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.

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.