The Darkest Evening ~ Ann Cleeves

I have come very late to Ann Cleeves’ novels and I haven’t actually read all of the previous books in the series featuring Vera Stanhope.  Consequently, in reading this, the latest episode concerning the Northumbrian DI, I am behaving very much out of character as I normally prefer to work my way chronologically through a sequence. However, having been given the opportunity to read The Darkest Evening for review, I couldn’t resist the temptation and in fact, reference to the aftermath of one of the cases I have yet to encounter apart, nothing substantial enough seems to have happened to the officers stationed at Kimmerston to make me feel that in doing so I am in anyway spoiling the novels between this and The Glass Room, my most recent read.

It’s the dead of winter; Christmas and the longest night are on the horizon; the snow is falling and against her team’s advice Vera Stanhope is trying to get back to her isolated cottage through the dark and a raging blizzard. Missing her turning she finds herself on a road she normally would not take and discovers an abandoned car, with door wide open and, when she investigates more closely, a toddler tucked up inside. There is no sign of any struggle, no evidence of any foul play, but why would a mother abandon her child on a night as wild as this? Freeing the child’s car seat from its restraints, Vera sets out with the baby in the direction she thinks the driver must have taken, in order to see if she is in need of any help. 

Rather than discovering the missing driver, Vera finds herself approaching a once grand but now rather crumbling country house, Brockbank, ancestral home of the Stanhopes.  As an adult, Vera’s father, Hector, a youngest son and very much the black sheep of the family, had rarely set foot in the place, and consequently, while Vera has some memories of visiting as a child, those memories are not necessarily happy ones and she approaches the encounter with her relatives with a trepidation we do not normally associate with the blunt and forthright DI. Crispin, Vera’s cousin, is dead, but his widow, Harriet, still lives in the mansion along with her daughter, Juliet, and Juliet’s thespian husband, Mark. Despite the foul weather, a house party is in full swing, as Mark attempts to interest backers in a scheme to turn Brockbank into a theatrical venue and consequently Vera’s interruption is not particularly well received. However, when one of the Stanhope’s tenants, Neil Heslop, arrives to collect his daughters, waitressing for the evening, with news that he has discovered a body, they are only too grateful that the police are already on the scene.

The body turns out to be that of Lorna Falstone, also a member of a tenant family, and it is clear from the start that she has been brutally murdered. Lorna has struggled as a teenager, suffering from anorexia, and in her tentative recovery and life as a young mother she has been supported by her former primary teacher, Constance Browne. Her relationship with her parents, Jill and Robert, has been less secure and when questioned it is clear that they know little of her current life and can offer no suggestion as to who might be the father of her young son, Thomas. Reluctantly, Vera leaves the toddler with them, unexpectedly showing, if not exactly a maternal side, then a concern for the child that is more personal than professional.

Hampered by the weather, the Stanhopes’ less than helpful attitude and Lorna’s, if not exactly secretive then certainly very private, lifestyle, Vera, along with her usual crew, Joe, Holly and Charlie, makes little progress towards discovering the identity of the murderer, although several possible motives begin to rear their heads and then Constance Browne goes missing. Did she know more about Lorna‘s life and personal entanglements than she has let on? Has she seen something, somebody, and consequently poses a threat that must be eliminated?

However gruff Vera may appear on the outside, I think anyone who has read the earlier novels knows that there is both a softer and more vulnerable individual hidden behind the unforgiving and unprepossessing exterior. In The Darkest Evening those warmer aspects of her character begin to show more openly, especially in relation to young Thomas, who may or may not turn out to be a distant relative. Questions of fatherhood abound and it isn’t only Thomas’s paternity that is called into question as the investigation progresses. I liked this rather more vulnerable Vera and I also found myself more in sympathy with Holly than has been the case in the previous books I’ve read. She and Vera seem to be coming to something of an accommodation with each other, perhaps beginning to realise that they have more in common than either might like to admit. All in all, a worthy addition to the continuing story of Vera Stanhope; now to go back and fill in the gaps.

With thanks to Macmillan and NetGalley for a review copy.  

All The Devils Are Here ~ Louise Penny

All The Devils Are Here, is the latest novel in Louise Penny’s series about Quebec homicide detective, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. However, unlike most of the earlier books this does not take place in the Canadian village of Three Pines; indeed, it isn’t sited in Canada at all. When I first realised that this novel was set in Paris, I have to admit I was concerned. Much as I like Gamache, I am just as drawn to Penny’s books by the wonderfully eccentric cast of characters that inhabit that small village close to the borders of Vermont. So much so, that I have been known to insist that the next house that comes up for sale in Three Pines is mine; however much it costs. How would I cope with a book that lacked the harum scarum Clara, the wise Myrna and the acerbic Ruth, not to mention the many delights of Gabri and Olivier‘s bistro?  The answer, surprisingly, was much better than I expected. In fact, I think this is possibly Penny’s strongest novel since Bury Your Dead.

Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache are in Paris for the birth of their daughter’s second child. Annie along with her husband, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, have moved to the French capital following Beauvoir’s resignation from the Sûreté du Québec to take up a position with GHS Engineering.  Beauvoir is no engineer, a fact brought home to him by the barely disguised contempt of his second-in-command, Séverine Arbour. Why was the position offered to him? His talents lie in detection. Has he been placed in the company in order to ferret out some sort of wrongdoing? If he has, he doesn’t really know enough about the business to be able to spot any type of corruption that might be going on. Jean-Guy is frustrated; never a good situation.

Annie isn’t the only member of the Gamache family resident in France‘s chief city. Their son, Daniel, also lives there, working for a bank in the field of venture capital. It has been apparent throughout the series that, much to Armand’s distress, there is an estrangement between father and son but, unable to fathom the cause, Gamache has been able to do nothing about it.  While Annie is delighted her parents are there, you get the feeling that Daniel would rather they were anywhere else on Earth.

The final member of the Gamache “family“ greets Armand on the night that he and Reine-Marie first arrive in Paris. Stephen Horowitz is Armand’s godfather. Now in his 90s, this immensely rich man, has been very much a father to the Chief Inspector after his parents died in a car accident when he was nine. Although German by birth Horowitz was a member of the French Resistance and has spent most of his life since then outing corruption in financial and business enterprises around the world. Leaving a restaurant where the family have been dining on that first night, Horowitz is the victim of a hit-and-run attack, clearly targeted at him and equally clearly intended to kill. When Armand and Jean-Guy then visit Stephen’s apartment and find a body there, it becomes apparent that mischief is afoot and that somehow it is linked to the upcoming GHS board meeting.

Of course, Gamache has not always been a “lowly“ Chief Inspector. His career has taken him to the very top and as a result he knows other top policeman around the world, including Claude Dussault, the Prefect of Paris Police so, when he feels that the assigned officers are not taking his insistence that Stephen was deliberately targeted seriously, Armand calls on his friend for assistance.  But is Dussault to be trusted? Is it possible that the Prefect himself has been corrupted? Are Stephen’s claims of his part in the war valid? And, most troubling, can Gamache place his faith in those who are closest to him of all? Much of the novel turns on the question of who can and who cannot be trusted with Gamache really only able to depend entirely on Reine-Marie and Beauvoir.  

You have to keep your wits about you during what is quite a substantial novel. There are many twists and turns before the reasons behind the murders and attempted murders are revealed and answers to the question of who is on whose side are fluid right up until the very dramatic conclusion. Big business and those who sit on the boards of such institutions do not come out of it well. Don’t trust anything manufactured might well be one message taken away by the reader; I may never get in a lift again! After Penny’s previous novel, A Better Man, which I thought was a disappointment, this is a very welcome return to form. If you are already a fan then I think you’ll enjoy it; if you have yet to meet Gamache and Beauvoir then I suggest you go back to the start of the series with Still Life, rather than beginning here, knowing that you have some very fine books ahead of you. 

With thanks to Sphere and to NetGalley for a review copy.

Strange Flowers ~ Donal Ryan

Sometimes you come across a book that is just so beautifully written and so intensely moving in its subject matter that it is hard to say anything about it other than ‘this is perfect’. That’s the way I feel about Donal Ryan’s new novel, Strange Flowers. Having finished it last night, I am still reluctant to write about it, partly because I just don’t feel anything I say can do it justice, but mainly because I simply don’t want to disturb the feelings of gratitude and privilege of being having allowed to read this book. However, if I don’t put pen to paper, as it were, then some of you now reading might never think of picking up this short but atmospheric work and that would be a terrible shame.

Like most of Ryan’s work the novel is set primarily in rural Ireland, in this case in County Tipperary, however, some of the more important scenes thematically are sited in London where two of the main characters try to find a place to lose themselves after traumatic loss sours their experience of home. In 1973, Moll Gladney vanishes from the humble bothy that she shares with her parents, Paddy and Kit, leaving no word of explanation behind her. For five years her devastated family continues with their daily round, Paddy working in the mornings as the local postman and in the afternoons walking the marches of his landlord’s property, keeping an eye on the stock and carrying out any work that might need doing to maintain the land. Then, just as unexpectedly as she left, Moll returns and following her comes her husband, Alexander, a black Presbyterian bringing with him not only his parents but the son, Josh, that Moll has left behind.

While the love that Alexander feels for Moll is patiently obvious to everyone, her feelings about her husband and child are less clear and it is apparent that there is more to the story of her disappearance than any of the family knows. Alexander stays on in Ireland and gradually finds a place for himself in the community, playing hurling with the local team and building a landscape gardening business that looks fit to thrive and help change the fortunes of the Gladney family. And then Alexander is killed in a road accident and the fragile equilibrium that the family has achieved is once more shattered. This time it is Josh who takes himself off to London, working at whatever job he can find while he struggles to make his mark as a writer. From this point in the book the family story is intercut by Josh’s retelling of the story of the blind man cured by Jesus, a story, he tells us, that has to have more behind it than appears in the gospels.

And this is one of the major themes of the book, that however much we know, or think we know, about the truth of a matter, there are always circumstances, details, outcomes, that are omitted from the telling. Just as we don’t know all the circumstances behind the life of the blind beggar, including what happened to him after his ‘miracle’, neither do we know the reason that Moll left all those years before nor truly understand what it is that is motivating Josh.  The other major theme, it seems to me, is the nature of love, the power of love and the sacrifices which that love, seen most often here, within the family setting, is prepared to make. No one reading this book can doubt Paddy’s love for his family, a love that widens to include Alexander and Josh when they make the crossing over the Irish sea. Nor can there be any question of the love that Alexander feels for Moll, even though he knows, as do we, that this is a feeling she is not able to return. Where love is not to be found is in association with power. Lucas Jackman, the Gladney’s landlord, abuses his power in the most atrocious manner and Josh‘s retelling of the gospel story forces the reader to question the extent to which Christ’s miracles were an act of love or if they were not rather part of a publicity seeking campaign designed to boost the persona of the man calling himself the Messiah, a man Ryan seems to suggest who has been overwhelmed by his followers and to have lost all his authority. 

However, the ultimate power of the book lies in the beauty of its language. As you read you feel that every word has been placed not just with precision but also with the same love that Ryan is celebrating in the story he depicts. He is, without doubt, a brilliant writer, far better than I am. I look back over what I have written here and feel that I have come nowhere near expressing the beauty or the force of his novel. All I can do is ask you to read it and experience the power of his words for yourself.

With many thanks to Doubleday and NetGalley for the review copy. 

Cover Your Tracks ~ Claire Askew

woman holding mug of coffee beside opened bookCover Your Tracks is the third of Claire Askew’s novels centred around Edinburgh DI, Helen Birch; what is more, it’s the third one I’ve read this year, which says something about the continuing quality of Askew’s writing. Her latest offering focuses on a subject which has been hovering in the wings of both her previous books, namely, missing people. Birch’s own life has been blighted by the disappearance of her younger brother Charlie, a character central to What You Pay For, Askew’s previous book, and, although by no means as troubling, her father has also been absent since she was twelve. Now she finds herself confronted by a belligerent Scottish American, Robertson Bennet, demanding that she locate his missing parents for him. Robertson, or Robert MacDonald as he was born, has had no contact with his family since 1986 and not finding them at the address he expected he considers it the polices’ job to locate them for him. Birch explains, rather more politely than I would have done, that this is not the polices’ job, but Bennet refuses to be put off and returns with what he claims is evidence that his mother may be in danger as a result of his father’s acknowledged aggressive behaviour. Subsequent enquiries confirm that George MacDonald is indeed known to the police but the whereabouts of both him and Bennet’s mother, Euphemia, more commonly called Pharmie, prove to be elusive. Helen‘s superior, DCI McLeod, considers the whole business to be a waste of her time and tells her to hand it over to DC Amy Kato, but Helen is intrigued, and never one to follow orders blindly, is unable to stay away from the case.

Following up on suggestions that George was well known in the train spotting community, it gradually becomes apparent that he had, in fact, ‘helped’ the police with their enquiries far more often than Birch and Kato originally realised, calling himself on those occasions, Ginger Mack, and that almost always his involvement had been in relation to missing women. The novel is punctuated by newspaper reports concerning the disappearance of some of these women, the oldest of which dates back a full fifty years. We read the stories of Suzannah (Suzie) Hay and Christine Turnbull and encounter the heartbreak of Maisie Kerr’s mother, still hoping for news of her daughter who vanished in 1999.

Despite McLeod’s edict, Helen becomes more and more involved, but at the same time she is distracted by what is happening to her brother, now serving a long jail sentence. Branded not only because of his association with a senior police officer but also as the man responsible for the jailing of a major crime lord, Charlie almost inevitably, has become the target of prison violence and when this lands him seriously injured in hospital the fact that he has retaliated and is therefore almost certainly looking at an extension to his sentence simply piles the pressure on for his sister. Not, however, that Helen needs Charlie’s help to feel that she is snowed under by family concerns, because after a gap of more than two decades her father has finally got in touch again and unsurprisingly her first thought is that any renewed contact is bound to bring trouble. Perhaps this is why, when an anonymous tipoff is received, Birch misinterprets the message.

And this, I’m afraid, is where I had a problem with the novel because I didn’t misinterpret the message. Despite the amount of crime fiction I read I am normally still hopeless at guessing who done it, let alone how and why but in the case of Cover Your Tracks I had the whole thing sorted from the moment that message arrived, which made the last two-fifths or so of the book something of an anti-climax. I tell you, I could have saved Police Scotland a fortune in digging time! Perhaps for some that would be a minor quibble, but I like the suspense ratcheted up to the end and so ultimately the book was something of a disappointment in terms of plot. Nevertheless, it’s still a very good read simply because of the quality of the writing and the development of the characters and I shall certainly not be put off reading the next in the series, whenever that should be available.

With thanks to Hodder & Stoughton and NetGalley for a review copy.  

Summerwater ~ Sarah Moss

woman holding mug of coffee beside opened book

Summerwater is the first novel by Sarah Moss that I have read; it won’t be the last. Located in a Scottish campsite populated by cabins which have been handed down through family generations, Moss sets her novel over a period of twenty-four hours in mid-summer. Subdivided into alternating longer and very much shorter sections, the book recounts how that one day, rain sodden as only a British summer day can be, is spent by the people staying on the site and, in the shorter sections, the wildlife that inhabits the surrounding woodland. We follow the attempts by members of each generation to fill the wet, isolated hours when even to set foot over the threshold is to be soaked to the skin. There is the elderly couple having to face the fact that she is slowly descending into some form of dementia; the young couple with two small children trying to find ways to amuse them cooped up in what seems to be a little more than a wooden box; the lovers planning married life on an isolated island for which this must seem like some sort of trial run and the teenagers, desperate without their social networking, fighting for independence with every breath.

What has brought these people to a location that, on this particular day, might well be called a God forsaken place? Moss seems to suggest that it is ingrained habit. These families have spent their holidays sequestered away in these selfsame wooden cabins summer after summer. It is what they do; it has become who they are. And this notion of ourselves as creatures driven by ways of being that have been handed down and reinforced year in and year out seems to me to be at the heart of what Sarah Moss is concerned with.

Some of these habits are relatively new, inasmuch as they have only been part of family life over one, two or three generations. Some are still in the process of being laid down – in one instance quite literally. ‘Zanzibar’ introduces us to Josh and Milly, the young couple who are intending to marry and moved to the island of Barra.

They are trying to have simultaneous orgasms.

If we can learn how to do it, Josh says, we will be like a hundred times more likely not to get divorced. I read about it.

So they are practising; they are trying to build a habit.

Much of Summerwater is heart wrenching, but not ‘Zanzibar‘, which we experience through Millie’s eyes as she tries hard not to judge [Josh’s] facial expressions nor to think about bacon sandwiches to pass the time.  I found myself repeatedly laughing out loud. It’s a sign of Moss’s excellent pacing that she knows just went to offer the reader some light relief and also a sign of the control she has over her material that when we meet the couple again, this time through Josh’s eyes, we realise that what he is actually trying to do is save the relationship, recognising that he has the habit of living in a small island community but Millie does not.

Habits are built over a lifetime and while they can be very useful in as much as they save us time where every day occurrences are concerned, they can also bind us and leave us tied to repetitive ways of living that have ceased to serve us well. And, some habits, some ways of thinking, some ways of reacting, are built over far longer stretches than one single being’s existence. This is perhaps revealed most strongly in the shorter sections which deal with the natural world that also inhabits this campsite and its surrounds. For me, the point is made most tellingly in always wolves, a bare dozen lines in which a doe, protecting her fawn, steps nervously out of the trees.

In her mind there are always wolves, day and night, a pack of them slinking on the edge of scent and sound. They creep nearer when she sleeps, when she and the fawn bow  their heads to drink, when the trees cluster to make hiding places.

Here is a creature who can never have encountered a wolf, but the herd memory, the fear instilled in generation after generation of her kind, still controls her reactions and informs her way of life. And the same is true of the human inhabitants of the campsite. They bring with them their ingrained fear, passed down from father to son, of those whose habits and way of life are different from theirs, a fear which manifests itself in the shape of distrust, dislike, anger and violence.  And, if Summerwater has a fault, for me it is in the ending, which exploits this fear and gives it concrete shape. It seems too sudden, too definite, for a book which has thus far dealt in less direct means of communication. But this is to quibble. The quality of the writing and of the act of creation, where both atmosphere and characters are concerned, seems to me to be outstanding. This is certainly one of the best novels I have read so far this year.

With thanks to Pan Macmillan and NetGalley for the review copy.

Sweet Danger ~ Margery Allingham

floral ceramic cup and saucer above open book

I am still slowly making my way through Marjorie Allingham‘s Albert Campion novels of which Sweet Danger is the fifth. I’d rather been putting this one off because the blurb I read suggested that it was set in some Mittel  European country far away from Albert’s usual English Shires’ haunts. However, my concern proved unnecessary as, while the story does indeed begin on the continent where our universal uncle and deputy adventurer is masquerading as the Hereditary Paladin of Averna, it soon comes back to more familiar haunts as Albert and his three friends, Guffy Randall, Jonathan Eager-Wright and Dickie Farquharson, comb the wilds of Suffolk looking not only for the true heir to the tiny kingdom of Averna but also the proof that entitles said heir to the now very politically strategic throne. As a result of an earthquake this once landlocked state has suddenly acquired a minute, but very important, coastline, important because remarkably and pretty much simultaneously, untapped oilfields have also been discovered, hidden in a hinterland that is so small you could run through it in less time than it takes to write about it (did you remember to practise believing six impossible things before breakfast this morning?) and there is, of course, a dastardly villain who is looking to take advantage of this for his own evil ends.

Setting off to Pontisbright, in the hope of discovering a crown, a charter and, most important of all, the receipt that proves that the Earl of that name did indeed buy the right to Averna from Metternich, our intrepid adventurer encounters the Fitton family: Aunt Harriet Huntingforest, Mary, Amanda and Hal. According to family history, the last Earl of Pontisbright married one Mary Fitton several generations previously. However due to some very complicated shenanigans, the records of the marriage have disappeared and as a consequence the family are living on the proverbial tuppence ha’penny and there is no question of Hal being recognised as the heir to the Earl’s estate, let alone as Paladin of Averna.  (Look, are you keeping up with all this? Because I promise you it’s going to get much more complicated. I haven’t even mentioned the mad local Doctor who is looking for a virgin sacrifice so that he can bring back to life a vicious, but no doubt in some way lucrative, demon. Voldemort, eat your heart out.)

The Fittons live in a rundown old mill on a measly hundred pounds a year and whatever the seventeen year old Amanda and their ne’er-do-well family help, Scatty Williams, can scratch together as a result of their truly terrifying “scientific“ experiments, including the cobbling together of what must surely be the first electric car. (If only they had thought to patten it.) When the bad guys turn up, quite happy to ransack the entire building and kill any who get in their way as they search for clues to the whereabouts of the necessary paraphernalia, otherwise known as proof, it is Amanda and Scatty, helped of course by the indefatigable Lugg, who play the principal and most dangerous roles in the inevitable foiling of the villain and all his evil works.

The presence of Amanda lifts the whole book. Her importance in the ongoing life of Campion is pretty much signalled at the end of the novel.

‘I say’, [said Amanda] ‘do you ever think about Biddy Pagett? You know – Biddy Lobbett.’

Mr Campion, dishevelled, and unbeautifully clad, met her frank enquiring gaze with one of his rare flashes of undisguised honesty.

’Yes,’ he said.

Amanda sighed. ‘I thought so. Look here,’ she went on. ‘I shan’t be ready for about six years yet. But then – well, I’d like to put you on the top of my list.’

Campion held out his hand with sudden eagerness. ‘Is that a bet?’

Amanda’s small cold fingers grasped his own. ‘Done,’ she said.

Having once created such a delightful creature, Allingham must have realised that she had, whether inadvertently or otherwise, provided the perfect helpmeet for Albert and consequently laid the ground work for her return, although I have another four books to read before she will surface for a second time.

I also found myself much happier in Campion’s company in this outing.  The ‘silly ass’ persona, which in the first couple of novels seems designed to befuddle and mislead the reader every bit as much as the other characters, has now faded into the background and instead we are offered a much more likeable and understandable individual who hides behind a facade of foolishness only to mislead those who would do him or others harm or to hide the emotions which for once, in Amanda’s company, he has allowed to show through.

So, overall a pleasant weekend read. Next in line is Death of a Ghost, set in the art world, always a favourite locale of mine. I don’t think I shall leave such a long gap before picking that one up.


Review Catch-Up ~ August 8th 2020

book chapter six

This is the third in 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 and it seems better to provide a brief comment than nothing at all.

Dark Waters ~ G R Halliday

Dark Waters is the second novel in G R Halliday’s police procedural series featuring DI Monica Kennedy and if you have read From the Shadows, be warned, this one is every bit as disturbing. The heavily mutilated bodies of two very different men are discovered in the Highland district where Inverness based Kennedy operates.  Although officially seconded to traffic at her own request after the traumatic events related in the earlier novel, Kennedy is asked to take the lead role in the case as the only available senior officer.  Both victims are missing limbs and the indications are that they were alive when these body parts were removed.

Intercut with the story of the investigation is that of Annabelle, a young woman with a fast car in search of a stretch of road on which to test it out. When the inevitable happens Annabelle wakens to find herself strapped to a bed and being administered to by the ‘weird’ Marcus who alternatively uses the promise of the presence of the mysterious ‘Doc’ to reassure her and threaten her.  The story then becomes both one of investigation and of a race against the clock to save Annabelle from the same fate as the earlier victims, although it is some time before the police realise this.

Like so many leading characters in modern crime novels, Monica Kennedy has a fractured past that haunts her current work: in her case problems that are linked by both a difficult family background and the repercussions of a previous investigation. I don’t feel that Halliday handles this aspect of the novel particularly well. There are too many hints and nods in the direction of what has happened to Kennedy in the past and Monica herself dwells on it pretty much all the time, but the reader never really discovers in any detail what those problems have been.  The character and the story are strong enough to stand on their own and I found that I was simply being irritated and distracted by the constant references to the leading character’s own traumas. The same was true of the suggestions that Monica’s young daughter, Lucy, is in someway prescient and able to provide insights into current cases through her dream world. The story doesn’t need that.  I did wonder if I was seeing the influence of James Oswald’s Tony McLeod novels here, but Oswald‘s point is surely a more universal one to do with the force of evil that will always accompany human desire for power and wealth. In Dark Waters the supernatural element seems added on rather than integral to the whole ethos behind the created world. Will I go back for a third novel? I’m not sure. Halliday writes well and plots well, but there is work to do on maintaining focus I think.

With thanks To Random House UK Vintage Publishing and NetGalley for the review copy.


Tales From the Folly ~ Ben Aaronovitch

As many of you will know, I am not a great reader of short stories. The one exception I’ve made over the past few years has been the tales that interleave the full-length novels, written by Jodi Taylor, chronicling the adventures of those intrepid observers of historical events in contemporary time (don’t call it time travel) from St Mary‘s Priory, Rushford. Taylor’s line in dry observation and witty dialogue lends itself very well to the form and, in addition, most of the stories move the overarching narrative forward and are therefore pretty much essential to the reader’s understanding of the developments in the lives of her much loved characters. I was hoping for something of the same from Ben Aaronovitch’s latest publication, Tales From the Folly, which is a collection of stories featuring both major and minor participants from his London based series featuring policeman and apprentice wizard, Peter Grant. However, while each of the (very) short stories and the even shorter “moments“ are perfectly enjoyable, they tend to read as what, for the most part, they are, which is responses to requests for a short piece of writing for a particular occasion. Consequently, while most of them do add the occasional insight into a particular participant‘s character, they don’t really further the overall narrative thrust or contribute to the development of the story world. This isn’t to say that they are not well written, they are, and there are frequent examples of Aronovitch’s trademark verbal wit, but too often they feel contrived, the characters  placed in a situation designed to meet a requirement rather than to forward the overarching narrative in a necessary manner. I’m not sorry that I read them, but if I hadn’t it would not of made any difference to my understanding and enjoyment of the whatever novel is to follow the latest full-length story,  False Values.

A Room Made Of Leaves ~ Kate Grenville

It is eight years since we have had a new novel from Kate Grenville; far too long in my opinion. Her last offering was Sarah Thornhill, the third in the trilogy centred around the Thornhill family and the early years of the Australian colony which grew up as a result of the convict settlement in New South Wales.  In A Room Made of Leaves Grenville returns to those early difficult years to tell the story of Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of John Macarthur who is apparently credited with establishing the antipodean sheep industry, building up a breed capable of providing quality wool for the European market. History tells us that Macarthur was a very difficult man, constantly at odds with those around him and forced to return to England twice, for four and then nine years, to face judgement in the courts of law. How then, Grenville asks, was such a man, always slant, guarded, sly, evasive, able to not only craft out a viable farm from inhospitable surroundings, but also carry out the skilled task of interbreeding animals capable of surviving and indeed thriving in an alien landscape? Is it not more probably the case, she argues, that his wife, brought up among sheep farmers and instructed in the business of breeding by her grandfather, was the more likely partner to have possessed the necessary acumen to drive the venture forward?

The novel purports to be a recording of papers belonging to Elizabeth Macarthur and found many years after her death. In a series of short passages she describes her early life in Devon, the death of her father, the resulting time spent on her grandfather’s farm, and her friendship with Bridie the daughter of the local minister.  As a result of this friendship, Elizabeth goes to live with the Kingdon family and once she learns that it would be best for me not to be too clever, she fits in very well until such a time as it becomes apparent that she and Bridie both look fit to be left “on the shelf“. Onto the scene comes John Macarthur, an ensign on half pay. The phrase was a byword for failure. Elizabeth falls pregnant and finds herself married to a man whose every fibre was held together by pride, who boasted that he had never yet failed in ruining a man who had become obnoxious to him. In order to escape a monstrous debt, Macarthur signs on with the New South Wales Corps and Elizabeth finds herself, with only her maid, Anne, for company, embarked on a six month voyage to Australia.

Once they have landed, they are located in the same territory, both literally and figuratively, that Grenville covered in her novel The Lieutenant. The colony is limited in the extreme and Elizabeth finds herself not only without the basic comforts of life from a material point of view, but also lacking any sort of company that might bring her relief.

I met there a cold indifferent truth: that every person – even a loved person, and I was not loved – was alone.

Eventually, she discovers companionship in the person of William Dawes, the astronomer sent out to map the southern night sky, and through him she makes the acquaintance of some of the first inhabitants of Australia, people with whom, uniquely among the colonists, Dawes is trying to understand and communicate. It is Dawes who teaches her to observe the world around her and to value and appreciate what the land has to offer. Consequently, when she and her husband, accompanied by their servants Agnes Brown and the ex-sheep-stealer, William Hannaford, move inland to Parramatta and establish a smallholding, Elizabeth is the one who is aware enough of the land and the potential of the livestock they have brought with them to be able to derive a profit from their situation.  Nevertheless, her life continues to be one of loneliness and extreme watchfulness, knowing that she must weigh every word she says to her husband who persists in seeing insults everywhere.

When I realised that Grenville was exploring the life of a real and documented individual, I made what I now think was a mistake in doing some background reading about Elizabeth Macarthur before I started the book. As a result, I was expecting the author to deal with Elizabeth’s life through the years during which John was back in England in the same detail that she does those early years when they are establishing themselves in Australia and was disappointed when this wasn’t the case. Up until that point I was enjoying the book very much, but, possibly because of my earlier reading, I felt that it came to a perfunctory ending. Indeed, as I realised I was coming close to the final pages I initially assumed that this was going to be the first of a new trilogy. I was also bothered by the way in which Grenville latterly has Elizabeth thinking in much more detail about the atrocities meted out to the first inhabitants. I know this is something that has exercised the writer considerably during the past couple of decades and indeed there is a preface to the book recognising the rights of the tribes to the land under discussion, but the sudden change in emphasis feels forced, almost like an afterthought and I found that disturbing.

So, in general a book that I very much enjoyed, but one that I felt was let down by its last few pages. I would still recommend that you read it. Grenville couldn’t write a bad sentence if she tried and Elizabeth’s struggle to forge a life with a man for whom she can feel nothing but contempt is beautifully portrayed, just be prepared for a bit of a jolt as it reaches its conclusion.

With thanks to Cannongate and NetGalley for the review copy.


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.