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”

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller

nowI am so glad I read Miller’s latest as an ebook because such is the dramatic tension he maintains throughout, that if it had been a regular book, I would have been flipping to the end to see what happened. 

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free follows John Lacroix, a young English cavalry officer, sent home to recover from terrible events during the retreat from Portugal – we’re talking about the Peninsula Campaign in the Napoleonic Wars. He’s barely alive, but under the care of his housekeeper, recovers his health enough to plan a visit to Scotland in search of old folk songs, taking his violin, but also his pistol. He shouldn’t really be doing that – he’s supposed to report back to his regiment. The war is still going and they need all the men they can get.

Another cavalry officer comes looking for him to tell him this but gives him a bit of extended leave. Meanwhile, in Spain, there are reports of a horrific atrocity against a village – rape, pillage, murder, etc. during the retreat. Desperate men do desperate things but someone has to pay to appease the locals. Somehow Captain John Lacroix becomes their man. They send brutish Corporal Calley to deal to him and the infinitely more refined Spanish officer Medina to make sure he does. Continue reading “Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller”

Book Review: The Familiars by Stacey Halls

familiarsStacey Halls’s debut novel, The Familiars, concerns the Pendle witch trials which occurred in Lancashire in 1612. It’s a topic Hall has always been fascinated with, according to her author blurb, and it shows. The novel is well-researched and instead of taking the easy path and writing a story around her own made-up characters, virtually all the book’s personnel really existed.

First off there is Fleetwood Shuttleworth – a seventeen-year-old noblewoman, whose main role in life is to produce an heir. She’s had three miscarriages already, and just when she begins to feel she might be pregnant again, she finds a doctor’s letter to husband Richard to say that giving birth is likely to kill her.

Still pale and sickly from her last miscarriage, Fleetwood is helped by her unexpected friendship with midwife Alice Grey and gradually she begins to hope she may survive to be a mother. But when Alice is accused of witchcraft and murder, Fleetwood has to fight back if she wants to save both her friend and her own life. Continue reading “Book Review: The Familiars by Stacey Halls”

Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

normalNormal People won the last Costa Award, as well as being long-listed for the Man Booker and the Woman’s Prize for Fiction. So I knew it would be good. And it is in many ways. The novel concerns Connell and Marianne, two young people who at the outset of the novel are in the same year at school. They kind of click even though Marianne’s family are wealthy and Connell’s mother cleans their house.

The story follows their on and off again relationship over their last year at high school and through university – they both go to Trinity College in Dublin. What gives the book its dramatic tension is that both characters are damaged – Connell being the kid from a bad family, with all the insecurities which that implies, while Marianne feels unloved, is mocked at school and suffers abuse at home. Throughout, they somehow remain friends, see other people, do a lot of soul-searching and struggle with their emotions. Continue reading “Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney”

Quick Review: Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

bagYou may remember Crooked Heart, Evans’s novel set during World War II about a middle-aged grifter on hard times and Noel, her young evacuee. The story provides an original view of wartime life, smart and witty with some brilliant characters. Among them is Mattie, Noel’s godmother who makes a brief but memorable appearance at the start of the book. So memorable in fact, that Evans has devoted a new book to her: Old Baggage.

The story takes place in 1928 as the suffragette movement finally sees franchise for women on equal terms with men. (When women got the vote in 1918, it was for property-owning women over thirty only). Mattie Simpkin is a former suffragette in her late fifties, who with old campaign chum Florrie, puts on talks about the battle for the vote and holds forth to anyone who pauses to listen. Ever the campaigner, the story concerns Mattie’s discovery that there’s no point giving women the vote if they have no knowledge of politics, history or the world at large. She starts a group for young girls called the Amazons who learn vigorous activities on Hampstead Heath (javelin throwing, slingshots and archery) as well as taking educational excursions, camping out and debating. Continue reading “Quick Review: Old Baggage by Lissa Evans”

Some Hot New Books to Look Out For

If your reading appetite is a little jaded, try these new books by authors who are masters of their craft.

Kate Atkinson has a new Jackson Brodie novel just out, nine years after last one – something I never thought I’d see. In Big Sky, ‘old secrets and new lies intersect in this breathtaking novel by one of the most dazzling and surprising writers at work today’ according to the blurb and yes, I imagine they do because when she isn’t writing crime fiction, Atkinson has made a name for herself as a master of literary fiction, winning a host of literary awards. So she’s not going to be the author who pumps out a couple of page-turners a year just to keep her Jackson Brodie fans happy. The reason they’re so good is that they’re written by a literary author, and not just any literary author. Atkinson is the master of the interesting sentence, which melds into the interesting paragraph, and from then into the surprisingly good chapter and you know where this is heading. So yes, I’ll be happy to get my hands on. Very happy.

We all remember The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon’s breakout novel about a boy on the autism spectrum who sees something suspicious next door. It was a brilliant piece of characterisation, laced with humour and insight. There have been a few books since, but The Porpoise has whetted my curiosity in particular as it is a reworking of the Shakespearean story of Pericles, one of the least known late plays, so quite a new direction for this author. There’s a missing child, pirates, shifts from present day to ancient times with elements of fantasy. So never a dull moment, I should imagine.

I loved Anna Hope’s previous novel, The Ballroom – an original story around two marginalised characters who find themselves incarcerated in a mental institution and who unexpectedly fall in love. It’s 1911, and people have been talking about eugenics and sterilisation of the ‘unfit’, although in England at least, it didn’t quite come to that, fortunately. Hope’s new book, Expectation is a contemporary novel about friendship – in particular, about two women who at the outset have youth, energy and high hopes for the future. Ten years on, they are still struggling to have a meaningful life. Maybe this isn’t the most original of premises, but I shall be eager to see what Hope does with it.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett is about the family of a Philadelphia property magnate, particularly his two estranged children told over five decades. Once wealthy, the brother and sister are left to fend for themselves – something of an evil step-mother scenario here – and the bond between the two will either save or ruin them further. Since Commonwealth and State of Wonder, Patchett is on my must-read list. She writes such amazing characters and gripping, suspenseful storylines, so I can’t wait for this one which has a September release date.

The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith would seem to have some of the same key ingredients as his stunning 2011 book, Bright and Distant Shores. The new book takes us to Fort Lee, New Jersey and the beginnings of cinema in the US as well as Paris – City of light – plus the Belgian battlefields of World War I. History and personal obsessions collide in this sweeping drama. Smith is a consistently good historical novelist and this is sure to be a worthy addition to the pile on my bedside table.