have been rude to attempt to monopolise. The launch was for a children’s book, and it was the children who deserved Beth’s attention.

Instead I browsed the shelves capturing images of books I was particularly pleased to see on the tables. I had intended to return to say goodbye to Beth, who planned to spend the day at the shop meeting any who wished to chat about her books, but there were always others patiently waiting their turn. I hope that they enjoy getting to know Fleabag as much as I have.


Fleabag and the Ring’s End is published by March Hamilton Media, and is available to buy now.

Book Review: Fleabag and the Ring’s End


Fleabag and the Ring’s End, by Beth Webb, is the third and final book in the author’s Fleabag trilogy, a fantasy adventure series aimed at 7-11 year olds. I reviewed the first book here and the second book here. This final instalment offers another dose of high octane action, adventure, magic and dragons – along with a reveal of the incorrigible Fleabag’s true name, and how he lost his leg.

The story opens with a young boy, Kern, being hired by Fleabag (who is a three legged talking cat) to play fiddle at the palace Fire Festival. Here Kern meets Phelan the King, Fire Wielder Gemma and her bodyguard, the Princess Rowanne, all of whom played key roles in the previous books in the series. When Kern looks into Rowanne’s eyes he realises that she is the intended recipient of a secret message he has been tasked with delivering by M’Kinnik, the chief wizard at Porthwain where the university is based. The wizards from this establishment draw power from evil, blue magic which the ruling Fire folk believed they had defeated.

A delegation from the university arrives at the palace. They wish to enact a Great Challenge, as the law states anyone may do who believes a ruler or Fire Wielder are unfit to perform their duties. Using sorcery and tricks the wizards force the young Fire folk to accept the challenge immediately. They threaten war if Phelan and Gemma do not travel alone to perform the required tasks at the wizard’s stronghold.

The blue magic is corrupting all it touches. Phelan, Gemma and Fleabag (who was banned from attending but came anyway) are being held as virtual prisoners. As they try to prepare for what is ahead, Rowenna is in mortal danger. Kern tries to help but the wizards seem to anticipate the Fire folks every move.

The action is non stop. The plot twists and turns as skill, strength, wit and wisdom are pitted against tricky magic and those who will stop at nothing to gain power. Even Fleabag must dig his claws into the action, between naps and tummy rubs that is.

There is much to take from this story apart from the compelling tale. Neither good nor evil are absolutes and people are rarely as they first seem. Being entrusted with a task does not mean only that person is capable of carrying it out, yet there may be reluctance to hand on what could lead to personal gain, even for the greater good. Few feel comfortable revealing all their secrets; other’s motives can be difficult to comprehend.

The denouement was unexpected but worked perfectly, especially given the lesson briefly touched upon that omnipotence is a role more than an individual. Of course, I read this as an adult. These books are written for children, and they will adore Fleabag. They will also understand that power contaminates because they experience that amongst their peers every day.

Although the book can be enjoyed standalone it builds on the background offered in the previous instalments. As before, the words are accompanied by illustrations which add to the visual appeal.

A rollicking fantasy adventure that will feed a child’s imagination. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this captivating tale.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.