Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear

It is easy to pick up a Maisie Dobbs novel, because you can be assured it will be a pleasant, diverting read, which will take you to a new aspect of between the wars Britain, with plenty of mystery, murder and drama thrown in. Even if Miss Dobbs could do with a good shaking at times. It must be all that yoga and her carefully developed sensitivity towards what lies beneath the surface of people. This is what makes her such a clever investigator, I know, but it seems to come at the expense of a sense of humour.
    Anyway, enough said. I still managed to romp through this book so it obviously held my interest.  In Among the Mad, Maisie and Billy are on their way to meet a client, when Maisie's attention is caught by a war veteran sitting on the pavement who has obviously fallen on hard times. Sensing a desperation in his manner, she is just turning to talk to him, when he blows himself up with a grenade. Fortunately, all she receives is a bump on the head, for soon she is immersed in the case.
    Letters have been received by the government referring to the death as a warning that it must take more care of ex-soldiers who have no jobs or anyone to care for them - or else! Maisie's name is mentioned, and Special Branch are taking an interest, under charismatic Scotsman, Chief Superintendent MacFarlane.  Maisie is called in to assist, not only as a witness, but to give psychological insight. D I Stratton is part of the team as well - he's appeared in previous books, and if you remember he has long carried something of a torch for Maisie.
    Examining the letters, Maisie suspects a returned serviceman who has suffered trauma and might well be an ex-patient of a mental institution. She uses her old nursing contacts to visit a psychologist in one such asylum, who offers a pessimistic view of what life can be like for those released from their care with no home to go to.
    When several dogs fall victim to a poison gas attack at the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, it appears the letter writer has chemical expertise as well. Maisie's investigations take her to a place called Mulberry in Berkshire where some 'hush-hush' type experiments involving poison gas are conducted. It seems the Germans weren't the only ones doing this. MI5 are on the spot and there is an interesting power struggle between MacFarlane and a creepy MI5 operative named Urquhart.
    Meanwhile Billy's wife Doreen has fallen into a terrible depression over the death of her daughter from diphtheria. She needs medical help, but ends up receiving some draconian treatments at an asylum. And Maisie's socialite friend Priscilla is frequently teary-eyed and turning to drink because her dear little boys remind her too much of her brothers lost in the trenches.
    We are truly among the mad in this story, and Winspear does well at showing just how easy it is to reach that tipping point between sanity and mental illness. If this sounds a bit grim, she cleverly builds the pace with plenty of dashing about in police cars, and the actions of the Special Branch team. There is a desperation in their work, for a madman capable of using gas could kill thousands of revellers celebrating New Year's Eve and the hours are rushing by.
    There's also a flicker of interest between Maisie and Stratton, and Maisie discovers that she's finally over long lost love, Simon. But whether anything else will develop with Stratton will have to wait for another Maisie Dobbs adventure.
    All in all, this is a fairly satisfying mystery, although there are a few problems in the plotting that I wondered about. The reason for Maisie being mentioned in the first letter seemed feeble; and why weren't more leads followed up to discover the connection between the veteran with the grenade and the letter writer? But these minor quibbles don't really detract from what is a very engaging story, and I am sure I shall read more in the series, because now and then Maisie Dobbs is just the ticket.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Gallery of Vanished Husbands by Natasha Solomons

This is one of those charming books, rather like Mr Pettigrew's Last Stand, which turn up every so often and make you ask: why aren't there more books like this?
    The Gallery of Vanished Husbands really only concerns one husband; in this case it is Juliet Montague's.  George is an emigre from Hungary, who turns up just after the war to work at a London optometrist's where he gives Juliet an eye test. Juliet at seventeen is a good Jewish daughter, and being somewhat bored working at her father's optical lens making factory, is ready for the next great adventure - marriage.
    Unfortunately, George turns out to be a gambler, and when their youngest is no more than a baby, he disappears for good, taking with him for reasons known only to himself, a painted portrait of Juliet as a child. Juliet is left with two children to raise alone, and the title of a deserted wife, aguna, making her something of an embarrassment - a woman who cannot keep a husband.
    The story begins with Juliet visiting London on her thirtieth birthday, money in her purse for a much needed refrigerator. Passing artists displaying their work in Bayswater, she finds herself talking to Charlie, offering suggestions, for although she has no talent as an artist, Juliet has a critic's eye. Instead of the refrigerator, she commissions Charlie to paint a new portrait of herself.
    So begins a friendship and business partnership, and Juliet, eventually giving up her job at her father's factory, is thrust into the heady London art world of the 1960s. Earning the concern and disapproval of her parents and their Jewish neighbourhood,  Juliet becomes owner of Wednesday Art Gallery, where she is immersed in the bohemian world of Charlie and his young artist friends.
    It is through Charlie that she meets Max, once a war artist whose grim experiences have left him something of a recluse, living in a cottage in the Dorset countryside, painting birds. Juliet sells his work, because it gives her that 'tingle', in spite of it being more figurative than contemporary. She can never persuade Max to appear at exhibition openings at the gallery and eventually takes her children to Dorset one summer holiday in order to meet him.
    The novel weaves the slow development of their relationship, with Juliet's eventual determination to track down her husband to ask for a divorce, taking her surprisingly to California. While her relationships are the cornerstones of the plot, each chapter features a new portrait of Juliet. Another thread is the difficulty of fitting into a traditional culture and being a good mother while developing a career. The legacy of the war and the Jewish Holocaust are shadows from the past, while the crazy 1960s create daunting new challenges for its characters as well.
     This is a wonderful book with a different view of the time, and has an engaging heroine in Juliet, who seems at first such an ordinary girl, but who manages to lead an extraordinary life. If you are interested in art, the book offers a wonderful glimpse of how a picture comes together, and if you are not, you may be tempted to give art another go to see what gives you that 'tingle'.

Friday, 18 October 2013

A Little Murder by Suzette A Hill

If Barbara Pym had decided to write a murder mystery, it might have turned out a bit like A Little Murder, with its drolly amusing characters and persistent digs at ‘polite’ society. The murder in question concerns the death of aging social butterfly and high-class good time girl, Marcia Beasley, found shot dead in her home, naked with a coal scuttle rammed on her head.
    Marcia’s sensible niece, Rosy Gilchrist, is horrified of course – not that the two were ever close as attested by Auntie’s will, which left everything to a home for donkeys. The story takes place eight years after World War II, and Marcia’s wartime history soon rears its head. Perhaps not surprisingly Marcia used her glamorous looks in an undercover role, under the bed covers that is, worming secrets out of the enemy.
    At first you might be forgiven for thinking that Rosy is going to do a bit of sleuthing to get to the bottom of things. A dinner with Marcia’s ex-husband, and a visit from a fellow wartime spy, calling himself Richard Whittington, bring to Rosy’s attention Marcia’s surprising wartime career. But while she may have been an affective spy, Marcia was also known to be reckless.
    Whittington reveals that Marcia fell for one of her pillow talkers, sabotaging an op behind enemy lines. Could this be the reason for her murder, or was it a need to suppress potentially dangerous secrets? Rosy, well aware of the latent scandal in her aunt’s past, would like the whole sorry episode to evaporate. But Whittington and another chum from the war years, dachshund-toting, cigar-smoking Vera, are sure Marcia must have left an incriminating document in Rosy’s care – if only anyone knew where to find it.
    The novel is more comedy of manners than edge of the seat whodunit with a cast of farcical characters, including fastidious Felix, florist to royalty and his supercilious special friend, Cedric. There are the vapid Saunders who throw wonderful parties, and Marica’s dreary neighbours the Gills, who bore everyone with fundraising whist drives. Hill throws in just enough murders to keep you turning the pages, and while the pace might have been improved with a little less of the Felix and Cedric banter, the wittily stylish prose and 1950s London setting add plenty of entertainment.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

Initially I wasn't sure how much I'd like Secrets of the Sea House. The main character, Ruth, has an awkward personality - she's inclined to lose her temper and has panic attacks. And then there's the mermaid theme that runs through the book, which could so easily have dragged the novel into the realm of fanciful nonsense.
    Mermaids first crop up when Ruth and her husband, Michael, move into the Sea House, a rambling old manse on the remote Scottish island of Harris. They are renovating the house to turn it into a B & B. While replacing some floorboards, builders discover the tiny body of a newborn baby, born with a mermaid-like tail appendage instead of legs. The body is over a hundred years old.
    Fortunately Ruth has a degree in zoology - she does drawings for academic publications - and knows just who to ask about this strange phenomenon, and receives a logical, scientific explanation. This was when I breathed a sigh of relief and really began to enjoy the book.
    When Ruth discovers she is pregnant, she and Michael are excited, but under pressure to finish the renovations before the end of the tourist season. Luckily Michael's brother, Jamie, and his new partner come to stay and chip in. But Ruth flips when she senses a ghostly presences in the house, and still has lingering bitterness about her own past. She has had a terrible childhood, her mother having drowned in a London canal, leaving her to be brought up in a care home. Is is possible that she will ever be a good parent?
   In the background are a host of charming island characters, particularly their neighbour, Angus John, who brings them milk every morning in a whiskey bottle. Meanwhile Ruth is determined to find out more about Reverend Alexander Ferguson, the minister who lived at The Sea House in the mid 1800s.
   The Harris parish was Alexander's first as a young minister in his mid-twenties and he has left good friends in Edinburgh and a trail of broken hearts. For Alexander has astonishing good looks, with his black hair and sharp cheek bones, descended as his grandmother would have it, from the Selkies, or seal people.
    Alexander is fascinated with Darwin's ideas of evolving species, and the old stories about mermaids, together with some fairly recent sightings, have made him obsessed with a theory to link humans with aquatic species, such as seals. With his ascetic habits and head full of notions, it comes as a jolt when Alexander has to take heed of his parishioners - particularly when he stumbles across Moira, a young girl with no home and ill from living rough.
    Moira's family has been victims of the clearances and the nasty Lord Marstone. Like other landowners turning to sheep farming, he has seen countless crofters packed off to Canada, or forced to eke out an existence on rocky or mashy land. Many died. Things get complicated when Lord Marstone's pretty daughter, Katriona, turns up at the manse wanting lessons in Gaelic.
    The novel weaves together the narratives of Ruth, Alexander and Moira, to create an absorbing story that delves into the past with threads describing the science of the day, and age-old folklore. The characters with their particular foibles, are well rounded and interesting, each learning some difficult truths and being all the better for it. In the end, I couldn't put the book down, and the bibliography hints at some interesting further reading on the clearances and legends of the sea folk.

Friday, 4 October 2013

White Horse by Alex Adams

I don't often read dystopian novels - they can be a bit grim - but they are often compelling. White Horse ticks both those boxes for sure. Set over two time periods, beginning eighteen months apart, the story chronicles events following the spread of a terrible virus. Its flu-like symptoms can kill very quickly, or alternatively they can alter human form, turning people into monsters.
    The story is narrated from the point of view of Zoe. Before the virus she's mentally fragile, unable to get her act together since the death of her husband several years before. She works as a janitor at a pharmaceutical laboratory in New York, mopping floors and cleaning out the cages of the lab mice. It is obvious there's some weird stuff  happening here. Those injections her boss, the remote George P Pope, gives her - are they really just flu shots?
    Things take a turn for the worse when a mysterious urn appears in Zoe's living room. Her handsome new therapist, Dr Rose, tells her to open the urn, but Zoe hesitates, imagining some kind of Pandora's box episode. After all, is it a coincidence that soon after the urn's arrival, people in her apartment block began to get sick?
    The storyline flips constantly between this first period (DATE: THEN) and those labelled DATE: NOW where Zoe is making a difficult journey by bicycle, through Italy, heading for Greece. All around her the world is a post-apocalyptic nightmare. There is very little fresh food, and towns and cities, where supplies still can be found, are beset with dangers - survivors willing to kill for any fresh meat.
    At times feeling ill herself, Zoe is aware that she might be succumbing to the virus, but still offers to rescue an English girl, Lisa, who is also frequently sick. As if things couldn't get any worse, they collect another fellow traveller, a nasty piece of work who is only ever named as the Swiss. He has an agenda that is only slowly revealed, and which can only mean harm to Zoe.
   The backwards and forwards plotting feeds out just enough information to allow the reader to gradually fill in the gaps, as well as making you eager to read the next chapter. The doom-laden storyline makes you fearful for Zoe, and it takes a lot of restraint not to flip to the back to check that she will be OK. As I said this is a very compelling story, a little reminiscent of Justin Cronin's Passage trilogy. As it turns out White Horse is also the first book of a trilogy but, feeling exhausted from the harrowing events of the first book, I am happy to take a breather before the next book appears.