Six Degrees of Separation: From The Pearl of Penang to Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

I’ve often really enjoyed those Six Degrees of Separation blog posts that connect books, often books that would never normally appear in the same list. Thinking I’d have a go, here’s what I came up with when I finished The Pearl of Penang by Clare Flynn. Incidentally, these are all books I’ve enjoyed immensely.

The Pearl of Penang is set from 1939 and on into the war years among Malaya’s expats where it seems to be all gin slings and tennis parties, in spite of the havoc in Europe. Reality eventually hits home with the Japanese attacks on South East Asia and the fall of Singapore. It is an engaging story about Evie, who’s missed the marriage boat, stuck working as a lady’s companion, mouldering in rural England and desperate for change. So she accepts a terse proposal of marriage by mail and winds up in Penang, trying to win the heart of her distant but devilishly handsome new husband. I could have gone for Jane Eyre here, as there are definitely a few similarities, or Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. But no, the terrible events that race you through to the end of the novel describing the effects of war on ordinary people are what haunted me most. So, it had to be:

Flight by Elephant by Andrew Martin. This author took time out from trains and his Jim Stringer series to write an amazing non-fiction book about a dramatic rescue following the Japanese invasion of Burma. As the monsoon threatens to make the Chaukan Pass into Assam impenetrable, a group of Indian army soldiers, civilians and their Indian servants turn to Gyles Mackrell for help. He’s a tea planter in his fifties, also a decorated WWI pilot, but more importantly he’s good with elephants. As the Japanese close in, Mackrell and his elephant riders battle rising floodwaters, leeches, biting insects and disease to save the lives of people half dead with starvation and fever. It’s a nail-biting read beating hands down just about anything you could hope to find in fiction for thrills and daring-do.

And speaking of elephants, who would have thought a baby elephant entering the life of a retired policeman could lead to a fabulous new crime-solving duo? The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan is set in Mumbai, a modern, teeming city and not the ideal place for a baby elephant, particularly if you live in a high-rise apartment building. But when Ashwin Chopra leaves his office for the last time, puzzling about the death of a drowned boy – a case his superiors don’t regard as suspicious – he finds he suddenly has to take on responsibility for a baby elephant. This Mumbai is a brilliantly rendered setting, and there are plenty of plot-twists as Ashwin and elephant Ganesh deal to the bad guys. I could follow this one up with another animal detective story, possibly featuring cats or dogs, but these really don’t do it for me. However, there’s a lovely subplot involving a misunderstanding between husband and wife, and their eventual reconciliation.

Another book about a couple going through a hiccup in their marriage is Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler. Forty-year-old Delia Grindstead feels taken for granted, misunderstood, and not knowing what she wants in life. Her husband is a doctor who joined her father’s practice and got to choose one of the three daughters. Like a fairy-tale, he picks the youngest and prettiest, the one who thought she never stood a chance. Years later, she is still living in her childhood home, her children almost grown, the youngest a surly 15 year old. On their annual vacation at the beach, Delia has the impulse to walk away. Wearing only a swimsuit, a beach wrap, and espadrilles, she hitches a ride to wind up in a small town, where she begins a new life. She just wanted to start again ‘from scratch’, she says. How she finds a place to live, a job, then becomes immersed in the lives of the townsfolk makes for a heartfelt and quirky story.

Someone else starting again ‘from scratch’ is Aidan Bishop in The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. A guest at a country house party at a place called Blackheath, Aidan has no recollection of why he’s there, finding himself running through the grounds at night when he hears a woman’s scream and gunshot. The next day he wakes up in the body of a different guest and learns from someone dressed as a Medieval plague doctor that to escape Blackheath he must solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle. He has eight days, waking up each morning as a different guest or servant, reliving the same day. But all is not what it seems and there are further surprises in store for the reader in this most original of novels that reinvents the country house murder mystery as we know it.

Another novel that brings the reader back to square one, time and time again, is Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Ursula Todd is born in 1910, and then because of heavy snow and no medical help at her birth, she dies. Darkness fell. The next chapter, Ursula has another go at life in a novel that puts her through all kinds of mis-steps and disasters including the Spanish Flu, sexual assault, an abusive marriage and the Blitz. Of course, the upheavals of the twentieth century play a big part in the story, but at least Ursula has the chance to get things right in her own life with each reincarnation. The story works on a more personal level, showing the effects of traumatic events on the decisions we make in life later on. Interestingly, both Life After Life and The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle won the Costa Awards.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (another Costa Award winner) also features an unforgettable heroine who like Ursula, is a survivor. Eleanor, a victim of childhood abuse and trauma, has evolved into a version of herself that makes her awkward around others to the point of rudeness. She is intelligent enough to hold down her job in the finance team for a graphic design company, but has no friends and gets through the weekend with a couple of bottles of vodka. But this is fiction, and as the reader would expect, Eleanor is going to change. How she deals with her past and allows others into her life creates a memorable story told by a more than memorable narrator. This novel is set in Glasgow – a strikingly different setting from Penang where we began.

Book Review: The Guest List by Lucy Foley

This book has been a Reese’s Book Club pick and voted a winner in its genre on GoodReads for books published in 2020. So naturally I was keen to see what all the fuss was about. The Guest List is a book you want to pick up for a number of reasons. It’s set on an island – this one’s a wild sort of place off the coast of Ireland with an old graveyard, ruins and a folly. For some reason Aoife and Freddie have thrown all their money into turning it into a high-end wedding venue.

Think about it. Guests are ferried out by boat. Special guests – the wedding party, groomsmen and bridesmaids mostly arrive the night before. The Folley offers several luxurious bedroom suites. There’s plenty of champagne and Freddie’s an amazing chef; the views are spectacular and the ruined chapel so romantic – if you like that Byronic sort of thing.

Then there’s the Agatha Christie feel about the story. It’s hard not to see a reference to the Queen of Crime’s And Then There Were None. As we all know, when you’re on an island, all you need’s bit of bad weather and you could be stuck there. Add something like a murder and things will get tense.

But this story’s a bit different. First of all there’s no sleuth. Not only is there no sleuth, but even though there’s blood and a hysterical waitress screaming, we don’t find out until the end who the victim is. It’s like all the work has to be done by the reader. Which keeps you really engaged as the story flips between ‘Now’, i.e., the hours following the discovery of the blood, and what happened before the wedding.

The story also flips between narrators. We’ve got the bride, Jules, who while being a smart owner of an online magazine, wealthy in her own right, and about to marry hunky TV reality star Will, is really uptight. She’s got baggage and a temper. There’s Olivia, her sister and bridesmaid, much younger and fragile. She’s got a secret and it’s eating away at her. Can Hannah prise it out of her? Hannah, the Plus-One, is the wife of Charlie who is Jules’s best friend.

Hannah feels insignificant in Jules’s presence, a stay-at-home mother of two who can’t afford designer labels. Plus she can’t help wondering if her husband and Jules have ever been lovers. Add the fact that something happened on the stag do that Charlie won’t talk about and she’s dealing with a lot of stuff. We’ve got wild-boy Johnno, the best man and supposedly Will’s best friend. There’s some kind of hold they have on each other from their time at their Dotheboys Hall type boarding school. So, yes, there are a heap of secrets. We soon get the feeling Aoife has secrets too.

The reader gathers whatever clues are to hand, then as the plot twists and turns appear, you rethink, cross that motive off the list and try again. It gets you racing towards the end, and while I did manage to guess ‘whodunit’ as part of a possible scenario, there were still enough surprises to keep me happy. I can certainly see why this book has been so popular. Is it worth all the fuss? Mmm – perhaps not for me. It’s not a book I would read twice, as its main interest lies in the trick of its construction. It’s a good trick but the characters aren’t particularly good company – far too anguished and self-absorbed. The lack of a sleuth meant I wasn’t as drawn in as I might have been. I’m giving this one a solid three out of five.

Book Review: A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

I thought I already knew about the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), thanks to all those English and American writers who went there to fight and wrote about it later. Then there was Pablo Picasso’s Guernica which I remember studying at one time. But really I hardly knew anything. I certainly didn’t know quite how brutal it was.

Isabel Allende’s new novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, gave me a lot more insight, I am happy to say. It is mostly the story of Victor Dalmau, a medic on the Republican (Communist) side, glad he doesn’t have to fire a gun. He learns so much in the harsh reality of battlefield surgery and makes a name for himself by restarting a young soldier’s heart who has been left for dead. He’d like to finish his training as a doctor, but as the war ends, it becomes a fight for survival, with Republicans fleeing across the border to France to avoid slaughter.

Among the refugees is Roser, a promising musician who lived with Victor’s family. Roser is carrying the child of Guillem, Victor’s brother. Guillem is most certainly dead and chance to start a new life in Chile forces Victor and Roser to marry. Chile needs musicians more than it needs doctors, but the two make a new life together, and the novel follows their hard work and difficulties, their successes and new friendships. Among these is Felipe del Solar, who introduces Victor to Salvador Allende who is eventually to become President of Chile. Felipe also introduces Victor to his beautiful sister.

Chile is kind to the Dalmau family, but waiting in the wings is another Fascist insurrection and it seems a bit like history repeating itself. Another round of mysterious disappearances, of killings and concentration camps. Isabel Allende weaves into the story of ordinary people some major events and at times the book read more like non-fiction than fiction. This worked well for me and saved me the trouble of constantly reaching for the Internet, as it filled in all the factual stuff you needed to know in an accessible way.

Among the real people who make an appearance is Pablo Neruda, Chile’s famous poet. It is Neruda who had described Chile as ‘a long petal of the sea and wine and snow … (with) a belt of black and white foam’. Neruda, as Chile’s consul in Paris, organises the ship that brings the Dalmaus to Chile and fittingly his poetry introduces each chapter, e.g.:

I have slept with you
the whole night long
while the dark earth turns
with the living and the dead
("Night on the Island" - The Captain's Verses)

Allende deals with some big themes in her book – displacement, nationhood, the effects of war, family issues and so on. But it is also a love story and the way she writes this is with much humanity, sensitivity and tenderness. You can’t help falling in love a little with the characters themselves – especially gentle, hard-working and reliable Victor and fiery, clever and determined Roser. Allende shows us what is both ordinary and special about each of them.

This is such a stunning book, handling some really terrible scenes from history with a lightness of touch but still making them real. I frequently felt a lump in my throat as I read. A five out of five star read from me.

Book Review: Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee

The Wyndham and Banerjee series is quite possibly my favourite series of thriller/mysteries. It has all the key ingredients of brilliant crime fiction. To begin with there’s an engaging if troubled main character. Captain Sam Wyndam has survived WWI, but lost his wife to the Spanish flu not long afterwards. Self-medicating on opium to keep his various demons at bay, he rolls on up in Calcutta to take his place in the Imperial police force in the early 1920s. Calcutta offers both a change of scene and an available supply of his drug of choice.

Then there’s the side-kick. Surendranath Banerjee is Sam’s 2IC in rank, but often proves his usefulness in seeing through situations Sam is blind to, particularly when an attractive woman is involved. He’s a conundrum being an Indian officer in the British system, from a family of lawyers who don’t understand his career choice. The two have a strong friendship that isn’t without it’s moments of friction.

Apart from these two terrific characters the next best thing about the series is the setting. I love historical fiction set in India and here we’ve got an interesting political period with the rise of Gandhi and increasing pressure on British rule. Throw in some very smart writing, moments of edge-of-your-seat danger and some twisty plotting and the series is nigh perfect.

In Death in the East, Sam is on his way to the remote ashram in the hills where he is hoping to finally fix his opium habit, when he catches of glimpse of a man from his past. A total nasty in fact. A man who is the Moriarty to his Sherlock Holmes. The story flips back to the early years of Sam’s policing in the East End of London, Sam just a bobby in uniform, and again there’s a lady involved.

Bessie is a smart, streetwise woman married to a thug. She’s the main breadwinner, collecting rents for a local businessman who’s none too straight. When she’s found dying in her flat with her head bashed in, Sam is one of the first on the scene. Obviously, the husband is in the frame, but he has an alibi. So perhaps Bessie picked up a secret or two as well as the rent money she collected. The press and the powers that be are keen to ascribe the killing to one of the Jewish people who also had rooms in her house. The crime is also complicated by the fact that Sam once had feelings for Bessie.

Slowly the scene on the train at the start of the book and the back story from 1905 converge, but not before another death occurs at the ashram. The settings for the two are dramatically different – the chill of an East End November, over crowding and dark alleys contrasting with the leafy hillsides of Assam where strange things can happen, such as starlings falling en masse out of the sky.

Meanwhile Sam, coming out of his opium dependency, is fragile to say the least. Another beautiful woman, Mrs Carter, wife of an empire builder, inveigles her way into his thoughts. She’s not just a wealthy man’s consort though, with her war work in the WAAC and now she’s rebuilding an old Bugatti that has been left to rot in a storage shed. All this makes her more than averagely interesting. Just as well Surendranath turns up in the last chunk of the book to help sort out the crime and keep Sam on track.

Death in the East is another terrific read in a series I can’t get enough of. My only quibble is I did sort of miss the snappy dialogue between Sam and his sidekick for much of the book. This was compensated to a degree by an interesting case going back to Sam’s early days on the beat and which helps round him out as a character. As usual there’s plenty of food for thought about injustice and the way people use power to assert their own ends. A four and a half star read from me.

Book Review: The Lost Lights of St Kilda by Elisabeth Gifford

The plot-line for The Lost Lights of St Kilda is fairly classic: boy meets girl; boy falls in love with girl and she with him; circumstances tear them apart and years later, boy tries to find girl again and wonders if it’s too late. Nothing very original here, but what makes this novel so very interesting are the settings.

The story opens with Fred, a prisoner of war courtesy of the Germans, following his capture at St Valery. It’s 1940, and while many British servicemen were evacuated at Dunkirk, he’s stuck in a dark, dank prison cell with others from the 51st Highland Division, dreaming of home. Fred’s in his thirties, has lived all around the world with his work as a geologist, but what he can’t stop thinking about is the girl he left behind a dozen years before when he was researching the rock strata on St Kilda.

St Kilda is a wild and rugged island group off the coast of Scotland. Quite a way off the coast of Scotland. Lewis and Harris are part of the Outer Hebrides, and are hardly within cooee. St Kilda’s home to thousands of seabirds, particularly gannets and fulmars which earn the islanders their livelihood. It’s pretty much subsistence living – it has to be as there’s no regular postal service, no radio communication, so the locals rely on visiting fishing boats and such for mail and supplies.

There’s also a bit of tourism in the summer – visitors make day trips to buy St Kilda handcrafts and to photograph ‘Britain’s last hunter-gatherers’. You can imagine what a smart St Kilda girl like Chrissie thinks of that. Chrissie’s story is woven in with Fred’s. She’s a plucky young girl when we meet her and her narrative describes among other things her fondness for the laird’s son. Archie Macleod is a charismatic but wayward young man who visits the island as a child and instantly causes trouble. Later during his final year at Cambridge, he turns up with Fred Lawson, the two of them settling in for a summer that will change their lives.

Through Fred’s eyes we see a dying way of life. The breathtakingly dangerous work the St Kilda men do each year to harvest fulmar chicks for their oil and meat, abseiling off the steep cliffs that border the main island of Hirta. Then there’s the evenings spent around the fire, the women weaving, the singing and storytelling. The intense devotion the families have for their children who are precious, because so many have died as infants.

Events conspire to have Fred making a new life for himself, though his story is mainly about his wartime bid for freedom, his survival through a terrible winter and his struggle to get back to his girl not knowing what he will find when he gets there. It’s a hymn to the sterling work of French Resistance and ordinary people, often at great cost, to get Allied escapees home.

I loved this book. There is plenty of dramatic tension among the characters, particularly Chrissie, Fred and Archie who are each sympathetic in their own way. Even Archie, who continues to cause trouble as an adult, is well fleshed out, battling his private demons. But mostly it’s the geography that steals the the show here, sending you to the Internet and the haunting images of a lost way of life. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

There was a time when I was an avid Jane Austen reader adding an Austen novel to my reading talley each year. And then there was such a plethora of TV and movie adaptations and they were enjoyable, sure, but somehow my interest waned. Then along came the Austen Project – four modern novels based on four Austen novels, written by well-known authors and kicking off with Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility.

I’d quite liked Trollope’s version; it was fun but the characters were annoying. Perhaps the characters in the Austen were too – it’s not my favourite Austen by a long chalk. So I forgot about TAP altogether. And then I happened upon Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld’s take on Pride and Prejudice. Honestly, I enjoyed this book so much I could have sat down and read it through all over again.

Eligible is set in Cincinnati, mostly, with episodes also in New York and California. Mrs Bennett is excited about a certain Chip Bingley who has come to town as an ER doctor at a Cincinnati hospital. Chip is the recent star of a TV reality series called Eligible (somewhat like The Batchelor), where he broke down in tears during the last episode, unable to choose a bride between the two lovelies who made the final. With five unmarried daughters, Mrs B’s keen to orchestrate a social event where they can meet Chip.

Journalist Liz Bennett has been living in New York for years along with her yoga instructor sister Jane but both are recalled to Cincinnati to help when their father has heart surgery. They can’t rely on their mother to feed him a healthy diet and their younger sisters, still living at home though well into their twenties, are useless. Mary spends her time in her room working on her PhD, while Lydia and Kitty are obsessed with working out and don’t even have jobs.

Liz is really the only one who doesn’t need a top up from the Bank of Mom & Dad, and she is appalled at the state of repair of the Bennett family home. When medical bills make it seem impossible to hang onto the house that has been in the family for generations, Liz steps in to try to persuade her parents to sell and the younger Bennetts to get paid employment.

Then there’s the rest of the P&P cast. Darcy, of course, another high flyer at the hospital but with the original snooty disposition we have come to know and love so well; Jasper Wick(ham), a former colleague, best friend and married lover of Liz; Charlotte is Liz’s old friend from home, too plump to attract a Chip Bingley, but a career whizz nevertheless. Women can do anything as we know, in spite of failing on the marriage market, a sentiment emphasised by long-term feminist and women’s rights campaigner, Kathy de Bourgh. Liz has been trying to interview Kathy de Bourgh for her Women Who Dare column for what seems forever.

Throw in an African American realtor and a trans gym owner and you have plenty more to send Mrs Bennett into a spin. Much comedy ensues and the story builds to a brilliant reality tv finale which rounds the story off nicely.

Curtis Sittenfeld has captured all the silliness of modern life in a way that fits the Pride and Prejudice story beautifully. We’ve got the witty dialogue, the terrific characterisation, the misunderstandings and miscommunications you’d expect, all suitably updated. I’d forgotten how much I loved the original and want to read it again. For this and several hours of wonderful entertainment I’m going to give this one a five out of five.

Book Review: The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths

You can tell best-selling author Elly Griffiths has had a ton of fun setting her new Harbinder Kaur mystery around the world of publishing. You can’t help wonder how much of her own experience she’s slipped into the narrative.

The Postscript Murders begins with the death of ninety-year-old Peggy Smith, discovered in her flat by Natalka her Ukrainian caregiver. Because of Peggy’s age, the doc writes it off as natural causes, but Natalka, ever suspicious, believes it’s murder and says so to DS Kaur. Harbinder agrees to look into it, impressed by Natalka’s accent which makes her sound like a spy.

And it’s kind of suspicious how Peggy’s son, Nigel, has her cremated so quickly, her flat boxed up and ready to sell. Just as well Natalka has kept a key. She teams up with Benedict, a former monk who now runs the Coffee Shack on the beach front, and the two sneak into Peggy’s flat where they discover numerous books with Peggy credited in the dedications. She helped the authors with their murder plotting, it seems. A masked gunman who surprises them and then steals a book has them knocking on the door of Peggy’s neighbour Edwin to phone the police.

While DS Kaur is playing catch-up, the unlikely crime-solving trio of Natalka, Benedict and Edwin follow a trail of clues all the way to a literary festival in Aberdeen, tracking down all the crime writers who used Peggy’s services. A new murder keeps Harbinder busy as well as threats close to home so it becomes difficult to rein in Team Natalka. Bubbling away under the surface are subplots including Natalka’s bitcoin shenanigans which have her watching over her shoulder for heavies involved in organised crime, and Harbinder’s ongoing inability to tell her parents that she’s gay. At thirty-five she’s still living at home enjoying Mum’s cooking while her parents hope for a good match for their daughter.

This is a very character-driven story, with much humour coming from the interconnection of the bunch of misfits making up an unlikely cast. Harbinder is an engaging sleuth with her smart policework and ironic mutterings. A glimpse of the publishing industry, the marketing gimmicks, fandom and the sometimes awkwardness of literary festivals creates an interesting backdrop. I chuckled all the way through, not guessing the ending, but not minding if I did as this was such a fun read. Four out of five stars from me.

Book Review: The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

Who knows what goes on behind closed doors? That could be the subtitle of many a Lisa Jewell novel.

The Family Upstairs starts happily enough with twenty-five-year-old Libby Jones coming into an inheritance. Libby has always known she was adopted and is prepared for some news of her provenance the day of her birthday and maybe, with luck, a few hundred pounds. What she doesn’t expect is to inherit a large house in Chelsea, worth millions. It’s a shock for a girl who works for a kitchen design company and financially is just getting by.

The other thing she doesn’t expect is to discover that her parents, Harry and Martina Lamb, and an unidentified male died in a suicide pact when she was 10 months old. And before the bodies were found, somebody looked after the baby, then disappeared. It’s a lot to take in and the house itself creeps her out – it’s dilapidated, and there are signs someone’s been camping out upstairs, and what are those noises?

The story flips between Libby and two other characters. First off there’s Henry Lamb, the twelve-year-old son of Martina and Harry who’s looking forward to his new school when everything changes. His father, once a somewhat shady businessman, has a mild stroke and Martina, wanting to play Lady Bountiful, begins inviting people to stay. When the Thomsen family move in, Henry is mesmerised by their beautiful son, Phin. Things take a sinister turn or two as Henry slowly fills us in on events that lead up to the suicide pact. He’s an oddly distant character, with no friends and left far too much on his own.

Flipping forward again, we’re in the south of France, where Lucy is homeless, struggling to make a living for herself and her two children as a busker. A message on her phone reminds her that ‘the baby’ has turned twenty-five and she becomes determined to do anything she can to get back to England. If only she had a passport. Even before that she has to find the money to pay for the repairs on her violin. When her son Marco reveals he has recently seen his father, a man capable of horrible violence, Lucy has the extra worry of how to ask him for help without conditions.

The three stories carry the reader through to a point where past and present converge and the trio of narrators meet up. Libby garners the help of Miller Rowe, the journalist who has wasted years and his marriage investigating what happened at the Chelsea house, and her colleague Dido who has the wisdom of being ten years older than Libby. It is probably just as well; left to herself, Libby wouldn’t have coped at all.

The story comes together in a cleverly paced way that has you galloping through the book to find out what happened earlier and what will happen next. The backwards and forwards sequence gives you lots of aha moments, while spicing up the tension. But in the end, this isn’t anything like Gone Girl for upsetting revelations, whatever promised by the cover so don’t be too disappointed.

This is a subtler kind of thriller altogether. For in spite of a resolution that promises new beginnings, there are lurking in the background some disturbing niggles. You can’t help thinking that the children from the Chelsea house will always have a tough time settling down to be normal, well-adjusted people. You might be thanking your lucky stars you didn’t grow up at an expensive address like this one. I listened to this novel as an audiobook, and it was superbly read with a different actor for each of the three main characters. A four out of five star read from me.

Book Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

The blurb of this book says Natasha Pulley’s debut novel is ‘utterly beguiling’ and well, I’m not going to argue. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is beguiling in spades. But wonderful too. On the surface it’s a kind of whodunit about a real event, the bombing of Scotland Yard in 1884 by Irish nationalists.

Twenty-five-year-old Nathaniel (Thaniel) Steepleton is a telegraphist for the Home Office – his abandoned skill as a pianist has trained him well for the quick interpretation of cables – when reports of planned bombings of official locations around London come through. Back home at his meagre room in Pimlico, Thaniel discovers a strange but beautiful watch among his effects – a watch that doesn’t work until towards the bombing that almost kills him, but saves him just in time.

Grace Carrow has a watch too. She’s in her last term studying physics at Oxford, hoping to discover and measure the existence of ether, the substance Victorian scientists believed to be the vehicle for light. Light travels faster than sound so it was thought that while sound travelled through air, light must travel through a different substance to make it quicker. Grace is out to prove it, but struggling, not only with something that in the end didn’t pan out, but also her destiny as the daughter of a lord to settle down and marry well.

But all Grace wants is a basement somewhere full of bunsen burners and test-tubes. She’s had to cut off her hair because she accidentally set fire to it, which is kind of convenient for when she sneaks into the male-only library dressed as a man. I like Grace.

These two main characters eventually become connected through a third – you guessed it the watchmaker of the title. Thaniel, wanting to find out more about his watch, hunts him out and finds an enigmatic Japanese artisan, Keita Mori. Mori is also of noble birth and we get a picture of his heritage in Japan which Pulley creates beautifully here. There are further Japanese links – a model village nearby in Knightsbridge and Grace’s friend at Oxford, the dandyish Matsumoto.

And then there’s the clockwork. Mori not only makes beautiful watches, he creates flying insects and has an articulated octopus that steals socks. While the police are wondering if his handiwork is behind the bomb-making terrorising London, Gilbert and Sullivan are rehearsing The Mikado, set to debut at the model village. There are layers of music – which incidentally, Thaniel can see in colours – dazzling magical effects, fireworks, clairvoyance and even modern art incorporated into this complex, delightful and (that word again) beguiling story.

It is so easy to become swept away with all the visual images here, the elegant writing and the Victorian and Japanese settings but you need to have your wits about you to keep up with the plot as Pulley also plays with time and memory. But even if I do feel as if I’ve missed a few important details and a reread may be in order, I can’t help feeling that this has been a particularly pleasurable entertainment. The sequel, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, is already on my ‘to read’ list for 2021. This one gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting

I may be wrong, but The Sixteen Trees of the Somme could be the first Scandinavian book I have read that wasn’t a crime novel. Not that there aren’t some terrible events here: war, genocide, theft, a disputed legacy, blotted reputations and simmering feuds. Why throw in the police as well? There’s also a fairly mind-boggling mystery at the heart of the story.

Edvard has grown up on a remote potato farm in Norway under the care of his grandfather, Sverre. His parents died with he was three in mysterious circumstances while on holiday. The family of three were on a road trip to visit the birthplace of Edvard’s French grandmother, a farm adjacent to the battlefield of the Somme. Young Edvard went missing for several days before being left at a doctor’s surgery. Nobody knows who cared for him before Sverre arrived to take him home.

When his grandfather dies, a beautifully crafted coffin has been kept for him at the undertakers, which can only have been built by Sverre’s brother, Einar, a master cabinet maker. Edvard may have left it at that, buried his grandfather, and carried on with the farm. There’s Hanne, a high-school sweetheart back home from veterinary college, to hang out with. But the past nags at him and before long, Edvard is following a trail of clues to a tiny island off the Shetland coast called Haaf Gruney, in search of the uncle he hardly knew.

The Shetland Islands have a long Norwegian history, before becoming part of Scotland, and it is curious just how many place names and turns of phrase have a Norwegian ring to them. Edvard arrives off the car ferry from one remote spot on the atlas to an even remoter one with very little life experience. Soon he meets the much more savvy Gwen, a young woman the same age as Edvard, with a strong connection to her late grandfather, a wealthy timber merchant who owned Haaf Gruney. The two have a connected history it seems.

The story takes you through a maze of twists and turns as Edvard pieces together his uncle’s life. There’s his war – we’re up to World War II now, where Einar was involved in the French Resistance, and the importance of some trees that once grew in the Somme, and its link with Gwen’s grandfather’s experiences in the previous war. Then there’s the question of Einar’s feud with Sverre, attributed to the fact that Sverre fought for the Germans – or was there more to it than that? And then there’s Einar’s reverence for wood – you learn a lot about the craft of making fine things, the timber that makes it special.

Mytting builds the story beautifully, pulling you in as Edvard and Gwen make the discoveries that lead back to the terrible day when Edvard’s parents died. But this is so much more than an extremely satisfying mystery. Edvard has a lot of growing up to to do and some big decisions to make. The legacies of both Einar and Sverre pull him in two directions, as does his attraction to two women. And this a young man who until leaving Norway had never eaten anything remotely as exotic as an Indian meal served in restaurant on a Shetland island.

The revelations of the story will really tug at your heart as well – the events of two world wars have hammered both Gwen’s and Edvard’s families. It’s no wonder they form an attachment. As the past drags them into some terrible discoveries, you wonder how they will recover. It makes you ponder the way that people’s heritage is linked to who they are and how they build a future from that. How much can be forgotten? It all adds up to a powerful story, one that will haunt you well after finishing the book.

I’m happy to see there’s a new Lars Mytting book just out – The Bell in the Lake – the first in a trilogy no less and which promises more of the themes Mytting is drawn to. One for my To Read list for sure. This one scores a four and a half out five from me.