Showing posts with label Minette Walters. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Minette Walters. Show all posts

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, 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.