Book Review: Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase – secrets and lies in an evocative Cornish setting

I love these novels set in old English country houses, specially when family secrets, heartbreak and mystery are added to the mix. Old houses can add a Gothic quality, as it is with Black Rabbit Hall, although that’s not the house’s real name. Pencraw’s a dilapidated mansion on the Cornish coast, subject to storms and heady summer heat and it’s the home to the Alton family when they’re not in London.

The young Altons are a blessed with loving parents – beautiful Nancy who hails from New York, and Hugo who is struggling to maintain the old house, with its leaky roof and unreliable floorboards. The couple are devoted to each other, and adore their kids: little Kitty, nature-loving Barney, fifteen-year-old Toby and his twin sister Amber who narrates most of the story. Their world comes crumbling down when Nancy dies suddenly in a riding accident, and the children become more wild and unkempt.

Amber does her best to fill in as a mother figure to the two younger children while Toby acts more weirdly than ever. He has a fixation with what to do if civilisation comes to an end – it’s 1968 and the Cold War and the nuclear arms race are all go. He’s a survivalist but not in a good way and argues constantly with his father. It doesn’t come as a surprise when Hugo invites an old flame to visit but it’s a shock when she arrives with her seventeen-year-old son, Lucien. Caroline is the opposite of their warm, spontaneous mother, but she’s got money and might just save Black Rabbit Hall.

The story flips between Amber’s narration and Lorna’s some thirty odd years later. Lorna and her fiancé Jon are looking for a wedding venue, and Amber has a distant memory of visiting Black Rabbit Hall as a child with her mother. There is an emotional pull here for Lorna as her mother has recently died, lacing the memory with nostalgia. Finding the house almost defeats them, but it’s also a shock when they get there and it seems the Hall is not quite ready for hosting weddings, despite what the website says.

Jon and Amber look set to fall out over the Hall, Amber still excited about finding the perfect setting for the wedding, Jon more realistic having noticed the general state of disrepair. Then there is the lack of staff, the house inhabited by the frail and elderly Mrs Alton and Dill, her flustered general factotum. Amber is talked into visiting for a weekend to help make up her mind – no pressure! What she experiences when she’s at the Hall is more about disturbing distant memories and uncovering family secrets that giving the place a trial run. What is it about Black Rabbit Hall that seems to prod deep into her consciousness?

The story slowly comes together as we go back through the years to fill in the gaps as the Alton children have to deal with family upheaval while still grieving for Nancy. Lorna also teases out hints from the past which make her doubt her future with Jon. In each narrative there is a gathering storm and sense of impending doom, which has you galloping through the book to find out what happens. It all comes to a startling and intense ending but there is resolution as well.

For me the book had hints of Daphne du Maurier, not only with the Cornish setting, but with the cruel, Mrs Danvers-like malefactor and the Gothic qualities of the house. Chase also does a great job with the family dynamics, particularly the way she writes about siblings and the intense connections between the twins, the pressure on the older sister to keep things together and the difficulty for her to be her own person.

Black Rabbit Hall is the perfect read if you like old country house mysteries and evocative settings. The characters are easy to empathise with, honestly they break your heart, and there is an interesting dichotomy between long summer days where nothing seems to happen and events hurtling characters into rash behaviour. This is my second Eve Chase novel – I’d previously enjoyed The Wilding Sisters – and it didn’t disappoint. I’ll be heading back for more. Black Rabbit Hall (which incidentally won the Saint Maur en Poche prize for best foreign fiction) gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: A Tidy Ending by Joanna Cannon – a beguiling psychological dramedy

You never quite know what you’re getting yourself into when you pick up a Joanna Cannon novel. Each is unique, but there’s a few common themes. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep has two young girls concerned with the disappearance of a neighbour and what unravels in their cul-de-sac during a simmering 1970s summer. Three Things About Elsie is set in a retirement village with its elderly protagonist trying to keep a grip on reality while haunted by a secret from the past. A vein of dark humour runs through both books and it is the same here with A Tidy Ending.

Linda just wants to be like other women she sees in the catalogues delivered to her new house, addressed to Rebecca Finch. Rebecca used to live in the house Linda and Terry have just moved to – just around the corner from their old house. In her early forties, Linda’s either wearing the same old housecoat she’s had for decades, or clothing from the charity shop where she works part-time. According to her mother, she’s just too ‘big boned’ to aspire to anything more glamorous. But surely there’s more to life than pushing the hoover around and fish-fingers for tea.

Although she’s married to Terry, it’s a lonely kind of marriage and Linda doesn’t have any friends. She tries to suggest going for a coffee with Ingrid down the road, but Ingrid just never quite has the time. You can’t help wondering if it’s because of something that happened to Linda when she was a child and the terrible events around the death of her father. Meanwhile, a young woman has been strangled nearby. There’s nothing like a murder to get the neighbours talking and Linda and her mother are soon swept up in speculation. Even Terry, normally sat in front of the telly watching sport, takes an interest.

The story follows the extraordinary lengths Linda goes to make friends with Rebecca Finch. Meanwhile another girl is murdered amid talk of a serial killer lurking in the neighbourhood. We learn more about Linda’s childhood in Wales and what happened to her father. Threaded through the narrative are chapters that seem to be set in a ward for the mentally ill. There are a lot of loose ends to tie up before any hint of the story’s ‘tidy ending’.

There’s a tinge of humour running through Linda’s narrative and even though she’s not the easiest character to like, you can’t help feeling some empathy for her. Will she manage to sort out her life and get what she wants or is she doomed to be misunderstood, disliked or even stuck in ongoing mental care? The characters around her – the fussy, demanding mother; the nosy, busy-body neighbour Malcolm – are beautifully observed, but it takes a lot of concentration to keep up with what’s going on in the story. So even though Linda is such an awkward character, you can’t help wanting to know what happens to her and you race towards a stunning and unpredictable ending.

I love the way Joanna Cannon combines sharp psychological observation with clever plotting and she’s done it here again. I’m not quite sure what genre this – is it a ‘domestic’ thriller? A dark comedy? Or something unique of Cannon’s own devising. Whatever it is, she’s a breath of fresh air – original and hugely entertaining. A Tidy Ending scores a four out of five from me.

Book Review: All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison – a compelling historical novel set in rural England

I’ve heard so much to recommend this novel and the setting of 1930s Suffolk also was appealing. It’s the story of Edith Mather who is fourteen during the summer of 1934 and everything’s gearing up towards harvest time. Her parents are tenant farmers with the help of John, who survived the battlefields of WWI, and Doble, their old farm hand. Edith’s brother Frank helps too and at seventeen is courting a local girl, his future mapped out for him. Older sister Mary is already married and has a baby, so Edith’s future seems set to follow in a similar direction. Alf Rose on a neighbouring farm already has his eye on Edie.

Then Connie FitzAllen arrives on the scene, visiting farms to research the old rural ways, with plans to write a book – her articles appearing in journals as Sketches from English Rural Life. Her fear is that farming traditions might be lost as mechanisation becomes widespread, farmers’ wives buy bread from the bakery instead of making their own and the conveniences of canned goods change the way people prepare meals. Connie takes a shine to Edith, who shows her round the village, and helps the visitor any way she can. To be fair, Connie lends a hand with the harvest, but what is her secret agenda?

Sketches from English Rural Life –

There is surely no better repast than country dishes, innocent of the fashions of the modern age. They may not be refined, but here there is good, wholesome food such as may be found on every English farm where butter is churned by hand, cheese is made, and bread is daily baked.

The story is told through Edith’s eyes and she’s an engaging narrator. She’s intelligent – her old teacher would have liked to see her study further, giving her exercise books to encourage her to write. But Edith’s needed on the farm. There’s all that laundry every Monday, and the chickens to care for as well as all the work to help bring in the harvest. It seems everyone has Edith’s time organised for her, including the incomer, Connie. No wonder she’s getting into a bit of a state.

But then all the characters are interestingly complex. Edith’s father seems to be under pressure – making the farm pay isn’t easy. There’s the depression after all, and he’s one of those typical men of his time who bottles up his feelings, resulting in sudden rages. Edith’s mother suffered as a girl as her mother was considered a bit of a witch. Connie is also complex, with her intense fondness for both Edith and her mother, her ability to charm even the stolid menfolk with her talk of politics and new ideas, though not at the expense of rural traditions, of course.

And then there’s the countryside. Harrison describes it in lush detail that makes you feel you are there, not just the flora and fauna as she sees it, but how it changes with the seasons, or even as day turns to night. She has a very distinctive voice and it doesn’t surprise me that her website describes her both a “novelist and nature writer”.

Our barley was well along now, flaxen from a distance and with the beards tipping over almost as we watched. The wheat, too, was ripening: the stalks were still-blue-green, but the tops of the ears were fading to a greenish-yellow, a tint that would become richer and spread down the ears as they fattened to finally gild the stalks and leaves. Then the sound of the cornfields would alter: dry, they would susurrate, whispering to Father and John that it was nearly time. The glory of the farm then, just before harvest: acres of gold like bullion, strewn with the sapphires of cornflowers and the garnets of corn poppies and watched over from on high by larks.

But in this idyllic setting there are darker dramas afoot, a hint that one war has past leaving its scars on people, while we are aware of another just around the corner. The characters meanwhile have their own more immediate issues creating so much strain that things seem set to boil over. This causes enough tension to sweep the reader along towards an ending you might not quite be prepared for. It’s a great historical read – a combination of characters you can feel for, great writing and a brilliant recreation of time and place. I can see why All Among the Barley has been so well reviewed. I can’t think of anything I didn’t like about so it’s another five star read from me.

Book Review: The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett – a new puzzle from an inventive mystery writer

I was impressed by Hallett’s debut novel, The Appeal, which was written in text messages, emails and similar correspondence – an epistolary novel for our time. More interestingly it invited the reader to solve the mystery and figure out whodunit. And now Hallett’s done it again with her second book, The Twyford Code, only this time the story is written for the most part in transcripts of audio files from a phone.

Steven Smith has just been released from prison after a lengthy stretch for a crime that is not revealed until towards the end. We learn he was a career criminal, working for an established family of crims. They’d looked after him when he was teenager, feeding him, clothing him and showing him the trade. He’d dropped out of school at fourteen after something went terribly wrong on a school trip involving the disappearance of a favourite teacher, Miss Isles. Steven can’t help blaming himself.

Nearly forty years ago, Steven found a book on a bus travelling to school, and showed Miss Isles, who read it to the class. These are the kids who are in reading recovery, the ones with dyslexia and other learning difficulties, but Miss Isles knows how to inspire them. The book with echoes of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories, is written by Edith Twyford, much discredited in recent years, her books a tad racist and paternalistic for modern times. But the story captivates the class and Miss Isles who says there are clues in the book to missing gold secreted away during World War II. Twyford and her husband were spies and Steven’s book is full of code-like annotations. Can Miss Isles and the class solve the puzzle?

Steven is hazy about what happened on the school trip to Twynford’s cottage, and the disappearance of his teacher. So he tracks down his classmates in the hope of filling in the gaps. The audio files are his way of documenting his findings – he is hampered by his limited literacy – and they are addressed to Maxine, his probation officer. The technology captures his way of speaking exactly, his London accent, so that Miss Isles becomes ‘missiles’; must have translates to ‘mustard’ and so on. In a way this takes a bit of getting used to, but it also adds personality.

Among the recorded dialogue, the diary entries, and so on there’s still plenty of action. It seems danger lurks and where there’s gold there’s always someone who will do anything to get it. We are slowly filled in on Steven’s past, his criminal history and his family. But mostly this is a clever and engaging mystery. You get caught up in trying to figure out what is real and what’s just Steven’s imagination – he’s a classic unreliable narrator, worldly-wise in some ways, naive in others.

The Twyford Code is a brilliantly planned and executed puzzle, but I did at times tire of Steven’s company. This is perhaps a limitation of telling the story in this way. I also struggled to keep all the facts straight, but perhaps I wasn’t meant to. The twists and revelations make for a clever and appealing ending, enough to save the book for me. I’m giving it a four out of five while wondering whatever will Janice Hallett think of next?

Book Review: The Salt Path by Raynor Winn – an inspiring memoir about the healing power of nature

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction but every so often a book comes along that just captures my interest. I’d had this one on my reading list for some time, but what gave me the kick-start I needed was that one of the challenges in our library’s Turn Up the Heat reading programme asks you to read a biography or memoir.

The Salt Path is the story of a couple in middle age who are at a period in their lives when everything has just turned to custard. They’ve lost their home of twenty years which as a farm and accommodation business was also their income. Around the same time Moth, the author’s husband, is diagnosed with a debilitating terminal illness.

With few options and nowhere to live, other than the kind of emergency housing that could be utterly soul destroying, the pair buy a tent on E-bay, load up a couple of backpacks (rucksacks if you’re British) and set off on the Salt Path. This is a six hundred and thirty miles coastal walk around the south west corner of England from Minehead to Pool. You can’t be homeless if you’re hiking, can you?

But from the outset, Moth and Raynor are doing it tough. They have only a few hundred pounds to their name, and by the time they are walking the path, rely on a small dribble of cash turning up in their bank account from welfare. This barely pays for their food, often noodles and chocolate, or tuna and rice when they feel flush. They scrounge hot water at cafés for tea. You would think that the strain of the walk and lack of good nutrition might make Moth sicker, but it doesn’t. In fact he gets fitter and becomes almost pain-free.

In the pink half-light of dawn, the holes were everywhere. Fresh droppings piled up under the flysheet of the tent and as I undid the zip tens of rabbits hopped only feet away. I could have just reached out and taken one to put straight in the pot. Instead we made tea. Moth found a hairy wine gum in his pocket, so we cut that in half.

Raynor Winn chronicles the people they meet: the other walkers, often with much better equipment, but usually friendly; the people who turn up their noses at their unwashed shabbiness; and the other homeless people, not usually walking but eking out an existence in the towns. It’s quite an insightful look at the homeless problem in UK – how easy it is to drop out of the system, the difficulty of finding affordable accommodation, especially in rural communities where holiday lets drive up the rent astronomically.

The other thing Winn does really well is describe the wild environment of the coastal path. Not just the wildlife she encounters, the plants and the sea, but what it’s like to be amongst it all. Her writing is amazing. You’d think she’d been writing all her life but this would seem to be her first book. Winn’s story is heartfelt, immediate and real. Not surprisingly, The Salt Path was short-listed for the Costa Biography Award and a Wainwright Prize.

“It’s touched you, it’s written all over you: you’ve felt the hand of nature. It won’t ever leave you now; you’re salted…”

But more than that, The Salt Path is also the story of a marriage, of a couple’s devotion to each other and their determination to find a way forward. I found it both an emotional read and an inspiring one. Maybe it’s time to dust off the backpack and the hiking boots once more to remind myself why walking in the wilderness, for all the sore feet, the ache of the pack on your shoulders and the slogs uphill on uneven terrain can be so uplifting. Or maybe I’ll just read Winn’s sequel, The Wild Silence. The Salt Path gets a four and a half out of five from me.

Crime Fiction Catch-Up – some cosy and not-so-cosy Brit-crime reads

I always seem to like a bit of crime fiction during the winter. Here’s a look at a few of the mysteries I’ve enjoyed over recent weeks.

A Game of Fear by Charles Todd
This is the latest Inspector Rutledge novel where our haunted, war-veteran is sent to Essex in search of a case that looks quite hopeless. A murder is reported but there’s no body and the man recognised as the murderer has been dead for years. Nobody at Scotland Yard expects Rutledge to find anything worth investigating, but the witness, Lady Benton, has connections. What he finds is a twisty crime plus a brutal killer on the loose. We have another terrific setting – the salt flats of Walmer, and a manor house built around the ruins of old abbey. There’s the remains of an old airfield from the WWI and somehow everything ties in with the men who served there, many of whom didn’t come back. If you think the Air Force in World War Two was a dangerous lark, then imagine the era of bi-planes and the Red Baron. It’s another cracking read from Charles Todd, loaded with atmosphere and interesting historical background.

Twenty-one Days by Anne Perry
Anne Perry is best known for her William Monk and Thomas Pitt series set in Victorian England which have been going for a few decades now. They’re good meaty crime reads with a Dickensian feel in the way she recreates the period. This first in a series introduces Thomas Pitt’s barrister son Daniel as the new sleuth, here attempting to save a man from the gallows who’s been found guilty of murdering his wife. He’s hard to defend being an unpleasant character and a scandal-mongering biographer. His latest book looks set to stir up trouble for the secret service, including Daniel’s father, Sir Thomas Pitt. Some interesting points raised about the difference between justice and the law, while the setting of 1910 gives Daniel a chance to take an interest in forensic science, with the help of his head-of-chambers’ daughter. She’d studied at university, but women at that time couldn’t receive a degree, even if they had done all the work. Typical. The story has plenty of twists and introduces some terrific characters we can enjoy getting to know in the subsequent books. There’s already another four.

The Shadows of Men by Abir Mukherjee
This series set in 1920s Calcutta just keeps getting better. The new book is told from alternating points of view between policeman Sam Wyndham and his Sergeant Banerjee. The story begins when Banerjee is tasked with a secret mission that lands him on a murder charge. He’s been arrested over the death of a Hindu theologian, when all he was doing was trying to make it look like an accident so that a religious feud doesn’t erupt. With Banerjee on the run, Wyndham must help clear his name and find the killer while religious factions from both Hindu and Muslim groups threaten to throw the country into a permanent state of riot. There’s lots of action and nail-biting moments, but in the background the tinder-box politics of life in India under the British is a fascinating setting. The characters are complex and interesting and the storytelling witty and perceptive. More, please.

The Darkest Evening by Ann Cleeves
This recent Vera Stanhope mystery is set in the dark days of winter when Vera, driving home in the snow, finds she has missed her turning only to discover a car with an unattended baby. She takes the child to the nearest house, which just happens to be the Stanhope family mansion and while she’s there, trying to discover what’s happened, a body is discovered. Of course. There’s a dinner party in full swing and Vera has to rub shoulders with the family she’s fallen out with while looking scruffy as always. But she gets to prove her worth, solving the crime and not taking any nonsense from anyone. I love the way she attempts to jolly along Holly, her ambitious DC, and make allowances for Joe, whose family make demands. There’s a nail-biting finish where the killer nearly takes Vera out of action, but happily there’s another book on the way with her name on the cover. The Rising Tide is out shortly.

Hot to Trot by M C Beaton
When M C Beaton died a short while ago, we might have thought that would be it for Agatha Raisin. But no, a good friend of Beaton (R W Green) has been entrusted with her story ideas and so Agatha is back again. Here she makes a spectacle of herself at the wedding of her old flame and lord of the manor, Charles Fraith. He’s marrying horsey socialite Mary Brown-Field, but after a fight with Agatha at a masked ball, Mary is found murdered. Agatha has to work hard to convince the police she had nothing to do with it, as well as trying to clear Charles’s name. It’s just as well she’s got other fish to fry romantically and that she and Charles are just good friends. This means he can cough up with her fee, as her private detective agency is buzzing with cases and she’s got staff to pay. The story takes us into the high-stakes world of show-jumping and dressage comps where Mary had rubbed a few people up the wrong way. I particularly enjoyed the audio-book version of this novel, read by the incomparable Penelope Keith. Magic!

Book Review: Three Women and a Boat by Anne Youngson – a warm-hearted novel about turning points and second chances

Youngson’s first novel, Meet Me at the Museum, was a thoughtful, enlightening and romantic story told in letters between its two main characters. It was a big hit and I’ve been looking forward to this second book, set on the canals of England between London and Chester. Three Women and a Boat (US edition: The Narrowboat Summer) follows Eve, Sally and Anastasia who band together when each is at a turning point in their lives. They are complete strangers to begin with, when Anastasia needs somewhere to stay in London for cancer treatment. Sally and Eve, each independently and suddenly adrift from their normal lives, chip in and offer to help.

Eve has been dumped from her job in engineering. Sally is walking away from her marriage. Neither knows what they want to do next when they meet up on a towpath and rescue a howling dog, trapped in a canal boat. Anastasia returns to her boat to find two strangers have smashed a window to free a dog that didn’t need freeing. Maybe it’s the lure of life on the canals, or perhaps it is Anastasia’s vivid personality, but the two younger women find themselves agreeing to do her a favour.

While Anastasia is in London staying in Eve’s flat, her houseboat, the Number One, needs to be ferried to Chester for repairs. Eve and Sally have to rapidly get up to speed on handling the boat and the tricky business of canal locks as well as get used to living together in a tight space.

A lot of the story is about the women on the boat, and you get heaps of detail about locks and tunnels and how to navigate them, which is interesting. The summery canal-side scenery gets a mention too and you’re soon drifting along with Eve and Sally as if you’re with them on the trip, having a nice break away from it all. It’s a slower pace but there’s lots to do. Then there are all the interesting characters Eve and Sally get to know – people who have made a life on the canals in one way or another.

The story is narrated by Eve and Sally in turn, as they evaluate their lives and think about their options. We get their points of view of other characters, in particular, Arthur a tweedy old friend of Anastasia’s who is also oddly secretive, as well as Billy and Trompette whose boat, the Grimm, is aptly named as Billy is a gifted storyteller. The women warm to Trompette who at only nineteen has a talent for creating wonderful knitted garments – surely she could study design and make something of her life.

You read on, wondering what decisions the main characters will make about what to do next. Eve and Sally change during the course of the book, enough to learn what really matters to them. If you’ve always had a hankering to ditch the treadmill of the nine-to-five job and the mortgage repayments this might well resonate with you. But just to keep the plot simmering Youngson throws in a few twists as well.

This is a very different book to what I was expecting in that it is quite philosophical, thoughtfully written and doesn’t follow too much the usual rules that seem to govern novel plotting. It’s a breath of fresh air in so many ways, and while it’s a fairly light read, like her previous book, it marks Youngson out as an interesting author with an original voice. I particularly loved the characters who seem very real, the kind of people you’d like to meet for a catch-up over coffee. All in all this is such an enjoyable read – a four out of five from me.

Book Review: Little Wing by Freya North – a heart tugging drama with an evocative Scottish Island setting

I was quite likely drawn to this novel because of the setting – I think I might have mentioned my thing for Scottish Islands before. A big chunk of Little Wing is set on Harris, one of the Outer Hebrides. As the character of Dougie says ‘the Outer Hebrides are like this one-hundred-and-thirty-mile stone windbreak taking the brunt of all that the Atlantic is hurling. In winter the raindrops are like ‘bulls’ bollocks’. But there’s also a ‘wild, terrifying beauty.’ What’s not to like?

In 1969, Harris is where Florence is sent to have her baby. She is sixteen years old and her mother has disowned her. Luckily her step-father steps in and offers a solution. He has a brother on the island where she can escape all the tut-tutting and shame of her condition. We get briefly swept into Florence’s world of Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles, mini skirts and the psychedelic designs Florence creates in her room.

The story switches forwards to 2005 where we meet Nell, who has a lot on her plate. She co-runs a café where the staff are all special needs. Danny, AJ and co. are so lovingly drawn and what they lack as professional waitstaff is compensated for in charm and enthusiasm. I wish we had a café like this where I live. Nell also visits Frank, an elderly man who needs a hand with meals, but who is also a good friend. If only Nell’s mother still recognised her. Wendy suffers from early-onset dementia and lives in a care home. Single and in her mid-thirties, Nell’s life seems to be all work and caring for others.

Similarly struggling is Dougie, working hard in London as a photographer, not the creative portraiture he excelled at as a student, but catalogue shots for cheap clothing or gardening hardware. Between work and pounding a treadmill at the gym, he rarely has time to return his dad’s phone calls. Dougie’s dad, Gordon, is from Harris, so you know that’s where our lost and bewildered characters will venture next.

When Nell finds her mother’s wayward memory throws up doubts about her own provenance, the answers could be discovered in a remote part of Scotland. Dougie, in need of a break and long overdue for a visit home makes the trip to Harris too. And although Dougie and Nell see each other over the days that follow, it is a while before any sparks ignite. There is however a strong romantic thread to the story, as well as tragedy, both of which are enriched by the wild beauty of a Harris setting.

I really enjoyed Little Wing, named for one of Florence’s favourite Jimi Hendrix’s songs; it’s a light read but full of feeling. You can’t help warming towards the characters: brave and idealistic young Florence, kind-hearted but also kind of fun Nell and Dougie with his quiet sensitivity and Heathcliffe hair. But the true hero of the story is the island of Harris itself with its history, traditions, wild open spaces, birdlife and weather. Not to mention the friendly islanders. You’ll be trawling the Internet for pictures like I did and dreaming about booking a holiday.

I haven’t read anything by Freya North before, but have since discovered she was at the vanguard of the chick lit genre when her first book came out in 1996 – this novel is her fifteenth. I recommend Little Wing for when you want a cosy, light, warm-hearted read. This one gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Beloved Girls by Harriet Evans – an atmospheric and twisty page-turner

I really like books where there’s an atmospheric house in the country and a dark family secret or two. Harriet Evans delivers all of this in The Beloved Girls, but throws in a pagan ritual dating back to the 1700s. What more could you wish for?

The story takes us to London where we meet Catherine Christophe who in her late forties has an enviable life. She’s done well in her career as a barrister, has two well-adjusted teenage children and a happy marriage to Davide, who she met in Toulouse on her gap year. Life had been going swimmingly but lately Catherine has felt uneasy about losing a murder case, where a boy around her daughter’s age has been convicted for killing another boy at his school. He’s not a very nice kid, that’s obvious, but he’s still a kid and he was bullied mercilessly. And then she starts seeing a figure from her past, someone who should be dead.

Switching back a few decades, there’s the story of Jane L’estrange. Jane dearly loves her father, a charismatic but complex man with PTSD from the war and difficulties holding down a job. When her mother leaves them, Jane is sent to visit the Hunters at the Vanes, a quirky country mansion. Jane soon bonds with Kitty Hunter and would love to stay longer, but there are some awkward family dynamics – a very unpleasant father, Charles, knowns as PT for pater familias, the product of the worst kind of public school, and his much younger wife, Sylvia, who has a mysterious connection to Jane’s father.

When she’s eighteen, Jane returns to the Vanes for the summer after the sudden death of her father, her mother having returned from Spain to sell up and arrange Jane’s future. Kitty’s aloof, her brother Joss is smarmy, while Charles is planning for Jane to take part in the yearly honey gathering ritual. She’s to be one of the Beloved Girls, dressed in green, part of a procession that will harvest honey from bees who have built hives in the derelict chapel on the Hunters’ property. The ritual was begun centuries before by the vicar of the day, a sinister man whose flock avoided church. This is a wild coast, where shipwrecks were frequent and the locals enjoyed the spoils of wrecking and scavenging.

Slowly the puzzle pieces come together as the story switches backwards in time, but it’s that particular summer, when Jane’s eighteen, that is the centre of the action. Of course there’s a heatwave to make everything seem more menacing and even the bees seem to be swarming angrily. You can tell things aren’t going to end well. Surely it’s time for some characters to get their comeuppance. The misogyny endured by Kitty and her mother from both Charles and Joss and his friends, who attend the same awful public school, is ever present.

Meanwhile Catherine Christophe isn’t faring too well and you can’t help wondering if her perfect world isn’t going to crumble down around her. So there’s plenty to keep you turning the pages as the past catches up with the present. But there’s a lot to think about too. Evans has a fair bit to say about the privileged classes that hold sway, keeping things the same, generation after generation. They depend upon a world where women know their place and money talks.

All in all, this is a fairly satisfying read, somewhat escapist but not as frivolous as it might be. The characters are interesting and flawed, very flawed often, but then they they are victims too. The ending is somewhat open to interpretation which works well here. Perhaps the middle sagged a little as one hot day bleeds into the next, but in a way this adds to the simmering tension. All the same, I found myself skimming a little. The Beloved Girls is a three and a half out of five read from me.

Book Review: A Woman Made of Snow by Elisabeth Gifford – a dual-narrative of family secrets and Arctic adventure

Here’s a new novel from an author with a knack for dramatic Scottish settings. A Woman Made of Snow weaves together two stories, the first set just after World War Two. Caro has a history degree from Cambridge and a new baby. She had envisaged a new life with hubby Alasdair in London, both of them with university posts, but little Felicity came too soon. Now she’s stuck near Dundee with an interfering mother-in-law who keeps dropping in with well-meaning advice. Caro feels she has to have things tidy all the time just in case Martha appears.

Rents in town are expensive so the young family have a cottage on the family estate. When a pipe bursts and the cottage is flooded, there’s nothing for it but to move in with Martha who’s rattling around on her own in a picturesque castle. A skeleton uncovered by builders after the flood sends shockwaves, and Caro and Martha can’t help wondering if it isn’t Alasdair’s great-grandmother whose name has been scratched out of all family records. Caro uses her skills as a researcher to uncover the story of the woman and speculates who the skeleton might be.

Meanwhile the story switches back to the late 1880s and we meet Charlotte who is in love with childhood friend, Oliver. Only Oliver is in love with Charlotte’s sister. A night on the tiles to soothe an aching heart leads Oliver to sign up as ship’s surgeon on the Narhwal, a whaling ship setting off for the Arctic. How the two plot threads are connected to the missing great-grandmother and the skeleton in the garden make for a pacy plot unravelling to a dramatic climax.

While this all adds up to an enthralling story, Gifford takes time to develop a number of themes, including the awkwardness that often arises between a devoted mother and her daughter-in-law. There’s some class snobbery – Alasdair’s sister Pippa describes Caro as ‘suburban’ as if that’s one of the worst things imaginable. You really feel for Caro, missing her career, managing a baby in a chilly castle, and not fitting in. Other issues such as colonisation and racism get a look in, revealed gently through the story.

But mostly I raced through the book to find out what happened. There’s tragedy of course, not surprising since there’s a body in the garden, and my heart-strings were well and truly tugged. However I couldn’t help feel that this might have been a more powerful novel if the two malefactors in it – one for each timeframe – weren’t quite so obviously twisted, and the ending a little less all tied up and perfect. It’s just a small complaint, as overall this is a solid, entertaining novel, but I feel a little disappointed. So it’s a three and a half out of five from me.