My Friday Post: The Taxidermist’s Daughter

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 I’m featuring The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse – set in 1912 in a Sussex village where a grisly murder has taken place, this is part ghost story and part psychological thriller.

The Taxidermist's Daughter

Prologue

April 1912

Midnight

In the graveyard of the church of St Peter and St Mary, men gather in silence on the edge of the drowned marshes. Watching, waiting.

A good start I think, definitely full of foreboding.

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

Friday 56

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.

From Page 56:

He thought back to the painting on his easel in his studio, to the woman frozen lifeless in time, and realised it was the colour of her skin he’d got wrong. Too pink, no hollows and no shadows. No life in it.

Blurb:

The clock strikes twelve. Beneath the wind and the remorseless tolling of the bell, no one can hear the scream…

1912. A Sussex churchyard. Villagers gather on the night when the ghosts of those who will not survive the coming year are thought to walk. And in the shadows, a woman lies dead.

As the flood waters rise, Connie Gifford is marooned in a decaying house with her increasingly tormented father. He drinks to escape the past, but an accident has robbed her of her most significant childhood memories. Until the disturbance at the church awakens fragments of those vanished years …

What do you think? Would you continue reading?

Last Seen Alive by Claire Douglas

Publication date: 13 July 2017, Penguin

Source: review copy via NetGalley

Blurb:

Libby Hall never really wanted to be noticed. But after she saves the children in her care from a fire, she finds herself headline news. And horrified by the attention. It all reminds her of what happened nine years ago. The last time she saw her best friend alive.

Which is why the house swap is such a godsend. Libby and her husband Jamie exchange their flat in Bath for a beautiful, secluded house in Cornwall. It’s a chance to heal their marriage – to stop its secrets tearing them apart.

But this stylish Cornish home isn’t the getaway they’d hoped for. They make odd, even disturbing, discoveries in the house. It’s so isolated-yet Libby doesn’t feel entirely alone. As if she’s being watched.

Is Libby being paranoid? What is her husband hiding? And. As the secrets and lies come tumbling out, is the past about to catch up with them? 

Last Seen Alive is the first novel by Claire Douglas that I’ve read and I loved it. It’s everything the blurb promised, and the secrets and lies never stop coming, right up to the end of the book. To write too much about the plot would only spoil it – you have to experience it as you read to get the full impact.

I can only say that right from the beginning of the book I was hooked as Jamie and Libby arrive at their house swap in the Roseland Peninsula in Cornwall (I’ve been there – it is beautiful) and I felt the suspense and tension as they explored the house by the sea. It’s a remote detached rectangular house with a round turret at one end and inside it had been recently restored. They are dismayed by the contrast with their poky two bed flat in Bath. Immediately alarm bells are going off in Libby’s head, what were the owners’ real reasons for wanting to swap this house for their little flat?

Strange things happen, Libby’s fears escalate and then Jamie begins to question her about her past. He knew that Karen, her best friend had died in a fire when the two of them were in Thailand and that Libby had been lucky to escape. But she doesn’t want to talk about that and she knows that he is keeping things from her too. Then Jamie comes down with a bad attack of food poisoning and ends up in hospital. Their stay in Cornwall comes to an end as the owner tells them he is leaving their flat. They return and from then on everything gets worse – much worse.

Needless to say this is a complicated and complex story, perfectly paced as the secrets are revealed and the lies are exposed. The characterisation is good. As I read I grew to like Libby a lot but began to suspect that maybe she wasn’t as genuine as I first thought and Jamie’s attitude began to irritate me – signs that the characters are well drawn. At one point I began to get a glimmer about the truth as I realised how the Prologue fitted into the story.

I was never really sure who I could believe, just who was telling the truth. It’s one of those books that keeps you guessing right up to the end and this one is excellent, dramatic, tense and so very, very twisty.

My thanks to NetGalley and Penguin, the publishers for a review copy.

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

Eyes Like Mine by Sheena Kamal

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

Blurb:

It’s late. The phone rings.

The man on the other end says his daughter is missing. Your daughter.

The child Nora Watts gave up for adoption 15-years ago has vanished and the police are labelling her a chronic runaway. No one is looking for the girl, she’s not blonde or white enough.

Once a starving artist herself, transient, homeless, left for dead in dark forest, Nora knows better than anyone what happens to girls that are lost to the streets. To the girls that the police don’t bother look for.

As she begins to investigate, she discovers a dangerous conspiracy and embarks on a harrowing journey of deception and violence that takes her from the rainy streets of Vancouver to the snow-capped mountains of the interior and finally to the island where she will face her greatest demon…

Intuitive, not always likeable, and deeply flawed, Nora Watts is a new heroine for our time.

My thoughts:

Eyes Like Mine is Sheena Kamal’s debut novel. She was inspired to write it by the plight of missing and murdered indigenous woman in Canada – an issue that kept cropping up during her research for the Canadian TV documentary looking into missing and murdered women along a 724 kilometre stretch of highway in northern British Columbia.

Everything about this book fascinated me from the characters and in particular the main character, Nora Watts, the gripping storylines that kept me racing through the book, to the atmospheric, gloomy setting in Vancouver and in beautiful British Columbia with its snow, mountains and plush ski resorts.

The plot is intricate, complicated and fast moving, highlighting various issues such as mixed race inheritance and differences in treatment based on skin colour, homelessness, and environmental issues. These never overpower the story, but form part of the book as a whole.

It’s narrated by Nora, in the first person present tense, interspersed by short chapters written in the third person, also present tense. I’m often irritated and distracted by the use of the present tense but I was hardly aware of it – I think it works well in this book, giving an insight into Nora’s mind and feelings.

Nora is a conflicted character, a recovering alcoholic, who works as a receptionist and research assistant for Seb Crow and his partner, Leo Krushnik, who runs a private investigation firm. Nora’s speciality is that she can tell when people are lying. Nora lives in their office basement with her dog, Whisper. There are plenty of interesting and well-drawn characters and I liked Nora, despite her somewhat suspect actions, and Whisper, who also has her own issues.

The main focus of the book is Nora, her traumatic background and her search for her daughter, Bonnie, now a teenager, who she gave away as a new-born baby. Nora is shocked by her reaction when she sees a photo of Bonnie – there is no doubt that she is her daughter, with her dark hair and golden skin. But it is her eyes that clinch it for Nora; Bonnie has the same eyes, dark and fathomless. And Nora feels as though she is in a nightmare.

Nora, working for Leo is also searching also for the witness to a murder, who has since disappeared, and for the killer of an investigative journalist, Mike Starling, the man from her past who had been investigating corruption in the mining industry. Her search takes Nora into many dangerous and heart-stopping situations. I was almost breathless as I read Eyes Like Mine.

My thanks to the publishers, Zaffre, for an advanced review copy of Eyes Like Mine, to be published tomorrow, 9 February.

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

If Ever I Fall by S D Robertson

It’s always a bit of a gamble reading a book by an author you’ve never heard of before, but I thought If Ever I Fall by S D Robertson looked as though it would be a book I would like. It’s a story about a family in crisis, struggling to come to terms with a terrible tragedy. It is his second book, due to be published on 9 February 2017.

And reading the Prologue it seemed as though I was right. It begins mysteriously as a man surfaces from his dreams only to discover that he doesn’t know who he is. It appears that Miles has rescued him and tells him he had suffered a head trauma. He calls him Jack. But as I read on I became confused and struggled a bit to follow the narrative.

It’s difficult to write about this book without giving away spoilers. The structure of the novel confused me at first because the story moves between three characters’ perspectives – Maria, Dan, her husband and Jack- and between different time periods.

Maria’s side of things is told in letters to Sam moving forwards in time, whereas Dan’s story begins in the present and moves backwards in time, and Jack’s is timeless. At first I had to keep checking the chapter titles to find out what time period I was reading until I got the hang of it. It shouldn’t really have been that difficult as the style of each is different but it did take me a while to get into the story.

Maria’s letters are quite stilted – maybe that’s what they were meant to be as she is struggling to sort out and write her thoughts so that Sam will understand. Her letters are full of grief. But they are long-winded explanations of what she was thinking and feeling and they slowed down the narrative too much for me. She obsessed about her OCD, but maybe I’m being over critical and insensitive here because being obsessive is the essence of the condition after all, but it became quite dull to read. I was more interested in Dan’s story and especially in Jack’s.

It is Jack’s story that captivated me the most and each time the narrative went to Maria or Dan I wanted to get back to Jack to find out what was happening to him – because some very strange things were going on around him. He can’t work out if he can trust Miles who tells him that he is helping him to renovate a house by the sea. But Jack keeps finding that he is in other places, as a fog descends upon him, or he finds himself trapped in a tunnel unable to move, and he sees people who Miles tells him aren’t there. Whereas, Maria’s and Dan’s stories show them dealing with the same events in different ways, culminating in one tremendous tragedy  and growing increasingly apart. All three narratives are full of emotional and psychological tension.

About half way into the book I began to work out the storyline and how the three narratives linked together and was able to settle into enjoying the book, which did work out as I had anticipated.

It’s about what happens to family relationships hit by the most terrible tragedy, how grief affects us in different ways, and the psychological and emotional impact of amnesia and obsessive compulsive disorder. I think if the novel had followed the story in a straight forward chronological order it would not have had as much impact on me. It certainly gave me much to think about as I was reading it and afterwards.

My thanks to Avon Books UK and NetGalley for a review copy.

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

4 *

The 12.30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts

This is the second book by Freeman Wills Crofts that I’ve read. The first was Mystery in the Channel, which is a complicated murder mystery with plenty of red herrings and I had no idea about the identity of the killer. The 12.30 from Croydon couldn’t be more different – it begins with a murder but the identity of the murderer is known before he even thought of committing the crime.

The result is there is little mystery, as Charles Swinburne sets about murdering his uncle, Andrew Crowther, in order to inherit his fortune. It’s set in the early 1930s when the country is suffering the effects of the ‘slump’ and Charles’ business is on the edge of bankruptcy, and he is unable to raise the money to keep it going.

The major part of the book is taken up with describing how Charles became convinced that the only way out of his dilemma and the only way he could convince Una, a mercenary rich young woman, to marry him, was to kill Andrew. Consequently Andrew died on the 12.30 plane from Croydon. From that point onwards we see how Charles devised a plan and created an alibi that he thought would be perfect – and how it went wrong and how he was drawn into committing yet another murder.

Inspector French appears later on in the book to explain Charles’ thoughts and actions, and how he broke his alibi, just as Poirot sums up his thoughts and methods of deduction in Agatha Christie’s books.

The 12.30 from Croydon focuses on the psychology of the murderer and from that point of view I think it works well.  Charles’ personality is thoroughly explored, showing his ingenuity, efficiency, and the ways he overcame his scruples about murder were in the main convincing. But the in-depth detail of the planning means that it is hardly riveting reading. So whilst the plotting is clever my interest in the outcome flagged as the only thing to work out is would Charles get caught out, and would Inspector French break his alibi. But I did want to know how it would end.

What I found more interesting is the description of the thrill of the early passenger flights. In the opening chapter Rose Morley, Andrew’s young granddaughter flies to France with him and her father, Peter, because her mother had been knocked down and seriously injured by a taxi in Paris. Rose thinks the plane looks like a huge dragonfly. From her seat her view through the window was of the lower wing with its criss-cross struts connecting it to the upper wing. She was delighted by the whole process the increasing speed and the roar of the motors as the plane miraculously left the ground. Peter remarks that it was a wonderful improvement on the early machines when you had to stuff cotton wool in your ears. Rose loved the whole experience.

I also like the setting Crofts created for the novel – the enormous pressure that drove Charles to take such drastic action due to the financial disasters of the period in the 1930s is well presented. I liked the book but as I enjoy trying to work out the why and the how for me it needed more mystery, and more red herrings.

 My thanks to Netgalley and Poisoned Pen Press for a review copy of The 12.30 From Croydon. It was first published in 1934; this edition with an introduction by Martin Edwards was published in 2016 by Poisoned Pen Press in association with the British Library.

Amazon UK link

Amazon US link

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

A Rustle of Silk by Alys Clare

 

Alys Clare is a new-to-me author and I don’t know why I’ve never come across her books before now. She writes historical mysteries. Her latest book, A Rustle of Silk, published today, is the first in a new series featuring Dr Gabriel Taverner, set in the early years of 17th century England.

It begins in April 1603 at the beginning of James I’s reign. Former ship’s surgeon Gabriel Taverner has settled in Devon near his family and he is trying to set up a new practice as a physician. But it is not easy to gain the locals’ trust and someone is leaving gruesome little gifts on his doorstep. However, the local coroner, Theophilus Davey asks him to examine a partially decomposed body found beside the river. At first it looks as though it was suicide, but on realising that it’s his brother-in-law, Jeromy, Gabriel and Theophilus are convinced that he was murdered.

Jeromy was employed by a silk merchant and moved in the world of the rich and influential, often away from home and his wife Celia. Outwardly they have a happy marriage, but as Gabriel finds out more disturbing secrets begin to emerge. The silk trade is a dangerous business and Gabriel finds his own life is threatened.

There are several things that I loved about this book. It’s a convincing view of the 17th century and I was fascinated most of all by the detail of medical practices, and how Gabriel interacted with the local women (‘witches’) who treated the poor and was willing to take note of their knowledge, particularly concerning women – as a ship’s surgeon he had no experience of treating women. It also shows what life was like at that time for the ordinary people, the position of women in society, and the consequences of committing suicide.

I also liked the mystery, with plenty of red herrings and intrigue. It kept me interested, anxious to know the outcome. I guessed who the murderer was about half-way through the book, which was satisfying, but it was the historical aspect that captivated me.

My thanks to the publishers via NetGalley for my copy of this book.

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

The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick

Last year I loved Nicola Cornick’s time-slip novel, House of Shadows. Her latest book is The Phantom Tree, due to be published on 29 December, another time-slip novel and I loved this one too.

Blurb:

“My name is Mary Seymour and I am the daughter of one queen and the niece of another.”

Browsing antiques shops in Wiltshire, Alison Bannister stumbles across a delicate old portrait – supposedly of Anne Boleyn. Except Alison knows better… The woman is Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr who was taken to Wolf Hall in 1557 as an unwanted orphan and presumed dead after going missing as a child.

The painting is more than just a beautiful object from Alison’s past – it holds the key to her future, unlocking the mystery surrounding Mary’s disappearance, and the enigma of Alison’s son.

But Alison’s quest soon takes a dark and foreboding turn, as a meeting place called the Phantom Tree harbours secrets in its shadows…

My thoughts

The plot of The Phantom Tree alternates between the Tudor period and the present day following the life of Alison Banestre (known as Bannister in the present day) as she moves between the centuries trying to find out what happened to Mary Seymour. It is a mystery, based on the true story of Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr (Henry VIII’s sixth wife) and Thomas Seymour, who she married after Henry’s death.

It’s a fascinating book, as little is known about Mary’s life. What is recorded is that she was born in 1548, her mother died after the birth and her father was executed a year later for treason against Edward VI. She disappeared from the records around about 1550, although there has been speculation that she lived until adulthood. In The Phantom Tree Nicola Cornick has provided another speculation on Mary’s life. As she states at the beginning of her book it is ‘entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination.’

Having read Hilary Mantel’s, Wolf Hall, I was very interested in the setting of Wolf Hall where Mary and Alison, her cousin, went to live in 1557, the fourth year of the reign of Mary I. Mary Seymour was then ten years old and had a reputation for witchcraft. Wolf Hall, a rambling, run down manor house was owned by the Seymour family where Mary and other Seymour children went sent to live.

The time travel element of the book works well. I liked the way the traces of history in the present day are handled and are seen as layers of reality. Alison moves between the centuries, both forwards and backwards in time but then she found the gateway to the past had closed and she was trapped in the present day. She has to find another gateway where the past and the present meet, or some other means of connecting to the past.

I preferred the sixteenth century setting, with its belief in witchcraft slotting so well into the storyline. Mary has visions which are viewed with fear and superstition. Alison, in the future doesn’t know what happens to Mary, or to her son, Arthur, who was taken from her after his birth. She had helped Mary escape from Wolf Hall and in return Mary had promised to help her find Arthur. I think the characterisation is done well – Alison comes across as a rather unlikeable person, in contrast to Mary who is younger and has a gentler nature, although at first they didn’t get on together. I also liked the way the clues in the portrait helped Alison to discover what happened to Mary and Arthur.

My thanks to the publishers via NetGalley for a review copy of The Phantom Tree.  It is a book that seamlessly incorporates mystery and elements of the supernatural into the historical detail as the past and present meet. A most enjoyable book.

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

The Marriage Lie by Kimberly Belle

When I read the publishers’ blurb I thought I’d like The Marriage Lie by Kimberly Belle:

Iris and Will have been married for seven years, have bought their dream house and have begun trying for a family.  But on the morning Will flies out for a business trip to Florida, Iris’s perfect life comes crashing down around her: another plane headed for Seattle has crashed into a field, killing everyone on board and, according to the airline, Will was one of the passengers.

Grief stricken and confused, Iris is convinced it all must be a huge misunderstanding. Why did Will lie about where he was going? And what else has he lied about? As she sets off on a desperate quest to uncover what her husband was keeping from her, she begins to unravel a hidden identity behind the man she thought she knew better than herself, and the truth shocks her to the core.

It exceeded my expectations and I loved it. The Marriage Lie is one of those books that gripped me and kept me guessing all the way through. Once I began reading I just didn’t want to put the book down and I raced through it, anxious to know what happened next. And plenty did happen in one of the most convoluted and complex plots I’ve read in a while. The pace is terrific and the tension just builds and builds in this psychological thriller.

Iris thought she had the perfect marriage, with the perfect husband. But the more she tries to discover why he was on a plane to Seattle when he’d told her her was going to Orlando, the more lies she uncovers. Grief-stricken and terrified she doesn’t know who she can trust and she is devastated as the truth is finally uncovered.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, so all I can say is that through all the twists and turns of this novel, the characters are convincing and although I’d partly anticipated the outcome I was taken by surprise at the final twist as the book reaches its dramatic climax!

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy of The Marriage Lie. It’s due to be published on 29 December 2016.

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

Where Dead Men Meet by Mark Mills

I’ve been reading books so quickly this month that I am now far behind with writing about them, so this is just a short post about an excellent new book by Mark Mills, published on 17 November.

I’ve been meaning to read more of Mark Mills’ books ever since I read The Savage Garden in 2008, a book I enjoyed very much, so I was keen to read his latest book, Where Dead Men Meet. It is historical fiction set in 1937 in pre-Second World War Europe, with a fast-moving plot as Luke Hamilton, an intelligence officer at the British Embassy in Paris, tries to discover why someone wants him dead, why Sister Agnes, the nun who had been his mentor and guide at the orphanage for the first seven years of his life had been bludgeoned to death, and who his real parents were.

Although the war in Europe is imminent it is by no means the main focus of this book, but forms an excellent backdrop as the action moves from Paris across the continent. At first he assumes that the assassin has mistaken him for someone else, but the tension builds as Luke realises that he is not the victim of a mistaken identity, but that someone is determined to kill him. He finds himself on the run, helped by a number of people, including the first man who tried to kill him. It seems the answers lie in his past. It is a complicated story that had me unsure of who Luke could trust and whether he would ever escape, or find out about his real family.

I thoroughly enjoyed this brilliant book with its interesting characters and a convincing plot full of mystery and intrigue. I shall now look out for more books by Mark Mills.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley, for review.

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

The Malice of Waves by Mark Douglas-Home

The Malice of Waves (The Sea Detective) by [Douglas-Home, Mark]Blurb (from the back cover):

Investigator Cal McGill uses his knowledge of tides, winds and currents to solve mysteries no-one else can.

Five years ago, fourteen-year-old Max Wheeler disappeared from a remote Scottish island. None of the six police and private investigations since have shed any light on what happened.

Unable to let go, Max’s family call in Call McGill. Known as The Sea Detective  – hoping he’ll force the sea to give up its secrets. Yet Cal finds he is an outsider to a broken family, and an unwelcome stranger to a village that has endured years of suspicion.

Cal knows that a violent storm is approaching. But what he doesn’t know is that when it cuts off the island a killer will see their chance …

My thoughts:

The Malice of Waves is the third book in Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective Mystery series and I think it is my favourite. It has an interesting opening scene as Cal sinks a dead pig into the sea off Priest’s Island (a fictional island) to try to work out where the tides, underwater currents and eddies might have taken Max’s body. It’s really a cold case enquiry and there is no new evidence to help him discover the truth. Each year on the anniversary of Max’s disappearance, his family hold a memorial service on the island. His father is convinced that the villagers are complicit in his son’s murder.

The Malice of Waves is just as much a story of the villagers as it is of the Wheeler family and the setting of Priest’s Island, beautifully described by Douglas-Hume, is also a major part of the book. The location came to life as I read the book, making it easy to visualise the scenes. It’s well written and easy to read, leading me effortlessly into the mystery. The police are also present on the island as DS Helen Jamieson is staying undercover in the village, helping Cal with his investigations. I like the insight into Helen’s unspoken feelings for Cal. Both her and Cal are strong, independent characters and the other characters are well depicted too.

Interwoven into the main story is ‘Pinkie’ Pyke’s story. He is a collector of birds’ eggs, but his interest is into rare erythristic bird eggs, those with pink or reddish colouring and there is a raven’s’ nest on the island.

The Malice of Waves is a fascinating book, not only an engrossing mystery, but also a study of the sea, of birds’ eggs (I had never heard of erythristic eggs before), of obsessions and of the way people cope, or don’t cope with grief. I loved it.

Reading challenges: Read Scotland – Mark Douglas-Home is a Scottish author.

October 2016: Reading Review

October was a very good reading month for me. I read 9 books and have reviewed 8 of them (the links are to my posts):

  1. Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz – a really satisfying read, with believable characters, set in beautifully described locations, tantalisingly mysterious and so, so readable. I loved it.
  2. Joyland by Stephen King – a ghost story, a love story, a story of loss and heartbreak. It’s also a murder mystery and utterly compelling to read.
  3. Accidents Happen by Louise Millar – At first I was enjoying this book – it’s very readable, but I didn’t think it was plausible and I couldn’t suspend my disbelief.
  4. The Black Caravel by Harry Nicholson set in 1536 this is a fascinating story about ordinary people set against the background of national affairs and how it affects their lives. I really enjoyed it.
  5. The Blood Card by Elly Griffiths – a most entertaining book, with a convincing cast of characters. The mystery is expertly handled, with plenty of suspense and lots of twists and turns as the separate plot strands are intricately woven together. I loved it.
  6. The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin – a fascinating account of Chatwin’s visit to Australia to find out about the Songlines and the myths of the legendary totemic beings who sang the world into existence as they wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime.
  7. Autumn by Ali Smith – a  poignant and cutting novel about modern life, how we got to where we are, and the mood of the country post-Brexit. It’s a remarkable book.
  8. The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble – this novel explores the ending of life, the nature of ageing, and life and death. But it is by no means depressing or morbid. I liked it very much. It’s densely layered, thought provoking and moving.
  9. Another Day Gone by Eliza Graham  – another excellent book – review to follow.

For most of the month I was also reading The Fishing Fleet: Husband Hunting in the Raj by Anne de Courcy. I had hoped to have finished it before the end of October but I’m reading it very slowly. I’ve read 44% and have decided to put it on hold for a while. It’s non-fiction and I shall be able to pick it up where I left off without having to go back to the beginning!

My book of the month. and also my Crime Fiction Pick of the Month, is the brilliant Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. It’s a a puzzle-type of crime fiction combining elements of the vintage-style golden age crime novel with word-play and cryptic clues and allusions to Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s also a novel within a novel, with mystery piled upon mystery. I loved it.

Arrowood by Laura McHugh

ArrowoodArrowood promised a lot – a mystery set in a creepy old house, called Arrowood, in Keokuk, Iowa, one of the grand houses that line the Mississippi River. Arden Arrowood’s little twin sisters had disappeared from the house when Arden was eight and they were four. Arden had last seen them in the back of a gold coloured car driven away from the house. But their bodies had never been found and no evidence had been found to convict the owner of the car, Harold Singer. Seventeen years after her grandfather’s death Arden inherits the family home and returns, determined to discover what had actually happened to her sisters.

It had all the elements that should have made this story very spooky and full of psychological suspense – ghostly sounds, creaky floorboards, voices coming from the walls and bath water seeping from under the bath. But yet, I didn’t find it scary. As the family secrets are slowly revealed, drip fed through flashbacks, and the unreliability of memory surfaced I felt the tension ooze out of the book.

It’s a shame because at first the tension is great, the atmosphere convincing and the characters clearly formed. I like the historical aspects – the connection with the Underground Railway (used in the 19th century by slaves escaping from the southern states) – and the descriptive writing about the setting in Iowa, together with the sense of nostalgia for the time and place Arden had left behind. As a character study it worked very well but as a psychological and suspense filled novel it fell short for me. An enjoyable read nevertheless.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 2294 KB
  • Print Length: 278 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1780891938
  • Publisher: Cornerstone Digital (11 Aug. 2016)
  • Source: review copy

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for giving me access to an advance copy.

Accidents Happen by Louise Millar

Accidents Happen is one of my TBR e-books that I’ve had for a couple of years. It’s described as a ‘gripping psychological thriller where one woman’s streak of bad luck may be something far more sinister’, so I thought it would be just the right sort of book to read for this year’s R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XI.

It begins well with a strange, scary episode about a child waking up to the sight of something slithering, full of threat, not sure what it was but terrified as it was angry with a gaping mouth revealing a tiny white spot, where the poison came from.

Episodes like this are interspersed between the chapters of the story, each one more terrifying than the rest. These are actually much more scary than the main story, which is about Kate, a widow and her young son Jack.

Blurb:

Kate Parker has had so much bad luck in her life, she’s convinced she’s cursed. But when she tries to do her best to keep herself and her son safe, people tell her she’s being anxious and obsessive.

Just when her life starts to spin completely out of control, an Oxford professor she meets offers to help. But his methods are not conventional. If she wants to live her life again, he will expect her to take risks.

When a mysterious neighbour starts to take more than a passing interest in her, Kate tries to stay rational and ignore it.

Maybe this, however, is the one time Kate should be worried.

My thoughts:

Kate’s husband had died 5 years before the book starts and Kate is obsessed with statistics, so much so that they are now ruling her life – statistics about all the things that go wrong, or could go wrong. And this is preventing her from living a normal life – the lengths she goes to are extreme and they are affecting her Jack, her son. As readers we know that some of Kate’s fears are real, but she doesn’t focus on those, although they do bother her. I began to feel something was wrong. And when she met Jago, an Oxford professor my feelings intensified – there was definitely something suspicious going on. Why was he getting her to take such risks and putting herself into such strange situations?

At first I was enjoying this book – it’s very readable, although the concentration on Kate’s fears got a bit repetitive – but increasingly as I read on I just couldn’t believe what was happening. For me the tension that had been building up just disappeared. I didn’t think it was plausible and I couldn’t suspend my disbelief.

I think I’m in the minority about this book as it has more favourable reviews on both Amazon and Goodreads.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge and R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XI.

Recent Additions at BooksPlease

books-sept-2016

From top to bottom: the first seven in the pile are from Barter Books in Alnwick, my favourite bookshop where you can either swap or buy books. I took seven books in and came home with another seven. I love browsing at Barter Books and always find books I want to read.

  • Absent in the Spring by Mary Westmacott – I had to search round the various places fiction is shelved in Barter Books before I found this book in the Romance section. It’s by Agatha Christie, writing as Mary Westmacott. The books she wrote under this pseudonym are a complete change from her crime fiction – she was such a versatile writer. Her daughter, Rosalind, called them “bitter-sweet stories about love”. It was first published in 1944.
  • Arms and the Women by Reginald Hill – I’ve been collecting his books in an attempt to read them in chronological order. This is the 18th Dalziel and Pascoe mystery in which Ellie, Pascoe’s wife is in danger at a decaying seacoast mansion.
  • An April Shroud by Reginald Hill – the 4th Dalziel and Pascoe mystery, set in a solitary mansion in the Lake District where Pascoe is spending his honeymoon.
  • The House by the Churchyard by Sheridan Le Fanu – the Horror section is right next to Crime Fiction and I don’t usually look there but as I walked past this book caught my eye as it was displayed in one of the holders on the side of the bookcase, maybe because I’m taking part in the R.I.P. event at the moment. Le Fanu was described by Henry James as in the ‘first rank of ghost writers‘. Set in the 1760s in Ireland, it begins with the accidental disinterment of an old skull and an eerie late-night funeral.
  • A Game of Sorrows by Shona MacLean – the second book in the Alexander Seaton series. I’ve read the first and the third so I was pleased to find this one. It’s set in 1628 in Ulster as Seaton investigates a family curse – a family divided by secrets and bitter resentments.
  • The Collector by John Fowles – another author whose books I’ve enjoyed in the past. This could also be a choice for the R.I.P. event. It’s described as a thriller with psychological and social overtones, the story of a kidnapping.
  • A Walk Along the Wall by Hunter Davies – I was really pleased to find this book Hadrian’s Wall is the most important Roman monument in Britain. Hunter Davies grew up at one end of the wall and was inevitably drawn to walk its length. It’s part history, part guidebook and part personal experience and gives readers a taste of what life was like in this remote part of Britain 2000 years ago.

The bottom two books in the pile aren’t from Barter Books:

  • The Black Caravel by Harry Nicholson is a book the author sent to me for review. It’s his second novel, a sequel to ‘Tom Fleck‘ which I reviewed in 2011. It begins and ends at Hartlepool in 1536, the year of The Pilgrimage of Grace, as Barbary corsairs are raiding northwards.

and finally a birthday present (in August):

  • Rowan’s Well by C J Harter – a psychological thriller (another one for  R.I.P. maybe). Rowan’s Well is a remote house on the north-east coast of England, home to the charismatic Brooke family, the scene of murder and betrayal.

I want to start reading them all – now!

Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine

What an amazing book is Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine*. It was published as Anna’s Book in the USA. I loved A Dark Adapted Eye, A Fatal Inversion and The House of Stairs, but Asta’s Book tops all those.  I think it’s brilliant!

It’s a book that demanded all my attention and I just didn’t want to put it down. There’s a murder, a missing child, a question of identity and overarching it all are the stories of two families – the Westerbys and the Ropers and all the people connected to them. So many characters, so many red herrings, so many incidents that at first did not appear to be of any or of much importance that turned out to have great relevance.

It had me going backwards and forward and placing so many markers in the book to try and keep track of it all. How did Barbara Vine handle so much material in such a clever way? It is so intricately plotted and the portrayal of so many characters is so skilfully handled.

It begins in 1905 when Asta Westerby and her husband Rasmus have come to East London from Denmark with their two little boys and their servant Hansine. With Rasmus constantly away on business, Asta keeps loneliness and isolation at bay by writing a diary in her native tongue of Danish. The story is not told chronologically, but switches backwards and forwards between Asta’s diaries, beginning in 1905 when she was pregnant and hoping the new baby would be a daughter, and the present day after Asta’s death. The diaries had been translated and published by her daughter Swanny (Swanhilde), and along with details of the family’s life reveal clues to an unsolved murder and to the mystery of a missing child. After Swanny died Asta’s granddaughter Ann became involved in searching for the truth about these facts. Additional material is also related through a trial transcript and various accounts of events by different people.

The book kept me guessing all the way throughout the various mysteries it threw up. I was very tempted to peek at the end of the book for the answers, but managed not to and I’m glad I didn’t as it would have ruined the suspense. I was so impressed at how it all hung together, with no extraneous material – all those minor incidents and characters are completely necessary.

As in other books by Barbara Vine it is not only the characters and the mystery that are enthralling, it is also the atmosphere and the settings. Houses in her books take on characters of their own and in this one there are several, maybe the most dominant is Devon Villa where Lizzie Roper was murdered, her mother also died of a heart attack and Lizzie’s daughter, Edith was last seen as she climbed the stairs up to her mother’s bedroom. And then there is the doll’s house that Rasmus made for his daughter, Marie, replicating Padanaram, the Westerbys’ second house in Shepherd’s Hill, Highgate.

*Barbara Vine is the pseudonym of Ruth Rendell, who was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the author of many thrillers and psychological murder mysteries . She died in 2015 at the age of 85. Her mother was born in Sweden and brought up in Denmark; her father, Arthur Grasemann, was English. As a result of spending Christmas and other holidays in Scandinavia, Rendell learned Swedish and Danish.

Asta’s Book is my third book for the 20 books of Summer Challenge and the 25th for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge. Definitely a book I’d love to re-read.

The Madness of July by James Naughtie

When I began reading The Madness of July I was immediately drawn into the story. I used many markers as I read it because it has such a complicated plot. It’s a political thriller set in London in the mid 1970s one sweltering July as Will Flemyng the foreign office minister and former spy finds himself drawn back into the world of espionage, a world of deception, manipulation and diplomacy. It’s the Cold War period and Will discovers politics can be just as dangerous as espionage.

I really wasn’t sure what was going on at first, not sure what was relevant for me to remember and understand, not even sure who was who as the narrative switched between London, New York, Washington and the Highlands of Scotland. So there were times when I had to backtrack when I came across a character or an event, that turned out to be important to the story, which I hadn’t realised earlier on. The characters know what has gone before, know each other, know what they are talking about – but we don’t.

In a different book this would be a major drawback – in this book it is necessary. It’s as though we’re peering through the fog, until gradually the fog lifts and things become clearer. Or it’s like beginning a cryptic crossword where you have all the clues and no idea about the answers. Anyway, I loved it. If the content isn’t too clear at first the writing is, Naughtie uses beautiful imagery and the characters are vividly drawn, in particular the part set in Scotland at Altnabuie, the Flemyngs Highland estate:

At Altnabuie, they woke to a trembling dawn. Flemyng had raised his bedroom window before turning in, and when he opened his eyes, very early, he could smell the highlands. There was a edge to the warmth and the damp, and the tang of tree and field lured him on. He looked towards the loch and saw swirls of mist rising up in thin pillars, like the guilty secrets of hidden smokers, leaving a thin topping of white cotton on the water that crept over the surface and was beginning to disperse here and there with the coming of a soft breeze. It would be gone within the hour. The herons were on their favourite stone, prim and still like a pair of disapproving clerks. The crows cawed in the woods beyond, and behind him, on the eastern side of the house where the sun was already giving life to the place, he could hear the cockerel at work. Everything was crisp and clean, the stifling urban fog a world away. (page 173)

The events that July take place over just 6 days. An American, Joe Manson dies, apparently of an overdose and is found in a store cupboard (it was a large one full of boxes and all sorts of spare objects) in the House of Commons – except that as the House is technically a royal palace deaths are not allowed and bodies have to be discreetly removed and ‘expire’ elsewhere. And thus begins a political crisis – who was Manson, how did he die, what did he know, what had he said – and to whom? And there is a letter on House of Commons notepaper that Will found on the photocopier – an anonymous letter that is puzzling him, a letter from someone who is desperate and who feels he/she is being driven insane.

A secondary plot, but to my mind just as interesting, maybe even more so, concerns Will and his family. He has two brothers, an older on, Mungo who lives at Altnabuie, and a younger one, Abel, who goes by the name of Grauber, their mother’s maiden name, and lives in New York. Mungo has been researching their family history and has discovered a secret about their mother that he finds disconcerting, even frightening.

And the madness? At one point Flemyng, talking about politics says that the rules of the game mean that you have to behave irrationally. A point is reached where you invited destruction, he’d said, as if it were inevitable. ‘Maybe madness isn’t an aberration, but the natural end to our game.’ Everyone aspired to it in politics, even if they didn’t recognise it for what it was. (page 110)

Madness has been haunting Flemyng: Because in these corridors – balance and rational though we believe ourselves to be – there’s madness on the loose. (page 326)

If you like a quick easy read, then The Madness of July is not the book for you. It, however, like me, you like a book that makes you think, that keeps you on your toes as you read, that both puzzles and entertains you, then you’ll probably enjoy it as much as I did.

James Naughtie (pronounced Nochtee, or – /ˈnɔːxti/ as it is given in Wikipedia, which doesn’t mean anything to me) is a British radio and news presenter for the BBC. From 1994 until 2015 he was one of the main presenters of Radio 4’s Today programme. He is now a ‘Special Correspondent’ with ‘responsibility for charting the course of the constitutional changes at the heart of the UK political debate’, as well as the BBC News’s Books Editor, contributing a book review to the Saturday morning editions of Today. The Madness of July is his first novel. He has also written books on politics and music. He was born in Aberdeenshire and lives in Edinburgh and London.

His second novel, Paris Spring, also featuring Will Flemyng, is due to be published in April this year.

…………………….

Reading Challenge: Read Scotland 2016 and What’s in  Name? 2016 – in the category of a book with a month of the year in the title.

Slade House by David Mitchell

I was in the middle of reading two books on my Kindle, Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope and SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard, when the battery died and I know I could still have continued reading whilst it was re-charging, but I didn’t. Instead I picked up Slade House by David Mitchell, a book I’d been thinking of reading soon and once I started it I didn’t want to stop. It’s not long, just 233 pages and they just whizzed past my eyes in no time.

Apparently it began as a short story on Twitter – but I didn’t know that – and is a sort of sequel to The Bone Clocks – but I haven’t read that, and there is a character near the end who also appears in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – but I haven’t read that yet either!

None of that mattered. I suppose it’s the sort of book to read at Hallowe’en, but that doesn’t matter either, because I read it, devoured it I could say, yesterday and was thoroughly entertained. It’s a mixture of a ghost story, science fiction and horror. Something nasty happens every nine years at the end of October at Slade House. I read it as a fantasy, something that I couldn’t believe could ever happen (or at least, I hope not) – but that didn’t stop me enjoying it immensely.

It’s not easy to find Slade House. It’s down Slade Alley, which doesn’t normally exist and it only appears to those who have been invited, or are drawn to it. There is a door set into the right hand wall of the alley, a small black iron door with no handle or keyhole, that opens if you’re meant to enter. There you meet a stranger, are invited into the House, and find yourself in a strange and dangerous situation, and there is no way out – eventually you find yourself in a long attic at the top of the stairs – where something terrible happens to you.

The stories begin in 1979 (although in fact it begins much earlier than that) and ends in a strange and mystifying way in 2015. Each story is complete in itself; the people who enter Slade House do not seem to be connected in anyway – a young teenage boy and his mother, a recently divorced Detective Inspector, students on a Paranormal Society field trip, and then the sister of one of the students. The connection is the House and the brother and sister who occupy it – and to say what they were would be to reveal too much. Needless to say that I was hoping each time that the victims would escape their fate. I was gripped both by the individual stories and by Slade House itself, enchanting and darkly sinister. The sense of menace just grew as each victim succumbed and yet tried to warn those who followed.

Now, I’m keen to read both The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which I bought a few years ago and is still sitting in my TBR piles and The Bone Clocks, which I haven’t got yet. It just shows how reading one book can seriously disrupt whatever reading plans I had!

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Game For All the Family by Sophie Hannah

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

Publishers’ blurb:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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 

She Never Came Home by Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen

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

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

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

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

Cauldstane by Linda Gillard

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

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

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

When he employs Jenny Sholto jokes that every castle should have its ghost. Cauldstane not only has a ghost, there is also the MacNab curse, which affects the women the McNabs marry, with three deaths (two accidents and a suicide) attributed to the curse, and the legend of the Cauldstane claymore, supposed to possess supernatural powers to protect the MacNabs from evil.

Jenny immediately falls in love with the castle, but as she settles in a few things begin to disturb her – her notes on her laptop disappear. As she learns more about the MacNabs and their history, family secrets begin to surface. But what is the truth behind these stories? It seems to hinge on Meredith, Sholto’s second wife who was killed in a horrific car crash.

Cauldstane is peopled by well drawn colourful characters, a beautifully described atmospheric setting and a wealth of story-telling, recreating the past seamlessly interwoven with the present. Jenny not only falls in love with the castle, but also with Sholto’s heir, his son Alec and as she does so more strange events occur and it becomes obvious that there is a malign presence in the castle that doesn’t want her there. And it makes its presence known in a modern way – through Jenny’s laptop. No ghostly visions or  spooky voices, but a thoroughly evil presence capable of writing on the laptop as well as moving objects and putting Jenny’s life in danger, along with the music that apparently only Jenny can hear.

As well as being a gripping tale Cauldstane is also about fear. The epigraph from The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (1842 – 1914) sets the tone: ‘Ghost: the outward and visible sign of an inward fear‘.  The MacNabs are not the only ones with things to fear in their past, for Jenny too has a troubled past and both have to learn how to overcome their fears. Cauldstane is also about loss and revenge, about good versus evil and the power of love.

Linda Gillard lives in the Scottish Highlands. She has written seven novels. I enjoyed this one very much but my favourite of hers is still Star Gazing. For more information about Linda Gillard and her books see her website, Linda Gillard – Author.

Reading challenges: Read Scotland 2014, My Kind of Mystery and R.I.P. IX.

First Chapter, First Paragraph: Cauldstane

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 Cauldstane by Linda Gillard. It begins:

Sometimes I think I can still hear – very faintly – the strains of a harpsichord. Impossible, of course. There’s been no harpsichord at Cauldstane for over a year now. Meredith’s has never been replaced. Never will be replaced.

As the cover shows Cauldstane is set in a castle – a Scottish castle, a remote and decaying 16th century castle, the family home of the MacNabs. Ghostwriter Jenny Ryan is commissioned to write the memoirs of the current Laird, Sholto MacNab. There are secrets, sins to be revealed – and an ancient curse.

If you want to know more about Linda Gillard’s books here is the link to her website.

What’s In A Name 7: Completed

Whats in a name 7Hosted by  by Charlie at The Worm Hole this challenge runs from January to December 2014. During this time you choose a book to read from six categories.

I’ve now completed the challenge and these are the books I read:

  • A reference to time – The Time Machine by H G Wells, first published in 1895, is a work of imagination and an early example of science fiction, but it is also a commentary on late 19th century society and a vehicle for H G Well’s views on socialism and industrialisation.

  • A position of royalty – The King’s Evil by Edward Marston. This is historical crime fiction set in London in September 1666, just as the Great Fire of London has begun, eventually devastating a large part of the old medieval City of London

  • number written in letters – Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie, a Poirot mystery
    first published in 1943. Caroline Crale was convicted of the murder of her husband, Amyas and died in prison. Sixteen years later, her daughter, a child of five at the time of the murder, asks Poirot to clear her mother’s name, convinced that she was innocent.
  • forename or names  Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton  a beautifully told tale – a tragedy, signalled right from the beginning of the book, when the unnamed narrator first saw Ethan Frome and was told he had been disfigured and crippled in a ‘smash up’, twenty four years earlier. Ethan Frome
  • type or element of weather – Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell covers a time period from the 19th century to a post apocalyptic future. It’s not a book to read quickly; it requires patience, but on the whole I enjoyed it. I liked the change in style, suited to each time period, moving between straight narrative and letters and journal entries, encompassing historical fiction, thriller and sci-fi.

  • A book with a school subject in the title – The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier  fantasy fiction set some time in the future, about a place between heaven and earth, and the people who end up there after they’ve died and what happens to them. 

My favourite of these books is Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.

Thanks to Charlie for an interesting challenge that helped me reduce my to-be-read piles.

The Shroud Maker by Kate Ellis

When I saw The Shroud Maker by Kate Ellis in the mobile library I thought I’d seen reviews of her books on other blogs, so I borrowed it. It is the eighteenth Wesley Peterson Mystery, but I think it reads well without knowing the background to the main characters. Although I suppose if I went back in the series I’d find that I know things that maybe I shouldn’t.

Summary:

It’s the Palkin Festival in Tradmouth, a town in Devon, when the body of a strangled women is discovered floating out to sea in a dinghy. A year earlier Jenny Bercival had disappeared from the festival and her mother returns to look for her bringing with her anonymous letters claiming she is still alive. DI Wesley Peterson and his boss DCI Gerry Heffernan are investigating the two cases. Are they connected and is there a link to a fantasy website called ‘Shipworld’ which features the 14th century mayor and privateer of Tradmouth, Palkin as a supernatural hero with a sinister, faceless nemesis called the ‘Shroud Maker’?

 When Wesley’s friend, archaeologist Neil Watson finds a skeleton on the site of Palkin’s warehouse, the question is whether an ancient crime has been uncovered, or is it Jenny’s body?

My view:

I liked the way the historical mystery intertwines with the modern one, through the archaelogical evidence, and the extracts from a 19th century biography of John Palkin written by his descendant, Josiah Palkin-Wright and letters from Josiah’s wife to her sister, worried about her marriage and that her sister does not reply. Kate Ellis’s style of writing is deceptively simple, so much so that the locations and characters came to life in my mind, whether it was Tradmouth in the past or the present.

There is plenty of mystery in this novel. I really had to concentrate to keep all the characters, red-herrings, twists and turns, and sub-plots in my mind. I thought I’d followed it as I read it, but now I’m not sure that I can give a clear account of what happened and why. However, as I do like complex mysteries I think I’ll have to look out for the first books in the Wesley Peterson series.

A note on the title:

From the title I thought that the ‘Shroud Maker’ would be a person who makes shrouds ie cloths used to wrap a body for burial, but that is not so in this book. Instead the name of ‘Shroud Maker’ is taken from a rope maker, shrouds being the ropes that support a ship’s masts. He or she is a mysterious figure, who in the Shipworld website appears as a faceless monster, wearing what looks like a white ski mask, a malevolent dark force.

The Author’s Note:

It didn’t take me long reading this book to realise that ‘Tradmouth’ is an inversion of the name of Dartmouth in Devon and Kate Ellis’s note at the end of the book clarifies that. She refers to Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales which features a character called the Shipman, a seaman from ‘Dertemouth’, who like her own invented character, was little better than a pirate. She writes that during the 19th century people were fascinated with the medieval period, perhaps as a reaction against industrialisation and her fictional writings of Josiah Palkin-Wright reflected that interest. And coming up to the present day she reflects that fantasy fiction is as popular today as it ever was, with the influence of J R R Tolkien’s works and fantasy fiction websites.

Reading Challenges: R.I.P. Challenge, the My Kind of Mystery Challenge, and the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Testament of a Witch by Douglas Watt

Testament of a Witch by Douglas Watt is the second book of his that I’ve read. The first one Death of a Chief I read 5 years ago! Both books are set in late 17th century Scotland (1686 and 1687) and feature a Gaelic speaking, Edinburgh lawyer John MacKenzie and his clerk Davie Scougall. I like the way Douglas Watt incorporates the historical background into the narrative without detracting from the story.

In Testament of a Witch MacKenzie investigates the death of Grissell Hay, Lady Lammersheugh accused of witchcraft in a village overwhelmed by superstition, resentment and puritanical religion. Then the same accusations are made against the Euphame, Grissell’s daughter.  I wasn’t too keen on the horrifying and explicit descriptions of how the witch hunter identified and dealt with women accused of being witches, which involved torture and sleep deprivation, but apart from that I enjoyed this book.

I liked the interaction between Mackenzie, a Highlander and Scougall, a Lowland Scot. Scougall is convinced of the reality of witchcraft, whereas Mackenzie has ‘grave doubts about the crime of witchcraft‘, believing ‘it is nothing more than superstition‘. The religious fervour and political unrest are clearly demonstrated in this book, setting the frenzied persecution of those suspected of witchcraft in context. Watts’ Historical Note on The Scottish Witch-hunt at the end of the book gives the background, when Scottish society was in a state of flux.

Change caused anxiety and fear, unleashing frenzies of witch-hunting . … It has been estimated that the Scottish witch-hunt was ten times more deadly than the English one in terms of executions per head of population. Probably more than a thousand men and women were executed for witchcraft in Scotland during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The witch-hunt could not have occurred without a widespread belief in magic, charming and divination, and the acceptance of Satan as a real presence in the life of the people.

Witch-hunting declined when the revolutionary zeal of the Scottish Reformation ran out of steam in the late seventeenth century. Scotland began to turn its back on persecution and look towards the more tolerant and commercial age of the Enlightenment.

Testament of a Witch is well-researched and although it gets off to a slow start and I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Death of a Chief, I was immersed into the fascinating and terifying world of the witch-hunt in 17th century Scotland as I was reading. It’s a book that qualifies both for the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge and this year’s R.I.P. Challenge, as well as the Historical Fiction Challenge and the My Kind of Mystery Challenge.

Douglas Watt is a Scottish historian, poet and novelist, who lives in Linlithgow. He has a PhD in Scottish History from Edinburgh University and is the author of The Price of Scotland, a history of Scotland’s Darien Disaster, which won the Hume Brown Senior Prize in Scottish History in 2008. 

The Lost Army of Cambyses by Paul Sussman

The combination of the legendary ancient mystery about the disappearance of a whole army in Egypt’s western desert in 523 BC, and a modern murder mystery caught my imagination. So I was attracted to reading The Lost Army of Cambyses by Paul Sussman.

The Lost Army of Cambyses is his first book, featuring Inspector Yusuf Khalifa of the Luxor police. It is an action packed adventure story, an easy escapist read, although the ancient mystery element definitely plays second fiddle to the modern murder mystery, with a terrorist plot thrown in the mix.

I enjoyed it. It began well, in Cairo, September 2000, where a mutilated corpse is washed up on the banks of the Nile at Luxor, an antiques dealer is savagely murdered in Cairo, and an eminent British archaeologist is found dead at the ancient necropolis of Saqqara. But as I read on I was less convinced.

Where the book came alive for me was through the character of Yusuf Khalifa, and especially the historical/archaeological aspects of the book highlighted in his meetings with his old teacher and mentor, Professor al-Habibi at Cairo’s Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Khalifa had wanted to be an archaeologist, but circumstances had meant he’d been unable to complete his studies and he had joined the police force. However he had remained fascinated by the history of his country:

He remembered as a child standing on the roof of their house watching the sunrise over the pyramids. Other children had taken the monuments for granted, but not Khalifa. For him there had always been something magical about them, great triangles looming through the morning mist, doorways to a different time and world. Growing up beside them had given him an insatiable desire to learn more about the past.

… There was something mystical about it, something glittering, a chain of gold stretching all the way back to the dawn of time. (pages 100 – 102)

The other characters were less convincing, becoming stereotypical particularly the ‘bad’ characters, and the violence was a little too violent for my liking. But it still managed to keep me hooked and wanting to know how it would end.

I’d like to read more of Paul Sussman’s books – I much preferred his second book, The Last Secret of the Temple. I’ve yet to read the third book featuring Inspector Khalifa, The Labyrinth of Osiris. More details of his books are on Paul Sussman’s website, which is now being updated by his wife after Paul died very suddenly from a ruptured aneurysm in May 2012.

Book Beginning: The Lost Army of Cambyses

After a month of reading library books and new books I’ve got this year I thought it was time to get back into my stock of to-be-read books and picked one at random. It’s The Lost Army of Cambyses by Paul Sussman. Before I began this blog I read Sussman’s The Last Secret of the Temple, which I thought was excellent, so I was looking out for more of his books. Three years later I found this book and it has been sitting unread for the last four years! Time to read it …

The Lost Army of Cambyses is his first book, featuring Inspector Yusuf Khalifa of the Luxor police (as in The Last Secret of the Temple). It begins in 523BC as the Persian army of Cambyses is crossing Egypt’s western desert on their way to destroy the oracle at Siwa:

The Prologue: The Western Desert, 523 BC

The fly had been pestering the Greek all morning. As if the furnace-like heat of the desert wasn’t enough, and the forced marches, and the stale rations, now he had this added torment. He cursed the gods and landed a heavy blow on his cheek, dislodging a shower of sweat droplets, but missing the insect by some way.

‘Damned flies!’ he spat!

As the  account by Herodotus quoted at the front of the book reveals, the story goes that this army never reached its destination and never returned – it was engulfed by a violent sandstorm and disappeared forever.

Chapter 1 picks up the story in Cairo, September 2000, where a mutilated corpse is washed up on the banks of the Nile at Luxor, an antiques dealer is savagely murdered in Cairo, and an eminent British archaeologist is found dead at the ancient necropolis of Saqqara.

The whole thing intrigues me and I’m eagerly reading on …

Every 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.