Category Archives: Fiction

Green Darkness by Anya Seton

I finished reading Green Darkness a couple of weeks ago and have been wondering what to write about it or whether to write anything at all. I thought I’d read the book years ago, not long after it came out, but as soon as I began what I thought was a re-read I realised that this was completely new to me – I just thought I’d read it because I’d visited Ightham Mote, a beautiful 14th century moated manor house in Kent where part of Green Darkness is set.

A brief synopsis from Goodreads:

This story of troubled love takes place simultaneously during two periods of time: today and 400 years ago. We meet Richard and Celia Marsdon, an attractive young couple, whose family traces its lineage back to medieval England. Richard’s growing depression creates a crisis in Celia, and she falls desperately ill. Lying unconscious and near death, Celia’s spirit journeys backward to a time four centuries earlier when another Celia loved another Marsdon.

I wasn’t enthralled by it and nearly abandoned it after the first few chapters set in 1968, because the characters didn’t come over as real and the writing in accents was awful. But once I got on to the historical part, set in the 16th century it was better, so I read on.

There are some books that are easy to write about – this isn’t one of them so this is a brief post. Green Darkness is written around the premise of reincarnation, so the characters/personalities feature in both time periods. I didn’t think this was successful, but seemed contrived. For me the book would have been better as straight historical fiction.

Reading Challenges: Color Coded Challenge – green (I don’t know why this book is called Green Darkness – if the book explains the title I missed it). What’s In a Name – a book with a colour in its title. Historical Fiction challenge – 16th century England. My Kind of Mystery Challenge.

A Question of Identity by Susan Hill

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

Summary (back cover):

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

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

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

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

Their killer does not exist.

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

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

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

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

The Betrayal of Trust by Susan Hill

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

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

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

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

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

Towards Zero by Agatha Christie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Book of Lost and Found by Lucy Foley

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

Summary from inside the front cover:

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

It’s when life started in earnest
HERTFORDSHIRE, 1928

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way Through The Woods by Colin Dexter: Mini Review

I really enjoyed reading Colin Dexter’s The Way Through The Woods, the tenth book in his Inspector Morse series. It’s nicely complicated and full of puzzles as Morse aided by Sergeant Lewis investigate the case of a beautiful young Swedish tourist who had disappeared on a hot summer’s day somewhere near Oxford twelve months earlier. After unsuccessfully searching the woods of the nearby Blenheim Estate the case was unsolved, and Karin Eriksson had been recorded as a missing person.

A year later Morse is on holiday at Lyme Regis when The Times published an article on the missing woman together with an anonymous poem that had been sent in that the police thought could help pinpoint the whereabouts of her body. This sets in motion more letters to The Times and ultimately to Morse being assigned to re-open the case.

I was completely engrossed in this book, trying to follow all the possible interpretations of the poem and the witness statements as Morse and Lewis go over the old evidence and turn up new information. This involves a trip to Wales for Morse and one to Sweden for Lewis, Wytham Woods is searched and a body is found – but whose is it? This book sees the first appearance of forensic pathologist, Dr Laura Hobson. But it’s not just the mystery, the crossword type clues, the characterisation and all the twist and turns that make this book so enjoyable, it’s the writing, the descriptions of the scenery and locations bringing them vividly to my mind.

This book has been sitting unread on my shelves for three years and is the last of my to-be-read books of 2014. An excellent book!

Cause of Death by Patricia Cornwell

Cause for Death is the seventh book in the Dr Kay Scarpetta murder mystery series. It’s a secondhand copy that had been on my TBR shelves for several years and I think I must have started to read it before as the opening chapter seemed very familiar.

It begins well enough when a reported is found dead in the Elizabeth River in Virginia on New Year’s Eve.

From the back cover:

New Year’s Eve and the final murder scene of Virginia’s bloodiest year takes Scarpetta thirty feet below the Elizabeth River’s icy surface. A diver, Ted Eddings, is dead, an investigative reporter who was a favourite at the Medical Examiner’s office. Was Eddings probing the frigid depths of the Inactive Shipyard for a story, or simply diving for sunken trinkets? And why did Scarpetta receive a phone call from someone reporting the death before the police were notified?

The case envelops Scarpetta, her niece Lucy, and police captain Pete Marino in a world where both cutting-edge technology and old-fashioned detective work are critical offensive weapons. Together they follow the trail of death to a well of violence as dark and forbidding as water that swirled over Ted Eddings.

However, although the murder investigation was interesting I wasn’t all interested in the terrorist/FBI/religious fanatics scenes that followed.  I don’t think I’ll bother reading any more of these books.

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

The Call of the WildThe Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London are books that I’ve known about as long as I can remember – they were books my parents owned – but I’ve never read them, until now.  So, I was pleased when The Call of the Wild, Jack London’s first book came out as my Classics Club Spin book.  I would have read it one day anyway but the Spin gave me the nudge to read it now. I wasn’t expecting to find it such a beautiful, moving and poignant book, but it is. And it has so much packed into its 106 pages in my little hardback copy.

It begins in 1897 when Buck, a cross between a St Bernard and a Scotch Shepherd (Collie) was stolen from his home in the Santa Clara Valley in California and taken to the Yukon where strong sled dogs were needed during the Klondike Gold Rush. It’s a shock to Buck (what an understatement) as he moves from his pampered life on a California ranch where he had free rein, swimming, hunting and playing to the harsh realities and cruelty of the life of a working dog in the wastes of Alaska, where the ‘law of club and fang‘ predominated. The book is told from Buck’s point of view, but this is no cutesy, sentimental animal story. Buck has to fight for existence and as he learnt by experience, instincts that were long dead came alive in him:

The domesticated generations fell from him. In vague ways he remembered back to the youth of the breed, to the time the wild dogs ranged in packs through the primeval forest and killed their meet as they tracked it down. It was no task for him to learn to fight with cut and slash and the quick wolf snap.

…  And when, on the still cold nights, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolflike, it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose at star and howling down through the centuries and through him. … the ancient song surged through him and he came into his own again (page 24)

After changing owners several times, each worse than the one before he is eventually saved from death by John Thornton who nurses him back to health and for a while it is the love between man and dog that keeps Buck with him. Eventually however, the call of the wild is too strong!

Apart from the story which kept me turning the pages to find out what happened next it’s the quality of London’s writing, the vivid descriptions and the haunting mystical sense of the wild that captivated me – this passage for example:

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad in a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. (pages 37-38)

I’ll be reading White Fang soon.