Some Progress

virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60Last time I moved I swore never again.  Now, three weeks into the process of downsizing, I am remembering just why I was so vehement eighteen years ago.  When those that know about these things claim that it is one of the most stressful thing that anyone can undertake they are definitely not joking.  I think I have psoriasis on my eczema although if someone was to argue that it was the other way round I wouldn’t contend against it.

Actually, I have been comparatively fortunate.  I got a buyer the first day the house was on the market and she now has a first time buyer, so within a fortnight a reasonably short chain is in place.  However, I think her buyer is a game player, so chickens are not yet being counted.  The Estate agents are projecting a move around the beginning of May but again I’ll believe it when it happens.  Anyway, when I look at all that has to be done between now and then, the beginning of May 2019 seems like a better option.  The Bears vacillate between excitement and trepidation, with the exception of Jolyon Bear, who controls the purse strings; he just looks distraught all the time.  In fact, as long as they have their sofa, a nice warm fire and a plate of marmalade sandwiches they will be all right wherever they end up.

All this has done my reading progress no good at all.  When I ought to be concentrating on the book in front of me, I find my mind wandering off into room measurements and lists of people who will have to be contacted and worst of all, how to get rid of everything that I can’t take.  So, the only book I’ve finished these last two weeks has been Donna Tartt’s The Secret History for book group and that was a re-read.  We had an interesting discussion about that, however.  Most of us have teaching backgrounds of one sort or another and so as well as the parallels being drawn between what happens in the novel and the conventions of Greek drama we also had much to say about the responsibilities of teachers for their pupils, whatever age those pupils might be.  Julian Morrow came in for some harsh words.  At least this gave me an excuse not to talk about my friend’s husband’s new book when we met on Thursday.  Fortunately, we had so much business to get through on the agenda that the subject didn’t come up, but thanks for all your advice.

I have spent the weekend making lists of what has to be done and when. I always feel better when I have a list. I’m hoping that this means I can get back to more of a routine and start reading and commenting again.  I think my own posting will still be sporadic but I’ll pop in here every now and again and keep you updated.

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A Moral Dilemma

virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60Briefly today as life becomes no less hectic.  I need advice.  Tomorrow I have to go to a meeting which will be chaired by a friend of mine whose husband has just published his latest novel to what can only be described as something less than critical acclaim. I haven’t had time to read it yet, so I can’t pass my own opinion on it (which may not turn out to be any more favourable than that of the critics), do I mention it at all?  All thoughts on the matter gratefully received.

The Dark Angel ~ Elly Griffiths

IMG_0001Just what do you do when the 2000 year old skeleton you are in the process of excavating rings you up and, when you fail to answer, sends you a text message?  You send for Ruth Galloway, of course.  The Dark Angel, Elly Griffiths’ tenth novel featuring the Norfolk based forensic archeologist, begins in the Liri Valley in Italy where Professor Angelo Morelli, an old acquaintance of Ruth, is clearly as concerned about his television presence as he is about ‘Toni’, the skeleton he is unearthing.  When his phone rings in the middle of shooting, the skeleton suddenly gets all his attention.  The television moguls are not, however, amused and so, in a bid to save his media career, Angelo invites Ruth, who much to her dismay he sells to them as an international bones expert, to come over to Italy and give her opinion about Toni’s provenance.

Ruth is not in a good place.  The Dark Angel takes up from exactly where The Chalk Pit ended, at DS Clough’s wedding.  As we follow Ruth and her six year old daughter, Kate, to the reception, it is clear that she has been stunned by the announcement of Michelle Nelson’s pregnancy.  Michelle is the wife of DCI Harry Nelson, who is Kate’s father, and the forthcoming birth of this unexpected child makes it very clear that any future that Ruth might have hoped for with Nelson is not going to materialise. When the call to Italy comes, with the promise of accommodation for her and Kate and the chance to stay on for a few days holiday afterwards, she welcomes the opportunity to get away.  Accompanied by her friend Shona and Shona’s four year old Louis, Ruth takes herself off to sunnier climes.

Although two murders are committed, one in Italy and the other in Norfolk, they are not the focus of this novel which is actually about the concept of family and the legacy of grievances which can resurface from one generation to another.  This manifests itself not only in the complications of Ruth’s relationship with Nelson but also in the history of Angelo’s family.  To some Angelo’s recently deceased grandfather is a hero, others are not so sure.  A member of the Italian resistance, he brought aid to the wartime partisans as they fought against the Nazis.  Some people, however, argue that such individuals only made matters worse for the populace in general, bringing the wrath of Mussolini’s black shirts down on everyone, regardless of their involvement.  Angelo and his mother Elsa defend his reputation vigorously but the undercurrents of ancient grievances are clearly there.

Wartime feuds are recent history, however, compared with the debate raging in academic circles as to the relative importance of the Romans when compared with the even older tribes who populated the region at the time when the smart phone savvy Toni was buried.  The Volsci (remembered mostly in Britain for their role in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus) have had little attention paid to them but their descendants are determined that the ‘family’ will not be forgotten and are prepared to go to some lengths to prevent further excavation of Roman sites, pushing instead for investigations into the other Italic tribes.

Into this mix is introduced Samir, a Catholic Syrian refugee, who is separated from his family and has risked life and limb in order to try to meet up with them in Italy where he hopes to be able to build a new life for them all.  There is an uncomfortable passage in the middle of the novel where his background is explained.  Uncomfortable, because of what it is describing, but also uncomfortable because the writing is suddenly different from the rest of the text and as consequence it sticks out as a polemic rather than being better integrated into the story.

But then the whole novel is something of a polemic about the complexity of family and the difficulties that defence of family brings with it and as a result for me, at least, this undermines the overall structure of the story.  The notion of the family is relevant to both crimes but the focus of the book is on neither and so they seem almost peripheral to what is happening.  This really isn’t a crime novel; it is a novel about Ruth and Nelson’s relationship and as such I have to say that I didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as I have the earlier books in the series.  Its saving grace is that, Samir’s exposition apart, it still maintains the rather quirky narrative voice which presides over the action and lets no one get away with anything even so much as resembling a half truth.  Ruth packing for Italy asks What else does the conscientious mother need?  Antiseptic cream? Nit comb? Gin? and paying their respects to Sunday as a day of spiritual significance Nelson and Michelle are in the modern British equivalent of church: a garden centre. And it has Kate, a far more active presence than in previous books, who, with her Paddington hard stares is ever bit as effective as the narrator when it comes to deflating adult egos.  So, not a complete disaster, but not what I was looking for when I picked this book up.  I hope when we next meet Ruth it will be in a more crime focused context and that her personal life will be a little less to the fore.

With thanks to Quercus Books and Net Galley for making a copy of this book available.

The Lying Kind ~Alison James

IMG_0093Six year old Lola Jade Harper has been missing for seven months after disappearing from her mother’s home in Eastwell, Surrey.  A child likely to be at the heart of a bitter custody battle, she appears to have been abducted to order and inevitably her father, Gavin, is a major suspect.  Now Gavin has also disappeared and given that there have been reported sightings of Lola Jade on the continent, the National Crime Agency, once better known as Interpol, has been tasked to assist in finding him.  DI Rachel Prince and her Sergeant, Mark Brickall, are handed the file and told to liaise with the Surrey force in an attempt to discover whether the little girl has been taken abroad to keep her from her mother.

However, Michelle Harper may not be all that she seems.  While most of the social network comments are supportive of her, there are other indications that she is seriously unstable and very early in her involvement with the case Rachel finds herself questioning just how sincere Lola Jade’s mother is wanting to find the child. Making sure that her husband takes the blame appears to be much more important. When Gavin is eventually tracked down and it becomes apparent that his daughter isn’t with him attention turns back to the UK and Michelle Harper’s movements come under closer scrutiny.  Why has she moved out of the family home to live with her sister and what is happening to the money that has been collected on a just giving site to help with the search?

The Missing Child raises a number of interesting questions about the dynamics of family life.  If a marriage starts to go wrong how do you deal with the growing awareness that you have made a mistake?  Rachel herself has a failed relationship behind her: one from which she has withdrawn without allowing either herself or her husband any form of closure.  What happens when husband and wife have different views not only about having children but also as to how any children should be brought up?  How much can one sibling ask of another and what are the consequences when sibling bonds are broken?  And, most pertinently, what are the consequences when love for a child is subverted by love of oneself.  Alison James successfully manages to integrate each of these different strands into both the central plot and the background material she provides about her main characters in this her first novel.  At the end of the book the reader is left not only with a satisfactory storyline but also with sufficient detail about Rachel, her Sergeant and their personal and professional histories to feel that they are real people with real lives.

This is an accomplished first novel, well plotted, with convincingly drawn characters and also stylishly written.  It isn’t that often that the first in a series is strong enough to make me automatically put a writer on my go-to list of authors but I shall definitely be on the look out for Alison James’ next novel.  I think she may be a writer to watch.

With thanks to NetGalley for making this available for review.

Progress – What Progress?

ImageSo, this is the point in the month when I would normally look back over the previous four weeks, reflect on what I had read in that time and then project forward to consider what I was intending to go on and read in the coming days.  However, in order to do that I would have to have read something recently and feel that there was any likelihood of my reading anything in the immediate future. At the moment I am not sanguine about either proposition.

I started the month with the best of intentions and indeed could truthfully say that I made progress, but two weeks ago everything ground to a crunching halt.  I have had it in mind for some time that I would sooner or later have to downsize.  I love the house I’m living in now, but it is really too large for one person and where it is sited would be very impractical if I was unable to drive.  So, for the past couple of years I’ve had my eye on some apartments in a local market town where I already have an established community of friends. Two weeks ago one came up for sale. You can imagine the chaos that has since ensued.  I have to sell my home in order to buy the apartment, so I have to have a buyer before anyone else has an offer accepted. It has been as if a whirlwind has hit.  Three estate agents came round.  One uttered a brazen laugh at the end of every sentence; I would have killed her before the end of the week. Another made the fatal error of sitting on The Bears; she was lucky to walk out alive.  So that just left the third one.  On such things do vital decisions turn!

Then on Thursday ‘Ben’ came round to take the photos. As you can imagine, The Bears clammered to be included. Photos of three of the rooms will now prominently feature assorted groups of Bears waving wildly in a possibly (probably!) vain attempt to entice people to come and meet them.  Just as long as nobody thinks that they are part of the furniture and fittings. Last time I moved I had to extracate Josiah Bear from the pocket of one three year old viewer who was about to take him home with her.

On Friday morning I received a copy of ‘Ben’s’ deathless prose designed to tempt all and sundry not only to come and view the property but also to put in stupendously over the odds offers for it.  On Friday afternoon, pointing out that I do have a Ph.D. in English Language Studies, I went into the office and rewrote it for him.  ‘Adjacent’ is now his word of the day.

Inevitably this has meant that not only have I done very little reading but I have also been neglecting other people’s blogs. I apologise.  I hope that things will be a little less hectic now at least until (if) I get a buyer and will try and catch up with you all over the next few days. The last time I did this I was working full time and also sole carer for my eighty-three year old mother.  However did I manage it?  (The truth is that I very nearly didn’t and it was only a very supportive head of department who saved my sanity.)

What it does mean is that I am not going to set myself any reading goals for February.  I have a couple of pre-written reviews which will go up during the next week, but after that you may find that I am only around sporadically until, one way or the other, matters are resolved. The only book I will definitely be reading, and it is a re-read, is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which is this month’s book club read.  With luck, normal service will be resumed as soon as possible, in the meantime I am adopting the war time slogan and doing my best to keep calm and carry on.

The Only Story ~ Julian Barnes

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersI think I came at this, the latest novel from one of my favourite authors, Julian Barnes, from the wrong direction. No one who knows me will be the slightest bit surprised to hear that I latched on to the word ‘story’ in the title and assumed that the key element here would be a tying of the concept of story to the way in which we live our lives.  And, to a certain extent that is a concern addressed by the narrative that Barnes relates.  However, when Barnes talks of the ‘only’ story what he is specifically referring to is a love story.

Everyone has their love story. Everyone. It may have been a fiasco, it may have fizzled out, it may never even have got going, it may have been all in the mind, that doesn’t make it any less real… Everyone does. It’s the only story.

The love story that Barnes goes on to relate is that of Paul and Susan, a couple who meet during one 1960s summer when nineteen year old Paul, home from university, decides to kill some time at the local tennis club.  He is paired with Susan for a mixed doubles tournament and the friendship that develops between them quite quickly blossoms into a much more serious relationship. However, to Paul’s nineteen Susan is forty-six and married with two adult daughters. The much older Paul, who narrates this story, recognises that to the reader this might seem problematic, even an error of judgment (the tennis club committee, which blackballs them both, clearly has even stronger feelings about the matter) but asks for a more sensitive understanding of the situation.

Perhaps you understood a little too quickly; I can hardly blame you. We tend to slot any new relationship we come across into a pre-existing category. We see what is general or common about it; where as the participants see – feel – only what is individual and particular to them. We say: how predictable; they say: what a surprise!

Well, however we may categorise Paul and Susan’s relationship, it not only continues, it absolutely thrives, even under the grumpy and sometimes violent auspices of Susan’s sexually estranged husband and eventually, Paul having completed his university course, they move into their own property as he begins his training to become a solicitor. But, while Paul is content with the situation, Susan begins to show signs of strain.  Her health, both physical and mental, starts to crumble and Paul is forced to question how wise, how stable, their relationship is. He is even forced to question its very foundation – the love which he believes to be the basis of everything else.

The older Paul who narrates the story would, I am sure, maintain that his love never falters, but it certainly changes and one aspect in particular that changes is the way in which he positions himself in relation to his actions as he retells his ‘only story’. At one point he asks

do all these retelling bring you closer to the truth of what happened, or move you further away.

In narrative terms he certainly distances himself further from the story of his and Susan’s relationship the further he moves from that initial attraction.  Thus, the story is split into three sections.  The first tells of those early years and the narrative choices reflect Paul’s observation that

first love always happens in the overwhelming first person. How can it not? Also, in the overwhelming present tense:

the narrative voice and tense of that initial section echo that.  The older Paul, however, is astute enough to recognise that it takes us time to realise that there are other persons, and other tenses and as the relationship begins to alter so, in the telling of the second and third sections, he distances himself further and further away from the both the action and from Susan, moving through a well controlled second tense in the middle of the text and then into third person, past tense in the final part until, as an elderly man, he can reflect on their time together from the distance of a limited third person narrator, who is well aware that in his recall of their relationship he may also be an unreliable narrator.

There has been much discussion in the press as to the merits of this novel, in particular in comparison to his award winning The Sense of an Ending. I thought that that was a magnificent work and while I find much in this new book to admire, it didn’t affect me in the same way as the earlier novel.  In part this may be because I didn’t agree with his basic premise.  If we do each only have one story to tell (and this is a proposition that Elizabeth Strout also puts forward in My Name is Lucy Barton) then I don’t think it is always a love story.  My primary story would be about me as a teacher because teaching pretty much defines who I always have been and who I still am.  Teaching is as natural an activity to me as breathing is to most other people.  The Only Story feels to me like a very personal response on the part of the author, possibly growing out of his own experience. Nevertheless, it is an extremely well crafted novel with many of those beautifully turned phrases and astutely authentic observations which are the hallmark of Barnes’ style as, for example, when he speaks of an English silence – one in which all the unspoken words of perfectly understood by both parties. So, while for me, this may not be quite his best work, it is still Barnes writing at the top of his game and I very strongly recommend it.

With thanks to Random House and NetGalley for making this available for review.

Perfect Death ~ Helen Fields

IMG_0245What drives someone to commit murder?  This has been a question raised in a number of crime novels I’ve read this year and it is certainly true of Perfect Death, the third in Helen Field’s Edinburgh based series featuring DI Luc Callanch and DCI Ava Turner.  Luc is still finding it difficult to settle into the Edinburgh set-up having been forced out of his job with Interpol following a false accusation of rape.  His gallic good looks don’t make the situation any easier and he remains the butt of DS Lively’s old school sense of humour.  The MIT squad are brought together, however, by the unexpected suicide of their old chief, the now retired DCI Begbie.  What on earth could have induced him to drive his car out to a solitary cliff edge, leave the engine running and feed a pipe in through the window?  Visiting his grieving widow, Ava finds unexpected evidence which links back to a certain Louis Jones, an informant, who has himself disappeared in very suspicious circumstances.

While trying to uncover the mystery in her old Chief’s past, Ava is also under pressure to discover who has been responsible for the death of teenager Lily Eustis.  Initially thought to be an accidental, if questionable, death, it becomes apparent that someone has fed her a high concentration of cannabis oil and left her die on a cold Edinburgh hillside.  Detective Superintendent Overbeck (or Detective Superintendent Evil Overlord as DS Lively prefers to call her) is not impressed when Turner wants to turn the case into a full scale murder enquiry and even less pleased when it is suggested that a second death, that of charity worker Cordelia Muir, might have come about at the hand of the same killer.  Serial killers play havoc with a force’s statistics and have a nasty habit of pushing up the overtime budget.  It is DC Tripp (clearly marked for rapid and well deserved promotion) who makes the connection between the two cases and from that point the race is on to find out who the killer is before they are able to strike again.

I came across Helen Fields first DI Callanach novel early last year and was immediately drawn into the world that she has created.  Her first two novels showed her to be  excellent at both character and plot development; Perfect Death only confirms my initial impressions.  Psychologically scarred by his experiences in France, Luc still finds it difficult to trust the people with whom he works and his obvious differences make it hard for his colleagues to settle with him.  However, there is a realistic growth of mutual respect as he not only brings about resolutions to some seriously nasty crimes, but also shows that he is willing to put his own life on the line when necessary.  Even Lively is prepared, by the end of this story, to go on the record with the opinion that he’s not a complete tosser. From Lively praise indeed.  Fields also deals well with the difficulties faced by newly promoted DCI Turner, exploring the problems which a change in rank, responsibilities and subsequent relations with colleagues can bring.

In respect of the plot elements of the novel Fields judiciously seeds her tale with slight indications of which way the story is going to develop.  Her choice of vocabulary is often very telling, for instance the use of a single word suggesting that a character who is apparently submissive is actually completely in control of the interaction in which they are involved.  This is clever writing.  There is no way that a reader can argue that they have been misled about someone, but equally they are going to have to read very carefully indeed to pick up on the clues that are dropped along the way.

Thematically, as I have indicated, the author is concerned with motive: what is it in a character’s past that compels them to behave as they do? She explores this not only in respect of the two criminal cases that are being pursued but also in regard to the relationship between Luc and the mother who seemingly abandoned him to his fate once the charge of rape was levelled against him.  When she turns up in Edinburgh to try and explain herself to him Luc, not unexpectedly perhaps, wants nothing to do with her.  However, what she subsequently reveals to him might well be seen as motive enough for her behaviour; I suspect that it will become a driving motive for Luc’s actions in future novels. A second developing theme is police corruption.  It is the driving force behind the investigation into Begbie’s death and the disappearance of Louis Jones and the indication is that even when the known rotten apples have been dealt with, there is still another in the barrel who remains to surface at a later date.  This is the second novel I have read this week which explores the less savoury elements to be found in modern policing.  It is a useful plot device applied sparingly, used too often it could be seen an easy way out of a narrative hole of the writer’s own digging.

Helen Fields began strongly and has continued to improve with each successive novel.  If you haven’t already discovered her work then I recommend going back to the beginning and starting with Perfect Remains.  If you do know her previous novels then you will be pleased to know that Perfect Death is every bit as good as what has gone before, if not better.

With thanks to Avon Books and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.

This Is How It Ends ~ Eva Dolan

IMG_0093Four years ago I read Eva Dolan’s first novel Long Way Home.  Set in Peterborough it was the beginning of a series focused on a Hate Crimes unit and featured DI Zigic and DS Ferreira.  I remember writing at the time that I was impressed not only by the quality of the writing but also by the rather harder than usual edge that Dolan gave to her main characters.  My only concern was whether or not centring her novels around hate crime would limit the variety of stories she would be able to tell.  Well, four years on, Dolan has moved away from her police procedural series and now offers a one off tale set on the other side of the law, among a group of anti-gentrification protestors who are attempting to stop developers making a fortune at the expense of those people who are forced out of their homes to enable the building of apartments that will sell for seven figure sums.  Whether this change has come about as a result of running out of ideas for the Hate Crime series, I have no way of knowing, but I suspect not.  This novel, every bit as well written and almost as well plotted as the earlier books, has an even harder edge to it; it emanates anger from every page.  It feels like a very personal response to an emotion deeply felt and it reflects well on Dolan’s ability to control that emotion that it works as well as it does for as long as it does.

Ella Riordan is making waves.  Brought up in a police family, Cambridge educated and recruited into the Force, she then walks out part way into her training and joins the ‘other’ side.  Researching for her doctorate, she gradually makes her way into the confidence of many of the women who have been the backbone of protest movements since the days of Greenham Common.  Given her background, gaining their trust isn’t easy but, when she is clearly the victim of police violence during a kettling incident, she is taken up by a protest veteran, the photographer, Molly Fader.  Molly is one of a number of tenants holding out against developers who want to pull down the apartment block where she lives and so, when Ella manages to raise the money for a book paying tribute to the people who are being displaced, Castle Rise seems the perfect place to hold a celebration.

And then everything goes wrong.  Ella kills someone.  She immediately calls on Molly for help.  It was an accident; he attacked her; she struck out in self defence and he hit his head as he fell; given her history the police would never believe her. This is what Ella tells Molly as she gets her friend to help her carry the body to the nearest lift shaft and drop it down.  This Is How It Begins.  From this point the narrative line splits. We move forward with Molly as she gradually begins to recognise the consequences of their actions.  Her world is disintegrating around her.  More and more people are accepting the developers’ offers and moving out.  Her closest friend, Callum, is questioned about the murder and as a result his past catches up with him. Worst of all she doesn’t seem to be able to communicate with Ella any more.  Meanwhile Ella’s narrative moves back in time as step by step we are shown what has brought her to this point: how she has extracted herself from the difficulties she faced at the Police College and built a new life among the very people she might have expected to oppose.  How she has managed to gain their trust.

And that is the word that echoes repeatedly through this novel – trust.  I lost count of the number of times it is used.  Molly questions whether Ella trusts her any longer and then finds herself asking whether or not she can still trust Ella.  Ella equally expresses doubt as to whom she can trust.  Trust, something that is central to any relationship, becomes a gift that sometimes felt like a burden. And when it is lost the sense of betrayal is another punch to [an] already pummelled old heart.  Ultimately, the question that Dolan is asking in this novel, and the force behind the anger that appears to drive it, is just who can we trust?  Who can we trust in our personal lives, but more forcefully who in society can we trust?  Who can we trust to protect us against those forces who are out for their own profit at the expense of everyone around them?  Her answer is bleak.

I don’t normally read one off thrillers but in many respects this is much more than an off the shelf thriller. It is a response to a serious societal concern that is being raised by many people and, although the anger which propels the writing is apparent throughout, Dolan manages to successfully walk that fine line which keeps the work on the side of a good novel rather than tipping over into a polemic.  My only concern is the ending, where I think her plotting lets her down.  To me it is the easy option, the quick way out of a situation which has become so complicated that any other conclusion would have taken away from the narrative drive, but it is an option that doesn’t ring true.  Perhaps the problem is that in real life there would be no such easy solution.  In all other respects this is another fine book from a fine author.

With thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury Publishing for providing a copy for review.

Hell Bay ~ Kate Rhodes

virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60Over the past six years Kate Rhodes London based crime series featuring psychologist Alice Quentin has given me considerable pleasure.  Now she opens 2018 with a new series set on Bryher, one of the smaller of the Scilly Isles, and featuring DI Ben Kitto.  Kitto is home on extended leave from the Met. The trauma of his undercover partner’s recent death, a death he feels he should have prevented, has pushed him into handing in his resignation but rather than accepting this his DCI has asked him to take a break and give himself time to reconsider.  With no desire to stay in London, Ben returns to the island where he grew up and to the cottage that has always been home.  With a population of less than a hundred, life on Bryher should be as far from the chaos and suffering that have marked his recent life as could be imagined.  However, within days of his arrival, accompanied by Shadow, the Czechoslovakian Wolfhound that he has inherited, his anticipated peace is shattered by the disappearance of sixteen year old Laura Trescothick.  It is Kitto who eventually finds her body, marred by wounds which make it clear that she must have not simply known, but also trusted, her killer.  When DCI Madron, the officer in charge of policing on the islands, is called in, Ben offers his services as SIO, on the grounds that not only does he have the murder investigative experience, but also that everyone who could possibly be concerned is known to him.

What follows is the modern day equivalent of the country house murder.  Ferries have not been running in the time between Laura’s disappearance and the discovery of her body, which means that the murderer must still be on the island.  A curfew is enforced, no one is to leave and mercifully, no journalists to be allowed in, and with the help of PC Eddie Nickell, Kitto sets out to interview each of the islanders.  That many of these are lifelong friends and some of them relatives doesn’t make the process any easier.  Nor does the fact that it is not long before it becomes apparent that there are tensions running below the surface of island society and numerous personal guilty secrets, all of which might provide a motive for murder.

Chief among these is the animosity felt between many of the established island families and the incomers Jay and Patty Curnow.  Millionaire Curnow is intent on buying up as much of the island as he can and is not above using aggressive coercion as a means of getting his own way.  Laura, intent on leaving the island for a life of show business, has been planning her escape with their son, Danny.  Both disapproving families hold the other’s child accountable and the Trescothicks are not the only people who would like to lay the blame for Laura’s death at Danny’s door.

However, running alongside Kitto’s narrative is that of Rose Austell, whose son Sam, a previous boyfriend of Laura’s, has also gone missing.  Through these third person segments of an otherwise first person narrative, it very soon becomes apparent that Sam is mixed up with drug smuggling and when a chunk of cannabis resin is found amongst Laura’s possessions her possible involvement has to be questioned as well. Have they crossed the couriers bringing the drugs into the island and is that the reason behind the crimes which have even the best of friends and neighbours looking askance at each other?

Before turning her hand to crime fiction Kate Rhodes was a published poet and it shows in the quality of her writing.  Time and again I stopped in my reading just to savour lines such as that which describes the sea as a restless sleeper, eager to shrug the night’s weight from its shoulders.  She also invokes place better than any other crime novelist I know.  Crossbones Yard, the first of the Alice Quentin novels, drew a portrait of London which frequently had me going back to Whistler’s magnificently detailed etchings of the area round the River Thames, each artist in their very different ways conjuring up a whole landscape with just a few masterful strokes.  Now Rhodes does the same thing for the island of Bryher and not just for its physical landscape, but for the complex nature of its small and heavily inter-related society as well.  First and foremost, however, she is excellent at creating character.  It isn’t easy to change tack having already established an audience for a particular group of individuals, especially when they have each had a vibrancy that meant readers felt they knew them as friends and I will admit that I am going to miss Alice and Don and Lola and will go on worrying about Will, however, so completely has she created the character of Ben Kitto that I am already invested in him and it is good to know that a second novel in the series, Ruin Beach has been announced for June.

I have read a number of new crime novels over the Christmas period, some good, some not so.  Hell Bay has definitely been the best of the bunch and if you haven’t yet read Rhodes’ work then I very strongly recommend you start here before returning to enjoy her back catalogue.

With thanks to Simon and Schuster and NetGalley for making this review copy available.

A Request, A Gloat and An Observation

IMG_0001Not so much a full post this morning as a number of mini posts which don’t warrant the full deal but which I need to get out there.

First of all, a request. A friend is researching into stories and legends from any period and any culture that deal with foxes metamorphing into humans and vice versa.  I think this was sparked originally by Helen Oyeyemi’s novel Mr Fox as that particular author is another of my friend’s research interests.  Anyway, I said I would ask around for any suggestions that fellow readers might have and I know that she would be very grateful for any examples that you could come up with.

D55B171E-EA02-4A80-914A-45D4D3596A5ESecondly, a gloat.  I’m sorry, but I can’t help it. Just look what I was given as a present last week.  The Oxford Companion to the Book was published in 2010 and I had the pleasure of meeting one of the editors, Henry Woudhuysen, just days before its publication.  It is a collection of essays that explores the history of the book throughout the world and from ancient to modern times. The subjects it covers range through bibliography, palaeography, the history of printing, editorial theory and practice, textual criticism, book collecting, and libraries but it also addresses more modern issues such as e-publishing.  Perhaps most importantly, as far as I’m concerned, it addresses the question of how a society is shaped by its books and how books are shaped by the society out of which they grow.  That inter-connectedness absolutely fascinates me.  When this first came out I was desperate for a copy. I would have salivated over it, if it hadn’t been for the fact that in doing so I would have damaged something that was externally almost as beautiful as it was internally magnificent. But, it was way way beyond my means and I just had to hope that my university library would buy it.  They never did!  Then, just before Christmas, the brother of a friend died after a long illness.  Michael was a collector, especially of books and CDs, and when my friend came back after the funeral she brought this with her and said that the family would like me to have it. That they knew it was something that I would love, would read and would cherish, not only for what it is but also in his memory.  I cannot begin to tell you how moved I was and I will always treasure it not only because of its subject matter but because of the kindness of such loving people.

And, finally, a brief observation.  Have you ever noticed how your reaction to the number of pages left in a book, or if you’re e-reading the percentage you’ve already read, differs according to the book you’re reading?  I have two books on the go at the moment.  One is really hard going and the pages just never seem to diminish, while the other one is giving me immense pleasure and the percentage left is declining far too rapidly.  Shakespeare almost had something to say about this when he observed that time travels in divers paces with divers persons. I simply cannot believe that I am getting through these two volumes at a similar pace.