Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Summer on the River by Marcia Willett

I've always been meaning to read a book like this, the kind with an attractively artsy cover that makes you think of summer holidays. You feel you will be in for a gentler kind of story, the characters are probably taking time out from their working lives, there will be summer romance and lots of walks along the seaside, in this case in Dartmouth. What's there not to like?
    Summer on the River is the story of Evie and her family by marriage: in particular Charlie who reminds Evie so much of her gorgeous late husband, Tommy, and Charlie's difficult wife, Ange, so good with the London wine business but a bit mean. Ange is not keen to share the Merchant's House, which has been in the family for generations, but which Tommy left to Evie in his will, shock horror! Worse still, Evie has let the house to Charlie's cousin and doppelganger, Ben, recently separated and a bit hard up.
    Things get interesting when Ben meets Jemima, an attractive letting agent. When Jemima mistakes Charlie for Ben on a later date, sparks fly and there is obvious chemistry between them. It seems as if history repeats, as the scenario is similar to when Tommy met Evie, and they embarked on a long-term, extra-marital affair. What a shame it is Charlie, already married and with his life dictated by the need to run the family business with wife Ange, and not Ben who is a free agent.
    Into the mix Willet adds a family secret, which Tommy left Evie to sort out; as well as an unhinged stranger with a vendetta of his own against Evie which goes back to her years as a junior history lecturer. So there is plenty going on for the characters and a carefully orchestrated plot that keeps the reader amused until the last page.
    In the background there is Dartmouth, lovingly described, from busy regatta scenes, to tasteful bars and cafes as well as charming gardens. Architecture gets a look-in too, as characters are treated to tours of the Merchant House, Jemima's flat with a view and Evie's renovated boathouse full of light and overlooking the water.
    So much to enjoy with the setting, but unfortunately, I rather tired of the characters and all their indecisiveness - to spill the beans or not spill the beans; to begin an affair or not begin an affair - limping through the book chapter after chapter. There was such a lot of infidelity talked about, I was ready to assume Ben and Charlie were more than just cousins, after all why were they constantly mistaken for each other, or had everyone left their specs at home?
    Summer on the River made a pleasant break from the more meaty fare and chilling mysteries often on my bedside table. It was nice to be in Dartmouth, a place I've never visited, and Willett lays it all out vividly for the reader. But the dialogue was too saccharine for this reader and the characters too irritating so I probably won't be lured by this kind of cover again. A pity.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The Green Road by Anne Enright

The Green Road is a little gem of a novel, managing to be entertaining as well as crafted, with engaging characters, all of whom belong to the same family: the Madigans from County Clare. They all converge on the family home one Christmas because their mother, Rosaleen, has decided to sell the old house, a decision that throws them into a chaos of emotions.
    Before all that happens, though, we are treated to the individual stories of Rosaleen and her four children. Dan upsets his mother at the beginning when he decides to become a priest. Years later he's in New York, living with his old girlfriend from home, while dabbling in the gay scene. Enright's perspective on New York in 1991 and the terrible shadow of AIDS is told through the eyes of Greg, HIV positive and lamenting the friends he has lost. The tone is pitch perfect, vivid and moving.
   And suddenly it's Constance, the older daughter, still living near her mother with a family of her own.  Her scattered thoughts as she waits for a mammogram appointment fill in the details of her life and her concerns for her mother and the difficulties around their relationship. For Rosaleen isn't easy. She's deprecating and demanding at the same time - no wonder her children have almost all deserted her.
    After Constance, we are swept to Mali where Emmet, Rosaleen's younger son, works with an aid organisation, living with his girlfriend, Alice. He loves Alice but finds it difficult to show this. Emmet has an offhand manner which helps him deal with the horrors of his surroundings, but it doesn't help his relationship. His younger sister, Hanna, an actress in Dublin, is quite the opposite, full of temper and passion - as a child she had a tendency to burst into tears over anything; now as an adult she is inclined to drink.
    They are a family of contrasts and they bounce off each other wonderfully when they all come together, bound by the awkwardness of dealing with their mother. Sneaking in is the story of Rosaleen's devotion to her late husband, Pat Madigan, a humble farmer and socially beneath her.
    The novel sets the scene for a potent mixture of tense emotions and discord, as well as concern and reconciliation in the family's last Christmas together in the old house. There is a load of humour too - I loved Constance's endless return trips to the supermarket and her outburst when it is revealed that she has forgotten to buy coffee grounds.
    It's so very real but magical none the less. This is because of Enright's wonderful writing. I shouldn't be surprised, she's a Booker winner after all and this book was also long-listed and Costa nominee to boot, and deservedly so. Enright could make a grocery list interesting.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths by Harry Bingham

I've met Fiona Griffiths before, so I already know she's a bit peculiar, that she has Cotards syndrome which means she has a tendency to worry she's not really alive, and struggles to feel the emotions expected in a given situation. This makes her an interesting detective, to say the least. In this book she's a young DC working out of Cardiff when a body is discovered with links to a small case of payroll fraud.      
   The weirdness of the death doesn't immediately seem connected to a wider criminal network, but that is just what it will turn out to be with millions, if not billions of pounds at stake. When another death occurs on the south coast of England, a brutal slaying that screams murder by execution, two police forces join ranks and isn't it just fortunate that Fiona has just done a course in undercover policing.
    National undercover training is the toughest police course on offer and most who attempt it fail. Not our Fiona though and her weird mental condition is probably helpful here; she can always step outside herself, and not being good at connecting with her feelings is for once a good thing.
    The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is in part a testimony to the life of the under-cover police officer, making it much more than your standard crime novel. Although there's plenty to keep you on your toes, the story is more measured than your usual whodunnit. Fiona has to develop her legend: in this case she is to be Fiona Grey from Manchester, where she's escaped an abusive relationship, is living in a hostel while working as a cleaner. Her caseworker has ambitions for Fiona though, encouraging her to apply for and gain a position as a payroll officer. She finds work at Western Vale.
    We get to know all about this alter-ego, see her find a flat and to come home to find one Vic Henderson in her only armchair. And suddenly Fiona is part of the gang, falsifying payroll data to create bogus accounts which don't particularly seem to be all that lucrative. We can only guess that this is a small part of a much bigger swindle. Henderson is not the boss, but he is in charge of 'security' and becomes Fiona's intermediary with the big boys. They don't exactly hit it off, he's menacing for all his attempts at charm, but there is a whiff of chemistry.
    Fiona Grey is easily bullied, and there's a touch of Stockholm Syndrome in the way she gets on with Henderson. Meanwhile Fiona Griffiths is trying to remember what it is like to be with her boyfriend Buzz, the best thing that has ever happened to her. As the months go on, Fiona struggles to remember who she really is and there is a wonderful tension in the way she has to rally herself to be the police officer she needs to be to wind up the case and see justice served.
    The novel builds up to a tense and exciting showdown where all of Fiona's policing instincts return as well as that mental toughness of hers that can take over when she needs it. It's a great story brilliantly told in that immediate first person, present tense that works so well with a character like this. This really is one of the more promising crime series around and I'll be catching up with Fiona again for sure.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer

Just when you start to think there can be no new way to write a crime story, Belinda Bauer pulls out the proverbial rug and thrills the reader with this highly original page turner. If anyone could do this I suppose it would have to be Bauer who has an amazing way of getting into the heads of her characters and what interesting characters they are.
    First off there is Patrick Fort from a tiny hamlet near Brecon, Wales. He lives with a mother who doesn't like him because he's Aspergers, with a fascination for dead animals, and because her husband was killed in a hit and run when collecting Patrick from school after an 'incident'. Patrick has trouble with his temper, though most of the time he's clear-headed and unfailingly logical, making casual chit-chat difficult. Bauer paints a claustrophobic picture of the two living together in misery. Thank heavens Patrick has his bike and is happy to cycle for hours across the gorgeous Welsh countryside giving the two of them a breather.
    Then there's the coma patient at the hospital who is slowly becoming aware of his situation and provides an interesting commentary of what it is like being a coma patient and the oddities of the behaviour of nursing staff and visitors. When he sees a doctor murder a patient in the next bed, he makes more of an effort to communicate what he has seen but it's hard work and the tension rises up a notch or two.
    The disability quota at a university in Cardiff allows Patrick to take an anatomy class. He and several med students spend the lesson time slowly taking apart a cadaver in order to determine cause of death. While the other groups of students find cancer and mortal injuries, Patrick's group has trouble with theirs - the heart doesn't look too bad and the brain yields no tumours - until Patrick, who is looking like winning the top student award, finds a clue. And it looks like murder.
    The race to uncover the facts before the body is released to the relatives for burial drives the plot along, as do Patrick's antics. There are some crazy scenes at Patrick's student flat which add light relief. You need the light relief, as the anatomy class scenes can be grisly and the coma ward scenes are harrowing in their own way too.
    Things become worse when no one will take Patrick seriously and he keeps getting into trouble. Fortunately he finds a sympathetic ear in Meg, his fellow student, who patently likes him even though Patrick is unable to say if she is pretty or not. He just can't tell. The story hums along with a final showdown with the perpetrator, as you might expect, and a happy reconciliation or two towards the end with plenty of surprises.
    What a brilliant crime novel this is - not too long,  you'll read it in a day, and every word counts, which is as it should be. Deeply satisfying.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback

A book set in the Swedish Lapland, in 1717, is new terrain for this reader, while the cluster of homesteads on Blackasen Mountain is a fresh start for the Paavo, Maija and their daughters, fourteen-year-old Frederika and her six-year-old sister Dorotea. They are from Finland having exchanged a property with an uncle. On arrival they discover a house in poor repair and neighbours who are suspicious and nervous. Not that they meet the neighbours until the girls discover the body of a man while herding their goats.
    Paavo holds back but Maija has enough gumption to have a look for herself, and  do something about it. She walks to the nearest house to get help and slowly gets to meet the neighbours: Gustav, an ex-soldier with what we might call post-traumatic stress disorder, Henrik and Lisbet who are more helpful, and Elin Eriksson, the wife of the deceased. At first it is assumed that Eriksson was killed by a wolf, but when Maija helps wash the body, the wound has marks to suggest a blade.
    The story is in part a mystery around Maija's determination to discover what really happened. Frederika, who has a kind of sixth sense and frequently feels the presence of the dead man, also gets involved. Then as summer lapses into autumn, the arrival of the Lapps who leave their goats with Maija, adds complications. Frederika is drawn towards the shamanism that the Lapps have been forced to give up for Christianity, on pain of death. Elin Eriksson has also been suspected of sorcery and is still not trusted.
    It is left to the priest, a one-time royal favourite named Olaus, to uncover the culprit and to ensure the farmers and villagers alike adhere to the strict dictates of the church, but he has faults of his own and a wavering confidence. Olaus and Maija form an unlikely alliance, however, in their quest for the truth.
    While the novel carries the reader along with the gradual revelations that will lead ultimately to the unmasking of the murderer as well as secrets that have been hidden for years, this book is so much more. I was fascinated by the setting, the descriptions of the hardships of a Nordic winter, the glimpses of the Lapps' way of life, but particularly the historical period of a Sweden constantly at war, and a memory of witch hunts which creates a sense of unease and powerlessness among ordinary people.
    The translation of Wolf Winter is never clunky, there is a sense of immediacy in its narrative style which really draws you in and the characters are very likeable. There is just so much to enjoy here - a gripping story and an evocative atmosphere. Marvellous.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

The Detective's Daughter by Lesley Thomson

This is the first in a promising series by Lesley Thomson featuring Stella Darnell, a solitary forty-something who runs a cleaning company called Clean Slate. Her father, Terry Darnell, a career policeman, had always wanted her to join the force, but a messy divorce and Stella's resentment that he'd always put his job before his daughter meant that she preferred to do her own thing. She likes things tidy, obsessively so, and being her own boss; Clean Slate is perfect, until Stella's father dies.
    Cleaning out her dad's house, Stella comes across a file that fascinates her: the case Terry was working on when suddenly struck down by a heart attack. Even though he was retired, Terry couldn't forget the murder of Kate Rokesmith, strangled in broad daylight while walking with her four-year-old son near the river at Hammersmith Bridge. Her husband Hugh carried the stigma of suspicion for the rest of his life, while little Jonathan was sent to a boarding school to be brought up by strangers.
    So begins Stella's slow determination to complete the case on Terry's behalf. Although, as the story begins, she is battling toothache and being apparently stalked by her ex-boyfriend, Paul, who is as sinister as he is persistent. And then weirdo, Jack, turns up asking for work. She wouldn't have taken him on except, being winter, half her staff seem to be ill and new customers, including her dentist, are demanding her services.
    Jack is a meticulous cleaner but turns out to be strange in more ways than one. He has an uncanny ability to enter people's houses and take up residence without their least suspicion. He has a thing about trains and he carries a battered London A-Z which has him on a weird project only he can explain. And then there's his connection to the Rokesmith case.
    Thomson creates lots of atmosphere, starting with the houses of her father and then the late Mrs Ramsay, the batty old woman customer who dies in strange circumstances; it's amazing how creepy the houses of the dead can be. Stella is always looking over her shoulder, fearing Simon it seems. Add to the list of eerie settings the path under Hammersmith Bridge, and even Stella's own antiseptic and oddly silent apartment building.
    I read this as an ebook which strangely had no page numbering, only a daunting table of contents listing 71 chapters. It says a lot for Thomson's ability to maintain suspense that I kept reading. This is in part due to the likability or at least the quirky individuality of the characters, particularly Jack and Stella, who team up to make an original crime-fighting duo.
    There's Stella's connection to her father as well which tugs at the heartstrings, both wishing they'd had more time for each other. This is certainly an incentive for Stella to carry on with her detective work, which is good news for the reader as there are a further three in the series so far.


Saturday, 9 January 2016

Balancing Act by Joanna Trollope

You can't help feeling a little bit sorry for Susie Moran, the matriarch a the centre of this family drama. She's the successful head of her own pottery company with three talented daughters all involved in the family business. But now in her fifties she's eager to keep her finger in the pie and give her sense of creativity a bit of a boost. When a cottage comes up for sale that has connections to her old family pottery in Staffordshire, she snaps it up without involving her daughters, causing ructions that last well through the book.
    Personally, I didn't have a problem with Susie's decision and thought a bit of diplomacy all round would have sorted out her daughters, though I did worry a bit about poor old Dad. Jasper Moran has married a force to be reckoned with in Susie; she has turned a fairly moribund spongeware pottery into a thriving success story. Jasper elected to stay home to raise his daughters in their London house, his sound-proof basement studio a place to meet his fellow bandmates for the odd session, but really his musician career has been on hold for thirty years.
    The girls are just as talented as their mother, and beginning to want more of the business pie. Cara and her husband Dan run the commercial side of things, and have ideas about how to grow the business they are dying to try out. Ashleigh does the marketing, but is exhausted by her young family. When hubby, Leo, suggests he stays at home for a year, she can focus more on her work and decides she should have a more results-based salary.
    That leaves Grace, the artistic one who works at the pottery in Staffordshire. She's a bit beleaguered by a relationship that is going nowhere and tends to be pushed around by her bossy family. When their long-lost grandfather turns up out of the blue, his name being mud for having deserted Susie when she was a baby, it is Grace who feels expected to put him up at her flat.
    With a combination of restlessness, resentment, bitterness and dissatisfaction circling among the various characters, the scene is set for plenty of drama and a bit of a shake-up. The reader knows that no one will want to return to how things were at the beginning of the story and along the way there will be Trollope's amazing way with dialogue, and characters brought to life who earn the reader's sympathy. Even grandfather Morris is appealing with his stories of living hand-to-mouth on the beach in Africa, and his reasons for leaving are weirdly complex.
    Morris and Grace's boyfriend Jeff both deserve plenty of recrimination, but other males come to the rescue: Ash's lovely husband Leo and Grace's coworker Neil, for starters. The three daughters are almost from a fairytale, a modern, realistic fairytale; like fairytale traditions, the youngest is the most interesting, possibly for being more richly drawn. It's all classic Trollope - I didn't start the book with any great expectations, and while it didn't make the earth move, it was very satisfying none-the-less and surprisingly hard to put down.