Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer

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

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback

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

Saturday, 16 January 2016

The Detective's Daughter by Lesley Thomson

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


Saturday, 9 January 2016

Balancing Act by Joanna Trollope

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

Monday, 4 January 2016

The House at Sea's End by Elly Griffiths

This is the third novel featuring Elly Griffith's forensic anthropologist, Ruth Galloway, which recalls events that took place on the north coast of Norfolk during the Second World War. Ruth's archaeology pals, Ted and Trace are part of a team who discover six bodies buried at the foot of a cliff and it is soon Ruth's job to date the bodies. She discovers the deaths go back to the 1940s, that the bodies are German and each has died from a single bullet wound to the head, rather like an execution.
    The tides have been eroding this coast for years, mercilessly threatening the house that sits on top of the cliff, Sea's End House. Without the sea, the dark secrets from this corner of the war might never have been uncovered. Somehow Ruth is on the spot when Inspector Harry Nelson interviews the house's owner, former MP, Jack Hastings. His elderly mother, Irene, now in her nineties, talks about her husband, Captain Buster Hastings, who led the local Home Guard at a time when a German invasion was feared at any moment.
    Irene mentions the names of some of the younger Home Guard members who might be still alive and able to shed some light on what happened, and Nelson is soon amassing clues that are startlingly cryptic. When more deaths occur, it would seem that someone is out there who still wants to suppress the truth of what happened.
    Meanwhile Ruth is coming to terms with being a working mother. Just back from maternity leave, she has a daughter Kate to think of as she darts off to examine more sites of interest and help Harry piece together the clues only someone with a mind like hers could figure out, or someone who likes Countdown on the telly. She has unfinished business with Nelson, which adds to the emotional drama of the story, making it a bit more than your standard whodunit.
    And we have our favourite characters popping up again: Ruth's oddball Druid friend, Cathbad, Nelson's subordinates, Judy Johnson, a reluctant bride in this story, and the insensitive Sergeant Clough now oddly romantically entangled with Ruth's archeologist friend, Trace with the purple hair.
    Then there's the weather. The action really gears up a notch during an unseasonable snowstorm and there's a frantic scene by the sea involving explosions as the perpetrator closes in on Ruth - she really needs to lose a bit of weight and get fitter, as these battles for survival seem to be a regular feature of the books. It all adds up to an entertaining page-turner, with enough to keep the brain occupied and plenty of surprises. I'll be keen to check on Ruth again soon, as she's such good company.

Friday, 1 January 2016

The Somme Stations by Andrew Martin

It is the autumn of 1914 and Detective Sergeant Jim Stringer is nervous, to say the least, about fighting in the war, but when a notice appears at York Station calling for men to enlist in the newly formed North Eastern Railway Battalion, he feels he must do his duty. He'll be spending a few months training in Hull with an odd assortment of 'railway pals', there'll be a few incidents highlighting the growing animosity between certain characters, and the friendliness between others.    
    But the reader's curiosity is truly piqued by the opening pages, told in letters from Jim's wife to a friend, that while he is recovering from a serious leg wound, Jim is to be charged with murder. The story switches back to fill in the gaps, beginning with the strange cast of characters Jim enlists with. These include the two young lads - surely they lied about their ages - Alfred Tinsley, a railway nut who doesn't get on with young William Harvey, who is mad about the army and eager to teach the Kraut a lesson or two. Oamer is the philosophical and popular NCO with a secretive private life and cheery Cockney, Bernie Dawson can't drink bitter without losing his temper. The Butler brothers include oily Oliver who is wary of Jim for reasons of his own, and the twins, beefy Roy and Andy who seem mentally deficient but are dab hands with a shovel and laying of track.
    When one of the pals is murdered shortly before they are sent to France, Jim's policeman instincts kick in, but the death is written off as either accident or suicide and the men ship off. They will soon be helping set up the railway system at the Somme that will keep the artillery well supplied with shells at the front. But the military police have not let the pals off the hook for the Hull murder and this makes things a bit jittery for them, to say nothing of the horrendous reality that is the war in France.
    Told through the eyes of a character we've come to know so well, The Somme Stations is a unique war story describing a little known corner of the battlefield, the role of the railways. Jim's war experiences are as evocative as any I've come across, and though in some ways it's a grim read, it is laced with his usual Yorkshire humour, a bit darker this time around. This is partly due to the array of interesting characters on offer as well as the ridiculous aspects of war that resemble a world gone mad. There is also quite a lot of alcohol consumed and contemplations of the qualities of your humble Woodbine as opposed to 'Viginian Select' cigarettes. Stringer's Chief puts in a surprise appearance and a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo has a significant role to play.
    Martin has had a few literary award nominations for his Jim Stringer series, but this one won the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award. I am hard-pressed to choose any as better than the others, I love them all, but The Somme Stations is certainly one of the more entertaining war stories I've read.