Book Review: The Way It Is Now by Garry Disher – old crimes surface in Aussie Noir mystery

I remember when Jane Harper’s stunning novel The Dry hit the shelves and suddenly we all wanted to read more Australian crime, or Aussie Noir as we soon called it. And all the while it seems Australian author Garry Disher has been producing reliably readable and award winning crime thrillers for years. I’d heard of him of course, but this I am ashamed to admit is the first Garry Disher novel I’ve read. At the end of which I could only shake my head and ask myself, what took me so long?

The Way It Is Now is Disher’s latest stand-alone novel. It’s about Charlie Deravin, a police officer on disciplinary leave who has nothing better to do or anywhere else to go but the old family beach house on Menlo Beach. While there’s plenty of surfing and Christmas to think of – his daughter’s visit is something to look forward to – there are reminders of the past at every turn.

The son of a cop, Charlie grew up in a society where the friends who came to family barbecues were other cops. And some of them are still around. But the most haunting thing for Charlie is the disappearance of his mother when he was a rookie policeman part of the team looking for a boy missing from a school camp. Assumed drowned, the child disappeared the same day as Charlie’s mother, a high school teacher who’d just popped home unexpectedly. Her car was found abandoned with evidence of a struggle. Newly separated, many people pointed the finger at Charlie’s dad.

The story weaves Charlie’s memories of the past with his ongoing relationship with his brother who hasn’t spoken to his father since, and his father now ailing but still receiving poison pen letters. There’s also the case Charlie has been suspended from, which caused him to fall out with his boss, but also brought a new love into his life. Anna was a whistle-blower in a case of jury tampering and someone’s trying to silence her. So nothing’s going well for Charlie. As Charlie uncovers the past, two dead bodies are found at a construction site and the police see even more links to Charlie’s dad. But Charlie has seen the toll the unsolved mystery has taken on his father and believes in his innocence. The book becomes a race to prove his innocence while the old man begins to fade.

While the plot is complex and interesting enough, humming along with plenty of suspense, Disher really excels with his characters. Charlie is likeable enough but flawed – the disappearance of his mother niggling in his mind for twenty years. This has put a strain on his marriage to say nothing of his work in Vice. There’re the old-school cops that he bumps onto at the beach, particularly Mark Valente who was like a second father to young Charlie and epitomises the old-boys club of local cops. Minor characters are no less interesting

While Valente seems a benign presence, he evokes a sense of not rocking the boat and keeping the past in its place. Charlie’s brother Liam loathes the man for his homophobic attitudes. Misogeny also lurks throughout the book – his mother’s nervousness around her lodger, the nasty rape case that was Charlie’s downfall, the attitudes to police wives. Disher brings it all to life in a way that seems authentic and adds a tone of menace.

I enjoyed The Way It Is Now as an audiobook, which was superbly read by Henry Nixon and made me feel I was at the beach on Australia’s Victoria coast. Disher evokes the Australian landscape well, so I’m going to see where else he takes me. This books gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: It All Comes Down to This by Therese Anne Fowler – a compelling sisterly drama

Stories about sisters seem to pop up in all kinds of literature. They’re in those fairy stories I loved as a kid (Cinderella, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Snow White and Rose Red), several Jane Austen novels, to say nothing of King Lear which we read in high school. What is it that we like about sister stories so much? Is it because you get to see a family from several different angles? Whatever the reason, I absolutely devoured It All Comes Down to This.

The book starts out in New York – another plus for me – where Marti Geller is getting her affairs in order. She has only a couple of weeks to live and is remarkably calm about it; the hospice people are wonderful. She has written in her will that the family cottage in Maine is to be sold and the proceeds divided among her three daughters. This creates a mixture of responses from the sisters, particularly as she has chosen her son-in-law as her executor.

Beck is appalled at the idea of the sale. The cottage has been their vacation home for decades, even if no one’s been there in a while. Her sisters could use the money, but Beck is looking for a bolt-hole. With her children grown-up she wants to finally write that novel. She’s an accomplished journalist, but the novel has been in the back of her mind for years. It doesn’t help that her husband Paul is an editor for a publishing company that has nurtured award winning novelists. Having him peering over her shoulder just stifles any creative juices. Secretly, Beck wonders if Paul might be gay.

Middle sister Claire is recently divorced, having admitted to her husband after too many drinks at a party, that he wasn’t the love of her life. She still carries a torch for someone else. As a girl, Claire struggled to compete with assertive Beck or pretty younger sister Sophie, the family darling, so she worked hard at school. Now Clare’s a paediatric heart surgeon, still with a huge student loan to pay off. The divorce has been another financial burden and she’s got a young son to think of. Selling the cottage in Maine would be a godsend.

While her older sisters married early and settled into family life, Sophie is single at thirty-six and trying to live the dream, or at least what her Instagram followers think is the dream. She works for an art gallery in New York, using her bubbly personality to seal deals with up and coming artists and their buyers. This involves travel and looking the part and being at all the right parties. She has maxed out all her credit cards and lives out of two suitcases, house-sitting to put a roof over her head, while everyone thinks she has a flat of her own which she sublets. Sophie could definitely use a hefty cash injection.

The narrative cycles between these three women as well as Paul, who has a burning secret of his own and C J Reynolds the cottage’s prospective buyer. C J is interesting in that he’s just served a term in prison for shooting at his father. Another character with family baggage. He settles into a friend’s lavish home on Maine with the idea of buying in the area and is surprised to have to share the house with two other unusual house guests: an elderly patrician woman and her newly orphaned grandson. This creates some wonderful scenes as the three learn to get along with each other.

The story burbles along between all of the above characters and while they are likeable enough, the author doesn’t shirk from showing us their faults and foibles. The story is paced nicely as Beck does her darnedest to hang on to the cottage and the lengths she will go to. Claire’s story is more of an emotional one while Sophie gets in a tighter and tighter spot as her financial house of cards looks set to crumble.

So, as I said, I simply plowed through the book, thoroughly entertained and curious about how it would work out for all five characters. But to tell the truth the ending fell a little flat for me. Was it a bit too fanciful, a bit rushed? Or was it that when it came down to it, I found the sisters just a bit foolish, annoyingly so even, and not quite likeable enough. So this one’s a three and a half out of five from me. I’ll still hunt out more books by this author though.

Book Review: The Driftwood Girls by Mark Douglas-Home – a twisty mystery involving fiction’s favourite oceanographer

I’d almost forgotten how much I’d enjoyed the previous ‘sea detective’ mysteries and so this book almost slipped under my radar. It’s been a while since The Malice of Waves, Douglas-Home’s previous novel about his beleaguered oceanographer sleuth. Cal McGill runs a small business out of his Edinburgh flat, mapping ocean currents for clients who are missing things – often loved ones – lost at sea. He has pictures of flotsam and jetsam on a pinboard that dominates his living/working space, some of them rather grisly. So yes, he’s an odd sort.

It’s not unusual for him to find himself in a tight spot and at the start of The Driftwood Girls everything seems to be going wrong. After talking to an elderly man who looked set to jump from a bridge, the news media have labelled him as the bad guy when the old fellow disappears. Clients have dropped him like a hot potato and he’s almost out of cash. Then he learns that his old uni friend Alex is dying and is called to make good a promise to bury him in the middle of Alex’s favourite lake, which being illegal, will have to be done post-burial and under cover of darkness.

Out of the blue, Cal is contacted by Kate Tolmie, desperate to find her sister Flora who left a mysterious note with Cal’s name on it. Twenty-years before Kate and Flora’s mother disappeared off the coast of France when she was due to return to her family via ferry. The disappearance was big news at the time but no clues have ever come to light. Kate also hopes Cal can find out what happened to her mother, and there’s a personal connection too. Flora was Alex’s fiancée.

The story switches to Texel, an island holiday spot in the Netherlands, where the body of a young English girl lost at sea washed up, also twenty-three years ago. Here her old school-mate Sarah has made her home, guilt-ridden for not being a better friend. Of course, only Cal can make the connection. And what’s the connection to the death of a beggar at an Edinburgh train station, stabbed in an adjacent alley. All clues point to Kate Tolmie being the killer but DS Helen Jamieson isn’t so sure.

Helen is the other great thing about these books. She, like Cal, is an awkward character, not getting on with her colleagues because of her need to examine all the facts to ensure the right person is put away. Imagine that! Her IQ is off the chart and she’s got a massive crush on Cal. The two have become friends over several cases, but Cal is a terrible person to be friends with as he disappears for months at a time and doesn’t keep in touch.

Friendship is a recurring theme throughout the book – the awkward friendship between Cal and Helen, Cal’s sporadic memories of time spent with Alex, and their friend Olaf. There’s Sarah and her elegant French neighbour, as well as her memories of lost friend Ruth. Friendship has its obligations which can cause strain as much as it enriches people and we can see that here. Then there are all those secrets. Cal is in for a few surprises about the old pals he lost touch with and it is fortunate that Helen is investigating as she helps connect the dots.

This is a lovely twisty read with some really evocative coastal settings that add a ton of atmosphere. You get enough of the science of oceanography for it to add interest without weighing the story down. Mark Douglas-Home deftly weaves together all the plot threads – and there are a few of them – in a way that keeps you up reading to see what happens. All in all it’s a very satisfying mystery, but I hope we won’t have to wait too long before Cal’s next investigation. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Fell by Sarah Moss – an empathetic and gripping story of the pandemic

The Fell reads a bit like several interwoven stories, each from the perspective of a different character. The single day setting of the book gives it more of a short-story feel, in that you only get glimpses of the past while the immediate future is left up in the air. This concentrates the tension of what happens when Kate goes for a walk and seems to disappear.

The story is set in a small town in the Pennines where Kate lives with her son Matt and they’re just scraping by. Kate works as a waitress and she does a bit of pub singing, but that’s all come to a halt since a contact at work has become ill with the Covid virus and she’s forced to take a couple of weeks off and to isolate at home.

This is hard for Kate as she’s a keen walker. She’s up on the paths into the wilderness near her home normally every day. She loves nature and living her life with care for the environment. As we meet her, she’s running out of money and there’s not much in the cupboards, certainly not a lot to feed a hungry fifteen-year-old. The house always seems to be cold adding to the sense of times being tough. So you can’t blame Kate for escaping her worries in a fit of desperation and striding up the path to the fell. She only plans a quick walk before dark, but something happens and she doesn’t return.

The story flips from Kate’s character to Matt’s, a caring kid who worries about his mum. As time goes by, he is torn between phoning for help and the fear that his mother would be in terrible trouble. She could face a huge fine they can ill afford, so the hours tick by and Matt waits. He hesitatingly visits next door where Alice is also finding things tough.

Recently widowed, Alice has dinner with her daughter via Skype, but since her battle with cancer, her daughter never stops pestering her about her health. Even though Alice is on her own, it’s like someone is always peering over her shoulder, making her feel guilty about baking all those cookies and not taking better care of herself. She misses her friends and trips to town, stuck at home because of her age and vulnerable health.

The fourth narrator is emergency rescue responder Rob. Now divorced, he should be at home with his teenage daughter – it’s his rostered weekend. But when the call comes through that a walker’s gone missing, he knows his duty is to the missing woman. Kate has a teenager at home too – probably worried sick. Imagine if that was his daughter. He’s torn but it’s a life and death situation – with chilly November temperatures, hypothermia could be fatal if they don’t find Kate soon.

Moss has created four very believable and empathetic characters in a situation many of us will recognise. This is the first book I’ve read that where the Covid pandemic as a key part of the story, not just an interesting background. She conjures up the anxiety, isolation and insecurity felt by many during those difficult times. And also the obsessiveness: the bread baking and the sanitising of groceries.

You get the sense that everyone is battling themselves – to say nothing of social media shaming – doing the right thing on the one hand while desperate for some relief on the other. Some tiny treat. I remember that feeling well. Whether it’s just getting out of your house, playing computer games or eating cookies for dinner.

The Fell’s a short book, and you plough through the pages to see what happens next. I would have liked at least an epilogue to see if all that worry was justified and because I felt so invested in the characters I wanted a little bit of optimism for them. Something for them to look forward to. But this is a perfectly pared down story, and those focussed anxieties don’t let up until the end.

The Fell is also one of those books where there are no quotation marks, which kind of works, adding to that stream of consciousness narration, and I did get used to it. Eventually. The chapter headings are all lower case, which makes them oddly emphatic. But all this vanishes as you read, because of your connection with the characters. If it isn’t too soon for you to read a Covid novel, give this one a go. At the end of the day, it’s just a darn good story – and a four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Winter Guest by W C Ryan – a ghostly murder-thriller amid the Irish troubles

The Winter Guest is my second W C Ryan novel, both books featuring ghosts, or at least characters who are able to see them. This isn’t a genre that normally grabs my interest, but Ryan makes the ghosts not too ghoulish, sometimes helpful and doesn’t let them take over the plot.

Tom Harkin is an intelligence officer for the IRA. It’s 1921 and Tom has been asked down to the funeral of former fiancée, Maud Prendeville, who’s been killed in a rebel ambush outside her home. Maud lived at Kilcolgan House, the run-down home of Lord Kilcolgan, her father. The family had not fared well during the WWI, losing Arthur, Maud’s brother. So there’s that.

And then Maud got caught up in the Easter Rising of 1916, siding with the rebels, which is unusual considering her family background, i.e., Anglo-Irish landed gentry and Anglican. After a narrow escape, she’s supposedly lead a quiet life, having sometime before broken off her engagement with Tom who she’d met at university. Gosh, she’s an interesting victim – it’s almost a shame we didn’t get to meet her properly, before the killer got her.

Maud had been at a card party at her uncle’s, Sir John Prendeville, and had unexpectedly decided not to stay the night – it’s dangerous to be out after dark, as violence erupts in so many ways. Not just the rebels, either. She gets a lift with District Inspector James Teevan, who is also dropping home Maud’s guest, family friend, Harry Cartwright. All three are discovered shot dead, but the IRA rebels swear they left Maud concussed, but still alive.

The elderly couple living at the gatehouse heard a shot go off a few minutes after the original shoot-out. So Tom’s been asked to put his intelligence officer hat on while he’s staying with the Prendevilles for the funeral to find out who murdered Maud. His cover as usual is that he’s an insurance assessor, evaluating a future claim on Maud’s estate.

This is a mystery where it doesn’t matter quite so much whodunit, as whose side they’re on and what secrets they’re hiding. As you read you have to get your head around the politics of the time. Since the Rising the British Army have come down hard on rebel activity, bolstering the local police force (The Royal Irish Constabulary, or RIC) with the Black and Tans recruited from ex-British solders, as well as Auxiliaries, a counter-insurgency unit. In charge of the local Auxies is Major Abercrombie, a shoot first, ask questions later sort of guy. Abercrombie was meant to have been in the car when it was ambushed.

And then there are the ghosts. Tom Harkin, still suffering from PTSD from his time in the war, feels a presence helping him avoid soldiers during curfew. He sees ghosts of men he knows are dead. It’s a shock to meet Sean Driscoll from his old regiment. He thought Driscoll had been killed in the same mortar attack that had wiped out many of his fellow soldiers. But somehow Driscoll survived and now he works for the Prendevilles. There’s a Prendeville ghost too, who Maud’s brother spots just before the ambush, seen only when a Prendeville is going to die.

The Winter Guest is more than an atmospheric country-house mystery – although there’s a ton of atmosphere in Kilcolgan House, with its failing masonry and lingering dead. It’s also a terrific snapshot of a time in history and the pressures of martial law, which seems to bring out the worst in many, and the best in a few. On top of that, Ryan rollicks up the tension as Tom Harkin slowly puts together what happened and why, leading to a nail-biting showdown at the end.

Tom unravels layers and motives, going back in time, plus a bunch of secrets that keep the reader guessing. I wouldn’t mind another mystery for Tom Harkin to solve – he’s an interesting and appealing character. But then I really liked Kate Cartwright from A House of Ghosts too. The author has written some historical fiction as William Ryan, but as W C Ryan, ghosts seem to be the connecting theme, rather than a regular sleuth. It’s an original idea and in Ryan’s skilled hands works really well. I’ll definitely be back for more. The Winter Guest is a four star read from me.

Book Review: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins – a gritty, believable survival tale you can’t put down

This book came highly recommended, the back cover promising an unputdownable page-turner and in a sense it is. But it is also much more. Picking it up I was instantly caught up in the world of Lydia and her young son Luca, as they hide from drug cartel hitmen who have gatecrashed a barbecue celebration and murdered all her family. That’s sixteen people, including Lydia’s husband, Sebastián. The two hide out in the shower, holding their breath, and as a reader I was holding my breath too.

I held my breath through a lot of this book, actually. The story starts out in Acapulco, where Lydia lives with Sebastián, a journalist who writes exposés on the Mexican drug cartels who hold sway over the country. A fairly new cartel, Los Jardineros, has become dominant in Acapulco, once a peaceful tourist trap, but now its economy is in doubt as visitors stay away. Lydia befriends Javier, a regular visitor to her bookshop who shares her taste in books. Lydia suspects Javier is a little in love with her.

Sebastián writes an article about the cartel, in particular its sophisticated drug lord, a piece that isn’t particularly defamatory, but leaves no doubt about his identity. Even so the family feel no reason to go into hiding, even when Lydia realises who the drug lord really is. This back story is fed throughout the book, little by little, but the main thrust of the plot follows Lydia and Luca’s escape. They have so many near misses, as they first find a way out of Acapulco, then to Mexico City, and on further north in a bid to reach the United States. For the reader, it’s a nail-biting ride.

In another country, you would imagine the police would protect the fugitives, but so many police officers are in the pocket of the cartels, it is impossible to know who to trust. The same thing goes for the people who work at airports, immigration officers and bureaucrats, almost anyone it seems could be on the payroll of Los Jardineros. So using banks and cellphones is out, along with public transport. There is nothing for it but to join the stream of migrants who pass through Mexico from countries further south, like the young girls, Soledad and Rebeca who come from Honduras, and who show Lydia how to ride La Bestia, the cargo trains that head north.

She and Luca are actual migrants. That is what they are. And that simple fact, among all the other severe new realities of her life, knocks the breath clean out of her lungs. All her life she’s pitied those poor people. She’s donated money. She’s wondered with the sort of detached fascination of the comfortable elite how dire the conditions of their lives must be wherever they come from, that this is the better option. That these people would leave their homes, their cultures, their families, even their languages, and venture into tremendous peril, risking their very lives, all for the chance to get to the dream of some faraway country that doesn’t even want them.

Soledad and Rebeca have a harrowing story too, like many of the migrants that ride on top of trains. They must have, to risk their lives like this. It is insanely dangerous and the casualties horrific. And here is Lydia so desperate she is riding La Bestia with her eight-year-old son. At any moment they may be captured and sent back to where they came from. Many of them are, or never heard from again. Then there’s the border crossing to consider, and a trek across the desert. And all the while Lydia cannot be sure she’s not being watched, her movements tracked.

The characters of Lydia and Luca are well rounded and interesting. You get glimpses of Lydia in her shop, educated and well-read, of her life with Sebastián. Luca is a geography nut and uses his knowledge of countries and cities to brilliant effect. Lydia is desperate to protect his innocence and fears he will be scarred for life by these experiences – how can he not be?

It’s a gripping story, made all the more so by the possibility that something like this could really happen. It may be fiction, but it reads true and the migrant experience seems to be well-researched. Sometimes the novel form works well because it puts you in the shoes of someone who may not be so very different from you, who is driven to extreme actions by impossible circumstances. American Dirt is well worth picking up, but it may keep you up at night, so be warned. It will certainly give you a lot to think about. It’s a four and a half star read from me.

Classics Club Spin: Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë – a quieter Brontë novel but still a gripping read

Anne Brontë is probably the lesser read of the three Brontë sisters, with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights constantly turning up on our screens, reimagined for new generations of viewers. The characters of Mr Rochester and Heathcliffe, in many ways more anti-heroes than heroes, are impossible to forget, to say nothing of the dramatic reversals of fortune that make the stories so enthralling, the stirring settings, the passion.

We have a more restrained story here with Agnes Grey, the eponymous character based on Anne Brontë’s own experiences as a governess. Agnes is only nineteen when her father, a country parson, loses a small fortune to speculation. Thanks to her mother’s careful management, there is no pressure for the family to do anything other than hunker down and budget carefully to get them through. But Agnes is a plucky young thing and sees this as an opportunity to help her family out and see something of life. She decides to be a governess and sets off for Wellwood and the Bloomfield family.

Her first placement is a rude awakening. The Bloomfield parents are disengaged and unloving, the four children running their nurse ragged. Little Tom Bloomfield is arrogant and cruel, particularly to any wild animals he comes across. Agnes is supposed to teach Tom and his sisters Mary Ann and Fanny, but is ignored by her charges. She’s not allowed to punish them either. She soon realises that she earns no respect from above stairs, nor any support from the the staff below. It’s a lonely life, but she’s determined to give it her best. To her chagrin, Agnes is dismissed after two terms for incompetence.

Her second post is not a lot better. Horton Lodge is the home of the Murrays, who have two teenage daughters, Rosalie and Matilda and their younger brothers John and Charles, all terribly indulged, the youngest boy too lazy to learn anything. Matilda who has learnt to swear from her father, does anything to escape the schoolroom for the stables. Things become easier when the boys are sent off to school, their parents realising Agnes is unable to teach them. It doesn’t matter so much for the girls, it seems, so long as they develop good manners that will stand them well in society.

I sometimes felt degraded by the life I led, and ashamed of submitting to so many indignities; and sometimes, I thought myself a precious fool for caring so much about them, and feared I must be sadly wanting in Christian humility, or that charity which sufferereth long and is kind…

Poor Agnes. She’s intelligent, but so young to have to deal with the conniving of her arrogant charges. While in Agnes we see the plight of an impoverished gentlewoman and the lack of options for earning a living, well-to-do young ladies don’t seem to fare much better. Rosalie at eighteen is soon to be married off and her mother has her sights set on a local baronet, without consideration for her daughter’s happiness. Rosalie responds by flirting like mad with all the eligible males in the area, including the curate Agnes has fallen for. It shows Rosalie up as capricious and spiteful, but you can’t entirely blame her.

Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is considered the stronger of the two novels she produced during her short life. I read somewhere it was the first really feminist novel, dealing with a woman who escapes her drunken, abusive husband – it caused quite a furore at the time. But this novel about a young woman’s struggles to make a life for herself is still interesting. I found it an engaging read and quite zoomed through the pages to see if things would improve for Agnes.

I am endlessly fascinated by the Brontë’s, and was happy to pick this up when it turned out to be the book selected for my Classics Club Spin challenge. (I had to read number 2 on my list). Head over to The Classics Club if you want to take up the spin challenge too.

Book Review: The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene – a riveting story, artfully crafted

I’d heard a few recommendations of this 2014 novel set in a New England school. You get to the middle and suddenly you can’t put it down, people told me. And yes, in a way, that was true.

The Headmaster’s Wife is the story of a marriage in trouble, set in the enclave of a small private prep school, a claustrophobic world where privacy and personal freedom can be in short supply. Tradition holds sway at Lancaster, an exclusive boarding school for wealthy students aiming for Ivy League universities. A few scholarships bring in students from poorer backgrounds, such as Betsy Pappas, a brilliant student from a small town north of Lancaster, the product of hippy parents, and Russell Hurley, a plumber’s son who is there because he’s so good at sport.

Not so, Arthur Winthrop. He’s the son of a Lancaster headmaster, and the grandson of a Lancaster headmaster, and carrying on in the same family tradition (a good literature degree from Yale and a teaching career), is now the headmaster of the title. We catch up with Arthur at the start of the book when he’s lost his way. Walking through Central Park in the snow, he has some sort of mental breakdown, removes his clothes, before finding himself in police custody and requested to explain his behaviour.

The story flips back to his obsession with a student, Betsy Pappas, who is not only attractive, but really gets Russian literature. Meanwhile his wife plays a lot of tennis, or spends time in their son’s room, missing Ethan who has disappointed his father by joining the army instead of going to Yale. The succession of Winthrops as Lancaster headmasters will likely end with Arthur.

And she thinks perhaps that is what love is: letting someone else see that part of you that shatters like glass… They will grow old together, broken together, and as long as they both don’t completely shatter at the same time, they might find a way to pick each other off the ground.

While the Headmaster’s Wife is about the Winthrops and their marriage, there’s also a mystery/suspense element that keeps you hooked. Communication problems, suppressed feelings as well as power and its abuse hover in the background. I was also reminded of that often quoted line from Philip Larkin’s poem, “This Be the Verse”. You know the one.

To say more would spoil one or two surprises that give the book the impetus that keeps you reading. The story structure is original, and you can’t help but admire the clever storytelling, the fine writing, but the book will tug at your heartstrings too. I was glad of the recommendation to pick this up, as it’s a quiet, unassuming looking book that would have otherwise escaped my radar. The Headmaster’s Wife scores a four out of five from me.

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: 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