I read The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan in May. It’s due to be published by No Exit Press on 27 July 2017 (first published December 30th 2014).
One man is dead.
But thousands are his victims.
Can a single murder avenge that of many?
When Christopher Drayton’s body is found at the foot of the Scarborough Bluffs, Detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty are called to investigate his death. But as the secrets of his role in the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre surface, the harrowing significance of the case makes it difficult to remain objective. In a community haunted by the atrocities of war, anyone could be a suspect. And when the victim is a man with far more deaths to his name, could it be that justice has at long last been served?
In this striking debut, Ausma Zehanat Khan has written a compelling and provocative mystery exploring the complexities of identity, loss, and redemption.
The harrowing account of the atrocities of Srebrenica in 1995 and the search for justice forms the basis of this intriguing novel. Extracts from statements and reports from survivors of the massacre head each chapter, giving voice to the ‘unquiet dead‘. These are immensely powerful and drive the novel. Alongside that is the investigation by detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty into the death of Christopher Drayton who fell from the heights of the Scarborough Bluffs. Was it suicide, or an accident? Or was he pushed -and if so, who pushed him and why?
This is Ausma Zehanat Khan‘s debut novel but at times events in the past lives of the characters are referred to without much explanation and I felt I must have missed an earlier novel. For me, the investigation into Drayton’s death is the weaker part of the book. I think Rachel is the most convincing character, with Esa more of a shadowy personality, seemingly easily influenced by the women he meets. The other characters and there are a lot, aren’t particularly well-drawn and some are really just caricatures.
But these criticisms aside I think it is a powerful and thought provoking story that brought home to me the devastating and heart breaking horrors of the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first Inspector Banks book, Gallows View by Peter Robinson* (see below). I’ve read some of the later Banks books, totally out of order, which doesn’t seem to matter as I think they work well as stand alone books.
Inspector Alan Banks has been in Eastvale in the Yorkshire Dales for six months, having relocated from London. He has now got used to the slower pace of life and is working well with his colleagues. Sandra, his wife, has also settled well in Eastvale, making friends with Harriet and joining the local photography club.
There’s a peeping tom in the area, targeting young, blonde women, following them as they leave the pub and then watching as they undress for bed and there is also spate of break-ins by two balaclava-wearing thugs who rob old ladies and vandalize their homes. It’s clear quite early in the book that the two thugs are teenagers, Trevor Sharp and his friend, Mick Webster, who progress from robbing old ladies to burgling more prosperous homes when their owners are away from home, guided by Mick’s older brother, Lenny.
The main mystery is that of Alice Matlock, an old woman, living on her own, who is is found dead in her ransacked house in Gallows View, a row of old terraced cottages. Her body was discovered by her friend, Ethel Carstairs, lying on her back, having fractured her skull on the corner of a table while falling backwards – or had she been pushed? Was she also a victim of Trevor and Mick, could it have been the peeping tom, or was someone else responsible? It might have just been an accident – she was old and her bones were brittle.
Dr Jenny Fuller, a psychologist at York University, has been brought in to help by providing a profile for the peeping tom case. Banks, a happily married man, is immediately attracted to her. They work well together, although Sandra, his wife, is rather suspicious at first about their relationship when she discovers that Dr Fuller is a young, attractive redhead.
It’s a good start to the series, which has now reached 24 books. It has quite a relaxed pace, with a complex and well constructed plot. The characters are convincing and realistic, and I like Banks, a hard working dedicated detective who gets on well with his boss, Superintendent Gristhorpe, who likes to build dry stone walls in his spare time.
As well as the crimes Robinson also explores a number of other issues – for example, feminism and gender, and education, comparing comprehensives and grammar schools. One thing that really dates it is the frequent mention of smoking in pubs!
As with other detective novels that have since been adapted for TV there are differences from the books. Peter Robinson explains on his website he has no power in the TV universe, and he thinks of the Banks books and the TV series as parallel universes. The characters are clearly meant to be different versions of the same person; they look different, have different personalities and meet different fates in different worlds.
Format: Kindle Edition
File Size: 826 KB
Print Length: 324 pages
Publisher: Pan; Reprints edition (21 Aug. 2009)
Source: I bought the e-book
My Rating: 4*
Gallows View is a book I’ve owned for over 2 years, so it qualifies for Bev’s Mount TBR Challenge.
*Peter Robinson later wrote a novella, Like A Virgin published in a short story collection, The Price of Love, which is about his last case in London just before he moved to Yorkshire.
Libby Hall never really wanted to be noticed. But after she saves the children in her care from a fire, she finds herself headline news. And horrified by the attention. It all reminds her of what happened nine years ago. The last time she saw her best friend alive.
Which is why the house swap is such a godsend. Libby and her husband Jamie exchange their flat in Bath for a beautiful, secluded house in Cornwall. It’s a chance to heal their marriage – to stop its secrets tearing them apart.
But this stylish Cornish home isn’t the getaway they’d hoped for. They make odd, even disturbing, discoveries in the house. It’s so isolated-yet Libby doesn’t feel entirely alone. As if she’s being watched.
Is Libby being paranoid? What is her husband hiding? And. As the secrets and lies come tumbling out, is the past about to catch up with them?
Last Seen Alive is the first novel by Claire Douglas that I’ve read and I loved it. It’s everything the blurb promised, and the secrets and lies never stop coming, right up to the end of the book. To write too much about the plot would only spoil it – you have to experience it as you read to get the full impact.
I can only say that right from the beginning of the book I was hooked as Jamie and Libby arrive at their house swap in the Roseland Peninsula in Cornwall (I’ve been there – it is beautiful) and I felt the suspense and tension as they explored the house by the sea. It’s a remote detached rectangular house with a round turret at one end and inside it had been recently restored. They are dismayed by the contrast with their poky two bed flat in Bath. Immediately alarm bells are going off in Libby’s head, what were the owners’ real reasons for wanting to swap this house for their little flat?
Strange things happen, Libby’s fears escalate and then Jamie begins to question her about her past. He knew that Karen, her best friend had died in a fire when the two of them were in Thailand and that Libby had been lucky to escape. But she doesn’t want to talk about that and she knows that he is keeping things from her too. Then Jamie comes down with a bad attack of food poisoning and ends up in hospital. Their stay in Cornwall comes to an end as the owner tells them he is leaving their flat. They return and from then on everything gets worse – much worse.
Needless to say this is a complicated and complex story, perfectly paced as the secrets are revealed and the lies are exposed. The characterisation is good. As I read I grew to like Libby a lot but began to suspect that maybe she wasn’t as genuine as I first thought and Jamie’s attitude began to irritate me – signs that the characters are well drawn. At one point I began to get a glimmer about the truth as I realised how the Prologue fitted into the story.
I was never really sure who I could believe, just who was telling the truth. It’s one of those books that keeps you guessing right up to the end and this one is excellent, dramatic, tense and so very, very twisty.
My thanks to NetGalley and Penguin, the publishers for a review copy.
These are the sixteen stories in the collection. Martin Edwards has prefaced each one with a brief biographical note, which I found useful as some of the authors were new to me. I read the collection slowly, which I find is the best way to approach a short story collection.
The Lost Special by Arthur Conan Doyle (not a Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson story) about a train that disappears on its route from Liverpool to London. This was first published in The Strand Magazine in 1898.
The Thing Invisible by William Hope Hodgson, an author I hadn’t come across before. First published in 1913 this is a murder mystery dressed up as a ‘ghost’ story. Very atmospheric.
The Case of the Tragedies in the Greek Room by Sax Rohmer, another new-to-me author, although I had heard of his most well known character, the master criminal Dr Fu Manchu. In this story amateur detective Moris Klaw and his beautiful daughter investigate a locked room murder in a museum, involving ‘psychic photographs’.
The Aluminum Dagger by Richard Austin Freeman, featuring one of Dr. John Thorndyke’s scientific stories, describing in detail how a man was discovered in a locked room, stabbed to death.
The Miracle of Moon Crescent by G. K. Chesterton, a Father Brown story set in America, in which the cleric investigates a death by a curse.
The Invisible Weapon by Nicholas Olde, an impossible murder mystery, in which there is only one man who could have done it – and he could not have done it.
The Diary of Death by Marten Cumberland – an impossible crime, a kind of chess problem. Lilian Hope’s diary provides a list of victims -people she had hated.
The Broadcast Murder by Grenville Robbins, in which a murder takes place in a radio station and is broadcast has it happens.
The Music-Room by Sapper (not a Bulldog Drummond story), featuring a secret passage and a falling chandelier.
Death at 8:30 by Christopher St. John Sprigg, in which a murderer predicts the date and exact time of the death of the victim unless a ransom is paid.
Too Clever By Half by G. D. H. and Margaret Cole – Dr Tancred’s advice, if you intend to commit a murder, is don’t make the mistake of trying to be clever!
Locked In by E. Charles Vivian – a death by shooting in a locked room.
The Haunted Policeman by Dorothy L. Sayers (a Lord Peter Wimsey story) – probably my favourite in the collection. It had me completely mystified. The policeman is new to the beat and can’t believe his eyes.
The Sands of Thyme by Michael Innes (a John Appleby story) murder at Thyme Bay, or was it suicide? Footprints in the sand provide a clue.
Beware of the Trains by Edmund Crispin (a Gervase Fen story), a clever and baffling story about a lost train driver.
The Villa Marie Celeste by Margery Allingham (an Albert Campion and Inspector Luke story) – another favourite, in which a young couple disappear, leaving behind their half-eaten breakfast, taking only a couple of clean linen sheets. There was no clue why they left and no signs of any violence.
My thanks to the publishers for my review copy via NetGalley.
I am old. That is the first thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe. If you saw me you would probably think I was about forty, but you would be very wrong.’
Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he’s been alive for centuries. From Elizabethan England to Jazz Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen a lot, and now craves an ordinary life.
Always changing his identity to stay alive, Tom has the perfect cover – working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive. Here he can teach the kids about wars and witch hunts as if he’d never witnessed them first-hand. He can try and tame the past that is fast catching up with him. The only thing Tom mustn’t do is fall in love. How to Stop Timeis a wild and bittersweet story about losing and finding yourself, about the certainty of change and about the lifetimes it can take to really learn how to live.
How To Stop Time caught my imagination right from the start and I read it quite quickly, enjoying the trips through time. Tom’s condition is called ‘anageria’, in which, whilst he is actually ageing very slowly, he doesn’t appear to be getting any older. It’s the opposite of ‘progeria’ that causes a child’s body to age very quickly. It causes him problems, particularly in his youth in the late 16th century (he was born in 1581) when people suspected his mother of witchcraft. In more modern times the danger comes from scientists (the ‘new witch finders’) and their experiments to discover the nature and causes of anageria.
Tom tells his life story in flashbacks, switching back and forth in time between the present day and the past. His life is by no means uneventful, meeting amongst others Shakespeare, Richard Burbage, Captain Cook, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. As a young man in Elizabethan England he fell in love with Rose and they had a daughter, Marion, who has the same genetic anomaly. He left his family to keep them safe and lost touch with Marion. It’s a fascinating book that succeeded in bringing the past to life and transporting me back in time.
How To Stop Time is not just a trip through time because overarching Tom’s story is that of the Albatross Society, whose members have the same condition as Tom, headed by the rather frightening figure of Hendrich. The conditions of belonging to the Society are that every eight years members have to carry out assignments and in return Hendrich helps them to change the identity and thus keeps them safe over the centuries. Tom, who by now just wants to live as normal a life as possible, has become reluctant to carry out the assignments but he carries on as Hendrich says he is close to finding Tom’s daughter, Marion.
It examines the nature of time, the fact that life is continuous and ever-changing, but emphasising that in reality you can only live in the present. Without being in any way moralistic, it demonstrates that life should be lived to the full each day.
My thanks to NetGalley and Canongate Books, the publishers for an uncorrected proof copy for review.
Format: Kindle Edition
File Size: 1711 KB
Print Length: 336 pages
Publisher: Canongate Books; Main edition (6 July 2017)
Pretty, unworldly Sophia is twenty-one years old and hastily married to a young painter called Charles. An artist’s model with an eccentric collection of pets, she is ill-equipped to cope with the bohemian London of the 1930s, where poverty, babies (however much loved) and husband conspire to torment her.
Hoping to add some spice to her life, Sophia takes up with Peregrine, a dismal, ageing critic, and comes to regret her marriage – and her affair. But in this case virtue is more than its own reward, for repentance brings an abrupt end to the cycle of unsold pictures, unpaid bills and unwashed dishes . . .
I quoted the opening and an extract from page 56 in one of my Friday Posts. Now I’ve finished the book I understand the opening sentence ‘I told Helen my story and she went home and cried’, because it’s such a sad and, in parts even a tragic, story. As the synopsis indicates this is set in 1930s London and Sophia and her husband Charles (both artists) live a life of poverty whilst he struggles to sell his artwork. Actually Charles contributes very little money and it is left to Sophia to earn whatever she can working in a commercial art studio and as an artists’ model.
Their marriage is blighted by Sophia’s money worries and Charles’s cavalier attitude to life. Things get worse when Sophia realises she is pregnant – Charles had told her before they were married he never wanted to have children – and she realises too late that her idea of birth control as being a matter of controlling your thoughts and thinking very hard, and saying ‘I won’t have any babies’ was quite wrong! After the birth of Sandro, a harrowing experience that makes me so thankful for the NHS, their situation deteriorates even further.
Despite their circumstances, Sophia tells her story in a casual, matter of fact way, with much humour. Sandro is a small, sickly baby and Sophia was afraid he would die. She also thought that if she applied for free milk the council would take him away if on the grounds that his parents had no visible means of support. Charles is no help to her at all, he dislikes Sandro and wants him out of the way:
‘Babies have no feelings and would be just as happy in an orphanage as anywhere else.’ On the other hand, he would be much happier of the baby was out of the way, so to send him to a ‘home’ was much the most reasonable thing to do. (page 71)
Theirs is a life of hardship and heartbreaking tragedy, but Sophia’s spirit is not broken despite the tragic events that descend upon her. From a lighthearted and comic beginning the mood of the novel darkens as it moves towards an inevitable tragic climax. What seems to make it even more tragic is the conversational tone in which it is all told, concealing such real pain. However, the novel does not end with tragedy – it is not all doom and gloom and as the opening page reveals Sophia survives to tell her story:
… it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now. I hardly dare admit it, even touching wood, but I’m so happy that when I wake in the morning I can’t believe it’s true. I seldom think of the time I was called Sophia Fairclough; I try to keep it pushed right at the back of my mind.
Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a semi-autobiographical novel as indicated by this note at the beginning of the book:
The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty.
Thankfully the really tragic events do not occur in these chapters. There are moments of comedy and humour throughout and the novel is written in a light, chatty style. It is a portrait of life in the Thirties, a life ruled by poverty and hardship and of a marriage destroyed by circumstances and personalities.
Barbara Comyns (1909 – 1992) began to write and illustrate her stories as a child. Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, first published in 1950 was her second novel.
When twenty-two-year-old Olivia is coerced into marriage by the cruel Alistair Sheldon she leaves England for Egypt, his home and the land of her own childhood. Reluctant as she is to go with Alistair, it’s in her new home that she finds happiness in surprising places: she is reunited with her long-estranged sister, Clara, and falls – impossibly and illicitly – in love with her husband’s boarder, Captain Edward Bertram.
Then Clara is abducted from one of the busiest streets in the city. Olivia is told it’s thieves after ransom money, but she’s convinced there’s more to it. As she sets out to discover what’s happened to the sister she’s only just begun to know, she falls deeper into the shadowy underworld of Alexandria, putting her own life, and her chance at a future with Edward, the only man she’s ever loved, at risk. Because, determined as Olivia is to find Clara, there are others who will stop at nothing to conceal what’s become of her . . .
Beneath a Burning Sky is a novel of secrets, betrayal and, above all else, love. Set against the heat and intrigue of colonial Alexandria, this beautiful and heart-wrenching story will take your breath away.
I have mixed feelings about Beneath a Burning Sky by Jenny Ashcroft. I liked the historical setting – Alexandria at the end of the 19th century when Egypt was under British rule. It is a complex book but it is not so much historical fiction but more of a romantic story. Overall I enjoyed it but thought the book was melodramatic and I was hoping for more historical content.
There is a large cast of characters and although the main character, Olivia is convincingly described, many of the other characters are rather flat stereotypes – Alistair the sadistic older husband, Millicent, the wicked grandmother, and Edward, the ‘good’ character, the handsome, romantic lover.
From the start of the novel there is a lot that is not explained and the action moves swiftly from location to location, switching between different sets of characters. Olivia, trapped in an appalling marriage, is reunited with her older sister Clara from whom she was separated at a very young age after the death of their parents. She has no memories of her parents or her early life in Egypt, but throughout the book has tantalising flashbacks. I would have liked to have discovered what had happened to her parents, but this was only hinted at. I also wondered why Millicent, the wicked grandmother, had hated Olivia’s mother so much. And I was not convinced about the plausibility of Olivia’s forced marriage to Alistair.
But this is not the main mystery – that concerns Clara, because shortly after Olivia arrives, Clara disappears. The police investigation is completely useless, mainly because the chief of police is corrupt. What follows is Olivia’s frantic search for Clara with multiple twists as various secrets and passions begin to surface.
An added complication is the story of Nailah, an Egyptian woman, and her family. This shows the contrast between the ruling British class and the local people and the conditions they experienced and I think Jenny Ashcroft’s portrayal is the best part of her book. But I floundered to understand Nailah’s role in the novel and it was only towards the end that that became clear.
It is easy reading, and I was keen to know what had happened to Clara and why she disappeared. But for me it was too long with too many episodes that I sometimes found confusing. However, other people enjoyed it more than I did -there are plenty of 5 and 4 star reviews both on Amazon and Goodreads.
With thanks to NetGalley and Sphere, the publisher for a review copy.
From the moment Rhoda Middleton opens one of her husband’s letters and finds it is from another woman, she is convinced he is having an affair. But when Rhoda tracks her down, she discovers the mysterious woman is not his lover after all, but the wife of his best friend, Archie Foster.
There is only one problem – Rhoda has never even heard of Archie Foster.
Devastated by this betrayal of trust, Rhoda tries to find out how and why her husband, Peter, has kept this friendship hidden for so long. Her search leads her back to 1945, but as she gradually uncovers Peter’s wartime secrets she must wrestle with painful memories of her own. For if they are ever to understand each other, Rhoda too must escape the ghosts of the past. Taking us on a journey from the atmospheric filming of Brief Encounter, to the extraordinary Great March of prisoners of war through snow-bound Germany, this is a novel of friendship, hope, and how in the end, it is the small things that enable love to survive.
I finished reading Past Encounters by Davina Blake a week ago, but the story is still fresh in my mind. In essence it is a story of a marriage that has drifted, so that Rhoda and Peter no longer talk to each other about the things that matter in their lives. And they both have secrets from each other – big secrets! Their inability to talk about their wartime experiences has isolated them both emotionally and psychologically.
Rhoda and Peter were engaged to be married as war broke out and the story follows their lives, alternating between the novel’s present day of 1955 and the war years of the 1940s. I loved the historical detail, in particular the details of Peter’s experiences as a prisoner of war. Davina Blake explains in the Acknowledgements that his experiences are fictional but based on real-life ordeals of prisoners of war taken from their memoirs. She has included a bibliography of further reading including these memoirs. The account of the prisoners’ march through Germany towards the end of the war is especially moving. I don’t think I have read any war-time stories quite like this one.
Equally as fascinating are Rhoda’s war-time experiences at home and her involvement with the filming of David Lean’s 1945 film Brief Encounter at the refreshment room in the Carnforth Railway station where she was working. Davina Blake used to be a set and costume designer for theatre and BBC TV and was inspired to write Past Encounters as she lives near Carnforth station where she has often kept out of the cold in the refreshment room whilst waiting for a train.
Past Encounters is a thought provoking book about love, loyalty, betrayal and forgiveness, full of tension with well-drawn characters and a great sense of time and place, whether in Germany or Britain.
Davina Blake also writes historical fiction set in the 17th century under the pen name Deborah Swift.
I loved An Uncertain Place, a clever and also a confusing book. It’s the sixth in Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series in which he investigates a macabre murder. I say confusing because I got a bit lost in the middle of the book, and looking back I think it’s because Adamsberg is not your normal detective – he works by intuition and I simply hadn’t followed his train of thought. With a bit of concentration I was back on track and caught up with him.
I say clever because it is such a convoluted plot, with what I thought could be red herrings, but which turned out to be vital clues. I think the blurb on the back cover summarises the story better than I could:
Commissaire Adamsberg leaves Paris for a three-day conference in London. With him are Estalère, a young sergeant, and Commandant Danglard, who is terrified at the idea of travelling beneath the Channel. It is a welcome change of scenery, until a macabre and brutal case comes to the attention of their colleague Radstock from New Scotland Yard.
Just outside the gates of the baroque Highgate cemetery a pile of shoes is found. Not so strange in itself, but the shoes contain severed feet. As Scotland Yard’s investigation begins, Adamsberg and his colleagues return home and are confronted with a massacre in a suburban home. Adamsberg and Danglard are drawn in to a trail of vampires and vampire-hunters that leads them all the way to Serbia, a place where the old certainties no longer apply.
This is one of those books that once I begin reading I don’t want to put down. I had to, of course, and it’s not a book to dash through to the end or you’ll miss so much. Adamsberg is a very likeable detective, although he must be a nightmare to work with, as his colleagues find his methods of working just as bewildering and confusing as I do. But they are used to him and trust his leaps of intuition.
The mystery of who left the shoes outside the gates of Highgate Cemetery is a theme throughout the book:
The smell was ghastly, the scene appalling, and even Adamsberg stiffened, standing back a little behind his English colleague. From the ancient shoes, with their cracked leather and trailing laces, projected decomposed ankles, showing dark flesh and white shinbones which had been cleanly chopped off. The only thing that didn’t match Clyde-Fox’s account was that the feet were not trying to get into the cemetery. They were just there, on the pavement, terrible and provocative, sitting inside their shoes at the historic gateway to Highgate Cemetery. They formed a carefully arranged and unspeakable pile. (page 23)
The scene that confronts Adamsberg on his return to Paris is even more gruesome. Pierre Vaudel, a former journalist who specialised in legal affairs, had been murdered, or rather it looked as though his body had exploded and had been strewn around the room. The only way to identify the body was by DNA. Suspicion falls on the gardener, who reported the death and who inherited all of Vaudel’s property and also on Vaudel’s son.
After a similar murder occurs in Austria, Adamsberg is eventually led to a village on the Serbian/Romanian border, finding himself immersed in the weird world of vampires. Books featuring vampires (with the exception of Dracula) are not part of my preferred reading, but I found this aspect of the book fascinating. Adamsberg, himself, is sceptical and ignores warnings not to start meddling or even visit the tomb of Petar Blagojevic who had died in 1725. Blagojevic/Plogojowitz was said to be a ‘vampyr‘, and the clearing in the wood, where he was buried is known by the locals as ‘the place of uncertainty.’ Adamsberg’s disregard for his own safety puts him in danger of losing his own life.
This book is full of wonderful and unique characters, the plot, as I said, is clever and completely bamboozled me, the settings are easily imagined from Vargas’ descriptions, and the suspense is maintained throughout. It’s a complicated book – one of the most intriguing aspects is the sudden appearance of a man claiming to be Adamsberg’s son. Maybe this is not a book everyone will enjoy, but I think it’s a most satisfying and surreal mystery, and one that I enjoyed immensely.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness takes us on an intimate journey across the Indian subcontinent – from the cramped neighbourhoods of Old Delhi and the glittering malls of the burgeoning new metropolis to the snowy mountains and valleys of Kashmir, where war is peace and peace is war, and from time to time ‘normalcy’ is declared. Anjum unrolls a threadbare Persian carpet in a city graveyard that she calls home.
We encounter the incorrigible Saddam Hussain, the unforgettable Tilo and the three men who loved her – including Musa whose fate as tightly entwined with hers as their arms always used to be. Tilo’s landlord, another former suitor, is now an Intelligence officer posted to Kabul. And then there are the two Miss Jebeens: the first born in Srinagar and buried, aged four, in its overcrowded Martyrs’ Graveyard; the second found at midnight, in a crib of litter, on the concrete pavement of New Delhi.
At once an aching love story and a decisive remonstration, a heart-breaker and a mind-bender, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is told in a whisper, in a shout, through tears and sometimes with a laugh. Its heroes are people who have been broken by the world they live in and then rescued, patched together by acts of love-and by hope. For this reason, fragile though they may be, they never surrender. Braiding richly complex lives together, this ravishing and deeply humane novel reinvents what a novel can do and can be. And it demonstrates on every page the miracle of Arundhati Roy’s storytelling gifts.
My initial reaction to it was one of disappointment. After a good beginning I struggled with it because there is so much description, so little plot and such a large cast of characters. At times I was on the verge of abandoning the book, but then first one episode and then another and another held my imagination and I read on. Now, though, I’m glad I finished it as the ending is clearer and more understandable than the middle, where quite frankly I was for the most part bewildered.
It’s a difficult book to read firstly because of its structure (or lack of structure) and secondly because of its content. It’s not a straight narrative, as it moves backwards and forwards in time and place and between different narrators, both in the third and first person, all of which makes it a disjointed and fragmentary book. There are stories within stories, some of which at first appear to be totally unconnected to anything else, but looking back I can see how they become interwoven into the whole (I think).
I preferred the beginning, the story about Anjum, to the rest of the book but by the end it’s as though Roy decided to bring all the strands together, to come back full circle to Anjum and the community she established in the old graveyard in Delhi. Maybe it’s because she spent 10 years or so to write it. For more details about why it took over 20 years for Arundhati Roy to write her second novel see this article, Fiction Takes Its Time in The Guardian.
I’m sure that I didn’t pick up all the political and cultural references, but the issues surrounding caste, nationalism, gender and religious conflict are clear. It’s a book about love and loss, death and survival, grief, pain and poverty. There are outcasts, the hijras – transgender individuals, rape victims, addicts and abandoned babies; and there is a lot of violence, massacres, beatings, tortures and rapes. It’s a heartbreaking book, which doesn’t spare the details. I was relieved to finish it.
For years I’ve steered clear of reading any of Val McDermid‘s books and the reason is that I can’t stand to watch the violence and torture scenes in TV series such as Wire in the Blood, based on her Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series. But then I thought that maybe I wasn’t being fair to judge a writer’s work on films based on the books, and I read Cleanskin, one of the Quick Reads series, aimed at ‘adults who’ve stopped reading or find reading tough, and for regular readers who want a short, fast read.’ I enjoyed it and I’ve been meaning to read one of her full length books ever since.
There are many to choose from but I decided to readA Place of Execution, one of her standalone books. The book was made into a 3-part TV drama shown on ITV 1 in 2008, which I didn’t see. It is one of my TBRs.
In the Peak District village of Scarsdale, thirteen-year-old girls didn’t just run away. So when Alison Carter vanished in the winter of ’63, everyone knew it was a murder.
Catherine Heathcote remembers the case well. A child herself when Alison vanished, decades on she still recalls the sense of fear as parents kept their children close, terrified of strangers.
Now a journalist, she persuades DI George Bennett to speak of the hunt for Alison, the tantalising leads and harrowing dead ends. But when a fresh lead emerges, Bennett tries to stop the story – plunging Catherine into a world of buried secrets and revelations.
This is an excellent psychological thriller, full of tension and suspense, set in the Derbyshire village of Scardale, an isolated community of about ten houses, where everyone is related, a place that had a reputation of being a law unto itself. So everyone could tell Detective Inspector George Bennett the time that Alison Carter left home taking her dog for a walk. But despite extensive searches her body is never found, although they do find her dog in the woodland, tied to a tree with elastoplast wound round its muzzle.
A Place of Execution spans the years from 1963 when Alison went missing up to 1998 when Catherine Heathcote, a journalist decided to write a book about the case. It had Bennett’s first major investigation and he’d been determined to find out what had happened to Alison. The majority of the book is about his investigation and the meticulous searches he and his team carried out until the case was resolved. But why in 1998 after going over the details of the case with Catherine did he suddenly write to her begging her to abandon the book?
The sense of place and time is so well done in this book and the characterisation is so good that I felt I knew these people. Even when the case appears to have been resolved there is something more, something hidden that still needs to be revealed. I had an inkling about what it was but I had by no means guessed all of it. But the clues were all there.
There are many layers in A Place of Execution. The villagers are a close-knit community suspicious of outsiders and reluctant to talk to the police. I realised towards the end of the book that the way that Val McDermid has structured the book allows for a great deal of deception and that things are not always what they seem. I loved it and I shall definitely be reading more of her books.
Paperback, 624 pages
Published February 6th 2006 by Harper Collins (first published June 7th 1999)
AD 98: The bustling army base at Vindolanda lies on the northern frontier of Britannia and the entire Roman world. In twenty years’ time, the Emperor Hadrian will build his famous wall, but for now defences are weak, as tribes rebel against Roman rule, and local druids preach the fiery destruction of the invaders.
Flavius Ferox is a Briton and a Roman centurion, given the task of keeping the peace on this wild frontier. But it will take more than just courage to survive life in Roman Britain…
I was quickly drawn into Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy, a novel set in northern frontier of Britain in 98 AD. It’s full of historical detail. Whilst some characters are based on real people about whom little is known apart from their names, most of the characters are fictional, including the main character, centurion Flavius Ferox. He is based at a small fort called Syracuse (a fictional fort) near the garrison of Vindolanda (modern Chesterholm). Vindolanda is south of Hadrian’s Wall and predates its construction.
The story begins with the arrival of Vindex, the head of the native scouts and a minor son of a chieftain of the Brigantes tribe, who announces that there is a force of at least sixty barbarians in the area planning an attack on the road to Coria (modern day Corbridge). He needs Ferox’s help in hunting these marauders. This is just the start of a series of skirmishes, ambushes and full scale battles. There is at least one traitor in the Roman army informing the tribes of the army’s movements and Ferox is charged with finding out who it is.
I enjoyed reading Vindolanda and the insight it gives into the early period of British history. Adrian Goldsworthy’s Historical Note at the end of the book is excellent, explaining just what is fictional and what is fact in his novel. After Boudicca’s defeat in AD 60 there was little resistance to the Romans in southern Britain, but it was different in northern Britain where there were frequent outbursts of violence, raids and warfare.
There are sections in the Historical Note about the Roman army describing its structure and tactics, on the period before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, on tribes and druids. The most interesting section for me is the one on Vindolanda and the Writing Tablets found there. These are wooden tablets written in ink on thin sheets of wood. Hundreds of them have survived, most are mundane containing details of daily life, letters, accounts and give an idea about the food they ate and of the social life of the commanders and their families. Among them are details about the commanding officer around AD 98, the Prefect Flavius Cerialis and his wife, Sulpicia Lepidina, both of whom are major characters in the novel.
Vindolanda is a most enjoyable and informative book. I have just one criticism of it, which is purely personal because my eyes always glaze over during battle scenes (both in books and on screen) and in this book there is just too much detail about the battles for me interrupting the storyline, even though the scenes are graphic and fast-paced.
My thanks for the advance review copy I received courtesy of NetGalley and the publishers, Head of Zeus.
Expected publication: June 1st 2017 by Head of Zeus
Source: Review copy
My rating: 4*
Adrian Goldsworthy has a doctorate from Oxford University. His first book, THE ROMAN ARMY AT WAR was recognised by John Keegan as an exceptionally impressive work, original in treatment and impressive in style. He has gone on to write several other books, including THE FALL OF THE WEST, CAESAR, IN THE NAME OF ROME, CANNAE and ROMAN WARFARE, which have sold more than a quarter of a million copies and been translated into more than a dozen languages. A full-time author, he regularly contributes to TV documentaries on Roman themes.
I was quickly drawn into the story exploring the lives of the six stroke patients and the nurses who cared for them. Tricia Coxon writes beautifully, vividly conveying the trauma and catastrophic effects of a sudden stroke, the confusion and loss of dignity and independence. It is a moving story as each woman remembers the past, seeing themselves at various stages in their lives:
When night falls and the lights are dimmed, the stroke ward is full of memories. Shadowy, misty and delicate, they fill space like a spider’s web quivering on a frosty bush. (Loc 53)
All the women have different memories and are distinct characters. I felt I knew these women, that I was there in the ward with them, that I was inside their minds, living their memories with them. Meg is the one I was most drawn to. She can remember the past with vivid accuracy. When she was a small girl Meg’s father went on the Jarrow March to 10 Downing Street in London in 1936 to present a petition against the mass unemployment and extreme poverty in the north-east of England. When he returned Meg and the family were thrilled when Ellen Wilkinson came to tea – a special tea party. She was the local MP who had accompanied them on the March and had tried to improve their working and living conditions. But she is now confused about what has happened to her, hardly able to move, and suffering from anxiety and increasing dementia she needs specialist care. I was in tears as I read her story.
I loved the stories of these women’s lives and how Tricia has woven into them events such as the Jarrow March, the Spanish Civil War and a touching incident in Virginia Woolf’s life when she stayed at an Inn in Wooler whilst recovering from a nervous breakdown. I also loved the warmth, the depth of compassion and dedication she portrays in the nurses’ care for their patients.
The Stroke Ward is a gem of a book that explores the nature of love and loss, friendship and family, and life and death. I loved it.
Kindle Edition, 186 pages
Published April 3rd 2017 by Tyne Bridge Publishing
Just like her first book on Katherine of Aragon this is fictional biography at its most straight forward, written in an uncomplicated style. It is a long and detailed story told from Anne Boleyn’s point of view following her life from when she was eleven up to her execution in 1536.
Mainly I think because I didn’t know much about it before I really enjoyed the first part of the book detailing Anne’s time at the court of the Archduchess Margaret, Regent of the Netherlands, then at the French court where she served Mary Tudor (Henry VIII’s sister) and then she was transferred to the household of Queen Claude, the wife of François I. Anne became proficient in French, and accomplished in the art of pleasing, and witty, flirtatious conversation.
She also learnt from the Archduchess how a woman could rule, and about the ‘New Learning’, that is the texts of ancient Greece and Rome that had been recently discovered. She learnt from Erasmus about the corruption within the Church and she had access to the Archduchess’ library, where she found books written by Christine de Pizan, who had enlightened views on women’s education. The Archduchess encouraged her to show that women were just as capable as men, so that men would admire women for their courage, character and intellect and not just their beauty.
I’m much more familiar with the rest of her life story. As Alison Weir acknowledges in her author’s note in some ways Anne Boleyn is unknowable, we do not have ‘a wealth of her letters’ to get an insight into her inner thoughts and much of the material we do have comes from a hostile source, the Imperial ambassador, Eustache Chapuys. In writing this novel she has tried to reconcile conflicting views of her and I think she has succeeded, portraying her as a flawed and human character. Anne was ambitious and in her early years she had the example of the Archduchess Margaret who introduced her to ideas questioning the traditional ideas about women.
Alison Weir has kept closely to the historical record, although taking ‘occasional minor liberties’ and ‘modernising the language in places to make the context clearer. Some quotes have been taken out of context or put in the mouths of others’. And the scenes between Anne and Leonardo da Vinci are imaginary (much to my disappointment).
Perhaps it is because she kept closely to the records that the period when Henry was pursuing Anne is described at great length, whilst attempting to end his marriage to Katherine. I found it increasingly tedious to keep reading about how Anne left the court and went to Hever Castle, her parents’ home, then returned to court and then went back to her parents, etc, etc.
Overall, I enjoyed this book, but it is too long and in places very pedestrian and flat. At times it is a bit like reading chick-lit, for example as Mary Boleyn describes how Henry raped her and later as Henry complains to Anne that he has not ‘bedded with a woman in years’, looking at her with ‘anguish and longing in his eyes.’ He comes across as a weak character, truly obsessed with Anne but his passion soon cooled after their marriage when she failed to produce a male heir. And Anne is portrayed as a complex, intelligent woman but obsessed with her ambition for the power that came with being queen.
Format: Kindle Edition
File Size: 2923 KB
Print Length: 544 pages
Publisher: Headline Review (18 May 2017)
My rating: 3.5*
My thanks to the publishers via NetGalley for a review copy.
On the frozen fields of Romney Marsh stands New Hall; silent, lifeless, deserted. In its grounds lies an unexpected Christmas offering: a corpse, frozen into the ice of a horse pond. It falls to the Reverend Hardcastle, justice of the peace in St Mary in the Marsh, to investigate.But with the victim’s identity unknown, no murder weapon and no known motive, it seems like an impossible task.
Working along with his trusted friend, Amelia Chaytor, and new arrival Captain Edward Austen, Hardcastle soon discovers there is more to the mystery than there first appeared. With the arrival of an American family torn apart by war and desperate to reclaim their ancestral home, a French spy returning to the scene of his crimes, ancient loyalties and new vengeance combine to make Hardcastle and Mrs Chaytor’s attempts to discover the secret of New Hall all the more dangerous.
Historical crime fiction is one of my favourite genres and The Body in the Ice by A J MacKenzie is a most enjoyable read. It’s the 2nd Hardcastle and Chaytor Mystery set in Romney Marsh and the surrounding countryside in 1796-7. I haven’t read the first one in the series, The Body on the Doorstep, but it didn’t seem to matter as I had no difficulty in reading this as a standalone, even though there are references back to the first book, but I do intend to read it as I enjoyed the second book so much.
Reading historical crime fiction is a different experience from reading modern crime fiction – no modern technology, just old-fashioned crime detection and deduction and a certain amount of intuition. The late eighteenth century is a newish period for me, but The Body in the Ice appears (as far as I can judge) to be well grounded historically and geographically.
Historically this is the period after the end of the American War of Independence, so Britain and America are at peace, but Britain and revolutionary France are at war with the constant threat of a French invasion. Geographically, the area is not one I know but there is a map showing the locations together with a plan of New Hall, at the beginning of the book an empty and bleak (fictional) house owned by the Rossiter family, and also the Rossiter Family Tree.
The winter of 1796-7 was exceptionally harsh and cold and on Christmas Day in the village of St Mary in the Marsh, on the Kent coast Amelia Chaytor is spending the day with her friends, spinsters Miss Godfrey and Miss Roper when their maidservant bursts in and announces that she has seen someone at New Hall stables, frozen into the ice face down. Previously two men had been seen arriving at the Hall and at first it looks as though one of them has killed the other as they have both disappeared.
The Reverend Hardcastle is informed and as a justice of the peace he sets out to investigate the murder, aided by Joshua Stemp, the parish constable. It’s soon obvious that this is a complicated matter as the body they pulled from the ice was that of a black woman, dressed as a man.
Add into the mix the American family who arrive after the murder to establish their claim to their ancestral home, the village community, smugglers and French spies, and slavery and racism. The characters of Revd Hardcastle and Amelia Chaytor in particular are well drawn and convincing. His sister, Cordelia provides a comic element – she is a gothic novelist, who incidentally gave a young Jane Austen writing tips, accompanied by her cowardly (but lovable) dog Rodolpho.
It’s fast paced, and like all good mysteries it’s full of twists and turns, tension and drama, mixed together with both national and local politics. I enjoyed it immensely and will read more books by A J Mackenzie. The next book in the series will be The Body in the Boat.
My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my copy of this book.
A J Mackenzieis the pseudonym of Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel, an Anglo-Canadian husband-and-wife team of writers and historians. They write non-fiction history and management books under their own names, but ‘become’ A J MacKenzie when writing fiction. For more details about the authors and their books see their website.
One warm June night, a university student called Kirsten is viciously attacked in a park by a serial killer. He is interrupted, and Kirsten survives, but in a severe physically and psychologically damaged state. As the killer continues, leaving a trail of mutilated corpses, Kirsten confronts her memories and becomes convinced not only that she can, but that she must remember what happened. Through fragments of nightmares, the details slowly reveal themselves. Interwoven with Kirsten’s story is that of Martha Browne, a woman who arrives in the Yorkshire coastal town of Whitby with a sense of mission. Finally, the two strands are woven together and united in a startling, chilling conclusion.
Overall I liked Caedmon’sSong, but I wouldn’t describe it as a thriller, even though the attack on Kirsten is particularly vicious. It is set mainly in Whitby a seaside town in Yorkshire. The ruins of Whitby Abbey, Bram Stoker’s inspiration for Dracula, stand on the East Cliff overlooking the North Sea, with St Mary’s Church and Caedmon’s Cross nearby. I wondered as I began reading whether Martha’s visit to Whitby had any connection to Dracula, butalthough these places are described as she finds her way around the town they are just incidental to the plot.
Then I began to wonder about the connection between Kirsten and Martha because Robinson drops in quite a few clues early on in the book, which become explicit in the second half of the book. So, the links between them are quite easy to see, which disappointed me at first and lessened the tension. I wasn’t too convinced either by how Kirsten discovered her attacker’s identity and even considering the horrific details of her injuries I didn’t really feel sympathetic towards her as she comes across as rather cold-blooded. But as the narrative developed I began to enjoy the story and to wonder how it would end.
Kirsten considers whether she is a ‘born victim‘ or not, questioning her actions on the night of the attack, and wondering whether she had been inviting destruction. Her conclusion is that she wasn’t at all clear about it, but felt that it was her destiny, that she had been chosen as her attacker’s nemesis. All she knew was that she had to find him and face him. The ending is dramatic, but what would happen next is left open.
In his afterword Peter Robinson (written in 2003 when a new edition was published) explains that he had the idea for writing Caedmon’s Song in the late 1980s after he had written the first four Inspector Banks novels. He had felt he needed a change and wanted to write a novel in which the police played a subsidiary role. Then in September 1987 when he saw Whitby as he approached it on the coast road the idea for the setting and opening of the book came to him:
There lay Whitby, spread out below. The colours seemed somehow brighter and more vibrant than I remembered: the greens and blues of the North Sea, the red pantile roofs. Then the dramatic setting of the lobster-claw harbour and the two opposing hills, one capped with a church, the other with Captain Cook’s statue and the massive jawbone of a whale. I knew immediately that this was where the story had to take place, and that it began with a woman getting off a bus, feeling a little travel-sick, trying the place on for size. (pages 326-7)
I feel a trip to Whitby coming on – a place I’ve been wanting to visit for some years now.
History has always fascinated me, but I don’t know very much about the medieval period, so I was keen to read Dunstan: One Man Will Change the Fate of England by Conn Iggulden, to be published on 4 May 2017. It is historical fiction following the life of Dunstan who was born some time between 910 and 920. He was the Abbot of Glastonbury, then Archbishop of Canterbury and later canonised as a saint. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a lot about the period.
Summary (from the publishers)
The year is 937. England is a nation divided, ruled by minor kings and Viking lords. Each vies for land and power. The Wessex king Æthelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, readies himself to throw a spear into the north.
As would-be kings line up to claim the throne, one man stands in their way.
Dunstan, a fatherless child raised by monks on the moors of Glastonbury Tor, has learned that real power comes not from God, but from discovering one’s true place on Earth. Fearless in pursuit of his own interests, his ambition will take him from the courts of princes to the fields of battle, from exile to exaltation.
For if you cannot be born a king, or made a king, you can still anoint a king.
Under Dunstan’s hand, England may come together as one country – or fall apart in anarchy . . .
From Conn Iggulden, one of our finest historical writers, Dunstan is an intimate portrait of a priest and murderer, liar and visionary, traitor and kingmaker – the man who changed the fate of England.
Conn Iggulden has brought the period to life with this book, fleshing out the historical records. It’s written in the first person, past tense, so we see events through Dunstan’s eyes. He and his younger brother Wulfric were brought up by the monks at Glastonbury Abbey. It’s a harsh, cruel life, but Dunstan has a vision that he will build a cathedral and his ambition and determination help him to make his vision a reality.
The book is set during the reigns of several kings, Æthelstan, the grandson of Alfred the Great, then of Æthelstan’s brother Edmund, who was king for just five years before he was killed. He was followed by another brother, Eadred, then by Edmund’s sons, Edwy and Edgar, who divided England between them. They were followed by Edmund’s grandson, Edward and finally by Ethelred the Unready, his much younger brother. I hope I have got the sequence correct.
This was a period of great unrest and conflict, as England eventually became unified under one High King, and was attacked repeatedly by the Vikings. Dunstan was manipulative, dedicated, ruthless and proud. It was these characteristics that enabled him to succeed. He was present at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937, in which Æthelstan defeated an alliance of Viking and Celtic warriors for control of the country and became the first king of England.
Dunstan also reformed the monasteries, imposing the rule of St Benedict, was instrumental in the building of Glastonbury Abbey, was an adviser to Eadred, exiled by Edwy, and reinstated by Edgar before being appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.
My summary of this book really does not do it justice. I was fascinated by it and the detail is impressive. It incorporates many tales about Dunstan, including the one where he is said to have pulled the devil’s nose with a pair of tongs. Conn Iggulden’s version of this tale is truly horrific. His Historical Note explains his use of the sources he has used and explanations of his use of names, notes on spelling, titles, on the Battle of Brunanburh, on Gothic Arches, and on the many miracles that Dunstan is said to have performed. Where there are gaps in the historical records Iggulden has filled them in to present his story of a man who achieved so much despite his flaws and self-doubt.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for an advance proof copy of Dunstan.
I really wanted to like The Stars are Fire, Anita Shreve’s latest book. However, I don’t think it’s one of her best books and I’m not keen on the cover, which I think does not represent the story.
It begins well, describing the continuous wet spring when it seemed the rain would never stop and Grace Holland prays for a dry day. She’s in a difficult marriage, with her two young children, both under the age of two and pregnant with her third child. They live in a shingled bungalow two blocks in from the ocean in Hunts Beach (a fictional town) on the coast of Maine. The rain is followed by the long hot summer of 1947, then a drought sets in, followed by devastating fires. The Stars are Fire paints a convincing picture of life just after the Second World War. Grace’s daily life is difficult constrained by the social conventions and attitudes of the late 1940s.
The fires are getting closer to Hunts Beach when Gene, Grace’s husband joins the volunteers trying to bring the fires under control and she is left alone with the children. Grace’s strength and ingenuity is tested as she and her children survive the fire only to find that everything around her has gone – all the houses, her best friend and neighbour; those who have survived are leaving and her husband is missing. She has nothing.
Grace, however, is resilient and resourceful. Helped by her mother and strangers she begins to build a new life, finds work and experiences a freedom she had never known before. But then it all changes. I don’t want to write any more as I don’t want to give away any spoilers.
The Stars are Fire is easy reading and I finish it in one day. It is written from Grace’s perspective and in the present tense, which I often find irritating. But it is a page-turner and I did want to know what happened next. I didn’t enjoy the second half of the book as much as the first. And I think the ending rather trite. It’s a book about loss and grief, about how people’s lives can be changed in an instance and how they react and face up to emotional and physical challenges.
My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a proof copy of this book.
Format: Kindle Edition
File Size: 1042 KB
Print Length: 256 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group (18 April 2017)
Stuart MacBride has written many books, including the Logan McRae and Ash Henderson novels, but A Dark So Deadly is the first one of his that I’ve read. It’s a standalone thriller, due to be published on 20 April 2017 by HarperCollins.
I wasn’t at all sure that I would like it thinking it might be too ‘noir’ for me, but whilst it is dark with some violent and disturbing scenes I was soon hooked into the mystery, the setting, the characters, some of them pretty weird, sordid and really nasty characters and the humour. It’s grisly rather than gory. It’s also long, over 600 pages, but the strength of the writing and the pace carried me effortlessly along. It’s a gripping page-turner that kept me glued to the book – I didn’t want to put it down.
It has quite a large cast of characters, but each one is so individually described that I had no trouble distinguishing them. It’s set in Oldcastle, a fictional town in the north east of Scotland (there is a detailed, coloured map) where it seems to rain all the time. DC Callum MacGregor had taken the blame for cocking up a crime scene to protect his pregnant, crime-scene tech girlfriend and so had been moved to join ‘Mother’s Misfit Mob’.
The ‘Mob’ is made up of the officers no one else wanted. ‘Mother’ is DI Flora Malcolmson and the team consists of DS Andy McAdams, who speaks in rhyming verse and is dying from bowel cancer, DS Dorothy (Dot) Hodgkin in her wheelchair called ‘Keith’, grumpy DC John Watt and the newest team member, DC Franklin, big, black and beautiful who had punched a superintendent. I became very fond of this team of ‘misfits’. They made me laugh and exasperated me at the same time as they interacted, sometimes with friction rather than as a well-run team. They may be ‘misfits’ but they’re dedicated and caring police officers, Callum most of all. Their back history comes out naturally as the novel proceeds, without interrupting the narrative.
The plot is, needless to say really, complicated with plenty of unexpected and definitely strange episodes, as the team investigate mummified bodies found in the local rubbish tip. It’s told mostly from Callum’s point of view and as well as investigating what turns out to be a serial killer Callum, who was brought up in care from the age of 5, is trying to discover what had happened to his parents and twin brother.
A Dark So Deadly is a fantastic book. It’s complex, compelling and it kept me guessing right to the end. I shall definitely read more of Stuart MacBride’s books, beginning with Cold Granite, the first in his Logan McRae series.
My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my copy of this book.
The Kill Fee is the second book in the Poppy Denby Investigates series. I haven’t read the first book, The Jazz Files, but I had no difficulty reading this second book as it reads well as a standalone, with enough detail of previous events for me to follow the story.
It is set in London in 1920 with flashbacks to Russia in 1917. Poppy is the Arts and Entertainments Editor at the Daily Globe and whilst she is covering an exhibition of Russian Art at the Crystal Palace a guard is shot and injured and one of the Fabergé Eggs on display is stolen. It’s not just an extremely valuable Egg, one that had been owned by a member of the Tsar’s family, but one that is said to contain a secret that could threaten royal families throughout Europe.
This is reminiscent of the Golden Age crime fiction as Poppy sets about finding who stole the Egg and there are plenty of suspects. The theft is followed by a couple of murders and a poisoning, and a secret passageway as Poppy chases around London in hot pursuit of the killer.
Its an enjoyable read that kept me entertained with a mix of fictional and historical characters and a look at 1920s’ society. I particularly liked the Russian connection and the information about White and Red Russians and the Russian Revolution of 1917 – by 1920 this was coming to a head in the Crimea. The book begins with an episode in Moscow in 1917 as an unnamed man in a bearskin coat enters the house of an aristocratic family to find a scene of carnage. Most of the family have been murdered, but he rescues a small girl, her little dog and her English nanny. How this fits into the rest of the book only gradually becomes clear.
There is a map of 1920s London that helps to follow the action and a list of the fictional and historical characters that I found useful. Fiona Veitch Smith explains in her historical Note at the end of the book how she got the idea for The Kill Fee and how she blended fact with fiction. Apart from a few ‘tweaks’ she has stuck to the historical timeline, as far as she is aware, moving the Russian Embassy to Kensington Gardens seven years earlier than it really did and bringing forward the selling of paper poppies by one year – these were launched by the British Red Cross in 1921. The plotline of the theft of the Fabergé Egg and the exhibition at the Crystal Palace is a figment of her imagination. She apologises for ‘any unintentional errors you may find.’
Well, I did find another anachronism. At one point (page 209 in my paperback copy) Poppy and Daniel are arguing as he drives across London approaching the Victoria Embankment when he had to slow down ‘to allow a family to cross the road at a pelican crossing.‘ I think this must be a typing error as although pedestrian crossings existed more than 2000 years ago, pelican crossings weren’t introduced in the United Kingdom until 1969.
None of this affected my enjoyment of the book as the world of London in the 1920s came to life and the complex plot and fast pace kept my brain ticking over, keeping track of the different sub-plots and characters. The kill fee in the title refers to the money offered to Rollo, the Daily Globe owner and editor-in-chief, to stop him from publishing the story concerning the theft of the Fabergé Egg.
The Lauras by Sara Taylor is due to be published in paperback in the UK on 6 April 2017. Kindle and hardcover copies have already been published. My copy is a digital version for review from the publishers, via NetGalley.
It’s a road-trip story as Ma leaves her husband in Virginia and takes to the road with her thirteen-year old child, Alex. I really liked those parts of the novel in which Sara Taylor describes their journey and the places they travel through or stay at for a while, sometimes sleeping in the car, sometimes in a motel, and sometimes for a longer stay whilst she earns enough money to continue their journey. But I didn’t like the structure of the book as much, because it is basically just a collection of stories that Ma tells Alex – stories about her childhood and teenage years; about her childhood in Sicily, the time she spent in foster homes, and the friends she made, several of them called Laura- as they travel to visit people from her past. This structure makes the book disjointed, especially as neither Alex nor the reader knows where it is going or when/if it will come to an end. It unsettled me in that respect.
It’s narrated in the first person by Alex, looking back some 30 years to that journey. Alex was a shy and lonely teenager, unable to fit in with others and unsure about sexuality and gender. It makes for very uncomfortable reading in places as Alex is confronted by the misunderstandings and abuse of others. Ma is also a troubled person, having suffered various traumas, hardships and emotional insecurities. Both of them have itchy feet, not happy to stay for long in one place and unable to relate easily to others.
It’s a book about identity, about outsiders, and about parenting and relationships. I liked the various meditations on memory, its unreliable nature and slipperiness and on reality. Alex observes that we don’t actually have perfect memories of what happened, but just have fragments that we piece together to understand and make sense of events, to explain our life to ourselves. After they’ve gone all we have left of people are their stories, not necessarily the stories they told us, but as we remember those stories. Alex realises in later life that we can gloss over some memories or can pretend to ourselves we have forgotten certain times and places, until some unexpected smell or sound drops us back into ‘that awkward, adolescent body’.
I can’t say that it’s a book I enjoyed or would want to re-read. It’s not a book I was eager to get back to once I put it down, but it certainly gave me much to think about.
The Legacy is my first venture into Icelandic Noir and the first in a new series by Yrsa Sigurdardottir – the Children’s House thriller series, translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.
I think the first thing I should say about this book is that I loved it and once I started reading I just didn’t want to put it down. What is so remarkable about that is that there are some particularly dark and nasty murder scenes, which would normally guarantee that I’d stop reading. I am so glad I did read on. The Legacy is an excellent book. It’s dark, mysterious and very cleverly plotted, full of tension and nerve-wracking suspense. Although I thought I’d worked out who the murderer is I was completely wrong, but looking back I could see all the clues are there, cunningly concealed – I just didn’t notice them.
It begins with a prologue set in 1987 when three young children, two boys and their little sister are waiting to be adopted. It’s hard to find anyone willing to adopt all three and they are separated. The psychiatrists’ opinion is that it is in their best interests to be parted and that their horrendous background be kept secret, hoping that time and being split up would obliterate their memories. I did try to keep the events in the prologue in mind as I read and had some idea of how it related to the rest of the book, but it was only when I came to the dramatic conclusion that everything became clear.
Move forward to 2015 to Elisa whose husband is away leaving her on her own with three young children for a week. Her seven-year old daughter, Margrét wakes her, frightened because there is a man in the house. What follows is the first horrifying murder (read it quickly and try not to linger over the details because the pictures they paint don’t bear thinking about). Margrét, who was hiding when her mother is killed, is the only witness and she’s too traumatised to say very much.
She is taken to the Children’s House where Freyja, the child psychologist in charge and the detective Huldar, in charge of the police investigation, try to get to the truth. It’s immensely difficult, complicated by more murders. Freyja and Huldar are both sympathetic characters, both deeply committed to their jobs, but because of past history between them unable to trust each other.
The narrative is in the third person and switches between Freyja’s and Huldar’s viewpoints, interspersed by that of another character, Karl a student and radio ham enthusiast who has been receiving strange messages from a mysterious numbers station broadcasting, unusually, in Icelandic. These consist of long strings of numbers read out by synthesised voices. Karl dreams of successfully cracking the codes. I was both intrigued and completely mystified by this part of the novel. I was completely engrossed in the plot and the characters and I shall certainly be reading more of Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s books in the future.
My thanks to the publishers, Hodder and Stoughton, for an e-book copy for review, via NetGalley.
Sometimes I Lie is Alice Feeney’s debut thriller. I usually take descriptions of books like this with a bit of scepticism: ‘Unnerving, twisted and utterly compelling, you won’t be able to put this new thriller down.’ But it really is like this – and I did find it utterly compelling.
I like complicated plots with believable characters and with twists and turns to keep me glued to the book. This book has all this and more. I was puzzled, stunned and amazed at the cleverness of the plot structure and how I’d had the wool pulled over my eyes, although I did have a suspicion of what it was all about, I just hadn’t worked out the whole truth.
I’m not going to say much about this book because I think it’s best to read it without knowing very much about it. It’s narrated by Amber Reynolds as she lies in hospital in a coma. She can’t move or speak, but she can hear and gradually she begins to remember who she is and what happened to her. But as the opening sentences reveal sometimes she lies. Actually it’s hard to figure out who is lying, who can be trusted and what really happened. There are flashbacks to what happened immediately before Amber ended up in hospital and there are diary entries from the early 1990s starting when Amber was nearly ten.
I thoroughly enjoyed Sometimes I Lie. It’s a complex, confusing, disturbing and brilliant book. I read it in just two sittings and when I got to the end I immediately had to turn back to the beginning and start reading it again.
Many thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a review copy .
Format: Kindle Edition
File Size: 1872 KB
Print Length: 279 pages
Publisher: HQ(23 Mar. 2017)
Alice Feeney is a writer and journalist. She spent 16 years at the BBC, where she worked as a Reporter, News Editor, Arts and Entertainment Producer and One O’clock News Producer.
With her fortieth birthday approaching, Lucy Carpenter dares to hope that she finally has it all: a wonderful new husband, Jonah, a successful career and the chance of a precious baby of her own. Life couldn’t be more perfect.
But the reality of becoming parents proves much harder than Lucy and Jonah imagined. Jonah’s love and support is unquestioning, but as Lucy struggles with work and her own failing dreams, the strain on their marriage increases. Suddenly it feels like Lucy is close to losing everything…
Heart-wrenching and poignant, this latest work by bestselling author Amanda Prowse asks the question: what does it mean to be a mother in today’s hectic world? And what if it’s asking too much to want it all?
I like variety in my reading and so when the publishers of Amanda Prowse’ The Idea of You offered me a review copy I thought from the description that it would make a change from the genres I usually read.
Amanda Prowse is a popular author, described by the Daily Mail as the ‘queen of domestic drama‘. And I can see from the numerous 5 and 4 star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads that many readers love her books.
The Idea of You is mainly about relationships motherhood, and it is emotionally charged with the devastating effect of miscarriages, but apart from that I was not convinced that the characters were real. The dialogue seemed to me to be forced and not true to life and so I felt as as though I was on the outside looking in and at times the characters of Lucy and her teenage stepdaughter, Camille, seemed to merge into each other.
The narrative is interspersed with letters Lucy writes and for a while it’s not that clear who she is writing them to. But reading the Prologue along with other clues that Amanda Prowse drops in along the way about Lucy’s past, gave me a good indication of who it was, so it was no surprise when the recipient is finally revealed. I also thought the story of Camille was too predictable given Lucy’s situation. And the ending left me with rather a sickly aftertaste. In fact I found much of the book is too cloying for my liking.
Format: Kindle Edition
File Size: 2642 KB
Print Length: 334 pages
Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1503942333
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing (21 Mar. 2017)
Source: review copy from the publishers via NetGalley
A celebratory book to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen in 2017
2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen, whose six completed novels have never been out of print. Best known for her novels, ‘Sense and Sensibility’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Mansfield Park’, and ‘Emma’, first published anonymously, Jane commented, critiqued and illuminated the life of the English upper classes.
But did Jane’s writings highlight anything about her own spirituality? In this celebratory book, Paula Hollingsworth explores Jane Austen’s gentle but strong faith and the effect it had both on her life and her writing. Drawing on Jane’s life story, her letters, her friendships, her books and the characters portrayed, Paula shows the depth of Jane Austen’s spirituality.
Jane Austen has long been one of my favourite authors, so when I saw The Spirituality of Jane Austen by Paula Hollingsworth on NetGalley I was keen to read it. It’s a combination of a biography, which complements other biographies that I’ve read, and an analysis of Jane Austen’s works from the point of how they reveal her spirituality.
‘Spirituality‘, in Jane Austen’s day was used in the sense of the word ‘religious‘, but used in a narrower sense than we would today. It would have meant ‘Christian‘ and in particular almost exclusively ‘Protestant Christianity‘. In the Austen family that would mean the beliefs and practices of 18th century Anglicanism – ‘a faith that was tolerant and pragmatic, focusing on self-improvement and right behaviour, with a belief in change that comes not so much from miracles but through self-reflection and inner growth.’
With this definition in mind Paula Hollingsworth then considers Jane Austen’s letters, her early writings and novels, focusing on how they reveal Jane’s spirituality implicitly rather than explicitly, seeing parallels between her life and her writings. I enjoyed this way of looking at her novels in particular.
I think the last chapter in which Paula Hollingsworth considers modern adaptations and dramatisations of Jane Austen’s books is very interesting. Whilst they have brought her work to a wider audience it has meant that character development has been lost, or the values of the times in which the novels are set have been changed to make the story more acceptable to a modern audience.
And given that Jane Austen disliked Bath when she lived there, Paula Hollingsworth believes she would be disappointed by the focus on some of the activities and merchandise rather than on her books. She also considers the recent Austen Project books in which modern authors set the novels in the present day and the problems they have in making them credible to modern readers.
She describes the many ways people today can enjoy Jane Austen’s work, such as watching screen adaptations, dancing at a Regency Ball, reading books about Jane Austen and her world, dressing in Regency costume and parading through Bath and other events, but considers that the best way is to read the novels themselves and to read them slowly. I agree. I really enjoyed reading this book and it has made me want to re-read the novels, particularly those I haven’t re-read recently.
There are comprehensive notes on the chapters, an appendix of Jane Austen’s prayers and a select bibliography.
My copy is an ARC I received from the publishers, Lion Books via NetGalley. The paperback (240 pages) will be published on 24 March 2017.
A Death in the Dales is the 7th book in Frances Brody’s Kate Shackleton series of historical crime fiction books set in 1920s Yorkshire. Kate is an amateur detective. I’ve read the first two, Dying in the Wool and A Medal For Murder, and so I’ve jumped ahead in the series with this book. It’s not always possible to read a series in order and in this case I don’t think it matters – A Death in the Dales reads well as a standalone.
It’s 1926 and Kate Shackleton’s friend, Dr Lucian Simonson, has offered her the use of his late Aunt Freda’s cottage in Langcliffe for a short holiday with her niece Harriet, who is recovering from diphtheria. Ten years earlier Freda had witnessed the murder of the landlord of the alehouse across the street from her house. A man was found guilty of the murder and hanged – but Freda was convinced that they had convicted the wrong man.
Freda’s friend Mr Wigglesworth, the local apothecary, asks Kate to investigate the murder and gives her Freda’s papers regarding the trial. Although she had intended to have a holiday from her investigations she can’t resist looking at the papers and is convinced that Freda had wanted to her to solve the mystery and find out who had killed the pub landlord.
As well as investigating the murder, Kate also helps Harriet and her new friend, Beth to find out what has happened to Beth’s young brother who has gone missing from the farm where he was working, and then a suspicious death on the same farm.
I enjoyed reading about life in the 1920s; Frances Brody paints a very believable picture of life in a rural setting in the Dales during the post World War One years. Kate is a very likeable character and has to overcome the suspicion of strangers from the local community once she starts digging into the past. And there is the added complication of Kate and Lucian’s personal situation. All in all it’s a complicated mystery with several strands, numerous suspects and plenty of red herrings.
Frances Brody is an excellent storyteller and her books are well-plotted and complex murder mysteries in the historical setting of the 1920s and in the style of the golden age crime fiction.
The series so far is:
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)
8. Death at the Seaside (2016)
9. Death in the Stars (to be published in October 2017)
Reading Challenges: Mount TBR 2017 and What’s in a Name? in the category: ‘A title in which at least two words share the same first letter – alliteration!’
Everything but the Truth is Gillian McAllister’s stunning breakthrough thriller about deceit, betrayal and one woman’s compulsive need to uncover the truth
It all started with the email.
Rachel didn’t even mean to look. She loves Jack and she’s pregnant with their child. She trusts him.
But now she’s seen it, she can’t undo that moment. Or the chain of events it has set in motion.
Why has Jack been lying about his past? Just what exactly is he hiding? And doesn’t Rachel have a right to know the truth at any cost?
I was hooked right from the start of Everything but the Truth by Gillian McAllister. It has everything – it’s very readable and well written, with a great sense of place, set in both Newcastle and Oban, with clearly defined and believable characters, a complex plot with plenty of twists and turns, and a dark secret. It is up to date about social media and information about the internet and how to find hidden information (which as I’m not that computer savvy I had to Google to see if it was genuine – it is). The atmosphere in this book is tense and increasingly dark and claustrophobic.Everything but the Truth is an outstanding book in my opinion.
I didn’t want to stop reading it and when I wasn’t reading it I was thinking about it. As well as being about lies and secrets it’s also about relationships. How we get to know people and learn to trust them. Rachel and Jack are in a very new relationship and there is still an awful lot they don’t know about each other. And when Rachel realises Jack has a secret she doesn’t know how to get him to open up to her about it. Just what is his secret and is it really so terrible that he can’t talk about it? And why can’t he drive? But what does Jack really know about Rachel? Is she hiding something too, or is she paranoid?
Gillian McAllister’s debut book is simply excellent, written with assurance and with great insight into human nature. It is without doubt one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Thank you to Gillian McAllister, the publishers and NetGalley for my copy of this book for review.
The first book in Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series was The Burning, published in 2010, but I didn’t get round to reading it until February 2015. I was hooked immediately and read the next five books in quick succession by the end of August 2015. These are all police procedurals, fast-paced novels, with intriguing and complex plots and developing the relationships between the main characters. So, I think that although the books read well as stand-alones, it helps enormously to read them in order.
Let the Dead Speak is the seventh Maeve Kerrigan book (published today, 9 March 2017 ) and it is no less intriguing and complex than the earlier books. I loved it.
When eighteen-year-old Chloe Emery returns to her West London home she finds Kate, her mother, missing and the house covered in blood. There may not be a body, but everything else points to murder. Maeve Kerrigan is young, ambitious and determined to prove she’s up to her new role as detective sergeant.
In the absence of a body, she and maverick detective Josh Derwent turn their attention to the neighbours. The ultra-religious Norrises are acting suspiciously; their teenage daughter definitely has something to hide.
Then there’s William Turner, once accused of stabbing a schoolmate and the neighbourhood’s favourite criminal. Is he merely a scapegoat or is there more behind the charismatic façade?
As the accusations fly, Maeve must piece together a patchwork of conflicting testimonies, none of which quite add up. Who is lying, who is not? The answer could lead them to the truth about Kate Emery, and save the life of someone else.
Let the Dead Speak continues to develop the detectives’ personal lives as well as detailing the investigations into Kate Emery’s disappearance. Maeve has been promoted and is now a detective sergeant (a long over-due promotion I think) and the murder investigation team has a new member, DC Georgia Shaw, a graduate on a fast-track scheme. Maeve finds her rather irritating. DI Josh Derwent is still her boss and neither he nor Maeve stick to the rules, but act independently as they see fit. The chemistry between the two of them is still there and is still full of undercurrents. DCI Una Burt is acting up as their Superintendent and the working relationship between her and Maeve is now improving.
There are several strands to the investigation – first of all if Kate was killed where is her body and who had the motive and opportunity to kill her? If she was not killed why is there so much blood in the house, whose blood is it, and where is Kate?
I enjoyed the fast-paced action, the interaction between the characters, both the police and the other characters. Chloe, who is very shy and lacking in confidence as well as in social skills is of little help in discovering what has happened to her mother. I liked the portrayal of the Norris family, Bethany and her parents and uncle, who are all members of an evangelical church, the Church of the Modern Apostles. Bethany refuses to answer Maeve’s questions and is openly hostile. Then there is the local ‘bad boy’ William Turner – what is his involvement? Similarly are Chloe’s father and stepmother and her step-brothers responsible in any way?
I kept changing my mind about what had happened and who was the guilty party, but it had me foxed. And then when I had it worked it out the last chapter surprised me yet again with the twist at the end. Maeve Kerrigan really is an excellent detective.
Thanks to the publishers via NetGalley for my copy.
Format: Kindle Edition
File Size: 1803 KB
Print Length: 352 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins (9 Mar. 2017)
The earlier books in the series are
0.5. Left For Dead (2013)
1. The Burning (2010)
2. The Reckoning (2011)
3. The Last Girl (2012)
4. The Stranger you Know (2013)
5. The Kill (2014)
6. After the Fire (2015)
I’ve been reading some good books this year and At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier is no exception, which is no surprise to me as I’ve enjoyed all of her books that I’ve read so far.
This is historical fiction, a mix of fact and fiction. Most of the places are real (and there is a helpful map at the beginning of the book) and some of the characters are historical figures. There is a lot of information about trees – apple trees, redwoods and sequoias, all of which fascinated me (especially the sequoias) and formed integral parts of the book.
It’s the story of the Goodenough family, James and his wife Sadie and their five surviving children. It begins in 1838 in Black Swamp, Ohio where James and Sadie are arguing over apples and practically everything else. James is obsessed with apples and prefers the sweet variety, the eaters , whilst Sadie loves the ‘spitters’, the bitter apples to make cider and even better, applejack. Theirs is a marriage of opposites. They had settled in the only land available – the swamp and had struggled first of all to clear the land and plant the apple seedlings and seed they had brought with them from Connecticut.
Their story alternates between James’ perspective and Sadie’s – their voices clearly distinctive and recognisable. Sadie is bitter and vindictive, picking fights wherever she can and their family life is terrible. James, although he loves his children is unable to show his feelings and Sadie moves between extremes, is unpredictable, at times loving but more often vicious and cruel to them or simply indifferent. She constantly taunts James, and their relationship going from bad to worse. Of all the children Robert is the one who shows an interest in the apple trees.
In the second part of the book the focus is on Robert, the youngest son who leaves Black Swamp after an incident that is only revealed later in the book. He went west, working where he could including a stint as a gold miner in California, until he reached the ocean ending up in San Francisco where he worked for William Lobb (a real historical figure), collecting seeds and seedlings to send to England. His story is told through the unanswered letters he sent to the family over seventeen years.
The characters are wonderful, from the dysfunctional Goodenough family, to Molly, the strong, independent and resourceful woman Robert meets during the time he worked as a gold miner. I also liked Martha, Robert’s younger sister, who shows determination and spirit despite the heart-breaking situations she has to live through.
I loved the settings, and would love to visit places described such as Calaveras Grove and South Grove to see the giant redwoods and sequoias for myself, but I doubt very much that I will ever be able to see them. In the Acknowledgements Tracy Chevalier refers to a place nearer to home that I could visit. It is in Wales – the Charles Ackers Redwood Grove which was planted in 1857 by John Naylor of Leighton Hall.
The one criticism I have is the ending. I came to the last page and thought ‘is that it?’ – I wanted to know more. I hope there will be a sequel.
My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my copy of this book for review.
Format: Kindle Edition
File Size: 1824 KB
Print Length: 305 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins UK, HarperFiction The Borough Press (10 Mar. 2016)
Set against the backdrop of North Carolina’s powerful hog-producing industry, Justice by Another Name tells the story of Paul Reavis’s suspicious workplace death followed a year later by a senseless death of his young son Paulie. Lana Reavis, who believes her husband was murdered and her son the victim of deliberate negligence, enlists the aid of her long-ago boyfriend, Will Moser, who is currently chief deputy of Hogg County and the heir apparent to the local sheriff.
As Will’s investigation unfolds, suspicious activities and cover-ups begin to emerge. All evidence points to Oris Martin, the powerful owner of Martin Farms, a huge hog-production enterprise and Hogg County’s largest employer, as the mastermind. Despite political pressure and physical threats to look the other way, Will continues his search for what really happened. Meanwhile, Lana, convinced that Oris will be beyond the reach of justice, devises a plan to avenge her family and destroy everything precious to Oris Martin.
I had no idea when I downloaded the ARC of this book from NetGalley just how much I was going to enjoy Justice by Another Name. I had never heard of E C Hanes and had no expectations that a murder in the hog-producing industry would be so enthralling.
But as soon as I began reading I had a feeling that this was going to be a good book. It has a dramatic opening as two boys, Paulie Reavis and Hank Grier are playing in Mitchell Creek in Hogg County, North Carolina. There’d been a violent storm and water was pouring down the creek sweeping huge tree trunks and other debris with it. At the top they saw a gigantic whirlpool and were taken by surprise when the lagoon of hog waste from Oris Martin’s farm above the creek burst through its retaining wall. Five million gallons of putrid black hog faeces and urine flooded down the gulley, taking the boys with it. Hank, survives, although badly injured, but Paulie dies. Imagine the horror of drowning in pig waste!
From that point on I was fascinated by the investigations into Paulie’s death and into the death of Paul, his father, a year earlier. Paul had worked on Martin’s pig farm and Lana, his wife is convinced his death was not an accident. I was just as fascinated by the details of the pig farming, the conditions the pigs are kept in, the diseases they carry and how the pig waste is dealt with, the whole process of constructing and operating the lagoons.
The mystery is not just how they met their deaths, but why. Was Paulie’s death an accident, a result of the storm damage or has someone been negligent? Was his father’s death really an accident? And just what caused the hog cholera epidemic that had hit the Martin Farms?
I was engrossed in the mystery, amazed that I found the details of the pig farming industry so interesting. The setting in North Carolina and the characters came to life as I read on. The feelings of fear, hate and grief escalated and as the book moved to its conclusion I realised that, as Lana says, ‘what’s revenge but justice by another name.‘
My thanks to the author, the publishers and NetGalley for my copy of this book.
‘The number of women my brother Matthew killed, so far as I can reckon it, is one hundred and six…’
1645. When Alice Hopkins’ husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the small Essex town of Manningtree, where her brother Matthew still lives.
But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew has changed, and there are rumours spreading through the town: whispers of witchcraft, and of a great book, in which he is gathering women’s names.
To what lengths will Matthew’s obsession drive him? And what choice will Alice make, when she finds herself at the very heart of his plan?
Based on the true story of the man known as the Witchfinder General, this exquisitely rendered novel transports you to a time and place almost unimaginable, where survival might mean betraying those closest to you, and danger lurks outside every door.
When I read the description of The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown I was immediately drawn to the story based on the life of the 1640s witchfinder Matthew Hopkins. As well as a good story it is a fascinating look at life in England during the Civil War, set in 1645, a time of great change and conflict in politics, religion and philosophical ideas, coinciding with a growth in the belief in witchcraft.
I enjoyed it immensely. It’s historical fiction that combines fact and fiction, told through the eyes of Matthew’s sister, Alice, a fictional character. Beth Underwood has researched and used the historical sources so well. What is so chilling about this book is that the events it describes really did happen.
There is a glossary at the end of the book describing, among other terms, the methods used to investigate women accused of being witches, such as ‘searching‘ where their bodies were inspected for ‘teats’, ‘swimming‘, an ordeal by water in which women were bound and lowered into a pond or river; they were innocent if they sank, and ‘watching‘ in which a suspected woman would be tied to a stool in the middle of a room, kept awake and observed for hours. Women were treated in this way if they were accused of causing harm to their neighbours for such things as the death of a neighbour’s horse or for the unexplained deaths of children. For the superstitious every sudden death, or accident, every miscarriage or illness, was considered to be caused by witchcraft.
There is a pervading sense of fear and terror as Alice discovers what Matthew is doing, intensified when he forces her to help with his investigations, travelling throughout Essex. She tries to stop him, but fearful of him accusing her mother-in-law, Bridget, she has to go along with him. She also discovers family secrets about their parents and Matthew’s birth. The witch hunts escalated as grief-stricken and angry women accused other women and their names were added to Matthew’s list. After his investigations the women were then sent to prisons to await their trials.
It is clear that the women accused were vulnerable, often widows living isolated lives, some suffering with what we would consider to be a mental illness, with no male family members to keep them safe from persecution. Matthew’s own mother showed signs of mental illness, subject to many strange habits and obsessive compulsive behaviour. But Matthew is unable to accept the facts and grows ever more fanatical.
It all hangs together as a piece of fiction, with clearly described and defined characters, making their feelings and actions perfectly believable – even Matthew comes across as a well-rounded character – and set against the background of a country in the midst of civil war. It makes harrowing reading and I found it deeply moving.
I grew very fond of Alice and her maid Grace but was appalled by the final twist at the end of the book.
Beth Underdown lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. The Witchfinder’s Sister is her first novel.
My thanks to the publishers and NeGalley for my copy of this book. It is to be published on 2 March 2017.
In the seeming tranquillity of Regency Square in Cheltenham live the diverse inhabitants of its ten houses. One summer’s evening, the square’s rivalries and allegiances are disrupted by a sudden and unusual death – an arrow to the head, shot through an open window at no. 6.
Unfortunately for the murderer, an invitation to visit had just been sent by the crime writer Aldous Barnet, staying with his sister at no. 8, to his friend Superintendent Meredith. Three days after his arrival, Meredith finds himself investigating the shocking murder two doors down. Six of the square’s inhabitants are keen members of the Wellington Archery Club, but if Meredith thought that the case was going to be easy to solve, he was wrong…
The Cheltenham Square Murder is a classic example of how John Bude builds a drama within a very specific location. Here the Regency splendour of Cheltenham provides the perfect setting for a story in which appearances are certainly deceiving.
The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude was first published in 1937. Previously I’ve read John Bude’s second book- The Lake District Murder, a police procedural, showing in intricate detail how detectives investigated a crime, particularly in rural areas in the mid 1930s, in which I found his calculations of the times and distribution of petrol deliveries a bit difficult to follow.
But by the time he wrote The Cheltenham Square Murder Bude’s style had become more refined and I found it much easier to follow, whilst still writing in detail about the suspects and how the crime could have been and was committed. It is quite complicated, a real puzzle to solve, first of all just how the murder was carried out and secondly who out of the several suspects was the murderer.
There is a plan of the fictional Regency Square showing the layout of the ten houses and their occupants. Bude describes the residents giving a good idea of their personalities and relationships. As in all communities, they don’t all get on, ‘outwardly harmonious yet privately at loggerheads’. Those who belong to the Wellington Archery Club are keen, even fanatically keen archers, so immediately they are suspects.
It is fortunate for the local police that Superintendent Meredith from the Sussex County Constabulary is staying in the Square and helps Inspector Long unravel the mystery, but not before another there is a second victim, again murdered with an arrow in the head.
It’s a slow-paced mystery, both Meredith and Long spend much time working out how the murder was committed and Bude drops in several red herrings to confuse matters as first one then another of the residents comes under suspicion. I enjoyed trying to work it out, but although I had an idea about the guilty person I couldn’t see how the murders had been achieved until the method was revealed.
Martin Edward’s introduction gives a brief biography of John Bude, whose real name was Ernest Carpenter Elmore (1901 – 1957). For a time he was a games master at St Christopher School in Letchworth where archery was one of the pupils’ activities.
My thanks to the publishers, Poisoned Pen Press in association with the British Library, and NetGalley for my copy of this book which has an introduction by Martin Edwards.
Amazon link to the paperback edition to be published on 7 March 2017
Something evil is waiting in the dark tunnels under Norwich – forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway had better watch her step
Boiled human bones have been found in Norwich’s web of underground tunnels. When Dr Ruth Galloway discovers they were recently buried, DCI Nelson has a murder enquiry on his hands. The boiling might have been just a medieval curiosity – now it suggests a much more sinister purpose.
Meanwhile, DS Judy Johnson is investigating the disappearance of a local rough sleeper. The only trace of her is the rumour that she’s gone ‘underground’. This might be a figure of speech, but with the discovery of the bones and the rumours both Ruth and the police have heard that the network of old chalk-mining tunnels under Norwich is home to a vast community of rough sleepers, the clues point in only one direction. Local academic Martin Kellerman knows all about the tunnels and their history – but can his assertions of cannibalism and ritual killing possibly be true?
As the weather gets hotter, tensions rise. A local woman goes missing and the police are under attack. Ruth and Nelson must unravel the dark secrets of The Underground and discover just what gruesome secrets lurk at its heart – before it claims another victim.
The Chalk Pit is the 9th in Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway books. It’s written in the present tense which I find somewhat jarring (strange because in other books such as Eyes Like Mine, which I reviewed in this post, I hardly noticed the tense). But I did enjoy this book because of the characters, in particular Ruth, her daughter, Kate (now nearly 6 years old), DCI Harry Nelson and his wife Michelle, DS Clough, DS Judy Johnson and Cathbad, the part-time druid, who now looks after their two young children. I also like the archaeological investigations, although in The Chalk Pit that is not the main focus.
It centres on the plight of homeless people and the maze of tunnels under Norfolk. The bones are found during the excavations when an underground restaurant in one of the tunnels is proposed. One of the homeless women, Barbara, disappears and there are rumours that she has ‘gone underground‘. It becomes a murder mystery when two more of the homeless, ‘Aftershave Eddie’ and then ‘Bilbo’ are found dead, both stabbed. Then two local women go missing – Sam who has four children and Cassandra, Clough’s partner (they have one child). And it soon becomes clear that all these events are linked.
There is a Who’s Who of the main characters at the end of the book giving their backstories which helps if you haven’t read the earlier books. But I think it really helps to read the Ruth Galloway books in order as the recurring characters’ lives progress with each one, making it difficult to write much more about The Chalk Pit without giving away spoilers. I’ll just add that one of my favourite characters, Cathbad, doesn’t have a large role, which disappointed me. And I really would prefer if Elly Griffiths had written this in the past tense as she has in her Stephens and Mephisto series, which I prefer.
My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for an ARC of this book which will be published on 23 February 2017.
Format: Kindle Edition
File Size: 2490 KB
Print Length: 384 pages
Publisher: Quercus (23 Feb. 2017)
My rating: 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4 stars on Goodreads)
A girl returns from boarding school to her sleepy Merseyside hometown and waits to be reunited with her childhood friend, Harriet, chief architect of all their past mischief. She roams listlessly along the shoreline and the woods still pitted with wartime trenches, and encounters ‘the Tsar’ – almost old, unhappily married, both dangerously fascinating and repulsive.
Pretty, malevolent Harriet finally arrives – and over the course of the long holidays draws her friend into a scheme to beguile then humiliate the Tsar, with disastrous, shocking consequences. A gripping portrayal of adolescent transgression, Beryl Bainbridge’s classic first novel remains as subversive today as when it was written.
Harriet Said is a dark story that turns child abuse on its head. It is an unsettling and chilling book, beginning as Harriet and her friend, an unnamed 13 year-old girl, run home screaming to tell their parents what had happened. Harriet says:
When I say run, you start to run. When I say scream, you scream. Don’t stop running. just you keep going. (page 2)
It is one of those books that, although it is well written and makes compulsive reading, can’t be said to be enjoyable and the characters are not at all likeable.
It is set just after the Second World War in the Formby sand dunes on the outskirts of Liverpool. During their school holidays the two girls make their way to the beach each evening, where they become friends with a group of lonely, dispirited middle-aged men. They are not naive or innocent, but neither are they fully aware of the consequences of their actions as they set out to manipulate the men, the ‘Tsar’ in particular. They want to gather ‘experience’, which they record in Harriet’s diary:
A year ago to be called a Dirty Little Angel would have kept us going for months. Now it was not enough; more elaborate things had to be said; each new experience had to leave a more complicated tracery of sensations; to satisfy us every memory must be more desperate than the last.
… We took to going long walks over the shore, looking for people who by their chosen solitariness must have something to hide. We learnt early that it was the gently resigned ones who had the most to tell; the frantic and voluble were no use. (pages 39 and 40)
It is Harriet who decides their actions and dictates what to write in the diary.
They peek through the windows of the Tsar’s house and watch as he ‘lay pinned like a moth on the sofa‘ underneath his wife as she ‘poisoned him slowly, rearing and stabbing him convulsively. This sickens the 13 year-old, who wants to be loved by the Tsar, but Harriet decides that he is weak and submissive, saying that he likes being a victim and must be punished in a way he doesn’t like. From that point onwards events move rapidly to a shocking conclusion.
I’ve read a few of Beryl Bainbridge’s books and each one has kept me engrossed. Harriet Said is the first one she wrote, based on a real event, and although she submitted it for publication in 1958 it wasn’t published until 1972 because of its subject matter – ‘What repulsive little creatures you have made the central characters, repulsive almost beyond belief!‘ wrote one editor. I found it a disturbing story as the manipulation escalated and everything began to spiral out of the girls’ control as childhood fled from them.
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Virago (6 Dec. 2012)
Source: a library book
My rating: 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4 stars on Goodreads)
I loved The Good People by Hannah Kent. It’s an intensely moving and beautifully written tale of Irish rural life in the early 19th century.
County Kerry, Ireland, 1825.
NÓRA, bereft after the sudden death of her beloved husband, finds herself alone and caring for her young grandson Micheál. Micheál cannot speak and cannot walk and Nóra is desperate to know what is wrong with him. What happened to the healthy, happy grandson she met when her daughter was still alive?
MARY arrives in the valley to help Nóra just as the whispers are spreading: the stories of unexplained misfortunes, of illnesses, and the rumours that Micheál is a changeling child who is bringing bad luck to the valley.
NANCE’s knowledge keeps her apart. To the new priest, she is a threat, but to the valley people she is a wanderer, a healer. Nance knows how to use the plants and berries of the woodland; she understands the magic in the old ways. And she might be able to help Micheál.
As these three women are drawn together in the hope of restoring Micheál, their world of folklore and belief, of ritual and stories, tightens around them. It will lead them down a dangerous path, and force them to question everything they have ever known.
Based on true events and set in a lost world bound by its own laws, The Good People is Hannah Kent’s startling new novel about absolute belief and devoted love. Terrifying, thrilling and moving in equal measure, this long-awaited follow-up to Burial Rites shows an author at the height of her powers.
I grew up reading fairy stories but The Good People gives a frighteningly realistic view of what belief in fairies meant to people dealing with sickness, disease, evil and all the things that go wrong in our lives. It’s set in 1825/6, a long gone world of people living in an isolated community, a place where superstition and a belief in fairies held sway. People talk of others being ‘fairy-swept’ or ‘away with the fairies’, and kept with the music and lights, dancing under the fairy hill.
Nóra is overcome with grief when her husband, Martin, died, feeling as though she was drowning and abandoned, completely unable to cope with Micheál, her four-year old grandson. There is talk that he is ‘fairy-struck’, unable to walk or talk and screaming uncontrollably when he is in pain or upset. She needed someone else to help her and so she hired Mary to look after Micheál. But Micheál did not improve and soon she comes to believe that he is a changeling. After both the doctor and the priest are unable to cure Micheál, Nóra appeals to Nance, the valley’s ‘handy woman’ for help.
This is a beautifully written book. It is not a fairy story, but one in which their existence is terrifyingly real to the people of the valley. The villagers believe that the fairies live in Piper’s Grave, ‘the lurking fairy fort’, at the end of the valley, a place where few people went, a neglected and wild place. People see lights there, glowing near a crooked whitethorn tree that stood in a circle of stone. Nance lives in a cabin in front of the wood a short distance from Piper’s Grave and not far from the river. She was the woman they wanted to help them bring their babies into the world, and who was the ‘gatekeeper’ at the end of their lives, the ‘keener’ when they died. She is the person Nance went to believing she could help bring back the little boy she loved.
I loved everything about The Good People, Hannah Kent is an excellent stortyteller. The characters all spring to life, Nóra, Nance and Mary in particular. It’s not a world I know and yet I felt I did, with its mix of characters, old Peg O’Shea, Nóra’s nearest neighbour who helps when she can and the younger men and women who gossip and are quick to blame Micheál for bringing bad luck to the valley and to condemn Nance, who whilst they go to her for cures, also frightens them.
It is a heart breaking story and as it drew to its inevitable end I was really moved by the effect of fear, ignorance and superstition that brought about such a tragedy. The Author’s Note at the end of the book explains that she drew on a real event from 1826 in writing The Good People. She has researched and listed many works of both fiction and non-fiction and also consulted many historians, curators and academics whilst writing the book.
Many thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a review copy.
Format: Kindle Edition
File Size: 3007 KB
Print Length: 400 pages
Publisher: Picador; Main Market Ed. edition (9 Feb. 2017)
Eyes Like Mine is an excellent psychological suspense novel. I loved it.
It’s late. The phone rings.
The man on the other end says his daughter is missing. Your daughter.
The child Nora Watts gave up for adoption 15-years ago has vanished and the police are labelling her a chronic runaway. No one is looking for the girl, she’s not blonde or white enough.
Once a starving artist herself, transient, homeless, left for dead in dark forest, Nora knows better than anyone what happens to girls that are lost to the streets. To the girls that the police don’t bother look for.
As she begins to investigate, she discovers a dangerous conspiracy and embarks on a harrowing journey of deception and violence that takes her from the rainy streets of Vancouver to the snow-capped mountains of the interior and finally to the island where she will face her greatest demon…
Intuitive, not always likeable, and deeply flawed, Nora Watts is a new heroine for our time.
Eyes Like Mine is Sheena Kamal’s debut novel. She was inspired to write it by the plight of missing and murdered indigenous woman in Canada – an issue that kept cropping up during her research for the Canadian TV documentary looking into missing and murdered women along a 724 kilometre stretch of highway in northern British Columbia.
Everything about this book fascinated me from the characters and in particular the main character, Nora Watts, the gripping storylines that kept me racing through the book, to the atmospheric, gloomy setting in Vancouver and in beautiful British Columbia with its snow, mountains and plush ski resorts.
The plot is intricate, complicated and fast moving, highlighting various issues such as mixed race inheritance and differences in treatment based on skin colour, homelessness, and environmental issues. These never overpower the story, but form part of the book as a whole.
It’s narrated by Nora, in the first person present tense, interspersed by short chapters written in the third person, also present tense. I’m often irritated and distracted by the use of the present tense but I was hardly aware of it – I think it works well in this book, giving an insight into Nora’s mind and feelings.
Nora is a conflicted character, a recovering alcoholic, who works as a receptionist and research assistant for Seb Crow and his partner, Leo Krushnik, who runs a private investigation firm. Nora’s speciality is that she can tell when people are lying. Nora lives in their office basement with her dog, Whisper. There are plenty of interesting and well-drawn characters and I liked Nora, despite her somewhat suspect actions, and Whisper, who also has her own issues.
The main focus of the book is Nora, her traumatic background and her search for her daughter, Bonnie, now a teenager, who she gave away as a new-born baby. Nora is shocked by her reaction when she sees a photo of Bonnie – there is no doubt that she is her daughter, with her dark hair and golden skin. But it is her eyes that clinch it for Nora; Bonnie has the same eyes, dark and fathomless. And Nora feels as though she is in a nightmare.
Nora, working for Leo is also searching also for the witness to a murder, who has since disappeared, and for the killer of an investigative journalist, Mike Starling, the man from her past who had been investigating corruption in the mining industry. Her search takes Nora into many dangerous and heart-stopping situations. I was almost breathless as I read Eyes Like Mine.
My thanks to the publishers, Zaffre, for an advanced review copy of Eyes Like Mine, to be published tomorrow, 9 February.
Rosemary Sutcliff was one of my favourite authors when I was a child and I particularly loved Brother Dusty Feet, about a boy who joined a group of strolling players set in Elizabethan England. I bought The Eagle of the Ninth in a library book sale several years ago because I remembered my love of Brother Dusty Feet and had meant to read it well before now. I got round to it this month and thoroughly enjoyed it, so it’s one of my TBRs for Bev’s Mount TBR Reading challenge.
The first half of the book tells of how Marcus Flavius Aquila, a young Roman officer arrived in Britain as a centurion and was injured in a battle and then, unfit for duty, was discharged. Some years earlier, sometime in 117 AD, the Ninth Hispana Legion, led by his father had marched north from its base at Eburacum (York) into the mists of Northern Britain to deal with a rising among the Caledonian tribes and was never heard of again – their Eagle Standard was also lost.
Marcus then sets out to discover the truth about his father’s disappearance, what had happened to the Legion and if possible, to recover the Eagle, and thus to redeem his father’s honour. For an Eagle standard taken in war meant so much:
To the Outland tribes it must seem that they have captured the god of the Legion: and so they carry it home in triumph, with many torches and perhaps the sacrifice of a black ram, and house it in the temple of their own god to make the young men strong in war and help the grain to ripen.
If trouble were to break out again in the north, a Roman Eagle in the hands of the Painted People might well become a weapon against us, owing to the power it would undoubtedly have to fire the minds and hearts of the Tribes. (pages 121 – 122)
He disguises himself as a Greek occulist, and with his freed ex-slave, Esca, travels beyond Hadrian’s Wall. The rest of the book is about their search through the wild borderlands north of the Wall in what was then the province of Valentia and over the Northern Wall (the Antonine Wall), into Caledonia, along the shores of Loch Lomond to the base of Ben Cruachan overlooking Loch Awe.
Rosemary Sutcliff was a wonderful storyteller, bringing Roman Britain to life in beautifully descriptive prose, so vivid that it’s easy to picture the scenery and the characters. It’s a powerful adventure story, full of detail particularly about Marcus and Esca – their friendship and courage in the face of danger and hardship. There is plenty of suspense as they fight their way through mountains and bogs, pursued by the hostile tribes. It’s also a novel about honour, duty and love.
She based The Eagle of the Ninth on two facts. First, the disappearance of the Ninth Legion. And second, the discovery of a cast bronze figure of an eagle found in the Basilica of the Roman town of Calleva, near Silchester. The eagle’s original wings are missing and its origin is unknown. Although it was not a legionary eagle, it inspired Rosemary Sutcliff to write her book.
There is a map at the front of the book showing the route Marcus and Esca took and some of the places described, including Trinomontium (Melrose), Luguvalium (Carlisle), Segedunum (Wallsend) and Borcovicus on Hadrian’s Wall (Housesteads Roman Fort) and the Northern Wall.
I loved all the detail of the mix of peoples living in Britain, their religious beliefs and ceremonies and their social and cultural background. It’s described as a children’s/YA book but I think it’s suitable for adults too – the writing style is certainly not simplistic and the vocabulary is extensive.
About Rosemary Sutcliff (1920 – 1975), born in Surrey
At the age of two she contracted Still’s disease and spent most of her life in a wheelchair. At 14 she left school having made little progress in anything except reading and went to an art school, specialising in miniature painting, becoming a member of the Royal Society of Miniature Painters just after the Second World War. She wrote very many books, both fiction and non-fiction, and won several awards.
I’ve got rather behind with writing about the books I’ve been reading so this post is on two of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse books, both are books from my TBR list. Colin Dexter wrote 13 novels in the series and I’ve been reading them out of order – just as I come across them.
The second book in the series is Last Seen Wearing, first published in 1976, in which Morse investigates a cold case. Two years previously schoolgirl Valerie Taylor had disappeared during her lunch hour from the Roger Bacon Comprehensive school. Her body had never been found and the case had been shelved but recently her parents had received a letter telling them she was ‘alright’ and they were not to worry.
Morse isn’t please when he was instructed to investigate Valerie’s disappearance but then is interested when he guesses that she is dead. In fact he is convinced that she is dead. But throughout the novel he keeps changing his mind, coming up with theory after theory about what happened to her. Lewis meanwhile, who is assisting Morse, is sure that Valerie is still alive.
There are plenty of suspects, the headmaster of the school, the second master, the French teacher, one of her boyfriends, her mother and her stepfather all come under Morse’s scrutiny. It is a complicated investigation made even more so when the second master is found stabbed with a nine-inch kitchen knife.
I haven’t read the first book in the series, Last Bus to Woodstock, in which Morse and Lewis first work together, but this second book shows their working relationship is a good one and they have several lively discussions. Lewis whilst admiring Morse sees him clearly, noting that he always had to find a complex solution.
I was puzzled throughout and like Morse I kept changing my mind about it all and at one point I had the solution – as had Morse – but had then changed my mind. Of course, by the end of the novel Morse had it all worked out correctly.
The Dead of Jericho is the 5th Inspector Morse book, first published in 1981. Colin Dexter wrote 13 novels in the series and I’ve been reading them out of order – just as I come across them. Years ago I watched the TV series of Morse. The Dead of Jericho was broadcast in January 1987, the first of Dexter’s books to be televised. I must have watched it but as it was so long ago I had completely forgotten the details.
Jericho is an area of Oxford, described in the book as a largely residential district consisting mainly of two-storey terraced mid nineteenth century houses and bounded by the Oxford Canal.
Morse met Anne Scott at a party and was immediately attracted to her. She gave him her address but thinking she was married he didn’t contact her until six months later when, being near where she lived, he impulsively called at her house at Canal Reach in Jericho. There was no reply, but the front door wasn’t locked and he stepped inside and after calling out Anne’s name and getting no reply, he closed the door behind him as he stepped out onto the pavement and left. Later that evening an anonymous phone call directed the police to Anne’s house where she was found dead. Apparently she had hanged herself.
Morse is assigned to the case and has to decide whether her death was suicide or murder. And when the police realise that Morse had been in the house that day he comes under suspicion for a while. There are various suspects and Morse as usual constructs theories which fit all of them, leaving Lewis to put him on the right track.
In both books Morse shows various aspects of his personality. He is clever, loves the opera, and solving puzzles, particularly crosswords – he can do The Times crossword in under ten minutes. He is not a happy man; he is sensitive, melancholy, a loner and a pedant. His meanness comes out in the pub where he gets Lewis, on a much lower salary, to buy all their drinks. And in both books he is attracted sexually to women.
It’s always a bit of a gamble reading a book by an author you’ve never heard of before, but I thought If Ever I Fall by S D Robertson looked as though it would be a book I would like. It’s a story about a family in crisis, struggling to come to terms with a terrible tragedy. It is his second book, due to be published on 9 February 2017.
And reading the Prologue it seemed as though I was right. It begins mysteriously as a man surfaces from his dreams only to discover that he doesn’t know who he is. It appears that Miles has rescued him and tells him he had suffered a head trauma. He calls him Jack. But as I read on I became confused and struggled a bit to follow the narrative.
It’s difficult to write about this book without giving away spoilers. The structure of the novel confused me at first because the story moves between three characters’ perspectives – Maria, Dan, her husband and Jack- and between different time periods.
Maria’s side of things is told in letters to Sam moving forwards in time, whereas Dan’s story begins in the present and moves backwards in time, and Jack’s is timeless. At first I had to keep checking the chapter titles to find out what time period I was reading until I got the hang of it. It shouldn’t really have been that difficult as the style of each is different but it did take me a while to get into the story.
Maria’s letters are quite stilted – maybe that’s what they were meant to be as she is struggling to sort out and write her thoughts so that Sam will understand. Her letters are full of grief. But they are long-winded explanations of what she was thinking and feeling and they slowed down the narrative too much for me. She obsessed about her OCD, but maybe I’m being over critical and insensitive here because being obsessive is the essence of the condition after all, but it became quite dull to read. I was more interested in Dan’s story and especially in Jack’s.
It is Jack’s story that captivated me the most and each time the narrative went to Maria or Dan I wanted to get back to Jack to find out what was happening to him – because some very strange things were going on around him. He can’t work out if he can trust Miles who tells him that he is helping him to renovate a house by the sea. But Jack keeps finding that he is in other places, as a fog descends upon him, or he finds himself trapped in a tunnel unable to move, and he sees people who Miles tells him aren’t there. Whereas, Maria’s and Dan’s stories show them dealing with the same events in different ways, culminating in one tremendous tragedy and growing increasingly apart. All three narratives are full of emotional and psychological tension.
About half way into the book I began to work out the storyline and how the three narratives linked together and was able to settle into enjoying the book, which did work out as I had anticipated.
It’s about what happens to family relationships hit by the most terrible tragedy, how grief affects us in different ways, and the psychological and emotional impact of amnesia and obsessive compulsive disorder. I think if the novel had followed the story in a straight forward chronological order it would not have had as much impact on me. It certainly gave me much to think about as I was reading it and afterwards.
My thanks to Avon Books UK and NetGalley for a review copy.
Missing Pieces is the first book by Heather Gudenkauf that I’ve read. I enjoyed it very much and will look out for her other books.
Everyone has secrets… Sarah Quinlan’s husband, Jack, has been haunted for decades by the untimely death of his mother when he was just a teenager, her body found in the cellar of their family farm, the circumstances a mystery. The case rocked the town where Jack was raised, and for years Jack avoided returning home.
But when his beloved aunt Julia is in an accident, hospitalised in a coma, Jack and Sarah are forced to confront the past that they have long evaded. Sarah and Jack are welcomed by the family Jack left behind all those years ago―barely a trace of the wounds that had once devastated them all. But as facts about Julia’s accident begin to surface, Sarah realises that nothing about the Quinlans is what it seems. Caught in a flurry of unanswered questions, Sarah dives deep into the rabbit hole of Jack’s past, but the farther she climbs, the harder it is for her to get out. And soon she is faced with a hard reality she may not be prepared for.
The book begins with the murder of Lydia Quinlan in 1985 by someone she knew, when her son Jack was fifteen. Jack and his little sister Amy went to live with his aunt Julia and her husband Hal after the deaths of their parents. As soon as he was old enough Jack left his home town of Penny Gate in Iowa.
Moving to the present day Jack and Sarah have been married for 20 years, but Sarah has never met any of his family or been to his home town. But when his aunt Julia is in a coma after a fall she goes with him to Penny Gate. Whilst the family gather round Julia’s hospital bed she begins to realise that there is a lot she didn’t know about Jack and his family, including the fact that he had lied to her about how his parents had died.
The book revolves around the mystery of who killed Lydia and was Julia’s fall an accident – and if not who was responsible and why. The story is told from Sarah’s perspective as she delves into the history of Lydia’s death. I did have a few reservations about how easily Sarah managed to persuade Margaret Dooley who works in the sheriff’s department to let her see the files and records of the investigation into Lydia’s murder but Margaret is also keen to get to the truth, particularly as she had been Jack and Amy’s babysitter as they grew up and her mother and Lydia were best friends.
I was gripped by this book, as more and more secrets are revealed and Sarah begins to gather the missing pieces of the puzzle. Her relationship with Jack deteriorates as she realises that he has told her so many lies, or omitted to tell her the truth. She cannot understand why he won’t talk to her and begins to suspect the worst. And then it becomes clear after Julia died that her death was not the result of an accident.
I liked the setting of a small town and was fascinated by the characters and their relationships, which are intense and complicated by the reasons they kept secrets from each other. It’s a fast-paced novel that held my interest to the end. At various points as I read I became convinced that first this person and then that person must have killed Lydia, but I was way off mark. And I had no idea who could have killed Julia.
My thanks to the publishers and Midas Public Relations for my copy of this book.
I read The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane at the end of December. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would from reading the blurb:
The Wild Places is both an intellectual and a physical journey, and Macfarlane travels in time as well as space. Guided by monks, questers, scientists, philosophers, poets and artists, both living and dead, he explores our changing ideas of the wild. From the cliffs of Cape Wrath, to the holloways of Dorset, the storm-beaches of Norfolk, the saltmarshes and estuaries of Essex, and the moors of Rannoch and the Pennines, his journeys become the conductors of people and cultures, past and present, who have had intense relationships with these places.Certain birds, animals, trees and objects – snow-hares, falcons, beeches, crows, suns, white stones – recur, and as it progresses this densely patterned book begins to bind tighter and tighter. At once a wonder voyage, an adventure story, an exercise in visionary cartography, and a work of natural history, it is written in a style and a form as unusual as the places with which it is concerned. It also tells the story of a friendship, and of a loss. It mixes history, memory and landscape in a strange and beautiful evocation of wildness and its vital importance.
I have mixed feelings about it. It does do all those things described above and maybe that was the problem for me -it tries to do too much. It is beautifully written, sometimes overwritten and it is also repetitive. There is a map showing the places he visited that helped me to a certain extent – vague enough if you don’t want to pinpoint the precise locations. It is a book to read in small sections, to dip into rather than to read straight through as I did. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had taken more time to read it – but during the times I did put it down I was in no hurry to get back to it.
I was intrigued by the places where he slept out and flabbergasted by the risks he took.
For example, he went on a night walk alone in the Cumbrian mountains. By the time he reached the mountains it was late afternoon and when he reached the ridge at over 2,000 feet the snow had thickened to a blizzard and it was hard to stand up in the wind. He decided to sleep on the surface of a frozen tarn that lay between two small crags giving some shelter from the wind. First he tested it by jumping gently on its centre; it didn’t creak, so he slept there in his sleeping and bivouac bags whilst it hailed and snowed. He began
to feel cold, deep down, as though ice were forming inside me, floes of it cruising my core, pressure ridges riding up through my arms and legs, white sheaths forming around my bones. (page 198)
When he woke he did a little dance on the tarn to warm himself and then saw that where he had been lying on the tarn,
the ice had melted, so that there was a shallow indent, shaped like a sarcophagus, shadowed out by the moonlight. (page 199)
However, I did enjoy the experience of reading The Wild Places, and I’ve decided to read Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: a Journey on Foot, particularly asa friend told me she had enjoyed it more than The Wild Places. Macfarlane describes how he set off from his Cambridge home to follow ancient tracks, holloways, drove roads and sea paths that criss-cross the British landscape.
Robert Macfarlane is a Reader in Literature and the Geohumanities in the Faculty of English at Cambridge University. He is well-known as a writer about landscape, nature, memory, language and travel.
This is the second book by Freeman Wills Crofts that I’ve read. The first was Mystery in the Channel, which is a complicated murder mystery with plenty of red herrings and I had no idea about the identity of the killer. The 12.30 from Croydon couldn’t be more different – it begins with a murder but the identity of the murderer is known before he even thought of committing the crime.
The result is there is little mystery, as Charles Swinburne sets about murdering his uncle, Andrew Crowther, in order to inherit his fortune. It’s set in the early 1930s when the country is suffering the effects of the ‘slump’ and Charles’ business is on the edge of bankruptcy, and he is unable to raise the money to keep it going.
The major part of the book is taken up with describing how Charles became convinced that the only way out of his dilemma and the only way he could convince Una, a mercenary rich young woman, to marry him, was to kill Andrew. Consequently Andrew died on the 12.30 plane from Croydon. From that point onwards we see how Charles devised a plan and created an alibi that he thought would be perfect – and how it went wrong and how he was drawn into committing yet another murder.
Inspector French appears later on in the book to explain Charles’ thoughts and actions, and how he broke his alibi, just as Poirot sums up his thoughts and methods of deduction in Agatha Christie’s books.
The 12.30 from Croydon focuses on the psychology of the murderer and from that point of view I think it works well. Charles’ personality is thoroughly explored, showing his ingenuity, efficiency, and the ways he overcame his scruples about murder were in the main convincing. But the in-depth detail of the planning means that it is hardly riveting reading. So whilst the plotting is clever my interest in the outcome flagged as the only thing to work out is would Charles get caught out, and would Inspector French break his alibi. But I did want to know how it would end.
What I found more interesting is the description of the thrill of the early passenger flights. In the opening chapter Rose Morley, Andrew’s young granddaughter flies to France with him and her father, Peter, because her mother had been knocked down and seriously injured by a taxi in Paris. Rose thinks the plane looks like a huge dragonfly. From her seat her view through the window was of the lower wing with its criss-cross struts connecting it to the upper wing. She was delighted by the whole process the increasing speed and the roar of the motors as the plane miraculously left the ground. Peter remarks that it was a wonderful improvement on the early machines when you had to stuff cotton wool in your ears. Rose loved the whole experience.
I also like the setting Crofts created for the novel – the enormous pressure that drove Charles to take such drastic action due to the financial disasters of the period in the 1930s is well presented. I liked the book but as I enjoy trying to work out the why and the how for me it needed more mystery, and more red herrings.
My thanks to Netgalley and Poisoned Pen Press for a review copy of The 12.30 From Croydon. It was first published in 1934; this edition with an introduction by Martin Edwards was published in 2016 by Poisoned Pen Press in association with the British Library.
Kit doesn’t know who his mother is. What he does know, however, is that his father, Guy, is dying of cancer. Feeling his death is imminent, Guy gathers around him his oldest friends – or at least the friends with the most to lose by his death. Paul – the rising star in the Labour party who dreads the day a tape they all made at university might come to light; Alison and Robbie, corporate bunnies whose relationship is daily more fractious; Pris and Haze, once an item, now estranged, and finally Hol – friend, mentor, former lover and the only one who seemed to care.
But what will happen to Kit when Guy is gone? And why isn’t Kit’s mother in the picture? As the friends reunite for Guy’s last days, old jealousies, affairs and lies come to light as Kit watches on.
I enjoyed The Quarry, the last book Iain Banks wrote. He explained in this interview that it’s a fairly simple book with not many characters, with only really one location and “it doesn’t muck around with flashbacks or narrative order.” It is quite strange really because he had already written 90% of it before he was diagnosed with cancer. I’m sometimes a bit wary of novels on cancer, but The Quarry isn’t in the slightest a sentimental book, nor is it solely about cancer, or death, although Guy does rant about it. I particularly enjoyed his rants – as well as those about cancer he also rants about God, faith, miracles, politics, celebrities, the ‘hounding of the poor and disabled and the cosseting of the rich and privileged‘, the unfair society we live in and so on.
Kit and Guy live in a house that is gradually falling to pieces, situated on the edge of a quarry in the Pennines. Kit is the narrator so we see the events of the weekend when Guy’s friends came to visit through his eyes, as they reminisce about their time as film students and search through the house for a video tape they had made that could ruin all of their lives if it became public. And, of course, he wants to know who is mother is, is it Hol, Ali or Pris, or someone else?
Kit is my favourite character. He is ‘very clever, if challenged in other ways‘, meaning he is ‘on a spectrum that stretches from ‘highly gifted’ at one end to ‘nutter’ at the other.‘ He spends much of his time playing an online game called HeroSpace. I liked the descriptions of his rituals and his need for order – stirring tea and shopping in a certain order etc. Kit’s internal monologue on responding to conversations is also fascinating, illustrating his struggles to interact with people socially.
I read it quickly – it’s well written, easy to read and fast paced. The main characters, Kit, Guy and Hol are convincing characters, whereas the rest remained a bit blurred in my mind, despite the detailed descriptions of what they were wearing. The physical setting, whilst not actually precisely located, is good. I could easily visualise the house and its immediate setting next to the quarry, which plays a big part in the novel both as a physical entity and metaphorically – living on the edge of a precipice into which inevitably we will all fall.
I was gripped by the two strands – will they find the tape and what is on it and will Kit find out the identity of his mother? And Guy’s character is particularly intriguing. It’s an entertaining book, funny in parts, angry, sad and miserable in others and about relationships and secrets.
The Quarry is only the second book by Iain Banks that I’ve read. I’ve also read The Crow Road, which I thoroughly enjoyed, although I never got round to writing down my thoughts about it. I’m tempted to re-read it for comparison. I’ve started to read The Wasp Factory a few times and never got very far as other books pulled me away from it. So I’ll try that again and the only other book of his that I own, A Song of Stone.
Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, so I was pleased when I was offered a review copy of The Buttonmaker’s Daughter by Merryn Allingham. It will be published on 12 January. I hadn’t come across any of the author’s books before, but this is the 5th book she has written under the name of Merryn Allingham. She has also written a Regency series under the name Isobel Goddard.
As events in Europe and news of the impending threat of war trickle through, this is a novel that looks at the personal dramas that took place in a society already navigating huge social and political change. Born to an industry-owning father and an aristocratic mother, Elizabeth must juggle her own dreams of independence, her parents’ wishes for her ‘good marriage’, and the responsibility of reuniting her feuding family. Housemaid Ivy is desperate to marry before her love is pulled away to war, William is struggling with his own feelings towards his schoolboy friend, and Elizabeth is drawn to the promise a new life with a charming young architect. Everyone’s life hangs on the brink of change, and if war is declared, will there even be a future for the Summerhayes estate?
The Buttonmaker’s Daughter is set in Sussex in the summer of 1914 just before the start of the First World War, a summer of sweltering heat and of rising tension not only nationally and internationally but also personally for Elizabeth Summer and her family. The novel covers just a few months, but those few months contain so much tension and heartbreak as the feud in the Summers family comes to a climax over the question of who Elizabeth should marry and war on the continent becomes inevitable.
Alice, Elizabeth’s mother was brought up on the Amberley estate which her brother, Henry inherited. But she had made a ‘marriage of convenience’ with industrialist Joshua Summer which had brought the much needed money to save Amberley and at the same time had triggered Henry’s enmity. So when Elizabeth falls in love with Aiden Kellaway, an architect’s assistant working on the landscaping of the Summerhayes gardens both her parents and uncle appear united in finding her a ‘suitable’ husband, one with the proper connections.
The Buttonmaker’s Daughter is a beautiful book. I was completely immersed in the story as the relationship between the two families deteriorates and Elizabeth becomes increasingly aware of the danger both to herself and her younger brother William. The setting is idyllic, the characters are clearly drawn and the sense of life in the immediate pre-war period made me feel I was there in the midst of it all, experiencing the social conventions and class distinctions.
I hope Merryn Allingham will write a sequel as I would like to know more about what happened to them all during the war.
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: HQ; First edition edition (12 Jan. 2017)
I read The Bone Field by Simon Kernick in December and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s due to be published on 12 January.
It’s the first of his books that I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. Kitty Sinn disappeared in 1990 whilst she was on holiday in Thailand with her boyfriend, Henry Forbes. There was no record that she ever left Thailand, but 26 years later her bones were discovered during building work on land that had formerly belonged to Medmenham College in Buckinghamshire. And then the bones of a schoolgirl who had gone missing in 1989 are found buried in the same field.
There’s plenty of fast paced action moving the plot swiftly along, told through different characters’ viewpoints, mainly from DI Ray Mason, who is nearly killed when he goes to question Henry and then finds himself under investigation as a suspect. From then on he acts very much on his own, with the help of PI Tina Boyd, an ex-police detective. Both find themselves in danger as they are confronted by a gang of ruthless killers, ritualistic murderers and people traffickers.
The Bone Field is the first in a new series of books, featuring Ray Mason and Tina Boyd, both of whom are the most developed and convincing of the characters and, I understand, are both characters from Kernick’s earlier books. I read the book quickly, drawn by all the twists and turns to the dramatic ending. However instead of tying up all the loose ends, the last sentence raises a new mystery, a partial cliff-hanger that, I assume, will lead on to the next book in the series.
My thanks to Lovereading who sent me a copy of this book for review.
Rory Clements is best known for his John Shakespeare series, but Corpus is the first of his books I’ve read, so I was unsure that I would like it when I received an ARC from NetGalley. It is due to be published on 26 January 2017. (I read Corpus in December 2016.)
Europe is in turmoil.
The Nazis have marched into the Rhineland.
In Russia, Stalin has unleashed his Great Terror.
Spain has erupted in civil war.
In Berlin, a young Englishwoman evades the Gestapo to deliver vital papers to a Jewish scientist. Within weeks, she is found dead in her Cambridge bedroom, a silver syringe clutched in her fingers.
In a London club, three senior members of the British establishment light the touch paper on a conspiracy that will threaten the very heart of government. Even the ancient colleges of Cambridge are not immune to political division. Dons and students must choose a side: right or left, where do you stand?
When a renowned member of the county set and his wife are found horribly murdered, a maverick history professor finds himself dragged into a world of espionage which, until now, he has only read about in books. But the deeper Thomas Wilde delves, the more he wonders whether the murders are linked to the death of the girl with the silver syringe – and, just as worryingly, to the scandal surrounding King Edward VIII and his mistress Wallis Simpson…
Set against the drumbeat of war and moving from Berlin to Cambridge, from Whitehall to the Kent countryside, and from the Fens to the Aragon Front in Spain, this big canvas international thriller marks the beginning of a major new series from bestselling author Rory Clements.
The setting in 1936 is well done, a time when Europe was once more on the brink of war. Civil war has broken out in Spain, in Britain some people are openly supporting the Nazis in Germany and politicians are torn between wanting Edward VIII to abdicate the throne or give up his relationship with Wallis Simpson. Against this background Corpus focusses on Tom Wilde’s investigations first into Nancy’s death, aided by her friend Lydia, who is convinced that Nancy was murdered, and then into yet more murders.
I was totally convinced by the characters, in particular Tom Wilde, a professor of history who is writing a biography of Sir Robert Cecil, the Elizabethan and Jacobean statesman, the successor to Sir Francis Walsingham as the Queen’s spymaster (a nod to his earlier series, I thought). And I was immersed in the mysteries, with spies, communists and Nazis, Spanish Gold, Soviet conspirators, politicians and academics all intricately woven into the plot. It’s pacy, full of action, violence and double-cross – a most satisfying and compelling thriller.
I loved Corpus and I shall certainly look out for Rory Clements’ other books.
There’s nothing Christmassy about Frost at Christmas apart from the title and the fact that it is set just before Christmas.
Ten days to Christmas and Tracey Uphill, aged eight, hasn’t come home from Sunday school. Her mother, a pretty young prostitute, is desperate. Enter Detective Inspector Jack Frost, sloppy, scruffy and insubordinate. To help him investigate the case of the missing child, Frost has been assigned a new sidekick, the Chief Constable’s nephew. Fresh to provincial Denton in an oversmart suit, Detective Constable Clive Barnard is an easy target for Frost’s withering satire.
Assisted and annoyed by Barnard, Frost, complete with a store of tasteless anecdotes to fit every occasion, proceeds with the investigation in typically unorthodox style. After he’s consulted a local witch, Dead Man’s Hollow yields up a skeleton. Frost finds himself drawn into an unsolved crime from the past and risks not only his career, but also his life…
Frost at Christmas has been on my shelves for over 2 years. It’s the first of R D Wingfield’s DI Jack Frost series. Years ago I’d watched the TV series with David Jason as DI Frost, which I thought were interesting but I wasn’t that keen on Frost as a detective. So I was surprised to find that the book and the character are so much better.
Frost at Christmas was first published in Great Britain in 1989, but Wingfield had written it years earlier, in 1972 and it was first published in Canada in 1984. In his obituary in The Guardian Wingfield is quoted: “I have nothing against David Jason as Frost at all, he just isn’t my Frost.” He liked Jason as a comedy actor in such vehicles as Only Fools and Horses, but felt that along with the choice of actor had gone a softening of the dark humour essential as a safety valve for policemen investigating horrendous cases.
After reading Frost at Christmas I agree: David Jason’s Frost is not my Frost either. He’s a much tougher character, not at all PC. but he is much more than the crude, sexist and insensitive rude person he first appears. Of course he is unorthodox, which doesn’t go down well with his boss, Superintendent Mullett who is the exact opposite of Frost, being always immaculately dressed and supremely oblivious to Frost’s excellent detective skills (as in the TV version). He doesn’t obey orders, goes off at a tangent and doesn’t like experts who rely on precision, whereas he uses his hunches and intuition. Frost is popular with his colleagues, although they are less than happy when he is late handing in their expenses claims.
There are several storylines – the missing schoolgirl, a bank robbery and the discovery of a three decades old murder plus other more minor crimes. It’s a reminder of the time when people smoked and held meetings in blue-fug filled rooms, and when there no mobile phones and people used public telephone boxes.
I liked Frost’s sense of humour and the way his relationship with the new DC, Clive Barnard, the Chief Constable’s nephew develops. Clive after seeing Frost as incompetent and disgusted by his ‘cheap gibes’ eventually sees the other side of his boss as he learns what lies behind Frost’s tough facade and a bit about his history, his wife dying of cancer.
I think Frost at Christmas is so much better than I expected. I really enjoyed it and am going to read the other five Frost books R D Wingfield wrote.
1. Frost at Christmas (1984)
2. A Touch of Frost (1987)
3. Night Frost (1992)
4. Hard Frost (1995)
5. Winter Frost (1999)
6. A Killing Frost (2008)
‘Rodney David Wingfield (1928 – 2007) was a prolific writer of radio crime plays and comedy scripts, some for the late Kenneth Williams, star of the Carry On films. His crime novels featuring DI Jack Frost have been successfully adapted for television as A Touch of Frost starring David Jason.Wingfield was a modest man, shunning the London publicity scene in favour of a quite life in Basildon, Essex, with his wife of 52 years(died 2004) and only son.’ (Fantastic Fiction)
Alys Clare is a new-to-me author and I don’t know why I’ve never come across her books before now. She writes historical mysteries. Her latest book, A Rustle of Silk, published today, is the first in a new series featuring Dr Gabriel Taverner, set in the early years of 17th century England.
It begins in April 1603 at the beginning of James I’s reign. Former ship’s surgeon Gabriel Taverner has settled in Devon near his family and he is trying to set up a new practice as a physician. But it is not easy to gain the locals’ trust and someone is leaving gruesome little gifts on his doorstep. However, the local coroner, Theophilus Davey asks him to examine a partially decomposed body found beside the river. At first it looks as though it was suicide, but on realising that it’s his brother-in-law, Jeromy, Gabriel and Theophilus are convinced that he was murdered.
Jeromy was employed by a silk merchant and moved in the world of the rich and influential, often away from home and his wife Celia. Outwardly they have a happy marriage, but as Gabriel finds out more disturbing secrets begin to emerge. The silk trade is a dangerous business and Gabriel finds his own life is threatened.
There are several things that I loved about this book. It’s a convincing view of the 17th century and I was fascinated most of all by the detail of medical practices, and how Gabriel interacted with the local women (‘witches’) who treated the poor and was willing to take note of their knowledge, particularly concerning women – as a ship’s surgeon he had no experience of treating women. It also shows what life was like at that time for the ordinary people, the position of women in society, and the consequences of committing suicide.
I also liked the mystery, with plenty of red herrings and intrigue. It kept me interested, anxious to know the outcome. I guessed who the murderer was about half-way through the book, which was satisfying, but it was the historical aspect that captivated me.
My thanks to the publishers via NetGalley for my copy of this book.
Set in East London, Worth Killing For by Ed James is the second DI Fenchurch novel. It’s a bang up to date police procedural full of action, street talk and social and political commentary. I haven’t read the first book in the series, but that doesn’t matter as this book reads well as a standalone. It starts off at full tilt as Fenchurch witnesses a murder as a woman is attacked by a young hoodie on a bike, who snatches her mobile and handbag. He sets off in pursuit and after losing sight of him a couple of times he catches him, finding he has several smartphones in his possession, but not the victim’s. The young man claims he hadn’t attacked the woman, who is identified as a journalist, Saskia Bennett. Is it a case of mistaken identity, or as Fenchurch maintains the young man is lying? Is Saskia the victim of a phone-theft gang, run by the mysterious Kamal, or was she killed because of the stories she was investigating?
This reminded me so much of ‘Oliver Twist’, young boys recruited by Fagan to ‘pick-a pocket-or two’ and I was fascinated by the intricacies of the plot. I got a bit lost in the descriptions of the bike chases – there is more than one – but they certainly provide plenty of tension. And the scene in the underground is terrific. It is fast-packed action and you have to concentrate to keep up. Fenchurch is an interesting character and there is enough back story about his missing daughter, Chloe, to explain why he ignores procedure in his obsession to get to the truth.
I had no idea who was responsible, and at times the street talk and police jargon left me puzzled, but after I’d read more of the book it became clearer. I liked the way Ed James bamboozles the reader with all the twists and turns in the plot and the way he has brought politics, both local and national into the story. It really is right up-to-date.
In an Afterword Ed James explained how he came to write this book – his iphone was nicked, by a kid on a bike, in London. He poured out all his anger, hatred and fear into his writing.
I read this book courtesy of NetGalley. I’ll certainly read the first book now and any later DI Fenchurch books – will he find out what happened to Chloe?
Format: Kindle Edition
File Size: 2661 KB
Print Length: 414 pages
Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1503938220
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer (11 Oct. 2016)
Source: Review copy via NetGalley
About the Author
Ed James writes crime fiction novels, predominantly the Scott Cullen series of police procedurals set in Edinburgh and the surrounding Lothians. He lives in the East Lothian countryside, 25 miles east of Edinburgh, with his girlfriend, six rescue moggies, two retired greyhounds, a flock of ex-battery chickens and rescue ducks across two breeds and two genders (though the boys don’t lay eggs). While working in IT for a living, Ed wrote mainly on public transport but now writes full time. (From his website)
A Cupboard Full of Coats is a beautiful and intense book, full of emotion and passion. It begins when Jinx opens the door to Lemon, who she hadn’t seen for fourteen years – fourteen years since the night her mother had been murdered. Over the next three days they talk about what had happened, bringing to the surface secrets, desires and jealousies that had led to the tragedy.
The narrative switches between the past and the present. Jinx’s relationship with her mother, had changed when she was sixteen and Berris, Lemon’s best friend, had moved in to live with them. It’s not clear at first just how or why her mother died although in the second paragraph Jinx reveals to the reader that she had killed her. But it is clear that both Jinx and Lemon (his full name is Philemon) have secrets that have been haunting them ever since. Lemon wants to talk about it and at first Jinx cannot open up to reveal anything, or indeed even to think about it let alone talk about it.
But I was no closer to telling him anything. He had told me heaps. More than I asked for. Much more. Yet, so far, I had shared nothing. He was right, you couldn’t just pick up a piece out of a story and present it on its own. Alone it was worthless. But I had not spoken to anyone ever about that night, had never trusted anyone enough to tell them the truth about what happened with my mother. I hadn’t wanted to. And now that I did want to, it seemed an impossible task. (pages 95 – 96)
But his talk and the delicious Caribbean food he cooks bring back her memories almost like flashbacks and her defences crumble. The cupboard full of coats helps her too – the expensive, beautiful coats, each one protected by transparent dustcovers, especially one coat, ‘made from nubuck suede, a long, ankle-length close-fitting garment, grey-blue like cloudy sky, with diagonal slit pockets lined in cobalt-coloured silk.’
It is a really dramatic story, layered and full of depth, as Jinx and Lemon relive that time of love, hatred, and violence. Beautifully written, it skillfully conveys the difficulties of relationships, communication and what happens when jealousy and betrayal tear people apart.
Paperback: 268 pages
Publisher: Oneworld Publications (21 Sept. 2011)
Source: a library book
I borrowed this book from the library because the title, opening paragraphs and blurb interested me (see this post for the blurb etc) and I was pleased when I realised it was perfect for the final category I had to fill for the What’s in a Name challenge – the category of a book with an item of clothing in the title.
Last year I loved Nicola Cornick’s time-slip novel, House of Shadows. Her latest book is The Phantom Tree, due to be published on 29 December, another time-slip novel and I loved this one too.
“My name is Mary Seymour and I am the daughter of one queen and the niece of another.”
Browsing antiques shops in Wiltshire, Alison Bannister stumbles across a delicate old portrait – supposedly of Anne Boleyn. Except Alison knows better… The woman is Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr who was taken to Wolf Hall in 1557 as an unwanted orphan and presumed dead after going missing as a child.
The painting is more than just a beautiful object from Alison’s past – it holds the key to her future, unlocking the mystery surrounding Mary’s disappearance, and the enigma of Alison’s son.
But Alison’s quest soon takes a dark and foreboding turn, as a meeting place called the Phantom Tree harbours secrets in its shadows…
The plot of The Phantom Tree alternates between the Tudor period and the present day following the life of Alison Banestre (known as Bannister in the present day) as she moves between the centuries trying to find out what happened to Mary Seymour. It is a mystery, based on the true story of Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr (Henry VIII’s sixth wife) and Thomas Seymour, who she married after Henry’s death.
It’s a fascinating book, as little is known about Mary’s life. What is recorded is that she was born in 1548, her mother died after the birth and her father was executed a year later for treason against Edward VI. She disappeared from the records around about 1550, although there has been speculation that she lived until adulthood. In The Phantom Tree Nicola Cornick has provided another speculation on Mary’s life. As she states at the beginning of her book it is ‘entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination.’
Having read Hilary Mantel’s, Wolf Hall, I was very interested in the setting of Wolf Hall where Mary and Alison, her cousin, went to live in 1557, the fourth year of the reign of Mary I. Mary Seymour was then ten years old and had a reputation for witchcraft. Wolf Hall, a rambling, run down manor house was owned by the Seymour family where Mary and other Seymour children went sent to live.
The time travel element of the book works well. I liked the way the traces of history in the present day are handled and are seen as layers of reality. Alison moves between the centuries, both forwards and backwards in time but then she found the gateway to the past had closed and she was trapped in the present day. She has to find another gateway where the past and the present meet, or some other means of connecting to the past.
I preferred the sixteenth century setting, with its belief in witchcraft slotting so well into the storyline. Mary has visions which are viewed with fear and superstition. Alison, in the future doesn’t know what happens to Mary, or to her son, Arthur, who was taken from her after his birth. She had helped Mary escape from Wolf Hall and in return Mary had promised to help her find Arthur. I think the characterisation is done well – Alison comes across as a rather unlikeable person, in contrast to Mary who is younger and has a gentler nature, although at first they didn’t get on together. I also liked the way the clues in the portrait helped Alison to discover what happened to Mary and Arthur.
My thanks to the publishers via NetGalley for a review copy of The PhantomTree. It is a book that seamlessly incorporates mystery and elements of the supernatural into the historical detail as the past and present meet. A most enjoyable book.
I’m still catching up with writing about books I read in November. First published in 1931 Mystery in the Channel by Freeman Wills Crofts is a classic crime fiction novel written during the Golden Age of detective fiction between the two world wars. The cross-channel steamer, Chichester comes across an abandoned small pleasure yacht, the Nymph, lying motionless in the English Channel. Two men are on board, both of whom have been shot. Inspector French of Scotland Yard is in charge of the investigations into their murder.
There is no sign of a murder weapon, or the murderer. The two dead men are identified as the chairman and vice-chairman of a large financial company that is apparently on the the verge of a crash. It was thought that the two men were trying to flee the country with £1.5 million pounds in cash that was missing from the company’s strong room.
What follows is a complicated investigation into the details of nautical calculations and timetables, and of the numbers and whereabouts of the missing notes, all of which I admit were a bit beyond me. I had absolutely no idea about the identity of the murderer but I enjoyed trying to work out the clues and avoid all the red herrings as Inspector French travelled between London (called Town), Newhaven and Dieppe in the course of his investigations. Apart from Inspector French the characterisation is sketchy – it is the puzzle of the murder and the missing money that is the focus of the book.
I thought the comments on the effect of the company’s crash on ordinary people is still as relevant today as it was in the 1930s and the Assistant Police Commissioner’s views on crime and punishment showing a surprising sympathy with the criminal are interesting. He deplored the punishment of the out-of-work or poorly paid thief who had stolen to provide for his family’s’ needs. And he had ‘the most profound enmity and contempt’ for the wealthy thief who stole through the manipulation of stocks and shares or by other financial methods, whether those means were within or without the limits of the law.
This edition of Murder in the Channel is one of a series of classic crime novels published in September 2016 by British Library Publishing and has an introduction by Martin Edwards. My copy is courtesy of NetGalley.
The back cover of my Penguin Popular Classics edition of Silas Marner tells me it was George Eliot’s own favourite novel. The story revolves around Silas Marner, a weaver living in Raveloe, a village on the brink of industrialisation. He was wrongly accused of theft and left his home town to live a lonely and embittered life in Raveloe where he became a miser, hoarding his gold and counting it each night. Until one night his life is changed by the theft of his money and a little girl who came to live with him, having been abandoned in the snow.
It took me a while to settle into George Eliot’s style of writing, with her long, long sentences – some so long I had forgotten how they had started, before I got to the end. But once my mind had adjusted to the rhythm of her writing I enjoyed this short book (221 pages in my copy). It’s set in the early years of the 19th century (she was writing the book in 1861) and begins with a description of linen weavers and the superstition that surrounded them. They were:
… pallid undersized men, who by the side of brawny country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race. The shepherd’s dog barked fiercely when one of these alien-looking men appeared on the upland, dark against the early winter sunset; for what dog likes a figure bent under a heavy bag? – and these pale men rarely stirred abroad without that mysterious burden.
In that far-off time superstition clung easily round every person or thing that was at all unwonted … no one knew where wandering men had their homes, or their origin … to peasants of old times, the world outside their own direct experience was a region of vagueness and mystery … (page 9)
There are two strands to the storyline – one about Silas and the other about Godfrey Cass, two very different men, one poor, a social outcast and the other rich, the son of the local squire. They move in very different social circles, the Cass family life is one of lazy indulgence, but their lives intersect through the arrival of the little girl.
I really enjoyed this short book, bringing to life a world that had disappeared by the time George Eliot was writing it. It has the touch of a fairytale about it, or of a folk myth, and it tells of the consequences of our actions. The characters come to life through Eliot’s descriptions and I could easily picture their appearance and hear their speech. For example
She actually said “mate” for “meat”, “appen” for “perhaps”, and “oss” for “horse”, which, to young ladies living in good Lytherly society, who habitually said ‘orse, even in domestic privacy, and only said ‘appen’ on the right occasions, was necessarily shocking. (page 113)
I wondered whether this would be a sentimental tale, but although it is touching it isn’t sentimental. In the end it’s about a world of uncertainties, of ways of looking at life, of the nature of belief and religion and of the possibilities of change. And it does have a happy ending.
When I read the publishers’ blurb I thought I’d like The Marriage Lie by Kimberly Belle:
Iris and Will have been married for seven years, have bought their dream house and have begun trying for a family. But on the morning Will flies out for a business trip to Florida, Iris’s perfect life comes crashing down around her: another plane headed for Seattle has crashed into a field, killing everyone on board and, according to the airline, Will was one of the passengers.
Grief stricken and confused, Iris is convinced it all must be a huge misunderstanding. Why did Will lie about where he was going? And what else has he lied about? As she sets off on a desperate quest to uncover what her husband was keeping from her, she begins to unravel a hidden identity behind the man she thought she knew better than herself, and the truth shocks her to the core.
It exceeded my expectations and I loved it. The Marriage Lie is one of those books that gripped me and kept me guessing all the way through. Once I began reading I just didn’t want to put the book down and I raced through it, anxious to know what happened next. And plenty did happen in one of the most convoluted and complex plots I’ve read in a while. The pace is terrific and the tension just builds and builds in this psychological thriller.
Iris thought she had the perfect marriage, with the perfect husband. But the more she tries to discover why he was on a plane to Seattle when he’d told her her was going to Orlando, the more lies she uncovers. Grief-stricken and terrified she doesn’t know who she can trust and she is devastated as the truth is finally uncovered.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers, so all I can say is that through all the twists and turns of this novel, the characters are convincing and although I’d partly anticipated the outcome I was taken by surprise at the final twist as the book reaches its dramatic climax!
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy of The Marriage Lie. It’s due to be published on 29 December 2016.
Alan Bennett’s A Life Like Other People’s is a poignant family memoir offering a portrait of his parents’ marriage and recalling his Leeds childhood, Christmases with Grandma Peel, and the lives, loves and deaths of his unforgettable aunties Kathleen and Myra. Bennett’s powerful account of his mother’s descent into depression and later dementia comes hand in hand with the uncovering of a long-held tragic secret. A heartrending and at times irresistibly funny work of autobiography by one of the best-loved English writers alive today. (Amazon)
I really like Alan Bennett’s work and was pleased to find this little book in the mobile library recently. It’s a beautifully written book taken from his collection Untold Storiesand illustrated with black and white photographs.There is drama in this memoir, but written with clarity and keen observation in quiet tones about lives that are anything but ordinary. It is a completely absorbing book as Bennett recalls his childhood. He writes about his family including his two aunties, Kathleen and Myra, two very different characters from their sister, his mother. They saw themselves as ‘dashing, adventuresome creatures, good sports and always on for what they see as a lark.‘ They wore scent and camiknickers, and had the occasional drink and smoked.
He writes of mother’s fears – ‘of being spied on, listened to, shamed and detected‘ of her dread of being ‘the centrepiece‘ especially at her wedding. His parents didn’t like ‘splother‘, his father’s word for ‘the preening and fuss invariably attendant on the presence of the aunties.‘ Then there are the sad facts about his mother’s depression and subsequent dementia as she descended into delusion, her stays in hospital and the effect that had on the family.
There are revelations of family secrets and many touching and sad (but never sentimental) episodes, for example the futile search for Aunty Kathleen, suffering from a condition similar to Alzheimer’s, after she just walked out of her hospital ward. She was found several days later in drenched undergrowth in a wood near the M6.
It is a sad book but also a heart-warming story – the love of his parents and family shines throughout the book.
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Faber & Faber; Main edition (3 Sept. 2009)
I’ve been reading books so quickly this month that I am now far behind with writing about them, so this is just a short post about an excellent new book by Mark Mills, published on 17 November.
I’ve been meaning to read more of Mark Mills’ books ever since I read The Savage Garden in 2008, a book I enjoyed very much, soI was keen to read his latest book, Where Dead Men Meet. It is historical fiction set in 1937 in pre-Second World War Europe, with a fast-moving plot as Luke Hamilton, an intelligence officer at the British Embassy in Paris, tries to discover why someone wants him dead, why Sister Agnes, the nun who had been his mentor and guide at the orphanage for the first seven years of his life had been bludgeoned to death, and who his real parents were.
Although the war in Europe is imminent it is by no means the main focus of this book, but forms an excellent backdrop as the action moves from Paris across the continent. At first he assumes that the assassin has mistaken him for someone else, but the tension builds as Luke realises that he is not the victim of a mistaken identity, but that someone is determined to kill him. He finds himself on the run, helped by a number of people, including the first man who tried to kill him. It seems the answers lie in his past. It is a complicated story that had me unsure of who Luke could trust and whether he would ever escape, or find out about his real family.
I thoroughly enjoyed this brilliant book with its interesting characters and a convincing plot full of mystery and intrigue. I shall now look out for more books by Mark Mills.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley, for review.
When Mata Hari arrived in Paris she was penniless.
Soon she was feted as the most elegant woman in the city.
A dancer who shocked and delighted audiences; a confidant and courtesan who bewitched the era’s richest and most powerful men.
But as paranoia consumed a country at war, Mata Hari’s lifestyle brought her under suspicion. Until, in 1917 she was arrested in her hotel room on the Champs Elysees and accused of espionage.
Told through Mata’s final letter, THE SPY tells the unforgettable story of a woman who dared to break the conventions of her time, and paid the price.
Before I read this book I didn’t know much about Mata Hari, beyond the facts that she was an exotic dancer and that she was executed as a spy during the First World War, so I was interested to know more.
The Spy is a gripping tale and one I read quickly, fascinated by the story of Mata Hari, whose real name was Margaretha Zella, a name she detested. The book begins with a prologue describing the execution of Mata Hari in Paris on 15 October 1917. It is quite remarkable; she was calm, taking care with dressing herself and with her appearance and choosing to face the firing squad neither bound nor blindfolded.
It continues with her life story told through letters and news clippings and illustrated with photographs. She was accused of being a double agent, but claimed she was innocent and the evidence against her was indeed flimsy. The whole procedure was based on deductions, extrapolations and assumptions. Whatever the truth about her innocence, she comes across as a strong-minded, independent and arrogant woman, who believed she could use her beauty and charm to allure any man to get what she wanted.
I always like to know when I’m reading fictionalised biographies how much is based on fact and what has been fictionalised, so I appreciated the author’s explanatory note at the end of the book. Coelho writes that he had based his novel on facts, but he had created some dialogue, merged certain scenes, changed the order of a few events and left out anything he thought wasn’t relative to the narrative. His opening pages, for example are from a report for the International News Service by Henry G Wales in Paris and dated October 15, 1917 and he has borrowed some verbatim language from the report. He has used various sources such as the British Intelligence Service file on Mata Hari.
In 2007 I read Eliza Graham’s debut novel, Playing with the Moon and loved it. I fully intended to read more of her books, but although I have her fifth book, The One I Was, I somehow missed the other three! So when I saw her latest book, Another Day Gone was available I was delighted to receive an advance copy through NetGalley.
I wasn’t disappointed – in fact I think it’s amongst the best books I’ve read this year.
It’s historical fiction, one of my favourite genres, beginning in 1939 just before the outbreak of the Second World War when a bomb went off in Coventry, killing some people and injuring many others. One of those injured was a girl who had seen a man prop a bicycle outside a store just before the bomb exploded. Her description led to his conviction and execution.
The action then moves forward to 1992 with Sara and her older sister Polly living in their family home in Oxfordshire on the banks of the Thames, with their grandfather and housekeeper (formerly their childhood nanny). The sisters’ parents had been killed in a car crash when they were very young. Polly is eighteen and is just about to leave home for university. All is not well and Polly hints that she knows a secret that she is not telling Sara – and then goes away with Michael, Bridie’s nephew, without saying where they are going or for how long.
Years later, in 2005 Sara returns to her family home, taking refuge from the London 7/7 bombings. Polly has now been missing for 13 years, their grandfather has died and Bridie is in a care home. The family secrets are still buried – until Polly returns!
Another Day Gone is a book about families, relationships and realising and living with the consequences of your actions. I loved the structure of this book with its different strands and time periods and all the twists and turns that kept me guessing about the nature of the secret that had remained hidden for so many years. I particularly liked the way it is only revealed drip by drip that meant I had changed my mind about what it was several times until fairly near the end of the book. The characters are so well drawn and sympathetically portrayed that I felt I knew them as people. It’s the type of book that I can get so involved with and whilst wanting to discover its secrets I just don’t want it to end.
Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester receives the commission of a lifetime when he is charged to navigate Alaska’s hitherto impassable Wolverine River, with only a small group of men. The Wolverine is the key to opening up Alaska and its rich natural resources to the outside world, but previous attempts have ended in tragedy.
Forrester leaves behind his young wife, Sophie, newly pregnant with the child he had never expected to have. Adventurous in spirit, Sophie does not relish the prospect of a year in a military barracks while her husband carves a path through the wilderness. What she does not anticipate is that their year apart will demand every ounce of courage and fortitude of her that it does of her husband.
I didn’t really know what to expect when I began reading To the Bright Edge of the World as I hadn’t read anything by Eowyn Ivey before (I see she has also written The Snow Childa Sunday Times bestseller and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize). I knew it was fiction but even so at first I wondered if it could be history, because it seemed so real with extracts from the reports, letters and journals of Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester, about his journey in 1885 from Perkins Island up the Wolverine River in Alaska. But the Author’s note reveals that the book was inspired by a historical military expedition and that all of the characters and many places in the story are fictionalised including the Wolverine River.
This is a lovely book, narrated through the journals not only of Allen Forrester, but also the diaries of his wife, Sophie. It begins with correspondence between Allen’s great nephew Walt (Walter) Forrester and Joshua Stone, the Exhibits Curator of the Alpine Historical Museum in Alaska about donating the writings and other material and artifacts to the museum. From then on these three strands of the book are interwoven and I was completely absorbed by each one – Allen’s expedition, Sophie’s life, pregnant and left on her own at Vancouver Barracks in Washington Territory and the letters between Walt and Joshua discussing the Forrester family history, the artifacts, and how life in Alaska changed after the expedition had opened up the area.
The facts of their lives make fascinating reading, demonstrating the difficulties and dangers of such a hazardous enterprise through unmapped and hostile territory as Allen travelled along the Wolverine River. Sophie’s story is equally fraught with difficulties left to cope with boredom and loneliness, the dangers of pregnancy and the antagonism of other women when she upset their social conventions. She takes up photography and I loved all the details of the early techniques of taking and developing photographs in the 1880s. As I read of her attempts to capture photos of birds, and especially a humming bird, I thought of the contrast between then and now – how we take digital photos with instant results and of wildlife programmes where the intimate life of birds is captured on film.
I also loved the mystic elements, the supernatural events that both Allen and Sophie experience, such as the raven and the mysterious old Indian man, the connection to folklore and the beautiful descriptions of the landscape. There are almost spiritual events that Ivey records without explanation that left me puzzling over what actually had happened and what they all meant.
And it is a book full of love, the love of Allen and Sophie and the love of the country, the landscape and its people. Although I said there are three strands to the book, as I read I moved between each one effortlessly, enjoying each one equally and from thinking it read like history, I soon realised it was a fictional story of great beauty, complete and whole, backed up by fact and elevated by Eowyn Ivey’s writing. I loved it.
Format: Kindle Edition
File Size: 6490 KB
Print Length: 433 pages
Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0316242853
Publisher: Tinder Press (2 Aug. 2016)
I received a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.
When I saw His Name was David Freeman by Ruth Kipnis in NetGalley’s Read Now section I thought it looked interesting and different from most of the other books I read. And it has an unusual cover.
With the sudden death of his father, seventeen-year-old David is forced to leave the security of the estate his father managed in Prussia in search of an uncle living near Kiev in the Ukraine. Carrying with him the dream of owning a grand farm of his own someday. Fate plays into his hands as he’s given the opportunity to immigrate to America taking with him his new bride. In telling his story to his granddaughter he relives the joys, the sorrows and the hardships of raising a family in a world strange to him.
Bewildered as the first generation rejects the old world customs and assimilates into the cultural, the story traces David’s family through the second and third generations from the 1880’s of the Russian Czars to 1960’s in America.
Raised in Northern California, Ruth developed a love for horses at an early age. She and her husband raised their family in Woodside, California where they participated in the local horse activities from horse shows to fox hunting.
Through a twist of fate they turned a hobby into a thriving business when they added a Thoroughbred Training Center to their already growing Thoroughbred broodmare operation.
After retiring Ruth and her husband spent two years aboard their boat, the Paradigm, sailing the waters of Mexico. Settling in Puerto Vallarta they returned to the States seven years later for medical reasons. They purchased a farm in South Carolina filling it with ex-race horses.
Writing came late in her varied career. Ruth believes all of us have some secret desire, be it to ride a bike, play a guitar, paint a picture, or in her case write a novel. Age should not dissuade anyone from the joy of following one’s bliss.
Seeing her stories in print, knowing people are enjoying what she has written she says is reward enough. All proceeds from the book are donated to charity.
Overall it is an enjoyable book – it’s a love story and a family drama.
In the author’s note Ruth Kipnis clarifies that this is a novel based on the author’s research into her family history. Her story mirrors the stories of so many impoverished and poorly educated farmers who had left the Ukraine in the late 1880s during the brutal reign of Czar Alexander III. ‘Whilst some failed, most by sheer will and hard work created a better, richer life than they had ever known.’
I loved the first part in which David tells his granddaughter Maya the story of his life. He was born in Prussia (later Poland) where his father worked on the estate of Count Frederic Von Zoransky. After his father’s death he went to live with his uncle in Grodov, a Shtetl (a small village) near Kiev in the Ukraine before emigrating to America in the late 1880s.
The details of his early life, the horrors of the voyage to America and the difficulties the immigrants encountered are vividly described, bringing the story to life. The family’s struggles against anti-semitism, prejudice and hardship are fascinating. When he and Miriam, his wife, arrived at Ellis Island he gave his name as ‘David Freeman’ because he couldn’t chance using his real name in case he was identified as an Army deserter. He’d made it to America as a free man.
I loved the descriptions of all the places in the book – I could see the hustle and bustle of Kiev, with its wide streets crowded with people and filled with fine horse drawn carriages. Similarly the farm in Connecticut that eventually David was able to buy with a loan from the Jewish Agricultural Society is described in fine detail.
Whilst I did like the second part of the book in which Maya brings the story of her family up to date through the Second World War and upto the 1960s, I didn’t find that it had the same level of drama and appeal as the first part. There are also a number of grammatical and typing errors throughout the book.
Sweet William by Beryl Bainbridge was first published in 1975. My thanks to the publishers, Open Road Media for a copy of this ebook edition, featuring an illustrated biography of Beryl Bainbridge including rare images from the author’s estate. It’s due to be released in the US on 29 November 2016.
Romantic comedy meets social satire in this delirious novel about sexual freedom versus British tradition in swinging 1960s London.
When dull professor Gerald leaves London for the United States, his fiancée, Ann, is a bit afraid and sad to see him go—never has he looked so handsome and masculine as when he’s about to board the plane. But a few days later at a religious service, Ann is beckoned to sit next to a stranger with yellow curls and a nose like a prizefighter’s. Her heart inexplicably begins to race; she feels like she has the flu. This stranger, William McClusky, tells Ann in his Scottish accent that he is a playwright who will be interviewed on TV the very next day. Furthermore, he promises to have a television dropped by her house so she can watch him! From this first bizarre seduction, Ann is infatuated, and in the days following, William begins to take over her life.
In the throes of the affair, Ann gives up her BBC job, helps a friend get an abortion, encourages adultery, and writes a break-up letter to her fiancé. Her engagement to Gerald had been rushed, after all, and was designed to serve her mother’s desires more than her own. With William, on the other hand, everything feels different. But is this new man really who he says he is? Is he a genius or a fraud, a compassionate soul or a cheater? Perhaps William is simply a means by which Ann can play out her dangerous fantasies and finally take part in the swinging sixties. Only one thing is certain: Now that she’s with him, there’s no turning back.
An ironic investigation into the art of self-deception and the repercussions of sexual freedom, this blend of black comedy and social satire showcases the wit of award-winning author Beryl Bainbridge, and affirms her status as a mainstay in twentieth-century British literature.
I really enjoyed this story of Ann, a young woman whose mother doesn’t approve of her permissive life-style. Ann left her claustrophobic home in Brighton to live in a rented flat in London. Soon after her fiance, Gerald, left for America, she meets William and falls in love with him. But William is fickle and married and Ann can’t resist him, he wraps her round his little finger and does just want he wants. Ann tries to get rid of him but although she knows he is a liar and a cheat, just like the other women in his life she is besotted with him.
It’s a simple story, simply told and immensely readable. I wanted Ann to come to her senses and see William for what he was and whilst I soon realised how it would end, I kept hoping that I was wrong. An emotional story that kept me glued to my Kindle, it’s clever, witty and most enjoyable.
Today is Remembrance Sunday, the closest Sunday to 11 November (Armistice Day), marking the anniversary of the end of the First World War in 1918. Remembrance Sunday is held to commemorate those who served the country in two world wars and in more recent conflicts. There will be the traditional two-minute silence at the Cenotaph on Whitehall at 11am today.
I think I should know more about the two world wars. There are many books and I’ve read some, mostly novels about the Second World War, but I haven’t read any military histories that go into the detail of the battles and the conditions the forces experienced. So when Victoria Richman emailed and asked me whether I would like to read Highlanders’ Revenge, a book that combines historical fiction and military history I accepted her offer. She is the co-author with her uncle, Paul Richman, writing under the pen name of ‘Paul Tors’. Paul is a retired business man with a passion for military history and Victoria, also known as Tors, is a Creative Writing graduate who worked on a number of magazines before becoming a freelance writer.
Highlanders’ Revengecombines a riotous story of battle and life during World War Two with an insight into the world of a little known, but fierce fighting unit; the 5thCamerons. This fast-paced historical novel will appeal to fans of military fiction who also appreciate historical accuracy.
Highlanders’ Revengetells the story of Mash, the nickname Highland soldiers give to an Englishman in their ranks. Scarred both from the retreat before the Blitzkrieg advance across France and from the murder of his first love, Mash has to integrate himself into a new section that is wary of the sullen and secretive ‘Mash Man’.
Together they journey to Egypt where they encounter a way of life that tests them to their limits as they prepare for one of the greatest battles of the Second World War; El Alamein. Scorched by day, frozen by night and plagued by insects, they have to learn how to live and fight in the desert as they prepare for one of the greatest battles of the Second World War. They are then cast into the thick of the fighting at El Alamein and the Allies’ tumultuous battle to break through the Axis defenses.
Highlanders’ Revenge is a meticulously researched and very detailed historical novel, about ‘Mash’, an Englishman in a Highland regiment, first as he fought with the 4th Camerons at St Valery in June 1940 during the Battle of France and then in the 5th Camerons at the second Battle of El Alamein between 23 October and 4 November 1942.
This novel vividly portrays the horror of war. I think it combines historical fiction and military history well and there is an extensive glossary at the end of the book that explains a lot of the terms that I hadn’t come across before. I learnt a great deal about World War Two, particularly about the second Battle of El Alamein. It brought home to me the devastating conditions that the troops encountered, not just the reality of war but the physical presence of the heat, the multitude of insects, the dust and the sand, and the almost constant dysentery.
There is an excellent Author’s Note explaining where the novel diverges from the historical record. The central characters are fictional, but the book is based on real events. There are also maps, a bibliography and as I mentioned an extensive glossary.
Highlanders’ Revenge is the first step in a journey that will take Mash through North Africa and the invasion of Sicily, onto the D-Day landings, the battles around Caen before the liberation of the Low Countries, the Battle of the Bulge and the crossing of the Rhine before ending the war in Bremen.
My thanks to the authors for a digital copy, via NetGalley.
Format: Kindle Edition – also available in paperback
Investigator Cal McGill uses his knowledge of tides, winds and currents to solve mysteries no-one else can.
Five years ago, fourteen-year-old Max Wheeler disappeared from a remote Scottish island. None of the six police and private investigations since have shed any light on what happened.
Unable to let go, Max’s family call in Call McGill. Known as The Sea Detective – hoping he’ll force the sea to give up its secrets. Yet Cal finds he is an outsider to a broken family, and an unwelcome stranger to a village that has endured years of suspicion.
Cal knows that a violent storm is approaching. But what he doesn’t know is that when it cuts off the island a killer will see their chance …
The Malice of Waves is the third book in Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective Mystery series and I think it is my favourite. It has an interesting opening scene as Cal sinks a dead pig into the sea off Priest’s Island (a fictional island) to try to work out where the tides, underwater currents and eddies might have taken Max’s body. It’s really a cold case enquiry and there is no new evidence to help him discover the truth. Each year on the anniversary of Max’s disappearance, his family hold a memorial service on the island. His father is convinced that the villagers are complicit in his son’s murder.
The Malice of Waves is just as much a story of the villagers as it is of the Wheeler family and the setting of Priest’s Island, beautifully described by Douglas-Hume, is also a major part of the book. The location came to life as I read the book, making it easy to visualise the scenes. It’s well written and easy to read, leading me effortlessly into the mystery. The police are also present on the island as DS Helen Jamieson is staying undercover in the village, helping Cal with his investigations. I like the insight into Helen’s unspoken feelings for Cal. Both her and Cal are strong, independent characters and the other characters are well depicted too.
Interwoven into the main story is ‘Pinkie’ Pyke’s story. He is a collector of birds’ eggs, but his interest is into rare erythristic bird eggs, those with pink or reddish colouring and there is a raven’s’ nest on the island.
The Malice of Waves is a fascinating book, not only an engrossing mystery, but also a study of the sea, of birds’ eggs (I had never heard of erythristic eggs before), of obsessions and of the way people cope, or don’t cope with grief. I loved it.
Reading challenges: Read Scotland – Mark Douglas-Home is a Scottish author.
Landscapes : John Berger on Art, edited by Tom Overton is a collection of essays by art critic, novelist, poet, and artist John Berger written over the past 60 plus years. However both the title and the cover art – a painting of a landscape – led me to think it would discuss landscapes. But I should have taken more note of this sentence in the blurb-‘Landscapes offers a tour of the history of art, but not as you know it.‘ It is definitely not art as I know it but it is a “landscape” of Berger’s thoughts on his life, on people and ideas that have influenced him, artists and authors that he liked and disliked, with very little in it about landscapes. There are essays on his life, people, ideology, philosophy and on art history and theory about the nature and meaning of art.
Having said that there are sections that I liked and enjoyed, such as the chapters on The Ideal Critic and the Fighting Critic and on Cubism. Knowing next to nothing about cubism and not liking the cubist paintings I have seen, I think I now understand what the artists were attempting, moving away from art that imitated nature to their representation of reality on a two dimensional plane to portray a more complex image of reality.
I am obviously not the target audience for this book!
Arrowood promised a lot – a mystery set in a creepy old house, called Arrowood, in Keokuk, Iowa, one of the grand houses that line the Mississippi River. Arden Arrowood’s little twin sisters had disappeared from the house when Arden was eight and they were four. Arden had last seen them in the back of a gold coloured car driven away from the house. But their bodies had never been found and no evidence had been found to convict the owner of the car, Harold Singer. Seventeen years after her grandfather’s death Arden inherits the family home and returns, determined to discover what had actually happened to her sisters.
It had all the elements that should have made this story very spooky and full of psychological suspense – ghostly sounds, creaky floorboards, voices coming from the walls and bath water seeping from under the bath. But yet, I didn’t find it scary. As the family secrets are slowly revealed, drip fed through flashbacks, and the unreliability of memory surfaced I felt the tension ooze out of the book.
It’s a shame because at first the tension is great, the atmosphere convincing and the characters clearly formed. I like the historical aspects – the connection with the Underground Railway (used in the 19th century by slaves escaping from the southern states) – and the descriptive writing about the setting in Iowa, together with the sense of nostalgia for the time and place Arden had left behind. As a character study it worked very well but as a psychological and suspense filled novel it fell short for me. An enjoyable read nevertheless.
Format: Kindle Edition
File Size: 2294 KB
Print Length: 278 pages
Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1780891938
Publisher: Cornerstone Digital (11 Aug. 2016)
Source: review copy
Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for giving me access to an advance copy.
The Blood Card by Elly Griffiths is the third in the DI Stephens and Max Mephisto series. Known as the ‘Magic Men’ they had been part of a top-secret espionage unit during the War.
This book captures the atmosphere of 1953 – a time of great change and optimism. Britain is looking forward with eager anticipation to the new Queen’s coronation. The newspapers and newsreels are full of it and more than half the homes in the country have bought a television in order to watch the coronation live- it was the first British coronation to be broadcast on television, a momentous occasion. But there are fears that an anarchist group is plotting to disrupt the coronation.
Max, a magician, and his daughter Ruby, also a magician, are preparing for a TV Coronation Variety show, whilst Edgar is leading the investigation into death of Madame Zabini, a gypsy fortune teller, on Brighton pier. However, when their former war-time commander is murdered both Edgar and Max are instructed to investigate his death. A playing card, the ace of hearts had been found on his body, next to the knife still in his chest. Magicians call it the ‘blood card‘.
Whilst Max investigates the show business connection, Edgar flies to the States to interview a witness who has links to an anarchist group, leaving Sergeant Emma Holmes to look into Madame Zabini’s death. At first it looked as though she had committed suicide when her body had been found washed up near the Palace Pier but Emma suspects it was not an accident or suicide. As the investigations progress it appears there may be a connection between the two deaths and also links to the plot to disrupt the coronation.,
I loved the way this book is so firmly set in 1953, and conveys the public’s excitement about the new Queen and the coronation, especially as it was being broadcast live on television. I enjoyed the insight into the history of television as Max is sceptical about performing magic on TV thinking the ‘smug grey box’ will be the death of the days of music hall, that magic tricks needed to be performed on stage not in close up with a camera over his shoulder. But he is persuaded to take part in a new show after the coronation – Those were the Days ( that is The Good Old Days). And I also liked the character progression as Edgar and Max continue their friendship. Edgar is engaged to Ruby, although Max is not too happy about it. And Edgar appears to be unaware of Emma’s feelings for him. How this will end is yet to be resolved.
The Blood Card is a most entertaining book, with a convincing cast of characters. The mystery is expertly handled, with plenty of suspense and lots of twists and turns as the separate plot strands are intricately woven together. I loved it.
Thanks Quercus Books and Netgalley for an advance review copy of this book ahead of publication on 3rd November.
Margaret Drabble’s latest book, The Dark Flood Rises explores the ending of life, the nature of aging, and life and death. But it is by no means depressing or morbid. It’s told from a number of viewpoints, centring around Fran (Francesca) Stubbs, set against a backdrop of rising floods in Britain and in the Canaries, both of the influx of immigrantsarriving by boat to the Canaries from Africa and of the effect of the tremor off the small Canary Island of El Hierro on the tides.The ‘dark flood ‘ is also used to refer to the approach of death.
Fran, now in her seventies, is an expert on housing for the elderly. She keeps herself very busy, acting as a carer of sorts and cooking meals for her ex-husband Claude, and travelling around the country attending conferences on care for the elderly. She visits old friends and her daughter in the West Country. She keeps in touch with her son, Christopher, as he deals with the sudden death of Sara, his girlfriend, and is visiting friends in Lanzarote.
But this book is not plot-focused – it ponders the questions of what is a ‘good’ or even an ‘heroic’ death, the morality of suicide and in contrast the desire for the human race to go on living at all costs. It focuses on personal relationships, on love, on the vagaries of memory, on the ordinary, everyday aspects of life and on the ‘heroism’ needed for old age.
I liked it very much. It’s densely layered, thought provoking and moving. It’s a book to re-read.
And, incidentally I was intrigued to find that the pop artist, Pauline Boty who is mentioned in the last book I read, Autumn by Ali Smith, is also mentioned in The Dark Flood Rises when Sara’s death reminds Christopher of Boty who had died at the early age of twenty-eight.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher, Canongate Books, for letting me have an advance copy. The Dark Flood Rises is due to be published on 3 November 2016.
Autumn is the first of Ali Smith’s books I’ve read and at first I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The blurb attracted me – it describes it as ‘a breathtakingly inventive new novel, a meditation on a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, on what harvest means.‘ I didn’t find it ‘breathtaking’ but I did enjoy it.
I liked the beginning which begins with a stream of consciousness as Daniel Gluck, a very old man, ponders his life and his approaching death. The main focus of Autumn is the relationship between Daniel and Elisabeth Demand who first met when Elisabeth was a child and moved into the house next door to Daniel’s. We see their friendship at various stages in their lives throughout the book.
As I expected from the blurb Autumn is not a straightforward story, so whilst I wanted to know more about the Daniel and Elisabeth story I was quite happy to diverge from their story through the different sections about a variety of different themes from death, aging, love and of course autumn.
I liked the wordplay and references to many other books from Dickens to Shakespeare, the details about Christine Keeler and the Profumo Affair, the life, work and death of the pop artist Pauline Boty, and the accurate and amusing accounts of the frustrations of everyday life such as those describing Elisabeth’s attempts to renew her passport.
It’s both poignant and cutting in its look at modern life, how we got to where we are, and the mood of the country post-Brexit (that word is never mentioned) – the confusion and the misery and rejoicing, the insanity, and the division. It’s a remarkable book.
Autumn is the first installment in Ali Smith’s novel quartet Seasonal: four standalone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as the seasons are), exploring what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take and in our ways with narrative.
Ali Smith was born in Inverness in 1962. She is the author of Free Love and Other Stories, Like, Other Stories and Other Stories, Hotel World, The Whole Story and Other Stories, The Accidental, Girl Meets Boy, The First Person and Other Stories, There but for the, Artful, How to be both, and Public library and other stories. Hotel World was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize and The Accidental was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Orange Prize. How to be both won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Goldsmiths Prize and the Costa Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Folio Prize. Ali Smith lives in Cambridge.
Format: Kindle Edition
File Size: 5464 KB
Print Length: 243 pages
Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0241207010
Publisher: Penguin (20 Oct. 2016)
I received a copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley, for review.
The Plague Charmer is a fascinating medieval tale full of atmosphere and superstition. It’s a long but an unputdownable book, bringing the medieval world to life in all its brutality and hardship. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I received an uncorrected proof copy of this, her latest novel, from Lovereading. The book is set in Porlock Weir in 1361 where a village is isolated by the plague when the Black Death spreads once more across England. Following an eclipse of the sun, as a storm rages along the coast, a ship is blown ashore bringing a dark stranger, Janiveer, to the village. She warns the villagers that the plague, raging in other parts of the country will soon spread to their village and offers to save them – but for a terrible price.
It’s a complex story, told from different characters’ perspectives, following the lives of Will, a ‘fake’ dwarf, Sara, a packhorse man’s wife and her family, Matilda, a religious zealot, and Christina at nearby Porlock Manor amongst others. It’s a tale of folklore, black magic, superstition, violence, torture, murder, and an apocalyptic cult – and also of love. As the plague spreads and more horrendous deaths pile up bringing fear and hysteria, families are broken up, and hostilities surface as the village is isolated, left to fend alone.
I thought Will a fascinating character. He was not born a dwarf, but was subjected to horrific treatment as a baby, strapped into an iron bridle, compressed and deformed as he grew to form a squat little dwarf. He is remarkably free of bitterness and capable of more humanity than most of the other characters. Sara, too shows strength of character as she perseveres in her search for her two missing sons.
I like the Historical Notes, providing more detailed information about the period, the people and the location, as well as the legends, and the answers to the medieval riddles that head Will’s chapters. I particularly like the information about the plague and the various religious cults of the period. The Glossary is also invaluable, helping to flesh out the detail.
The Plague Charmer is a superb combination of historical fact and fiction. I really enjoyed reading this detailed and chillingly dark atmospheric book. It’s a memorable story with a colourful cast of characters, full of suspense and drama.
My thanks to Headline for also providing a proof copy via NetGalley.
As I loved On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin I was keen to read The Songlines when the publishers, Open Road Integrated Media, asked if I’d like to read and review this e-book edition. It includes an illustrated biography of Bruce Chatwin including rare images and never-before-seen documents from the author’s estate. The Songlines was originally published in 1987.
It’s set in Australia exploring the ‘Songlines’, the labyrinth of invisible pathways which cross and re-cross Australia, ‘known to Europeans as ‘Dreaming-tracks’ or ‘Songlines’; to the Aboriginals as the Footprints of the Ancestors’ or the ‘Way of the Law’.
On the one hand this is a fascinating account of Chatwin’s visit to Australia to find out about the Songlines and the myths of the legendary totemic beings who sang the world into existence as they wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime. It’s an account of Chatwin’s exploration of the Songlines, in the company of a Russian, Arkady Volchek who was mapping these sacred sites for a railway company so that they could work round the Songlines rather than obliterating them with the railroad.
On the other hand it is much more than that – and this is where I found the book a bit difficult – in the middle of his account of his travels Chatwin throws in a whole hodge-podge of ideas, quotations from numerous writers and philosophers, travel notes, speculations on the origins of life and anecdotes all thrown into the mix before he gets back to writing about his travels and the people he met. I marked lots of passages in the section ‘From the Notebooks‘, particularly on the subject of walking – for example:
Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it … but by sitting still, and the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill … Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.
Søren Kierkegaarde, letter to Jette (1847)
and on nomads and the nomadic life:
Psychiatrists, politicians, tyrants are forever assuring us that the wandering life is an aberrant form of behaviour; a neurosis; a form of unfulfilled sexual longing; a sickness which, in the interests of civilisation must be suppressed. …
Yet in the East, they still preserve the once universal concept: that wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe.
The Songlines contains beautiful descriptions of the Australian landscape such as this:
A pair of rainbows hung across the valley between the two mountains. The cliffs of the escarpment, which had been a dry red were now a purplish-black and striped like a zebra, with vertical chutes of white water. The cloud seemed even denser than the earth, and beneath its lower rim, the last of the sun broke through, flooding the spinifex with shafts of pale light.
I really don’t know whether this book fits into any particular genre. Chatwin was an author, a novelist and a travel writer – a skilled storyteller. It seems to me that this book combines all these forms of writing. I enjoyed both the account of Chatwin’s experiences in Australia and the long and loosely connected middle section of the book, but would have preferred these to stand on their own rather than be combined in one book.
My thanks to Open Road Integrated Media for a review copy via NetGalley.
This story follows the struggles of a farm labourer in North-East England. The series began with the novel, ‘Tom Fleck’, in which we followed Tom’s adventures, loves, and troubles in the year 1513, the year of the Battle of Flodden. The present book re-enters his life twenty-three years later in 1536, in the dark year of the dissolution of the monasteries and the subsequent rebellion known as ‘The Pilgrimage of Grace’. Tom is on a journey with his wife and blind daughter and must travel through the chaos.
Once again I was transported back to the 16th century with Tom Fleck and his family, this time it is 1536. He now has grown-up sons, Francis and Isaac, both at sea, part of the crew of the Plenty under Captain Ben Hood, a daughter of seventeen, Kate, who is blind and twins aged 15. Tom is now a farmer, living for the past twenty years at Crimond Hall on the Durham coast. As Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries begins Tom and Rachel, his wife, together with their daughter Kate set out for London to visit a lawyer as Rachel has been bequeathed five hundred gold sovereigns in her father’s friend’s will.
As the blurb indicates their journey is not without danger, bringing them into contact with the rebels led by Robert Aske (a real historical character who led the Pilgrimage of Grace protest). Tom’s sons, Francis and Isaac are also in trouble as the Plenty runs aground on the Goodwin Sands in the Dover Straits, encounters a ‘plague ship’, a grounded Portuguese caravel with just one man and a dog left on on board, and engages battle with Barbary pirates from North Africa.
The Black Caravel is a fascinating story about ordinary people set against the background of national affairs and how it affects their lives, for example one character refers to ‘poor Anne Boleyn what’s got no head‘ and he thinks that Richard of York was the true King, not Henry VIII. I was immersed in the time and place – the landscape, the bird sounds, the plants and animals, the towns and the seascape are all beautifully described; for example this passage describing the scene as the fog over the Goodwins lifted:
The fog shifted. Then swirled. Driven before a freshening breeze the murk swept away to the northeast. The shore boat approached the grounded Plenty in bright noon sun. In the shallows around her, the sea was a burnished duck-egg green. Farther out, the surface glowed steel-bright and sparkled with a million ripples. The drying sandbanks threw back white light, fierce to the eyes.
An urgent shout came from the Plenty. The rowers bent harder. A hoard of dark shapes undulated across the sandbank. The seals bugled in alarm while they jostled to plunge into the sea. A flock of pied birds lifted in panic before the approach of men who ran full tilt armed with crossbows and spears. The oystercatchers flew overhead, bleating. Urgent hands reached over the side to heave the heavy captain onto the deck of the cog.(page 59)
There is so much packed in this short novel, reflecting the way of life and the attitudes of the times such as the religious fervour as England broke away from Rome, the ways of treating illness (Kate is blind as a result of a blow to her head) and the anti-semitism that prevailed. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
My thanks to Harry Nicholson for sending me a copy to read and review.
Paperback: 188 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (30 Aug. 2016)
Accidents Happen is one of my TBR e-books that I’ve had for a couple of years. It’s described as a ‘gripping psychological thriller where one woman’s streak of bad luck may be something far more sinister’, so I thought it would be just the right sort of book to read for this year’s R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XI.
It begins well with a strange, scary episode about a child waking up to the sight of something slithering, full of threat, not sure what it was but terrified as it was angry with a gaping mouth revealing a tiny white spot, where the poison came from.
Episodes like this are interspersed between the chapters of the story, each one more terrifying than the rest. These are actually much more scary than the main story, which is about Kate, a widow and her young son Jack.
Kate Parker has had so much bad luck in her life, she’s convinced she’s cursed. But when she tries to do her best to keep herself and her son safe, people tell her she’s being anxious and obsessive.
Just when her life starts to spin completely out of control, an Oxford professor she meets offers to help. But his methods are not conventional. If she wants to live her life again, he will expect her to take risks.
When a mysterious neighbour starts to take more than a passing interest in her, Kate tries to stay rational and ignore it.
Maybe this, however, is the one time Kate should be worried.
Kate’s husband had died 5 years before the book starts and Kate is obsessed with statistics, so much so that they are now ruling her life – statistics about all the things that go wrong, or could go wrong. And this is preventing her from living a normal life – the lengths she goes to are extreme and they are affecting her Jack, her son. As readers we know that some of Kate’s fears are real, but she doesn’t focus on those, although they do bother her. I began to feel something was wrong. And when she met Jago, an Oxford professor my feelings intensified – there was definitely something suspicious going on. Why was he getting her to take such risks and putting herself into such strange situations?
At first I was enjoying this book – it’s very readable, although the concentration on Kate’s fears got a bit repetitive – but increasingly as I read on I just couldn’t believe what was happening. For me the tension that had been building up just disappeared. I didn’t think it was plausible and I couldn’t suspend my disbelief.
I think I’m in the minority about this book as it has more favourable reviews on both Amazon and Goodreads.
I’m so glad I read Joyland by Stephen King – it’s so good.
I nearly didn’t buy it, put off by the cover (you should never judge a book by its cover!) and by the publishers, Hard Case Crime – it was the word ‘hard‘ that really made me pause, especially when I looked at their site and saw they publish ‘the best in hardboiled crime fiction‘. Not being quite sure just what ‘hard boiled crime fiction‘ is, I looked it up. This is Encyclopædia Britannica‘s definition:
Hard-boiled fiction, a tough, unsentimental style of American crime writing that brought a new tone of earthy realism or naturalism to the field of detective fiction. Hard-boiled fiction used graphic sex and violence, vivid but often sordid urban backgrounds, and fast-paced, slangy dialogue.
Not my sort of book, at all! But it’s by Stephen King and I like his books, so I did buy it. It’s not ‘hard boiled fiction‘ as defined above. The only way it fits that definition is that there is a lot of slang in it – ‘carny’ slang, which King explains in his Author’s Note is what he calls in this book ‘the Talk‘. It is ‘carnival lingo, an argot both rich and humorous’. So not ‘hard boiled’ at all!
Joyland is a ghost story, a love story, a story of loss and heartbreak. It’s also a murder mystery and utterly compelling to read.
It’s narrated by Devin Jones, looking back forty years at the time he was a student, suffering from a broken heart, as his girlfriend had just rejected him and he spent a summer working at Joyland, in North Carolina, an amusement park with ‘a little of the old-time carny flavor‘.
Along with various rides, ‘Happy Hounds’, and a palm-reader, there is the Horror House, a ‘spook’ house which is said to be haunted by the ghost of Linda Gray, whose boyfriend cut her throat in the Horror House. The boyfriend had not been found and it appears he may be a serial killer as there had been four other similar murders in Georgia and the Carolinas.
It’s also a story of friendship, of Tom and Erin, of children with the ‘sight’, a young boy in a wheelchair and his mother, and Dev’s search for the killer.
I loved the setting of the funfair, Dev’s nostalgia for his youth, his sensitivity, and the images the story evokes – it’s not just the story but the way King tells his tale, with just a touch of horror and the supernatural.
Who knows – maybe I should read some more of Hard Case Crime’s publications!
I previously enjoyed The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz, so when I saw Magpie Murders on NetGalley I was keen to read it and delighted when I received an uncorrected proof. I think it is an outstanding book by a master story-teller, with a wonderfully intricate plot. It’s a prime example of a puzzle-type of crime fiction combining elements of the vintage-style golden age crime novel with word-play and cryptic clues and allusions to Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s also a novel within a novel, with mystery piled upon mystery. I loved it.
The outer story and the contemporary mystery is that of Alan Conway, the author of the Atticus Pünd Mysteries. His editor, Susan Ryeland is reading a manuscript of his latest novel Magpie Murders, expecting to enjoy it as much as his earlierbooks, even though she really couldn’t stand Conway himself. What she wasn’t prepared for is that this book would change her life.
The inner story, that told in Conway’s novel is a whodunnit, a murder mystery full of twists and turns with plenty of red herrings. I was enjoying it as much as Susan as she read of the death of Mary Blakiston in the little village of Saxby-on-Avon in 1955. Mary was an unpleasant character. She had been found dead at the bottom of the stairs at Pye Hall where she was the cleaner for the owner, Sir Magnus Pye. It appeared that she had tripped and fallen down the stairs.Then Magnus is also found dead, but this was obviously murder as he had been beheaded.
So back to the outer story. When Susan came to the end of the manuscript she found it wasn’t finished – there was no denouement. And she couldn’t contact Conway to get the final chapters of the book and then she discovered that he was dead. So, she sets out to find the missing chapters and in so doing discovers even more mysteries – was Conway’s death an accident, suicide or murder? Like Mary Blakiston in his novel, he was not a popular man, and there are a number of other parallels between his novel and his real life.
Magpie Murders is a really satisfying read, with believable characters, set in beautifully described locations, tantalisingly mysterious and so, so readable. I also particularly liked the use of the rhyme of ‘One for Sorrow’ in the chapter headings of Conway’s novel in the same way that Agatha Christie used ryhmes in some of her books. It’s quite long, but the pages sped by as I was drawn into both stories and keen to find the answers to all the questions all the mysteries it had posed.
Many thanks to NetGalley and the publishers Orion Books for an ARC.
The Black Friar by S G MacLean is one of those books that has the power to transport me to another time and place. I was totally absorbed, convinced I was back in England in the 17th century.
It is the second book in the Damian Seeker series, historical crime fiction set in 1655 during the Interregnum under Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector. Damian Seeker, Captain of Cromwell’s Guard, works for Thurloe, Cromwell’s Chief Secretary and spy master, in charge of the security of the regime. It’s a complex mystery, particularly as there are various factions and religious sects plotting rebellion against Cromwell.
A body, presumed by his black robe to be that of a Dominican friar, is found bricked up in a wall in Blackfriars, once a monastery and now a derelict building gradually falling into the River Fleet. But this was no friar, as Seeker recognised him as Carter Blyth one of Thurloe’s undercover agents, who had been working in the Netherlands, observing the Royalists colluding with foreign powers. As far as Seeker knew he had been killed in Delft three months earlier. Seeker’s task is to find why he had been killed and who killed him. He discovers that Blyth under Thurloe’s orders had in fact infiltrated a group of Fifth Monarchists who wanted to overthrow Cromwell and had been living with the Crowe family, members of the group, under the name of Gideon Fell.
It’s a complicated and intricate tale as Seeker, helped by Nathaniel Crowe, tries to discover what Blyth had been doing, and what trail he was following. There are missing children, whose whereabouts Blyth had been investigating, and plots to overthrow Cromwell as well as plots to reinstate Charles Stuart as King.
Although The Black Friar is the second book in the series, (the first is The Seeker, which I haven’t read) I think it works well as a stand-alone book. The characterisation is strong and I particularly like Damian Seeker, a man both respected and feared, and a man to trust.
I also like the way S G MacLean has based her book on solid historical research (she has an M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Aberdeen) and weaves real historical figures into the story, such as the poet John Milton, now an old blind man, the Secretary of Foreign Tongues and the diarist Samuel Pepys, an Exchequer clerk, who though very personable was ‘prone to drink and some lewdness.’ It all brings to life the atmosphere and tenor of the 1650s. I loved it.
My thanks to Netgalley and Quercus books for my copy of this book. It is due to be published on 6 October.
I’ve recently read The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge and I enjoyed it immensely.
It is the story of two unlikely friends, Freda and Brenda. Their relationship is the central focus of this book – it’s basically a friendship of convenience as they are complete opposites. Their backgrounds and personalities are very different. They met by chance in a butcher’s shop, where Brenda having left her drunken brute of a husband and a mad mother-in-law was in floods of tears. They share a room and work together in an Italian wine factory in London, gluing labels onto the bottles. Freda is sixteen stone, with blonde hair and blue eyes, Brenda has reddish shoulder-length stringy hair, with a long thin face and short sighted eyes who never looks properly at people. The difference between them is epitomised in Bainbridge’s description,
At night when they prepared for bed Freda removed all her clothes and lay like a great fretful baby, majestically dimpled and curved. Brenda wore her pyjamas and her underwear and a tweed coat.
Brenda desperately tries to escape the the amorous attentions of Rossi, the factory manager – as Freda says Brenda is a born victim, who’s asking for trouble. But it’s not just Brenda who runs into trouble. Freda, who is in love with Vittorio, the trainee manager and nephew of the factory owner, organises a factory outing in the hope that she can seduce him, but the outing goes from bad to worse.The van arranged to take them to a stately home fails to turn up so only those who can fit into two cars set off, then there are fights at Windsor Castle, and a bizarre visit to a safari park. Passions rise, tempers flare, barrels of wine are consumed and it ends in violence and tragedy.
The book begins as a comedy, but then continues with an uneasy undercurrent as the outing gets under way before descending into a dark tragedy that is surreal and farcical and also desperately sad. Beryl Bainbridge’s writing, so easily readable, is rich in descriptions. The book is superbly paced; the tension rises in an atmosphere of seediness, and frustration, before reaching an unbelievable and grotesque climax. I had no idea how Bainbridge could draw this story to an end and was completely taken by surprise at the bizarre twist at the end, which I thought was brilliant. It’s savagely funny, full of pathos, touching moments, frustrations, shame, stress and unhappiness, all combining to make this a most entertaining book.
Beryl Bainbridge (1932 – 2010) was made a Dame in 2000. She wrote 18 novels, three of which were filmed, two collections of short stories, several plays for stage and television, and many articles, essays, columns and reviews. Five of her novels were nominated for the Booker Prize, but none of them won it. Years ago before I began writing BooksPlease I read two of her books, historical novels, one being According to Queenie, published in 1999, a novel about the life of Samuel Johnson as seen through the eyes of Queeney, Mrs Thrale, and the other Master Georgie, published in 1998, set in the Crimean War telling the story of George Hardy, a surgeon.
Since then I have read three more of her books and loved each one – A Quiet Life, published in 1976, a semi-autobiographical novel, using her own childhood and background as source material; An Awfully Big Adventure, another semi-autobiographical novel set in 1950, based on Beryl Bainbridge’s own experience as an assistant stage manager in a Liverpool theatre, published in 1989 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize; and The Birthday Boys, a novel about Captain Scott’s last Antarctic Expedition, published in 1991.
The Bottle Factorywas inspired by Beryl Bainbridge’s experience working part time in a bottle factory in 1959. It was first published in 1974 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in that year.
Thanks to the publishers, Open Road Integrated Media, via NetGalley for my copy of this ebook edition, featuring an illustrated biography of Beryl Bainbridge including rare images from the author’s estate. It’s due to be released in the US on 4 October.
I’ve read a few of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie books, which I enjoyed – but not any of his 44 Scotland Street novels. So when I saw Sunshine on Scotland Street in the library, going off the blurb on the back cover, I thought it would be a change from the crime fiction and historical novels I’ve been reading recently.
From the back cover:
Scotland Street witnesses the wedding of the century of Angus Lordie to Domenica Macdonald, but as the newlyweds depart on honeymoon Edinburgh is in disarray. Recovering from the trauma of being best man, Matthew is taken up by a Dane called Bo, while Cyril eludes his dog-sitter and embarks on an odyssey involving fox-holes and the official residence of a cardinal. Narcissist Bruce meets his match in the form of a sinister doppelganger; Bertie, set up by his mother for fresh embarrassment at school, yearns for freedom; and Big Lou goes viral. But the residents of Scotland Street rally, and order – and Cyril – is restored by the combined effects of understanding, kindness, and, most of all, friendship.
Even though I haven’t read the seven books before this one I had no difficulty in following the storylines, although it is obvious that the characters all have backstories and previous relationships that are hinted at in this book. In a way it’s very like the Isabel Dalhousie books as the action is interspersed with McCall Smith’s philosophical and ethical musings, his thoughts about human nature and relationships, which in general I liked more than the story.
It begins with an amusing account of the preparations for Angus and Domenica’s wedding, which Angus seems to think will just happen without much preparation by him – a hole in his kilt, his lack of a ring, and he has given no thought at all about where to go for thier honeymoon. But his bestman, Matthew helps him sort out the kilt and ring problem and Domenica has arranged both the reception and the honeymoon.
After that Angus and Domenica disappear from the book until the last chapter, leaving Cyril, Angus’s dog in the care of the Pollock family, the insufferable Irene, her long-suffering husband, Stuart, 6 year-old son Bertie and baby Ulysses. Cyril and Bertie are my favourite characters in the book and their ‘adventures’ caused me much concern, as Irene does not like Cyril and stifles both Bertie and Stuart. In fact I wasn’t too bothered about any of the other characters, apart from Bertie’s spindly-legged friend from cub scouts, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson and his mother who has no difficulty in putting Irene firmly in her place.
This is an easy read, meandering from one character to the next. It has a light, humorous tone that I enjoyed, along with thoughts about friendship, religion, spirituality and happiness. At the end as Angus looks round the group of people gathered for their homecoming party it strikes him that they are an ‘infinitely precious band of souls’:
And this realisation that he had was not specifically religious – although it could easily and appropriately be that. It was, rather, a spiritual notion – the idea that each of us, even the least of us, has a rich hinterland of value behind us: the lives we have led, the thoughts we have had, the love we have given and received – the little things of our lives that may not mean much to others unless and until they are granted the insight that brings love into the heart, sudden, exalting love. To see another as a soul was to acknowledge the magnifcent, epic course that life is for each of us, and to experience sympathy for the other in his or her negotiation of that course. It was quite different from seeing others simply as people. (pages 294 – 295)
Agatha Christie is one of my favourite authors. I first began reading her books when I was in my teens but it was in 2008 when Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise launched the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge that I began to read my way through all her books. There are 66 mystery and detective novels and numerous collections of short stories. In February of this year I completed my reading of her 66 mystery and detective novels and some but not all of her short stories.
The Short Stories
There is some confusion over how many short stories Agatha Christie wrote. The Agatha Christie website records that she wrote 150 stories, whereas Wikipedia records that she wrote 153 short stories, published in 14 collections in the UK and in the US. By my reckoning she wrote 157 short stories, published in a number of collections, but I may have included duplications as some stories were published under different names in the US Collections. I’m hoping that as I read the stories the actual number will become clear. For my list of her short stories see my Agatha Christie Short Stories Page.
But whatever the real total may be there can be no doubt that it is an impressive collection of stories originally published in several magazines and then in a number of collections. They do vary in quality, some are very short, almost skeletal, with the puzzle element given greater emphasis than characterisation.The first collection of her short stories, Poirot Investigates was published in 1924, when Agatha Christie was 34.
As today’s topic in this Blogathon is dedicated to anything about or by Agatha Christie not related either to Poirot or Miss Marple this post is about one collection of short stories:
The Mysterious Mr Quin
This was first published in 1930 featuring Mr Harley Quin and Mr Satterthwaite. This is my favourite of her collections, containing some of her very best short stories.
In her Autobiography Agatha Christie said these stories were her favourites too. The stories were not written as a series, but one at a time at intervals of three or four months or longer and were first published in magazines. They are set in the 1920s and have a paranormal element to them, as well as a touch of romance. I found them all most entertaining.
In the Foreword she describes Mr Quin as:
… a figure invisible except when he chose, not quite human, yet concerned with the affairs of human beings and particularly of lovers. He is also the advocate for the dead.
Mr Satterthwaite, who was in his sixties, a little man, with an elf-like face, is Mr Quin’s friend:
Mr Satterthwaite, the gossip, the looker-on at life, the little man who without ever touching the depths of joy and sorrow himself, recognizes drama when he sees it, and is conscious that he has a part to play.
The titles are
1. The Coming of Mr. Quin
2. The Shadow on the Glass
3. At the “Bells and Motley”
4. The Sign in the Sky
5. The Soul of the Croupier
6. The Man from the Sea
7. The Voice in the Dark
8. The Face of Helen
9. The Dead Harlequin
10. The Bird with the Broken Wing
11. The World’s End
12. Harlequin’s Lane
In the opening story, The Coming of Mr Quin, Mr Satterthwaite first meets him on New Year’s Eve, at a house party when talk had turned to the suicide of Mr Capel, the man who had originally owned the house. The enigmatic Mr Quin, a tall, slender man, appears in the doorway. The light shining through the stained glass above the door makes it appear that he is dressed in every colour of the rainbow but when he moves the effect fades and Mr Satterthwaite can see that he is dressed conventionally. Whenever he appears in the stories, some trick of the light initially produces the same effect. Mr Quin subtly steers Mr Satterthwaite into discovering the truth behind Mr Capel’s suicide.
In the following eleven stories Harley Quin always appears unexpectedly and suddenly, and then just as suddenly disappears, having influenced Mr Satterthwaite to change people’s lives, and solve mysteries by producing clues and asking pointed questions, making the solution obvious. He is, without doubt, the most mysterious and unusual character in all of Agatha Christie’s books.
One of my favourite stories is The Man From The Sea. Mr Satterthwaite, who is a wealthy man, althought the source of his wealth is not revealed, is on a Mediterranean island. Walking along the cliffs he meets Anthony Cosden, about to leap to his death. He’d been planning to do so the previous evening but had been prevented when he’d met someone else at the edge of the cliff – a mysterious man in fancy dress, ‘ a kind of Harlequin rig‘. Anthony reveals he only had six months to live and doesn’t want a lingering end and in any case he has no one in the world belonging to him – if only he had a son …
Mr Satterthwaite next meets a woman in black in the quiet garden of what seems to be an empty house. The woman asks him if he would like to see inside the house and clearly needs someone to talk to, someone to hear the tragic story of her life. It’s a touching story of remorse and the desire to make amends.
Mr Quin’s role in this and in other stories is to help Mr Satterthwaite to see beneath the surface, to see things in a different light. At the end he takes his leave, and all Mr Satterthwaite see is his friend walking towards the edge of the cliff.
The final story, Harlequin’s Lane is another bittersweet tale of lost love and fate and rather eerie. Mr Satterthwaite goes to visit a married couple, the Denmans, who live at Ashmead, on Harlequin’s Lane. Mrs Denman is a Russian refugee whom John Denman had married after escaping Russia on the outbreak of the revolution.
They are out when he arrives and he takes a walk down the Lane, wondering about its name and was not surprised when he meets his elusive friend, Harley Quin, who tells him the Lane belongs to him; it’s a Lovers’ Lane. It ends at waste ground covered with a rubbish heap where they meet Molly who is to be Pierrette in the masquerade the Denmans have planned for the weekend. A car accident interrupts the arrangments injuring some of the dancers, until Mr Satterthwaite intervenes, but still tragedy strikes. Mr Quin, seems to have cast a magical air of unreality over Mr Satterthwaite:
Mr Satterthwaite quailed. Mr Quin seemed to have loomed to enormous proportions … Mr Satterthwaite had a vista of something at once menacing and terrifying … Joy, Sorrow, Despair.
And his comfortable little soul shrank back appalled.
Truly a mystifying collection of stories. I enjoyed it immensely.
Tommy and Tuppence Beresford first appeared in Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary (first published in 1922) when they had just met up after World War One, both in their twenties. Their next appearance is in Partners in Crime, a collection of short stories, first published in 1929.
Life has become a little dull, especially for Tuppence. Tommy works for the Secret Service but wants to see more action, so when Tommy’s boss Mr Carter offers them both a new assignment they jump at the opportunity. It’s to take over for six months the running of the International Detective Agency under the name of Mr Theodore Blunt. It had been a front for Bolshevist-spying activity and in particular they were to look out for blue letters with a Russian stamp on them. They were also free to undertake any other detective work that comes their way.
All of the stories first appeared in magazines between 1923 and 1928 and they are parodies of fictional detectives of the period, some of whom I recognised and some I didn’t. When she came to write her autobiography many years later, even Agatha Christie couldn’t recognise some of them, noting that whilst some had become household names, others had ‘more or less perished in oblivion. Those I recognised include Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, The Old Man in the Corner, and Hercule Poirot, himself.
Most of the stories are self-contained adventures. They are slight and brief, and not really taxing or difficult to solve. I enjoyed reading them, because they are written with a light touch, and a sense of humour and fun. Tommy and Tuppence are likeable characters; Tommy is not as dizzy as David Walliams played him in the recent TV series. I’ve now read all the Tommy and Tuppence stories. There are four full length novels as well as Partners in Crime (Tommy and Tuppence 2) and unlike Poirot and Miss Marple Tommy and Tuppence age with each book:
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins has won a lot of awards and is a very popular book. It has good reviews, Stephen King for example describes it as a “Really great suspense novel. Kept me up most of the night. The alcoholic narrator is dead perfect.”
I thought it sounded good, so I decided to read it. But it didn’t live up to the hype for me. I wasn’t enthralled.
It began well with Rachel on the train each morning looking out at the houses on the road where she used to live before she was divorced. As the train stops at the same signal each day she enviously watches a young couple who are living the perfect life, or so she imagines. Then something happens that shocks her and everything changes and she begins to get involved in their lives, with disastrous results.
But I couldn’t easily distinguish between the three main characters, Rachel, Anna and Megan. Each one is an unreliable narrator and not very likeable. I had to keep referring to the chapter headings and dates to remind myself who was who and what happened when. I didn’t find it chilling or thrilling and any suspense rapidly disappeared with the repetition of Rachel being drunk, then being sorry, but unable to stop drinking. Then there are all the phone calls, text messages and emails that she sends when she is drunk. She has blackouts and can’t remember what happened, or what she said. Added to that she dreams and is unable to distinguish between them and reality. Overall it’s dreary and depressing.
So after a good start, the narrative lost impetus and dragged on to its conclusion, which by comparison seemed rushed, with a twist right at the end that took me by surprise. I suppose it is a ‘page-turner’ as I did want to know what what going to happen, but it left me feeling unsatisfied, irritated and rather out of sorts.
I’ve seen this book compared to Gone Girl, another book I have sitting waiting to be read. Now, I’m wondering if I’ll find that one disappointing as well. Do let me know your views on both or either of these books.
An Inspector Morse book, The Wench is Dead is the 8th in the series, first published in 1989. This is a bit different from the other Morse books in that it is historical crime fiction – no current cases are investigated.
Morse is in hospital being treated for a perforated ulcer. Whilst recovering he is given a book called Murder on the Oxford Canal by the wife of a recently deceased patient at the hospital. It’s an account of the investigation and trial that followed the death of Joanna Franks in 1859. She had been found at Duke’s Cut on the Oxford Canal. As he reads, Morse becomes convinced that the two boatmen hanged for her murder and a third man who had been transported to Australia were innocent.
Dexter based his book on an account of a Victorian murder in 1839, that of 37-year-old Christina Collins as she travelled the Trent and Mersey Canal atRugeley, Staffordshire, on the Staffordshire Knot en route to London. It reminded me of Josephine Tey’s novel, The Daughter of Time in which Inspector Alan Grant, also recovering in hospital, investigates the murder of the Princes in the Tower.
Morse enlists the help of Sergeant Lewis as well as that of Christine Greenaway, the beautiful daughter of one of the other patients. She works as a librarian at the Bodleian Library. So he is able to study original source material as well as the account in the published book. Morse finds it an absorbing puzzle, like a tricky cryptic crossword, and the more he read and thought about it the more questions came to his mind. He was not satisfied that the conclusions drawn at the trial about the forensic and pathological evidence were right. He felt uneasy about reported conversations between the various people involved:
… all of it was wrong somehow. Wrong if they were guilty. It was if some inexperienced playwright had been given a murder-plot, and then had proceeded to write page after page of inappropriate, misleading and occasionally contradictory dialogue. (page 133)
I thought it was ingenious and compelling reading, very well constructed and very clever. By the time he leaves the hospital Morse is convinced that he has solved the mystery. It’s a tale of intrigue, lust and deception, with more than a few twists and turns.
I first posted this review of Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner last December prior to its publication in hardback. I loved this gripping and intense crime thriller and it’s out in paperback today!
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.
Susie Steiner 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 on Weekend Magazine for 11 years. For more information see her website, susiesteiner.co.uk.
Missing, Presumed is Susie Steiner’s second book – her first is Homecoming.
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
When we began watching the HBO TV series, A Game of Thrones, I was hooked and once we finished watching I immediately wanted to read the series, A Song of Fire and Ice. I’d just read The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman, about the Wars of the Roses and had noticed the similarities between that and A Game of Thrones, the battles between the Houses of York and Lancaster paralleled by those between the Houses of Stark and Lancaster for example.
I don’t often read a book after seeing an adaptation, but in this case it proved ideal – the actors and scenery were perfect for my reading of the book, although there are some differences (the ages of the Stark children for example). I loved both the book and the TV series.
Summers span decades. Winter can last a lifetime. And the struggle for the Iron Throne has begun.
As Warden of the north, Lord Eddard Stark counts it a curse when King Robert bestows on him the office of the Hand. His honour weighs him down at court where a true man does what he will, not what he must … and a dead enemy is a thing of beauty.
The old gods have no power in the south, Stark’s family is split and there is treachery at court. Worse, the vengeance-mad heir of the deposed Dragon King has grown to maturity in exile in the Free Cities. He claims the Iron Throne.
I was completely immersed in this world inhabited by numerous characters and set in different locations (Seven Kingdoms), all portrayed in meticulous detail and expertly constructed so that all the fantastic creations are credible, and complete with back stories and histories. Beginning with a Prologue the book is then narrated through different characters’points of view – each chapter is headed by that character’s name making the plotlines easy to follow:
Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark, Warden of the North and Lord of Winterfell, Hand of the King.
Lady Catelyn Stark, of House Tully, wife of Eddard Stark.
Sansa Stark, elder daughter of Eddard and Catelyn Stark.
Arya Stark, younger daughter of Eddard and Catelyn Stark.
Bran Stark, second-youngest son of Eddard and Catelyn Stark.
Jon Snow, illegitimate son of Eddard Stark, mother unknown.
Tyrion Lannister, son of Lord Tywin Lannister, called the Imp, a dwarf, brother of the twins, the beautiful and ruthless Queen Cersei and Ser Jaime, called the Kingslayer,
Daenerys Targaryen, Stormborn, the Princess of Dragonstone, sister of Prince Viserys, the last of the Targaryens.
Other characters include:
King Robert of the House Baratheon, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, Eddard Stark’s oldest friend, married to Queen Cersei, his son Joffrey, spoiled and wilful with an unchecked temper, heir to the Iron Throne.
Robb Stark, oldest true born son of Eddard Stark. He remained at Winterfell when Eddard became the Hand of the King.
Tywin Lannister, Lord of Casterly Rock, Warden of the West, Shield of Lannisport.
Khal Drogo – a powerful warlord of the Dothraki people on the continent of Essos, a very tall man with hair black as midnight braided and hung with bells.
Winterfell: the ancestral castle of House Stark.
The Wall: built of stone, ice and magic, on the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms, guarded by the Night’s Watch to protect the Kingdoms from the dangers behind the huge wall from ‘the Others’ and the Wildings.
Beyond the Wall: the first book begins Beyond the Wall with members of the Night’s Watch on the track of a band of Wildling raiders.
King’s Landing: a walled city, the capital of the continent of Westeros and of the Seven Kingdoms.
Essos: across the Narrow Sea from Westeros, includes the grassland known as the Dothraki Sea.
This is no fairy tale – it’s set in a grim and violent world full of tragedy, betrayals and battles; a tale of good versus evil in which family, duty, and honour are in conflict, the multiple viewpoints giving a rounded view of the conflicts the characters face. It’s a love story too. There are knights, soldiers and sorcerers, priests, direwolves, giants, assassins and bastards. It’s complex and multifaceted, and it’s full of stories and legends – here for example Maester Luwin tells young Bran Stark about the children of the forest:
“They were people of the Dawn Age, the very first before kings and kingdoms,” he said. “In those days there were no castles or holdfasts, no cities, not so much as a market town to be found between here and the sea of Dorne. There were no men at all. Only the children of the forest dwelt in the lands we now call the Seven Kingdoms.
“They were a people dark and beautiful, small of stature, no taller than children even when grown to manhood. They lived in the depths of the wood, in caves and crannogs and secret tree towns. Slight as they were, the children were quick and graceful. Male and female hunted together, with weirwood bows and flying snares. Their gods were the gods of the forest, stream and stone, the old gods whose names are secret. Their wisemen were called greenseers and carved strange faces in the weirwoods to keep watch on the woods. (page 713)
It begins well as the main character finds herself in the dark in a cellar, not knowing who she is or how she got there. She is standing on the cellar steps and there is a dead girl lying at the bottom of the steps. She doesn’t recognise the dead girl either. She finds a bag beside her on the steps, which she doesn’t think is hers, but takes it with her as she escapes from the house and finds herself standing at the end of a road. She gets on a bus where she meets Miss Silver, who seeing how confused and frightened she is, takes her for a cup of tea and offers to help her. A letter in the handbag is addressed to Mrs James Fancourt and it seems that her name is Anne and she is to stay with her husband’s two aunts.
I think the opening of the book is the best part, setting up a scene of suspense and mystery. For most of the book Anne is suffering from amnesia but there is so much repetition of what little facts Anne knows that it became tedious reading, because it’s not just Anne who goes over and over what has happened but other characters too. I think the repetition lessened the sense of suspense, and overall, I thought the book was odd and not very convincing. There are too many coincidences, improbabilities, and loose ends.
This is the last of the Miss Silver Mysteries, published in the year Patricia Wentworth died. The first in the series was published in 1928. Miss Maud Silver is a retired governess who became a private investigator. She likes to help young lovers in distress – in The Girl on the Cellar, a ‘damsel in distress’ and she loves to knit and is a very sympathetic listener. I’ve only previously read one of the Miss Silver books, The Brading Collection, which is a much more convincing book.
Earlier this year I read and lovedThe Sea Detective, the first Cal McGill book. Cal is an oceanographer using his skills in tracking human bodies and sea-borne objects. So I was really looking forward to reading the second book, The Woman Who Walked into the Sea. Maybe my expectations were too high because I was a bit disappointed – that’s not to say I didn’t like it because I did, but it lacked the pace and complexity of the first book and just didn’t grip my imagination in the same way. Cal is really a secondary character and there is very little sea detection in the story.
Set in an imaginary coastal village of Poltown in the north of Scotland, the story revolves around the main character,Violet who had been abandoned as a new-born baby. An anonymous letter to a social worker reveals that her mother, Megan Bates, had last been seen walking into the sea. Her body had never been found and it had been assumed after her bag and hat had drifted ashore that she had drowned herself. Cal helps Violet with details of the tides and currents which convinces Megan had not committed suicide. She is determined to discover what had happened.
I liked the mystery surrounding Megan and the local people, most of whom have problems/secrets and then there is the ‘local’ mafia and a controversial wind farm proposal. But the appeal of The Sea Detective for me was not just the detective elements but Cal himself and his expertise in the marine environment, the mystery of how the ocean currents and wind speeds affect where things get washed ashore and tracking back to find where they originated. And I thought this second book was unevenly paced, the action slowed down by long descriptive passages so that the suspense that had been built up drained away and my attention drifted.
So, even though I liked this book, I don’t think it quite lived up to The Sea Detective. There is a third book, The Malice of Waves and I hope that the focus is more on Cal and his sea detective work.
Richard III (1452 – 1485), that controversial king – what was the truth about him? Did he murder his nephews, the ‘Princes in the Tower’, was he deformed, with a withered arm, a hunch back and a limp as Shakespeare portrayed him, was he a cold-blooded, evil villain? Or has he been maligned and been turned into a monster who killed his brother’s sons in order to take the Crown?
I remembered merely the brief details about the Wars of the Roses, the conflict between the house of York and Lancaster for the throne of England, from my school history lessons and only became interested in Richard III years later when I read Alison Weir’s non-fictional The Princes in the Tower, which examined the available evidence and came to the conclusion that Richard III was responsible for their deaths. Some years later I read Josephine Tey’s novel The Daughter of Time, which also investigates his role in the death of his nephews and his own death at the Battle of Bosworth and concluded that Richard hadn’t murdered his nephews.
The discovery of his skeleton buried beneath a car park in Leicester in 2012 revealed that although ‘the curved spine on the skeleton does show he had Scoliosis, he did not have a withered arm or other details attributed to him in some characterisations’ (see the Incredible Discovery at the King Richard III Visitor Centre ).
But it wasn’t the discovery of his skeleton that nudged me into reading The Sunne in Splendour, Sharon Penman’s detailed historical novel, first published in 1982. It was watching A Game of Thrones, which is based in part on the Wars of the Roses – Stark and Lannister/York and Lancaster etc.
The Sunne in Splendour is a fascinating novel about his life from his childhood to his death at Bosworth Field in 1485. Much has been written about Richard, from the time of his death onwards, that Sharon Penman points out has to be considered in the light of the writers’ bias, stating in her Author’s Note at the end of the book:
I once came upon the definition of history as ‘the process by which complex truths are transformed into simplified falsehoods’. That is particularly true in the case of Richard III, where the normal medieval proclivity for moralizing and partisanship was further complicated by deliberate distortion to suit Tudor political needs.’ (page 884)
She states that she had tried to be as accurate as possible, drawing upon facts that are not in dispute, relying on contemporary chroniclers, and when dealing with conflicting accounts ‘to choose the one most in accord with what we know of the people involved.’
I think this is one of the best historical novels that I’ve read. It is full of detail, but her research sits very lightly in this book, none of it feels like a history lesson, and it all brings Richard’s world to life. Penman portrays a very likeable Richard, from his childhood onwards he comes across as a kind, generous and brave man, a skilled leader on the battlefield, a loving husband to his wife, Anne, and devoted and loyal to his brother, Edward IV, who was by no means a saint. I particularly liked the way Penman showed his relationship with his family, especially with his brothers Edward and George, the Duke of Clarence.
I could easily visualise the battle scenes, that eventually brought the Wars of the Roses to an end and was fascinated by the view of Henry Tudor (Henry VII) – I’d like to know more about him. It’s his view of Richard that prevailed after his accession to the throne. During his life Richard he had a good reputation and was loved, particularly in the North of England. But he fell victim to treachery and intrigue.
One of the drawbacks of reading historical fiction is that if you have any knowledge of the period you know the eventual outcome. Penman’s skill is such that even though I knew Richard was killed at the battle of Bosworth Field I kept hoping he would survive and defeat Henry Tudor.
As for her solution to who killed the princes, that is one spoiler I’m not going to reveal – I was convinced though by her version of events. I think The Sunne in Splendour is a brilliant book, I was absolutely gripped by it and was sad when I came to the end. It’s a long book, nearly 900 pages and it took me a while to read it, but never once did I think it was too long, or needed editing. I loved it.
For me the book chosen for the current Classics Club Spin is The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling. It’s a novella, just 60 pages, which first appeared in The Phantom Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales, published in 1888.
Set in India and narrated by a journalist this is a story of two ruffianly-looking adventurers, wanderers and vagabonds, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, who announce that they are off to Kafiristan in the mountains of Afghanistan to make themselves Kings. They tell the journalist that when they have got their kingdom ‘in going order’ they will let him know and that he can then come and help them govern it.
But some two years later, on a hot summer’s night, what was left of Carnehan crept into the journalist’s office,
He was bent into a circle, his head was sunk between his shoulders, and he moved his feet one over the other like a bear. I could hardly see whether he walked or crawled- this rag-wrapped, whining cripple who addressed me by name, crying that he was come back. (page 24)
And he had a sorry tale to tell.
I was a bit disappointed with it, mainly because for a novella it took such a long time to set the scene and the opening section was confusing, with references I didn’t understand. After the slow beginning the story picks up when it gets to relating what happened to Dravot and Carnehan. The Kipling Society website (where you can read the story, which is also free on Amazon) has some notes that helped me understand more – Masonic, Biblical and other references and details about the places and people mentioned.
The Kipling Society also gives details of the background to the story and some critical responses to it. Overall the responses are good – that it is a memorable, fantastic tale, some believing it to be a masterpiece, but Kingley Amis stated it was a ‘grossly overrated long tale‘. I was also interested that Edmund Wilson is quoted as stating that the story is “…surely a parable of what might happen to the English if they should forfeit their moral authority.”[Edmund Wilson “The Kipling that Nobody Read”, in Kipling’s Mind and Art ed. Andrew Rutherford, Oliver & Boyd, 1964.]
There was a film adaptation in 1975, starring Sean Connery as Dravot and Michael Caine as Carnehan with Christopher Plummer as Kipling, which according to some is much better than the story itself.
Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay in 1865 and lived there until he was five when he was taken to live in England, returning to India in 1882, where he worked as a journalist. As well as short stories he also wrote poems, including If, and novels, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907.
a gripping story of love and betrayal at the height of the Cold War. This Penguin Modern Classics edition includes an afterword by the author and an introduction by William Boyd, author of Any Human Heart.
Alex Leamas is tired. It’s the 1960s, he’s been out in the cold for years, spying in the shadow of the Berlin Wall for his British masters. He has seen too many good agents murdered for their troubles. Now Control wants to bring him in at last – but only after one final assignment. He must travel deep into the heart of Communist Germany and betray his country, a job that he will do with his usual cynical professionalism. But when George Smiley tries to help a young woman Leamas has befriended, Leamas’s mission may prove to be the worst thing he could ever have done. In le Carré’s breakthrough work of 1963, the spy story is reborn as a gritty and terrible tale of men who are caught up in politics beyond their imagining.
This is a dark, tense book and quite short, just 252 pages. It’s complicated and although the language le Carré uses is clear and straight forward at times I wasn’t sure just what was going on, what lay behind the scenes – just what was Leamas up to, amidst the various deceptions and subterfuges? George Smiley does appear briefly in the book, but is there throughout in that he is masterminding Leamas’ mission.
Back from Berlin where he had seen his last agent killed whilst trying to cross the Berlin Wall, Leamas is apparently no longer useful. He goes to seed whilst working out his contact in the Banking Section, transforming into a drunken wreck no longer of use to the Secret Services, left without any money or a job until he finds work as a helper in a library for Psychical Research. Here he meets Liz Gold, who then unwittingly gets drawn into Smiley’s plan.
The atmosphere throughout is of secrecy, manipulation, of human frailty and its duplicitous nature. As the German, Fiedler says for a secret agent:
… deception is first a matter of self-defence. He must protect himself not only from without, but also from within, and against the most natural of impulses; though he earns a fortune, his role may forbid him the use of a razor, though he be erudite, it can befall him to mumble nothing but banalities; though he be an affectionate husband and father, he must under all circumstances withhold himself from those in whom he should naturally confide. (page 143)
By the end of the book Leamas is in despair as his mission seems to have failed,. Liz can’t work out which side he is on and he says:
What do you think spies are: priests, saints, martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. (page 243)
I hate it; I hate it all; I’m tired. But it’s the world, it’s mankind that’s gone mad. We’re a tiny price to pay … but everywhere’s the same, people cheated and misled, whole lives thrown away, people shot and in prison, whole groups and classes of men, written off for nothing. (pages 244-5)
But then again did his mission fail? This is one of those books that I find so hard to write about without giving away too much of the plot – the introduction by William Boyd begins with this statement, ‘New readers are advised that this Introduction makes details of the plot explicit.‘ And indeed it does. I was glad I read it after reading the book, though, as it also gives an interpretation that I found helpful – in particular just what Boyd thought was meant by ‘coming in from the cold‘.
Sandlands is a beautiful collection of short stories that held me spellbound from start to finish. This is all the more extraordinary as I am not a great fan of short story collections. I often find that they leave me feeling that something is missing – either the storyline is not developed enough, or the characters are not convincing, or that they are just too trite or banal. In other words that they are disappointing.
Not so with Sandlands – I thinkthis is a special collection of well written stories set in the Suffolk landscape, describing real people, and containing well- researched detail into myths and folklore, wildlife, and environmental changes that slips seamlessly into the fiction. They are just the right length for me, perfect little cameos each one complete and satisfying – that’s not to say that all the ends are neatly tied up, as some, such as Nightingale’s Return, about an Italian visiting the farm where his father had worked as a prisoner of war, end leaving me wondering what happened next, or rather just what had happened in the past.
The individual stories are varied, some looking back to the past, some are sad leaving me with tears in my eyes, and some have a supernatural element. I loved all of them, but a few are outstanding, for example, Curlew Call in which a teenager spends time during her gap year living in an old house overlooking the the salt marshes, as a companion to Agnes, an old lady who is wheel-chair bound. She is fascinated by the landscape and the wildlife, in particular the curlews, calling out across the reed beds each evening, before she goes to sleep:
You wonder what they’re doing out there in the dark, sleepless and crying like that. And if you lie still and listen – really listen – there’s something so pitiful about the sound, it could nearly break your heart. like someone whistling hopelessly over and over for a dog that’s lost. (pages 220 – 221)
Agnes paints, but not the usual East Anglian landscape of sky and clouds with a low horizon. I was really taken with the descriptions of her paintings, nearly all foreground, with reeds at the top and the rest of the painting taken up with the mudflats, showing the swirls and squiggles left by the tide. And the colours she’d used held my attention:
You think that mud is only grey and brown but when you look properly, the way Agnes had, you can see she’s right, and that it’s also the blackest black, and pure white, and it holds glints of red and gold and ochry yellow, and reflected blues and greens, and deep, imperial purple. (page 226)
As the story unfolds, so does the story of Agnes’ life.
And I finished reading the final story, Mackerel, with tears in my eyes when I came to the last paragraph, even though I had begun to realise what was inevitably the outcome. This is the story of a grandmother and her granddaughter, Hattie, set in a fishing village near the Suffolk sea. Ganny, as Hattie calls her has lived all her eighty nine years in the same place and is expert at handling and cooking fish.
Hattie, by way of contrast has an honours degree in marine ecology, has travelled the world, but also loves the Suffolk landscape and the world of her grandparents – the sights, smells and Ganny’s cooking, kippers, fish pie and above all the mackerel. This story is filled with images of Ganny filleting the mackerel, coating them in oatmeal to fry in butter, or to bake in greaseproof sprinkled with lemon or cider in a tight parcel. It made my mouth water reading about it.
As in Curlew Call, Ganny’s life unfolds and this story too is full of colour, this time of the sand instead of the mudflats:
This is a land of sand. The earth hereabouts is nothing but; it’s a wonder anything grows in it at all. On the common it’s a powder grey, soft as ash and lifted by the the slightest breeze, but on the roads it’s as golden yellow as any treasure island beach.
… You could almost fancy it the work of strange secret tides which rise in the night to cover the fields and lanes, then slip away before daylight to leave new spits and spars like a signature on the landscape. A land with the imprint of the sea. (page 256)
It’s impossible for me to do justice to these stories. If you like strong, atmospheric stories, stories that bring to life the world of the past, tying them to the present, stories of family life, of the natural world, of folklore and the mystery and wonder of it all then you’ll love this book as much as I did.
With grateful thanks to Rosy Thornton for sending me this lovely book to review. It’s published tomorrow. And she has also written full length novels that captivated as much as this collection – do read them. For more details see her website.
Last month I read books from my own shelves for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge (books owned before 1 January 2016) and the 20 Books of Summer Challenge, but then the urge to read other books took over, mainly because I’ve been adding books to my shelves. For the time being I won’t be reading for the Mount TBR Challenge as I have several books that I’ve acquired this year that I want to read first.
The woman vicar of St Peter’s Church may not be popular among the community of Kingsmarkham. But it still comes as a profound shock when she is found strangled in her vicarage.
Inspector Wexford is retired, but he retains a relish for solving mysteries especially when they are as close to home as this one is. So when he’s asked whether he will assist on the case, he readily agrees.
But why did the vicar die? And is anyone else in Kingsmarkham in danger? What Wexford doesn’t know is that the killer is far closer than he, or anyone else, thinks.
I like Wexford, so I was predisposed to like this book (who in my mind looks like George Baker in the TV Wexford series) and I did enjoy it, although not as much as some of her other books.
Maxine Sams has several cleaning jobs, including cleaning for Reg and Dora Wexford – she talks all the time and regales Wexford with stories about her family, interrupting his reading of Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which she thinks is a holiday guide to Rome. One of Maxine’s clients is the Reverend Sarah Hussain – and it is Maxine who finds her body, lying on the living room floor. She had been strangled.
Wexford, although enjoying his retirement, is pleased when Detective Superintendent Mike Burden asks if he would like to be involved as a consultant in the investigation into Sarah’s murder. It’s interesting to see how Wexford approaches this as he does not agree with Burden’s methods, thinking he has too many team meetings and ignores things Wexford would have concentrated on, nor can he express his opinions openly. And he isn’t sure just what he should or should not report back to Burden. As most of the book is written from Wexford’s point of view we can see how his mind works and the way he views his former colleagues and society in general and I was glad to see that as a retired person he is portrayed with an agile and observant mind.
There are plenty of red herrings and sub-plots that had me wondering as I read. At times it was rather confusing and I noticed a few continuity problems. Various issues are raised, not just the position of the elderly in society, but also questions of race and gender, religious intolerance, rape, single mothers and family relationships. I liked Wexford’s thoughts on The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, his musings on religion – he is a’committed atheist’ ( I don’t remember that from earlier books) and the self-doubt he reveals. I also liked the comic elements as Wexford tries to escape from Maxine’s non-stop chatter.
Overall I enjoyed the book, but think I prefer Ruth Rendell’s standalone books and those she wrote under the name of Barbara Vine.
It’s that time of year again when I have less time for blogging – summer when the grass and the weeds grow in abundance. So what with that and a host of other things this post is shorter than I would like it to be.
I like W J Burley’s Wycliffe books. I’ve read several of them up to now and enjoyed each one. Set in Cornwall, they have a strong sense of place, and Wycliffe is a quiet, thoughtful detective.
In Wycliffe and the Quiet Virgin Chief Superintendent Wycliffe is staying with a Penzance lawyer, Ernest Bishop and his family for a few days over Christmas at the Bishops’ hill-top house. With his wife away in Kenya, Wycliffe is not looking forward to Christmas, and the welcome from the family is polite rather than welcoming. The situation only gets worse when a young girl goes missing after playing the part of the Virgin Mary in the local nativity play, and then her father also goes missing and her mother is found dead in their cottage. Wycliffe moves out of the Bishops’ house as it appears they may be suspects.
What follows is Wycliffe’s investigation which goes back to a crime committed five years earlier, involving many twists and turns. It was a quick and entertaining read with a lot of characters, but all are clearly distinguishable. The plot is complex and it was only as I was getting near the end that I began to have an inkling about the identity of the murderer.
W J Burley (1914 – 2002) lived near Newquay in Cornwall and was a teacher until he retired to concentrate on his writing. He wrote 22 Wycliffe novels. Wycliffe and the Quiet Virgin was the 13th, first published in 1986 and as such fits into Bev’s Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt in the Silver Age (Vintage Mysteries first published any time from 1960 to 1989) in the category of ‘Spooky/House’ on its cover. It is also one of my 20 Books of Summer 2016.
I’ve read quite a lot of Penelope Lively’s books and have found them full of interest, easily readable, peopled with believable characters and covering various philosophical and moral issues that make me think. Heat Wave (first published in 1996) is no different in that it is about relationships, the connections between the past and the present, love, marriage and adultery, jealousy, anger, grief and loss.
However, I groaned when I began reading it because it is in the present tense and I’m not that keen on that. But as I read on, my irritation with the tense began to fade away as I became engrossed in the story. It’s quite a simple one really, the strength of the book, I think, coming from the characterisation, the increasing tension and the oppressive atmosphere of a blazing hot summer.
Pauline, a freelance copy-editor, is spending the summer at her cottage, somewhere in the middle of England. Her daughter, Teresa, grandson, Luke and son-in-law Maurice are next door in the adjoining cottage, whilst Maurice concentrates on finishing the book he is writing. They are visited by James and Carol, who accompany them on visits to tourist attractions to help with the research for his book. As Pauline sees the relationship between Teresa and Maurice change, apparently following the same pattern of her own failed marriage, she becomes increasingly anxious and angry, unable to intervene.
In just 184 pages, Penelope Lively builds an in depth study of angst, frustration and conflict, set against the changing landscape of the countryside, the effect of the heat on the land, the crops and the people. Interspersed are her trips to London, her long-standing and now platonic friendship with Hugh, her conversations with one of the authors whose book she is editing and who is also struggling with his marriage, and the family’s visits to tourist attractions as part of Maurice’s research for his book. So alongside the personal relationships Heat Wave also looks at the countryside, how it is changing, our relationship to nature and how farming has changed because of industrialisation and tourism.
I love the descriptions of the countryside that Pauline sees through her window, just one example:
A light wind ruffles the field – shadows course across the young wheat. The whole place is an exercise in colour, as it races into growth. The trees are green flames and the hedges billow brilliantly across the landscape. The old hedgerow at the bottom of the garden has a palette that runs from cream through lemon yellow and all the greens to apricot, russet and a vivid crimson. Each burst of new leaf adds some subtle difference to the range. For a couple of weeks the whole world glows. (page 24)
But this is not just an idealised view of the countryside; she also notes the unnatural discordant sight of fields of dead grass as a result of the policy of set-aside, the industrialisation of agriculture, and the nasty, glaring yellow of oil-seed rape seen by some as an intrusive blight.
What irritated me when I began reading the book, paled into insignificance as the tension between the characters grew, culminating in an inevitable climax as the hot weather ended and a violent thunder storm broke over the cottages. I ended up loving this book.
Cool. Balanced. Modern. The precisions of science, the wild variance of lust, the catharsis of confession and the fear of failure – these are things that happen in The Glass Room.
High on a Czechoslovak hill, the Landauer House shines as a wonder of steel and glass and onyx built specially for newlyweds Viktor and Liesel Landauer, a Jew married to a gentile. But the radiant honesty of 1930 that the house, with its unique Glass Room, seems to engender quickly tarnishes as the storm clouds of WW2 gather, and eventually the family must flee, accompanied by Viktor’s lover and her child.
But the house’s story is far from over, and as it passes from hand to hand, from Czech to Russian, both the best and the worst of the history of Eastern Europe becomes somehow embodied and perhaps emboldened within the beautiful and austere surfaces and planes so carefully designed, until events become full-circle.
The house and its setting are not fictional, but are based on the Tugendhat House, Brno in the Czech Republic. A few of the characters are non-fictional but the rest are imaginary and their story has no basis in fact. In his introduction to the Abacus edition of the book, published in 2013, Simon Mawer describes his first visit to the house, which was then a museum. He hadn’t planned to write a novel centred on the house. To him is not a museum, but ‘vibrant and alive’, and the novel was born.
I found it a gripping novel that had me on tenterhooks as I was reading. It is, as the synopsis relates, the story of a house, the Landauer House, and specifically of a room within that house called the ‘Glass Room’.
Liesel and Viktor stood and marvelled at it [the Glass Room]. It had become a palace of light, light bouncing off the chrome pillars, light refulgent on the walls, light glistening on the dew in the gardens, light reverberating from the glass. It was as though they stood inside a crystal of salt. Isn’t it wonderful,’ she exclaimed, looking round with an expression of amazement. ‘You feel so free, so unconstrained. The sensation of space, of all things being possible. Don’t you think it is wonderful, Viktor? Don’t you think that Rainer has created a masterpiece for us?’ (pages 64-5)
The whole wall of the lower ground floor is plate glass. The room is a huge space, white walls, furnished with little decoration beyond a piano, specially designed chairs in the sitting area in front of an onyx wall veined with amber and honey, polished to a mirror-like gloss, reflecting the light, and a circular dining table in the dining area enclosed in a semicircle partition of Macassar wood.
But it was the story of the people who lived/worked in the house that captivated me and made me so anxious for them and about what would happen to them as the events of the Second World War and beyond overtook their lives. It’s not only a gripping novel, but also a beautifully written book with interesting and likeable characters, set in a Europe at war and its aftermath; and a book about architecture, ideas, about love and loss, about prejudice and persecution. A deeply moving and haunting book.
I’ve read two of Simon Mawer’s earlier books, The Gospel of Judas (2000) and The Fall (2003), both of which I also thoroughly enjoyed. He has also written:
The Bitter Cross (1992)
A Place in Italy (1992)
A Jealous God (1996)
Mendel’s Dwarf (1997)
Swimming to Ithaca (2006)
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (2012)
A Shilling for Candles, is the fourth book by Josephine Tey that I’ve read. It was first published in 1936 and is the second book in her Inspector Grant series. I enjoyed it but I have to admit that I don’t think it’s as good as the other books by her that I’ve read, namely:
The Daughter of Time, first published in 1951, a fascinating novel in which Inspector Alan Grant is in hospital and to keep his mind occupied he decides to discover whether Richard III really did murder his nephews – the Princes in the Tower;
Miss Pym Disposes, first published in 1946, a psychological study of characters and motives, in which Miss Pym investigates the death of a student at a physical training college; and
The Franchise Affair, first published in 1948, set in a post Second World War England reflecting the social attitudes of its time and based on a real case from the 18th century of a girl who went missing and later claimed she had been kidnapped.
Inspector Alan Grant investigates the apparent suicide of a young and beautiful film star, Christine Clay, who was found dead beneath the cliffs of the south coast. But he soon discovers that was in fact murder as a coat button was found twisted in her hair and he suspects a young man, Robin Tisdall who had been staying with Christine in a remote cottage near the beach, especially when it is revealed that she has named him as a beneficiary in her will. Tisdall has lost his coat and so the search is on to find it to prove either his innocence or guilt.
But it is not so straight forward and Grant has other suspects – Christine’s aristocratic and wealthy husband, an American songwriter, and her estranged brother to whom she had left the gift of ‘ a shilling for candles’. Then there are her friends, including the actress Marta Hart, a leading lady, Judy Sellers, who played dumb blondes and Lydia Keats, an astrologer who casts horoscopes for the movie stars.
Other characters include my favourite in the book, Erica Burgoyne, the Chief Constable’s 17 year old daughter, a quirky character who proves to be most resourceful.
I enjoyed it but thought that overall it was a bit messy, a bit all over the place, as Grant dashed about the south coast and London. It’s definitely a book of its time with several casual anti-Semitic references and Tey has used a lot of slang and idioms that aren’t so recognisable today. There are red herrings and plenty of twists and turns, all of which meant that although at first I identified the culprit, by the end I had no idea who it was. What I thought was more interesting is the way she wrote about the destructive nature of celebrity and the lengths to which the stars went to keep some privacy in their lives – not so different from today.
The Man in the Queue (1929) aka Killer in the Crowd
A Shilling for Candles (1936) (the basis of Hitchcock’s 1937 movie Young and Innocent)
The Franchise Affair (1948)
To Love and Be Wise (1950)
The Daughter of Time (1951)
The Singing Sands (1952)
Kif: an Unvarnished History (1929) (writing as Gordon Daviot)
The Expensive Halo (1931)
Miss Pym Disposes (1946)
Brat Farrar (1949) aka Come and Kill Me
The Privateer (1952)
Claverhouse (1937) (writing as Gordon Daviot) A biography of John Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee (1648 – 1689), known as “Bonnie Dundee” after leading the Jacobites to victory at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689, in which he lost his life.
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Arrow; First Thus edition (3 Feb. 2011)
It’s a book that demanded all my attention and I just didn’t want to put it down. There’s a murder, a missing child, a question of identity and overarching it all are the stories of two families – the Westerbys and the Ropers and all the people connected to them. So many characters, so many red herrings, so many incidents that at first did not appear to be of any or of much importance that turned out to have great relevance.
It had me going backwards and forward and placing so many markers in the book to try and keep track of it all. How did Barbara Vine handle so much material in such a clever way? It is so intricately plotted and the portrayal of so many characters is so skilfully handled.
It begins in 1905 when Asta Westerby and her husband Rasmus have come to East London from Denmark with their two little boys and their servant Hansine. With Rasmus constantly away on business, Asta keeps loneliness and isolation at bay by writing a diary in her native tongue of Danish. The story is not told chronologically, but switches backwards and forwards between Asta’s diaries, beginning in 1905 when she was pregnant and hoping the new baby would be a daughter, and the present day after Asta’s death. The diaries had been translated and published by her daughter Swanny (Swanhilde), and along with details of the family’s life reveal clues to an unsolved murder and to the mystery of a missing child. After Swanny died Asta’s granddaughter Ann became involved in searching for the truth about these facts. Additional material is also related through a trial transcript and various accounts of events by different people.
The book kept me guessing all the way throughout the various mysteries it threw up. I was very tempted to peek at the end of the book for the answers, but managed not to and I’m glad I didn’t as it would have ruined the suspense. I was so impressed at how it all hung together, with no extraneous material – all those minor incidents and characters are completely necessary.
As in other books by Barbara Vine it is not only the characters and the mystery that are enthralling, it is also the atmosphere and the settings. Houses in her books take on characters of their own and in this one there are several, maybe the most dominant is Devon Villa where Lizzie Roper was murdered, her mother also died of a heart attack and Lizzie’s daughter, Edith was last seen as she climbed the stairs up to her mother’s bedroom. And then there is the doll’s house that Rasmus made for his daughter, Marie, replicating Padanaram, the Westerbys’ second house in Shepherd’s Hill, Highgate.
*Barbara Vine is the pseudonym of Ruth Rendell, who was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the author of many thrillers and psychological murder mysteries . She died in 2015 at the age of 85. Her mother was born in Sweden and brought up in Denmark; her father, Arthur Grasemann, was English. As a result of spending Christmas and other holidays in Scandinavia, Rendell learned Swedish and Danish.
I think DC Fiona Griffiths must be one of the most original fictional detectives I’ve come across. She is the creation of Harry Bingham in Talking to the Dead. She is Welsh, single and at the start of the book is aged 26, being interviewed for a job with the South Wales Police in Cardiff. She had a degree from Cambridge where she studied philosophy (a prize winning student). However, there is a problem as she has a two year gap in her CV around the time of her A Levels and she doesn’t want to talk about it. But as Human Resources have passed her OK, she gets a job.
But is she really OK? I soon began to have doubts about that. Four years later she is a detective constable, mainly working on routine details. However, Fiona does not play by the rules and when she is asked to help on the investigation of the brutal murders of Janet Mancini, a part-time prostitute, and April, Janet’s 6 year old daughter she doesn’t hesitate to use her initiative. Her colleagues and her boss think she is odd, although very smart and a quick worker. She is dedicated to her job and whereas DCI Jackson likes the ‘good DC Griffiths’, he’s not so keen on the other one:
The one I ask to do something and that something never seems to get done. Or done after fifteen reminders. Or done in a way that breaks the rules, causes complaints or pisses off your fellow officers. The Griffiths who decides that if something is boring her, she’s going to make a mess of it until she’s moved to something else. (page 52)
Even worse she gets obsessed, throws herself into finding out the truth with no regard for her own safety and without calling for backup, or referring to senior officers. And she’s clearly still suffering from whatever it was that caused the gap in her CV. But on the other hand she is a brilliant researcher and has great instincts and intuition. She focuses on the credit card found at the scene of the murders, fascinated by the fact that it had belonged to a millionaire who had been presumed dead after a plane crash over the sea (his body had never been recovered), convinced it is a vital clue.
There are two strands to the mystery, as alongside the Mancini murders Fiona is investigating ex policeman Brian Penry, a bursar at a Roman Catholic boys’ school, who had stolen money from the school. And there is also a mystery surrounding Fiona and her family, which is only partly revealed at the end of the book.
I really should not have liked this book as much as I did as it’s written in the present tense, solely from Fiona’s viewpoint. But I loved it and in this book was completely at ease with the present tense. It’s also quite strange in parts as we see further into Fiona’s mind; she has difficulty connecting with her feelings and with other people and some of her thoughts and actions are strange and disturbing. Whilst it is not an overtly violent book it is a dark book in places and there is an amount of gruesomeness involved (but I didn’t have to avert my eyes, as it were, or skim read any of the book). I had an idea about Fiona’s trauma, as I’d come across a similar case in another crime fiction novel, but I don’t want to spoil the book for others by saying what it is.
I will most certainly look out for the next book in the series – there are now 5 Fiona Griffiths books and I think these are books that should definitely be read in sequence. The locations are well grounded, there is a definite ‘Welsh’ feel and atmosphere and the characters are well defined. See Harry Bingham’s website for more information about him and his books – he’s written others as well as the Fiona Griffiths books.
This is the first book I’ve read for the 20 Books of Summer Challenge 2016 – and it’s a good one. High Rising by Angela Thirkell has been on my TBR list for 2 years so it also counts for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge. It’s an entertaining and witty social comedy, set in the fictional county of Barsetshire, borrowed from Trollope, in the 1930s, and originally published in 1933.
Laura Morland is a widow with four sons, who supports herself by writing novels, which she knows are not ‘in any sense of the word, literature‘ but which have appeal. She lives at High Rising and her friend, also an author, George Knox and his daughter Sybil live at nearby Low Rising. Her youngest son, Tony, an exasperating character, who talks non-stop about his passion for trains, is still at boarding school, where Laura’s friend, Amy Birkett is the headmaster’s wife. The other main characters are Adrian Coates, Laura’s publisher, Anne Todd, Laura’s part-time secretary, Dr Ford, and Miss Grey, George’s new secretary. Their comfortable lives are disrupted by Miss Grey, who having no relatives she can go to, is on the lookout for a husband.
It began slowly for me and I wondered if I was going to like this book, thinking maybe it would only be a 2, or possibly a 3 star book on the Goodreads rating scale. But it grew on me as I became drawn into the 1930s world of rural England, with its servants and social structure, where everybody knew their place. As Alexander McCall Smith in his introduction writes this is not in ‘Wodehouse territory – Thirkell’s characters do have jobs and they do not spend their time in an endless whirl of silliness.’ By the middle of the book I began to think it was a 4 star book and by the end, even that it was maybe worth a 4.5 star.
As McCall Smith writes:
Affection for social comedy is not something we should have to apologise for, even if that sort of thing is eschewed in the contemporary novel. Such matters may seem unimportant, but they say a lot about human nature. Above all, though, we do not read Angela Thirkell for profundity of emotional experience; we read her for the pleasure of escape – and there is a perfectly defensible niche for escapist fiction in a balance literary diet.
The emphasis is mine – and I like the description: ‘a balanced literary diet‘, another way of saying that my reading tastes are eclectic.
There are many passages I could quote, but I’ve chosen just a few to give a flavour of the book:
George: If there is one pleasure on earth which surpasses all others, it is leaving a play before the end. I might perhaps except the joy of taking tickets for a play, dining well, sitting on after dinner, and finally not going at all. That, of course, is very heaven. (page 196)
The sun shone, the cuckoo bellowed from a copse hard by, other birds less easy to recognise made suitable bird noises. In the little wood primroses grew in vulgar profusion, a drift of blue mist showed that bluebells were on the way, glades were still white with wind-flowers. All the trees that come out early were brilliant green, while those that come out later were, not unnaturally still brown, thus forming an agreeable contrast. A stream bordered with kingcups made a gentle bubbling noise like sausages in a frying pan. Nature, in fact, was at it; and when she chooses Nature can do it. (page 211)
(I particularly like the sentence I’ve marked in bold.)
… Adrian proudly explained that if there were more women like Sybil, who knew they couldn’t write, the world would be a better place. (page 220)
This is the first of Angela Thirkell’s books that I’ve read and shall certainly search out more of hers to read. She wrote nearly thirty Barsetshire novels as well as other works of fiction and non-fiction. For more information about her see the Angela Thirkell Society (UK) and the Angela Thirkell Society of North America.
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Natasha Pulley’s first novel made a great impact on me from the start of the book. It is one of those books that I enjoyed very much, but don’t feel that I can really do it justice in a blog post. Even after a second reading I’m not at all sure I understand some of it. It’s long, complicated, packed with detail and an awful lot happens in it.
So instead of me trying to write something coherent about it I’ve copied the synopsis from the inside cover:
In 1883, Thaniel Steepleton returns to his tiny flat to find a gold pocketwatch on his pillow. But he has worse fears than generous burglars; he is a telegraphist at the Home Office, which has just received a threat for what could be the largest-scale Fenian bombing in history.
When the watch saves Thaniel’s life in a blast that destroys Scotland Yard, he goes in search of its maker, Keita Mori – a kind, lonely immigrant who sweeps him into a new world of clockwork and music. Although Mori seems harmless at first, a chain of unexpected slips soon proves that he must be hiding something.
Meanwhile, Grace Carrow is sneaking into an Oxford library dressed as a man. A theoretical physicist, she is desperate to prove the existence of the luminiferous ether before her mother can force her to marry.
As the lives of these three characters become entwined, events spiral out of control until Thaniel is torn between loyalties, futures and opposing geniuses.
Utterly beguiling, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street blends historical events with dazzling flights of fancy to plunge readers into a strange and magical past, where time, destiny, genius – and a clockwork octopus – collide.
These are just a few thoughts that struck me both as I was reading the book and later thinking about it. It’s a mixture of historical fact and fantasy set in Victorian times, both in London and Japan, following the lives of the main characters, Thaniel Stapleton, Keita Mori and Grace Carrow. I like to know what is historical fact and what is the author’s own creation. So I was pleased to read in her Acknowledgements, that Natasha Pulley explains that there is some historical accuracy and cites Lee Jackson’s Dictionary of Victorian London for resources on the early days of the London Underground, the Knightsbridge Japanese show village, the bombing of Scotland Yard and numerous other interesting things. (As I read the book I was very tempted to leave the story to find out more about these topics, but the story drew me on and I left them for later.)
I was completely convinced by the setting in a different time in a world that was familiar and yet so different. I liked the writing style, although in parts it’s a bit ‘clunky’ and the use of ‘he’, ‘him’ and ‘they’ or ‘them’ made it a bit difficult to follow, but this is only a minor quibble. I also liked the characterisation and how the characters’ history was revealed and how their personalities were developed. Keita Mori is an interesting character and as I read my opinion of him kept changing – just who is he? He is an enigma, why is he living in London, is he the bomb maker, does he in fact know what is going to happen, is he a magician? He baffled and confused me as much as he baffled and confused the other characters.
Equally fascinating are the sections set in Japan; Grace’s story, her research into luminiferous ether (a bit hard to follow), her relationship with Akira Matsumoto, the elegant son of a Japanese nobleman; the Japanese show village in Hyde Park where Gilbert and Sullivan went to research for the Mikado; the early days of the London Underground; and of course the clockwork inventions, in particular Katsu, the clockwork octopus.
There is so much in this book, so many passages I underlined in my e-book, so many intertwining stories and lines that I have not mentioned – politics, the Fenians, bombs, the workings of the Home and Foreign Offices, suffragettes, racism, and class snobbery – I could go on and on. It may seem that this is a hotch-potch of a book, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. In fact I loved it both for its historical settings and for its ingenuity, producing a fantastical tale that occupied my mind during and after my reading.
I reserved The Watchmaker of Filigree Street at the library but before it was available the e-book was on offer on Amazon, so I ended up reading from both editions. And in doing so, I can now see the benefits of both – I can underline in an e-book and make notes without any damage to the book and as it has X-Ray it’s easy to find passages about the characters and places etc. But the physical book is a joy to read – the text is set in Bell, originally cut for John Bell in 1788, and the cover is beautiful.
and the inside cover has this map:
This book also fits so well into the Once Upon a Time Challenge in the Fantasy Genre. I’ve seen it described as ‘steampunk’ but I’m not at all sure what that is – to me it’s historical fantasy.
I’m taking part in Carl’s Once Upon a Time event, specifically in the Short Story Quest, which involves the reading of one or more short stories that fit within at least one of the four genres of Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, during the course of any weekend, or weekends, during the challenge. Ideally, posting about your short story readings on Sundays or Mondays, but this is not strictly necessary.
I’m reading some of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales – I first read a lot of the tales as a child in my mother’s book: Andersen was a Danish author, born in 1805 in Odense. He was a prolific writer of plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, as well as fairy tales. Some of his most famous fairy tales include The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Nightingale, The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, and many more. He died in 1875.
The Snow Queen was one of my favourite stories as a child and I read it many times. So, I have been holding back from reading it now in case I found that the magical experience was no longer there. However, I felt I really wanted to read it this week and told myself that I would stop if it wasn’t as entrancing as before. Of course I read all of it and if it wasn’t quite as magical it was still entrancing.
I wasn’t surprised that I’d forgotten some of the details, but my memories of the way evil came into the world when the magic looking-glass was shattered were vivid and correct. The pieces let loose in the world distorted whatever was reflected in it, so that whatever was good and beautiful dwindled to almost nothing and whatever was worthless stood out boldly. They entered into men’s eyes, so that they saw only evil, or into their hearts, turning them to lumps of ice. Some were made into panes of window glass and some into spectacles. Some are still flying about in the air even today.
I remembered well the two main characters, the childhood friends,Kay and Gerda, and how Kay was changed when his heart and eyes were pierced by pieces of the magic glass and how he followed the beautiful Snow Queen and was whisked away to her ice palace. I also remembered Gerda’s search for him, but not all the detail of how she was enchanted by a strange old woman, who took her into her strange little house, and how the roses and other flowers brought back her memories.
I had forgotten about the Prince and Princess and the Ravens who helped her on her way to look for Kay and the Lapland Woman and the Finland Woman who also helped her. More memorable was The Little Robber Girl who stopped her robber-mother from killing and eating Gerda.
It was the chapter on Kay in the Snow Palace that was most vivid in my memories and it didn’t disappoint me. Kay’s heart was by then just like a lump of ice and he was almost black with the cold and he didn’t recognise Gerda until her tears penetrated his heart, melted the ice and dissolved the broken glass and washed all the pieces of glass from his eyes. It was Gerda’s love that saved him. As the Finland Woman says:
I cannot give her greater power than she already possesses, and do you not see how great that is? Do you not see that men and beasts must serve her, and how barefooted as she is, she has got on so well in the world. She cannot receive power from us, that is in her own heart, and consists in her being a good, innocent child.
What I hadn’t noticed as a child was that this is not only a story of good against evil but also about love versus reason and logic. At first when the ice has entered Kay’s heart and eyes he becomes focussed on science, looking at the snow flakes through a magnifying glass to see their structure and as the Snow Queen lures him from home he couldn’t pray but could only recite his multiplication tables; he could say how many square miles were in the country as well as the number of inhabitants.
The task the Snow Queen gave him whilst she was away from the Palace was the ice-game of understanding to fit together large pieces of ice to make figures of ‘the highest importance’. But he was unable to make the word ‘Eternity’, which the Snow Queen had promised she would give him the whole world if he succeeded. He thought and thought about it until his brain almost cracked. It was only when the ice had melted from his heart and out of his eyes that the pieces of ice danced and formed the letters of the word so that he was able to leave the palace.
I’m taking part in Carl’s Once Upon a Time event, specifically in the Short Story Quest, which involves the reading of one or more short stories that fit within at least one of the four genres of Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, during the course of any weekend, or weekends, during the challenge. Ideally, posting about your short story readings on Sundays or Mondays, but this is not strictly necessary.
This will be a weekly event for me, until the end of the event on 21 June. I’m reading some of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales – I first read a lot of the tales as a child. Andersen was a Danish author, born in 1805 in Odense. He was a prolific writer of plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, as well as fairy tales. Some of his most famous fairy tales include The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Nightingale, The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, and many more. He died in 1875.
I’m reading from my mother’s book: This week it’s another fairy tale that I don’t remember reading before – The Shepherdess and the Sweep.
Unlike The Rose Elf, the story I read last week, The Shepherdess and the Sweep is not a gruesome story, but a story of love, romance, and bravery.
The Shepherdess and the Sweep are two china figures who fall in love but their love is threatened by a strange looking carved satyr the children called the Goatsleg-Highadjutant-general-militarycommandant, as he had goat’s legs, short horns and a long beard and was constantly grinning. He stood on top of a very old wooden cabinet, looking down on the beautiful Shepherdess on the table opposite and wanted her for his wife. There is also a bigger china figure than the little couple – a big old Chinese, who could nod his head. He claims authority over the Shepherdess and says she will marry the satyr that night.
So the two little china figures decide to leave the table and venture out into the wide world. In their desperation to escape they decide to climb the chimney, but when they get to the top the Shepherdess is overcome with fear and cries “This is too much” she sobbed, “That I can never bear. The world is too large; oh, were I but back again on the table under the looking glass!”
Spoiler follows – don’t read the next paragraph if you don’t want to know how this story ends.
The sweep can’t console her and so they climb back down even though he thought it was foolish. But they find that the Chinese figure in his attempt to follow them had fallen and broken into three pieces. The family mended him but his head, which had rolled far off into a corner of the room had to be riveted onto his neck, so that he could no longer nod. He was too proud to tell the Satyr and so when he asked if he were to have the Shepherdess or not, the Chinese figure was silent. And the little couple remained together. So, a happy ending for this tale.