Reviews

REVIEW: Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Three ThingsSecond novels can be tricky things to read and, I’m sure, even more tricky to write. How to make good on the promise of an excellent debut – especially when that debut became a bestseller, a Richard &Judy pick and a lead fiction title for the publisher like Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats and Sheep did?

Fortunately Cannon hasn’t been phased by the limelight – or if she has she’s done a very good job of hiding it – because her second novel, Three Things About Elsie, is a brilliantly accomplished novel about ageing, memory, friendship and humanity that left me with ALL OF THE FEELS.

84-year-old Florence lies alone on the floor of her flat at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. As she waits to be found, she looks back on her life and her long friendship with Elsie. Best friends since school, Elsie and Florence have done everything together, including keeping a terrible secret. But what does this have to do with the charming new resident Gabriel Price? Why is Florence so afraid of him? And why does he look like a man who died sixty years ago? As Florence is about to discover, there is so much more to anyone than the worst thing they have ever done.

One of the things I loved about Cannon’s first novel was her grasp of character. She’s worked as a doctor and specialised in psychiatry which really comes across in her books as her grasp of personality quirks is nuanced and rounded. None of her characters are perfect but all of them are wonderfully, painfully, heart-breakingly real. I particularly warmed to Jack, a former military man and one of Florence’s fellow inmates at Cherry Tree who takes it upon himself to befriend her and help work out the mystery of her past. I also liked Handy Simon, Cherry Tree’s handyman who, nearing his forties, is still trying to figure out his role in life and will discover that he has hidden talents and depths. And Florence herself, struggling with the slips between present and past, is wonderfully complex – at times difficult and argumentative, others perceptive and kind, she serves as a reminder that the elderly people around us are more than as we see them – they have lived, loved and lost throughout full and varied lives.

In tone, the novel reminded me of Emma Healy’s Elizabeth is Missing, another novel with an elderly and confused narrator carrying a deep secret at it’s heart – and fans of that book should definitely give Three Things About Elsie a read – but, at it’s heart this is a novel less about what happened in the Florence’s past and more about how the ripples of that have affected her present and led her to where and who she is now. It’s also a novel about the deep and abiding love found within deep friendship – Florence and Elsie’s relationship is beautifully and movingly portrayed and, when Jack becomes involved too, fantastically wry and amusing as well. Some moments had me laughing out loud, others with wet cheeks and red eyes.

To say too much about the plot would be to give far too much of the novel away but it’s both a heart-warming and heart-breaking story, filled with everyday reality, bittersweet memory, moments of joy and others of deep regret. Most of all though, it’s filled with humanity. Humanity practically oozes off every page – the fine threads that connect us all together, the stories we tell others and the stories we tell ourselves, the small lives that leave loud echoes and, most importantly of all, the long seconds that give us chance to make choices that define who we want to be. I could have underlined so many sentences and paragraphs that resonated with quiet wisdom – it’s one of those books that I just know will gestate inside me for a while, turning over in my brain. The sort of book that stays with you long after you finish the final page.

As I said earlier, all of the feels. Go and read it, go and read it now. Just have a packet of tissues handy and prepare to devour it in one sitting.

Three Things About Elsie is published by The Borough Press in hardback and ebook on 11 January 2018. My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley for providing an advance e-proof in return for an honest and unbiased review. I also read and reviewed Joanna’s first novel, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, here.

 

 

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Reviews

REVIEW: The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

Silent CompanionsI always feel that the first book you choose to read in a year is, somehow, a reflection of what that reading year will be like. A silly superstition I’m sure but we all have our quirks and picking my first book of a new year is one of mine.

Last year I started with The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry which ended up being one of my favourite books of 2017 – so my first read of 2018 had big shoes to fill! Fortunately The Silent Companions, which had been lingering on my TBR far too long, turned out to be a great choice to kick of 2018 – spooky, atmospheric and spine-tingling, it had me turning the pages whilst curled up under the duvet and checking the shadows for sinister beings!

Set in both the 1800s and 1600s, the novel recounts the sinister string of events that have let to Mrs Elsie Bainbridge being examined in a psychiatric hospital on suspicion of arson and murder. Mute and traumatised,Elsie is gradually forced to recollect the events of the previous year which started with her new husband Rupert’s death and her journey; accompanied by Rupert’s cousin Sarah, to his ancestral home, The Bridge. Gothic and crumbling, The Bridge is an eerie place, made all the more unsettling by the hissing noise emanating from the locked garret. Yet when Elsie and Sarah force their way into the dusty attic space, all they find is a Silent Companion: a wooden figure, carefully carved and painted to fool the eye into thinking they are real. But is there more to the Silent Companion than meets the eye? Why does it bear a striking resemblance to Elsie herself? And why did Robert’s ancestor, Anne Bainbridge, who lived at The Bridge back in the 1600s fear them so dreadfully?

There is a strong psychological element to this ghost story. Elsie, confused and traumatised by the events of the previous year, is a fantastically unreliable narrator and, as the only surviving witness to her version of events, it becomes impossible for the reader to decide on the true narrative. Is Elsie really the victim of sinister supernatural forces that haunt The Bridge? Or is she a psychotic murderess whose own dark past has finally led her to commit terrible deeds? Even at the end of the book, it’s far from clear what the true course of events actually is – as with all the best ghost stories, it’s left to the reader to decide how much you really believe in the tale being spun.

The supernatural elements themselves are handled really well and I completely bought into the Companions as objects of terror. Whether you see them as objects of Elsie’s tortured imagination or as the inanimate hosts of an unspeakable evil, they’re sinister, creepy and guaranteed to leave you with the shivers.

There’s also a fantastically charged and controlled atmosphere throughout the book. Every page oozes with tension and there’s a creeping sense of horror and dread as you turn the pages. Seemingly innocuous conversations, objects and events become charged with meaning as you switch between Anne Bainbridge’s diary, Elsie’s recollections of The Bridge and her present life in the psychiatric hospital.

And the horror isn’t just supernatural but social. I felt that there was an underlying narrative within the book about the roles and perceptions of women. Whether it’s suspicious whispers about witchcraft in the 1600s or the fear of female madness and hysteria in Victorian England, the events of the novel cleverly illustrate the myriad ways in which fear of the strange and supernatural has often been tied into the control and subjugation of women. It makes the book genuinely frightening, both in term of the supernatural agencies that might be at work and the real world fears of societal exclusion and condemnation faced by Elsie and Anne.

With it’s creeping sense of dread and shades of Gothic horror, this novel reminded me very much of the works of Susan Hill combined with elements of Wilkie Collins and M R James. Utterly terrifying (but in a good way!), I’m definitely up for more of Laura Purcell’s particular brand of spooky in the future so was delighted to read that she has another Gothic thriller due to be published in 2018. In the meantime, if you don’t mind your reading year starting with the spooks, definitely add The Silent Companions to your TBR!

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell is published by Raven Books (Bloomsbury) and is available now in hardcover and ebook from all good bookshops. 

Books of the Year · Reviews

My Best Books of 2017

2017 has been a very up and down year on the reading front. I started strong, slumped massively in the middle and then re-discovered my reading (and blogging) mojo towards the end of the year. Despite that, I have read some cracking books this year and, whilst it’s not been as challenging a task to narrow down my Best Books this year as in previous years, the quality of what is here is definitely not diminished in any way – in my opinion all of the following are brilliant, brilliant books and I would urge you to read them if you haven’t already.

The Essex SerpentEssex Serpent by Sarah Perry

A gorgeously written treat of a book, this historical novel contains multitudes within it’s pages. Sarah Perry has skillfully captured life with her pen, weaving a web of human interactions around the strange fable of a legendary serpent said to haunt the Essex coastline. Packed with characters you’ll feel like you’re friends with and luscious prose that brings Victorian England vividly to life, this is a vibrant riot of a book and perfect for anyone who has The Miniaturist cravings following the BBC adaptation! My full review of the book appeared earlier this year on the blog and can be found here.

Days Without EndDays Without End by Sebastian Barry

If you’d have told me that a literary novel about two gay men set during the American Civil War would be my bag, I’d have been a mite dubious. But Sebastian Barry has created a miniature epic in Days Without End. A beautiful love story, a sweeping historical saga, a tense description of war, a tender portrayal of family – it’s all in here and surrounded in some of the best prose I’ve read all year. The voice in this novel is so unique and so profound at times – it gave me all the feels and I’d urge anyone to go and read it so that they can have them too. Again, a full review appeared earlier this year here.

The Dark CircleThe Dark Circle by Linda Grant

Again, a novel about twins set in a tuberculosis sanatorium in post-war England didn’t, at first, sound my cup of tea but, thanks to the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I picked up and loved Linda Grant’s novel. As with the Essex Serpent, this is a novel about characters more than plot as twins Lenny and Millie meet a range of residents from across the social spectrum within the enclosed microcosm of the sanatorium walls. Combined with an interesting period of social change and some insight into the early years of the NHS, this is a meditative, layered novel that rewards patient reading.

Six StoriesSix Stories by Matt Wesolowski

I’m a huge fan of the podcast Serial so when I heard that there was a novel that purported to be Serial in book form, you’d better believe I was straight on it! Constructed around six podcasts in which an investigative journalist outlines the circumstances surrounding the death of a teenage boy at an outward-bound centre and interviews witnesses and suspects, this is a compelling page-turner with a chilling edge. With a twisty narrative and some dark psychological insights, this novel is what I’d like all thrillers to be – a page turning read with an ending that packs a punch!

Killers of the Flower MoonKillers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Narrative non-fiction is always a tricky thing to pull off – too much narrative and it feels like a story, too much fact and you’ve got yourself a history book. David Grann gets the balance just right in Killers of the Flower Moon, an investigation into the systematic murders of large numbers of Osage Indians in the 1920s and 30s. Subtitled Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI, the book is a fascinating account of an overlooked piece of recent American history that retains it’s relevance and still resonates today.

The White RoadThe White Road by Sarah Lotz

Another twisty psychological thriller that gave me the chills in 2017 – although this time the setting might have had something to do with it! Set largely on Everest, this part thriller, part ghost story is gripping from the off and features one of the best unlikeable narrators I’ve ever come across. Simon Newman is the worst kind of journalist – dishonest and self-serving, he and his friend Thierry are willing to go to extremes to get their click-bait website off the ground, even if that means filming the bodies of Everest’s long dead. Taut and chilling, this is a psychological thriller with a supernatural twist, made all the better for the amazing sense of place. I posted a full review of the book earlier this year here.

The Good People by Hannah Kent / Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Get me being cheeky and sneaking in two recommendations for the price of one! In all seriousness though I couldn’t choose between Hannah Kent’s two novels, both of which I read in 2017. They’re both fantastic pieces of well-realised, cleverly crafted historical fiction. Burial Rites tells the story of Agnes Magnusdóttir, the last women to be executed in Iceland- perfect for anyone who has read (or watched) and adored Alias Grace. It’s dark, compelling and richly told. The Good People is a very different novel, centered around three women in early nineteenth century Ireland and their struggle to come to terms with the care of an unusual child. As with Burial Rites, the novel is based on real events but is quite different in tone and takes in a larger examination of societal attitudes and the uneasy truce between religion and folklore, modernity and tradition. I reviewed The Good People in full here and, on the basis of these two novels, I can’t wait to see what Kent produces next.

Honorable Mentions

Honorable mentions this year have to go to:

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, which came along at just the right time and made me snort my tea due to laughing so much. It also made me realise that maybe being a bookseller wouldn’t be the best career for someone who prefers books to people most of the time!

Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas, wonderfully narrated on audio by Stephen Fry, which is a perfect alternative to A Christmas Carol and deserves to be read by adults everywhere (especially if they happen to be reading it to children). Gave me the real festive feels and has a vital message about importance of being kind.

Pam Smy’s Thornhill is a stunning graphic novel about loneliness, ghosts and a mysterious girl next door. Visually captivating, it tells it’s tale in alternating sections of narrative and pictures.

Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living is an exploration of the way in which books shape and impact our lives and an insight into why and how we read. A must for any book lovers (as is his first book, The End of Your Life Book Club).

Sarah Ward’s A Patient Fury, the third in her series of ‘Derbyshire Noir’ police procedurals. I went on blog tour with this book earlier in the year and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the whole series to crime fiction lovers.

As always, I’d love to know if you’ve read any of my books of the year and what you thought of them – or if you have any of them on your TBR pile for 2018. Do leave me a comment down below or say hello over on Twitter – if you’ve done your own Books of the Year post I’d love to read it! In the meantime, I’d like to wish you all a very Happy New Year and here’s to a bookish 2018!

Happy Reading x

Reviews

REVIEW: An English Murder by Cyril Hare

34210917December! Snow on the ground, presents under the tree, mince pies stacked in every cupboard, a body in the library. Sorry, what? That’s right – for me nothing says Christmas like a little festive murder mystery! Honestly, I realise that it makes absolutely no sense to be reading about such dastardly deeds over such a joyful holiday but I do love me a Christmas murder mystery to curl up with once the presents are all wrapped and the cat has been wrangled out of the tree for the seventeenth time. So imagine my delight when the lovely folk at Faber & Faber offered to send me ‘An English Murder‘, a golden age classic by Cyril Hare that’s set in a snowed-in country house on Christmas Eve.

With the snow thick on the ground outside and a roaring fire in the grate, Warbeck Hall should be the perfect place to celebrate Christmas. But as the bells chime midnight, a murder takes place and, with the phone line down, no one is getting in or out. Who is responsible? The scorned lover? The cousin passed over for inheritance? The long-serving family butler? The social climber? The history professor? And, more importantly, will any of them survive long enough to tell the tale?

First published in 1951, the novel is a classic golden age mystery of the very best kind and all the standard tropes are present and correct: country house setting, limited number of suspects, cuttingly acidic conversation, strained English politeness, cyanide in the drinks cabinet etc etc. So far, so Agatha Christie. Hare, however, is playing with these well-known stock characters and situations to create a mystery that, when you really start to think about it, has a little more nuance than your average Christie pastiche.

For a start, this is not a mystery in which the detective comes along, interviews the suspects and then grandly unmasks the murderer in the middle of the parlour. That honour goes instead to Dr Bottwink, a Czech history professor with a dry sense of humour and an outsider’s ability to accurately assess the nuances and undertones of an English social gathering. Bottwink is a fantastic character – on the surface an addled history professor, more interested in books than people, but in reality a witty and observant man who swiftly realises that the past may have a significant bearing on the present.

Also unusually for a golden age novel, Hare tackles politics head on – one character is a founding member of a fascist organisation and another (Bottwink) a Jewish refugee who fled the continent during WWII. Hare uses the other characters’ reactions and responses to this to take swipes at the posturing of the various post-war political factions and at general attitudes towards the English sense of national identity – much of which seems worryingly familiar in our own charged political climate. I won’t give away the clever twist at the end of the novel but, suffice to say, I don’t think it’s coincidental that Hare has his only non-English character be the only person with enough knowledge of English constitutional history to be able to solve the murder.

There’s also a few gentle pokes in the direction of the English class system, the conventions of the traditional country house mystery and at Christmas traditions themselves (“It’s Christmas, let’s gather together 8 people who’ll hate each other and force them to make merry, it’ll be fine!”). The mystery itself is sufficiently absorbing and the clues are present without being obvious. The limited cast of characters doesn’t make the guessing of the murderer too difficult and, in truth, there isn’t a huge amount of meat on the bones of the central premise but the dry wit and incisive social commentary more than make up for the slightly shallow characterisation and occasionally thin plotting.

So a clever festive mystery with a golden age skin but something a little more developed going on under the surface. Definitely one of the better festive re-issues I’ve read over recent years, I would certainly recommend ‘An English Murder’ to classic crime fans over this Christmas season.

‘An English Murder’ by Cyril Hare, published by Faber & Faber, is available now in paperback and ebook from all good booksellers. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy in return for an honest and unbiased review. 

 

Reviews

REVIEW: The Good People by Hannah Kent

“You know what they say, woman? The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”
“And the road to Heaven is well signposted, Father…” Nance smiled. “But badly lit at night.”

35702191This, for me, sums up the essence of Hannah Kent’s latest novel, ‘The Good People‘. It’s a novel about three women, all with the best of intentions, who will end up questioning everything they have ever known as they become embroiled in a changing world caught between folklore and faith.

County Kerry, Ireland, 1825. Nóra Leahy, bereft after the sudden death of her husband, finds herself struggling alone with the care of her young grandson Micheál. Once a thriving, happy boy, Micheál cannot now walk or speak. As her neighbours begin to whisper of ill-fortune and the cows cease their milk, talk turns to the Good People – the faerie folk – and rumours of Micheál’s true nature abound. Confused and desperate, Nóra turns to two women – young Mary Clifford, who will act as nurse to Micheál, and elderly Nance Roche, the local doctress who understands that there is magic in the old ways. But trying to help Micheál will lead the women on a dangerous path and into conflict with the world both inside and outside the valley.

This is a work of fiction, although it is based on real life events and is clearly impeccably researched. As with Kent’s previous novel, ‘Burial Rites‘ (which is brilliant by the way), there’s a real sense of immediacy in her depiction of rural village life and of the inherent beliefs and assumptions that make up local culture, belief and custom. And, more so than in Burial Rites, this is a novel that really focuses on belief. There are, without a doubt, two belief systems in the novel – that of the Church and an older, more naturalistic belief that includes herbal medicine, blessings, curses and the faerie folk. Both are strongly felt in Nóra’s community and the balancing of the two in daily life was an aspect of the novel that I found absolutely fascinating.

As with ‘Burial Rites’, Kent also manages to make very difficult characters sympathetic and engaging. Nóra is a challenging woman – lonesome, prone to melancholy and often bitter about her situation – but the reader is never left in any doubt that she is grieving profoundly for her husband, her daughter and, in her own way, for Micheál. Nance could so easily be portrayed as a predatory vagrant, preying on people’s desperation however she’s also shown to be wise in herb lore and the only genuine option available when the priest won’t help and the doctor is a luxury that the villagers are unable to afford. Mary, although less vivid, is an ideal way in for the reader and we share in her confusion, her anger and her angst over the nature of Micheál’s ailment and the best course of action needed to help him.

Because, ultimately, this is a novel with a terrible and tragic outcome. I don’t want to give away the central premise completely but I will say that there are trigger warnings here for child abuse. That said,  the treatment of Micheál in the novel only ever serves to raise important questions and is never used gratuitously. I was shocked by the callous attitude of the supposedly ‘educated’ doctor and priest, who identify Micheál’s condition as an illness but fail to provide Nóra with any sense of how she can help her grandson other than to tell her it is the will of God and must be endured. It is no wonder that, desperate and confused and surrounded by whisperings in the village, she turns to Nance and ever more extreme measures to cure the boy and see him restored to her.  These measures are, in themselves, horrendous but Kent’s skill lies in her ability to encourage the reader to see why her character’s make these decisions and choices. We might not sympathise but it is certainly possibly to empathise with Nóra’s plight.

As one of my ‘5 Star TBR Predictions‘ from back in October, I’m pleased to say this more than lived up to expectations. Combining a compelling narrative with complex characterisation and social commentary, this is an emotional and taught novel. It isn’t the fastest paced but there’s undoubted quality in the writing and a meticulous replication of a time and place now vanished.

The Good People‘ by Hannah Kent is published by Picador and is available in paperback, ebook and audio from all good book retailers. 

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR! The CWA Anthology of Short Stories: Mystery Tour

CWA HB AW.inddI do love a good anthology so when the opportunity came along to participate in the blog tour for the CWA’s latest Anthology of Short Stories, subtitled Mystery Tour, came along I jumped at the chance.

Edited by current CWA chair and President of the Detection Club, Martin Edwards, the anthology showcases some of the best short stories by CWA members including Ann Cleeves, C.L. Taylor, Ragnar Jónasson and Cath Staincliffe along with many others. The twenty-eight contributions reflect a unifying theme of travel with crime spreading across the globe from the backstreets of Glasgow to a treacherous cruise in French Polynesia via a South African trek, a train ride across the Ukraine and a vengeful killing in Mumbai. Each of the authors has interpreted the travel brief in their own unique and diverse way and it makes for a really varied collection from a mixture of bestselling authors, rising stars and relative newcomers.

As with all anthologies, there were some stories I liked more than others and some writers whose style I preferred. That, for me though, is the joy of an anthology collection – it’s a great way to read new material from old favourites whilst also discovering new voices and trying out new authors. Having read the anthology, there’s definitely some authors that I would like to read more of in this collection and reading it, I thought what a great gift it would make for a crime lover who was seeking out new voices.

The collection also does a fantastic collection of showcasing the breadth and vitality of contemporary crime-writing. Writers are featured from across the UK as well as Iceland, South Africa and America. Sleuthing takes place across the globe, with some of it towards the cosier end of the spectrum whilst others feature more gritty reality. It also does a great job of showing that short-form crime fiction, once assumed to be on the decline, is alive and kicking which is great for those of us that like to dip into and out of short stories between longer reads.

Overall, this is a worthy addition to any crime fiction lover’s TBR pile and would be an ideal gift for the mystery fan in your life this festive season. With twenty-eight stories included, there’s plenty to keep avid readers occupied – plus, as the CWA is a non-profit organisation, a purchase will also enable them to continue supporting and developing great crime fiction for us to enjoy.

Mystery Tour‘, edited by Martin Edwards, is published by Orenda Books and is available now as a hardback, paperback and ebook. My thanks go to the publishers for providing a copy in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater (randomthingsthroughmyletterbox) for organising the blog tour. Check out the other stops on the tour and the full list of contributors below! 

CWA_Blog_Tour_Poster

Reviews

REVIEW: The Last Hours by Minette Walters

35993602Minette Walters is a name I associate with crime fiction so it was primarily intrigue that prompted me to request a copy of ‘The Last Hours‘ from NetGalley.

Set in June 1348, the Dorsetshire port of Melcombe is about to become infamous as the place where The Black Death enters England. Whilst the Church proclaims the sickness as a punishment from God, Lady Anne of Develish – a small demesne just outside Melcombe – has other other ideas. Determined to protect her household from the devastating plague, Anne gathers her serfs within the gates of Develish and refuses entry to outsiders, even extending her quarantine to her own husband. Thus begins a historical novel that has shades of dystopian fiction as Lady Anne and the denizens of Develish endure against the pandemic whilst the world around them – and the order that it sustains – is dying.

The premise is certainly interesting and I was immediately drawn into the world that Walters creates. Develish is a world in microcosm – a perfect miniature of the social hierarchy that propped up the feudal system with God and the Church at the top, Norman nobles on the next rung down and the Saxon serfs towards the bottom of the pack – sworn to service their whole lives long. At first Develish seems to obey this hierarchy – Sir Richard of Develish is boorish, ignorant and cruel-hearted, kind only to his spoilt and petty daughter Eleanor. With the arrival of the Black Death however, the normal social order is plunged into disarray. With Sir Richard away paying court to a neighbouring noble, his long-suffering wife Lady Anne swiftly takes action, using her reputation for compassion and intelligence to encourage her bondsmen and their families to isolate themselves from the sickness before it can enter Develish’s walls. Thus begins a narrative that sees serfs working alongside stewards in a desperate attempt to survive the plague that has fallen upon the land – a plague that has the potential to forever alter the dynamic between bondman and master.

Walters has clearly put a lot of research into this novel. For the majority of the time, it is worn lightly although there is the occasional info dump or character playing exposition monkey. For the most part however, I felt that the world was well-realised and well-drawn and that the book was at its best when it was looking at the changes wrought on the established social order by the drastic situation – each of the characters reacts differently with some (such as the feisty Lady Anne) rising to the challenge whilst others (the deluded Eleanor) refuse to accept that their place in the world has changed.

This strength does highlight the novel’s weakness however. The characters, for me anyway, felt thinly drawn – almost caricatures at times. Sir Richard, for example, is a pantomime villain – boorish, fat, lazy and stupid – and its therefore no surprise when his various wicked actions come to light throughout the course of the book.  On the other side of the coin, Lady Anne and her ‘steward’, the bondsmen Thaddeus, are intelligent, courageous and compassionate in their pursuit of the wider interests of the people of Develish and their decisions and actions are always vindicated. Whilst this didn’t prevent me finishing the book – I raced through it in a couple of days – the one-dimensional caricatures and lack of character development did grate.

My other niggle was with the ending – or should I say, the lack of an ending. It became apparent that the book was drawing to a close with an increasingly small number of pages in which to wrap up the various plot strands introduced. This, I eventually realised, is because there will be a sequel (due Autumn 2018). Now I have nothing against sequels but I do think that each book in a series should stand on its own. Reading Hilary Mantel’s ‘Bring Up The Bodies’, for example, is infinitely enhanced by having read ‘Wolf Hall’ but it can be read as an independent book in its own right. ‘The Last Hours’ however felt, to me at least, like reading half a book – a great premise is established, characters are introduced, relationships are established and all is going well. And then it ends. Just. Like. That. Plot threads are left hanging, relationships unresolved and there are hints towards the end of the novel of many events still to come. Which would have been fine if this had been marketed as Part One of a series or duology but, as far as I can tell, this isn’t made clear in the blurb or marketing so it came as a disappointment.

This makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy ‘The Last Hours’ – which is a shame because there’s a lot to recommend it. Walters can clearly turn her hand to historical fiction and has created a page-turning novel set during a fascinating period of English history that saw huge societal change. I’ll probably even read the next book in the series because I do want to know what happens to the people of Develish – it’s just more likely to be a library loan than a purchase if I’m being completely honest. If you like your historical fiction, this is definitely worth giving a read – and the page-turning nature of the story makes it a good introduction to the genre for fans of Walter’s fast-paced crime and thriller titles as well. Overall this was a solid 2.5/5 read for me – I enjoyed it while it lasted but I don’t think I’ll be reading it again.

The Last Hours‘ by Minette Walters, published by Allen & Unwin, is available now as a hardback and ebook from all good booksellers. My thanks go to the publisher and Netgalley for providing an e-proof in return for an honest and unbiased review. 

Reviews

REVIEW: Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson

32721820My first thought on being asked whether I would like a review copy of ‘Nine Lessons‘ – Nicola Upson’s latest historical crime series featuring writer Josephine Tey – was how did I not know there was a crime fiction series featuring Josephine Tey?!?! Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant mysteries are amongst some of my favourite ‘classic’ crime and ‘The Daughter of Time‘ is one of the few books that I regularly re-read. My second thought was, of course, heck yes – send it over!!

I was, I’ll admit, a teeny bit nervous as to what the book might be like. Blending reality and fiction isn’t the easiest so it’s a brave decision to make your protagonist not only a real person but a relatively famous one amongst crime fiction aficionados. Given that Tey was also a notoriously private person, who disclosed very little about her personal life even to those closest to her, I also wondered how much fact Upson would have to rely upon and how this might impact her portrayal of Josephine.

My fears were however, unfounded. Even without knowledge of the first six books in the series, it is clear that Upson has taken the air of mystery that surrounds Tey’s private life and blended it smoothly with the few facts available to create a plausible and complex heroine. The blanks of Tey’s life – friends, lovers etc- are filled in with fiction but it’s plausible fiction and I felt like the woman coming across in ‘Nine Lessons’ really could be the woman who wrote the golden age classics that I’ve so enjoyed. Upson’s Tey comes across as clever, passionate and sensitive with strongly held opinions, many of which seem very forward-thinking for the time. As such she’s a brilliant foil to the slightly more dour Chief Inspector Archie Penrose with whom she shares the investigation. Which is not to say that Archie is a difficult character to follow – he’s just a still waters run deep type and reminded me a little of P D James’ Adam Dalgliesh with his quiet competency and methodical approach.

The mystery itself is complex, with two distinct threads to the plot and a little knot of personal problems thrown in on the side, yet it never gets so tangled that you lose the thread of what’s going on. Archie’s investigation into the ritualistic murder of a church organist soon leads him to Cambridge and a link to a group of scholars who once shared ghost stories around the fire with M R James – links that might now see them being killed one by one. As a fan of James’ ghost stories I really enjoyed this link and felt the atmosphere of Cambridge academia at this period really came across.

Also in Cambridge, Josephine finds herself becoming entangled in an investigation into a serial rapist who has been terrorising single women. This latter element, based upon a series of real life crimes, provides an opportunity for Upson to examine the expectations placed upon women at this period as well as the way that attitudes towards a crime such as rape have altered – or, arguably, haven’t in some respects.

Overall this was a cleverly plotted, compelling mystery novel. I didn’t feel as if I missed too much by not having read the first six books in the series – although I admit that the personal plots held less interest for me probably because I hadn’t read the books in which the various relationships were established and developed. The actual crimes investigated are completely standalone however and very engaging without any prior knowledge of the series. Having read ‘Nine Lessons’ I am keen to go back and discover the earlier books in the series and I’d certainly recommend ‘Nine Lessons’ to anyone who’s a fan of classic crime or of the style found in P D James’ books or Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series.

Nine Lessons‘ by Nicola Upson, published by Faber & Faber, is available now as a hardback and ebook from all good book retailers. My thanks go to Sophie Portas at Faber & Faber for providing an advance copy in return for an honest and unbiased review. 

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR! Sleep No More by P D James

P D James has long been acknowledged as a Queen of Crime. In the course of her long career, which only ended with her death in 2014, she successfully blended psychological insight with twisting plots and a literary turn of phrase in her much admired Adam Dalgleigh series (check them out on audio CD if you can – they’re fantastically narrated by Michael Jayston), injected a bit of death and deceit into a a beloved classic in ‘Death Comes to Pemberley‘ and also turned her hand to true crime with ‘The Maul and the Pear Tree‘ about the infamous Ratcliffe Highway Murders.

What many readers (myself included) may not have realised until recently however is that James was also a past master of the short story. ‘The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories‘, published last year, was a popular stocking filler for crime aficionados so publisher Faber & Faber are following up this year with a companion volume, ‘Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales‘, that collects a further six stories together for the first time.

Less overtly festive, ‘Sleep No More’ is loosely themed around revenge and, as with much of James’ work, the stories blend the classic tropes and motifs of Golden Age crime-writing with her trademark psychological insight to create six morally complex stories, all with a twist in their tale.

My favourite story in the collection, ‘The Murder of Santa Claus’, is, unsurprisingly, set at Christmas and sees a workmanlike writer of detective fiction recall dark going on during Christmas Eve 1939. Taking place in a Cotswald manor house and replete with a wicked uncle, an ill-matched group of assembled guess and a shifty servant, the Golden Age motifs are all present and correct and it isn’t long before there’s a side of murder to accompany the mince pies. The wartime Christmas setting is wonderfully evoked and James clearly enjoys playing with reader expectations to create a satisfying ending that neatly re-directed my sympathies.

In ‘A Very Desirable Residence’ and ‘The Victim’, James uses her acute insight into the dark hearts of her protagonists to create two twisting tales of unhappy marriages, vengeance and greed. ‘The Girl Who Loved Graveyards’ is a tightly controlled piece with an ending that is at once poignant and deeply disturbing. And no prizes for guessing the key item in ‘The Yo-Yo’, in which a bullying schoolmaster gets his comeuppance on a snowy winter’s night.

James also has a ready wit and the final piece in the collection, ‘Mr Millcroft’s Birthday’, is both playful and sardonic. Featuring an octogenarian exerting the only retribution he can on his greedy children from the safety of his nursing home, it is a very funny story with a pleasing twist and proves yet again that James’ ability to skewer the absurd and ludicrous can be as on point as Austen’s.

35079533Pleasantly produced in a £10.00 hardback, Sleep No More is a fantastic addition to any crime fan’s bookshelf. James’ many fans will, doubtless, be delighted to have more of her short fiction readily available but, for anyone yet to discover her work, this is an accessible showcase of her mastery of the craft. With it’s pretty cover design, it would also make an excellent gift for a crime lover this festive season.

Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales‘ by P D James is published by Faber & Faber and is available from today in hardback and ebook from all good booksellers. My thanks go to the publisher for providing an advance copy in return for an honest and unbiased review. 

Reviews

REVIEW: The White Road by Sarah Lotz

The White RoadAh, summertime. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the grass is blowing gently in the breeze. What better time then, than to read a twisty psychological thriller (complete with a side of creepy supernatural goings on) set on Everest’s dark and snowy peak? Enter ‘The White Road‘ by Sarah Lotz – my choice of reading over one of the hottest weekend’s of the year!

Desperate to get their click-bait website ‘Journey to The Dark Side’ off the ground, wannabe filmmaker Simon Newman is persuaded by his friend Thierry to go caving in the deadly Cwm Pot Rat Run with the aim of filming the bodies of three students who died there years before. When Simon’s own horrific experience in the caves goes viral, the pair seek the next challenge – an ascent of Everest, the ‘Death Mountain’. But, when Simon gets to Everest, he discovers there may be more dangerous things on the mountain than the elements – and this time, his luck may have run out.

For me, one of Sarah’s main achievements in this book is the creation of Simon, our narrator. He is, in all honesty, a bit of a louse. Lazy, dishonest and largely out for himself, Simon is not a likeable narrator. He is however interesting and well formed as a character and we see flashes of the person he could become and the life he could lead if he chose to. Fully aware of his own deceits, he becomes torn between his best and worst selves which really added to the psychological suspense as he battles with his personal demons. The supporting cast are also well realised – Thierry was slightly one dimensional, being the epitome of the self-centred, obsessive ‘internet sensation’ but that’s a minor niggle. In a genre that often relies on tense plotting rather than well constructed characters, it was great to be in the head of someone who felt so real and was surrounded by people you felt you could actually meet.

The opening salvo in Cwm Pot is deliciously dark and full of menace – a great way of setting the tone for what is to follow – but it’s once Simon reaches Everest when, for me, the book really comes to life. The sense of place and of the challenge of the climb really came across and I found the incidental details about climbing and the mental and physical challenges posed by being at altitude absolutely fascinating. It made me want to read some non-fiction about the history of Everest and find out more about mountain climbing in general.

I also felt that the supernatural elements were well handled – I’d never heard of the ‘Third Man’ concept before but it’s a really intriguing one and used to very good effect here. Even at the end of the book, I couldn’t decide whether or not to consider this a ghost story!

Tautly plotted and immensely enjoyable, ‘The White Road’ balances psychological intrigue with dashes of the supernatural to create an intense thrill ride that grabbed hold of me and didn’t let go until I’d turned the final page. Fans of Michelle Paver’s recent ghost stories (especially ‘Thin Air‘, with which this shares a great deal in terms of theme and setting) will find much to enjoy here, as will fans of psychological suspense and anyone who enjoys being gripped by a good book!