Monday, 28 December 2015

A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear

Maisie Dobbs enters a new phase in her life with this latest in Winspear's 1930s mystery series, and we are suddenly four years further on from her last story, finding Maisie in Gibraltar in 1937. Across the border the Spanish Civil War is going hammer and tongs, so what could Maisie be doing here in a pleasant but spartan guest house, sitting in cafes looking thin and not eating very much?
    Maisie has it seemed suffered a terrible loss, and after a bit of travel, via India, her spiritual home, is set to return to her house at Chelstone, but has jumped ship at the last hurdle, reluctant to face the people who love her and relive her own grief. Gibraltar is an interesting place in 1937, while dangerously close to the battles over the border, but things take an interesting turn when Maisie trips over a dead body one evening. It belongs to a photographer, so the reader soon hears alarm bells ringing. What pictures had been taken that had caused his death?
    The police are useless of course. They believe Sebastian Babayoff was beaten to death by an impoverished refugee - there are many flooding across the border looking for a safe haven. His Zeiss was stolen after all - but not his Leica, which Maisie discovers flung under some bushes. Maisie interviews the sister of the deceased, and seeing her grief determines to find out the real killer. She learns that not long before Sebastian's death, Carlos, a family friend and fisherman, died suddenly of a suspected heart attack while out in his boat. He and Sebastian would often row out together, Babayoff with his camera of course and with the presence of military ships in the Mediterranean, could the two have seen something they shouldn't?
    This is the basic set up of the storyline but it is in some ways overshadowed by Maisie's own personal tragedy. While reminding her of the terrible cost of war on ordinary families, the discovery of the body is also a god's-send for Maisie, bringing out her detective instincts and she is soon busy snooping like anything and building a case map. Of course the authorities don't take kindly to her meddling, and Maisie herself is under surveillance, being followed by a young spy in the pay, Maisie suspects, of people in England who are worried about her.
    The story really gets going when Maisie meets the mysterious Professor Vallejo, who can come and go across the border, but whose side is he really on? Maisie's gritty determination to find out will lead her into more than one 'dangerous place' which is all the more fun for the reader. I particularly enjoy the period atmosphere Winspear conjures up in this series, and Maisie makes a brilliant old-world spy. This may well be the direction the rest of the series takes her, as spymaster, Robert Macfarlane is on the scene, a key character in a previous book. It will be interesting to find out.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Hester and Harriet by Hilary Spiers

I'm not usually attracted by the Christmassy covers found on books published with the festive season in mind, or indeed, Christmas stories in general. However Christmas can intensify family issues that are already there, and as such makes a good basis for drama. Hester and Harriet is a refreshingly different Christmas story, about two widowed sisters, happy to see the festive day out in quiet self-indulgence at home by the fire.
    Hester is the terse, thin one who cooks; Harriet is the dumpy, secret cookie eater ex-school teacher, kindly but occasionally given to the odd socialist rant. The two are hilarious together with their snippy dialogue and enjoyment of Hester's fine cooking, which the reader gets to enjoy as well.
    So, to Christmas Day: the sisters reluctantly haul themselves out into the chill, Harriet driving badly as usual, expected to share the festive meal with cousins, George and Isabelle. Their cousins mean well, but the food will be terrible, the company worse. Fate intervenes when passing the old bus shelter, now home to a derelict ex-classics master named Finbar, they find instead a young girl and her baby.
    Happy for an excuse to turn back home anyway, the sisters take in Daria, who is from Belarus, and her little chap, Milo. Daria is reluctant to tell the women why she is hiding in a bus shelter, and she seems fearful of strangers. Life gets more complicated when George and Isabelle's teenage son Ben turns up on their doorstep, having had a major falling out with his parents about his wish to chuck in school and study horticulture instead.
    The women have no children of their own, so there is a hilarious learning curve in front of them. Fortunately Ben is surprisingly good with Milo and gets Daria to talk, and Hester and Harriet begin to formulate a plan to help her. Ben is so impressed by the food Hester prepares he starts to help in the kitchen and is allowed to stay for a few days anyway until something can be sorted out with his parents.
    Spicing up the novel is the hint of danger in the lurking stranger who seems to be spying on Daria and asking questions around the village. The problem of refugees from political struggles abroad and their exploitation in Britain gives Harriet plenty to get on her high horse about, and even in their tiny village of Pellingham, dark deeds are afoot which the sisters are sure to get to the bottom of.
    The novel is sprinkled with a clutch of humorous characters: Finbar the malodorous hobo with his fanatically perfect grammar, ladies man Teddy Wilson who seems to be in a spot of bother and his wife Molly who drowns her sorrows in drink, to name a few. The plot may take a while to get going, but there is still plenty to amuse with the characters playing off each other, smart and witty dialogue and an atmospheric setting. Quite a good antidote to the usual Christmas fare, but a good read any time of the year.

Friday, 11 December 2015

The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths

I just had to see what happens to forensic archaeologist, Dr Ruth Galloway, in the second book in Elly Griffith's series of mysteries set in Norfolk. By the end of The Crossing Places, Ruth has discovered she is pregnant at 39, and happy about it, though not so keen to reveal her secret to the father, a married man, or her born-again Christian parents.
    At the start of the first book, Ruth was leading a quiet, spinsterish life, absorbed in her work at the university, attending the odd faculty party, but happy at home with her cats and Radio 4. She lives in a desolate spot on the marshes, away from the hurly burly, which suits her fine. Until she meets DCI Harry Nelson who needs her expertise with bones. Since then she's had her life threatened on more than one occasion, as she gets closer to discovering the truth, and her circle of friends has at least doubled in number. There's a lot more of that here in The Janus Stone.
    When builders discover bones at a building site, Ruth excavates the tiny skeleton of a child, minus its head. The large house, which was once an orphanage, is being demolished to make way for apartments, and the burial of the bones at a doorway, implies a kind of ritual sacrifice with links to Roman deities, in particular, Janus, the god of beginnings and transitions, often shown with two faces.
    However Ruth notices that layers of soil indicate a much more recent burial and Nelson questions Father Hennessey, who ran a children's home on the site around fifty years ago. He reluctantly reveals that two children ran away from the home in the early seventies, a boy of twelve and his younger sister.
    The reader is treated to plenty of archaeological information about Janus and Hecate, some of the not-so-nice minor Roman deities thanks to Ruth's friendship with Dr Max Grey, from Sussex, who is involved in a dig uncovering a Roman villa. His insight is useful because of the clues at the crime scene which indicate a murderer with a weird obsession with some of the nastier Roman rituals, such as sacrificing children to place under doorways for good luck.
    Max Grey and Ruth have a lot in common and he is obviously in line for some romantic interest; he's attracted to Ruth, that is soon clear. But how will she tell him about her baby? And is Max hiding a secret of his own? Everyone's got secrets it would seem.
    The Janus Stone is another engrossing mystery, with plenty of factual material to get your teeth into while building up to an action-packed ending. Ruth and DCI Nelson are brilliant characters, each good at their job, but with the personality quirks that make the reader care for them. There are another six Galloway-Nelson novels so far, and this will no doubt become my go-to collection for a relaxing escapist read.

Friday, 4 December 2015

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

The Crossing Places is the first book that features forensic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway, in Elly Griffiths' series of murder mysteries set in Norfolk. Ruth works at the local university and has a particular interest in the henge circle that was discovered near her isolated home right on the marshes. This is a landscape where sea and land meet and according to the religion of the ancient people who built the henge it is also the path between life and death. A perfect spot for burial rites and human sacrifice then.
    When a child's bones are discovered on the marshes, Inspector Harry Nelson requests Ruth's help to date them. It is obviously not a new death, and Nelson hopes to solve a ten-year-old murder, that of Lucy Downey, a little girl taken from her bed in middle of the night. It is the case that haunts Nelson the most, possibly because of the letters that the murderer has sent him over the years, full of references to literature, archaeology and the Bible.
    The bones turn out to be around two thousand years old, and at the burial site are Iron Age artefacts, which is great for Ruth and her archaeologist friends, including her old teacher and mentor, the Norwegian Erik Anderssen. There will be more for Ruth and co to get their teeth into, more finds including an ancient pathway, giving plenty of scope for Griffiths to describe the customs and beliefs of the early people who lived here.
    Ruth sees her job as something akin to detective work, but when another little girl goes missing from her home and more letters arrive with references to ancient burials and the marshes, she is soon involved in a modern day crime. Inspector Nelson with his brusque north of England manner and Ruth with the confidence that comes from her academic expertise are an incongruous pair. Rather overweight and dressed for practicalities as opposed to style, Ruth is the world away from the kind of woman Nelson is used to, but the two make a connection.
    The reader suspects this will be the first of many crimes they will solve together and it is fortunate the two soon develop a grudging respect for each other. Plot-wise there aren't so many surprises but I enjoyed this fairly light and easy read, and I like the main characters, Ruth with her cats and solitariness and Nelson with his bad-tempered impatience but undoubtable integrity.
    Best of all is the setting: what is it about the Norfolk marshes that is so appealing? Possibly it is the danger of the rushing tide that threatens to swallow up anyone caught off the narrow paths of safety. There are shades of Susan Hill's The Woman in Black and Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone here, which just adds to the chilling atmosphere and creates a reliably escapist novel.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

Now this was a difficult book to put down, as right from the beginning it gets is main character, climatologist Adam Kindred, into a growing tangle of murder, conspiracy and the dark undercurrents of London society. Adam is one of those characters that can be tossed about by adverse events because he has just come back from years in America, a broken marriage behind him and the sniff of a new job, a research fellowship at Imperial College, so he has no ties and no one knows he is home.
    Eating alone at an Italian restaurant he meets another scientist, an immunologist, also eating alone, who happens to leave behind a folder. Dr Philip Wang's address and phone number are on the documents, so Adam decides to return the file in person, but discovers Wang's dying body and a lurking murderer at his flat. Adam manages to dodge the attacker, but his name has been left with the concierge and his fingerprints are on the murder weapon. He soon realises he has no choice but to go on the run, and hides out, living rough among the undergrowth at Chelsea Embankment.
    Adam's a resourceful young man, and sets out to clear his name, and that will mean finding out what it was that Dr Wang had discovered during his trials of a ground-breaking new asthma drug that has someone at the pharmaceutical company Calenture-Deutz determined to suppress.
    So begins a convoluted storyline full of odd connections that all tie up cleverly and an assortment of widely varying characters. There's Calenture-Deutz head Ingram Fryzer, full of self-doubt yet determined to maintain control of the company while needing buy-in from another major drug company. He's not a particularly pleasant character, but Boyd somehow makes him to some degree sympathetic to the reader. Not so top nasty Jonjo, the ex-squaddie thug hired to do in Dr Wang who is desperate to track down Adam in order to get his final payout.
    Then there is Mhouse, the prostitute that rips Adam off and then later helps him, suggesting he visit the Church of John Christ, if he ever needs a hot meal. Which he does. The Church of John Christ is a marvellous creation, a testament to the novel ways that a new religion can be invented and in spite of its doubtful theological basis, manages to do a lot of good, one way and another.
    The story bounces from character to character, and Adam's plight is both nail-biting and enthralling - he's a modern day Richard Hannay - and the chapters just fly by. Boyd manages to come up with a thriller that is also immensely well-written and intelligent. The book's title is a reference to the type of storms that have 'the capacity to transform themselves into multi-cell storms of ever growing complexity', like this rich and complex plot. It is lucky that this particular thunderstorm has storm expert, Adam Kindred, on the case to see a way through the layers of conspiracy, with an ending that is both original and immensely satisfying.

Friday, 20 November 2015

The Drowning Lesson by Jane Shemilt

I had my doubts about this book in the opening pages as I couldn't quite warm to the main character and narrator. Emma Jordan is an obstetrician and mother of two young girls, Alice and Zoe. Husband, Adam, is also a doctor and their relationship is strained by the urge Emma feels to constantly compete with Adam career-wise. There is no doubt she is very good at what she does and there is little wonder she is driven when the story flips back to show glimpses of her relationship with her father. The drowning lesson of the title gives you a clue.
    Emma is one of those brilliant doctors who works with machine like accuracy but has something missing when it comes to relating to people: not remembering the name of the woman whose baby she has just delivered or noticing that Alice is suffering stress. When Adam plans a sabbatical year in Botswana, Emma is reluctant to take the time away from work to join him, but her falling unexpectedly pregnant and a problem with Alice at school help to change her mind.
   This back story is woven in with the terrible event at the start of the book when Emma arrives at their Botswana house to find her baby boy, Sam, has been abducted. A window has been smashed so it looks like strangers have taken the child who has a distinctive strawberry birthmark on his cheek.
    While the police are soon on the spot, there are hardly any leads and Emma's mind ranges over a variety of suspects: the nanny Teko, who turned up out of the blue and whom the girls took an instant liking to; Simon, the girls' tutor who has suddenly left the area; Adam's secretary, Megan, who had been overwhelmingly kind in arranging things from London, doesn't escape scrutiny either. Meanwhile the police question the elderly gardener and Alice becomes even more withdrawn and blames her mother for everything.
    The novel takes every woman's worst nightmare as the basis for a tense and gripping read. And while I found Emma a difficult character at first, that changed as the book progressed because she is really interesting. Adam and girls are also well rounded, coping or not coping in various ways.  The eventual solution to the mystery is only half the book as Emma learning that there is more to life than winning is a core part of the story. This could have been all rather obvious and clumsy, but Shemilt avoids these pitfalls - perhaps due to the spare, straightforward narration that suits Emma's developing character so well.
    While this might not have been my first choice of reading matter, once I'd picked it up it was hard to put down and I rattled through the final chapters. It would be a terrific TV drama series over several Sunday nights, too.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan

This is the first of what would seem to be a new series of mysteries featuring recently retired Mumbai policeman, Ashwin Chopra and, quite possibly, his pet elephant. The book begins on Inspector Chopra's last day in the force - he has had to retire early for health reasons - and he is daunted by the fact. He will have his policeman's pension, and his wife, Poppy, is looking forward to having him at home to make a fuss over. But he is not ready to retire.
    A final case - the drowning of a young man from a poor part of town - looks to Chopra to be more than meets the eye and in spite of orders to sign it off as a drunken accident, Chopra resists. He can hear the words of the boy's distraught mother ringing in his ears, that there is no justice for a poor woman and her poor son. Surely he can ask a friend to perform a post mortem and visit the family to see what he can find out.
    At the end of the day he arrives home to find there is a baby elephant outside his home. It has been left to him by a favourite uncle and an argument is in full flow between Poppy and Mrs Subramanium, the self-appointed arbiter of what is permitted in their apartment block. No pets is one of the rules, while Poppy exclaims that the elephant isn't a pet, but one of the family. The elephant is tethered in the compound and left with the caretaker, while Chopra figures out what to do with it.
    The elephant is so tiny and, separated from its herd, utterly miserable, neither eating or drinking. You can't help but fear for its survival while curiosity about its role in the plot draws you into the story. Chopra, now with time on his hands, begins his investigation into the drowning. He finds the victim's diary which sends him on a trail into the slums of Mumbai. What can be the connection between a leather shop, an orphanage and an abandoned warehouse?
    While Chopra is involved in his secret undercover work, Poppy suspects he has another woman and hatches a scheme of her own to save her marriage. There are plenty more mad cap scenes involving the elephant at the apartment, also home of Chopra's difficult mother-in-law, while Chopra closes in on a network of criminals, leading up to a showdown with an old enemy.
    The plot just bubbles along and the colourful sights of Mumbai in its infinite variety adds a ton of interest while the monsoon brings new challenges. Chopra is a big-hearted investigator and his elephant surprisingly helpful - is is just as well they are not ready to settle into retirement together. I for one will be looking out for the next Baby Ganesh Agency investigation.

Monday, 9 November 2015

The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

The reader at the centre of this novel is Guylain Vignolles, just an ordinary man whose life has been made difficult by the name his parents gave him at birth - a spoonerism away from Villain Guignol which translates as 'ugly puppet'. He suffered the kind of teasing at school that robbed him of his confidence, and now in his thirties Guylain works in a book recycling plant, managing the Zerstor, a monstrosity of a machine that noisily gobbles and pulps the books no one wants to read anymore.
    The work is bad enough for anyone, his boss is abusive, his co-worker sneering and uncouth. And on top of that, Guylain loves books. To make up for what he has to do to them each day, he salvages odd pages and reads from his collection on his daily commute by train, out loud.
    Most of the time it seems Guilain's readings go unnoticed by his fellow travellers, until one day two old ladies collar him and ask him to read at their home. He imagines another Paris apartment, probably a bit more commodious than his own tiny garret, and is surprised to find himself in at a retirement home.
    His readings are very popular and the audience ask questions and take an interest in him. What's more they mispronounce and mishear his name so that it becomes nothing that conjures up the 'ugly puppet' of before. Things are looking up. But when Guylain discovers a lost USB drive on his train, his life takes another course altogether. In order to return the drive to its owner, Guylain downloads its content and suddenly we are in the journal of Julie, who is just as disillusioned with her lot as Guylain. Julie is looking for a white knight to rescue her from her dismal job as a toilet cleaner in a shopping mall.
    The book is a charming fable about the power of literature to uplift and transform people's lives. But it is full of humour too - that particular French style of humour which sees the funny side of the potentially miserable. Take Guylain's former co-worker, Giuseppe, who's legs were lost in an unfortunate accident when he was unblocking the Zerstor. His apartment is lined with shelves of books: identical copies of the same book that was made from the pulp which was the bi-product of his accident.
    Or the security guard, Yvon, who has a passion for reciting French classical literature and speaks in Alexandrine verse. (I imagine in an Englsh story, the character would choose iambic pentameter.) Guylain is a good friend to both which is just as well or the reader could never forgive his inability to find himself a girlfriend or a decent job.
    The Reader on the 6.27 takes an afternoon to read, and once begun I found it difficult to put down. I'm not sure quite what it was that drew me in, possibly it was the 'Amelie'-like quirky Frenchness, or the desire you feel for Guylain's life to turn around. You know there is a happy ending coming up, but there is enough wit to keep your brain happy as well. And the writing is stylish and clever. What more could you want?

Saturday, 31 October 2015

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

State of Wonder is the story of Marina, a research scientist for the pharmaceutical company, Vogel, and it begins with the arrival of an aerogram letter. Her boss and secret lover, Mr Fox, shows her the letter which brings the news that her colleague and friend, Anders Eckman has died of fever in the Amazonian jungle. Anders had been sent to find out about the progress of a research project to develop a new fertility drug that would give older women the chance to have children.
    The project is headed by maverick scientist, Dr Annick Swenson, who years ago had been Marina's head surgeon in the obstetrics ward where Marina had made the terrible error that ended her hospital career. Marina has very mixed feelings about Dr Swenson, and is therefore not too happy about being sent to Brazil, at the request of both Mr Fox and Anders' wife, to learn the details of her colleague's death.
    Dr Swenson has been incommunicado, partly because of the remote location of the Amazonian tributary where she is carrying out her field work, and because she doesn't want any interference from Vogel until she has finished. Years have passed with very little communication, and the location of Dr Swenson is in doubt, but there is at least an apartment in Manaus, supplied by Vogel, which is somewhere for Marina to start.
    Marina arrives in sweltering Manaus from a chilly Minnesota to find her luggage has gone to Madrid. She discovers a helpful taxi driver and a not so helpful Australian couple who live in Dr Swenson's apartment and guard her privacy. It will be weeks, possibly months, before she can expect Dr Swenson to return for supplies. When she eventually does, and Annick reluctantly agrees that Marina can tag along with her back to the site of her research, the story really gets going.
    Marina finds herself battling nightmares caused by the anti-malarial drugs, and losing more of her clothing, so that she is attired in the loose shifts worn by the tribal women who are pregnant for most of their lives thanks to the addictive tree bark they nibble. She has to put up with Dr Swenson's unsympathetic and disparaging comments, but slowly finds favour. Does Annick even remember Marina from their former work together?
    Then of course there are the dangers inherent in the Amazon, from giant anacondas, to the poison arrows fired by a nearby tribe, the terrible heat and the very real danger of getting lost. Marina is a reluctant heroine, which makes her interesting and the situations she finds herself in are described with a dry humour.
    Patchett doesn't have to preach about the dangers of western interference on an endangered way of life, or the greed for pharmaceutical solutions to western problems, minor hiccups compared to those experienced by Amazonian people. Her story speaks for itself, but it does so with plenty of wit, action and many surprising revelations. It's a terrific read, and I was only sorry it had to end so soon. Happily there are other well-regarded novels by this author to enjoy, including Bel Canto which won an Orange Prize and which is also set in South America.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Life Class by Pat Barker

With the release of Noonday, I thought it was about time I caught up with the first title in Pat Barker's second war trilogy, Life Class. It follows the story of talented artist, Elinor Brooke, her friend Kit Neville, a daringly different painter who is making waves on the art scene, and art student, Paul Tarrant. Both young men are drawn to Elinor, but she is cooly stand-offish, leaving Paul to throw himself into an affair with Teresa, an artist model and friend of Elinor's.
    Paul is from the north and a less genteel background, though his savvy grandmother was able to fund his schooling and has left him enough money to study art. This is where we find him, at London's Slade art school suffering under the critical eye of life-class teacher, Henry Tonks. Paul has a few good techniques up his sleeve, but his appreciation of human anatomy is hopeless and Tonks wonders why he is wasting his time there.
    It is the glorious summer of 1914, but the clouds of war are on the horizon. Dissatisfied with their lives for various reasons both Kit and Paul are desperate to see some action and eventually find themselves in France, Kit doing some war-reporting and Paul as an orderly in a field hospital. Barker really comes into her own recreating the smells, sounds and terrible sights as well as imagining the pain of wounded men being cared for in appalling conditions. There is never enough anaesthetic and the wounds horrific and barely imaginable.
    Before leaving London, Paul and Elinor had grown closer, and much of the latter part of the book consists of the letters they write to each other. Elinor refuses to have anything to do with the war effort, much to her parents' disgust, and carries on devoting her time to her painting. Paul is drawing too, but his subject matter is the terrible events he deals with day by day, which are surely unfit for public view. Both in their own ways are struggling with the role of art in the terrible human calamity that is war. There are glimpses of the Bloomsbury Group, described as a bunch of 'conchies', when Elinor becomes friends with Ottoline Morrell.
    Barker is a brilliant storyteller, her characters so distinct and intense. I love the way Elinor's point of view is loaded with the visual, and we see the world through her artist's eyes. Not that the language is ever wordy or overly descriptive, leaving the characters to get on with things. Which they do. The story builds, following Elinor's relationship with Paul on one hand, and as the danger of the front intensifies on the other. The question of whether relationships can survive a war that irrecoverably changes those caught up in it will surely be the subject of the next book in the series, Toby's Room, another to add to my 'must read' list.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

I was wondering what new problems Simsion would throw at his incredibly smart but socially inept hero, Don Tillman, in his sequel to the runaway hit, The Rosie Project. Don and Rosie, now married, are living in New York where Don has a post in the genetics department at Columbia University, and where Rosie has enrolled as a medical student. They have managed to find an apartment they can afford that meets Rosie's requirements for space and location and married life seems to be, well, rosy.
    When Rosie announces she is pregnant, this unplanned event throws all of Don's careful planning and timetabling into disarray and he reacts badly, causing a chain of events that could spell disaster. They are thrown out of their apartment, Don has to undertake a course of counselling at the risk of deportation and he hasn't figured a way to tell his Aussie mate, Gene, that Rosie is not happy about him staying with them during his sabbatical in New York.
    Don manages to keep all of the above secret from Rosie, yet as Rosie's pregnancy progresses, she seems to be drawing further and further away from him. Soon winning Rosie back is added to his list of challenges.
    That is pretty much the story in a nutshell, and not much more than what you get from reading the publisher's blurb. The book is peppered with a cast of memorable characters and this plus Don's knack for solving one problem with another gives the tale plenty of oomph. The housing problem for instance is solved by Don's promise to look after an aged English rock-star's on-tap beer by moving into his downstairs apartment - it smells a bit, and sometimes the Dead Kings get together for a practise session on the floor above but it is in every other way ideal.
    There are some hilarious scenes around Don's social worker, Lydia, who has decided he is unfit to be a father and sends him to anger management classes where he impresses the lads with his Aikido skills. To avoid adding stress to Rosie's condition, Don uses a daring piece of subterfuge to convince Lydia he is safe to stay in the US. Meanwhile Don's Dean requests his help monitoring a parenting study run by lesbians with a highly political agenda. Don's clinical intellectualism refuses to allow any leeway and he finds himself caught up in a new battle which will have crucial implications later on.
    The story builds up to a wonderful climax in the beery apartment, and Don will be torn in all kinds of directions as he tries to look after his friends while saving his marriage. His big-heartedness in this regard makes him yet again a brilliant and complex hero while the humour never lets up. Narrating the entire story in Don's singular voice takes some doing and Simsion pulls it off brilliantly. The novel is highly entertaining while rejoicing in the things that make us all unique individuals.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Instruments of Darkness by Imogen Robertson

Instruments of Darkness is the first novel in the Harriet Westerman/Gabriel Crowther mystery series and is set in the hot Sussex summer of 1780. The story really pulls you in because it introduces its sleuths in such an interesting way.
    Crowther makes the villagers nervous with his nocturnal habits and interest in anatomy, a pursuit that has led to a reputation for body snatching, which he may have had a hand in in the past. He is unhappy to be woken from his sleep by the well-to-do resident of Caveley Park and as a rule doesn't allow visitors. But the note she has slipped the maid is compelling: 'I have found a body on my land. His throat has been cut.' How can he resist?
    So begins a thrilling historical mystery at the core of which are some dark secrets at Thornleigh Hall, the seat of the Earl of Sussex. The current earl is bedridden and unable to speak following a stroke. He has a reputation as a cruel master who has recently married a dancer, flouting the laws of polite society. There is a cloud over his past, in particular regarding the death of a young girl, while his first wife also died in suspicious circumstances.
    The heir to the earldom, Alexander Thornleigh has abandoned his family, marrying for love and hasn't been heard of in ten years; his younger brother, Hugh, battle scarred from the American War of Independence, is quietly drinking himself to an early grave. After examining the body, a man in his thirties, Harriet sends for Hugh, fearing the victim may be his long lost brother.
    Two clues are found on the body - a ring bearing the Thornleigh crest and a scrap of paper torn from the man's fist. Hugh is not a pleasant man and is prickly with Harriet. A year or so before he'd been a welcome guest at Caveley Park, and there had been hopes for a match with Harriet's younger sister, Rachel. But something has changed Hugh, and Harriet fears a kind of evil lurking at the hall. If she is right, Rachel has had a lucky escape.
    The storyline cuts to London and the music shop of one Alexander Adams. He's a widower with two young children and for some reason he cannot find the old ring he has sometimes allowed little Jonathan to play with. In the background London is besieged by anti-Catholic riots, a situation which creates a memorable chase scene towards the end of the book.
    Robertson has started her series off with an excellent debut novel, full of intrigue, family secrets, evil malefactors and a growing body count. There's also budding romance among the minor characters and an interesting historical context. Best of all are the two main characters: the determined, outspoken Harriet, the doggedly anti-social and clever Crowther who has his own shadowy past. Together they make an entertaining sleuthing couple.
    If I have a problem with the book, it is that the copy-editing lets it down at times, though I noticed fewer gaffs as the story progressed, probably because I was so swept along by the plot. I shall certainly be happy to return to more Westerman and Crowther mysteries, for this is a classic ripping yarn.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas

Vargas throws four perplexing mysteries in not so many more pages in the opening chapters of her most recent Commissaire Adamsberg novel. He quickly solves the cause of death of an old woman who had apparently died in her sleep, but a trail of breadcrumbs leads him to suspect her husband of foul play.
    Soon after that, he rescues a pigeon, its legs tied together so that it cannot feed itself and looks likely to die. Adamsberg swears he will bring the perpetrator of this petty crime to justice, and takes the bird to Lieutenant Retancourt, his Amazonian subordinate - if she can't cure the bird no one can.
    Pacing the pavement distractedly and looking out of place on the streets of Paris, he meets an elderly woman who is too nervous to enter the police department doors. Eventually this Mme Vendermot reveals her peculiar story - that her daughter has seen the Ghost Riders of Ordebec and among them were four doomed men who live in her Normandy town, the first of whom has already disappeared. The local police take her for a madwoman and will not listen, but Adamsberg is fascinated.
    If only he hasn't been suddenly called off to investigate the murder of prominent businessman Antoine Clermont-Brasseur, his corpse found in his burnt-out car. The suspicion falls immediately on Momo, a serial arsonist whose petrol soaked sneakers are found on searching his home. But there are others who might want Clermont-Brasseur dead - his two sons are reportedly dissatisfied with his management of the family business and want to take over, yet torching an old man in his car seems a fearful way to go about it.
    Momo swears his innocence and Adamsberg, who has a knack for being able to detect if someone is lying, believes him. He masterminds a way for Momo to escape and to allow him to investigate the Ordebec mystery at the same time. His twenty-something son, Zerk, whom he has only come to know in recent months, becomes Momo's caretaker, bringing with them the rescued pigeon, hiding out in the house of the first of the Ordebec victims, a conveniently secluded cottage.
   Adamsberg installs himself in the home of another victim, the elderly Leone, felled by a blow to the head and now lying in hospital, unlikely to survive. What was it that Leone knew? He brings with him Lte Veyranc, recently returned to duty and spouting Alexandrine verse as is his way. He'll need the help of Commandant Danglard as well, useful as always for his extensive recollection of facts and fine taste in wine. He and Veyranc hate each other, and Vargas invents a clever scene to create a hilarious reconciliation.
    There is a huge cast of curious characters, in particular the Vendermot family - the son Hippolyte who speaks whole sentences backwards, his famously busty sister, Lina, who can understand him, the younger brother Antonin who thinks his bones are made of clay and the brother, Martin, who concocts nourishing meals out of insects. Adamsberg must work with Capitaine Emeri of the local gendarmerie, who has airs above his station on account of being descended from a famous military general.
    The story is both ridiculous and perfectly logical at the same time, enlivened by the way the characters, particularly those on Adamsberg's team play off each other. The Ghost Riders of Ordebec is quirky, original and such good fun and, best of all, the kind of escapism that manages to be intelligent at the same time. Not surprisingly it has won for the author her third CWA International Dagger award.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

The Information Officer by Mark Mills

You could easily pass off The Information Officer as just another pacy World War Two thriller. It has all the standard requirements. First off we have a young, intelligent investigator in the form of Max Chadwick. Max's step-mother has supposedly got him a cushy number for the duration, handling press releases for the military on the isle of Malta. It's propaganda really, aimed at maintaining morale and good relations with the islanders. As it happens it hasn't turned out to be such a safe billet with Malta the target of an ongoing bombing campaign by the enemy, which only adds to the suspense.
    Next there's an evil malefactor at large - in this case a rapist/murderer is stalking sherry queens, the women who work in the bars in an area known as the Gut. His previous killings have looked like accidents, with nothing to suggest a connection between them. But the most recent girl has bled to death from a wound that could have been caused by ack-ack shrapnel, or was it made to look that way?
    Max's doctor friend, Freddie, is alarmed when the latest victim is found with vestiges of a submarine officer's uniform clutched in her hand, and calls in Max to investigate. With relations between the British forces and the Islanders fragile at best, Max will have to move swiftly to find the killer before the details leak out and cause even more resentment.
    And of course it wouldn't be your classic thriller without a love interest for the hero. Max has a couple of options here. First off there's Mitzi, stuck in a loveless marriage with Lionel, an officer in the submarine corps. Mitzi works tirelessly for a service sorting the affects of dead RAF personnel, packaging them up for their families and writing heartfelt letters to accompany them.
    Then there's Lilian, half Maltese and half English, who is as smart as she is beautiful. Her job as deputy editor of a local newspaper brings her in contact with Max and the two are good friends.
    Max zips around the island on his motorbike and his easy manner means he has many acquaintances, some of whom are suspects. Lionel is a possibility if only because he wears the right kind of uniform and taking him out of the equation would free up Mitzi for Max, or is this too obvious a plot twist? Questions also hover over Elliott, an American pilot, temporarily grounded after an accident.
    Meanwhile the reader is treated to snippets of the perpetrator's own story through his eyes which are chilling and fortunately brief. It is all fairly classic stuff except Mills is a better than average writer. He captures the snappy dialogue of servicemen desperately keeping chipper while the Germans give them more than they can possibly return. The characters and camaraderie are all vividly brought to life, while the plot builds up to a terrific showdown as history is made in the air above.
    But what I really enjoyed was the picture Mills creates of Malta - an island with a long tradition of being under siege. With its distinctive architecture, amazing harbours and sunny Mediterranean ambiance - it is as much of a character in the book as Max.

Friday, 18 September 2015

The Household Spirit by Tod Wodicka

The Household Spirit is a story about neighbours - two very different neighbours, each with a peculiar problem. Fifty-year-old Howie Jeffries lives next door to Emily Phane on Route 29 in New York State - two solitary houses adrift on a road on the way from somewhere to somewhere else and not in itself a destination.
    The Phanes and the Jeffries have never been neighbourly in all the thirty odd years Howie has lived there. His wife's baking was rebuffed when the Jeffries first moved in, and the Phanes' odd household, an elderly couple that didn't get on, and then old Peter Phane on his own bringing up his granddaughter, has long been a source of speculation.
    Howie's solitude is disturbed when Emily Phane returns from her studies in Boston to nurse her dying Peppy, and after his death is unable to return to her former life. Emily has a night-time affliction, a sleeping paralysis which brings her disturbing visions from which she is unable to wake.
    She drifts through her days, filling her house with plants, losing weight and looking unkempt. When Howie rescues her after she sets fire to her house, he finds he can help her with her problem, while Emily helps him with his.
    Born with a face described by his ex-wife as 'the last face on earth', Howie had learned early on that his smile could make children cry, the kind of face not uncommon on a Nazi war criminal. As a result he has always been extremely shy, living a quiet life doing shift work for the local water company. Divorced for twenty years and only in occasional contact with his ferocious artist daughter, he spends a lot of his spare time fishing and dreaming about the sailboat he will buy one day.
    This could seem a quirky feel-good novel about two awkward characters, but Widicka's lively dialogue and original storyline add a ton of drama. There's a cast of interesting characters: Peter Phane who was in his day a well-respected journalist and has a string of elderly girl-friends; Harriet Jeffries the daughter Howie accidentally took to a Maroon 5 concert; Ethan, Emily's sort-of Korean, but not really, boyfriend, a solid brick of a bloke who won't ever let her down. There are plenty more.
    Wodicka's prose adapts cleverly to capture his characters - the youngsters' tone is hip New York with interesting use of social media; Howie is so little used to talking to people he makes up his own idioms that sit oddly on the page by comparison. As he opens up to people, his conversation slowly becomes more natural.
   The story builds to a curious denouement in a snowed in New York City which can be read more than one way or perhaps it is just a little to clever for me. Anyway I recommend any reader to make up their own mind about the ending, which is like the novel as a whole, utterly original and thought-provoking.

Friday, 11 September 2015

This Thing of Darkness by Harry Bingham

I'm not sure I've ever read a crime thriller set in Wales before, but This Thing of Darkness is the perfect introduction. It's a brilliant police procedural and as plots go it has much going for it, including a particularly nasty bunch of crims who are determined to make a lot of money and don't care what they have to do to anyone in their way. There's plenty of danger for its plucky detective, including being abducted and interrogated with a picana and going under cover as a ship's cook. Then there's some exciting stuff to do with rock climbing and a spider-man sort of criminal nick-named Stonemonkey.
    But what really grabs you is the main character. DC Fiona Griffiths suffers from something called Cotard's Syndrome, a mental disorder that can cause depression and a kind of psychosis which leads sufferers to believe they are dead. Maybe this is why Fiona is quite relaxed about throwing herself into dangerous situations.
    We first come across the detective having time off to study for her sergeant's exam. Her attention becomes riveted on a couple of cold cases: the death by accident or suicide of a security guard who had fallen from a steep cliff on his way home; and the seemingly impossible burglary of some art - how did the burglars manage to break in through the top storey?
    Fiona spots a connection to do with a dodgy insurance company run by one Galton Evans, who is as slimy as he is crooked. It is his ex-wife's home that was burgled and as the art was returned, it doesn't seem like a major crime, but Fiona smells a rat. She has a knack for reinspecting crime scenes and discovering things her colleagues have missed. Making friends with a handsome climber, she recruits him to check out the possibility of scaling the smooth exterior of the house.
    Mike shows how it can be done and gives her a clue to the death of the cliff jumper as well - both suggest the involvement of a top-level climber, soon given the moniker of Stonemonkey. Could there be more cases where fearless climbing was required?
    All the while Fiona is meant to be working on something else, which doesn't impress her superior officer, DCI Jackson, who likes to thump the desk a lot and talks in a bass-baritone - very Welsh, in fact. Relegated to working as the exhibits officer of a rape case, Fiona finds a huge amount of forensic evidence but no leads.
    But her mind keeps going back to the Stonemonkey case and she enlists the help of ex-cop, Brian Penry, recently released from prison. He's happy to do a bit of surveillance and breaking and entering on Fiona's behalf in the search for evidence.
    Bingham assembles a terrific cast of characters in support of his gutsy investigator, all of them well rounded and interesting. But that never slows down the action - there always seems to be another tight corner for Fiona to extricate herself from. The work of the Stonemonkey adds a brilliant bit of plotting and the varied settings - Welsh mountains, central London, a storm-tossed fishing trawler and sunny Spain - all add plenty of atmosphere.
    With snappy first-person/present tense narration, you just about inhale this novel. There is so much to enjoy about This Thing of Darkness, I shall be checking out the previous Fiona Griffiths books - Bingham doesn't put a foot wrong.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell

In 1921, larger than life figures in history - including Winston Churchill, Lady Gertrude Bell and T E Lawrence - gathered in Egypt to thrash out the Cairo Peace Treaty, the building blocks for a modern Middle East. It was from here that the nations of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan would come into being following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Imagine being a fly on the wall when that was happening!
    Well, actually, in Mary Doria Russell's Dreamers of the Day, we have a kind of fly on the wall in the form of American spinster Agnes Shanklin. Agnes is forty and has led a sheltered life, at first under the thumb of her mother and then as a primary school teacher in Cleveland, Ohio. When the Spanish flu that followed the First World War robs her of her family, she finds herself bereft. But the need to take care of three estates pulls her back to reality and when she finds herself of independent means, she quits her job and goes shopping.
    Slowly her mother's admonishing voice in her head is replaced by shopgirl Mildred, who not only sends her home with the new shorter dresses of the twenties, a bob and a bundle of confidence, she also encourages her to travel. Agnes's destination is the Middle East because her sister and brother-in-law worked at a Christian mission near Beirut, and she has always wanted to see the Nile and the Pyramids.
    When she reaches Cairo, both the too-short dresses and her little dog cause mayhem at the hotel she has booked, but T E Lawrence comes to her rescue. When she reveals that he knew her sister, the two become friendly. Next thing you know she's invited to dine with the dignitaries, and Winston Churchill, who admires her North American frankness, invites her to accompany him on a jaunt into the desert where he brandishes his paintbrushes.
    She gets chatty with Clementine Churchill and Gertrude Bell and is soon adding her pennyworth about how one country dominating another through colonisation only causes grief for both parties. Lawrence eggs her on and enjoys the stir caused by her no-nonsense opinions.
    Agnes also befriends the dashingly handsome German official, Karl Weilbacher, who likes to walk her dog, takes Agnes to the tourist traps and encourages her to tell him all about her encounters with the diplomats. As Agnes becomes more and more besotted with Karl, there are niggling fears that perhaps he is a German spy and is simply using Agnes for political reasons. But Agnes is eager, for once in her life, to live for the moment and throw caution to the winds.
    Dreamers of the Day captures a hugely important moment in history through the eyes of an ordinary person. The foibles and peculiarities of historical figures are richly described - Russell notes in her acknowledgements that where possible she has used their very words and there is no doubt the novel is meticulously researched. Agnes is smart and educated enough to give wise and eloquent assessments of these people and their deeds in a way that is both informative and entertaining. This is another terrific read from an author who breathes life into history.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton

Here's a story that pits human will against one of the harshest imaginable environments, the icy wastes of Alaska in winter. Yasmin arrives with her daughter, Ruby, at Fairbanks Airport to meet up with husband Matt. He's a wildlife film-maker who has become completely besotted with the Inupiaq people who inhabit the village he has made his base, causing some friction in his marriage. The family are due to spend Christmas together, hence the girls' wintry arrival.
    But Yasmin and Ruby are greeted with the news that the village of Anatue has been destroyed by fire, probably from a gas explosion, and there are no survivors. A wedding ring found with Matt's initials suggests that he is the unexplained additional victim, and a search party for him is called off. Yasmin is not convinced, as a call from Matt's satellite phone was made after the fire, although the signal died before Yasmin could hear his voice.
    She decides to make the difficult journey north to find him, her daughter in tow, as there is nowhere else to leave her. Ruby is deaf and suffers separation anxiety. While this may seem a burden, it becomes a bonus as well, as Ruby sees things that others don't notice, and her sign language gives them a means to communicate in secret.
    This is particularly useful because like any good thriller, there is evil afoot. Yasmin is fortunately both smart and determined as she will have to trek across a cold and wintry Alaska, half out of her mind with anxiety for Matt, while a storm is coming, allowing only a small window of opportunity to make it to the airstrip closest to Anatue.
    There will be obstacles upon obstacles, with the last flight cancelled, and none of the truckers heading north wanting to take Yasmin and Ruby with them. Fortunately Yasmin is able to twist the arm of Mr Azizi, who owns his truck and isn't hampered by company rules about taking passengers. At first this looks like a blessing, but when Azizi falls ill at a truck stop, Yasmin decides to drive the truck herself. At once the story gears up a notch, as of course Yasmin has no knowledge of ice road trucking or the rules of the trucker fraternity, who turn out to be surprisingly helpful in the end. As if this isn't exciting enough, she has the feeling of being followed.
    The Quality of Silence is a nail-biting read which has a lot to say about the difficulties of growing up different - Ruby is just as gutsy as her mother, which is just as well as she has a tough time at school - and also the fracking industry and the danger it poses to a fragile and once pristine environment.
    The novel packs in a lot of ideas and while these are all very worthy, it does at times risk seeming a little preachy. I would have been happy if Yasmin wasn't so devastatingly beautiful that she immediately feels men are becoming obsessed with her. Call me cynical, but is the author imagining her book might be snapped up by Hollywood and her protagonist assigned to the latest glamorous A-lister? This is a small gripe but for me it detracted from an otherwise excellent novel.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

The Baghdad Railway Club by Andrew Martin

In this instalment of Andrew Martin's Jim Stringer mystery series, our dogged railway detective finds himself sent to Baghdad to investigate a potential case of treason. It is 1917 and Jim has barely recovered from an injury in the Somme when a chance meeting at a railway club in London plus a word from his Chief in York have him working on a covert mission.
    Not terribly good in hot weather, Jim is flung into a scorching Mesopotamia, where the Allies have chased out the Turks. The local population is unsure whether the British are any better and insurrection simmers in the background.
    It is easy to forget that there was more to World War One than the Western Front and of course Gallipoli. But the fall of the Ottoman Empire is not to be sniffed at. Jim's meant to reconnoitre with a Captain Boyd outside the tea shop at the railway station but discovers the poor chap's corpse instead. Jim slips away, anxious not to be in the frame for his murder and is soon on the hunt for suspects.
     The one with the most likely motive is Lt. Col Shepherd, the officer who has taken Jim on to help run the railways - a debonair, old-school-tie sort with a tendency to be a risk taker in battle. Shepherd was the officer mentioned by Boyd to the War Office as a possible traitor, for apparently accepting a bribe from the surrendering Turks. There's also Boyd's nervous batman to consider who is acting somewhat secretively. Other characters add colour - movie maker, Wallace King, who turns up at the most inconvenient of times with his film camera and the breathtakingly lovely archaeologist, Harriet Bailey, who is an expert on the Arab peoples.
    Jim begins to feel nervous when Shepherd and his side-kick Captain Stevens are eager to take him on a steam train outing up to Samarrah, Jim driving and Stevens as fire-man. Normally this would be a joy, but the intense heat and also the knowledge that Jim's cover is blown give Jim a sense of impending doom.
    The tension ramps up a notch or two with more deaths, and there's Martin's usual blunt North of England humour which describes the characters so well. The tedium of talks given at the railway club meetings, the love-lorn folly generated by the presence of a pretty woman, the reluctant help given by Jim's Arab servant, the ridiculous code devised by Jim's secret service boss that is really no help to Jim at all - all give the reader plenty of chuckles. Meanwhile the plot is driven towards a stand-off during another railway outing, while a surprise twist courtesy of Jim's wife Lydia rounds the book off nicely.
    The Baghdad Railway Club delivers more of what fans of the Jim Stringer series have come to expect - who new that steam railway systems could be such fun? There are only two I have yet to read, but perhaps Martin will get the railway bug again and deliver a few more.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

The Lie by Helen Dunmore

From the beginning there is a sense of impending doom as you read The Lie, but for some reason this didn't put me off, the writing is so vivid and engaging.
    Written from the viewpoint of Daniel who, recently returned from the trenches, has nowhere to go and no family. At a little over twenty and clearly war-damaged, he repeatedly sees the ghost of his old friend, Frederick, and can still smell the foul stench of no man's land.
    In the cities, unemployed ex-servicemen stand on street corners selling cigarettes or begging, so Daniel returns to the town where he grew up. He finds himself helping out Mary Pascoe, an old woman who lives on the edge of their Cornish village, making a living by grazing a goat, keeping chickens and growing vegetables on her small holding.
    Both Daniel and Mary Pascoe have something in common in that neither are very popular with the villagers. Mary has been seen as something of a witch. Daniel was a gifted scholar, but having had to leave school at eleven to support his ill mother, has developed a chip on his shoulder. Being best friends with the wealthy children his mother cared for hasn't helped either.
     Virtually blind and very frail, Mary Pascoe is glad of Daniel's help and promises him her property when she dies, but insists that when the time comes, her grave will be on her land rather than in the village cemetery. Daniel goes along with her wishes, and it's not long before he has buried her on the edge of her field, something he and the reader both know he should never have done and so begins the lie of the title.
    Daniel finds himself telling Felicia, Frederick's sister, that Mary Pascoe can't receive visitors because she's poorly. He visits Felicia at the large house she has inherited - the house where she and Frederick first got to know Daniel. It was a taste of the good life for Daniel, but more importantly, was the start of an intense friendship between Frederick and Daniel, a friendship that carried them through years of separation when Frederick was sent off to boarding school.
   The story revolves around Daniel's lie, while he continues to work Mary Pascoe's land and reacquaints himself with Felicia. Woven through this are the events that made up Daniel's war, where he becomes part of a close-knit unit of men, just one of the lads for the first time in his life. When Frederick turns up as an officer though, new tensions arise.
    Helen Dunmore has written a fine, spare and moving portrait of the effects of war on a young and sensitive man. The characters of Daniel, Frederick and Felicia vividly come off the page and are unique and interesting, their relationships with each other complex and delicately drawn. The gradual build-up of drama makes the book hard to put down. Among all the recent World War One fiction it is easy to overlook this slim volume, but The Lie is one novel that particularly deserves to be read.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The Ends of the Earth by Robert Goddard

The Ends of the Earth is the final instalment in Robert Goddard's trilogy featuring James 'Max' Maxted, an ex-World War One flying ace, out to avenge the murder of his father in 1919. If you remember, Max had planned to settle back into civilian life after the war, opening his flying school with his old flight mechanic mate Sam Twentyman, but fate intervenes when his father falls from a rooftop in Paris. Did he fall or was he pushed?
    Diplomatic secrets were hot property in Paris while heads of state thrashed out what would soon be The Treaty of Versailles and it seemed Pop knew a few compromising facts that would hamper, among others, Fritz Lemmer an old spy for the Kaiser, now on the hunt for new business, and rising man of the moment in Japan, the nasty Count Tomura.
    The previous two books had Max investigating just what his father knew that sealed his fate, first in Paris and then in London, where he became recruited by Secret Service maestro, Horace Appleby, to do a job or two for him. There are further interesting characters related to an American trader in information named Travers Ireton, who doesn't make it past the first round, but his secretary extraordinaire, Malory Hollander, and tough-guy assistant, Schools Morahan become key personnel. These two, plus Max and Sam are the core team, rather like characters from Mission Impossible - each with their particular skills and connections.
    The second novel in the series, The Corners of the Globe, left us with one of those terrible cliffhangers and the message no reader wants from a thriller: 'to be continued'. With Max presumed dead in a villa on the Riviera, it has been a year of anguish to find out if there was a chance he might have survived to join his team-mates in their pledge to finish off the job old Sir Henry Maxted had begun -- whatever that was.
    The Ends of the Earth begins with Schools, Malory and Sam, plus a team of shady hired hands to assist Max in his quest. They are waiting for Max in Yokohama, it is a sultry July, and everyone's patience is wearing thin. I won't give the game away with what really happened to Max. Suffice it to say, there is a ton of action and intrigue, both in France and Switzerland, where Appleby hatches a small plot of his own to nobble Lemmer, and a string of action set pieces that threaten the lives of our intrepid heroes in Japan. It all builds up to an amazing scene in Zangai-jo - the imposing fortress-like castle of Count Tomura.
    The James Maxted trilogy is pure escapism, but classy escapism in the tradition of John Buchan and while the characters, though many and varied, are perhaps not particularly well-developed, the writing is superb. On top of all this is Goddard's fabulous recreation of interesting settings in the period just after the First World War.  I would be happy to see the team back for more page-turning adventures, but concede that a trilogy is a trilogy. Fortunately this author has a well respected back-list for me to turn to, so I guess I'll just have to be happy with that.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins by James Runcie

The fourth in Runcie's series of Grantchester Mysteries brings us to Cambridge in 1964 with six new puzzles for sleuthing priest, Canon Sidney Chambers. And you couldn't complain that these mysteries aren't inventive. The first features a musician seeking sanctuary in Sidney's church, fearing that his wife has been murdered in the night by his own hand. Josef Madara is a violinist with the Holst Quartet, his wife the cellist. There is something of a lover's triangle here, so plenty of motives, but the  body seems to have vanished.
    On another musical theme, a tragedy occurs in the story, 'Fugue', when a piano being hoisted through the window of musician Orlando Richard's rooms becomes loose from its moorings before crashing to the ground via Orlando's head. Was this an accident or something more sinister?
    A chemistry lab explodes at Millingham School on prize day, when Sidney just happens to be there to umpire the cricket match. Did someone have it in for the chemistry teacher or was this a hoax gone wrong?
    More sensitive issues, such as domestic violence and the kind of obsession that urges a person to write poison pen letters, appear in further stories. Both of these feature posh Amanda, Sidney's gal pal who could never quite bring herself to marry a clergyman, and now wonders if she has made a terrible mistake, having to settle for nice but 'weak' Henry.
    The collection is rounded off with the story: 'Florence', when Amanda invites the Chambers family to visit the Italian city when her work takes her to the Uffizi Gallery. Of course there is a theft of some valuable art, and Sidney becomes a prime suspect.
    Overall, I found this collection a little slow to get off the ground, but the pace picks up with the last three stories. Sidney gets a promotion and moves his family to Ely, not so far away from Cambridge that he would miss his weekly socialising with Inspector Keating, and his reputation for investigative prowess follows him to his new post.
    There is still plenty of priestly philosophising - there is always another sermon to prepare - and this with Sidney frequently being in the dog box with wife Hildegarde threatens to slow the pace at times. However there is plenty to enjoy with the charm of the settings, the music and art references and the background of 1960s England, still kind of tweedy, but with the Beatles and others livening things up a bit. It all seems perfect for television, and it is no surprise that the Grantchester Mysteries is now gracing TV screens in Britain.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

At the start of this novel about the famous Bloomsbury sisters, Virginia Woolf is said to have decreed that she was the writer, and Vanessa the painter. Priya Parmar has given Vanessa Bell a literary voice in the form of this imaginary diary - a fascinating portrait of the Bloomsbury Group, which included Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, Ottoline Morrell and others. It is also the portrait of the falling out that occurred between the two sisters - a story of jealousy, madness, passion and grief.
    It begins in the year 1905 with the four Stephen siblings having recently moved to a house in avant-garde Bloomsbury, much to the consternation of more conservative relations. There is Vanessa, the older daughter, her brother Thoby, younger brother Adrian and mentally fragile Virginia. Vanessa justifies the move as a means to save costs - they may have to dip into their allowances if Virginia has another of her breakdowns, the last of which had led to time in hospital.
    The four are a happy and well-matched bunch, the boys popping down from Cambridge having garnered a group of lively and clever friends, who soon meet at the house on Thursdays. Daringly, the sisters don't dress for dinner and are the only females in soirees that go on into the small hours. But mostly what they seem to do is talk and what a lot to talk about there is, with Impressionism giving way to Fauvism and new ideas about politics and feminism to consider.
    Clive Bell is considered rather starchy by the group - this may be because he seems to be more of a red-blooded male than the other chaps - women are so formidable, perhaps it's the corsets or is the women's suffrage movement that puts the other lads off. And it seems all the women they are know are brilliantly talented in one way or other. But Bell is different, coming from hearty country gentry, and he quickly falls in love with Vanessa.
    Parmar's Vanessa Bell shines as a wonderful character. She's the sensible one who sorts out the household economics and worries about her sister. As well as calm and kindly, she's interesting, with her painterly eye and sensitive observations of other characters. Unlike Virginia. She maybe the burgeoning writer of classic novels we still read today, but Virginia is desperately possessive. Her jealousy over Clive which drives a wedge through Vanessa's marriage - though to be fair, Clive is easily swayed - is pure selfishness. She wants Vanessa for herself.
    Much of the book is written as Vanessa's diary, which could have given the book a somewhat halting pace. But I found myself quickly swept along, the book almost impossible to put down. Intermingled with Vanessa's diary entries are witty letters between Lytton Strachey and Leonard Woolf, a servant of the empire in Ceylon, but eventually heading home. There are also poignant letters from Roger Fry to his mother, telegrams and correspondence between the sisters and their friends.
    This is a well-researched and enthralling novel, and knowing that there is so much more to tell - the book finishes in 1912 - I wonder if there is a possibility of a sequel. I certainly hope so.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go

Justin Go's debut is one of those novels that have you hooked on page one.  Tristan Campbell, twenty-three and recently graduated, is at a loose end when he receives a solicitor's letter from London. It informs him that a legacy might be his if he can prove he is descended from one Imogen Soames-Andersson, who hasn't been seen since she disappeared in Europe shortly after the First World War. The will is unusual in that it has allowed a period of eighty years to find a suitable heir.
    Tristan takes up the challenge, bringing to the solicitors whatever documentation he has as well as memories of his English grandmother Charlotte, who was never very happy in California. He'd always believed that Charlotte was the daughter of Imogen's sister, Eleanor, but a childless married woman at that time might well have brought up an illegitimate child for her sister, and Tristan sets out to prove it. The only problem is he has a mere two months before the legacy is bequeathed to assorted charities.
    Tristan's journey takes him to London, Sweden, Paris and the site of the trenches of Picardy, as well as Berlin and even as far as Iceland. Interspersed with his search is the story of two star-crossed lovers. Imogen is nineteen when she meets Ashley Walsingham, who is about to join his regiment as an officer fighting in the Somme. Imogen is a feisty young woman who doesn't believe in marriage, and follows Fabianism and other revolutionary ideas of the time.
    She does believe in love and her passion for Ashley leads her to give him a difficult choice: her or the army.  Ashley loves Imogen as much as she does him, but when he is severely wounded fate interferes and Imogen is lead to believe the worst. The war has an affect on their relationship that it seems can't be healed, though neither will ever forget the other.
    Tristan slowly makes odd discoveries, letters that have never been posted and others that have never been read. He finds photographs and Ashley's VC, among other memorabilia, but nothing seems to be quite the evidence he needs. In the meantime he meets a young French woman who makes him stop and think about the whole enterprise while upsetting his emotional equilibrium. There is an echo here of Ashley and Imogen while Tristan's headstrong and impetuous behaviour mark him out as a likely descendent.
    The Steady Running of the Hour is a beautifully wrought story full of anguish and self-realisation. While the reader knows a lot of what has happened, just as Tristan does, right at the beginning, there are still plenty of revelations. Tristan's journey is one of discovery in more ways than one, and the story is both compelling and original. I can't remember when I read a more affecting story of love and loss - perhaps The English Patient? - and this novel will linger in my mind for some time to come.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The Trivia Man by Deborah O'Brien

The trivia man of the title is Kevin Dwyer, a one-man quiz team extraordinaire. Kevin has folders full of data that he has been collecting for a large part of his forty-eight years. Initially he hoarded this information (tide tables, weather data, assorted statistics, etc.) for the joy of acquiring knowledge but with the growth of pub quizzes, he has found his perfect pastime. As a bonus trivia gets him out of the house and almost socialising.
    At the Clifton Heights Sports Club trivia competition Kevin soon shows his mettle and is instantly head-hunted by several attractive women to give their team a competitive edge. So far he's managed to hold them off, but when he meets school teacher, Maggie Taylor, a reluctant member of Teddie and the Dreamers, he begins to waver.
    It doesn't take long to figure out that Kevin is somewhere further along the Asperger's Spectrum continuum than what society classes as 'normal'. He has only one friend - his young nephew Patrick. Eight-year-old Patrick seems to be turning out rather like Kevin, much to the horror of Kevin's sister Elizabeth, who has always regarded her brother as altogether weird.
    Like Kevin, Maggie is also single, preferring reading and spending quiet nights in with her dog. She has been coerced into joining a colleague's trivia team for her knowledge of movie history, and because she's an attractive woman in her early fifties who needs to get out more. The karaoke interval that occurs in the middle of each quiz night has Kevin and Maggie hiding out and the two start to get acquainted.
    At first this seems like a simple 'rocky path to true love' kind of story. Maggie must first get over her long-term obsession with a previous boyfriend, the glamorous motivational speaker, Josh Houghton, a cad of the first water. And Kevin reluctantly finds himself dating his sister's friend Danni, surely an 'opposites attract' plot twist. Danni is as socially forward as Maggie is retiring, while Kevin's complete inability to dissemble makes him quite the opposite of popular favourite Josh.
    However O'Brien is clearly also interested in the issue of what it's like to be different in a society that seeks to have us conform. She avoids using the word Asperger's, just as Maggie avoids reading psychological assessments of 'special needs' students until she gets to know them. It seems that labels confuse and obscure the truth of what people are really like.  For this reason both Maggie and O'Brien get a thumbs-up from me.
    The handling of this issue lifts the book above the ordinary. I found The Trivia Man a bright, light read and hard to put down. The humorous episodes at the weekly trivia nights, and especially the quiz questions were a definite plus. I look forward to trying more books from this author.

Friday, 10 July 2015

An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson

Josephine Tey was the pen-name of mystery writer Elizabeth Mackintosh whose book, The Daughter of Time, was voted the greatest crime novel of all time by the Crime Writers' Association in 1990. An Expert in Murder is the first of Nicola Upson's mysteries that feature Josephine Tey and her friend Detective Inspector Archie Penrose. The two make a nifty crime-solving duo in Upson's traditional, Agatha Christie-style series of whodunits set in the 1930s.
    An Expert in Murder features Tey in her other role, as a dramatist whose play, Richard of Bordeaux, is the huge box-office hit of its day. It begins with a train journey in which Tey finds herself seated opposite an attractive by shy young woman wearing a stunningly smart hat. Eighteen-year-old Elspeth is on her way to London with a consignment of hats from her mother's millinery business and soon Josephine is giving out her autograph and sharing a meal with her young fan in the dining car.
    Elspeth is planning to meet her boyfriend, Hedley White, who is a back-stage hand at The New, the theatre where Josephine's play is nearing the end of its run. Hedley has tickets for the show and is planning a romantic evening, but murder interferes and Elspeth is discovered in the compartment stabbed and dramatically arranged in a tableau featuring two commemorative dolls from the play.
    You can't help wondering if Josephine was the intended victim, but soon Archie Penrose in on the scene and numerous suspects and motives start turning up. When a second murder occurs it seems likely that there is a connection between the two victims and the actors and production team are thrown into the spotlight. The cast of suspects includes the director/lead actor of the play, John Terry, who has a secret to hide about his personal life. Is would-be playwright, Esme McCracken bitter enough to kill and could actor Lewis Fleming also have a motive being so desperate for money? Then there is Elspeth's beau who soon does a runner.
     And what of the mysteries that surround Elspeth herself? As the much loved but adopted daughter of the not very theatrical Simmons, there is the question of her birth and unsurprisingly a back story which extends back to events in the First World War.
     Costume designers Ronnie and Lettice give Josephine a place to stay in London and are full of lively quips and cheeky gossip. They are a good foil for when Josephine is brooding over a recent legal battle with the writer Elliott Vintner who accused her of plagiarism. When he lost the case he committed suicide, an event Josephine still feels guilty about, despite Archie's protestations that none of it was her fault.
     There are plenty of red herrings and possible scenarios for the reader to mull over, but for me this was something of a murder by numbers plot, with no real surprises. What made the book really enjoyable though was Upson's ability to recreate the London theatre scene circa 1934. Taking place in a chilly March, the story has plenty of atmosphere and with its colourful yet sympathetic characters made for a diverting read.  Basing the story on real-life people was a definite plus, too, and I shall be happy to see what Tey and Penrose get up to next.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West

You have to take your time with a book like The Fountain Overflows. The writing is rich and clever and the family it describes are eccentric in so many ways you find your imagination having to work overtime to create an image of their lives. It is all in the detail - and there is such a lot of it, detail I mean. And that is what makes it all so wonderful.
    The novel is a fictionalisation of Rebecca West's own childhood and is told in the voice of Rose Aubrey. It begins when she is around eight and the family are moving again, not just house but cities, from Edinburgh to London. But first there is a country holiday to be got through, just Rose, her mother and siblings: her older sisters, Cordelia who is beautiful but overbearing, and Mary who is her best pal and has a similar talent for the piano, and younger brother Richard Quin who is sweet and knows how to please everyone he meets.
    The reason the holiday is an ordeal is because Rose's mother is awkward with the farming family who have supplied their lodgings, and because her father, a brilliant journalist with a talent for losing money, has gone off to start his new job and find them a house in London. Unfortunately he forgets to tell them where it is and this causes many anxious moments.
    More anxious moments pepper the book, as Rose's father takes on various political causes and loses more money, while Rose and Mary perfect their piano technique ready for becoming concert pianists and being able to salvage the family fortunes. Richard Quinn can survive on charm alone, although he is also musically gifted, while Cordelia struggles with the violin and her pride.
   At first the story seems to ramble along like this, creating a picture of this colourful family and delineating their difficulty in making anything like a normal life in London. But then West throws in several unusual events that bring in even more eccentric characters. These include what seems to be a poltergeist in the home of Mrs Aubrey's old friend, and later on a murder.
    While these events are extraordinary and certainly give the plot a bit of oomph, they also serve the purpose of adding depth to the characters of the Aubrey family. Though my favourite story thread in the novel is the ongoing battle of Cordelia to prove her worth as a musician, while her mother wrings her hands in despair declaring that she plays Bach as if it were Beethoven and has absolutely no taste. Surprisingly this doesn't prevent her from acquiring the aid of a music teacher at school, the odious faux-bohemian Miss Beevor, and even giving concerts.
    There is such a lot to enjoy in the novel, particularly the faultless language which is full of wit and insight. West's portrait of what it can be like to be eccentric in a changing world is at times painful and yet wonderful at others. I can't believe I have never read Rebecca West before. Virago have done a stunning job of recognising the talents of early twentieth century women writers and I shall be hunting out more novels by West and others like her.

Monday, 22 June 2015

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

A God in Ruins is an intense, powerful novel written by quite possibly my favourite author writing today. The title is a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote 'A man is a god in ruins ...' and the man at the heart of this book is Teddy Todd, the brother of Ursula, the central character of Atkinson's previous novel, Life After Life. While the earlier book describes Ursula's war, and particularly the Blitz, Teddy's war makes him a Squadron Leader flying Halifax bombers as part of Bomber Harris's campaign to bring Germany to its knees.
    While Teddy's war in the Air Force is a central part of the novel, we get a lot more of his life too: his childhood at Fox Corner, his boyhood devotion to Nancy next door, who becomes his wife after the war, and their life together. The story cuts from early years about Teddy to later years when he is very old from the point of view of several other characters, such as his grandchildren, poor mixed up Sunny who can never please his mother, and sensible Bertie who refused to be called by her first name, Moon, taking her middle name of Roberta instead. You can tell her parents were living on a commune when she was born.
    Atkinson is really good at ghastly characters and who could be more unsympathetic than Teddy and Nancy's daughter, Viola (surely she should be called Vile for short). But she's also complex and interesting and there is a very good reason for her inability to find love in her life or please the reader. This reason is complex and to do with the death of her mother, and the reader will have to wait until the end of the book to truly understand her.
    Teddy is a masterstroke of a character however, because he contrives to be immensely sympathetic,  as well as multi-faceted. He strives always to do the right thing - part of a pact he made with God for surviving the war, when the attrition rate for bomber crews was horrendous. His goodness doesn't make him boring, as he is often hamstrung by decision making and doesn't quite understand the people closest to him when he needs to. He has a comfortable marriage but at times it's a lonely one - his wife and daughter so close to each other he can sometimes feel a bit left out.
    But the heart of the novel is Teddy's war. Atkinson has done a ton of research to capture the scenes of the bombing raids Teddy and crew undertake. There are the characters of the different men and their roles - the navigator, the gunners, the wireless operator and bomb aimer - their quirks and personalities and what happens to each of them during the different missions. It is all vividly brought to life with nail-biting action. You feel for each loss as various men are killed while Teddy survives and you sympathise with his grief.
    And if that wasn't enough, there is Atkinson's marvellous prose - her writing is always witty and sharp and there is never a dull sentence, never any padding. The book is another triumph, and surely a contender among the literary awards for 2015.

Friday, 19 June 2015

In a Real Life by Chris Killen

In a Real Life is the story of three characters, Lauren, Paul and Ian over two time periods: 2004 and 2014. The novel cuts back and forth between these two critical years, using a lively mix of alternating view points, past and present tense and first and third person narration. The chapters are short so in no time you are swept into the novel which opens with the break-up of Paul and Lauren This happens when Lauren goes to bed having left a list of PRO's and CON's about Paul on the living room table, which of course he happens to see when he comes home from his bar job.
    His bar job is one of the CON's - there are seven in total - while there is only one PRO: that he would never cheat on her. Fast forward to 2014 and there's Paul, having published a novel, teaching creative writing, so no longer working in a bar, but contemplating infidelity with a nineteen year old student, which means he seems to have swapped around some of his good points and bad points.
    Lauren goes off to Canada on the spur of the moment, but begins an email correspondence with Ian, Paul's flatmate. Ian is in the music industry, playing in a band, writing songs, but by 2014 he has lost his job in a record store and has to move in with his more successful sister, Carol. It's a crumby box room and he has to sell his guitar to pay his board. He's also lost touch with Lauren, after a stream of emails that promised more than friendship. All three characters seem to have lost touch, in fact.
    By 2014 Lauren is working in a charity shop, still looking for Mr Right with little hope of finding him. The course of the novel fills in a few of the gaps: what caused the falling out between Lauren and Ian for starters. We have sympathy for Ian in particular: he seems a nice guy but his life has struck rock bottom, Lauren has a knack for getting into situations with men without really thinking them through, while Paul seems to be acting out a role in 'Men Behaving Badly'. It is a toss-up who is worse, Paul or Carol's boyfriend, Martin who gives Ian a job in telemarketing. This is a particularly unpleasant industry and it says a lot for Ian that he is so bad at it.
    The novel highlights the way we communicate/fail to communicate using social media and the Internet, and is an interesting snapshot of Generation Y. There is plenty of humour in the little messes each character gets into, although at times this made me cringe, particularly Paul's hopeless acts of deceit towards his girlfriend, his younger lover, his boss and even his publisher. And surely characters like Paul and Ian should steer clear of Facebook or at least should think rather than drink before posting a status.
    What kept me going with the story was the obvious 'unfinished business' between Ian and Lauren that lurks in the background. Paul shows a willingness to make amends to all and sundry, but seems to be hellbent on picking up more bad points than before. In Paul, Killen has created a classic example of literary pretentiousness reminding me somehow of that Groucho Marx saying: 'Practically everybody in New York has half a mind to write a book - and does.' I am glad however that Chris Killen wrote this book - it is so refreshingly honest and good fun.