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Inspector Mark Brendon is on a fishing holiday in Dartmoor when he first spots the lovely, ethereal, auburn-haired Jenny Pendean and falls instantly in love. Lucky for him, then, that she is promptly widowed, providing him with both a mystery to solve and a woman to woo. Less lucky for her husband, Michael. Jenny’s grandfather was a rich man and had left her a legacy, but only on condition that one of her three uncles approved her marriage. None of the three approved of Michael, though, in part because he wasn’t from the right class, but also because he managed to escape serving in the armed forces during WW1 (not bone spurs – a minor heart condition). However recently Uncle Robert had reached out to the young couple and seemed ready to accept Michael. But one night, after Robert and Michael had been working alone on the house Michael was building, neither man returns. The next day all that is found on the site is a pool of blood and signs of a body having been dragged away. Sightings of Robert making off on his motorcycle leave little doubt that he had killed Michael, probably in a fit of madness brought on by the shell-shock he had suffered in the war. Jenny begs Mark to find Robert…
This was first published in 1922 at the earliest stages of the Golden Age and, perhaps because of that, doesn’t follow the format that later became recognisable as the traditional mystery novel. It’s a bit rambling in parts, takes place over a period of more than a year, and the dénouement comes a few chapters before the end, followed by lengthy explanations and a round up of what happens to the surviving characters in their futures. It feels looser and not as well plotted as many of the later GA mysteries, though oddly I felt it was a good deal darker and more psychologically twisted than most of them too. I found a lot to enjoy in it, though I would have enjoyed it more had it been tighter and a bit more pacey.
The first half takes place on Dartmoor and then on the weather-beaten coast of Devon, and Phillpotts uses these bleak landscapes effectively to create an atmosphere of impending doom. It transpires that Michael was merely the first victim – the murderer seems to want to destroy the remaining Redmaynes too, though no-one can understand his motives. In the second half, Jenny visits her uncle Albert at his home in Italy – again a well realised location – and when danger seems again to draw near, Albert reaches out to both Inspector Brendon and to Albert’s American friend, Peter Ganns, who happens to be a great detective. (Naturally, in such circumstances, one cannot put one’s faith in the Italian police, because after all they’re foreigners…)
This is another aspect of the book which makes it different from the standard – it appears as if Mark is going to be the central detective in the first half, but then, admittedly after Mark has proved his incompetence several times over, Ganns becomes the main man. And it’s he who will finally unravel the mystery. He’s hampered by having to rely on Mark as his sidekick, since Mark is so in love with Jenny his brain has turned to mush. Ganns points this out to him, but still Mark allows himself to get distracted at crucial moments. (One wonders if the Italian police could really have been less competent than the British and American ones…) Ganns is fun, in that I did wonder if Phillpotts had ever actually met an American or if he created the entire portrayal based on characters in pulp fiction of the day. Ganns seems to be a well educated, cultured man but sometimes slips into the kind of wise-guy speech of the fictional American PI or gangster, such as referring to women as “dames”. But he’s psychologically astute, which is more than can be said for poor Mark.
I had a reasonably good idea of the solution from fairly early on, although I was a bit baffled as to motive. And when the dénouement came and all was explained, it felt much more modern than I was expecting – definitely heading towards psychological thriller territory, which surprised me for a book from this early, and added considerably to the interest level.
Overall, then, despite some weaknesses and an odd format, I enjoyed this. The settings are particularly well done and I found aspects of it pretty original, especially for the time. Another author I’d be happy to meet again.
King Dom João III of Portugal wishes to give a present to the Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian, and decides that Solomon, an elephant who has been living in Lisbon for the last two years after being brought from the Portuguese colonies in India, would be the ideal gift. It’s the mid-sixteenth century, so the only method of transport for Solomon is his own four feet. This is the story of his journey, along with his keeper Subhro and a troop of Portuguese soldiers, as they make their way through Spain and Italy, finally crossing the Alps to reach their destination, Vienna.
This is one of these books that is full of delightful prose and a pleasure to read, but ultimately is so light that its effect dissipates almost instantly. Saramago uses Solomon’s journey to digress on all kinds of things, all in a tone of gentle mockery. The power of kings, the superstition of the common people, the religious changes that were taking place at the time, the untold stories beneath the bare facts in the historical records, the writer’s right to create rather than to simply record – all these are raised but in such a way as to leave them feeling like airy wisps of passing thought, not to be taken too seriously.
We hereby recognise that the somewhat disdainful, ironic tone that has slipped into these pages whenever we have had cause to speak of austria and its people was not only aggressive, but patently unfair. Not that this was our intention, but you know how it is with writing, one word often brings along another in its train simply because they sound good together, even if this means sacrificing respect for levity and ethics for aesthetics, if such solemn concepts are not out of place in a discourse such as this, and often to no one’s advantage either. It is in this and other ways, almost without our realising it, that we make so many enemies in life.
So, not taking it too seriously then, it has to be seen as a whimsical fable and, as such, it works reasonably well. There are amusing episodes, like when Solomon is trained to perform a “miracle” at the behest of the local churchmen. There are mildly moving scenes, such as when Solomon says farewell to the soldiers who have accompanied him on the Portuguese leg of his journey. There are pointed (and sometimes rather snide) moments of social commentary: for example, when Archduke Maximilian promptly changes Solomon’s name to Suleiman as more appropriate to his new home.
But the story is too flimsy to bear even the light weight of Saramago’s musings, however entertainingly presented. Perhaps the fact that nothing much happens is part of the point, but for this reader it made for a rather wasted journey. I also found tedious, as I always do, the author’s attempt to jazz the thing up by the use of stylistic quirks – in this case, endless paragraphs, lack of capital letters for names and no quotation marks. However, he does it well, so for people who like that kind of thing, then this is the kind of thing they’ll like.
Knowing as one does the preeminent virtues of bodily cleanliness, it was no surprise to find that in the place where one elephant had been there now stood another. The dirt that had covered him before, and through which one could barely see his skin, had vanished beneath the combined actions of water and broom, and solomon revealed himself now in all his splendour. A somewhat relative splendour, it must be said. The skin of an asian elephant like solomon is thick, a greyish coffee colour and sprinkled with freckles and hairs, a permanent disappointment to the elephant, despite the advice he was always giving himself about accepting his fate and being contented with what he had and giving thanks to vishnu. He surrendered himself to being washed as if he were expecting a miracle, a baptism, but the result was there for all to see, hairs and freckles.
Overall then, I was amused but only fleetingly engaged either emotionally or intellectually. I understand this was one of Saramago’s last books and certainly the quality of the prose would tempt me to read some of his earlier works, in the hope that they may have more depth and fewer stylistic quirks.
A child goes missing one night from the tent where she is sleeping. A girl is murdered, seemingly as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A young mother is driven to her wits’ end by her fractious baby and we all know what happens during periods of temporary insanity. These three cases from years ago are suddenly all brought to the door of ex-police detective and current private investigator Jackson Brodie, and he must try to find the explanations his clients are seeking while juggling his own messy private life.
The first three chapters of this are stunningly good, as Atkinson lays the groundwork to each of the three cases. The last few chapters are fairly good as she wraps them all up, not neatly nor particularly skilfully, but at least to a reasonably satisfying level. The vast swathe of repetitive sex and death obsessed tedium in the middle is unfortunate.
I realise that many people love this book, so obviously as always this is merely my subjective opinion, but I found it a complete mess. I’m not at all sure what Atkinson was attempting to do with it. It’s certainly not a crime novel – there is almost zero detection in it. Brodie simply wanders around bemoaning his lot and eyeing women up to see if they’re sexually attractive, then jumps miraculously to the right conclusions. Well, I say miraculously, but actually since I’d already guessed the solution to two of the cases hours earlier, maybe it wasn’t that amazing after all.
It’s not really insightful enough to count as literary fiction either – I hesitate to use the word banal, but I fear it is the one that was running through my mind while I was reading. Contemporary fiction? Well, perhaps, but it really has nothing much to say about contemporary society. There’s plenty of sex and sexual fantasies, but more in the “ooh, aren’t I naughty and daring for writing dirty words and talking about naked bodies” sense than anything that could push it into the romance category! There were moments when I wondered if Atkinson had been spending too much time with fourteen-year-olds since most of her adults seemed to think like them.
Book 1 of 20
The number of deaths described is extraordinary. Not just the cases, but nearly every character’s fathers, mothers, children, siblings, pets – all dead, all dead! Murders, suicides, cancer, road accidents – life in Cambridge is clearly nasty, brutish and short. It gives new meaning to the phrase “ghost town”. And of course, we get all the grief to go along with all these deaths, which isn’t what you’d call cheery exactly. And for those who have managed so far to maintain a precarious hold on life, their loving relatives spend all their time imagining all the horrible deaths that might happen to them. Jackson himself must imagine at least five horrible deaths for his daughter and can barely look at a piece of grass without seeing it as a potential deathbed for her.
The characterisation is reasonably good of a few of the main characters, but there is also what feels like a cast of thousands who never become filled out in any way, so that I found myself having to search for previous mentions of them to find out who they were when they suddenly re-appeared briefly a hundred pages later. To be honest, it felt to me like three pretty good short stories that for some reason Atkinson had clumsily attempted to tie together to make a novel, filling all the rest of the space with weary and pointless meanderings. And there’s a limit to quite how often coincidence can be used before it becomes annoying.
Nope, I don’t get it. Clearly other people are seeing something in this that I’m not. The potential is there – Jackson could be a decent character if he ever stopped brooding about sex and death and did a bit of detecting, and the basic stories are certainly interesting even if the resolutions are weak. However, since I foolishly requested the next three books in the series from NetGalley on the assumption that I was certain I’d love them, I’ll read the next one in the hopes that the series improves, although my expectations are now in the basement. Apologies to all who loved it!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.
Oh, dear! After all those weeks of it going down, the TBR has suddenly soared again! Up another 2 to 224…
Here are a few more that will reach the summit soon…
One from my Classics Club list and also one of my 20 Books of Summer. I’ve never read this but have watched the film several times and loved it, so this is one where the book will have to try hard to compete with the movie…
The Blurb says: ‘They call me Mr Tibbs!’
A small southern town in the 1960s. A musician found dead on the highway. It’s no surprise when white detectives arrest a black man for the murder. What is a surprise is that the black man – Virgil Tibbs – is himself a skilled homicide detective from California, whom inexperienced Chief Gillespie reluctantly recruits to help with the case. Faced with mounting local hostility and a police force that seems determined to see him fail, it isn’t long before Tibbs – trained in karate and aikido – will have to fight not just for justice, but also for his own safety.
The inspiration for the Academy Award-winning film starring Sidney Poitier, this iconic crime novel is a psychologically astute examination of racial prejudice, an atmospheric depiction of the American South in the sixties, and a brilliant, suspense-filled read set in the sultry heat of the night.
* * * * *
Fiction on Audio
One for my Five times Five challenge, this is the second book in Roth’s American Trilogy, narrated by Ron Silver. The first, American Pastoral, achieved The Great American Novel status in my occasional GAN Quest challenge. I’ve read this one before many years ago, and from memory I thought it was great but not quite as great as American Pastoral. However, I feel I know more about the subject matter now than I did back then, so it will be interesting to see if my opinion changes…
The Blurb says: Iron Rinn, born Ira Ringold, is a Newark roughneck, a radio actor, an idealistic Communist, and an educated ditchdigger turned popular performer. A six-foot, six-inch Abe Lincoln lookalike, he emerges from serving in World War II passionately committed to making the world a better place and instead winds up blacklisted, unemployable, and ruined by a brutal personal secret from which he is perpetually in flight. His life is in ruins.
On his way to political catastrophe, he marries the nation’s reigning radio actress and beloved silent film star, Eve Frame (born Chava Fromkin). Their marriage evolves from glamorous, romantic idyll to a disparaging soap opera of tears and treachery when Eve’s dramatic revelation to gossip columnist Bryden Grant of her husband’s life of espionage with the Soviet Union soon twists the couple’s private drama into a national scandal.
I Married a Communist is an American tragedy as only Philip Roth can conceive…fierce and comical, eloquently rendered, and definitely accurate.
* * * * *
Courtesy of Harvill Secker via NetGalley. Another of my 20 Books of Summer, and I have high hopes for it after loving Mina’s last book, The Long Drop…
The Blurb says: It’s just a normal morning for Anna McDonald. Gym kits, packed lunches, getting everyone up and ready. Until she opens the front door to her best friend, Estelle. Anna turns to see her own husband at the top of the stairs, suitcase in hand. They’re leaving together and they’re taking Anna’s two daughters with them.
Left alone in the big, dark house, Anna can’t think, she can’t take it in. With her safe, predictable world shattered, she distracts herself with a story: a true-crime podcast. There’s a sunken yacht in the Mediterranean, multiple murders and a hint of power and corruption. Then Anna realises she knew one of the victims in another life. She is convinced she knows what happened. Her past, so carefully hidden until now, will no longer stay silent.
This is a murder she can’t ignore, and she throws herself into investigating the case. But little does she know, her past and present lives are about to collide, sending everything she has worked so hard to achieve into freefall.
* * * * *
Vintage Science Fiction
Courtesy of the British Library. As an addict of the BL’s Crime Classics, I’m thrilled that they’re now expanding their range into vintage sci-fi and horror. This collection of stories is billed as sci-fi, but I suspect that stories about machines will have more than an edge of horror to at least some of them…
The Blurb says: ‘“It’s a hazardous experiment,” they all said, “putting in new and untried machinery.”’
Caution – beware the menace of the machine: a man is murdered by an automaton built for playing chess; a computer system designed to arbitrate justice develops a taste for iron-fisted, fatal rulings; an AI wreaks havoc on society after removing all censorship from an early form of the internet.
Assembled with pieces by SF giants such as Murray Leinster and Brian W Aldiss as well as the less familiar but no less influential input of earlier science fiction pioneers, this new collection of classic tales contains telling lessons for humankind’s gradual march towards life alongside the thinking machine.
Morris Assheton is due to come into his inheritance when he’s twenty-five. However, a clause in his father’s will allows him to take control of his money earlier, should he marry a woman of whom his mother approves. Morris has met and fallen in love with just such a woman, so his trustee, Edward Taynton, suggests he might want to look over the accounts of the trust. Young Morris has other more important things to think of, though – his future wife, and his new car which he loves with at least as much fervour. This is lucky for Edward, since he and his partner Godfrey Mills have been gambling unsuccessfully with the trust funds. So all seems well, but things are about to go wrong and when they do, it will all lead to murder…
More of a long novella than a novel, this isn’t really a mystery, or at least the possibilities are so limited that most readers will be able to work out whodunit with a fair degree of certainty pretty early on. Instead, it’s an entertaining and quite insightful character study of the three main characters, Morris and the two trustees, and mostly of Edward Taynton.
Edward isn’t a bad man – in fact, his gambles were meant as much to benefit Morris as himself and he still hopes to make good the losses before the trust is wound up. He’s worked hard to give himself a comfortable life, and hopes to retire soon to enjoy life before he’s too old. But we see how he’s affected by pressure as his secret looks in danger. He makes some odd decisions, but happily manages to justify his behaviour himself. A kindly, friendly man whom everyone likes and respects – with a streak of narcissism hidden beneath the surface.
Morris too is a pleasant character, leading a contented, pampered and happy life and with every reason to expect that to continue. However, when things go wrong, suddenly he becomes filled with a rage that surprises everyone, including himself, by its intensity. Godfrey, Edward’s partner, is somewhat less well drawn, and to a degree is a bit of a plot device. He too suddenly behaves in a way that surprises his partner, but I didn’t feel I knew him nearly as well as the other characters so didn’t feel the same surprise.
Challenge details: Book: 6 Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns Publication Year: 1908
The murder happens quite late on and Benson builds a great atmosphere of approaching dread, with some fine dramatic writing…
Overclouded too was the sky, and as he stepped out into the street from his garden-room the hot air struck him like a buffet; and in his troubled and apprehensive mood it felt as if some hot hand warned him by a blow not to venture out of his house. But the house, somehow, in the last hour had become terrible to him, any movement or action, even on a day like this, when only madmen and the English go abroad, was better than the nervous waiting in his darkened room. Dreadful forces, forces of ruin and murder and disgrace, were abroad in the world of men; the menace of the low black clouds and stifling heat was more bearable. He wanted to get away from his house, which was permeated and soaked in association with the other two actors, who in company with himself, had surely some tragedy for which the curtain was already rung up.
After a police investigation in which the police show themselves to be sharper than the murderer anticipated, the whole thing winds up in a courtroom drama where there’s an excellent revelation around a physical clue that turns the prosecution’s whole case on its head at the last minute. It is fair play in that the reader was made aware of the clue at the appropriate place, but this reader, while I had spotted that it was A Clue, couldn’t work it out, which always adds to the fun!
I thoroughly enjoyed this one. It can easily be read in an evening and my interest never flagged despite having very little doubt as to whodunit or how it would end. It’s the character of Edward that makes it entertaining – he may be a cheat and a fraudster, but I found him good company anyway. Highly recommended.
Jean Louise Finch is returning from New York to her childhood home in the small town of Maycomb in Alabama, to pay a visit to her family. She is met from the train by Henry – Hank – her childhood friend, then sweetheart. He’s hoping that this time she’ll finally agree to marry him and settle down back in Maycomb. Jean Louise isn’t sure what she wants – she loves Hank and feels a great sense of homecoming as the train pulls through her own country, but she’s also grown to love her life in New York. Seeing her hometown and the people she’s known all her life through the fresh eyes of different experiences makes her re-assess all the certainties that are the foundation of what she believes about herself…
I tried to listen to this when it first came out, but was hampered by my feeling that Lee may have been unfairly manipulated at the end of her life to allow it to be published. I also struggled with Reese Witherspoon’s Southern accent. Which proves that one’s subconscious has more impact than one sometimes thinks – this time around, some years on and now keen to read the book, I found Witherspoon’s narration a first-rate performance, bringing the character of Jean Louise as a young woman and of her younger self as the child Scout completely to life. And suddenly my difficulties with the accent disappeared!
There were two factors that changed my reluctance to read the book into eagerness. Firstly, when the book came out early reviews expressed shock at the portrayal of Atticus as a racist. I had never felt quite as hero-worshipping of Atticus as many people, but this did seem like an odd departure from the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird. Since then, however, I have re-read Mockingbird for the first time in many years, and I realised I didn’t feel it really does have the strong anti-racist message it is held to have. Instead, I thought that Atticus was a man defending the rule of law – the fact that in this case he was also defending a black man seemed somewhat incidental. The message was not so much that black people were equal than that all people, however unequal within society, were entitled under the Constitution to equal treatment within the justice system. It’s a subtle difference, but important.
The second factor was my recent read of the excellent Furious Hours by Casey Cep (review to follow), in which she tells the tale of the true crime about which Lee tried and failed to write a book. In her book, Cep goes into some depth on Lee’s writing career, and the difficulties she had in writing another book after the wild success of Mockingbird. Although Cep doesn’t express an opinion on Go Set a Watchman as a literary work, she explains that it was in fact the book Lee wanted to write, and that it was her editor and publisher who persuaded her to write instead about the child Scout and the Maycomb of twenty years earlier. Given the success of Mockingbird, it can clearly be argued that was good advice. However, I found I really wanted to know what it was that Lee had wanted to say.
Gosh, that was a long preamble! In short, now that I was in the right frame of mind for it, I discovered this is a very good book in its own right, and not so far from the characters portrayed in Mockingbird after all.
The time is just after the Supreme Court decision that led to desegregation of schools in the South, when the NAACP were fighting for equality for blacks and the whites were resisting. Jean Louise is shocked to discover that her father, Atticus, and lover, Hank, are part of that white resistance. As a child, watching her father defend black people and his unfailing courtesy to all people of whatever colour, young Scout unthinkingly assumed he believed in equality. Now with her experience in the North, Jean Louise feels seriously out of step with the attitudes and beliefs of her family and friends, and she finds herself becoming unmoored, feeling that she can no longer admire and love the people who have been the rock on which her life has been built. It’s partly a coming-of-age story, as Jean Louise begins to learn the difference between the ease of loving a golden hero and the difficulty of continuing to love when the gilt peels off, showing the tarnished imperfection beneath.
But it also gives a brutal insight into the attitudes of many white Southerners at this turning point in history. Jean Louise herself is hardly what we would think of today as an enlightened champion of civil rights, and Atticus, though he explains himself eloquently, holds attitudes which are pretty shocking. That’s what literature is all about though – what a refreshing change from the facile liberal virtue-signalling of contemporary literature about race, gender, etc. These characters are true and believable – they are of their time and made from their own history. Lee doesn’t demand that we like them or agree with them (though one suspects she herself agreed with Jean Louise), but she lays out their arguments so that at least we understand them, and she shows them as fundamentally good and well-meaning people, so that it’s impossible to write them off casually as “racist”, “white supremacist”, “Nazi”, and all the other terms we bandy around today whenever anyone says anything we don’t like. Lee shows the resonating impact of the Civil War, still only a couple of generations ago for the older people; the ongoing resentment of the South to being told how to live their lives by those in the distant corridors of federal power; the fear of the white people of the destruction of their way of life. Agree or not, understanding these things is a first essential if we are ever to really move past them.
As a literary work, the book isn’t perfect. There’s a little too much polemical stuff disguised as dialogue, and sometimes Jean Louise’s reactions seem overly dramatic. It’s told in the third person but sometimes drifts into Jean Louise’s thoughts which are then given in first person. This works fine on the page but not quite so well on audio, when it’s difficult to distinguish between when she’s thinking and when she’s speaking. And Lee assumes that her audience will know things like what the Supreme Court decision was about and what the Tenth Amendment says. Google is a boon!
But there’s real excellence here too – the parts where Jean Louise reminisces about her childhood are wonderful, with all the warmth and humour of Mockingbird. Maycomb again becomes a character in its own right, though a more modern and somewhat faster, more anxious place than it used to be. The characterisation shows all the same insight and brilliance – despite their often shocking views, I grew to care about them all.
I must admit I got progressively angrier at the editors who chose to drive the young début novelist in a different direction rather than helping her to polish this into the literary perfection it deserves. I can’t help wondering, if Lee had been given more encouragement to write about the things she thought important rather than those that her publisher thought (rightly) would sell, would she have had so much difficulty producing other books? Would she have become a major voice helping us to understand the troubled psyche of the South? We’ll never know, but if I could go back in time, I’d whisper to her – have faith in yourself, Nelle, and write what you think the world needs to read…
Despite its flaws, then, highly recommended. Leave your hero-worship of Atticus behind and accept him as an imperfect man from a different era – I bet you’ll still find something in him to admire…
JT LeBeau is a hugely successful author who specialises in the twist. He, or could it be she, hides his or her identity from the world, and this mystique of course only adds to the hype around her or his books. She, or is it he, will do anything to keep his or her secret…
OK, every review I’ve read of this has started in basically the same way and now I’m adding to it – this is one that’s impossible to say much about without giving away too much, so this review will be short and not very informative!
It’s all in the title – this is a book full of twists about an author who writes books full of twists. It’s clever and amusing and a bit self-referential, in that it’s lightly mocking what it itself is. Cavanagh has fun with the twists and plays with the idea of authors using secret identities, not shying away from referencing the likes of JK Rowling, aka Robert Galbraith.
It’s very well written and the plot holds together pretty well despite the twists. However, it’s light on characterisation – it has to be really, so we can continually be surprised. This makes it a light read despite some dark moments. There’s no feeling of depth, nor does the reader get the opportunity to care much about the characters. The only one I built up any kind of feeling for was the local Sheriff who was investigating the… oh, sorry, can’t tell you what he was investigating. And not surprisingly, as twist piles on twist, credibility is the chief victim.
One minor irritation is that Cavanagh, clearly feeling that constant repetition of he/she, her/his, etc., would be irritating, chooses to use they/their instead – grammatically tooth-drilling to my pedantic soul. We really need to create a gender-neutral word. So, since the fault lies with the inadequacy of our language, I bit the bullet and forgave the author. Just.
Overall, I found it a fast-paced page-turner that kept me amused while reading, and will almost instantly be forgotten. That’s fine, though – sometimes entertainment is all that’s wanted, and this delivers well on that score. Recommended as a well written bit of fun.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion.
Since this is the 200th TBR Thursday post I’ve done on the blog, I thought instead of listing the next four books I intend to read as usual, I’d take you on a little tour of some of the dark alleys and hidden byways of my ever-expanding TBR.
My TBR is made up of books I own but haven’t yet read, plus a tiny sprinkling of books I’d like to re-read in the near future.
The current total…
It’s gone up again while I’ve been on hiatus to 222! One simply never knows when a book avalanche might occur!
I’d like to reduce the total not because of a simple numbers game, but because there are lots of potentially great books on it I’d really like to read but keep shoving aside in favour of new releases, which often turn out to be less than stellar. Under my gradual reduction plan, I want to get down to 185 by the end of this year, mostly by severely controlling the numbers of books I buy or accept for review. It’s possible…
I usually only acquire factual books and sci-fi and horror books when I intend to read them, so there are never many lingering on the list. Crime and fiction are a different story…
Romance (eh?)………… 1 (How did that get on there?)
198 of the books are Kindle, and only 24 paper! Thank goodness – I’d need a bigger house if they were all paper copies…
The oldest book…
The Observations by Jane Harris, which I acquired on 20/6/2011. I can’t remember why I went for it now, but I still think it sounds good.
The Blurb says: Scotland, 1863. In an attempt to escape her past, Bessy Buckley takes a job working as a maid in a big country house. But when Arabella, her beautiful mistress, asks her to undertake a series of bizarre tasks, Bessy begins to realise that she hasn’t quite landed on her feet. In one of the most acclaimed debuts of recent years, Jane Harris has created a heroine who will make you laugh and cry as she narrates this unforgettable story about secrets and suspicions and the redemptive power of love and friendship.
However, I’ve scheduled it as one of my 20 Books of Summer, so it should finally escape from the list soon! Then the oldest one will be The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst – acquired on 29/7/2012.
Again, no idea why, and this one doesn’t appeal to me much now. Plus it’s very long! So it may linger on the list for a while longer.
The Blurb says: In the late summer of 1913, George Sawle brings his Cambridge schoolmate – a handsome, aristocratic young poet named Cecil Valance – to his family’s modest home outside London for the weekend. George is enthralled by Cecil, and soon his sixteen-year-old sister, Daphne, is equally besotted by him and the stories he tells about Corley Court, the country estate he is heir to. But what Cecil writes in Daphne’s autograph album will change their and their families’ lives forever: a poem that, after Cecil is killed in the Great War and his reputation burnished, will become a touchstone for a generation, a work recited by every schoolchild in England. Over time, a tragic love story is spun, even as other secrets lie buried – until, decades later, an ambitious biographer threatens to unearth them.
The newest book…
Books, actually, since I received a delectable parcel of mouth-watering delights from the lovely people at the British Library only yesterday. Vintage crime, vintage horror, vintage sci-fi – FF heaven! What was I saying about cutting back on review copies…??
The review copies…
Currently 22 26 outstanding which, due to my exercising iron self-control at the moment, is was the lowest it’s been for about three years. The oldest review copy, I’m ashamed to say, is Soft Summer Blood by Peter Helton, which I acquired from NetGalley on 01/04/16. I’ve read and enjoyed his books before too, so I have no excuse.
The newest review copy (before yesterday’s parcel) is Snow White and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm – a recent addition to the Oxford World’s Classics gorgeous hardback series, which popped through my letterbox unexpectedly on 15/5/19. (These covers never look good on the blog but in real life they’re vibrant and gorgeous…)
The 200th book on the list…
Lots of my more recent acquisitions are for one or another of my ongoing challenges – I’m trying to get out of the habit of random book-buying till I feel more in control of the backlog on the TBR. The 200th book is Tracks in the Snow by Godfrey R Benson, one for my Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge, acquired on 16/3/19.
The books I most want to read and can’t understand why I don’t just do it…
(I’ve excluded ones I’ve scheduled for the next few months.)
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Hope you enjoyed the guided tour of my TBR! I’d love to look round yours, if you fancy answering the questions either on your blog or in the comments below.
Driven from their ancestral lands, the buffalo they live on destroyed, their children forcibly removed to schools that indoctrinated them in white culture, the numbers of the Osage tribe had collapsed to just three thousand. But when the government insisted on a policy of allotments in their reservation, a forward-thinking chief and a half-Osage lawyer managed to ensure that the Osage retained mineral rights to the land – an “underground reservation”. So when they then leased their land to oil prospectors, the Osage became enormously wealthy. And then they started to die. This is the story of what happened to the Osage – what was proved, what was suspected at the time, and Grann’s own speculations about the truth with the benefit of distance from the events.
This was a mixed bag for me. It’s an astonishing and horrifying story as it relates to the treatment of the Osage, and a fascinating one as it relates to the development of law enforcement and the newly formed FBI. Unfortunately the telling of the story is patchy – some chapters are well written and informative, others are messy, repetitive and badly structured. Grann, presumably in an attempt to make it read entertainingly, jumps from tense to tense, and while it’s clearly exhaustively researched, the end result is an untidy combination of too much information without enough focus. As I feel I say too often, where was the editor? Name after name after name appears, then disappears either for chapters or for ever. I found that I was constantly trying to remember the relevance of some name thrown at me without reminder a hundred pages from the last mention.
The actual events, though, deserve to be widely known and remembered so I struggled on through. As the wealth of the Osage grew, so did resentment from the dominant white people. It’s hard to condemn people for being individually racist at a time when the nation was institutionally – constitutionally – racist. The government felt that these childlike neolithic savages (in their view) couldn’t be given responsibility for managing their own affairs, so appointed guardians, most of whom exploited their position to line their own pockets. Some men took guardianships over several members of the tribe, giving them considerable power. But for one man, or perhaps for a conspiracy of many, this wasn’t enough – they wanted not just to skim the wealth of the tribe, but to own it outright. To do this, they had to go to extreme lengths, including multiple murders.
At the same time, law enforcement was still in its infancy, with a populace who were highly suspicious of any form of government interference, as they saw it. Local lawmen and private detectives hired by various interested parties seemed to be dying too frequently too, so that eventually the locals appealed to the federal government for help. Enter the Bureau of Investigation, under the new rule of J Edgar Hoover who would introduce a more professional, scientific form of detection as he transformed the Bureau into the FBI. This part of the story is interesting, but I felt it could have been more fully developed. The agent who led the investigation, Tom White, had previously been a Texas Ranger, and Grann tells his story very well, using him to show how law was administered in those still relatively wild pioneering days, now made even wilder by the gangster culture created by Prohibition and the lure of the Osage’s wealth bringing all kinds of disreputable folk to the area.
Grann takes us through White’s investigation, which unfortunately covers all the same ground as was in the early chapters. However, it picks up again when the criminals come to trial, and we learn about the rampant corruption in the justice system that made the job of the lawmen even harder. Grann then takes us on to read about what happened after the trial, to White, to the accused and to the tribe. In the final section, Grann gives his own speculation that there may have been even more murders than were identified at the time, using death statistics to make his case. He further suggests that more people may have been involved in the murders than were ever bought to trial. He talks rather movingly of how the murders continue to haunt the descendants of the victims, especially because of the suggestion that in some cases the murders were committed by white spouses of the tribe members, meaning that some people are descended from both murderer and victim.
So a fascinating and important story which, despite my irritation at the messy structure, I’m glad to have read and happy to recommend.
Matthew Bramble, hypochondriac and charitable Welsh gentleman with a choleric temper and a humorously jaundiced view of life, takes his family on a journey round Britain seeking benefit to his health. As each member of the party writes letters to their friends we see the country and its regional customs through their eyes, meeting with some interesting and often eccentric characters, and being witness to some hilarious (and some not so hilarious) episodes along the way. Told entirely through letters, the introduction by Lewis M Knapp informs me it is “often regarded as the most successful epistolary novel in English”.
Matthew takes a grumpy view of life, especially in the beginning when his health is worrying him. A bachelor, he feels a little hard done by to have acquired a family – his maiden sister, Tabitha, who is desperate to throw off her spinster state, and two wards, Jery and Lydia, children of another sister now deceased. Despite his frequent grumbles about them all, though, he loves them and is mostly kind to them. The family are accompanied on their travels, of course, by servants. The maid, Win Jenkins, provides much of the comic relief – her letters full of misspellings and malapropisms, often ‘accidentally’ apt. Through her, we see the family from another angle, not always complimentary. Along the way, they pick up another servant, the eponymous Humphry Clinker, although it baffles me a bit why the book was given his name since I wouldn’t consider him one of the major characters.
Part picaresque, part travelogue, there’s not much in the way of a plot, although there’s a love story concerning Lydia that runs throughout and pulls the thing together to a degree. However, really it’s not setting out to tell a story – it’s an observation, often satirical, of life in England and Scotland in the second half of the eighteenth century.
This was a bit of a rollercoaster for me. I started off loving it, then it dipped badly to the point where I considered giving up, and then picked up again to a most enjoyable second half. As so often, especially with books from long ago, this is more to do with the reader than the book. It starts in the spa towns of England some years before our beloved Bath of Austen’s day, but still eminently recognisable. Then it moves to London where Smollett satirises the politics, politicians and literati of the day, most of whom I didn’t recognise even after checking who they were in the notes at the back, and I found this section intensely dull. However, the family then heads north, up through England and into Scotland where Smollett (a Scot, of course) discourses on habits, customs and the effects of the still relatively recent Union of Scotland and England. Naturally, I found this fascinating and fun since it’s a subject I am interested in and know reasonably well. I suspect other modern readers would find different parts entertaining and dull according to their own interests and knowledge.
Some of the humour is quite crude, often dealing with bodily functions, about which Matthew the hypochondriac especially seems somewhat obsessed. Times were different too, of course, and some of what was apparently humorous back then seems rather cruel today. The women fall into two categories: young, desperately seeking romance, and foolish; or old, desperately seeking husbands, and foolish. I fear our Mr Smollett would today be called a misogynist, though I expect back then he was simply reflecting the prevalent world view.
However, there’s far more ‘good’ humour than bad. The three main correspondents are Matthew, Jery and Lydia, and they each see the world through the prism of their own age, experience and gender. Smollett is brilliant at creating individual voices for each, and maintaining them without a hitch. To Matthew, Bath is a dreadful place, full of riff-raff and the nouveau riche, and he is deeply concerned about the unsanitary conditions prevailing in the famous spas where people drink the waters for their health.
For my part, I detest it [Bath] so much, that I should not have been able to stay so long in the place, if I had not discovered some old friends, whose conversation alleviates my disgust. Going to the coffee-house one forenoon, I could not help contemplating the company, with equal surprise and compassion. We consisted of thirteen individuals: seven lamed by the gout, rheumatism, or palsy; three maimed by accident; and the rest either deaf or blind. One hobbled, another hopped, a third dragged his legs after him like a wounded snake, a fourth straddled betwixt a pair of long crutches, like the mummy of a felon hanging in chains; a fifth was bent into a horizontal position, like a mounted telescope, shoved in by a couple of chairmen; and a sixth was the bust of a man, set upright in a wheel machine, which the waiter moved from place to place.
To Jery, it’s a place where he socialises with his peers and talks horses. To Lydia, it’s an enchanted place of romance, with dancing and handsome young men galore. This three-way look at places continues throughout the journey and, as well as providing humour, gives a rounded picture of the attractions and downsides of the various places they stop at, while continuing to let us get to know each of the characters better. Tabby and Win write less often, and mostly about domestic matters for strictly humorous purposes, and if I recall correctly, Humphry doesn’t write at all, so everything we learn about him, we learn at second hand.
Like most Scottish authors following the Union, Smollett was writing primarily for an English audience and, as Scott sometimes does at a later period, he uses the Scottish section to try to explain Scottish culture to them, musing on customs, accents, the legal system, the differences between Lowland and Highland culture, and so on. He introduces another Scottish character later in the book, whose discussions with Matthew enable Smollett to show both sides of the Union – the pros and cons – and this is remarkably interesting given our current national obsession with the same vexed questions three centuries on. He touches briefly on the already-developing cultural dominance of England and English in language and literature, a thing Matthew seems to see as positive, leaving me wondering if Smollett did too. The book itself is written almost entirely in standard English of the time, so should present no major problems for a patient modern reader.
I’ve hummed and hawed over my rating for this one. I was highly entertained by bits and bored to tears by other bits. But because I’m reading it as a Scottish classic and enjoyed the Scottish parts so much, in the end I’ve decided to dismiss the London section and the bawdier parts from my mind and give it the full five stars. And a definite recommendation, if for no other reason than to enjoy Win’s mangled language and observations of her “betters”…
Sunders Macully, the Scotchman, who pushes directly for Vails, has promised to give it you into your own hand, and therefore I would not miss the opportunity to let you know as I am still in the land of the living: and yet I have been on the brink of the other world since I sent you my last letter. — We went by sea to another kingdom called Fife, and coming back, had like to have gone to pot in a storm. — What between the frite and sickness, I thought I should have brought my heart up; even Mr Clinker was not his own man for eight and forty hours after we got ashore. It was well for some folks that we scaped drownding; for mistress was very frexious, and seemed but indifferently prepared for a change; but, thank God, she was soon put in a better frame by the private exaltations of the reverend Mr Macrocodile.
Book 44 of 90
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.
When a severed limb turns up inside an urn on loan to the local art gallery, DS Alex Cupidi and the team have a real mystery on their hands. First they have to try to work out to whom it belonged and if the owner is dead, and why it was left in a place where it was bound to be discovered, all before they can even begin to investigate who put it there. At the same time, two local lads, Sloth and Tap, are starting out on a life of petty crime. They decide to steal a mobile phone, but unfortunately for them they pick the wrong victim, and soon find themselves being hunted by someone who seems willing to go to any lengths to recover his property, so they run off into hiding. While Alex is tied up in the possible murder investigation, she can’t help being worried for the safety of the boys – criminals they may be, but they’re also victims, of difficult homes, of substandard schools, of a society that doesn’t seem to care. And they’re the same age as Alex’ own daughter, Zoe…
Alex Cupidi is a great detective. She isn’t an angst-ridden maverick, but there are enough complications in her personal life to make her interesting, and her relationship with her daughter is entirely credible. Zoe is seventeen, mostly adult but still part child, and Alex is finding it difficult to get the balance right between protecting her and letting her find her own way in life. The situation is complicated by Zoe’s zealous championing of causes which sometimes bring her into confrontation with the forces of law and order. Shaw handles this excellently, never taking it too far, and there’s plenty of love in the relationship to help smooth over any areas of conflict.
The police procedural aspect is just as good. Shaw lets us know about the painstaking detail that goes into an investigation without allowing the story to get bogged down in it. Alex’ colleague and friend, Jill, has got herself into a tricky personal situation, and this lets us see another side of Alex, trying to juggle loyalty to her friend with the professional demands of the job.
One thing I particularly loved was that Shaw includes people of different ethnicities and sexual orientations without making a big deal of it. I’m so tired of authors feeling they have to write “about” diversity – until we start treating diversity as normal, it never will be. So hurrah for an author who makes it unremarkable…
(This is the second time I’ve made a comment like this recently, the other being in relation to the entirely believable, positive background portrayal of racially diverse Birmingham in Lucie Whitehouse’s Critical Incidents. A new trend, perhaps? If so, a very welcome one.)
The plotting is great – complex and fast-paced, but never to a degree where the reader feels lost. It takes Alex and Jill into the rich and shady world of art-trading, where vast amounts of money changing hands provides opportunities for all kinds of dodgy dealing, and the wealthy shelter behind their security fences and sense of entitlement. But through Tap and Sloth we also see the other end of the social spectrum, where a meal in a burger bar can seem like a feast. There’s no faux “that day” suspense in this one. Instead, Shaw makes us care so deeply about the two boys that the tension level ramps ever higher as the story unfolds, with some real heart-thumping moments along the way. And there’s no cosiness about it, so that there’s a real feeling of fear that one or both of them may pay the ultimate price for their stupid crime. But equally their story is not too grim or gritty to be enjoyable. There’s a lot of warmth and humour in their friendship – two misfits who’ve each found someone they can rely on, even love.
Shaw makes excellent use of his Kent setting, both in town and out on the wild and forbidding marshland landscape of Dungeness. He lets us see all the contrasts in wealth in this area, the secluded and luxurious homes of the rich, while the old seaside hotels and boarding houses along the Kent coast are now hostels housing many of the refugees and migrants recently arrived on our shores.
This is one of those rare masterclasses in crime writing that should be made compulsory reading for all aspiring authors. I loved everything about it, especially the sections of the boys on the run, and raced through it because I needed to know whether they would make it. Did I come out of it smiling or sobbing though? I’m afraid you’ll have to read it for yourself to find the answer to that question. One thing I will tell you – I’ll be backtracking to read Shaw’s earlier books, and adding him to my read-on-publication-day list for future ones…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, riverrun at Quercus.
Well, I couldn’t bear the anxiety I’ve been causing all round the blogosphere the last few weeks with my plummeting TBR. So just for you, I’ve added a few, meaning the total is now up 2, to 223! I hope you all feel better…
No, I don’t see the relevance of that GIF either, but Jessica rises above mere relevance! Anyway, here are a few more that I’ll be guzzling soonish or in fact June-ish… all four are from my 20 Books of Summer list.
Classic Science Fiction
Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. This is such a “me” book I can’t quite understand why I’ve never read it! So this new issue from the OWC complete with a new translation was too tempting – I had to slot it onto my Classics Club list…
The Blurb says: French naturalist Dr Aronnax embarks on an expedition to hunt down a sea monster, only to discover instead the Nautilus, a remarkable submarine built by the enigmatic Captain Nemo. Together Nemo and Aronnax explore the underwater marvels, undergo a transcendent experience amongst the ruins of Atlantis, and plant a black flag at the South Pole. But Nemo’s mission is one of revenge—and his methods coldly efficient.
This new and unabridged translation by William Butcher, the father of Verne studies, brilliantly conveys the novel’s varying tones and range. This edition also presents important manuscript discoveries, together with previously unpublished information on Verne’s artistic and scientific references.
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Courtesy of the British Library. Having loved the first two of the Michael Gilbert novels the BL has reissued, Smallbone Deceased and Death In Captivity, I have extremely high expectations for this third one…
The Blurb says: At the Central Criminal Court, an eager crowd awaits the trial of Victoria Lamartine, an active participant in the Resistance during the war. She is now employed at the Family Hotel in Soho, where Major Eric Thoseby has been found murdered.
The cause of death? A stabbing reminiscent of techniques developed by the Maquisards. While the crime is committed in England, its roots are buried in a vividly depicted wartime France. Thoseby is believed to have fathered Lamartine’s child, and the prosecution insist that his death is revenge for his abandonment of Lamartine and her arrest by the Gestapo.
A last-minute change in Lamartine’s defence counsel grants solicitor Nap Rumbold just eight days to prove her innocence, with the highest of stakes should he fail.
The proceedings of the courtroom are interspersed with Rumbold’s perilous quest for evidence, which is aided by his old wartime comrades.
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This was a People’s Choice back in the days when I used to do that – I stopped because I never seemed to get round to actually reading the books! However, they still linger on my TBR – this one’s been on there since 2015. Hopefully it will fit neatly into my Around the World challenge since I understand it’s set in Papua New Guinea…
The Blurb says: On a copper-rich tropical island shattered by war, where the teachers have fled with most everyone else, only one white man chooses to stay behind: the eccentric Mr. Watts, object of much curiosity and scorn, who sweeps out the ruined schoolhouse and begins to read to the children each day from Charles Dickens’s classic Great Expectations.
So begins this rare, original story about the abiding strength that imagination, once ignited, can provide. As artillery echoes in the mountains, thirteen-year-old Matilda and her peers are riveted by the adventures of a young orphan named Pip in a city called London, a city whose contours soon become more real than their own blighted landscape. As Mr. Watts says, “A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe.” Soon come the rest of the villagers, initially threatened, finally inspired to share tales of their own that bring alive the rich mythology of their past. But in a ravaged place where even children are forced to live by their wits and daily survival is the only objective, imagination can be a dangerous thing.
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Courtesy of Random House Transworld via NetGalley. If you’ve been living under a stone recently, you may have missed the fact that Kate Atkinson is about to publish a new book in her Jackson Brodie series. Big Sky. As part of the publicity drive, the publisher has put three of the earlier books on NetGalley so far, so since I’ve long wanted to read the series, that’s given me the push needed to actually do it! This is the first…
The Blurb says: The scene is set in Cambridge, with three case histories from the past: A young child who mysteriously disappeared from a tent in her back garden; An unidentified man in a yellow jumper who marched into an office and slashed a young girl through the throat; and a young woman found by the police sitting in her kitchen next to the body of her husband, an axe buried in his head.
Jackson Brodie, a private investigator and former police detective, is quietly contemplating life as a divorced father when he is flung into the midst of these resurrected old crimes. Julia and Amelia Land enlist Jackson’s help to find out the truth about their younger sister. They embroil him in the complexities of their own jealousies, obsessions and lust.
Another woman named Shirley needs Jackson to help find her lost niece. Jackson meets solicitor Theo Wyre whose daughter, Laura, was murdered in his office and is desperate for Jackson to help him lay Laura’s ghost to rest.
As he starts his investigations Jackson has the sinister feeling that someone is following him. In digging into the past Jackson seems to have unwittingly threatened his own future. This wonderfully crafted, intricately plotted novel is heartbreaking, uplifting, full of suspense and often very funny.
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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.
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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?
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I’m going to take a little break due to having been too lazy to write any reviews. The two big summer tennis tournaments are coming up, so I’ll be drifting in and out for the next few weeks. Be good! You never know when I might be watching…
Actually, that title’s not quite true – it’s not me who does this to me, it’s the tyrannical taskmistress Cathy at 746 Books! Every year she tempts me. Every year I excitedly make a list. Every year I fail. Every year I swear I’ll never do it again. Every year she tempts me…
So the idea is to make a list of 20 books you commit to reading and reviewing between 3rd June and 3rd September. Cathy kindly allows us the option of going for 15 books, or even 10, but that’s for wusses. When I fail, I like to fail big!!
It’s not that twenty books in three months should be hard really – generally speaking I’d average about thirty in that time. It’s sticking to the list and avoiding distractions! What about all the shiny new books that will arrive during the period? What if Andy limps back on court at Wimbledon?? What if Rafa wins the French again in a tense five-setter???
And most importantly, how am I to pick a new young tennis hero to replace all my old creaky-kneed ones if I can’t concentrate????
(Here’s a sneak preview of the current shortlist for my new hero, by the way. Which do you think deserves that accolade? Of course, I’m anticipating you will be basing your judgement purely on their tennis skills, like me.)
………… Dominic Thiem Alexander Zverev Stefanos Tsitsipas
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Anyway, back to the books.
Here’s my list in pictorial form…
Don’t they all look great? If it actually happens, that would be…
5 from my Classics Club list
6 for my Around the World challenge
2 for the Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge
2 for my Five Times Five challenge
9 review books
7 that have been on my TBR for more than a year
Making a total of 31.
Eh? 31??? See, no wonder I fail! Clearly there are mysterious supernatural forces at work, or else I’ve been sucked through a rift in the space-time continuum to an alternative reality where the normal laws of mathematics no longer apply!
As the passengers on the Lusitania scramble for safety before she sinks, a man approaches Jane Finn. Pressing a package into her hands, he tells her that it’s of vital importance to the war effort that the contents are passed to the American authorities, and asks her to take it since women and children will be evacuated first, making her more likely to survive than him.
Some years later, the war is over and two young friends meeting by accident on a London street go to a tea room to talk over old times and new. Tommy Beresford has been demobbed from the army, while Prudence “Tuppence” Cowley is back in London now her services as a war nurse are no longer required. Neither has had much success in finding jobs, so half-joking, half-serious, they come up with an idea to form a joint venture – to advertise themselves as The Young Adventurers willing to take on any job offered…
But a man in the tea room has overheard them talk and, before they can place the ad, he approaches Tuppence with a job offer. Soon the two young people will find themselves embroiled in an adventure full of mysterious crooks, Bolshevik revolutionaries, missing girls, American millionaires, secret treaties and British Intelligence. And the brooding evil presence of the sinister Mr Brown, the criminal mastermind who is behind the plot – a man no-one seems to know by sight but whom all fear by reputation…
As regulars know, my cats are called Tommy and Tuppence, so that will give you some idea of how much I love this pair of detectives. Christie didn’t write many T&T books, but each has its own charm, especially since, unlike Poirot and Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence age in real time, so that we see them develop from youth to old age over roughly the same period as Christie herself did. The Secret Adversary is the first, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable romp.
Reading it now, nearly a century later, some aspects of it are unintentionally amusing, like dear Ms Christie’s obvious mistrust of Labour politicians, belief in the good old right-wing establishment, and a fear of those terrible socialists so great it would almost qualify her to apply for American citizenship! But this was during the Red terror following the Russian Revolution – the book was published in 1922 and there is much talk in it of a possible general strike which the socialists hope to orchestrate in order to start a British revolution. Four years later in the real world, the General Strike of 1926 didn’t quite do that, but it came close for a while, and was only broken by the middle classes volunteering to do the essential work of the strikers. My point is that the plot seems a bit silly now, but wouldn’t have back then – Christie was reflecting the legitimate fears of conservative Middle England.
Le Carré it’s not, however. Underneath all the spy stuff, there’s an excellent whodunit mystery, plotted as misleadingly as any of her later books. It’s decades since I last read this and the joy of having a terrible memory is that I couldn’t remember who the baddie was, and I loved how Christie led me around, suspecting first this person, then that one, then back again. Yes, at one point I suspected the right person, but purely by accident, and I’d moved on to the wrong person before the big reveal!
The major enjoyment of the book, though, comes from the delightful characterisation of the two main characters, and their budding romance – a romance the reader is well aware of long before the two participants catch on! Tommy is a typical British hero of the time, strong, rather stolid and unimaginative, but patriotic and decent, determined and resourceful. Tuppence is so much fun – headstrong and courageous, she works on intuition and instinct, and is one of the new breed of modern girls who are more likely to bat the bad guy over the head with a jug than swoon helplessly into the hero’s arms. She’s the driving force in The Young Adventurers while Tommy is the stabilising influence, and they’re a wonderful partnership. Lots of humour in their banter with one another keeps the tone light even when the plot darkens.
I listened to Hugh Fraser narrating the audiobook and, as always, he does a great job. He gets the chance to “do” an American millionaire and a Russian spy along with all the British characters, and has a lot of fun with the somewhat stereotyped characterisation Christie gives of them. All-in-all, pure pleasure either as a read or a listen – highly recommended! My cats recommend it too…
Audible UK Link
Audible US Link – sorry, can’t see the Hugh Fraser version on the US site, though there are other narrators available.
When the body of a young woman is found in a canal, Inspector Chen of the Special Cases unit decides to take on the case, initially simply because his subordinate, Detective Yu, was the only detective available to attend the crime scene. But, once the body is identified – in itself no easy task in a country as huge and populous as China – it transpires the victim is Guan Hongying, a national model worker: a title that denotes membership of the Communist Party and a position as a figurehead and public role model for workers. So the case is indeed special, and Chen will have to try to find the murderer without revealing anything about Guan’s life that may tarnish her reputation or that of the Party.
Qiu Xiaolong is Chinese, but left the country following the Tiananmen Square protests, and now lives in America. He writes in English, and as well as being a novelist, he is a poet, a translator and a literary critic. All of these elements feed into this novel, making it an intriguing mix of insider/outsider writing. As an insider, his depiction of Shanghai and the lives of the people there in the 1990s is fascinating and detailed, describing food, clothing, customs and the rapidly changing face of Chinese life at a point where capitalism was beginning to be encouraged after years of strict communism, but where the state still had a stranglehold on every aspect of life. As an outsider, he is quite clearly writing for a Western audience, explaining things that would need no explanation for a Chinese readership, and one has to bear in mind that he is to some degree a dissident, and therefore by definition not an uncritical admirer of the political regime in force in China at that point in time.
However, I felt that he gave a surprisingly balanced picture of the regime, resisting the temptation to make it seem even more repressive than it actually was, and giving credit for some of the positive aspects of it. He also shows that many, perhaps most, people support the regime, even though they grumble about some of the difficulties and inequalities that exist within it. I thought it was a wise decision too to set the book back in 1990, just at the time that he left Shanghai for the West, so that the city he is describing is still the one he knew rather than a researched version of the present. It’s another advantage to the western reader that his faultless fluency in English means there is none of the clunkiness or occasional lack of clarity that often accompanies even the best of translations.
All this description makes the book longer than the average crime novel, but it’s so interesting and well done, and incorporated so well into the story, that I found it didn’t slow the pace to any significant degree. The underlying story is excellent, as Chen and Yu delve deep into Guan’s life, finding that she had her own secrets that didn’t fit the model image she presented to Party and public. The plot takes us deep into the culture of Party privilege, and casts a great deal of light on how the current society has developed and changed during the long years of upheaval that have marked the various stages of the Chinese revolution. But it’s also a human story, of a young woman trying to live her life in the harsh glare of publicity, of love and sex and abuse, of corruption and power.
Inspector Chen is the main character, and Qiu fleshes him out excellently, giving him Qiu’s own expertise in poetry, both Chinese and western. Chen is himself a poet, but unlike, for instance, PD James’ Adam Dalglish, he hasn’t chosen for himself an unlikely second role as policeman – Chen has been allocated his job by the Party and has no real option but to obey or to lose any hope of status and advancement, or perhaps even to mark himself out as a dissident with all the dangers that entails. Again, Qiu doesn’t overplay this aspect – Chen is embedded in the existing culture, and while he might chafe at the strict rules governing his life at some points, he largely accepts them and tries to work within them. Detective Yu is equally well drawn – lower down the social scale, he allows us to see another level of the hierarchy and the control of the Party extending into people’s lives. He’s married, and in the latter part of the book his wife comes to the fore, giving us a glimpse of the life of a traditional wife and mother, while Chen’s love interest is a modern young journalist, showing the changes that are taking place for women too at this time.
The book is laced with quotations from classic Chinese poetry and surprisingly this works brilliantly at helping the western reader understand the cultural underpinnings of this society, and of reminding us, who are too ready to look down on any society that doesn’t slavishly follow the western democratic model (which is working out so well, isn’t it? 😉 ), that China has a rich cultural heritage far, far more ancient than our own.
I enjoyed this as a crime novel, but even more as a fascinating insider depiction of China at a turning point in its political journey, and as a revealing portrait of the lives of the people of Shanghai. I look forward to reading more in the series.
Thanks to Margot Kinberg for drawing the book to my attention – your blog is sorely missed, Margot!
Yet again, the TBR has dropped – down 1 to 221! I wish this was because I was racing through the books, but in reality it’s because I’ve been abandoning books right, left and centre. It’s a brutal way to get it down, but effective…
Here are a few more that will be rolling off the pile soon…
Courtesy of Picador via NetGalley. The story of a real female amateur detective operating in the time of Golden Age mystery fiction is irresistible…
The Blurb says: Maud West ran her detective agency in London for more than thirty years, having started sleuthing on behalf of society’s finest in 1905. Her exploits grabbed headlines throughout the world but, beneath the public persona, she was forced to hide vital aspects of her own identity in order to thrive in a class-obsessed and male-dominated world. And – as Susannah Stapleton reveals – she was a most unreliable witness to her own life.
Who was Maud? And what was the reality of being a female private detective in the Golden Age of Crime?
Interweaving tales from Maud West’s own ‘casebook’ with social history and extensive original research, Stapleton investigates the stories Maud West told about herself in a quest to uncover the truth.
With walk-on parts by Dr Crippen and Dorothy L. Sayers, Parisian gangsters and Continental blackmailers, The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective is both a portrait of a woman ahead of her time and a deliciously salacious glimpse into the underbelly of ‘good society’ during the first half of the twentieth century.
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Courtesy of Viking via NetGalley. I know nothing about this one but have heard good things about the author, and the blurb makes it sound wonderfully weird and weirdly wonderful. Plus it’s set in Istanbul, so hopefully will make for an interesting detour on my Around the World challenge…
The Blurb says: “In the first minute following her death, Tequila Leila’s consciousness began to ebb, slowly and steadily, like a tide receding from the shore. Her brain cells, having run out of blood, were now completely deprived of oxygen. But they did not shut down. Not right away…”
For Leila, each minute after her death brings a sensuous memory: the taste of spiced goat stew, sacrificed by her father to celebrate the long-awaited birth of a son; the sight of bubbling vats of lemon and sugar which the women use to wax their legs while the men attend mosque; the scent of cardamom coffee that Leila shares with a handsome student in the brothel where she works. Each memory, too, recalls the friends she made at each key moment in her life – friends who are now desperately trying to find her. . .
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Courtesy of Orion via NetGalley. RJ Ellory is one of those authors who is great when he’s on form, but sometimes he’s not. Hopefully this “what if?” thriller will be one of the great ones…
The Blurb says: IT WAS THE SHOT HEARD AROUND THE WORLD On 22nd November 1963, John F. Kennedy’s presidential motorcade rode through Dealey Plaza. He and his wife Jackie greeted the crowds on a glorious Friday afternoon in Dallas, Texas.
BUT WHAT IF IT MISSED?
Mitch Newman is a photojournalist based out of Washington, D.C. His phone never rings. When it does, a voice he hasn’t heard in years will tell him his former fiancée Jean has taken her own life.
WHEN THE TRUTH IS BIGGER THAN ALL THE LIES
Jean was an investigative reporter working the case of a lifetime. Somewhere in the shreds of her investigation is the truth behind her murder.
WHO WOULD BELIEVE IT?
For Mitch, piecing together the clues will become a dangerous obsession: one that will lead him to the dark heart of his country – and into the crossfire of a conspiracy…
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Fiction on Audio
I tried to listen to this when it came out and abandoned it, partly because Reese Witherspoon’s accent is so Southern I was struggling to catch some of the words, but mainly because I was uneasy about the publication of the book – I still feel Harper Lee was taken advantage of at the end of her life. However, having recently re-read To Kill a Mockingbird and just finished the fascinating Furious Hours by Casey Cep (review to follow), about the true crime novel Lee tried and failed to write, I find I’m ready to approach this one now, more as an interesting insight on Lee herself, perhaps, than with a real anticipation of it being a great novel. If Reese is too much for me, I have a paper copy to fall back on…
The Blurb says: Originally written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman was the novel Harper Lee first submitted to her publishers before To Kill a Mockingbird. Assumed to have been lost, the manuscript was discovered in late 2014.
Go Set a Watchman features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later. Returning home to Maycomb to visit her father, Jean Louise Finch—Scout—struggles with issues both personal and political, involving Atticus, society, and the small Alabama town that shaped her.
Exploring how the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird are adjusting to the turbulent events transforming mid-1950s America, Go Set a Watchman casts a fascinating new light on Harper Lee’s enduring classic. Moving, funny and compelling, it stands as a magnificent novel in its own right.
It’s 1943, and the British officers held in a prisoner-of-war camp in north Italy take their duty to escape seriously, so the camp is riddled with tunnels. The biggest and most hopeful of these is under Hut C, elaborately hidden under a trapdoor that takes several men to open. So when a body turns up in the tunnel the question is not only how did he die but also how did he get into the tunnel? The dead man is Cyriakos Coutoules, a Greek prisoner who was widely unpopular and whom some suspected of having been an informer. When it begins to look as if his death was murder, the camp authorities quickly fix on one of the prisoners as the culprit, but the Brits are sure of his innocence. So it’s up to them to figure out how and why Coutoules died, and who did kill him…
Well, this is a very different take on the classic “locked room” mystery. In fact, to a degree the mystery becomes secondary to the drama of what’s happening in the prison camp as the Allies approach and it looks as though the Italians may surrender. The prisoners doubt this will lead to their release – they anticipate the Italians will hand them over to the Germans before the Allies arrive – so it’s all the more important that they get their plans for escape ready urgently. The Italians meantime, facing almost certain defeat, know that the Allies will be looking to hold people responsible for any war crimes that may have been committed, so they have an incentive to destroy evidence or get rid of witnesses who might be used against them. So tensions are rising all round, and some people are driven to rash actions.
There is a bit of the gung-ho British heroism attitude in the book, unsurprisingly given that it was first published in 1952 when the war was still fresh in people’s minds. But Gilbert actually gives a fairly balanced picture – not all the Brits are heroes and not all the Italians are evil, and the relationships of the prisoners to each other are shown as complex, with everything from close friendships to rivalries and dislikes. As the men begin to suspect that there’s a spy in the camp, suspicion leads to mistrust, and we see how the officers in charge have to deal with that. Gilbert doesn’t pull any punches regarding either the treatment of the prisoners or the dangers associated with their various escape attempts, so the book is hard-hitting at points. But the general camaraderie and patriotism of the prisoners also give the story a kind of good-natured warmth and a fair amount of humour which prevent the tone from becoming too bleak.
The officers in charge delegate the task of investigating the murder to “Cuckoo” Goyles, a young man whose experience of detection is restricted exclusively to having been a fan of mystery novels. He has to try to sift through the little evidence that is available without revealing anything that might alert the Italians to the existence of the tunnel. He uses his knowledge of how the camp works and of some of the weaknesses in security the escape committee has observed while making their plans. And he has to work quickly – the cruel camp commander, Captain Benucci, has a man in custody and no one has any illusions but that he’ll be found guilty.
However, I was far more interested in whether the men would escape safely than in the solution of the murder mystery, in truth. I felt Gilbert’s portrayal avoided the pitfall of being overly dramatic to the point where it crossed the credibility line, but this still left him plenty of room to create genuine tension and suspense. In his introduction, Martin Edwards tells us that Gilbert himself was a prisoner in Italy during the war and had personal experience of both failed and successful escape attempts, which no doubt is why the story feels so authentic. As the Allies draw ever nearer, the book takes on aspects of the action thriller and I found myself reading into the small hours, desperate to know how it would turn out.
This is so unlike the only other Gilbert I’ve read, Smallbone Deceased, but both are equally excellent in entirely different ways. I’m so glad the British Library has brought these books back into print and I now can’t wait to read the third one they’ve republished so far – Death Has Deep Roots. You can count me as a new Michael Gilbert fan, and if you haven’t already guessed, this one is highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
When Lord Spenborough dies in middle-age, he leaves a youngish daughter and an even younger second wife. Lady Serena, the daughter, is desperate not to have to live with her aunt, and Fanny, the young widow, is equally reluctant to return to the home of her parents. So they decide to live together, with Fanny as an unlikely chaperone for her headstrong step-daughter. Lord Spenborough has left an unwelcome surprise for Serena in his will, though. He has named as her guardian Ivo Barrasford, Marquis of Rotherham – his old friend and Serena’s former fiancé, the man she jilted just before their wedding. Under the terms of the will Ivo must give his consent if Serena decides to marry…
Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances have long been my literary equivalent of chicken soup, something to turn to when comfort reading is in order. It’s been a long time since I last read this one, and I had unfortunately forgotten that it’s not one of my favourites, though still entertaining. Both Serena and Ivo are bad-tempered, volatile and domineering characters whose behaviour towards the people around them often crosses the line towards outright bullying. It’s a kind of take on The Taming of the Shrew – not one of my favourite plays, either – although in this case, happily, each is both tamer and shrew.
Book 43 of 90
Fortunately there are lots of secondary characters who are much more fun to be around. Fanny was fond of her much older husband, but it’s quite clear she was pressured into marrying him by her parents’ ambition for wealth and a title, while he married her primarily in the hope of getting a son and heir. This hope was unrealised, so that now the entailed property has gone to Serena’s cousin, and the two ladies are living in the Dower House. Bored, partly by the reduction in their circumstances and partly by the tight restrictions on entertaining while in mourning, they soon decide to take themselves off to the delights of Bath, ostensibly so that Fanny can take the waters for her health. There they meet Hector, an old flame of Serena’s, and soon the spark is rekindled. Hector’s lovely – handsome, kind, generous and in every respect so much nicer than Ivo – and he quickly becomes the alternative hero of the book.
There’s also Mrs Floore, the grandmother of an acquaintance of the ladies. Mrs Floore’s wealth came from trade and two deceased husbands, and she makes no pretence of being a fine lady. Her daughter, however, married into the minor aristocracy and has ambitions to shove her own daughter, Emily, further up the aristocratic tree.
All the young people, in the usual way, will first fall in love with entirely unsuitable partners, then have to find some way of escaping from this tangle to finish at last with their true loves. There’s nothing very original about the plot, and it’s fairly obvious from early on who should and will end up with whom, but that doesn’t prevent it from being a lot of fun. Heyer always writes well, and the tone is light and full of humour. She concentrates entirely on the rich and privileged so there’s no depressing realism to lower the spirit. And in the tradition of romances, it all ends when everyone becomes engaged to the right partner, so only those of us who have a tendency to over-analyse everything have to worry about the probable unfortunate offspring of some of the more fiery matches!
Being written back in the mid-’50s, it certainly doesn’t count as a feminist tract – the men are the masters and/or protectors of the women, so if that would annoy you, you should avoid at all costs. Personally, I suspect all the women turn into feminists after the weddings and the husbands are probably all hen-pecked into submission by the end of the first year. Except Hector, because he’s lovely… 😉
Frothy, light-hearted fun – perfect for keeping the blues at bay!
Young Maud Stearne is a lonely child, growing up in an old house in the midst of the Suffolk fens in the early 20th century. Her strict and domineering father doesn’t have much love or time for any of his children, especially his daughter, and her mother is almost permanently pregnant, though most of those pregnancies don’t come to term. Edmund Stearne, her father, is searching for a book rumoured to have been written by a medieval mystic, the Book of Alice Pyett. But during the renovation of the local church, Edmund finds a medieval painting of the Last Judgement – the Wenhaston Doom – whitewashed over during the Reformation; and he becomes obsessed with the demons portrayed on it.
The book starts in the ‘60s, when an elderly Maud is being pestered by a journalist to tell the story of the murder her father committed when she was young. One day he ran out of the house carrying a sharpened ice-pick and killed the first person he saw, and then went mad. No-one except Maud has ever known why he did it, and she has never spoken about it. Edmund spent many years in an asylum, painting demons, and has now died. Maud has lived an isolated existence in her childhood home since the tragedy and still doesn’t want to talk about it. But when for financial reasons she finally decides to open up, she chooses another recipient for the story – a young academic called Robin Hunter who has been researching Edmund’s paintings. The story Maud tells is one of Gothic horror, with at its heart the question – was Edmund driven mad by supernatural evil or are the evil things that happened a result of his existing madness?
I didn’t find this book nearly as scary as Paver’s earlier ventures into the supernatural – Dark Matter, the best modern horror story I’ve read, and Thin Air. However, it still has plenty to recommend it. It’s a slow burn in the beginning as we learn about Maud’s restricted life and her vague misunderstandings about what she calls her mother’s “groanings” – the miscarriages and stillbirths that happen all too often. But once Maud becomes a little older – her midteens – her father begins to involve her in his work, not out of affection but to save himself the annoyance of having a secretary in the house. As she types up his research notes, she also begins to understand what kind of man he is – cold, bullying, selfish, misogynistic. And increasingly obsessed by the feeling that he is in danger from the forces of evil.
The story is told as a third person narrative for the most part, but includes many extracts from Edmund’s journal and some from the Book of Alice Pyett. Gradually we learn how his researches are feeding Edmund’s obsession and, along with Maud, we become aware that there is a mystery in Edmund’s past.
The characterisation of both Maud and her father is excellent. Neither is likeable, though one’s sympathies are all for Maud. As she becomes aware that her mother’s frequent pregnancies are a result of her father’s refusal to practice any form of self-restraint, her desire to win his affection changes into a form of hatred. Isolated and unloved, she must work her own way through the difficult years of adolescence, and the position of women is such that she has no hope of escaping her father’s control. She is strong, but is she strong enough to face the atmosphere of dread that is slowly descending over the household?
Strip the horror element out completely, and it’s still a deeply disturbing picture of life under a tyrannical father at a time when children had no independent rights, and even adult women were entirely under the control of their husbands. Alice Pyett’s story is based on the famous medieval Book of Margery Kempe (which I haven’t read) and is of another woman whose life was blighted by excessive childbirth. Whatever demons are after Edmund – supernatural or self-inflicted – I felt he deserved all he got. But like most tyrants, even as he suffered, he made sure those around him suffered too.
After the relatively slow start, I found myself totally absorbed in the second half. It’s very well written and full of interesting stuff about medieval beliefs and superstitions along with lots of Suffolk folklore. I didn’t buy into the supernatural aspect, but it didn’t matter – the ambiguity means that it works just as well, perhaps even better, as a fully human story of madness and cruelty. People can be far more frightening than demons…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Head of Zeus.
Goodness! The TBR is down another 3 this week to 222! At this rate, two things will happen: 1) I will run out of books and 2) several of you (you know who you are!) will turn purple with rage, green with envy and yellow with terror that the same thing might happen to you. Which will officially qualify you to join Clan Abercrombie…
Here are a few more that will be taking the high road soon. No heavy fiction since I’ll be starting Middlemarch soon and that might take me two or three decades to read, so it’s another Crime Week…
Courtesy of riverrun at Quercus. I saw several glowing reviews of the first book in this series, so when I was offered this second one, I grabbed it, especially since the publisher says each book works as a stand-alone. I realised recently that I’m not following very many current series since some have come to an end (or I’ve grown tired of them), so I’m on the lookout for a couple of new ones. Could this be one?
The Blurb says: The two boys never fitted in. Seventeen, the worst age, nothing to do but smoke weed; at least they have each other. The day they speed off on a moped with a stolen mobile, they’re ready to celebrate their luck at last. Until their victim comes looking for what’s his – and ready to kill for it.
On the other side of Kent’s wealth divide, DS Alexandra Cupidi faces the strangest murder investigation of her career. A severed limb, hidden inside a modern sculpture in Margate’s Turner Contemporary. No one takes it seriously – not even the artwork’s owners, celebrity dealers who act like they’re above the law.
But as Cupidi’s case becomes ever more sinister, as she wrangles with police politics and personal dilemmas, she can’t help worrying about those runaway boys. Seventeen, the same age as her own headstrong daughter. Alone, on the marshes, they’re pawns in someone else’s game. Two worlds are about to collide.
Kent and its social divisions are brilliantly captured in Deadland, a crime thriller that’s as ingeniously unguessable as it is moving and powerful.
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I’m slowly re-reading my favourite crime series of all time, Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series. This is number 5, and I remember when I first read it being utterly shocked at the idea of snuff movies. (In case you haven’t come across the term before, snuff movies are a variation of porn films where the violence against women portrayed onscreen is not acting, but real, up to and including the victim’s death.) I’d never heard of them and wondered if Hill had invented the idea, but apparently they actually exist or are at least rumoured to. The world is a sick, sick place…
The Blurb says: Love, or at least pornography, are for sale at the arty Calliope Kinema Club on posh, proper Wilkinson Square. According to Yorkshire police superintendent Dalziel, it’s all legal. Detective Peter Pascoe, however, doesn’t believe it. His dentist, who knows real broken teeth and blood when he sees them, insists that the pretty actress wasn’t playing a part when it happened. But the action that puts Pascoe into the picture is homicide. The sudden death of the Calliope’s proprietor soon turns a sleazy sex flick into serious police business. And now Dalziel and Pascoe are looking into the all-too-human desire for pain, pleasure…and murder.
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Courtesy of Hodder & Stoughton via NetGalley. This series is darker than I usually go for, but I love her writing – she usually creates a really creepy or tension-filled atmosphere. And I like the two lead characters too…
The Blurb says: The police find out about the crime the way everyone does: on Snapchat. The video shows the terrified victim begging for forgiveness. When her body is found, it is marked with a number 2…
Detective Huldar joins the investigation, bringing child psychologist Freyja on board to help question the murdered teenager’s friends. Soon, they uncover that Stella was far from the angel people claim – but even so, who could have hated her enough to kill?
Then another teenager goes missing, and more clips are sent. Freyja and Huldar can agree on two things at least: the truth is far from simple. And the killer is not done yet.
A brilliantly suspenseful story about the dark side of social media, The Absolution will make you wonder what you should have said sorry for…
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Courtesy of Orion via NetGalley. I enjoyed Cavanagh’s debut novel, The Defence, a few years ago and really meant to keep up with his new releases – didn’t happen! However, I keep seeing glowing reviews of his books, so I’m jumping back on board with this new one. The blurb is singularly unhelpful, I must say, and if I didn’t know anything about the author, would certainly not tempt me to read the book… WRITING BLURBS IN CAPITALS DOESN’T MAKE THEM MORE EXCITING!!! (FF’s Eleventh Law… 😉 )
The Blurb says: BEFORE YOU READ THIS BOOK I WANT YOU TO KNOW THREE THINGS:
1. The police are looking to charge me with murder.
2. No one knows who I am. Or how I did it.
3. If you think you’ve found me. I’m coming for you next.
After you’ve read this book, you’ll know: the truth is far more twisted…