More New Books for the Must Read List

A bumper crop of great new books seem to be arriving in bookshops this year. Here’s a few that caught my eye.

A Tidy Ending by Joanna Cannon
Oh, joy! A new book from the author who brought us The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and Three Things About Elsie. ‘There’s something nasty lurking behind the net curtains on Cavendish Lane’. Linda escaped ‘dark events’ of her Welsh childhood, but now life seems a bit tame; married to Terry, fish fingers for tea. Only Terry is often late home, while girls are going missing in the neighbourhood. Should Linda be worried? You can expect Cannon’s trademark dark humour, an original plot plus a twist. I can’t wait. This one’s out in May.

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler
This is the author who brought us We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves which won a Booker Prize nomination and which really tugged at the heartstrings. There is only one person who springs to mind when I hear the name Booth – the John Wilkes Booth who assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Fowler’s new novel explores the backstory – the upbringing that lead Booth to make the decision that was to go down in the history books. ‘Booth is a riveting novel, focused on the very things that bind, and break, a family’ – says the blurb. The paperback came out last week.

One Day I Shall Astonish the World by Nina Stibbe
And now for something completely different. Nina Stibbe is the author of the comic Lizzie Vogel trilogy that kicked off with Man at the Helm. Stibbe’s letters home to her sister when she was a nanny became Love, Nina: Dispatches from Family Life and then a charmingly quirky TV series. The new stand-alone novel promises a funny but life-affirming story about friendship and the paths it takes through the course of a lifetime. This book’s due out next month.

I, Mona Lisa by Natasha Solomons
And yes, there is only one Mona Lisa, and this book is about that Mona Lisa. The blurb says it’s a ‘deliciously vivid, compulsive and illuminating story about the lost and forgotten women throughout history’. The story begins with the painting sitting around in Leonardo’s studio and where it ends up in the centuries that follow. Solomons can be relied on to write a compelling story and does her research. The Gallery of Vanished Husbands is another book that takes a look at the art world and which I can highly recommend. I, Mona Lisa was recently released in paperback.

Chorus by Rebecca Kauffman
I loved the simple, honest storytelling of The Gunners, a story about a group of friends who separately feel the burden of guilt for something that happened to them as children. Chorus is a story about a family, the seven Shaw siblings, and two life-altering events, what divides them and what brings them ultimately back to each other. Kauffman has been compared to Elizabeth Strout and Alice Munro, and I’m sure Chorus will be worth picking up. The hardcover is already out; the e-book due in July.

The Reindeer Hunters by Lars Matting
If you haven’t read The Bell in the Lake yet, it’s time to get a move on as the second book in the trilogy will now be hitting the shelves. The setting sweeps us back to 1903 and a remote Norwegian community, home to solitary Jehans. Separated from his family he lives off what he can catch. When he kills a massive reindeer he meets an enigmatic hunter. There’s a mysterious tapestry woven by conjoined twins and a Pastor seeking redemption as a new age dawns. The blurb says this is ‘a grand and thrilling novel about what it takes to live in and embrace a new era.’ It’s sure to be a powerful and compelling read from a terrific storyteller.

Book Review: Trio by William Boyd

I didn’t know quite what to expect when I stepped into the world of Boyd’s latest novel, Trio. One thing I might have guessed is that its three main characters will be put to the test. Set in Brighton in 1968, the story centres on the making of a film with a ridiculous title. There’s remarkably little glamour as we’re taken behind the scenes – Brighton isn’t exactly Hollywood. The narrative switches between each of three main characters who are connected with the film.

Talbot Kidd, in his sixties, is the reserved, genial film producer who following the recent law reform decriminalising homosexual relations, is wondering about his own sexuality. But everyone keeps coming to him with their problems – film stock is going missing, the leading actress won’t work with the couple of acting hacks hired to play her mother and father and could it be true that his business partner is fleecing him? And then there’s that blasted song he hears everywhere he goes about the park with the cake left out in the rain, the sweet green icing flowing down … you know the one.

The leading actress, lovely Anny Viklund, is an up-and-coming American star with a poor taste in men. Her current boyfriend is a French freedom-fighter philosopher but before that she was married to an anarchist-terrorist and now the FBI want to talk to her. Luckily her co-star Troy offers easy, uncomplicated sex, and she’s got a stash of uppers and downers to keep her on an even keel. But she can’t help wondering why she has no control over her own life.

The third narrator, Elfrida Wing, is married to Talbot’s director, Reggie Tipton, a serial philanderer suddenly requesting everyone to call him Rodrigo. Elfrida is a famous novelist who hasn’t written a book for ten years, and passes her days as an accomplished secret alcoholic. It doesn’t help that the literary world described her as the new Virginia Woolf, an author she feels she has little in common with. When she comes up with the idea of writing a novel about the last day in Virginia Woolf’s life, she’s suddenly on fire again. But can she get on top of her drinking?

…and she soon stood on the high embankment looking down on the slow-moving stream, wondering if this were perhaps the actual point where Virginia had filled her coat pocket with a heavy stone and then waded in. Where had she learned that fact about the stone? She searched her memory. That’s right: Enid Bagnold had told her at a party years ago.

Boyd explores each of these characters’ flaws, foibles and secrets, yet I found each of them oddly likeable. He captures them at a time of crisis in their lives and keeps pouring on the pressure. This makes the story gallop along together with the lengths each of them go to maintain their secrets. Bubbling underneath is a gentle wry humour, particularly with Talbot and Elfrida, a kind of world-weariness English characters sometimes have, as if they are on the outside of themselves looking in.

Of course, Boyd is happy to throw barbs at the self-important figures that people the film and literary worlds. There’s also the frivolity of life in Britain in 1968 while across the channel the student riots were on the go and political change in the air. Name dropping of well-known writers and entertainers adds to the fun. But there are serious issues that each character has to struggle with, making this an amusing but also a very satisfying novel. But with William Boyd I wouldn’t have expected anything less. A four and a half out of five read from me.

Book Review: On Hampstead Heath by Marika Cobbold

Marika Cobbald’s new book On Hampstead Heath is a witty comment on our times, a kind of comedy of errors, with an unlikely heroine at its heart. Thorn Marsh is a news editor, a passionate believer in the role of the news media to uncover the truth and to keep the public well-informed. At forty-four, her career is everything, but when her paper is taken over by a media conglomerate she is shifted from the news desk to the midweek supplement to write The Bright Side. A prickly, curmudgeonly individual, she is the last person to write happy, inspiring stories.

Along with Thorn, there’s a bunch of quirky characters to enjoy. Nancy, Thorn’s mother who never loved but she has her reasons; Mira, Thorn’s new editor, who gives Thorn a good run for her money when it comes to dry one-liners; Lottie, Thorn’s neighbour, a Holocaust survivor and secret dope smoker and who is more like a mother figure than Nancy; Lottie’s niece, Jemima, disapproving and disappointed.

She turned an accusing eye on me. ‘The media have a great deal to answer for in all of this, affording celebrity status to people whose main contribution to society is putting their heads in a tank of maggots. My Year Fives thought Florence Nightingale was a contestant on Love Island.’

‘I only recently found out that a Kardashian isn’t a rifle,’ Lottie said, and finished her gin.

Desperation and alcohol lead Thorn to make up a story using a photo snapped on Hampstead Heath curtesy of her still friendly ex-husband, Nick.  Suddenly the world is sharing and retweeting her story about The Angel of the Heath, a flame haired apparition on the Viaduct Bridge, who had recently turned Thorn’s head rescuing her neighbour’s dog.

Lies pile up on top of lies as Thorn digs a hole from which it seems impossible to extricate herself. She has only herself to blame, and pours out her story to Nick and Lottie. She learns the hard way that getting the best story isn’t the only thing in life.

While there’s a good deal of desperation, Thorn is such a likeably difficult character and a dry, dark humour bubbles through every sentence. Thorn grows from someone who only lived for her job to someone who learns to love not only others but herself. But it’s never treacly or too serious and the ending is superb.

I loved On Hampstead Heath, but then I’ve always really enjoyed Cobbold’s books. But it has been a long stretch between the new book and her last one – ten years in fact. Hopefully we won’t have to wait as long for her next novel. On Hampstead Heath gets a four and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin – sibling relationships under the spotlight

This is one of those books that you think will be about one thing and it turns out to be something completely different. The back-cover description talks about a tragedy one fateful summer, but exactly how that tragedy evolves doesn’t emerge until much later. And then there’s the title. Mmmm. I guess it might be true that we all read a different book when we pick up the same novel, but The Last Romantics is beguiling on several levels.

Not that this is a bad thing. On the contrary, I’m quite keen to be beguiled now and again, and The Last Romantics is also very appealing. The story opens in 2079, when we meet Fiona Skinner for the first time. She’s a very elderly famous poet onstage at a writer’s event before an audience of adoring fans. The young interviewer asks Fiona about the origin of her most famous love poem, a question she’s avoided for years. But it takes her back to the beginning, when she was a young child and the novel slips into the distant past.

We’re back to 1981, and Fiona describes her family following the death of the father. Fiona’s only four, but her brother, Joe, is old enough to be hurt and furious, while their mother is lost, unable to react at all. Two older sisters make up the family, Caroline who is gentle and sensitive, while eldest sister Renee at eleven takes on the responsibility for them all. She’s the one who makes sure that homework is done, clothes are washed and there’s food on the table, while their mother shuts herself away in her room for the best part of three years, a time that becomes known as The Pause.

We follow this family over the decades but mostly it’s about the relationship between Fiona and Joe who was her childhood hero. You can see the effect The Pause has had on all of them on the kinds of people they become, but always it is Joe who is the most fragile, swinging from being the man with it all to being on the brink of disaster. Fiona is one of those characters who is a watcher and observer, cataloguing her sex life with different men in a hugely popular blog. She’s the perfect narrator as she analyses her family interactions and looking back sees where she went wrong.

In a way this is a story of regrets, but families can be tough and eventually forgive and rebuild. The book has that gentle humour that you see with siblings – the elbow digs and eye-rolling. And the early pages capture the family through Fiona’s young eyes, the meaningful moments and human frailty caught in the gaze of an innocent. It is a novel that ebbs and flows as the years progress, a little flagging at times and full of events at others – which makes it more like real life in some ways. There’s sadness in the book but you can see how this inspires the poet that Fiona becomes.

I really enjoyed the book over all. It’s real and yet has an ephemeral quality as Fiona, an at times unreliable narrator, misreads the people who love her. Love is a key theme, in all its forms but family love mostly, and what happens when you put it to the test. If you want a different kind of love story, The Last Romantics is well worth picking up. It’s a four out of five read from me.

New Books for the Must-Read Pile

Here are the books I can’t wait to get my hands on in the coming weeks.

Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale
One of my favourite authors, Gale is such an empathetic writer who also captures the little details that create such interesting and well-rounded characters. Throw in a decent helping of humour and you’ve got the perfect novel in my book. Here, the mother’s boy of the title is Charles, the son of two people caught up in World War I, a war that ultimately takes his father. The relationship of the boy and mother is a key part of the story. Charles appears to have an exceptionally gifted mind, but that’s not all he has to deal with as another war looms. I loved Gale’s historical novel, A Town Called Winter and this one has already had some glowing reviews..

The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett
I really enjoyed The Appeal, an original and beguiling mystery novel which came out last year. Clearly this is an author with a terrific imagination and the new book looks similarly intriguing. We’ve got mysterious annotations in a children’s book by a disgraced author that could be a secret code. There’s a forty-year-old disappearance and the ex-con who connects the two and who is determined to solve the mystery – only there’s something that he can’t quite remember. What can it all mean? Definitely I’ll have to read on to find out.

The Slowworm’s Song by Andrew Miller
Miller writes such a variety of books including historical novels, contemporary fiction, and a huge variety of settings. They don’t come along all that often, but they’re always worth waiting for. Here we’ve got a recovering alcoholic trying to rebuild his life in Somerset and in particular his relationship with his daughter. He’s an ex-soldier and his story involves atrocities that happened in Northern Ireland and an enquiry that threatens his future with her. Miller’s last book was At Last We Shall Be Entirely Free, which won the Highland Prize, so I will be keen to read this one when it comes out in March.

The Locked Room by Elly Griffiths
It wouldn’t be a reading year without a new Ruth Galloway novel. If you haven’t discovered this series you have treats in store, particularly if you like atmospheric and witty mysteries with a dash of romance. Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist in Norfolk and the new book has her chum, DCI Nelson, looking for a killer when a Covid lockdown hits. I enjoy the characters in this series so much – Ruth’s matter-of-fact intelligence and Nelson’s blunt Yorkshire demeanour are always a delight. Throw in an archaeological setting and some twisty plotting and you have the perfect mystery read.

French Braid by Anne Tyler
Mercy Garrett is determined to eliminate clutter from her life, gradually moving into her studio now that her kids are grown up. But the clutter of family life and all the related memories are hard to ignore, particularly one holiday in 1959 that has generated ongoing repercussions for the Garretts. Sounds like we’re in classic Anne Tyler territory here: the people and random events that create a family history, told with humour and kindness. I’m always in my happy place with Tyler and can’t wait to see this one when it comes out in March.

Violeta by Isabel Allende
I so loved Allende’s last book, A Long Petal of the Sea, my first ever Allende, having avoided her for years thinking she only wrote magic realism. Obviously I’ve since had to revise my understanding. Violeta lives through the major events of the twentieth century – kicking off with the Spanish flu, the disastrous effects of the Great Depression, and a world war to name but three. What promises to make the book so appealing is the character of Violeta, who according to the blurb is passionate, determined and blessed with a sense of humour. I’m sure I’m going to love this one.

Book Review: The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte – a stunning novel about love, war and snow

I’d been saving this book for a dry spell, thinking it might be a special kind of book and I was right – it is. The Tolstoy Estate is set mostly in the middle of the Barbarossa Campaign, Hitler’s ill-fated attempt to beat the Russian winter and the huge volley of soldiers fighting to keep the Nazis out of Moscow. It’s the late autumn of 1941 when we catch up with Captain Paul Bauer, a surgeon assigned to a field hospital which sets up shop in Yasnaya Polyana, Leo Tolstoy’s old home. It’s a smart move – the Soviet army is never going to bomb a literary shrine.

Oozing disgust and obstruction at every turn is Katerina Dmitrievna, the curator at the estate, who is a fiercely loyal Soviet citizen. She never misses a chance to remind Paul and his equally loyal Nazi commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Metz, that they are doomed. The winter, fast approaching, will be the death of them – their uniforms just don’t cut the mustard. If you needed convincing, Tolstoy captured brilliantly the defeat of Napolean’s army in War and Peace. Paul, somewhat dazzled by Katerina, accepts from her a copy of the book in German from Tolstoy’s own library. He read it as a boy in the last war from which his own brother did not return.

“…it was a bit late, five months into Operation Barbarossa, to be fretting about safety, personally or otherwise… If the Greatest Warlord of All Time had had any regard for human life, he would not have provoked a contest whose savagery made France seem in retrospect like a war of flowers.”

While the story follows the events of the six weeks Metz and his surgical team spent at Yasnaya Polyana, and the struggle of the German army to take the city of Tula, this is much more than a war story. Through a wide array of the characters, all brilliantly different from each other, we watch how people thrown together in an extreme situation cope. How they rub off against each other and how the difficult conditions make their idiosyncrasies stand out. Weidemann, the second in command is devoted to his gramophone, Metz develops an obsession with Tolstoy’s ghost while Captain Molineux plays practical jokes, often very offensive ones but charms his way out of trouble.

In this respect, the book reminded me a little of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, with its varied characters and dry, fatalistic humour. Bauer consoles himself with War and Peace and thoughts of Katerina. Both are caught up in the middle of regimes that interfere with any attempt to determine their own futures.

…at night he took to lying in his bedroll and blankets, engrossing himself in War and Peace. As usual he found it consoling. Whatever the fate of individuals might be, Tolstoy seemed to say, the rhythms of life would remain the same. The young would be foolish, hopeful and wild, would fall in love and out of it, become sadder, maybe wise. Some would meet their deaths sooner than others, yet there would come a day when everyone engaged in the struggles of their age would without exception die, bequeathing the world they had made to those strangers, their children, who would struggle to change it again.

The Tolstoy Estate is a wonderful read and Conte has done plenty of research to supply the details that make the book so vivid, including the harrowing surgery that Bauer and the other medics perform in terrible circumstances. I might add that as an often squeamish sort of reader when it comes to gory details, I was not put off by any of this, and found it added a lot to the story and helps round out Bauer’s character. The story was engrossing and gripping as war stories tend to be, but also because you know that battling the Russian winter, the survival rate for these men is slim.

I loved this book so much so that once I’d finished it I’d have been happy to start it all over again. It is well deserving of its short-listing for the Walter Scott Prize last year – I usually manage to find a gem among this yearly line-up, and this one was stunning. Conte is an Australian author, his first book (The Zookeeper’s War) winning the 2008 Prime Minister’s Award. The new book is only his second, which attests to the time Conte has taken to create his best possible work. The Tolstoy Estate gets a five out of five from me.

Book Review: The Hunting Dogs by Jorn Lier Horst – a detailed police procedural with a likeable Norwegian detective

When it comes to Scandinavian crime fiction, I’ve often thought if only there were more Wallander novels published by Henning Mankell before his death in 2015. I’ve tried other Scandinavians of course and enjoyed them – Jussi Adler Olsen’s Department Q series is worth a look. But for a more psychological read with an engaging policeman, Norwegian author, Jorn Lier Horst’s William Wisting’s novels seem to capture much of that atmosphere I’ve liked so much with Wallander.

Wisting is a Chief Inspector in his fifties at the start of The Hunting Dogs working out of the Criminal Investigation Dept of Larvik Police. This novel has him revisiting the abduction of a teenage girl who was subsequently murdered seventeen years ago. The killer, recently released Rudolf Haglund, has employed a lawyer to prove his case for wrongful imprisonment, alleging that police tampered with the evidence. As senior investigating officer at the time, Wisting is stood down from duties while an inquiry is underway.

Meanwhile, Line, Wisting’s daughter, is aware that the newspaper she works for is about to splash this story all over the front page in the morning. She is appalled – she knows her dad would never tamper with evidence to secure a conviction and rushes off into a wet, miserable night after a better story to bump the Haglund allegations onto page two. She gets caught up in a murder – a man attacked on the street, while his dog stands guard in the rain, a bit like Greyfriar’s Bobby. Great photo material. But when Line tracks down the owner and calls round to the victim’s house, she’s assaulted too.

What can the two murders have in common? Well, in real life probably nothing, but this being crime fiction, you know they’ll intersect sooner or later. Wisting heads off to his cabin in the woods to dig through old paperwork and calls on favours from a retired crime scene investigator. He studies photos of the police team involved unable to imagine who would have fiddled with those cigarette butts.

His relationship with café owner Suzanne is going south – he’s always up at dawn, and she’s always late home, while the police crime investigators are threatening a prison sentence. So Wisting’s up against it. When another teenage girl goes missing, there are echoes of the original Haglund case, and Wisting is desperate to get back in harness to find her. So much pressure, but what can he do?

If Wisting’s hands are tied, Line is all fired up to do some snooping, particularly when she spots the link between her murder victim and Haglund. She calls in her mates, too – a couple from her newspaper and an old boyfriend who turns up out of the blue. We get a brilliant scene where they show the reader how to follow a suspect. Honestly, it was like a scene from Spooks. Yes, it seems, journalists know all the tricks.

The plot steadily builds to a showdown with plenty of danger and edge of seat action. All the while you are aware that time is ticking for the abducted girl. It’s a great read, but what I really like is the detail of the detective work and how authentic it sounds. This is probably because Horst was once himself a policeman in Larvik, so the procedures around evidence storage and forensics are carefully explained and make interesting reading. We’ve also got some well-considered points around police ethics, loyalty and morality adding depth to the story.

There is plenty to like with The Hunting Dogs; the writing is crisp and the translation (thanks, Anne Bruce) is seamless, never clunky. So you can see why Horst is one of my favourites among the Scandinavians. I’m not alone – he’s won a bunch of awards, including The Petrona, a Scandi-crime fiction award for books translated into English. This one earns a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Woman Who Spoke to Spirits by Alys Clare – a new crime-solving partnership hits Victorian London

Alys Clare is known for her medieval mysteries, particularly the Hawkenlye and Aelf Fen books. I hear they’re really good, but these were the times when life was “nasty, brutish and short”, so I’ve always steered clear, maybe unnecessarily. But I was pleased when Clare decided to jump forward a few centuries to set her new series in 1880s London.

Lily Raynor is a private investigator who is beginning to make a name for herself with her ability to get to the bottom of things with tact and discretion. Working from her late grandparents’ apothecary shop, she finds herself too busy to manage all the filing, note-taking and plant watering at her World’s End Bureau, so decides to hire an assistant. Of the six candidates on her shortlist, only the last is in any way promising. Although Felix Wilbraham isn’t quite what she had in mind.

Felix is a from a well to-do background, but falling out with his dear papa, has been living a hand to mouth existence of late. He’s down to his last pennies when he eagerly accepts Lily’s offer of employment. And so marks the beginning of a new crime-fighting partnership. Felix has excellent penmanship and the enthusiasm of a lively puppy. He hasn’t a clue about pot plants but after his month’s trial, becomes indispensable to Lily, not just for filing and making tea, but in the field of inquiry.

The story cracks on with two cases for the bureau. Lily attends a private member’s club to interview Lord Berwick who is worried about his son – a weak young who has become besotted with an ageing actress. But she’s not Lady Berwick material so Lily is asked to investigate her background and to see if she’s merely toying with young Julian and if there’s anything about her that might cool Julian’s ardour. Meanwhile Felix interviews a Mr Stibbins who is worried about his wife. They are a happy couple, and Mrs Stibbins helps out the bereaved through her work as a medium. But lately she has a feeling that her life is in danger.

So two quite different cases. But as the smart reader will remember from the prologue, Mrs Stibbins isn’t the only woman in danger – a young girl has been murdered in the vicinity and soon the bureau is caught up with the matter of women, mainly prostitutes, who have gone missing. This really cranks up the danger, especially when Lily plays a duplicitous game. The story builds to a nail-biting ending to reveal a criminal with a particularly original bent.

This is an intelligently plotted and engaging story with two likeable main characters. Lily has a background in midwifery, but a shadow clouding her past she thinks of as The Incident, has seen her eager to change profession. She has an interesting association with a canal boatman who has a gypsy-like alternative life-style and an other-worldly wisdom.

Felix’s experiences as an older woman’s plaything, along with his knowledge of the seamier theatre world, help him with the Berwick case. So both he and Lily have secrets that they are as yet unwilling to share with each other. This sets the scene for some interesting character development and dynamics that will no doubt affect their working relationship.

This is a very entertaining and relaxing period mystery that never gets too dark, in spite of the grimmer side of Victorian London emerging from time to time. You get a strong sense of the rigidity of a class system that keeps people in their place and that women like Lily are pushing boundaries by determining their own futures. She’s a complex character and I look forward to getting to know her better through the series. (Book number two is The Outcast Girls.) The Woman Who Spoke to Spirits scores a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Fine Art of Invisible Detection by Robert Goddard – a complex and original page-turner with a twist

What does a Japanese crime boss, a chemical defence base in Cornwall and real estate in Iceland have in common? They are all part of a complex new thriller by Robert Goddard. I had really enjoyed Goddard’s Wide World trilogy set during the time of the Versailles treaty negotiations after World War One. So I knew Goddard could throw together a twisty, action packed story with engaging characters, witty writing and an ending you don’t see coming.

And so it is here. The Fine Art of Invisible Detection begins with a difficult case for the Kodaka Detective Agency in Tokyo. Umiko Wada mostly does the office work but a new case has her packing her bags for London to impersonate a client. Mrs Takenada wants to discover if her father really committed suicide on a business to London in 1977. Or did his connections with notorious career criminal, Nishizaki, lead to his murder? She’s received a letter from a Martin Caldwell asking to meet up. He has evidence about a former friend of his who worked as an interpreter for Mrs Takenada’s dad. But Mrs T’s family are cautious so Wada is sent in her place.

With the sudden suspicious death of her boss Wada might be biting off more than she can chew, but Wada is smart, careful and has one thing that many other private detectives might envy: she has the knack for blending in with a crowd. When Martin doesn’t arrive at the appointed time for their interview, you can’t help wondering if something has happened to him as well.

The story switches between Wada’s narrative and that of Nick Miller, an art teacher that Martin has been in touch with as well. Similarly Martin fails to show up to meet Nick and so Nick and Wada both conduct their own investigations into what Martin had been trying to tell them and why he might be missing.

The story takes the reader to Nancekuke in Cornwall where the British military had been conducting trials on chemical weapons, in particular sarin gas acquired from the Nazis at the end of World War Two. Wada has her own personal connection with sarin – her husband was a victim of the sarin gas attack on a Tokyo train in the 90s and took twelve years to die. But what could any of this have to do with her possible suicide victim in London? She and Nick will both find themselves travelling to Iceland to find out.

This is another brilliant twisty read with all kinds of story threads going off in different directions and then somehow coming back together. Wada is a great character, discovering as she goes on how to be a credible private detective. Fortunately she can think on her feet and has a cool head because someone is out to stop her. Nick is interesting because he is the mostly unlikely of heroes, but he has the strong emotional pull of someone grieving a parent, while trying to find the truth of his paternity. Goddard doesn’t let him sit around drinking tea and pondering what’s what however. Like Wada, he’s on and off planes, visiting crime-scenes, getting caught up in the action and fearing for his life.

The story builds to a thrilling ending and who knows, maybe another case for Wada, although Goddard mostly writes one-offs. Personally, I’d be happy to visit the Kodaka Detective Agency again. Wada is interesting company. Goddard manages to write from the point of view of a middle-aged Japanese woman and make her seem credible. The history around the Nancekuke base will have you searching the Internet and what you discover makes for some grim reading. I like it when you have a rip-roaring read with some substance and that’s certainly the case here. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller – an intense story about family, secrets and the path not taken

You can’t help feeling sorry for Eleanor (Elle) who spends the decades that span The Paper Palace unable to forget her dearest friend and soulmate. She and Jonas have been driven apart by a terrible secret – a horrific sequence of events that casts a shadow over the rest of their lives. We follow them through the years from when they first met, one Cape Cod summer, to the present day several decades later, having built their lives without each other. But we all know that secrets like theirs are sure to come out sooner or later.

The Paper Palace is the nickname given to the holiday home where much of the action takes place, in particular the single day that connects the plot. It’s the day friends and relations have come together to remember Elle’s sister. The summer home has been in the family for generations, a collection of bush-carpentry buildings that include a large kitchen/living space and a number of cabins right on the edge of a wide, swimmable pond. Here, Elle and her older sister Anna ran wild ever summer, a relief from those chilly New York winters, growing up as their parents divorce, take on new lovers, remarry and divorce again.

Elle’s mother, Wallace, states that divorce is good for children, and makes other odd declarations such as that unhappy people are more interesting. Jonas’s partner, Gina, perpetually sunny and straightforward, obviously cuts no ice with Wallace. Elle and Anna are beautiful, confident girls in spite of their mother’s remoteness, her stark comments, her lack of awareness of how her life choices affect her children. Somehow they survive their childhood, have careers and relationships.

But everything comes back to one event in Elle’s teenage years and its consequences, until a much later revelation casts a new light on a decision she made a long time ago. This plot device plus the now and before structure makes you gallop through the pages to learn how that secret will impact on the future. The writing is sharp and funny at times, but best of all is the evocation of summer and long summer vacations. There are butterflies, racoons and shorebirds: bonfires on the beach; walks through the forest as well as swimming and boating. It’s almost like you’re on holiday with them all, in one of the spare cabins. There is definitely a filmic quality, and I can see movie rights being discussed even now.

I just wish I liked the characters more. Elle has a decent career and happy marriage in spite of the events of her growing up but still agonises over Jonas, a character who me for was never quite real. Anna can be cruel, the various parental figures weak, offhand or just plain strange. People are either beautiful in an unspecified way, or if they are ugly, their flabbiness and skin conditions are described in detail. Nobody is just a bit ordinary. This was a little distasteful to me and detracted from the sympathy I should have had for the main characters. And while the story was engaging, it was also somewhat exhausting and I found it a relief to finish. A three out of five read from me.