Monday, 29 December 2014

Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen

I like novels when characters venture out of their normal habitat and have to establish themselves in a new one that isn't quite what they were expecting. You know this will be a good foundation for adapting, self-discovery and perhaps even unexpected happiness.
    Which is pretty much what happens to Rebecca Winter, who at fifty-nine finds she simply cannot afford to go on living in her upmarket New York apartment. There are the maintenance costs for a start, as well as the monthly fee for her elderly mother's nursing home, plus the New York lifestyle she has enjoyed for years. As the photographer famous for her 'Still Life with Bread Crumbs' she has had a good income in the past, in spite of a divorce that left her to provide for her young son alone.
    Now, however, that income stream has dwindled to a trickle. In an effort to live more simply and cheaply so she can save for retirement, Rebecca lets out her apartment and heads for the country, taking up a year's lease on a cottage in the woods she has seen only in photos on the Internet. Big mistake.
   The cottage is cold, dark and lacking in creature comforts - a bed that sags and a lack of blankets, to say nothing of a tiny electric range. Can you really cook without gas, and how to fit the Thanksgiving turkey into the tiny oven? There's no phone signal and she can't get the Internet either, which might turn out to be a good thing. Then there's the racoon in the ceiling.
    Jim Bates, the helpful roofer, sorts out the racoon and between Jim and Sarah, the chatty anglophile who runs the Tea for Two cafe, Rebecca slowly settles in and makes a life for herself, adapting like anything. And the rustic woodland environment inspires new photographic endeavours. She grows her hair out of its chic New York bob and buys cheap but practical clothing from Wall Mart.
    On her regular walks she spots some unusual shrine like crosses here and there, each with some memorabilia of childhood, a photograph or a high school year book, that make oddly interesting photographs. Caught up in their pictorial potential, Rebecca doesn't take time to question who might have put them there, or the reason they strangely disappear soon after she finds them.
    You can be sure the significance of the crosses will be important later on. And Rebecca will learn a lot about herself, her art and people in general. By the end a whole new set of possibilities beckon and she will have some decisions to make. Not that the reader should be surprised, as we know that it's that kind of book pretty much from page one.
    Anna Quinden is an elegant and observant writer, and this is a charming, witty and wry kind of story, balancing humour with moments of poignancy. She doesn't really break any new ground, but her characters are interesting enough and I enjoyed the jokes that are at the expense of the chattering classes. After all, deep down, who among us doesn't want to escape all the silliness of everyday life for a cottage in the woods?

Saturday, 20 December 2014

The Last Train to Scarborough by Andrew Martin

At the start of this novel, railway detective Jim Stringer wakes up in the dark to find himself lying on a pile of coal, unable to remember how he got there. He soon finds out he's on board a ship, the kind of jobbing steamship that runs from the north of England to the south. On top of that he's not too well, suffering terrible nausea, and the captain of the ship and his foreign sounding first mate seem set to kill him.
    Change of chapter and suddenly the reader is with Jim and his family - 'the Missus' and his children, Harry and Sylvia (named after Sylvia Pankhurst, of course), at their new house on the edge of Thorpe on Ouse. It's a bigger house but the rent is reasonable, perhaps because the landlord has taken a bit of shine to Lydia, Jim's wife.
   Lydia wants the family to get on in the world, and with that in mind, Jim is about to ditch railway policing for clerking in a law office, with the view to one day becoming a solicitor. He'll be James Stringer from now on, thank you.
    But the Chief has one more case lined up for him, and this concerns the disappearance of a railway fireman (they're the ones that shovel in the coal to keep the engine running), who was spending a night at the Paradise Hotel in Scarborough. The case is months old, and the local police have been all over the guesthouse numerous times, but no one can account for the whereabouts of Raymond Blackburn, a strong, handsome, silent type with a fiancee waiting for him.
    The Chief sends Jim off undercover as a fireman to the Chief's rifle-club pal, Tommy Nugent, a chatty, nervous driver with guns in his luggage, just in case. The Paradise advertises itself as economical accommodation for railwaymen, and Jim finds himself in Blackburn's old room at the top of the stairs.
    The off-season hotel offers a bunch of suspects: a beautiful but flirtatious landlady and her 'slow' but powerfully built brother who has a fascination for newspaper articles about railway accidents. The other two guests are equally peculiar: Howard Fielding, a finely dressed older gent with a taste for fine wine and cigars who is oddly enough in the railway postcard business with fellow guest, Theo Vaughan. Theo is nowhere as flash and is hoping to branch out into a more racy and potentially more lucrative line of postcards as he soon reveals to Jim in an amusing scene at a local pub.
    As usual there is a load of scope for humorous banter among the inmates with their oddly contrasting characteristics and Jim's need for information. These scenes are interwoven with ones on board the coal steamer that has become Jim's prison. Here there is no comfort and Jim's health more and more precarious. The reader can only wonder how he is going to get himself out of this one.
    The Last Train to Scarborough is another terrific story in the Jim Stringer series. There's still plenty of railway detail to keep the train buffs amused, but if you don't know a thing about it all, the story still rattles along with loads of pace and that wonderful north of England style. With this instalment we are in March of 1914, and only too aware that Jim will be a long way from home in the next book in the series, The Somme Stations. It's bound to be a corker!

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe

Humour can be so difficult to get right, but Nina Stibbe does it superbly in her novel, Man at the Helm, which is a kind of 1970s Love in a Cold Climate. The story is told by Lizzie Vogel, born with a silver spoon in her mouth, thanks to the fortune her father's business reels in.
    Sadly her parents have fallen out of love - they were young iconoclasts together when they married, but the demands of the family business have turned Lizzie's dad into a different kind of person.
    Divorce sees Lizzie and her mother, her sister and brother (Little Jack) packed off to a house in the country in Mrs Vogel's ancient Mercedes, Geraldine. It's a grand house, with a gardener, Mr Gummo, but it's too far to travel for housekeeper, Mrs Lunt, who hates children but makes wonderful jam tarts, and it is the end of the nanny era.
    What's more the village is not ready for a divorcee among their ranks - even the vicar warns Mrs Vogel that while the family may attend services, she would not be eligible to join their women's fellowship group. The village families discourage their children from forming friendships with the Vogel children so it's just as well they have each other.
    Mrs Vogel, sinks into the depths of despond, sun-bathing and becoming addicted to tranquillisers, which means not a lot of mothering, let alone housekeeping, happens. But she's still young and beautiful (shaking her hand causes men to fall in love with her) so the girls hatch a plan to find a new 'man at the helm'.
    After much debate, the girls gradually add men to the list, most of whom are already married, but that seems to be no impediment.  They are after all desperate not to be made wards of court, and will try anyone. The vicar makes the list and even Mr Gummo - though only if all else fails. Which it nearly does, and love comes, as it always does, from the least likely direction.
    Man at the Helm is a refreshing, delightful novel, gently humorous offering a steady stream of chuckles rather than uproarious hilarity. A lot of this is down to Stibbe's lovely use of language - whimsical and original - which she uses to create the narrative voice of ten-year-old Lizzie. And the 1970's era is nicely brought to life here, along with small town life. It's altogether more-ish, like Mrs Lunt's jam tarts, just the ticket for the silly season.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

Emma Healey has created an extraordinary narrator in Maud Horsham, who in her eighties, is suffering from dementia. As the novel progresses, so does her dementia, with cups of tea left around the house, undrunk, and she forgets she has eaten, consuming large quantities of toast. There are messages on the kitchen wall to remind her not to cook, and there are notes in her handbag telling herself what she mustn't forget.
    The most important of these is that her friend, Elizabeth, is missing. Maud's daughter, Helen, does what she can, but in spite of her mother's concern for her missing friend, Helen is not very sympathetic - she has explained about Elizabeth before.
     Elizabeth's absence is echoed in another story thread going back to just after the war when Maud was sixteen. Living in the same seaside town, Maud and her parents are frantic with worry about the disappearance of Maud's older sister, Sukey.
    Everyone seems to adore Sukey, with her warm-hearted nature, who is a wonderful dressmaker, always looking well turned out. She is married to Frank, a bit of a shady character, dabbling in the black market, but with plenty of charm. Frank likes to do a good turn - his delivery trucks are just the ticket for moving house and with rationing in full swing, Frank's little parcels of food are a huge boost to the family housekeeping, although not approved of by Maud's father, or Douglas, the young boarder who seems to have a bit of a crush on Sukey.
    When Sukey disappears, no one knows if it is because of the 'mad woman' who chases after the girls with her umbrella, or because of one of Frank's deals gone wrong. At first it seems she might be in hiding, but as the days turn into weeks and months, Maud's family come to realise that she may well be dead.
    Somewhere in Maud's unreliable mind are the clues to bring this mystery to an end, seventy odd years later, if she can only string her thoughts together. And how is she to make Helen, the police or Elizabeth's bullying son understand?
    Elizabeth Is Missing is on one level a gripping mystery novel, but more than that it is a cleverly understood picture of what dementia might be like, and even more incredibly it comes from the pen of an author in her twenties. It is not an easy read, as Maud can be so frustrating, and it is unsettling to think that her state of mind could one day be the experience of any of us, or someone we love. Yet this is a compelling read, evocative and haunting, by a very promising story-teller.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

This Night's Foul Work

Fred Vargas comes up with some decidedly nasty criminals in her Commissaire Adamsberg novels, yet they are always immensely good fun. Perhaps this is because of the character of Adamsberg himself who has a dreamy, irrational way of probing crime.
   This Night's Foul Work begins as Adamsberg is settling into his new house, building a wall in a haphazard kind of way, watched by his one-armed Spanish neighbour, Lucio. The Spaniard is convinced Adamsberg's house is haunted by a murderous nun, who Lucio is convinced will kill again.
    Back at the offices for the Serious Crime Squad, the Commissaire is conniving to prevent a double homicide from the wrong side of town going over to the Drug Squad. He engages the help of attractive pathologist, Ariane Lagarde, a woman he has upset in the past. But the two must bury the hatchet because the usual police pathologist is out of sorts, suffering from 'a touch of the vapours'. Ariane helps Adamsberg along with his case when she declares their murderer is a woman.
    This book also sees the addition to the squad of Lieutenant Veyranc, a moody looking chap from the same part of the Pyrenees as Adamsberg, who thinks he has a score to settle with his new boss. The Commissaire has set him the task of guarding his girlfriend Camille from a psychopath who featured in the previous book. Veyranc spends his days in a cupboard on Camille's landing, waiting in vain for his boss to agree to meet him, but oddly content. The other peculiar thing about Veyranc is his tendency to break into clunky Alexandrine verse.
    But why should we be surprised as each of Adamsberg's team has his or her own quirks of character: Commandant Danglard, extremely erudite and beautifully dressed, is morose and descends into frequent drinking bouts at work; Mercedet suffers from narcolepsy and has a mattress in the coffee room; Retancourt is a shy but Amazonian woman, who inspires devotion from Estalere who can remember everyone's blood type, coffee preferences and birthdays. All these things will come in handy later on.
    While accompanying Camille to a Normandy town where she is playing in a concert, Adamsberg encounters the locals at his hotel bar - quaintly rustic characters who are upset about the brutal slaying of a stag in the woods, shot and hacked at for the removal of its heart. It's an odd story which Adamsberg agrees to look into, little knowing that it will somehow have a bearing on his double homicide.
     There will be many more complications before he manages to solve the case, including the escape of an elderly psycho-killer nurse from prison, the apparent accidental deaths of two virgins in their thirties and the theft of a church's relics of St Jerome. There will be some amazingly diverting scenes, including one where the Serious Crime Squad, equipped with cars, motorcycles and a police helicopter, follow The Snowball - the squad's resident cat - across Paris in order to prevent the murder of one of their own.
    With such a hugely entertaining, absorbing kind of read, it would be easy to think of this as one mad-cap scene after another. You could also be forgiven for thinking that every French person must be slightly batty. But the novel has its own kind of logic, as well as red herrings and a plot that builds to one heck of a surprise at the end. Vargas seems to do the impossible: she obeys the rules of crime novel writing while contriving to be completely original. Surely, this makes her one of the best in the business.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Self's Murder by Bernhard Schlink

Bernhard Schlink's novel Self's Murder is one of those rather good detective novels that lift the genre well beyond simple, page-turning escapism. As you might have expected from the author of The Reader, the writing is thoughtful and elegant.
    Gerhard Self is a private investigator in Mannheim, on the brink of retirement, when he stops to help a motorist and his driver caught in a snow drift.  The grateful passenger turns out to be a Mr Welker, owner of a small, select sort of bank with a long tradition and the subject of a recent tragedy. This is because Welker's beloved wife has recently disappeared while the two were on an alpine walking holiday.
    The police have been stumped as to whether she fell into a crevasse or was pushed, or even kidnapped and murdered. These are the obvious questions you'd expect Self to be exploring, but no, instead he is sent to discover the identity of a silent partner, who just after the Napoleonic Wars invested a fortune in the bank and saved it from ruin.
    Self's investigations take him to visit the bank's archivist, Schuler, an elderly and malodorous hermit whose cottage is crammed with memorabilia. He's a bit put out that Welker has chosen to employ a detective to look into the bank's history when surely it is Schuler himself who would be the best person for the job.
    A number of things turn the case on its head, and Self begins to wonder if he shouldn't really be investigating the disappearance of Welker's wife and soon begins to distrust Welker's brutish looking chauffeur and general factotum, Gregor Samarin. Next thing, Self's personal life begins to get interesting when Karl-Heinz Ulrich turns up on his doorstep, claiming to be an ex-Stasi officer who scoffs at Self's poor security and the fact he seems to have been unaware that Ulrich has been tailing him. On top of all that Ulrich announces he's Self's son.
    We are in the decade just after the fall of the Berlin Wall after all, and there is some interesting east meets west (Germany, that is) stuff going on. Ulrich has made some surprising deductions about Self's case, and both are beginning to wonder if the long lost partner story is just a pretence for something else.
    The case begins to hot up and Self calls in a few mates to help out, including his policeman chum, Nagelsbach, recently retired and a stickler for rules, and his surgeon buddy, Philipp who is happy to put his hospital and a number of drugs at Self's disposal. The team enact a convoluted plan that is dangerous but wildly entertaining as well, and there are a few plot twists before Self discovers who the real criminals are.
    All this is told in the dryly charming style of Self's first person narration. There's quite a philosophical feel to it all, and the story, while entertaining enough in itself, is made all the better for the inclusion of a cast of distinctive characters. Self offers the reader some excellent company - such a shame there are only three in the series and that this is the last. I shall be eager to hunt out the previous two, for sure.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud

Mr Mac and Me is to my mind the perfect kind of book. Set in 1914, it tells the story of Thomas Maggs, whose father runs a pub in a village on the Suffolk coast. There's not a lot of money to spare and pa tends to drink the profits, while his mother copes as best she can. There are two older sisters, including Ann who helps around the pub, with thirteen-year-old Thomas by far the youngest, though there are six older brothers buried in the churchyard.
    Thomas has a club foot, but it doesn't stop him roaming around the countryside, making the journey to school, and being taken on by the local rope-maker as a part-time assistant. It is a dying art, and we are reminded of the changes in store as the nation is drawn into World War One.
    Ann tearfully farewells the boy she loves as he joins the navy and we wonder if she will see him again. Everyone expects the war to be over by Christmas, and the effects of the waiting and wondering, the shock of casualty lists on a small village are nicely recounted here. And then there's 'DORA' - the Defence of the Realm Act, which has the locals on the look out for spies, and prosecutes people for showing light after dark or owning binoculars. Thomas takes Dora very seriously.
    Into Thomas's world a Scottish artist, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, arrives with his wife and the three of them strike up a friendship. Thomas does odd jobs for them, while Mackintosh's wife, Margaret, feeds him up and the two encourage Thomas's own artistic endeavour. Thomas, who yearns for a life at sea, has been covering the margins of his schoolbooks with delicate drawings of ships.
    Mr Mac and Me is very much a coming of age novel and with that there are many dawning realisations for Thomas. There is love too, as Thomas witnesses the pangs of love his sister goes through, and his own over one of the Scottish herring girls who arrive every autumn. And in the background there is the war. Slowly the everyday villager has to come to terms with the horrific casualties, and the sinking of British ships. On a still night you can even hear the guns from over the Channel.
    It is an interesting time, perfectly captured in the microcosm of a Suffolk village, and the small world of a young boy. But I was particularly drawn to the story of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a very real artist and architect who produced exquisite watercolours and designed some of Britain's much loved buildings. Forgotten and ignored in his own time, he is now something of a national treasure. Margaret's work also shines.
    Freud has made the pair quirky, charming and kindly, but also passionate, and even stubborn and difficult, as anyone who has to fight for their art can tend to be. The friendship with Thomas brings many of these qualities to life and Thomas as a thirteen year old, struggling to make sense of the world, is the perfect narrator. Mr Mac and Me is Esther Freud at her best and, to me, something of a living treasure.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline Winspear has found a niche in the whodunit genre, with her psychologist/investigator, Maisie Dobbs, and an interesting between-the-wars setting. Elegy for Eddie takes Maisie back to her East End days. Some old coster monger pals of her dad's ask for Maisie's help when a friend of theirs is killed in an accident at a paper factory. Maisie is shocked to learn of Eddie's sudden death and suspicious when a number of facts suggest that Eddie may have been murdered. No surprises there.
    Eddie Pettit was a man in his forties who though considered by many to be a bit simple had a wonderful gift for handling horses. He would pick up odd jobs around the East End mostly, at a time when many businesses still used a horse and cart as their main source of transport. He'd also drop in at the paper factory to run errands.
    Maisie discovers that Eddie had been taking reading lessons with a teacher north of the river and had been seen writing in a notebook. What's more he seemed to have something on his mind. Possibly this was due to the arrival of hard man, Jimmy Merton,  at the factory, where Eddie soon became a victim of bullying, reminiscent of his time at school.
   When Maisie begins to investigate the factory, she discovers that it is owned by newspaper magnate, John Otterburn, a Canadian with a finger in many pies and the ear of influential people in Parliament. Even Douglas, the husband of Maisie's great friend Priscilla, knows Otterburn, as does Maisie's beau, James Compton. Maisie meets Otterburn socially, and makes a surprising discovery at his London house.
    It soon starts to look as if Eddie was caught up in a problem well above his capability to understand, and the story has ripples way beyond the East End. Meanwhile the papers are full of Hitler's rise to power, and the rumblings of another war can heard.
    Maisie's own life is upset by new problems as she finds herself criticised for interfering too much in the lives of her staff: side-kick, Billy Beale and her new assistant, Sandra, rescued from a previous case. I've often thought Maisie seemed a bit goody-two-shoes and am happy to see her given the chance to be more human. And her relationship with James is going through a rocky patch, highlighting how hard it is to be a career woman in 1933.
    Ellegy for Eddie is as much a bit of social history as it is a murder mystery and might disappoint those readers eager for a fast-paced whodunit. There are sometimes a few too many details about clothes, the landscape or interior decoration plus a lot of chit-chat over cups of tea. But Winspear creates a great atmosphere, with the malodorous River Thames at Lambeth contrasting nicely with Maisie's country residence at Chelstone. There's a glimpse of the struggles of working class people during the depression era, who nevertheless look out for each other, while a growing educated class of people are eager to see a few changes in the social order.
    I like the fact that the Maisie Dobbs novels aren't all the same and that Maisie has a chance to grow and change as a character as time and circumstances impact on her life. For me it's always good to drop in and catch up with Maisie to pick up where we left off with an interesting if not demanding read.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Return to Fourwinds by Elisabeth Gifford

I was impressed with Gifford's debut novel, Secrets of the Sea House, and was soon happily ensconced in this story about two families across two generations. It's another book about secrets - how we love those - and begins when the Donoghues and the Colchesters get together at the Colchester's home, Fourwinds, to celebrate the marriage of their children, Sarah and Nicky.
    There's a bit of a difference in class between the two families, so it's fortunate that Sarah and Nicky are so devoted to each other, and we are in the late twentieth century after all. Soon you learn that Alice Colchester's family briefly cared for Peter Donoghue as an evacuee during the war, but this fascinating tidbit is quickly put aside when Sarah suddenly loses her voice and does a bunk days before the wedding.
    If that isn't enough to get you interested, the plot sweeps you back fifty years to Ralph Colchester's childhood in Valencia, in the early 1930s, on the eve of the Spanish Civil War. Young Ralph misses his father, who has fallen out with his mother and taken up an engineering job in South America. Left with scarcely a bean to support herself and Ralph, Lily has found a home for them with English banker, Max Gardiner, working as his 'housekeeper'. Mr Gardiner is kindly to Ralph, and the three socialise with other emigres, while Spain shimmers in the heat and there's a wonderful exotic sensuality about it all.
    I would have been quite happy with just Ralph's story - there is such a lot to explore with his peculiar family arrangement and the political situation in the background. But all at once it's the war (the big one) and we meet Peter, growing up in poverty in Manchester, with a tubercular mother and a drunken Irishman for a father. When he and his brother are evacuated to the countryside, Peter is taken in by the Hanbury family and is given a glimpse of another life, one full of music and learning and plentiful rations.
    While Return to Fourwinds is certainly engrossing, there is maybe a little too much going on, as we have to catch up with Alice's story and later Patricia who meets Peter after the war when he goes to London to study divinity. And of course the novel is switching forward in time to tell us where Sarah gets to, and how Nicky and parents are coping at Fourwinds.
    We chug along, filling in gaps for all these characters, until finally towards the end, there are a couple of bombshells and some fascinating stuff about what people like Max Gardiner were really doing in Madrid during the war. There is so much to like about Return to Fourwinds - Gifford is an accomplished stylist, and she has done her research to create an interesting scenario. However I can't help feeling that maybe just one big secret would have sufficed.

Monday, 27 October 2014

The Droitwich Deceivers by Kerry Tombs

Kerry Tombs writes refreshingly old-fashioned mystery novels set in the late Victorian era featuring no-nonsense, smart thinking Detective Inspector Ravenscroft and his side-kick Constable Crabbe. Samuel Ravenscroft is married to Lucy, who being warm-hearted and impulsive is quite willing to get involved in a bit of sleuthing as well.
    In this case Ravenscroft is called out to Hill Court, the stately home of Sir Charles Chilton, a salt baron whose nine-year-old daughter has been snatched while wandering through the nearby churchyard. Ravenscroft is at a loss to understand why Sir Charles didn't get the local police onto things straight away, as you usually do with missing persons cases, and there is nothing to suggest a kidnapping plot that would lead to a ransom demand.
    But Chilton is an unpleasant bully of a man, used to getting his own way, his wife banished to her room due to her fragile mental state. Ravenscroft is under orders not to talk to her and he can't help feeling there's something odd going on and Lady Chilton may know something useful. And why would the governess, supposedly there to to keep an eye on her charge, slip into the church for five minutes, leaving little Mildred on her own?
    Meanwhile a distraught young woman visits Lucy, asking for help regarding her missing baby.  Alice Corbett has given her baby up for adoption to a Mrs Huddlestone, who has promised Alice she may visit baby Lily in a few months' time. However, unable to wait that long, Alice has gone in search of the Huddlestones, only to discover that she has been given a false address. Because her husband is so busy with the case in Droitwich, Lucy decides to do a bit of investigating herself.
    With loads of dialogue, quaint characters and humour, The Droitwich Deceivers is a quick and easy read. While it sheds a light on the plight of poor, single women with no means to support their babies, and even the more well-to-do ones who find themselves in marriages where they have no control over their destinies, it doesn't preach or tax the brain too much. There's enough action and nail-biting tension to keep the reader eager to discover the outcome of the Ravenscrofts' investigations - two missing children and an astonishing secret give the plot plenty to work with. A diverting read, perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon, and I shall certainly be seeking out more in the Inspector Ravenscroft series.

Friday, 24 October 2014

The Forever Girl by Alexander McCall Smith

The Forever Girl deals with unrequited love, an aching longing in the heart of its main character, Clover, which begins when she is around six years old. The story takes place on the Caribbean island of Grand Cayman among the expat families who make comfortable livings in banking and property development. Clover's father, David, is Scottish, a banker who works long hours, while her expat American mother, Amanda, plays a lot of tennis and swims in their pool. Their Jamaican housekeeper, Margaret, looks after the house and takes Clover and her brother to school.
    This might make the lives of Clover's parents seem rather shallow, but McCall Smith is better than that. He doesn't take cheap shots at accountants or people with more money than they know what to do with. He is empathetic towards Amanda, who feels neglected by her hard working husband and has a brain she doesn't get to use. Her brief dalliance with another man is treated sensitively and with understanding.
    And all the while Clover is growing up, her childhood friendship with James evolving into a crush she doesn't know how to handle, just at an age when James would rather play with other boys. Amanda sympathises and sensibly tells Clover she will grow out of it and to move on. The shift to boarding school in Scotland will surely settle the matter, but through her secondary school years and even when she goes off to university in Edinburgh, there is a lingering sadness about Clover.
   While she makes friends easily and develops a relationship with another student, this sadness seems to put a wall around her - you feel she can never be really close to anyone else. And it shapes her decision making as well, causing her to do embarrassingly awful things, making up stories and even following the object of her affections, just so she can get that little bit closer to James.
    A plot like this could have turned this into a truly dreadful sort of book, unless leavened with slapstick comedy, a la Bridget Jones, which The Forever Girl is anything but. What rescues it is the wonderful wisdom that McCall Smith throws in and the fact that Clover is oddly likeable. The subplot around Amanda is interesting, and the portrayal of a marriage in difficulty sensitively done. And then there is the expat world of Cayman Island - languid and hot, and full of discontent. It is the perfect setting for unrequited love to begin, and contrasts brilliantly with the more serious yet creative city of Edinburgh. A sojourn in Australia livens things up towards the end.
    McCall Smith is always a breath of fresh air with his originality of storyline and the philosophical musings that come through his writing. While the story is still entertaining, you reach the end of The Forever Girl feeling a little wiser - surely the best reason for reading fiction.

Monday, 20 October 2014

The Chessmen by Peter May

The Chessmen is the third of Peter May's Lewis trilogy featuring former Edinburgh detective, Fin McLeod. In the first book, The Blackhouse, Fin returned to the island of his childhood to investigate a murder - a crime that turns out to be deeply personal and helps him decide to return for good. Now living with Marsaili, the girl he loved as a lad and never really forgot, and trying to reconnect with the son he didn't know he had, he has plans to restore his parents' house.
    But you can never really leave the force it seems, and Peter May throws a new case his way when a freak storm causes a 'bog burst', draining one Lewis loch of its water. Now a security officer for a landowner whose livelihood is under threat by large-scale poaching, Fin has been caught in the storm along with a small-time poacher and boyhood friend, Whistler Macaskill.
    Having sheltered from the storm in a hut, the two are astonished to discover that the empty loch is the resting place of the long lost plane belonging to their old friend and Whistler's fellow band player, Roddy MacKenzie. Roddy had disappeared in his plane fifteen years ago, when his band was at the height of its success. It was assumed he was lost at sea. The discovery of the body inside means finally a chance to bury Roddy properly but what is it about the discovery that so shocks Whistler that he vanishes into the wilds of Lewis? And what is it about the body that convinces Fin that the plane wasn't just Roddy's underwater tomb, but also a crime scene?
    There is a lot of backstory here, which May fills in with flashbacks to Fin's growing up and his time at high school when he first met Whistler, a flute player with a school band. The brains behind the band are Roddy and Strings, who write the songs, while the music is enriched by Mairead's haunting voice. She's also a bit of a stunner and gives her boyfriends the run around - usually she's with Roddy, but sometimes it's Strings, so you can imagine how that affects the band's cohesion.
    There's a heap of teenage hanging around, rushing off on clapped out motorbikes, experimentation and desperation to leave the island for the thrills of Glasgow and the wider world. Only Whistler - the smartest boy of his year - decides to stay and live the simple life, hunting for food, carving and doing odd jobs, while the rest of the crowd head off to university and life with the band.
    The back story switches back to the present and illuminates issues that dog the remaining characters on the island. Why is Whistler so difficult? And why won't his daughter live with him, preferring to stay with Kenny, something of a hard man and the guy Whister's late wife ran off with?
    May does a great job of shining a light on the little corners of the character's lives, the past and the present, to finally uncover what might have really happened all those years ago to cause Roddy to fly off in his plane for the last time. There's a lot to take in, and in the background is the island - its  beautiful landscape and problematic weather, the big lonely skies and the hemmed in quality it brings to the islanders' lives.
   You get to know a lot about Lewis, and its Gaelic language - there is luckily a pronunciation guide at the back of the book - and May includes some interesting history, such as the wreck of the Iolaire, when over 200 lives were lost. May really knows how to spin a yarn, and builds sympathetic characters, whose crimes are rooted in poor decisions taken at crucial moments, rather than out and out wickedness. This makes The Chessmen all the more moving and interesting, but doesn't stop May from throwing in a couple of big plot twists near the end.
    It's the last book of the series, but I am happy to finally leave Fin to get on with his life on the island and rebuild his family. There is probably only so much crime you can throw at a small place like Lewis, after all.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Civil to Strangers by Barbara Pym

Published posthumously, I was quite prepared for Civil to Strangers to be somewhat ordinary, by Barbara Pym's standards, that is. It was her second novel, after Some Tame Gazelle had unsuccessfully gone the rounds of the publishers, and like this one, no doubt languished in the attic - until recently.
    Of course if you don't like Pym, this won't bother you at all, and if you do like Pym, then you have the pleasure of a new one, decades after her death. And also the sorrow of realising that she could never be aware of the success she would enjoy today.
    Civil to Strangers is wonderful in that it doesn't appear to have been written by someone still perfecting her style. The writing has all the features we recognise in Pym, the small village, in this case it is Up Callow, where a lot of the action is centred around the rectory and its clerical types. There's a lovely scene in church where the sermon about embroidery, of all things, is mulled over by various members of the congregation. And there is Pym's trademark irony and her likeable if rather silly village characters and their little concerns, all bound together in a light, elegant style.
    Mostly, this is the story of Cassandra, who is really nice. She's quite nice looking, does things properly without fuss and always manages to say the right thing. She's married to Adam Marsh-Gibbon, a writer of difficult to understand novels, and as such the couple are much admired because Adam gives their village a bit of fame in the broader world. But Cassandra worries that she loves her rather self-centred, artistic husband more than he loves her.
    When an exotic Hungarian stranger takes up residence in one of the village's more notable properties, the village is abuzz with gossip. Thirty-year-old Angela Gay, who fears she may be left on the shelf, has found charming the austere young curate, Mr Paladin, an uphill battle so she soon switches her attentions to Mr Tilos the Hungarian. Unfortunately, Tilos falls for Cassandra instead.
    In the background the village characters ponder and discuss these goings-on, particularly Mrs Gower, who as the widow of an academic enjoys a degree of prestige, and Angela's uncle, Mr Gay, a handsome man of sixty who never quite realised his dream of marrying for money. With characters like these it isn't surprising Pym is sometimes likened to a modern Jane Austen.
    The drama moves to Hungary and there are amusing scenes on a train when Cassandra befriends some churchly types in an attempt to avoid Mr Tilos's advances. There are misunderstandings, dawning realisations and reconciliations, while one or two new romantic attachments develop in the background. Who knew village life could be so dramatic?
    You come away from reading a Pym novel feeling warmed and amused without any affront to your intelligence - there's even a smattering of literary quotations for fans of the classics. And with Pym's lively dialogue and whimsical style you can happily reread a Pym novel because like Cassandra's embroidery, it is so much richer for the inclusion of plenty of stitches.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Corners of the Globe by Robbert Goddard

I could develop quite a taste for spy novels, having just finished the second in Robert Goddard's trilogy featuring James 'Max' Maxted, a returned POW and ex-Royal Flying Corps fighter pilot. We first met Max in The Ways of the World, when he rushes to Paris to uncover the facts behind his father's death. A member of a team of delegates sent to help broker a stable settlement after World War One, Sir Henry was pushed off a building, a death made to look like suicide. Sir Henry was obviously aware of secret and damaging information and had to be silenced.
    Everything seems to come back to one man - Fritz Lemmer, onetime spymaster for the Kaiser, and now apparently determined to turn events in favour of Germany and its allies. By the end of the first book, the only way Max can discover what's going on is to enlist as an agent with Lemmer's network, secretly aided by Horace Appleby, a top man in the British Secret Service.
    The Corners of the Globe starts out in the Orkney Isles, where Max is sent by Lemmer to retrieve a document held by a German battleship commander. If you know about this area of history, after the war, the German fleet of battleships was interned here at Scapa Flow.
     Max soon realises the importance of the document he has been sent to get, particularly when people around him begin to die. A cryptically encoded list of Lemmer's agents seems too good to hand over so Max decides to make a run for it and return the document to Appleby, if he can just get to London. There are some hair-raising scenes involving jumping on and off trains and dodging Lemmer's henchmen.
    Meanwhile back in Paris, Sam Twentyman, Max's old flight mechanic, is carrying on with his work maintaining the ambassadorial motor fleet, when a meeting with Sir Henry's Japanese policeman friend, Commissioner Kuroda, causes Sam grave concern. Kuroda warns him that Friz Lemmer believes certain documents are in possession of le Singe, an Algerian thief and seller of secrets. Sam's acquaintance with le Singe in the previous book surely puts him in danger.
    And then of all people, Max's Uncle George gets caught up in the action, when some ancient artefacts sold by Sir Henry to raise money in a hurry turn out to be fakes and the buyer wants his money back. George agrees to go to Paris to hunt out the dealer, Soutine, who wouldn't you know is a close pal of le Singe's. Could he be dealing in secrets too?
    There are some very embarrassing secrets worth protecting, and quite a few eager to use them to advantage, among whom are our three American friends, Travis Ireton, the mysterious trader in useful information, his able colleague Schools Morahan and their savvy secretary Malory.
    I  found the Malory/Morahan/Sam team a particularly engaging set of characters, caught up in some intense skullduggery at the hands of the Japanese contingent. Everything seems to go back to Sir Henry's time in Japan; even Lemmer was on the scene there. While Max is legging it around Britain, Sam and the Americans are holding the fort in Paris, discovering what le Singe has been hiding.
    Max is really put through the mill, as Lemmer's agents come out of the woodwork at every turn. If he is somewhat too much the perfect upper-class hero, he is easily forgiven for being a little two-dimensional when you see what Goddard throws at him in a sequence of thrilling action scenes, leading eventually to Marseilles. By the end, Max is up against the wall as we reach one of those agonising last pages that finishes with those dreaded words 'to be continued'. Although it might seem impossible, the reader can be sure things will turn out just fine for Max, but unfortunately, we will have to wait until some time next year to find out how.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The Reckoning by Rennie Airth

The Reckoning is the fourth crime novel featuring John Madden, a retired policeman from Scotland Yard, happily ensconced in the country. It is 1947, and the National Health Scheme is imminent, a royal wedding is in the wings and England seems to be looking forward to a new post-war era, in spite of ongoing rationing.
    An execution style murder on the banks of a Sussex river has the local police stumped. The killer, a youngish man in a red sweater was spotted by a farmer so you'd expect he'd be easy to catch, and yet he seems to have vanished. His victim, retired deputy bank manager Oswald Gibson, was a quiet, inoffensive chap who enjoyed fishing and belonged a local music society. Who could possibly want to kill him?
    Scotland Yard is called in and Madden's former colleague, Billy Sykes, is just as perplexed although there are a couple of useful clues: the murder is oddly similar to the death of a Scottish doctor and so may be the work of the same killer.  The second clue is even more astonishing. It seems, Gibson was writing a letter, which he never posted, addressed to John Madden. He'd had something he wanted to discuss with the ex-detective, but Madden has no recollection of having met the man.
    The death of Tom Singleton in Oxford, with a similar shot to the neck, indicates a serial killer is at large, while the similarity of the victims' ages suggest that all of them may have served in the First World War, like Madden. He decides there must be a connection in their past and what that link is must be found quickly or very soon there are likely to be more deaths.
    Madden pops into London to help an elderly aunt with some renovations - also an excuse to check in with his old colleagues who are running the case. Airth has produced some terrific characters here - along with ex-army Sykes, there's DCS Chubb, a plain-spoken but endearing bulldog of a man, and stout hearted Lily Poole, recently plucked from uniform and with buckets of nous. But it's 1947 and an uphill battle to be taken seriously as a female detective.
   The Reckoning had me completely riveted - so fortunate to have a wet Sunday as I couldn't put the book down. Not only has Airth concocted a satisfying mystery, but there's a good supply of action and plot-twists to keep the reader hooked. What's more the writing is superb and there is plenty of thought given to the ongoing trauma created by the first war to end all wars, but this never bogs the story down.
    You can quite happily read The Reckoning as a stand alone novel, but it is a pleasure to know that there are several more books featuring John Madden and his smartly intuitive detective work.

Friday, 3 October 2014

The Lost Luggage Porter by Andrew Martin

I don't often pick up mystery novels involving organised crime or gangs of thieves, but I felt happy to make an exception with the third Jim Stringer railway detective novel by Andrew Martin. I knew I wouldn't be disappointed and I was right.
    Martin throws Jim in at the deep end when he turns up for his first day as a detective, having lost his one chance at his dream job as an engine driver because of a terrible blunder that wasn't his fault.   Lydia, 'the wife', is pleased about this as she is smart and she knows Jim has a good brain and thinks he should use it. She is ambitious and modern, a working woman in her own right and pregnant with their first child.
    But back to Jim's first day. Instead of getting to know the rest of the team of York railway police, Chief Inspector Weatherill, a large, messy looking cigar smoker, sends Jim off to buy a scruffy suit so he can go undercover. His brief is to ferret out criminals involved in a spate of burglaries at the station.
    Jim buys a tired old suit from a second hand dealer, as well as a pair of spectacles, and promptly pushes out the lenses. He plonks the glasses on and his disguise is complete. Which is just as well, because an incident the previous day, has shown Jim just where he can begin. This involved the lost luggage porter of the title, a pale, sickly creature named Lund. It was Lund who not only produced Jim's missing railway magazines, but alerted Jim to a pickpocketing duo he referred to as the Brains and the Blocker.
    Perhaps it should have been Lund who joined the detective ranks, as Lund also tells Jim the pub, the euphemistically named Garden Gate, where he would find them. Jim declares his eagerness to join the gang, and after proving himself as a willing if not skilful pickpocket is soon taken on.
    But Jim hasn't bargained on the ruthless nature of the gang's leader, one Valentine Sampson, who has boasted of killing two policemen. When the gang pulls off a heist at York station after dark, a piece of action that involves some shooting and two potential casualties, Jim is hauled off to Paris with the Brains and Sampson. It seems likely that one of the gang has betrayed them, and Jim is put on watch.
    How Jim attempts to make his escape and return home makes for some entertaining reading, and the story rollicks along nicely. But what makes this book work so well is the way Martin builds up his characters, Jim's perky narration, the smart dialogue laced with humour and the period detail which makes you really feel you are in a railway station in the north of England, circa 1905. It is all of this that makes the series such an absorbing read and utterly original.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Cold Flat Junction by Martha Grimes

Cold Flat Junction follows on from Hotel Paradise which was a mystery novel complete in itself, but leaving enough for its young detective, Emma Graham, to uncover in a follow-up book. If you remember, Emma's curiosity was piqued by a photograph showing a family of stern looking aunts, their pretty younger sister, Rose, and their niece, Mary Evelyn, who drowned in mysterious circumstances forty years before.
    It is also the story of two murders, the first twenty years ago, when Rose was discovered stabbed in the chicken house. Taking the blame for her killing, her husband, Ben Queen, has just been released from prison, when their daughter, Fern, is shot dead near Lake Noir.
    Taking up where her inquiries had left off, Emma is determined to prove Ben Queen innocent, while also discovering the identity of the mysterious pale girl, who looks exactly like Rose. She is pretty sure that the key lies way back in the past, before the drowning of Mary Evelyn, who she is certain was killed by her aunts. But what reason would they have to hate her so much?
    The novel meanders its way around Emma's interviews with a wide cast of characters - many of whom we've met before: Sheba and George Queen, Miss Landis the schoolteacher and the regulars at the Windy Run Diner at Cold Flat Junction. Much closer to home, she teases out more stories from nonagenarian Aunt Aurora who reveals a potential scandal.
    Dwayne the mechanic will help out with transport to Lake Noir, and the spooky Brokedown House, while Ulub and Ubub and Mr Root will be among those few who take her seriously. Meanwhile Emma's mother, her martini guzzling business partner, Lola, and Lola's daughter the vapid ReeJane, all take a holiday leaving the hotel's few guests in the hands of Emma, her brother Will and the dishwasher dogsbody Walter. Good old Sheriff DeGheyn is patently upset on Emma's behalf, but the holiday gives Emma more chances to slip away and investigate in places that would appal her mother if only she knew.
    But DeGheyn is reluctant to heed Emma's concerns when it comes to Ben Queen's innocence and he remains a person of interest. This gives the story enough urgency to keep us all on our toes as things move along to a very surprising ending.
    Blended in with the story are some nice literary touches such as the deus ex machina, which is a crucial part of the musical production of Medea that Will and his friend Mill (Brownmiller) are putting together. Then there are the references to William Faulkner, a favourite author of Dwayne's, particularly the novel, Light in August, which gives Emma a clue to her mystery. There's also a lot of cigarettes and alcohol - truly Emma doesn't have a typical childhood - and endless meals. This gives the book plenty of colour as clues to the past slowly unfold.
    This is another satisfying read from Grimes, who is a whizz with atmospheric settings and quaint small-town characters, producing an imaginative story that shows just how the present can be mired in the past. But then the best stories so often do.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Ways of the World by Robert Goddard

There's nothing like a map at the beginning of a book, snuck in between the title page and Chapter One to whet your curiosity. And what could be better than a map of central Paris complete with the Isle de la Cite, Montmartre and the Eiffel Tower? Robert Goddard's novel The Ways of the World has exactly that being set in the city of light, during the spring of 1919, when Paris hosted many of the world's diplomats and heads of state in order to discuss the fate of the nations caught up in WW1 and set the tone of the new peace. Or something like that.
    When one James 'Max' Maxted - formerly of the Royal Flying Corps - discovers that his father has died suddenly in suspicious circumstances, he and his brother, Ashley, journey to Paris to bring the body home. Sir Henry, a minor diplomat, had fallen from the top of a building in Montmartre, upstairs from the apartment where he would visit his mistress, Corinne Dombreux. They'd met in Russia prior to the revolution, and Sir Henry, stationed in St Petersburg, had been a shoulder to cry on when Corinne's late husband had been unmasked as a traitor.
    Ashley, heir to the Maxted fortune, is happy to hush the incident up as an unfortunate accident and return their father for a quick and discreet burial. But James is determined to discover what really happened - he suspects foul play - and stays in Paris to avenge his father's death.
   It seems Sir Henry had contacts with a Russian organisation hoping to overturn the Bolsheviks and was in touch with an American seller of secrets, Travis Ireton. Also on the scene is Lionel Brigham, another diplomat who happens to be the lover of Max's mother. There are loads of suspects plus a cryptic document that would indicate Sir Henry was trying to raise some money. A quick search of his hotel room reveals a small key - the kind that is used for a safety deposit box - but what has happened to his diary? Max is up against the French police and the British Secret Service who don't want to cause any diplomatic upset that could stall the peace talks.
   Fortunately for us Max is determined, smart and fairly fit, in spite of his time as a POW - he'll need to be, particularly when up against Fritz Lemmer, former spymaster to the Kaiser, and Tarn, a particularly ruthless assassin who can kill and vanish into the night. It's also good news that Max has his old flight mechanic mate, Sam Twentyman, on hand to help out when things get tight.
   The two make a great team - Max, a man of action, has a privileged background, so he knows how to talk to the diplomatic lot. Sam comes from a family of bakers - he hopes he and Max will realise their dream of starting a flying school so he doesn't have to join the family shop - and he's a lot more down to earth and good fun, though smart too.
   But The Ways of the World is really too busy delivering a ripping yarn to worry much about its characters, which are interesting enough, but not particularly complex. It is a story loaded with atmosphere both of the post WWI period and the setting of Paris during a not very warm spring. It also gives quite a good picture of the sort of diplomatic wheelings and dealings, the favours and bargaining that underpinned the Treaty of Versailles. A quick and diverting read, this is the first in a trilogy, which is good news and better still, the second book, The Corners of the Globe, has been recently released.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Mercy by Jussie Adler-Olsen

What is it about maverick Scandinavian detectives that we like so much? Eager to read beyond Nesbo and Mankell, I took a punt on Danish author, Jussi Adler-Olsen, and read the first in his Department Q series.  Mercy introduces us to his taciturn, difficult detective, Carl Morck. Of course we expect him to be taciturn and difficult (aren't they all?), but this guy is verging on antisocial, and who can blame him?
    Morck has just come back from extended leave, after a shooting which left him wounded, one fellow officer dead and another paralysed for life. He is bitter and burdened by guilt when he turns up at work, where he discovers he is to be in charge of Department Q. The government wants some high profile cold cases solved, and are happy to throw money at a police force which is critically under resourced, while Morck's boss is happy to siphon off a chunk of the funding to other departments.
    Morck's new office is in the basement and his only staff will be a kind of janitor dogsbody, a Syrian refugee named Assad. This is fortunate, as Assad is everything his boss isn't: willing, cheerful and polite. Assad is also smart, methodical and has contacts who know about forged documents. Somehow this comes in handy later on. Clearly he's a character full of mysterious potential that will slowly unfold as the series progresses.
    The two make up one of those oddball couples which detective fiction is peppered with, going back to Holmes and Watson. And it works really well, giving a potentially harrowing story a bit of light relief.
    By chance, one of the first cases that interests them is the disappearance of prominent young politician and party hopeful, Merete Lynggaard, assumed drowned. This is just as well, as all the while we have been getting to know Morck and his new set-up, Adler-Olsen has been feeding us scenes from Merete's imprisonment. For five years Merete has been locked in an underground bunker, which her captors leave in darkness, unless they feel like turning the lights on 24/7. You can imagine what that does for Merete's body-clock.
    Her captivity is lacking in basic sanitation, she's on minimal rations, and there is periodically an increase in the air pressure. Meanwhile she is left to try and figure out why she is being punished in this way. The reader is soon aware of two possibilities. In her political career Merete seems to have annoyed quite a few people and stirred up some potential jealousy. Or does the reason go back to her teens, when she was involved in a terrible car crash which destroyed two families? Her private life has been secretive, revolving around caring for her younger brother, whose mind was destroyed by the accident - a situation she tells no one.
    Whatever the reason, Merete's time is running out, and what seems to be a cold case has a sudden urgency which Morck and Assad take time to discover. There's nothing like a dose of dramatic irony to ramp up the tension in a story and it certainly delivers the goods in Mercy. The plot surges towards a dramatic showdown that makes the shooting described at the beginning of the book seem like a minor scuffle.
    Mercy is a brilliant opening to a very promising series, with enough page-turning action and nail-biting suspense to keep you interested, nicely balanced with interesting characterisation and wry humour. It is as well that the story tends to sweep you along, because I found some of the writing a little clunky - probably due to the translation into English - something I've never experienced reading Mankell. It won't stop me picking up the next books in the series though.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Hotel Paradise by Martha Grimes

Martha Grimes writes the Richard Jury detective novels, which regularly see its charismatic Scotland Yard detective sort out a complicated murder mystery, the plotting of which would have done Agatha Christie proud (high praise from me indeed!), aided by his good friend, the reluctant peer Melrose Plant, and set around a quaint English hostelry which also lends its name to the title. Somewhere in the mix there is often an intelligent and quirky kid.
    When Grimes decided to write Hotel Paradise, she began a series of novels where the kid is the sleuth, in this case the quirky and intelligent Emma Graham. Emma is twelve, and lives in an old hotel at Spirit Lake, once the site of several hotels that have long since closed up shop, as holiday makers found other, brighter spots to visit instead.
    The Hotel Paradise is still hanging in there, with Emma's mother running the kitchen, her wonderful cooking its main attraction. Her business partner manages drinks and accounts, but mostly drinks, while her ditzy daughter swans around as if she owns the place, much to the disgust of  Emma's great aunt Aurora Paradise.
     Aunt Paradise lives on the top floor, drinking cocktails and reliving the past, which comes in handy when Emma begins to look into a forty-year-old tragedy, the drowning of another twelve year old girl, Mary-Evelyn Devereau. Brought up by aunts, it has long been a mystery why Mary-Evelyn took a leaky boat out onto the lake one evening, her disappearance not noticed or ignored until it was too late.
    Emma is similarly ignored by her own family, her mother too busy with the hotel, her brother and his pal writing and performing plays, so that apart from her regular stints waiting tables, she has a lot of free time. No one knows what she gets up to or where she goes, which is convenient for investigating a possible murder. Her friendship with the local police chief, the handsome, dependable Sheriff DeGheyn also comes in handy as well as her talent for cultivating friendships with older people. When another mysterious death occurs which is connected to Mary Evelyn's family, it seems even more likely that Emma is on to something.
   Emma is a wonderful narrator, who never gives up, telling the most outrageous porkies to worm out the information she needs. She is so solitary, and put-upon at home, she has the reader's sympathy in spades - it just well people around town look out for her.
   Grimes has created some terrific small town characters, too: the speech impaired brothers, Ubub and Ulub, and their fellow bench mate Mr Root, who is always happy to translate. There's Maud at the Rainbow Cafe who would be perfect for the sheriff, if he wasn't already married. There are the elderly shopkeepers, Miss Flyte who designs spectacular candle arrangements and her neighbour Miss Flager who provides wonderful morning teas at the back of her gift shop, to say nothing of  the butterfly collector, Dr McCoomb who signed Mary Evelyn's death certificate all those years ago.
    The plot meanders through numerous amusing conversations and richly described meals as Emma slowly gets closer to what happened to the drowned girl. As a child of the same age, the reader is only too aware that Emma could also be in danger, and more than one character is a little sinister. This gives the book just enough tension to keep the reader up at night.
    When it comes to wry characters, droll observations, and the recreation of a place where time seems to have stood still, Grimes is second to none. By the end Emma has made some stunning discoveries that the police are not even close to finding, while there is still plenty of backstory to develop in the next book, Cold Flat Junction. What a joy!

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Turning the Stones by Debra Daley

Turning the Stones could so easily have become an overwrought melodrama with its much thwarted but beautiful young heroine, a family that will do anything for easy money, a blackguardly smuggler with a heart of gold, a witch-like curse maker and a particularly nasty villain. But somehow Debra Daley's latest novel rises above all this to provide a stonking-good read.
   The reason for this is her writing style is brisk yet evocative, plus it has that slightly Irish lyricism that can be so appealing, all of which comes through the voice of Em, its much put-upon heroine. Em wakes up groggily in a man's Mayfair house, bloodstained and wearing only her shift, having lost her memory of how she got there. Soon she discovers that she is locked in and that the only other occupant of the bedroom has had his throat slashed.
    This is 1766, and Em will surely hang if she is caught, so hastily dressing she jumps out the window and flees, hoping to buy herself a passage to France with the purse she has found on the dead man's floor. Her escape and eventual rescue on the ship of Irish smuggler, Captain McDonagh, makes for a nail-biting bit of storytelling, which could have come out of a Stevenson novel.
    Interwoven with the escape story however is that of Em's background. It takes you back to Sedge Court, the Cheshire home of the Waterlands, a snootily gentile family desperate to cling to a fortune that is ebbing away as Mr Waterland takes up one hopeless scheme after another. His bitter yet beautiful wife soon realises that she needs to ensure a good marriage for her dull and graceless  daughter Eliza. But Eliza is obviously overshadowed by smart, lovely Em, the foundling she has taken care of and raised as a daughter/companion for Eliza.
    In a cruel twist of fate, Em is dumped into the servants quarters, and there is no more tutoring from the governess she has become attached to, just endless needlework and chores. Eliza's rakish brother, Johnny, has also noticed Em's obvious charms and makes plans to put them to good use. Everything is set on a collision course for the scene that Em wakes up to at the start of the book.
    But we don't only have the two story threads of Em's past and her precarious future to keep track of, however. There's also the occasional visit to the house of Kitty Conneely in Connemara, who with her witch-like incantations - the turning the stones of the title - is determined to bring Nora's daughter home, whoever Nora might be. And it is no coincidence that the ship on board which Em has found a temporary respite is headed not for France, but disappointedly for Ireland.
    Turning the Stones is a well-paced novel, full of dramatic scenes, nail-biting action and buried secrets, just as you'd expect, with shades of those early novels, Clarissa or Pamela (though I have read neither) by Samuel Richardson. The nicely turned writing balances out any tendency towards melodrama and its main character, Em, is superb - smart, witty and determined - as all good heroines should be. A surprisingly terrific read.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil by James Runcie

It takes a fair amount of confidence to tackle a plot involving a serial killer who targets priests within the confines of a short story. This may be the reason there are only four stories in the latest book of Grantchester Chronicles, so that Sidney can get to grips with some meatier cases.
    As the title suggests, evil, and quite a lot besides, lurks in Sydney's thoughts as he becomes caught up in the first case, which has someone bumping off the local vicars. It all begins when a pair of dead doves is left on Sidney's doorstep. Soon after, the first vicar is killed, suffocated, and a claw-like symbol carved on his chest. Quite a grim beginning.
    We have a dark and evil criminal for the first story, but there is still plenty of Sidney's episcopal ramblings of thought and quips from housekeeper Mrs Maguire, as well as the joys of Sidney's marriage to Hildegarde to lighten things up a bit. It's a pity Sidney's new domestic arrangements mean Mrs Maguire has to find employment elsewhere, because I always enjoyed her way of putting Sidney and his curate in their place.
    The next story has a painting stolen in broad daylight from the Fitzwilliam Museum - a Sickert, showing a circus performer, and not the most valuable piece in the museum by a long stretch. Or does it have a particular value to the thief? And did the briefly naked French girl singing through the gallery have a connection with the heist?
    This story is a bit more fun, with Sidney catching up with his old gal pal, posh Amanda, the art expert, and a trip across the channel with his backgammon buddy, Inspector Keating. It's amazing Keating is such a successful police officer, since he is often so bereft of clues, he frequently needs to call on Sidney to worm secrets out of witnesses with his cosy priestly manner.
    The third story has the unlikely scenario of Sidney, along with his ageing dog Dickens, taking the part of the vicar in a film version of The Nine Tailors, one of Dorothy L Sayers more memorable whodunits. An army chum of Sidney's is the director, and of course there is plenty of off-set shenanigans plus a murder made out to seem an accident. This murder is particularly cunning, with a method I have never come across in my many years of mystery novel reading.
    The fourth story is a bit shorter, and is a Christmas story involving the theft of a newborn baby, which gives Sidney many opportunities to ponder the birth of Jesus and miracle of new life. He'll follow his instincts and be more than usually sensitive to wrap this one up, while at home change is also afoot.
    The Problem of Evil offers a collection of cosy mysteries, full of gentle wisdom and humour, with a background setting of early-sixties Britain. The Beatles are on the radio, the Cold War is in full swing, and there's loads of Cambridge atmosphere. I particularly like the pub where Sidney and Keating play backgammon and can only imagine what fun the people turning it all into a new television series will have.  It is sure to look gorgeous.

Monday, 25 August 2014

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

'Tis done! I have turned the last page of The Luminaries, one of the larger novels I have read in some time, a book which put me in mind of Dickens, with its varied cast of characters, atmospheric setting and complex plotting.
    The story begins when Walter Moody, a young man lately of Scotland, arrives in Hokitika to chance his luck on the goldfields. He steps into a hotel lounge, and finds himself in the midst of a group of twelve men from all walks of life who have gathered to discuss the death of one man, the disappearance of another and the possible attempted murder of a prostitute. There is a large amount of gold involved as well as scullduggery, fraud and revenge.
    It is late January, 1866, and the reader might be forgiven for imagining we are in the northern hemisphere as the weather is wild and wet, and miserable. But actually this is summer. For we are on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, in a town just starting to flourish because of the gold rush, a frontier town with a treacherous bar where ships regularly founder and lives perish.
    Each character: the shipping merchant, Balfour, who is worried about a missing chest - the bank clerk, Frost, who has frittered away the commission on the sale of a deceased estate that perhaps shouldn't have been sold; the chemist, Pritchard, who has probably imported the opium that may have been involved in the crimes discussed; to name but three - has a story to tell that will become one part of the jigsaw that will produce a picture of what happened.
   And this picture takes time to describe, so the reader must sit back and be patient, like Walter Moody has to, and let the story be told. This accounts for the first three hundred and sixty odd pages. Each chapter has one of those little summaries that begins "In which ..." rather like you might find in a Victorian novel, and this is a big help in case you lose your way. With such a large cast of characters, this can easily happen.
    During the next chunk of the book, the reader finally gets swept along by the events that happen next, and the action really picks up with a court case and retribution to follow. The last chunk of the book winds back to the beginning with short abrupt chapters, in which the "In which" intros are often longer than the text that follows, and the story oddly enough seems to end quite well, even though we are nearer the beginning.
   The Luminaries is wonderfully written, recreating the West Coast gold rush and the odd types that might well have turned up there when there was nothing left to lose. With its rich prose wrought with care, engaging characters and a few decent nasty ones, and with its many layers - I didn't even get started on working out the significance of the astrology references - it is the kind of book you can happily read again and again - each reading offering up new riches. I wouldn't like to say if it was the best book on last year's Man Booker shortlist, but I for one was certainly not disappointed.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Fallout by Sadie Jones

Sadie Jones has a talent for recreating a particular time and place - previously Cyprus in the 1950s, as well as post war Britain - and giving each book an authentic feel. Add some well-rounded characters and a tense plot and her books are hard to put down. Fallout, her latest, keeps up the trend with a story about four talented young people in the world of theatrical London in the 1970s.
    Luke, aka Lucasz and Lucas (his father is Polish and his mother, French), grows up in a dead-end Lincolnshire town, smart enough for Oxbridge, but reluctant to leave his needy parents - his mother lives in a mental asylum nearby, where he is a frequent visitor and never gives up on her, unlike his father who drowns his sorrows in drink and leaves all the cooking and household chores to Luke.
    Quietly Luke fills notebooks with his scribblings, collects pop music - Dylan earns his undying respect - and reads plays. He thinks he'll go on working in the paper factory as a clerk until he bumps into Leigh and Paul, just up from London and lost, looking for a local playwright. Leigh and Paul are theatre people, and because it is raining, Luke jumps into Leigh's mini, the better to direct them to the rough pub they are looking for. The three strike up a friendship, and Luke sees kindred spirits, unlike anyone else he has ever met before.
    The encounter is enough to jolt Luke out of his dull Lincolnshire routine. He throws in his job, packs his typewriter, heads for London and with nowhere to stay, looks Paul up in the phonebook.
    Meanwhile, Nina is the fatherless daughter of a failed actress, brought up by a dully sensible aunt. When she turns fifteen she decides her life must include acting and living in London, where she turns up on her mother's doorstep. She leaves an aunt who loves her but can't show her any affection for a narcissistic mother who is controlling and leaves Nina no room for friendships or for being herself. Mummy particularly dominates any attempts Nina has with relationships.
    Nina is very damaged, has little confidence but develops that fragile look that suits particular roles. Leigh is also damaged by her father's infidelity which destroyed her childhood, but copes by developing a tough outer shell that doesn't easily let anyone else in. Only Paul has had a happy and boringly ordinary childhood, except that his love for the theatre doesn't sit well with his father's more pragmatic ambitions for his son.
    Luke enjoys his friendship with Paul and Leigh, but avoids any deeper relationships, having numerous flings with the young actresses he meets. He believes his mother's mental illness stands in the way of anything deeper. When he meets Nina, all of this is turned on its head.  
    With intense and talented characters like these and the setting of 70s London where all the old rules are fast disappearing, there is plenty of scope for drama and character development. Ultimately this is a story about creative ambitions, as well as friendship and love. This is a very intense novel, almost claustrophobic, and a gripping read - not my favourite by Sadie Jones, but still well worth a look.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Martian by Andy Weir

Andy Weir sure puts the 'science' into science fiction with his first book, The Martian. Hooking you in from the page one, the Martian of the title is quickly revealed as astronaut Mark Watney, who six days into a mission to Mars with five other astronauts, finds himself abandoned by his crew-mates and believed dead.
    While the rest of the team escape what could have been a disastrous storm, Watney wakes up and begins the difficult task of saving himself in the short-term and making plans for his long-term survival. Another Mars mission is scheduled in four years' time and he's determined to be ready for it.
    It is lucky that Mark is a trained botanist and that NASA thought that the crew would like some real potatoes to enjoy for Thanksgiving. Using a mixture of Mars dust, faecal matter and lots of water - he figures out a way to produce this in abundance - plus the potatoes, Mark builds a mini market garden inside the Hab, the dome that was to house him and his colleagues for a month.
    The science gets a lot more complicated than that as he figures out how to contact NASA to let them know he is alive - though a smart young scientist had spotted activity already when watching some satellite images. He also has to figure out how to get himself several hundred kilometres from the Hab to the site of the next mission using an exploration vehicle which has been designed for short trips only. There are lots of technical details which I did my best to keep up with, and for someone who doesn't really know a lot about chemistry and physics (I could kind of keep up with the botany), it made for oddly exhilarating reading.
    But Weir doesn't just throw a lot of science at the reader. He knows about how to keep the plot boiling along as Watney encounters numerous setbacks and NASA breaks rules and argues about what to do and somehow his old crew-mates come on board the story as well. And you can imagine how they must be feeling.
    Though the star of the show is really Mark. He is a terrific character: funny as well as clever, determined and vigorous. There are plenty of comic touches, including the seventies music and old tv series that Captain Lewis thought to bring along and which Mark resorts to for the sake of something to break the tedium of his aloneness.
    The overall effect of The Martian is a tribute to human inventiveness and the will of people all over the world to help out someone in trouble. It is also a bit like watching a cross between Kerbil Space Programme and Mythbusters. Not many writers could pull off a book like this and make it work. And it's not surprising that Ridley Scott has plans to turn the novel into a movie starring Matt Damon. I can't wait!

Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Language of Others by Clare Morrall

The Language of Others is the story of Jessica Fontaine, tracing her life from her childhood at Audlands Hall - the crumbling mansion her biscuit baron father bought to please her mother - through to her present day struggles with her grown-up son and her estranged husband.
    As a child Jessica's mother found her daughter unfathomable, possibly even retarded, unlike her sociable and attractive younger sister, Harriet. While her mother organised treasure hunts and parties and Harriet ran about the estate with their cousins, Jess would sit at an upstairs window reading or skating down the long gallery. Until she discovered music.
    Jess is in fact smarter than she looks, and takes to playing the piano with a huge amount of commitment, enough to get herself into music school where she meets Andrew. She falls in love with Andrew the moment she first sees him, playing the violin. Andrew has a bucketload of talent but lacks the emotional maturity to use it. He resents his pushy mother for the path his life has taken and all the hours he spent practising as a child. Clearly, both have mother issues.
    The story weaves in threads from Jessica's growing up and the early years of their marriage with her present-day life, working at a library part-time and playing piano duets to small audiences with her good friend, Mary. At home Jess's twenty-three year old son, Joel, still expects his mother to house and cook for him in spite of Joel's success in the computer gaming industry. To Jess's knowledge, Joel has no friends or ever had a girlfriend, and this worries her.
    But her peace is completely shattered when Andrew gets in touch after seven years of no communication. Andrew has always been difficult, and refusing to play his violin for years, has never settled to any particular career path.
    How Jessica comes to understand her son and Andrew while she is coerced into considering events from the past is the main thrust of the story. There is a lot of detail of a musical nature and Morrall recreates the house of Audlands with a finely imagined pen. This is a quiet story, that nevertheless builds to a dramatic finish, as friends and family come together one last time for a final barn dance at Audlands Hall.
    But really this is a novel about self-awareness and how when you understand yourself, it puts into perspective your interactions with other people. Like previous books I've read by this author, she has created some unusual characters, who nevertheless engage the reader's sympathy and are carefully drawn.  What stands out for me is the wisdom present in Morrall's novels, which though pleasurable, also leave you feeling enriched. What more could you ask for?

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Natural Flights of the Human Mind by Clare Morrall

I cannot believe how much I enjoyed this early book by Clare Morrall, or how long it took me to get around to reading it. I was particularly impressed by her last novel, The Roundabout Man and I had always planned to read her earlier work. Natural Flights, similarly deals with oddball, damaged characters - in this case, the premier oddball is Peter Straker who lives in a disused lighthouse. Straker is so burdened by guilt he never talks to anyone, believing he has caused the deaths of 78 people around twenty-five years ago.
    In fact Straker was damaged before that happened, coping with a family where he was overshadowed by his much smarter brother and terrifying father. Now something of a hermit, he shuns all human interaction until he meets Doody (aka Imogen), who has inherited a run-down cottage in the Devon village nearby.
    The first thing you learn about Doody is that she doesn't mess about with the niceties of polite conversation. She starts yelling at Straker when she's up a ladder examining her decrepit roof, and loosing her temper, becomes entangled in weeds. Straker finds himself making a strange sound he doesn't recognise at first - it turns out to be laughter - and slowly the two develop a peculiar friendship.
    Doody is also damaged - her childhood marked by tragedy and a serious lack of love, on top of which her husband walked out on her, also twenty-five years ago. Since then she's eked out a living as a school caretaker. The cottage gives Doody a chance at independence, while she gives Straker a chance to interact with another person. Both have been quite abandoned by their mothers, though Doody maintains a somewhat heckling relationship with her successful younger brother.
    These are such unusual, difficult, yet oddly likeable characters, and as a reader Morrall really puts you through the ringer, as you hold out a faint hope for what might happen to them in the future. How can Straker even have a future when his past is such a burden? And running through his mind are constant conversations with the dead - he knows who they are because he has done his research at the library and collected newspaper articles. The only way he can keep his sanity is by counting - steps, minutes, intakes of breath - and all the while avoiding the number 78.
    The story builds towards a climax as the twenty-fifth anniversary of the accident that took those 78 lives rolls around, a showdown involving a vintage plane and a busload of angry, grieving and determined relatives.
    For such a grim scenario, Natural Flights is wonderfully readable, charming and at times even humorous. Morrall manages a clever balancing act between the potentially leaden themes of loss, guilt and family dysfunction and wryly observed, quirky characters to produce a plot that slowly builds tension and drama towards a surprising and satisfying ending.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Reckless by William Nicholson

Many books I read take a bit of an effort to get into; you decide to allow them say fifty pages, and if they don't grab you by then, you put them aside. William Nicholson's novel, Reckless, had me hooked from page one. The novel recaptures the military and political stand-off over the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Scenes include Kruschev and John Kennedy and British Chief of Defence, 'Dickie' Mountbatten.
    The build up of tension is subtly done and the viewpoints flick from character to character - it would be easy to get lost, but Nicholson handles the whole thing deftly, keeping a lot of balls in the air and imagining the period so well. He does this through his three main characters.
    Rupert Blundell is an advisor to Mountbatten, has been since the war, before which he was studying philosophy. He's very shy with women, even his outgoing colleague, Joyce, and has decided love and marriage are not for him. His philosophy gets in the way it seems - for how can any person really know the heart of another?
    Rupert is forty-four when he meets Mary, whose lovely, open and desperately sad face attracts his attention while walking across St James's Park. A second meeting in the same spot leads him to rescue her from a kind of imprisonment at a convent. As a child she'd been the recipient of several visions, during which Christ called to her and said a great wind would bring about the world's end. It was the time of the bombing of Hiroshima and now with the Cuban missile crisis, the end of the world is a distinct possibility.
    Rupert brings Mary to his friends, Hugo and Harriet, who have a young daughter. Harriet is often unwell, and Mary proves to be a godsend. The role of nanny/home help was supposed to fall to Pamela, the step-daughter of Hugo's business partner. Eighteen-year-old Pamela has begged to be allowed to live in London, and staying at Hugo's is a kind of compromise.
    Pamela has envisaged for herself a romantic life involving a grand love affair, and dazzling the world with her gorgeousness.  She meets Stephen Ward at a very artistic cafe and he invites Pamela and her friends to a risqué nightclub. All at once Pamela is thrown into the hedonistic world of the idle rich, among them key players in what will erupt as the Profumo Affair. She learns, as one character points out, that society is full of 'lonely people looking for love and bored people looking for fun'.
    Reckless gives a very vivid picture of a time when the world seemed on the precipice of disaster. Nicholson has done his homework and recreated scenes based on actual events and real people. But it is also very much the story of Rupert, Mary and Pamela, who are all immensely sympathetic. A number of the characters from Reckless appear in Nicholson's earlier book, the acclaimed Motherland, and have links to characters in The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life and All the Hopeful Lovers. I haven't read any of these as yet, but if they are anything like Reckless, they are sure to be full of warmth, wisdom and sharp observation and I have a wonderful treat in store.