Book Review: Run by Ann Patchett

Another book-fair find, this earlier work by Ann Patchett is well worth picking up. Bracketed between an opening chapter describing how the late and lovely Bernadette Doyle came to acquire a statuette of the Virgin that looks just like her and a chapter decades later when one of her sons is about to receive his degree, most of the story takes place over a couple of days during a Boston winter.

Ex-mayor, Bernard Doyle loves going to political lectures but his two adopted sons, Teddy and Tip, aren’t so keen. Doyle has high hopes for his sons – the political ambitions he was unable to achieve himself. We catch up with Tip in the university lab where he studies fish, waiting for Teddy who is always late. Snow is falling as the two rush to the seats Doyle has saved for them to hear Jesse Jackson.

Later in the street, Tip pleads with his father to return to his lab then steps blindly into the path of a car, saved at the last second by a woman who pushes him aside. She is hit and badly injured, the family gathering round her to wait for the ambulance, while her young daughter, Kenya, tries to keep her warm and be the responsible adult at only eleven. As her mother is taken off to hospital, and there is no one else to care for Kenya, the Doyle family are drawn to this spirited and practical young girl and find themselves stepping in. While they wait for news of the woman’s prognosis, they all discover connections they couldn’t have possibly imagined.

Told from the varying viewpoints of Tip, Teddy, their older brother (the prodigal Sullivan), as well as Doyle, Kenya and her mother, surprises are revealed in conversations brought on by the accident. In many ways it is a small story, just a day or two during a bitterly cold Boston winter, but there are links far back into the past. It all comes together to create a very original and engaging story – some things you won’t see coming – with themes around what makes a family, racial inequality, honour and reputation as well as what we might do for the ones we love.

Patchett draws characters with great empathy, showing their faults and weaknesses, as well as their yearnings to do better, the love and the friction they share with family members. And as with her more recent books, Commonwealth and The Dutch House, she’s great with how she writes about siblings. Overall, it’s a very satisfying read, well written and nicely put together. It’s always worth checking out the back catalogues of authors like Patchett (this one is from 2007). Run is a four out of five star read from me.

Pandemic Reading Part 2: A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh

This book is definitely a little closer to home than The Last Hours, my previous pandemic read. A Lovely Way to Burn describes a modern-day pandemic – the kind that kills virtually everyone who catches it. Unofficially called ‘The Sweats’, it seems to have caught everyone off-guard. There’s no obvious policy for mask-wearing or lock-downs while people panic, party like there’s no tomorrow or carry on as usual.

In the latter category is Londoner Stevie Flint. We meet up with her at work, where she’s a presenter on a TV shopping channel. After a busy day persuading people to buy guff they don’t really need, she is miffed to discover her surgeon boyfriend, Simon, has stood her up – no apologetic text or phone-call. Maybe their relationship has run its course, she wonders. Dropping by Simon’s flat to pick up a dress and some rather expensive toiletries she’d left in his bathroom, Stevie finds Simon’s dead body and calls the police.

The problem is, Simon doesn’t seem to have died of The Sweats. The police say it’s natural causes, and yet he was always so fit. Stevie is left to ponder how little she really knew about him, and then she gets sick. When, surprisingly, Stevie recovers she receives a letter from Simon – one of those ‘in the event of my death’ missals which sets her on course for a whole lot of trouble.

Simon worked in paediatrics – in particular, finding a cure for children with cerebral palsy, along with several colleagues who were also his closest friends. Having hidden a laptop containing sensitive information in Stevie’s flat, Simon has requested her to take it to a Mr Reah and absolutely no one else. When Stevie tries to track Reah down at Simon’s hospital, she finds he has died, and not surprisingly, that as a survivor of The Sweats, Stevie is medical hot property.

So begins a gripping cat-and-mouse story, as Stevie, believing Simon to have been murdered, attempts to discover the secrets on the laptop. There are people out to get her, she has to fight off more than one assailant, and take a punt on who to ask for help. In the background, London grinds to a halt, there are curfews and the army rolls in to help maintain order.

I wanted to yell at Stevie that she had to get in some supplies, fill her car up with gas and get out while she could. That she should find a cottage in the country somewhere with a big vegetable garden and maybe a henhouse; that her amateur sleuthing could wait. Simon would still be dead and in a week or two; chances are the evil perpetrator would likely enough be dead too. But then we wouldn’t have had much of a story here, would we?

A Lovely Way to Burn is the kind of book that has you in thrall from page one. It reminded me a little of The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan with our beleaguered heroine holding a secret she doesn’t understand that someone wants to kill for. And there’s the surviving against the odds aspect that ramps things up a gear. It may not be the book for you if you’re squeamish about disease, bodily fluids and the misery of knowing your number’s up and there’s nothing you can do about it. And rats, there are those too.

But however icky things got, I found I couldn’t put the book down. A Lovely Way to Burn is the first in Welsh’s Plague Times trilogy, and I shall look forward to checking in with Stevie again – she’s a great character. Will Stevie get out of London, find a bolt-hole to hide in while the world as she knows it disintegrates? What will the world like be after that? A new regime based on subsistence agriculture or will chaos prevail? I can’t wait to find out. Some copy-editing issues did slightly spoil my reading pleasure, so this one’s a three and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: Reading in Bed by Sue Gee

Such a treat to discover a Sue Gee novel I hadn’t read. At first glance Reading in Bed looks like a chick lit novel (it has that kind of cover), perhaps aimed at readers not dissimilar to the two main characters: Dido and Georgia, old friends now just hitting their sixties. We meet them on the way home from a week-long literary festival in Hay.

Georgia lives in London and a year or so ago lost her husband to cancer. She still misses Henry immensely, and is just a bit jealous of Dido whose husband Jeffrey is fit, still cycling to work – he’s an academic at a university in York. Then there are Dido’s children: Kate is a doctor married to fellow medic, Leo, and the pair have produced two adored grandchildren; Nick is a history lecturer doing a PhD with long-term partner, Paula, also an academic. A family of achievers, no less.

By comparison, Georgia’s unmarried daughter Chloe is dyslexic, having struggled at school and now works on photographic shoots as a ‘stylist’, whatever that means. Chloe’s track-record with men is disastrous, one heart-breaker after another, and having hit thirty-one, is still single and not very well off.

This is where the book gets interesting. Chloe is bright and really good at what she does, but she comes across as lightweight compared to her parents and their friends who all met at university. As you might imagine, Chloe finds her mother demanding and at times interfering. And then there’s Henry’s batty old cousin, Maud, going to rack and ruin in a crumbling farmhouse with only an old dog for company. Poor Georgia has to look out for her as well.

But back in York, things aren’t going so well for Dido either: she worries about Nick – can he really be happy with the acerbic Paula whose offhand comments can so destroy the mood at family dinners? And why is Jeffrey so reluctant to come up to bed each evening, puddling in the study over his computer? Then there are Dido’s dizzy spells.

Sue Gee sets these various plot threads in motion to create a rich story around the workings of friendship, marriage, retirement and being accepted for who you are, no matter what – even batty Maud. The characters each have a lot to learn before the last page, and Gee carries the reader along with them nicely, creating empathy, even when they mess up, sometimes badly. She does this by getting inside their heads, the style adapting to each character’s way of thinking, though probably it was Chloe whose head I liked best.

The story puts everyone through a tough time of it, but the pleasantly optimistic ending will have you cheering. Bookworms will enjoy the references to literature, Henry, a civil servant, still kept his intellectual game up with his reading and was particularly fond of Dovstoyevsky, while T S Eliot and Gorky also get a look in. It’s much more than the chick lit cover would suggest, but then this is Sue Gee after all. Anyone who enjoys the fiction of authors like Joanna Trollope or Patrick Gale will relish this. A four and a half star read from me.

Book Review: Ghost Girl by Lesley Thomson

The Detective’s Daughter series is a wonderfully atmospheric collection of mysteries, with two quirky sleuths: Clean Slate cleaning business proprietor, Stella Darnell and her co-worker, Jack. Stella’s father, the recently deceased DCI Terry Darnell, has left Stella his house and one or two interesting cold cases. Terry may have been absent from a large part of his daughter’s growing up but his legacy has Stella hooked on detection.

In Ghost Girl, Stella discovers a small collection of old photographs of street scenes, spanning several decades. Terry documented cases, clues and crime scenes with his own photo records, something to mull over in the evening perhaps. The oldest from the folder goes back to 1966, the year Moors Murderers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady were sent to prison for life. Stella slowly uncovers what took place in each scene and what linked them, helped by Jack, a train driver, night walker and all-round odd-bod.

Jack’s most alarming habit, of which Stella is trying to cure him, is to sneak into the homes of people he refers to as ‘hosts’, people who are likely to kill. Jack keeps a well-thumbed London A-Z, covered in his own notes as he tracks his hosts down. When a woman comes across his A-Z and decides to keep it, he has no choice but to follow her, breaking into an old school, apparently her home, and taking up residence.

Plot threads detailing Stella’s investigation and Jack’s obsession are woven around flashbacks to the story of Mary, a young girl whose family has moved to a new house and the sudden death of her little brother in 1966. Stella has a new customer, too, David Bowie look-alike, David Barlow, who needs his house cleaned of the bad memories associated with his late wife. Stella finds him charming, but a little strange as well.

Here are all the ingredients for a twisty and complex mystery. Thompson gives out just enough to engage the reader in the usual guessing game of analysing suspects and dodging red herrings. A big fan of London stories, I enjoy the Hammersmith that Thompson creates on the page – both in 1966 and present day. And then there are the characters, made interesting by what drives them and the secrets they hide, not just the suspects and victims, but our amateur sleuths too.

It has always seemed obvious to me that cleaning houses is a great way to snoop in people’s affairs – I’m sure commercial cleaners learn a lot more about their clients than the police might imagine possible. So I’m sure Stella and Jack will find many more crimes to investigate. I’m glad as there is a lot to enjoy in this series. Ghost Girl gets a solid four out of five from me.

Book Review: On Turpentine Lane by Elinor Lipman

The genre of On Turpentine Lane a little hard to define. In the end I decided it was part chick-lit, part comedy of manners and part mystery – in this case a delicious concoction, particularly when seasoned with Lipman’s sharp and witty writing.

The story is told from the point of view of Faith Frankel, who has returned from the big city to live in her home town and work at her old school, writing thank you notes to sponsors. I didn’t know there were jobs like that, but there are others in her department who are tasked with benefactors of a higher order, including Nick, her office-mate and fellow conspirator.

While Faith’s fiancé is off walking across America to find himself, she buys a cute but run-down cottage on Turpentine Lane, while said fiancé posts pictures on social media of himself with attractive women. Meanwhile, Faith’s parents are having marital problems, her father leaving his job in insurance to reinvent himself as a painter – specialising in Chagall knock-offs personalised for the buyer with images of their children or pets. Then there’s the worry of Faith’s brother, who has never managed to feel confidant dating new women after divorcing his faithless ex.

Mystery arrives in the form of some abandoned junk found in Faith’s attic: an old cradle and pictures of twin babies labelled with their birthdates and the date two weeks later, the time they were ‘taken’. The assumption that she is looking at pictures of two dead babies and stories of how the previous occupant murdered her husbands sets Faith on a quest of discovery. As you can imagine, she doesn’t feel all that comfortable alone in her home anymore, but help comes in the form of amiable Nick, kicked out by his girlfriend for failing to propose and needing a room.

Throw in some office politics and there’s a lot going on for poor beleaguered Faith, and the plot just crackles along. The bonus of the sparky, intelligent writing means there’s a lot to enjoy. Elinor Lipman has written a dozen novels – On Turpentine Lane comes in at number eleven – and I am happy at the thought of checking out the others. If they are half as good as this one they are worth a look. The reading of this audiobook by Mia Barron was suitably bright and had me chuckling as I listened. Four out of five from me.

Book Review: Silent Voices by Ann Cleeves

I wasn’t going to read the Vera Stanhope novels by Ann Cleeves – they’d been so good on television, and surely I’d know all the endings. I’d forgotten that it doesn’t really matter when it’s good writing and the characters are interesting, which is most certainly the case here. And in the end I couldn’t remember this story after all.

Silent Voices begins when a body is discovered at a leisure centre. Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope doesn’t spend a lot of time at her gym, and there’s no way she’d let on to her sergeant, Joe Ashworth, that she even has a membership. But when she discovers a murder victim, strangled in the sauna room, she has to call it in. Nobody recognises the attractive, middle-aged woman in the sauna, but the wallet in her locker leads Vera to a cottage in a coastal village and the victim’s eighteen-year-old daughter.

Hannah has no idea why anyone would want to murder her mother, Jenny Lister, a social worker who seems to be in every way a good, kind person. It is fortunate that Hannah has her fiancé, Simon, nearby to stay with her, as she has no other family. But ex-social worker Connie is shocked to discover Jenny had lived in the same village. Both had worked closely together until Connie made an error of judgement and a young child was drowned in the bath by his mother. Connie lost her career and has always thought Susan sold her down the river.

Cleeves brings in a number of other connected characters: the smooth-talking alternative therapist who works at the leisure centre; Danny the student who cleans there at night; Simon’s snooty mother Veronica who for some reason has made Connie’s life a misery. It is a rich and diverting plot, peopled with a cast who each have axes to grind, or complicated pasts.

And that doesn’t include the police. Vera Stanhope, is a wonderful creation with her distrust of social workers and anyone who is too obviously nice; her jealousy of Joe’s time and family commitments – she’s altogether lacking in family herself. There’s smart and ambitious Holly and sad-sack Charlie who is only just holding it together – fortunately Vera knows what he’s good at and leaves him to it.

Meanwhile, there is the sense of a storm brewing, reflected in the wild, coastal weather of Northumberland, which adds a ton of atmosphere. The story illustrates so well that anybody can have a dark episode in their history that might just lead them to murder. It’s what this kind of crime fiction is all about and Cleeves pulls it all together really well to create a satisfying read building to a superb ending.

I listened to this as an audio book and loved the gentle and nuanced reading by Janine Birkett. I think the Geordie accent could become a favourite. Four out of five from me.

Book Review: A Shameful Murder by Cora Harrison

It seems I just can’t get enough of Irish fiction, with A Shameful Murder taking me this time to the city of Cork. In this series, Harrison whisks us back to 1923, a time of Civil War as the Republican Army upsets the peace with sporadic guerrilla assaults on government entities. Cork at this time is also under siege by the elements, it’s always raining, and built on islands in the River Lee, flooding is inevitable. It’s OK if you’re wealthy and live on higher ground, but the poor struggle terribly with the damp, poor sewerage, cramped dwellings and not enough to eat.

Enter Reverend Mother Aquinas, an elderly nun who works with the impoverished, educating their children in the hope they will find useful work and better themselves. When she finds the body of young woman dressed in a fine satin ballgown washed up on her doorstep, she calls for Police Sergeant Patrick Cashman. Patrick was once a pupil at her school, and the Reverend Mother is quietly proud of his systematic assessment of the crime scene, his tidy notes, his serious manner.

It turns out that Angelina Fitzsimon, the daughter of well-to-do Joseph Fitzsimon, had gone missing after the Founders Ball. When Joseph identifies his daughter at the morgue, more by the dress than by the bloated face of the corpse, suicide is suggested the likely cause. But neither Patrick nor the Reverend Mother are convinced. Along with the police advisor, Dr Scher, who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, the three make a wonderful team of sleuths, as they start to pick apart Angelina’s life.

One of the most worrying concerns is that Angelina’s mother has been mouldering in a mental asylum, allowing Joseph control of her money. Angelina’s own future seems to have been precarious because of an inheritance and, with a wastrel brother running up debts, her father had been eager to marry her off to a tea planter. Angelina meanwhile helped the poor and had dreams of university study. A thoroughly nice girl from a problematic family.

We’re all set for a brilliant cosy mystery. I love nosy old lady detectives and none is more determined or more conniving than the Reverend Mother and with her assorted contacts in high places, she gains access to witnesses and calls in favours. There are some wonderful minor characters: the RM’s charming sister, Lucy, with her own sad secret; Eileen, the ex-pupil turned journalist/freedom fighter who wears breeches and carries a revolver – to name but two.

The RM is like a spider in the middle of a web, directing the action as the plot works up to a thrilling ending. I hadn’t expected it all to be so much fun and like all good mystery novels, Harrison had me guessing ‘whodunit’ right until the end. I shall definitely be returning to Cork for more. Four out of five from me.

Book Review: Where the Dead Go by Sarah Bailey

I discovered this series with the first book, The Dark Lake, which introduced beleaguered police detective Gemma Woodstock. She’s got a lot of baggage, which is relevant to the first novel and here, a couple of books later, things aren’t getting any easier in Where the Dead Go.

Gemma has temporarily left Sydney to return to small town Smithson due to her ex-partner’s death. They have a young son, Ben, although they haven’t been together for a few years, Gemma having made a new life in Sydney with charismatic, older and wiser, Mac. Gemma just makes it through the funeral, when her old boss Jonesy is asked to pick up a missing person’s case in the coastal town of Fairhaven. Jonesy can’t spare the hours, so Gemma ups stakes and bolts, eager to leave the claustrophobic town of her upbringing and immerse herself in work, taking young Ben with her.

This causes all sorts of disapproval – from her dad, from her friends, from Mac. But Gemma is headstrong and sees work as her refuge. The case – a fifteen-year-old girl who vanishes after a party – is tricky with few leads. Possible suspects include Abbey’s ex-boyfriend and her violent father. Plus there are some texts on Abbey’s phone from a mystery man who seems to be stalking her.

Bailey does small towns really well. The way everyone knows everyone and talks about them behind their back. The secrets that no one wants to share with strangers, let alone a strange police woman. Gemma is up against it all. She’s filling in for a Detective Inspector who’s had a car accident and has a grudge against women high achievers like Gemma. Her team vary from being hostile – in the case of detective de Luca, another woman who’s battling the DI – and incompetent. And then there’s the fact that the case reminds Gemma of another girl who went missing in Sydney and who she failed to save. That case is still giving Gemma nightmares.

Soon there’s a death and then Gemma is threatened, reminding us why she should never have brought Ben to Fairhaven. The setting of a seaside town that makes it’s living off a transient holiday population adds atmosphere. Danger builds up to a point where Gemma’s life is at stake and there are some brilliant action scenes.

But the real tension is in the character of Gemma herself. She’s impulsive, forgets to look after herself, and ignores Mac’s frequent texts and phone calls. As a reader I was frequently begging her to pick up the phone, to check back on Ben, to get the heck out of there. While the story seemed to sag a little in the middle with all the characters and interviews and forensic reports, I know I will return to the series to check in again on Gemma – she’s just so interesting. Three and a half stars from me.

Lockdown Reading 3: The Scholar by Dervla McTiernan

The second book in McTiernan’s DS Cormac Reilly series takes us back to Galway and a case that threatens Reilly’s relationship with his partner Emma Sweeney, possibly even his career.

Emma works as a research scientist for Irish pharmaceutical giant Darcy Therapeutics on Galway University campus. When a young woman is killed in what at first appears as a hit and run at the university, Emma finds the body. Being so close to a prime witness, Cormac should step away from the case, but his fellow sergeant, Callie O’Halloran hasn’t had a weekend off in months and is desperate to go home. Cormac, finally allowed to move on from cold cases, steps in as SIO.

But things get more complicated when the ID card found in the victim’s pocket turns out to belong to Carline Darcy, an up-and-coming scientist and granddaughter to the drug company’s founder, John Darcy. Emma recognises the Stella McCartney cardigan the girl’s wearing too. Only Cormac discovers Carline alive and well in her fancy penthouse flat, unaware apparently of how the girl got the card or the cardie.

It takes a while to track down the victim, as no students seem to be missing. It’s only when a teenage boy calls into the police station worried that his sister hasn’t texted him in a few days, that Cormac finally gets a break. And so begins a tidy little mystery fully of secrets, subterfuge and professional jealousy, set in the high-stakes world of drug research.

Meanwhile the issues that dog Cormac’s career aren’t going anywhere, mostly around his relationship with Emma, a victim of an assault that left her battered and traumatised, as well as a murder suspect. Several in the police team feel that somehow Cormac managed to sweep Emma’s crime under the carpet, so when a murder happens on her doorstep, it is too easy to put Emma on the suspects list. And how can Cormac remain impartial as well as manage the sensitive issues around his relationship with Emma?

I love the way McTiernan slowly reveals back story through this series. The first book The Ruin was very much about Cormac, and an historic case that defines his early career and which comes back to haunt him. The Scholar brings in Emma’s history, creating layers of tension as Cormac has to deal with prejudice and bring in a killer before he kills again. It’s good character-driven crime writing, with engaging characterisation and an evocative setting. A solid four out of five from me.

Lockdown Listening 2: The Go-Between by L P Hartley

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

So begins the The Go-Between, L P Hartley’s 1953 coming-of-age novel, where a man in his sixties looks back on his childhood and the summer of 1900 which changed the shape of his life to come.

When a measles epidemic strikes their school, twelve-year-old Leo Colston is invited by his friend Marcus to stay for a few weeks with his family in Norfolk. The Maudsleys have adult guests visiting and things will be dull for Marcus without company his own age. Whisked away to Brandham Hall, Leo is suddenly aware he is socially out of his depth, lacking the right clothes and knowledge of how things are done. Leo is soon charmed by Marcus’s sister, Marion, and over the summer makes something of a hit with the family, as well as (Lord) Trimingham, the scarred war veteran Marion is expected to marry.

Often left to his own devices, Leo wanders about, venturing onto the farm of Ted Burgess, a fit young man with a rough way of speaking who is known the the Maudsleys. Leo finds himself taking a message to Marion from Ted, little knowing the he is aiding their secret affair. Over the following weeks, Leo – so eager to please – becomes the lovers’ postman.

The narrative has a vein of humour running through it, highlighting the naiveté of Leo, and capturing the way boys think and bounce off each other. But underneath is a sense of unease as the summer heat takes hold – Leo has been warned of the heat from his over-protective mother – and events build up to a boiling-over kind of climax, as storm clouds loom overhead. The iniquities and restrictions of class are a key part of the story, but there is promise too with the new century, or is Leo a symbol of dashed hope here as well?

If my twelve-year-old self, of whom I had grown rather fond, thinking about him, were to reproach me: ‘Why have you grown up such a dull dog, when I gave you such a good start? Why have you spent your time in dusty libraries, catologuing other people’s books instead of writing your own?’ … I should have an answer ready. ‘Well, it was you who let me down, and I will tell you how. You flew too near to the sun, and you were scorched. This cindery creature is what you made me.’

This audiobook was read by Sean Barrett and I was soon pulled into the story of Leo, a pawn in affairs that are beyond his comprehension. It’s a brilliant performance, but I just had to dig out my old paperback copy of the book, published as tie-in for the movie starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates, to reread passages or rush through others. The novel also had a further screen adaptation and with its bucolic setting, dramatic tension and sense of nostalgia, you see why it works so well on film. A five out of five read from me.