Showing posts with label 2019. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2019. Show all posts

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

My Year in Books 2019: November

Bit of a busy month in November, so I didn't get much time for reading. Still, I've got a couple of reviews for this month.

This is the penultimate review post of the year. In case you're interested, the other posts from this year are here:January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October. But here are my reviews for November...

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (2012)


In February, I read Rachel Joyce’s Perfect and enjoyed it. I picked up The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry in a charity shop in Cleveleys this summer, and I thought I’d give it a go this month. Joyce’s slightly earlier (and perhaps more famous) novel is the story of Harold Fry. At the very beginning of the book, Harold receives a letter from Queenie Hennessey, a woman he worked with two decades earlier. Harold hasn’t seen Queenie in twenty years, but he discovers she is now in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Harold tries to write a reply to Queenie’s letter, but he struggles to find the right words. When he sets out for the postbox, he finds he can’t bring himself to post his attempt, and so… he carries on walking. Joyce’s captivating novel tells the story of Harold’s walk, but it also a lot more. It’s a novel about grief and love (and, like the many people Harold meets along his way, the reader might initially misunderstand the nature of the grief and love behind the story). It’s also a novel about a story that has been resolutely not told for twenty years. When that story emerges, it’s a bit of a sucker punch, and I will admit to sobbing openly at some chapters. But the book is also very funny – and human, hopeful, heart-warming, and hard to put down. Although the setting is a little ‘unlikely’, the characters are surprisingly believable and sympathetic. I really recommend this one.

The Boy Who Fell by Jo Spain (2019)


My mum and I have been working our way through Jo Spain’s novels, ever since I stumbled upon her first DCI Tom Reynolds novel last Christmas. To be honest, I’m wondering why I had to ‘stumble’ on it, as Spain is a really talented writer, and the more I read of her work the more I wonder why I hadn’t seen more people shouting about her work! Anyway, my mum lent me the fourth and fifth books in the series, but I’ve decided to save The Darkest Place for my annual December getaway. The Boy Who Fell is the fifth book in the series – and I sort of suspect it may be the final instalment. And I think it might be my favourite! On the verge of a life-changing promotion, Tom Reynolds is asked by a colleague to look into an apparently open-and-shut case involving her cousin. A young man named Luke Connolly has been pushed to his death from the window of an abandoned house (with a tragic history). The local police already have a suspect in custody, and they believe they have more than enough evidence to secure a prosecution. DCI Reynolds is reluctant to push things – especially since that would leave him open to accusations of trying to cover things up for a colleague – but there’s just enough room for doubt. There’s a neat puzzle, plenty of clues, and a well-paced investigation here. It’s also a surprisingly warm book, with some lovely moments involving the detective’s team.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

My Year in Books 2019: October

Once again, I didn't have much time for reading for pleasure this month. I think I managed one more title than last month, but still not a lot of books on the list. Hopefully, I'll get chance to read a bit more next month, as my to-read pile is getting scarily high!

In case you're interested, here are my reviews for the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September

And here are my reviews of the books I read in October...

The Image of You by Adele Parks (2017)


For reasons I’m not going to go into here, I recently found myself alone somewhere late at night with nothing to do. As if by magic, I wandered past a Help for Heroes charity book sale with an honesty box and a couple of titles still left for sale. I paid my £2 and took the one that looked most readable. Admittedly, The Image of You very much looks like one of those domestic noirs I’ve been trying to avoid… but it was this or Andy McNab. The blurb promises a story about identical twins – Anna and Zoe – who have a close bond, but polar opposite personalities. When Anna (the trusting, romantic one) meets Nick on a dating site, Zoe (the outgoing, edgy one) decides he’s not to be trusted and plots to prove Nick is lying to her sister. To be honest, if you haven’t already started to guess the twist, you’ve not been paying attention. The Image of You is quite a long book for the genre – which feels longer if you’ve already guessed what’s happening. Anna is impossibly sweet and perfect; Zoe is hyper-sexual and unrestrained. Nick is a sort of Patrick Bateman-lite character who uses online dating to get casual sex. He falls for Anna on their first date and proposes within months; he falls for Zoe on their first meeting and ends up in bed with her that night. Of course, he never sees them both in the same place at the same time. Hmmm…

The Taken by Alice Clark-Platts (2016)


This next book marks a return to the stash of books I got from charity shops in Cleveleys earlier in the summer. I wasn’t sure what to expect of this one – and I certainly didn’t know it was the second in a series. The Taken is a detective novel featuring D.I. Erica Martin – who I now know is Clark-Platts’s series character. Martin is called is when a celebrity preacher/faith healer called Tristan Snow is found dead in his B and B, his head stoved in with an unknown weapon. Snow is the charismatic leader of a church called Deucalion, and he was in Durham for a live show as part of a national tour. With him in the guesthouse are his wife Sera and daughter Violet, plus his sister-in-law Antonia and manager/business associate Fraser Mackenzie. But which of them might have a motive for bumping off the much-loved preacher? And why – given Snow’s fame – are they staying in such a downmarket establishment? From the blurb, I thought this one might be a bit OTT and far-fetched. It has its moments, but mostly it’s just a really compelling and entertaining story. I struggled a bit understanding the detective’s private life (having not read the first book in the series), but I loved the atmosphere created, particularly in the glimpses of the Riverview guesthouse and Snow’s suspicious church. I wouldn’t say The Taken is the most original mystery novel I’ve ever read, but it’s definitely well-written and a bit of a page-turner.

Pier Review: A Road Trip in Search of the Great British Seaside by Jon Bounds and Danny Smith (2016)


I picked this book up at the RNLI Lifeboats shop on a daytrip to Blackpool in June. The blurb promises an ‘eccentric’ road trip, in which the two authors travel England and Wales in an attempt to visit all remaining piers in just two weeks, and a ‘nostalgic’ take on ‘Britishness’. It’s fair to say I went into this expecting one thing, but got something quite different. It’s also fair to say that’s no bad thing. Yes, to some extent, this is a travelogue about a journey around 55 piers (plus a couple of ‘bonus’ ones), but it’s also an exploration of class, masculinity and insecurity. If it engages with ‘Britishness’, it’s as a vague, intangible concept, and the ‘nostalgia’ is always delivered with a knowing bite. This is a road trip in the Hunter S. Thompson mould, with as much attention given to the constant booze consumption and unwashed clothes in the car as there is to the marine architecture outside it. But it’s a compelling tale (not quite non-fiction travelogue, not quite novel), with a thought-provoking sense of darkness and detachment that culminates in a just brilliant chapter at Pontins in Southport. At times, I felt that the exploration of class and masculinity could’ve gone further – some points hint at profundity but don’t quite dive down to its depths – but the book makes up for this with some wonderfully evocative and somewhat virtuoso descriptions. And, appropriately, Blackpool is a highlight (for the reader, if not for the writers).

Friday, 11 October 2019

My Year in Books 2019: September

I didn't seem to get much time to read in September. And I haven't been able to find the time to write this post until now, either. Not my strongest month on the old reading-for-pleasure front, but at least I've got something to show for it in the end!

My posts for the rest of the year are here: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August

But here are the two novels I read in September...

The Dark Room by Minette Walters (1995)


Having really enjoyed all the Minette Walters books I’ve read so far, I thought I’d give The Dark Room a go. Jane Kingsley (known as Jinx) wakes up in hospital following a car accident. She is badly injured, and the staff tell her that she tried to kill herself by crashing her car. Jinx finds that hard to believe, but she can’t remember the accident itself. She also can’t remember any of the events leading up to it – she doesn’t even remember that her upcoming wedding has been called off, as her fiancé has jilted her for her best friend. Jinx’s rich, overbearing (and vaguely threatening) father has paid for her to stay in a private hospital, under the care of Dr Protheroe (who claims he’s not a psychiatrist). When the bodies of Jinx’s ex-fiancé and ex-friend turn up – murdered in a similar manner to Jinx’s late husband – the police start to wonder whether her amnesia is entirely genuine. The Dark Room has a lot of the hallmarks of Walters’s fiction that I’ve loved in the other books I’ve read – unreliable narration, snippets of newspapers articles and reports interspersing the narrative, careful character studies broken up by a pervasive nastiness (in this case, a subplot involving a series of brutal attacks on prostitutes) – but sadly there was something missing here, and I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as The Sculptress or The Scold’s Bridle (and definitely not as much as The Shape of Snakes, which is an incredible book).

The Sewing Machine by Natalie Fergie (2017)


My mum lent me this one, as she’d really enjoyed it. I know why she liked it – The Sewing Machine is the story of a series of people from different points in the twentieth century, whose lives are connected by a Singer sewing machine. The book is set (mostly) in Edinburgh, so it combines two things my mum loves – her hometown and her old hand-crank Singer. She thought I’d enjoy it because it has multiple narrators, and an interweaving of past and present (and she’s right… I do like those things in fiction). And I did enjoy the way the book switches between the different times and characters: from Jean, who works in the Clydebank Singer factory in the early part of the twentieth century, until her boyfriend is forced out of work following the 1911 strike, to Kathleen and Connie, a mother and daughter in the mid-century, who both rely on sewing to make ends meet, and then Fred, a young man in the early twenty-first century, who arrives in Edinburgh to clear our his late grandfather’s flat and discovers an old sewing machine (with a story to tell). It’s a charming story in many ways, and I love the central conceit. However, I found the book almost impossibly overwritten. The most mundane and everyday actions and objects are described with overly elaborate language and artificial gravitas that I found rather grating. Not a lot happens in The Sewing Machine – and this should have been part of the charm.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

My Year in Books 2019: August

I have to be honest here, August was not a good month. Sadly, my father-in-law passed away at the beginning of the month, after a battle with cancer. It's been very tough, and I haven't been in the mood for discovering new books or experimenting with random charity shop purchases as usual. All I've really wanted was to read a bit of comfy (but good) escapism, something I know and love, something I know I'll enjoy. And so... I turned to a series I've read a couple of times already (or, at least, I've read most of them a couple of times). Weirdly, I finished the last book in the series today, so my August post is entirely focused on the one series. But it is a very good series.

(In case you're interested, here are my posts from the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June, July)

And here are my reviews for August...

Extraordinary People by Peter May (2006)


August was a tough month, and I decided I wanted a bit of comfort reading, rather than to discover something new. So, I turned to Peter May’s Enzo Macleod series. I’ve read the first five books a couple of times (though I’ve only read Cast Iron once, when it came out), so I knew what I was getting with these ones! And, obviously, I really like them. Extraordinary People is the introduction to May’s larger-than-life amateur sleuth, Enzo Macleod. He’s a half-Scottish, half-Italian former forensic scientist, who now lives in France and works as a university lecturer. He’s also got Waardenburg syndrome (giving him a distinctive white stripe in his hair and odd-coloured eyes), two daughters (Kirsty, with his estranged ex-wife in Scotland, and Sophie, with his deceased French partner), a Citroen 2CV and a penchant for playing blues on the guitar. In so many ways, Enzo shouldn’t work as a character – he’s too self-consciously ‘cool’ (or, at least, what a middle-aged man might think is cool!), and he’s too good at everything (he spends most of his time embarrassing French police officers with his insights into cold cases) – but he does. I put that down to May’s excellent writing. It’s just weirdly easy to get hooked on Enzo and his rag-tag gang of assistants. Extraordinary People sees Enzo attempting to win a bet by solving one of France’s most notorious unsolved murders. It’s great cold case fun, complete with cryptic clues left with body parts and a high-octane finale.

The Critic by Peter May (2007)


Since I’m definitely going to be rereading the entire series of Enzo books, these reviews aren’t going to be as separate as usual… they’ll probably just flow into one long review in the end. Extraordinary People introduced Enzo Macleod and his quirky band of helpers: daughter Sophie and her muscle-bound (but surprisingly knowledgeable) boyfriend Bertrand, student Nicole (who is, apparently, a whizz on computers, though really this just means she’s better on c.2007 Google than her professor), impossibly-French journalist Roger Raffin, who isn’t really a ‘helper’ but rather the author of the book of famous unsolved cases that has sparked Enzo’s quest, and psychologist Charlotte, Raffin’s ex and Enzo’s sort-of current squeeze. The Critic sees the gang investigating the murder of famous wine critic Gil Petty, whose body was grotesquely displayed in a vineyard in Gaillac, after having apparently been pickled in wine for a year. There’s a lot to like about this one, not least the very informative descriptions of wine production and tasting. May strikes a good (and very entertaining balance) between developing the ongoing saga of the main characters’ private lives – will Enzo and Charlotte make a proper go of it? will Enzo reconcile with Kirsty? will poor Nicole be able to continue at university? is there any limit to Bertrand’s hidden depths? – with puzzling, and rather old-school, mysteries to be solved. While there’s plenty of angst in the characters’ lives, there are also a healthy number of clues to the murder for the reader to ponder.

Blacklight Blue by Peter May (2008)


Blacklight Blue sees Enzo tackling the third of Raffin’s famous unsolved murders… though he doesn’t actually know he is until part way through the story. The book begins with some pretty dramatic stuff… Kirsty’s best friend is killed in an explosion, and it looks like Kirsty herself was the target. Bertrand’s gym is burnt to the ground, and all the signs suggest arson. And Enzo gets a diagnosis of terminal leukaemia. Is this the end for Enzo and the gang? Well… obviously not, but it is a sign that someone is trying to do them some serious damage. And when Enzo is framed for murder, he gets a clue that suggests who might be behind the attacks. Blacklight Blue has an interesting narrative technique in that the story of the investigation is intercut with flashback chapters told from (we presume) the killer’s perspective, so that the reader is acquainted with some information ahead of the main characters. May handles this well, as although we get the information, it’s not always immediately possible to fit it all together, so there’s still a puzzle to be solved. The series has hit its stride now, so there are some series-long strands that are picked up, but not resolved, in this one. As well as the individual cases from Raffin’s book, it seems that Enzo is facing a bigger challenge that lingers in the background. I’m really enjoying rereading these ones – they’re really fun ensemble stories with cerebral mysteries and puzzles to be solved.

Freeze Frame by Peter May (2010)


Freeze Frame breaks out of the mould of the rest of the series, which is fair enough (nice to have a bit of variety). However, I think it’s probably my least favourite as a result. The big change is that, for the most part, Enzo is flying solo in this one. Aside from a short visit from Charlotte, the rest of the gang are absent throughout Freeze Frame, which is a shame. Enzo travels to Brittany to investigate the murder of Adam Killian, the next case from Raffin’s book. Before he died, Killian asked his daughter-in-law Jane to ensure that no one touched his study until his son Peter had a chance to find the message he’d left. Unfortunately, Peter died before he could get to the study, and so Jane has simply preserved the room, hoping that one day someone will be able to find and decipher whatever it is Killian has left behind. Like Blacklight Blue, Freeze Frame includes chapters (at the beginning this time) from the perspective of other characters. Unlike the previous book, these go into quite some detail about the events leading up to the murder. This is also slightly disappointing, as I feel it gives just that little bit too much away, and the puzzle is somewhat less cryptic as a result. Nevertheless, it’s still a fun read. Charlotte’s appearance is a little ominous – she has unsettling news for Enzo and behaves in quite an unfriendly (and unfair) way. Their story’s not over yet…

Blowback by Peter May (2011)


Blowback begins in a similar way to Freeze Frame – Enzo’s on his own for this case. He’s investigating Raffin’s fifth case, the murder of 3* Michelin chef Marc Fraysse seven years earlier. The Critic gave May chance to indulge in some meticulous descriptions of wine; Blowback sees the same treatment dished out (no pun intended) to haute cuisine (although, to be fair, this is often paired with descriptions of the wine that accompanies it). Enzo travels to the victim’s famous restaurant in Puy-de-Dôme to reopen the case, which originally had precisely zero suspects. As I say, he’s initially flying solo, but he soon makes friends with the (unusually) helpful local gendarme, Dominique. I’m not going to give any spoilers, but some other members of the gang do make an appearance. Blowback is notable, perhaps, for having the strongest identification of Enzo with a victim. He really feels a connection with this one, for reasons that become clear in the first half of the book (readers may be surprised). Interestingly, May decides to drop the technique of interspersing chapter from the killer’s POV (which were used in the last two books), in favour of a glimpse into the mind of the victim. I like this – it lends the book a slightly different feel to the others. Enzo is still too cool for school in this one – and continues to be (slightly bafflingly) irresistible to women – but a bit of unexpected backstory gives some depth to this. On to the last one…

Cast Iron by Peter May (2017)


There was a bit of a wait for the last Enzo book – it was published six years after the fifth one – and I (like a lot of fans) was initially disappointed to find that the series would end after six, not seven, books. After all, Enzo is supposed to be investigating the seven notorious cases in Raffin’s book. I first read Cast Iron shortly after it was published, and I remembered it being a pretty decent finale to the series. Now that I’ve reread it, I take that assessment back: Cast Iron is an excellent finale to the series! Enzo’s taking on the sixth case – the murder of a young woman from Bordeaux called Lucie Martin – and the gang’s properly back together. Not only that, but a character who hasn’t been seen since The Critic also has a part to play. Cast Iron draws together loose ends dangling from the other books – especially Blacklight Blue (which ended with a pretty hefty unanswered question) – but also turns the individual cases into a series proper with some big reveals. Yes, there’s a little bit of a cheat with the introduction of a previously unmentioned plot point (no spoilers!), but I’m inclined to let it off with this. There’s some genuine (and upsetting) peril for a couple of characters, a rather cinematic climax, and some personal revelations for Enzo. All in all, a great way to wrap up the Enzo Files. I’m just a bit sad the series is finished, to be honest.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

My Year in Books 2019: July

Another month gone, and time to do my run-down of the books I read for pleasure. I didn't really get chance to do much reading in July, but I've got four novels on my list, so that's not too bad.

In case you're interested, here are my book reviews from the year so far: January, February, March, April, May, June

And here are my reviews for July...

Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson (2000)


I’ve still not quite finished the pile of books I bought on my charity shop binge in Bakewell – but I’m working on it! I started this one last month, but I haven’t had as much time to read for pleasure recently as I’d like, and it took me longer to finish it than expected. Monkey Beach is Robinson’s debut novel, and I’m pleased to say it was a break from the genre habits I tend to let myself get into. Monkey Beach is the story of Lisamarie Hill, a Native Canadian (specifically Haisla) girl. When Lisamarie’s brother Jimmy goes missing, she sets out to join her parents in the search. During her voyage to meet them, she reflects back on her childhood and the experiences that have led them to this point. Told in a fragmentary – almost dreamlike, in places – style, Monkey Beach is a haunting story that takes in both the personal tragedies of the Hill family, and the broader picture of First Nations cultures and identities. While Robinson doesn’t shy away from presenting the darker side of (post-)colonial First Nations life (referencing the trauma of residential schools, and depicting alcohol and drug use), this is combined with lyrical and poignant descriptions of spiritualism and traditions. The sections describing Lisa’s relationship with her Ma-ma-oo (grandmother) are particularly compelling, as is the almost-shadowy figure of her enigmatic Uncle Mick. There’s no denying that bad things happen in Monkey Beach, but the haunting prose imbues even these with a mystical quality.

The Confession by Jo Spain (2018)


I think this one is the last of the Bakewell charity shop pile! My mum and I were quite taken with Jo Spain’s DCI Tom Reynolds novels, so I was pleased to find a copy of this novel while I was browsing. The Confession is a standalone psychological thriller, which begins with a brutal (and apparently completed unprovoked) attack on semi-disgraced Irish financier Harry McNamara. A man walks into his house and beats him to a pulp with a golf club, in front of his horror-stricken wife Julie. To make matters more confounding, this man then walks straight to the police and hands himself in. He claims not to have any motive or pre-existing relationship with Harry McNamara – but is he telling the truth? The Confession is a whydunit, rather than a whodunit. It switches perspectives between Julie (Harry’s wife), JP Carney (the man who’s confessed to the attack), and third-person chapters detailing the police investigation. Julie and JP are interesting characters, and the background of Ireland’s boom-and-bust economics is well-drawn. And although this is a standalone thriller, Spain can’t seem to resist giving her police officers a bit of backstory too. I read this one quite quickly. It’s an enjoyable page-turner. My own quibble would be that there’s quite a big plot development, and I didn’t quite buy that the police wouldn’t have made the connections a little faster. Nevertheless, I definitely enjoyed this one. Spain’s a really good writer with a real talent for storytelling and character creation.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths (2018)


As you may have read in previous review posts, me and my mum have been reading Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway detective series. And, as you may remember, I’ve become a little frustrated with the series and didn’t really enjoy the last one I read. However, that doesn’t seem to have stopped me picking up another book by Griffiths! The Stranger Diaries is a standalone Gothic-inflected crime novel, set in the world of literature rather than archaeology. Clare Cassidy is a secondary school English teacher who loves Victorian Gothic novels. While the school she teaches in is low-rated state school in danger of academization, the building incorporates part of an old house that once belonged to Gothic author R.M. Holland. Clare is fascinated by Holland and is in the process of writing a book about him – but then one of her colleagues is bumped off in a manner reminiscent of Holland’s best-known short story. The story is told through alternating narrators and diary entries (a self-conscious nod to Victorian fiction, particularly that of Wilkie Collins), and sections of Holland’s ‘The Stranger’ intersperse the narrative. And I really enjoyed it! It’s an old-school mystery novel with supernatural accents, and it’s a real page-turner. The use of multiple narrators is done well, with the same events being described from different perspectives, and the fictional R.M. Holland casts an intriguing shadow. Personally, I found The Stranger Diaries more effective and gripping than the Ruth Galloway novels – let’s see if my mum agrees with me…

My Sister's Bones by Nuala Ellwood (2016)


Decided to take a rare day off and wanted a quick read – something that I knew I could finish in a day. I bought My Sister’s Bones at a charity shop in Cleveleys (day out with the parents-in-law). It’s clearly a domestic noir (which I’ve sworn off), but it’s been favourably compared with The Girl on the Train, so I thought… what’s the harm? As I started reading it, I remembered… they’re all favourably compared with The Girl on the Train. And it’s never a fair comparison. My Sister’s Bones is not great. It’s overwritten (the most egregious example being a description of someone putting vinegar on chips that takes three sentences and includes the phrase ‘pungent brown liquid’), and the storyline is riddled with implausibility and inconsistency. Kate is a journalist, who returns to Herne Bay from Syria with PTSD. Her sister Sally is an alcoholic who has stayed in Herne Bay. They don’t interact for most of the book – the title is seriously misleading, as there are no ‘bones’ and very little about ‘sisters’. Kate is staying in her recently deceased mother’s house, despite the fact that she had no relationship with her mother and shows no desire to clear or look after her mother’s possessions. She keeps hearing a child screaming and comes to believe that the neighbour is in an abusive relationship. It all builds to a ludicrous climax involving a dungeon under a shed (no apologies for the spoiler). This isn’t a recommendation from me.

Sunday, 30 June 2019

My Year in Books 2019: June

I only got chance to read three novels this month, sadly, as other stuff kept getting in the way. I'm halfway through a fourth one at the moment, but since there's only six hours of the month left, I think I'll have to save that one for my July post!

So, here's my (shorter than expected) post about the books I read in June. In case you're interested, you can see the posts from the rest of the year here: January, February, March, April, May

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris (2011)


Back to the pile of books I bought on a tour of charity shops in Bakewell (and I’ve still got quite a few to get through!). Despite having read a few duffers, I’m definitely enjoying the surprise factor with the books I’ve read this year. I’ve been consciously avoiding reading reviews, and only skimming blurbs, when I choose titles, so I’m going into most books with no real expectations. This was the case with Gillespie and I – a stonking book (the edition I read was over 600 pages long) set in late Victorian Glasgow. I’ll be honest, surprise factor aside, this one was a bit of a disappointment. The narrator is Harriet Baxter, an unmarried woman in her 30s who travels to Scotland from London after the death of her aunt. Arriving in Glasgow for the International Exhibition, Harriet stumbles into the lives of Ned Gillespie, an artist, and his family. She becomes close to the Gillespies, but tragedy is just around the corner. Or rather, not quite around the corner, because it’s around 250 pages before anything dramatic actually happens. There’s a fantastic conceit at the heart of Gillespie and I (no spoilers, but remember I do love an unreliable narrator), but the execution just didn’t do it for me. It’s extremely slow-paced, and once you’ve twigged the game Harris is playing (which I did, sadly, quite early on), it feels even slower. Sadly, I have to say that this one was just too much of slog for me.

The Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths (2018)


Briefly breaking off from my Bakewell purchases to read a book my mum lent me. She’s become quite taken with Elly Griffiths’s Dr Ruth Galloway series, ever since I lent her The Janus Stone. I think she’s been catching up with the whole series, but I seem to just be dipping in and out. I’ve read the second and ninth titles; The Dark Angel is the tenth book, so at least it wasn’t too jarring a leap from the last one I read. This book sees Ruth Galloway travel to Italy to help out Italian archaeologist Angelo Morelli with a perplexing find. Ruth once had a one-night-stand with Morelli – of course she did! – so the book, like the previous titles, is just as concerned with the investigators’ private lives as with any murder or mystery. In fact, this was even more pronounced in The Dark Angel. The creepy archaeological enigma outlined in the blurb and preface is brushed away almost immediately (a massive disappointment), to be replaced with a rather bloodless tale of a murdered priest. This death is almost entirely eclipsed by the ongoing saga of marriages, affairs and pregnancies that proliferate throughout the series. This time, it’s Ruth coming to terms with Harry’s wife Michelle being pregnant, and Shona thinking about cheating on Phil. In truth, it’s more like a soap opera than a crime series, and I just found The Dark Angel a bit of a let-down. Might leave this series for my mum from now on.

A Place of Secrets by Rachel Hore (2010)


Back to the books I bought in Bakewell charity shops… and I’m really not sure I read the blurb on this one carefully at all. Turns out that A Place of Secrets is much more of a romance than I normally read. But hey! surprise factor! The book tells the story of Jude, a woman with a PhD in eighteenth-century studies who works for an auction house. Jude is asked to handle the sale of a collection of books at Starbrough Hall in Norfolk, which (coincidence!) is the estate on which her grandmother grew up. Jude travels to Norfolk, reconnects with her sister and niece, and discovers that the latter is suffering from the same bad dreams that troubled her as a child. As Jude delves into a mystery in the rare book collection – a missing teenager from the 1700s – she also tinkers around with a puzzle from her grandmother’s past, possible supernatural occurrences related to an old folly on the Starbrough estate, the potential sale of said folly by a dastardly landowner, her grief over her dead husband, and her feelings for a hunky writer/animal-lover who lives in the cottage where her grandmother once lived. There is a lot going on in this one, but it’s handled with a light-hearted, almost fluffy, touch… and a helluva lot of coincidences. The way the solutions to the various mysteries dovetail is almost too much to swallow… but I still found the story rather charming, in its own way. Maybe I’m mellowing.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

My Year in Books 2019: May

Another month of book reviews from me. I found a bit of time to read a selection of genres, though I seem to be quite fixed on female authors. Maybe I need to challenge myself to read more male authors? Something to think about, perhaps...

In case you're interested, here are the other posts from 2019 so far: January, February, March, April

And here are the books I read in May...

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton (2006)


I picked up The House at Riverton from the charity book sale shelf at my local supermarket – probably the last title I’ll get from there, as it’s pretty much depleted now. I don’t really know much about Kate Morton, and this is the first of her books I’ve read. The House at Riverton is a Gothic-inflected-but-not-quite-Gothic tale of a long-ago tragedy that still haunts its survivors (or, rather, survivor) in the present day. The narrator is Grace – now in her late nineties – who was once a housemaid at Riverton. She is approached by a filmmaker who is producing a film about the tragedy, and this encourages Grace to remember and reflect on what happened all those years ago. As a narrative conceit, I quite like this one. And I will admit that the book is engaging and entertaining (though a little overlong). However, its more interesting features are sadly thoroughly derivative, and Morton doesn’t quite do a good enough job of masking the direct influences. The most apparent, for me, was Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, a book that I have to say I enjoyed far more. There are also shades of The Remains of the Day, Titanic and Upstairs, Downstairs, which occasionally made themselves too apparent. Nevertheless, it’s not a bad story, and I did enjoy it. I think I would have enjoyed reading Grace’s own story more – the two daughters (the Mitford… I mean Hartford sisters) of the eponymous house at which she works are just less interesting.

The Outcast by Sadie Jones (2008)


This next one was one of the books I picked up in Bakewell in April. I’ll admit I skim-read the blurb, and I assumed it would be kinda along the same lines as The House at Riverton – tragic secret tears a family apart, past comes back to haunt the present. However, The Outcast doesn’t quite go along those lines. The book begins in 1957, with a young man called Lewis Aldridge being released from prison. The story then jumps back to 1945 – and the return of Lewis’s father from the war – before moving through the decade between his father’s homecoming and his arrest. The book’s second half returns to 1957 and focuses on the weeks following Lewis’s return home. I have to admit, I didn’t really enjoy this one. The version of the 1950s here is a bit of cliché – no one talks about their emotions, everyone is repressed, and appearances are all that matters. The characters are, on the whole, pretty unpleasant, and the horribleness is unrelenting (until the incongruously upbeat ending, which comes out of nowhere). Part of the problem is that the story hops from school holiday to school holiday – we never see Lewis at school, or in prison for that matter – making it difficult to fully engage with him a character. Instead, he is simply an unlikable young man doing unlikeable things in a village full of unlikeable people. Dark storylines are fine by me, but this one lacks even a glimmer of warmth or wit.

One Click by Andrea Mara (2018)


I got an Amazon Prime free trial (needed one-day delivery on a gift), and thought I’d see what eBooks are available with the service. I didn’t think I’d find anything to my taste to be honest, but then I saw One Click and liked the cover design. (I know, don’t judge a book… etc. etc.) I guessed from the blurb that it was a domestic noir with a twist – and yes, I know I’ve sworn off those – but I was still interested. And I was right to be – I really enjoyed One Click. The story is about a psychologist called Lauren who runs a photography blog on the side. On holiday in Venice, Lauren takes a quick pic of a woman on the beach and posts it to Instagram with a cheeky hashtag. She doesn’t give it much thought until the picture starts to get traction, and the comments start rolling in. Amongst the comments is an anonymous message demanding to know who the woman is… and the poster is not letting it go. Things escalate to nastier trolling, and Lauren begins to wonder if someone is watching her. And if, somehow, it’s got something to do with the woman on the beach. Admittedly, the red herrings are a tad far-fetched and there’s a whopper of a coincidence to get over, but One Click is still really good. The social media aspect is well-handled and realistic (a rare thing). I read this in a single sitting and definitely recommend it.

The Sculptress by Minette Walters (1993)


Needed a comfort read, and since I read The Shape of Snakes last month, I decided to reread The Sculptress (okay… maybe it’s a bit odd to describe Minette Walters as a ‘comfort read’!). I loved The Sculptress when I first read it, but I was really surprised how quickly I went through it the second time. The eponymous sculptress is Olive Martin, a morbidly obese woman in prison for the brutal murders of her mother and sister. Author Rosalind Leigh is pressured by her publisher to interview Olive and write a book about the case. Roz is reluctant at first, but on meeting Olive she becomes intrigued by the case… but also by the woman herself. Olive pleaded guilty and offered no defence, but no one has ever been able to determine why she killed her mother and sister. Roz initially plans to discover the woman’s motive, but instead becomes fixated on the inconsistencies in the original investigation. This leads her to cross paths with Hal Hawksley, the arresting officer in the Olive Martin case, and to a subplot involving Hal’s failing restaurant. I didn’t quite enjoy The Sculptress as much the second time round, but I think that’s because it was just such a revelation when I first read it. I still rate it as a brilliant book with an amazing ending (but you need to hang right on to get it). The Sculptress isn’t a murder mystery as such, but it’s a wonderfully dark and unsettling thriller.

The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey (2012)


This isn’t the sort of book I normally read – I’m not a massive fan of pop history, especially not ‘dramatic’ tales of the aristocracy. However, we had a trip to Haddon Hall in April, and after a (rather silly) conversation with my other half, I was curious when I spotted The Secret Rooms in the gift shop at the hall. All around Haddon Hall are testaments to the wonderful life’s work of the ninth Duke of Rutland, who restored the hall after it had lain abandoned for nearly two centuries, and yet the gift shop was selling a book that promised to reveal the deep, dark secrets of that very duke. Although I read the book out of sheer curiosity, I thoroughly enjoyed it. While The Secret Rooms is indeed an exposé of the shameful secrets of the ninth Duke of Rutland, Bailey’s book is packed with detail and context that are just as interesting as its main line of research. This is an examination of the uses and abuses to which the aristocracy put their mind-numbing privilege and status. While Bailey keeps a balanced tone – even sympathetic, at times – the final reveal of the Duke of Rutland’s secret is presented with a disdain that I fully shared. I found The Secret Rooms utterly gripping, and Bailey does a good job of avoiding the melodramatic tone that could so easily have been adopted. All in all, this book was a big surprise, and I’m really glad I picked it up.

The Scold's Bridle by Minette Walters (1994)


Since I’ve read a couple of Minette Walters’s books this year and really enjoyed them, I thought I’d give The Scold’s Bridle a go. This one is much closer to a standard murder mystery: an older woman named Mathilda Gillespie is found dead in her bath, wearing a scold’s bridle (a historic torture device used to punish women for speaking) on her head. Although the police initially think her death was suicide, there are suggestions that someone else might have been involved. If it was a murder, the suspects seem to be Mathilda’s daughter and granddaughter (who didn’t like her very much), the local GP Sarah Blakeney (who did), and Sarah’s artist husband Jack (who probably did). For all its ‘classic’ set-up, The Scold’s Bridle goes to some pretty dark places, and there’s an unsettling story that lies beneath the (admittedly) larger-than-life characters and domestic unrest. I didn’t enjoy this one as much as The Sculptress or The Shape of Snakes (by far the best book I’ve read so far this year), but that’s mostly because the story unfolds like a particularly demented episode of Midsomer Murders. However, Walters’s characteristic rug-pulling isn’t completely absent. It was well worth sticking with all the back-and-forth of Sarah and Jack’s marriage problems to get to the truth about Mathilda Gillespie. As with the other two books by Walters I’ve read, I’m very glad I didn’t skip the last page. Walters is definitely the queen of unreliable narration – and that’s absolutely fine by me!

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

My Year in Books 2019: April

I'm carrying on my blog review project for another month... though I've pretty much gone back to crime fiction and some favourite authors for this month. No domestic noir for me in April!

In case you're interested, here are the other posts so far from 2019: January, February, March. But here are the books I read in April...

Beneath the Surface by Jo Spain (2016)


I discovered Jo Spain in December, when I bought a copy of her first novel (With Our Blessing) in a charity shop. I enjoyed the book and passed it on to my mum. She enjoyed it so much, she immediately went out and bought two more of Spain’s novels. And now she’s passed those on to me. Beneath the Surface is the second book in the detective series, so it features the same team of detectives as With Our Blessing. D.I. Tom Reynolds is called to investigate a murder at Leinster House, the seat of the Irish parliament. Ryan Finnegan, a highly-regarded government official, has been shot – and the suspects are made up of the great and the good of Irish politics. I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as With Our Blessing, but that says much more about my tastes than Spain’s writing. I loved the Gothic atmosphere of the snowed-in convent at Christmas in the first book, and the world of politicians, civil servants and lobbyists wasn’t quite as creepy and evocative. However, Spain’s writing is great, and Beneath the Surface is definitely another page-turner. I also really liked the good balance Spain struck between political intrigue and murder mystery (even if I did spot the killer a little bit too early!). The detectives here are easy to like, and their personal lives don’t dominate too much. A warning though… there are With Our Blessing spoilers in this one, so best to read the books in order.

Sleeping Beauties by Jo Spain (2017)


I decided just to go straight to Jo Spain’s next book – also lent by my mum. Sleeping Beauties is another mystery for D.I. Tom Reynolds and his team, though at first it seems to be quite a different sort of crime novel to Beneath the Surface. The book begins with the discovery of a woman’s body at the tourist spot of Glendalough. The body has been buried in a shallow grave, and the detectives quickly work out that it’s missing woman Una Dolan. But they also realize that there are four other grave sites in the same area – Reynolds’s team are faced with a serial killer. While Sleeping Beauties does tread familiar ‘hunt for a serial killer’ ground – there’s some profiling, lots of working out the ‘type’ that the victims adhere to, some pretty grisly and unsettling details – it is still a mystery. As in her previous books, Spain is keen to follow the same rules of detective fiction that you might find in older mysteries (the killer is always someone who has appeared in the story before, for instance). There are also some neat clues – one in particular that I really liked (no spoilers!) – that make this a proper whodunit, rather than a procedural thriller. Again, Spain strikes a good balance between the case and the detectives’ private lives, though I must admit I found myself really rooting for one non-case-related storyline a bit more than I thought I would. A well-written and compelling read – definitely recommend this one.

The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths (2017)


I read one of Elly Griffiths’s Dr Ruth Galloway novels last month, after buying it from a charity book sale at the supermarket. This month, I discovered another book in the series on the same shelf so I thought I’d give it a go. It was kind of a weird experience. The previous book I’d read was the second in the series (The Janus Stone), but The Chalk Pit is the ninth – so I was picking up with characters nearly seven years after I’d last seen them. However, the basic set-up remains the same: Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist who helps the Norfolk police out with their investigations. D.I. Harry Nelson is the lead cop for the series (and his relationship with Ruth is… complicated). In The Chalk Pit, bones are discovered on an underground building site (which is also how The Janus Stone kicked off, but that’s fair enough, since there’s very little other reason to bring in a forensic archaeologist) – certain markings on the bones lead Ruth to suspect something very sinister has been going on under the streets of Norfolk. When Nelson’s team are contacted about a missing homeless woman, the picture starts to look even creepier. This is an entertaining read, with some interesting bits about tunnels and catacombs (and some virtuous commentary on homelessness and rough sleeping). However, as with The Janus Stone, the book tends to get a little bogged down in the ongoing (increasingly complicated) soap opera of the detectives’ private lives.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson (2018)


I’m a big fan of Kate Atkinson’s novels (though weirdly not, as I discovered last year, of her Jackson Brodie books). Behind the Scenes at the Museum is one of my favourite books of all time, and I really loved Life After Life and A God in Ruins – now there’s a book with a twist. Like Life After Life and God in Ruins, Transcription is partly set during WWII, though (as with the other two) there’s a good chunk that takes place after the war as well. Transcription is a spy novel, and it follows the story of Juliet Armstrong, who is recruited into the Secret Service to help with an operation to root out Fascist sympathizers in Britain. As befits a spy novel, the task Juliet is given is sometimes murky and uncertain, and the chain of command isn’t always clear. The story moves between 1940, when Juliet is working for MI5, and 1950, when Juliet is working for the BBC; however, the war casts long shadows, and the 1950 storyline sees figures from the past coming back to confront Juliet. Transcription is written in Atkinson’s characteristic style, so it’s full of things that are unsaid, unclear and confusing. Everything is connected, though, and the book builds towards an ending that is full of revelations. And yet, it’s also a spy novel, so that ending also leaves some questions unanswered. The historical details in Transcription are really captivating, and Atkinson draws you into Juliet’s world with her usual brilliance.

The Shape of Snakes by Minette Walters (2000)


Don’t know where to start with this one – this book devastated me (I literally stayed up all night to finish it, so I’m shattered too). I really enjoyed The Sculptress, but haven’t actually read any other books by Walters. So I thought I’d give The Shape of Snakes a go. The book begins in Richmond in 1978, with the death of a woman known as ‘Mad Annie’. Annie is the only black person on the street and has suffered a variety of torments at the hands of her white neighbours. As we learn early on, Annie also has Tourette’s (hence the ‘Mad’ soubriquet), and drinks to self-medicate. Annie’s death is recorded as an accident, but the narrator (known only as ‘M’ or ‘Mrs Ranelagh’) believes she was murdered. And she is not for letting that go, even when the neighbours turn on her. However, all of this happens before the story really begins – the bulk of the book takes place in 1999, when M returns from overseas ostensibly to investigate, but actually to resolve the unsettling situation. You may know that I’m fond of unreliable narrators – and M is just that. There is so much to the story that the narrator is withholding from the reader in this one. It’s a deeply disturbing book (with violence, sexual assault, racism and animal cruelty – be warned), but so incredibly well-constructed and well-written that it completely blew me away. The last page reduced me to uncontrollable tears – that’s how you write an ending!

Surfeit of Lampreys by Ngaio Marsh (1941)


I recently had a bit of charity shop binge while we were staying in Bakewell (there’s a lot of charity shops in Bakewell). The Shape of Snakes was one of the books I bought – the next one on the pile was Surfeit of Lampreys, which is quite a different kettle of fish. I haven’t read a huge amount of Ngaio Marsh – I’ve never rated the Inspector Alleyn books quite as high as some other Golden Age detective fiction – but I’ve enjoyed the books I have read. And Surfeit of Lampreys is certainly enjoyable. The book introduces the Lamprey family, a gaggle of charming eccentrics who coast from financial crisis to financial crisis without getting particularly ruffled about it. The early section of the book is mostly concerned with setting up the characters (the many Lampreys, and their friend Roberta Grey) and their idiosyncratic lifestyle. However, things take a darker turn when the Lampreys’ boring (but rich) Uncle Gabriel is murdered at their London flat. It’s up to Inspector Alleyn to work out whodunit. Surfeit of Lampreys is a curious book: the fatuous, fashionable silliness of the Lamprey family is juxtaposed with a particular brutal and grisly murder, and the investigation takes place almost entirely at the scene of the crime. It’s a wonderful – and very entertaining – character study, with some light-hearted commentary on the finances of the landed gentry, but the puzzle at the heart of it isn’t quite as fiendish as it first appears. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed it.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

My Year in Books 2019: March

Another post in my ongoing book review series. I read quite a few novels this month, though I must admit I was a bit disappointed by some of them. I apologize in advance for the overuse of the word 'Sigh' in my reviews. Still, there were some that I enjoyed, so it wasn't all bad.

(For the curious, here are the links to my reviews from January and February.)

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn (2018)


Sigh. I feel like I’ve relapsed back into my old habit. Last month, I mentioned this blog post by Sophie Hannah, listing books with ‘twist endings’. I also said I’d be reading the six titles on the list that I’ve not already read. With one exception, these are all… domestic noir. And if you read my reviews from last year, you’ll know my feelings on this genre. The Woman in the Window is, sadly, not even a good example of domestic noir. Agoraphobic and alcoholic psychologist Anna Fox watches her neighbours from her window. One day, she believes she sees one neighbour (Jane Russell) being murdered… but Jane’s family insist that it hasn’t happened. Nobody believes Anna’s story, because she’s clearly an unreliable witness… but can she prove that she really saw what she thinks she saw? Blatantly derivative, the book blends plot elements from Hitchcock films (Rear Window and The Lady Vanishes being the most obvious) with ‘twists’ reminiscent of other domestic noir thrillers (especially The Girl on the Train and We Need to Talk About Kevin). I think one of my big problems with this genre is that I like unreliable narrators, but domestic noir thrives on narrators who are called unreliable, but actually are telling the absolute truth. Spoiler alert: what Anna thinks she saw is indeed exactly what happened. Sigh. The Woman in the Window is clichéd and poorly written (I can’t take another synonym for ‘drink’), and I don’t think the ‘twists’ were really twists.

The Wife Between Us by by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen (2018)


Right. That’s it. This is definitely the last one. I really can’t read any more domestic noir. Once again, I’ve fallen for the promise of MASSIVE TWISTS, and once again I am disappointed. The Wife Between Us is absolutely in the mould of The Girl on the Train. We’ve got an unreliable (possibly alcoholic) first-person female narrator, a horrible ex, and a new girlfriend that’s a source of… jealousy? But (and this obviously goes without saying) things are not what they seem. The first-person chapters are narrated by Vanessa, the ex-wife of a man named Richard, who appears to be obsessed with the man’s new fiancée. Interspersed with this are third-person chapters describing Nellie’s preparations for her upcoming marriage to Richard, and her concerns that someone is following her. The first twist comes at the end of Part 1, but I have to admit I saw it coming. Perhaps if the book’s blurb hadn’t been so insistent that, if you think Vanessa is a jealous ex obsessed with her replacement, ‘you will be wrong’, the ‘twist’ would have been more of a surprise. Following this, there are three (maybe four, depending on whether you’re surprised by the revelation that Richard isn’t very nice) additional twists, each more far-fetched than the last. The final reveal – in the book’s epilogue – is just silly. Sadly, this is not a recommendation from me, though I might be in a minority with this one. It feels like a paint-by-numbers domestic thriller, and it’s quite disappointing.

Innocent Blood by P.D. James (1980)


So, I decided to carry on with Sophie Hannah’s ‘twist list’. (I notice that some people on Goodreads have called it that, and that they’ve been just as completist as me – nice to know I’m not alone!) I couldn’t face any more of the domestic noir titles, so I went with the P.D. James novel on the list. Now, I read a few P.D. James novels last year, and I’m pretty sure I came to the conclusion that her books are not really my cup of tea. But I didn’t let that put me off. Reader, I should’ve let it put me off. Innocent Blood is not a pleasant read. It’s the story of a (unlikeable) young woman, Philippa Palfrey, who decides to trace her (unlikeable) birth parents, partly to spite her (unlikeable) adoptive parents. Philippa quickly locates her birth mother and decides to attempt a relationship with the woman… but are there secrets still to be discovered? In short: no, there aren’t. I think I know the reason the book was including on a list of ‘twists’, but the revelations in Innocent Blood are fairly obvious. I must’ve misread an earlier scene, as I thought the ‘big reveal’ had been described from the beginning. Added to this, the book has James’s usual judgemental tone that I find discomforting, and a shock revelation in the epilogue that just seems distasteful. Sadly, this month’s theme seems to be ‘books I didn’t enjoy very much’, which is a bit of a shame.

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson (2008)


I’m not having much luck with this ‘twist list’, am I? But I’ve decided to press on with it… what’s the worst that can happen? Well, it turns out… not Before I Go to Sleep. This one was alright. I pretty much knew what I was getting into with this one. I like 50 First Dates. I like Memento. So I imagined I’d probably enjoy a mash-up of the two. Christine Lucas is a 47-year-old woman with a form of anterograde amnesia, meaning that she wakes up every morning with no memory of who she is or what has happened to her. Each morning when she wakes, her husband Ben eases her into the day and explains their life together and her condition (aww… sweet). The story begins on one such day, but after Ben leaves for work, Christine gets a message to meet a Dr Nash. He’s been treating her (secretly) for several weeks, and reveals that Christine has been keeping a journal each day to help with her recovery. When she opens the journal, she’s shocked to see the words ‘Remember Sammy Jankis’ ‘Don’t Trust Ben’ written on the front page. What is her loving husband hiding from her? And can she trust Dr Nash? Or herself? This was a very quick read (just a few hours), but an enjoyable one (albeit requiring some suspension of disbelief). I did guess the twist part way through. But do you know what? It was actually a twist this time. Finally!

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris (2016)


Last book on the ‘twist list’ – the completist in me rejoices. Sadly, I think I saved the worst for last though. Behind Closed Doors isn’t an enjoyable read. And it certainly doesn’t have a twist. It does exactly what it says on the tin (well, the blurb anyway). To outsiders, Jack and Grace have the perfect relationship. But ‘behind closed doors’, Jack is an abusive psychopath who keeps his wife imprisoned and punishes her for any transgressions. This was not a pleasant book to read. It’s pretty offensive to survivors of domestic abuse – or ‘battered wives’, as the book repeatedly calls them – and utterly unrealistic about the mechanisms of abuse or the patterns of coercive control that result in people staying with abusive spouses. It’s also very demeaning of people with Down’s Syndrome: Grace has a sister with Down’s Syndrome (Millie) who is slated to be Jack’s next victim, and the representation here is highly problematic. Jack threatens to throw Grace’s (almost adult) sister ‘into an asylum’ if she doesn’t comply with his bizarre abuse fantasy – and at no point is it noted that this… just isn’t a thing. The storyline doesn’t go any further than this, and there are certainly no twists. I know that domestic noir thrives on bad husbands, but at least there’s usually some semblance of confusion or doubt thrown in. There’s very little suspense or intrigue here, leaving this as simply a book that left a bad taste in my mouth. Sadly, one to avoid.

Arrowood by Laura McHugh (2016)


This next book is one I found on a charity book sale shelf at my local supermarket. I’d not heard of this one, but it promised a ‘Gothic mystery’ so I thought it was probably worth a go. And I’m happy to say this was the right decision. McHugh’s novel is a compelling Southern Gothic tale about a young woman haunted by the past. Arden Arrowood returns to her home town of Keokuk, after her father dies and she inherits the (crumbling) family home. Arden and her parents left Keokuk around sixteen years previously, after the mysterious disappearance of Arden’s twin sisters. Despite an extensive search, no trace was ever found of the two toddlers, and this past tragedy casts a long shadow over Arden (and her family). Returning to Arrowood, Arden is forced to confront this unsolved mystery, especially as a writer is determined to interview her for a book he’s writing about the case. Arrowood’s mystery isn’t particularly original, but I was definitely gripped by the way it developed. More than this though, I loved the descriptions of Keokuk and its various run-down historic houses. The town takes on a character all of its own, and I’d have been quite happy to defer the revelation of what happened to the twins in order to spend more time in this faded, jaded place. If you fancy a Southern Gothic mystery with some evocative descriptions, cleverly placed clues, and a compelling central puzzle, then this one is a definite recommendation.

The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths (2009)


Another one from the supermarket charity book sale. This one looked pretty cool: it’s a detective story where the central character is a forensic archaeologist. Ruth Galloway (the archaeologist investigator) is called in when bones are discovered at a construction site. A child’s body is found buried underneath an old house that’s being pulled down on the site. It’s quickly revealed that the house was once a Catholic children’s home, and that – several decades earlier – two children disappeared from the home. When the cause of death is revealed, Ruth is drawn into the murder investigation with DCI Harry Nelson (and some help from her Druid friend Cathbad and fellow archaeologist Max Grey). This was an okay read, but it didn’t completely grab me. It’s quite clear from the start that this is the second book in a series (I haven’t read the first one), and that the relationships between the characters were established in the first instalment. Normally, this doesn’t matter too much in crime series. However, I felt like these relationships dominated the story too much. The balance between the investigators’ private lives and the actual investigation wasn’t quite right – if you isolate the ‘case’, it’s really quite light on story and intrigue. And, sadly, the murder mystery itself is pretty obvious – I think I worked out every single one of the reveals. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the characters of Ruth, Harry and Cathbad, but I would’ve rather had a more intriguing puzzle to draw me in.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

My Year in Books 2019: February

I've decided to carry this little blog series on for another month, keeping track of all the books I've read for pleasure in short 250-word reviews. I didn't get chance to read a huge amount this month - mostly because I had a lot of essays to mark, and a few books to read for work and radio projects. But still... here are my reviews for February...

(In case you're curious, here are the books I read this January.)

Perfect by Rachel Joyce (2013)


I picked this one up from a book sale shelf at the College of the Third Age when I was there to give a talk. Once again, it was an intriguing blurb that got me. I’m not familiar with Rachel Joyce’s other books, though I think I must have seen The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry advertised or reviewed, as the name rings a bell. Perfect tells the dual stories of Byron Hemmings, an eleven-year-old boy at private school in 1972, and Jim, an older man with OCD in the present day. Byron’s story begins with the boy’s concern at learning that two seconds are going to be added to ‘time’ (really, the atomic clock) in order to compensate for the leap year. Byron is so discomforted by the thought of the extra seconds, he accidentally sets in motion a chain of events. While the story unfolds slowly – and the events in the chain are pretty mundane on the whole – there is an ominous atmosphere that suggests we’re heading to a bad place. Byron and his best friend James come up with the idea of Operation Perfect, a plan to get things back on track and to save Byron’s troubled and fragile mother Diana from impending catastrophe. I enjoyed this one a lot, though I sometimes struggled to engage with the characters. The novel is peopled with ever-so-slightly larger-than-life creations, and some motivations and behaviours are a little arch. Overall, though, Perfect is a rather captivating – if somewhat sad – novel.

The Narrow Bed by Sophie Hannah (2016)


In my ongoing (frequently thwarted) quest to find the ultimate literary twist, I stumbled upon this blog post by Sophie Hannah, written as publicity for The Narrow Bed back in 2016. I very much like Hannah’s definition of a twist here, as it’s close to my own feelings about the difference between a ‘reveal’ and a ‘twist’. I’ve read nine of the books on the list already, and am planning to read the other six. But it seemed polite to begin with Hannah’s own book! The Narrow Bed is the tenth book in Hannah’s Spilling CID series – I read the second book in the series last month, but haven’t read any of the rest yet. The set-up of this one was very intriguing: a serial killer is targeting pairs of best friends, leaving little white books with the victims as a calling card. But when comedian Kim Tribbeck – a woman with no friends, let alone a BFF – gets one of the books, it looks like the police might be wrong about the pattern. Admittedly, this is a book with a ‘reveal’ and not a ‘twist’, but that’s not a problem for crime fiction. And I enjoyed everything about The Narrow Bed (especially the character of Kim)… except the reveal. There were plenty of clues, which I picked up on, but no way of working the mystery out, as the reveal is so incredibly complicated and far-fetched, the reader has no chance. Great writing – but a disappointing resolution to the mystery.

Friday, 1 February 2019

My Year in Books 2019: January

In 2018, I kept a running blog series with short-form reviews of all the novels I read for pleasure (i.e. not ones I read for academic essays, reviews or my radio show - even though many of those are very pleasurable!). This was my 2018 New Year's Resolution, and I'm very pleased that I managed to stick to it for an entire year.

Not sure how this will go, but I really enjoyed doing the blog series and I'm going to try and continue it through 2019. I guess if it stops being fun then I'll stop doing it, but for now here's the first post of the year: the books I read in January.

Thieving Fear by Ramsey Campbell (2008)


Having overdosed a bit on crime fiction last month, I decided to start the new year with some horror. And I was in the mood for some Ramsey Campbell. I mentioned in a post last year that there are a few titles in Campbell’s back catalogue that I’ve not read, so I picked Thieving Fear (as I seem to keep saying in these posts, I found the blurb intriguing). I’m very glad I picked this one, as it was right up my street. The book centres around four cousins – Ellen, Charlotte, Hugh and Rory – and the consequences of a seemingly innocuous camping trip they had ten years earlier (spoiler alert: it turns out not to have been completely innocuous). And the beauty of Thieving Fear is that that’s all it’s about. It’s a slow-burning powerful study of horror, which I found truly visceral and discomforting. It’s not a book that conjures complex worlds, adversaries and mythologies – things that Campbell is certainly good at doing in his other works – but rather an unfolding series of horrors that are rooted in common and recognizable nightmares. There’s an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia in this one, and there’s a problem with communication that gradually escalates as things go on. The book’s strength lies in the way the claustrophobia and miscommunication are evoked so strongly that the reader feels as confined and haunted as the characters. Just what I want from a horror novel – and I swear I’ve been able to smell soil ever since.

The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor (2018)


As I’m skipping between horror and crime, this next one seemed like it would be a good choice. I didn’t know much about The Chalk Man – I stumbled upon it in a charity shop in Aberystwyth in November – but one of the many (many) soundbites on the cover describes it as being halfway between horror and crime, so I thought I’d probably enjoy this one. Sadly, that was not the case. The premise is okay: bad/bizarre things happen to a group of kids in the 80s, then thirty years later the former friends come back together to face up to some unanswered questions. The book’s chapters switch between 1986 and 2016, though it focuses entirely on the experiences of first-person narrator Eddie. If this sounds a little bit familiar, several of those many (many) blurbs draw comparisons between Tudor’s novel and the work of Stephen King. The front cover even carries an endorsement from the master himself, stating that his fans will definitely enjoy The Chalk Man. Far be it from me to argue with Stephen King, but this book is simply a pale imitation of his work (and it’s definitely more imitation than ‘inspired by’), particularly IT, The Body and Pet Sematary. While the book has some intrigue and is reasonably readable – and it is, after all, substantially shorter than IT! – the plot is far-fetched and the characters clichéd. There are also a few anachronisms in the 1986 sections that grated on me. Overall, a bit of a disappointment.

Hurting Distance by Sophie Hannah (2007)


The next book was also one I found in a charity shop in Aberystwyth while we were there for Abertoir last November. I know a bit about Sophie Hannah’s writing and I’ve read some of her poetry, but I’d never read any of her novels until now. Hurting Distance is a crime thriller, and I found out afterwards that it’s the second in a detective series. Given that I didn’t notice it was the sequel to an earlier book as I was reading it, it’s clearly not a problem if you read them out of sequence! Hurting Distance is told through alternating first- and third-person narratives. The first-person narrator is Naomi Jenkins, a woman whose married lover Robert has vanished (she addresses her narration directly to Robert). The third-person narration is the police investigation that begins when Naomi reports Robert’s disappearance. There is, of course, much more to this, as detectives Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse discovered. Robert’s wife Juliet insists that he isn’t missing, and Naomi takes a strange – and criminal – course of action to force the detectives to reconsider. It’s a compelling and well-written tale, with a couple of really neat bits of plot and character development that I appreciated. It is a thriller, so some of the twists and turns are a bit larger-than-life (and I did see most of them coming), but I did very much enjoy it because, while the crimes may seem far-fetched, the victims were scarily plausible (and not all thrillers manage that).

It's Always the Husband by Michele Campbell (2017)


Another charity-shop-in-Aberystwyth book… and I must admit I picked it up purely for the title. During my little foray into domestic noir last year, I was frequently found shouting ‘It’s always the husband!’ (amongst other criticisms), so I couldn’t resist this one. Sadly though, this isn’t a satire of the domestic noir’s tropes – it is a straightforward whodunit thriller. The title is a reference to the fact that when a wife dies, the husband is the most likely suspect, rather than a comment on domestic noir (in which, let’s be honest, it’s always the husband). So, taking Campbell’s book for what it is, and not for what I hoped it’d be… it’s the story of Kate, Jenny and Aubrey, who are roommates for Freshman year in college and ‘best friends’ (though they don’t seem to really like each other). The book switches between chapters set during their drink-and-drug-heavy university days (shades of Tartt’s Secret History) and the present day, when the three women end up back in their college town, 40 years old and married. The shadow of something bad that happened in the past hangs over them, and it’s not long before something bad happens in the present. But whodunit? I really didn’t engage much with this book – I didn’t like the characters or find them plausible – until the final chapter. I can’t say much without spoilers, but Campbell pulls something off I’ve only ever seen Agatha Christie do – and the ending totally redeemed the entire book for me.

The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Home (2011)


This book was actually a Christmas present for my mum. She read it and then passed it on to me (as she sometimes does). I hadn’t heard of Douglas-Home’s series before, but I thought that Scottish crime fiction involving islands and the sea would be perfect for my mum. And I was right – she loved it. The Sea Detective introduces Cal McGill, an oceanographer whose PhD thesis involves developing modelling tools for tracking items that have washed ashore, and for finding ways to identify where these items went into the sea. Of course, as this is a crime novel, Cal’s skills are quickly required to help the police solve tricky cases (though not with the wholehearted support of the force). There are three mysteries to be solved in The Sea Detective: the discovery of three (apparently) severed feet on different bits of the Scottish coast; the fate of two young girls from India trafficked into the sex trade; and Cal’s own background and the death of his grandfather during WWII. This last story is by far the most compelling part of the novel, taking in the history of a (fictional) abandoned island and long-kept secrets. The other two plotlines are a bit patchier, and overall I felt that the writer tried to cram in too much story for a single novel. I also felt that Cal’s specialist skills were rather side-lined in favour of more traditional investigation techniques. I enjoyed the book, but I would’ve liked more sea, less police.

The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith (2009)


I love Stephen Frears’s 2013 film Philomena, the story of an Irish woman hooking up with a former political journalist to search for the son she lost in the 1950s. Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench) fell pregnant out of wedlock and was sent to Sean Ross Abbey; she gave birth to a son, who was adopted at three years old by an American couple. Philomena never saw her son again. The film is a quirky road trip, featuring an ingenuous older woman and a curmudgeonly journalist who believes he’s ‘above’ human interest stories. ‘Martin Sixsmith’ is a character in the film (played by Steve Coogan), and the story is as much about his own personal development as it is about Philomena’s. I decided to read Sixsmith’s earlier book-length account – now retitled to match the film – to find out more about this intriguing story. I was sadly disappointed. Despite claims to the contrary, the book isn’t about Philomena or her search for her lost child. Sixsmith doesn’t interrogate his own role in the story, as happens so beautifully in the film. Instead, the book is a heavily fictionalized biography of Michael Hess (the son of Philomena Lee), chief legal counsel to the Republican National Committee. The book is uneven – it flits between (interesting) commentary on the Reagan era and the AIDS epidemic, and pruriently speculative anecdotes about the late Hess’s private life, relationships and sexuality. This is definitely a rare case of the film being way better than the book.