Book Review: Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase – secrets and lies in an evocative Cornish setting

I love these novels set in old English country houses, specially when family secrets, heartbreak and mystery are added to the mix. Old houses can add a Gothic quality, as it is with Black Rabbit Hall, although that’s not the house’s real name. Pencraw’s a dilapidated mansion on the Cornish coast, subject to storms and heady summer heat and it’s the home to the Alton family when they’re not in London.

The young Altons are a blessed with loving parents – beautiful Nancy who hails from New York, and Hugo who is struggling to maintain the old house, with its leaky roof and unreliable floorboards. The couple are devoted to each other, and adore their kids: little Kitty, nature-loving Barney, fifteen-year-old Toby and his twin sister Amber who narrates most of the story. Their world comes crumbling down when Nancy dies suddenly in a riding accident, and the children become more wild and unkempt.

Amber does her best to fill in as a mother figure to the two younger children while Toby acts more weirdly than ever. He has a fixation with what to do if civilisation comes to an end – it’s 1968 and the Cold War and the nuclear arms race are all go. He’s a survivalist but not in a good way and argues constantly with his father. It doesn’t come as a surprise when Hugo invites an old flame to visit but it’s a shock when she arrives with her seventeen-year-old son, Lucien. Caroline is the opposite of their warm, spontaneous mother, but she’s got money and might just save Black Rabbit Hall.

The story flips between Amber’s narration and Lorna’s some thirty odd years later. Lorna and her fiancé Jon are looking for a wedding venue, and Amber has a distant memory of visiting Black Rabbit Hall as a child with her mother. There is an emotional pull here for Lorna as her mother has recently died, lacing the memory with nostalgia. Finding the house almost defeats them, but it’s also a shock when they get there and it seems the Hall is not quite ready for hosting weddings, despite what the website says.

Jon and Amber look set to fall out over the Hall, Amber still excited about finding the perfect setting for the wedding, Jon more realistic having noticed the general state of disrepair. Then there is the lack of staff, the house inhabited by the frail and elderly Mrs Alton and Dill, her flustered general factotum. Amber is talked into visiting for a weekend to help make up her mind – no pressure! What she experiences when she’s at the Hall is more about disturbing distant memories and uncovering family secrets that giving the place a trial run. What is it about Black Rabbit Hall that seems to prod deep into her consciousness?

The story slowly comes together as we go back through the years to fill in the gaps as the Alton children have to deal with family upheaval while still grieving for Nancy. Lorna also teases out hints from the past which make her doubt her future with Jon. In each narrative there is a gathering storm and sense of impending doom, which has you galloping through the book to find out what happens. It all comes to a startling and intense ending but there is resolution as well.

For me the book had hints of Daphne du Maurier, not only with the Cornish setting, but with the cruel, Mrs Danvers-like malefactor and the Gothic qualities of the house. Chase also does a great job with the family dynamics, particularly the way she writes about siblings and the intense connections between the twins, the pressure on the older sister to keep things together and the difficulty for her to be her own person.

Black Rabbit Hall is the perfect read if you like old country house mysteries and evocative settings. The characters are easy to empathise with, honestly they break your heart, and there is an interesting dichotomy between long summer days where nothing seems to happen and events hurtling characters into rash behaviour. This is my second Eve Chase novel – I’d previously enjoyed The Wilding Sisters – and it didn’t disappoint. I’ll be heading back for more. Black Rabbit Hall (which incidentally won the Saint Maur en Poche prize for best foreign fiction) gets a four out of five from me.

Reading the Classics: Part One – My Hope-to-Read List from Classical Literature

The good folk over at The Classics Club are doing a great job of encouraging readers to seek out those books we might call ‘classical literature’ and give them a go. There are plenty of Books to Read Before You Die compilations out there but with all that wonderful new stuff being published all the time, it’s easy to forget about the ones we collect at church fairs with good intentions of crossing them off the list.

The good ones never really go away and publishers such as Penguin with their orange series, Virago’s Modern Classics (Hachette) and Persephone Books bring out lovely new editions that can be addictively collectible – to say nothing of public libraries. The Classics Club offers a chance to keep them on your radar with online discussion and sharing part of the deal. But first you have to make a list.

I confess my list is roughly thrown together and in no particular order. I have included a mix of books that are obvious classics and quite a few from early to mid 20th century women authors – a particular interest of mine. There are some I’ve read before and want to read again to see if I still like them. Tweaking and adding to the list is also a possibility. This is what I’ve come up with so far:

  1. Sanditon by Jane Austen 
  2. Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte 
  3. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell 
  4. Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth Von Arnim 
  5. Kim by Rudyard Kipling 
  6. The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West 
  7. My Antonia by Willa Cather 
  8. The Happy Foreigner by Enid Bagnold 
  9. Open the Door by Catherine Carswell 
  10. Pomfrett Towers by Angela Thirkell 
  11. Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield 
  12. Frost in May by Antonia White 
  13. Company Parade by Storm Jameson
  14. Full House by M J Farrell (Molly Keane)
  15. The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann
  16. Silas Marner by George Eliot
  17. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
  18. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
  19. Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee
  20. The Group by Mary McCarthy 
  21. A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell
  22. Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen
  23. The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym
  24. Victoria Cottage by D E Stevenson
  25. The Corner that Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner
  26. The Wings of a Dove by Henry James
  27. Of Human Bondage by W Somerset Maugham
  28. The Beat of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
  29. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  30. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winnifred Watson
  31. Justine by Alexander Durrell
  32. Chéri by Colette
  33. Harriet Hume by Rebecca West
  34. The Bell by Iris Murdoch
  35. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome
  36. Round the Bend by Neville Shute
  37. The Women’s Room by Marilyn French
  38. The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing
  39. The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham
  40. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  41. We Have Always Lived in a Castle by Shirley Jackson
  42. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  43. Sons and Lovers by D H Lawrence
  44. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  45. True Grit by Charles Portis
  46. Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott
  47. Lorna Done by R D Blackmore
  48. Watership Down by Richard Adams
  49. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  50. Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man by Sigfried Sassoon
  51. Tender Is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald
  52. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  53. The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier
  54. Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge
  55. Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons
  56. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  57. King Solomon’s Mines by H Rider Haggard
  58. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
  59. A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
  60. Green Dolphin Country by Elizabeth Goudge
  61. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
  62. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
  63. The Foundling by Charlotte Brontë
  64. The Warden by Anthony Trollope
  65. Squadron Airborne by Elliston Trevor
  66. A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor
  67. The Land of Spices by Kate O’Brien
  68. Green Hands by Barbara Whitton
  69. Lotte in Weimar by Thomas Mann
  70. Stoner by John Williams
  71. Under the Net by Iris Murdoch
  72. ‘The Forsythe Saga by John Galsworthy
  73. A Buyer’s Market by Anthony Powell
  74. The Acceptance World by Anthony Powell
  75. At Lady Molly’s by Anthony Powell
  76. Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant by Anthony Powell
  77. The Kindly Ones by Anthony Powell
  78. The Valley of Bones by Anthony Powell
  79. The Soldier’s Art by Anthony Powell
  80. The Military Philosophers by Anthony Powell
  81. Books Do Furnish a Room by Anthony Powell
  82. Temporary Kings by Anthony Powell
  83. Hearing Sweet Harmonies by Anthony Powell
  84. The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning
  85. South Riding by Winifred Hotly
  86. One Pair of Hands by Monica Dickens
  87. Perfume by Patrick Suskind
  88. A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle
  89. Out of Africa by Karen Blixen
  90. How I live Now by Meg Rosoff
  91. Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
  92. Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves
  93. Music in the Hills by D E Stevenson
  94. Susan Settles Down by Molly Clavering
  95. Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym
  96. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West
  97. O Pioneer! By Willa Cather
  98. The Rainy Moon and Other Stories by Colette
  99. Mandoa, Mandoa! by Winifred Hotly
  100. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  101. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
  102. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
  103. A Passage to India by E M Forster
  104. Howard’s End by E M Forster
  105. A Room with a View by E M Forster
  106. Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier
  107. The Harp in the South by Ruth Park
  108. Station Life in New Zealand by Lady Barker
  109. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  110. Emma by Jane Austen
  111. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  112. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  113. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
  114. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  115. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  116. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
  117. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
  118. Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne
  119. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
  120. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
  121. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  122. The Waves by Virginia Woolf
  123. The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
  124. Miss Buncle’s Book by D E Stevenson
  125. The Makings of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  126. Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple
  127. Cheerful Weather for a Wedding by Julia Strachey
  128. Saplings by Noel Streatfield
  129. At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor
  130. The River by Rumer Goden
  131. Kingfisher’s Catch Fire by Rumer Goden
  132. George Beneath a Paper Moon by Nina Bawden
  133. Crewe Train by Rose Macaulay
  134. A Woman of My Age by Nina Bawden
  135. Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky
  136. Thank You, Jeeves by P G Wodehouse
  137. Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan
  138. The Nine Taylors by Dorothy L Sayers
  139. Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor
  140. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  141. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
  142. The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
  143. The Garden Party and other stories  by Katherine Mansfield
  144. Nor the Years Condemn by Robin Hyde
  145. The Godwits Fly by Robin Hyde
  146. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stephenson
  147. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
  148. The Shrimp and the Anemone by L P Hartley
  149. The Sixth Heaven by L P Hartley
  150. Eustace and Hilda by L P Hartley

Book Review: A Tidy Ending by Joanna Cannon – a beguiling psychological dramedy

You never quite know what you’re getting yourself into when you pick up a Joanna Cannon novel. Each is unique, but there’s a few common themes. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep has two young girls concerned with the disappearance of a neighbour and what unravels in their cul-de-sac during a simmering 1970s summer. Three Things About Elsie is set in a retirement village with its elderly protagonist trying to keep a grip on reality while haunted by a secret from the past. A vein of dark humour runs through both books and it is the same here with A Tidy Ending.

Linda just wants to be like other women she sees in the catalogues delivered to her new house, addressed to Rebecca Finch. Rebecca used to live in the house Linda and Terry have just moved to – just around the corner from their old house. In her early forties, Linda’s either wearing the same old housecoat she’s had for decades, or clothing from the charity shop where she works part-time. According to her mother, she’s just too ‘big boned’ to aspire to anything more glamorous. But surely there’s more to life than pushing the hoover around and fish-fingers for tea.

Although she’s married to Terry, it’s a lonely kind of marriage and Linda doesn’t have any friends. She tries to suggest going for a coffee with Ingrid down the road, but Ingrid just never quite has the time. You can’t help wondering if it’s because of something that happened to Linda when she was a child and the terrible events around the death of her father. Meanwhile, a young woman has been strangled nearby. There’s nothing like a murder to get the neighbours talking and Linda and her mother are soon swept up in speculation. Even Terry, normally sat in front of the telly watching sport, takes an interest.

The story follows the extraordinary lengths Linda goes to make friends with Rebecca Finch. Meanwhile another girl is murdered amid talk of a serial killer lurking in the neighbourhood. We learn more about Linda’s childhood in Wales and what happened to her father. Threaded through the narrative are chapters that seem to be set in a ward for the mentally ill. There are a lot of loose ends to tie up before any hint of the story’s ‘tidy ending’.

There’s a tinge of humour running through Linda’s narrative and even though she’s not the easiest character to like, you can’t help feeling some empathy for her. Will she manage to sort out her life and get what she wants or is she doomed to be misunderstood, disliked or even stuck in ongoing mental care? The characters around her – the fussy, demanding mother; the nosy, busy-body neighbour Malcolm – are beautifully observed, but it takes a lot of concentration to keep up with what’s going on in the story. So even though Linda is such an awkward character, you can’t help wanting to know what happens to her and you race towards a stunning and unpredictable ending.

I love the way Joanna Cannon combines sharp psychological observation with clever plotting and she’s done it here again. I’m not quite sure what genre this – is it a ‘domestic’ thriller? A dark comedy? Or something unique of Cannon’s own devising. Whatever it is, she’s a breath of fresh air – original and hugely entertaining. A Tidy Ending scores a four out of five from me.

Book Review: All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison – a compelling historical novel set in rural England

I’ve heard so much to recommend this novel and the setting of 1930s Suffolk also was appealing. It’s the story of Edith Mather who is fourteen during the summer of 1934 and everything’s gearing up towards harvest time. Her parents are tenant farmers with the help of John, who survived the battlefields of WWI, and Doble, their old farm hand. Edith’s brother Frank helps too and at seventeen is courting a local girl, his future mapped out for him. Older sister Mary is already married and has a baby, so Edith’s future seems set to follow in a similar direction. Alf Rose on a neighbouring farm already has his eye on Edie.

Then Connie FitzAllen arrives on the scene, visiting farms to research the old rural ways, with plans to write a book – her articles appearing in journals as Sketches from English Rural Life. Her fear is that farming traditions might be lost as mechanisation becomes widespread, farmers’ wives buy bread from the bakery instead of making their own and the conveniences of canned goods change the way people prepare meals. Connie takes a shine to Edith, who shows her round the village, and helps the visitor any way she can. To be fair, Connie lends a hand with the harvest, but what is her secret agenda?

Sketches from English Rural Life –

There is surely no better repast than country dishes, innocent of the fashions of the modern age. They may not be refined, but here there is good, wholesome food such as may be found on every English farm where butter is churned by hand, cheese is made, and bread is daily baked.

The story is told through Edith’s eyes and she’s an engaging narrator. She’s intelligent – her old teacher would have liked to see her study further, giving her exercise books to encourage her to write. But Edith’s needed on the farm. There’s all that laundry every Monday, and the chickens to care for as well as all the work to help bring in the harvest. It seems everyone has Edith’s time organised for her, including the incomer, Connie. No wonder she’s getting into a bit of a state.

But then all the characters are interestingly complex. Edith’s father seems to be under pressure – making the farm pay isn’t easy. There’s the depression after all, and he’s one of those typical men of his time who bottles up his feelings, resulting in sudden rages. Edith’s mother suffered as a girl as her mother was considered a bit of a witch. Connie is also complex, with her intense fondness for both Edith and her mother, her ability to charm even the stolid menfolk with her talk of politics and new ideas, though not at the expense of rural traditions, of course.

And then there’s the countryside. Harrison describes it in lush detail that makes you feel you are there, not just the flora and fauna as she sees it, but how it changes with the seasons, or even as day turns to night. She has a very distinctive voice and it doesn’t surprise me that her website describes her both a “novelist and nature writer”.

Our barley was well along now, flaxen from a distance and with the beards tipping over almost as we watched. The wheat, too, was ripening: the stalks were still-blue-green, but the tops of the ears were fading to a greenish-yellow, a tint that would become richer and spread down the ears as they fattened to finally gild the stalks and leaves. Then the sound of the cornfields would alter: dry, they would susurrate, whispering to Father and John that it was nearly time. The glory of the farm then, just before harvest: acres of gold like bullion, strewn with the sapphires of cornflowers and the garnets of corn poppies and watched over from on high by larks.

But in this idyllic setting there are darker dramas afoot, a hint that one war has past leaving its scars on people, while we are aware of another just around the corner. The characters meanwhile have their own more immediate issues creating so much strain that things seem set to boil over. This causes enough tension to sweep the reader along towards an ending you might not quite be prepared for. It’s a great historical read – a combination of characters you can feel for, great writing and a brilliant recreation of time and place. I can see why All Among the Barley has been so well reviewed. I can’t think of anything I didn’t like about so it’s another five star read from me.

Book Review: The Reindeer Hunters by Lars Mytting – the second book in an gripping historical trilogy

It can be tricky reviewing the middle book in a trilogy without giving away key events from the previous book. I read the first book earlier in the year and was captivated by the story of a small town in remote Norway, the ill-fated love-triangle, and the legend of the conjoined twin sisters and the church bells made in their honour.

So when The Reindeer Hunters came out, I was eager to pick up where the story left off. I will do my best not to throw out any spoilers, but if you want to read a spell-binding historical series, ignore this post just in case and get cracking with The Bell in the Lake. (Also, as I might have mentioned before, DO NOT read the publisher’s blurb for The Reindeer Hunters if you haven’t yet read The Bell in the Lake as it contains a jaw-dropping spoiler!)

In The Reindeer Hunters, the story has moved on a couple of decades to 1903 and Pastor Kai Schweigaard has become well attuned to the ways of his parish. He has quite a few regrets over events of the previous book but is a kindly man and wise. He formerly struggled to deal with local superstitions, but of late has been obsessed with finding the Hekne weave. This is a tapestry created by the twin Hekne sisters in the early 1600s, hidden away because of its unpopular Doomsday theme and said to foretell the fate of the last village pastor. It is one thing he can do for the woman he loved and lost, particularly as he has fallen out with her son.

Jehans Hekne lives on a small holding, working the land of his tyrant of an uncle to whom he has promised a reindeer. To do this he must set out on forays in the wilderness with his 1848 chamber charger rifle. He lives a simple life but dreams of a better one, or at least a better gun, when he meets another hunter, Victor Harrison, a well-healed Englishman. The two lay claim to having shot the same reindeer, but good-humouredly strike up a bargain: Victor gets his trophy and Jehans the means to get a new gun. A connection sparks between the two men who are oddly similar in spite of the differences of class and nationality.

The story weaves between the three characters with the legend of the bell in the lake hovering in the background. As the story goes, the bell can only be raised from its watery home by two Hekne brothers with no siblings born between them. But how can such myths still survive at a time when change is coming to this forgotten valley? There’s talk of rail opening up the country, and Jehans, who owes his education to the pastor, can’t help thinking about the possibilities of electricity. Victor is mesmerised by flight.

The Reindeer Hunters is another brilliant read. I thought it might be one of those middle-of-a-trilogy books that languishes from the need to fill in a chunk of plot between the promising beginning of the first book before things crank up to a heart-pounding finale in the third. But if anything, I like this book better than the first. It seems to strike a good balance between big events and the development of its characters.

As the story rolled on towards the end, I couldn’t put it down, quite desperate to know how things would turn out for Kai, Jehans and Victor. If things are going to crank up from here in the last book, I’m definitely going to need a cup of tea and lie down afterwards. If you love historical fiction, this trilogy really is a must-read. The Reindeer Hunters gets a rare five stars from me.

Book Review: The Place on Dalhousie by Melina Marchetta – a warm-hearted novel about finding family where you least expect it

I picked this book up as it was recommended by a librarian, my final task in the Turn Up the Heat winter reading challenge at the library. The Place on Dalhousie came out in 2019, and I am reminded a little of the first book I read by Marchetta – Looking for Alibrandi, published in 1992 – with its strong Australian sense of place and memorable characters.

In the recent book we have three main characters flung together by circumstances trying to make the best of things. Rosie Genarro is a care-giver in rural Queensland when she meets Jimmy in the middle of a natural disaster. He’s part of the rescue team when Rosie has to get her recalcitrant elderly client out of her home before floods destroy it. Two years later she’s back in Sydney with a baby, living in her parents’ house. Only her parents are both dead – Rosie’s still mourning her father – and she’s in a stand-off with her stepmother, Martha, over who owns the house. Jimmy is nowhere to be seen.

Martha is also still grieving Seb, who according to Rosie, she married far too soon after the death of her mother. Martha has a high-pressure job, and is desperate for some leave. She’s also a prickly, difficult woman, and sharing her home with her step-daughter and her unsettled baby is ramping up her stress levels. Somehow she gets dragged into a netball team with her old schoolmates, coached by a faded footy star and former schoolgirl crush, the once more single brother of one of her mates.

When Jimmy finds his long-lost phone, he discovers he’s also a father. He travels to Sydney to meet his son and perhaps to make things right with Rosie. It’s not all plain sailing, though. He’s working in the mining industry in Perth, bunking in with friends on the weeks he’s rostered off. Rosie is distrustful and it will take a lot to win her over. Both are very young and have dreams of a new career path – Rosie as a midwife; Jimmy as a paramedic. But study is expensive and so is renting a place in Sydney. They are really up against it.

As I said, Marchetta is really strong on characters. I loved Martha’s netball mates, and the awkward friendships Rosie makes with the two other misfits from a mother’s coffee group. Even the house – the place on Dalhousie – has a personality. It epitomises all the family love that has gone into turning it from a the rundown ‘worst house in the street’ to something special. No wonder neither Martha or Rosie want to part with it. The story builds to a brilliant ending with a couple of nice twists.

Marchetta is a dab-hand with smart, funny dialogue, capturing the characters and also the voices of Australians of European descent, particularly the Italians. Martha’s of German descent so there’s that too. You get a great sense of place, whether it’s rural Queensland or suburban Sydney. Now that I’ve read her first book and much more recently her latest, I’m wondering why I haven’t read anything in between. I’m giving this book a four out of five.

Book Review: The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett – a new puzzle from an inventive mystery writer

I was impressed by Hallett’s debut novel, The Appeal, which was written in text messages, emails and similar correspondence – an epistolary novel for our time. More interestingly it invited the reader to solve the mystery and figure out whodunit. And now Hallett’s done it again with her second book, The Twyford Code, only this time the story is written for the most part in transcripts of audio files from a phone.

Steven Smith has just been released from prison after a lengthy stretch for a crime that is not revealed until towards the end. We learn he was a career criminal, working for an established family of crims. They’d looked after him when he was teenager, feeding him, clothing him and showing him the trade. He’d dropped out of school at fourteen after something went terribly wrong on a school trip involving the disappearance of a favourite teacher, Miss Isles. Steven can’t help blaming himself.

Nearly forty years ago, Steven found a book on a bus travelling to school, and showed Miss Isles, who read it to the class. These are the kids who are in reading recovery, the ones with dyslexia and other learning difficulties, but Miss Isles knows how to inspire them. The book with echoes of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories, is written by Edith Twyford, much discredited in recent years, her books a tad racist and paternalistic for modern times. But the story captivates the class and Miss Isles who says there are clues in the book to missing gold secreted away during World War II. Twyford and her husband were spies and Steven’s book is full of code-like annotations. Can Miss Isles and the class solve the puzzle?

Steven is hazy about what happened on the school trip to Twynford’s cottage, and the disappearance of his teacher. So he tracks down his classmates in the hope of filling in the gaps. The audio files are his way of documenting his findings – he is hampered by his limited literacy – and they are addressed to Maxine, his probation officer. The technology captures his way of speaking exactly, his London accent, so that Miss Isles becomes ‘missiles’; must have translates to ‘mustard’ and so on. In a way this takes a bit of getting used to, but it also adds personality.

Among the recorded dialogue, the diary entries, and so on there’s still plenty of action. It seems danger lurks and where there’s gold there’s always someone who will do anything to get it. We are slowly filled in on Steven’s past, his criminal history and his family. But mostly this is a clever and engaging mystery. You get caught up in trying to figure out what is real and what’s just Steven’s imagination – he’s a classic unreliable narrator, worldly-wise in some ways, naive in others.

The Twyford Code is a brilliantly planned and executed puzzle, but I did at times tire of Steven’s company. This is perhaps a limitation of telling the story in this way. I also struggled to keep all the facts straight, but perhaps I wasn’t meant to. The twists and revelations make for a clever and appealing ending, enough to save the book for me. I’m giving it a four out of five while wondering whatever will Janice Hallett think of next?

Book Review: The Salt Path by Raynor Winn – an inspiring memoir about the healing power of nature

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction but every so often a book comes along that just captures my interest. I’d had this one on my reading list for some time, but what gave me the kick-start I needed was that one of the challenges in our library’s Turn Up the Heat reading programme asks you to read a biography or memoir.

The Salt Path is the story of a couple in middle age who are at a period in their lives when everything has just turned to custard. They’ve lost their home of twenty years which as a farm and accommodation business was also their income. Around the same time Moth, the author’s husband, is diagnosed with a debilitating terminal illness.

With few options and nowhere to live, other than the kind of emergency housing that could be utterly soul destroying, the pair buy a tent on E-bay, load up a couple of backpacks (rucksacks if you’re British) and set off on the Salt Path. This is a six hundred and thirty miles coastal walk around the south west corner of England from Minehead to Pool. You can’t be homeless if you’re hiking, can you?

But from the outset, Moth and Raynor are doing it tough. They have only a few hundred pounds to their name, and by the time they are walking the path, rely on a small dribble of cash turning up in their bank account from welfare. This barely pays for their food, often noodles and chocolate, or tuna and rice when they feel flush. They scrounge hot water at cafés for tea. You would think that the strain of the walk and lack of good nutrition might make Moth sicker, but it doesn’t. In fact he gets fitter and becomes almost pain-free.

In the pink half-light of dawn, the holes were everywhere. Fresh droppings piled up under the flysheet of the tent and as I undid the zip tens of rabbits hopped only feet away. I could have just reached out and taken one to put straight in the pot. Instead we made tea. Moth found a hairy wine gum in his pocket, so we cut that in half.

Raynor Winn chronicles the people they meet: the other walkers, often with much better equipment, but usually friendly; the people who turn up their noses at their unwashed shabbiness; and the other homeless people, not usually walking but eking out an existence in the towns. It’s quite an insightful look at the homeless problem in UK – how easy it is to drop out of the system, the difficulty of finding affordable accommodation, especially in rural communities where holiday lets drive up the rent astronomically.

The other thing Winn does really well is describe the wild environment of the coastal path. Not just the wildlife she encounters, the plants and the sea, but what it’s like to be amongst it all. Her writing is amazing. You’d think she’d been writing all her life but this would seem to be her first book. Winn’s story is heartfelt, immediate and real. Not surprisingly, The Salt Path was short-listed for the Costa Biography Award and a Wainwright Prize.

“It’s touched you, it’s written all over you: you’ve felt the hand of nature. It won’t ever leave you now; you’re salted…”

But more than that, The Salt Path is also the story of a marriage, of a couple’s devotion to each other and their determination to find a way forward. I found it both an emotional read and an inspiring one. Maybe it’s time to dust off the backpack and the hiking boots once more to remind myself why walking in the wilderness, for all the sore feet, the ache of the pack on your shoulders and the slogs uphill on uneven terrain can be so uplifting. Or maybe I’ll just read Winn’s sequel, The Wild Silence. The Salt Path gets a four and a half out of five from me.

Crime Fiction Catch-Up – some cosy and not-so-cosy Brit-crime reads

I always seem to like a bit of crime fiction during the winter. Here’s a look at a few of the mysteries I’ve enjoyed over recent weeks.

A Game of Fear by Charles Todd
This is the latest Inspector Rutledge novel where our haunted, war-veteran is sent to Essex in search of a case that looks quite hopeless. A murder is reported but there’s no body and the man recognised as the murderer has been dead for years. Nobody at Scotland Yard expects Rutledge to find anything worth investigating, but the witness, Lady Benton, has connections. What he finds is a twisty crime plus a brutal killer on the loose. We have another terrific setting – the salt flats of Walmer, and a manor house built around the ruins of old abbey. There’s the remains of an old airfield from the WWI and somehow everything ties in with the men who served there, many of whom didn’t come back. If you think the Air Force in World War Two was a dangerous lark, then imagine the era of bi-planes and the Red Baron. It’s another cracking read from Charles Todd, loaded with atmosphere and interesting historical background.

Twenty-one Days by Anne Perry
Anne Perry is best known for her William Monk and Thomas Pitt series set in Victorian England which have been going for a few decades now. They’re good meaty crime reads with a Dickensian feel in the way she recreates the period. This first in a series introduces Thomas Pitt’s barrister son Daniel as the new sleuth, here attempting to save a man from the gallows who’s been found guilty of murdering his wife. He’s hard to defend being an unpleasant character and a scandal-mongering biographer. His latest book looks set to stir up trouble for the secret service, including Daniel’s father, Sir Thomas Pitt. Some interesting points raised about the difference between justice and the law, while the setting of 1910 gives Daniel a chance to take an interest in forensic science, with the help of his head-of-chambers’ daughter. She’d studied at university, but women at that time couldn’t receive a degree, even if they had done all the work. Typical. The story has plenty of twists and introduces some terrific characters we can enjoy getting to know in the subsequent books. There’s already another four.

The Shadows of Men by Abir Mukherjee
This series set in 1920s Calcutta just keeps getting better. The new book is told from alternating points of view between policeman Sam Wyndham and his Sergeant Banerjee. The story begins when Banerjee is tasked with a secret mission that lands him on a murder charge. He’s been arrested over the death of a Hindu theologian, when all he was doing was trying to make it look like an accident so that a religious feud doesn’t erupt. With Banerjee on the run, Wyndham must help clear his name and find the killer while religious factions from both Hindu and Muslim groups threaten to throw the country into a permanent state of riot. There’s lots of action and nail-biting moments, but in the background the tinder-box politics of life in India under the British is a fascinating setting. The characters are complex and interesting and the storytelling witty and perceptive. More, please.

The Darkest Evening by Ann Cleeves
This recent Vera Stanhope mystery is set in the dark days of winter when Vera, driving home in the snow, finds she has missed her turning only to discover a car with an unattended baby. She takes the child to the nearest house, which just happens to be the Stanhope family mansion and while she’s there, trying to discover what’s happened, a body is discovered. Of course. There’s a dinner party in full swing and Vera has to rub shoulders with the family she’s fallen out with while looking scruffy as always. But she gets to prove her worth, solving the crime and not taking any nonsense from anyone. I love the way she attempts to jolly along Holly, her ambitious DC, and make allowances for Joe, whose family make demands. There’s a nail-biting finish where the killer nearly takes Vera out of action, but happily there’s another book on the way with her name on the cover. The Rising Tide is out shortly.

Hot to Trot by M C Beaton
When M C Beaton died a short while ago, we might have thought that would be it for Agatha Raisin. But no, a good friend of Beaton (R W Green) has been entrusted with her story ideas and so Agatha is back again. Here she makes a spectacle of herself at the wedding of her old flame and lord of the manor, Charles Fraith. He’s marrying horsey socialite Mary Brown-Field, but after a fight with Agatha at a masked ball, Mary is found murdered. Agatha has to work hard to convince the police she had nothing to do with it, as well as trying to clear Charles’s name. It’s just as well she’s got other fish to fry romantically and that she and Charles are just good friends. This means he can cough up with her fee, as her private detective agency is buzzing with cases and she’s got staff to pay. The story takes us into the high-stakes world of show-jumping and dressage comps where Mary had rubbed a few people up the wrong way. I particularly enjoyed the audio-book version of this novel, read by the incomparable Penelope Keith. Magic!

Book Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt – a heart-warming debut that will have you cheering

I had no idea what to expect with this novel, which includes among its three main narrators an octopus. Marcellus the GPO (great Pacific octopus) inhabits a tank at an aquarium where he has a good view of humanity as it comes to peer at him. He may be missing sea life in the raw, but he’s learnt a lot about people, their weird sense of humour, their ugly eating habits, their lack of perspicacity. He hasn’t a lot of respect for the human race as a whole, but forges a bond with Tova, the seventy-year-old cleaner who each evening wipes the smears from the glass of his enclosure and at one point rescues him from disaster.

Tova is at a crossroads. She has been recently widowed but still rattles around in the house her Swedish father built, which is full of memories. The loss of her son at the age of eighteen is something she’s learnt to live with, if only she could understand what happened on the night he disappeared. Her friends think it’s time for her to find somewhere smaller, but maybe it’s time to think about a retirement home. After all there’s no one to take care of her when she gets too old to manage herself. However, the chatty Scot, Ethan, who runs the local store would be very sorry to see her go.

Meanwhile, hundreds of kilometres away, in California, Cameron is in a bad way. At thirty, he can’t seem to hold down a job, his Jeep has been repossessed and he seems to be running out of chances with his girlfriend. He’s bitter and resentful, still smarting since his mother abandoned him when he was nine. When his Auntie Jeanne gives him a box of his mother’s things, a lack of options has him heading north to Washington State in search of his father. With luck he’s the wealthy property developer Simon Brinks and Cameron can touch him for year’s of child support.

Over the course of the novel, all four characters’ stories collide and Cameron, Ethan, Tova and even Marcellus will help each other get to the truth. It isn’t difficult to guess what’s going on and the author uses dramatic irony to keep the reader turning the pages. You want to shout at the characters, especially Cameron, who has a lot of growing up to do, but also Tova, telling them not to be so hasty, or have another look at that clue. Marcellus is in the same boat as us, figuring things out long before the humans do, but then octopuses are remarkably bright creatures.

In an odd way Marcellus is the hero of the tory, and how Van Pelt makes this work is really charming. He’s a talented escapologist – just why are so many sea cucumbers disappearing? wonders his keeper – and a collector of glittering trifles. But time is not on his side and this adds to the tension.

Remarkably Bright Creatures is an altogether heart-warming read, well put-together with some interesting facts about sea creatures sprinkled through the story. I loved the North-West Pacific coastal setting, a fitting place for an aquarium, and the nosy but kindly locals. I’ll be looking out for Van Pelt’s next book. This one gets a four out of five from me.