Tuesday, 1 January 2019

My Year in Books 2018: December

Well... I did it! I stuck to my New Year's Resolution for an entire year! I read loads more novels for pleasure (i.e. in addition to the ones that, while still very pleasurable, I had to read for work, review or my radio show), and I kept up with my short reviews for each one.

And I'll let you into a little secret... while I did say that my reviews were going to be a maximum of 250 words, in fact every single one was exactly 250 words. I didn't intend to do that, but the first one I wrote was dead on 250, and I thought it would be interesting to see how long I could keep that up. It was actually quite a fun exercise (well, my idea of fun anyway), and I might keep going into 2019 with it.

You can read the other Year in Books posts here: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November

And here's the final list - the books I read in December.

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon (2018)

Each year, we stay in a cottage in Cornwall for the week before Christmas. As in most holiday cottages, there’s a little shelf of paperbacks, and this book had been left by another guest since our last trip. It’s interesting that I started the year discovering Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, and then ended it with Three Things About Elsie, as they have much in common. Cannon’s book is about Florence, a woman in her eighties who is having trouble remembering things (the ‘D’ word is mentioned a couple of times, but the book takes a broader view on memory, grief and ageing than simply a diagnosis). Florence spends her time talking to her best friend – the eponymous Elsie – and generally being a thorn in the side of the staff at Cherry Tree supported accommodation. One day, a new resident moves in, and Florence is sure it’s a man named Ronnie Butler – but Ronnie died in 1953, and Florence is forced to try and remember what happened sixty years ago (with a bit of help from Elsie). This is a book that deals with the terror that comes from having no one who will listen – or hear – what you’re trying to say to them, but it’s also much more than that. It’s a celebration of the ways in which we are all connected, and how one life can touch and change others (even if it’s not apparent at the time). Moving, thought-provoking, compassionate – but above all, charming. Highly recommended.

Bats in the Belfry by E.C.R. Lorac (1937)

My mother-in-law has bought me quite the collection of British Library Crime Classic books over the years. I like to save most of them for when we’re on our pre-Christmas getaway, as there’s something special about reading these Golden Age gems in an isolated cottage on a Cornish cliff-top. The first one I read this year was Lorac’s Bats in the Belfry – though it’s a London mystery rather than a country house one (which might have been more fitting). Lorac’s mystery revolves around Bruce Attleton, a once successful writer who is happily living off his actress wife’s income. Attleton’s friends – Neil Rockingham and Robert Grenville – become convinced their friend is being blackmailed by a sinister (possibly foreign) man named Debrette, and they decide to do a bit of investigating. Their search takes them to a bizarre and incongruous old building in Notting Hill. Known as the Belfry (or, sometimes, the Morgue) this decrepit old pile was once a religious house but is now a run-down studio favoured by artists. And it seems Debrette has been renting it. Things take a confusing turn when both Attleton and Debrette go missing, and so Rockingham and Grenville turn to C.I.D. (in the shape of Lorac’s regular detective Chief Inspector Macdonald) for assistance – but is everything as it seems? With an excellent (as always) introduction from Martin Edwards, Bats in the Belfry is everything I want from a BL Crime Classic: atmospheric, evocative, and with a strong sense of place and time. Loved it.

Murder at the Manor: Country House Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards (2016)

And I continued my holiday foray into the BL Crime Classics with a collection of short stories. This anthology is a selection of country house mysteries, selected and edited by the excellent Martin Edwards, whose knowledge and affection for Golden Age detective fiction is evident in every title in the BL’s series. This collection is themed around setting – all of the stories take place in what is, to some degree or another, the country seat of a landed family, though (as Edwards points out in his introduction) Golden Age fiction often engages directly with the changing face of the country house through the various socio-political shifts of the twentieth century. Not all of the houses here are still ‘in the family’, and not all of them are as cosily domestic as they might once have been. Nevertheless, all the selected stories share the ‘closed circle’ of the house party mystery, in which a small but often diverse group of people are thrown together for a short time. The stories collected here vary from the ‘straight’ murder mystery (e.g. ‘The Problem of Dead Wood Hall’ by Dick Donovan) to the thriller (e.g. ‘An Unlocked Window’ by Ethel Lina White). There’s even a light-hearted parody of the subgenre from E.V. Knox (‘The Murder at the Towers’). Bookended by pre- and post-Golden Age stories (‘The Copper Beeches’ by Arthur Conan Doyle and ‘Weekend at Wapentake’ by Michael Gilbert), this anthology gives a great overview of the pleasures and perils of the country house.

Cuckoo by Sophie Draper (2018)

I picked this up in the supermarket on a whim while we were away – I don’t know why, as I’d packed enough books to keep me going for months. I had a bit of debate whether to read this or the Christmas-themed BL Crime Classic I’d been saving for the festive season, but in the end decided to go with Draper’s book – and it turned out to be a win-win, as a large part of Cuckoo is set at Christmas too! It’s also the perfect book for reading in a cottage in the middle of nowhere. The blurb intrigued me, but I was sort of expecting something along the lines of other psychological thrillers I’ve read this year: a woman goes back to clear her family home after the death of her stepmother (who hated her). Being back home brings back painful memories of her childhood, and she’s forced to confront the long-buried secrets from her past. Okay, okay – clearly I’m a sucker for this type of plot, as I’ve read at least two other books with that exact premise this year. But… Cuckoo blew me away. I genuinely stayed up for hours unable to put it down (clich├ęd as that may sound). It’s dark, unsettling and compelling – but it’s also incredibly well-written and just a really good story. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Cuckoo is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and this is totally down to Draper’s excellent storytelling. Loved it.

Portrait of a Murderer: A Christmas Crime Story by Anne Meredith (1933)

Time for another BL Crime Classic, and one that I was saving for the festive season. Although, as it turns out, it’s not wasn’t the most festive book I’ve ever read! Meredith’s novel is an unusual one. Its set-up is very much that of a Golden Age whodunit – an unpleasant man gathers his family together for Christmas at the country house, only to be murdered by one of the guests – but the book is actually a thriller, and a rather cynical and hard-edged one. This isn’t a whodunit, as the reader sees the murder taking place, and is then offered a first-person insight from the murderer as to the reasons and motives. What emerges is a book that almost works as a dissection of Golden Age detective fiction, which reveals the things that are never said in country house mysteries and the subtle obscurities that we fans take for granted. All of the characters in the book are given some backstory and explanation that allows us to see them as people, rather than simply characters in a well-trodden formulaic plot. Most fascinating, for me, is the detail given to one of the housemaids who, in any other book, would have been simply a felicitous plot device. Meredith does a great job of reminding us that all those oodles of undifferentiated servants bustling through Golden Age mysteries are really people with pasts, families, hopes and ambitions. This is not a cosy novel by any means, but it’s certainly an interesting one.

With Our Blessing by Jo Spain (2015)

Another impulse purchase from when we were on holiday – this time, a book I picked up in a charity shop in Truro. And would you believe it? It’s also set at Christmas (or at least the run-up to Christmas)! This is Jo Spain’s debut novel – she’s published (I think) three others since. I’ll admit, Spain’s wasn’t a name I’d come across. I picked the book up because it looked like a good atmospheric winter read, and I’m a sucker for ‘crimes of the past haunt the present’ storylines. And my instincts were right – I really enjoyed this one! The book begins with a prologue set in 1975 – a young woman gives birth in a Magdalene laundry, and her baby is taken from her by the nuns before she can even hold it. The book then moves us into 2010, and D.I. Tom Reynolds is called to investigate the murder of an unidentified elderly woman found mutilated and displayed in Phoenix Park, Dublin. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that the woman turns out to have been a nun, and that the investigation leads Reynolds and his team to a (very atmospheric – and snowed-in) convent. This is a chunky book (surprisingly long for a debut novel), but a real page-turner. The underlying motive for the crime didn’t come as much of a surprise, but Spain’s writing style is engaging and the setting is beautifully evoked. A solid contemporary crime novel – I’m glad I picked this one up.

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