Looking forward to…

Episode 6

Another selection in my occasional looks back at old reviews which I finished by saying something along the lines of “I’ll be looking forward to reading more of her work/this series/his books in the future” to see if I actually did read more and, if I did, did I like the ones I looked forward to as much as the ones that made me look forward to them?

Let’s see then…

The Blinded Man by Arne Dahl

First reviewed 11th April, 2013. This is the first book in the Intercrime series, about a special police unit set up by the Swedish authorities to investigate ‘violent crimes with an international character’. I said “an enjoyable, well plotted police procedural with elements of both mystery and thriller” and mentioned that I was looking forward to reading the next in the series. But did I?

I did! The next one was Bad Blood, also in 2013, a dark and complex story about a serial killer who has come to Sweden from the USA. I gave it five stars and again said I’d be looking forward to the next one. But I haven’t read any more since. I was already losing interest at that stage in both Scandi crime as a genre, though I’ve continued to read some sporadically over the intervening years, and in darker, more graphic crime generally, and I guess by the time his next novel appeared it simply didn’t appeal to me. And I’m afraid it still doesn’t. The blurb mentions terrorism and massacres – not for me, I fear!

* * * * *

Close to the Bone by Stuart MacBride

First reviewed 19th April 2013. This is the eighth in MacBride’s Aberdeen-set Logan McRae series which I had been following since it started. However, my enthusiasm was wearing thin, since it seemed to me MacBride was bored with his characters and taking the series in the direction of broad farce more than crime fiction. I said “I’m not sure where the series is heading and I’ll probably stick with it for another book or two but I think it may be close to the time that it should reach an end before it becomes too farcical.” So did I?

Hmm, no and yes. When the next book came along I decided I really wasn’t enthusiastic to read it, so dropped the series. However, a couple of years ago HarperCollins sent me a review copy of All That’s Dead, the 12th book in the series, and I decided to give it a chance to bring back the old magic. And to an extent it did. I said “I felt he’d pulled the recurring characters back a little from the extreme caricaturing that lost me eventually in the earlier books” and I felt the plotting was stronger again. I enjoyed it a lot and gave it 4½ stars. It hasn’t made me want to read the books I’ve missed, though, and I’m not sure whether I’ll read the next, if a new one comes along. Maybe. His most recent book is a standalone thriller and it doesn’t appeal to me at all – apparently about a serial killer called the Bloodsmith! Sounds graphic, gruesome and bloody – not for me!

* * * * *

Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru

First reviewed 23rd April 2013. A beautifully written book about a diverse cast of characters all of whose lives are affected in some way by the location in which they find themselves, the empty and mysterious Californian desert. I said “…the wonderful prose, the fascinating tales, the occasional flashes of humour and, above all, the sympathetic characters all combine to make this a book to be both savoured and enjoyed.” Its five star rating put it on my list to read more from him. But did I?

I did! I loved his next book, White Tears, even more than Gods Without Men – a book that uses the history of early blues music to muse on race, on cultural appropriation, and on race guilt, and a book I still think of often. Then I was a little disappointed by his next, Red Pill, purely because its subject matter – a man having an existential crisis mirroring the political existential crisis in the US, all told with a lot of reference to German romantic poetry – didn’t work for me. He’s still firmly on my looking forward to list though, and has a back catalogue that I must find time to explore. His breakthrough novel, The Impressionist, has been lingering on my wishlist for far too long…

* * * * *

Death in a Scarlet Gown by Lexie Conyngham

First reviewed 23rd April 2013. This is the first in the Murray of Letho series – historical fiction set in the Scotland of the early 19th century. When I reviewed it I had already read a couple of the following books, and said “For me, this one is the weakest in terms of plotting but the setting and historical context make it well worth reading.” I fully intended to continue with the series… but did I?

I did! Well, for a while anyway. I read and thoroughly enjoyed the first five books. And then, at the end of the sixth, the author did something to one of the characters (can’t explain – spoiler!) that would seriously affect the direction of future books. I hated it, so much so that I commented that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue with the series as a result. And I didn’t. However, doing this post has reminded me of how much I enjoyed Conyngham’s writing, and I see she’s branched out into a new series now, starring Hyppolyta Napier, a crime-busting doctor’s wife in the Scottish town of Ballater in the 1820s, so it’s time to put her back on my wishlist!

* * * * *

So, one author I probably won’t read more of, one I’m ambivalent about but might, one who’s a firm favourite and a fixture on my list, and one I’d fallen out with over character differences but am now prepared to forgive, forget and move on!

Have you read any of these authors?
Are they on your “looking forward to” list?

Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
AUGUST

SMILEYS

 

Each month this year, I’ll be looking back over my reviews of the past five years and picking out my favourite from each year. Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with this brilliant idea and kindly agreed to let me borrow it.

So here are my favourite August reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…

 

2011

 

shutter island

Teddy Daniels, US Marshall, is a capable and attractive hero, a decorated veteran battling with memories of the horrors he saw during WWII and the more recent memories of the death of his beloved wife in a tragic fire. Sent to investigate the escape of a patient from a high-security asylum for extremely violent and insane offenders, Teddy and his new partner Chuck Aule come to believe that the break-out would only have been possible with the help of one or more members of the staff. From this promising start, the book then spirals through ever changing conspiracy theories, which buffet and batter the reader much as the asylum is being battered by the hurricane that has cut off communication with the mainland. As the book progresses, it becomes harder and harder to know what is true and who is sane. An excellent and disturbing psychological thriller that reminded me a little of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in its questioning of the nature of sanity and madness. The cause of some lost sleep…

 

2012

 

knowledge of sins pastThe second in Lexie Conyngham’s fine historical crime series, this one sees Charles Murray of Letho, estranged from his father, taking work as tutor to the young sons of Lord Scoggie. Lord Scoggie’s domain is divided between hill farmers and fishermen between which communities there is a long-standing feud. And when old India hand Major Keyes comes a-wooing the Scoggie daughter, simmering resentments come back to the surface…

Set in 19th century Scotland, Conyngham does her usual excellent job in combining a look at aspects of post-Enlightenment Scottish society with a decent murder mystery.  In this one, Charles’ interactions with his young pupils give scope for a good deal of humour which lightens the tone, and his position as tutor gives him an entry into the worlds of both masters and servants. This has been one of my favourite series for a while now, despite a little disappointment with the most recent one. Although each book works as a standalone, to get the full benefit of the characterisation I would recommend they should be read in order, starting with Death in a Scarlet Gown.

 

2013

 

PU239Kalfus lived in Russia during the period 1994-1998, when his wife was appointed Moscow bureau chief of the Philadelphia Inquirer, allowing him to get to know the country and its people. The result is this collection of six short stories and a novella, all based in the Russia of the USSR era. Overall, he gives us a grey and grim depiction of life under the Soviet regime, but leavened with flashes of humour and a great deal of humanity. In each of the stories Kalfus personalises the political, creating believable characters struggling to find a way to live under the Soviet system. He doesn’t take the easy option of concentrating on dissidents and rebels; instead, he shows us ordinary people, often supporters of the regime, but living under the constant fear of stepping out of line. As a collection, these are insightful and thought-provoking, and Kalfus’ precise language and compelling characterisation make them an absorbing read.

 

2014

 

the sun also risesIf the sign of a great book is that it takes up permanent residence in the reader’s mind, then this one must be great. It’s one of those books that I appreciate more in retrospect than I did during the actual reading of it. This tale of the feckless ‘lost generation’ drinking their way across Europe while taking turns to have sex with the ever willing Lady Brett irritated me intensely with its constant descriptions of drunkeness and long passages of tediously banal dialogue. But as I stood back after finishing it, I realised what a stunning depiction of machismo and masculinity it actually is, while the beauty of some of the descriptive writing has left indelible images in my mind – of the dusty streets, the restaurants and bars, the bus journey to Spain, and most of all of the rituals surrounding the annual bullfighting fiesta and running of the bulls in Pamplona. The characterisation is patchy, often using cheap racial stereotyping, and the structure is messy but, despite all its flaws, in the end the picture that emerges of a damaged man metaphorically rising from the ashes through a kind of examination of maleness is really quite compelling after all.

 

2015

 

waiting for sunrise coverWhen young actor Lysander Rief gets sucked into the shadowy world of spies and espionage, it all feels like a bit of a game – an adventure. The book is about lies, deception and self-deception and, despite some dark moments, has a layer of wit bubbling beneath the surface which keeps the overall tone light. Lysander has been visiting a psychiatrist who introduces him to the concept of ‘parallelism’. A technique developed by the good doctor himself, the idea is to identify the event at the root of a problem and then to invent an alternative history of the event, embellishing and repeating it until it feels like a truer memory than the thing that actually happened. And this book feels like an exercise in parallelism itself – a hazy, shimmering story that seems just a little unreal, a little off-kilter. It feels as if a false memory is being created as the reader watches, and to a degree the reader has to agree to be complicit in its creation. Lysander is a great character, self-absorbed, self-deceiving, but fundamentally a good guy with a too-trusting nature and a kind of relaxed, go where the wind blows him attitude that makes him a pleasure to spend time with. When Boyd is on form, as he is here, then there are few more enjoyable authors.

The Tender Herb (Murray of Letho 6) by Lexie Conyngham

the tender herb 2Days of Empire…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Charles Murray of Letho is on an extended visit to Italy when his manservant Robbins turns up unexpectedly. Robbins has received a letter from Mary, Murray’s former maid, asking for advice. Mary’s husband has been arrested for murder in Delhi, where his regiment is based, and Mary is convinced of his innocence. When Robbins asks for permission to go to Delhi to help out, Murray decides that he will go along too – partly out of loyalty to Mary, and partly because he is trying to escape from an enthusiastic mother, determined to trap him into marrying her rather dull daughter.

Have you ever had the experience of loving a book all the way through to the last few pages and then suddenly coming upon an ending that changes your entire opinion? I’ve enjoyed all of the Murray of Letho books. Set in early 19th century Scotland, each one has incorporated a decent murder mystery into an excellent account of an aspect of post-Enlightenment society, well researched and well written. This one is set primarily in India, but the India of Empire, so another important aspect of Scottish life at that time, when so many Scots were posted out there as either government officials or soldiers.

As always, Conyngham wears her research lightly – the descriptions of the journey to and then across India are vivid and ring true, but don’t overwhelm the quality of the characterisation, which is perhaps her main strength. The plots are sometimes the weaker part of the books and again that’s the case here – there’s a lot of bumbling around getting nowhere fast, followed by an unnaturally quick denouement. But it’s still strong enough to hold the book together and to give plenty of room for Conyngham to allow her characters to explore this new and rather exotic environment on behalf of the reader. We get a real feel for the difficulties of this huge journey – a long sea voyage followed by weeks of traversing the country on elephant-back with the huge entourage of native servants that was the norm for wealthy travellers in India. And the depiction of Delhi society, as seen through the eyes of the British there, is both interesting and believable.

Red Fort Palace in Delhi - at the time of the book, home to the British Resident.
Red Fort Palace in Delhi – at the time of the book, home to the British Resident.

The books fall between ‘cosy’ and ‘gritty’ – just where I like crime fiction, in fact. The cosier element is around the recurring characters, whom we’ve got to know and care about over the previous books – particularly Murray himself, of course, who’s an intelligent and attractive lead. There’s always a good deal of humour in the books which makes them a particularly enjoyable read, and in this one there’s a lovely romantic sub-plot, as Murray finally meets a young woman who may be his match in every way. The grittier side comes from the murder plot – in this case, the knifing of a clergyman outside the barracks. But it appears that the clergyman, along with many of the other characters, may have had secrets to hide, and there may have been more than one motive for his murder.

So, great descriptions, excellent characterisation, a nice little bit of romance, and a strong enough plot – it was all going so well and heading straight for 5 stars. But – and I accept this is a matter of personal opinion only and annoying since I can’t explain without spoilers – I hated the way it ended, to the extent that I’ve been left unsure as to whether I want to continue with the series now, and that has to be a serious mark against it. All I can say is that everything up to that point had led me to believe it was going to finish one way, which I would have found satisfactory, and then at the last moment the whole thing was turned on its head, and I found the eventual outcome neither desirable nor credible. 4 stars, then, but still with a strong recommendation to read the series, preferably in order from the beginning. And yes, despite my cryptic remarks over the ending of this one, and with just a little hesitation, I’d still recommend it too.

Book 11
Book 11

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Fellowship with Demons (Murray of Letho 5) by Lexie Conyngham

Murder in the capital…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

fellowship with demonsCharles Murray of Letho is back in Edinburgh for this 5th book in Lexie Conyngham’s fine series. Charles is asked by Viscount Melville, one of the most important men in Scotland, to find out if there is something not quite right about the family of Rose Ronaldson, as one of his young relatives is hoping to marry her. Since Melville is one of the most important men in Scotland, this is not a request Charles can refuse. Rose’s brother is about to appear as a witness in what seems like a straightforward murder trial, so Charles attends the proceedings in the hope of scraping an acquaintance. However, Charles has a nose for murder and he suspects there may be more behind this one than comes out in evidence. And when the killer is then murdered himself, Charles’ suspicions are well and truly aroused…

Conyngham writes very well and her characterisation is very strong. Murray is now established as the head of his family and at the age of 26 is thinking it might be time to find a wife. His father’s old friend Alester Blair appears again in this book, likeable and eccentric as ever as he provides advice and assistance to the younger man. And as always we get to see what happens below stairs too, where the butler Robbins is having to cope with the frailties of the elderly housekeeper Mrs Chambers.

edinburgh castleBut what sets Conyngham apart is the authenticity of her depiction of post-Enlightenment Scottish society, and in each book she shows us a different aspect. She mixes historical fact and real people so seamlessly into her fictional stories that it’s impossible to see the join. In this story, we are given an inside picture of the militia stationed in Edinburgh Castle, where French prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars are being held. There are shades of Austen, or perhaps Georgette Heyer, as we are shown the officers and young ladies attending balls and concerts, and anxious mothers trying to find suitable husbands for their daughters; but all contrasting with the darker elements of the story – drinking clubs, family secrets and, of course, murder.

This is an excellent and well-plotted addition to the series – I only got to the solution at roughly the same time as Charles. It could be read as a standalone but to get the most out of the characters I’d suggest reading the books in order starting with Death in a Scarlet Gown. The series is as good as any historical crime I’ve read (including Shardlake) and in my opinion deserves a wider readership than it gets. Highly recommended.

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Knowledge of Sins Past (Murray of Letho 2) by Lexie Conyngham

Murder at the castle…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

knowledge of sins pastIt’s not often I read two books by the same author one after the other, but I enjoyed the first in this series Death in a Scarlet Gown so much that I downloaded this one straight away. A good decision, since this one is equally enjoyable.

Set in early 19th century Scotland, Charles Murray has now graduated from St Andrews but, having been cut off by his father, has accepted the job of secretary to Lord Scoggie and tutor to his young sons. Lord Scoggie’s domain is divided between hill farmers and fishermen between which communities there is a long-standing feud. And when old India hand Major Keyes comes a-wooing the Scoggie daughter, simmering resentments come back to the surface…

Conyngham is very good at scene setting, equally convincing when dealing with the aristocracy at the castle or the fishermen in the village. Her characterisation is particularly good and she handles a large cast well, giving each a distinctive personality and voice. Murray’s position as secretary allows him to be as much at home with the servants as with the family, and his role as tutor to the two young boys gives Conyngham scope to introduce a considerable amount of humour into the story. The murder doesn’t happen till about halfway through the book, giving plenty of time for the reader to speculate about who the victim will be and why. The plot is well worked out and as with all good murder mysteries, the denouement is dramatic.

Because we see Murray developing as the books progress, I would suggest that anyone new to the series should read them in order, although each could certainly also be read as a stand alone. Highly recommended for anyone who likes crime or mystery novels with a historical twist.

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Death in a Scarlet Gown (Murray of Letho 1) by Lexie Conyngham

death in a scarlet gownMurder is academic…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Set in early 19th century Scotland, this very well written murder mystery takes place in the university town of St Andrews. The writer gives a convincing picture of how the students and academics lived and thought in post-Enlightenment society and works the beliefs and attitudes of the time skilfully through the story.

Charles Murray of Letho is an attractive hero. Just about to graduate, he is resisting his father’s attempts to get him to come home and concentrate on learning how to run their estate. When murder is committed, Charles isn’t willing to accept that the murderer might not be found and so sets out to investigate. This incurs his father’s wrath and, with his allowance cut off, Charles is thrown back on his own resources to fund his accommodation and continue with his studies.

St Andrews University
St Andrews University

Overall, I thought this first novel was a very good read. The descriptions of St Andrews and Edinburgh brought the places to life and the characterisation was strong throughout. Conyngham shows the lives of privileged and poor alike and is equally convincing with both. I felt the book lost a bit of momentum in the latter half, when too much time was spent on Charles considering all the various possibilities and motives. But it came together well at the end and overall it achieved a feeling of originality and freshness – not easy in such a crowded field.

There are a further three books to date in the series and in each Conyngham takes a look at a different look at aspects of Scottish society. For me, this one is the weakest in terms of plotting but the setting and historical context make it well worth reading. Although each book can stand alone, Charles’ personality and career progresses in each, so it’s worth reading them in order. Especially since at time of writing this one is available for £0.77 ($1.15 US) on Kindle! Oh, and $0.99 CDN…

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