Too Soon a Death by Janet O’Kane

Janet O’Kane’s second book Too Soon a Death follows on from No Stranger to Death, set in a fictional village in the Scottish Borders and continues the story of Doctor Zoe Moreland, a widow and one of the doctors at the local health centre. A boy’s body is discovered on the banks of the River Tweed, near the Chain Bridge, linking Scotland and England and Zoe is asked to help identify the body because he had a note in his clothing giving the health centre’s address and phone number – but he was not one of their patients.

Zoe is not without her own problems. I think this book reads well as a stand alone book, but it certainly helps to have read the previous book, which explains her current condition. At the beginning of Too Soon a Death she is still recovering from a vicious attack (details in No Stranger to Death) and is heavily pregnant.

As the events unfold, she receives anonymous phone calls and is followed by someone in a blue car, who at one point almost runs her down. Added to that her best friend Kate Mackenzie, a deaf genealogist, is having problems both with her ex-husband and a client, with disastrous results. Can Zoe trust a new acquaintance, the vet Patrick Dunin – she wonders who it is that keeps phoning him claiming his attention? A large, vicious looking dog attacks Zoe’s own dog and is savaging sheep. Where has he come from? And that is not all – Zoe has secrets in her own past that are finally revealed in this book.

In some respects Too Soon a Murder has a Midsomer Murders atmosphere, and a general ‘cosy’ feel, but it is not without violence. Its main focus, however, is on Zoe, how she is coping with her pregnancy, her plans for Keeper’s Cottage, which she has bought from Kate’s brother and her hopes to become a partner in the health centre. The crimes are investigated by DCI Erskine Mathers and Sergeant Trent, with Zoe’s assistance, although there are things she can’t tell the police because of patient confidentiality. It has a great sense of location (this may be helped because I know the area a little bit, living a few miles away on the English side of the Border), and the characters are well grounded and believable people, even the minor characters such as Margaret Howie, the practice receptionist, comes across as a character in her own right.

My thanks to Janet O’Kane for providing me with a copy to read and review. I’m looking forward to reading her third book, which she is currently writing.

Reading challenges: My first book for the Read Scotland Challenge –  a book set in Scotland.

The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie

In The Secret of Chimneys, Anthony Cade is drawn into a deadly conspiracy when he agrees to carry out an errand for his old friend, Jimmy McGrath. He has to deliver the manuscript memoir of Count Stylptich of Herzoslovakia to a firm of London publishers and to return a packet of letters to a blackmail victim.

It’s one of Agatha Christie’s early ‘thrillers’, first published in 1925. It is also the last full length crime novel of hers that I had left to read. I really thought I had read it but I think I was getting it mixed up with The Seven Dials Mystery, which features some of the same characters and is also set at Chimneys, a large country house, the home of Lord Caterham. The Secret of Chimneys is the first book in which Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard appears. He is an intelligent officer, outwardly impassive and stolid, but who reaches his conclusions applying common sense. Later he appeared in four more of her novels – The Seven Dials Mystery, Cards on the Table, Murder is Easy and Towards Zero.

Agatha Christie declines to describe Chimneys, other than to say it is a ‘venerable pile‘ and that descriptions of it can be found in any guidebook. ‘It is also No. 3 in Historic Homes of England, price 21s. On Thursdays coaches come over from Middleham and view those portions of it which are open to the public. In view of all these facilities, to describe Chimneys would be superfluous.‘ (page 128)

The 1920s upper class life style is evident in the lavish breakfast that is laid on at Chimneys, set out on ‘half a score of heavy silver dishes, ingeniously kept hot by patent arrangements. Omelet, said Lord Caterham, lifting each lid in turn. Eggs and bacon, kidneys, devilled bird, haddock, cold ham, cold pheasant.’ (page 134)

I’m not going to attempt to summarise the plot of this book, other than to say that it revolves around political events in the fictitious Balkan state of Herzoslovakia, with attempts to reinstate its royal family, and also international crime concerning the theft of jewellery  by a thief known in Europe as ‘King Victor’. It reminds me of P G Wodehouse’s books, written in the same light and humorous style.  It is sheer escapism and although it is not one of my favourite of her books, it is an entertaining book.

Reading Challenges: Agatha Christie Reading Challenge, Mount TBR challenge and Golden Vintage Mystery Cover Challenge: Bloodstains

Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie

Sparkling cyanideSparkling Cyanide (published as Remembered Death in America) was first published in 1945. It is a novel in which a crime is investigated a year after it was committed.

Rosemary, the wife of wealthy George Barton dies suddenly at her birthday party at a West End Restaurant, the Luxembourg, after drinking a glass of champagne laced with cyanide. Rosemary had been in a depressed and unhappy state of mind after having a bout of influenza.The official verdict was that she had committed suicide but a year on George, having received anonymous letters stating her death wasn’t suicide, is convinced that she was murdered. He arranges another party, this time for Iris, Rosemary’s younger sister, inviting the same guests, hoping to identify the murderer. But his plan goes awry, as after drinking a toast to Rosemary’s remembrance the party ends with yet another death.

Rosemary was a wealthy heiress in her own right and after her death her inheritance had passed to Iris. George had invited Colonel Race* to both parties, but he had been absent both times. He had known George since his boyhood but had only once met Rosemary, who he thought of as ‘a singularly lovely nit-wit – but certainly not a melancholic type‘. He helps Chief Inspector Kemp of Scotland Yard to investigate both deaths. As well as Iris and George the guests at the party were Ruth Lessing, George’s efficient secretary, and Rosemary’s friends, Anthony Browne, a man with a dubious past and a politician Stephen Farraday and his wife Sandra.

In a series of flashbacks Agatha Christie highlights each person and their relationships with Rosemary and it appears that each one, including George and Iris had a motive for killing her. I was convinced quite early on that one particular character had to be the murderer, but reading further on I began to have doubts, switching from one person to another. As it turned out I was right about my first suspect – Agatha Christie was expert at writing things that could be taken two ways. If I was right about the ‘who’ I couldn’t work out the ‘how’, particularly for the second death, but knew that where everyone sat at the round table was significant. When that was revealed I thought it was difficult to believe, which is why I don’t place it among her best books – but it’s still a very enjoyable read. And it was popular with the public achieving sales of thirty thousand in the first year of publication.

*Colonel Race – first appeared in The Man in the Brown Suit, also in Cards on the Table and Death on the Nile. His appearance in Sparkling Cyanide was his last. He was an agent working for the British Secret Service, often sent on difficult or sensitive missions. In this book he is over sixty, described as ‘a tall, erect, military figure with sunburnt face, closely cropped iron-grey hair, and shrewd dark eyes‘.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge and Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt for the Golden Age in the category of ‘Bottle/Glass for drinking’.

Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie

In 1945 Agatha Christie published two novels, Death Comes as the End and Sparkling Cyanide, neither of them featuring Hercule Poirot or Miss Jane Marple. By chance these two books are the last full length crime fiction novels by Agatha Christie that I had left to read. There are plenty of short stories of hers that I still have to read and her Mary Westmacott novels as well as her plays, so it is not the end of my reading of her work.

Death Comes as the End

The idea to write a detective story set in Ancient Egypt came from a friend, Professor Stephen Glanville – Death Comes as the End was the result. It is set on the West bank of the Nile at Thebes in about 2000 BC. But in her Authors Note Agatha Christie explained that both time and place are incidental and any other time or place would have served as well. She based her characters and plot on some letters from a Ka priest in the 11th Dynasty:

The letters painted to perfection the picture of a living family: the father fussy, opinionated, annoyed with his sons who did not do as he said; the sons, one obedient but not obviously bright, and the other sharp-tempered, showy, and extravagant. The letters the father wrote to his two sons were about how he must take care of a certain middle-aged woman, obviously one of those poor relations who all through the ages live with families, to whom the heads of families are always kindly, whereas the children usually grow up disliking them because they are often sycophants and makers of mischief. (Agatha Christie’s Autobiography page 514)

From these letters she constructed her story, adding Renisenb, a daughter, Nofret, a concubine for Imhotep, the father, a spoilt younger son and a greedy but shrewd grandmother. He is besotted by Nofret who antagonises the family, setting Imhotep against them. Things come to a head after Nofret has manipulated Imhotep to disinherit his sons and marry her and she is found dead, apparently having fallen from a cliff. More deaths follow.

The mystery in this book is actually not too puzzling. For me, its interest lay in the setting and period details. Agatha Christie, according to her Autobiography had done a lot of reading from books lent to her by Glanville and had also bombarded him with questions about daily life and customs in the 11th Dynasty – such as what food did they eat, how did they cook it, did men and women eat together, what sort of rooms did they sleep in, where did they keep their linen, what sort of houses did they have, and so on?

The end result for me was of authenticity – it all came over as real, the characters were individuals, their relationships were convincing and although Agatha Christie wasn’t happy with the ending, which she changed on Glanville’s suggestion, I thought it was fine. And just as she had pleasure in writing it I had pleasure in reading it.

Reading Challenges: Agatha Christie Reading Challenge, Mount TBR Reading ChallengeVintage Cover Scavenger Hunt for the Golden Age in the category ‘A Green Object’.

Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

I had no great expectations when I began reading Agatha Christie’s Destination Unknown (first published in 1954) because I’ve not been keen on her stand-alone international intrigue/spy mysteries. But I thought it started very well and I was soon drawn into the story.

It’s the early 1950s and a number of scientists have disappeared, amongst them is Thomas Betterton, a brilliant nuclear scientist, who had discovered ZE Fission. The British Secret Service suspect that he and the other missing scientists have gone beyond the Iron Curtain, either kidnapped, or tempted by money or by the dream of an ideal world, working for the good of humanity. His wife, Olive, has no idea where he is, but sets off for Morocco, ostensibly on medical advice for a complete rest. However, the plane crashes and she is killed before she gets to her destination.

Hilary Craven, whose abundant red hair is similar to Olive’s, is intent on taking her own life, but she is recruited by Jessop, a British Secret Service Agent who persuades her that if she wants to kill herself she could help her country at the same time by impersonating Olive and thus trace Betterton. In doing so it leads her to a secret scientific complex hidden in the High Atlas mountains and a terrifying discovery.

It went over the top with a string of disasters, involving a faked air disaster, radio-active pearls, a leper colony, and secret laboratories all part of a vast organisation masterminded by a wealthy and powerful fanatic. And added to the international intrigue there is also a murder which is only revealed right at the end of the book. If the plot is bizarre and rather weak, and some of the characters are stereotypes, Hilary’s character is more convincing. And as in her other spy thrillers, Agatha Christie uses it as a vehicle for her own concerns about the state of the post-war world, decrying what she saw as the attempt to impose a world order and discipline, where individuality is suppressed. Hilary thinks she:

would rather have a world of kindly, faulty human beings, than a world of superior robots who’ve said goodbye to pity and understanding and sympathy. (page 102)

It’s a dangerous world where

Once you have got into that state of mind where the taking of human lives no longer counts, then if it is simpler to put a little explosive package under a seat in a plane than to wait about at the corner on a dark night and stick a knife in someone, then the package will be left and the fact that six other people will die also is not even considered. (pages 143-144)

Just as true today as in the 1950s!

I am nearing the end of reading Agatha Christie’s full length novels and now have just 2 left to read. Although Destination Unknown is not one of my favourites I did enjoy reading it – it moves quickly and kept me interested in its twists and turns. There’s a lot going on and it’s not easy to know who is telling the truth and who to trust.

****

Added on 15th January 2016:

The edition of Destination Unknown that I read has this cover, fulfilling the cigarette/pipe category on the Golden Age Vintage Mystery Hunt card, as well as the Mount TBR Reading Challenge:

In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward

I’ve made a great start to 2016 with the first book I’ve read this year. In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward is her debut novel and it is excellent. I’ve been enjoying her book blog, Crimepieces, for a while now, so when I saw that she had published a book, I knew I had to read it. It will certainly be on my list of favourite books at the end of the year.

This is just the sort of book I love – excellent storytelling, moving smoothly between the past and the present as the secrets from the past gradually emerge, great characterisation and a superb location in the Derbyshire Peak District that Sarah Ward obviously knows very well. It is also a complex and puzzling mystery that kept me glued to the book.

In January 1978 two eight-year old girls, Rachel Jones and Sophie Jenkins were walking to school together when a strange woman offered them a lift in her car. Rachel is later found in Truscott Woods but Sophie was never found.  Move forward 30 years when Sophie’s mother commits suicide. Troubled by Yvonne Jenkin’s suicide, the police reopen the case – Superintendent Llewellyn who was on the original team asks DI Francis Sadler and his team, DC Connie Childs and DS Damian Palmer to see if there was anything that had been missed in 1978.

Ruth has very little memory of the kidnapping as she was drugged and she has nothing to add to the statement she made as a child. But prompted by Yvonne’s suicide she tries to remember what had happened and as she is a genealogist her research into her own family history proves to be invaluable. The questions are which child was the target, why was Rachel the only one to escape and what is the significance of her missing socks? The tension and mystery ramp up with a modern day murder, when Mrs Lander, one of the teachers at the girls’ school is found dead in the woods where Rachel was discovered 30 years earlier.

As I read I jotted down a few points that I thought were relevant. These were socks, illegitimacy, missing fathers and was Mrs Lander’s murder connected to the kidnapping and Yvonne’s suicide? It was only near the end of the book that I worked out why these points were relevant.

Connie was my favourite police officer and I liked the relationship between her and Sadler and the competition between her Sergeant Damian Palmer. I also liked the fact that although there are violent deaths in this book they are not described graphically. The weather gets colder and colder as the chilling events unfold and the devastating family secrets are revealed.

This is a powerful and well written crime fiction novel, one that I enjoyed immensely. I’m glad that there is to be a sequel, A Fragile Spring, which will be published later this year. I’m definitely looking forward to reading it.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

I thoroughly enjoyed Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, but with
Christmas and New Year just a few days away this is just a brief post to record a few of my thoughts before they fade from my mind.

This is the Blurb:

In the company of his friend Stephen Katz (last seen in the bestselling Neither Here nor There), Bill Bryson set off to hike the Appalachian Trail, the longest continuous footpath in the world. Ahead lay almost 2,200 miles of remote mountain wilderness filled with bears, moose, bobcats, rattlesnakes, poisonous plants, disease-bearing tics, the occasional chuckling murderer and – perhaps most alarming of all – people whose favourite pastime is discussing the relative merits of the external-frame backpack.

Facing savage weather, merciless insects, unreliable maps and a fickle companion whose profoundest wish was to go to a motel and watch The X-Files, Bryson gamely struggled through the wilderness to achieve a lifetime’s ambition – not to die outdoors.

And here’s what I thought:

I was fascinated by it all from the details of the Appalachian Trail itself stretching from Georgia to Maine, to Bryson’s observations about the people he met, the difficulties of walking with a huge backpack, and his relationship with Katz, who struggled to keep up with him. I know what that feels like, hiking with people fitter than you and seeing them march off in front of you, waiting for you to catch up and then setting off again – I felt sorry for Katz.

I can’t say that it made me want to go out and walk for days along a long distance trail, but I did enjoy reading about his experiences and his descriptions of the trail and of the places he visited off the trail. Some of the route sounds very dangerous, such as this for example as Bryson and Katz walked through a snow storm:

… we came to a narrow ledge of path along a wall of rock called Big Butt Mountain.

Even in ideal circumstances the path around Big Butt would have required delicacy and care. It was like a window ledge of path on a skyscraper, no more than fourteen or sixteen inches wide, and crumbling in places, a sharp drop on one side of perhaps 80 feet and long, looming stretches of vertical granite on the other. Once or twice I nudged foot-sized rocks over the side and watched with faint horror as they crashed and tumbled to improbably remote resting places. (pages 100-101)

What? He watched with ‘faint horror’? It terrifies me just to think of being on a path like that! He goes on to say that all the way along this ledge they were half blinded by snow and jostled with wind. It wasn’t a blizzard, it was a tempest and at one point Katz lost his footing and ended up hugging a tree, his ‘feet skating, his expression bug-eyed and fearful’. Oh, no that is definitely not for me.

I liked all the facts about the flora and fauna, and the history of the Trail and indeed about the history connected to the landscape.  Bryson’s descriptions set the scene so vividly I could easily imagine myself there – too easily in the hard places, but also in the beautiful locations, such as this in the Shenandoah Valley:

… a spacious, sun-dappled dell, tucked into a bowl of small hills, which gave it an enchanted secretive feel. Everything you might ask of a woodland scene was there – musical brook, carpet of lush ferns, elegant well-spaced trees … (page 204)

I wished it had an index and that the map of the Trail was more detailed, oh and some photos would have been good. I shall have to wait until I see the film to really see what the Trail is like.

I set out to write just a brief post! But there is so much more that I could have written that really it is just a brief post.

Imperium by Robert Harris

With not many days left until Christmas and the New Year I’ve just about got time to write a bit about two books I’ve read this month from my to-be-read books. I’ll be writing about the second book in a later post.

The first one is Imperium by Robert Harris, the first in his Cicero Trilogy.

I love historical fiction and over the years I’ve read quite a lot of it, including novels set in Ancient Rome, so I’m familiar with the characters in this book, but not about all the details that Robert Harris has packed into Imperium.

Beginning in 79 BC, this book set in the Republican era is a fictional biography of Marcus Tullius Cicero by Tiro, his slave secretary. Tiro was a real person who did write a biography of Cicero, which has since been lost in the collapse of the Roman Empire. Tiro is credited with the invention of shorthand. Harris has based Imperium on, among other sources, Cicero’s letters, which Tiro had recorded, successfully interweaving Cicero’s own words with his own imagination.  It is basically a political history, a story filled with intrigue, scheming and treachery in the search for political power as Cicero, a senator, works his way to power as one of Rome’s two consuls.

The first part of the book (and I think the best part) covers the trial of Verres, a corrupt governor of Sicily. I found this gripping as it was by no means obvious that Verres would be found guilty. Cicero builds the case against him and the resulting trial is a dramatic showdown.

After that the book dragged just a little bit for me as it moved on to describing a complicated struggle to change Rome’s government from a Republic to having an Emperor as absolute ruler. But it picked up again towards the end and overall I thought this was a very good book and I’m keen to read the second in the trilogy, Lustrum.

In such a short post as this is I cannot go into much detail – and the novel is very detailed. I marked many passages that struck me as interesting and felt much of the struggle for power applies as much today as it did in Ancient Rome. I’ll finish this post with one quotation (there are plenty of others I could have chosen):

You can always spot a fool, for he is the man who will tell you he knows who is going to win an election. But an election is a living thing – you might almost say, the most vigorously alive thing there is – with thousands upon thousands of brains and limbs and eyes and thoughts and desires, and it will wriggle and turn and run off in directions no one ever predicted, sometimes just for the joy of proving the wiseacres wrong. (page 471)

Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming

Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming has been on my TBR shelves since 2011 and is one of the books I listed to read as part of the To Be Read Pile Challenge 2015.

This is the edition I read

I’ve seen most of the James Bond films but never read any of the books before. It was not as action packed as I expected but full of quite lengthy descriptions of what the characters looked like and the clothes they wore, and about gambling and horse racing. I like description but this got a bit tedious, although I did like Fleming’s descriptions of the locations from the African desert to Hatton Garden jewellers and the casinos of Las Vegas. Here for example is a description of the view from the plane taking Bond to New York, as the sun came up

… over the rim of the world and bathed the cabin in blood.

Slowly with the dawn, the plane came alive. Twenty thousand feet below, the houses began to show like grains of sugar spilt across a brown carpet. Nothing moved on the earth’s surface except a thin worm of smoke from a train, the straight white feather of a fishing boat’s wake across an inlet, and the glint of chromium from a toy motor car caught in the sun; but Bond could almost see the sleeping humps under the bedclothes beginning to stir and, where there was a wisp of smoke rising into the still morning air, he could smell coffee brewing in the kitchens. (page 62)

There is very little action until about half way through the book. It is easy to read and moves at a decent place, once it gets going and despite all the descriptive passages. The plot is quite simple – Bond is assigned to infiltrate and close down a diamond smuggling operation, run by the Spangled Mob, operating from Africa to the UK and the USA. It’s run by a couple of American gangsters, the Spang brothers, and the mysterious character known as ABC.

He meets Tiffany Case, a beautiful blonde, an intelligent and resourceful woman, who was gang-raped as a teenager. By the end of the book she and Bond have fallen in love and survived almost impossibly dangerous situations. Also helping Bond is the American Felix Leiter now no longer working for the CIA,  having lost an arm and a leg in a shark attack, but as a private detective employed by the Pinkerton  Detective Agency.

The James Bond in this book is not quite the James Bond of the movies, but still a very likeable character, with obstinate eyes in a lean brown face – Bond is maybe the one character in this book with not much description. The villains are not as evil and sinister as the movie villains – for example, there’s no Blofeld, or Rosa Kleb or Goldfinger. The Spang brothers are Jack and Serrafimo, who owns a western ranch and ghost town called Spectreville. Then there are a couple of thugs, Wint and Kidd, who come across as caricatures, but they are a serious threat to Bond, who gets quite a severe beating (no gory descriptions), when he is captured, only to  escape with Tiffany, ending in a wild chase across the western desert.

So, overall I think this is an entertaining if not a mind-stretching book. I enjoyed it.

Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard

Nagasaki: Life after Nuclear War by Susan Southard is an amazing, heart-wrenching book.

The facts are horrendous – on August 9th 1945, two days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, a five-ton plutonium bomb was dropped on the small coastal town of Nagasaki. The effects were cataclysmic.

This must be one of the most devastatingly sad and depressing books I’ve read and yet also one of the most uplifting, detailing the dropping of the bomb, which killed 74,000 people and injured another 75,000. As the subtitle indicates this book is not just about the events of 9 August 1945 but it follows the lives of five of the survivors from then to the present day. And it is their accounts which make this such an emotive and uplifting book, as it shows their bravery, how they survived, and how they were eventually able to tell others about their experiences. Along with all the facts about the after effects of the bombing, the destruction, and radiation, it exposes the true horror of atomic warfare, making it an impressive and most compelling account of pain, fear, bravery and compassion.

Throughout the book the black and white photos illustrate the true horror of the effects of the bomb – photos of Nagasaki both before and after the bomb was dropped, of five survivors – Wada Kohi (aged 18 in August 1945), a street car operator; Nagano Etsuko (aged 16), who worked on a production line in a Mitsubishi airplane parts factory;  Taniguchi Sumiteru (aged 16), who worked at Minchino-o Post Office; Yoshida Katsuji (aged 13), a student at Nagasaki Prefecture Technical School on a ship building course; and Do-oh Mineko (aged 15), formerly a student at Keiho Girls High School, working at the Mitsubishi Arms Factory Onashi Plant. There are also maps showing Japan today and of Nagasaki 1945 showing the Scope of Atomic Bomb Damage.

Susan Southard’s ten years of research has resulted in this impressive book as she reveals what happened in particular to these five survivors, their immediate injuries, the radiation-related cancers and illnesses they have suffered, and their difficulties of daily living still in pain both physical and emotional.

In addition to all that Nagasaki ‘reveals the censorship that kept the suffering endured by the hibakusha [atomic bomb-affected people] hidden around the world. For years after the bombings news reports and scientific research were censored by U.S. occupation forces and the U.S. government led an efficient campaign to justify the necessity and morality of dropping the bombs’ (from the jacket sleeve).

I knew a bit about Hiroshima and Nagasaki before I read this book but it has opened my eyes to the true horror of nuclear war and the need to prevent anything like this happening again.

Many thanks to Souvenir Press Ltd for sending me a complimentary copy for review.

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Souvenir Press Ltd (2 Nov. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0285643274
  • ISBN-13: 978-0285643277

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

Ingenious! That’s what I thought when I’d finished reading The Murder at the Vicarage. Although Agatha Christie had written short stories featuring Miss Marple this is the first full length Miss Marple story, published in 1930.

I’ve been reading my way through Agatha Christie’s crime fiction for a few years now, totally out of order, which is why I’ve only just got round to reading The Murder at the Vicarage. I’d picked up along the way on the fact that Miss Marple uses her knowledge of people to help her solve the mysteries she investigates. And it is in this book that her use of analogy is made absolutely explicit, as she considers who could have killed Colonel Prothero, the unpopular churchwarden, found in the vicar’s study shot through the head. She comes up with seven suspects, all based on examples of human behaviour she has observed in the past.

Miss Marple is not the popular figure she appears in the later books as not everybody likes her. The vicar does, liking her sense of humour, and describing her as ‘a white-haired old lady with a gentle appealing manner’, whereas his wife describes her as ‘the worst cat in the village. And she always knows everything that happens – and draws the worst inference from it.

But it is very helpful to know what is going on in St Mary Mead, about Dr Stone, a well-known archaeologist superintending the excavation of a barrow on Colonel Protheroe’s land and about Mrs Lestrange, a mysterious woman who has recently moved to the village and also about who was coming and going to the vicarage and when.

It’s also helpful to have a a plan of St Mary Mead, showing where the main characters live, and plans of the layout of the vicarage and the vicar’s study, where the murder occurred.

After one of the suspects confesses to the murder Inspector Slack, who shows his contempt for Miss Marple, thinks the case is closed, but Miss Marple is puzzled – the facts seem to her to be wrong. The Murder at the Vicarage has an intricate plot, is full of red herrings and was impossible for me to unravel, but Miss Marple with her knowledge of ‘Human Nature’ solves the mystery.

I enjoyed this book very much, but Agatha Christie writing her Autobiography years later, wasn’t all that pleased with it. She thought it had too many characters and too many sub-plots; she is probably right. But she thought that the main plot was sound and that the village was as real to her as it could be. It’s real to me too.

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

I was a bit doubtful that I would like Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner as it’s written in the present tense, which I usually find irritating. But I needn’t have been concerned because it wasn’t long before I’d completely forgotten the tense and I was totally immersed in the story. And I loved it.

Missing, Presumed is crime fiction, investigating the disappearance of Edith Hind, a beautiful Cambridge post-grad.  Her boyfriend, Will Carter had returned to their flat to find the front door open, coats in disarray and a spatter of blood on the kitchen floor. It’s told from different characters’ viewpoint, each one individually distinct, beginning with DS Manon Bradshaw on the Major Incident Team (her name means ‘bitter’ in Hebrew, but I thought it was Welsh), a lonely disillusioned single woman approaching forty, who overcomes her insomnia by listening to the low murmurings of police reports on her radio.

Edith’s mother, Miriam, Lady Hind, is distraught, wondering if somehow this is fault, her daughter the centre of a drama. Sir Ian Hind, a successful doctor, physician to the Royal Family and a friend of the Home Secretary adds to the pressure the police are under to find Edith. Edith’s friend, Helena comes under suspicion and known offenders are interviewed, but after the first 72 hours she is still missing. The team’s urgency is cooling  as the possibility that Edith is still alive diminishes. Then a dog walker finds a body in the Ouse, near Ely; is it Edith? The search for the killer is intensified.

This has all the ingredients of a successful crime novel for me. My only criticism of the book is that I didn’t think the final section, ‘One Year Later‘ in which the ends are tied up , was necessary. But apart from that I found it gripping and intense. I was intrigued by the multi-layered plot, and thought the characters were fully rounded, believable people, explored with psychological depth – in particular Manon Bradshaw stands out. And, best of all, it is beautifully written.

The Author

Susie Steiner is a novelist and freelance journalist. She began her writing career as a news reporter first on local papers, then on the Evening Standard, the Daily Telegraph and The Times. In 2001 she joined The Guardian, where she worked as a commissioning editor for 11 years. For more information see her website, susiesteiner.co.uk

My thanks to Lovereading for providing an advance proof of this novel, due to be published in February 2016. Missing, Presumed is Susie Steiner’s second book – the first is Homecoming, which I really must read.

And I do hope she will write more about DS Manon Bradshaw.

The Abbess of Whitby by Jill Dalladay

The Abbess of Whitby is subtitled A Novel of Hild of Northumbria. As Jill Dalloway explains in her Author’s Note at the end of the book what we know about Hild (St Hilda) comes from the Jarrow monk Bede’s  A History of the English Church and People written 40 years after her death. He gave no information about her between the ages of 13 and 33, so Jill Dalloway has based her fictional account of her life up to the age of 33 on the works of various modern scholars, assuming that like other royal girls of the time she was married for dynastic or political purposes. The major characters are historical, with a few exceptions and Hild’s husband and son are fictional. Hild was born in 614 and died in 680.

Knowing very little about the historical background to the story I found this a fascinating book, but could not have followed it very easily without the list of characters, the family tree of the royal families of Northumbria and the maps showing the Peoples of 7th Century Britain and of Hild’s Northumbria. I was surprised by how much people travelled in the 7th century. It spurred me on to find out more and I am now reading The King in the North: the Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria by Max Adams. I would also like to read Edwin: High King of Britain and Oswald: Return of the King both by Edoardo Albert.

About two thirds of the book covers Hild’s early life, from the time she was chosen to lead the handmaidens of the fertility goddess  Eostre. It’s a time of transition as people are gradually being converted to Christianity, although at first it appears to be a matter of politics rather than of faith. Her marriage to Cerdic of the Goddodin tribe took her to Din Edin (Edinburgh). When home and family are lost in Oswy’s sack of Edinburgh, she finds herself in enemy hands, but meets the charismatic Aidan (St Aidan of Lindisfarne). The final part of the book covers her life as she helped establish various chapels and finally settled in Whitby as the Abbess there, involved in resolving the Easter dispute at the Synod of Whitby in 664. This settled that the calculations to establish the date of Easter would be according to the customs of Rome, rather than the Celtic customs practised by Irish monks at Iona and also to observe the monastic tonsure.

For me the first two thirds  of the book, showing the disputes between the separate kingdoms in Britain in the 7th century, the  transition from pagan to Christian beliefs and the harsh conditions and plague people had to endure, came to life more successfully than the later chapters.

I received this book for review from the publishers via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program.

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Lion Fiction; 1st New edition (21 Aug. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1782641548
  • ISBN-13: 978-1782641544

Jill Dalloway is a classicist, historian and former head teacher who pioneered the Cambridge Latin Course. She lives in Whitby.

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas

I really enjoyed The Ghost Riders of Ordebec. It’s full of  eccentric and quirky characters, an intriguing mystery beginning with the death of an old woman, killed with breadcrumbs, then a car is burnt out with someone inside, and a pigeon is found with its legs tied together so it can’t fly.

But the main mystery Commissaire* Adamsberg has to solve is the strange tale a woman from Ordebec, a little village in Normandy, presents to him.

Blurb:

‘People will die,’ says the panic-stricken woman outside police headquarters.

She refuses to speak to anyone besides Commissaire Adamsberg. Her daughter has seen a vision: ghostly horsemen who target the most nefarious characters in Normandy. Since the middle ages there have been stories of murderers, rapists, those with serious crimes on their conscience, meeting a grisly end following a visitation by the riders.

Soon after the young woman’s vision a notoriously vicious and cruel man disappears. Although the case is far outside his jurisdiction, Adamsberg agrees to investigate the strange happenings in a village terrorised by wild rumours and ancient feuds.

My thoughts:

This is the 8th book in Fred Vargas’ series of Commissaire Adamsberg books. I’ve previously read two, so I’ve a bit of catching up to do. But although there are obviously events that I don’t know about (the appearance of a son, aged 28, that he hadn’t known about, for one thing) this doesn’t detract from the story. I loved all the strange characters – not just the odd people living in Ordebec, but also Adamsberg’s fellow police officers whom he describes as:

 … a hypersomniac who goes to sleep without warning, a zoologist whose speciality is fish, freshwater fish in particular, a woman with bulimia who keeps disappearing in search of food, an old heron who knows a lot of myths and legends, a walking encyclopaedia who drinks white wine non-stop — and the rest to match.” (page 67)

And I also loved the medieval myths and legends forming the basis of the plot: the ghostly army that gallops along the Chemin de Bonneval, led by the terrifying Lord Hellequin.

Adamsberg is a thinker – but a vague thinker – he works mainly on intuition, and in this book his intuition and deductive reasoning have to work overtime. I was thoroughly immersed in this book, enjoying the humour as well as the mystery, intrigued to see how the crimes came together and how the pigeon was rescued. It’s original, and maybe not altogether plausible, but most definitely a treat to read.

Fred Vargas is the pseudonym of the French historian, archaeologist and writer Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau.

*Commissaire is roughly the equivalent of a British Superintendent. His colleagues’ ranks in descending order are commandant, lieutenant and brigadier.

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly Willowes has been on my radar for a few years now and I’ve seen a few other bloggers have been reading it recently – Cath for one at Read Warbler.

From the back cover:

After the death of her adored father, Laura ‘Lolly’ Willowes settles into her role of the ‘indispensable’ maiden aunt of the family, wholly dependent, an unpaid nanny and housekeeper. Two decades pass; the children are grown, and Lolly unexpectedly moves to a village, alone. Here, happy and unfettered, she revels in a new existence, nagged only by the sense of a secret she has yet to discover.

And here is what I thought about it.

Published in 1926, Lolly Willowes is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s first novel. In the Introduction to this edition by Sarah Waters she states that it was an instant hit  with readers and critics and I can see why. On the surface it’s a gentle fantasy, but it’s not at all whimsical, and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s writing is beautiful, lovely lyrical descriptions of both town and country. It’s a book of two parts – the first about Lolly’s existence with her brother’s family in London, where she becomes increasingly disquiet and finds her self indulging in day dreaming about being

‘in the country, at dusk, and alone, and strangely at peace. … Her mind was groping after something that eluded her experience, a something that was shadowy and menacing, yet in some way congenial, a something that lurked in waste places, that was hinted at by the sound of water gurgling through deep channels and by the voices of birds of ill-omen. (page 67)

There’s a bit of a spoiler in this next paragraph.

The second part about her life in the little village of Great Mop, in the Chilterns in the Buckinghamshire countryside is in direct contrast, as she gradually regains the peaceful happy existence she had had growing up. But Great Mop is not just a sleepy backwater because as Laura discovers there are unusual forces at large and she finds herself with her neighbours at a night-time gathering dancing in a continual flux. Her life is changed forever as she meets Satan, who turns out to have a happy relationship with his servants and she enters into a new independence.

So this is a somewhat magical, mystical book and underlying the text is the changing position of women in society in the 1920s,  especially single women financially dependent on their male relatives, who previously were expected to remain within the family looking after elderly relatives, or as in Lolly’s case helping with looking after the children and the running of the household.  In moving away from her family Lolly asserts her independence and enjoys her single life as part of the village community.

So, it’s a book I really enjoyed, for its content, the characters and setting and last but not least Sylvia Townsend Warner’s style of writing. She went on to write more books and poetry, including these novels:

Lolly Willowes (1926)
Mr Fortune’s Maggot (1927)
The True Heart (1929)
This Our Brother (1930)
Summer Will Show (1936)
After the Death of Don Juan (1939)
The Corner That Held Them (1948)
The Barnards of Loseby (1954)
The Flint Anchor (1954)
The Cat’s Cradle (1960)

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is the cover of my copy of the book

A rather strange book; its ambiguous content left me wondering just what had happened and how to interpret it.

On the surface this is simply the story of a widow, Etsuko living in Britain, as she reminisces about her past life in Japan shortly after the war, living at the edge of the wasteland of Nagasaki. She is haunted by the past and by the suicide of her daughter, Keiko, who was never happy living in Britain. Her younger daughter, Niki, visits her and it is during this visit that Etsuko remembers a friendship she had had briefly with a mysterious woman, Saicho, once wealthy but now reduced to poverty, and her little daughter, Mariko.  Saicho often leaves Mariko to fend for herself, seemingly unconcerned about what she does and where she is, which troubles Etsuko, who is expecting her first daughter who I assume is Keiko.

There are parallels between Saicho and Etsuko. Just as Saicho is hoping to leave Japan with Frank, her American friend, so Etsuko (without her Japanese husband, Jiro; what happened to him is not explained) left Japan to live in Britain with her British husband. Their daughters are disturbed characters, unhappy, solitary and distant from their mothers.

As I read I began to wonder about Etsuko, especially when she says:

Memory, I realize, can be an unreliable thing; often it is heavily coloured by the circumstances in which one remembers, and no doubt this applies to certain of the recollections I have gathered here. (page 156)

To say much more would reveal too much of the story, but when I came to a sentence where the pronoun changes I was even more unsure just what was meant and what actually happened. This is a book I need to re-read in the light of its ambiguity.

However the events play out this is a beautifully written book, describing the countryside around and in Nagasaki after the Second World War, referring to life before the war, and how not only the landscape but also the people and traditions were altered in the aftermath of the atomic bomb. There is an awful lot packed within its 183 pages. It’s a fascinating story of loss, grief, guilt and shame.

A Pale View of Hills is Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel. It won the 1982 Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize.

Mrs Jordan’s Profession by Claire Tomalin

Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Actress and the Prince

I loved Mrs Jordan’s Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a King, Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dora Jordan. It is both well researched and well written making it easy to read despite being packed with information, brilliantly bringing the late 18th and early 19th centuries to life as she tells the story of Dora and her relationship with the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV .  It’s based on material in the Royal Archives at Windsor; letters from Dora held at the Huntingdon Library, San Merino, California; various private family papers, letters and memorabilia, as well as numerous secondary sources from national and local libraries.  The resulting biography took her several years to complete.

Much of the information about Dora is taken from her own letters, written over 25 years, to her children and friends and many hundreds of those to the Duke of Clarence, the father of ten of her children (the FitzClarences) have survived. She was a remarkably strong character and an incomparable actress.

William, the Duke of Clarence and Dora Jordan were born into very different families – born in 1765 he was the third son of George III and Queen Charlotte,  and she was born in 1761, the daughter of Francis and Grace who although not legally married lived together as Mr and Mrs Bland.  He was not expected to succeed to the throne and as a boy served in the navy, later he was given a dukedom, an income and an estate. She became an actress, known as ‘Mrs Jordan’, although there was never a Mr Jordan. She made her stage debut in 1777 at the age of 15 and her first Drury Lane appearance in 1785. The two met and she became his mistress in 1790, eventually living together at Bushy House in Middlesex. Their relationship was a happy one until, as the years went by, William was put under pressure to find a suitable wife and, of course, marriage to Dora was out of the question. They separated in 1811 and she was heart broken.

There is so much in this book that fascinated me. The attacks in the press on their relationship were vicious and there were storms of abuse – as an actress and a prince they could not have private lives and the journalists and cartoonists were savage in their portrayal of the couple. The cartoons in particular amazed me. ‘Jordan’ was a common term for a chamber-pot, so her name came in very handily, and became an instantly recognisable visual symbol:

Sometimes it was put over the Duke’s head; sometimes he was shown standing in it, with her prettily draped round the edge, naked and mermaid-like. In other drawings the pot reverted to its domestic function under the bed; the words ‘Public jordan open to all parties’ were written round one of these. The most effective and cruellest was Gillray’s simple picture showing Dora as a giant chamber-pot, cracked and with a vagina-shaped hole into which the figure of William is disappearing, giving a nautical shout of pleasure as he does so. His braided coat is hanging on a peg to one side and her ankles and feet in dainty slippers appear below the pot. The caption reads ‘The Lubber’s Hole, alias the Cracked Jordan’, (page 123)

Dora comes across as a very likeable person, hard working, and devoted to her family. She was a talented and probably  the most popular actress of the time in Britain, based at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and also appearing in theatres throughout the country, acting throughout her pregnancies and often taking a baby with her on tour. Claire Tomalin writes

She was the best-loved and most admired comic actress of her time, hailed by fellow actors, critics and public alike as a uniquely gifted performer, fully the equal in comedy to Mrs Siddons in tragedy: for several decades they were generally referred to as the Muses of Comedy and tragedy. (page 3)

After she and the Duke separated the debts incurred by a son-in-law drawn on her account forced her to live abroad until they could be cleared, but she sank into illness and despair and died near Paris in 1816.

William succeeded to the throne in 1830, after the death of his older brother, George IV. One of the first acts of his reign was to commission a sculpture – he wanted a life-size representation of Dora, She had been dead for  fifteen years, so Francis Chantrey, the sculptor worked from portraits, finishing it in 1834. William’s intention was to place the statue in Westminster Abbey, but the Dean of Westminster refused to allow it and it remained in Chantrey’s studio. Eventually, after passing through several hands, the fifth Earl of Munster bequeathed it to the Queen and it is now in Buckingham Palace among the portraits of kings and queens in the Picture Gallery.

Like all good biographies Mrs Jordan’s Profession has an extensive bibliography, additional notes and an index. There are several photographs, family trees of and an appendix of Mrs Jordan’s Roles.

  • Paperback: 422 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin 1995
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140159233
  • Source: I bought the book

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2015, Non Fiction Reading Challenge 2015, TBR Pile Challenge 2015.

Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin

In Ian Rankin’s previous book Saints of the Shadow Bible Rebus was back on the police force, the rules on retirement age having changed. Now, two years later in Even Dogs In the Wild Rebus is on his second retirement – well almost. It seems they can’t do without him and when someone takes a potshot at retired gangster, Big Ger Cafferty DI Siobhan Clarke suggests they ask him to act in a ‘consultative capacity’ albeit not as a cop and with no warrant card or real powers and with no pay. Cafferty refuses to let the police in to talk to him – he’ll only speak to Rebus. That suits Rebus as he’s bored with being retired, each day the same as the one before.

It seems this is connected to the killing of David Menzies Lord Minton, a former Lord Advocate, who had been found beaten around the head and throttled. He had received a note: I’M GOING TO KILL YOU FOR WHAT YOU DID – as had Cafferty.

A second strand of the story concerns the warfare between two gangs, one from Glasgow, headed by Joe Stark, who have arrived in Edinburgh looking for a guy called Hamish Wright and whatever it is he has stolen from them, and the other from Edinburgh, headed up by Darrell Christie, Cafferty’s successor. DI Malcolm Fox, no longer in Professional Standards, is seconded to the team of undercover cops from Glasgow, surveilling Stark and his men.

And so a complicated scenario unfolds, with more deaths, and so many twists and turns that my mind was in a whirl as I tried to sort out all the characters. After a dramatic scene set in woods in the Fife countryside some years earlier, the story gathered pace and tension as the various elements came together. Who is the murderer, what connection does Cafferty have with Lord Minton, how does the gang warfare fit into the murders, who is the mole in the Glasgow gang, and what happened years ago in Acorn House, an assessment centre for children in care,  a sort of remand home?

It was intriguing to see Rebus and Cafferty working together, although never fully confiding in each other. They have had a complex relationship in the past, aggressive and hostile and yet at times they have worked together before.  Rankin, as usual, successfully combines all the elements of the crime mystery with the personal lives of the main characters and at the same time highlighting various current political and social issues, such as the involvement of public figures in child abuse cases and the effect this has on the individuals concerned and their families.

The title comes from The Associates song of the same name, released in 1982:

Even dogs in the wild
Could do better than this
Even dogs in the wild
Will care for
Whatever means most to them

It’s also interesting to look back over the Rebus books which I began reading eight years ago (to the month!). They cover his life as a detective beginning with Knots and Crosses, first published in 1987. Rebus, ex-army, SAS was then a Detective  Sergeant, aged 42. He was divorced and smoked and drank too much.  By the time of Even Dogs in the Wild in some respects he hasn’t changed much – still a loner, still drinking and smoking, but so much has happened that he has changed, both in his personal and professional life. I’ve read all the books, but I’ve not written about all of them and some of my posts are quite short. At one time I began summarising the books, listing the characters and crimes, but I didn’t get very far – maybe I’ll finish it one day.

I like the series as a whole and think this latest book stands well with the best of them.  The first Rebus book I read was Set in Darkness, the 11th book in the series. It was obvious that this featured characters that had been in the earlier books but I didn’t find it difficult to follow who was who and their relationships. Even so I decided I needed to start at the beginning and read them in sequence. And I think, for me at least, that works best, in order to fully understand the background and how the characters interacted and evolved.

Has Rebus had his day? He tells Fox

‘It feels like the end of a long song though – men like Cafferty and Joe Stark … and me too, come to that … we’re on our last legs. Our way of thinking seems … I don’t know.’

‘Last century?’

‘Aye, maybe.’ (p 243)

We’ll see. One nice touch throughout the book is the little dog, Brillo who seems to have adopted Rebus – but will Rebus settle for walks in the country with Brillo, and being a granddad?

Silver Lies by Ann Parker

From out of the black hole that is my Kindle came Silver Lies by Ann Parker, a new-to-me author. Books have been known to disappear for ever in there and this one had been languishing down in the depths for three years, so I thought it was time to read it. It looked as though it would be a bit different from other books I’ve been reading this year. Apart from True Grit I don’t think I’ve read any westerns for years and actually this one is not a typical western. It’s not a Cowboys and Indians type western at all but is set in 1879/80 in the silver-mining town of Leadville, Colarado in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. It probably fits in more with the crime fiction genre than with westerns, but it was the setting  that attracted me to it.

It’s a really good story beginning when Joe Rose, a silver assayer, facing a bleak future as the last of his money has gone and the hope of making his fortune in silver has disappeared, is found dead in Tiger Alley propped up behind the Silver Queen saloon. Inez Stannert’s husband Mark had won the saloon in a poker game and eight months before the story begins he had left her and their friend and business partner, Abe Jackson to run it on their own. Inez has no idea where he is and whether he’ll ever return.

Joe’s death is just the start of the mystery – was his death an accident or was he murdered and if so why?  Inez sets out to discover the truth and although his wife Emma has asked her to settle his affairs for her what is she keeping from Inez? Where is Mark and why did he leave? There is a new Reverend in town. Inez falls for his charms but is he to be trusted? She had him pegged as a gambler rather than a man of the cloth. And she doesn’t trust the new marshall either – ‘a thin man with the look of a hungry rattlesnake’. Inez knows he is ‘just a two-bit gunslinger from Texas’ hired by the ‘silver barons to keep the peace after last month’s lynching’. So it’s no wonder that she uncovers a web of deceit, counterfeit, blackmail and murder.

With plenty of memorable characters I could easily imagine I was in the silver rush town, a town where:

People rush in – from the East, from the West – and collide at the top of the Rockies. They’re looking for riches or looking to escape. And running. Everyone’s either from their past or running toward some elusive vision of the future. (location 5896)

Leadville was a colourful place, a boom-town, bustling with life -everything is there – the Silver Queen saloon and the Crystal Belle Saloon, Leadville’s leading parlor house, a brick built opera house, whose patrons ‘swelled the after-midnight crowds’ in the Silver Queen saloon, five banks and a small white church with a steeple.

Silver Lies won the Willa Award for Historical Fiction and the Colorado Gold Award and was chosen as best mystery of the year by Publishers Weekly and The Chicago Tribune.  For more information about Ann Parker and her books see her website.

I was completely engrossed in this book with its multi-layered and intricate plot that kept me guessing all the way through.  I hope to read more of this series:
  1. Silver Lies (2003)
  2. Iron Ties (2006)
  3. Leaden Skies (2009)
  4. Mercury’s Rise (2011)

Reading challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2015Historical Fiction Reading ChallengeColor Coded Challenge

The Monocled Mutineer by John Fairley & William Allison

When I was asked if I would read and review a revised edition of The Monocled Mutineer by John Fairley and William Allison, the book on which the 1986 BBC TV series was based I was immediately interested as I had watched the TV series.

Description from the Press Release:

In 1917 British, New Zealand and Australian troops stationed at the Étaples Training Camp in northern France protested against the inhuman conditions and the protest erupted into mutiny. Private Percy Toplis was named by the authorities as a leader of this mutiny. While several of the mutineers were executed in its aftermath, Toplis escaped and remained at large for three years. The Army immediately covered up the mutiny, thousands of the participants died shortly afterwards in the Passchendaele offensive while the survivors remained silent for over fifty years. After three years as Britain’s most wanted man Percy Toplis was killed in 1920 by a policeman.

My thoughts:

This is the 2nd and updated edition of The Monocled Mutineer, which  includes a new introduction and epilogue that expand on newly discovered information about the events of the mutiny and the government’s response to it. It is primarily based on interviews and correspondence with survivors of the First World War nearly sixty years after the events they describe. In 1976 the authors advertised in newspapers asking whether any veterans from the First World War had recollections of the events in Étaples in September 1917. They received many replies containing:

  … sharp, bitter accounts of events long ago, but far from forgotten. Inevitably they were careful handwritten stories in old men’s script, teased out without any other prompting than the brief enquiry in their local paper. (page 2)

In addition to the anecdotal evidence the authors have used other sources including the published personal reminiscences of Edwin Woodhall,  Detective and Service Days and Lady Angela Forbes. Memories and Base Details; journalists’ accounts in various periodicals; and have drawn background material from records about the First World War in the  Imperial War Museum, The Public Record Office and the British Newspaper Library.

Not many contemporary records have survived that relate to the mutiny. One of the surviving records is the war diary of the Commandant at the Étaples Camp,  Brigadier-General Andrew Graham Thomson. Thompson describes what happened as a ‘disturbance’ and as ‘riots’ and ‘breakouts’:

Disturbance in Reinforcement Camp between military police and troops, Corporal Wood, 4th Gordons being accidentally shot … a crowd of about 1,000 gathered at Étaples town, and about 7.30 pm tried to break into the Sevigne cafe where two policemen were hiding. (page 1)

But in 1978, after the publication of the 1st edition and the BBC dramatisation, the British government admitted that the events that took place at Étaples had been a mutiny and also that  it was probable that the records relating to the board of inquiry into the events had been destroyed many years ago. The files on the mutiny and Percy Toplis’ military records are closed until 2017.

Historical accuracy is never easy to obtain, especially where records have been lost and where there is a limited number of sources to compare one against the other. In this case the main sources of information are the personal accounts from the veterans as they remembered them many years later.

And the picture they paint is a most remarkable and shocking one of the brutal and inhuman conditions which were in operation at the camp. As for Toplis’ part in the mutiny, the letters from the veterans occasionally mentioned him and whilst some thought he was the main ringleader, few thought he was the only one, but that there were a number of soldiers involved. One remembered Toplis’ name on a wanted poster and wrote:

If he was a villain then he was not the only one around Étaples. Maybe he too was tired of being humiliated, deprived, brutalized and treated like a dog. We had all got tired of being treated with less consideration than that given to horses. (page 91)

Another reported that Toplis, heading a mob of about 1,000 deserters confronted Thompson, surrounding his car. Toplis climbed on the running board and dictated the terms for ending the mutiny (page 93). After the mutiny ended, whilst some of the ringleaders were executed, Toplis escaped. Others were killed in the battle for Passchendale which began on 20th September.

Maybe more information will be available in 2017 when the files are opened and a fuller picture of what happened will emerge.

The Monocled Mutineer also goes into detail about Percy Toplis’ life before and after the war. Coming from a working-class background, by the age of eleven he was already a con artist and a thief. He must have been a charismatic character, able to both charm and deceive people, successfully impersonating officers, able to melt into the background deserting and then rejoining the army seemingly at will, not sentenced to execution by the firing squad (the penalty for desertion). But after the war ended in 1920 his luck ran out as he was accused of murdering a taxi-driver. The inquest held that he was guilty in his absence. Toplis fled, evading capture for six weeks and he was eventually shot down in a police ambush near Plumpton in Cumberland.

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Souvenir Press Ltd; 2nd Revised edition edition (7 Sept. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 028564310X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0285643109
  • Source: review copy from the publisher

House of Shadows by Nicola Cornick

Nicola Cornick is a new-to-me author, but she is by no means a new author. She has written many books – see her website for more details. Not having read any of her books I wasn’t sure I’d like House of Shadows, her latest book due to be published on 5 November,  but the publishers’ press release persuaded me to read and review an uncorrected proof copy. I’m glad I did as I thoroughly enjoyed House of Shadows.

Press Release synopsis:

One House, Three Women. And a lie that will change history.

February 1662

On the eve of her death Elizabeth Stuart hands her faithful cavalier William Craven an ancient pearl with magical properties to be kept safe for her rightful heir. Craven, distraught with grief, builds Ashdown Estate in Elizabeth’s memory and places the pearl at the centre.

February 1801

Notorious Regency courtesan Lavinia Flyte is brought to Ashdown House with her protector, Lord Evershot, who is intent on uncovering the Winter Queen’s treasures. Evershot’s greedy pillage of the ancient house will unleash a dark power which has lain dormant for a hundred and fifty years.

February 2014

Holly Ansell’s brother has gone missing. As Holly retraces his footsteps, she discovers that her brother was researching the mystery of Elizabeth Stuart and her alleged affair with William Craven. A battered mirror and the diary of a Regency courtesan are the only clues she has, but Holly is determined to discover the truth: Where is the fabled pearl that Elizabeth gave to William Craven? What happened to Lavinia Flyte? And who is the Winter Queen’s rightful heir?

My thoughts:

This is a successful time-slip novel as I had no difficulty in following each strand of the story. And each is set firmly in its historical context. It’s a fascinating mix of factual history combined with historical interpretation/imagination to fill in the gaps in the records. Elizabeth Stuart, known as the Winter Queen, the daughter of James I of England and VI of Scotland was married to Frederick V, briefly the King of Bohemia, before his lands were taken from him after the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. There are rumours from 1660 onwards, but no proof, that Elizabeth either had an affair or secretly married William, the first Earl of Craven.

Once I started reading the House of Shadows I didn’t want to stop as the history of crystal mirror and the Sistrin pearl, a jewel of rare beauty and price unfolds. Both were inherited by Elizabeth from her godmother Elizabeth I. They had previously belonged to Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth Stuart’s grandmother. They were said to hold great magic – the mirror was said to have the power to destroy its enemies by fire, whilst the ring was supposedly a talisman for good. It was reported that Frederick was involved with the Knights of the Rosy Cross and the legend is that the Knights used the mirror and the pearl together in their necromancy to create firewater in which they could both see and transform the future.

There is so much I loved in this book – the history, all the storylines,  the characters, and the settings against the backdrop of years from the 16th to the 21st centuries. It has mystery, elements of the supernatural as well as being a love story, not just the story of Elizabeth and William in the 17th century, but also of Lavinia in the early 19th century and Holly in the 21st. I loved the details of each period and in particular of Ashdown House, a real house in Oxfordshire that was built by William Craven for Elizabeth. It’s now owned by the National Trust, where Nicola Cornick has been a volunteer guide and historian for the last fourteen years. She has certainly done her research very well and incorporated it seamlessly into her book. The house shown on the front cover is Ashdown House

I also loved the details of Holly’s family history which her brother Ben had been researching before he went missing and how it all linked in to each time line. It’s the sort of thing you hope you be able to would find if you did your own family history.

It is a fascinating book. There is so much packed into its pages, a real page turner in each timeline, making me eager to find out what happened next. If this is representative of Nicola Cornick’s books there are plenty of others that I’m going to enjoy.

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: MIRA; First edition edition (5 Nov. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1848454163
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848454163
  • Source: Uncorrected Proof Copy

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes contains twelve short stories first published between 1921 and 1927. In the Preface Conan Doyle  wrote that he hoped his Sherlock Holmes stories had provided

that distraction from the worries of life and stimulating change of thought that can only be found in the fairy kingdom of romance.

In this post I’m only writing about three of them for The 1924 Club; stories that were first published in 1924 (for more details about The I924 Club click on this link). They do indeed, provide both a distraction and a stimulating change of thought. The narrator in these three stories is Dr Watson.

The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire – this was first published in the January 1924 issues of The Strand Magazine in London and Hearst’s International Magazine in New York.

As Sherlock Holmes says when he first heard about a case concerning vampires,‘we seem to have been switched on to a Grimm’s fairy tale.‘ He tells Watson they cannot take it seriously:

Rubbish Watson, rubbish! What have we to do with walking corpses who can only be held in their grave by stakes driven through their hearts? It’s pure lunacy!

But he takes on the case for two reasons – one, he’s interested in the house in Essex belonging to Mr Ferguson where his wife is suspected of being a vampire, and two, Ferguson had known Watson when they played rugby together for Blackheath. His Peruvian wife had been seen attacking his son from a previous marriage and also leaning over her own baby and biting his neck. She refused to explain herself. Holmes solves the mystery, indeed he had reached his conclusion even before arrived in at the house, based on his conviction that the idea of a vampire was absurd. I enjoyed this tale, mainly because Holmes used logic and deduction in coming to his conclusion, overriding the supernatural.

The Adventure of the Three Garridebs – first published in October 1924 in Collier’s Weekly and then in The Strand Magazine in January 1925.

I think this is a rather strange and artificial story, Dr Watson says it may have been a comedy or a tragedy. It led to him being shot in the leg and yet there was certainly an element of comedy. It’s about a man with the unusual name of Garridebs, ostensibly looking for two other men with the same name  to inherit five  million dollars each. Of course, that is not his real reason and the man is none other than a  known murderer.  It shows, however, the depth of Holmes’ feeling for Watson, as he says:

It was worth a wound – it was worth many wounds – to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaken. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of service culminated in that moment of revelation.

It’s in this story too that Watson reveals that Holmes had refused a knighthood.

The Adventure of the Illustrious Client – first published in Collier’s Weekly in November 1924.

At the request of an unnamed but illustrious client, Holmes and Watson investigate the case concerning Violet de Merville, young, rich and beautiful who has fallen under the spell of the notorious Baron Gruner. Her father, General de Merville wants to prevent them from marrying.  Gruner is known as a violent murderer and Holmes is keen to meet a man who may be more dangerous even than the late Professor Moriarty. But he has to enlist the help of one of Gruner’s past mistresses to open Violet’s eyes to the true nature of the man she thought she loved.

I like the personal touches in this story, the opening scene for example shows Holmes and Watson in the drying-room of a Turkish Bath, lying in an isolated corner on two couches, side by side, smoking in a state of lassitude. Watson says that it is where he finds Holmes less reticent and more human than anywhere else. Watson knows that although he was nearer to Holmes than anyone else he was always conscious of the gap between them – Holmes leaves his closest friend guessing what his exact plans may be.

These three stories all illustrate Holmes’ deductive powers and seemingly cold nature but also reveal the depth of feeling between him and Watson. Bur I’m not sure that they reflect anything in particular about what was being published in 1924.

I shall write about the remaining stories in the Case-Book at a later date.

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

Note: I’ve found this hard to write about without giving away some spoilers.

I’d listed The Old Curiosity Shop in my Classics Club Spin,  but was really hoping to get one of Thomas Hardy’s books. Without this push from the Classics Club this book would have stayed on my TBR list for a long time because all I knew about it was that it’s the book in which Little Nell suffers a melodramatic death and I feared it would be too sentimental for my liking. And much to my surprise I have finished it in time for the deadline for reading our Spin book this Friday, even though it’s such a long book.

Well, it was and it wasn’t. It’s not just a sentimental, melodramatic story. It’s also full of weird, grotesque and comic characters, a mix of everyday people and characters of fantasy. It has elements of folklore and myth, as Nell and her grandfather, go on an epic journey, fleeing from the terrifying dwarf, Daniel Quilp and travelling through a variety of scenes, meeting different groups of people on their journey. There are numerous allusions to the Bible, Shakespeare and popular songs of the day. There are long passages where Nell doesn’t feature and is hardly mentioned, so it’s by no means a totally sentimental tale.

Several of the characters stand out for me, Quilp is an obvious choice. He takes delight in inflicting pain and suffering on others. He’s scarcely human, grossly wicked, hideous in appearance, full of lust, ferocious, cunning, and malicious. A fiend who

… ate hard eggs, shell and all, devoured gigantic prawns with heads and tails  on, chewed tobacco and water-cresses at the same time and with extraordinary greediness, drank boiling tea without winking, bit his fork and spoon until they bent again, and in short performed so many horrifying and uncommon acts that the women were nearly frightened out of their wits, and began to doubt if he were really a human creature. (page 47)

Other characters who stood out are Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness. Dick at first appears as a profligate friend of Nell’s brother, Fred but takes on a larger role later in the book. Working in a law office for Mr Brass and his sister, Sally Brass, he befriends the small, half-starved girl who is a servant locked in the basement, calling her the Marchioness. He rescues her and also Kit, Nell’s friend, when he is wrongly accused of robbery.

There are many more I could mention, including the people Nell and her grandfather meet on their travels – wonderful scenes  of the travelling Punch and Judy show; Mrs Jarley’s wax-work figures, over a hundred of them that she takes around the countryside in a caravan; the gypsies who take advantage of Nell’s grandfather’s addiction to gambling; the poor schoolteacher who take in Nell and her grandfather; and the Bachelor who they meet at the end of their journey.

I also liked the description of the landscape as Nell leaves London, the change from town to countryside, then later through the industrial Midlands with its factories, furnaces and roaring steam-engines where people worked in terrible conditions. Nell and her grandfather spend a night in one of the furnaces, sleeping on a heap of ashes.

In a large and lofty building, supported by pillars of iron, with great black apertures in the upper walls, open to the external air; echoing to the roof with the beating of hammers and roar of furnaces, mingled with the hissing of red-hot metal plunged in water, and a hundred strange unearthly noises never heard elsewhere; in this gloomy place, moving like demons among the flame and smoke, dimly and fitfully seen, flushed and tormented by the burning fires, and wielding great weapons, a faulty blow from any one of which must have crushed some workman’s skull, a number of men laboured like giants. (pages 334-5)

Nell, herself, is a sweet, self-effacing and innocent character, who is left to look after her grandfather as he fails to overcome his gambling addiction. She goes into a decline and her slow death is, I suppose inevitable, although thankfully it is not described by Dickens. Child death is one of the themes of The Old Curiosity Shop as Nell’s death is not the only one.

The Old Curiosity Shop was written in 1840 – 1841 and serialised weekly in Master Humphrey’s Clock beginning on 4 April 1840 and ending on 6 February 1841. During this period the circulation of the periodical rose to a staggering figure of 100,000. It was Dickens’ fourth novel, influenced by the early death of his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, in 1837, which had profoundly shocked him. His work on The Old Curiosity Shop, particularly as he came to writing the end, revived the anguish he had experienced on her death.

The Old Curiosity Shop
The Old Curiosity Shop

I read the Penguin Classics e-book which has the original illustrations by George Cattermole, Hablot K Browne (‘Phiz’), Daniel
Maclise and Samuel Williams.

TOCShop furnace
The furnace

Despite the sentimentality I did enjoy reading The Old Curiosity Shop and it has made me keen to read more of Dickens’ books.

As well as being my Classics Club Spin, this book also qualifies for the Mount To Be Read Challenge and the Victorian Bingo Challenge.

Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton

You can tell from the title what to expect from this book – lies, black lies, but they’re not little lies, they are whopping great big lies. The story is narrated by three of the main characters, Catrin, Callum and Rachel, all unreliable narrators either self deceptive, delusional or manipulative. They are all damaged characters.

Three years before the story begins Catrin’s two sons died in an accident caused by her then best friend Rachel. She has never got over it; they have haunted her ever since and she has not spoken to Rachel since then, determined to take revenge as the third anniversary of their death approaches. A year after their deaths Fred Harper went missing and was never found, then another boy, Jimmy Brown disappeared. As the story begins yet another boy, Archie West is missing. The nightmare continues with the disappearance of Peter, Rachel’s third and youngest son.

Little Black Lies is set in the Falkland Islands in 1994, twelve years after the war and Sharon Bolton’s descriptions of the islands paint a vivid picture of the isolation, the close knit community and war scarred landscape.

But there are a few things about this book that mean whilst I enjoyed the descriptive writing, the sense of place and the opening section very much I didn’t really like it. I began reading it with high expectations as it has received much praise and I’ve enjoyed everything else by Sharon Bolton that I’ve read. And although I was dismayed when I found it was written in the present tense (which is not my favourite style) I thought it was very promising and read on eagerly.

But when I finished it I gave it 3 stars on Goodreads, rounded up from 2.5 (Goodreads doesn’t have half marks!). I wasn’t keen on the focus on missing/dead children which so many books seem to have had recently. And it was a combination of the present tense and the way the plot descended into more of a farce with several twists and turns, particularly as the book draws to an end, one after the other that I just didn’t think was credible. The final  twist at the end came out of the blue for me, although thinking back it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. But I felt a bit cheated. In fact I’m rather annoyed with myself as I’d totally forgotten FictionFan had reviewed this book and I’d thought then that it was one that didn’t appeal to me – at least I was right!

A Dark and Twisted Tide by Sharon Bolton: Mini Review

I finished reading A Dark and Twisted Tide, the 4th in the Lacey Flint series, at the end of September, but never got round to writing about it, so now this is just a mini review.

Synopsis from the back cover:

Police Constable Lacey Flint thins she’s safe. Living on the river, swimming in the river, she’s never been happier. It can’t last. Because Lacey has secrets. And when the first body floats, it’s only a matter of time before her fragile life falls apart. And the river is the last place she should be ..,

This is such a terrifying novel, particularly if like me, you have a fear of drowning. No longer a detective, Lacey is now a police constable with the Metropolitan Police’s Marine Unit on the River Thames, living on a houseboat (actually a vintage sailing yacht) in Deptford Creek and wanting a quieter and safer life whilst trying to recover from the terrifying events of her last cases. Unlike me, Lacey loves swimming and is perfectly at home in water, so much so that she wild-swims in the Thames as often as tide and conditions allow, loving it so much that she feels she has become part of the river. But even she experiences the terror of being drawn down into the water ‘within a frantic gasp of drowning‘.

A Dark and Twisted Tide is a multi-layered book, told from different characters’ perspectives, complex and chilling as it weaves its way through murders, people trafficking, a mysterious character called ‘the swimmer’, more details about Lacey’s background and the ongoing saga of her relationship with Mark Joesbury. It’s a grim tale with a great sense of foreboding and mystery – a book I read far too quickly, making me think at some point I’ll read it again more slowly as I’m sure there’s a lot I missed. An excellent read for RIP X!

The Devil’s Promise by David Stuart Davies

The full title of this book is The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Promise.

From the back cover:

The discovery of a corpse on a deserted beach is just the first in a series of mysterious and terrifying events that threaten Sherlock Holmes. While investigating the death, Holmes and Watson attract unwanted attention from the strange inhabitants of the nearby village, and are viciously attacked. Watson wakes to discover that months have passed and his friend is not the man he remembers. What has transpired during those lost days? And is it connected to the notorious “Devil’s Companion” whose descendants live nearby?

A book for RIP X, and one I had high hopes of when I read the Foreword by Mark Gatiss – an English actor, comedian, screenwriter and novelist, writing for Doctor Who and the co-creator of Sherlock. He wrote:

I think that Sherlock Holmes is imperishable, a brilliant British icon – indeed a worldwide icon. He represents the best of us. He is as clever as we would all like to be. He is surprising, capricious, slightly dangerous, strangely elegant, dashing, Byronic and the best and wisest man any of us will ever know.

I believe he lasts because we all want to be Sherlock Holmes and we all want to believe there are people like Sherlock Holmes out there, instead of the universe being completely chaotic, which is actually the truth.

This fabulous character is the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle who, in my opinion, was a writer of genius. No wonder many of us wish to tread in his footsteps. Sherlock now lives in other people’s stories too, as he does in The Devil’s Promise, penned by the great Davies, whose Sherlock Holmes writings have brought me hours of pleasure.

Holmes and Watson are staying in an isolated cottage in Devon when they they find themselves caught up in a nightmare scenario of a puzzling surreal nature they cannot understand. After Holmes discovers the body on the beach weird images appear on the door of the cottage, they are attacked by villagers, and meet a brother and his strange sister who warns them to leave or they will be killed.

But I was a little disappointed; it began well but later became repetitive – the dead body disappears and reappears and Watson keeps getting into fights, being hit on the head and losing consciousness. It has elements of suspense, as Holmes is coerced to take part in a ceremony to raise the Devil. But I began to think it was all very predictable – maybe it’s the cynic in me but I found myself reading just to see how it ended and whether it was as predictable as I thought it was. And it was, apart from the very last three sentences.

The Ghosts of Altona by Craig Russell

Last week I quoted the opening paragraphs and the description of The Ghosts of Altona by Craig Russell, a novel, which won this year’s Bloody Scotland Crime Novel of the YearIt’s an outstanding book, one of the best I’ve read this year. I suppose it can be called a modern Gothic tale as well as being a crime thriller. Russell is a new author to me, but by no means is he a new author, The Ghosts of Altona being his 7th book featuring Jan Fabel, the head of Hamburg’s Murder Commission. However, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment that I’d jumped into the series right at the end. And in a way it didn’t matter at all as in the first chapter Jan has a near-death experience when he is shot by a suspected child killer, which has a profound effect on his life and the way he views death.

Two years later his first case as a detective is resurrected when the body of Monika Krone is found under a car park, fifteen years after she disappeared. The prime suspect at that time was Jochen Hubner, a serial rapist, christened ‘Frankenstein’ by the press because of his monstrous appearance, but there was no conclusive evidence to connect him to her disappearance. Monika, beautiful, intelligent and cruel had been the centre of a group of students obsessed with the Gothic. Then ‘Frankenstein’ escapes from prison and there are more murders which Fabel thinks are linked to the discovery of Monika’s remains, all of men who were in the same Gothic set at university.

There are many allusions to the Gothic tradition and symbolism, the killings being reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre tales, as well as philosophising on the nature of near-death experiences, Schrödinger’s cat, Cotard’s Delusion (in which sufferers believe themselves to be dead), and the intertwining of the hallucinogenic, the psychedelic, the spiritual and the macabre. All absolutely fascinating and incorporated seamlessly into the crime investigation so that I was turning the pages as fast as possible to get to the solution. It’s all very cleverly plotted, multi-layered and complex and I loved it.

As well as the story and the characters I loved the setting – Hamburg, a city I knew very little about before reading The Ghosts of Altona, the second largest city in Germany, a member of the medieval Hanseatic League. It’s a city of water with two lakes and the river Elbe running through it and it has more canals than Amsterdam and Venice combined. Altona, one of the city boroughs had been under Danish administration for over two centuries.

The Author

Born in Fife, Craig Russell served for several years as a police officer in Scotland, before becoming an advertising copywriter and later creative director. His Fabel novels were inspired by his long-standing interest in the language, culture and people of Germany. He has been translated into 23 languages, and his Lennox and Jan Fabel series have both been highly acclaimed. For more information see his website.

His Jan Fabel books (from Fantastic Fiction):


His  Lennox books

 

My Reading Challenges (although I didn’t read this book, or any book, specifically for any of the Reading Challenges I’m taking part in):

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I had little idea what to expect before I began reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel The Buried Giant, except,  that is, that I had enjoyed the other three books by him that I’ve read. They are The Remains of the Day, a brilliant book, a beautiful portrait of both personality and  social class, set in an England that no longer exists,  a story of hopeless and repressed love; Never Let Me Go, a love story that both shocked and horrified me; and Nocturnes a book of five short stories in which Ishiguro explores ideas of love, music and the passing of time, with a touch of nostalgia and a sense of loss for what has gone or what could have been.

I knew that there have been mixed reviews of The Buried Giant and was keen to see for myself what it is like. I loved it. It is different from his other books, but still has some of the same themes I loved in them –   the themes of love and the sense of a time long gone. It is also about the passing of time, old age, the fallibility of memory and much more besides, in particular ethnic conflict and the devastating effect of vengeance and hatred. It is set in Britain after the death of the legendary King Arthur, after the Romans have left, and the wars between Saxons and Britons have ceased. But it is a cursed land swathed in a mist of forgetfulness.

Attempting to remember their lives together, an elderly couple, Beatrice and Axl, leave their village setting out on a journey to visit their son, who they barely remember. They encounter many hazards, strange and other-worldly. They meet a boatman in a ruined Roman villa, who ferries people to an island. He is under a duty to question those who wish to cross and will only allow a couple to travel together if they can demonstrate their abiding love for each other. But Axl and Beatrice are haunted by a dread that because of their memory loss they would fail such a test, and be separated for ever. How can they prove their love for each other when they can’t remember the past they’ve shared?

There are ogres, deadly pixies,  evil monks who keep a dreadful beast underground, Saxons – Wistan, a warrior and a young boy, and Sir Gawain entrusted by King Arthur to slay Querig, a she-dragon roaming the land, who by her breath has spread the mist of forgetfulness.

It is also shocking, as it reveals the hatred that works within people to make them want to destroy others.  Wistan urges the young boy, Edwin to hate all Britons because it was Britons under Arthur who  had slaughtered the invading Saxons:

We’ve a duty to hate every man, woman and child of their blood. So promise me this. Should I fall before I pass to you my skills, promise me you’ll tend well this hatred within your heart. And should it ever flicker or threaten to die, shield it with care till the flame holds again. (page 264)

It is this hatred that still drives people to commit atrocities, bringing out the worst in human nature. Whilst the past is forgotten, Wistan realises that the old wounds can’t heal whilst ‘maggots linger so richly‘, nor can ‘peace hold for ever built on slaughter and a magician’s trickery‘.

It has elements of fantasy, myth and legend, of allegory and adventure and the perils of a quest. It is mysterious, beguiling and slippery, hard to pin down in parts and startlingly clear in others. From a somewhat slow start it gripped my imagination and made me think, trying to pin down just what was happening as the prose is clear and yet ambiguous, in the same way that the mist obscuring the past at times lifted and dispersed a little before returning. Beatrice and Axl are the dominant characters, and I found their confusion as they realise they have forgotten their past and their distress as they contemplate spending eternity apart deeply moving. It is extraordinary and mesmerising! I think it is a book I’ll have to re-read!

This may not be the usual book of ghostly, gothic or classic horror of the categories for the R.I.P. X challenge, but it is certainly a fantastic book full of peril, mystery and suspense.

Two Lacey Flint books by Sharon Bolton

I’ve recently read Dead Scared, Sharon Bolton’s  second Lacey Flint book and Like This, For Ever, the third book in the series:

Bolton bks

Synopses from Sharon Bolton’s website:

Dead Scared

Someone is watching you…

When a Cambridge university student dramatically attempts to take her own life, DI Mark Joesbury realizes that the university has developed an unhealthy record of young people committing suicide in extraordinary ways.

Despite huge personal misgivings, Joesbury sends young policewoman DC Lacey Flint to Cambridge with a brief to work undercover, posing as a vulnerable, depression-prone student.

Psychiatrist Evi Oliver is the only person in Cambridge who knows who Lacey really is – or so they both hope. But as the two women dig deeper into the darker side of university life, they discover a terrifying trend…

And when Lacey starts experiencing the same disturbing nightmares reported by the dead girls, she knows that she is next.

Like This, For Ever (published as Lost in the US)

Twelve-year-old Barney Roberts is obsessed with a series of murders. He knows the victims are all boys, just like him. He knows the bodies were found on river banks nearby. And he’s sure the killer will strike again soon. But there’s something else, a secret he’d rather not know, a secret he is too scared to share . . .  And who would believe a twelve-year-old boy anyway?

Like This, For Ever is a twisty, addictive, up-all-night thriller from a writer who loves nothing more than to play with your mind.

Two perfect books for the RIP Challenge. they are both totally absorbing murder mysteries – maybe Like This, for Ever is even better than Dead Scared. I did have an inkling quite early on who was pulling Lacey’s strings in Dead Scared, but I just didn’t know how it was being done – nightmares, hallucinations, bizarre suicides and vulnerable students. It is terrifying in parts.

With Like This, For Ever I had no idea until very near the end who the killer was. It’s so full of red herrings and twists (more than in Dead Secret) that I swung from believing it could be this person to that, or thinking it can’t possibly be that person, or I do hope it’s not that one. It was one of the people I thought maybe it’s that one, but I quickly dismissed that idea.

Both books are full of believable and individual characters, plus there is the ongoing story of Lacey, her boss Mark Joesbury and psychiatrist Evi Oliver. I’d love to read the next book in the series soon – A Dark and Twisted Tide.

I first read Sharon Bolton’s books when she was writing under the name SJ Bolton, and I wondered why the name change.  The answer is here in this post on her blog . It’s long, so I’ll summarise – ‘SJ Bolton’ was the name her publishers suggested in 2006 in the manner of PD James and JK Rowling and she went along with it, the thinking being that men don’t buy books by a woman author. But she doesn’t have a middle name and chose ‘J’, confusing for people who knew her personally , and then more SJs appeared on the book shelves and she felt lost in the crowd. There was also the issue around the name ‘Sharon’, a name that can conjure up images of Pauline Quirke slouching around Chigwell in a shell suit. So  she now writes as Sharon Bolton and I for one am glad she does – it’s less anonymous as well as being a much more memorable name.

As well as being perfect for the RIP challenge, Dead Scared is a book I’ve owned for a while and so qualifies for the Mount To Be Read Challenge.

The Robber Bride

It took me several days to read Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. It’s a intricately woven book, long and detailed. At times I thought it was too detailed and I just wanted to get on with the story. But overall I thought it was very good, and in parts excellent.

It begins with Zenia – and Zenia is dead. She died five years earlier and Tony, Roz and Charis went to her funeral. These three women all had cause to be thankful she was dead; Zenia, beautiful, smart and greedy, had deceived all three, wrecking their relationships, taking their money and self-esteem.  Although they met regularly they hadn’t talked about her since they’d buried her and their lives are turned upside down again when, lunching at the Toxique, Zenia walks back into their lives.

The rest of the book tells what had happened in each of their lives, told from each woman’s point of view and moving backwards and forwards in time – a bit confusing sometimes, you have to concentrate.  Tony, is a small woman, an academic specialising in military history, with a habit of pronouncing words backwards; Charis is described as ‘what Ophelia would have looked like if she’d lived‘, who thinks she has healing powers; and  Roz is a successful business woman, whose husband is a serial womaniser. Zenia, who never tells her story, is a consummate liar and presents a different version of herself to each of the three women and she remains a mystery and a dark malevolence throughout the book.

The Robber Bride is inspired by “The Robber Bridegroom,” a  tale from the Brothers Grimm in which an evil groom lures three maidens into his lair and devours them, one by one. But it’s much more than that – it’s about power and the struggle between good and evil. It’s also about women’s friendship, and about the relationship between men and women.

This is one of the books I’ve listed for the TBR Pile Challenge, so it also meets the criteria for the Mount TBR Challenge too – a book I’ve had on my shelves for several years now.

Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon by Jane Austen

Adam@Roof Beam Reader’s Austen in August event reminded me to read Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon.

Jane Austen has long been one of my favourite authors, ever since I read my mother’s copy of Pride and Prejudice  and since then I have re-read it several times and her other full length novels too. But I’ve never read Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon before. In fact it was only reading Carol Shields’ biography of Jane Austen quite some years ago now that I discovered that she had written these books, none of which were published in her lifetime. Lady Susan is a finished novella, whereas The Watsons and Sanditon are two unfinished fragments. Lady Susan and The Watsons were first published in 1871 by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh in his Memoir of Jane Austen, including an account of  Sanditon . The full text of Sanditon wasn’t published until 1925.

Lady Susan

According to Margaret Drabble’s introduction to my Penguin Classics edition there is some evidence that Lady Susan was probably written between 1793-4, when Jane Austen was about 20 years old. Drabble thinks this is the least satisfactory of the three stories, but I can’t agree with her view. I was completely taken with it.

Told in a series of letters, Lady Susan is the  story of an unscrupulous widow who plans to force her daughter into a marriage against her wishes. Lady Susan is an attractive and entertaining and totally wicked character, who nevertheless almost manages to fool people for some of the time at least. She is also trying to captivate her sister-in-law’s brother, whilst still holding on to the affections of a previous lover.

As I was reading Lady Susan it reminded of Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, not just because both are epistolary but also the content – manipulative and evil characters without any moral scruples, who delight in their power to seduce others. I wondered if it was possible that Jane Austen had known of this book. It was published in 1782, so it is possible that she knew of it, even if she had not actually read it.

To my mind Lady Susan is unique in Jane Austen’s works and I was delighted to read it. It’s written with style, confidence and humour convincingly illustrating 18th century morals and manners.

The Watsons

Jane Austen began writing this in 1804, her father died in 1805 and she never finished it. Its main character is Emma Watson who after fourteen years of absence returns to her father’s house after being brought up by a wealthy aunt. She had grown up in an affluent household and until her aunt had remarried she’d had expectations of an inheritance. She joins her three unmarried sisters, living with their invalid father  and looking for husbands whilst struggling for money. Mr Watson is a clergyman, so on his death they will lose their home. Maybe it was the parallel with Jane and Cassandra Austen’s own situation that caused Jane to abandon the novel when her own father died.

In some ways it is a little like Pride and Prejudice with its account of a ball and Emma Watson has a spirited nature similar to Elizabeth Bennet’s.  Women without money were often obliged to marry for money, but Emma doesn’t want to. Her sister Elizabeth points out that it is ‘very bad to grow old and be poor and laughed at‘, whereas Emma thinks she would ‘rather be a teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like.’

I liked The Watsons but with just this fragment to go off it is a bit basic and does seem rather similar to Pride and Prejudice. I wished she had finished it.

Sanditon

I thoroughly enjoyed Sanditon, even in its unfinished state. It’s the last fiction that Jane Austen wrote, beginning it in January 1817, the year she died. She was ill and the subject of health is one of its themes, but not in a serious or gloomy way. It has a lively, bright and humorous tone, with three of the characters being hypochondriacs, wonderfully satirised by Jane Austen.

The other theme is change in the form of the development of a seaside resort at Sanditon. It conveys the spirit of change of the times as  Sanditon is developed by two of the landowners, Mr Parker and Lady Denham from ‘a quiet village of no pretensions‘ into ‘a fashionable bathing place‘. The two of them, realising its potential of becoming profitable ‘had engaged in it, and planned and built, and praised and puffed, and raised it to a something of young renown – and Mr Parker could think of nothing else.

It extols the benefits of sea air and sea bathing, Lady Denham decries the need for a doctor saying it would only encourage the servants and the poor to imagine they were ill – and pronouncing that  if her husband had never seen a doctor he would still have been alive, ‘Ten fees, one after the other, did the man take who sent him out of the world. – I beseech you Mr Parker, no doctors here.

Sanditon contrasts the old world with the new upcoming world. Mr Parker has moved from his old comfortable family house set in a sheltered dip two miles from the sea to a new elegant house, which he has named Trafalgar House, not far from a cliff  from which there is a descent to the sea and the bathing machines. Granted it has all the ‘grandeur of storms’, which rocked their bed whilst the wind rages around the house.

There is so much more in these stories than I can write about here (this post is far too long anyway).  I shall enjoy re-reading them in the future. They are so different from each other, probably reflecting the different periods of her life when they were written. And I can’t decide between Lady Susan and Sanditon which one I like best.

Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death, set in the Middle East was first published in 1938 after her final pre-war visit to the area. It seemed right to read this book straight after I’d finished reading Come, Tell Me How You Live in which Agatha Christie wrote about her life on archaeological expeditions in Syria with her husband Max Mallowan.

The novel begins in Jerusalem where the Boyton family are sightseeing. There are two stepsons, one is married, a daughter and a step daughter. Mrs Boynton is a malignant and malicious tyrant who enjoyed exercising her power over her family, who all hated and yet obeyed her. Dr Gerard, a French psychologist, also a tourist remarks that

… she rejoices in the infliction of pain – mental pain, mind you, not physical. That is very much rarer and very much more difficult to deal with. She likes to have control of other human beings and she likes to make them suffer.

The Boyntons and Dr Gerard travel on through the Judean desert to Petra. Also in the group are Jonathan Cope, a family friend, Sarah King, a newly qualified doctor, Lady Westholme, a member of Parliament and Miss Annabel Pierce, a former nursery governess. The beginning of the book is taken up with relating their journey to Petra and the complicated relationships between the characters. It comes to a climax when Mrs Boynton is found dead.

The remainder of the book covers the investigation into her death. Colonel Carbury is in charge and although it appears that Mrs Boynton, who suffered from heart trouble had died overcome by the heat and strain of travelling, he is not satisfied and he has an idea that the family killed her. He enlists the help of Hercule Poirot, who was also in Jerusalem at the same time as the Boyntons and had overheard part of a conversation, ‘You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed.’ He was sure he would recognise that voice again – and he did.

Poirot is his usual confident (arrogant) self, convinced he can solve the mystery and he does through questions, analysis and psychological reasoning. I didn’t work it out myself though.

This is a quick, easy read, with a lot of dialogue in a relatively short book (less than 200 pages). I enjoyed it, although it’s not one of my favourite Agatha Christie books.

I’m including it in Bev’s Color Coded Challenge as the main colour of the cover of my copy is brown. It’s one of the remaining few novels I have left to read for Kerrie’s Agatha Christie Reading Challenge.

A Medal for Murder by Frances Brody

Last year I read and enjoyed Dying in the Wool, the first of Frances Brody’s series of historical crime fiction books set in 1920s Yorkshire and featuring Kate Shackleton. The second book, A Medal for Murder is even better and I was thoroughly immersed in the mystery.

A pawn shop robbery brings Kate and her assistant Jim Sykes, an ex-policeman,  their second case. It leads on to her discovery of a dead body, that of Lawrence Milner, outside a Harrogate theatre where Kate had been watching a production of a dramatisation of Arnold Bennett’s novel, Anna of the Five Towns. Then Captain Wolfendale, a Boer War veteran asks Kate to find his granddaughter, Lucy, who had starred in the play, as she has disappeared and he had received a ransom note. The murder  brings Kate into contact again with Inspector Marcus Charles of Scotland Yard (she had first met him in Dying in the Wool).

The book is told from the different characters’ perspective, but mainly from Kate’s, with flashbacks to the Boer War at the turn of the century. This is a detailed, complex plot which kept me guessing almost to the end about the identity of the murderer.  What is Captain Wolfendale hiding in his attic that he doesn’t want Kate to see? Just what is his relationship with Lawrence Milner who had also fought in the Boer War? How/is the pawn shop robbery connected to the murder? Will Lucy be rescued? And why doesn’t Dan Root, a watch maker, who also rents a room in the Captain’s house want to Kate to see inside his workroom?

There is so much going on in this book, and yet it was easy to read and each sub-plot fitted in so well with the main mystery that I didn’t get confused – I just couldn’t see who could have killed Milner. I had several suspects, all of whom turned out to be innocent of the crime. I liked the historical setting and the characters rang true. I’m left wondering whether Kate’s relationship with Inspector Charles will develop further, and whether she will ever hear what happened to her husband, reported missing in the 1914-18 War.

These are the books in the Kate Shackleton Mystery series:

1. Dying in the Wool (2009)
2. A Medal For Murder (2010)
3. Murder in the Afternoon (2011)
4. A Woman Unknown (2012)
5. Murder on a Summer’s Day (2013)
6. Death of an Avid Reader (2014)
7. A Death in the Dales (2015) to be published 1 October 2015

For more information about the author and her books see Frances Brody’s blog and website.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge, 10 Books of Summer, Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Come, Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie Mallowan

Agatha Christie had visited the Middle East in 1929 travelling on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on to Damascus and Baghdad. She visited the excavations at Ur and returned there the following spring where she met archaeologist Max Mallowan – by the end of the summer they had decided to marry, which they did on 11 September 1930. 

Come Tell Me How You Live: an archaeological memoir is her answer to her friends’ questions about what life was like when she accompanied Max on his excavations in Syria and Iraq in the 1930s.

She began writing it before the Second World War and then laid it aside. After four years of the war she picked it up again, using her notes and diaries to complete this memoir, writing about her life with  Max Mallowan and his team excavating the ancient sites at Chagar Bazar, Tell Brak and other sites in the Habur and Jaghjagha region in what was then north western Syria. This map shows the area they were working in:

Syria 1930s

She wrote in the Epilogue  (written in 1944) that in remembering and recording that time it had been

… not a task, but a labour of love. Not an escape to something that was, but the bringing into the hard work and sorrow of today of something imperishable that one not only had but still has!

For I love that fertile country and its simple people, who know how to laugh and how to enjoy life, who are idle and gay, and who have dignity, good manners, and a great sense of humour, and to whom death is not terrible.

Inshallah, I shall go there again, and the things that I love shall not have perished from this earth.

With regard to her statement about death earlier in the book Agatha Christie had explained the difference between the Western and Oriental attitudes to life and death:

Accustomed as we are to our Western ideas of the importance of life, it is difficult to adjust our thoughts to a different scale of values. And yet to the Oriental mind it is simple enough. Death is bound to come – it is as inevitable as birth; whether it comes early or late is entirely at the will of Allah. And that belief, that acquiescence, does away with what has become the curse of our modern day world – anxiety. (page 96)

The emphasis in the book is on the everyday life on a dig and Agatha took an active part, helping to catalogue, label and clean the items they found as well as taking photographs and developing them. She also found time to spend on writing her books. So, although she gives a detailed account of how they worked, how they employed workmen for the excavations and servants who looked after Max and his team of archaeologists, there is not much about what they found.

Although she described the local people in her Epilogue as people, who know how to laugh and how to enjoy life, who are idle and gay, and who have dignity, good manners, and a great sense of humour, she also recorded their disputes:

Quarrelling is, in any case, almost continuous. All our workmen have hot tempers, and all carry with them the means of expressing themselves – large knives, bludgeons, and a kind of mace or knobkerry. Heads are cut open, and furious figures are entangled with each other in fierce struggles … page 86

And she also recorded this chilling statement:

We come to the question of religions generally – a very vexed question in this particular part of the world, for Syria is full of fiercely fanatical sects of all kinds, all willing to cut each other’s throats for the good cause! (page 166)

How sad and horrified she would be if she could see Syria today, but in the light of the extract above I don’t think she would have been too surprised! And sadly the places she loved are no longer the same. Here is her description of the shrine Sheikh ‘Ada near Mosul

There  can be, I think, no spot in the world so beautiful  or so peaceful. You wind far up into the hills through oak trees and pomegranites (sic), following a mountain stream. The air is fresh and clear and pure. …

And then suddenly, you come to the white spires of the Shrine. All is calm and gentle and peaceful there. Gentle-faced custodians bring you refreshments and you sit in perfect peace, sipping tea. (page 109)

Compare that with the description in The Guardian last August of the area as ‘hell on earth‘.

This book is written with love and humour – for example Agatha’s description of buying clothes for her visit to Syria because her last year’s summer clothes  are Shrunk, Faded and Peculiar – and too tight everywhere.  In the Foreword she stated that it is a book full of everyday doings and happenings with ‘no beautiful descriptions of scenery, no treating of economic problems, no racial reflections, no history.‘ I think she was under estimating her writing, because this little book has all that and more. I loved it.

A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel

A Change of Climate is one of Hilary Mantel’s early books, first published in 1994 and  described on the back cover as ‘a literary family saga’ and ‘a first rate thriller’.

I quoted from the beginning of this book in this post. I noted that at the end of the book there is an About the Author section, which I’d just glanced over. In answer to one of the interviewer’s questions about the theme of the book, Hilary Mantel replied that there is a central secret, an enormous destructive secret. I didn’t want to spoil the book for myself so I didn’t read any more of her answers. And I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else so I’m not saying what that secret is in this post.

The ‘enormous destructive secret‘ Hilary Mantel referred to is revealed just over halfway into the book. But the book abounds in secrets and it’s also about family, trust, disillusionment and tragedy, about bereavement and loss of faith, as one character observes, ‘faith is something people chase after, simply to give life meaning‘.

Hilary Mantel writes a compelling story, subtly mixing the past and the present, moving seamlessly between the Eldred family’s current life (in the 1980s) in Norfolk, with their earlier life in Africa in the 1950s. I like her writing very much, never drawing attention to its style and drawing me in effortlessly into both time frames and places.

It’s a family saga (most definitely not an Aga Saga) about Ralph and Anna Eldred, their four children and Ralph’s sister Emma. Ralph and Anna devote their lives to charity, filling their house with ‘Visitors’, described as either ‘Good Souls’ or ‘ Sad Cases’. Just after they were married Ralph and Anna went to South Africa as missionaries and under the system of apartheid there they ran up against the authorities, then moved to Beuchuanaland (Botswana) where a terrible and horrific event occurred and they returned to England.  However, their memories of these traumatic events refused to remain buried, eventually bringing their lives and those of their children into terrible turmoil.

There are many issues raised in this book – chief among them the struggle between good and evil. Ralph thinks:

If we are not to be mere animals, or babies, we must always choose, and choose to do good. In choosing evil we collude with the principal of decay, we become mere vehicles of chaos, we become subject to the laws of a universe which tends back towards dissolution, the universe the devil owns. In choosing to do good we show we have free will, that we are God-designed creatures who stand against all such laws.

So I will be good, Ralph thought. That is all I have to do. (page 235)

But he discovered that it’s not that simple, as the rest of the book goes on to relate. Ralph and Anna can’t escape their past, Anna in particular cannot come to terms with what happened. The book explores questions about forgiveness and tragedy, as well as how to cope with grief.

Hilary Mantel states in the About the Author section that she found it the most difficult of her books to write – the secret just resisted being told:

I found that I was going round and round the point, yet I couldn’t put it on the page. I remember really struggling with it; it was like a wild animal that had to be civilised somehow, and in the end I just wrestled it on to the page by saying to myself, ‘Look, you’ve done this before and you can do it again’. Writing this book stands out as one of the most difficult times of my writing life.

A great book on all counts, characters and locations beautifully described and a well constructed and convincing plot, powerful and challenging on several levels.

The Remorseful Day by Colin Dexter

Chief Inspector Morse is one of my favourite fictional detectives (maybe even the favourite). I first ‘met’ him years ago in the ITV series Inspector Morse and so, just as Joan Hickson is forever in my mind as Miss Marple and David Suchet is Poirot, John Thaw is Morse. The series was first broadcast in 1987, but I don’t intend to write about the books versus the TV adaptations – I’ve enjoyed both. This post is just about the last book in the series – The Remorseful Day.

I’ve delayed reading this for so long (I watched the TV version when it was first broadcast, which was 15 years ago!) because it’s the last of the Morse books and sadly the end of Morse too. So if you’ve not read any of the Morse books I suggest that you don’t start with this one.

Needless to say that I loved it. The plot is detailed, complex and as usual with Morse a puzzle type murder mystery with plenty of challenging clues. Sergeant Lewis is left to investigate the murder of nurse Yvonne Harrison that had remained unsolved for a year – Morse initially refused to work on the case, despite Chief Superintendent Strange’s wishes. Sergeant Lewis is concerned as this looks just the sort of puzzle Morse excels in solving … and Morse’s behaviour has been worrying Lewis recently.  Lewis can’t believe that Morse could have a personal reason to keep out of the investigation. And when Morse phones to say he is feeling unwell Lewis is most concerned – Morse seldom mentioned his health, what is wrong with him?

The plot is complex, but the real focus of the book is on Morse and how he copes with his illness and his drinking habits and it becomes obvious just how alone he is in the world and how devastating his situation is to Lewis. The novel also reveals more about Strange’s character and also about his understanding of Morse. I found it both a most satisfying book and a very sad one.

There are only 13 Morse books. The links are to my posts on the books – I read some before I began to write this blog and I’m hoping to re-read those in due course.

  1. Last Bus to Woodstock (1975)
  2. Last Seen Wearing (1976)
  3. The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1977)
  4. Service of All the Dead (1979)
  5. The Dead of Jericho (1981)
  6. The Riddle of the Third Mile (1983)
  7. The Secret of Annexe 3 (1986)
  8. The Wench is Dead (1989)
  9. The Jewel That Was Ours (1991)
  10. The Way Through the Woods (1992)
  11. The Daughters of Cain (1994)
  12. Death is Now My Neighbour (1996)
  13. The Remorseful Day (1999)

As The Remorseful Day has sat unread on my shelves for so long it obviously qualifies for the Mount TBR Challenge 2015. I also included it as one of My 10 Books of Summer, which brings my total to 5.

The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

Although I read a lot of crime fiction my knowledge of the authors and their books written during the ‘Golden Age’ so far has been limited to Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Michael Innes so when I saw that Martin Edwards had written The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story I thought it would be the ideal book to find out more. And I was absolutely right and the works of a whole host of authors has been opened up to me.

This is the story of the writers who formed the Detection Club between the two World Wars. Edwards sets the authors and their works in context – that period when Britain was recovering from the horrors of the First World War, living through an age of austerity as unemployment grew, the cost of living soared leading to the General Strike whilst the rich partied and saw the beginnings of the end of the British Empire. But the writers and the works although well grounded in their own time and culture have a lasting appeal and influence on current story telling and film and television.

The Club grew out of the dinners Anthony Berkeley and his wife Peggy hosted at their home in the late 1920s, attended by people including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Douglas and Margaret Cole, Ronald Knox, Henry Wade, H C Bailey and John Rhode. Eventually the Club was formed, with Rules and a Constitution and a Committee. The members benefited in various ways, meeting fellow detective novelists, discussing ideas, supporting each other and even working together on collaborative writing projects – such as The Floating Admiral, in which a dozen writers each wrote one chapter. The main aim of the Club was to encourage and maintain a high standard of work in writing detective novels.

I was fascinated by the number of real crimes that influenced the writers, both current at the time and crimes from the past. Their interest as they discussed these cases, such as Dr Crippen’s poisoning of his wife, in turn inspired them not only to write but also to play the detective themselves. Indeed, Edwards shows that the image of the Golden Age as ‘cosy’ murder mysteries is false:

Their novels are often sneered at as ‘cosy’, and the claim that their characters were made from cardboard has become a lazy critical cliché. The very idea that detective fiction between the wars represented a ‘Golden Age’ seems like a misty-eyed nostalgia of an aged romantic hankering after a past that never existed.

The best detective novels of the Thirties

were exhilarating, innovative and unforgettable. They explored miscarriages of justice, forensic pathology and serial killings long before these topics became fashionable (and before the term’serial killer’ was invented). …

The climax of one of Berkeley’s novels was so shocking that when Alfred Hitchcock came to film it, even the legendary master of suspense, the man who would direct Psycho, lost his nerve. He substituted a final scene that was a feeble cop-out in comparison to Berkeley’s dark and horrific vision. (page 9)

There is no way I can do justice to this book in a short post; it is simply a tour de force, comprehensive, crammed full of fascinating information about the period and the authors.

Martin Edwards’ love of Golden Age fiction shines throughout the book, (skilfully writing about books without giving away any spoilers) and has spurred me on to read more books from this period.

Zen There Was Murder by H. R. F. Keating

I don’t think I’ve read anything like Zen There Was Murder, a mixture of Zen Buddhism and murder. It was the second book H R F Keating wrote, first published in 1960 and then published in 1963 by Penguin Books in their green Penguin Crime series. (This cover is much more appropriate than the Bloomsbury Reader e-book cover showing guns)

It was the Zen Buddhist setting that made it difficult for me to get to grips with the murder. In fact it is practically halfway into the book before the murder actually takes place. The first half is taken up with introducing the characters, gathered together for a course on Zen Buddhism.  There is a schoolteacher, Alasdair Stuart, a clergyman, the Rev. Cyprian Applecheek, Miss Olive Rohan, Miss Flaveen Mills, Honor Brentt, a jounalist and her husband, Gerry Manvers, and Jim Henderson, an Irishman from Ulster.

None of them know anything about Zen and much time is spent with them trying to understand what it is. Mr Utamaro, the lecturer comes out with various sentences, such as ‘Books about Zen are legs on a snake‘, saying you cannot understand Zen by reading a book about it and applying the principles of logic to what you read, and tweaking Alasdair’s nose saying, ‘this is Zen‘, as well as using koans, such as ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?‘ But they fail to understand, saying it is nonsense. Mr Utamaro agrees.

Mr Utamaro shows them a sword, locked in a glass showcase. The sword, a wakizashi, is one of pair used by samurai for hari-kiri, and on the evening of the first day Mr Utamaro discovers that the sword has been taken from the case, leaving it intact and without setting off the alarm. And then Flaveen is found dead, the sword driven into her body up to the hilt.

The clue to discovering the identity of the murderer is in solving who is telling lies  and why.  For most of the time I was completely bamboozled and kept wondering just how the two German girls employed to make the beds and do the cooking fitted into the mystery. Their conversations regularly interrupt the narrative as they comment on the characters and the events taking place.

All in all this book has a surreal feel about it. It’s not just a puzzle type of murder mystery but as Keating explained in an interview with Dale Salwek in Mystery Voices: Interviews with British Crime Writers it is also making a point about something you believed:

And the thing I believed in, one of the things that bugged me most, was the subject of telling lies, which is fine for a detective story. And that was how I came to write my second, Zen There Was Murder, which is really more about telling lies than about Zen.

When writing the second book, I thought I could say something about telling lies. At that time, too, Zen Buddhism was a fad over here, and so for the background of the book, I took Zen, which does reflect very much on lies. I found I could say things about lies by giving each of the characters a different viewpoint on telling lies – ranging from one of those people who absolutely objects to lying in any way to the sort of pathological liar. And I made the whole book turn on that. (pages 64-65)

H R F Keating (1926 – 2011) was chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) (1970–71), chairman of the Society of Authors (1983–84) and president of the Detection Club (1985–2000). He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.  His most famous novels are the Inspector Ghote books (I have just one on my TBR shelves – Inspector Ghote’s Good Crusade, the second in the series).  For more information about Keating see this article by Martin Edwards.

I’ve had this book for about three years, so it qualifies for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2015 and it is also one of the books I listed for the 10 Books of Summer Challenge, and the TBR Pile Challenge.

The Outcast by Sadie Jones: Book and TV

The Outcast

As I wrote earlier The Outcast by Sadie Jones is a book that has sat unread on my shelves for seven years until I noticed that it was being broadcast as a TV drama. I read half the book before the first episode and finished it before the second episode was broadcast.

First of all the blurb from Goodreads:

1957, and Lewis Aldridge is travelling back to his home in the South of England. He is straight out of jail and nineteen years old. His return will trigger the implosion not just of his family, but of a whole community. A decade earlier, his father’s homecoming casts a different shape. The war is over and Gilbert has recently been demobbed. He reverts easily to suburban life – cocktails at six thirty, church on Sundays – but his wife and young son resist the stuffy routine. Lewis and his mother escape to the woods for picnics, just as they did in wartime days. Nobody is surprised that Gilbert’s wife counters convention, but they are all shocked when, after one of their jaunts, Lewis comes back without her. Not far away, Kit Carmichael keeps watch. She has always understood more than most, not least from what she has been dealt by her own father’s hand. Lewis’s grief and burgeoning rage are all too plain, and Kit makes a private vow to help. But in her attempts to set them both free, she fails to predict the painful and horrifying secrets that must first be forced into the open. As menacing as it is beautiful, The Outcast is a devastating portrait of small-town hypocrisy from an astonishing new voice.

The TV adaptation, also written by Sadie Jones is faithful to the book, so for once I could enjoy them both – although maybe enjoy isn’t quite the right word. The TV drama is, of course a condensed version and whilst the cast was good the characters didn’t, of course, match up to my mental image of them whilst reading the book. I thought the boy (Finn Elliot) playing the young Lewis was excellent, whereas the adult Lewis (George MacKay) just didn’t seem to be right physically in episode one. However, he was much more convincing in the second episode. Overall, the themes of the book and the drama are relentlessly depressing, in post-war Britain, the men all maintaining a stiff upper lip, emotions securely repressed. Lewis witnessing his mother’s drowning is unable to express his grief and things just go from bad to worse as he resorts to self-harm.

Meanwhile, the Carmichael family, not fully portrayed in episode one, have a secret, again closely guarded in a world where child abuse is just not acknowledged. In episode two the secret comes out in a dramatic scene, which I thought was really well done. Nathaniel Parker as Dicky Carmichael made a terrifying bully and Jessica Barden as the teenager, Kit was impressive.

The book is written in the passive 3rd person narrative, which I wasn’t keen on. I didn’t like most of the characters, I didn’t like what happened to them and I’m not sure the ending is believable – it left me wondering what really happened next. But the descriptive passages are good, the characters of Lewis and Kit are well-defined, emotions are racked up high and it is truly tragic.

I’m glad I read the book before watching the drama – and I’m glad I watched it, the scenery is beautiful and the repressed and yet emotional atmosphere came over better than in the book.  I did have to watch behind my fingers at some scenes, which I was able to read without visualising them completely, but when it’s there in front of you on the screen it’s not so easy to cast a blind eye. Although you get an insight into Lewis’ mind and feelings when you read a description of him cutting his arm, it’s not as real as seeing it happen.

So, a powerful story, which compelled me to read on and also to watch. This was Sadie Jones’ debut novel. She has since written Small Wars (2009), The Uninvited Guests (2012) and Fallout (2014). I have Small Wars amongst my TBRs – I must dig that one out soon.

Reading challenges: Mount TBR 2015 and the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2015.

The Day of the Lie by William Brodrick

William Brodrick’s books are meaty, books that make me think. Nothing is straight forward, they’re layered books, delving into the past, uncovering secrets and revealing crimes. They are well researched, bringing the past to life.

In The Day of the Lie (the 4th Father Anselm book) the past in question is post Second World War Poland, covering  the early 1950s, the early 1980s and the present day.

Blurb from the back cover of my paperback copy:

In present day Cambridge, Father Anselm receives a visit from an old friend with a dangerous story to tell – the story of a woman in Eastern Europe in the icy grip of the Cold War. She was brave, brilliant … and betrayed by someone close to her – someone still unknown. What became of this woman and the dark secret she kept?

No one can be trusted. Nothing is as it seems. Before more blood is spilt, Anselm must peel back years of history, decades of secrets and a half-century of lies in order to expose a secret so shocking that some would rather die than see it revealed.

Father Anselm’s old friend John has asked him to investigate who had betrayed  Roza Mojeska. She had been part of an underground resistance movement, had been arrested and tortured by the secret police, in particular by Otto Brack, in order to uncover the identity of the Shoemaker, the author of a dissident newspaper, Freedom and Independence.

Never explicitly graphic, Brodrick conveys the horror of the torture chamber and as Anselm’s Prior warns him he had to enter ‘the world of Otto Brack, this frightening man who learned how to bring about evil by exploiting someone who is good, laying – in part – the evil at their door.‘ (page 75-6) It’s a world where ‘twisted people lead twisted lives and the roads they build around them are never straight and true.’

My knowledge of the period is limited, so I found the historical setting quite difficult to follow, as the narrative switches between the time periods, but once I had sorted out the relationships between the characters (or I thought I had) it became clearer. But there is also the problem of working out who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’, just who is telling the truth, whose recollection of the past is ‘correct’? I thought I knew, but then there was a shift and I wasn’t sure right up to the end of the book.

Looking back on the book now (I finished reading it over a week ago) I can say I did enjoy it, but it was hard work in parts.

William Brodrick became a barrister, having been an Augustinian monk for six years (the other way round from his fictional character, Father Anselm). After 10 years at the Bar, his interest in writing led him to writing the Father Anselm books.

The Father Anselm books (with links to my posts) are:

  1. The Sixth Lamentation (2003)
  2. The Gardens of the Dead (2006)
  3. A Whispered Name (2008) – the best one in my opinion
  4. The Day of the Lie (2012)
  5. The Discourtesy of Death (2013)

And the latest book has just been published:

The Silent Ones by William Brodrick published 2 July 2015.

The Day of the Lie fits into the Mount TBR Challenge and is also a book I identified as one for the 10 Books of Summer Challenge.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

This is a book that really captured my imagination. I loved everything about it – the descriptive passages, the mystery, the secrets and the people involved. It was all real to me. It’s one of the best books, if not the best book, I’ve read this year.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton has been sitting unread for two years on my bookshelves, but if I’d read it earlier I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of reading it now – it was well worth the wait!

It begins on a summer’s day in 1961 in Suffolk when sixteen-year old Laurel is shocked when she sees her mother stabbing a stranger who had come to their farm. Fast forward 50 years Laurel and her three sisters and brother are coming to terms with the fact that their mother, Dorothy is moving closer to the end of her life. Laurel realises that there is so much she doesn’t know about Dorothy’s life and when they find a photograph of Dorothy and a friend, Vivien, in a book of the play Peter Pan, it arouses old and ugly memories for Laurel – images of her mother’s frightened face as she confronted the stranger. Who was Vivien and who was the stranger? Why was Dorothy so scared? Laurel is determined to find out.

It’s a story moving between time periods from 2011, back to the 1960s and also to the 1940s when Dorothy first met and fell in love with Jimmy, a war photographer, and also became friends with the wealthy and beautiful Vivien, married to a successful novelist.  Laurel, with the help of her brother, Gerry, tracks down records throwing light on Dorothy’s and Vivian’s past, back to war-time England and pre-war Australia.

It’s not a straight forward story. By that I don’t mean it’s difficult to read, because each time period is clearly headed and the characters are clearly defined. But there are so many twists and turns – I thought several times I’d got things clear and knew where the story was heading only a bit later on to realise that not all the clues had been revealed and I had to revise my thoughts. It’s so cleverly written and so well plotted that it was only near the end that I had an inkling of Dorothy’s relationship with Vivien and what had really happened to them all. It really is a book I didn’t want to put down and also a book I wanted to enjoy as long as possible. By the end, though, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough!

Kate Morton’s next book, The Lake House is due to be published in October 2015. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Note: as well as being my 17th book for the Mount TBR Challenge 2015 this is my 3rd book for the TBR Pile Challenge 2015. And the 9th book for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2015.

A Game For All the Family by Sophie Hannah

I’ve recently finished reading A Game For All the Family by Sophie Hannah, a standalone book, described as ‘ a literary puzzle to unlock the dark side of the mind.’

Publishers’ blurb:

Justine thought she knew who she was, until an anonymous caller seemed to know better…

After escaping London and a career that nearly destroyed her, Justine plans to spend her days doing as little as possible in her beautiful home in Devon.

But soon after the move, her daughter Ellen starts to withdraw when her new best friend, George, is unfairly expelled from school. Justine begs the head teacher to reconsider, only to be told that nobody’s been expelled – there is, and was, no George.

Then the anonymous calls start: a stranger, making threats that suggest she and Justine share a traumatic past and a guilty secret – yet Justine doesn’t recognise her voice. When the caller starts to talk about three graves – two big and one small, to fit a child – Justine fears for her family’s safety.

If the police can’t help, she’ll have to eliminate the danger herself, but first she must work out who she’s supposed to be…

Practically from the start I had my doubts about Justine. Was she an unreliable narrator? Could I believe her story, told in the third person but revealing what was going through her mind? Or was her daughter Ellen right when she told her mother that she was a ‘nutter‘? That sense of distrust pervaded my reading. Obviously something had happened to make Justine give up her job in TV drama production and want to ‘do Nothing’, something traumatic and life-changing – had it affected her mental stability or had it happened because she was mentally unstable? I couldn’t decide.

What I can say is that it’s a book about the truth – just who is telling the truth, just who is who they purport to be, and most of all about identity. Who is real, who is making it all up (well Sophie Hannah, obviously).

It is described as a ‘chilling ‘ novel, but I didn’t find it spine tingling, or scary, because it came over to me as artificial, and contrived. It’s also long-winded and mostly completely unbelievable, which made it lose any sense of tension or suspense. But it is a cleverly complicated plot, with stories within stories, – it’s just not chilling.

As well as the anonymous threatening phone calls, and the head teacher’s denial that George had not been expelled and indeed her insistence that he had never even been at the school, Justine is also puzzled by the story that Ellen is writing for her creative writing homework – a story set in their house about a strange family who had lived there in the past and a murder that had taken place there. Where did Ellen get this story, is it based on fact? Ellen simply won’t tell her. Are the phone calls connected to this story and to George?

Maybe it’s too complicated, because at times I just wished the endless questions that went through Justine’s mind would come to an end. They did of course and by the time I did get to the end I still couldn’t decide whether Ellen was right – is Justine a nutter and as I suspect an unreliable narrator, or not?

I didn’t love this book, but it certainly filled my mind and made me think both whilst I was reading it and for days afterwards – and I like that about a book. If Justine is a reliable narrator and was telling the truth all along then she is still a nutter, because if what she described actually happened at the end of the story it was terrible and she was mentally ill and in that case, definitely a chilling ending. I just can’t decide! It is an extraordinary and weird book.

My thanks to Lovereading for sending me an uncorrected proof copy of this book that has had me puzzling for days. A Game For All the Family is due to be published on 13 August 2015 by Hodder & Stoughton.

Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie

Sad Cypress, first published in 1940, is a most satisfying mystery, in which Hercule Poirot discovers that almost everyone he talks to is lying. Only the doctor, Peter Lord, believes that Elinor Carlisle did not kill Mary Gerrard, her rival in love, despite the fact that it seems that only Elinor had the motive, the opportunity and the means to poison Mary with morphine hydrochloride. Peter, who is in love with Elinor, appeals to Poirot to prove that she is innocent.

Sad Cypress has a clever and most complicated plot, as is usual in an Agatha Christie book, and it kept me guessing right to the end. Her portrayal of Elinor is excellent – on the surface a calm, almost detached character underneath she is in turmoil, full of repressed passion and unrequited love as it becomes obvious to her that Roddy, her fiancé does not in fact love her and this leads her into actions that seem to point to her guilt.

Then there are the social and cultural themes that always interest me in Agatha Christie’s books. There is the clear distinction between the classes, knowing one’s place in society shown in the relationships between Elinor and Mary, and the almost comic depiction of the two nurses, Nurse O’Brien and Nurse Hopkins, with their gossip over cups of tea. Other themes are the nature of love, and the basis for a happy marriage, the damage caused by family secrets, the ethics of euthanasia, and the difference between thinking about murder and actually committing murder.

This book, if not the best of Agatha Christie’s books, is easily one of my favourites.  I quoted the opening paragraph of Sad Cypress in My Friday Post earlier this month.

The cover photo shown above is my own copy. Details of the latest edition are:

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins (21 May 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0008129576
  • ISBN-13: 978-0008129576

This is the first of my books for the 10 Books of Summer 2015 Challenge.

The Stranger You Know by Jane Casey

For once I’m reading a series in the order it was published -Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan books – which is just as well as each one reveals facts from the earlier books. it also means that I can follow the characters as they develop and their changing relationships instead of trying to work out what had happened before.

The Stranger You Know is the fourth Maeve Kerrigan book and it’s just as fast-paced and compelling reading as the earlier books – so tightly plotted that I just had to keep on reading to get to the end of the book.

Three women have been murdered in their own homes – strangled and mutilated. There were no signs of a break-in – the women had obviously known and trusted their killer. One of the officers investigating the case voices the unthinkable – there are no leads, no DNA, no CCTV, no parking tickets, ‘it’s like he’s one of us‘. Suspicion lands on Maeve’s boss, DI Josh Derwent, who it turns out had been accused of murder as a teenager. His girlfriend, Angela Poole had been murdered in much the same way as the current victims and he had been the prime suspect.

The focus is squarely on Derwent in this book and he is kept off the investigating team, leaving Maeve to work closely with Chief Superintendent Charles Godley and DCI Una Burt – who hates Derwent. But Maeve cannot believe he could be a killer and disobeys orders not to let him see the evidence. And as Maeve’s boyfriend, Rob is away in America, training with the FBI, the focus is also on the relationship between Josh and Maeve – her loyalty to him as she interviews the people involved in Angela’s murder – Josh’s friends and the police inspector in charge of the case.

It is such a complicated plot and I kept changing my mind about the killer – was it Josh (surely not), was it Angela’s brother or one of the other teenage friends, or were the current murders the result of a copy cat  killer?

I like Maeve, although I do wonder why she is still a DC as she is so good at her job, ferreting out information from the slenderest of clues.  I like Derwent, despite his difficult personality – the spiky relationship between the two of them provides such much needed comic relief in the book. There is a secret in his background that we, the readers, now know along with Maeve – and I’m wondering how long it will be until she tells him, although if he looks on Facebook as she did he’d soon find out. I hope he does – I’d love to see his reaction.

It all comes to a dramatic and thrilling climax as Maeve, once again, comes face to face with the killer – and I’d had a sneaking feeling quite early one who it was, but had dismissed the possibility.

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Ebury Press (Fiction) (7 Nov. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0091948363
  • ISBN-13: 978-0091948368
  • Source: library book

I’m currently reading the next book, The Kill and the sixth book, After the Fire is due to be published on the 18 June.

Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves

I first ‘met’ Vera Stanhope in the TV dramatisations of Ann Cleeves’ novels, which I enjoyed. But once I began reading Ann Cleeves’ books I discovered that they are even better than the TV versions! The latest one I’ve read is Harbour Street, the sixth book in the Vera series – it’s fantastic. If you’ve watched On Harbour Street, the TV adaptation broadcast last year, you’ll find that it didn’t strictly follow the book much at all – and you won’t know who the murderer is – it’s a different person in the book!

Harbour Street

This is what I wrote last year about The Glass Room, the fifth Vera book and my thoughts about Harbour Street are just the same:

It’s going to be a contender for my best book of the year, because I loved it. It has everything I like in a crime fiction novel – setting, characters and a cleverly constructed plot. I didn’t guess who the murderer was but realised afterwards that all the clues had been there, skilfully woven into the narrative, hidden among the dead-ends and red herrings, so that I’d read on without realising their significance.

It’s ten days before Christmas, the Newcastle Metro is packed with shoppers, babies screaming, office workers merry after pre-Christmas parties, teenagers kissing. But when the  train has to stop because of the snow they all pile off the train – except for one old lady, Margaret Krukowski, who was fatally stabbed. No one saw the murder take place even though, or maybe because the train was packed with people, including Detective Joe Ashworth travelling home with his daughter, Jessie, from carol singing in Newcastle Cathedral.

Margaret had lived in a guest house on Harbour Street in Mardle, a coastal town in South Northumberland and it is here that Vera concentrates their investigation with the occupants of the guest house, the Coble, the pub opposite and the Haven, a hostel for homeless women, where Margaret had been a volunteer. It soon becomes obvious that Margaret was a woman with many secrets in her past – stemming from 1970 when her Polish husband Pawel Krukowski had left her.  Then a second murder occurs and an earlier crime comes to light – but who is the killer?

Ann Cleeves is a superb storyteller. Her descriptions get right inside my brain; she has the skill to make the scenes materialise,  in front of my eyes, and not because I’ve seen the TV adaptation which was filmed at a different time of year and in a different place from the location of Mardle in the book. Her characters are fully formed with emotions and feelings, backgrounds and complicated relationships, just as in real life, with all the sights, sounds, sensations and smells. Her dialogue is authentic, never awkward and you are never left wondering who is talking. Her books are deceptively easy to read,  moving swiftly along as the tension rises. They are layered, cleverly plotted and above all convincing. As in her other books I had several suspects in mind but hadn’t realised just how much wool had been pulled over my eyes until Margaret’s killer was revealed.

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Pan; Reprints edition (31 July 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1447202090
  • ISBN-13: 978-1447202097
  • Source: my local library

Poirot and Me by David Suchet and Geoffrey Wansell

Prologue

It is a damp, chill Friday morning in November and I am feeling old, very old; so old, indeed, that I am on the brink of death. I have lost two stone in weight, my face is the colour of aged parchment, and my hands are gnarled  like human claws.

I must have watched nearly all, if not all, of David Suchet’s performances as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. For me he was the perfect Poirot, so it was a given that I would read his autobiography, Poirot and Me, written with the help of his friend Geoffrey Wansell. And it really lives up to its title, as the main subject is David Suchet’s role as Poirot. His first performance as Poirot was in 1988. Over the intervening twenty five years he played the part in every one of the seventy Poirot stories that Agatha Christie wrote, with the exception of a tiny short story called The Lemesurier Inheritance (a story in Poirot’s Early Cases and in The Under Dog).

When I started watching the TV dramas it had been years since I’d read any of Agatha Christie’s books and I wasn’t aware that the early shows were based on her short stories – actually I didn’t even know then that she had written any short stories at all. I’ve read nearly all of her full length novels, but only a few of her short stories so far.

I think Poirot and Me may not appeal to people who are not readers of Agatha Christie’s books as it consists largely of Suchet’s summaries of the stories and how he went about analysing Poirot’s character and how he played the part. He began by compiling a list of Poirot’s characteristics, then considering his voice and his appearance. He made 92 ‘character points’ and his original list is reproduced in the book, along with photos of locations, the cast and crew.

He was most concerned that his portrayal of Poirot should be faithful to the character that Agatha Christie had created. He immersed himself so completely in the character that at times he didn’t know where Poirot ended and he began! Even so, some of the dramatisations are not strictly faithful to the original stories, for various reasons; additional characters are included and some of the plots are expanded versions, especially where the original short stories were slight. Or, for example, as in the case of the collection of short stories that make up The Twelve Labours of Hercules, the stories are so diverse that the screenwriter created an almost entirely new story, though using some of the characters.

At the end of each of the Poirot series, David Suchet didn’t know if any more were in the pipeline and he continued to play other parts in film,  on TV and on the stage. I found this just as interesting as the sections on his role as Poirot and it emphasises his qualities as an actor –  he is a ‘character’ actor, a Shakespearean actor and with the exception of Poirot his roles have been pretty dark and menacing parts. I particularly remember him in Blott on the Landscape, in which he played the malevolent gardener and in The Way We Live Now as the sinister financier Melmotte.

He thinks the charm of the Poirot stories is that

… they reveal a world where manners and morals are quite different from today. There are no overt or unnecessary sex scenes, no alcoholic, haunted detectives in Poirot’s world. He lives in a simpler, some would say more human, era; a lost England, seen through the admiring eyes of this foreigner, this little Belgian detective. For me, that makes the stories all the more appealing, for although the days he lives in seem far away, they are all the more enchanting because of it. (page 64 in the hardback edition)

I think so too – and I think the same charm and appeal can be found in the Miss Marple stories.

David Suchet wrote that when Hercule Poirot died on that late November afternoon in 2012 (as he filmed Curtain) a part of him died, but for me and doubtless for many others, Poirot lives on not just in Agatha Christie’s stories but also in David Suchet’s wonderful performances as his ‘cher ami‘, Hercule Poirot.

  • Hardcover: 320 pages (also available in paperback and on Kindle)
  • Publisher: Headline; 1st edition (7 Nov. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0755364198
  • ISBN-13: 978-0755364190
  • Source: my local library

Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes

I read Nothing To be Frightened Of over several weeks, reading short sections at a time. This book is described on the back cover by Penelope Lively as:

A maverick form of family memoir that is mainly an extended reflection on the fear of death and on that great consolation, religious belief … it is entertaining, intriguing, absorbing … an inventive and invigorating slant on what is nowadays called “life writing”.

It is a collection of thoughts centred around Barnes’s fear of death and so inevitably he considers the question of religion and especially God – in fact he begins his book with this statement: I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.

Later, he writes, Missing God is rather like Being English, a feeling aroused mainly by attack. When my country is abused, a dormant, if not to say narcoleptic, patriotism stirs. And when it comes to God, I find myself more provoked by atheistic absolutism than by, say, the often bland, tentative hopefulness of the Church of England. (page 77)

His agnosticism doesn’t help him with his fear of dying, but then, again, he thinks that faith does not necessarily remove the fear of death anyway – there are those who fear death among those who have faith as well as among the irreligious.

But this is more than a book about dying because interwoven with his thoughts about his agnosticism and death are anecdotes about his family and himself, thoughts on literature (particularly French literature) and it’s relationship to life. I found it all fascinating,  but it’s his autobiographical passages that I found the most interesting, sharing details about his family’s beliefs and the deaths of his parents and grandparents, of the rivalry between him and his brother, his mother’s solipsism and manipulative behaviour, his father’s seemingly passive approach to life and the difficulties of really knowing a person.

He states that it is easier with fiction than with life – fictional characters are easier to see, whereas in real life ‘the better you know someone , the less well often you see them. … They may be so close as to be out of focus … Often when we talk about someone very familiar, we are referring back to the time when we first properly saw them, when they were held in the most useful -and flattering light – light at the correct focal distance.’ (page 157)

He and his brother have different memories of their parents and grandparents and of their own early relationship, which shows how unreliable memory can be. I suppose I agree more with his brother, the philosopher Jonathan Barnes, who thinks that memories are often false and not to be trusted without external support, rather than Julian, who says he is more trusting, or self deluding, so shall continue as all my memories are true.

This is by no means a gloomy, pessimistic book.  It’s written in an informal tone, almost as though he is talking to the reader, and not being divided into chapters adds to that sense of being involved in a conversation. But is far from being a simple read – there is an awful lot packed into this book, an intensely personal book that reflects the complexity of our views of life and death. It gave me much to think about and even made me chuckle in parts.

And finally thinking about being remembered/forgotten after his death, Barnes considers who will be his last reader because with that reader he will finally be forgotten – and then he reflects that your last reader is, by definition, someone who didn’t recommend your books to anyone else. You bastard! Not good enough, eh? (page 226)

I think it extremely unlikely that I’ll be his last reader!

Reading Challenge: Non Fiction Reading Challenge 2015. This is only the 5th non fiction book I’ve read so far this year!

Gently North West by Alan Hunter

I first came across Inspector George Gently through the TV drama with Martin Shaw as Gently. There are 46 books in Alan Hinter’s Gently series and I’ve  read the first two , Gently Does It and Gently by the Shore and now the 14th book, Gently North West (first published in 1967). The full list of the Gently books is on Fantastic Fiction.  In the TV version Gently is based in Northumberland, whereas the books are mainly set in Norfolk.

Summary (Amazon)

There’s blood in the heather and a murderer on the loose when Gently pays a quiet visit to the Highlands of Scotland. Had Brenda Merryn not been such a strong-willed woman and had she not been so much in love with George Gently, driving all the way to Scotland for a holiday with Gently’s sister and brother-in-law might have been a bit of a challenge. Spying on a heavily armed private army of nationalists, being held at gunpoint on the hillside, being held prisoner in a filthy outhouse and becoming involved in a murder would be unthinkable. For Gently, it’s all in a day’s work and his holiday is put on hold while he stalks a murderer in the mountains, with Brenda by his side.

My view:

Gently North West is set in the fictitious village of Strathtudlem in Scotland in 1967 where Gently is on holiday with his friend, Barbara Merryn and his sister, Bridget and her husband. There is quite a lot of detailed descriptions not only of the Scottish Highlands but also of the route of Gently’s journey from London to Scotland. On their journey a man with a red beard nearly crashes into Gently’s car.

Then on their first evening in the Highlands, Gently and Brenda go for a walk and see the same man, standing high on a crag above the glen, peering at them through his binoculars.  The next morning, the body of Donnie Dunglass is found, stabbed in the back, face down on the heather near where Gently had seen the man with the red beard. He feels it is his duty to inform the local constabulary about the man he saw and so becomes involved in the search for the killer.

In this book there are several references that set the book firmly in the late 1960s with reference to the Scottish Nationalists ‘ activities during that time and even to Mary Quant. But what particularly interested me about Gently North West is not the actual murder mystery which I think is rather far-fetched, but the fact that Gently is no longer an Inspector working in Norfolk but is living in London, a Chief Superintendent with Scotland Yard. Obviously since the events in the second book Gently had been promoted several times!

Now I’m wondering if I want to read all the books to find out more about Alan Hunter’s Gently.

Alan Hunter was born in Hoveton, Norfolk in 1922. He left school at the age of fourteen to work on his father’s farm, spending his spare time sailing on the Norfolk Broads and writing nature notes for the Eastern Evening News. He also wrote poetry, some of which was published while he was in the RAF during the Second World War. By 1950, he was running his own book shop in Norwich and in 1955, the first of what would become a series of forty-six George Gently novels was published.  He died in 2005, aged eighty-two.

He dedicated Gently North West to his mother, Isabella Hunter, nee Andrews, who was from Culsalmond in Aberdeenshire. In his own words she ‘contrived to possess her son with an indelible prejudice for the land of heroes and poets. Rest her well where she lies and greetings to my unknown Scottish cousins.

Reading Challenge: this is the fifth book I’ve read that qualifies for the Read Scotland Challenge 2015.

The Lost Garden by Katharine Swartz

The Lost Garden is  an emotionally intense novel of love, loss and grief, set in both the past and the present day, in a small village on the Cumbrian coast.

In 1919 Eleanor, the daughter of the vicar of Goswell, is struggling to adjust to the loss of her brother, Walter who died just before the Armistice was declared and in the present day half-sisters Marin and Rebecca are coming to terms with the death of their father and his wife.

The link between the two stories centres around the walled garden at the back of the Bower House, a small house next to the church. It was said to have been the herb garden for the monastery before the Reformation.

In 1919 the garden is covered in brambles and Eleanor decides she wants to make it into a garden of remembrance, a place to just be, to remember or to forget as much as you need. And she begins to restore it with the help of the church gardener, Jack. As they do so the garden begins to blossom as winter moves into spring and summer, but the mood of both the family and the country remains sombre as they come to terms with the aftermath of the First World War.

In the present day, Marin has bought the Bower House, not knowing its history. Rebecca discovers the walled garden once more overgrown with brambles and weeds and it captures her imagination. And when Marin she sees a photo of a young woman in the garden, thought to have been taken around 1920 she is determined to find out more – just who was the young woman and what is underneath the brambles. With the help of the local gardener, Joss, she begins to restore the garden and in doing so they discover secrets about both the past and the present.

The Lost Garden is a gentle story, well told and an enjoyable read, switching between the past and the present. The differences in attitudes and social conventions of the times provide a distinct contrast and highlights the parallels between the two stories. I liked the story-lines for both Marin and Eleanor, both have difficult relationships with their sisters and both are coming to terms with their grief, but on the whole I was more interested in Eleanor’s story, set against the backdrop of the post First World War.

My thanks to Lovereading for providing an advance proof of this novel, due to be published 15 May 2015. The Lost Garden is the second book in Katharine Swartz’s Tales from Goswell series – the first is The Vicar’s Wife.

Gray Mountain by John Grisham

Years ago, well before I began this blog, I read many of John Grisham’s books and loved them. Then, somehow, he went off my radar, but when I saw Gray Mountain on display in the library I remembered how much I used to enjoy his books and borrowed it.

Gray Mountain

I don’t think he has changed much – this book is just as much a campaign against injustice and the misuse of power, about the good little guys against the big bad guys as his earlier books are. In this case it’s the big coal companies that come under the microscope, companies that are  ruining the environment by strip-mining in the Appalachian mountains. I was amazed to read the details – clear-felling the forests, scalping the earth and then blasting away the mountain tops to get at the coal. All the trees, topsoil and rocks are then dumped into the valleys, wiping out the vegetation, wildlife and streams. Gray Mountain is one of the mountains destroyed in this way.

But this is running ahead in the book. It begins in 2008 when Samantha Kofer has lost her job as a highly paid third-year associate with New York’s largest law firm following the bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers bank. One of the options open to her is to work for free for twelve months as an intern at the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic in Brady, Virginia, run by Mattie Wyatt.  After that there is the possibility that she could get her old job back.

Up until then Samantha had only worked in corporate law and had never been in a courtroom, but she soon became immersed in a variety of  cases, including meths dealers and people suffering from black lung disease.

Gray Mountain is owned by Mattie’s nephew, Donovan Gray, also a lawyer, who is taking on cases against the Big Coal companies.  One of the cases involves the Tate family, two little boys who were killed when a boulder from the rock clearance crashed into the trailer where they were sleeping.  Although Samantha is horrified by the situation and wants to help Donovan and his brother Jeff in their search for justice, she feels reluctant to get involved as Donovan’s  methods are sometimes not strictly legal – and she doesn’t feel she belongs in Brady. And there is still the opportunity for her to work in New York, when a former colleague offers her a job.

But she gets emotionally involved with the people and their problems and begins to like litigation:

This was the rush, the high, the narcotic that pushed trial lawyers to the brink. This was the thrill that Donovan sought when he refused to settle for cash on the table. This was the overdose of testosterone that inspired men like her father to dash around the world chasing cases. (page 197)

She has to decide whether to stay with the Clinic or take the job in New York, and she loves the city life. It’s not an easy decision, and it is not revealed until right at the very end of the book.

Although Gray Mountain doesn’t quite match up to my memories of Grisham’s earlier books, I still enjoyed it. At first I thought he was introducing too much detail about the coal companies’ mining practices, but I soon realised how essential it is to understanding the issues. At times it’s like reading a series of short stories, but the main theme is well maintained. I liked the view of the small town community, the mountain scenery, the legal cases large and small and the tension created by the danger of opposing the big coal companies.

Reading Challenge: Color Coded Reading Challenge, with the word ‘Gray’ in the title and the cover being mainly grey in colour it qualifies for the category a book with “Black” or any shade of black in the title/on the cover.

Have His Carcase by Dorothy L Sayers

Have His Carcase, first published in 1932, is another brilliant book – completely different from the last book I wrote about (see my previous post) but just as fascinating and absorbing. It’s crime fiction from the **Golden Age (see the note below), that is between the First and Second World Wars, and is the second of Dorothy L Sayer’s books featuring Harriet Vane, a crime fiction writer, and the seventh featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. They first met in Strong Poison, in which Harriet was on trial charged with the murder of her former lover.

In Have His Carcase Harriet is on a walking holiday when she comes across a dead man, his throat cut from ear to ear, lying on the top of a rock, called locally the Flat-Iron, on a deserted beach. Fortunately she has her camera with her and takes several photos, which come in very useful as by the time that she can alert the police the body has been washed out to sea. It appears that he committed suicide. Wimsey arrives soon after and he and Harriet they set out first of all to identify the body and then to prove that it was murder.

It is an example of the puzzle type of crime fiction – incredibly complicated and seemingly impossible to solve. It involves numerous characters who are not who they first appear, complete with alibis, disguises and false trails. Sayers, helpfully included a schedule of things that Harriet and Wimsey noted about the victim and the suspects, which I found useful as this is a long novel that took me several days to read; with so much information I just couldn’t remember it all as I read the book.

It all hinges on the timing of the discovery of the body and the movement of the tides. As in The Nine Tailors (and in fact in all the books by Dorothy L Sayers that I’ve read) there is a lot of detail, all of which is essential to the plot; detail about the body, how it was found, how the throat was cut , and what the blood was like when Harriet found the body. In the hands of another writer this could have been too graphic for me, but I had no difficulty reading such detail at all!

Also added into the mix are Bolsheviks, rumours of aristocratic connections, spies and a secret code to be deciphered. There are jealous lovers, itinerant hairdressers, a schoolteacher with Communist sympathies, taciturn locals, an antagonistic future son-in-law and  gigolos and dagos. (Written in the early 1930s this is not a politically correct novel.)

An underlying theme is the relationship between Harriet and Wimsey as he is constantly proposing marriage and she rejects him each time. Although at one point, as they walked along the beach together in search of clues, it did look briefly that her resolve was weakening:

She suddenly saw Wimsey in a new light. She knew him to be intelligent, clean, courteous, wealthy, well-read, amusing and enamoured, but he had not so far produced in her that crushing sense of utter inferiority which leads to prostration and hero-worship. But she now realised that there was, after all, something godlike about him. (pages 213-4)

and then she came to her senses and laughed. Earlier she had noted his physique as they inspected the Flat-Iron in the sea:

‘And he strips better than I should have expected,’ she admitted candidly to herself. ‘Better shoulders than I realised, and, thank Heaven, calves to his legs,’ (page 104)

Here are some more of my favourite quotations:

I question this first one!:

To be tried for murder is a fairly good advertisement for a writer of detective fiction. (page 1)

and on seeing what appears to be a man asleep Harriet says:

Now, if I had any luck, he’d be a corpse, and I should report him and get my name in the papers. That would be something like publicity. “Well-known Woman Detective-Writer Finds Mystery Corpse on Lonely Shore.” But these things never happy to authors. (page 7)

Well, she got her wish.

Next, here is Wimsey remarking on his use of quotations, which he does throughout the book:

I always have a quotation for everything – it saves original thinking. (page 58)

and Wimsey to Harriet after she apologised for being ‘a rotten dancer’:

Darling if you danced like an elderly elephant with arthritis, I would dance the sun and moon into the sea with you. I have waited a thousand years to see you dance in that frock. (page 157)

I loved the complexity, the details, and the various solutions Wimsey and Harriet considered. It kept me guessing throughout the book right from the start – just who was the victim, even when he was identified there was more to it, who murdered him, why was he murdered and above all just how and when was he murdered. It’s brilliant!

**Note: I must get a copy of Martin Edwards’ new book The Golden Age of Murderinvestigating how Agatha Christie and colleagues in the Detection Club transformed crime fiction, writing books casting new light on unsolved murders whilst hiding clues to their authors’ darkest secrets.

It’s due to be published on 7 May.

Dacre’s War by Rosemary Goring

Dacre’s War is compelling reading, a  thoroughly absorbing and beautifully written novel set in the Scottish and English Borders and London between 1523 – 1525 some ten years after the events described in Rosemary Goring’s earlier book, After Flodden. I wondered as I began reading whether it could equal After Flodden, a book I loved when I read it two years ago – it did. I think it even surpasses it.

I loved Dacre’s War and keen as I was to read to the end I didn’t want to leave the characters. Once again I was swept away by the story, re-living the scenes through Rosemary Goring’s vivid descriptions and the drama of the characters’ lives, people who came to life in the pages of this book.

Dacre’s War describes how Adam Crozier, the head of his clan, plots to take revenge on Lord Thomas Dacre, the Warden General of the English Marches and the Keeper of Carlisle, who had brought about the death of Adam’s father. Ten years after the Battle of Flodden, Dacre is the most powerful man in the north of England, but the Marches are a constant battlefield, dangerously out of control, and a hotbed of thieves and killers in thrall to the Warden. Without him Henry VIII believes the situation would be much worse.

It is against this background that Crozier forms an alliance with Dacre’s enemies, both English and Scots to inform Henry of Dacre’s crimes and bring about his downfall.

There are some remarkable scenes in this book, and amongst them are the scenes in the Star Chamber where Dacre is brought to answer the charges against him in front of Cardinal Wolsey and his imprisonment in the Fleet Prison. I felt as though I was there, watching, breathing the same air – not a pleasant experience. Similarly with Crozier, I could visualise his home, Crozier’s Keep, sense the tension and fear as his wife, Louise, is left at home, pregnant and in danger of losing the baby.

There is so much packed in this book, political intrigue, personal conflict and vengeance, and spies, manipulators and double crossers abound. It is impossible to write more without revealing the plot and the eventual ending. It’s a brilliant book.

Dacre’s War is due to be published in June 2015. My copy is a pre-publication review copy courtesy of www.lovereading.co.uk.

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Polygon (16 June 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1846973112
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846973116

Rosemary Goring was born in Dunbar and studied social and economic history at the University of St Andrews; and, after graduation, worked at W&R Chambers as a reference editor. Rosemary was the literary editor of Scotland on Sunday, followed by a brief spell as editor of Life & Work, the Church of Scotland’s magazine, before returning to newspapers as literary editor of the Herald, and later also of the Sunday Herald. In 2007 she published Scotland: The Autobiography: 2000 Years of Scottish History By Those Who Saw it Happen, which has since been published in America and Russia.

Reading Challenges: Read Scotland, Historical Fiction Challenge.

The Last Girl by Jane Casey

I liked the first two Maeve Kerrigan books by Jane Casey, The Burning and The Reckoning and the third, The Last Girl is just as good. I liked it mainly because Maeve is such an interesting character, and the book is fast paced and well written, with a multi-layered plot.

Maeve, a detective constable, is the youngest member of the Met Murder Squad investigating the murders of Vita Kennford and her daughter, Laura, age 14.  Lydia , Laura’s twin sister had found their bodies. Philip her father had walked in on the killer, received a blow to the head and was unconscious.  There are no clues at the scene of the crime and as Lydia was outside swimming at the time she neither saw nor heard anything. Philip is a defence QC known for getting his clients off even if they are guilty and at first Maeve and her boss D I Josh Derwent concentrate their investigations on people who hold a grudge against him. Any one of them seems to have good cause to have taken revenge on his family.

Unlike the earlier books, The Last Girl is narrated throughout by Maeve, so we see the events unfolding entirely through her perspective. Much of the novel centres on the Kennfords and their relationships. They are not a happy family.  Philip is an unreliable husband, regularly  unfaithful, not the sort who liked to be tied down to one woman. He is estranged from Savannah, his daughter from his first marriage. She refuses to speak to him and  Lydia seems withdrawn, reluctant to speak to anyone. Maeve is sure they are all keeping secrets.

And there is a sub-plot that harks back to the second book, The Reckoning,  as the team is also investigating a number of gangland murders. Although this book does stand well on its own I think it helps if you read them in order particularly to follow the development of  Maeve’s relationship with her boyfriend, Rob, also a policeman, now working in a different section – things between them are not going very smoothly and Maeve is having doubts. Meanwhile her working relationships with Derwent and Superintendent Godley are beginning to change as Derwent, a male chauvinist shows his softer side and she challenges Godley’s methods.

Maeve has her suspicions about the culprit, but after a while I began to think she could be  on the wrong lines as I had my doubts about the truthfulness of one particular character. And then it was fairly easy to work out who the culprit was.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and am looking forward to the next one in the series, The Stranger You Know.

Dreamwalker: The Ballad of Sir Benfro Book 1

 

DreamwalkerI read  Dreamwalker: The Ballad of Sir Benfro by James Oswald on my Kindle.  It has since been published by Penguin as Dreamwalker by J D Oswald.

So far there are three books in the series and there will eventually be five books published by Penguin. See James Oswald’s website for more information.

Synopsis from Amazon UK:

In a small village, miles from the great cities of the Twin Kingdoms, a young boy called Errol tries to find his way in the world. He’s an outsider – he looks different from other children and has never known his father. No one, not even himself, has any knowledge of his true lineage.

Deep in the forest, Benfro, the young male dragon begins his training in the subtle arts. Like his mother, Morgwm the Green, he is destined to be a great Mage. No one could imagine that the future of all life in the Twin Kingdoms rests in the hands of these two unlikely heroes.

But it is a destiny that will change the lives of boy and dragon forever …

My view:

I enjoyed this book, inspired by Welsh folklore. It’s very readable, each time I picked it up I just wanted to carry on reading this magical tale of the young dragon, Benfro and the young boy, Errol, born on the same day. I was drawn into their fantasy world.

But I wasn’t prepared for the ending – when you get to the end of the book it is not the end – it’s only the end of the first instalment! The tension builds throughout the book as both Benfro and Errol approach their fourteenth birthdays, Benfro in the dragon community, learning their magical powers and Errol,growing up thinking his mother was the village healer and then taken from his home by Melyn, the Inquisitor to train to be one of the warrior priest. Then there is the wicked Princess Beaulah, who is keeping her father the king alive until she reaches her 21st birthday.

And as the tension built I was eager to find out how it would end, only to be faced with the words ‘To be continued in The Ballad of Sir Benfro -Volume Two‘. I was so frustrated, as it just came to a full stop after a catastrophic event, that I couldn’t really believe had happened – a real cliff-hanger! I wish I’d realised before so that I’d been prepared – it was a complete let-down. So, if you are going to read it be warned!

Dreamwalker is followed by The Rose Cord and The Golden Cage. J. D. Oswald is also the author of the Detective Inspector McLean series of crime novels under the name James Oswald. In his spare time James runs a 350-acre livestock farm in North East Fife, where he raises pedigree Highland Cattle and New Zealand Romney Sheep.

Read more about Dreamwalker on the Penguin website.

Reading ChallengesDreamwalker is the perfect choice for Once Upon a Time IX. As it’s been on my Kindle since 2012 it’s also perfect for the Mount To Be Read Challenge and as James Oswald lives in Scotland it fits into the Read Scotland Challenge too.

The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld

I was looking forward to reading The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld. It had sat on my shelves for nearly 8 years and I decided it was time to read it this year, including it in my TBR Pile Challenge list of books. It’s historical fiction – a mixture of murder mystery and psychoanalysis with an interpretation of ‘Hamlet‘ thrown in.

It began well as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung arrived in New York in 1909 to give a series of lectures and to receive an honorary degree from Clark University. That much is fact, but this book is a work of fiction as Rubenfeld makes clear in his Author’s Note and most of the characters are fictional.

There are some things that I did think were well done, for example the descriptions of New York as the city grew, its architecture and streets, the building of the Manhattan Bridge; and as I mentioned earlier the interpretation of ‘Hamlet‘. But as I read on I began to lose interest and at times I felt it was slowed down too much by psychological exposition and debate. Rubenfeld is no doubt well grounded in Freud – as a Princeton undergraduate he wrote his senior thesis on Freud – and also in Shakespeare, which he studied at the Juilliard School of Drama. I found his ideas on interpreting ‘Hamlet‘ most interesting. But I was less enamoured with the dialogue between Freud and Jung, which as Rubenfeld explained is drawn from their own letters, essays and statements, which whilst being factually accurate, doesn’t come across as real conversation.

I thought the murder mystery was unconvincing and too convoluted. Briefly, the morning after Freud’s arrival a young woman is found brutally murdered and later a second, Nora Acton, is attacked in a similar fashion but she survives, although unable to speak. Freud is asked to help by psychoanalysing Nora and asks his young American colleague, Dr Stratham Younger to carry out the analysis. To cut a long story short Younger is helped in his investigations by Detective Jimmy Littlemore and together they discover what really happened.

Maybe I was expecting too much from this book, which is described in the blurb as’Spectacular … fiendishly clever‘, and a ‘thrilling heart-in-the-mouth read … Once you start reading, it’s impossible to put down.’  It jumps about a bit too much for my liking, between narrators and sub-plots, some of the characters came over a bit flat and I didn’t find it either ‘fiendishly clever‘ or ‘impossible to put down‘.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been on my shelves for a few years and as I’m taking part in the Once Upon a Time event hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings I decided it was time I read it. It’s a complete change of genre for me as I rarely read children’s books.

It was first published in 1900, made into a Broadway Musical in 1902 and a film in 1939. I’ve seen the film and also a stage version in a local amateur dramatic society production some years ago.

I enjoyed this entertaining story, pure escapism, which I would have loved as a child, following Dorothy’s adventures in the Land of Oz after the cyclone whisked her house high in the air out of Kansas and set it down on top of the Wicked Witch of the East, thus killing her. Dorothy and her little dog, Toto, are very anxious to get back home to Kansas and they set out on the yellow brick road leading to the Emerald City to ask the Wizard of Oz to help them. On the way she meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, who go with her as they want the Wizard to give them brains, a heart and courage respectively.

Their journey is interrupted in various places and by a variety of creatures, some very dangerous indeed; as in most fairy tales, there is a fair amount of violence in the book, as Dorothy and her friends combat the Wicked Witch of the East. I was fascinated by the Winged Monkeys, who can grant three wishes, the Fighting Trees, the Dainty China Country and its pretty little, fragile people and by the Quadlings with their flat hammer heads.

There are several interpretations* of the story that I’ve come across, but the simple message of the story is, of course, that you have to use your brains yourself, after all the Scarecrow can think, he just doesn’t realise that he can and he came up with lots of ingenious ideas along the way; courage comes from facing danger even when you are afraid – it comes from within and the Lion does that without realising he already has courage. As for the Tin Man, again he truly did have a heart – his desire for one shows his kindness and goodness.

And by the way Dorothy’s shoes are silver and not red as in the film.

*On Goodreads there are several reviews that draw parallels with the economics of America in the late 19th century and the political climate of the time.

And I found this interesting article in The New York Times Scarecrow, Lion, Tin Man and Freud, Too by Janet Maslin discussing this book: The Real Wizard of Oz, The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum by Rebecca Loncraine. Baum apparently drew on his own experiences in writing his book – images of the Civil War amputees led to the Tin Man, bizarre sights such as displayed by PT Barnum, the Chicago World Fair and so on. It sounds a fascinating book! I am constantly finding reading one book leads on to wanting to read yet more books – and I hadn’t realised before that there are more Oz books that Baum wrote!

Dorothy L Sayers: Strong Poison & Gaudy Night

I’m no longer attempting  to write about every book I read but I do want to record a few of my thoughts on two of Dorothy L Sayers’ books that I’ve read recently because they are both such good books. However, I doubt very much that I can do justice to either of these books.

Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893-1957) was born at Christchurch Cathedral School, Oxford, where her father was the headmaster. She learned Latin and French at the age of seven, went to Somerville College, Oxford and in 1915 she graduated with a first class honours degree in modern languages. She is best known as the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, but as well as writing crime fiction she also wrote poems, plays, essays, books on religion and was a translator – most notably of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The two of her books I’ve read recently are Strong Poison (first published in 1930) and Gaudy Night (first published in 1935), both featuring Harriet Vane, a crime fiction novelist, and her relationship with Lord Peter Wimsey, the aristocratic amateur detective.

The two first meet in Strong Poison, when Harriet is on trial for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. Wimsey, attending the trial, is convinced she is innocent and sets out to prove it … and falls in love with her.

From the back cover:

The Crown’s case is watertight. The police are adamant that the right person is on trial. The judge’s summing up is also clear. Harriet Vane is guilty of killing her lover and Harriet Vane must hang. But the jury disagrees.

Well, actually one member of the jury won’t agree that she is guilty – that is Miss Climpson, an elderly spinster, who just happens to run what Wimsey calls ‘My Cattery’, ostensibly a typing bureau, but actually an amateur detective/enquiry agency. Wimsey decides that Harriet is innocent, Boyes, who died poisoned by arsenic, either committed suicide or was murdered by someone else. It is Miss Climpson and her employees, mainly spinsters with small fixed incomes, or no incomes, widows without families, or women deserted by their husband, who do the investigations. This involves Miss Climpson posing as a medium and Miss Murchison learning how to pick a lock.

To sum up – this is a delightful book, full of strong characters, a mystery to solve, superbly written with humour as well as ingenuity.

And then there is Gaudy Night, which is even better than Strong Poison. I loved the setting in this book – Shrewsbury College, a fictional all female college, at Oxford University (based on Somerville College, Sayers’ own college). The action of the book takes place in 1935, five years after Harriet’s trial in Strong Poison. During those five years Harriet and Wimsey have had an ongoing ‘relationship’ in which he annually asks her to marry him and she refuses. They had also worked together on a murder at Wilvercombe, as told in Have His Carcase, a book I have yet to read.

Gaudy Night begins as Harriet decides to go back to Shrewsbury College to attend the Shrewsbury Gaudy (a college reunion involving a celebratory dinner), not sure she can face meeting her fellow students and the dons. It doesn’t go well – there are poison pen letters, nasty graffiti and vandalism causing mayhem and upset. Harriet is asked to investigate, under pretence of helping one of the dons to rewrite her manuscript that had been destroyed in one of the nightly attacks and researching the life and works of Sheridan Lefanu. Struggling to discover the culprit and afraid it will end in murder she asks Wimsey for help.

This is a complex novel, with many characters, some of whom I found difficult to visualise, whereas others were vividly depicted, their thoughts, actions and feelings clearly evident. I had no idea who the writer of the poison pen letters etc could be and I was completely absorbed in the mystery.

But what gives both books so much depth is the portrayal of life between the two world wars, the exploration of the role of women in society, particularly with regard to education and marriage and the importance of truth and honesty; not forgetting, the ongoing relationship between Harriet and Lord Peter Wimsey. Of the two books I preferred Gaudy Night, but both are excellent and a pleasure to read.

Catching the Eagle by Karen Charlton

I wanted to read a novel by a local author so I checked the library website for North East writers, where I found Catching the Eagle by Karen Charlton.

Summary from the book cover:

Easter Monday, 1809: Kirkley Hall manor house is mysteriously burgled. When suspicion falls on Jamie Charlton, he and his family face a desperate battle to save him from the gallows.

When 1,157 rent money is stolen from Kirkley Hall, it is the biggest robbery Northumberland has ever known. The owner sends for Stephen Lavender, a principal officer with the Bow Street magistrate’s court in London, to investigate the crime. Suspicion soon falls on impoverished farm labourer, Jamie Charlton, and the unpopular steward, Michael Aynsley.

Jamie Charlton is a loving family man but he is hot-tempered and careless. As the case grows against him, it seems that only his young brother, William, can save him from an impending miscarriage of justice.

But William is struggling with demons of his own–he is falling in love with Jamie’s wife.’Catching the Eagle’, the first novel in the Regency Reivers series, is a fictionalized account of a trial that devastated a family and divided a community.

This is not just by a local author, and set in Northumberland, it is also based on a true story –  that of Karen Charlton’s husband’s ancestors.

I liked the opening of Catching the Eagle beginning with a Prologue, setting the scene as an eagle soared over the Northumberland landscape:

… its huge shadow caressed the ruined walls of crumbling castles and the creaking rotting stumps of ancient gibbets.The eagle plucked unsuspecting prey from the bleak, snow-covered fells and drank from remote rocky waterfalls dripping with golden daggers.

It landed in a tree above a labourer’s cottage where Jamie Charlton lived with his wife Priscilla and their children. I like Karen Charlton’s leisurely descriptive style of writing and found the whole book to be fascinating.  She has written an even-handed account of the robbery and the subsequent trials, so much so that I began to wonder whether Jamie Charlton was innocent or guilty, although you know from the outset that he was transported as a convicted felon to New South Wales. Did he or did he not steal the money? And what will happen to the eagle?

This is the type of historical fiction that I like. The characters come across as real people, with real problems in a real time and place (Northumberland 1809 – 1811). It highlights the social and cultural setting. Jamie was without influence or money behind him up against a judicial system run by people with power who needed to find a culprit. His family suffered along with him as he languished in goal in squalor, where he was caged as he awaited trial – not once, but twice.

I wondered whether Stephen Lavender, the detective employed by  Nathaniel Ogle, the owner of Kirkley Hall was also a real historical figure. Karen Charlton has also written Seeking Our Eagle, another fascinating book, an account of how she came to write Catching the Eagle whilst researching her husband’s family history.  And yes, Stephen Lavender did exist and he was a detective. He later became the Deputy Chief Constable of Manchester after the formation of the police force by Sir Robert Peel.

Indeed reading Catching the Eagle reminded me of The Suspicions of Samuel Whicher by Kate Summerscale, featuring Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher of Scotland Yard, the book that won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2008.

Karen Charlton has done her research very well and has written a novel full of intrigue, tension and realism that kept me captivated from start to finish. See her website, Karen Charlton, to read more about Karen and her books.

She has also written The Heiress of Linn Hagh, a spin-off novel from Catching the Eagle, which features Detective Stephen Lavender and his sidekick, Constable Woods. And there are more Detective Lavender Series books on the way!

Catching the Eagle:

  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Famelton Publishing; 1 edition (19 July 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 0992803640
  • ISBN-13: 978-0992803643
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 1.8 x 22.9 cm
  • Source: Library book

Seeking the Eagle:

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1969 KB
  • Print Length: 166 pages
  • Publisher: Famelton Publishing; 1st edition (7 Aug. 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B008UZYOR2
  • Source: I bought it

As always I didn’t read either book just for any Reading Challenges, but Catching the Eagle does fit very well into a couple – the 2015  Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the What’s in a Name Challenge, in the book with an animal in the title category and Seeking Our Eagle into the Nonfiction Reading Challenge.

Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie

Three Act Tragedy 001I’ve been working my way through Agatha Christie’s books over the past few years and I have just a few left to read. Three Act Tragedy is one of them. It was first published in 1935 (as Murder in Three Acts in America).

As the title indicates the book is divided into three acts, or rather parts, First Act – Suspicion, Second Act – Certainty and Third Act – Discovery. It begins as though it were a theatre programme:

Directed by

SIR CHARLES CARTWRIGHT

Assistant Directors
MR SATTERTHWAITE
MISS HERMIONE LYTTON GORE

Clothes by
AMBROSINE LTD

Illumination by
HERCULE POIROT

Summary from the back cover:

Sir Charles Cartwright, the distinguished actor, was giving a party. Around him his guests stood talking and drinking. The Reverend Stephen Babbington sipped his cocktail and pulled a wry face. the chatter continued all around. Suddenly Mr Babbington clutched at his throat and swayed …

The beginning of the drama …

Sir Charles suspects that Mr Babbington was murdered but Hercule Poirot, one of the guests, disagrees and there is nothing to show that his death was by any other than natural causes and besides who could possible have cause to kill him! However, later when Sir Bartholomew Strange, a distinguished Harley Street doctor who was also a guest at Sir Charles’ party, drops dead after sipping a glass of port at another party with some of the original guests, it becomes clear that this is murder by poisoning.

This is one of those cases where Poirot plays a secondary role, preferring to think rather than act and it is Mr Satterthwaite and Sir Charles who investigate the deaths. Mr Satterthwaite is an interesting character – ‘ a  dried-up little pipkin of a man’, ‘ a patron of art and drama, a determined but pleasant snob’ and ‘a man of considerable intelligence and a very shrewd observer of people and things.’ An ideal partner in investigation for Poirot.

(This is Mr Satterthwaite’s first appearance outside a Harley Quin story – I have yet to read the Harley Quin stories.)

As for the other characters, some fade into the background, whilst others like Sir Charles and Hermione Lytton Gore, known affectionately as Egg are in the spotlight. This is one of Agatha Christie’s earlier books and is full of baffling clues, conjuring tricks, clues concealed in conversations, with larger than life personalities, and above all with puzzles to be solved. I really enjoyed it.

In this book Hercule Poirot reveals a little of his history, coming from a large and poor family he had worked hard in the Belgian police force, made a name for himself and an international reputation. He was injured in the First World War and came to England as a refugee, eventually becoming a private inquiry agent. He displays his usual vanity and egotism when talking to Mr Satterthwaite, who had realised that he might have accidentally have drunk the poisoned cocktail, by saying:

‘There is an even more terrible possibility that you have not considered. … It might have been ME.

First Chapter First Paragraph: The Zig Zag Girl

Every Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

My choice this week is: The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths, a book I have just finished reading.

It begins:

 ‘Looks as if someone’s sliced her into three,’ said Solomon Carter, the police surgeon chattily. ‘We’re just missing the middle bit.’

I must not be sick, thought Edgar Stephens. That’s what he wants. Stay calm and professional at all times. You’re the policeman, after all.

What do you think? Would you read on?

I did. I’m a squeamish reader and don’t like anything too graphically gory and you might think this opening would put me off. But it didn’t – for one thing, it doesn’t go into detail about how the body got cut into three. Well, yes later down the page there’s mention of ‘clotted blood and smell of decaying flesh‘, but that’s it, it’s all secondhand, no scenes where the murderer is described doing the terrible act, no dwelling on what he/she was doing to the other person.

Blurb from the inside flap:

Brighton, 1950 – a post-war world of rationing, austerity, pea-souper fogs and seedy seaside resorts. When the body of a girl is found, cut into three, DI Edgar Stephens recalls a magic trick that he saw as a boy. The illusion is called the Zig Zag Girl and its inventor, Max Mephisto, is an old friend of his. They served together in the war as part of a shadowy unit called the Magic Men, formed to use stage trickery to confuse the enemy.

Edgar tracks down Max and asks for his help. Max is still on the circuit, touring seaside towns in the company of ventriloquists, sword-swallowers and dancing girls. Max is reluctant to get involved but the changes his mind when the dead girl turns out to be his former stage assistant. Another death follows, again gruesomely staged to resemble a magic trick, the Sword Cabinet.

Edgar and Max become convinced that the answer to the murders lies back in their army days and the antics of the Magic Men.

When Edgar receives a letter warning of another ‘trick’, he knows that they are all in danger. The Wolf Trap is the deadliest illusion of all, but who will be the next victim?

I’ve read some of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist, crime novels, which I have enjoyed despite wishing they weren’t written in the present tense. So it was with relief that I came to The Zig Zag Girl and found it’s written in the past tense.

I enjoyed it in several ways – for its characters, particularly Edgar Stephens and its setting, recalling the atmosphere of the 1950s and how times were changing. The theatrical elements are fascinating – life on the variety circuit was not all glitz and glamour; and the activities of the  Magic Men unit during the war had of course an immense effect on all their lives. I worked out quite early on who the murderer was – but not why, which only dawned on me at the end of the book.

I don’t know if this is going to be the start of a new series – I’d read more if it is.

Spilling the Beans by Clarissa Dickson Wright

I’ve left it a bit too long to write about Spilling the Beans, Clarissa Dickson Wright’s autobiography because I’ve now forgotten much of the detail.  It’s a book I really enjoyed, but I finished it nearly two weeks ago! I’ve  been feeling a bit under the weather recently with a rotten cold and although I have been reading I haven’t been able to summon up enough mental energy to write much!

I quoted from the opening of the book in this post, with these details about Clarissa:

Clarissa Dickson Wright was an English celebrity chef – one of the Two Fat Ladies, a television personality, writer, businesswoman, and former barrister. She died last year on 15 March in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Clarissa was a huge character in more than her size! Her autobiography is fascinating, coming from a privileged and wealthy background she had a difficult childhood- her father, a well respected surgeon was also an alcoholic who beat his wife and Clarissa.

After her mother died she took comfort from alcohol and at the mid point of the book she was as she described it ‘sunk in gin’ and homeless. I am looking forward to reading about her road to recovery.

In the rest of the book she described her period of homelessness, sleeping on benches in the Victoria Coach Station for two nights, but spending the rest of the time staying with friends, until she took jobs in domestic service, where she learned to cook. I liked her attitude to being a servant:

I have never understood the aversion to domestic service … I am not sufficiently bourgeoise to worry about my place in the class system and if you don’t understand this, well, that’s your problem. I had no sense of downshifting; maybe I should have had but pragmatism is the saving of many an alcoholic. (page 154)

She then went on to tell about her ‘dark night of the soul’ and her time at addiction centres, the treatment and her eventual recovery. All this took years and she was very honest and open.

She also wrote about her bookselling experience – all totally news to me – her time at ‘Cooks for Books’ changed her life and later after she had moved to Scotland in the late 1980s  she ran the Cook’s Bookshop in Edinburgh near the Grassmarket. She was declared bankrupt three times, was rector of Aberdeen University for six years. And then, of course, there were her TV shows – Two Fat Ladies, with Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa and The Countryman with Johnny Scott. She was a staunch supporter of the Countryside Alliance, against the ban on foxhunting .

Despite all her difficulties and her alcoholism this is an upbeat autobiography, ending on a positive note: “Believe me on one thing: I have a splendidly enjoyable life”. And believe me this is  a ‘splendidly enjoyable’ autobiography.

My copy is a hardback book, which I bought, but it is also available in paperback and ebook.

Note: I didn’t read this book to meet any challenges, but it does:

There is a spot just by the Scots Border at Berwick-upon-Tweed, where the train passes a stretch of the sea coast. Looking out of the window I felt, Oh it’s so lovely to be home, and if it’s home, I thought, I’d better stay and I have been here ever since. (page 225)

For another review see Cath’s blog Read Warbler.

Turn of the Tide by Margaret Skea

I have read some wonderful debut novels this year –  Turn of the Tide by Margaret Skea is one of them. I loved it. It’s historical fiction and it captivated me completely transporting me  back in time to 16th century Scotland. If you have ever wondered,  as I have, what it must have been like to live in a Tower House in the Scottish Borders then this book spells it out so clearly. And it puts you firmly in the middle of the centuries old feud between the Cunninghames and the Montgomeries, with all the drama of their battles, ambushes and schemes to further their standing with the young King James VI. It’s a tale of love, loyalty, tragedy and betrayal.

It’s no wonder that the book was  the Historical Fiction Winner in the 2011 Harper Collins / Alan Titchmarsh People’s Novelist Competition and won the Beryl Bainbridge Award for Best First Time Author 2014.

There is a map setting the scene in Ayreshire on the west of Scotland between the Firth of Clyde and the Solway Firth, showing the major sites in the book. I found both the map and the list of main characters most useful whilst following the story. And to complete my understanding there is a Glossary of Scottish words at the back of the book, although the meaning of most of them was clear from the context.

It begins in 1586  with an ambush in which several of the Montgomerie Clan, on their way to James VI’s court at Stirling are killed, followed by the Clan’s reprisal on the Cunninghames. James, anxious to settle the feud between his nobles, asks them to swear to bring their feud to an end, which brings an uneasy peace between them – for a while.

Most of the characters are real historical figures, includingJames VI, the Cunninghames – William, the Master of Glencairn and the Montgomeries – Hugh, the Master of Braidstane and their families. The feud is also a matter of fact. It began in 1488 when James IV gave control of the Balliewick of Cunninghame to a Montgomerie! It didn’t come to an end until the beginning of the 17th century.

The main characters,  Munro and his wife Kate and a few of the others are fictional. Munro is a minor laird who whilst owing allegiance to the Cunninghames, has increasing sympathy and liking for the Montgomeries. His dilemma only increases throughout the book.

Margaret Skea has done her research well, not just the feud and battles but also the domestic settings are detailed down to descriptions of the clothing, the food and so on – even how the town house rooms were finished with limewash, which involved carrying bucket-load after bucket-load up four flights of stairs to rejuvenate the attic chamber where the children slept. But it slots seamlessly into the story, adding colour and life to the scenes.

It’s all fascinating  – the hunt arranged for the king, the account of his journey across the North Sea to bring home his bride, Anne of Denmark, the scenes as the royal party lands at Leith and the coronation in Edinburgh, as well as the jockeying for positions, and the battles all culminating in a tense and dramatic finale.

Not only is this riveting history it is also so well written, beautifully descriptive:

Across the valley the castle reared against the skyline, the town tumbling down the slope below, wisps of smoke beginning to unfurl, first one, then another, then too many to count, as Stirling awoke.

The countryside was spread out before him like a map; the distant hills to the south west smudged against the watery sky; the river a dark ribbon snaking through the marshland below, cradling Cambuskenneth in a giant u-shaped loop. (pages 98-99)

and this – such a startling image:

Daylight slipped into their bedchamber like wraith; grey and insubstantial, filtered through the grime and soot that coated the outside of the windowpanes. (page 247)

And I’m delighted that Margaret Skea is writing a sequel as I really want to know what happened next to Munro and his family. The working title is A House Divided, continuing the story in the late 1590s.

  • Paperback: 416 pages – also available on Kindle
  • Publisher: Capercaillie Books Limited; first edition (22 Nov. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1909305065
  • ISBN-13: 978-1909305069
  • Source: I bought my copy
  • Author’s website: Margaret Skea, Writing yesterday, today

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

First published in 1857 Barchester Towers, is the second book in Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of  Barchester series, following on from The Warden.

As I began reading this book I was thinking it’s really slow, very much set in its period detailing the religious and ecclesiastical controversies of its time, but then the story of who was going to succeed the old dean, who was going to be the warden, Mr Harding or Mr Quiverful (with his 14 children) and above all who was going to marry Eleanor, Mr Harding’s widowed daughter took hold of me. Not to mention the odious Mr Slope, chaplain to the new Bishop, the ambitious, but hen-pecked Dr. Proudie and his overbearing wife who would dearly like to be the Bishop herself; the Archdeacon Dr Grantly and his wife, Susan Mr Harding’s elder daughter; the Stanhope family including the entrancing cripple, Madeline, ‘a basilisk from whom an ardent lover of beauty could make no escape‘; and the Thornes of Ullathorne.

Barchester Towers provides a view of the class structure of society, in Victorian Britain. Miss Thorne and her brother, the local squire  hold a party, a gala day, inviting all the main characters and the local labourers, their wives and children. The guests are divided according to their place in society – the upper classes and the non-quality were to eat in separate marquees. The question arose as to who should go where amongst the lower class of yokels, with the Lookalofts and the Greenacres. The Lookalofts won’t sit among the bumpkins, nor will Mrs Lookaloft think Mrs Greenacres should sit next to her and talk about cream and ducklings. But neither is she a fit companion to the Thornes and Grantlys – what a dilemma for Miss Thorne! It’s scenes like these that make Barchester Towers such an entertaining novel.

This is a novel strong on character, less strong on plot, with strong female characters, power-hungry men, humour and pathos as the various battles for supremacy are played out. And throughout the book the narrator frequently expresses his opinion on the characters and on the novel itself. Here he describes Obadiah Slope:

I never could endure to shake hands with Mr Slope. A cold, clammy perspiration always exudes from him, the small drops are ever to be seen standing on his brow and his friendly grasp is unpleasant. (page 31)

The characters, however, are not portrayed as wholly good or wholly bad. Here Trollope indicates Mr Slope’s better (if you can call it that) side:

And here the author must beg it to be remembered that Mr Slope was not in all things a bad man. His motives, like those of most men were mixed, and though his conduct was generally different from that which we would wish to praise, it was actuated perhaps as often as that of the majority of the world by a desire to do his duty. (page 146)

He also comments on how he has made his characters withhold the truth from each other, causing such misunderstandings between them:

Everything would have been explained … had she but heard the whole truth … But then where would have been my novel? (page 337)

In his Autobiography Anthony Trollope wrote that he had taken great delight in writing Barchester Towers, the characters of the Bishop and Mrs Proudie were very real to him, as were the troubles of Dr Grantly, the archdeacon and the loves of Mr Slope. As they are to me too.

I thought this statement of his was very interesting:

It [Barchester Towers] achieved no great reputation, but it was one of those novels which novel readers were called upon to read. Perhaps I may be assuming more to myself than I have a right to do in saying now that Barchester Towers has become one of those novels which do not die quite at once, which live and are read for perhaps a quarter of a century; but if that be so, its life has been so far prolonged by the vitality of some of its younger brothers. Barchester Towers would hardly be so well known as it is had there been no Framley Parsonage and no Last Chronicle of Barset. (page 104)

and here we are over 150 years later still reading Barchester Towers.

The next book in the series is Doctor Thorne, which Trollope thought had a good plot and was, he believed, the most popular book he had written. I’m looking forward to reading it.

The Burning by Jane Casey

The Burning by Jane Casey is one of the books I selected for the TBR Pile Challenge 2015. It’s a book that I read about on other book blogs and thought I would like.  I was right – I really enjoyed it.

It’s the first the DC Maeve Kerrigan series. Maeve is on the murder task force investigating the case of the serial killer the media call The Burning Man. Four young women have been brutally murdered, beaten to death and their bodies burnt in secluded areas of London’s parks. When a fifth body is discovered that of Rebecca Haworth, it appears to be the work of The Burning Man – but is it, there are slight differences? The more that Maeve and her colleague Rob Langton check out the facts it appears it could be a copy-cat killing.

The pace of the book is quite slow at first as the characters are introduced and the story unfolds mainly through Maeve’s eyes  with some  chapters narrated by Rebecca’s friend Louise, and briefly by Rob. Because the pace is slow to begin with the main characters are fully rounded – Maeve in particular is a likeable character, intelligent and empathetic, working to impress her male colleagues and determined to catch the murderer. She’s new to the job, which both her boyfriend and her family criticises. Rebecca’s character is revealed through Louise’s eyes,  fleshed out as other friends give their versions of her past to Maeve and Rob. As the pace picks up, a complex  plot develops providing several suspects which kept me turning the pages right to the end.

I have the third Maeve Kerrigan book, The Last Girl, but I think I’ll postpone reading it until I’ve read the second book, The Reckoning. There are now six books in the series and Maeve has her own website!

As well as the TBR Pile Challenge The Burning completes one of the categories in the What’s In a Name challenge, that of a book title containg a word ending in ‘ing’, the My Kind of Mystery challenge and also the Mount TBR Reading Challenge (a book I’ve owned prior to 1 January 2015).

An Autobiography by Anthony Trollope

The primary object of a novelist is to please

2015 is the bicentenary of Anthony Trollope’s birth on 24th April 1815, and  the Trollope Society and other organisations (such as the British Library, the Post Office, the BBC, the Catholic University of Leuven and Oxford University) have planned a whole series of events to celebrate this anniversary.

But I didn’t know that when I began reading his Autobiography. I found it absolutely fascinating, even though I’ve only read two of his books, The Warden and The Way We Live Now, both of which I enjoyed.

Autobiography Trollope 001

(The link above is to the latest edition, edited by Nicolas Shrimpton and published in October 2014 which includes some of his other writings – my copy is a paperback in The World’s Classic series, edited by Michael Sadler and Frederick Page, first published in 1930, reprinted in 1989, shown above.)

I’d almost forgotten about his Autobiography because I’ve  had it for so long. Although it was new when I bought it the pages are now yellowed and the paperback a bit worn and damaged from moving house. I bought it when I was doing an Open University course and my tutor was an avid fan of Trollope. Part of the reason it has sat unread on my shelves is that when I bought it I hadn’t read any of Trollope’s books and I thought it would be better if I knew a bit about his work before reading about his life. So now I’ve read two and have started reading Barchester Towers I decided it was time to read it.

Anthony Trollope was the son of an unsuccessful barrister and had a miserable childhood, his family most often in debt and struggling to make ends met. It was his mother who supported the family through her writing. He was unhappy at school where he was bullied, always in disgrace and had no friends. When he was 19 he became a clerk in the London Post Office, eventually  becoming a Surveyor, working in both Ireland and England and he introduced the red pillar boxes to Britain.

I found it fascinating because it is not only his life story – his unhappy childhood, his work in the Post Office, including his work in Ireland and abroad, his marriage and family life and his love of hunting, but Trollope also writes a lot about his writing, criticises his own books and discusses his fellow writers in a chapter called ‘On English Novelists of the Present Day’, including – Thackeray, George Elliot, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Charlotte Brontë to name but a few.

Remarkably whilst he was working full time he was also writing his novels. His practice was to get up at 5.30 am and work for 3 hours before dressing for breakfast. He wrote with his watch before him, writing 250 words every 15 minutes. But he didn’t confine his writing to the early hours he also wrote whilst travelling on trains, making a ‘tablet’ to write on and ‘found that after a few days’ exercise that I could write as quickly n a railway-carriage as I could at my desk. I worked with a pencil, and what I wrote my wife copied afterwards.’ He included a list of the books he had written with the dates of publication and the sums he had received for them, totalling £68, 959 17 shillings and 5 pence.

But he wasn’t just a remarkably disciplined writer, he was a writer who made his characters come alive – I can see that in just the two books I’ve read. When I went to see Hilary Mantel at the Borders Book Festival she said that she lives in a parallel world in the present and in the world of Cromwell and Henry VIII, plus all the characters, at one and the same time. It is always with her. So it was with Trollope. Here he writes about how an author can make characters ‘speaking, moving, living, human creatures’:

They must be with him as he lies down to sleep, and as he wakes from his dreams. He must learn to hate them and to love them. He must argue with them, quarrel with them, forgive them, and even submit to them. He must know of them whether they be cold-blooded or passionate, whether true or false, and how far true and how far false. The depth and the breadth, and the narrowness and the shallowness of each should be clear to him.

I have lived with my characters … I may say that I know the tone of voice, and the colour of the hair, every flame of the eye, and the very clothes that they wear. Of every man I could assert whether he would have said those words; of every woman, whether she would then have smiled or so have frowned. (page 233)

Here are some more passages I marked as I read the book that I thought interesting (there are many more!):

An author can hardly hope to be popular unless he can use popular language. (page 176)

His language must come from him as music comes from the rapid touch of the great performer’s fingers; as words come from the mouth of the indignant orator; as letters fly from the fingers of the trained compositor; as the syllables tinkled out by little bells form themselves to the ear of the telegraphist. (page 177)

Short novels are not popular with readers generally. Critics often complain of the ordinary length of novels, – of the three volumes to which they are subjected; but few novels which have attained great success in England have been told in fewer pages. (page 237)

And as my blog is called BooksPlease I was delighted to read this sentence:

The primary object of a novelist is to please … (page 248)

Wreckage by Emily Bleeker

When I downloaded Wreckage by Emily Bleeker I made the fatal mistake of just seeing how it began and before I knew it I was hooked, and had abandoned (just for the time being) the two novels I was already happily reading. I didn’t want to put it down – I really enjoyed it.

It’s the story of Lillian Linden and Dave Hall, who were being interviewed following their rescue from a deserted island in the South Pacific where they had spent two years after their plane crashed into the sea. The thing is their interviews are full of lies – they are desperate to keep what really happened a secret from their families.

Genevieve Randall, the TV interviewer is convinced that they are lying and tries to get them to tell the real story – how they had survived and what had happened to the other people who were on the plane, Kent, the pilot, Theresa, the flight attendant and Margaret, Lillian’s mother-in-law.

The narrative is told from Lillian’s and Dave’s point of view and moves between the present and the past. The two time periods are clearly set out and each character has a distinct voice. It worked very well, the fact that I guessed one of the big secrets early on only increased my curiosity and anticipation of what was to come next, and I was taken by surprise by the twist at the end.

It would spoil the story to say any more about this book, except to say it’s well written, full of suspense, tension and drama as well as love, loss and longing.

Wreckage is Emily Bleeker’s first novel. She is working on her second book, Beyond and I will most certainly be looking out for it. For more information see her website.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1301 KB
  • Print Length: 305 pages
  • Publisher: Lake Union Publishing (1 Mar. 2015)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00NAJZDIM
  • Source: My choice for February’s Kindle First Pick

The Ravens Head by Karen Maitland

I loved Karen Maitland’s medieval mysteries, Company of Liars: a novel of the plague and The Owl Killers and although I didn’t think The Vanishing Witch had quite the same magic spark I still enjoyed it. So when Lovereading offered me a proof copy of The Raven’s Head for review I was keen to read it.

Publisher: Headline Review
Publication date: March 12, 2015
ISBN: 9781472215055

Summary from Karen Maitland’s website:

Vincent is an apprentice librarian who stumbles upon a secret powerful enough to destroy his master. With the foolish arrogance of youth, he attempts blackmail but the attempt fails and Vincent finds himself on the run and in possession of an intricately carved silver raven’s head.

Any attempt to sell the head fails … until Vincent tries to palm it off on the intimidating Lord Sylvain – unbeknown to Vincent, a powerful Alchemist with an all-consuming quest. Once more Vincent’s life is in danger because Sylvain and his neighbours, the menacing White Canons, consider him a predestined sacrifice in their shocking experiment.

Chilling and with compelling hints of the supernatural.

My thoughts:

Set in 1224 in France and England this is a dark book. I found parts of it very uncomfortable and disturbing to read and yet also very compelling. Life in the medieval world was cruel and brutal and The Raven’s Head describes that world in minute detail, evoking the superstitious fear of the period.

The story is told from the three main characters point of view -Vincent, Wilky, a young boy taken from his family to live in a monastery in Norfolk where unspeakable terrors await him and the other young boys, and Gisa also living in Norfolk, working in her uncle’s apothecary’s shop. Their lives are connected through Lord Sylvain who is trying to find a way to bring the dead back to life and the abbot, trying to find the elixir of life – both experimenting with alchemy.

Karen Maitland provides a cast of characters and sets out the historical background and provides notes and a glossary on the practice of  alchemy during the Middle Ages, all of which I found indispensable. Each chapter is headed by a quotation taken from the writings of early Christian and Islamic alchemists – most of which I found incomprehensible.

She explains that alchemy was a dangerous practice, many chemical experiments could go horribly wrong – as in this book. Alchemists worked in secret. It was mystical, as they searched for the means to transform the base soul of man into pure incorruptible spirit, as well as physical, searching for the stone, elixir or tincture to turn base metals into precious metals.

Although long this is a fast-paced book and I read it quite quickly.  I enjoyed the historical setting and even though it took me right to the edge of my comfort zone as far as reading horrific detail the rest of the book made up for that in terms of a well constructed storyline and believable characters. Once I began I had to finish the book.

The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins

I can imagine how intriguing Wilkie Collins’ novel The Dead Secret must have been when it was first serialised in weekly episodes in Household Words in 1857, every episode ending leaving the reader eager to know what happens next. It’s a sensation novel* (see my note below) , with many twists and turns, giving hints to the secret (which I did guess fairly early in the book) gradually and surely building up the suspense and with a final twist at the end (which I hadn’t forseen).  I’m reading Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography and this is what he had to say about his friend, Wilkie Collins:

 When I sit down to write a novel I do not all know, and I do not very much care, how it is to end. Wilkie Collins seems so to construct his that he not only, before writing, plans everything on, down to the minutest detail, from the beginning to the end; but then plots it all back again, to see that there is no piece of necessary dove-tailing, which does not dove-tail with absolutely accuracy. The construction is most minute and most wonderful.

And the plotting is like this in The Dead Secret – detailed and dove-tailed right from the powerful beginning at Porthgenna Tower in Cornwall in the 1820s, at the bedside of a dying woman, Mrs Treverton as she commands her maid, Sarah Leeson, to give her husband a letter confessing a great secret, to its end when all is revealed.

I think that to the modern reader the impact of this book is not the revelation of the secret but the manner of its style of delivery – the initial questions about the secret, what is in the letter, why has Sarah’s hair turned prematurely white, why she visits an an old grave set apart from others in the graveyard, why she talks to herself and why she disappears from Cornwall soon afterwards, having hidden the letter.

Fifteen years later, Rosamund, Mrs Treverton’s daughter returns to Porthgenna Tower to live in her old home. By an accident of circumstances, before Rosamund and her husband reach Cornwall, she gives birth a month earlier than expected and Sarah under an assumed name, is appointed to nurse Rosamund and the baby. Overcome by emotion Sarah cannot stop herself from warning Rosamund not to go into the Myrtle Room, which of course arouses Rosamund’s curiosity.

Trollope, however, says he ‘can never lose the taste of the construction’, feeling that Collins ‘books are ‘all plot’. I think this is a harsh judgement. In The Dead Secret, I think that on the whole the characters do come across as real people – I particularly like Rosamund and Sarah’s Uncle Joseph, both are sympathetically drawn – and there are other characters that add colour and interest. The settings and details of Victorian life are clearly described.  It also examines several social and moral issues of period, such as the role of women and respectability.

I don’t think The Dead Secret is in quite the same league as The Moonstone or The Woman in White, but it has all the elements of a good mystery story, drawing out the secret in tense anticipation of its revelation and making me as eager as Rosamund to know the secret and then almost as paranoid as Sarah that it should remain a secret!

*Sensation Novels*

I wrote about sensation novels,  in an earlier post and have reproduced the information here for ease of reference. It is a novel  with Gothic elements  – murder, mystery, horror and suspense – within a domestic setting. They have complicated plots, are set in modern times, and are reliant on coincidences, with plots hinging on murder, madness and bigamy. They exploited the fear that respectable Victorian families had of hidden, dark secrets and explored the woman’s role in the family. There is a pre-occupation with the law – wills, inheritance, divorce and women’s rights over property and child custody. They are emotional dramas about obsessive and disturbed mental states, with villains hiding behind respectable fronts, and bold assertive women, as well as passive, powerless and compliant women.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Challenge 2015, My Kind of Mystery Challenge, Victorian Bingo Challenge 2015 

A Question of Identity by Susan Hill

I began reading A Question of Identity, the 7th Simon Serrailler book by Susan Hill immediately after I’d finished reading the 6th book, The Betrayal of Trust (see my previous post), which had left some issues unresolved. I was hoping to find out more in this book and I wasn’t disappointed – which is one reason for reading these books in order. Another reason is to follow the continuing story of Simon and his family. And a third reason is that Susan Hill always focusses on one or more psychological/moral/ ethical issues.

Summary (back cover):

How do you catch a killer who doesn’t exist?

One snowy night in the cathedral city of Lafferton, an old woman is dragged from her bed and strangled with a length of flex.

DCS Simon Serrailler and his team search desperately for clues to her murderer. All they know is that the killer will strike again, and will once more leave the same tell-tale signature.

Then they track down a name: Alan Keyes. But Alan Keyes has no birth certificate, no address, no job, no family, no passport, no dental records. Nothing.

Their killer does not exist.

I much preferred this book to the previous one. It is more balanced between the crime and the continuing story of the main characters. I suspect it may be incorrect in describing police procedures – I don’t know and really it doesn’t bother me, this is fiction after all and I have no difficulty in believing in the world of Serrailler and Lafferton that Susan Hill has created.

The main theme in this book, as the title indicates is ‘identity’ and its importance, how it is concealed, whether a personality can be changed convincingly and completely, or whether eventually the façade will crack and the real character reassert itself.

Susan Hill is also very good at creating tension and suspense. You know there are going to be murders (just as in Casualty you know there’s going to be a terrible accident etc), but that just increases the suspense. She builds up the setting and the characters and I was hoping against hope that one of the characters would not be a victim – and of course she was. I suspected the identity of the killer quite early on and hoped I was wrong about that too – but I wasn’t.  I began to feel very uncomfortable about the fate of the elderly, living on their own, frail and vulnerable …

It’s the psychological/social elements of A Question of Identity that appealed to me more than the crime, although these elements are inevitably so closely connected.

The Betrayal of Trust by Susan Hill

So far this year I’ve been reading from my own bookshelves – books I’ve owned before 1 January. I’ve had The Betrayal of Trust by Susan Hill, the 6th in the Simon Serrailler series, for nearly a year now. Like the earlier books, this one is  character-driven, concentrating on the people involved in the crime and Simon’s family, and also covering several ethical/moral/medical issues.

The crime element concerns a cold case, that of a teenager missing for 16 years. After flooding causes a landslip on the Moor her body comes to the surface together with that of an unknown female found in a shallow grave near by.The cold case is not a priority as the police force is struggling with staff shortages and cuts – Simon has to solve the cases mainly on his own, with the occasional help from DS Ben Vanek.

But the police investigations are not the main subject of this book. It focuses on the problems of ageing, hospice care, Motor Neurone Disease, assisted suicide, Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease. A lot to cope with all at once and at times I found The Betrayal of Trust a deeply depressing book.

Having said that, as with Susan Hill’s other books, this is fluently written, looking at all sides of the issues, highlighting the dilemma facing those with terminal and debilitating illnesses, and those looking after dementia patients. The Serrailler family life has moved on from the last book, but Simon’s strained relationship with his father continues. He fails in love with a stunningly beautiful woman, which causes yet more complications – he just  doesn’t seem capable of having a happy relationship!

Although this is a quick read it’s also rather dark, with some dodgy and sinister characters and I was expecting it to be better than it is. It is a complex novel but the solution to the crime mystery soon becomes evident and is rather rushed at the end. There are several issues left unresolved and I hope they will be clarified in the next book in the series, A Question of Identity, which is next up for me to read.

Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd

Wilkie CollinsOn Thursday I finished reading Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd and it was also the anniversary of his birth – he was born in Marylebone at a house in New Cavendish Street on 8 January 1824.

I’ve read just two of Wilkie Collins’ books – The Moonstone and The Woman in White, and this year I hope to read more. I knew that he was a friend of Charles Dickens, but that was about all I knew of him. Peter Ackroyd’s biography looked as though it could be a good book to start with. And it is – it’s short, just over 200 pages, very readable and a clear and concise account of Collins’ life and work.

Wilkie’s father was William Collins, an English painter, a member of the Royal Academy, who specialised in landscapes and seascapes. He was christened William Wilkie – Wilkie after his godfather, the painter Sir David Wilkie.

Ackroyd’s account may be brief but he gives details of Wilkie’s childhood, his schooldays – the books he liked as a child – The Arabian Nights, Robin Hood and Don Quixote, books by Sir Walter Scott and he admired Byron. He moves on through Wilkie’s struggle to become a writer, his friendship with Charles Dickens, his travels abroad, his unconventional life style, never marrying but living with Caroline Graves for thirty years whilst having a liaison with Martha Rudd, his ill health and reliance on laudanum, his tour of America, his relationships with and views about women and their place in society, as well as discussing his short stories, articles, novels and plays.

Wilkie Collins died on 23 September 1889 after a year in which he had suffered from neuralgic attacks, a stroke that paralysed his life side and affected his brain, and a bout of bronchitis, but he  had still carried on writing.

I marked several passages as I was reading. Here are just a few of them:

He was essentially liberal in his social and political views, averse to coercion and conflict; he showed some sympathy with the principles of socialism as it was then understood, and was instinctively on the side of the oppressed. (page 46)

He might best be described as a Christian humanist who accepted Christ as his Saviour but detested all formal and outward shows of religion. He preserved his particular wrath for evangelicals. … he was not an atheist. He rarely entered a church, and his actual beliefs are hard, if not impossible, to unravel. (page 47)

He may have believed with Charles II that God would not punish him for a few sins of pleasure. (page 47)

He lived through a period in which the audience for fiction was rapidly widening, and the novels themselves were increasing in importance. … Novels had become the repository of dreams and ideals, the fantasies and the speculations, of the nation. (page 81)

One of the characters in ‘The Diary of Anne Rodway’ said -‘what I want is something that seizes hold of my interest, and makes me forget when it is time to dress for dinner – something that keeps me reading, reading, reading, in a breathless state to find out the end.’ That is precisely the excitement Collins conveys to his readers. (page 88)

Collins was writing about mysteries ‘deep under the surface’ three decades before Freud began his own enquiries. He was concerned with doubles and double identity, with monomania and delusion. He traced the paths of unconscious associations and occluded memories. (page 93)

It was believed that the ‘detective element’ disqualified the novel as a work of art, when in fact it opened up the way for an entirely new direction in English literature. There had been earlier exercises in the genre, but all of them are inconsiderable besides the over-whelming power and authority of ‘The Moonstone’. Collins’s novel, since its publication in 1868, has never been out of print. (page 132)

There is an awful lot packed into this short biography! And it’s an excellent stepping stone into Wilkie Collins’s novels.

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Chatto & Windus (23 Feb. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0701169907
  • ISBN-13: 978-0701169909
  • Source: a Christmas present

Towards Zero by Agatha Christie

Towards Zero (Agatha Christie Collection) by…
my copy is a 1972 impression

Towards Zero, first published in 1944, is an intricately plotted murder mystery featuring Superintendent Battle, the last of the five novels he appears in. Agatha Christie dedicated this book to Robert Graves, author of I Claudius, who was her neighbour in Devon during the Second World War and the two had become friends. She wrote:

“Dear Robert, Since you are kind enough to say you like my stories, I venture to dedicate this book to you. All I ask is that you sternly restrain your critical faculties (doubtless sharpened by your recent excesses in that line!) when reading it. This is a story for your pleasure and not a candidate for Mr Graves’ literary pillory!”

It was received well at the time reviewed in the 6 August 1944 issue of The Observer:

 “The new Agatha Christie has a deliciously prolonged and elaborate build-up, urbane and cosy like a good cigar and red leather slippers. Poirot is absent physically, but his influence guides the sensitive inspector past the wiles of the carefully planted house party, and with its tortuous double bluff this might well have been a Poirot case. How gratifying to see Agatha Christie keeping the flag of the old classic who-dun-it so triumphantly flying!”

It begins with a prologue in which a group of lawyers discuss a recent case at the Old Bailey. Mr Treves, a retired lawyer puts forward the idea that murder is not the beginning of a detective story, but the end, that murder is the culmination of causes and events that bring together certain people, converging towards a certain place and time, towards the Zero Hour – ‘towards zero’. The idea presupposes that there is an inevitability – that once events have been set in motion then the outcome is determined.

And in line with this idea, an unnamed person is seen planning a murder:

The time, the place, the victim. … Yes everything planned – everyone’s reaction foretold and allowed for, the good and evil in everybody played upon and brought into harmony with one evil design.

But the story begins with Angus MacWhirter recovering in hospital after a failed attempt at suicide, assured by a nurse that the mere fact of his existence could be of great importance, perhaps even save someone’s life one day. It then moves on to Superintendent Battle whose daughter has confessed to pilfering at school, even though she hadn’t stolen anything. The relevance of this episode is made clear later in the book.

And it is only later in the book that the murder is carried out, giving plenty of time for all the characters to be introduced, defined and their thoughts and relationships explored – Nevile Strange, a sportsman, good looking, wealthy, married to his beautiful second wife, Kay, Audrey Strange, Nevile’s first wife, Thomas Royde, Audrey’s distant cousin returning from Malaya, who hopes to marry her, and Ted Latimer, Kay’s friend who all converge at Gull’s Point, a large country house on a cliff above the River Tern where Lady Tressilian and Mary Aldin, her cousin and companion live.

The murderer could be any of them and as solution after solution is proposed I was completely bamboozled. All the clues are there, but subtly hidden, buried in layer upon layer. As was Superintendent Battle for a while. I like Battle, described as

‘solid and durable, and in some way impressive. Superintendent Battle had never suggested brilliance; he was definitely not a brilliant man, but he had some other quality, difficult to define, that was nevertheless forceful.

And as he also knows Poirot, he is able to apply Poirot’s use of psychology to the case, keeping the suspect talking until the truth slips out.

Towards Zero has to be one of my favourite of Agatha Christie’s books despite a few reservations  – Angus MacWhirter’s role seems superfluous, other than introducing the idea of pre-destination, and Mr Treves’ story of a child killer wasn’t really explained. I was surprised by the ending – not the denouement of the murderer, but the unlikely romance between two of the characters in the very last chapter which seemed just too far removed from reality. But, disregarding these points I really enjoyed this book.

The Book of Lost and Found by Lucy Foley

It’s so good to start 2015 reading a book I really enjoyed. It’s The Book of Lost and Found by Lucy Foley – due to be published later this month. I received my copy courtesy of Lovereading for review.

Summary from inside the front cover:

In many ways, my life has been rather like a record of the lost and found. Perhaps all lives are like that.

It’s when life started in earnest
HERTFORDSHIRE, 1928

The paths of Tom and Alice collide against a haze of youthful, carefree exuberance. And so begins a love story that finds its feet by a lake one silvery moonlit evening . . .

It’s when there were no happy endings
PARIS, 1939

Alice is living in the City of Light, but the pain of the last decade has already left its mark. There’s a shadow creeping across Europe when she and Thomas Stafford – now a world famous artist – find each other once more . . .

It’s when the story begins
LONDON, 1986
Bequeathed an old portrait from her grandmother, Kate Darling uncovers a legacy that takes her to Corsica, Paris and beyond. And as the secrets of time fall away, a love story as epic as it is life-changing slowly reveals itself . . .

Once I started reading it I didn’t want to stop; Lucy Foley is a great storyteller – it’s hard to believe that this is her first novel! It’s the story of Tom and Alice beginning in 1928 in Hertfordshire and moving backwards and forwards in time and place to 1986, from Paris, to London, Corsica and New York. It all revolves around Kate, whose mother, June, had recently died in a plane crash. When Kate is given an old line drawing in pen and ink, dated 1929, of a young woman, she initially thinks it is of June, but realises that it can’t be – the date is too early and the clothes and hair are all wrong. Thus the search for the woman in the drawing and the artist begins.

There is so much I loved in this book – the characters, the settings and the time periods, against the backdrop of years before, during and after the Second World War. It’s a love story, of course, as well as a story of loss, discovery and grief as the decisions we make impact not just on our own lives but on those of others too.

It is a beautiful book and one that I’d like to re-read one day – I’m sure that I would find things in it I missed this time in my eagerness to find out what happened next.

Lucy Foley studied English Literature at Durham and UCL universities. She now writes full-time, having worked for several years as a fiction editor in the publishing industry. She is now working on her next novel – I hope it’s not too long coming!

Corvus: A Life With Birds by Esther Woolfson

Corvus by Esther Woolfson is a remarkable book about the birds she has has had living with her; birds that were found out of the nest that would not have survived if she had not taken them in.

‘Corvus’ is a genus of birds including jackdaws, ravens, crows, magpies and rooks. The specific birds Esther Woolfson has looked after are a rook, called Chicken (short for Madame Chickieboumskaya), a young crow, a cockatiel, a magpie, two small parrots and two canaries. But it all started with doves, which live in an outhouse, converted from a coal store into a dove-house, or as they live in Aberdeen in Scotland, a doo’cot.

Although the book is mainly about the rook, Chicken, Esther Woolfson also writes in detail about natural history, the desirability or otherwise of keeping birds, and a plethora of facts about birds, their physiology, mechanics of flight, bird song and so on. As with all good non-fiction Corvus has an extensive index, which gives a good idea of the scope of the book. Here are just a few entries for example under ‘birds’ the entries include – aggression in, evolution of, navigation, in poetry, speeds of, vision, wildness of, wings’

It’s part memoir and part nature study and for me it works best when Esther Woolfson is writing about Chicken and the other birds living in her house, how she fed them, cleared up after them, and tried to understand them. Although at times I had that feeling I get when I visit a zoo – these are wild birds kept captivity and I’m not very comfortable with that, I am reassured by Esther Woolfson’s clarification that reintroducing these birds to the wild was unlikely to be successful and indeed they lived longer than they would have done in the wild. Though Chicken and Spike (and the other birds) live domesticated lives they are still wild birds:

I realise that if ‘wild’ was once the word for Chicken, it still is, for nothing in her or about her contains any of the suggestions hinted at by the word ‘tame’. Chicken, Spike, Max, all the birds I have known over the years, live or lived their lives as they did by necessity or otherwise, but were and are not ‘tame’. They are afraid of the things they always were, of which their fellow corvids are, judiciously, sensibly; of some people, of hands and perceived danger, of cats and hawks, of things they do not know and things of which I too am afraid. ‘Not tamed or diminished’. (pages 115-6)

At times, where Esther Woolfson goes into intricate detail, for example in the chapter on ‘Of Flight and Feathers‘ I soon became completely out of my depth, lost in the infinity of specialised wing shapes and the complexities of the structure of feathers. But that is a minor criticism, far out weighed by her acute observations of the birds, her joy in their lives and her grief at their deaths – her description of Spike’s unexpected death and her reaction is so moving:

I wept the night he died. Sitting in bed, filled with the utter loss of his person, I felt diminished, bereft. I talked about him, but not very much, in the main to members of the family, who felt the same, but to few others.

It’s the only way, this compact and measured grief, for those of us who are aware that there has to be proportion in loss and mourning; we laugh at ourselves for our grief, trying to deal with this feeling that is different in quality, incomparable with the loss of a human being.

We felt – we knew – that something immeasurable had gone. (page 209)

Anyone who has lived through the death of a loved animal can recognise that sense of loss.

Corvus is a beautiful book and I have learned so much by reading it. I must also mention the beautiful black and white illustrations by Helen Macdonald – I think this is the Helen Macdonald who was awarded the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction for H is For Hawk.

Esther Woolfson was brought up in Glasgow and studied Chinese at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Edinburgh University. Her acclaimed short stories have appeared in many anthologies and have been read on Radio 4. She has won prizes for both her stories and her nature writing and has been the recipient of a Scottish Arts Council Travel Grant and a Writer’s Bursary. Her latest book, Field Notes from a Hidden City (Granta Books), was shortlisted for the 2014 Thwaites Wainwright Prize for Nature and Travel Writing. She lives in Aberdeen. For more information see her website.

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding: Christie, AgathaIt seemed the right time of year to read The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a Selection of Entrées by Agatha Christie. It’s a collection of six short stories but only the first one, the title story, has any Christmas connection.

As Agatha Christie explained in her Foreword this story was an ‘indulgence‘, recalling the Christmases of her youth, spent at Abney Hall:

The Christmas fare was of gargantuan proportions. I was a skinny child, appearing delicate, but actually of robust health and perpetually hungry! The boys of the family and I used to vie with each other as to who could eat the most on Christmas Day. Oyster Soup and Turbot went down without undue zest, but then came Roast Turkey, Boiled Turkey and an enormous Sirloin of Beef. The boys and I had two helpings of all three! We then had Plum Pudding, Mince-Pies, Trifle and every kind of dessert. During the afternoon we ate chocolates solidly. We neither felt, nor were sick! How lovely to be eleven years old and greedy!

But I don’t think this story reflects her own Christmas experience apart from the setting, that is, for this is a collection of crime fiction! Poirot is invited to spend ‘a good old-fashioned Christmas in the English countryside’ in a 14th century English manor house, a prospect that fills him with apprehension, only agreeing to go when he hears there is oil-fired central heating in the house. There is of course a reason for inviting him – for a discreet investigation into the theft of a priceless ruby stolen from a Far Eastern prince. The Christmas Pudding in question is a ‘large football of a pudding, a piece of holly stuck in it and glorious flames of blue and red rising round it’. For a short story this is really complicated with several twists for Poirot to work through.

Four of the other stories feature Poirot, with the last one, Greenshaw’s Folly being a Miss Marple mystery, which I read last year in Miss Marple and Mystery.  Greenshaw’s Folly is a house, an architectural monstrosity, visited by Raymond West (Miss Marple’s nephew) and Horace Bindler, a literary critic. Later, Miss Greenshaw having drawn up a new will, is found murdered.

The remaining four stories concern the murder of a man found a Spanish chest (The Mystery of the Spanish Chest), a widow who is convinced her nephew had not killed her husband despite all the evidence against him (The Under Dog), a man who has inexplicable changed his eating habits is found dead (Four and Twenty Blackbirds), and a man who has the same dream night after night that he shoots himself is found dead (The Dream).

I enjoyed reading these stories. They are of varying length and are all cleverly done, if a little predictable.

An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge

It’s trite to say that Beryl Bainbridge’s An Awfully Big Adventure is ‘awfully good’ – but it is!

First published in 1989 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, this is set in 1950, as a Liverpool repertory theatre company are rehearsing its Christmas production of Peter Pan. The story centres around Stella, a teenager and an aspiring actress who has been taken on as the assistant stage manager.

It’s semi-autobiographical based on Beryl Bainbridge’s own experience as an assistant stage manager in a Liverpool theatre. On the face of it this is a straight forward story of the theatre company but underneath it’s packed with emotion, pathos and drama. And it’s firmly grounded in a grim post-war 1950s England, food rationing still in operation and bombed buildings still in ruins overgrown with weeds.

Stella lives with her Uncle Vernon and Aunt Lily, who run a boarding house. To a large extent Stella escapes real life, living in the world of her own imagination. Her mother is not on the scene, but Stella secretly phones her from a public phone box to talk about her life – her mother just says ‘the usual things’ to her. She’s an innocent, naive and impressionable, she’s troubled and confused, wanting to grow up quickly. She’s ready to fall in love and becomes obsessed by Meredith Potter, the company director, not realising he is simply not interested in her.

After playing a cameo role in Caesar and Cleopatra in the next production, Peter Pan, she ‘manages’ Tinkerbell, shining a torch and ringing a little handbell. The title is taken from Peter Pan, the play about the boy who never grew up, whose attitude to death was ‘To die will be an awfully big adventure.’ Bainbridge’s use of Peter Pan emphasises the themes of reality versus imagination, the loss of childhood innocence, and the quest for love. Stella, whose mother had abandoned her, is most upset by the scene in the play where Peter tells Wendy how his mother had forgotten him when he tried to go back home – the windows were barred and another little boy was in his bed. It’s her mother’s apparent lack of love for Stella that is perhaps the initial cause of what eventually happens.

Love in its various guises is a prominent theme running through the book. When Meredith asks her what she thinks J.B. Priestley’s play Dangerous Corner is about, she says: ‘Love. People loving people who love somebody else.’ And, indeed, An Awfully Big Adventure is about people who are in love with somebody else and they all have secrets to hide.

I was a bit confused by the opening chapter and it was only when I reached the end that I understood it, when the truth that had been hinted at became obvious. It really is an awfully good book.

Seven White Gates by Malcolm Saville

Once more I’m behind with writing reviews – I blame it on the season! So to catch up I’m going to write some shortish posts with just a few thoughts on the books I’ve been reading.

Seven White Gates by Malcolm Saville is the second in his Lone Pine series. I first read some of his books when I was a child, but none of this series. But even so this was a nostalgic read for me and I would have really loved it if I’d read it years ago. It was first published in 1944. The Lone Pine books are about a group of children who formed a secret society in wartime Shropshire.

I particularly like the setting of Seven White Gates, in Shropshire not far from the border with Wales, an area rich in folklore and legend. It begins at the beginning of the Easter holidays, when Peter (Petronella) Stirling, who is fifteen, discovers that she cannot spend them at home with her father at Hatchholt, as he has to go away. Instead she is to stay with her unknown aunt and uncle, near Barton Beach, whose farm is under the Stiperstones mountain crested by the Devil’s Chair. The Stiperstones range lies within the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and is now on my wishlist of places to visit and the Devil’s Chair is really there:

The Devil’s Chair – Photo from Wikimedia Commons

She invites the other members of the Lone Pine club, David Morton, aged sixteen and his younger brother and sister, the annoying twins, Dickie and Mary, who are nine to stay at the farm with her. She meets a family of gypsies and makes a new friend, Jenny at Barton Beach, who all tell her the terrifying legends about the Stiperstones and the Devil’s Chair. Reuben warns her:

Remember, Petronella, our friend, never to be seen near the Stiperstones on the longest night of the year, for then all the ghosts in Shropshire and all the counties beyond meet on the summit – right on and around the Chair they meet – to choose their king … And any who venture out on that night and see the ghosts of all the years dead from hereabouts are stricken with fear and often do not live the year … (page 31)

What follows is an exciting adventure story. Peter’s Uncle Micah is a strange character, a forbidding. gloomy, unhappy man missing his son Charles who had left home some years earlier. It’s fast paced and full of danger for Peter and her friends as they explore the Stiperstones and its secrets.

The book is illustrated with full page black and white drawings and a plan of Seven Gates, which I found very useful in following the action!

Seven Gates plan

Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie

Hallowe’en Party begins with the party given by Mrs Drake for teenagers. One of the guests, Joyce Reynolds, a boastful thirteen-year old, who likes to draw attention to herself, announces that once she’d witnessed a murder. It seems nobody believed her and yet later on she is found dead, drowned in the tub used for the bobbing for apples game – someone had believed her and had killed her. Mrs Ariadne Oliver was at the party and she asks Poirot to help in finding the murderer.

This is one of Agatha Christie’s later books, first published in 1969, when she was approaching 80, and although I did like it for the most part, it is certainly not one of her best. It’s not terribly coherent and it lacks focus in parts as several characters, not sharply defined, are introduced along with a lot of detail and repetition. The plot, as usual in Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries is convoluted with lots of red herrings and loose ends. I thought the revelation of one of the character’s parenthood at the end was just too contrived to be believable. There are meandering and critical conversations about the ‘young people today’ and the state of the mental health service, with overcrowded mental homes, which so many of the characters thought must be the cause of the murder.

… so doctors say “Let him of her lead a normal life. Go back and live with his relatives, etc. And then the nasty bit of goods, or the poor afflicted fellow, whichever way you like to look at it, gets the urge again and another young woman goes out walking and is found in a gravel pit, or is silly enough to take lifts in a car. (page 37)

So it is down to Poirot to discover the real motive, but not before there is another murder. He investigates the possibility that Joyce was telling the truth and asks retired Superintendent Spence, living in the area with his sister, for details of any local deaths and disappearances over the past few years.

Even though I found this book less satisfying than many of Christie’s other books there are things in it that I liked. The relationship between Ariadne Oliver and Poirot for one – Poirot has to have a sip of brandy to fortify himself for the ‘ordeal’ of talking to her:

‘It’s a pity,’ he murmured to himself, ‘that she is so scatty. And yet she has originality of mind. It could be that I am going to enjoy what she is coming to tell me. It could be -‘ he reflected a minute ‘- that it may take a great deal of the evening and that it will all be excessively foolish. Eh bien, one must take one’s risks in life.’ (page 20)

And for another there is the description of a beautiful garden in a sunken quarry,  a well designed garden with the appearance of being perfectly natural. There are several pages lyrically describing this garden, which seemed to me to reflect Agatha Christie’s own interest in gardens, particularly the gardens at her house in Devon, Greenway. Seeing this garden sends Poirot into an almost mystical state of mind as he absorbed the atmosphere:

It had qualities  of magic, of enchantment, certainly of beauty, bashful beauty, yet wild. Here, if you were staging a scene in the theatre, you would have your nymphs, your fauns, you would have Greek beauty, you would have fear too. Yes, he thought, in this sunk garden there is fear. (page 93)

Overall, there are some vivid descriptions in this book – the Hallowe’en party and some of the descriptions of the teenagers ’60s style clothing for example as well as the beauty of the sunken garden, which for me compensated for its flaws. But if you haven’t read any of Agatha Christie’s books I wouldn’t recommend that you start with this one.

Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende

I picked up Portrait in Sepia up in a bookshop four years ago. As I knew nothing about it or the author it joined the other to-be-read books until just recently.

The opening pages of this historical novel grabbed my attention, about Aurora del Valle’s birth in 1880 in San Francisco in the Chinese quarter and referring to family secrets:

I have come to know the details of my birth rather late in life, but it would have been worse not to discover them at all, they could have been lost forever in the cracks and crannies of oblivion. There are so many secrets in my family that I may never have time to unveil them all: truth is short-lived, watered down by torrents of rain. (page 3)

Portrait in Sepia is part of a trilogy, with The House of the Spirits and Daughter of Fortune, and maybe it would have helped if I’d read the other two books, but I thought there was plenty of background history to the characters and I had no problem in following the story and distinguishing the characters.

Summary from the back cover:

After her mother dies in childbirth, Aurora del Valle is raised by her grandmother in San Francisco, but despite growing up in this rich and privileged environment, Aurora is unhappy. Haunted by terrible nightmares and the inexplicable absence of many of her childhood memories, and finding herself alone at the end of a love affair, she decides to travel to Chile to discover what it was, exactly, all those years ago, that had such a devastating effect on her young life. 

Aurora is the narrator and this the story of her family and after giving details of her birth, Aurora goes back to 1862 beginning her story with details about her grandparents. This is not a book you read quickly as there is a lot of detail, a lot of 19th century history of Chile, its mix of nationalities, politics and wars – at first I felt I was drowning in detail, but once I settled into the rhythm of the writing I began to appreciate Allende’s style. It takes you right into the characters, seeing them through Aurora’s eyes – her Chinese grandfather, Tao Chi’en, her uncle Severo and her two grandmothers, Paulina and Eliza, who both play a large role in her life. And there are many other colourful characters and momentous events in this book.

It’s a book about love, loss, identity, betrayal and about family relationships. It’s a portrayal of the strengths and weaknesses of the characters and their struggle to survive. Aurora tells her family’s story through looking at photographs, snapshots in time, through her own disjointed, incomplete and vague memories of her childhood and through conversations with her family members. Whilst she was still very young her two grandmothers decided her future, thinking that time would erase the memory of the traumatic events she had seen, never realising that the scenes would live forever in her nightmares.

Portrait in Sepia explores the nature of memory, how each moment of our lives is so transitory and how the past becomes confused as we try to recapture the moments we’ve lived through. Through photographs we can keep memories alive. As Aurora discovered:

Every instant disappears in a breath and immediately becomes the past; reality is ephemeral and changing, pure longing. With these photographs and pages I keep memories alive; they are my grasp on a truth that is fleeting , but truth none the less; they prove that these events happened and that these people passed through my destiny. Thanks to them I can revive my mother who died at my birth, my stalwart grandmothers, and my wise Chinese grandfather, my poor father, and other links in the long chain of my family, all of mixed and ardent blood. (pages 303-4)

Reading a book like this inevitably leads me on to yet more books, because now I want to read the other two books in the trilogy.

Service of All the Dead by Colin Dexter

Colin Dexter 001A question on the TV show Pointless about the novels of Colin Dexter reminded me I have a few of his books to read, Service of All the Dead being one of them – and it was one of the pointless answers too! So that gave me the push to read it.  My copy is a secondhand book – an Omnibus containing  The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn as well as Service of All the Dead.

It really is one of the most puzzling crime fiction books I’ve read – if not the most puzzling! CI Morse sums it up himself:

There are some extremely odd points in this case, Lewis – or rather there were – each of them in itself suggestive but also puzzling. They puzzled all of us, and perhaps still do to some extent, because by the time we’d finished we’d got no less than five bodies on our hands and we were never in a position to learn what any of the five could have told us. (page 295)

Morse was on holiday, bored and at a loose end, when, stepping off a bus near St Frideswide’s Church in Oxford, he saw a notice advertising a jumble sale at the church – it seemed to him pre-ordained that he should enter the church. This set in motion his fascination with the death of the churchwarden, killed in the church the previous year and his subsequent discovery of the deaths of four more people. His interest is enhanced by the attraction he feels for Ruth Rawlinson, who cleans the church.

Aided by Sergeant Lewis, he digs into the history of the churchwarden, the vicar and members of the church and uncovers an intricate web of lies and deceit. Morse acts on instinct and consequently both Lewis and myself were in the dark for a great part of this book. He proposes several motives for the murders and alternate scenarios of what had happened before untangling the complex mess. There are plenty of red herrings and twists and turns.

Even though I was lost in the plot I found the book compelling reading – it’s a superbly constructed puzzle. This is certainly not a police procedural in the normal sense – there is little account of forensic evidence for example. It is strong on character and on place. The scene of the murders is St Frideswide’s, a fictional church, possibly based a couple of Oxford churches, St Michael-by-the-North-Gate with a Saxon tower and St Mary Magdalen and it is there in the tower that Morse suffers from his great fear of heights.

Service of All the Dead was first published in 1979. I suppose I must have seen the TV version of this book, as I watched all the episodes and this one was shown in 1987 – I don’t remember it! Inevitably as I read it I could see John Thaw as Morse and Kevin Whately as Lewis.

Sausage Hall by Christina James

When the publishers of Sausage Hall emailed me offering a review copy of the book I thought it sounded interesting, although I wasn’t keen on the title – I thought it sounded a bit gimmicky and it nearly putting me off reading it.  But I’m glad it didn’t because I would have missed out on a good story, a crime mystery with a sinister undercurrent exploring the murky world of illegal immigrants, and a well researched historical element. I enjoyed it.

Sausage Hall is the third book in the DI Yates series and although I haven’t read the first two that wasn’t a problem – it stands well on its own, but I’d like to read the two earlier books. This is set in the South Lincolnshire Fens and is an intricately plotted crime mystery, uncovering a crime from the past whilst investigating a modern day murder.

Synopsis from the back cover:

Sausage Hall: home to millionaire Kevan de Vries, grandson of a Dutch immigrant farmer. De Vries has built up a huge farming and food packing empire which extends, via the banana trade, to the West Indies. But Sleazy MD, Tony Sentance, persuades de Vries to branch out into the luxury holiday trade. De Vries and wife, Joanna, take the first cruise out to explore the potentially lucrative possibilities. However, back at home, a break-in at Sausage Hall uncovers a truly gruesome historical discovery. And when a young employee of de Vries is found dead in the woods, D.I. Yates is immediately called in … 

The narrative switches between the first person present tense (Kevan) and the third person past tense, which took me a bit to get used to. Actually I thought this worked very well; even though the use of the first person present tense usually irritates me, it didn’t in this book and it gives a good insight into Kevan’s character as well as providing essential information about his background and relationships.

I particularly liked DC Juliet Armstrong, DI Tim Yates’ colleague – the two make a good combination, even though Juliet spends a good part of the book isolated in hospital with Weil’s disease, having been bitten by a rat. In fact of the two characters I thought Juliet was the most clearly defined. Maybe a second reading would help clarify Yates’ character for me, or maybe this is where not reading the two earlier books is a drawback. This is not a book you can read quickly as there are plenty of characters and several plot threads that need to be kept in my mind as you read the book.

I liked the historical elements of the plot and the way Christina James has connected the modern and historical crimes, interwoven with the history of Kevan’s home, Laurieston House, known to the locals as ‘Sausage Hall’ and the secrets of its cellar – just what is the link between Cecil Rhodes, the Victorian financier, statesman, and empire builder of British South Africa, and the Jacobs family who were the previous owners of Sausage Hall?

Added to this is the mystery of the death of a young woman found dead in the woods near the De Vries food-packing plant in Norfolk. It seems she was employed at the plant although the supervisors there deny any knowledge of her. DI York suspects she is an Eastern European illegal immigrant. And as for Tony Sentance, just what is his hold over Kevan and his wife and their son, Archie? It was only just before the end that I suspected the truth. 

Publishers’ Biographical Note: ‘C.A. James was born in Spalding and sets her novels in the evocative Fenland countryside of South Lincolnshire. She works as a bookseller, researcher and teacher. She has a lifelong fascination with crime fiction and its history. She is also a well-established non-fiction writer, under a separate name.’

There is more information about Christina James and her books on her blog The earlier DI Yates books are In the Family and Almost Love.

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Salt Publishing (17 Nov 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1907773827
  • ISBN-13: 978-1907773822
  • Source: review copy from the publishers

Wycliffe in Paul’s Court by W J Burley

We had to spend nearly 4 hours yesterday in the Newcastle Emergency Eye Department as D has a corneal abrasion. As my Kindle needed charging I picked up a lightweight paperback to slip into my bag to while away the time – and I nearly finished it whilst we were there! It was Wycliffe in Paul’s Court by W J Burley.

Synopsis from the back cover:

Paul’s Court is a quiet corner in the heart of the city: an oasis of peace and safety – until the night when there are two violent deaths. Willy Goppel, an émigré from Germany, is found hanging from a beam in his home; and fifteen-year-old Yvette Cole, who may or may not have lived up to her wild reputation, is strangled and thrown half naked over the churchyard hedge.

Chief Superintendent Wycliffe has the aid of a shrewd local sergeant, Kersey, but they still find this a difficult case to crack. Did Willy assault the girl and then hang himself? Or was his death not suicide after all? As Wycliffe and Kersey dig deeper they gradually untangle a complex network of secrets in the quiet of Paul’s Court …

My thoughts

Although there are plenty of suspects, all from the five houses in Paul’s Court I could easily distinguish them, even with the distractions of a hospital waiting room from children crying that they wanted to go home and people talking loudly next to me. On the other hand, I wasn’t able to concentrate enough to follow all the clues and it was only just before the culprit was revealed that I had any idea who it was. But it was still an enjoyable read.

Wycliffe is a quiet, thoughtful detective who doesn’t let himself become desk-bound and gets very involved with the investigation. This is the first time he has worked with Kersey, who sized him up thus:

He saw a man with a clear view of right and wrong who was not a bigot; he recognised a close-grained moral toughness with a hint of old-fashioned puritan zeal, but no wish to burn heretics. A man of compassion but no sentimentalist, a reformer but not a do-gooder. (page 70)

Wycliffe and Kersey make a good team; Kersey knows not just the area very well but also the local people and is able to give Wycliffe ‘vivid thumb-nail sketches of the inhabitants of Paul’s Court’. They are ordinary people, living ordinary lives but who find themselves in the middle of a murder investigation. W J Burley was very good at creating believable people caught up in extraordinary situations. I’ve read just a few of his 22 Wycliffe books – plenty more to read yet!

W.J. Burley (1914 – 20020 was first an engineer, and later went to Balliol to read zoology as a mature student. On leaving Oxford he went into teaching and, until his retirement, was senior biology master in a large mixed grammar school in Newquay. He created Inspector Wycliffe in 1966 and the series has been televised with Jack Shepherd starring in the title role. Wycliffe in Paul’s Court was first published in 1980.

Blue Heaven by C J Box

There are lots of things I like about reading e-books, but I’ve found that my Kindle has become a Black Hole – it sucks in books and once they are in there they may never see the light of day again. I don’t even know how many books are lost in there. It’s so easy to download books and just forget they are there. With print books they’re always around sitting on the shelves and even if they are in boxes they take up space and are visible. Not so on an e-reader, the books are invisible.

So it was with Blue Heaven by C J Box – it has sat in my Kindle for nearly three years an unread and indeed a forgotten book. And here is where my liking for reading challenges came into its own, because I was looking for a book with ‘blue’ in its title for Bev’s Color Coded Challenge and up popped Blue Heaven.

I loved it and will certainly look out for more books by C J Box.

The action takes place over four days in North Idaho one spring. It’s a story about two children, Annie and William who decide to go fishing without telling their mother, Monica, and witness a murder in the woods. One of the killers sees them and they run for their lives.

It’s set in a farming community which is changing as people move into the area – specifically retired police officers, about 200 hundred of them, which is where the book title comes from, as according to Fiona Pritzle, the mail lady and local gossip, ‘They call North Idaho ‘Blue Heaven at the LAPD ‘. So when Monica reports her children missing it’s natural for the ex-policemen to volunteer to search for them and as the local sheriff is new to the job, they soon take over the investigation.

Annie and William meanwhile have discovered that not everyone is who they seem to be and it’s not safe even to call home. Until they met Jess Rawlins, an old rancher, a lonely divorcee who is in financial difficulty and struggling to keep his ranch going.

This is really a straightforward story of kids on the run but just to complicate things a little there is a newcomer, Eduardo Villatoro, another retired police officer from California, who arrives in town trying to trace the money stolen from a Santa Anita racetrack several years earlier when a young guard was killed.

It all melds together in a fast paced chase to save Annie and William, the tension maintained until the end. There are several things that kept me gripped as I read Blue Heaven. It’s one of those books that I find myself thinking about when I’m not reading it and keen to get back to it. First of all it’s written in a style that appeals to me – straightforward storytelling, with good descriptions of locality and characters, secondly characters that are both likeable and downright nasty, but not caricatures, and finally the ending was what I hoped, and also dreaded it would be.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 731 KB
  • Print Length: 353 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0312365705
  • Publisher: Corvus (1 July 2010)
  • Source: I bought it

Challenges: Color Coded Challenge, Mount TBR Challenge and My Kind of Mystery Challenge.

She Never Came Home by Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen

She Never Came Home is a perfect little ghost story for Halloween. Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen spins a suspenseful story of Alice and her husband Peter and their little dog, Foxy as they move into an old farmhouse deep in the Danish countryside. Just why is Foxy nervous about the cupboard under the sink, what is in the bedrooms upstairs that are excluded from their tenancy agreement, and why has the house been empty for over thirty years?

Both Peter and Alice are out of work, but Peter still has to work out his notice in Germany and leaves Alice alone in the house… Alice slowly discovers the horrible truth.

I really liked this short story, with its chilling atmosphere and shocking twist at the end. In just a few pages Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen has written such a compelling and entertaining tale.

This is my last entry in this year’s R.I.P. challenge and another one for the My Kind of Mystery challenge.

Cauldstane by Linda Gillard

Linda Gillard describes her book, Cauldstane  as ‘a gothic novel in the romantic suspense tradition of Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart & Victoria Holt.‘ It is a ghost story, set in a Scottish tower house in the Highlands:

Cauldstane stood, heroic, long-suffering, defying all that the centuries had thrown at it. (Wet rot and dry rot have proved more damaging to many a castle than the depredations of enemy artillery). I saw an ivy-clad tower, much taller than it was wide, with more windows than I could easily count, the whole topped by conical-roofed turrets and looking, from a distance, like a toy. (page 6)

The narrator is Jenny Ryan who is employed by Sholto MacNab, a retired adventurer and Laird of the castle, to ghost write his memoirs. Cauldstane, a beautiful castle is fast falling into disrepair and the MacNabs are struggling to maintain or even keep it.

When he employs Jenny Sholto jokes that every castle should have its ghost. Cauldstane not only has a ghost, there is also the MacNab curse, which affects the women the McNabs marry, with three deaths (two accidents and a suicide) attributed to the curse, and the legend of the Cauldstane claymore, supposed to possess supernatural powers to protect the MacNabs from evil.

Jenny immediately falls in love with the castle, but as she settles in a few things begin to disturb her – her notes on her laptop disappear. As she learns more about the MacNabs and their history, family secrets begin to surface. But what is the truth behind these stories? It seems to hinge on Meredith, Sholto’s second wife who was killed in a horrific car crash.

Cauldstane is peopled by well drawn colourful characters, a beautifully described atmospheric setting and a wealth of story-telling, recreating the past seamlessly interwoven with the present. Jenny not only falls in love with the castle, but also with Sholto’s heir, his son Alec and as she does so more strange events occur and it becomes obvious that there is a malign presence in the castle that doesn’t want her there. And it makes its presence known in a modern way – through Jenny’s laptop. No ghostly visions or  spooky voices, but a thoroughly evil presence capable of writing on the laptop as well as moving objects and putting Jenny’s life in danger, along with the music that apparently only Jenny can hear.

As well as being a gripping tale Cauldstane is also about fear. The epigraph from The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (1842 – 1914) sets the tone: ‘Ghost: the outward and visible sign of an inward fear‘.  The MacNabs are not the only ones with things to fear in their past, for Jenny too has a troubled past and both have to learn how to overcome their fears. Cauldstane is also about loss and revenge, about good versus evil and the power of love.

Linda Gillard lives in the Scottish Highlands. She has written seven novels. I enjoyed this one very much but my favourite of hers is still Star Gazing. For more information about Linda Gillard and her books see her website, Linda Gillard – Author.

Reading challenges: Read Scotland 2014, My Kind of Mystery and R.I.P. IX.

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This is the first Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson mystery, published in 1887. A Study in Scarlet is a novel in two parts. The first, narrated by Dr John Watson, begins in 1881 with Watson on nine months convalescent leave from the army, having been shot in his shoulder whilst in Afghanistan, followed by an attack of enteric fever. As a result he was weak and emaciated – ‘as thin as a lather and as brown as a nut.‘ He was looking for lodgings when he met a friend who introduced him to an acquaintance who was working in the chemical laboratory at the hospital – Sherlock Holmes, who he described as ‘a little too scientific for my tastes – it approaches to cold-bloodedness. … He appears to have a passion for definite and exact knowledge.’ 

They get on immediately and take a suite of rooms in 221B Baker Street, after Holmes astounded Watson by deducing that Watson had served in Afghanistan. Holmes describes his occupation as a ‘consulting detective‘ solving crimes for both private individuals and the police, using his intuition, observation and the rules of deduction. Tobias Gregson and Lestrade both Scotland Yard detectives regularly ask Holmes for his help.

Very soon they are soon involved in investigating the murder of Enoch J Drebber, an American found dead in the front room of an empty house at 3 Lauriston Gardens, off the Brixton Road,  with the word “RACHE” scrawled in blood on the wall beside the body.

A Study in Scarlet is a superb story introducing Conan Doyle’s characters – Holmes reminds Watson of

… a pure-blooded well-trained foxhound as it dashes backwards and forwards through the covert, whining in its eagerness, until it comes across the lost scent.

Holmes is his brilliant best, leaving the police officers behind as he discovers the killer. And there then follows a flashback, narrated in the third person, to Part II The Country of the Saints to America in 1847, specifically to a Mormon community, explaining the events that led up to to the murder, where John Ferrier and his adopted daughter Lucy are first rescued from death in the desert and then subjected to the community’s rules, specifically with regard to Lucy’s marriage. At first I just wanted to get back to the murder inquiry and find out how Holmes discovered the murderer’s identity, but soon I was engrossed in the American story. Eventually the two parts come together in Chapter VI as Watson resumes the narrative and  Holmes reveals how he solved the problem by reasoning backwards and from a ‘few very ordinary deductions‘ was able to catch the criminal within three days.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, written in a straightforward style with enough description to visualise both Victorian London and the American Wild West. I’d watched the TV version A Study in Pink in the Sherlock series, which although very different in some respects is surprisingly faithful to the book in others. I like both versions.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh in 1859 and died in 1930. He studied medicine at Edinburgh University, becoming the surgeon’s clerk to Professor Joseph Bell said to be the model for Sherlock Holmes’ methods of deduction. He gave up being a doctor with his success as an author and became involved in many causes – including divorce law reform, a channel tunnel, and inflatable life jackets. He was instrumental in the introduction of the Court of Criminal Appeal and was a volunteer physician in the Boer War. Later in life he became a convert to spiritualism.

See Fantastic Fiction for a list of works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Challenges: Read Scotland 2014, the Colour Coded Challenge, Mount TBR 2014 and My Kind of Mystery.

The Lake District Murder by John Bude

I first came across John Bude’s books nearly a year ago on Martin Edward’s blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name and thought they looked very interesting. His books are amongst those published by the British Library – reprints of unknown and undiscovered murder mysteries written in the thirties.  John Bude, whose real name was Ernest Carpenter Elmore, was writing in the Golden Age of detective fiction in the years between the two world wars. In 1953 he became one  of the founding members of the Crime Writers’ Association.

Anyway I made a mental note about the name and it lodged in the back of my mind until this September when I was in the Lake District and came across The Lake District Murder in the tourist information office in Glenridding on the shores of Ullswater. It has a striking cover, reproduced from a London & North Eastern Railway travel poster dating from the 1920s, showing a small steamer boat sailing on Ullswater, surrounded by the hills and mountains of the Lake District.

The LD mystery

The artist was John Littlejohns, who was born in Devon in 1874. He was a painter, illustrator, writer and teacher. As we had just been on a boat trip on Ullswater, in the Lady of the Lake (originally a steamboat), this immediately caught my eye.

The Lake District Murder as Martin Edwards writes in the introduction is ‘a world away from the unreality of bodies in libraries and cunningly derived killings on transcontinental trains.’ It is a police procedural, showing in intricate detail how the detectives investigate a crime. In this case a body is discovered in a car outside a lonely garage on a little used road. At first it appears that Jack Clayton one of the garage owners had committed suicide, but there are a couple of clues pointing to murder and when Inspector Meredith discovers that Clayton was planning to marry and move abroad it turns into a murder investigation. But what is the motive for murder and as everyone seems to have an alibi, who had the opportunity to kill Clayton? 

This book really takes you back in time. It was first published in 1935, which means that police methods of investigations particularly in rural areas was very different. Inspector Meredith uses buses or trains or travels the local roads on a motor cycle with a side car and pops into the local post office to use the telephone. It’s a slow process.

Having recently visited the Northern Lakes, I was fairly familiar with the landscape and could follow the action quite easily, but what I did find difficult was following the calculations Meredith and his colleagues carried out to work out petrol deliveries to the local garages, the lorries’ loads and the petrol storage capacities at the various garages. Inspector Meredith is a likeable character, with a happy home life, although his wife thought the police force made more than enough demands on his time  and tried to discourage their son’s interest in police affairs.

The Lake District Mystery is Bude’s second mystery novel. His first was The Cornish Coast Mystery,  and the third is The Sussex Downs Mystery (due to be released 27 October) both also reprinted by the British Library.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and Other Stories by Hilary Mantel

When I first saw The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it – not because of the controversy over the title story, but because I’m not especially keen on short stories. But Hilary Mantel is one of my favourite authors and after seeing her talk with James Runcie on The Culture Show I decided I definitely wanted to get the book.

I enjoyed this collection of stories,  which are brooding, somewhat melancholic, dark, disturbing and full of sharp and penetrating observations – brilliant! The title story is the last one in the book and is the only new story, the others having first appeared in other publications. I don’t find it easy writing about short stories, especially the very short ones, and so I’m not going to attempt to write about each of the ten stories in this book.

The first one, Sorry to Disturb, describes the dilemma of a British woman living in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia when she finds herself befriended by a young Pakistani businessman – a situation that was ‘ripe for misunderstanding‘. This is one of my favourites in the collection. It has a claustrophobic atmosphere, as feeling trapped in her flat, yet ‘always observed: overlooked, without being precisely seen, recognised’ she was unable to refuse a friendship, wondering if Jeddah had left her ‘for ever off-kilter in some way‘.

This view of life from a slightly different, skewed perspective and of being trapped is there in all these stories. The children in Comma, for example, spend their days during a long hot summer, ‘each day a sun like a child’s painted sun burned in a sky made white with heat’, drawn to watch what was happening at the Hathaways’ house, the house of the rich, built of stone, with a lofty round tower. In both this and Sorry to Disturb, there is an element of distinct class/cultural difference, of being outsiders.

Winter Break is one of the shorter stories, but complete in itself, unlike so many short stories I’ve read. A childless couple are taking a winter break, the husband trying to convince his wife she wants a child – she’s reluctant as she ‘had reached that stage in her fertile life when genetic strings got knotted and chromosomes went whizzing around and re-attaching themselves.’ A moment of anxiety on the journey to their hotel ends in horror.

How Shall I Know You is a much longer story. I often wonder what it’s like for authors going to venues and talking about their books and this story gives an insight into how it can be a dispiriting experience, staying in obscure and dingy places, feeling forlorn, exposed and generally insufficient. It has a grimly humorous side and underneath there is a darkness and bleakness. As with the other stories in this collection it is superbly written – you are there with the narrator, seeing the scenes, meeting the people and understanding their feelings and emotions.

And then the last story – The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Mantel sets the scene – of the ‘place where she breathed her last‘ – a ‘quiet street, sedate, shaded by old trees: a street of tall houses, their façades smooth as white icing, their brickwork the colour of honey.’  Waiting for the plumber to arrive, a woman lets a man into her flat, only to find out he has a gun and wants to shoot Margaret Thatcher from the flat window, as she leaves the hospital behind the flats. Far from being horrified or scared the woman sympathises with the gunman – her first reaction is that she should get a fee for the use of her premises. This too is a dark tale told with a dark sense of humour, and with depth of feeling.

Overall then this is a compelling book, brilliantly written, keenly observed, with the power to chill and shock me. It is one that I will re-visit.

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate (25 Sep 2014)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 0007580975
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007580972
  • Source: I bought it

The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie

The Sittaford Mystery is one of the earlier of Agatha Christie’s books, first published in the UK in 1931 and in the US as Murder at Hazelmoor. It’s not one of her Poirot or Miss Marple mysteries, but features Inspector Narracott, ably assisted, if not lead, by Emily Trefusis, a remarkably resourceful and determined young woman. I really liked Emily.

The Sittaford Mystery begins with a seance, or rather a table-turning session at Sittaford House in a tiny moorland village near Dartmoor, not very far from the prison at Princetown. Snow has been falling for four days and now Sittaford is almost completely cut off from the rest of the world. At the seance are the tenants of Sittaford House, Mrs Willett and her daughter Violet, and their neighbours. When the message of Captain Trevelyan’s death is tapped out, followed by the word M-U-R-D-E-R, his friend Major Burnaby immediately decides to see if Trevelyan has indeed been murdered, walking in the snow walking six miles to Exhampton. Of course, when he gets there, he does indeed discover that his friend is dead, probably killed at the precise time that the message was received in the seance.

Inspector Narracott is called in and a young man, James Pearson, Trevelyan’s nephew is arrested for the murder. Emily, his fiancée, is convinced of his innocence. She enlists the help of the journalist, Charles Enderby and together they set out to discover the real culprit. Inspector Narracott is a quiet man, a thoughtful and efficient police officer, with a logical mind and attention to detail but Emily is determined and courageous in her search for the truth.

There are two mysteries in this book, who killed Trevelyan and why have the Willetts rented the house from him for the winter? I found it all very interesting, with plenty of clues, red herrings and suspects. Added to that is the escaped prisoner on Dartmoor, reminding me a bit of Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations, and of Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, emphasised Charles Enderby’s reference to the seance as a ‘queer’ business, and thinking of getting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s opinion on the matter.

The setting and the characterisation are good. But although the plotting is good for most of the book, I felt the ending and the motive for the murder are rather inadequate, not least because I don’t think you could actually deduce who the murderer is – I guessed, but it was only a guess – not all of the facts are revealed until the denouement. For this reason I can’t rank The Sittaford Mystery with Agatha Christie’s best mysteries, but it is still a good read.

Note: the TV version in the Agatha Christie Marple series not only changes the identity of the killer but also inserts Miss Marple into the story!

The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop

I love historical fiction – books that take me away to another time and place. I think one definition of historical fiction is that it should be written about 50 years after the events it describes and so The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop just falls short of that, set 40+ years ago in Cyprus, but I think it would be pedantic to say it’s not ‘historical fiction’.

Forty years ago Famagusta, on the east coast of Cyprus was one of the island’s most visited and most glamorous tourist resorts with its beautiful coastline and its luxury hotels and apartments in the modern district, now known as Varosha. The medieval walled city to the north of the beach resort was a historian’s dream, with its Byzantine churches, treasures and14th century cathedral. Then in 1974, following a Greek military coup, Cyprus was split in two as Turkish forces invaded the northern part of the island to protect the minority Turkish Cypriots. The population of Famagusta fled and the city was sealed off with barbed wire, leaving it a ghost town.

The Sunrise begins in 1972 before the war erupted. Everything is looking good – on the surface – the tourist trade in Famagusta is booming. But beneath the surface tension is building as fear and suspicion grows not only between the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots, but also amongst the Greek Cypriots themselves, a minority wanting unification with Greece.

‘Cyprus was like a vine leaf that looked opaque and green in the hand but held up to the light was lined with veins. The threat of violence coursed invisibly through the island, and while its sunny, sensual image continued to attract visitors, conspiracies were being hatched and whispers clandestinely exchanged behind closed doors.’

I liked The Sunrise very much – a story of human tragedy in the face of war. It’s a novel about love, friendship and war, the love between parents and their children, and the relationships between men and women. It’s about the struggle for power, about greed, betrayal and deceit. It’s about religion and nationality and the conflict these can cause. Above all it’s about the effect war has on individuals, in particular the brutality and the horrors it engenders.

See my full review of The Sunrise in the Autumn edition of Shiny New Books.

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier, has been sitting on my bookshelves for 7 years (and moved house with me). It’s one of those books that I kept taking down off the shelf, flicking through it and putting it back.

As we’re in the middle of the R.I.P. IX Challenge it seemed this could be a good book to read as it’s fantasy fiction set some time in the future, about a place between heaven and earth, and the people who end up there after they’ve died and what happens to them. Amazingly they eat, sleep, fall in love and go to work in a city that looks like any on Earth with trees, houses, roads, businesses, shops, cafés and so on. It seems they are kept there as long as there is someone alive who remembers them. Parallel with this is the story of Laura, trapped in the Antarctic.  She is one of an expedition exploring methods of converting polar ice to use in manufacturing soft drinks. When their communication system fails two of the team go for help leaving Laura on her own. Eventually she too ventures out across the snow towards the Ross Sea, where there is a station studying emperor penguins.

I’m glad I read this book even if it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. The idea is good, and the two stories are dealt with in alternate chapters. It’s soon obvious that there has been some sort of worldwide disaster or epidemic and at first I was caught up with both stories, but the link between them is so obvious that the element of surprise or suspense just frittered away very quickly.

There is plenty of description; rather too much though and I got tired of reading about Laura’s struggle to cross the Antarctic, and the numerous descriptions of her battles to get in and out of her frozen sleeping bag, and hauling the sledge across the snow. There are plenty of flashbacks and digressions that promised to be interesting but were left undeveloped. It’s as though Brockmeier compiled the book from a series of short stories and scenic descriptions. By the end I really didn’t care what happened to any of the characters as they all waited for whatever came next. It’s a shame because I thought the idea had so much promise – what does happen when we die?

Reading Challenges

The Shroud Maker by Kate Ellis

When I saw The Shroud Maker by Kate Ellis in the mobile library I thought I’d seen reviews of her books on other blogs, so I borrowed it. It is the eighteenth Wesley Peterson Mystery, but I think it reads well without knowing the background to the main characters. Although I suppose if I went back in the series I’d find that I know things that maybe I shouldn’t.

Summary:

It’s the Palkin Festival in Tradmouth, a town in Devon, when the body of a strangled women is discovered floating out to sea in a dinghy. A year earlier Jenny Bercival had disappeared from the festival and her mother returns to look for her bringing with her anonymous letters claiming she is still alive. DI Wesley Peterson and his boss DCI Gerry Heffernan are investigating the two cases. Are they connected and is there a link to a fantasy website called ‘Shipworld’ which features the 14th century mayor and privateer of Tradmouth, Palkin as a supernatural hero with a sinister, faceless nemesis called the ‘Shroud Maker’?

 When Wesley’s friend, archaeologist Neil Watson finds a skeleton on the site of Palkin’s warehouse, the question is whether an ancient crime has been uncovered, or is it Jenny’s body?

My view:

I liked the way the historical mystery intertwines with the modern one, through the archaelogical evidence, and the extracts from a 19th century biography of John Palkin written by his descendant, Josiah Palkin-Wright and letters from Josiah’s wife to her sister, worried about her marriage and that her sister does not reply. Kate Ellis’s style of writing is deceptively simple, so much so that the locations and characters came to life in my mind, whether it was Tradmouth in the past or the present.

There is plenty of mystery in this novel. I really had to concentrate to keep all the characters, red-herrings, twists and turns, and sub-plots in my mind. I thought I’d followed it as I read it, but now I’m not sure that I can give a clear account of what happened and why. However, as I do like complex mysteries I think I’ll have to look out for the first books in the Wesley Peterson series.

A note on the title:

From the title I thought that the ‘Shroud Maker’ would be a person who makes shrouds ie cloths used to wrap a body for burial, but that is not so in this book. Instead the name of ‘Shroud Maker’ is taken from a rope maker, shrouds being the ropes that support a ship’s masts. He or she is a mysterious figure, who in the Shipworld website appears as a faceless monster, wearing what looks like a white ski mask, a malevolent dark force.

The Author’s Note:

It didn’t take me long reading this book to realise that ‘Tradmouth’ is an inversion of the name of Dartmouth in Devon and Kate Ellis’s note at the end of the book clarifies that. She refers to Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales which features a character called the Shipman, a seaman from ‘Dertemouth’, who like her own invented character, was little better than a pirate. She writes that during the 19th century people were fascinated with the medieval period, perhaps as a reaction against industrialisation and her fictional writings of Josiah Palkin-Wright reflected that interest. And coming up to the present day she reflects that fantasy fiction is as popular today as it ever was, with the influence of J R R Tolkien’s works and fantasy fiction websites.

Reading Challenges: R.I.P. Challenge, the My Kind of Mystery Challenge, and the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Brimstone Wedding by Barbara Vine

I’ve had The Brimstone Wedding by Barbara Vine sitting on my unread shelves for a while and when the R.I.P. IX Challenge came up I thought it would be a good book to include in the challenge, because the cover blurbs describe it as a ‘horrifying mystery’, ‘chilling’ and with a ‘horrible climax’.

Brimstone wedding My copy is a second-hand paperback, which is no longer in print, but The Brimstone Wedding is available as an e-book.

Jenny Warner is a carer at a retirement home, Middleton Hall where she meets Stella Newland, who is dying of lung cancer. At first Stella never mentions her husband or her past life, but gradually she confides in Jenny, telling her things she has never said to her son and daughter – things about her life she doesn’t want them to know. 

Their stories intertwine, some narrated by Jenny and some by Stella as she records events in her life on a tape recorder which she leaves to Jenny.  They have more in common than Jenny initially thought and as Stella slowly reveals her past the tension in the book begins to mount.

The atmosphere is mysterious, a house isolated in the fens, seems to hold the key to the past. The description of the house is superb, set in an overgrown garden, with clothes still hanging in the wardrobe, food and champagne still sitting in the fridge and a red Ford Anglia locked in the garage. It’s all very subtle at first with tantalising hints about what had really happened in Stella’s past, but the full horror is left to the end, which by that time I was itching to find out if it was what I suspected it was. I was not disappointed; it’s not horrific in the overblown graphic sense, but in a sinister, psychological way that really is ‘chilling’ and inexpressibly sad.

Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, writes beautifully and powerfully yet in a controlled manner, nothing is left out but there are no superfluous characters or sub-plots. Everything ties in well and the subtle horror of what I was reading gripped me. It is indeed a ‘chilling’ book. It’s about love, hate and indifference, about relationships between couples and families, and about obsession, deceit and betrayal.

Here are just a few quotations that I noted as I read. The opening sentences, set the scene and illustrate Jenny’s superstitious nature. Throughout the book there are numerous examples of her beliefs:

The clothes of the dead don’t wear long. They fret for the person who owned them. Stella laughed when I said that. She threw back her head and laughed in the surprisingly girlish way she had. I was telling her Edith Webster had died in the night and left cupboards full of clothes behind her, and she laughed and said she’d never known anyone as superstitious as me. (page 3)

and

When you deceive people you make fools of them. You make them act stupidly, act as if things which are aren’t and things which aren’t are. And that’s what fools do or people who are mentally disturbed and we look down on them for it or if we’re unkind we laugh at them. (page 17)

She is also aware of ill omens – a bird dying in your hand means your hands will shake for ever, it also means a death in the family and red and white flowers mixed are the worst possible omen at a funeral meaning there will be another death. I was wondering what significance the title has: Jenny has been married for thirteen years, which according to her mother is a ‘Brimstone Wedding’ anniversary. Jenny thinks:

Maybe because it’s explosive or because it’s hard and dark like a burning stone, which is what brimstone means. (page 231)

I think The Brimstone Wedding is one of the best of Barbara Vine’s books that I’ve read – nearly as good as A Dark-Adapted Eye and writing under her real name, Ruth Rendell, A Judgement in Stone. It certainly qualifies not only for the R.I.P. Challenge, but also for the Mount TBR Challenge 2014 and the My Kind of Mystery Challenge.

Catching Up

Half of September has gone! I’ve read 5 books and haven’t written about any of them (except for one and that’s for the Shiny New Books blog – more about that book later). The other four books are:

  1. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (on Kindle)
  2. Wycliffe and the House of Fear by W J Burley
  3. Testament of a Witch by Douglas Watt (on Kindle)
  4. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

It’s much easier to write about a book straight after I’ve read it, so today’s post is about the last book I’ve finished, which is The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie. I’ll try to nudge my brain into writing about the other books as soon as I can.

The Moving Finger is a book I’ve had for a few years now, so it’s one off my to-be-read shelves. It is described as a Miss Marple mystery, but as she doesn’t appear in the book until three-quarters of the way through and after there have been two deaths, she doesn’t have a big part, although she is instrumental in unveiling the murderer.

The story is narrated by Jerry Burton, who has recently moved into the market town of Lymstock with his sister, Joanna. His doctor had instructed him to move to the country where he can take things slowly and easily whilst he recovers from a flying accident. Lymstock seems to be a ‘peaceful backwater where nothing happens‘, but soon after the Burtons have moved in Joanna receives a very nasty anonymous poison-pen letter. They discover that other people have also received them, and soon afterwards Mrs Symmington apparently commits suicide followed by the death of her maid, Agnes, which is without doubt murder.

I liked The Moving Finger. As usual with Agatha Christie’s novels there are plenty of suspects, including Mrs Cleat, well-known as the ‘local witch’, and there are plenty of clues, with a good deal of misdirection throwing me into confusion about who could possibly be the culprit. She captures the nastiness of the anonymous letters well with their accusations of illicit sexual activities. I always think Agatha Christie excels with her dialogue. It’s all so natural and I have no difficulty following who is speaking. I was also convinced about the characters, especially Megan Hunter, Mrs Symmington’s twenty-year old daughter and her relationship with her step-father. Lymstock, itself is a place about fifty years behind the times, but by no means the ‘peaceful backwater where nothing happens‘ that Jerry Burton was seeking.

The police are eventually called in, in the person of Superintendent Nash who then requests help from an expert from London on anonymous letters – Inspector Graves. But the vicar’s wife, Mrs Dane Calthrop isn’t satisfied and brings in an expert of her own, an expert who ‘knows people‘, ‘someone who knows a great deal about wickedness‘ and that person is of course, Miss Marple.

The Moving Finger was first published in 1942 in New York and then in the United Kingdom in the spring of 1943. Along with the puzzle, Agatha Christie, speaking through her characters. makes several comments that interested me – on work/idleness for example. The local doctor’s sister, Miss Griffith, who is a Girl Guide leader, states that idleness is an unforgivable sin, and in response Jerry Burton says:

Sir Edward Grey … afterwards our foreign minister was sent down from Oxford for incorrigible idleness. The Duke of Wellington, I’ve heard, was both dull and inattentive to his books. And has it ever occurred to you, Miss Griffith, that you would probably not be able to take a good express train to London if little Georgie Stephenson had been out with his youth movement instead of lolling about, bored, in his mother’s kitchen until the curious behaviour of the kettle lid attracted the attention of his idle mind?

Another example – considering whether Providence/the Almighty/God would permit dreadful things to happen ‘to awaken us to a sense of our own shortcomings‘, Jerry Burton responds:

There’s too much tendency to attribute to God the evils that man does of his own free will. I might concede you the Devil. God doesn’t really need to punish us, Miss Barton. We’re so very busy punishing ourselves.

Re-reading at her detective novels, Agatha Christie wrote in her Autobiography:

I find that one I am really pleased with is The Moving Finger. It is a great test to re-read what one has written some seventeen or eighteen years later. One’s views change. Some do not stand the test of time, others do.

The Three Graces by Jane Wallman-Girdlestone

I’ve read a couple of novels this year that deal with mental illness – The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, which I found a bit confusing and disjointed and The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing. My reaction to both books was that they are bleak and depressing, showing the breakdown of a personality and I struggled to read them. (See my thoughts on Doris Lessing’s book in this post.)

So, I was a bit hesitant about reading The Three Graces when I realised that it was a novel dealing with the subject of schizophrenia. I needn’t have been concerned as it is by no means a depressing novel. This is Jane Wallman-Girdlestone’s description of her book (taken from her website):

… Grace Hunter, the newly appointed Team Rector for the town, turns out to be nothing like people expect.  Nobody suspects that she has a guilty secret.  No one guesses that the local funeral director is the answer to the Rector’s prayers.  No one in their right mind would have thought that workaholic Grace was tormented by imaginary friends who dominated everything she did. 

My view:

Grace Hunter is trying to adjust to her new appointment as Team Rector, but her confusion grows as she begins to have hallucinations. It’s a remarkable book because although told in the third person at times I wasn’t sure that the people she sees were just in Grace’s head. I think it’s a very clever portrayal as the reader sees things through Grace’s eyes and mind whilst she is carrying on with everyday living and her job as Rector. Grace’s behaviour becomes reckless, at times divorced from reality. It clearly demonstrates how difficult/impossible it is for her to distinguish between what is real and what is not.

The Three Graces follows Grace’s life and to a lesser extent that of her family – husband Tom, Josh and Ros her step-children and her father-in-law, Charlie. They are all having to adjust to Tom and Grace’s marriage and the move to St Anthony’s, their third in five years. And they’re all feeling very unsettled. The dominant character in the novel is Grace; it all revolves around her and as her confusion grows it affects them all. It is an engrossing book, the writing is clear and concise, and the characters are clearly defined. It’s a well-structured novel, the tension and emotional atmosphere gradually rising and Grace’s feelings of despair and confusion and are all very evident. The book is certainly an enlightening read for me.

About the author (From Amazon):

Jane Wallman-Girdlestone was born and grew up in Tooting, South London. She began writing about her life experiences at eight. Jane taught briefly before working in theatre as a writer and director. She later worked as a Vicar and chaplain for some years before lecturing in Theology and Spirituality. Jane works with people who are on retreat offering creative and spiritual mentoring and as a counsellor.

Jane lives in the Highlands of Scotland in the UK, where she writes and paints. She is married and has three Newfoundland dogs and a cat.

The Three Graces is the second book in the Brayston series. Sausages and Trash is the first and the third, with the working title Sleight of Hand, will be published on Kindle in December. This will feature some of the characters from the first two books and I’ll be looking out for it.

NB:  The Three Graces is temporarily unavailable on Kindle.

Put On By Cunning by Ruth Rendell

book cover of </p><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
<p>Put On By Cunning </p><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
<p>Put On By Cunning, aka in America as Death Notes is another book off my to-be-read shelves, an enjoyable read. It was first published in 1981.

The epigraph indicates just what is to follow:

So shall you hear …
Of deaths put on by cunning and forc’d cause;
Fall’n on th’inventors’ heads – all this can I
Truly deliver.

Hamlet

It is a tale of great complexity, a tale of murder and conspiracy to murder. A wealthy old man, Sir Manuel Camargue, one of greatest flautists of his time is found dead. Ankle deap in snow he had lost his footing in the dark and slipped into an icy lake and became trapped. His heiress, his daughter Natalie, had only recently been reunited with him after an absence of nineteen years. Although it seems a straight forward death, Camargue’s much younger fiancée, puts doubts in Chief Inspector Wexford’s mind when she tells him that Camargue had said that the woman who presented herself as Natalie was an imposter.

As is Wexford’s way he becomes obsessed with finding the truth and wonders if Camargue’s death was actually murder, despite the Chief Constable’s insistence that he forgets about it as the evidence all points to his death being an accident. Indeed, the verdict of the inquest is ‘Misadventure’. Wexford, however, is persistent in his doubts and convinced Natalie is an imposter, he is determined to investigate, which leads him to both California and France.

There is much I enjoyed in this, the eleventh Wexford book. It begins well, Ruth Rendell sets an excellent scene, and I could easily visualise the locations and characters, with beautiful descriptive passages. Inevitably, as both Wexford and Inspector Burden, begin to unravel the mystery more and more characters are implicated, until it really does seem a complex case becoming even more complicated, with too many coincidences and characters.

I thought that Wexford was keeping far too much to himself – leaving both Burden and me too much in the dark. The ending came as somewhat of an anti-climax as Wexford explained what had really happened and revealed all the false leads. Still, it kept me guessing to the end and I wondered (as I often do) just what clues I had missed along the way.

And now I’m wondering if I could attempt a ‘Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine Reading Challenge’, along the lines of the ‘Agatha  Christie Reading Challenge’, ie to read all her books. I’ve read several already.

The Reluctant Detective by Martha Ockley

17742272I had little idea what to expect from Martha Ockley’s first Faith Morgan mysteryThe Reluctant Detective as I hadn’t come across the author before and all I had to go on was the description on LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers page last month:

‘Former cop Faith Morgan may have quit the world of crime, but crime has not let her go. Now a priest in the Church of England, she is assigned to the improbably named village of Little Worthy, and within an hour of her arrival she witnesses the sudden, shocking death of a fellow priest. To her distress, the detective assigned to the case is Ben, her former partner and former boyfriend.

As she meets her parishioners she learns some surprising details about her apparently well-loved predecessor, and starts to suspect a motive for his death. The cop may have donned a clerical collar, but the questions keep coming. How will she reconcile her present calling with her past instincts? Is she in danger herself? What should she do about Ben?’

I thought a detective who  was a priest and who used to be a policewoman sounded interesting. So, I am very pleased that The Reluctant Detective turned out to be a good read. Faith Morgan is a well-rounded character; she’s very likeable, observant, compassionate and the sort of person that people feel comfortable talking to – a bit like a young Miss Marple. Indeed, the book has an Agatha Christie feel to it – set in an apparently idyllic country village, with interesting and somewhat quirky characters and although there is one rather gruesome death, it’s not a gory thriller. In short it’s the type of murder mystery that I like, with plenty of complications that kept me guessing about the identity of the murderer for most of the book.

The church and village location are convincing. The parish church of St John is an old building dating from Saxon times, with a tower and church bells, set in the English countryside:

Faith avoided the main approach and followed a gravel path around the back of the church. A creamy cloud of ivory clematis cascaded over a grey stone wall. Beyond a solitary pony raised its chestnut head to gaze mournfully at her from a field of weeds. Some way off squatted a group of ramshackle farm buildings. (page 9)

Faith’s ex – Detective Inspector Ben Shorter, reluctantly allows Faith to contribute to the search for the murderer and the chemistry between the two of them is clearly evident even though he can’t understand why she left the police force for the church. Indeed, Faith herself wonders if she has done the right thing, cutting herself off from her old life and her old self as she realises that she likes investigating, and analyzing people, their expressions and body language and working out what makes them tick. But these are assets for a priest as well as for a police officer. And as for death:

It struck Faith how death is always startling, facing us with the greatest mystery: how the particular and the individual can vanish from this world so completely in a moment. (page 17)

The back cover reveals that Martha Ockley lives in the North East of England and has close links with the church, having grown up as the daughter of a minister. She is a full-time writer of both fiction and non-fiction. I was curious about Martha Ockley and wondered why she had given ‘special thanks to Rebecca Jenkins’ on the title page, so I searched online and discovered that ‘Martha Ockley’ is actually a pseudonym of Rebecca Jenkins, the daughter of the Rev David Jenkins, formerly the Bishop of Durham.

Thanks to LibraryThing and Lion Fiction/Kregel Publications for providing a copy for review. Based on my reading of The Reluctant Detective I shall certainly seek out more books by Martha Ockley/Rebecca Jenkins. There are two more Faith Morgan books:

  • The Advent of Murder
  • A Saintly Killing (to be published in October 2014)

And writing as Rebecca Jenkins:

The R F Jarrett books (the Regency Detective)

  • The Duke’s Agent (1997)
  • Death of a Radical (2010)

also Non Fiction:

  • Free to Believe (David Jenkins and Rebecca Jenkins (1991)
  • Fanny Kemble: a reluctant celebrity (2005)
  • The First London Olympics 1908 (2008)

Dark Matter by Philip Kerr

Dark Matter by Philip Kerr is a book from my to-be-read piles. I bought it at a library sale a couple of years ago now, attracted by the title. I soon realised that it is not about Newton, the mathematician and physicist because the sub-title is : The Private Life of Sir Isaac Newton. It is actually historical crime fiction, set in 1696 when Newton was the Warden of the Royal Mint at the Tower of London.

Christopher Ellis, the narrator of the book, is sent to the Tower to assist Newton to hunt down counterfeiters during the period of the Recoinage of the currency, when fake gold coins were being forged. This leads to the discovery in the Tower moat of the body of the former clerk of the Mint , followed by yet more murders. Newton at times seems remarkably like Sherlock Holmes in his powers of observation and deduction, as he and Ellis follow the trail of the murderers, involving tales of the missing treasure of the Knights Templars, (was the clue to its whereabouts in a book hidden in the Tower?), a difficult code to decipher, plots against Roman Catholics, astronomy and alchemy all thrown into the mix.

It’s very atmospheric, with shadowy London streets and back alleys; the Tower itself a centre of suspicion and intrigue. I liked the mix of fact and fiction. Titus Oates, Samuel Pepys and Daniel Defoe among others, make brief appearances, there’s the war with France and the mix of religion, science and politics that characterised the late 17th century. But I did find the characters, apart from Newton and Ellis confusing at times, having to backtrack a few times to sort them out. Newton himself is seen through Ellis’s eyes, a person who doesn’t like to speak  ‘anything that is extraneous to my business‘. But at times his sense of humour and wit, his dedication to his work, and his resolution of the science/faith conflict all come through.

I liked Dark Matter and reading it has certainly made me interested to know more about Newton, in particular about his religious beliefs. Although I’m happy to read this as fiction I wonder just how much is based on fact? In his Author’s Note, Philip Kerr explains that much is known about Newton’s work at the Royal Mint and that Christopher Ellis was in fact his assistant, following the mysterious disappearance of the previous clerk. As for his religious beliefs, Kerr writes:

Newton’s interest in alchemy, as well as his dissenting, not to say blasphemous, Arian view, which made him violently opposed to the ruling Trinitarian religious orthodoxy of the day, is also accurate. And anyone wishing to know more should read Richard Westfall’s magisterial biography of Newton, as I have done. But any mistakes in the novel are my own. (page 345)

And I also want to know did he really have a cat, and if so did he call it Melchior?

Although I didn’t read it just to fit in with several reading challenges I’ve joined, it is ideal for several and I’ve indicated those challenges in the Categories listed below this post.

Philip Kerr, is a Scot, born in Edinburgh. ‘He is the author of more than 20 books, including seven Bernie Gunther novels, several standalone thrillers, and six books in the young-adult series Children of the Lamp under the pen name of P.B. Kerr.

In 2009, he won the British Crime Writers’ Association Ellis Peters Historical Fiction Award and Spain’s RBA International Prize for Crime Writing for his Bernie Gunther series. A former advertising copywriter who released his first book in 1989 and in 1993 was named one of Granta magazine’s Best Young British Novelists, he now divides his time between London and Cornwall.’ (copied from his website)

The Dance of Love by Angela Young

Angela Young‘s new novel The Dance of Love is historical fiction set at the turn of the twentieth century between 1899 and 1919. It is outstanding and I loved it so much. At times as I read it I could hardly see the pages through my tears – and there have not been many books that have that effect on me.  It’s a brilliant book, both a heart-rending love story and a dramatic story too, as the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and the devastating and tragic effects of the First World War impact on the characters’ lives.

It’s the story of Natalie, the daughter of Sir Thomas Edwardes, a wealthy business man, a self-made man who is socially unsure of himself, but who wants his daughter to be accepted into society. It begins in 1899, a period when young ladies were presented at Court for the London Season, an opportunity to meet their future husbands. Natalie’s friends, the daughters of Lady Bridewell, are looking forward to the London Season. But Natalie has little desire to be presented at Court, relishing the idea that she would be free to live without such restraints and marry for love, someone who will care for her for herself, not because of her family connections. However, she falls in with her father’s wishes and when she meets a handsome artist-soldier, Lieutenant Haffie, it seems her wish for a happy marriage will come true.

What I really liked about this book is the way historical background is seamlessly interwoven with the narrative and how it captures the changes in society as the years went by. Natalie grows from a young, impulsive teenager with passion for romance and dancing into a responsible young woman whose hopes for a happy marriage are in the balance.  The portrait of the Edwardian upper classes, with their lavish life style, glittering balls and all their extravagances is fascinating, contrasting with the enormous changes in society as the War takes its effect.

I liked all the details about paintings as Haffie shows his work to Natalie – Angela Young’s beautiful descriptions draw such vivid full colour images that I could easily visualise the paintings, which Natalie says are ‘mysteries made of light.’  And her portrayal of the settings, whether in London, Devon or the Scottish Highlands are just as vivid, making this a richly descriptive book.

But it is the effect of the War and the effect on the families of those people travelling across the Atlantic on the Titanic that really brought home to me the whole human tragedy that people lived through, much more than any historical account has done. I think it’s seeing these events through the eyes of the people left at home that has the most impact.

I had enjoyed Angela Young’s first novel, Speaking of Love and so was pleased to accept her offer of an uncorrected proof copy of The Dance of Love. I’m so glad I did as it’s a beautifully written, brilliant book that moved me deeply, and one I shall most definitely re-read (always proof of a good book for me).

The Dance of Love will be published on 31 July 2014.

Shakespeare and The Classics Club’s July question

The question this month is:

Have you ever read a biography on a classic author? If so, tell us about it. If you had already read works by this author, did reading a biography of his/her life change your perspective on the author’s writing? Why or why not? // Or, if you’ve never read a biography of a classic author, would you? Why or why not?

This question came at just the right time for me because I’ve just finished reading Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd. It’s taken me a long time to read because I began it in March and have been reading it almost daily a few short chapters each day.

Ackroyd Shakespeare I bought the book in Stratford-upon-Avon some years ago after going to the theatre there. I first came across Shakespeare’s plays at school – doesn’t everyone? Years later I took an Open University course and studied more plays and managed to see productions of each one, either at the Barbican in London or at the Stratford.

So, I’m familiar with several plays, which helps enormously with reading Ackoyd’s biography as he has structured it mainly around the plays.  But above all, he has placed Shakespeare within his own time and place, whether it is Stratford or London or travelling around the countryside with the touring companies of players. Shakespeare spans the reigns of two monarchs, which saw great changes and Ackroyd conjures up vividly the social, religious and cultural scene. It’s a very readable book, full of detail. My only reservation about it is one I often have when reading biographies – there are inevitably assumptions, those phrases such as ‘must have’  ‘would have’, ‘most likely’, ‘could have’, ‘there is also a possibility that’ and so on that biographers use.

I learnt a lot that I hadn’t known before as my study of Shakespeare hadn’t gone much beyond the plays, and studying them as entities in themselves is not the same as seeing them in their contemporary settings, or as a part of his whole work. I knew very little (or if I did learn anything years ago, I’ve forgotten) for example of the theatrical world, of how the actors worked, their patrons and managers, nor about how Shakespeare interacted with other writers, or of how his work was received by the public and the monarchy. I particularly liked the sections on religion and the religious conflicts of the late 16th and early 17th centuries and his discussion about Shakespeare’s own beliefs and practices:

This raises the vexed question of his religion, endlessly debated through the centuries. It is true that he used the language and the structure of the old faith in his drama, but that does not imply that he espoused Catholicism. His parents are likely to have been of the old faith, but he did not necessarily take it with him into his adulthood. The old religion was part of the landscape of his imagination, not of his belief.

His own adult beliefs are much more difficult to estimate. It is possible that he was, in the language of the period, a ‘church papist’; he outwardly conformed, as in the ceremony of christening, but secretly remained a Catholic. This was a perfectly conventional stance at the time. (pages 446 – 7)

Ackroyd’s account of the language of the plays is also fascinating. Understanding the plays can be demanding. I’ve found that when I’ve seen a play acted it makes much more sense to me than when I’ve only read it and I’ve often wondered how the plays were understood by their 16th century audiences. Ackroyd considers that

Some of Shakespeare’s more recondite phrases would have passed over them, as they baffle even the most highly educated contemporary audience, but the Elizabethans understood the plots and were able to appreciate the contemporary allusions. Of course scholars of a later age have detected in Shakespeare’s plays a subtlety of theme and intention that may well have escaped Elizabethan audiences. But it may be asked whether these are the inventions of scholars rather than the dramatist. (page 349)

In a book of over 500 pages there is much more to be said about it than I’ve attempted in this post – I’ve only just touched the surface!

My overall view of this biography is that it is well researched, with an extensive bibliography, notes and index. Ackroyd acknowledges that he ‘came to this study as a Shakespearian enthusiast‘ rather than as an expert and lists other biographies that he found ‘most illuminating’.

In answer to the Classics Club question on whether reading a biography has changed my perspective on an author’s writing I think the answer has to be that it hasn’t really changed it but it has enhanced my understanding of the world in which Shakespeare lived and wrote and emphasised the fact that the plays are/were made for an audience:

Shakespeare relied upon the audience and, with such devices as the soliloquy, extended the play towards it; the drama did not comprehend a completely independent world, but needed to be authenticated by the various responses of the crowd. (page 349)