Excellent Women ~ Barbara Pym

beverage breakfast caffeine chocolate

I can’t remember when I first heard the name of Barbara Pym, she seems to have been on my reading horizon forever, yet for some reason I’ve never picked up one of her novels before this week. Lately, however, I’ve found myself being drawn to the fiction of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, which for the most part has so far passed me by, and Pym seemed an ideal place to start, the more so because Excellent Women, her second novel, published in 1952, was being offered as a very reasonably priced e-book.

The introduction to the Virago Modern Classic edition, written by Alexander McCall Smith, speaks of the decline in her popularity during the 1960s, when Jonathan Cape, her usual publisher, rejected An Unsuitable Attachment. Of course, he writes, Barbara Pym would be considered old-fashioned in the decade of flower power and drugs, and publishers, like anyone else, might have been carried away by the heady atmosphere of the times. It wasn’t until the mid 1970s and the championing of her books by Philip Larkin and David Cecil that Pym found her work back in fashion.

What wonderful embarrassment for those who believed that an unmitigated diet of gritty social realism, graphically described sexual couplings and sadistic violence was what readers really wanted – and all they should get. The entire time the reading public, or quite a large section of it, was really yearning for the small-scale delights, the beautiful self-deprecating humour and the brilliant miniaturisation of Barbara Pym’s novels.

It is precisely those small scale delights, that same beautifully self-deprecating humour, not to mention the brilliant miniaturisation which makes Excellent Women a perfect read for a time when we are threatened by something so huge and incomprehensible that trying to get our minds around it is almost impossible.

Mildred Lathbury lives what might be seen as a small life, occupying rooms in a London tenement sometime after the Second World War, a period when people are still trying to find their feet and understand the changing society around them. Her life revolves around the local church, her friendship with Julian Malory, the vicar, and his sister Winifred, and the work that she does for an organisation assisting impoverished gentlewomen: a cause, she tells us, very near to her own heart, as I felt that I was just the kind of person who might one day become one.  Mildred is precisely the kind of individual to whom the term ‘excellent woman’ is likely to be applied: a pillar of the church, constantly reliable, conservative (with a very small C) in her lifestyle and well on her way to earning the soubriquet “spinster”.  However, excitement threatens with the arrival of the Napiers, who not only take tenancy of the other half of the building, but also share a bathroom with Mildred – the burden of keeping three people in toilet paper seem to me rather a heavy one.  The Napiers are everything that Mildred and the good churchgoing people of the neighbourhood are not. She is an anthropologist and the dashing Rockingham (Rocky when you know him better) an ex-naval officer whose wartime speciality appears to have been comforting Wrens stationed away from home. Completing an awkward ménage à trois is Mrs Napier’s fellow anthropologist, Everard Bone, object of Mrs Napier’s affection when the relationship between her and her husband do indeed become extremely “rocky“ in nature. At some point in the novel all three of these individuals, not to mention Julian Malory and his sister Winifred, turn to Mildred with complete confidence that she will sort out their current difficulty, usually by performing herself the everyday or awkward tasks that they are either too lazy or too incompetent to take on themselves.  They see her as the archetypal “excellent woman“.

However, they are mistaken, and so to is the reader if they think that Barbara Pym’s aim is to reinforce the stereotype, which, of course, inevitably includes a languishing but futile passion for the local minister. Although Mildred is perfectly happy to spend time with the men who suddenly seem to be populating her life, marriage is not something for which she is looking and consequently when the real villain of the piece, Allegra Gray, a clergy widow, comes onto the scene and sets about getting her claws into the hapless Julian, Mildred’s primary concern is for Winifred, who has no place in Mrs Gray’s plans, rather than for herself. Possibly the most telling aspect of this is that Julian himself has assumed that Mildred is in love with him and is therefore going to be shattered by the news of his engagement. To what extent, Pym seems to be asking, is the concept of the “excellent woman“ a fabrication on the part of those members of society who benefit most from their existence. Mildred Lathbury most definitely is an excellent woman, but not in the sense of the term is usually applied. She is independent, she knows her own mind and, when her way of life is threatened, she speaks her mind as well.

Setting aside Mildred, with whom I have to say I feel a certain kinship, The chief joy of this novel is Pym’s wonderful way with words, a way that so often pins precisely the absurd realities of humanity and all its foibles.  Time and again I found myself jotting down sentences just for the sheer pleasure of being able to re-read them. Just a couple of examples:

Surely many a romance must have been nipped in the bud by sitting opposite somebody eating spaghetti.

A very young curate, just out of the egg, I should think.

And my favourite, although I have to admit I don’t completely understand it – I boiled myself a foreign egg for dinner. Can anyone elucidate? What constitutes a ‘foreign’ egg? One shipped in from the continent? I seem to remember Helen Hanff sending fresh eggs to the booksellers of 84 Charing Cross Road.

There must be many other authors who, like Pym, found themselves neglected as fashions changed in the late 50s and early 60s. Indeed, there may be many such now,  whose close and perceptive explorations of human nature are being overlooked in favour of works whose subject matter is more in tune with the current zeitgeist. The time has come, I think, for a wider exploration on my part of such writers. Who do you suggest I try next?

 

Cry Baby ~ Mark Billingham

brown wooden desk

I had a text from a friend last week saying that she had just managed to catch up with the most recent of Mark Billingham’s novels about Met Detective, Tom Thorne. Extremely gently, I broke the news to her that he had a new one being published the very next day! However, in most respects Cry Baby doesn’t actually take Tom’s story any further forward, because with one exception (two if you count the initial dream) the action is set in 1996, a date easily worked out from the many references to the European Cup matches being played during that summer.  As a result, those of us who have followed Tom’s career from his first outing in Sleepy Head are able to fill in some of the background to aspects of his life that we have come to accept as givens, especially the breakup of his relationship with his wife, Jan, and the first steps in his friendship with the pathologist, Phil Hendricks. The focus of the book, however, is on the story of a missing child, seven year old Kieron Coyne, who is snatched from a local park while playing with his friend Josh Ashton.

Despite coming from socially very different backgrounds, the two boys are the best of friends and they are linked by the fact that both have absent fathers. Josh’s mother, Maria, is divorced from his father, Jeff, while Cat Coyne is bringing up her son on her own because her husband, Billy, is serving time for attempted murder. The boys don’t see as much of each other as they would like because catchment areas mean they can’t go to the same school and this appears to disturb Josh far more than it does Kieron. Josh’s behaviour is causing real concern and this is something that both his mother and the reader should have paid close attention to very early on.  But, we readers don’t always notice those things that we ought to, or interpret them properly, or give them due weight and police officers, being human like the rest of us, the same is true of them. When a witness describes seeing a boy dressed in the same way as Kieron, getting into a red car with someone he seems very comfortable with, Thorne and his fellow detectives neglect to give sufficient importance to one particular aspect of the man’s evidence. Of course, matters aren’t helped by Tom’s immediate boss, DI Gordon Boyle, latching onto the fact that Cat’s next door neighbour was once arrested for a sexual offence and the situation is complicated even more when Dan Meade turns up claiming that he is Kieron’s real father. Thank goodness Cat has Billy’s sister, Angela, a market trader, to stand by her and ease the situation between husband and wife.

Or does she? Because if the novel is about one thing it is about not relying on appearances; about how often we can be mistaken in what we believe to be the truth concerning other people. The force of this is brought home to the reader in 2020 as Thorne muses on the concept of ‘stranger danger’.

He remembered his conversation about it with Simon Jenner, and a book with that title doing the rounds, not long after he joined the force. Jimmy Savile on the front. A trustworthy face off the telly telling a story about nice fluffy rabbits to make the warnings a little more kid-friendly.

What you see isn’t always what you get.

Simon Jenner is Kieron‘s form teacher and if I was his Head, I would be worried about the attention that he appears to be paying to Cat.  Is he a suspect? A vital clog in the plot? Or simply a red herring? When you think about it, red herrings are all about appearances too.

In actual fact, I worked out very early who was behind the abduction, but as I thought it had happened for totally the wrong reason, I suppose I can’t congratulate myself for something that was almost certainly pure blind luck. And, probably because I formed my opinion so early on, I also doubted my original conclusion several times, although I never changed my view that the person I suspected was a seriously nasty piece of work. Perhaps appearances don’t always deceive, at least not those which are so clearly superficial in their nature.

Why Billingham has chosen to go back in Thorne’s past in this way, I don’t know. In one sense it isn’t really important. The crime is the central feature of the novel and the period in which it happened to a large extent irrelevant.  One thing that it does allow, however, is a retrospective view on the outcomes for the people concerned. Once a story like this has vanished from the papers the public in general tends to forget that those who lived through the experience are never going to be quite the same again and that this is true not only for the victims but also for the serving officers who have had to witness events and try to come to terms with the outcomes of the decisions that they made. For them, the well worn children’s fallback, and then I woke up and it was all a dream is more likely to surface in the shape of a recurrent nightmare.

With thanks to Little, Brown Book Group UK and Netgalley for a review copy.

If Looks Could Kill ~ Olivia Kiernan

used red coffee cup and saucerA man walks into a public garden in the heart of Dublin. It is lunchtime and the park is slowly filling up with people taking a well-earned break. He opens his bag and removes a gun. However, this is no modern day killing spree, instead he lifts the gun, places it to his temple and pulls the trigger.

If Looks Could Kill is the third in Olivia Kiernan’s series concerning Gardaí officer, Detective Chief Superintendent Frankie Sheehan, assigned to the Bureau for Serious Crime in Dublin. As she says, they are the first stop for all serious crime that may be of national interest. The death in the park, however, doesn’t initially come to her attention. It’s very clearly a suicide and therefore not of sufficient significance to merit investigation at her level. The case that does drop into her lap is that of Debbie Nugent, reported as a missing person, but from the blood-splattered state of her home, almost certainly either seriously injured or murdered. Initially, suspicion falls on the younger of Debbie‘s two daughters, Margot. It becomes increasingly clear that Debbie has been missing for much longer than was first apparent and, given that Margot lives with her mother, questions are automatically raised about why she hasn’t reported her absence sooner. When Margot is taken into custody and charged with the crime, Frankie’s boss, Commissioner Donna Hegarty, would like to see the case all neatly packed away but Shelly Griffiths, an old University friend and something of a rarity in crime fiction, a reporter who isn’t out just for a good story, contacts Frankie with information that suggests there may be other factors in Debbie‘s past that need to be taken into consideration. Why has she been so solitary, so private? Why has she so tightly controlled the lives of both her children, especially that of Margot? And what, if anything, is her connection with the man who shot himself in that Dublin park?

In an attempt to find out more about Debbie‘s background Frankie and her immediate boss, Jack Clancy, look to the local police force, in the personages of DS Alex Gordon and retired Detective Sergeant, Dennis Fitzsimons, for help. but no one seems to be able to give them any information that might suggest a culprit other than Margot. However, what you see is not always what you get. Advising Frankie at the very onset of her career, her Gardaí officer father tells her

it’s important to know who you are, love, but more important to know how others see you.

What Frankie needs to do is to remember the corollary to that, namely that it is possible that how you see someone is how they want you to see them and not who they really are. Hampered by her uncertainty as to who can and cannot be trusted and thwarted in her attempts to dig deeper into the past of the Dublin suicide by the Chief of the Gardaí Surveillance Unit (who really thinks he is someone) Frankie is forced to turn for help to the very criminal element she should be trying to put behind bars.

Olivia Kiernan is an extremely accomplished writer. She has been likened to Tana French and I would certainly put her writing alongside that of Jane Casey. And you all know how well I think of her as a writer. Her characters are finely drawn, and she plots very tightly. She also ensures that particular themes echo throughout a novel. Here, as I’ve already indicated, it’s very much to do with the question of the persona that somebody puts on as a public face and the question of who that person really is behind what may be a very deceptive mask. A further question that is raised early on is that of whether it is better to follow your instincts or to follow the evidence, a deliberation that is the source of much tension between Frankie and Commissioner Hegarty. Following events in the previous novel, The Killer in Me, Frankie vows to become more cautious, less reliant on instinct rather than evidence. Perhaps what she learns here is that you need to combine the two and use your instinct to make sure you look for evidence in the right place. If Looks Could Kill reinforces Kiernan’s growing reputation in the crime fiction world and if you haven’t already met her work then I strongly recommend her to you.

With thanks to Quercus and NetGalley for the review copy.

Shed No Tears ~ Caz Frear

book opened on top of white table beside closed red book and round blue foliage ceramic cup on top of saucer

Everyone has a price. I truly believe that.

Except the price isn’t always money. It’s just a damn sight simpler when it is.

Well, while not quite everyone in Caz Frear’s third novel featuring DC Cat Kinsella, Shed No Tears, can be seen to be on the take, certainly a large percentage of the characters are either corrupt themselves or in the business of corrupting other people. The question is how do you tell the difference between the two.

When Holly Kemp’s body is found in a ditch in Cambridgeshire the discovery reopens a case that the Met thought they had put to bed six years previously. Holly had been assumed to be the fourth and final victim of Christopher Masters in what was known as The Roommate Case. However, while the bodies of the other three victims were recovered at the time, Holly’s body had remained missing. Masters himself, now dead, having been killed in prison, vacillated between claiming her murder as one of his and denying any knowledge of it. The discovery of the body only adds to the confusion as there are very obvious differences between Holly and the other three women, most particularly, while the latter were strangled, Holly has been shot through the head.

When Cat and her partner, DS Luigi Parnell, report back to DCI Kate Steele it is to find that she has made contact with DCI Tessa Dyer, a highflying contemporary of Steele and tipped for great things. Dyer was the SIO on the original case and hers was the decision to go ahead and charge Masters with Holly’s death despite there being no body. Still, apparently, convinced that Holly was Masters’ fourth victim, Dyer reminds the team of the rock solid evidence given by a teacher, Serena Bailey, which placed Holly on the killer’s doorstep at the very time she was known to have disappeared.  Re-interviewed, Bailey still insists that she saw Holly on the afternoon that she vanished, but something about her evidence doesn’t ring true to Cat and thus begins the unwinding of the case that made Dyer’s name and provided the foundation for her subsequent career.

Meanwhile, Cat has her own difficulties to face. Daughter of a man who has a more than shady background himself and who is still associated with people that it is better Cat’s colleagues and superiors know nothing about, she does all that she can to keep her family at arm’s-length. However, when her father is taken into hospital with a broken arm which he claims to have been the result of an accident with a beer barrel, her more practiced eye recognises the beating he’s been given and she is forced to question just what he may have become involved in and consequently where her duty lies, especially, knowing as she does, that he is paying the price demanded in return for Cat herself being left alone. Coupling this with the news that her brother, Noel, always a thorn in her side, has been released from prison in Spain and is likely to be returning to London, the offer her boyfriend, Aidan, has had of a twenty-two month contract in New York suddenly seems a rather more tempting proposition than had previously been the case. Cat and Aidan seem to be the ideal couple, but their relationship is not without its own difficulties. Unbeknownst to Aidan, Cat’s father was peripherally involved in the murder of Maryanne, Aidan’s sister and Cat is terrified of what revealing that knowledge to him would unleash.  Moving to New York would remove her from the immediate threats her family poses but would also mean leaving the job that she loves. What should she do?

Caz Frear is one of a number of up-and-coming women crime writers who are making a real mark on the scene. I have read both of her previous books with pleasure and this did not disappoint in any way at all. Because of the complicated family history involved, if you haven’t read the earlier books, Sweet Little Lies and Stone Cold Heart, then I would suggest you start there before allowing yourself the pleasure of reading this, the latest in what I hope is going to be a long running series.

With thanks to Bonnier Books UK and NetGalley for the review copy.

The Clockwork Crow ~ Catherine Fisher

flowers on opened bookHaving recently re-read Catherine Fisher’s Snow-Walker Trilogy, I was more than pleased to receive a review copy of her later novel, The Clockwork Crow, and in fact then went on to also read it sequel, The Velvet Fox. Both novels are set in Wales and both concern the orphan Seren Rhys. Seren tells us the outset of the first book that she used to live in India. However,

her parents had both died out there, and she had been brought home on the ship and lived for twelve years at the orphanage of Saint Mary‘s.

I have to say that this did make me wonder initially if we were going to get some sort of retelling of The Secret Garden but this didn’t turn out to be the case. Nevertheless, Seren does find herself travelling to a new home, a house called Plas-y-Flan, to live with a family she has never met, in this case her father’s oldest friend, Captain Arthur Jones, his wife the Lady Mair and their son, Tomas. Her journey is hardly uneventful. Travelling by train in a period that feels around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, she encounters a strange man who speaks in terrified terms of ‘Them’ and who leaves behind him a mysterious parcel which Seren takes with her, hoping to be able to return it, but which she is eventually forced to retain. She arrives at Plas-y-Flan only to find a house inhabited solely by servants and in a state of gloom and despondency. Tomas has disappeared and unable to bear his loss the Captain and his wife have departed leaving Seren in the hands of Mrs Villiers, the housekeeper, Denzil, the general handyman, and Gwyn, the garden boy.

Much dismayed, her dreams of a Dickensian Christmas dashed, Seren unwraps the parcel that she has brought with her and discovers the pieces of what turns out to be the Clockwork Crow of the title. Once reconstructed and his key well and truly wound, he comes to life, informing her that he is a prince, magically ill-used and forced to live his life in the guise of a rumpled old mechanical bird. Seren is sceptical about the prince claim and we should be as well. However, he does turn out to have some idea of what might have happened to Tomas, explaining that he is almost certainly been taken by the Fair Family, the White People, adding you don’t mess with ‘Them’.

Seeking further information, Seren asks Gwyn who tells her

The Tylwyth Teg. The Fair Family. Everyone knows that’s what happens. They take children…They are magic, secret creatures. They never get old, and they can be beautiful, or they can be ugly and twisted and wild. They live under the ground. Or maybe in the lake. This used to be all their land, thousands of years ago, until people came. I think that’s the reason. The Joneses took their land. So They took the boy. My nain says it’s happened before, over and over, with the children. They take them to a place where they never get old.

There is only one hope for Tomas and that is if, a year and a day after he was taken, he can be rescued by someone brave and bold enough to make the attempt and Seren and the Crow are on hand to try.

Well, the very fact that there is a sequel in the shape of The Velvet Fox should tell you that they are successful and for almost a year Seren and Tomas live happily, becoming great friends, indeed such good friends that at the beginning of the second book Tomas gives Seren a bracelet that he has made for her with a secret sign imprinted on it in water from the spring. However, The Fair Family are not to be so easily robbed of their prey and onto the scene comes Mrs Honeybourne to be the governess that Captain Jones cannot even remember engaging and bringing with her a magical carousel and vast quantities of knitting. Clearly evil from the moment she steps through the door, Mrs Honeybourne sets about poisoning Tomas’s mind against Seren and making it appear to the rest of the family and household that the girl has become disruptive and destructive. Recognising that she cannot battle the magical characters from the carousel – the juggler the dancer, the soldier and the velvet fox – alone, Seren remembers the words of the Clockwork Crow, who, when he departed at the end of the previous tale, left with her a feather and the instructions if you’re ever in trouble, write a message to me with this quill. I will probably come.

Well, come he does, and together he and Seren defeat the juggler, the dancer and the soldier but then find themselves facing the most powerful and evil member of the foursome, the velvet fox himself. Can they rescue Tomas a second time or will the fox and Mrs Honeybourne, knitting ever at the ready, prevail? Perhaps the answer lies in the bracelet given by Tomas to Seren, while they gathered horse chestnuts for conkers, as a symbol of their fast-bound friendship.

Like The Snow-Walker Trilogy, as well as an emphasis on magic and myth these books celebrate the power of friendship and the fact that a strong female lead character can achieve pretty much anything that she sets her mind to.  Again, I would be reading these to classes of nine and ten year olds and good, independent readers of the same age should lap them up.

With thanks to Firefly Press and NetGalley for the review copy of The Clockwork Crow. 

All Adults Here ~ Emma Straub

woman holding mug of coffee beside opened bookFor the second time in a matter of weeks I’ve read a book that I wouldn’t normally have picked up simply because it was well recommended by Elizabeth Strout and, for the second time in a matter of weeks, I have had an absolutely wonderful experience. Strout is clearly as good a critic as she is a writer. Emma Straub’s All Adults Here is set in the Hudson Valley small town of Clapham, a community where everyone knows everyone else and where the marketing slogan Keep Local, Shop Small really means something. It is in Clapham that Astrid Strick has brought up her family, Elliot, Porter and Nicky, all now adults grown and it is here, at the moment when the novel begins, that she recognises that her life has changed forever. What brings this revelation about is the death of Barbara Baker, a woman Astrid has never liked, but whose death she witnesses when Barbara is run over by a speeding school bus. Astrid has a secret and the accident makes her realise that the time has come to reveal that secret, initially to her family and eventually to her friends and wider acquaintances, despite being aware that her plans may well meet with opposition. However, she is not the only member of her family to be concealing things. Both of her older children, still living in Clapham, have important matters which they are keeping from the rest of the family for fear of the consequences and much of the novel is concerned with the difficulty that parents and children have not only in communicating with each other but also, perhaps more fundamentally, in understanding each other and in providing the support and encouragement that is needed when the going gets tough.

This is most obvious, initially at least, in respect of what has happened to Nicky’s  daughter, Cecelia, as a result of an incident in her New York school. Confided in by her friend Katherine, who is involved in a relationship with an older man which is clearly abusive, Cecelia, concerned for her classmate’s well-being, tells those that she expects to be responsible and supportive adults. However, in the aftermath of the fury that erupts as Katherine turns against her, Nicky and his wife, Juliette, fail to come up with the backing Cecelia so desperately needs.

The trouble was that people always told Cecelia things, and that she wasn’t a lawyer or a therapist. She was just a kid and so were her friends, but she seem to be the only one who knew it. The trouble was that her parents had given up at the first sign of trouble.

As a result, the decision has been taken to send Cecelia to live with her grandmother and complete her final year at Junior High in Clapham. When she needed her parents most, they simply weren’t there for her. Straub, however, is very careful not to be too condemnatory in respect of either the behaviour of Nicky and Juliette or that of Astrid who, as the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear has not really provided the support her children needed a generation earlier.  Being a parent is difficult. This is the message that comes through time after time after time. And there is no manual, you have to learn as you go.  Is there any wonder that so many people get it wrong.

If there is one set of parents who do seem to be well on the way to getting it right it is Ruth and John Sullivan. We meet them first as they fetch their 13-year-old son, August, back from Summer Camp. August is dreading going back into eighth grade, knowing that it’s going to be no better than fifth grade, sixth grade or seventh grade was. He has no friends at Clapham Junior High and only ever feels that he is fully able to be himself amongst the people he meets up with each year during the summer vacation. For August also has a secret and it is one that he feels certain will earn him at best ridicule and at worse abuse, should it become known. Ruth and John however do seem to have an understanding of what is troubling their child and they certainly do their best to offer support as, with Cecelia‘s help, August finds the courage to show the world, or perhaps more importantly, his classmates, who he really is.

I’m conscious that I may be making this sound as if it’s a really serious and heart searching novel, one that is searing to read, and it is serious, and at times it really touches your heart, but searing it is not; it is an absolute delight. I found myself trying to eke it out because I didn’t want to leave either the world that Straub has created nor the lightness of touch with which she explores the difficulties that the Strick family go through.  And there are some wonderful passages of writing. When I looked back through my notebook I found I had copied out paragraph after paragraph of ideas that just rang so true and were expressed so well. I have already read some very good books this year, but so far All Adults Here tops them all and I can’t recommend it too highly.

With grateful thanks to Michael Joseph and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review Catch-Up ~ July 11th 2020

beverage blur ceylon cup

This is the second of a series of catch-up posts with short reviews of books that I’ve read over the past couple of months but haven’t been able to get round to writing about in any great detail. It’s not meant to imply that the books are any less worthy than those that get a post to themselves, just that I tend to read faster than I can blog about and it seems better to provide a brief comment than nothing at all.

The Finisher ~ Peter Lovesey

Murder is only the beginning. The real question is how do you get rid of the corpse? That’s the job of the finisher: tidying things up when they start to get nasty. As the most recent of Peter Lovesey’s DS Diamond series begins the finisher’s immediate task is overseeing a group of illegal Albanian immigrants, a job which includes disposing of the bodies of any who try to make a break for freedom. When Spiro and Murat take their chance to get away they know that their only hope is to run as fast and as far as they can. They are not the only people with running on their minds, however. The Bath alternative half marathon, known as the Other Half, is on the horizon and Maeve Kelly is out training for it. This is not Maeve’s preferred way of spending her time but a series of unexpected events mean that she is using it as a way of raising money for the British Heart Foundation. Her self-appointed trainer is a fellow teacher from the primary school where she works, Trevor, a man who appears to have an interest in more than Maeve’s running style. Also in training for the race is Belinda Pye and when she fails to record a finishing time and is subsequently not to be found in her lodgings, Diamond’s interest is piqued, especially when CCTV footage shows her to have been pestered by Tony Pinto. Diamond put Pinto away several years previously after he took a Stanley knife to a woman who had complained about his behaviour. The DS is horrified to know that Pinto has been released and given his presence in the proximity of the missing woman he automatically becomes the chief subject. But Pinto has gone missing as well and the search leads Diamond into the underground caverns left by decades of stone quarrying in the area where the race took place.

I’ve only recently discovered Peter Lovesey’s work. I was given the first of his novels this time last year. I wasn’t completely convinced by that and now I’ve decided to try a second, I’m not sure that I’m convinced by this either. Lovesey starts too many hares for me and I’m not sure that all the strands come together as well as they might. I’m also not sure about the tone. At times there is a sense of irony which doesn’t sit well with the subject matter. However, if you have read his work in the past and enjoyed it then this one does seem to me to be fairly typical and I’m sure you will relish it as well.

With thanks to Little, Brown Book Group UK Sphere and NetGalley for the review copy.

 

The Gift: The First Book of Pellinor ~ Alison Croggon 

Alison Croggon’s Pellinor series deserves to be as well known as any of the works of high fantasy written with a young teenage audience in mind and yet I still find that this Australian author is far too rarely spoken of despite the fact that her books are every bit as good as those of authors such as Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper and even Ursula Le Guin.  As part of my re-exploration of the works of children’s literature that I remember most fondly I have just re-read the opening volume, The Gift (also published as The Naming) and enjoyed it every bit as much as I did when I first discovered the series.

When Maerad discovers a stranger hiding in the steading, Gilman’s Cot, where she is a slave, she can have no awareness of the fact that his presence there will change her life forever. Cadvan is a Bard, a term used to describe those who hold the power of the Light against the evil of the Dark, who maintain the world in Balance, terms which will be more than familiar to those who have read the Earthsea and The Dark is Rising sequences.  And the Dark is rising, which is why Cadvan is so far north of his usual haunts, seeking the source of the evil which seems to be penetrating even the Schools of learning where Bards are trained.  His progress is being hindered by an evil force which inhabits the mountainous area where Gilman’s Cot is situated and when he discovers that Maered possesses an inner strength which, when combined with his own, enables him to escape the area, he realises that she too is a Bard, but one in whom the power has yet to fully manifest itself.

As he learns more of as he learns more of Maered’s background and experiences further evidence of the inner strength she possesses, Cadvan begins to suspect that his young charge may be more than simply a ‘baby Bard’. Prophecies speak of someone who will appear during a time of intense crisis, someone able to defeat the ultimate evil, the Nameless. Is Maered that person, the one that those Bards who still serve the Light have been waiting for? The only way to be certain is for them to make the perilous journey to Norlac, where the highest council in the land can admit her into the circle of Bards at which point Maered’s true name and destiny will be revealed. Of course, their journey is long and dangerous and some of the tribulations they meet along the path force both of them to question who can and who cannot be trusted. Neither are their travels made any easier when Cadvan is forced to add another ‘baby Bard’ to his entourage.  Who is Hem? And why does Maered feel such a strong connection to him?

I have just spent two very happy days back in the company of Maered and Cadvan and I’m only sorry that I didn’t buy the other three books in the sequence at the same time as The Gift, as it means I will have to wait a while for the second volume to turn up. I could quite comfortably have read straight through all four from beginning to end. If you enjoy the works of Wynne Jones, Le Guin and Cooper and haven’t yet read Alison Croggon’s novels then I very strongly recommend that you get hold of copies and set aside a long weekend when you can immerse yourself in some first class storytelling.

 

The Rules ~ Tracy Darnton

woman holding brown open notebookFirst, an admission: there is an unwritten law of the universe that, given that there are so few of us, if your surname is Darnton you and I are related. I’m not sure whether Tracy Darnton is aware of this, especially as we are only relatives through marriage, but nevertheless it is true, and it is also true that I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up had it not been for her surname. It is a long time since I was active in the world of children’s literature and I’ve rather lost touch with what’s now being published. The Rules makes me regret that reminding me, as it does, that the best of YA literature deals with complex and important issues.

Approaching eighteen, Amber Fitzpatrick finds herself, perhaps for the first time in her life, in an almost settled situation. Having worked her way through several foster placements, she is now at a boarding school and studying towards the qualification she hopes will give her a place at university. However, her fragile piece of mind is shattered when her social worker, Julie, tells her that they have received a letter from her father.

Amber’s father is a Prepper: that is somebody who prepares themselves for the disaster that they are certain is just around the corner. This could be anything from an alien invasion to nuclear warfare, perhaps an enormous natural disaster or even a pandemic. Such individuals stockpile not only food but also medical supplies, water purification tablets, lighting systems, the list could go on. They also, in many cases, have a list of draconian rules and, until she breaks free, it is the rules that her father has established that have controlled Amber’s life and destroyed that of her mother. Terrified that her father is about to lay claim to her again, Amber strikes out on her own and makes for a Northumberland holiday cottage owned by a couple who once fostered her. Here she runs into her complete antithesis, Josh, with whom she once shared a foster placement. If Josh has a rule in life it is to have no rules. All these rules in society we’re meant to follow, to know our place, I don’t have to do it any more, he claims. Together they set out to find Centurion  House, established as a survival outpost in case of whatever cataclysm might first strike. Here, Amber hopes to find supplies and money that will enable her to out run her father, whom she is sure will try and take her back into his custody.

The irony, of course, is that it is the very rules that her father has taught her and the skills that she has learnt in preparation for disaster that enable her not only to survive but also, for a considerable time, to outrun both him and social services. Indeed, it is in part because she ignores her own instincts and allows Josh to take her to hear her father speak, that she is eventually tracked down.

Had I read this novel a year ago I would now be discussing as the central theme the idea that we all live by rules of one sort or another. As Amber comments when the police and social services ultimately try to pick up the pieces, they’re following their procedures, their rules. What matters about any rules is the ultimate goal of those who devise and implement them and who, consequently, benefits as a result. However, it’s impossible now to read this book without doing so in the light of the current pandemic and I suspect that how readers react to it will to some extent be defined by their response to the rules laid out by governments around the world in their reaction to the Covid-19 crisis. What is more, any individual’s understanding of the novel might well change from day to day. What struck me most forcefully today was the distinction that Amber draws between the Preppers in England and those in America. However, I finished this book at the very beginning of May on a day when I both read about the general consensus in England that for the moment some form of lockdown needs to continue and listened to protesters in Michigan demanding the right to be allowed to go out and do precisely what they want now, this minute.  By the time you read this, and I’ll post it to coincide with the early July publication, there may well be other, more immediate parallels that I would want to draw because, if the novel makes clear anything, it is that we simply don’t know from one day to the next what we might be called upon to face and that there are times when, at the very least, being prepared for the unexpected is not a bad idea.

With thanks to Little Tiger Group and NetGalley for the review copy. 

Review Catch-up ~ July 4th 2020

pile of assorted title book lot selective focus photographt

This is the first of a series of catch-up posts with short reviews of books that I’ve read over the past couple of months but haven’t been able to get round to writing about in any great detail. It’s not meant to imply that the books are any less worthy than those that get a post to themselves, just that I tend to read faster than I can blog about and it seems better to provide a brief comment than nothing at all.

Quiet Acts of Violence ~ Cath Staincliffe

This is the second in a new series by Staincliffe featuring DI Donna Bell and DC Jade Bradshaw both of whom work for the police in Manchester. I haven’t read the first novel, but it is fairly easy to pick up the fact that Bell is not only senior to but considerably older than Bradshaw, is married to a man who at the moment is unable to work and is therefore supporting both him and their five children. Jade, on the other hand, appears to be in her twenties and has come through the care system, an experience that has left her with considerable mental health issues of her own. Donna at one point comments Jade wasn’t wired like most people, the empathy gene missing or disabled, not perhaps a character trait you look for first when recruiting people to the police force.

The case that the novel is built around concerns the discovery of the body of a newborn baby in a waste bin by the homeless Collette Pritchard. Initially an appeal is put out to try to find the baby’s mother, for whose health there is considerable concern. However, when several days have gone by without any success and, given the fact that the post-mortem indicates the child was suffocated, Bell comes under pressure from her Chief Constable to turn the case into a murder enquiry. Certainly, house-to-house questioning conducted in the street where the baby was discovered throws up some interesting and suspicious characters, several of whom clearly have something to hide.

This is the first Staincliffe novel that I’ve actually finished. I have picked up her books in the past, but not really got on with her style of writing. However, this was highly recommended by somebody whose opinions I value and so I thought I would try her again. Unfortunately, I really didn’t get on any better with her style this time and, while it’s inevitable that a police procedural series will focus to some extent on the lives of the officers concerned, I thought that this actually became too central and the crime merely a device on which to hang the story of Bell and Bradshaw’s personal experiences. I’m sorry, but I won’t be going back for any further episodes.

With thanks to Little, Brown Book Group UK and NetGalley for the review copy.

 

The Truants ~ Kate Weinberg

When Jess Walker attempts to narrow down the books she might use for her dissertation on Agatha Christie, her charismatic tutor, Lorna Clay, suggests that she adds to her selection of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Absent in the Spring not another novel, but Christie’s autobiography. What is it that these three books all have in common? It is the fact that the conduit between the content and the reader is an unreliable narrator. In a novel where the telling of stories features heavily, be they the texts studied in class or the tall stories of the Tuesday Club, unreliable narrators abound and both the characters concerned and the reader have really to be on their toes in order to work out who can be believed and who is spinning a tale.

Jess has gone to what is clearly (although never actually so identified) UEA specifically because of her desire to work with Lorna Clay. Once there she becomes part of a foursome with the beautiful Georgie, the faithful Nick and the older and mysterious Alec. Alec, coming from a controversial journalistic background in South Africa, is not afraid of challenging anyone and, despite the fact that he is ‘officially’ Georgia’s boyfriend, Jess is soon captivated by him. But, there is a mystery about his past just as there is about Lorna, her time at Cambridge and her sudden recent change of job. In a novel which at times has telling overtones of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Jess finds herself caught up in an ongoing series of events the extent of which she only gradually begins to understand. As she, along with the reader, starts to unpick the truth beneath the stories she has been told, a second Christie trope begins to emerge, namely the question of whether or not it is ever acceptable to kill an individual in order to save the lives of the many.

I am a sucker for a campus novel, even more so when is it clearly set on a campus I happened to know. At the point where Georgie is quoted as having said these mattresses are like lying on sacks of Jerusalem artichokes, my immediate thought was, you have mattresses? The last time I slept in student accommodation there it was on a one inch sheet of foam; except I slept on the floor because it was more comfortable. When you add into the mix a well written first novel built around the ideas prevalent in Agatha Christie‘s work then for me you have a winner. I very much enjoyed this book and I’d recommend it to anybody who has fond memories of either the Tartt novel or of Christine’s output. Kate Weinberg has gone straight on to my list of authors whose books I automatically add to the tbr pile.

With thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing and NetGalley for the review copy.

 

 

 

The One and Only Bob ~ Katherine Applegate

black and white ceramic mug

Back in 2012 anyone and everyone on my birthday list  received the same book, Katherine  Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan.  The book tells the story of Ivan, a silverback gorilla captured at birth and brought to America where, for twenty-seven years, he has lived a caged existence in a shopping mall which, as he points out, is not as easy as it looks. There he is befriended by, in the dog’s own words, a mutt going under the name of Bob. Together they battle against the odds to protect a small baby elephant, Ruby, and the book has a moderately happy ending when both she and Ivan are taken into the local zoo and are able to become part of families of their own kind. If you haven’t read it then go out and buy a copy immediately because you are missing one of the great children’s books of all time.

So, what, I can hear you asking, happens to Bob? Well, he goes to live with Julia and her parents, George and Sara. George works at the zoo and so, as long as he is prepared to suffer the indignity of being pushed into Julia’s backpack while they go through the entrance gate, Bob is able to visit his friends on a regular basis. And they are doing fine. Ivan has found himself a lady friend. Girlfriend? I’ve never been sure what they call it in gorilla. As for Ruby, the elephant family have taken her to their hearts and are keeping her excesses of enthusiasm under control. Much easier for them than for a human. You try putting a two-hundred pound baby elephant in time out. Bob, however, while he is happy living with Julia and her family, still has, well I suppose you’d have to call them issues. You see Bob and his puppy brothers and sisters were placed in a cardboard box and thrown out of a moving car onto the side of the road and as far as he knows Bob is the only one who survived. While the world might think that men and dogs are each other’s best friends, Bob is not so sure; Yes, he definitely has trust issues.

And then there comes the day when there is a storm warning and the town is threatened by a tornado. The zoo is devastated, animals are injured, some escape, and for a time Bob is unsure about the safety of both his adopted human and animal families. But what is that voice he hears? That woof so well remembered, so longed for, but surely gone forever. Could it possibly be the voice of his true sister, Boss? Bob has to find out and in doing so he also has to learn a great deal about trust and about forgiveness. I figure if I’m going to forgive myself, I better be ready to cut everyone else some slack too.

This is another wonderful tale from Katherine Applegate. I cried and I laughed and I cried again as I read it. It is full of kindness, warmth and real love shown on the part of both the humans and the animals in the story. Be warned, if you’re on my birthday list you are definitely going to get a copy! And for everyone else, may I leave you to ponder this very profound thought, which might just possibly have a lot to say to bloggers: peeing without a potential audience is like talking to yourself.

With thanks to HarperCollins Children’s Books and NetGalley for a review copy.