The Skelf’s Book Series by Doug Johnstone

Doug Johnstone’s series about the amazing Skelf women, are some of my favourite books of all time. Dorothy, daughter Jenny and granddaughter Hannah run a funeral business and are also private investigators. A strong group of characters and an important part of why this series is so special! They form a powerful matriarchy and their love for each other, their passion to help others, makes them for me, some of the best female characters in modern crime fiction.

I love them so much I wanted to share my reviews of the four books in the series again and all in one post.

Three generations of women from the Skelfs family take over the family funeral-home and PI businesses in the first book of a taut, page-turning and darkly funny new series.

Meet the Skelfs: well-known Edinburgh family, proprietors of a long-established funeral-home business, and private investigators… When patriarch Jim dies, it’s left to his wife Dorothy, daughter Jenny and granddaughter Hannah to take charge of both businesses, kicking off an unexpected series of events.

Dorothy discovers mysterious payments to another woman, suggesting that Jim wasn’t the husband she thought he was. Hannah’s best friend Mel has vanished from university, and the simple adultery case that Jenny takes on leads to something stranger and far darker than any of them could have imagined.

As the women struggle to come to terms with their grief, and the demands of the business threaten to overwhelm them, secrets from the past emerge, which change everything…

A compelling, tense and shocking thriller and a darkly funny and warm portrait of a family in turmoil, A Dark Matter introduces a cast of unforgettable characters, marking the start of an addictive new series.

Review

After finishing this book, my first thoughts were this book is bloody fantastic and the second, delight that it is the start of a new series.

So why is it so special?

There is a strong and I mean strong, ensemble cast of female characters who shine from the pages. They are expertly crafted and an absolute joy to spend time with. Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah are a rarity in fiction; they are the central characters in a story that reflects both their differing ages, but also the strength and diversity of their lives. From the pitch perfect description of Dorthy’s grief, her revaluation of her marriage and life, Jenny’s self destructive life and young Hannah’s search for answers about her friends disappearance and relationship with both her mum and nan, we have a portrait of a family consumed by grief, yet at the same time, the strength and love that binds them together. The Skelfs are utterly believable and captured my heart and soul as the story progressed through layers of dark comedy and danger. This is a tale about the things that bind us as families, how the ebb and flow of love pushes us apart, but always pulls us together. They are remarkable women, you fee; their pain, their love for each other, their reliance on this network that binds them and you wish, or I did and still do, that I could just spend some time with them. So real, you could almost reach into the pages and take a seat beside them.

Of course, this is also a thriller and a perfect one at that; there is both danger and twists that hit you like you have been sucker punched and struggle to catch your brief as the shock subsides. You need not worry if you’re after a thriller that will knock you off your feet, because this one will. But for me, it is lifted up into the, I wish I could award it a sack full of stars catergory, by those moments in the novel that deal with their grief at the death of patriarch Jim. Within the first few pages you become a witness not only to their loss, but a stunning depiction of his funeral and cremation that rocked my reading world, so intense, so real did it feel, that I had to take a step back before I carried on reading. It is simply like no other book I have ever read. Just for those few pages and Dorothy’s search for answers, I would happily pay any price the publisher asked of me. It is simply mesmerising and rewarding on every level.

Add to that a mystery disappearance to be solved, a husband accused of cheating, three incredible women and you have a story, that will rock you reading world, make you laugh, cry and gasp in shock.

Running private investigator and funeral home businesses means trouble is never far away, and the Skelf women take on their most perplexing, chilling cases yet in book two of this darkly funny, devastatingly tense and addictive new series!

Haunted by their past, the Skelf women are hoping for a quieter life. But running both a funeral directors’ and a private investigation business means trouble is never far away, and when a car crashes into the open grave at a funeral that matriarch Dorothy is conducting, she can’t help looking into the dead driver’s shadowy life.

While Dorothy uncovers a dark truth at the heart of Edinburgh society, her daughter Jenny and granddaughter Hannah have their own struggles. Jenny’s ex-husband Craig is making plans that could shatter the Skelf women’s lives, and the increasingly obsessive Hannah has formed a friendship with an elderly professor that is fast turning deadly.

But something even more sinister emerges when a drumming student of Dorothy’s disappears and suspicion falls on her parents. The Skelf women find themselves sucked into an unbearable darkness – but could the real threat be to themselves?

Following three women as they deal with the dead, help the living and find out who they are in the process, The Big Chill follows A Dark Matter, book one in the Skelfs series, which reboots the classic PI novel while asking the big existential questions, all with a big dose of pitch-black humour.

Review

I have been looking forward to this novel from the day I finished the last pages of the first in the series, A Dark MatterThe Big Chill is a superb sequel! Equal parts exciting, terrifying, deeply moving and heart warming. It has a caste of strong supportive women. and storylines so beautifully written, that the complex web of interconnecting cases flow together with ease,  It is like sitting down snuggled up in your favourite reading chair, curled up in your cwtch (think of it like a snug) and reading a book that just feels utterly perfect.

I adored once again spending time with Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah, the Skelfs, who are the most wonderful intergenerational undertakers and private investigators you could hope to meet. They are absolutely my very favourite set of characters, flawed yes, it’s what makes them interesting, but they also all have a heart of gold, they care about those they bury and the living for whom they help track down missing husbands etc. What comes across even more in The Big Chill is how much they care for each other, grandmother, mother, daughter will always be the very best matriarchy, a cherished dream, that seek to help others, while protecting each other.  Here they are having to face up to the consequences and events that took place in A Dark Matter, but they do this together, reaching out to each other when the mental and physical anguish threatens to overwhelm them and it simply made me love them all the more.  Dorothy is the seventy year old head of the family, but put aside your misconceptions, she is no doddery old lady who sits in the background, while her family solve the crimes and bury the deceased. She is in fact, looking forward to the future, considering a new and potentially meaningful relationship and putting her heart and soul into helping those in need. Her daughter Jenny is a battered and bruised former reporter, now finding herself as The Big Chill progresses more and more comfortable in the role of Private Investigator. Then Hannah, deeply sensitive, fragile and yet passionate and brave, makes up this trio of perfectly balanced characters. Then Doug Johnstone surrounds them with supporting characters that form an ensemble of such richness and diversity, you really feel as if your walking through the streets of Edinburgh, not in the pages of a book, but there with them, within their lives, sharing their triumphs and also their pain.

The Big Chill is made up of several narrative arcs which are woven into the fabric of the story. There is the tragic death of a young man, Hannah and her friendship with a professor that has deadly consequences, the mystery around one of Dorothy’s young students and the continuing and terrifying influence of Jenny’s ex-husband over all their lives.  Now that might sound too many, but I promise you it isn’t! All the individual stories tie together and flow effortlessly in and out of each other. The writing catches you up within it’s embrace and very much like with the characterisation, makes you feel as if you are in Edenborough. The sense of place within is pitch perfect, I felt as if I was sat with Jenny as she talked with the cities homeless. I ached for Hannah as she fought her own pain, fears and obsessions and I hoped with a tangible pang in my chest that Dorothy would take the first tentative steps in a life without her beloved husband.  Doug Johnstone made me feel all of this and more, in a novel that is far from being chilly as any book can be, he gives us pain, even violence, but at it’s magnificent heart are the Skelfs and I can’t wait to read more. More and more.

Death is just the beginning…

The Skelf women live in the shadow of death every day, running the family funeral directors and private investigator business in Edinburgh. But now their own grief interwines with that of their clients, as they are left reeling by shocking past events.

A fist-fight by an open grave leads Dorothy to investigate the possibility of a faked death, while a young woman’s obsession with Hannah threatens her relationship with Indy and puts them both in mortal danger. An elderly man claims he’s being abused by the ghost of his late wife, while ghosts of another kind come back to haunt Jenny from the grave … pushing her to breaking point.

As the Skelfs struggle with increasingly unnerving cases and chilling danger lurks close to home, it becomes clear that grief, in all its forms, can be deadly…

Review

Black Hearts the fourth in the Skelf’s series is abundant proof of why author Doug Johnstone’s books not only appear on so many prize lists, but also why the series has been optioned for development into a TV series.

It is a thoughtful, touching book, full of moments of sorrow and excitement, all mixed up into one of the best drama’s available to read. Within it are three of the best characters in Scottish fiction, the very wonderful Skelf women. Working within the teaming community of Edinburgh, not only do they run a funeral business, but they also run a detective agency.

This original set-up creates a narrative that centers around the lives of these three women and the cast of characters that revolve in and out of their lives. The fact is that a book in which all the primary characters are female is still rare enough to make it incredibly special. For me to have followed a series around three generations of the same matriarchal family has been why I am such a massive fan. Take into account the superb stories that they inhabit, and you simply won’t find a better book to read.

The novel is made up of several intricate tales, there is murder, a mystery of a missing father, an old man crushed by the loss of his wife, who thinks he is being haunted and they come together perfectly to form a story that is impossible to put down. A heady mixture of love, loss, drama and family.

Many books feature these same elements, but what makes Black Hearts so brilliant, is its sense of family. Doug Johnstone gently layers it into all the stories, the connections good and bad formed within families and then showing us within an electrifying narrative, the utter destruction that can take place when the clan falls apart. By death, by abandonment, he takes the family dynamic apart and creates a story which is both heartbreaking, heartwarming and exciting, a heady mixture which forms the perfect story. Few writers can within a drama, break your heart, heal it and excite it like this author. He tests both them and us and this is why I love these women so much.

Even the pace of the narrative is perfect. Each story is given equal treatment and at no point does the story falter. From the quiet moments we are ambushed by sudden moments of excitement, fear even for the safety of the Skelf women. It delivers a quiet punch to the heart and left me feeling sad once again that my time with these remarkable women was over once again.

Well there you have it. I hope you love them all as much as I do!

You can purchase Doug Johnstone’s books from Amazon and Waterstones.

Reading From My Towering To Be Read Pile. Boy In A China Shop by Keith Brymer Jones

From the art teacher who changed his life to the nearly-famous band he fronted, potter, ceramics designer and the Great Pottery Throw Down judge Keith Brymer Jones pays tribute to the people, happy coincidences and memorable moments that have made his life what it is.

Ballet dancer. Front man in an almost famous band. Judge on The Great Pottery Throwdown. How did all that happen?

By accident mostly. But I always say we make our own luck. What if an art teacher hadn’t given me a lump of clay? What if the band had been really successful? What if I hadn’t taken a photograph of a bowl to the buyer at Heals in London? What if she’d hated it? Or hadn’t seen it… What if I hadn’t agreed to dress up as Adele to make a crazy YouTube video?

Every chapter of my book is based around an object (usually a pot) that’s been significant in my life. It’s just a trigger to let me go off in a lot of different directions and tell a few stories. A lot of stories. Dyslexia. The art teacher who changed my life. My Mother. My Father. A life-changing job interview with a man who lay under his car throughout. That video.

Sifting through half-forgotten memories, trying to pick out the golden nuggets from the stuff that is definitely dross has been a curious, and at times hilarious, sometimes sad, but definitely enlightening process. So here it is – my pottery life with some very loud music and some pretty good dancing. And a lot of throwing, fettling and firing. Oh …and a good dose of anxiety.

Review

I have always read non-fiction and fiction books, I love them equally and always will and yet I rarely write reviews for the first! So I wanted to remedy that and put pen to paper about some of the wonderful non-fiction books I read in 2023.

I have been in love with The Great Pottery Throw Down since I went looking for a feel-good programme during the Covid lockdowns. Here is a TV series celebrating the talents of potters across Britain and with a group of wonderful presenters such as Keith Brymer Jones.  He comes across as passionate about his craft and that attracted me to the book he has written about his life so far in Boy In A China Shop. I’m glad to say that the book confirms my opinion of him as being sensitive, committed and all round lovely person.

The one thing many autobiographies for me don’t do is convey the personality of the person properly, becoming just a series of events relayed in print, thankfully that is not the case here.  The Keith Brymer Jones who prone to crying, has a slightly mischievous sense of humour, speaks from the page and it is a delight to read.  We learn about his initial hopes to become a dancer, of how he struggled in school due to his dyslexia and how his art teacher introduced him to the greatest passion of his life, pottery! In doing so he set him on the path to TV and the programme loved by so many, The Great Pottery Throwdown.

What I love about this book is his honesty! It has not all been a bed of roses, this one-time dancer, then front man in a rock band, has faced a life long battle with anxiety. He talks about this and the toll starting his own pottery business took on his life with a practical sense of realism. We all imagine I think, that TV presenters are individuals blessed with trouble free lives, but the persona they project on screen, is not always an accurate reflection of their life experiences or the journey they took before appearing on our TV screens.  Boy In A China reflects the truth of his life and how the man beloved by so many arrived at a point in his life where he was invited to be a judge on a wonderful feelgood programme, beloved by so many. 

It really is a book that reflects his journey and takes us behind the scenes of his life. 

You can purchase this book from Amazon and Waterstones.

About the author

Keith Brymer Jones is a British potter and ceramic designer, internationally known for his homeware ‘Word’ range and celebrated as the lead judge on The Great Pottery Throwdown, Love Productions television series for Channel Four and HBO. In February 2021, the Evening Standard described him as ‘Quite simply the best person on TV at this present moment in time’.

After an apprenticeship at Harefield Pottery, he started hand-making ceramics for retailers including the Conran Group, Habitat, Barneys New York, Monsoon, Laura Ashley and Heals. As Head of Design for MAKE International he collaborates with other designers including Jane Foster, Scion Living, Hokolo and Becky Baur.

Reading from my towering to be read pile. Delicacy by Katie Wix

From award-winning comedian and writer Katy Wix comes Delicacy – a different kind of memoir from an astonishing new voice. Twenty-one snapshots of a life – some staccato, raw and shocking, some expansive, meditative, and profound, underpinned with moments of startling humour that shatter the darkness – all beginning with a single memory. A memory of cake.

The sickly royal icing marked the moment Katy found her voice. The madeira cake was the sun her group therapy sessions orbited. The ‘missing cake’ from a lost holiday has never let go. The Bara brith eaten in hospital after a life-altering car crash was as tough as the metal that hit her. The supermarket rock cake was where she ‘practised wanting’.

Shocking, raw, darkly funny and deeply humane, Katy Wix’s exploration of trauma, grief, addiction, love, loss, memory and hope is truly unforgettable.

Review

Books about grief, addiction, loss, hope and memory are not easy reads, but they can be both inspiring and healing for the reader as well as the author. When reading these books a symbiotic relationship often develops between the writer and the reader, in this case Katy Dix’s words creating shared bound with those that are struggling with such issues themselves and for those for whom this will all be part of their future. Because we can all by reading this book come to understand the complex human relationship with death and our own mental health. 

There is humour, often dark, which ripples through the story and allows the reader to connect both with the author and her story, using it as a coping mechanism, as they come to terms with the authors experiences and their reactions to them. So often the trauma that Katy Wix talks about, get buried and hidden from view and it shouldn’t as Delicacy shows us.  Even more moving is that by sharing her story, she helps us as readers to deal with our own trauma, simply by allowing us to know, that we are not alone. That there is a path through it all, even if that path is littered with dips and turns, with time and help, we can recover. 

I was deeply moved by the author’s honesty, it is both brave and inspiring to lay bare your pain to the world. Anyone that has experienced issues with their mental health, experienced loss and grief will understand how liberating it can be to share the struggle, to find closure and move on.  Importantly she writes of her experiences in a way that makes it all feel accessible.  There is no attempt to sugar coat her feelings or reactions to events and the humour is cathartic and healing.

You can purchase this book from Amazon and Waterstones

My Wonderful Reading Year – February 2023 – The Journey Continues

In February I sort of fell off the reading my own books challenge, but as a result I was introduced to some wonderful stories and so all feels good in my little reading corner. I read superb thrillers, moving memoirs and returned to one of my first reading loves, fantasy.

Review books

The Forcing by Paul E Hardisty

It is utterly compelling, grimly plausible and terrifying because of this. A Government of youth, angry at the mess made of the world, takes power in North America, forcing everyone over a certain age into exile, in an attempt to save the earth from total disaster. When we watch the news and see the mess we are making of our world and the protests by young people like Greta Thunberg, it doesn’t take a massive leap of imagination to envision that events in The Forcing, could one day become our reality, or more likely for the generations that follow us.

Expectant by Vanda Symon

There is something innately comforting about returning to a character and a familiar series of books! Like cwtching up with a hot drink, sunk into your very favourite chair. The Sam Shephard series is one of those books, for which any other plans are dropped and the world outside ceases to exist. All that matters is the words and the story. Don’t misinterpret this to suggest that it is a cosy drama, it isn’t, but it is consistently welcoming and both the characters and story are compulsive and engaging. The minute I open the page, I know that me and Sam Shepherd are going to face danger, navigate tricky relationships and face evil.

The Space Between Us by Doug Johnstone

The Space Between Us by Doug Johnstone is an extraordinary novel about friendship and the power of connection. The first contact between a teenager, a grieving mother with cancer, a pregnant women fleeing abuse and an alien race. That all sounds very Sci Fi and there is nothing wrong with that, but it’s not a book that will just appeal to fans of this genre, but to readers all types, because stories about friendship are universal.

Love and Care by Shaun Deeney

Love and Care is a beautiful story not just about his love for his mother, but the love others had for him and her. Not just an account of the challenges they faced, but the rewards they gained. Caring is an immense act of generosity, of love and Shaun Deeney writes about it with humour and veracity.

Books from my own bookshelf

The House on the Cerulean Sea by T J Klune

This is without a doubt one of my very favourite books this year and saw me return to one of my first reading loves, fantasy. It is also a love story and a tale about friendship, new chances and acceptance.

Seed to Dust by Marc Hamer

This is a book about finding peace in the natural world around you and it is written by an author with the soul of a poet. It a meditation on how to live with less and yet still feel whole.

I am looking forward to March and reading exclusively from my books. The first time in many many months.

Love and Care by Shaun Deeney

Shaun is finally free of responsibilities to anyone but himself; single, with two grown up daughters, he is just embarking on a new life in a new country when he gets a call to say his father is dying.

His mother has Parkinson’s Dementia and is in a care home. Shaun faces a stark choice: should he give up his new-found freedom, or turn his back on the woman he’d fought so hard to protect, not least from his own father?

Shaun’s mother had loved and cared for her son all her life. Could he now do the same for her?

Review

Love and Care by Shaun Deeney is a moving and uplifting account about the author’s decision to bring his mother home and become her full time carer. It is an honest and ultimately a deeply rewarding read, in which he details how he gave up his independence to look after her, as she once cared for and protected him.

Within it’s pages he tells us not just about the hurdles he faced to bring her home, but also how the love they shared meant that he was not doing this just out of a sense of obligation. It was an act of compassion and an acknowledgment of the bonds between family. Reading of how he battled the care system to look after her, was a privilege and emotionally very challenging. For we all face this possibility and he allows us to see that it is not all about sacrifice, that he found a sense of fulfilment from his new role. That there are rewards to be gained from caring for our loved ones. That though he faced many personal challenges, the decision he made to give his mum her greatest wish, to return home, brought them closer and gave him a chance to find peace with the past.

He doesn’t gloss over the cost to himself though, his honesty was refreshing and his account all the more impactful as a result. As every carer is aware, that although they care for for family members out of love and a sense of duty, there is a real threat to their sense of self. Within the pages of Love and Care, this was a very powerful theme for me and one many will be able to identify with. Unable to leave his mother for long periods of time, he began to feel isolated and this impacted his mental health. He had to learn to find a way forward and acknowledge he couldn’t do it all on his own. His writing showing those of us at the beginning of or caring journey, that we need to look after ourselves, if we are to care for those we love, in a way that is safe and full of love.

Love and Care is a beautiful story not just about his love for his mother, but the love others had for him and her. Not just an account of the challenges they faced, but the rewards they gained. Caring is an immense act of generosity, of love and Shaun Deeney writes about it with humour and veracity.

The book can be brought from Amazon and Waterstones as well as all good independent bookshops.

About the author

Shaun Deeney is a former journalist and Emmy award-winning film and TV producer. He
has made current affairs programmes for ITV on social issues, including care. He is also
the creator of a podcast on caring for his mother called Love and Care. Shaun has a
degree in English and American Literature from Kent at Canterbury. He has two daughters
and loves listening to Frank Sinatra. For more information visit shaundeeney.com.

The Space Between Us by Doug Johnstone

Connecting will change everything…

Lennox is a troubled teenager with no family. Ava is eight months pregnant and fleeing her abusive husband. Heather is a grieving mother and cancer sufferer. They don’t know each other, but when a meteor streaks over Edinburgh, all three suffer instant, catastrophic strokes…

…only to wake up the following day in hospital, miraculously recovered.

When news reaches them of an octopus-like creature washed up on the shore near where the meteor came to earth, Lennox senses that some extra-terrestrial force is at play. With the help of Ava, Heather and a journalist, Ewan, he rescues the creature they call ‘Sandy’ and goes on the run.

But they aren’t the only ones with an interest in the alien … close behind are Ava’s husband, the police and a government unit who wants to capture the creature, at all costs. And Sandy’s arrival may have implications beyond anything anyone could imagine…

Review

The Space Between Us by Doug Johnstone is an extraordinary novel about friendship and the power of connection. The first contact between a teenager, a grieving mother with cancer, a pregnant women fleeing abuse and an alien race.

That all sounds very Sci Fi and there is nothing wrong with that, but it’s not a book that will just appeal to fans of this genre, but to readers all types, because stories about friendship are universal.

I love that it encompasses so many themes that are often seen in literature, but rarely done as well as they are in The Space Between Us. Here we have a ‘road trip’ in which the three humans and a octopus-like creature go on the run and in doing so are looking for redemption and safety. Doug Johnstone managing to raise it above the normal account of a group of people running from the authorities, to a much deeper tale about fleeing war and seeking sanctuary. Then he weaves into it, the very basic need we have for connection and how as a species, when we raise borders between each other and other nations we reduce our capacity to grow and develop. It’s really a very beautiful story about how in embracing those different to us, we open ourselves up to the wonders of the world around us and beyond. That by rejecting the negativity of small minded bigotry, we as a species, can flourish and evolve.

The characterisation is another reason why I love this book so much. Sandy the octopus like creature, is just as much a character as Heather, Lennox and Ava. His innocence when played out against the cruelty of characters like Michael, really highlights how in The Connections Between Us, his goodness and compassion, are why the other three are willing to put their own individuality and problems aside, to pull together to help him. For the connection to work and for us to believe why they are wiling risk everything to help each other, it needs for all their stories to be explored and then brought together. He takes three very different people and narrates a story about how their friendship develops, but thankfully doesn’t make it all too easy. He shows us that their actions are not always entirely altruistic, there are tensions that lead to misunderstandings, which risk their ultimate goal, connection to each other and the world they live on. Each has suffered neglect, loss and rejection, but by helping each other they gain more than they can imagine and we are gifted a story full hope, empathy and compassion.

You can purchase this novel directly from the publisher Orenda Books.

Or from Amazon and Waterstones

About the author

Doug Johnstone is the author of fourteen previous novels, most recently Black Hearts (2022). The Big Chill (2020) was longlisted for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year and three of his books, A Dark Matter (2020), Breakers (2019) and The Jump (2015), have been shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year. He’s taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions over the last decade, and has been an arts journalist for over twenty years. Doug is a songwriter and musician with six albums and three EPs released, and he plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a band of writers. He’s also co-founder of the Scotland Writers Football Club, and has a PhD in nuclear physics. The Space between Us is Doug’s first foray into science fiction. Follow Doug on Twitter @doug_johnstone and visit his website: dougjohnstone.com.