Book Review: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens – a mystery that brings a marshy wilderness to life

I may be the last person I know to read this novel, but with the movie causing a lot of chat – both positive and negative, I thought it was about time.

Where the Crawdads Sing is one of those novels that sweeps you away. You can’t help but get lost in the world of Kya, abandoned by her family, by anyone she takes a shine to, but just gets on with the hand she’s dealt. The story starts in the early 1950s when Kya’s six, living with her family in a shack among marshes on the North Carolina coast. Her father’s a violent drunk with PTSD from his war service and has fallen out with his own once-grand family as well as his in-laws.

Kya’s mother is the first to leave and you struggle to understand how she could walk out on her family, particularly young Kya. But she’s a victim of so much abuse, it’s all she can do to get herself to safety. Soon Kya’s brothers and sisters leave too – they’re just old enough to make a life for themselves, but it’s a shame no one thought about their little sister. Meanwhile Kya, who teaches herself how to cook and keep herself alive, avoids the worst of her father’s mood swings, until he too leaves.

Kya has avoided school. Her single day in the classroom a rude awakening to prejudice and bullying. Still just a kid, she has learnt to navigate the marshes in her dad’s old boat. She discovers that the elderly black man who sells fuel, also sells fresh mussels so Kya finds a way to support herself. Thank goodness for old Jumpin’ and his kindly wife who look out for Kya, offering used clothing and affection.

And thank goodness for Tate, the boy a few years older, who teaches Kya to read and write. This opens doors for Kya and she is obviously very smart, soon recording the wildlife in her marsh not just with her collections of feathers and shells, the self-taught watercolours, but now with written descriptions too. But Tate is off to university and his life is set to take him in a different direction.

The story jumps forwards to 1969 with a murder investigation when the body of popular motor mechanic Chase Andrews is found at the bottom of a defunct fire tower. Did he fall or was he pushed? Sherriff Ed Jackson finds no fingerprints and enough to suggest foul play and soon his attention turns to the Marsh Girl. The old prejudices against Kya have never left and she becomes an easy scapegoat.

The murder investigation propels the story along, while weaving in Kya’s backstory, her growing up and her relationships with two young men. This is interesting enough, but what really makes the book special is the way Delia Owens brings the marsh to life – the watery passageways, the plants that grow there and the wildlife. This is described vividly in Kya’s distinctive voice which helps you see the world through her eyes.

“Crawdads” is an engrossing read and the character of young Kya as she learns to make a life for herself both heartbreaking and fascinating. The court case against Kya is gripping too, although I did find the plot lagged a little in the middle. And I couldn’t help thinking of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which kind of skewed my reading of this novel. Perhaps this earlier work was an inspiration for Owen’s book or it may have just been me. I guess it’s true that every reader reads a different book. “Crawdads” gets three and a half out of five stars from me.

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: 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.

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.