To Cook a Bear by Mikael Niemi

The Pastor investigates…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

To Cook a BearWhen the Pastor goes walking round the woods and hills around his village in Pajala in the north of Sweden, seeking new botanical specimens, he is always accompanied by the young Sami boy, Jussi. Jussi had run away from his Lapland home and come south, and the Pastor had come across him living wild and near to starving. The Pastor took him in to his own family, and now Jussi is his faithful assistant. The Pastor, we gradually discover, is the founder and leader of the Lutheran Pietist Revival movement, Lars Levi Laestadius – a real person, who as well as his religious work made a name for himself in the scientific field through his work on botany. When a local maid goes missing and is later found dead, the villagers believe it was the work of a killer bear and they set out to hunt the creature down. The Pastor’s scientific knowledge and keen powers of observation lead him to think that the girl died at the hands of a human, but he can’t persuade the local law officer, Sheriff Brahe, to believe him. And then another girl is attacked…

This is one of these books that, despite having a murder mystery at its heart, falls very definitely into the category of literary fiction. As the Pastor and Jussi go about their investigation, the author slowly builds a detailed picture of mid-nineteenth century life here in this remote northern area where Sweden and Lapland meet, not far from the Finnish border. Life is hard, superstition is rife, and drunkenness is a curse on the population. The Pastor, himself of Sami origin, wants to stamp out the drunkenness and bring education to the poor so that they can lift themselves out of their physical and spiritual poverty. This is at the root of his Revival, and while it brings him the loyalty of many of the poorer people, it also makes him many enemies among the rich and powerful, or those who love alcohol more than God. Niemi assumes some knowledge of Laestadius and his movement, which may be the case for Swedes, but I had never heard of him. However, the story stands strongly on its own and a quick visit to my friend wikipedia filled in the background details after I’d finished reading.

Lars Levi Laestadius

Niemi shows how the Sami were treated not just as second-class citizens but as inferior beings, studied by anthropologists in the way botanists study plants. Laestadius’ movement was beginning to teach Sami and other children from these remote regions to read and write, and Niemi shows us this through the Pastor teaching Jussi, who is our narrator for most of the book. Jussi talks about the wonder of letters and how the written word seems to have given him a concept of self – the Pastor recording him in the parish register being the first time he felt that he existed beyond the moment, into a past and a future. He slowly learns to read, having to tackle not just his own native Sami language, but Swedish and even a little Latin so that he can assist with recording the Pastor’s botanical work. His wonder and musings on the importance of writing are beautifully done, and he is clearly a metaphor for what Niemi sees as Laestadius’ major contribution to the advancement of his own people, Niemi himself having been born in Pajala about a century after the time the book is set.

The letters by themselves were silent. But your lips could blow life into them. Turn them into objects, animals, names of people. And equally curious was the fact they continued speaking even when you had closed your mouth. When you looked at the letters, they were converted into words inside your head. No, not words – bodies. My eyes look at “Maria”, at the five letters, the five consecutive shapes, but in my heart and mind I see my beloved. Her cheeks, her shining eyes, her hands holding mine.

We also see the day to day life of the villagers; their work on their farms, their customs around marriage, the food they eat, the clothes they wear, their saunas. The harsh winters are endured here, so close to the Arctic, and the short summers enjoyed despite the hard work of preparing for the next winter. Life is physical and often cruel, and there is no sentimentality about the wild creatures that present a threat or a food source. Some of the most brutal scenes are tough to read, but they ring true.

The plot itself is slow-moving in the extreme, but again that seems to arise naturally out of the way of life. Distances are far when they must be walked in cold, wet weather, and there is no detective force to call in when a crime is committed – just the local Sheriff and his constable, neither of whom has any training, or indeed, desire, to deal with anything more complicated than a drunken brawl. Forensic science doesn’t exist, although Niemi allows the Pastor’s general scientific knowledge to play a part, and finds ways to bring in some of the new sciences happening in the wider world, such as daguerrotypes.

Mikael Niemi
Mikael Niemi

The writing is excellent as is the characterisation, of Jussi and the Pastor especially, but also of a host of secondary characters, such as the Sheriff, the Pastor’s wife, and the girl Jussi loves from afar. The translation by Deborah Bragan-Turner is flawless, with enough Swedish, Finnish and Sami phrases to keep the importance of language in this place before the reader, but always used in such a way that the meaning is either given or is clear from the context. Although more of a depiction of a way of life, the mystery ticks along steadily, giving the book a sense of direction, and the resolution is completely appropriate to the story – if you read it you’ll see what I mean. And I hope that you do read it – a truly absorbing novel, and highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

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Bones and Silence (Dalziel and Pascoe 11) by Reginald Hill

Playing God…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Bones and SilenceWhen Dalziel looks out of his window at the house opposite, he sees two men, one woman and a gun. He rushes over but by the time he gets there the woman is dead and the two men are adamant that she shot herself despite their attempts to prevent her. Dalziel doesn’t believe it – he saw the gun in the hand of one of the men. However when Pascoe arrives he’s less convinced – Dalziel has been drinking and how reliable is his evidence? Meantime, preparations are underway for a community performance of The York Mystery Plays, and the artistic director Eileen Chung thinks that Dalziel will be perfect to play the part of God. For the Devil, she wants to cast local builder Philip Swain – the widower of the dead woman and the man Dalziel claims was holding the gun…

For me, this is one of the very best in this great series not so much because of the murder plot, but because of the two side plots. Eileen Chung is a wonderful character, like Andy himself larger than life, glowing with self-confidence, and able to manipulate those around her to do as she wants. She is the focus of the lustful thoughts of most of the men she meets, and knows it, but women are also drawn to her by her kindness. Those in trouble especially seem to find a kind of strength simply from being in her company. Andy and she are like the two greatest gladiators in the arena, battling for supremacy, and it’s not at all clear who will win. Andy agrees to play God but Chung is going to discover that God has his own ideas about how his role should be performed!

The other side plot concerns anonymous letters Dalziel is receiving, probably from a woman, who tells him she plans to kill herself. She doesn’t want him to do anything about it – in fact she’s relying on him not to. She simply feels she wants to tell someone of her intention, and has picked on him as a kind of confessor because she believes his brashness means he won’t feel any responsibility when she dies. And Andy is indeed brash and believes that people are responsible for their own actions. But he passes the letters on to Pascoe, and Pascoe cares, perhaps too much. So while he is investigating the death of Gail Swain, Pascoe is also keeping an eye out for any woman who seems as if she may be at the end of her tether.

The three major characters are all given great parts in this ensemble piece – Dalziel, Pascoe and Wieldy, who by this point has become as essential to the series as the other two. Ellie, after her last outing when she really had taken her feminist stridency too far, to the point where it was endangering her relationship with Peter, has dialled back a bit for this one, becoming again the feisty but good-natured Ellie of old. But there are also lots of very well-drawn secondary characters in this one – Chung, of course, but also dried-up but still lustful Canon Horncastle, whose permission Chung needs to use the Cathedral grounds for her play, and his downtrodden wife, whom Chung quietly sets out to rescue. Philip Swain is one of Hill’s ambiguous possible villains/possible victims, and his secretary, Shirley Appleyard, defies her stolid appearance by having a razor-sharp mind, a tongue to match, and a predilection for discussing classic literature with Peter.

reginald hill
Reginald Hill

This one also has one of the most memorable climaxes of the whole series. The first time I read it I was shocked to my socks, and still find it intensely affecting even after multiple re-reads. I’m not sure that Hill wholly convinces me psychologically, but dramatically and literarily it’s superb. Is that intriguing enough for you to want to read it? I hope so! Although these books do all work better if you’ve read some of the earlier ones and become emotionally attached to the regulars, most of them work very well as standalones too, and this one does, I think. Hill is at the height of his powers by this point of the series, able to juggle humour, drama, pathos and tragedy seamlessly to give a full-colour panoramic view of his characters and the society they inhabit. As always, highly recommended!

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The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes

The aftermath of justice…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Chianti FlaskLaura Dousland is being tried for the murder of her elderly, miserly husband, Fordish. The whole case hinges on a Chianti flask – the couple’s Italian servant says he put a half-full flask on the tray for his master’s supper before going out for his evening off; Laura says there was no wine on the tray when she took it up to her husband later that evening. Whoever is telling the truth, the fact is that the Chianti flask could not be found the next day and has never turned up. Laura is a demure middle-class Englishwoman of good birth and education. Angelo is an Italian of the servant class, whose English (while considerably better than Laura’s Italian, I imagine) is clumsy enough to cause laughter in court. Naturally, the jury believes Laura and she is acquitted.

(FF muses: Why do murder victims in vintage crime so often have strange names? Did Mr and Mrs Dousland not know that if they called their son Fordish, he was quite likely to be done to death at some point? I’m glad my parents called me FictionFan – a name that I am confident will never show up as a murder victim in any book!)

This is in the nature of prologue and all happens in the first few pages, in case you think I’ve just spoiled the story. The mystery of the missing Chianti flask hangs over the book, but lightly. The bulk of the book is set after the acquittal, and is mostly a psychological study of the effect on Laura of having to live with the notoriety of having been an accused woman. While public sympathy is generally on her side and accepts her innocence, there are still some who think she’s a murderer. Her friends remain totally loyal, sure that she could never have done such a thing, but they can’t understand why she now shuns society and prefers solitude to company. Then young Dr Mark Scrutton falls in love with her, but can Laura bring herself to try for happiness again, and can she bear the idea that her notoriety may come to drive a wedge between them in time?

Although there is a mystery within this, it would be hard to categorise it fully as a mystery novel. The question of Laura’s innocence has been officially settled so there’s no legal jeopardy hanging over her. It’s more about the social mores of the time – the stigma of scandal and how it affects women in particular. There’s an undoubted feminist undertone to it, subtly done, showing first how Laura’s straightened circumstances pressured her into marriage with an elderly man and then how little power she had within the relationship once they were married. Lowndes shows how the husband has full control over money and household arrangements, and of course sex. This particular husband seems to have treated Laura as an unpaid servant, denying her even the money to join a lending library. (Gasps of justified horror all around the book blogosphere!) But we suspect his cruelty may have run even deeper in more intimate matters.

Lowndes also shows, however, that it’s not only husbands who hold disproportionate power over penniless young women. Laura had previously worked as a governess for several years, and her employer had come to look on her as a friend. But her kindness to Laura is of the controlling kind – she expects Laura to follow her advice and basically do what she’s told, as a dependant should. At the other end of the scale is the true kindness of Mark’s elderly parents, shocked that their one beloved son has fallen for a scandalous woman but willing to put their concerns aside if they can convince themselves that Laura is necessary to his happiness.

marie belloc lowndes
Marie Belloc Lowndes

It’s an interesting one, no doubt, and very readable, although I must admit I think the ending lets it down quite a bit. I also found it a little irritating that, presumably because of the time of writing, Lowndes was so obscure about the sexual issues she hints at. Not that I’m keen on graphic sex stuff in books, but I really couldn’t decide if Fordish was doing terrible things or if it was that Laura had simply developed a disgust for her elderly husband’s normal (for the time) sexual demands. In other words, was Lowndes saying that Fordish was cruel in particular, or was she making the wider point that a system that gives a husband full sexual power over a wife is cruel in general? Perhaps this would have been clearer to contemporaneous readers who may have been more familiar with how such matters were “coded” in the time before they were considered acceptable for more open discussion. However, the obscurity made me think harder about the issues as I attempted to interpret her full meaning, so perhaps it served its purpose.

An interesting one that disproves again the idea of the mystery novel genre as being formulaic. First published in 1934, it feels very much ahead of its time in terms of its in-depth look at the psychology of the impact of crime and justice on those caught up in them, whether guilty or innocent.

20 books 2019Book 8 of 20

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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TBR Thursday 291…

Episode 291

Well, I seem to be reading faster than the books are arriving at the moment – I think I’ve been turbo-charged! So despite a little spending spree, the TBR has gone down 1 to 190. (FF muses: hmm, maybe I should have a bigger spending spree…) Aargh, help me!!

Golden Girls gif

Here are a few more I should be getting to soon – the third one is from my fast and furious 20 Books of Summer list.

Fiction

The Listeners by Jordan Tannahill

The ListenersCourtesy of 4th Estate via NetGalley. This one sounds as if it might be horror-y or SF-y from the blurb, but early reviews suggest it’s more about conspiracy theories! Early reviews also suggest I’m going to hate it in so many different ways, but maybe it will surprise me…

The Blurb says: One night, while lying in bed next to her husband, Claire Devon suddenly hears a low hum. This innocuous sound, which no one else in the house can hear, has no obvious source or medical cause, but it begins to upset the balance of Claire’s life. When she discovers that one of her students can also hear the hum, the two strike up an unlikely and intimate friendship. Finding themselves increasingly isolated from their families and colleagues, they fall in with a disparate group of people who also perceive the sound. What starts out as a kind of neighbourhood self-help group gradually transforms into something much more extreme, with far-reaching, devastating consequences.

The Listeners is an electrifying novel that treads the thresholds of faith, conspiracy and mania. Compelling and exhilarating, it forces us to consider how strongly we hold on to what we perceive, and the way different views can tear a family apart.

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Fiction

Will by Jeroen Olyslaegers

WillCourtesy of Pushkin Press via NetGalley. I must have been in a very strange mood when I requested this one, since I usually steer clear of books about the Nazis. Still, it does sound interesting…

The Blurb says: It is 1941, and Antwerp is in the grip of Nazi occupation. Wilfried Wils, novice policeman and frustrated writer, has no intention of being a hero. He just wants to keep his head down; to pretend the fear and violence around him aren’t happening.

But war has a way of catching up with people. When his idealistic best friend draws him into the growing resistance movement, and an SS commander tries to force him into betraying his fellow policemen, Wilfried’s loyalties become horribly, fatally torn. Should he comply, or fight back? As the beatings, destruction and round-ups intensify across the city, he is forced into an act that will shatter his life and, years later, have consequences he could never have imagined.

A searing portrayal of a man trying to survive amid the treachery, compromises and moral darkness of occupation, Will asks what any of us would do to stay alive.

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Historical Thriller

The Drowned City by KJ Maitland

The Drowned CityCourtesy of Headline via NetGalley. Ah, now this one sounds much more like my kind of thing! And I’ve been hearing lots of positive reports about it…

The Blurb says: 1606. A year to the day that men were executed for conspiring to blow up Parliament, a towering wave devastates the Bristol Channel. Some proclaim God’s vengeance. Others seek to take advantage.

In London, Daniel Pursglove lies in prison waiting to die. But Charles FitzAlan, close adviser to King James I, has a job in mind that will free a man of Daniel’s skill from the horrors of Newgate. If he succeeds.

For Bristol is a hotbed of Catholic spies, and where better for the lone conspirator who evaded arrest, one Spero Pettingar, to gather allies than in the chaos of a drowned city? Daniel journeys there to investigate FitzAlan’s lead, but soon finds himself at the heart of a dark Jesuit conspiracy – and in pursuit of a killer.

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Classic Fiction on Audio

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray read by Georgina Sutton

Vanity FairThis is the book for our next Review-Along on 25th October. I’m starting early because it’s very long and I’m so slow at listening to audiobooks. The narrator gets lots of praise, but I have a Kindle copy to fall back on if necessary! We’ve got lots of people joining us for this Review-Along – the regulars, Christine, Alyson, Rose, Sandra and me, and a few first-timers, louloureads, Madame Bibilophile and Jane from Just Reading a Book. Still plenty of room for more though if you’d like to join in! There’s only one “rule” – we all post our reviews on the same date, or for those who don’t blog (or don’t want to do a full review), you leave your thoughts in the comments section of my review.

The Blurb says: A novel that chronicles the lives of two women who could not be more different: Becky Sharp, an orphan whose only resources are her vast ambitions, her native wit, and her loose morals; and her schoolmate Amelia Sedley, a typically naive Victorian heroine, the pampered daughter of a wealthy family. (An extremely short blurb for such a long book!)

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Goodbye Man (Colter Shaw 2) by Jeffery Deaver

Make Immortality Great Again!

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Goodbye ManBounty hunter Colter Shaw is on the trail of two young men, boys really, who have been accused of defacing a church with neo-Nazi slogans and then shooting the church janitor who had run out to confront them. But as Colter learns more, he feels it doesn’t add up. Though troubled, neither of the boys have a history of involvement with neo-Nazi groups, nor have shown themselves to be trigger-happy. When his search ends in tragedy, Colter decides he wants to know more about what might have been behind their actions, and his investigation soon leads him to a kind of retreat, called the Foundation, where the boys had been headed during the chase. The more Colter looks into things, the more mysterious and sinister the Foundation appears. So Colter decides to book himself onto a retreat there, undercover…

This is the second book in a trilogy about Colter Shaw, a man brought up by his survivalist father to have all the skills needed to be both hunter and expert in self-defence. He uses this unique background to find missing people for offered rewards, travelling the country in his Winnebago. Sometimes the people he is searching for are accused of crimes, as is the case here, and sometimes they have simply chosen to disappear for more personal reasons. His success rate means he has plenty of money, so that he can choose which cases to take on and sometimes follow something up if it interests him, even without the prospect of financial reward.

As well as each book having an individual plot, there’s an overarching mystery in the background regarding the death, probably murder, of Colter’s father and the disappearance of his brother, also trained in survivalist techniques. That story doesn’t move much in this middle book, but the ending suggests it will probably be the main story in the third and last book of the series.

The main story here is about the Foundation, which Colter soon learns is a personality cult around the charismatic figure of Master Eli, who promises that he has discovered the true way to happiness and immortality. He attracts those who are suffering from grief or depression, and preys on their vulnerability. But is he merely a charlatan, a snake-oil salesman, out for money? Or is there something darker going on? How far will Master Eli and his inner circle go to protect their lucrative business?

Jeffery Deaver
Jeffery Deaver

Jeffery Deaver has an easy style that makes his books very readable even when the subject matter might be a little clichéd, as it is here. He brings nothing new to the idea of the cult, and it all seems a bit too convenient that people should be gullible enough to fall for Master Eli’s nonsense quite as quickly and completely as they seem to. Because, honestly, the basis of his “message” is pretty laughable – the merest soupçon of cynicism should have been enough to protect the new recruits. I found it quite amusing, though, that Deaver occasionally makes Eli sound rather like a better-looking and more eloquent version of a certain orange cult leader with whom we have all become far too familiar over the last few years, which certainly had the effect of reminding me that gullibility is pretty widespread. (I restrained myself from saying “in America” – do I get bonus points for tact? 😉 ) What is also widespread in America is the Great God Gun, worshipped with far greater fervour than the Bible which usually accompanies it, and of course there are Glocks and Colts and hunting rifles aplenty in the book. But Colter also uses his specialist knowledge to create some more innovative weapons, equally capable of killing or maiming, proving that guns really aren’t essential fashion accessories for the true survivalist.

I felt a little too much time was spent on building up the picture of the cult but most of the book is given over to action, which Deaver does very well. Colter is a likeable protagonist although he’s almost too good to be true, always able to come up with some arcane piece of knowledge in a crisis, like which herbs have certain properties, how to deal with various kinds of wildlife threats, how to bypass security systems, and so on. But although Deaver stretches credibility to its limits, he never quite breaks it completely. I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as the first book, The Never Game, purely because I couldn’t fully buy in to the attraction of Master Eli and his cult, but I still found it a fast-paced page-turner and I’m looking forward to getting to the resolution of the background mystery in the final novel (which I already have and will be reading very soon as another of my 20 Books of Summer).

20 books 2019Book 7 of 20

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins via NetGalley.

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Highway Blue by Ailsa McFarlane

Running on empty…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Highway BlueSince Anne Marie’s husband Cal walked out on her a couple of years ago, she’s been living a kind of aimless existence, working in a bar, sharing an apartment with a group of women she doesn’t really think of as friends, having one night stands just for a brief feeling of connection. So when Cal turns up at her door out of the blue, it throws her into a state of confusion, and before she has a chance to think, they both get involved in an incident that ends up with them on the run together, heading off down the highway in a beat-up old car with no particular destination in mind. Now that her old life is over, Anne Marie will have to decide what her future will be, and whether Cal should have any role in it…

This is well written and the picture of two drifting people coming together again, perhaps briefly, perhaps to renew their old relationship, is very well painted. However, that’s all there is to it, and for me it felt too slight a story to hang a novel around, even although it is very short. The being on the run aspect feels extraneous since there’s no real sense of pursuit or danger. Basically they drive for days on end, while Anne Marie as our narrator gradually reveals snippets of her past to the reader so that we come to understand her ambivalence about Cal and about love in general. Along the way, they meet an array of characters, each for the briefest of moments during which what we learn each time is that they’re all alone and all lonely.

Ailsa McFarlane
Ailsa McFarlane

It feels more like a very good character sketch of Anne Marie than a novel. I found her believable and well drawn, but I kept waiting for something more and it never arrived. It seemed to me to be drawing from two classic strands of American culture – the road trip as metaphor for self discovery novel, such as Rabbit, Run or On the Road, and the more noirish tradition of people on the run, such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Postman Always Rings Twice, even Thelma and Louise. In other words, it has been done before and frankly doesn’t bring enough new to the table to justify doing it again. Its brevity also means that we remain inside Anne Marie’s head entirely, so that I felt it missed the opportunity to reflect on the America through which they drive. It seemed odd in a road-trip novel that the author chose to give her places fictional names – I couldn’t help my cynicism from wondering if this was merely so that she wouldn’t have to research actual places, though perhaps she wanted to keep the reader’s focus totally on Anne Marie’s dilemma without distractions.

It’s a debut novel and I feel shows that McFarlane has a lot of potential in terms of creation of atmosphere and building complex and credible characters. However, in order to be fulfilled, that potential requires a stronger story with more depth. I look forward to seeing how she develops in her future career.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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Cécile is Dead (Maigret 20) by Georges Simenon

Maigret’s lapse…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Cecile is DeadCécile Pardon had become a regular visitor to Inspector Maigret at his office in the Police Judiciaire building in Paris. A spinster who lived with her elderly widowed aunt, Cécile had become convinced that someone was coming in to their apartment at night while they slept. Maigret had made a superficial gesture towards investigating, but everyone thought she was imagining things. And worse, everyone was teasing Maigret that she kept visiting because she had a crush on him. So on this morning, when Maigret saw her sitting patiently in the waiting room he left her there and got on with other things. When eventually he went to collect her, she was gone. Later, the body of her aunt is found in the apartment, strangled, and Cécile is nowhere to be found. The title gives a clue as to her fate.

Realising the aunt must already have been dead when Cécile came to see him, Maigret suspects that she knew who the murderer was and wanted to tell him directly rather than report it to the local police. He feels that if he had only taken the time to speak to her, Cécile may not have been killed. Maigret is too sensible and too experienced to blame himself for her death – he’s quite clear in his own mind that the murderer is fully responsible for that – but nevertheless his slight lapse makes him even more determined than usual to see that justice is done.

This one has quite a complicated plot for a Maigret novel, with several suspects and possible motives. Mostly it’s set in the apartment block in Bourg-la-Reine that Cécile and her aunt lived in – a block that the aunt also owned. For it turns out that she was a rich old woman, but miserly, always convinced that her relatives were scrounging from her. She was also unpleasant, treating poor Cécile like an unpaid servant, being unwilling to assist her nephew even though he was out of a job and his wife was about to have a baby, and so on. She played her many relatives off against each other, hinting to each that they would be the one to inherit when she died. But these aren’t the only suspects – rumour has it that she kept large sums of money in the apartment since she didn’t trust banks, so anyone may have decided to break in, kill her and steal the money. However, the apartment has a concierge who controls entry to the building, so that if this was what happened, it must have been one of the other tenants, or the concierge herself.

Later in the book, Maigret finds himself being accompanied on his investigations by a visiting American criminologist, Spencer Oates, who has been given the opportunity to study the great man’s method. But Maigret, as he has said in other books, doesn’t have what he thinks of as “a method” – he simply speaks to the people involved, learns as much as he can about the victim, studies the location and the timings, thinks himself into the mind of the murderer, and uses his intelligence and experience to work out what must have happened. So he uses Oates as a kind of sounding board as he develops his theory, thus allowing the reader to follow his thinking too.

There’s a sub-plot about a man, one of the tenants, who has previously been jailed for his inappropriate behaviour with young girls. Some aspects of this might jar with modern readers, as girls are shown both as vulnerable and predatory. Although it’s an unfashionable viewpoint now, I find this much more realistic than the idea that girls remain innocent angels until the day they are legally adult, so I felt this was an accurate if unflattering portrayal of adolescent girls, and also that Simenon gave a contrast in Maigret and the ex-prisoner of the response of the good man and the bad – one resisting temptation, the other preying on vulnerability.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Gareth Armstrong, and as always he did an excellent job of creating distinctive voices for Maigret and all the other characters.

georges-simenon
Georges Simenon

Overall, I think this is one of the best of the Maigrets I’ve read so far. Simenon’s portrayal of the unglamorous side of Paris is as excellent as always, but this one is better plotted than some, and the themes and characterisation have more depth. And I always enjoy when the solution manages to surprise me but still feel credible. Quite a bleak story, but Maigret’s fundamental decency and integrity and his happy home life always stop these stories from becoming too depressingly noir. Highly recommended.

Audible UK Link
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TBR Thursday 290 and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. I still seem to be storming through the books this year, which ought to mean I’ll be smashing all my targets. Ought to…

Here goes, then – the second check-in of the year…

TBR Quarterly Jun 2021

Well, I don’t think I’ve ever been on track with so many targets at this point of the year – it can’t last! Poor old Reginald Hill is falling behind – must make more effort. I should be able to catch up with the Classics Club and finish by my extended deadline of the end of the year – only a couple of chunksters left and all the rest should be fairly quick reads. The shortfall in new releases has reduced considerably this quarter and (theoretically) will be smashed by the time I’ve read all the review books on my 20 Books of Summer list. The fact that I’m abandoning lots of new fiction isn’t helping, though! The TBR Reduction is awful – I can’t see me meeting those targets without magical intervention. But hey! Who’s counting? 😉

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The Classics Club

I read three from my Classics Club list this quarter but have only reviewed two so far, and had another still to review from the previous quarter…

76. Way Station by Clifford D Simak – I loved this well written, thought-provoking science fiction novel, with shades of Cold War nuclear fear, lots of imaginative aliens and a kind of mystical, New Age-y touch. 5 stars.

77. The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher – This, the first mystery novel written by a black American and with an exclusively black cast of characters, delighted me with its vivid, joyous picture of life in Harlem. Lots of humour and a great plot. 5 stars.

78. The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn – A slow-going but interesting look at the beginnings of the Scottish herring industry, following on from the devastation of the Highland Clearances. I enjoyed this one, not least because several of my blog buddies read it with me. 4 stars.

Not good on the quantity, perhaps, but high on quality!

78 down, 12 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

Managing to keep on track with this challenge at the moment more or less – I’ve read three this quarter, but only reviewed two of them so far. However I had one left over to review from the previous quarter…

43. The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude – One in Bude’s long-running Inspector Meredith series, I find these a little too painstakingly procedural for my taste, although the plot and setting of this one are good. 3½ stars.

44. The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts – Talking of too procedural, I abandoned this one halfway through on the grounds of being determined not to die of boredom! Crofts’ first, and the best I can say about it is he improved in later books. 1 generous star.

45. The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey – Great writing and a perfectly delivered plot mean that this one’s reputation as a classic of the genre is fully deserved. More psychological than procedural, and with a wonderful depiction of an early version of “trial by media”. 5 stars

45 down, 57 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I only read two for this challenge this quarter but in my defence one of them was a massive biography of Franco, which I haven’t yet reviewed. However I had one left to review from last quarter…

5. In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda. The story of young wife and mother, Natalia, living in Barcelona while her husband is off fighting in the war. It’s a fascinating picture of someone who has no interest in or understanding of politics – who simply endures as other people destroy her world then put it back together in a different form. Packed full of power and emotion – a deserved classic. 4½ stars.

6. Last Days in Cleaver Square by Patrick McGrath. As Franco lies on his deathbed in Spain, Francis McNulty is convinced the dictator is haunting him, and his memories of his time in Spain as a volunteer medic on the Republican side and the horrors he witnessed there are brought back afresh to his mind. Beautifully written, entertaining, moving, full of emotional truth. 5 stars.

Two short books, two different squares, and two great reads, so hurrah for this challenge!

6 down, indefinite number to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

Unbelievably I’m still up-to-date with this challenge, so three reviews for this quarter plus one that was left over from the previous quarter. Did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

MarchThe Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves – The first of the Vera Stanhope series – the underlying plot is good and Vera is an interesting, if unbelievable, character. But oh dear, the book is massively over-padded and repetitive, and I found it a real struggle to wade through. 3 stars.

AprilCold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons – A parody of the rural rustic novel popular at the time, there’s a lot of humour in it with some very funny scenes, and it’s especially fun to try to spot which authors and books Gibbons had in mind. It outstayed its welcome just a little as the joke began to wear rather thin, but overall an entertaining read. 4 stars.

MayThe Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith – The first of the Cormoran Strike novels sees him investigating the death of a supermodel, with the help of his temporary secretary, Robin. I’m feeling repetitive myself now, but this is another with a good plot buried under far too much extraneous padding. Galbraith’s easy writing style carried me through, however. 4 stars.

June – Sweet Caress by William Boyd – In the early days of the twentieth century, young Amory Clay decides to become a professional photographer, and her elderly self looks back at where her career took her. Sadly this one didn’t work for me at all and I eventually abandoned it. 1 star.

Even if there were no five stars, there was only one complete dud, so I think you did pretty well, People! And they’re all off my TBR at last – hurrah!

6 down, 6 to go!

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Wanderlust Bingo

Wanderlust Bingo June 2021

I’ve done a little better this quarter and have also started looking ahead to try to make sure I have something for each box. I might shuffle them all around at the end so this is all quite tentative at this stage. The dark blue ones are from last quarter, and the orange ones are this quarter’s. (If you click on the bingo card you should get a larger version.)

EnglandThe Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey – 5 stars. I’ve slotted this into Small Town at the moment, since the setting plays an important part in the plot.

IcelandThe Chill Factor by Richard Falkirk – 4 stars. Another that could work for Small Town, or Europe, but I’ve slotted it into Island at present.

MalayaA Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute – 5 stars. Could be Australia as well, so Oceania, but I’ve gone with the Malayan section and put it into Walk.

AustraliaThe Survivors by Jane Harper – 4 stars. Another that would work for Oceania, but since the Beach plays a major part in the story that’s where I’ve put it.

ScotlandThe Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn – 4 stars. Since this is all about herring fishing, I don’t imagine I’ll find a better fit for the Sea box.

Still a long, long way to travel, but there are some interesting reads coming up for this one…

7 down, 18 to go!

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Whew! Apologies for the length of this post, but I guess that indicates a successful quarter. Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

The Manningtree Witches by AK Blakemore

The evil that men do…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Manningtree WitchesIt is 1643, the time of the English Civil War. In the town of Manningtree in Essex, men are scarce as the young and fit are off fighting. Rebecca West and her widowed mother are among the women who live on the margins of society, looked down on by the respectable matrons of the town for the crimes of being poor and husbandless. But when Matthew Hopkins arrives in town bringing his Puritanical ideas regarding witches, suddenly these women are seen as a threat – the cause of any ill which may befall one of the town’s worthy residents. And when Matthew Hopkins decides to style himself Witchfinder, the women find themselves in danger…

This is a re-imagining of the true story of the Essex witch trials of 1644-7, led by Hopkins and resulting in the deaths of many women, several of them from Manningtree and Mistley where the book is set. Hopkins died young and very little is known of him other than his witchfinding, and the women are mostly known only through the records of the trials, so Blakemore has created her story from little more than bare bones. In the afterword, she suggests that her aim was to give a voice to these voiceless women, and to tell the story of the persecuted rather than the persecutor. I’d say she succeeds very well.

Rebecca tells us the story in her own voice, and it is certainly not the voice of a shrinking victim. She may be powerless but she has strong opinions and a rebellious nature, and a sense of humour that helps her through the darkest times. She recognises the unfairness in society between rich and poor, man and woman, but there’s nothing she can do to change that so her aim is to get through life as best she can regardless. She has the benefit of physical attractiveness, but her low social status means that men are likely to look to her for sex rather than marriage. She doesn’t think of her mother and her friends as witches, but she knows they have a lot of superstitions, use folklore remedies in treating illnesses, and are not beyond cursing their irreproachable neighbours when angered.

England has been a religious mess since Henry VIII, and the “true faith” has changed so many times it feels understandable that Rebecca and her kind have developed a kind of cynicism over the whole subject. Hopkins, however, is a righteous man, sure of his faith, the most important line in his personal Bible being “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. Or is it that he’s simply a straightforward religious misogynist, interpreting his sexual feelings towards women through the prism of his Biblical belief that all women are a) sinful and b) cursed? Blakemore gives the reader room to believe either version of him, or both.

The story itself is well told, with an excellent mix of light and dark – the light provided by Rebecca’s resilience and humour, and the dark by the events in which she finds herself caught up. I felt that perhaps the winding-up section at the end went on a little too long, somewhat reducing the impact of the trial and its aftermath, but otherwise I felt the pacing was good, holding my interest throughout.

AK Blakemore
AK Blakemore

There is, however, one major problem with the book which prevents me giving it the full five stars, and that, I’m afraid, is in the writing. Blakemore clearly has a lot of talent, but my one piece of advice to her would be to throw out the thesaurus and buy a good dictionary. It is much better to use a plain word correctly than a fancy word wrongly: for example, “rubbing one hand on a sordid apron” – yes, in some contexts sordid and dirty can be synonyms, but not this one. Then there are the shrieking anachronisms – “for shits and giggles”, “coin-operated”, “smack me upside the head”, etc. And the plain errors – who instead of whom, and so on. And sometimes the descriptive passages run away with her completely – “The sunbeams bouncing in through the parlour window feel like hot spindles to his eyes, and slice right through the soft, compromised meat of his head” or “While marching orders and tactical directives deliquesce on the brumal winds, the pyrotechnics of imminent apocalypse shimmer just as rosily on the ice-bound horizon as they ever did.” I hasten to add it’s not all like this by any means – for the most part her writing is very good, but she is clearly trying too hard to be “creative”, and there’s enough of it that it was a constant irritation to me, and took away from my ability to get lost in the story. It is ultimately the author’s responsibility to get the writing right, but yet again I have to ask, what did the editor do to earn his/her fee with this one?

The fact that I still enjoyed it despite these problems is an indication of the strengths of the story, the characterisation and Blakemore’s underlying writing talent. Hopefully as she gains experience she will learn to rely on these things and not stretch too far in a bid for an original turn of phrase. I look forward to reading more from her in the future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Granta Publications.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday ‘Tec! The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Holmes is alive!

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Return of Sherlock HolmesThis is the third volume of Holmes short stories, and in my opinion the weakest overall, although it still has several good stories in it. Forced by popular sentiment and commercial realities to resuscitate Holmes after the unfortunate drowning incident at the Reichenbach Falls, I always have the feeling that Conan Doyle’s heart wasn’t really in it at this stage – some of these are a bit bland in terms of plot. In the later volumes I feel he got back into his stride and came up with more imaginative and dramatic scenarios – some so imaginative, admittedly, that they test credibility to the breaking point, but more exciting on the whole.

That rather negative introduction shouldn’t put new readers off though – even the weaker Holmes stories are always well worth reading, simply for ACD’s easy, flowing writing style which makes anything he writes a pleasure to read. And the relationship between Holmes and his admiring friend Watson is always a joy.

Tuesday Tec2

The first story, and the worst of all the Holmes stories for me, is The Adventure of The Empty House in which Holmes returns from the grave, startling Watson into a fainting fit. It’s full of plot holes and the explanation for why Holmes has left his old friend grieving for him for several years makes Holmes seem even colder and more heartless than usual. During this period Watson lost his beloved wife, Mary, and Holmes, having sent no word of comfort at the time, barely bothers to condole with him even now. But the real weakness is that the reason for Holmes’ long absence makes no sense. Supposedly staying presumed dead so that he can work quietly to destroy the remnants of Moriarty’s organisation, we quickly discover that Moriarty’s number two, Colonel Moran, saw Holmes escape from the Reichenbach incident. So everyone – Moriarty’s people and the police – all knew Holmes was alive, but he still didn’t tell dear old Watson. If I’d been Watson, I’d have punched him! Watson, being much sweeter than I, instead welcomes him back with open arms and an open heart. I love Watson…

dr watsonThe Dr Watson

Anyway, after that frankly disappointing start, the collection reverts to the usual format of individual cases often brought to Holmes by the baffled police. Lestrade (my favourite bumbling policeman) appears in several, as does Stanley Hopkins, of whom for some reason Holmes thinks highly, although he always seems just as befuddled as poor Lestrade to me! There are missing rugby players, mysterious ciphers, blackmailers, abusive husbands, imperilled women, Russian nihilists, stolen government plans, etc., etc., and we also have Holmes saving the world from war (as he does a few times over his career) in the final story, The Adventure of the Second Stain.

blood-spatter

Here’s a flavour of a few of my favourites:

The Adventure of the Dancing Men – Hilton Cubitt approaches Holmes because he is finding little drawings of dancing men around his property and they seem to be terrifying his wife. Actually this is one of Holmes’ major failures in that he fails to solve the dancing men cipher in time to prevent the tragedy that the messages foretell, but I love those dancing men! Sadly I’ve read it so often now I know what the messages mean, but the first time(s) I read it I had great fun trying and failing to crack the code.

Elementary, my dear Watson!

(bonus points if you crack the code – clue: the first letter is E)

The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist – A woman in peril story, as Miss Violet Smith becomes the target of evil men for nefarious reasons that only become clear at the end. I enjoy Miss Smith’s feisty independence and courage, even if she does have a (justifiable) fit of the vapours at the climax of the story. And there’s something very creepy about the way ACD describes her being followed as she cycles along deserted country roads. This is another it’s important not to analyse too deeply because frankly the climax ignores minor details like how the law works in the England of the time, but it’s fun anyway.

The Solitary Cyclist

The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton – Milverton is a notorious blackmailer who preys on society ladies who have been indiscreet. Holmes is asked for help by one such lady, and both he and Watson are at their chivalrous best, even going so far as to break the law in an attempt to get back the lady’s letters. This one tootles along at a steady pace and then suddenly blows up into a spectacular climax! A real “I did not see that coming!” moment, and brilliantly done!

Charles Augustus Milverton (2)

The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez – Inspector Stanley Hopkins asks for Holmes’ help in a puzzling case involving the murder of the secretary of Professor Coram at Yoxley Old Place. I love this for three major reasons: I love the name Yoxley Old Place – it sounds so deliciously Gothic; this is where I first heard of pince-nez and the idea of them tickled young FF’s fancy; and mostly, I love the brilliant way Holmes uses cigarettes to solve the case, much to Watson’s baffled disgust!

Golden Pince Nez

The second-best Holmes

So, much to enjoy even in this relatively weaker collection. I listened to Derek Jacobi narrating them, and he really is the perfect Watson, as well as creating a full range of voices and personalities for all the other many characters who cross the pages.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Mother Loves Me by Abby Davies

Got myself a crying, talking, sleeping, walking, living doll…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Mother Loves MePoor Mirabelle is never allowed to go outside. Mother has explained that she has a severe allergy to light and if the sun shone on her she would die, painfully. Mirabelle has wondered if she couldn’t maybe go out in the evening then, after sunset, but Mother has told her that there are evil people out there at night who would do bad things to her. So Mirabelle lives her life inside her home, all the windows boarded up to stop light from getting in, all the doors locked to stop Mirabelle from getting out. But there’s one good thing in her life – Mother loves her. Every morning Mother paints Mirabelle’s face and dresses her so she looks just like a doll – Mother’s little doll. And then on her thirteenth birthday, Mother brings home a surprise – a little sister called Clarabelle, although the new little doll claims her name is Emma. And Mirabelle isn’t Mother’s favourite any more…

Written as Mirabelle’s own past-tense narrative, Davies manages to get a huge amount of tension into the story as Mirabelle begins to realise that everything Mother has told her may not be true. Admittedly, her voice and actions don’t always fit with her age – she sometimes speaks and acts like an older teenager, almost adult, and it’s hard to believe that she has as good a knowledge of the world as she has, given that everything she knows comes from books. But for the most part I found that issue quite easy to ignore, and I enjoyed the way Davies references the books Mirabelle has acquired her knowledge from, and how she models her actions on the heroes and heroines she has found in them.

While the thriller aspect goes well over the credibility line in the later stages, the basic premise is pretty terrifying because it’s so believable. And yet it’s not quite as dark as some of these stories about people being kept locked up for years because the baddie in this case is a woman, and therefore there’s no aspect of sexual abuse regarding Mirabelle or Clarabelle. Mother simply wants a living doll of her own, and so long as Mirabelle doesn’t make her angry then life is bearable, and it’s all she’s known. It’s only when she begins to realise Mother’s deception that Mirabelle becomes first confused, then unhappy and finally angry.

Abby Davies
Abby Davies

The writing style is simple, as befits a narrative from a thirteen-year-old, but it has some nice touches that make it an enjoyable read – the book references I mentioned earlier, the way Davies builds tension and shows us Mirabelle’s fear and her methods of controlling it, and her sense of wonder about the world she has never seen. I also liked how Davies managed to give a sense of both time and place to the reader even though all we have to go on is Mirabelle’s very restricted viewpoint. I wouldn’t say I ever came to have any sympathy for Mother, but Davies adds enough depth to her character to prevent her from merely being a pantomime villain, and she does a good job of showing how hard it is for Mirabelle to trust her own judgement about Mother given the years of brainwashing to which she’s been subjected. By the time it all goes a bit over the top towards the end, I was too invested in Mirabelle’s peril to get overly critical. And while it may not be strictly credible, I have to admit that nothing in it would be completely impossible…

Fast-paced, creepy, highly suspenseful, a bit gory in the latter stages but not too much so – given that it’s not really my usual kind of thing, I enjoyed this one considerably more than I thought I would.

20 books 2019Book 6 of 20

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Six in Six 2021

A half-year retrospective…


This fun meme is run by Jo of The Book Jotter. The idea is to look back over the first six months of the reading year, select six categories from the selection Jo provides or create your own categories, and then find six books you’ve read between January and June to fit each category. It’s my fourth time of joining in, and I really struggled to find six categories – I’ve discovered I’m reading far too much vintage crime! I’m also a million years behind with reviewing, so not all of these have appeared on the blog yet. However with only a small amount of cheating, here they are – all books I’d recommend…

Six British Library Crime Classics

Still loving this series and hoping they go on doing it for ever, despite the damage to my TBR…

The Port of London Murders by Josephine Bell

The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude

The Corpse in the Waxworks by John Dickson Carr

Murder’s a Swine by Nap Lombard

Two-Way Murder by ECR Lorac

Due to a Death by Mary Kelly

Six Audiobooks with Great Narrators

Honourable mention must go to two fabulous narrations that I never got around to reviewing – Patricia Routledge’s wonderful version of Wuthering Heights (loved the narration far more than the book), and Alan Rickman’s fab rendition of The Return of the Native (loved both equally). But here are six that I either have reviewed or will be shortly:

Revelation by CJ Sansom narrated by Steven Crossley

Cécile is Dead by Georges Simenon narrated by Gareth Armstrong

The Return of Sherlock Holmes narrated by Derek Jacobi

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute narrated by Robin Bailey

Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie narrated by Hugh Fraser

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris narrated by Anna Bentinck

Six New(ish) Releases

I’m still struggling to find contemporary books I love in either fiction or crime, but here are six released in the last year or so, all of which I gave either 4 or 5 stars…

The Less Dead by Denise Mina

The Silence by Susan Allott

Nightshift by Kiare Ladner

Last Days in Cleaver Square by Patrick McGrath

The Survivors by Jane Harper

The Pact by Sharon Bolton

Six Classics

I haven’t read as many classics so far this year, but I’ve managed to find six that I’d recommend – again, I haven’t yet reviewed all of them:

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

My Antonia by Willa Cather

In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda

Six New-to-me Authors

I’ve read loads of new-to-me authors as usual and many of them have already been included in the categories above, so here are the best of the rest:

The Old Buzzard Had It Coming by Donis Casey

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Taken by Lisa Stone

Way Station by Clifford D Simak

The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher

The Chill Factor by Richard Falkirk

Six Recent Additions to the Wishlist

Ok, this is cheating a bit since I haven’t read these. But as the bard said, some rules are more honoured in the breach than the observance… 😉

No Other Life by Brian Moore

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

The Female Man by Joanna Russ

The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux

City by Clifford D Simak

Every Seventh Wave by Tom Vowler

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So that’s my six sixes, and they tell me I need to read less vintage crime and more other stuff! Jo gives us till the end of July to do our sixes, so if you haven’t already joined in you still have time – it’s a wonderful way to waste spend some time!

Here’s to the next six months! 😀

TBR Thursday 289…

Episode 289

My reading has slowed to a crawl again this week and as a result the TBR has gone up a little – by 2 to 196. But it absolutely is NOT MY FAULT! For once, I managed to capture the culprit on camera…

andy murray gif

Spooky story part 1: Before I get to the books I want to tell you about something that really happened to me yesterday, and nearly made me get the Fretful Porpentine out of his hibernation early! I was leaving a comment on one of those blogs that gives you a form where you add your name and website details. Because I’ve commented on it many times before, my browser knows what I’m going to fill in so prompts me. But this time it gave me two choices – FictionFan or Aelfrida Tillyard. That seemed most odd to me since obviously I’ve never used the name Aelfrida Tillyard, and especially since to the best of my knowledge I’d never come across it in real life or in books. So I googled her…

Aelfrida Catharine Wetenhall Tillyard (5 October 1883 – 12 December 1959) was a British author, medium, lecturer on Comparative Religion and associated religious topics, spiritual advisor and self-styled mystic.”

Are you as spooked by that as I was?

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Anyway, here are a few more books that I should be serving up soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice Poll

Knock, Murderer, Knock by Harriet Rutland

Knock Murderer KnockIt was exciting this month! Life of Pi went into a huge early lead which I thought would be unassailable. But gradually, vote by vote, Knock, Murderer, Knock crept up on it over the next couple of days. They were neck and neck for a bit, and in the end the victory was won with just a one vote difference. Proves that more of You, the People, like the idea of homicidal maniacs in spas than animals in boats! Good choice, People – I shall be planning to read and review it in September.

The Blurb says: “I think,” said Palk slowly, “there’s a homicidal maniac loose in the Hydro, but who it is, God knows.”

Presteignton Hydro is a drably genteel spa resort, populated by the aged and crippled who relish every drop of scandal they observe or imagine concerning the younger guests. No one however expects to see gossip turn to murder as their juniors die one by one – no one, that is, except the killer. The crusty cast of characters make solving the case all the harder for Inspector Palk – until the enigmatic sleuth Mr. Winkley arrives to lend a hand.

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Fiction

The Promise by Damon Galgut

The PromiseCourtesy of Random House Vintage via NetGalley. Another in my bid to read more new fiction releases, but this time picked for the author rather than just the blurb since I’ve enjoyed the one book of his I’ve previously read, The Good Doctor. I must say the blurb sounds great, though… 

The Blurb says: The Promise charts the crash and burn of a white South African family, living on a farm outside Pretoria. The Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral. The younger generation, Anton and Amor, detest everything the family stand for — not least the failed promise to the Black woman who has worked for them her whole life. After years of service, Salome was promised her own house, her own land… yet somehow, as each decade passes, that promise remains unfulfilled.

The narrator’s eye shifts and blinks: moving fluidly between characters, flying into their dreams; deliciously lethal in its observation. And as the country moves from old deep divisions to its new so-called fairer society, the lost promise of more than just one family hovers behind the novel’s title.

In this story of a diminished family, sharp and tender emotional truths hit home. Confident, deft and quietly powerful, The Promise is literary fiction at its finest.

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Thriller

False Witness by Karin Slaughter

False WitnessCourtesy of HarperCollins. I’ve always felt that Karin Slaughter’s thrillers sound too gruesome for my taste, but Eva at Novel Deelights has finally broken my powers of resistance with her gushings of love for her books. So I requested this one on NetGalley and then received a paper copy too from the lovely people at HC. I hope this doesn’t mean I need to read it twice, but who knows? Maybe I’ll want to…

The Blurb says: You thought no one saw you. You were wrong.

Leigh and her sister Callie are not bad people – but one night, more than two decades ago, they did something terrible. And the result was a childhood tarnished by secrets, broken by betrayal, devastated by violence. Years later, Leigh has pushed that night from her mind and become a successful lawyer – but when she is forced to take on a new client against her will, her world begins to spiral out of control. Because the client knows the truth about what happened twenty-three years ago. He knows what Leigh and Callie did. And unless they stop him, he’s going to tear their lives apart …

Just because you didn’t see the witness … doesn’t mean he wasn’t there.

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Thriller

The Twisted Wire by Richard Falkirk

The Twisted WireCourtesy of Collins Crime Club. I loved The Chill Factor, also from this author, so was delighted when this one popped through my letterbox…

The Blurb says: A crossed telephone wire causes a call from the President of the United States to his Ambassador in London to be overheard by geologist Tom Bartlett. Tom, preoccupied with thoughts of the conference he is to attend in Israel, puts the incident from his mind, unaware that he might not have been the only person listening in…

He has not been in Tel Aviv a day, however, before the first attempt is made on his life. As Arab, Israeli, Russian and American agents begin to converge on him, it’s clear that someone wants Tom’s briefcase – and will stop at nothing to obtain it.

The Twisted Wire, first published in 1971, is set at the height of the Middle East conflict, combining politics, espionage and murder into a compelling fast-moving adventure.

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Tolkien on Audio

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien read by Andy Serkis

The HobbitIt’s decades since I last read The Hobbit, unlike The Lord of the Rings which I re-read every few years. I think I was at that odd age of being both too old and too young for this one when I first read it – too old to enjoy it as a children’s book, too young to appreciate it with an adult eye. So although I liked it, I didn’t love it with the passion I felt for LOTR when I read it just two or three years later. Timing is everything! I’ve been intending to give it another chance for years, and when I saw that Gollum himself had recorded it, how could I possibly resist?

The Blurb says: Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit who enjoys a comfortable, unambitious life, rarely travelling further than the pantry of his hobbit-hole in Bag End. But his contentment is disturbed when the wizard Gandalf and a company of 13 dwarves arrive on his doorstep one day to whisk him away on a journey ‘there and back again’. They have a plot to raid the treasure hoard of Smaug the Magnificent, a large and very dangerous dragon….

The prelude to The Lord of The RingsThe Hobbit has sold many millions of copies since its publication in 1937, establishing itself as one of the most influential books of the 20th century.

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Spooky story part 2: So anyway, I read on down the wikipedia entry for Aelfrida Tillyard, only to discover she had written one of the books in Yesterday’s Tomorrows. So I had indeed been searching on her name, along with 99 others, to find out if her book was available. Phew! The porpy can continue his snooze undisturbed…

Hibernating Porpentine

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK, NetGalley or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Splendid and the VileMay, 1940. Already weakened by failures in Norway, the successful blitzkrieg in Holland and Belgium sounded the death knell for Chamberlain as Prime Minister. Reluctantly King George VI offered the position to Winston Churchill, a man adored by the public although many of his colleagues thought him too erratic for the role. Larson sets out to tell of Churchill’s first year in power: holding British morale together during the Blitz; desperately working to build up British forces to defend against the expected invasion; battling to get America, even if they weren’t willing to put boots on the ground, to at least assist with money and equipment while Britain stood alone against the overpowering forces of the Nazi war machine.

Larson is brilliant at bringing historical events to life so that it feels as if the reader is there in the room rather than reading a dry recital of historical facts years afterwards. Here he uses a variety of personal accounts to paint a vivid picture of Churchill through this dramatic period – primarily the diaries of his daughter, Mary, and his private secretary, Jock Colville, supplemented by various letters and memos between Churchill and members of his inner team. Larson also turns to contemporaneous reports in the newspapers and on radio, to show what people knew and how they felt at the time rather than through the lens of hindsight.

Churchill broadcastingChurchill broadcasting to the nation 18th June 1940
‘Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that,
if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years,
men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”’

It’s probably true to say there’s nothing startlingly new in the book, but Larson brings out the drama and emotion of the time without sacrificing factual accuracy and detail. Names from the history books become living, breathing people – Beaverbrook, Lindemann, Goering, Hess, et al – and we see their weaknesses and vanities along with their passion and commitment, whichever side they were on. The use of the word “saga” in the subtitle made me fear this might be too geared towards gossip about Churchill’s family, but in fact we learn just enough about them to get a feel for Churchill as a family man, and through Mary’s diary extracts we also get a picture of how the young upper-classes lived and played during this early part of the war, and how their attitudes changed and hardened as the dark realities of modern air-led warfare became clear.

What Larson does so well, though, is to bring the lives of the mass of ordinary working people into the story, not simply as a kind of audience for the great and the good, but as real participants in their own fate. For this, he uses extensively the records of the Mass Observation project, where many volunteer observers kept diaries in which they recorded not just their own lives but their impressions of what was happening in their localities. We see London reeling and terrified after the first air-raids, but the Londoners gradually realising that they were brave enough to take it, and showing the resilience and defiance for which they are remembered. He shows a kind of euphoria developing, and a good deal of sexual licence on display, due to a growing eat, drink and be merry attitude. Larson takes us to Coventry to see the devastating raid there and its aftermath, and his description of this piece of history I already knew quite well is so vivid that he reduced me to tears and roused my rage anew at this mindless death and destruction.

Churchill_CCathedral_H_14250Visiting the bombed-out Coventry Cathedral

Back with Churchill, we get to know the people in his smallish inner circle and how they interacted. We are critical of all government ministers and of course they should not be above criticism, but we perhaps don’t cut them enough slack considering the enormous responsibilities we expect them to deal with on our behalf. Churchill lived a life of comparative luxury, and rationing, which hit the general public hard, didn’t seem to make his table any less lavish, or his brandy to run out. But he worked such long hours his staff were permanently exhausted and he himself became ill (and worked through it), he had to tolerate and soothe the ruffled feelings of those to whom he delegated the impossible while still driving them to get it done yesterday, he had to make and live with decisions that inevitably would result in British loss of life, he regularly put himself in danger to show the public that he understood and shared what they were going through, he had to cajole and flatter the American president endlessly for very little return in the way of practical assistance; and frankly I didn’t begrudge him his smuggled cigars and chocolate, his extensive cellar, his extra meat provided by grateful landowning Dukes, even the money that was raised by supporters to help pay his household expenses. I suspect his poor entourage regularly wanted to beat him over the head with a brick, especially when he would put on records and start dancing round the dining room at 1 a.m. after a twenty-hour working day, but I’m glad they didn’t.

Winston-Churchill-the-Prime-Minister-with-King-George-VISpoiler alert: We won! VE Day 8th May 1945

Another excellent book from Larson, his trademark blending of historical facts with the personal building to give an intimate and affectionate portrait of Churchill’s personality and daily life as he led Britain through its darkest hour. Highly recommended.

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Yesterday’s Tomorrows by Mike Ashley

The Story of Classic British Science Fiction in 100 Books

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Yesterday's TomorrowsMike Ashley has been editing the British Library’s Science Fiction Classics series for the last few years, for which he has selected some excellent novels and brought together several enjoyable themed anthologies. He and the BL are in the process of doing for “forgotten” science fiction what Martin Edwards and the BL have done so successfully in the field of vintage British crime fiction. So it seems natural that he should also follow Edwards by producing what can be seen as a guide book to his chosen genre, and this book closely follows the format of Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

Ashley begins with an introduction in which he explains why he has chosen the period from the mid-1890s to the mid-1960s. Although there had been several books which can be classed as science fiction before his start date, such as Frankenstein or Jekyll and Hyde, Ashley argues that it was the arrival of HG Wells on the scene that marked the beginning of science fiction as a distinct genre. At the other end of his time period, Ashley points to the “new wave” of science fiction authors, such as Ballard, Aldiss and Moorcock, who set out to drag the genre out of the pulpy reputation it had acquired by the late 1950s.

the war of the worlds-minSpielberg’s version of The War of the Worlds

Between those dates, the genre had had to react to two world wars and the nuclear threat of the Cold War, not to mention the leaps in scientific knowledge of which authors had to take account if their fiction was to maintain a level of believability. Ashley points to the difficulty of defining science fiction, and gives his own definition: “The science must seem feasible and possible, even if it stretches credulity. If it is impossible, then it is not science fiction but fantasy.” He qualifies this by pointing out that the feasibility factor is relative to the time of writing – what seemed possible in the 1890s may seem impossible to modern readers versed in later advances in science.

The books Ashley has selected for inclusion are not, he tells us, his pick of the 100 “best” novels of the period. Rather he has chosen ones which he feels “reflected the times in which they were written, but which were also innovative, original, sometimes idiosyncratic, and … a pleasure to read.” They are divided into sub-headings but follow a generally chronological order so that we can see how the genre developed over time and reacted to events in the world. Apart from Wells and Wyndham, each author gets only one entry on the main list, although in his introductions to each section Ashley ranges widely over other authors and books which don’t make the 100, so despite the title there are probably at least another hundred or so titles mentioned overall. Some examples of the sub-headings are: Wells, Wells and Wells Again; Brave New Worlds; Super, Sub or Non-Human?; Post-Atomic Doom, etc.

The Day of the Triffids-min

There are a few very well known titles here, such as The Day of the Triffids or Nineteen Eighty-Four, and also a few that I’ve come across as a result of the BL’s series, like Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses or James White’s Hospital Station. There are also some delightful surprise appearances from authors only known to me in other genres, such as LP Hartley, J Jefferson Farjeon, and H Rider Haggard. However, as a mere dabbler in science fiction the bulk of the books and authors are new to me, though I assume many will be more familiar to real devotees.

As I went through the book, I checked the availability of each of the 100 listed titles. Around eighty of them are either still in print at reasonable prices or available on one of the online sites such as Project Gutenberg or fadedpage.com, or from second-hand sites like Abe Books. A few rarer ones are a little too expensive for a dabbler like me, and there were around sixteen for which I couldn’t track down available copies at all. However with the interest in all things vintage at the moment, I hope the BL or other publishers might bring some of the missing ones back into print over the next few years.

Mike Ashley
Mike Ashley

I love this kind of book – when you don’t really know a genre very well it can be hard to know where to start, and I have a tendency to read the very well known ones and then give up. This has given me not just the basic 100 books to explore, but also the context to understand what was happening in the genre and how the later writers built on the work of the earlier ones. Ashley gives plot summaries of the 100 (occasionally straying a little too far into spoiler territory, perhaps, but fortunately my terrible memory means by the time I read the books I’ll have forgotten the summaries) which lets potential readers know which ones they’d like to seek out. In my case, of course the answer is – all of them! Highly recommended to relative newcomers to the genre, but I’d think there would be plenty here to interest even established classic science fiction fans.

20 books 2019Book 5 of 20

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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The Pact by Sharon Bolton

Poor little rich kids…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The PactIt’s the night before A-level results and a group of six friends have gathered together as they’ve done most nights of this gorgeous summer, to make the most of these last weeks they’ll all be together before going off to their various Universities. They’re confident they’ll get the results they need for they’re the cleverest group in their expensive, academically-renowned school. A privileged childhood lies behind them and now they have a golden future to look forward to. But drink and drugs and youth are a dangerous combination, and they all agree to one last mad escapade that results in the death of a woman and her two young children. Panicked, they flee the scene, but they’re sure the police will soon trace the car they were in. And then Megan, the quiet one, the outsider, offers to take the rap for them all. She knows she’ll likely go to jail, but she’s willing to do that on one condition – that the other five promise that when she gets out, they’ll each do her one favour, whatever she asks. The others grab this lifeline and agree. Fast forward twenty years… Megan is back, and she’s ready to call in the debt…

Goodness, when Bolton’s on form there’s no one to touch her for truly thrilling thrillers! This one grabbed me right from the start as I watched these six kids – selfish, yes, but also programmed to be high achievers by pushy parents and ambitious schools – do one stupid thing and then follow it up with another, even stupider. Even though the blurb reveals this early part of the plot, the tension that Bolton creates is irresistible, the definition of page-turning.

It slows down a little in the middle as we learn what our five remaining golden people have achieved in their twenty years. Tal has followed her father into the legal profession and now runs his well respected law firm. Xav is a successful investment manager. Amber has gone into politics and is being spoken about as a probable Cabinet Minister of the future. Felix has used his chemical expertise to set up his own business, from which he’s made a fortune. Dan is the least successful – he’s “only” become Master of the school the group once attended. But as we get to know them, we discover that beneath the glittering exterior of their lives, the memory of that night has affected them all to one degree or another. And now that Megan is back, all the feelings of guilt and fear are also back at full strength – maybe even more so now that they each have so much more to lose. And they don’t even know yet what favours she’s going demand in return for her silence.

After that slightly slower section it ramps up to full speed again, and never lets up till the end. I don’t want to say any more about the plot, since most of the fun comes from not having a clue what will happen next. So I’ll limit myself to saying that although Bolton dragged me far over the credibility line, it’s such a relentless ride I didn’t have time to worry about that at the time – nor even to really notice it. I believed in the characters and in their actions as they were happening and didn’t stop to analyse too deeply (and this of course is why thrillers work best when they are fast-paced).

Sharon Bolton
Sharon Bolton

Other things I loved, that made this work for me when so many other contemporary thrillers don’t (including one or two of Bolton’s own). Third person, past tense throughout, allowing Bolton to let us into the characters’ minds or keep us out as she chooses – and she uses that brilliantly to lead us on and misdirect us. It’s also much easier to put up with unlikeable characters when you’re seeing them from the outside. No “that day” nonsense – Bolton starts by telling us exactly what happened on that day back then before she brings us into the present, and what a difference that makes. She builds suspense on the basis of what might happen in the future, not by refusing to tell the reader what has already happened in the past. Similarly, no dual timeline – Bolton tells us about the past and then about the present, rather than jumping back and forward between them. And although the characters are all pretty unlikeable, they all feel believable – self-absorbed and selfish, yes, but their instinct for self-preservation is understandable even if it’s not particularly admirable.

I loved this one and raced through it, and the climax had all the thrills it needed and then a couple more. I wish all thrillers were written like this! Highly recommended.

20 books 2019Book 4 of 20

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link
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The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

Trial by media…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Franchise AffairRobert Blair’s life as a country solicitor is peaceful and contented, though just recently he’s been wondering if it isn’t just a little too contented. When he is contacted by Marion Sharp with a request for his help with a matter involving the police, his first reaction is to refer her to another lawyer specialising in criminal matters. But Miss Sharpe is adamant – she wants someone of her own class, and that means Robert. And the case sound intriguing, so Robert heads off to Miss Sharpe’s house, The Franchise, to meet her, her mother and Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard…

The Sharpes, mother and daughter, are eminently respectable ladies, though fairly new to the neighbourhood having inherited The Franchise just a few years earlier. So the story that schoolgirl Betty Kane tells sounds fantastical – she claims that the two women abducted her, locked her in their attic and tried to force her to work as their servant, doling out regular vicious beatings when she didn’t comply. The whole thing would have been written off as nonsensical, but for the fact that Betty is able to describe things in the house and grounds that she couldn’t possibly have known, since she had never been in the house for legitimate reasons. However, Grant can find no corroborating evidence and so the matter would have rested, except that the local crusading newspaper decided to take the matter up. Now the Sharpes are being vilified and harassed, and the matter is no longer only one of whether or not they will be prosecuted – it becomes imperative to prove that Betty is lying so as to clear their names completely. And for Robert it has become personal as he finds himself increasingly drawn to Marion.

Murder Mystery Mayhem Logo 2Challenge details:
Book: 87

Subject Heading: Fiction from Fact
Publication Year: 1948

This is considered a classic of crime fiction, and it fully deserves its reputation. Although it’s billed as an Inspector Grant novel, in fact he plays only a tiny part – the real “detective” is Robert, floundering a little out of his depth since he’s never had anything to do with the criminal side of the law before, but righteously determined to do everything in his power for his clients. He’s extremely likeable, and the ambiguity over Marion and Mrs Sharpe means that for most of the novel the reader doesn’t know whether to hope his romantic feelings for Marion will blossom, or whether he’s setting himself up for a broken heart. Marion and her mother are great characters – both opinionated individualists with a healthy cynicism about their society’s prejudices, but finding that when that society cuts one off, life, especially in a small town where everyone knows everyone else, rapidly becomes intolerable. Although the reader also finds it difficult to believe that they could be guilty, it’s equally hard to see why and how young Betty could have invented such a detailed and consistent story. It was long, long into the novel before I felt I could decide on the Sharpes’ innocence or guilt.

The writing is great and the plot is perfectly delivered. First published in 1948, the social attitudes are very much of their time, and it becomes pretty clear that Ms Tey was probably a good old-fashioned Tory snob whose ideas on class and politics ought to have roused my rage. But actually I found them amusing, and a great, if unintentional, depiction of that particular class of ultra-conservativism which still exists today, particularly in the letters page of The Telegraph and other newspapers read mainly by the retired colonels and maiden aunts of the Shires.

It’s also a wonderful picture of the kind of trial by media with which we are all too familiar, although it happens more slowly when people must write actual literate and grammatical letters to the newspapers and wait for them to be printed rather than firing off foul-mouthed libellous tweets, as we do now that we’re so much more advanced. Tey shows how quickly mob feelings can be aroused, and how easily some people will proceed to take what they would call justice into their own hands. She also shows, though, that there are decent people in the world who will rally round and help, even when it’s unpopular to do so.

Josephine-Tey-1934
Josephine Tey

I don’t want to risk any spoilers, so I’ll simply say that the gradual revelations are very well paced so that my attention never flagged, and I found the eventual resolution completely satisfying. But more than this, I found it a highly entertaining read with all the elements that make good vintage crime so enjoyable – an intriguing mystery, an atmosphere of building tension, a likeable protagonist who is neither alcoholic nor angst-ridden, a touch of romance, a sprinkling of humour. Great stuff! I now officially forgive Josephine Tey for boring me to death with The Daughter of Time and look forward to getting to know Inspector Grant and her better.

I downloaded this one from fadedpage.com – here’s the link.

TBR Thursday 288…

Episode 288

I’ve slowed down a little this week since the books I’m reading are longer ones, but two out, two in, means the TBR remains finely balanced on 194…

balance beam

Review-Alongers! We previously discussed reading Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray next. If you’re still up for it, I’m proposing a review date of Monday, October 25th. This long notice is partly to give everyone who’s interested time to acquire and read this very long book, but selfishly it’s also because I intend to listen to the 32-hour audiobook, which will take me months! Let me know below if you’re still interested and if that date works for you. New review-alongers always welcome! There’s only one “rule” – we all post our reviews on the same date, or for those who don’t blog (or don’t want to do a full review), you leave your thoughts in the comments section of my review.

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Here are a few I should be getting to soon – the two middle ones are from my fast and furious 20 Books of Summer list. Too early for this month’s People’s Choice winner – it will be announced next week, so you still have time to vote! 

Historical Fiction

To Cook a Bear by Mikael Niemi

To Cook a BearCourtesy of Quercus via NetGalley. Another in my attempt to read more new fiction releases, a mission that is causing me to have severe abandonment issues. Happily this one sounds as if it might actually have a plot…

The Blurb says: It is 1852, and in Sweden’s far north, deep in the Arctic Circle, charismatic preacher and Revivalist Lars Levi Læstadius impassions a poverty-stricken congregation with visions of salvation. But local leaders have reason to resist a shift to temperance over alcohol.

Jussi, the young Sami boy Læstadius has rescued from destitution and abuse, becomes the preacher’s faithful disciple on long botanical treks to explore the flora and fauna. Læstadius also teaches him to read and write – and to love and fear God.

When a milkmaid goes missing deep in the forest, the locals suspect a predatory bear is at large. A second girl is attacked, and the sheriff is quick to offer a reward for the bear’s capture. Using early forensics and daguerreotype, Læstadius and Jussi find clues that point to a far worse killer on the loose, even as they are unaware of the evil closing in around them.

To Cook a Bear explores how communities turn inwards, how superstition can turn to violence, and how the power of language can be transformative in a richly fascinating mystery.

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Vintage Crime

The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes

The Chianti FlaskCourtesy of the British Library. I loved The Lodger but haven’t got around to reading anything else from Marie Belloc Lowndes, so I was delighted to see her name pop up in the BL’s Classic Crime series. Since I abandoned one of my original 20 Books of Summer (Bullet Train), I’ve slotted this one into the vacancy…

The Blurb says: An enigmatic young woman named Laura Dousland stands on trial for murder, accused of poisoning her elderly husband Fordish. It seems clear that the poison was delivered in a flask of Chianti with supper, but according to the couple’s servant in the witness-box, the flask disappeared the night Fordish died and all attempts to trace it have come to nothing. The jury delivers its verdict, but this is just the end of the beginning of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ gripping story.

First published in 1934, this exquisitely crafted novel blends the tenets of a traditional mystery with an exploration of the psychological impact of death, accusation, guilt and justice in the aftermath of murder.

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Thriller

Scorpion by Christian Cantrell

ScorpionCourtesy of Penguin Michael Joseph via NetGalley. Although the blurb suggests this is a straight thriller, reviews suggest it’s as much science fiction. Sounds intriguing, though early reviews are distinctly mixed…

The Blurb says: Around the world, twenty-two people have been murdered. The victims fit no profile, the circumstances vary wildly, but one thing links them all: in every case the victim is branded with a number. With police around the globe floundering and unable to identify any pattern, let alone find a killer, CIA Analyst Quinn Mitchell is called in to investigate.

Before long, Quinn is on the trail of an ice-hearted assassin with seemingly limitless resources – but she’s prepared for that.

What she isn’t prepared for is the person pulling the strings…

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Christie on Audio

Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie read by Hugh Fraser

Cat Among the PigeonsTime for another Christie re-read! Although this never makes my list of top favourite Christies, it’s well up in the second tier. It’s many years since I last read it, so I’m not sure if I’ll remember whodunit, or why…

The Blurb says: Late one night, two teachers investigate a mysterious flashing light in the sports pavilion, while the rest of the school sleeps. There, among the lacrosse sticks, they stumble upon the body of the unpopular games mistress, shot through the heart from point blank range.

The school is thrown into chaos when the “cat” strikes again. Unfortunately, schoolgirl Julia Upjohn knows too much. In particular, she knows that without Hercule Poirot’s help, she will be the next victim!

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

TBR Thursday (on a Wednesday) 287 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 287

(A reminder of The People’s Choice plan. Once a month, I shall list the four oldest books on the TBR, then the next four, and so on, and each time you will select the one you think I should read, either because you’ve read and enjoyed it, or because you think the blurb looks good. And I will read the one you pick within three months! If I begin to fall behind, I’ll have a gap till I catch up again. In the event of a tie, I’ll have the casting vote.)

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OK, People, time for the next batch of four, and a nicely varied bunch this time, I think, still all from 2016. As usual I’m planning three months ahead so the winner will be a September read. Knock, Murderer, Knock was, I think, another Kindle impulse purchase during my early vintage crime frenzy – I’ve never read anything by the author before, but it sounds fun. The Vegetarian was one of those books everyone seemed to be raving about, so I acquired it and then, as usual, didn’t get around to reading it – the reviews make me feel I could love it or hate it. I’m ashamed to say Above the Waterfall is one of my ancient NetGalley ones that slipped through the net – I’ve loved one Ron Rash novel before and not loved one, so again it could go either way. And I acquired Life of Pi after loving Martel’s later book, The High Mountains of Portugal – I feel I may be the only person left alive who hasn’t read it. I still would like to read all of these pretty much equally, so you really can’t go wrong…

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Vintage Crime

Knock, Murderer, Knock by Harriet Rutland

Knock Murderer KnockAdded 15th July 2016. 202 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.70 average rating. 259 pages.

The Blurb says: “I think,” said Palk slowly, “there’s a homicidal maniac loose in the Hydro, but who it is, God knows.”

Presteignton Hydro is a drably genteel spa resort, populated by the aged and crippled who relish every drop of scandal they observe or imagine concerning the younger guests. No one however expects to see gossip turn to murder as their juniors die one by one – no one, that is, except the killer. The crusty cast of characters make solving the case all the harder for Inspector Palk – until the enigmatic sleuth Mr. Winkley arrives to lend a hand.

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Fiction

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The VegetarianAdded 20th July 2016. 104,335 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.59 average. 188 pages.

The Blurb says: Before the nightmare, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life. But when splintering, blood-soaked images start haunting her thoughts, Yeong-hye decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat. In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiralling deep into the spaces of her fantasy. In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavour will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether.

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Fiction

Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash

Above the WaterfallAdded 15th August 2016. 5,115 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.52 average. 252 pages. 

The Blurb says: Les, a long-time sheriff nearing retirement, contends with the ravages of poverty and crystal meth in his small Appalachian town. Nestled in a beautiful hollow of the Appalachians, his is a tight-knit community rife with secrets and suspicious of outsiders.

Becky, a park ranger, arrives in this remote patch of North Carolina hoping to ease the anguish of a harrowing past. Searching for tranquillity amid the verdant stillness, she finds solace in poetry and the splendour of the land.

A vicious crime will plunge both sheriff and ranger into deep and murky waters, forging an unexpected bond between them. Caught in a vortex of duplicity, lies, and betrayal, they must navigate the dangerous currents of a tragedy that turns neighbour against neighbour—and threatens to sweep them all over the edge.

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Fiction

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Life of PiAdded 12th October 2016. 1,406,996 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.92 average. 461 pages.

The Blurb says: After the sinking of a cargo ship, a solitary lifeboat remains bobbing on the wild blue Pacific. The only survivors from the wreck are a sixteen-year-old boy named Pi, a hyena, a wounded zebra, an orangutan—and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger. The scene is set for one of the most extraordinary and beloved works of fiction in recent years.

Universally acclaimed upon publication, Life of Pi is a modern classic.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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VOTE NOW!

(Click on title and then remember to also click on Vote, or your vote won’t count!)

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Last Days in Cleaver Square by Patrick McGrath

The ghosts of war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Last Days in Cleaver SquareFrancis McNulty is an old man now, in 1975, but his younger self was one of the many men who had gone to aid the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, in his case as a medic. Now he is frail, although he hates the word, and showing signs of mental decline, perhaps even the beginnings of dementia. So when he starts seeing visions of General Franco at first in his garden and then later inside his house, his daughter puts it down to his mental state. Francis is convinced though that Franco, currently on his deathbed in Spain, is haunting him, and his memories of his time in Spain and the horrors he witnessed there are brought back afresh to his mind.

Told as Francis’ journal in a somewhat disjointed and rambling fashion as befits an elderly, possibly confused man, this is a wonderful picture of someone haunted by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. As part of my Spanish Civil War challenge I had just finished a biography of Franco (review to come), the last chapter of which detailed his long-drawn out and rather horrific final days as his body crumbled and haemorrhaged and his doctors refused to allow him to die. It is during those days that Francis, in his home in England, gradually reveals his experiences and finally the incident that has left him with a feeling of guilt all the years since. His hatred of Franco is visceral, his view entirely polarised by the atrocities he witnessed, although there are occasional hints that he is aware that there were atrocities on the Republican side too. We learn of Doc Roscoe, the doctor he worked alongside patching up the wounded under atrocious conditions. We hear the story of Dolores Lopez, now Francis’ middle-aged housekeeper, but back then a child caught up in the siege of Madrid. And we come to understand the haunting, literal and metaphorical, of Francis by his old nemesis, Franco.

Madrid, I murmured, the slurry way the madrileňos said it, the lispy first d and the fiercely clipped second one. I had once heard a flamenco guitar being so sweetly, so movingly played in Madrid, as bombs fell in the distant suburbs, then when the planes got closer the music abruptly ceased, and instead there was shouting. I saw a middle-aged man fall in the Gran Via and his wife sank to her knees beside him, weeping. He’d been shot dead. To see Madrid again before I died, this seemed suddenly of vital importance to me and I became elated and impatient and I didn’t properly understand why.

But this is not purely or even mostly a political novel. The story Francis reveals is a human one, of unexpected love and loyalty, of betrayal and the search for redemption and forgiveness. Did it make me cry? You betcha! But it also made me laugh, frequently, as Francis gives his often acerbic view of those around him, including his daughter and sister, both of whom he loves dearly but not uncritically. It’s also a wonderful depiction of ageing, with all the pathos of declining physical and mental faculties. There are many parallels between Franco and Francis, not least their names, of course, but their habit in their final days of finding themselves in tears. They each have only one daughter, caring for them at the end of their lives simply as fathers regardless of their past or politics. Francis’ daughter is as well portrayed as Francis himself, as she tries to deal with this difficult, contrary, opinionated man who refuses to accept his increasing limitations. She ranges through patience, worry, irritation, bossiness, and all the other emotions anyone who has cared for an elderly relative will recognise, but there is never any doubt in either the reader’s or Francis’ mind that her overriding emotion towards her father is love.

SCW LogoBook 6

It’s a short novel, but has so much in it – truly a case where every word counts. Francis, writing privately in his journal, reveals more to the reader than he ever has to those closest to him, especially of his feelings for Doc Roscoe and for other men he has known over the years. Again a beautiful depiction of closeted homosexuality – Francis has chosen the easier path at that period of outwardly leading a heterosexual life. Yet one feels his relationship with his daughter is a major compensation for his lifetime of self-denial. And he is self-aware enough to gently mock himself so that one feels his life has not been a wasteland, although it is only now, as he faces his last days and recognises that his eternal enemy Franco is facing his, that he can finally try to come to terms with his past.

Patrick McGrath
Patrick McGrath

Why have I never come across Patrick McGrath before? A serious omission which I will have to promptly put right. It’s certainly not necessary to know much about the Spanish Civil War or Franco’s dictatorship to appreciate this one, but recognising the accuracy of the depiction of Franco’s final days gave it an extra depth for me. Beautifully written, entertaining, moving, full of emotional truth – this gets my highest recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link