Review: The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

Another tick in the box for my progress through the marvellous Chief Inspector Gamache books by Louise Penny. Like many in the series, The Beautiful Mystery begins when a murder takes place in a remote area, and the Quebec Sûreté are called in to investigate. Usually it’s the hard-to-find village of Three Pines, but this time it’s an isolated monastery.

Gamache and side-kick Inspector Beauvoir take a plane then a fishing boat to the abbey of Saint Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups (St Gilbert among the Wolves), situated on the far side of a lake surrounded by wilderness. The Abbey’s prior and choirmaster, Frère Mathieu, has been found in the Abbot’s private garden, with his head bashed in. Clutched to his chest is a document on vellum bearing the arcane notation of a Gregorian chant.

As the police officers piece together the events of the morning and interview the twenty-four resident monks, they discover that Frère Mathieu wasn’t an easy man to get on with. A schism has appeared between the brothers following the release of a music CD two years before which shot the Gilbertines to fame and saved the order from bankruptcy. While half of the brothers supported their choirmaster, half felt the recording compromised the integrity of the order’s silent vows. Was this enough to cause someone to kill the prior?

Things are just getting interesting when a seaplane arrives the following day bearing the head of the Sûreté, Superintendent Francoeur. Has the Super come all this way just to deliver the post mortem report, or does he have another agenda? Events from previous books come back to haunt both Gamache and Beauvoir, with Francoeur at his smug and devious best, surely the wolf among the fold.

The two storylines merge together to create a satisfying crime novel, with plenty of interesting digressions that enrich the story. I enjoyed learning about the art of Gregorian Chant and the early methods of recording the music using neumes – extraordinarily, this becomes crucial to Gamache figuring out the crime. You just have to hand it to Penny – she is brilliant at coming up with original and quirky story-lines.

Events are left up in the air with the continuing subplot and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next book in the series to see what happens next. It’s no wonder Louise Penny has done so well with the series – four out of five from me.

Brodie No. 3: When Will There Be Good News?

For much of Kate Atkinson’s third novel in the wonderful Jackson Brodie series, our rugged hero is more like a victim than the white knight of earlier books. In the beginning of When Will There Be Good News?, we catch up with Jackson stalking the child he thinks might be his son. He manages to steal a hair from little Nathan’s head, ready for DNA testing.

Accidentally taking a train bound for Edinburgh instead of London and his love-nest with new wife, Tessa, Brodie is caught up in a train accident and badly injured. His life is saved by first-aid performed by the real hero of the story, sixteen-year-old Reggie, a little battler who is adjusting to living on her own since her mother’s sudden death on holiday.

Reggie is a terrific character. Her brother is a ne’er-do-well who always brings trouble. So she soldiers on alone, her meagre existence brightened by her job as nanny for Dr Joanne Hunter (Call me Jo) and baby Gabriel. Reggie is quite devoted to Dr H and Gabriel, but when the two disappear, Reggie suspects foul play, in spite of the husband’s assurances that everything is fine and his wife is just visiting a sick relative. So why did she not change out of her working clothes? And why is her car in the garage? And worst of all, why didn’t she pack the baby’s favourite comforter, the scrap of cloth he is never without.

Also in the mix is DCI Louise Monroe who is seeking the murderer of three people at a family party, his estranged wife and children now hiding in a safe house and in terror for their lives. Like Jackson, Louise is also newly married – to a wonderfully understanding surgeon she has no idea how to love. Instead of returning to her love-nest, Louise sits in her car outside the safe house, watching and tetchy.

Each character is on a trajectory that crashes into that of the other characters and eventually Brodie rouses himself from his hospital bed to save the day in his own unconventional way. It’s a brilliant ending on so many levels and events of Brodie’s past make interesting connections to the main plot-line.

Which is what I love so much about these novels. As well as the quirky characters, the witty dialogue, the snappy storytelling and the intriguing plots, Atkinson brings together divergent characters who often in more ways than one, have something in common. As Jackson says, ‘a coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.’ But maybe it’s also something to do with the human condition, and is why these are a grade or two above your standard crime novel. Four and a half out five from me.

Review: The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan

Set mostly in Galway, McTiernan’s debut crime novel, The Ruin, introduces Detective Sergeant Cormac Reilly, freshly arrived after a lengthy stint with the anti-terrorist mob in Dublin. He has good reason to make Galway his home – his partner, Emma, has a top-notch research job in Galway and with a more settled, peaceful Ireland – this is 2013 – it was time to look for a new career direction.

Only taking on a bunch of cold cases isn’t quite as challenging or adrenaline charged as what he’s used to. And why does get the feeling that his colleagues are all whispering behind his back? Just as well his old friend from police school, Danny, is on the team or he’d feel well and truly isolated.

The past keeps creeping back as well. Twenty years ago, Cormac was a rookie cop, called out on a miserable night to a decrepit manor house in the middle of nowhere to rescue two children. Their addict mother is dead from an overdose, the children, five-year-old Jack and fifteen-year-old Maude, look malnourished and cold. His squad car radio is broken so Cormac can only pile them into the back seat and take them to the hospital. The scene makes a compelling opening to the novel, and you just can’t wait to find out what has happened to the three of them in the intervening years.

Flicking forward to 2013, a suspected suicide turns out to be the same Jack, now a twenty-five-year-old engineer, with a stable relationship and a baby on the way. Had the past found a way of catching up with him too?

The Ruin is a solid detective story, with engaging characters and a ton of secrets ready to be revealed. There is plenty of action to keep you engaged, with an edge-of-the-seat ending that has you biting your nails. Cormac is a good cop, without the bad habits or lurking darkness that so often beleaguers fictional sleuths. Yet McTiernan makes him interesting. As well as settling into a new job and discovering who he can trust and who he can’t, Cormac has a new relationship. There are hints around how me met Emma during a previous investigation which are yet to be revealed.

The next book, The Scholar, is already out, and with another due to appear in March, the series is off to a flying start. I shall definitely be stopping by to see how Cormac is getting on. Three and a half out of five from me.

Jackson Brodie – the plot thickens

As I continue to read Kate Atkinson’s popular series, I ponder if any of the books can be as good as the first one – Case Histories.

One Good Turn is next, a hundred pages longer than Case Histories, with a shift in setting from Cambridge to Edinburgh. Jackson is here for the arts festival. Girlfriend Julia (yes, that Julia) is in a play, otherwise Jackson would be somewhere else – anywhere else probably, arts festivals not really being his thing. He witnesses an extreme case of road rage, and on a visit to an island, finds the body of a young woman, whom he can’t quite save from the tide. He reports his findings to the police but they think he imagined it all. Jackson seems to be constantly getting into trouble one way or another. We also meet Edinburgh detective Louise Monroe, who is really more Jackson’s type than Julia.

The story switches to follow Martin Canning, an unassuming period-mystery writer, another witness to the road rage incident. Here, in a rare moment of bravery, Martin intervenes against a madman with a baseball bat. He becomes caught up in the lives of victim and attacker in ways he never expected.

And then there’s Gloria, whose dodgy businessman husband has had a major coronary while in bed with a Russian prostitute. Young Russian women feature in all the story threads, one way or another, and the eventual connection between these threads is appropriately symbolised by the recurring image of Russian dolls.

One Good Turn is another terrific read, with a clever and complex storyline. As always Atkinson deserves a medal for characterisation and snappy dialogue, while the plot is pacy enough, once you get used to the constantly shifting narrative points of view. As you might expect, there are plenty of twists with a stunning surprise saved for the last page. Not quite as enjoyable as the knock-out Case Histories but still a respectable four out of five from me.

Old Favourite: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

We never thought there’d be a new Jackson Brodie novel. After four brilliant mysteries (and a superb television adaptation starring Jason Isaacs), we thought Atkinson had called it a day, returning to the historical literary fiction she’s so good at. Then nine years since the last Brodie was published, out came Big Sky and the crowds all cheered.

I haven’t got my hands on the new book yet, wanting to do things properly and reread the previous four. I’ve had them there on the bookcase waiting for a special occasion. So I picked up Case Histories thinking, I know what happens so will I still enjoy it?

The story gets off to a fairly gentle, atmospheric start, with the setting of Cambridge during a summer heatwave, following a family of young girls, the elder three doting on the youngest and sweetest, little Olivia. Then the unthinkable happens – little Olivia goes missing.

Thirty years later, Olivia’s sisters, Amelia and Julia, make a discovery that prompts them to hire a private detective. Enter Jackson Brodie – ex-army and-ex police and with a ton of baggage regarding his ex-wife, his eight-year-old daughter, to say nothing of the tragedy of his childhood.

Two more cases hit Jackson’s books at the same time: a grieving man haunted by the murder of his daughter ten years before; a woman who has lost touch with the niece she promised to look out for when her sister was arrested for killing her husband.

The cases shake Jackson out of the stupor that has beset him as he spends long days surveilling an air hostess on behalf of her jealous husband and being at the beck and call of a crazy cat-lady who neglects to pay him. Through the book, someone seems intent on killing Jackson, so the story is livened up by several fights.

Not that it needs enlivening as the story sparkles with humour and terrific characters. They are all notable for various reasons: Mr Wyre’s devotion to his dead daughter mirrors the powerful bond and fear Jackson feels over his own daughter, Marlee, who at eight is pert and has a habit of blurting things out at the wrong time. Julia and Amelia are eccentric opposites – Julia’s outrageous flirting adding to the humour of the book, contrasting with the awkward spinsterishness of her sister. Binky, the crazy cat lady, is a treat for her old colonial airs, and has an odd connection with the sisters and the secrets surrounding them.

I loved this book a second time around. Having finished it, I could pick it up and start it all over again – it was that good. Being character driven rather than plot driven, Case Histories is nevertheless a complete page-turner. The prose is all you could wish for too – smart, witty and honed to perfection.

And then there’s Jackson. He’s an archetypal sleuth – troubled, with a messy past; he’s clever but gets into scrapes through his dogged determination to keep digging. And he’s got that Yorkshire no-nonsense manner that makes relationships with women difficult as he struggles to articulate his feelings (while women readers find him totally gorgeous). It’s no wonder Atkinson brought him back for more outings and even after nine years, the new book’s popularity would suggest he’s a welcome return. Case Histories is a rare five star read from me.

A Very British Mystery

It must be the cooler weather, or just wanting a bit of mid-year R & R, but lately I’ve been devouring cosy mysteries. All have one thing in common – English rural settings. For some reason, there is nothing more entertaining than visualising a charming English village, complete with manor houses, welcoming inns and period churches, and then throwing in a whole lot of murder and mayhem.

First off I went to Bridgestead in Yorkshire, a village which is also home to a woollen mill. In Dying in the Wool, private investigator, and general nosey parker, Kate Shackleton accepts her first commission from soon-to-be-married chum Tabitha. Tabs wants her father to walk her down the aisle, but no one has seen him since the war (WWI, that is) when he ran away from the nursing home where he was being treated for depression. Is he alive or is he dead? That’s the problem. Soon there’s murder, danger and a bunch of characters with plenty to lose, so it’s just as well Kate has a right-hand man: Jim Sykes, an ex-copper too smart for the force. They make a great team. Tootling about in her 1913 Jowett, Kate is independent, undaunted and a sparky narrator. The 1920s era makes a brilliant backdrop too and I learned a lot about the textile industry. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the next in this cosy series by Frances Brody, A Medal for Murder.

The Kurland St Mary series by Catherine Lloyd makes you imagine what would happen if Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy decided to investigate murders together. Or maybe Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester. The Austen era is more accurate for the series, but the Bronte characters seem to fit better somehow. Sir Robert Kurland is a Napoleanic Wars veteran, with the big house up the hill. He gets grumpy because of his leg injury. Lucy is the rector’s daughter who knows how to handle his moods and has an independent streak at odds with what was expected of women of her station. In Death Comes to the Fair, the two are planning their wedding but murder gets in the way when the verger is found with his head bashed in by a gargoyle. You can’t get more period mystery than that. The book introduces all the people who surprisingly hated Ezekiel Thurrock, farming folk mostly, and a story that goes back to events in the 1600s with some interesting stuff about superstition and witchcraft.

I’ve also been catching up with the Superintendent Richard Jury series by American author, Martha Grimes. It’s terrific that ebook versions of the earlier novels are coming out and I picked up The Old Fox Deceiv’d, the second in the series, for a couple of dollars – a genuine bargain. You might think that with Jury investigating, the stories would be more police procedural than cosy. But you couldn’t get a less stereotypical policeman. His mate is Melrose Plant who, with his abandoned title and lovely manners, has entree into the world of people with power, privilege and mansions. Plant loves nothing better than helping his chum Jury on a case. The books are each named after an English pub – here The Old Fox Deceiv’d is in the coastal village of Rackmoor, a bleaker spot you’d have trouble to find, this being Yorkshire in winter. When a woman in mummer’s costume is stabbed, Scotland Yard are called in and Jury and Plant carry on their detecting together, helped by home-alone twelve-year-old Bertie Makepiece and his dog. All the hallmark ingredients of a Richard Jury novel are here: humour, quaint characters, money and position, buried secrets and haunting tragedies. Good food too. What’s not to love?

Expectation by Anna Hope and Other Novels about Friendship

I loved Emma Hope’s last book, The Ballroom, so had high hopes for her new novel. Expectation follows the lives of three friends. Hannah and Cate met at school and share a competitiveness during English classes. At Manchester University, grungy, kohl-eyed Hannah, meets beautiful Lissa, who has a lot of bad habits, and the two become friends over a shared assignment and eventually all three share a gorgeous flat in London on the edge of a park.

The story is mostly set years later as the women, now in their thirties, struggle to achieve what they most want in life. For Hannah, it’s a baby with husband Nath – they’re onto their third go at IVF and things are tense. For Lissa, it’s success as an actress. We follow her battle to keep an agent, to pay the bills, to find the enthusiasm for auditions for adverts. Cate has the baby Hannah wants, an unplanned pregnancy that led to a hasty marriage with chef, Sam, who makes beautiful food, but is he the right husband for her?

Lissa’s painter/former activist mum says it all when she tells her daughter:

“You’ve had everything. The fruits of our labour. The fruits of our activism. Good God, we got out there and we changed the world for you. For our daughters. And what have you done with it?”

Expectations are high indeed. The book slips between characters, between time zones, creating three varied women lost in the miasma of disappointment and unhappiness, behaving badly and eventually learning to start again. Anna Hope writes with great empathy and creates visual and dramatic scenes with terrific dialogue. Perhaps this is because Hope is also an actor – I’ve enjoyed books by actors before (something for another post, maybe). And who doesn’t love stories about friends, the early promise of their youth, the slow unfolding of their later lives. The wax and wane of their relationships. Expectation didn’t disappoint, scoring a four out of five from me.

You might also like these novels about friendship:

The Group by Mary McCarthy is the classic novel about friends, in this case there are eight of them, all students together at Vassar. Their experiences finding fulfilment in work, relationships and as mothers in 1930s America are described with a realism the reading public wasn’t quite ready for – it was published in 1963 and panned at the time, but highly thought of now.

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood is a powerful novel about the ugly side of friendship, the difficulty of fitting in, bullying and how cruel and competitive groups of friends can be. Fortunately, Elaine, who bears the brunt of it all eventually finds closure.

The Flight of the Maidens is by one of my all-time favourite authors, Jane Gardam. It concerns three friends at the end of World War II, all having won scholarships to university. The summer between leaving school and going away to college is full of dramatic events described with wit and quirky characters, drama and surprises, with glimpses of a forgotten England.

Invincible Summer by Alice Adams follows four friends from college – Eva, Benedict, Sylvie and Lucien who graduate on the brink of the new millennium and their lives, loves and disappointments beyond into adulthood. It’s a great snap-shot of the time, has terrific characters and is a satisfying read.

Review: Hughie Mittman’s Fear of Lawnmowers by Conor Bowman

Back in Ireland again with a novel set mostly in Galway. The Hughie of the title is a small boy at the beginning of the book, but by the time he’s twelve he’s had to cope with a lot of hard stuff: losing two toes due to an accident with an out of control lawnmower; overhearing his parents reveal that he’s adopted; being sent to boarding school at the age of twelve; losing his mother to suicide and thinking that it’s all his fault.

But Hughie is a determined young lad, and he loves his mother so very much that he embarks on a plan to bring her back. This is impossible you say, she’s dead. His dad knows this, his best friend Nyxi knows this, but when unusual things happen to Hughie it begins to seem possible after all.

Hughie Mittman’s Fear of Lawnmowers is very much a character-driven novel, always a plus for me. There’s Hughie’s difficult father, a philandering surgeon; Nyxi, the girl he meets in hospital after the foot incident, with a badly burned arm. The two become inseparable. ‘Sure but you have three good feet and three good arms between you’ says the lady who sells ice creams. There’s a bunch of peripheral characters you wish you had more time to get to know, such as Hughie’s grandmother in Dublin who is a real trouper towards the end of the book with her no-nonsense manner and hair-raising driving.

But one of the most interesting characters of all is Galway, the setting for a large part of the novel. Galway is lovingly described and seems to have a personality of its own. By the time I’d finished reading the book, I was ready to book my flight. The 1970’s music adds a touch of nostalgia and makes me wonder: are coming-of-age novels set in the past more appealing to older readers than the YA genre aimed at a younger demographic and what deep down is the difference?

I found this coming-of-age novel a quick and charming read, well-written and with an original storyline. Four out of five from me.

Review: A Keeper by Graham Norton

a keeperI’ve had numerous recommendations to read A Keeper, the much talked about second novel by Graham Norton. And the premise of the story is interesting enough to make you want to pick it up too. Elizabeth is a divorced academic living in her New York apartment with a teenage son when her mother dies suddenly in Ireland. Elizabeth must fly back to where she grew up, not very happily, to sort out her mother’s estate.

In the old family house that is now hers, Elizabeth finds a bundle of love letters written by the father she never knew. A surprise inheritance sends her to a remote farmhouse by a ruined castle – was this where Elizabeth was born? The story switches between Elizabeth’s search for clues and her mother Patricia’s story. Continue reading “Review: A Keeper by Graham Norton”

The Charm of Being Read To

y648 (1)Recently I discovered audiobooks. I had previously discounted them because of time. Someone reading to me out loud means the story will take so much longer. And that’s still true. But then again, what’s the rush?

Our library is running a winter reading challenge for adults called Turn Up the Heat. One of the challenges is to read a book in a format you wouldn’t normally choose, and having read loads of print books, ebooks and even a few graphic novels, I thought I’d bite the bullet and opt for an audiobook. I downloaded a Charles Todd mystery from the library website onto my phone (which was fairly painless using the Libby app) plugged in my earbuds and off I went. Literally.

I went off for a walk, I went off to hang out the washing, I went off to prune the roses, and I went off to clean the kitchen and the bathroom. I accomplished such a lot over the weekend and ‘read’ a book at the same time. This was a revelation. Continue reading “The Charm of Being Read To”