My Week in Books: 10 February 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

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A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Currently I’m reading two books:

Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen by Alison Weir, a proof copy – expected publication 5 May 2016. This is the first novel of the Six Tudor Queens series.

Blurb:

A Spanish princess. Raised to be modest, obedient and devout. Destined to be an English Queen. Six weeks from home across treacherous seas, everything is different: the language, the food, the weather. And for her there is no comfort in any of it. At sixteen years-old, Catalina is alone among strangers. She misses her mother. She mourns her lost brother. She cannot trust even those assigned to her protection.

Acclaimed, bestselling historian Alison Weir has based her enthralling account of Henry VIII’s first wife on extensive research and new theories. She reveals a strong, spirited woman determined to fight for her rights and the rightful place of her daughter. A woman who believed that to be the wife of a King was her destiny.

History tells us how she died. This captivating novel shows us how she lived.

I’m also reading SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard, the Kindle edition.

Blurb:

Ancient Rome matters. Its history of empire, conquest, cruelty and excess is something against which we still judge ourselves. Its myths and stories – from Romulus and Remus to the Rape of Lucretia – still strike a chord with us. And its debates about citizenship, security and the rights of the individual still influence our own debates on civil liberty today. 

SPQR is a new look at Roman history from one of the world’s foremost classicists. It explores not only how Rome grew from an insignificant village in central Italy to a power that controlled territory from Spain to Syria, but also how the Romans thought about themselves and their achievements, and why they are still important to us.

Covering 1,000 years of history, and casting fresh light on the basics of Roman culture from slavery to running water, as well as exploring democracy, migration, religious controversy, social mobility and exploitation in the larger context of the empire, this is a definitive history of ancient Rome.

SPQR is the Romans’ own abbreviation for their state: Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and People of Rome’.

I’ve recently finished Too Soon a Death by Janet O’Kane, crime fiction set in the Scottish Borders.

You can read my thoughts on this book in my previous post.

And next I’ll be reading Slade House by David Mitchell, or at least I think I’ll be reading this next. When the time comes I could fancy something completely different.

Blurb:

Born out of the short story David Mitchell published on Twitter in 2014 and inhabiting the same universe as his latest bestselling novel The Bone Clocks, this is the perfect book to curl up with on a dark and stormy night.

Turn down Slade Alley – narrow, dank and easy to miss, even when you’re looking for it. Find the small black iron door set into the right-hand wall. No handle, no keyhole, but at your touch it swings open. Enter the sunlit garden of an old house that doesn’t quite make sense; too grand for the shabby neighbourhood, too large for the space it occupies.

A stranger greets you by name and invites you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t.

This unnerving, taut and intricately woven tale by one of our most original and bewitching writers begins in 1979 and reaches its turbulent conclusion around Hallowe’en, 2015. Because every nine years, on the last Saturday of October, a ‘guest’ is summoned to Slade House. But why has that person been chosen, by whom and for what purpose? The answers lie waiting in the long attic, at the top of the stairs…

What have you been reading this week and what have got in mind to read next?

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.

First Chapter, First Paragraph: Runaway

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

Runaway by Peter May is one of the books I’m thinking of reading this month. I’ve read some of his other books, the Lewis Trilogy and Entry Island and thoroughly enjoyed them, real page-turners. So I’m hoping that Runaway will be just as good.

It begins with a Prologue:

London

He wakes in a cold sweat from a dream pervaded by darkness and blood. And after a lifetime of being someone else in another land, he wonders who he is now. This man, who, he knows, is fading all too soon. A life squandered for a love lost. A life that seems to have passed in the blink of an eye.

and moves on to Chapter One in 2015:

Glasgow

Jack stepped down from the bus almost at the end of Battlefield Road and raised his head towards the darkening sky with a sense of foreboding. He took in the brooding silhouette of the smoke-stained Victoria Infirmary that climbed the hill above the field of battle where Mary, Queen of Scots, was once defeated by James VI, and felt as if someone had just walked over his grave.

Now, reading this, I am keen to read on. Flicking through the book I can see that it alternates between 1965 and 2015.

The back cover reveals that in 1965, five teenage friends fled Glasgow for London to pursue their dream of musical stardom. Yet before year’s end three returned, and returned damaged. In 2015, a brutal murder forces those three men, now in their sixties, to journey back to London and finally confront the dark truth they have run from for five decades.

 What do you think?

Would you keep reading?

First Chapter, First Paragraph: Dictator

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon. I’m currently reading Dictator by Robert Harris, the third in his Cicero trilogy.

Dictator

It begins:

I remember the cries of Caesar’s war-horns chasing us over the darkened fields of Latium – their yearning, keening howls, like animals on heat – and how when they stopped there was only the slither of our shoes on the icy road and the urgent panting of our breath.

It was not enough for the immortal gods that Cicero should be spat at and reviled by his fellow citizens; not enough that in the middle of the night he be driven from the hearths and altars of his family and ancestors; not enough even that as we fled from Rome on foot he should look back and see his house in flames. To all these torments they deemed it necessary to add one further refinement: that he should be forced to hear his enemy’s army striking camp on the Field of Mars.

Blurb:

‘Laws are silent in times of war.’
Cicero

There was a time when Cicero held Caesar’s life in the palm of his hand. But now Caesar is the dominant figure and Cicero’s life is in ruins. Exiled, separated from his wife and children, his possessions confiscated, his life constantly in danger, Cicero is tormented by the knowledge that he has sacrificed power for the sake of his principles.

His comeback requires wit, skill and courage – and for a brief and glorious period, the legendary orator is once more the supreme senator in Rome. But politics is never static and no statesman, however cunning, can safeguard against the ambition and corruption of others.

Riveting and tumultuous, DICTATOR encompasses some of the most epic events in human history yet is also an intimate portrait of a brilliant, flawed, frequently fearful yet ultimately brave man – a hero for his time and for ours. This is an unforgettable tour de force from a master storyteller.

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I read in The Guardian that this last part of the trilogy marks the culmination of 12 years work. The trilogy as a whole has transported me back into the first century BC when Rome was engulfed in intrigue, conspiracies and civil war as the Roman Republic began to collapse and move into dictatorship and empire.  I’m loving the whole experience. Just as when I was reading the first two books, Imperium and Lustrum, I can’t wait to get back to it each time I have to stop reading.

Stacking the Shelves: 23 January 2016

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Stacking The Shelves is all about sharing the books you are adding to your shelves. This means you can include ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ books (ie physical and ebooks) you’ve bought, books you’ve borrowed from friends or the library, review books, and gifts.

Last night I finished reading Lustrum by Robert Harris, the second in his Cicero Trilogy (the first is Imperium). It ends as Cicero goes into exile and so this morning I had to buy the third book, Dictator, which covers the last fifteen years of his life.

Dictator

There was a time when Cicero held Caesar’s life in the palm of his hand. But now Caesar is the dominant figure and Cicero’s life is in ruins. Exiled, separated from his wife and children…

I’ve also borrowed these books from the library. My summaries are adapted from the blurbs.

Library bks Jan 2016

From top to bottom they are

  • Blue Genes by Val McDermid – I was put off reading her books several years ago when I just couldn’t stomach watching the violence and torture scenes in the TV series of The Wire. This sounds a bit different as it is a Kate Brannigan mystery, set in Manchester. The back cover reveals that Kate is having a bad week – her boyfriend has died, her plan to capture a team of fraudsters is in disarray and a neo-punk band wants her to find out who’s trashing their flyposters. It delves into the world of medical experimentation – I’m hoping it won’t be too gory!
  • Hunting Season by Andrea Camilleri – I’ve read a few of his Inspector Montalbano mysteries, but this is historical crime fiction set in Vigàta in Sicily in 1880, when a young man arrives in town and opens a pharmacy – then death arrives an the town and its most noble family will never be the same again …
  • Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg – he is one of my favourite authors. This novel is about memory and the slow fading of the mind as John visits his mother in a nursing home and finds that most of all she is longing for her mother, Grace, the mother she barely knew. Reaching from the late 19th century to the present, this becomes a deeply moving, reflective elegy on three generations linked by a chain of love, loss, and courage.
  • No Man’s Nightingale by Ruth Rendell, another favourite author. This is the 24th Inspector Wexford novel. The woman vicar of St Peter’s Church may not be popular among the community of Kingsmarkham. But it still comes as a profound shock when she is found strangled in her vicarage. Inspector Wexford is retired, but he retains a relish for solving mysteries especially when they are as close to home as this one is.

Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie

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

Death Comes as the End

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Month in the Country by J L Carr

A Month in the Country (Penguin Modern…‘Ah, those days … for many years afterwards their happiness haunted me. Sometimes listening to music, I drift back and nothing has changed. The long end of summer. Day after day of warm weather, voices calling as night came on and lighted windows pricked the darkness and, at day-break, the murmur of corn and the warm smell of fields ripe for harvest. And being young.

As an old man Tom Birkin is looking back to the summer of 1920 when he was asked to uncover a huge medieval wall-painting in the village church of Oxgodby in Yorkshire. J L Carr’s A Month in the Country is a beautifully written little book of just 85 pages, set in the aftermath of World War I. Tom, his ‘nerves shot to pieces, wife gone, dead broke‘,  is still suffering from shell shock after the battle of Passchendaele. Living in the church bell tower, he begins to uncover the painting, excited and engrossed in his work.

Another war veteran, Charles Moon is also in Oxgodby, an archaeologist, camping in a meadow next to the church, whilst he looks for a lost 14th century grave. There are also two more people who are relatively new to the village – the vicar and his beautiful wife, Arthur and Alice Keach. Tom and Moon decide their marriage is an ‘outrage’ and Tom finds her enchanting – reminding him of Botticelli’s Primavera.

I loved this quiet novel, in which not a lot happens and yet so much happens as Tom describes the events of that summer – his relationships with the local people as well as with Moon and Arthur and Alice Keach. There’s the unforgettable Sunday School outing and a visit to Ripon with the Wesleyans looking for an American organ to replace the harmonium in their chapel. It’s during this visit Tom learns more about Moon.

I loved the detail of the wall-painting – the original methods of painting, the colours, the people in the painting. It’s a masterpiece, a Doom, a Christ in Judgement painting. Tom wonders about the original artist, the nameless man and why the painting had been covered and as he uncovers more of the painting thinks that he has lived with a great artist and had shared with the unknown man the ‘great spread of colour’ and feels ‘the old tingling excitement’.

But above all it is the writing that I loved the most – words that took me back in time to that glorious summer in Oxgodby. At the end Tom looks back at that summer with nostalgia for the things that have disappeared, contemplating that

We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever – the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

I wanted to read A Month in the Country because years ago I’d watched a TV adaptation of the book and loved it. So after I finished reading it I thought I’d look for the film and watch it again. But the film was lost for years and the only available copies now are rare and expensive. So, I won’t be watching it and thinking about it I realise that it would be a mistake to watch it – as I enjoyed the book so much. But it would be good to see the wall-painting …

Reading challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge and maybe What’s In a Name? in the ‘Month of the Year’ category if I don’t read a book naming a month of the year!

Vintage Crime Fiction

I’ve been thinking about joining Bev’s Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt, but I didn’t think I had enough books in the Vintage Mystery genre to attempt it.

BUT, the Scavenger Hunt idea appeals to me and so I thought I would have a look at my own books, just to see exactly how many books I do have that match Bev’s definition of ‘Vintage Mystery’, which is:

* All books must be from the mystery category (crime fiction, detective fiction, espionage, etc.). The mystery/crime must be the primary feature of the book–ghost stories, paranormal, romance, humor, etc are all welcome as ingredients, but must not be the primary category under which these books would be labeled at the library or bookstore. 

*For the purposes of this challenge, the Golden Age Vintage Mysteries must have been first published before 1960. Golden Age short story collections (whether published pre-1960 or not) are permissible provided all of the stories included in the collection were originally written pre-1960.  Silver Age Vintage Mysteries may be first published any time from 1960 to 1989 (inclusive).  Again, Silver Age short story collections published later than 1989 are permissible as long as they include no stories first published later than 1989. 

And to my surprise, when I went to my shelves – instead of looking at my list in LibraryThing – I found I actually have 14 books first published pre-1960 and 7 first published between 1960 and 1989 (inclusive). My LibraryThing catalogue is certainly not complete!

So, in theory I do have enough books to attempt the Scavenger Hunt for both eras, provided that the covers show the objects listed for the Hunt! And as I do want to read all these books, it’s a no-brainer, so I’m going to do it. And I’m going in for both Eras!

The idea is  to find as many objects on the scavenger hunt list as possible on the covers of the mystery books you read. The minimum number of items to complete the challenge is six items from the covers of books read from a single Vintage Mystery Era.

These are my books in the Golden Age Vintage era. Some are Penguin books with no pictures on the covers and so I’ll look for alternative covers.

Vintage gold

And these are my books from the Silver Age Vintage era.

Vintage silver

The Challenge runs from January 1, 2016 to December 31, 2016. Sign up any time between now and November 1, 2016.  Any books read from January 1 on may count regardless of your sign-up date.

And “On the cover” may apply to either the front or the back cover of the book. For example, if you need a map or a chart for your scavenger hunt list, then Dell Mapbacks are perfect–with the map in question on the back cover. Also, the item should be found on the cover of the edition that you read. If at all possible either post a picture showing the item on the cover or provide a link to a page showing us. Exception:  If the edition you read has no picture whatsoever (hardbacks that have no dust jacket or e-copies, for example), then you may go on another scavenger hunt online to find a cover image–again, please provide a link to the edition used.

This is the list for the Golden Age Era there are 75 items!!! (The Silver Age Era lists the same items.)Scavenger Hunt1

Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a dangerous world where

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

Just as true today as in the 1950s!

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

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Added on 15th January 2016:

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

Imperium by Robert Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stacking the Shelves: 19 December 2015

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Stacking The Shelves is all about sharing the books you are adding to your shelves. This means you can include ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ books (ie physical and ebooks) you’ve bought, books you’ve borrowed from friends or the library, review books, and gifts.

I’ve added just one book to my Kindle this week:

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries: The Most Complete Collection of Yuletide Whodunits Ever Assembled

Blurb

Here, for your yuletide reading pleasure, are the collected crimes of Christmases Past and Present: sixty classic Christmas crime stories gathered together in the largest anthology of its kind ever assembled. And its an all-star line-up: Sherlock Holmes, Brother Cadfael, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Ellery Queen, Rumpole of the Bailey, Inspector Morse, Inspector Ghote, A.J. Raffles, Nero Wolfe and many, many more of the world’s favourite detectives and crime fighters face unscrupulous Santas, festive felonies, deadly puddings, and misdemeanors under the mistletoe. Almost any kind of mystery you’re in the mood for – suspense, pure detection, humour, cozy, private eye, or police procedural – can be found within these pages.

Includes stories from (many of which are difficult or nearly impossible to find anywhere else): Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, Isaac Asimov, Sara Paretsky, Ed McBain, Agatha Christie, Ellis Peters, Mary Higgins Clark, H.F Keating, Donald E. Westlake and John Mortimer and more.

I couldn’t resist getting it! Some of the authors are familiar to me, some I’ve heard of and some are completely new-to-me. I hope to read some before Christmas.

I’ve also borrowed two from the library this week, which I’ll probably leave until after New Year. They are:

Blurb

A promise made to a dying man leads forensics ace Enzo Macleod, a Scot who’s been teaching in France for many years, to the study which the man’s heir has preserved for nearly twenty years. The dead man left several clues there designed to reveal the killer’s identity to the man’s son, but ironically the son died soon after the father.

So begins the fourth of seven cold cases written up in a bestselling book by Parisian journalist Roger Raffin that Enzo rashly boasted he could solve (he’s been successful with the first three). It takes Enzo to a tiny island off the coast of Brittany in France, where he must confront the hostility of locals who have no desire to see the infamous murder back in the headlines. An attractive widow, a man charged but acquitted of the murder–but still the viable suspect, a crime scene frozen in time, a dangerous hell hole by the cliffs, and a collection of impenetrable messages, make this one of Enzo’s most difficult cases.

I’ve enjoyed Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy. I hope this works well as a stand alone book as it’s the fourth Enzo Macleod book and I haven’t read the first three.

And

Blurb

This charming series of Victorian murder mysteries features mild-mannered Inspector Witherspoon of Scotland Yard and, more importantly, Mrs Jeffries, his housekeeper. A policeman’s widow herself, her quick wits allow her to nudge the Inspector in the right direction to solve the crime.

When a doctor is discovered dead in his own office, Mrs Jeffries is on the look-out for a prescription for murder, determined to discover the culprit, despite how her employer feels about interviewing suspects . . . “He hated questioning people. He could never tell whether or not someone was actually lying to him, and he knew, shocking as it was, that there were some people who lied to the police on a regular basis.”

Emily Brightwell is a new-to-me author. I thought I’d see what this one is like.

Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming

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

This is the edition I read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

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

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

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

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

The Author

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

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

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

Classics Club Spin Result

The Spin number is 19, which for me is The Color Purple by Alice Walker – to be read by 1 February 2016.

‘One of the most haunting books you could ever wish to read … it is stunning – moving, exciting, and wonderful’, Lenny Henry.

I’m looking forward to reading it. I watched the film starring Whoopi Goldberg many years ago, which I thought was an excellent film.

Did you take part in the Classics Spin? What will you be reading?

Five of the Best for November 2011-2015

This was originally Cleo’s idea (Cleopatra Loves Books). It’s to look back over your reviews of the past five years and pick out your favourite books for each month from 2011 – 2015. I like it so much it inspired me to do the same.

I really enjoy looking back over the books I’ve loved reading. These are some of my favourite books for each November from 2011 to 2015 (click on the titles/covers to see my original reviews). November is apparently the month where the crime fiction books I’ve read have been my favourite reads.

Three of the five books are Ian Rankin’s Rebus books – November is the month he’s published his latest books and November is the month I read them.  Ian Rankin is one of my favourite authors and his Rebus books never fail to impress me both with their ingenuity and the quality of their plots and characterisations.

2011

White Nights by Ann Cleeves – the second in her Shetland Quartet, featuring Detective Jimmy Perez, set mainly in Biddista, a fictional village of a few houses, a shop, an art gallery and restaurant called the Herring House, and an old Manse. A man’s body is found, hanging in the hut where the boat owners of the village of Biddista keep their lines and pots. Perez recognises the dead man – he’s the mystery man who had caused a scene the previous evening at the opening of Bella Sinclair’s and Fran Hunter’s art exhibition.

This book is not only full of believable characters, each one an individual in their own right, it also has a nicely complicated plot and a great sense of location. It’s the place, itself, that for me conveyed the most powerful aspects of the book. The ‘white nights’ are the summer nights when the sun never really goes down. They call it the ‘summer dim’, the dusk lasts all night, and in contrast to the bleak, black winters, fills people with ‘a kind of frenzy‘.

2012

Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin. This is the first book after Rebus’s retirement in which he is working for SCRU – the Serious Crime Review Unit, a Cold Case unit of retired police officers, investigating the disappearance of a young woman missing since 1999, and linking it with later cases of missing women all in the vicinity of the A9. He also clashes with Malcolm Fox of Edinburgh’s internal affairs unit – their dislike is mutual.

I  was gripped by this book and liked the way Rankin included characters from earlier books, such as Big Ger Caffety, Siobhan Clarke, now a DI, and in particular Malcolm Fox.

2013

Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin. I think this is one of his best – a realistic and completely baffling mystery. a complex, multi-layered case, linking back to one of Rebus’s early cases on the force as a young Detective Constable. Rebus is now back on the force, the rules on retirement age having changed, but as a Detective Sergeant. Once more he is under scrutiny by Malcolm Fox. There are suspicions that Rebus and his colleagues, who called themselves ‘The Saints of the Shadow Bible’ were involved in covering up a crime, allowing a murderer to go free.

The interaction between Rebus and Fox is one of the joys of this book. Beneath his controlled exterior Fox is just as much a loose cannon as Rebus, he’s not a team player either and it is fascinating to see how Rebus gets under his skin and reveals Fox’s true nature.

2014

And now for a different author, but still crime fiction:

Blue Heaven by C J Box. I loved this book, the first one of C J Box’s books that I’ve read. The action takes place over four days in North Idaho one spring. It’s a story about two children, Annie and William who decide to go fishing without telling their mother, Monica, and witness a murder in the woods. One of the killers sees them and they run for their lives.

I loved the writing style – straightforward storytelling, with good descriptions of locality and characters; characters that are both likeable and downright nasty, but not caricatures. It’s a book that got right inside my mind so that I found myself thinking about when I wasn’t reading it and keen to get back to it. And the ending was what I hoped, and also dreaded it would be.

2015

Back to Rebus – although I also loved Claire Tomalin’s Mrs Jordan’s Profession.

Even Dogs in the Wild –  Now, two years later on from The Saints of the Shadow Bible Rebus is on his second retirement, working in a ‘consultative capacity’, albeit not as a cop and with no warrant card or real powers and with no pay. Once more this is a complicated plot, involving Malcolm Fox now seconded to the team of undercover cops from Glasgow, gang warfare, and Big Ger Cafferty. There are so many deaths and twists and turns that my mind was in a whirl as I tried to sort out all the characters.

Rankin, as usual, successfully combined all the elements of the crime mystery with the personal lives of the main characters and at the same time highlighting various current political and social issues.

Is this the last we’ll see of Rebus? Only time and Ian Rankin will tell.

The Abbess of Whitby by Jill Dalladay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas

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

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

Blurb:

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

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

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

My thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Update

agatha_christie_rcIt’s been a while since I’ve written about where I’m up to in reading my way through Agatha Christie’s crime fiction novels and short stories.  In fact it’s been months since I last read an Agatha Christie book!

The list of the books I’ve already read is on this page. I still have many of the short stories to read but just four novels!!

I’m aiming to read these four remaining novels by the end of this year:

  1. The Murder at the Vicarage – (Miss Marple)
  2. Death Comes as the End
  3. Sparkling Cyanide (Colonel Race)
  4. Destination Unknown

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

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

From the back cover:

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

And here is what I thought about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is the cover of my copy of the book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Fear of Dark Water by Craig Russell

Once more I’m trying to catch up writing about the books I’ve read recently so this is just a short post about A Fear of Dark Water by Craig Russell. It’s the sixth book in the series featuring Jan Fabel, the head of Hamburg’s Murder Commission, but it’s only the second one that I’ve read (I previously read the seventh book, The Ghosts of Altona). Craig Russell has now joined my list of favourite authors and I think Fabel now equals Rebus as one of my favourite police detectives.

In A Fear of Dark Water a massive storm hits Hamburg, flooding the city, just as a major environmental summit is about to start.  A serial rapist and murderer is still at large in the city and when the flood waters recede a headless torso is found washed up. Initially it’s thought to be another victim of the killer, who had dumped his victims’ bodies in waterways around the city.

But there’s more to it than that as Fabel’s investigations dig up a secret environmental organisation/cult called ‘Pharos’, that demands its members hand over all their wealth to it, and with an aggressive and hostile approach to criticism. Fabel is drawn into the high-tech world of cyberspace, particularly the Virtual Dimension site, where people create personalities who only exist in cybre-space and who only interact through the internet – a world unfamiliar to Fabel, who denies he is technophobic, insisting he is a traditionalist.

This is a fast paced and complex, multi-layered crime novel that I thoroughly enjoyed and that kept me guessing right to the end.

The Author

Born in Fife, Craig Russell served for several years as a police officer in Scotland, before becoming an advertising copywriter and later creative director. His Fabel novels were inspired by his long-standing interest in the language, culture and people of Germany.

In addition to his Jan Fabel books Craig Russell also writes the Lennox thrillers set in 1950s Glasgow and I hope to get round to reading those too.

Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has Rebus had his day? He tells Fox

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

‘Last century?’

‘Aye, maybe.’ (p 243)

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

Silver Lies by Ann Parker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five of the Best October 2011 – 2015

This was originally Cleo’s idea (Cleopatra Loves Books). It’s to look back over your reviews of the past five years and pick out your favourite books for each month from 2011 – 2015. I like it so much it inspired me to do the same.

I really enjoy looking back over the books I’ve loved reading. These are some of my favourite books for each October from 2011 to 2015 (click on the titles/covers to see my original reviews).

2011

The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine – It is a most remarkable book, in that it turns a murder mystery upside down, as it were. It is clear from the start that there has been a murder and the murderer is known – she has just been released from prison. But who did she murder? Why, where, when and how? The other characters all know – but not the reader. The House of Stairs is so called because it’s a big house on five floors with a staircase of 106 stairs.

The crime is only revealed very gradually, building up the suspense and tension in a series of flashbacks, as you realise the how, the where and the when, but only by inference. As for the identity of the victim, I kept changing my mind, only finally deciding it must be this person, just a few pages before the dénouement.

2012

The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas – this is a very cleverly constructed and quirky mystery with a twist at the end which took me totally by surprise. Strange blue chalk circles start appearing on the pavements of Paris and then the body of a woman with her throat savagely cut is found in one of them.

This is the first of her Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg novels. Adamsberg just doesn’t fit the usual detective profile – well, he is a loner, so that’s pretty standard, but apart from that he stands out  – an outsider from the Pyrenees, newly appointed to Paris as Commissaire of police headquarters in the 5th arrondissement. His colleagues don’t understand him, especially Inspector Danglard, who likes a drink and isn’t too reliable after about four in the afternoon. A most enjoyable read!

2013

The Shining by Stephen King tells the story of Jack Torrance and his family as they move into the Overlook Hotel in the Colorada Rockies. The Overlook is closed for the winter and Jack, a recovering alcoholic is the caretaker. Just what impels him towards murder is horrifyingly revealed as the winter weather closes in on the hotel and they are cut off from the rest of the world.

The characters are so well-drawn and so distinct. Their vulnerability, coupled with the way King gets inside each person’s head, increases the element of fear. There’s the horror of the father who has monsters inside his head, who still loves his son, but demands he should ‘take his medicine’; the evil is palpable. It’s an excellent choice to read at Halloween.

2014

I read so many brilliant books in October 2014! I’ve picked just one for this post – the others are listed in this post.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel. I enjoyed this collection of stories,  which are brooding, somewhat melancholic, dark, disturbing and full of sharp and penetrating observations. One of my favourite stories was Sorry to Disturb, which describes the dilemma of a British woman living in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia when she finds herself befriended by a young Pakistani businessman – a situation that was ‘ripe for misunderstanding‘. It has a claustrophobic atmosphere.

Overall this is a compelling book, brilliantly written, keenly observed, with the power to chill and shock me.

2015

House of Shadows by Nicola Cornick – a time-slip novel with each strand of the story clearly defined, each 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.

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. Once I started reading the House of Shadows I didn’t want to stop as the history of the crystal mirror and the Sistrin pearl, a jewel of rare beauty and price unfolds.

R.I.P.X – Completed

This year (the 10th anniversary) the annual R.I.P event was hosted by Andi and Heather of The Estella Society. It ran from September 1st to October 31st.

It involved reading books that fitted into one or more of the following categories:

Mystery
Suspense
Thriller
Dark Fantasy
Gothic
Horror
Supernatural

There are several levels, depending on how many books you read. I initially thought I’d aim low with just one book. But I actually read eight, more than enough for –

Peril the First – to read four books.

ripnineperilfirst

This is what I read:

  1. Dead Scared by Sharon Bolton
  2. Like This, For Ever by Sharon Bolton
  3. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  4. The Ghosts of Altona by Craig Russell
  5. The Moth Catcher by Ann Cleeves
  6. A Dark and Twisted Tide by Sharon Bolton
  7. The Devil’s Promise by David Stuart Davies
  8. Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton

Just two were from my initial list and the others just turned up, as it were! I still have these books I want to read/reread:

  • The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
  • A Song of Stone by Iain Banks
  • Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie
  • Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen – I read this so many years ago that it will be like reading it for the first time. It was one of the set books at school and I don’t think I appreciated it then.
  • Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham
  • The Rottweiler by Ruth Rendell

House of Shadows by Nicola Cornick

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

Press Release synopsis:

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

February 1662

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

February 1801

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

February 2014

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

My thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue Mercy by Orna Ross

This is a short post giving the synopsis of Blue Mercy by Orna Ross and my thoughts about the book.

Synopsis from Amazon:

A literary family drama, with a murder at its heart, full of emotional twists and surprises
~~~
Will you side with mother or daughter? When Mercy Mulcahy was 40 years old, she was accused of killing her elderly and tyrannical father. Now, at the end of her life, she has written a book about what really happened on that fateful night of Christmas Eve, 1989. The tragic and beautiful Mercy has devoted her life to protecting Star, especially from the father whose behavior so blighted her own life. Yet Star vehemently resists reading her manuscript. Why? What is Mercy hiding? Was her father’s death, as many believe, an assisted suicide? Or something even more sinister?

In this book, nothing is what it seems on the surface and everywhere there are emotional twists and surprises. (“Breathtaking, and I mean literally — actual gasps will happen” said one reader review).

Set in Ireland and California, Blue Mercy is a compelling novel that combines lyrical description with a page-turning style to create an enthralling tale of love, loss and the ever-present possibility of redemption.

My thoughts:

Blue Mercy has had a lot of 4 and 5 star reviews on Amazon and on Goodreads, so I am definitely in the minority in not being swept away by it. I enjoyed some of it, thought some parts were OK and didn’t like other parts, but I didn’t find it compelling or enthralling and I certainly did not gasp at the revelation that Mercy had been lying to her daughter and to the reader. It confirmed my suspicion that she was not a reliable narrator in writing about her life.

I thought the setting in Ireland was vivid and came to life. However, although there is a mystery about how Mercy’s father died and what had happened to Star’s father, the plot is definitely secondary to the various themes running through this book – such as family relationships, particularly but not solely the mother/daughter relationship, abuse and assisted dying. But there is also so much detail about feelings, personal development, women’s studies, childhood and teenage problems, eating disorders, and exploration of Mercy and Star’s psyches and perceptions, that the characters and plot were almost drowned in emotion, pain and angst.

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Old Curiosity Shop
The Old Curiosity Shop

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

TOCShop furnace
The furnace

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

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

Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton

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

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

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

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

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

A Dark and Twisted Tide by Sharon Bolton: Mini Review

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

Synopsis from the back cover:

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

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

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

The Devil’s Promise by David Stuart Davies

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

From the back cover:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five of the Best: September 2011-2015

This was originally Cleo’s idea (Cleopatra Loves Books). It’s to look back over your reviews of the past five years and pick out your favourite books for each month from 2011 – 2015. I like it so much it inspired me to do the same.

I really enjoy looking back over the books I’ve loved reading. These are some of my favourite books for each September from 2011 to 2015 (click on the titles/covers to see my original reviews). These are all crime fiction, mostly dark scary books, because each September and October I take part in the R.I.P. Challenge, that is hosted this year by The Estella Society.

2011

Blood Harvest by Sharon Bolton.  I can’t quite believe that it’s four years ago that I read this book as I can still remember the tension, terror and suspense within its pages.  It’s a dark, scary book, set in the fictional town of Heptonclough in Lancashire.There are two churches, the ancient ruined Abbey Church and standing next to it the ‘new’ church of St Barnabas. The Fletchers have just moved into a new house built on the land right next to the boundary wall of the churchyard. But this is not a safe place for children, three little girls have died over the past ten years, and when the Fletcher children start to hear voices in the graveyard more disturbing events unfold.

2012

The Sixth Lamentation by William Brodrick, the first Father Anselm book. This is historical fiction and it’s also a mystery. It looks back  to the Second World War in occupied France, telling a dramatic tale of love and betrayal, full of suspense, and interwoven stories, with accurate details of life in Paris during the Occupation and the subsequent war trials. William Brodrick has also drawn on his own personal experience. He was formerly in religious life but left before his final vows.

2013

Relics of the Dead by Ariana Franklin, the third book in her Mistress of the Art of Death series. The date is 1176, the setting is Glastonbury where the monks, after a fire had destroyed their monastery, discovered two skeletons buried in their graveyard. The question is  – are these the remains of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere? Henry II needs evidence that they are not and sends Adelia Aguilar, the anatomist, to examine the bones for evidence. I’ve always liked the stories about King Arthur, about his life and death, about Excalibur (which does feature in this book), about Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot,  and the Holy Grail (which do not).

2014

The Brimstone WeddingBrimstone wedding by Barbara Vine. This is one of the best of Barbara Vine’s books that I’ve read – nearly as good as A Dark-Adapted Eye and writing under her real name, Ruth Rendell, A Judgement in Stone. it’s not horrific in the overblown graphic sense, but in a sinister, psychological way that really is ‘chilling’ and inexpressibly sad. The atmosphere is mysterious, a house isolated in the fens, seems to hold the key to the past. Stella, who is dying of lung cancer,  never mentions her husband or her past life, but gradually she confides in Jenny, a carer at the retirement home where Stella lives, telling her things she has never said to her son and daughter – things about her life she doesn’t want them to know.

2015

This September I’m spoilt for choice as I read several excellent books – The Ghosts of Altona by Craig Russell is just one of them. This is his 7th book featuring Jan Fabel, the head of Hamburg’s Murder Commission, a very cleverly plotted book, multi-layered and complex and I loved it.

A murder mystery combining a cold case and present day murders combined with great storytelling, rich descriptions, interwoven with details of near-death experiences, the Gothic, mental and personality disorders makes this most definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.

I must also mention three of Sharon Bolton’s Lacey Flint books that I read this September – all excellent books.

The Ghosts of Altona by Craig Russell

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

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

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

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

The Author

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

His Jan Fabel books (from Fantastic Fiction):


His  Lennox books

 

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

First Chapter, First Paragraph: The Ghosts of Altona

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

I started reading The Ghosts of Altona by Craig Russell yesterday.

It begins:

The sky that day, he would later remember, had been the colour of pewter. When he thought back on it, that was what he would remember, the lack of colour in the sky, the lack of colour in everything. And he hadn’t noticed at the time.

Winter had been half-hearted that day.

‘So why, exactly, are we talking to this guy more than any other neighbours?’ asked Anna Wolff as she and Fabel got out of the unmarked police BMW. ‘Schalthoff has no record … never been so much as a suspect for anything and has no dodgy connections that we can find. I just don’t get why you get a vibe from him. What is it – some kind of hunch?

This book won the 2015 Bloody Scotland Crime Novel of the Year. It’s the first book by Craig Russell’s that I’ve noticed. How could I have missed the others? This is his seventh Jan Fabel book!

Blurb:

Jan Fabel is a changed man. Head of the Polizei Hamburg’s Murder Commission, Fabel has dealt with the dead for nearly two decades, but when a routine enquiry becomes a life-threatening – and life-altering – experience, he finds himself on much closer terms with death than ever before.

Fabel’s first case at the Murder Commission comes back to haunt him: Monika Krone’s body is found at last, fifteen years after she went missing. Monika – ethereally beautiful, intelligent, cruel – was the centre of a group of students obsessed with the gothic. Fabel re-opens the case. What happened that night, when Monika left a party and disappeared into thin air?

Meanwhile, Hamburg’s most dangerous serial rapist has escaped from high-security prison. Fabel is convinced he had outside help, but from whom? His suspicions that the escape is connected to the discovery of Monika’s body seem to lead to nothing when there are no sightings of the fugitive, but little can he imagine the real purpose for which this monster has been unleashed.

When men involved with Monika start turning up dead, the crime scenes full of gothic symbolism, Fabel realizes he is looking for a killer with both a hunger for vengeance and a terrifying taste for the macabre. A true gothic demon is stalking the streets of Hamburg…

I’m enjoying what I’ve read so far. What do you think – have you read any of Craig Russell’s books? Would you read on?

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Lacey Flint books by Sharon Bolton

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

Bolton bks

Synopses from Sharon Bolton’s website:

Dead Scared

Someone is watching you…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Robber Bride

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

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

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

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

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

Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon by Jane Austen

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

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

Lady Susan

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

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

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

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

The Watsons

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

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

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

Sanditon

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

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

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

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

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

Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE CLASSICS SPIN RESULT …

… it’s NUMBER 5

which on my list is The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens.

I have until October 23, 2015 to read it  – but it could easily take me much longer than that as in the mean time I have George Eliot’s Adam Bede to read for my local book group for our next meeting at the end of September. I can see that my reading is going to be a lot slower than normal.

I have started reading Adam Bede, but each time I’ve picked it up I’ve nodded off to sleep (and it wasn’t even bedtime!) I just hope The Old Curiosity Shop won’t have the same effect on me. I have a feeling that I might find it a bit too sentimental for my liking – this is the book in which Little Nell suffers a melodramatic death. And that’s as much as I know about it.

If you’re in the Spin too which book did you get?

The Classics Spin: My List

The Classics ClubThe Classics Club has been so quiet for a while now that I was beginning to think it had folded – but no!

It’s time for another Classics Spin for any who are interested. By next Monday, August 24, list your choice of any twenty books you’ve left to read from your Classics Club list — in a separate post. Next Monday morning, The Classics Club will announce a number and that is the book for you to read by October 23.

This is my list:

  1. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
  2. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
  3. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
  4. Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens
  5. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
  6. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  7. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  8. Romola by George Eliot
  9. Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford
  10. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
  11. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
  12. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
  13. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
  14. The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
  15. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  16. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  17. Doctor Thorne  (Barsetshire Chronicles, #3) by Anthony Trollope
  18. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  19. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  20. The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

I don’t mind which one of these comes up in the Spin, but I’m half hoping it will be one of the Hardy books and I’m not sure about reading The Voyage Out as I’ve started this in the past and put it back on the shelf unfinished.

A Medal for Murder by Frances Brody

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

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

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

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

These are the books in the Kate Shackleton Mystery series:

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

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

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

A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Tuesday Post: After the Fire

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

The book I’ve chosen this week is After the Fire by Jane Casey.  I read this in June and have not got round to writing about it yet.

It begins:

There were 224 residents of Murchison House on the Maudling Estate in north London, and on a cold grey late November day  not one of them was expecting to die. Some were hoping to die. some were waiting to die. but no one actually expected to die that day.

This is the sixth book in the Maeve Kerrigan series. It stands well on it’s own, although there are references to past events and storylines that appear in the earlier books.

The Maudling Estate and some of the minor characters featured in the 5th book, The Kill.

Blurb:
After a fire rips through a North London tower block, two bodies are found locked in an 11th floor flat. But it’s the third victim that ensures the presence of detective Maeve Kerrigan and the murder squad. It appears that controversial MP Geoff Armstrong, trapped by the fire, chose to jump to his death rather than wait for rescue. But what was such a right wing politician doing in the deprived, culturally diverse Maudling Estate?
As Maeve and her senior colleague, Derwent, pick through the wreckage, they uncover the secret world of the 11th floor, where everyone seems to have something to hide…

Would you read on? I did and thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of A Daily Rhythm. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

Here’s a teaser from 32% on my Kindle (rather more than 2 sentences!):

I felt the familiar rush, the moment a shape began to emerge from the darkness that surrounded the case. A pattern. A connection. A witness and a suspect.

A killer with a face and a name.

Maybe.

The Remorseful Day by Colin Dexter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agatha Christie: Tommy and Tuppence

Tomorrow night sees the start of a new six part series on BBC1 – Partners in Crime. According to the Radio Times the episodes are loosely based on The Secret Adversary, the first of the Tommy and Tuppence stories and N or M?, the third story.

But, as I have come to expect with TV/film adaptations, this is not the original story as the action has been transposed from 1922 and 1940 (the original settings of these two books) to the 1950s. Still I have great hopes for the series, with David Walliams as Tommy and Jessica Raine as Tuppence, although I’m wondering what else has been changed.

This is what I wrote about The Secret Adversary in January 2011:

The Secret Adversary was first published in 1922. It was Agatha Christie’s second book and the first featuring Tommy and Tuppence. In this book they have just met up after World War One, both in their twenties: ‘an essentially modern-looking couple’. They are both stony broke and decide to set up a joint venture under the name of the Young Adventurers Ltd, initially intending to hire themselves out to commit crimes.

A Mr Whittington overhears their conversation and offers Tuppence their first assignment, but when she tells him her name is ‘Jane Finn’ he acts very strangely and thinks she is blackmailing him. From then on Tommy and Tuppence set out to find Jane Finn, a name Tommy had overheard from a conversation in the street.

Reading it reminded somewhat of Enid Blyton’s adventure books, mixed up with P G Wodehouse’s books. It’s a spy/detective story that is fast and furious with Tommy and Tuppence landing themselves in all sorts of dangerous situations. It’s also full of red herrings and they’re never very sure who they can trust. Tommy and Tuppence advertise for information relating to Jane Finn and have two responses. One is from Mr Carter, from British Intelligence who tells them that Jane Finn, a survivor from the torpedoed Lusitania, was handed a certain document – a secret agreement, with a ‘new and deadly significance’. The second response is from Mr Julius P Hersheimmer, a young American, who says he is Jane’s cousin and wants to find her.

Just who is the mysterious Mr Brown, the secretive mastermind behind a plot to unite all of England’s enemies, overthrow the government and cause anarchy?  There is no clue to his real identity, he remains elusive and always in the background. But it becomes clear that he is one of two people and as I read I swung from believing it to be one character to the other.

One point of interest is the brief mention of Inspector Japp, of Scotland Yard. His role in this is merely incidental.

I enjoyed this book and I liked Tommy and Tuppence, who by the end realise they are in love. Agatha Christie only wrote five books featuring this couple. Unlike Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, Tommy and Tuppence age as the books were written (links to my posts):

Format: Kindle Edition
File Size: 378 KB
Print Length: 229 pages
Source: Project Gutenberg E-Book

Book Beginnings: The Outcast Dead

Book Beginnings ButtonEvery Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week’s book is The Outcast Dead by Elly Griffiths, which I’m planning to read soon. It begins:

‘And we ask your abundant blessing, Lord, on these, the outcast dead.

There is a murmured response from the group gathered on the bank below the castle walls. But Ruth Galloway, standing at the back, says nothing. She is wearing the expression of polite neutrality she assumes whenever God is mentioned. This mask has stood her in good stead over the years and she sees no reason to drop it now. But she approves of the Prayers for the Outcast Dead. This brief ecumenical service is held every year for the unknown dead of Norwich: the bodies thrown into unmarked graves, the paupers, the plague victims, forgotten, unmourned, except this motley collection of archaeologists, historians and sundry hangers-on.

Friday 56Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

Ruth drinks her cold cappuccino and wonders how Cathbad always manages to make her feel so guilty. It’s not her fault that his friend’s been arrested.

Blurb:

Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway has excavated a body from the grounds of Norwich Castle, once a prison. The body may be that of Victorian murderess Jemima Green. Called Mother Hook for her claw-like hand, Jemima was hanged for the murder of five children.

DCI Harry Nelson has no time for long-ago killers. Investigating the case of three infants found dead, one after the other, in their King’s Lynn home, he’s convinced that their mother is responsible.

Then a child goes missing. Could the abduction be linked to the long-dead Mother Hook? Ruth is pulled into the case, and back towards Nelson.

I always enjoy the Ruth Galloway books, despite the fact that they are written in the present tense, so I’m hoping this one is just as good as the earlier books. This is the sixth in the series. (I’m behind with this series – the seventh book was published earlier this year.) They are a mix of modern day murder mysteries and archaeology, with an added element of the supernatural.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Outcast by Sadie Jones: Book and TV

The Outcast

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

First of all the blurb from Goodreads:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L Sayers

Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L Sayers  was first published in 1931, the seventh Lord Peter Wimsey murder mystery. Wimsey is on holiday in Kirkcudbright and Gatehouse of Fleet in Galloway, Scotland, in a fishing and painting community where he is known and where he is

… received on friendly and even affectionate terms. He could make a respectable cast, and he did not pretend to paint, and therefore, although English and an ‘incomer’, gave no cause of offence. The Southron is tolerated in Scotland on the understanding that he does not throw his weight about, and from this peculiarly English vice Lord Peter was laudably free. True, his accent was affected and his behaviour undignified to a degree, but he had been weighed in the balance over many seasons and pronounced harmless, and when he indulged in any startling eccentricity, the matter was dismissed with a shrug and a tolerant, ‘Christ, it’s only his lordship.’ (page 2)

When Campbell, a local landscape painter and fisherman is found dead in a burn near Newton Stewart, it seems he must have slipped whilst painting near to the edge of a ravine, a steep and treacherous granite slope. At first it looks as though it was an accident, but  Wimsey is convinced it was murder and an autopsy reveals that Campbell was dead before he fell into the burn. Campbell was not a popular man, described as ‘ a devil when he is drunk and a lout when he is sober.’ There are 6 possible suspects – all of whom had quarrelled with or been assaulted by Campbell, all of them artists.

What follows is an intricately plotted story as Wimsey and the police investigate the mystery. It is complicated by immense detail about train times, routes, bicycles, moving the body, alibis, and varying styles of painting – I gave up trying to understand it all and just read along enjoying the puzzle.

The five red herrings are, of course, the five innocent suspects, and Wimsey introduces another possibility that it might not be any of the six suspects, when having heard the case against each of them, he announces that all the theories are wrong, before he gives his verdict. And then he sets in motion a re-enactment of the crime from beginning to end to show how it was carried out, down to the most minute detail.

Sayers doesn’t play fair with the reader in not revealing a clue Wimsey noticed at the scene of the crime whilst he was searching through the contents of Campbell’s pockets and satchel and announced something was missing. In an added note Sayers explained that Wimsey

… told the Sergeant what he was look for and why, but as the intelligent reader will readily supply these details for himself, they are omitted from this page. (page 21)

I didn’t ‘readily supplied the details’  for myself but eventually I guessed what it was. But overall, that is just a minor complaint and I thoroughly enjoyed this mystery, the characters are striking and the setting is well grounded.

Five red herrings map 001

There is a map at the beginning of the book that helped me follow the action and in the Foreword Sayers explained that

All the places are real places and all the trains are real trains, and all the landscapes are correct, except that I have run up a few new houses here and there.

and goes to clarify that

… none of the people are in the least like real people, and that no Galloway artist would ever think of getting intoxicated or running away from his wife or bashing a fellow citizen over the head. All that is just for fun and to make it more exciting.

The Gateway of Fleet website has an interesting page on ‘Dorothy L Sayers in Galloway‘, which states that she and her husband Mac Fleming first visited  Galloway in 1928 when they stayed at the Anwoth Hotel (mentioned in Five Red Herrings) in Gatehouse of Fleet and from 1929 they rented a studio in The High Street, Kirkcudbright next door to the well-known artist Charles Oppenheimer. They got to know Galloway well, especially the artistic community in Kirkcudbright and Gatehouse, on which her detective novel Five Red Herrings is based.

I realised after I’d read Five Read Herrings that it fits into a couple of reading challenges – the Colour Coded Challenge (a book with ‘red’ in the title) and the Read Scotland Challenge (a book set in Scotland).

First Chapter ∼ First Paragraph: Go Set a Watchman

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

My choice this week is Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee which is published today. It begins:

Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical. Over her breakfast coffee, she watched the last of Georgia’s hills recede and the red earth appear, and with it tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards the inevitable verbena grew, surrounded by whitewashed tires. She grinned when she saw her first TV antenna atop an unpainted Negro house; as they multiplied her joy rose.

Jean Louise Finch always made this journey by air, but she decided to go by train from New York to Maycomb Junction on her fifth annual trip home. For one thing, she had the life scared out of her the last time she was on a plane: the pilot had elected to fly through a tornado. For another, flying home meant her father rising at three in the morning, driving a hundred miles to meet her in Mobile, and doing a full day’s work afterwards: he was seventy-two now and this was no longer fair.

I loved To Kill a Mockingbird when I read it a couple of years ago but I’m still not sure I want to read Go Set a Watchman, so I downloaded a sample on my Kindle to have a look at the beginning.

What do you think? Are you going to read it?

The Outcast by Sadie Jones

I noticed trailers for a new drama on BBC for The Outcast and wondered if it’s based on the book of the same name by Sadie Jones – a book that has sat on my shelves for a few years (well nearly 7 years) and I still haven’t read it. That’s what happens when you move house, box the books and then double shelve them, putting this one at the back! It was shortlisted for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction in 2008.

And it is the same book (although my copy being much older has a different cover) – the TV version begins tomorrow on BBC One at 9 pm. It’s been adapted by Sadie Jones, so I hope this means it’s faithful to the book. I’ve started to read it – won’t finish it by tomorrow night but will definitely finish it before the second episode is broadcast the following Sunday.

It’s set in the 1950s, when Lewis Aldridge aged nineteen, is released from jail, and returns to the village where he grew up: the village where, a decade earlier, tragedy tore his family apart, leaving him to a troubled adolescence with a father he barely knew.

The Day of the Lie by William Brodrick

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

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

Blurb from the back cover of my paperback copy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the latest book has just been published:

The Silent Ones by William Brodrick published 2 July 2015.

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

First Chapter ∼ First Paragraph

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

I read Old Filth by Jane Gardam in 2008 and loved it, without realising at that time that there were more books about Old Filth QC (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong). So I was delighted to find there are two more.

I’ve recently read the second book, The Man in the Wooden Hat, and I’m currently reading the third, Last Friends – nearly finished it actually.

 

It begins:

The Titans were gone. They had clashed their last. Sir Edward Feathers, affectionately known as Filth (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong), and Sir Terence Veneering, the two greatest exponents of English and International Law in the engineering and construction industry and the current experts upon the Ethics of Pollution, were dead. Their well-worn armour had fallen from them with hardly a clatter and the quiet Dorset village to which they had retired within a very few years of each other (accidentally, for they had hated one another for over fifty years) mourned their passing and wondered who would be distinguished enough to buy their houses.

My reviews of  Last Friends and The Man in the Wooden Hat will follow shortly.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kill by Jane Casey: Book Notes

Yet again I’m reading faster than I’m reviewing, so this post is not a full review but a few thoughts on The Kill by Jane Casey. Unless I write about a book straight after I finish reading it gets pushed to the back of my mind and sadly that is what has happened in this case, which is a shame as it’s a brilliant book, the fifth in her DC Maeve Kerrigan series and I fully agree with the quotation from the Sunday Times that ‘Jane Casey’s police procedurals go from strength to strength.’

The book begins in Richmond Park in London at 00.43 where a couple are badger-watching but to their horror are witnesses, albeit at a distance, to a murder.

The victim is a police officer. But this is just the first murder and yet more police officers are killed. Maeve and her boss, DI Josh Derwent are part of the Met’s team assigned to investigate. They have no idea about the motive for the murders as the attacks seem to be random, from the first victim alone in his car (why was he there at that time anyway?), to the officers of the Territorial Support Unit killed as they patrolled the Maudling Estate – is it a reaction to the police killing a young and innocent black teenager? The MP, Geoff Armstrong thinks so.

This is a fast-paced novel, with an intriguing and complex plot and featuring characters that have appeared in the earlier books, developing their relationships. Some issues look as though they have been resolved, such as Superintendent Godley’s guilty secret, and others such as Maeve’s relationship with her boyfriend Rob, also a police officer come to a head, whereas Derwent and Maeve continue to have a confrontational working relationship and the interaction between them and DCI Una Burt gets even worse. I suppose it’s possible to read this as a standalone, but because of the back stories I think it is better to read them in order.

I found it absolutely compelling reading.

First Chapter ∼ First Paragraph Intros

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

I’m currently reading The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards, described on the back cover as

‘the extraordinary story of British detective fiction between the two World Wars, and the fascinating people who wrote it. A gripping real-life detective story, this book investigates how Agatha Christie and her colleagues in the mysterious Detection Club transformed crime fiction. Their work cast new light on unsolved murders, whilst hiding clues to their authors’ darkest secrets, and their complex and sometimes bizarre private lives.

First Chapter:

Chapter I, The Ritual in the Dark

On a summer evening in 1937, a group of men and women gathered in the darkness to perform a macabre ceremony. They had invited a special guest to witness their ceremony. She was visiting London from New Zealand and a thrill of excitement ran through her as the appointed time drew near. She loved drama, and at home she worked in the theatre. Now she felt as tense as when the curtain was about to rise. To be a guest at this dinner was a special honour. What would happen next she could not imagine.

Many congratulations to Martin Edwards who is to be the next President of  the Detection Club when Simon Brett, the current President retires in November. I really cannot think of a better choice than Martin, a well-deserved honour indeed!

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.

First Chapter ∼ First Paragraph Tuesday: Parker Pyne

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

I’ve been looking at some of Agatha Christie’s short stories and wondering which to read first. One of the collections I own is The Complete Parker Pyne: Private Eye. It looks a good place to start.

In the Author’s Foreword Agatha Christie tells how she came to write these stories:

One day, having lunch at a Corner House, I was enraptured by a conversation on statistics going on at a table behind me. I turned my head and caught a vague glimpse of a bald head, glasses and a beaming smile – I caught sight that is, of Mr Parker Pyne. I had never thought about statistics before (and indeed seldom think about them now!) but the enthusiasm with which they were being discussed awakened my interest. I was just considering a new series of short stories and then and there I decided on the general treatment and scope, and in due course enjoyed writing them.

I like the details she gives – the Corner Houses, smarter and grander than tea shops and noted for their art deco style first appeared in 1909 and  remained until 1977. And I love the fact that she was eavesdropping on the conversation going on behind her and the insight this gives into how she got ideas for her stories.

The stories were all written in the 1930s and first appeared in various UK and US magazines. The first story in this collection is The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife and it begins:

Four grunts, an indignant voice asking why nobody could leave a hat alone, a slammed door, and Mr Packington had departed to catch the eight forty-five to the city. Mrs Packington sat on at the breakfast table. Her face was flushed, her lips were pursed, and the only reason she was not crying was that at the last minute anger had taken the place of grief, ‘I won’t stand it,’ said Mrs Packington. ‘I won’t stand it!’ She remained for some moments brooding , and then murmured: ‘The minx. Nasty sly little cat! How can George be such a fool!’

Agatha Christie: Short Stories

Agatha ChristieSo far in reading Agatha Christie’s books I’ve concentrated on reading her full length novels and have only read some of her short stories. As I’ve nearly read all of her novels, although none of those she wrote as Mary Westmacott, I’ll be reading more of her short stories from now on.

So far I’ve read the following short story collections:

  • The Thirteen Problems – Miss Marple stories. It was first published in the UK in 1933, collecting together 13 short stories previously published in various magazines. The first story The Tuesday Night Club introduces the character of Miss Marple.
  • The Hound of Death – 12 stories of unexplained phenomena, in most cases tales of the supernatural rather than detective stories. Of the twelve stories I think The Witness for the Prosecution is the best. Agatha Christie later wrote a play based on this story which has subsequently been adapted for film and television.
  • The Labours of Hercules – 12 short stories featuring Hercule Poirot, first published in 1947. Poirot is thinking of retiring, but before he does he wants to solve 12 more cases and not just any cases. These have to correspond to the Twelve Labours of Hercules, specially selected problems that personally appeal to him.
  • Murder in the Mews – four stories about crimes solved by Hercule Poirot, first published in 1937.
  • The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a Selection of Entrées – 6 short stories

I also have the following collections to read:

  • Poirot Investigates – 11 Poirot stories
  • The Golden Ball and Other Stories – 14 stories
  • The Mysterious Mr Quin – 12 stories
  • The Complete Parker Pyne: Private Eye – 14 stories
  • Miss Marple and Mystery – 55 stories

By my reckoning Agatha Christie wrote 157 short stories, published in a number of collections. Wikipedia records that she wrote 153 short stories, published in 14 collections in the UK and in the US. Some stories were published under different names in the US Collections. And some stories appear in more than one collection, which is rather confusing.

So, I’ve compiled a list arranged in a-z order of titles from the list of books on the Official Agatha Christie Site. My list is on my Agatha Christie Short Story Progress Page.

Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Chapter First Paragraph: Appointment with Death

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

My choice this week is Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie, one of the few novels of hers that I haven’t read. It’s one of the earlier Poirot books, first published in 1938. It begins:

‘You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?’

The question floated out into the still night air, seemed to hang there a moment and then drift away down into  the darkness towards the Dead Sea.

Hercule Poirot paused a minute with his hand on the window catch. Frowning, he shut it decisively, thereby excluding any injurious night air! Hercule Poirot had been brought up to believe that all outside air was best left outside, and that night air was especially dangerous to the health.

Of course, this has me wondering who ‘she’ is, why she has to be killed and who is talking.

I don’t remember reading before about Poirot’s upbringing – intriguing to think of him as a child!

 

The Stranger You Know by Jane Casey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Friday Post

Book Beginnings ButtonEvery Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

Today I began reading Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie. It’s a Poirot mystery first published in 1940.

Sad cypress

It begins:

Prologue

Elinor Katharine Carlisle. You have been charged upon this indictment with the murder of Mary Gerrard upon the 27th of July last. Are you guilty or not guilty?

Elinor Carlisle stood very straight, her head raised. It was a graceful head, the modelling of the bones sharp and well defined. The eyes were a deep vivid blue, the hair black. The brows had been plucked to a faint thin line.

There was a silence – quite a noticeable silence.

Friday 56Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

Mrs Wellman may have thought she wanted to die; but side by side with that feeling there ran the hope that she would recover absolutely. And because of that hope, I think she felt that to make a will would be unlucky.

I’ve read up to page 75 and so far Poirot hasn’t appeared, except in the Prologue during Elinor’s trial: Hercule Poirot, his head a little on one side, his eyes thoughtful, was watching her.

Books Read in May 2015

I’m pleased that I’ve read 8 books in May as my reading and blogging was interrupted by gardening. The grass is now growing at a rate of knots and the weeds, especially the ground elder, are rampant, threatening to take over the borders. So I’ve spent a lot of time this month mowing, weeding and strimming.

But I’ve also read these books and written about all of them, except H is for Hawk – post to follow some time soon (I hope). Three of the books are non fiction, one is a book from Lovereading for review and six are library books – no TBR books (books acquired before 1 January 2015) this month! I must get back to reading from those books I’ve had for years very soon!

These are the books I read:

Bks May 2015

Gray Mountain by John Grisham (Library book) – this book is just as much a campaign against injustice and the misuse of power, about the good little guys against the big bad guys as his earlier books are. In this case it’s the big coal companies that come under the microscope, companies that are  ruining the environment by strip-mining in the Appalachian mountains. I liked the view of the small town community, the mountain scenery, the legal cases large and small and the tension created by the danger of opposing the big coal companies.

The Lost Garden by Katharine Swartz (Review book) – 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, a gentle story, well told and an enjoyable read. 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.

Gently North West by Alan Hunter (Library book) – set in the fictitious village of Strathtudlem in Scotland in 1967 where Gently is on holiday with his friend, Barbara Merryn and his sister, Bridget and her husband. Gently gets involved in the investigations into the murder of Donnie Dunglass,  found, stabbed in the back, face down on the heather. I thought it was an enjoyable book although I thought the murder mystery was rather far-fetched.

Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes (Library book, Non Fiction) – a collection of thoughts centred around Barnes’s fear of death and so inevitably he considers the question of religion and especially God. Interwoven with his thoughts about his agnosticism and death are anecdotes about his family and himself, thoughts on literature (particularly French literature) and it’s relationship to life. I found it all fascinating.

Dry Bones That Dream by Peter Robinson (Library book) – Banks investigates the murder of Keith Rothwell, an accountant, a  mild-mannered, dull sort of person it seems. But is that all there is to Rothwell? Banks unearths the secrets the characters have kept hidden from their family and friends. There’s also money-laundering and international and political shenanigans involved. Maybe not the best Banks book I’ve read.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (KindleNon Fiction) – no post yet. In some ways a difficult book to read – about training a goshawk and the author’s struggle with grief, mourning the death of her father.

Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves (Library book) This is the fifth Vera book and I loved it. It’s so good I read it twice because I watched the TV version after I finished reading the book – and it confused me as it’s different from the book! So I went back and re-read it. It is so much better than the TV adaptation, which I think suffered from being condensed into just one hour and a half length programme.

Poirot and Me by David Suchet (Library book, Non Fiction) – this consists largely of Suchet’s summaries of the stories and how he went about analysing Poirot’s character and how he played the part. This is a fascinating account of both the Poirot series and of David Suchet’s career.

I have no difficulty this month with naming my favourite book of the month. All the time I was reading it I was thoroughly absorbed and intrigued by Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves.

Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves

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

Harbour Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week in Books: 20 May 2015

My week in books

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next. A similar meme is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Now:

I’m currently  reading three books.

Golden Age etc

The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards – the story of detective fiction written by the authors in the Detection Club between the two World Wars.  I’m reading this slowly, enjoying all the details about authors whose books I’ve read such as Agatha Christie and authors I’ve only heard of. I can see I’m going to have a long list of books to read by the end of this book.

Harbour Streetthe sixth Vera Stanhope murder mystery by Ann Cleeves. In Newcastle, Detective Joe Ashworth and his daughter Jessie travel home on the busy Metro. The train is stopped unexpectedly, and Jessie sees that one woman doesn’t leave with the other passengers: Margaret Krukowski has been fatally stabbed. This was adapted for television and I watched it when it was first broadcast last year but can’t remember the identity of the murderer!

Poirot and Me by David Suchet – his account of how he came to play Hercule Poirot in TV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot in 1988 until the final episode in 2013. I think I must have watched all the episodes, some more than once and it’s interesting to get David Suchet’s perspective.

Then:

A few days ago I finished reading Dry Bones That Dream by Peter Robinson, a DCI Banks Mystery. I wrote about it earlier this week in this post.

Next:

As usual I’m not sure what I’ll read next. I’m very tempted to read one of the books I added to the TBR piles yesterday when I went to Barter Books in Alnwick. Yesterday was also the fortnightly visit of the library van and I collected three books I’d reserved- I’ll do a separate post about all these books.

The one that is calling to me right now is The Stranger You Know by Jane Casey. This is the fourth Maeve Kerrigan book and I’ve read the first three.

Maeve is investigating the murders of three women who have been strangled in their homes by the same killer. It appears that they knew their killer and had let him in.

Dry Bones That Dream by Peter Robinson: Book Notes

I read Peter Robinson’s DCI Banks books set in the Yorkshire Dales, every now and then, so I’m reading them totally out of order. It doesn’t seem to matter. Dry Bones That Dream is the 7th book in the series and the cover of my copy shows  Stephen Tompkinson as Banks. I don’t remember seeing this one on ITV, but I probably did as I see from the list of episodes in Wikipedia that it was broadcast in 2012.

Dry Bones That Dream was first published in the UK in 1995 and in the US later in as Final Account.

Summary from Peter Robinson’s website:

One May evening, two masked gunmen tie up Alison Rothwell and her mother, take Keith Rothwell, a local accountant, to the garage of his isolated Yorkshire Dales farmhouse, and blow his head off with a shotgun. Why? This is the question Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks has to ask as he sifts through Rothwell’s life. Rothwell was generally known in the area as a mild-mannered, dull sort of person, but even a cursory investigation raises more questions than answers. When Banks’s old sparring partner, DS Richard “Dirty Dick” Burgess, turns up from the Yard, the case takes yet another unexpected twist, and Banks finds himself racing against time as the killers seem to be dogging his footsteps. Only after he pits his job against his sense of justice does he discover the truth. And the truth leads him to one of the most difficult decisions of his career.

My Thoughts:

I read this quite quickly, even though it’s just over 350 pages, in between mammoth gardening sessions (more about that later maybe). It really centres around identity and unearthing the secrets the characters have kept hidden from their family and friends. There’s also money-laundering and international and political shenanigans involved.

Much of the book revolves around Banks and his relationships, with family, colleagues and the people he interviews in connection with Keith Rothwell. Banks seems to be at a pivotal moment in his personal life. As usual with the DCI Banks books  we are told what music Banks listens to which got a bit monotonous for me and the descriptions of what each character looked like and the clothes they were wearing didn’t add anything to the plot. I did have an inkling about the truth about Rothwell’s murder but thought I was being too fanciful and that it was an unlikely scenario – it wasn’t. But I did enjoy reading it anyway even with these drawbacks.

Book Beginnings: Firmin

Book Beginnings ButtonEvery Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages and I’ve listed it as one of the books to read for Once Upon A Time IX this year, so now is the time to read it. It is Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage – the tale of a rat living in the basement of a bookstore who develops the ability to read.

It begins:

I had always imagined that my life story, if and when I wrote it, would have a great first line: ‘Lolita. light of my life, fire of my loins’; or, if I could not do lyric, then something sweeping like Tolstoy’s ‘All happy families are alike, but every happy family is unhappy in it’s own way.’ People remember those words, even when they have forgotten everything else about the books. When it comes to openers, though, the best in my view has to be Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: ‘This is the saddest story I have ever read.’ I’ve read that one dozens of times and it still knocks my socks off. Ford Madox Ford was a Big One.

Not just one book beginning, but four!

From the back cover:

Firmin is a debonair soul, trapped in a rat’s body. He lives in the basement of a ramshackle old bookstore run by Norman Shine, where as the runt of his litter, he chews the books around him in order to survive. Thanks to his unusual diet Firmin develops the ability to read … and a very unratlike sense of the world and his place in it.

This week I’m joining in with The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

My intellect grew sharper than my teeth. Soon I could do a four-hundred-page novel in an hour, knock off Spinoza in a day.

Gently North West by Alan Hunter

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

Summary (Amazon)

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

My view:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lost Garden by Katharine Swartz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gray Mountain by John Grisham

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

Gray Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

The events in that unfold in Emma Healey’s debut novel, Elizabeth is Missing are seen through Maud’s eyes. But Maud is an unreliable narrator – she can’t help it though as she has dementia.

Emma Healey’s depiction of dementia is convincing showing the confusion and bewilderment that Maud must have felt. It’s heart-rending, as she knows that Elizabeth, her friend, is missing, but doesn’t know where she is and no one seems to be listening to her when she talks about her – her own daughter and Elizabeth’s son just don’t answer her questions. And she asks them over and over again. As Maud continues her search for Elizabeth, she also recalls the search for her sister, Sukey, who disappeared in 1946.

It is not a book that I can say I ‘enjoyed’, even though it’s well written and with convincing characters. I thought it was over long and maybe would have been better as a novella. Inevitably, because the narrator has dementia there is much repetition – too much for me. I was disappointed with the plot too, because the ending became predictable quite early on in the book. Overall then a depressing book.

First Chapter First Paragraph: The Ghost Riders of Ordebec

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

My book this week is a library book that I’m thinking about reading soon. It’s The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas, translated from the French by Sian Reynolds.

It begins:

A trail of tiny crumbs led from the kitchen into the bedroom, as far as the spotless sheets where the old woman lay dead, her mouth open. Commissaire Adamsberg looked down at the crumbs in silence, pacing to and fro, wondering what kind of Tom Thumb – or what ogre in this case – might have dropped them there. He was in a small, dark, ground-floor apartment, with just three rooms, in the eighteenth arrondissement, in northern Paris.

Blurb:

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

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

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

What do you think? Would you keep on reading?

Have His Carcase by Dorothy L Sayers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some more of my favourite quotations:

I question this first one!:

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

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

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

Well, she got her wish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s due to be published on 7 May.

Dacre’s War by Rosemary Goring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Challenges: Read Scotland, Historical Fiction Challenge.

The Last Girl by Jane Casey

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreamwalker: The Ballad of Sir Benfro Book 1

 

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

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

Synopsis from Amazon UK:

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

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

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

My view:

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

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

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

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

Read more about Dreamwalker on the Penguin website.

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

The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld

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

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

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

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

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

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dorothy L Sayers: Strong Poison & Gaudy Night

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

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

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

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

From the back cover:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stacking the Shelves

STSmall

Stacking The Shelves is all about sharing the books you are adding to your shelves. This means you can include ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ books (ie physical and ebooks) you’ve bought, books you’ve borrowed from friends or the library, review books, and gifts.

This is my first entry in Stacking the Shelves. These are last week’s new arrivals:

In the heart of the sea

First ‘real’ books. It was Mother’s Day last Sunday and my son bought me this book, In the Heart of the Sea: the Epic True Story that Inspired Moby Dick by Nathaniel Philbrick – wonderful!

From the back cover:

The sinking of the Nantucket whaleship Essex by an enraged spermwhale far out in the Pacific in November 1820 set in train one of the most dramatic sea stories of all time. Accounts of the unprecedented whale attack inspired Herman Melville’s mighty novel Moby Dick, but In the Heart of the Sea goes beyond these events to describe what happened when the twenty mixed-race crewmen took to three small boats and what, three months later, the whaleship Dauphin, cruising off the coast of South America, discovered when it spotted a tiny boat sailing erratically across an open ocean.

The other books in the photo above are library books:

  • Collins Artist’s Little Book of Inspiration by Hazel Soan – a lovely little book looking at the basics elements of a painting using watercolours, oils and acrylics, with demonstrations and projects to try. I like just looking at the paintings!
  • The Reckoning by Jane Casey, the second in her Maeve Kerrigan series. I reserved this because I’d enjoyed the first one, The Burning and wanted to read more. This one begins with the murders of two paedophiles.
  • Conan Doyle: the Man who Created Sherlock Holmes by Andrew Lycett. This book was on a display stand and even though it’s a huge, heavy book I fancied reading it. It was probably on display following the  recent TV drama Arthur and George, which I enjoyed. I read Julian Barnes’ book of the same name some years ago, which pre-dates this biography.

When Lovereading offered a review copy of Dacre’s War by Rosemary Goring I didn’t hesitate because I’d loved Rosemary Goring’s earlier novel, After Flodden.

Dacres War

Dacre’s War is set 10 years after the battle of Flodden in the Scottish and English borders, a story of ‘personal and political vengeance’ as Adam Crozier sets out to take revenge on Lord Thomas Dacre, who had ordered the death of his father. It’s due to be published on 14 May 2015.

Lastly, the latest ebook I’ve downloaded is today’s Kindle Daily Deal, Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga. A. N. Wilson ‘was absolutely mesmerized by this novel’ and thinks ‘that Aravind Adiga is already, with this, his second book, the most exciting novelist writing in English today.’ 

Last Man in Tower

First Chapter – First Paragraph

It will be a while before I can write a book review post as I’m in the middle of reading Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers and it’s quite long – and complicated. So in the meantime here is a First Chapter – First Paragraph post.

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

My choice this week is A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny, a book I’ve borrowed from the library.

 

It begins:

Oh, no no no, thought Clare Morrow as she walked towards the closed doors.

She could see shadows, shapes, like wraiths moving back and forth, back and forth across the frosted glass. Appearing and disappearing. Distorted, but still moving.

Still the dead one lay moaning.

The words had been going through her head all day, appearing and disappearing. A poem, half remembered. Words floating to the surface, then going under. The body of the poem beyond her grasp.

The title of this one caught my eye on the library van’s shelves and reading the opening paragraphs I decided to borrow it – mainly because the poem Clare can’t quite remember is one of my favourites. It’s Not Waving, but Drowning by Stevie Smith and I wondered what relevance it has to this book. There will be a body, I expect.

What do you think? Would you carry on reading?

A Trick of the Light is the 7th in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series and I’m hoping it will stand well on its own as I haven’t read the first six books even though I’ve seen them recommended on other book blogs.

If you’ve read Louise Penny’s books do you think they do stand well on their own – or should they really be read in sequence? Am I missing something by beginning with book 7?

Catching the Eagle by Karen Charlton

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

Summary from the book cover:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catching the Eagle:

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

Seeking the Eagle:

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

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

Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie

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

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

Directed by

SIR CHARLES CARTWRIGHT

Assistant Directors
MR SATTERTHWAITE
MISS HERMIONE LYTTON GORE

Clothes by
AMBROSINE LTD

Illumination by
HERCULE POIROT

Summary from the back cover:

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

The beginning of the drama …

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Chapter First Paragraph: The Zig Zag Girl

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

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

It begins:

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

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

What do you think? Would you read on?

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

Blurb from the inside flap:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turn of the Tide by Margaret Skea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and this – such a startling image:

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

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

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

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I thought this statement of his was very interesting:

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

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

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

New-To-Me Books

I took a bagful of books back to Barter Books yesterday and came home with these books:

Christie encyclopedia 01 P1010423From top to bottom

  • Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie – this is one of the few of her books that I have yet to read. I’ve been looking out for this one, first published in 1940. It’s a Poirot mystery in which there are two victims murdered by poison.

As I hope to finish reading Agatha Christie’s books this year I’ve decided to attempt reading as many of Ruth Rendell’s books and those she has written as Barbara Vine:

  • End in Tears by Ruth Rendell – an Inspector Wexford murder mystery in which the victim’s father discovers her body near the family house.
  • The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy by Barbara Vine – in this case a daughter discovers that her perfect father was not all he appeared to be.

Then I browsed the shelves and found the next two books:

  • The Winter Garden by Jane Thynne is set in Berlin in 1937, where Clara Vine, an actress is an undercover agent for British Intelligence.  I thought the author’s name was familiar but couldn’t remember reading any of her books – until I got home and found that I already have Black Roses, the first Clara Vine book (set in 1933),  unread on the black hole that is my Kindle. I’d better read Black Roses first.

and finally:

First Chapter: The Secret Keeper

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

My choice this week is: The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton, a book from my TBR Pile Challenge 2015.

It begins:

Rural England, a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, a summer’s day at the start of the nineteen sixties. The house is unassuming: half-timbered with white paint peeling gently on the western side and clematis scrambling up the plaster. The chimney pots are steaming and you know, just by looking, that there’s something on the stove top beneath. It’s something the way the vegetable patch has been laid out, just so, at the back of the house; the proud gleam of the leadlight windows; the careful patching of the roofing tiles.

A rustic fence hems the house and a wooden gate sparates the tame garden from the meadows on either side, the copse beyond. Through the knotted trees a stream trickles lightly over stones, flitting between sunlight and shadow as it has done for centuries; but it can’t be heard from here. It’s too far away. The house is quite alone, sitting at the end of a long dusty driveway, invisible from the country lane whose name it shares.

I’m immediately attracted to this book from these two opening paragraphs, setting the scene. I can easily paint a picture of it in my mind – I can see it! You know that in such an idyllic setting something is about to happen to upset everything; at least that is what I am anticipating  and I know from the title that there is at least one secret someone is keeping .

I also know from the description on the back cover that this is a book that switches from the 1930s, to the 1960s and the present day, which often works well for me, and that there are not only mysteries and secrets but also murder and enduring love.

Will I like it? LibraryThing thinks I probably will like The Secret Keeper (prediction confidence: very high) – we’ll see.

The Murder Room by P D James

The Murder Room by P D James is one of the last of the Adam Dalgleish books, first published in 2003 . Although I’ve not read many of the books I’ve watched most (if not all) of the TV adaptations, but I don’t remember watching this one.

The Murder Room itself is in the Dupayne Museum, displaying the most notorious murder cases of the 1920s and 30s, with contemporary newspaper reports of the crimes and trials, photographs and actual exhibits from the scenes of the murders. These were actual crimes and not fictional cases made up by P D James.

The novel  begins, as Commander Adam Dalgleish visits the Dupayne in the company of his friend Conrad Ackroyd who is writing a series of articles on murder as a symbol of its age. A week later the first body is discovered at the Museum and Adam and his colleagues in Scotland Yard’s Special Investigation Squad are called in to investigate the killing, which appears to be a copycat murder of one of the 1930s’ crimes.

The Murder Room is not a quick read. It begins slowly with a detailed description of the main characters and it is only after 150 or so pages that the first murder occurs, so by that time I had a good idea of who might be killed but not of the culprit as many of the characters could all have had the motive and opportunity. There are two more killings before Dalgleish reveals the culprit.

More used to fast paced murder mysteries initially I was impatient with this slow start but soon settled into P D James’ approach and appreciated the depth of the intricate plot. The setting is fascinating and the characters are convincing, so much so that I was hoping the second victim wouldn’t be one of my favourite characters.

The lease on the Museum is up for renewal and not everyone wants it to continue – as one of the characters says:

It’s the past … it’s about dead people and dead years … we’re too obsessed with our past, with hoarding and collecting for the sake of it.

There is the Dupayne family – Marcus and Caroline both actively involved in running the Museum, and their brother Nigel, who is a psychiatrist, and his daughter Sarah; the Museum staff – Muriel Godby in charge of the Museum’s day to day running, Tally Clutton the housekeeper, James Calder-Hale, the curator who used to work for MI5; Marie Strickland, a volunteer calligraphist; and Ryan Archer, the handyman and gardener.

I liked the interaction between Dalgleish and D I Kate Miskin, and between Dalgleish and Emma Lavenham who is finding their relationship increasingly frustrating. I enjoyed the book and found it absorbing and testing of both my powers of deduction and vocabulary.

The Burning by Jane Casey

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

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

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

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

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

Wreckage by Emily Bleeker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ravens Head by Karen Maitland

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

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

Summary from Karen Maitland’s website:

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

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

Chilling and with compelling hints of the supernatural.

My thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Sensation Novels*

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

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

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.