The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan

A powerful and thought provoking story

The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan

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).

Blurb:

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.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: No Exit Press (27 July 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1843449447
  • ISBN-13: 978-1843449447
  • Source: Review copy via Lovereading
  • My rating: 3*

Last Seen Alive by Claire Douglas

Publication date: 13 July 2017, Penguin

Source: review copy via NetGalley

Blurb:

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.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 2751 KB
  • Print Length: 389 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1405926422
  • Publisher: Penguin (13 July 2017)
  • My rating: 5*

How To Stop Time by Matt Haig

Publication Date: July 6 from Canongate Books Ltd

Source: Review Copy

Blurb:

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 Time is 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.

My thoughts:

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)
  • My Rating: 4*

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

I wanted to read Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness because I’d loved her first novel, The God of Small Things when it won the Booker Prize in 1997.

Blurb:

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 thoughts:

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.

Thanks to the publisher for an ARC via NetGalley.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 2822 KB
  • Print Length: 417 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; 01 edition (6 Jun. 2017)
  • My rating: 2.5★

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the first book for my 10 Books of Summer Challenge.

Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy

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.

  • Hardcover
  • Expected publication: June 1st 2017 by Head of Zeus
  • ISBN13 9781784974688
  • Source: Review copy
  • My rating: 4*

The Author 

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.

For more information see his website.

Six Tudor Queens: Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir

Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession is Alison Weir’s second book in her series of novels about Henry VIII’s Queens and is due to be published on 18 May 2017.

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.

The Body in the Ice by A J MacKenzie

The Body in the Ice (Romney Marsh Mystery #2)

Blurb:

Christmas Day, Kent, 1796

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.

The Authors:

A J Mackenzie is 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.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1094 KB
  • Print Length: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Zaffre (20 April 2017)
  • Source: Review copy
  • My Rating: 5*

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Lizzie Borden took an ax
And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

Or did she?

On the 4 August 1892 Andrew Borden and his second wife, Abby, were brutally murdered in their home at 92 Second Street in Fall River, Massachusetts and Andrew’s daughter, Lizzie, was charged with the murders. She was tried and was acquitted in June 1893 and speculation about the murders and whether Lizzie was guilty or not continues to the present day. See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt is a work of fiction based on true events using various resources.

File:Lizzie borden.jpg
Lizzie Borden c.1890

Lizzie was thirty two at the time of the murders but in this fictionalised account she seems emotionally much younger, more like a teenager than a mature woman.

The narrative is shared by Lizzie, her sister Emma, Bridget their maid and Benjamin, a ‘friend’ of Lizzie’s Uncle John, and moves backwards and forwards in time, before and after 4 August 1892. Lizzie’s account is the strangest and it takes you right inside her mind. She is a disturbed and unstable character to say the least and I had the most unsettling feeling as I read that I was right inside her crazy, demented mind.

The writing is ambiguous in parts, lending enough credence to cast doubt on Lizzie’s guilt – and then in other parts I was convinced that she had committed the murders. It’s the introduction of Benjamin, a fictional character, a vicious and violent man, that provides an explanation of what happened to the murder weapon, that the police were unable to find.

Sarah Schmidt’s prose highlights the senses – the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes are aroused. The tension is palpable, and the fear and feverish atmosphere in the Borden’s house comes to a climax in the gruesome murders. It is indeed eerie and compelling, a mesmerising book.

I received this as an ARC from the publisher, the Atlantic Monthly Press, via NetGalley. And it is published in the US on 1 August 2017 in hardback.

Amazon US

  • Hardcover: 324 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press (August 1, 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802126596
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802126597

See What I Have Done is also published in the UK today, 2 May 2017, as an e-book by Tinder Press

Amazon UK

See What I Have Done

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1571 KB
  • Print Length: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Tinder Press (2 May 2017)

Dunstan by Conn Iggulden

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.

Amazon UK 

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 2224 KB
  • Print Length: 464 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 071818145X
  • Publisher: Penguin (4 May 2017)

The Stars are Fire by Anita Shreve

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)
  • My rating: 3*

A Dark So Deadly by Stuart MacBride

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.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 5003 KB
  • Print Length: 608 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins (20 April 2017)

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: a Memoir by Chris Packham

Description

Chris Packham’s Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: a Memoir is indeed unlike any other memoir I’ve ever read. I loved it. It is deeply personal and honest about his childhood and early teenage years. It doesn’t follow any chronological time-line but moves to an event in 1975 when he was fourteen that touched him to his core. Some chapters are in the first person, giving an intense insight into his mind and some in the third person telling of events as though through on onlooker’s eyes. Some parts are told in the third person whilst he was talking to a therapist later in his life – these are raw and intensely moving. There are parts that are so sad and parts where his anger and indeed rage and the cruelty of others come through so very clearly.

They describe his isolation, his separation from other people and his acceptance and recognition that he was different, the ‘loops’ or obsessive thoughts that run repeatedly through your mind, and the stress he experienced because of all that.

I think it is beautifully written, richly descriptive – although if you don’t like adjectives you probably won’t agree with me. I do, and I can’t imagine the book without them, they paint such vivid and colourful images, especially in passages such as those where he describes his ‘sparkle jar‘ – simply wonderful. There is no way I can summarise that, other than to say it is dazzling and scintillating – you need to read the book.

There are many, many passages that will remain with me, such as those about his obsessions with a variety of things from dinosaurs, tadpoles, otters, and snakes, (his description of the enclosure for his snakes they built in the garden is most alarming – they escaped) for example, culminating in his love for the Kestrel he stole from its nest and then took home to rear and train.

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar is a very special book. In his acknowledgements Chris Packham explains the encouragement, patience, tolerance and help he had from his parents, and how he turned their house into a menagerie and the garden into a safari park.

Extract from Chris Packham’s  website

Extraordinarily creative and prolific, Chris Packham has led a remarkable life. He’s gained recognition as a naturalist, television presenter, writer, photographer, conservationist, campaigner and filmmaker.

As a broadcaster he is a presenter of BBC’s BAAFTA Award winning Springwatch, Autumnwatch and Winterwatch series. He presents notable natural history series such as Nature’s Weirdest Events, World’s Weirdest Events, World’s Sneakiest Animals, Cats V Dogs, The Burrowers, Inside the Animal Mind, Operation Iceberg and Secrets of our Living Planet. He was featured in The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon (NBC – US) where he introduced Jimmy to a Porcupine and baby spotted Hyena, and sent a Black Vulture flying to him as he stood in the audience.

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Ebury Press (6 April 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1785033506
  • ISBN-13: 978-1785033506

Many thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my copy of this book!

The Kill Fee by Fiona Veitch Smith

The Kill Fee (Poppy Denby Investigates #2)

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.

My thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers for my copy of this book.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Lion Fiction (16 Sept. 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1782642188
  • ISBN-13: 978-1782642183

This is my 10th book for the Mount TBR Challenge.

The Lauras by Sara Taylor

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.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 2773 KB
  • Print Length: 302 pages
  • Publisher: Cornerstone Digital (4 Aug. 2016)
  • Rating: 2.5 stars

The Legacy by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

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.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 2046 KB
  • Print Length: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (23 Mar. 2017)
  • My rating: 5* (despite the horrific murders)

Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney

A gripping psychological thriller

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.

The Idea of You by Amanda Prowse

Blurb:

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?

My thoughts:

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

Everything but the Truth by Gillian Mcallister

A brilliant book full of secrets and lies

Just how much can you trust the person you love?

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?

My thoughts

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.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1230 KB
  • Print Length: 420 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1405928263
  • Publisher: Penguin (9 Mar. 2017)

Let the Dead Speak by Jane Casey

A murder scene, but where’s the body?

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.

Blurb:

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)

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

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.

At the Edge of the OrchardThis 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)

Justice By Another Name by E C Hanes

Blurb:

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.

My thoughts

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.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 965 KB
  • Print Length: 235 pages
  • Publisher: RaneCoat Press (1 Mar. 2017)
  • My rating: 5*

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

‘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.

My thoughts:

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.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 6546 KB
  • Print Length: 361 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0241978033
  • Publisher: Penguin (2 Mar. 2017)

The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude

A Golden Age Murder Mystery

Blurb:

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.

My thoughts:

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
  • Amazon link to the Kindle edition
  • My rating – 4 stars

The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths

Blurb:

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.

My thoughts:

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)

The Good People by Hannah Kent

A heart-wrenching and beautiful novel.

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.

The Good People

Blurb:

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.

My thoughts:

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 by Sheena Kamal

Eyes Like Mine is an excellent psychological suspense novel. I loved it.

Blurb:

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.

My thoughts:

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.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Zaffre (9 Feb. 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1785762567
  • ISBN-13: 978-1785762567

If Ever I Fall by S D Robertson

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.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1149 KB
  • Print Length: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Avon (9 Feb. 2017)

4 *

Missing Pieces by Heather Gudenkauf

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.

Blurb:

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.

My thoughts:

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.

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: HQ (12 Jan. 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 184845497X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848454972

The 12.30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts

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.

Amazon UK link

Amazon US link

This is my first book for the What’s in a Name 2017 in the category of ‘a number in numbers’.

The Buttonmaker’s Daughter by Merryn Allingham

The Buttonmaker's Daughter by [Allingham, Merryn]

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.

Blurb:

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?

My thoughts:

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)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0008193835
  • ISBN-13: 978-0008193836
  • Source: review copy

The Bone Field by Simon Kernick

The Bone Field (The Bone Field Series, #1)

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.

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Century (12 Jan. 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1780894538
  • ISBN-13: 978-1780894539

Corpus by Rory Clements

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.)

Blurb

1936.

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.

My thoughts:

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.

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Zaffre (26 Jan. 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1785762613
  • ISBN-13: 978-1785762611
  • Source: review copy via NetGalley

A Rustle of Silk by Alys Clare

 

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.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1795 KB
  • Print Length: 244 pages
  • Publisher: Severn House Digital (20 Dec. 2016)

Worth Killing For by Ed James

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)

 

The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick

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.

Blurb:

“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…

My thoughts

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 Phantom Tree.  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.

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: HQ (29 Dec. 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1848455046
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848455047

Mystery in the Channel by Freeman Wills Crofts

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.

It qualifies for Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt in the category of a book with a ‘Boat’ on the cover.

The Marriage Lie by Kimberly Belle

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.

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: HQ (29 Dec. 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1848456646
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848456648

Where Dead Men Meet by Mark Mills

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, so I 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.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 972 KB
  • Print Length: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Review (17 Nov. 2016)

The Spy by Paulo Coelho

 

The Spy

Synopsis:

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.

My thoughts:

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.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 3598 KB
  • Print Length: 220 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1524732060
  • Publisher: Cornerstone Digital; 01 edition (22 Nov. 2016)

Many thanks to NetGalley for a review copy of this book.

Another Day Gone by Eliza Graham

 

Another Day Gone

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.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 2182 KB
  • Print Length: 322 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1503940039
  • Publisher: Lake Union Publishing (22 Nov. 2016)
  • Source: review copy via NetGalley

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

Blurb:

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.

My thoughts:

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 Child a 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.

His Name was David Freeman by Ruth Kipnis

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.

Blurb:

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.

Biography

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.

My thoughts:

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.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 666 KB
  • Print Length: 263 pages
  • First published 15 September 2016
  • Publisher: First Edition Design Publishing
  • Source: my thanks to NetGalley for my copy

Sweet William by Beryl Bainbridge

 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.

Blurb:

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.

My thoughts:

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.

  • File Size: 4973 KB
  • Print Length: 136 pages
  • Publisher: Open Road Media (November 29, 2016)
  • Publication Date: November 29, 2016
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B01LXDSTWF

Amazon USA link

Highlanders’ Revenge by Paul Tors

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' Revenge

Blurb:

Highlanders’ Revenge combines 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 5th Camerons. This fast-paced historical novel will appeal to fans of military fiction who also appreciate historical accuracy.

Highlanders’ Revenge tells 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.

My thoughts:

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
  • File Size: 2747 KB
  • Print Length: 369 pages
  • Publisher: Troubador (14 July 2016)

Amazon UK link

Amazon US link

Arrowood by Laura McHugh

ArrowoodArrowood 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

The Blood Card (DI Stephens & Max Mephisto, #3)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.

Amazon UK link

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

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 immigrants arriving 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.

Amazon UK link

Autumn by Ali Smith

autumn-smith

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 by Karen Maitland

The Plague Charmer

Karen Maitland is a great storyteller.

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.

  • Hardcover: 576 pages (also as an e-book)
  • Publisher: Headline Review (20 Oct. 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1472235827
  • ISBN-13: 978-1472235824

Amazon UK link

On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin

One of my favourite books – On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin was first published in 1982 when it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Whitbread First Novel of the Year Award. The Black Hill is one of the Black Mountains on the border of England and Wales, although fictionalised in this book. It was made into a film in 1988. And today it is released in an e-book edition by Open Road Integrated Media.

It’s a gentle, richly descriptive book of both the landscape and the characters, about lonely lives on a farm, largely untouched by the 20th century. It follows the lives of identical twins, Lewis and Benjamin Jones, a period of over 80 years. They are inseparable, Benjamin in particular suffering whenever they are apart. Their lives are hard, lonely, brutal at times, but full of love for their mother and the land they farm.

I love this book and most of all I love they way Chatwin brought the characters to life, not just Lewis and Benjamin, but all the other personalities, some eccentric, some comic and some tragic. His attention to detail is remarkable – at no time does it seem excessive, or intrusive but all the little minutiae of daily life are essential to the book. It highlights questions of love, religion, death and above all relationships. It is most definitely not a book to race through to find out what happens, although I did want to know, but one to savour – and one to re-read.

  • File Size: 6409 KB
  • Print Length: 236 pages
  • Publisher: Open Road Media (October 18, 2016)
  • Publication Date: October 18, 2016
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B01K6GBLWI
  • Source: review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

Amazon US link

 

The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin

The Songlines by [Chatwin, Bruce]

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.

  • File Size: 6061 KB
  • Print Length: 281 pages
  • Publisher: Open Road Media (October 18, 2016)
  • Publication Date: October 18, 2016
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B01K6GBLVY

Amazon US link

The Black Caravel by Harry Nicholson

The Black Caravel by Harry Nicholson is his second novel about Tom Fleck: a Novel of Cleveland and Flodden, which I reviewed in 2011.

Blurb:

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.

My view:

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)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1535378085
  • ISBN-13: 978-1535378086
  • Source: Review copy from the author

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

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 earlier books, 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 Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

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 Factory was 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.

Amazon US link

Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

SandlandsSandlands 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 think this 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.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Sandstone Press Ltd (21 July 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 191098504X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1910985045

Inside of Me by Hazel McHaffie

I’ve read one of Hazel McHaffie’s books in the past – Over My Dead Body and was impressed by the way she weaves facts into her fiction so seamlessly that it doesn’t detract from the story. So, when she asked if I would like to read Inside of Me I didn’t hesitate to say yes please. And I wasn’t disappointed. I think this is an excellent book and once I started reading it I didn’t want to stop, keen to find out what was going to happen next.

Hazel McHaffie’s novels all cover medical ethics issues and the issues in Inside of Me concern body image, in particular, but not exclusively, about anorexia; identity, and relationships. There is also a mystery – teenage girls are going missing, the latest one being Maria aged sixteen, last seen walking alone along Regent’s Park Canal. Tonya Grayson is worried, no terrified is a better description, that her missing husband, Victor, could be involved. But the police are convinced he is dead; his clothes were found neatly folded in a beach, although his body was never found. India, their daughter, who was eight at the time, believes, even after seven years, that he is still alive, reinforced by hearing his voice in a crowded London station, the day after Maria was reported missing.

The narrative, told in the first person, switches between Tonya and India living in Scotland, and Chris, who works in a florist shop in London, mourning the loss of a daughter. Chris, after reading the newspaper report about the missing teenager, spots Maria at a local car boot sale, offers to help and ends up taking her home, anxious about her safety.

India is anorexic, but won’t accept the truth, either that her father is dead or that she has a weight problem. Tonya tries to help her but cannot get through to her and for most of the book seems completely out of her depth, unable to move forward herself. She is plagued with doubts about Victor and his relationship with India, which had been very close. India’s best friend, Mercedes is also obsessed with her weight and encourages India both to find her father and to take even more drastic ways to gain her target weight.

Hazel McHaffie has got right inside each character’s mind, making this a compelling and convincing story. And it is a gripping story, easy to read, but by no means a comfortable read, in turns emotional and troubling. It conveys the complex dilemmas of living with eating disorders, problems with body image and difficult family relationships, issues with control and coping with emotional disturbance, obsessions and compulsive behaviour. Added to all this there is the mystery of what happened to Victor – his pile of clothes on the beach reminded me of Reginald Perrin (from the TV series  in the 1970s). I think it is a wonderful book and I don’t think I’ve read another novel like it. I’ve only touched its surface in this post!

  • Paperback: 242 pages
  • Publisher: VelvetEthics Press (5 Mar. 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 099262312X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0992623128
  • Source: Review copy from the author

Hazel McHaffie is a Scottish author. For details of her background and qualifications as a nurse, midwife, PhD in Social Sciences and Research Fellow in Medical Ethics see her website, where she also lists her awards, life changing experiences, and more personal stuff such as her character traits, addictions (including good books), and hobbies. She also writes a most interesting blog.

The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Home

Lovereading.co.uk  sent me a copy of  The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Home for review in advance of the publication of the third title in the series The Malice of Waves on 19 May and I’m glad to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It’s one of those books that grabbed my attention right from the start when two young teenage girls from India are sold into the sex trafficking trade, completely unaware of the dangers and terror that awaits them. Then, Edinburgh-based oceanographer, Cal McGill is caught on camera planting a rare wild flower in the garden of the Scottish Environment Minister in a campaign to make politicians aware of the dangers of climate change. Detective Inspector Ryan wants to charge him with vandalism but the minister’s wife wants to keep the plant!

From then on the story gets complicated. It’s more of an investigative story than crime fiction, with several strands to the story, but it’s so well told that I had no difficulty in following all of them: a story of unsolved mysteries both from the present day and from the Second World War, and of two Indian girls, sold into the sex trafficking trade. It’s set mainly in Scotland with a strong sense of place throughout.

The main characters are all fully rounded and complex – Cal McGill works for environmental organisations tracking oil spills using wind speeds and data on ocean currents; DI David Ryan and DC Helen Jamieson are investigating the appearance of severed feet in trainers that had been washed on shore on islands miles apart – tests had revealed that they belonged to the same body; and Basanti, one of the Indian girls, whose resourcefulness saved her life. I especially liked Helen Jamieson, the overweight policewoman, whose boss, Ryan mistakenly thinks is stupid, and the way she deals with him.

The strand that interested me most concerns Cal’s grandfather, from the (fictional) island of Eilean Iasgaich. He had died during the Second World War, washed overboard during a storm, whilst their trawler was patrolling the sea around Norway, one of seven men who had died – and yet his name had not been included in the island’s war memorial. Cal eventually discovers the truth about what actually happened and how his grandfather met his death.

It’s a gripping and emotional story. I loved it.

The Sea Detective is Mark Douglas-Home’s first book. Before writing books he was the editor of Scotland’s leading daily newspaper, The Herald, and The Sunday Times Scotland. He is the nephew of the late Sir Alec Douglas-Home who was Prime Minister of the UK from October 1963 to October 1964. He lives in Edinburgh.

I’m looking forward to reading his second book, The Woman who Walked into the Sea as well as his third, The Malice of Waves.

Reading Challenges: Read Scotland 2016 – by a Scottish author and set in Scotland.

Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen by Alison Weir

I received a proof copy of Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen as a member of the reader review panel for Lovereading.co.uk. It’s the first book in a series of novels about Henry VIII’s Queens and is due to be published in May 2016.

This is fictional biography at its most straight forward, written in an uncomplicated style. Told from Katherine’s point of view it follows her life from the time she arrived in England at the age of sixteen to marry Prince Arthur, the elder of Henry VII’s two sons, to her death in 1536.

I knew the brief facts about Katherine, the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, married first to Prince Arthur and then to his brother Henry after a papal dispensation allowing the marriage after Arthur’s death; her subsequent failure to produce a living male heir, suffering a series of miscarriages; the only baby to survive was a daughter, Mary; and her divorce in 1533 from Henry VIII, who was by then besotted with Anne Boleyn.

This novel fills in the facts in great detail including the question of whether her first marriage was consummated. Katherine maintained it wasn’t and based on research Weir takes her word as the truth. In her Author’s Note she refers to recent research by Giles Tremlett and Patrick Williams that shows ‘we can be fairly certain that Katherine’s marriage to Prince Arthur was not consummated and that he died of tuberculosis.’  She cites the basis of her account of Arthur’s illnesss on Dr. Alcaraz’s testimony, given on 1531 at Zaragoza. She portrays Katherine as a determined woman who never ceased loving Henry and above all who did everything she could to protect the legitimacy of her daughter.

Katherine is portrayed as a woman of her time – obedient to her parents and her husband, conscientious about doing her duty  and active in maintaining an alliance between England and Spain. But even so, she resisted Henry in his demands for an annulment of their marriage. She was heart-broken both at her failure to produce a living male heir and to keep Henry’s love – because they were in love at the beginning – and maintained that she was the true queen right up to her death. I tend to forget the length of their marriage, glibly remembering the mnemonic ‘Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived‘. Katherine and Henry were married for over 20 years. I did get tired of the account of their endless wrangling, going over and over the same arguments, never getting anywhere – but then I suppose that was how it was for them both.

Overall I enjoyed this book. It’s a long and comprehensive study, which has increased my knowledge and understanding of Katherine of Aragon and the early 1500s. It is obviously based on extensive research and written with great attention to historical accuracy, but in places this made it tedious and too drawn out.

  • Hardcover: 624 pages – also available as a Kindle edition
  • Publisher: Headline Review (5 May 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1472227476
  • ISBN-13: 978-1472227478
  • Product Dimensions: 15.3 x 5.6 x 23.4 cm
  • Source: Review copy

Too Soon a Death by Janet O’Kane

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

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

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

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

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

The Author

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

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

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

The Abbess of Whitby by Jill Dalladay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monocled Mutineer by John Fairley & William Allison

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

Description from the Press Release:

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

My thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

House of Shadows by Nicola Cornick

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

Press Release synopsis:

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

February 1662

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

February 1801

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

February 2014

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

My thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Game For All the Family by Sophie Hannah

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

Publishers’ blurb:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lost Garden by Katharine Swartz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dacre’s War by Rosemary Goring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Challenges: Read Scotland, Historical Fiction Challenge.

The Ravens Head by Karen Maitland

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

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

Summary from Karen Maitland’s website:

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

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

Chilling and with compelling hints of the supernatural.

My thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

The Book of Lost and Found by Lucy Foley

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

Summary from inside the front cover:

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

It’s when life started in earnest
HERTFORDSHIRE, 1928

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sausage Hall by Christina James

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

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

Synopsis from the back cover:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almost Invincible by Suzanne Burdon

Almost InvincibleMary Shelley’s life and relationship with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was truly remarkable, a story of scandal, love and loss. And Suzanne Burdon using letters and diaries has written a remarkable novel, Almost Invincible, about her.

Mary ‘s parents were two radical writers, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, the advocate of women’s rights. At the age of sixteen she met Shelley, who was already married. They fell in love, abandoned their families and eloped, but significantly they took Mary’s step-sister, Claire with them. It was disastrous because Claire was in love with Shelley too and almost constantly in conflict with Mary.

The novel begins in Geneva in 1816 as Mary reads the opening pages of her novel, Frankenstein to Shelley, Lord Byron and their friends:

It was barely five on a summer afternoon but already eerily dark. The candles were lit and shivered in response to the wind and rain pounding against the panelled windows. Mary took up her scribbled pages and found her voice.

From then on the novel goes back to Mary’s meeting with Shelley in St Pancras churchyard in London two years earlier and follows their tempestuous lives until Shelley’s death in Italy in 1823. Mary went through so much; social outcasts they spent their time moving houses from France, England, Switzerland and Italy. She had two miscarriages and suffered the deaths of two of her children. Her father’s description of her shows her spirit:

She is singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes, almost invincible.

But above all, it was her love for Shelley that sustained her. I found this a very moving book as it weaves its way through the tangled and often turbulent relationships of Mary, Shelley, Claire and their friends and acquaintances. At times Claire’s behaviour was so manipulative and destructive that Mary could not bear to be with her. Yet through all the sadness, grief, illnesses, and financial difficulties she found solace in her writing.

Suzanne Burdon has written a most impressive story. She has done extensive research, using original letters and stories in the Abinger Collection in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the Carl Phorzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle in the New York Public Library. Almost Invincible is her first novel, based on fact but conveying the emotions, thoughts and feelings of her characters so convincingly. I was entranced.

  • Paperback: 340 pages
  • Publisher: Criteria Publishing
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0992354005
  • ISBN-13: 978-0992354008
  • Source: review copy from the publishers

The Reluctant Detective by Martha Ockley

17742272I had little idea what to expect from Martha Ockley’s first Faith Morgan mysteryThe Reluctant Detective as I hadn’t come across the author before and all I had to go on was the description on LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers page last month:

‘Former cop Faith Morgan may have quit the world of crime, but crime has not let her go. Now a priest in the Church of England, she is assigned to the improbably named village of Little Worthy, and within an hour of her arrival she witnesses the sudden, shocking death of a fellow priest. To her distress, the detective assigned to the case is Ben, her former partner and former boyfriend.

As she meets her parishioners she learns some surprising details about her apparently well-loved predecessor, and starts to suspect a motive for his death. The cop may have donned a clerical collar, but the questions keep coming. How will she reconcile her present calling with her past instincts? Is she in danger herself? What should she do about Ben?’

I thought a detective who  was a priest and who used to be a policewoman sounded interesting. So, I am very pleased that The Reluctant Detective turned out to be a good read. Faith Morgan is a well-rounded character; she’s very likeable, observant, compassionate and the sort of person that people feel comfortable talking to – a bit like a young Miss Marple. Indeed, the book has an Agatha Christie feel to it – set in an apparently idyllic country village, with interesting and somewhat quirky characters and although there is one rather gruesome death, it’s not a gory thriller. In short it’s the type of murder mystery that I like, with plenty of complications that kept me guessing about the identity of the murderer for most of the book.

The church and village location are convincing. The parish church of St John is an old building dating from Saxon times, with a tower and church bells, set in the English countryside:

Faith avoided the main approach and followed a gravel path around the back of the church. A creamy cloud of ivory clematis cascaded over a grey stone wall. Beyond a solitary pony raised its chestnut head to gaze mournfully at her from a field of weeds. Some way off squatted a group of ramshackle farm buildings. (page 9)

Faith’s ex – Detective Inspector Ben Shorter, reluctantly allows Faith to contribute to the search for the murderer and the chemistry between the two of them is clearly evident even though he can’t understand why she left the police force for the church. Indeed, Faith herself wonders if she has done the right thing, cutting herself off from her old life and her old self as she realises that she likes investigating, and analyzing people, their expressions and body language and working out what makes them tick. But these are assets for a priest as well as for a police officer. And as for death:

It struck Faith how death is always startling, facing us with the greatest mystery: how the particular and the individual can vanish from this world so completely in a moment. (page 17)

The back cover reveals that Martha Ockley lives in the North East of England and has close links with the church, having grown up as the daughter of a minister. She is a full-time writer of both fiction and non-fiction. I was curious about Martha Ockley and wondered why she had given ‘special thanks to Rebecca Jenkins’ on the title page, so I searched online and discovered that ‘Martha Ockley’ is actually a pseudonym of Rebecca Jenkins, the daughter of the Rev David Jenkins, formerly the Bishop of Durham.

Thanks to LibraryThing and Lion Fiction/Kregel Publications for providing a copy for review. Based on my reading of The Reluctant Detective I shall certainly seek out more books by Martha Ockley/Rebecca Jenkins. There are two more Faith Morgan books:

  • The Advent of Murder
  • A Saintly Killing (to be published in October 2014)

And writing as Rebecca Jenkins:

The R F Jarrett books (the Regency Detective)

  • The Duke’s Agent (1997)
  • Death of a Radical (2010)

also Non Fiction:

  • Free to Believe (David Jenkins and Rebecca Jenkins (1991)
  • Fanny Kemble: a reluctant celebrity (2005)
  • The First London Olympics 1908 (2008)

The Dance of Love by Angela Young

Angela Young‘s new novel The Dance of Love is historical fiction set at the turn of the twentieth century between 1899 and 1919. It is outstanding and I loved it so much. At times as I read it I could hardly see the pages through my tears – and there have not been many books that have that effect on me.  It’s a brilliant book, both a heart-rending love story and a dramatic story too, as the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and the devastating and tragic effects of the First World War impact on the characters’ lives.

It’s the story of Natalie, the daughter of Sir Thomas Edwardes, a wealthy business man, a self-made man who is socially unsure of himself, but who wants his daughter to be accepted into society. It begins in 1899, a period when young ladies were presented at Court for the London Season, an opportunity to meet their future husbands. Natalie’s friends, the daughters of Lady Bridewell, are looking forward to the London Season. But Natalie has little desire to be presented at Court, relishing the idea that she would be free to live without such restraints and marry for love, someone who will care for her for herself, not because of her family connections. However, she falls in with her father’s wishes and when she meets a handsome artist-soldier, Lieutenant Haffie, it seems her wish for a happy marriage will come true.

What I really liked about this book is the way historical background is seamlessly interwoven with the narrative and how it captures the changes in society as the years went by. Natalie grows from a young, impulsive teenager with passion for romance and dancing into a responsible young woman whose hopes for a happy marriage are in the balance.  The portrait of the Edwardian upper classes, with their lavish life style, glittering balls and all their extravagances is fascinating, contrasting with the enormous changes in society as the War takes its effect.

I liked all the details about paintings as Haffie shows his work to Natalie – Angela Young’s beautiful descriptions draw such vivid full colour images that I could easily visualise the paintings, which Natalie says are ‘mysteries made of light.’  And her portrayal of the settings, whether in London, Devon or the Scottish Highlands are just as vivid, making this a richly descriptive book.

But it is the effect of the War and the effect on the families of those people travelling across the Atlantic on the Titanic that really brought home to me the whole human tragedy that people lived through, much more than any historical account has done. I think it’s seeing these events through the eyes of the people left at home that has the most impact.

I had enjoyed Angela Young’s first novel, Speaking of Love and so was pleased to accept her offer of an uncorrected proof copy of The Dance of Love. I’m so glad I did as it’s a beautifully written, brilliant book that moved me deeply, and one I shall most definitely re-read (always proof of a good book for me).

The Dance of Love will be published on 31 July 2014.

Shadows on Our Skin by Jennifer Johnston

Shadows on Our Skin by Jennifer Johnston has recently been re-issued as an e-book. It was first published in 1977 when it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I was pleased to be offered a copy for review as I have enjoyed a few of her books, such as The Illusionist and Two Moons.

This is the story of Joe, living in Derry (Londonderry), Northern Ireland before the Troubles and the Bloody Sunday attack in 1972. Joe is a schoolboy, living with his mother and his alcoholic father, a former war hero who reminisces and feeds on his memories. It’s a violent situation at home, as the father dominates his wife and son, with an even more violent conflict in the streets. To a certain extent Joe lives within his own head, writing poetry, and his mother is keen to keep him indoors once school has finished because she fears he will be shot as the British soldiers patrol the streets. However, he has made friends with Kathleen, a young English teacher and they meet after school. She encourages his writing, enhancing his escape from reality. But when his brother, Brendan returns home his involvement in the IRA brings Joe back to earth with a sharp shock, as the conflict comes closer to home.

Shadows on Our Skin is an engrossing book, the writing is taut and spare and yet poetical, the scenes standing out vividly in my mind. The characters’ interaction is full of emotion, and of tension; their feelings of despair and bitterness are all very evident. The book is certainly an enlightening read for me.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 515 KB
  • Print Length: 177 pages
  • Publisher: Open Road Media (24 Jun 2014)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00KQ6PJZE
  • Source: Review copy

He Wants by Alison Moore

I received a proof copy of He Wants by Alison Moore from Lovereading for review. It will be published in August this year. I began reading with high expectations because I thought I’d like it from the publishers’ synopsis:

Lewis Sullivan, an RE teacher at a secondary school, is approaching retirement when he wonders for the first time whether he ought to have chosen a more dramatic career. He lives in a village in the Midlands, less than a mile from the house in which he grew up. He always imagined living by the sea. His grown-up daughter visits every day, bringing soup. He does not want soup. He frequents his second-favourite pub, where he can get half a shandy, a speciality sausage and a bit of company. When an old friend appears on the scene, Lewis finds his routine and comfortable life shaken up.

However, this synopsis is a bit misleading. Lewis is not approaching retirement – he has already retired. He is looking back over his life and thinking about all the things he had wanted/wants/ does not want.  It’s a book about ageing and unfulfilled expectations. It jumps around mirroring Lewis thought processes as he remembers his childhood, his parents, his wife, his daughter and his friend Sydney.

He Wants is a short book (180 pages in the proof copy). Written in the present tense, it’s a bleak tale of a man whose life did not turn out as he expected or wanted. I don’t have to like the characters to enjoy reading a book, but despite the quality of writing, which is taut and effective in creating an atmosphere of unease and emptiness, I couldn’t take to this book. Lewis’s dissatisfaction with his life compared to how had imagined it would be was just too drab and unrelenting.

Lewis had wanted all sorts of fantastic things. The chapter headings indicate the things he wanted but never got, or the things he did not want and did get: he did not want soup or the sausages, he did not want the boy to be spoiled, he wanted to go to the moon, to live in Australia, to be seen, a time machine and a cup of tea and so on.

Sadly, it was not my cup of tea.

Alison Moore was shortlisted for the Man Book Prize in 2012 with her debut novel The Lighthouse, a book I haven’t read and may check just to see if it’s in the same vein as He Wants.

North Sea Cottage by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen

Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen’s latest book, North Sea Cottage, is an e-book, a novella set in Denmark. It’s another dual time period book – it seems that each book I’ve read recently is one of these. This one is split between the present day and 1943/4 and it works very well.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book; the cottage in the title is owned by Tora’s aunt, Bergatora. As soon as I began reading I was immediately transported in place away to the other side of the North Sea to Denmark with Tora, and in time back to the Second World War, with her aunt, Bergatora. In just a few words Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen draws a vivid picture of the old fisherman’s cottage surrounded by dense sea fog.

Tora is struggling to overcome her own problems when she is faced with a new problem. The old stable next to the cottage catches fire during a thunder storm and in the aftermath of the fire Tora finds a skeleton in the potato cellar under the ruined stable. Who is it who had died in the cellar? Bergatora is reluctant to talk about the war years and her brother, Tora’s father, was too young at the time to help. It was a time when Denmark was under German occupation and a resistance movement was under way. Inspector Thomas Bilgren suspects the victim may have been related to the German occupation.

Tora, helped by Bilgren attempts to discover the truth, but is hampered by the strong character of her aunt and the silence surrounding what happened during the war. I loved this aspect of the book – the delving back into history, the way the narrative switches backwards and forwards, gradually revealing what had happened. North Sea Cottage is only about 90 pages but it has depth both in mystery and in characterisation and the setting is so atmospheric. I was fearful for Tora’s safety as she dug deeper into the mysteries from the past.

Thanks to Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen, who kindly sent me a copy of her book. She has a blog – Djskrimiblog and used to be a teacher. She writes both serious mysteries as well as humorous and cosy stories about the Gershwin family in Knavesborough, a fictional village in Yorkshire, publishing in Danish and English. I like her humorous stories but prefer the serious ones like North Sea Cottage and her previous novel, Anna Märklin’s Family Chronicles. She is currently at work on her next novel – Crystal Nights, to be published in 2014/5.

Pictures at an Exhibition by Camilla Macpherson

I enjoyed Pictures at an Exhibition by Camilla Macpherson very much. It’s a dual time period novel moving between the present day and the Second World War, a format I think that can be hard to do successfully. In this book, Camilla Macpherson’s first published novel, I think it is successful as I was equally keen to find out what happened next in both periods.

Pictures at an Exhibition is structured around Daisy’s letters to her cousin Elizabeth telling her about the paintings on display at London’s National Gallery during the war years – one a month. In the present day Claire reads the letters, left to her husband Rob, by his grandmother, Elizabeth. They are not just about the paintings but also about Daisy’s life and the man she meets and loves. Claire meanwhile, is struggling to recover from a tragedy that threatens to overwhelm her and wreck her marriage. She decides to read the letters, one a month, and visit the National Gallery to see the paintings and compare them with Daisy’s descriptions.

I found the characters thoroughly convincing, the settings and the time periods contrasting vividly and loved all the details about the paintings. I also liked the way the characters developed throughout the book. For example, at the beginning of the book, which I found so devastatingly sad, Claire is full of anger and grief, affecting her relationship with Rob:

It was the grief speaking. It could do strange things grief. She had not known that until now. She had never had to know. It had brought with it this desperate, physical need to blame someone, someone who would be right there when she had to lash out – Rob. The only person who was always there. (page 106)

She becomes obsessed with the letters, the paintings and with Daisy’s life. It’s a remarkable portrayal of a woman in crisis and how she managed to find herself again. Daisy’s story is just as convincing describing life in London during the Blitz and along with Claire I really wanted to know more about her and what happened to her.

I think it was the art that drew me to this book in the first place and I found those parts of the book absolutely fascinating. The National Gallery did display one painting a month after most of them had been transported away from London and the bombs for safe keeping. You can see the paintings described by scanning the QR codes at the beginning of each chapter and also see them on Camilla Macpherson’s website, and of course on the National Gallery’s site too. I knew of most of them before, but not all of them and as I was reading I printed copies to see what Daisy and Claire saw.

But by the end of the book it was the characters and the story that had captivated me too.  It’s about life and death, love and loss, grief and relationships and I found it compelling reading – when I wasn’t reading it I was thinking about it and keen to get back to it. It’s a book I want to re-read at some time – and there aren’t many of those.

My thanks go to Camilla Macpherson, who kindly sent me a copy of her book. I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.

The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter

The Sea ChangeSet in lost landscapes, The Sea Change is Joanna Rossiter’s debut novel revolving around a mother and daughter caught up in catastrophic events. The lost landscapes are the village of Imber, a Wiltshire village that was requisitioned by the army during World War Two, where Violet had grown up, and the coastal village of Kanyakumari in Southern India, where her daughter Alice was caught up in the tsunami that devastated the area in 1971.

It’s about lost lives too, wrecked relationships, the isolation of people through their inability to communicate with each other, about love, loss and grief and above all about the relationship between mothers and daughters and sisters.

I enjoyed reading this beautifully written book; I could easily visualise the different landscapes as I read. It begins with drama in the ‘present’ (1971) as the tsunami sweeps through Kanyakumari, separating Alice from her new husband, James and she is in danger of drowning. The story is a dual time novel told alternately by Alice and Violet. After the dramatic opening scenes it then moves immediately to Imber in 1971 as Violet returns to Imber and recalls how they were forced to leave, clinging to Imber ‘as if it were a lost soul.

There are parallels between their stories, both caught up in events outside their control. I was more interested in Violet’s story as she and her mother and sister try to carry on with their lives during the war, mourning the death of her father. And yet Alice’s story is also moving as she desperately searches for James.  Alice and Violet had not parted on good terms when Alice had left home to go on the hippy trail and I liked the way the two stories gradually came together and details of their lives became clearer.

I wrote about the opening paragraphs of this book in this earlier post.

Thanks to Penguin for providing a review copy of this book. I’m sorry to say that it has sat unread apart from the opening pages on my bookshelves since last year when I received it. This is one reason I’m reluctant sometimes to accept review copies – there are so many books clamouring to be read!

Joanna Rossiter has her own website where you can see a YouTube video of her reading from the beginning of the book and talking about her book. I hope she writes more books!

No Stranger to Death by Janet O’Kane

No Stranger to DeathMy thanks to Janet O’Kane for sending me a copy of her book,  No Stranger to Death, which I really enjoyed reading.  Once I’d started it I just wanted to keep on reading. I was surprised by how intricate and complex the plot is, with several sub-plots and a crowd of characters, all of whom are clearly defined. Set in the Scottish Borders, it also has a strong sense of location and it was refreshing to read a Scottish crime novel that is not set in Edinburgh, Glasgow or even in Shetland. It’s a fast-paced novel that kept me on the edge wanting to find out more.

No Stranger to Death begins with recently widowed Dr Zoe Moreland’s discovery of a body in the remains of a Guy Fawkes bonfire. Westerlea, a fictional village, is a place where everybody knows everyone, but even so it seems everyone has something to hide.  Zoe is new to the village, having moved from there from England to join the Health Centre as a GP and with the help of her new friend, Kate Mackenzie, she soon finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation. This is not a police procedural, although Detective Erskine Mather of Police Scotland is in charge of the investigation.

It’s not only the villagers who have secrets, as there is something in Zoe’s background that she wants to keep to herself and getting involved in a murder investigation is the last thing she wanted:

She had gone back to using her maiden name when she came to Scotland, but would that protect her against people whose job it was to dig up the past of anyone remotely connected with a sensational crime? (page 29)

As Zoe and Kate dig deeper quite a few nasty secrets come to light with almost disastrous consequences and Zoe is in fear of her own life. No Stranger to Death touches on some quite dark themes with an ending that took me by surprise.

Janet O’Kane lives in the Scottish Borders and she is currently writing a follow up to No Stranger to Death, again featuring Zoe Moreland. For more information see her blog – Janet O’Kane: Crime Fiction with a Heart and her Facebook page.

As well as being a really good book in its own right, No Stranger to Death meets the criteria for both the Read Scotland 2014 challenge and the My Kind of Mystery challenge.

Knavesborough Stories by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen

Recently Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen kindly made two of her short stories available to me (e-books) for review. They are both about the Gershwin family in Knavesborough, a fictional village in Yorkshire, namely Ding Dong Bell, the Kitten in the Well and Green Acres. I often find short stories lack the necessary depth to be convincing – either weak plots and/or characterisation, but these short stories are both convincing and satisfying. Maybe it helps that they are continuations of other stories, or in the case of Ding Dong Bell, the Kitten in the Well, a prequel.

Ding Dong Bell, the Kitten in the Well goes back in time to Rhapsody Gershwin’s childhood in the early 1990s. Rhapsody is the vicar’s daughter first featured in The Cosy Knave. In this short story Rhapsody and her sisters are worried about the disappearance of the black kitten they have called Black Pete. The last time they had seen him was when they had played in old Ursula Abbot’s garden and they wondered if he had he got locked in her cottage. Ursula had died but as she was nearly ninety it wasn’t entirely an unexpected death … but she had been in good health. Is Ursula’s death connected to Black Pete’s disappearance?Rhapsody helps to solve the mystery.

Green Acres* takes us to the latest in the Gershwin and Penrose Mysteries series. Green Acres, once a country mansion, has been converted into a home for the elderly. Rhapsody visits Rowan Dougal, a farmer who has broken his hip and is currently living at Green Acres. Lavinia Banbury staying in the room next to Rowan dies in her sleep. Nothing unusual in an old people’s home, but is her death really a natural one?

Green Acres* was originally published in the anthology The Red Shoes. This is a new and longer version.

I like these stories. They’re humorous crime fiction, with colourful characters all with quirky names. There’s no blood and gore and each story has an unexpected twist at the end. In other words, they are cosy crimes (if any crime could really be considered as ‘cosy’, that is).

Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen is Danish. After many years as a teacher she is now concentrating on a writing career, publishing in both Danish and English. As well as writing her cosy mysteries she has also written a full length psychological murder mystery novel, Anna Marklin’s Family Chronicles, which I thoroughly enjoyed too – see my post here.

St Bartholomew’s Man by Mary Delorme

I was intrigued when I was asked if I would like to read Mary Delorme’s book St Bartholomew’s Man, about Rahere, a man who was a court jester to Henry I and who was also instrumental in the foundation of St Bartholomew’s Hospital in 1123. I was intrigued because it seemed an odd combination, that a jester and the founder of St Bartholomew’s should be one and the same person. And I wondered how that had come about.

It is historical fiction but as Mary Delorme clarifies in her Author’s Note it is based on fact with this proviso:

Almost nine hundred years lie between Rahere and myself; enough to blur historical facts, and leave room for doubt. Rahere is often described as a man of lowly origins, and a jester – something I find difficult to accept, bearing his mind his outstanding achievements and experiences. I therefore began my novel assuming that he was more highly born; not of the highest, but still an educated man. (Loc 26)

It seems to me that she has thoroughly researched her material, and managed to incorporate it seamlessly into her book. St Bartholomew’s Man follows the life of Rahere, from his childhood growing up as an orphan in a monastery, where he was one of the singing children, and he helped the monks in their healing work.

It is a book that left me knowing a lot more about the late 11th and early 12th centuries. It tells of the lives of ordinary people, of the monastic life and above all of the dangers and turbulence of life, moving through the oppressive reign of the irreligious William II (William Rufus), the more settled and peaceful reign of Henry I, followed by the violent conflict that ensued with the reign of Stephen and Matilda. I liked the historical setting and the detail both about healing and building methods. The plot kept me interested to read on to find out whether Rahere succeeded, despite all the suffering he endured and the challenges he had to overcome, in fulfilling his vow to build a hospital to care for the poor in London. The characterisation is good and I felt all the main characters came over as real people, who grew and developed throughout the book.

I enjoyed reading this book, which made me want to find out more about Rahere and St Bartholomew’s. St Bartholomew’s Hospital website outlines the history of the Hospital and St Bartholomew the Great’s website gives some information about the founding of the Priory church and Prior Rahere. Rahere’s tomb is in the church:

Rahere's tomb
Rahere’s Tomb (Wikimedia Commons)

Then there is Rudyard Kipling’s poem Rahere, based on the legend that Rahere founded St Bartholomew’s Hospital after suffering a bout of depression and seeing a family of lepers in a London street. I also see that Rosemary Sutcliff’s children’s book The Witch’s Brat is set in the reign of Henry I and features Rahere – I’m hoping to read that one too.

My thanks to Jon Delorme for providing a copy of St Bartholomew’s Man for review, a book that entertained me and led me on to other sources of history and literature. I really want to know more about the 12th century. My knowledge is limited to schoolgirl history and Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth!

The Hangman’s Song by James Oswald

The Hangman’s Song by James Oswald is the third in his Inspector McLean series set in Edinburgh.

DI McClean, seconded to the Sexual Crimes Unit (SCU) by Acting Superintendent Charles Duguid (nicknamed Dagwood) finds himself working on two separate cases – one for the SCU  investigating a group of prostitutes and the subsequent death of their pimp, Malky Jennings, who was beaten to death – and the second, two suicides, which he and his DC, MacBride consider to be suspicious, and continue to investigate against Duguid’s instructions.

I think you need to have read the first two books in the series to fully understand the background or at least have read their synopses, as I found some elements of this book confusing – a small example being the name of the Acting Superintendent and his nickname, as it is not clear that Duguid and Dagwood are one and the same person. At times both names were used within a few paragraphs, making me think they could be two people.

The Hangman’s Song is a dark, tense book; crime fiction with elements of the supernatural  and parapsychology thrown in. The police force is undergoing great change as it prepares for unification as Police Scotland, adding to McLean’s own difficulties with his colleagues, most of whom dislike him, regarding him as a pain in the arse and a troublemaker. He views them as incompetent, lazy and in some cases corrupt. I did get a bit tired of his constant battle with Duguid, which detracted from the story at times. All is not well in McLean’s private life either. His girlfriend Emma (who was nearly killed in the previous book, The Book of Souls) comes out of a coma, but she has lost most of her memory, regressing to an eight-year old. She moves into McLean’s house to help with her recovery.

It is a complicated book with three storylines to keep in mind, and a large cast of characters, not all of them clearly distinguishable. It’s not a book for the faint-hearted or the squeamish as there are details of some gruesome deaths, murders and beatings that the characters go through. At times I had to read with my imagination turned down – a bit like watching something gory on TV from behind my fingers.

Having said that, it was still a compelling, if disturbing, book (particularly the last chapter) that kept me turning the pages to find out what happened next.

James Oswald runs a 350 acre livestock farm in north-east Fife. In addition to his DI McClean books he has also written a fantasy series, The Ballad of Sir Benfro, set in Wales. I have the first book in the series, Dreamwalker, which I have yet to read.

Thanks to www.lovereading.co.uk for the uncorrected advance proof of this book for review. The published book will be available in February 2014.

The Year of Miracle and Grief by Leonid Borodin

I received my copy of The Year of Miracle and Grief by Leonid Borodin, translated into English by Jennifer Bradshaw, for review from the publishers, Quartet Books. It’s a new edition due to be published in November, a beautiful little book – just 192 pages, and a pleasure to read.

Synopsis adapted from Quartet Books website:

Nearly thirty years after its first publication in English, in November Quartet Books will publish a brand new English edition of a classic fairytale, The Year of Miracle and Grief by Leonid Borodin. A twelve-year-old boy, the son of teachers, finds magic, mystery, romance, and sadness at beautiful Lake Baikal in Siberia. Deep in Siberia lies the second largest and deepest lake on earth, Lake Baikal. When a small boy arrives on its banks, he is amazed by the beauty of the lake and surrounding mountains. As this astonishment yields to inquisitiveness, he begins to explore the fairytale of the area.  

My view:

This book combines the elements of fantasy and reality, so much so that the narrator is convinced that he is not a spinner of yarns, but that he is relating what actually happened in his childhood. Writing 25 years later, he is now free to tell the tale. And it is a magical and grief stricken tale, a tale of love, forgiveness and suffering!

As he explores the area he is fascinated by Lake Baikal and Dead Man’s Crag, a high bare crag except for a pine tree on its peak, a pine tree with just four branches, two pointing up towards the sky and two larger ones pointing down along the trunk. Despite warnings not to climb the Crag he does just that and it is there that he meets a woman sitting on a throne of stone in a niche hollowed out of the rock. This is Sarma, a wrinkled old woman, so old it was impossible to imagine anyone older:

Her hermetically sealed lips were supported by a large jutting chin which came up to meet her nose, and her eyes were so deeply sunk into the network of wrinkles that the old woman seemed to be blind. She was wearing flowing sky-blue clothes, and this flowing blue enveloped her from head to foot; only her hands, encased in sky-blue gloves reaching to the elbow, contradicted the impression that the blue cocoon contained only a head. (pages 44-5)

She is a descendent of the Great Sibir (the origin of the name Siberia). She flooded Prince Baikolla’s valley, the Valley of the Young Moon, creating Lake Baikal, and guards the cave/underground castle where she holds the Prince and his daughter Ri captive, bewitched by a spell because the Prince had killed her son. But she allows the boy to enter the cave where he falls in love with Ri and begs Sarma to release her. What follows is a dramatic transformation in the boy’s life.

Borodin was a Christian and a Soviet dissident. He was born in 1938 in Irkutsk, near Lake Baikal and both his parents were teachers, like the boy in his book. He was imprisoned twice and wrote A Year of Miracle and Grief whilst in prison. It contains Christian elements focussing on the nature of forgiveness and suffering. He won the 2002 Solzhenitsyn Prize and died in 2011.

Other elements of this book are the landscape, the lake and the mountains and the miracle that takes place in experiencing the beauty of the world, the transformation of your thoughts, feelings and your entire being ‘into a sensation of total rapture in the presence of a miracle.’ (page 8).

Over My Dead Body by Hazel McHaffie

Over My Dead Body by Hazel McHaffie is a novel that raises questions such as would you be an organ donor, or agree to donating your child’s heart, or eyes. I’ve never read a novel that considered these issues, so when Hazel McHaffie contacted me and asked if I would read and review her book it didn’t take me long to write back, ‘yes please’. She is very well qualified to write such a book – a nurse and midwife, with a PhD in Social Sciences, and a Research Fellow in Medical Ethics.

Synopsis (from Hazel McHaffie’s website):

Carole Beacham is in her mid-sixties and planning to leave her husband. Before she can do so her daughter, Elvira, and two little granddaughters are involved in a fatal road traffic accident. Then a stranger appears in the Intensive Care Unit claiming to be Elvira’s boyfriend, insisting Elvira wanted to donate her organs. But Carole has her own reasons for rejecting such a possibility: a dark family secret which has been hidden for thirty years.

She’s torn in two, but gradually her need to respect Elvira’s wishes overcomes her fear, and the transplants go ahead. Letters from grateful recipients bring comfort and Carole’s dread recedes. Then the barriers created to safeguard anonymity start to slip. A troubling communication from a publishing firm … a moving poem from a teenager … an ambitious would-be journalist … and the family’s peace is in grave danger.

My view:

This is a fascinating, compassionate and informative book, the factual information fitting seamlessly into the narrative. The characters are realistic, so much so that at times I had to stop reading because their predicaments and situations were so poignant and difficult.

I’m familiar with some of the issues surrounding transplants, having watched Casualty and Holby City for years. But there is nothing to beat reading a book written by someone who knows the issues, writes with sensitivity and can go into much more depth than an isolated incident in a TV drama series can. The story is told through a number of the characters’ eyes and poses the questions, thoughts and fears they each have about organ transplants – from both the recipients’ and the donor families’ points of view. Carole fears that her daughter could recover or they could find a miracle cure and it would be too late to bring her back. Some people are worried about the personalities of the recipients – do they deserve the transplant, is their lifestyle healthy enough and so on.

Above all it is a moving story, well-told and with an element of mystery – just what is it in Elvira’s background that causes her family concern? From little hints that were dropped I guessed what it was, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book. Over My Dead Body certainly gave me much to think about.

Hazel McHaffie’s other novels cover medical ethic issues such as Alzheimer’s and the right to die. Her non-fiction books are about life and death decisions.

Silver: Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion

I first read Treasure Island as a child. It’s a book that has remained in my memory as a great adventure story, so I was interested to see that Andrew Motion (poet laureate of the UK from 1999- 2009, now professor of creative writing at the University of London and fellow of the Royal Society) had written a sequel: Silver: Return to Treasure Island. I was intrigued and when the publishers offered me a copy to read and review I immediately accepted it.

Silver

Description from the back cover:

Silver is the rip-roaring sequel to the greatest adventure ever told: Treasure Island. Almost forty years following the events of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver have seemingly put their maritime adventures to rest. Jim has settled on the English coast with his son Jim, and Silver has returned to rural England with his daughter Natty. While their escapades may have ended, for Jim and Natty the adventure is only just beginning. One night, Natty approaches young Jim with a proposition: return to Treasure Island and find the remaining treasure that their fathers left behind. As they set sail in their fathers’ footsteps, Jim and Natty cannot imagine what awaits them. Murderous pirates, long-held grudges, noxious greed, and wily deception lurk wickedly in the high seas, and disembarking onto Treasure Island only proves more perilous. Their search for buried treasure leaves every last wit tested and ounce of courage spent. And the adventure doesn’t end there, since they still have to make their way home…

My view:

The book, narrated by young Jim Hawkins has a good beginning. I was immediately captivated by Jim’s encounter with Natty and his subsequent meeting with her father, Long John Silver, now a disintegrating body, emaciated, blind, shrunken and shrivelled but still raging with anger with a core of steel. As I had imagined a book by Motion would be, it’s beautifully written, and the scenes came to life as I read. The scenes at the beginning, on the island and in the final scenes are powerful and for me are the book’s greatest strength.

There is a lot packed into its pages, with plenty of references to Stevenson’s Treasure Island, so much so that part way through Silver I decided I had to re-read Treasure Island (so for me Silver really was a return to Treasure Island!). But this is not just a story about pirates, or the search for the silver that was left behind, it’s also a story about the island itself, about what happened to the three pirates marooned there for forty years and about the horrors of slavery and savagery.

On the whole I enjoyed Silver, but at times its pace slows, almost to a standstill and not just when the voyage on the Nightingale comes to a dead calm and the crew subside into a lethargy for several weeks, but also during some passages on the island which seemed to last an eternity – I felt I was languishing in the doldrums. There were times when I began to tire of the book, but it does pick up, with danger and death during a terrific storm.

One little touch amused me – one of the crew is a certain Mr Stevenson – ‘a Scotsman and a wisp of a fellow, whose place was generally in the crow’s nest, where he acted as our lookout.’ (page 115)

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (4 April 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099552655
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099552659
  • Source: review copy
  • My Rating: 3/5

The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett

When Alma Books contacted me to ask if I would like a review copy of The Bookman’s Tale: a novel of love and obsession by Charlie Lovett I was delighted. How could I resist a book about books, involving a search to discover the truth behind what could be a priceless Shakespearean manuscript? The book arrived the next day and I made the ‘mistake’ of looking at it whilst I drank a cup of coffee. I couldn’t put it down and by the end of the day I had read half the book.

The Bookman's Tale

Synopsis from the back cover:

 A mysterious portrait ignites an antiquarian bookseller’s search – through time and the works of Shakespeare – for his lost love.

After the death of his wife, Peter Byerly, a young antiquarian bookseller, relocates from the States to the English countryside, where he hopes to rediscover the joys of life through his passion for collecting and restoring rare books. But when he opens an eighteenth-century study on Shakespeare forgeries, he is shocked to find a Victorian portrait strikingly similar to his wife tumble out of its pages, and becomes obsessed with tracking down its origins. As he follows the trail back to the nineteenth century and then to Shakespeare’s time, Peter learns the truth about his own past and unearths a book that might prove that Shakespeare was indeed the author of all his plays.

My view:

There are three different strands to this book, which interconnect and are interwoven throughout the book: the present day ie 1995 with Peter in England, the 1980s in America when Peter met and fell in love with Amanda, and the story of the Pandosto manuscript, a romance by Elizabethan poet Robert Greene, on which Shakespeare based The Winter’s Tale, from 1592 to 1879.

It began really well and Peter is not the only bookseller involved in the story – there is Bartholomew Harbottle in the Elizabethan/Stuart period and the Victorian Benjamin Mayhew both of whom play important roles. I really liked the historical sections and the details about the book trade and forgery is fascinating. I found the love story between Peter and his beloved Amanda rather cloying. Peter himself, suffers from an anxiety disorder and it is only his love for books and Amanda that seemed to make it possible for him to function at all – a good portrayal of an obsessive neurotic character.

By the second half of the book however, my enthusiasm for it began to droop a little as the chase around England became more frantic and a bit improbable. The many story lines as the book progressed became a series of cliff hangers, culminating in what seemed to me like something out of a cross between a Dan Brown novel, an Enid Blyton Famous Five book and a murder mystery. But, although there are just too many coincidence, twists and turns, and at times it is a bit melodramatic I still enjoyed it, swept along by the plot, an absorbing mix of historical fact and fiction, mystery and romance set in a book lovers’ world.

Charlie Lovett is a writer, teacher and playwright of plays for children. He is also a former antiquarian bookseller and an avid book collector. All this is evident in The Bookman’s Tale! He has a website with more information about the book and the sources he used.