Book Review: The Homes by J B Mylet – a gripping Scottish orphanage mystery

At the back of the book, J B Mylet explains how he was inspired to write this novel by his mother’s own experiences as a child in an institution very like the one in The Homes. As a young girl she thought all children were brought up in similar set-ups: a cluster of houses in a purpose-built of village with twenty or thirty children per cottage with ‘house parents’ and a cook to feed them all. She didn’t realise that most children grew up with their biological families.

And at first it’s the same for Lesley, sharing a room with five other girls, including her best friend, Jonesy, all about the same age. But now she’s twelve, she knows better. She at least gets regular visits from her grandmother, who though kindly, is unable to care for Lesley, and neither can her mother who visits a few times a year. Lesley is bitter about her mother and finds it difficult to believe her when her mother says she’s hoping to bring her home to live with her one day. Jonesy is there is because the state has considered her mother an unsuitable parent.

There are other rooms in Lesley’s house with more girls of different ages and in charge are the Patersons, a childless couple who do their best. But Mr Paterson is not above taking his belt to the girls, in fact it’s expected. Jonesy gets it more than most. She’s just so lively and unstoppable. And everyone is terrified of the Superintendent, Mr Gordon. Jonesy’s non-stop chatter is a foil to Lesley’s quieter intelligence. Meanwhile Lesley escapes into her studies, one of the few children who bus to a local school.

Fears of punishments and schoolyard bullies all fade into the background when an older girl, Jane Denton, goes missing, her murdered body found some days later. When another girl disappears, Jonesy determines to find out who the murderer is, while Lesley acts as a sounding board and is dragged into Jonesy’s sleuthing, throwing the girls into danger. What follows is a fairly classic mystery with plenty of secrets and hidden motives.

And while this is entertaining, it is the characters of the girls, especially Lesley’s narrative voice, sensitive and smart but also easily led down blind alleys, that make the story interesting. That and the strikingly original setting. It’s difficult to forget that these are vulnerable children who deserve so much better. Fortunately not all the adults are unsympathetic. Eadie is the kindly therapist who listens and offers advice; there’s a friendly detective and Lesley gets help just in the nick of time from an unexpected quarter.

The Homes makes for a compelling story, part mystery, part social commentary, that will have you riveted until the last page. But the story behind the story is just as interesting. I wonder what Mylet will come up with next. This book gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: Meredith, Alone by Claire Alexander: a compelling story about a life spent indoors

It takes some skill to turn the life of an agoraphobic person into an interesting novel. But I was soon hooked by the story of Meredith who hasn’t left her house in 1214 days – that’s three years and three months. Something has happened to Meredith to leave her traumatised and solitary, something which has cut her off from her mother and sister Fiona, once her closest pal. The story weaves in the past with the present as we follow Meredith’s struggles to get out into the world again.

Meredith has made her home a haven with restful colours and orders everything she needs online. She works online as a freelance writer so she really has no need to go anywhere. It just shows you how easy it is to cut yourself off from the outside world if want to. She has her cat, Fred, and her best friend Sadie calls in regularly with her two young children so although the book is called Meredith, Alone, she still has people in her court.

Meredith has support from a group online, StrengthInNumbers, where she makes friends with Celeste and talks to a counsellor, Diane, who conducts regular online sessions. We catch up with Meredith when she has a new visitor – Paul, from Holding Hands. He drops in on Thursdays to make sure Meredith is OK. Paul has his own struggles, and is in between careers. The two become friends over jigsaw puzzles.

I have my fingers on the door handle. Diane and I decided that I would count backwards from twenty. When I reach five, I’ll open the door. By the count of one, I’ll have both feet on my front doorstep. I’ll take five steps down my path, then I’ll go back inside.
It feels good to have a plan.

The book charts Meredith’s attempts to leave her house, which spurs the book onwards, day by day. It also dives back into the past to reveal Meredith’s terrible childhood and the event that drove her indoors. It takes a while for the reader to get all the information you need for her situation to make sense. Without a varied setting, the plot relies on Meredith’s story to drive it along, the slow revelations and your eagerness for her recovery. And it works.

Meredith is good company – smart and for all that’s going on in her life, she keeps herself busy to avoid drowning in the miseries of her plight. The novel has a lot to say about all the pain people hide away from each other, the things that derail marriages and cut family ties. How you cover it up and carry on as best you can. Until you just can’t. But the book never feels weighed down by all this.

Reading Meredith, Alone so soon after Paper Cup, which I thought utterly brilliant, was probably not such a good idea. Both are connected by Glasgow and have main characters with mental health issues and who have broken off from their families. But these novels are very different in feel and Meredith, Alone has very little to suggest its wider setting, apart from the odd reference to Irn Bro. It’s no fault of this novel if it comes off as second best – it’s still a great read and Meredith a great character. It will make you think. So it’s a four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Driftwood Girls by Mark Douglas-Home – a twisty mystery involving fiction’s favourite oceanographer

I’d almost forgotten how much I’d enjoyed the previous ‘sea detective’ mysteries and so this book almost slipped under my radar. It’s been a while since The Malice of Waves, Douglas-Home’s previous novel about his beleaguered oceanographer sleuth. Cal McGill runs a small business out of his Edinburgh flat, mapping ocean currents for clients who are missing things – often loved ones – lost at sea. He has pictures of flotsam and jetsam on a pinboard that dominates his living/working space, some of them rather grisly. So yes, he’s an odd sort.

It’s not unusual for him to find himself in a tight spot and at the start of The Driftwood Girls everything seems to be going wrong. After talking to an elderly man who looked set to jump from a bridge, the news media have labelled him as the bad guy when the old fellow disappears. Clients have dropped him like a hot potato and he’s almost out of cash. Then he learns that his old uni friend Alex is dying and is called to make good a promise to bury him in the middle of Alex’s favourite lake, which being illegal, will have to be done post-burial and under cover of darkness.

Out of the blue, Cal is contacted by Kate Tolmie, desperate to find her sister Flora who left a mysterious note with Cal’s name on it. Twenty-years before Kate and Flora’s mother disappeared off the coast of France when she was due to return to her family via ferry. The disappearance was big news at the time but no clues have ever come to light. Kate also hopes Cal can find out what happened to her mother, and there’s a personal connection too. Flora was Alex’s fiancée.

The story switches to Texel, an island holiday spot in the Netherlands, where the body of a young English girl lost at sea washed up, also twenty-three years ago. Here her old school-mate Sarah has made her home, guilt-ridden for not being a better friend. Of course, only Cal can make the connection. And what’s the connection to the death of a beggar at an Edinburgh train station, stabbed in an adjacent alley. All clues point to Kate Tolmie being the killer but DS Helen Jamieson isn’t so sure.

Helen is the other great thing about these books. She, like Cal, is an awkward character, not getting on with her colleagues because of her need to examine all the facts to ensure the right person is put away. Imagine that! Her IQ is off the chart and she’s got a massive crush on Cal. The two have become friends over several cases, but Cal is a terrible person to be friends with as he disappears for months at a time and doesn’t keep in touch.

Friendship is a recurring theme throughout the book – the awkward friendship between Cal and Helen, Cal’s sporadic memories of time spent with Alex, and their friend Olaf. There’s Sarah and her elegant French neighbour, as well as her memories of lost friend Ruth. Friendship has its obligations which can cause strain as much as it enriches people and we can see that here. Then there are all those secrets. Cal is in for a few surprises about the old pals he lost touch with and it is fortunate that Helen is investigating as she helps connect the dots.

This is a lovely twisty read with some really evocative coastal settings that add a ton of atmosphere. You get enough of the science of oceanography for it to add interest without weighing the story down. Mark Douglas-Home deftly weaves together all the plot threads – and there are a few of them – in a way that keeps you up reading to see what happens. All in all it’s a very satisfying mystery, but I hope we won’t have to wait too long before Cal’s next investigation. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Fell by Sarah Moss – an empathetic and gripping story of the pandemic

The Fell reads a bit like several interwoven stories, each from the perspective of a different character. The single day setting of the book gives it more of a short-story feel, in that you only get glimpses of the past while the immediate future is left up in the air. This concentrates the tension of what happens when Kate goes for a walk and seems to disappear.

The story is set in a small town in the Pennines where Kate lives with her son Matt and they’re just scraping by. Kate works as a waitress and she does a bit of pub singing, but that’s all come to a halt since a contact at work has become ill with the Covid virus and she’s forced to take a couple of weeks off and to isolate at home.

This is hard for Kate as she’s a keen walker. She’s up on the paths into the wilderness near her home normally every day. She loves nature and living her life with care for the environment. As we meet her, she’s running out of money and there’s not much in the cupboards, certainly not a lot to feed a hungry fifteen-year-old. The house always seems to be cold adding to the sense of times being tough. So you can’t blame Kate for escaping her worries in a fit of desperation and striding up the path to the fell. She only plans a quick walk before dark, but something happens and she doesn’t return.

The story flips from Kate’s character to Matt’s, a caring kid who worries about his mum. As time goes by, he is torn between phoning for help and the fear that his mother would be in terrible trouble. She could face a huge fine they can ill afford, so the hours tick by and Matt waits. He hesitatingly visits next door where Alice is also finding things tough.

Recently widowed, Alice has dinner with her daughter via Skype, but since her battle with cancer, her daughter never stops pestering her about her health. Even though Alice is on her own, it’s like someone is always peering over her shoulder, making her feel guilty about baking all those cookies and not taking better care of herself. She misses her friends and trips to town, stuck at home because of her age and vulnerable health.

The fourth narrator is emergency rescue responder Rob. Now divorced, he should be at home with his teenage daughter – it’s his rostered weekend. But when the call comes through that a walker’s gone missing, he knows his duty is to the missing woman. Kate has a teenager at home too – probably worried sick. Imagine if that was his daughter. He’s torn but it’s a life and death situation – with chilly November temperatures, hypothermia could be fatal if they don’t find Kate soon.

Moss has created four very believable and empathetic characters in a situation many of us will recognise. This is the first book I’ve read that where the Covid pandemic as a key part of the story, not just an interesting background. She conjures up the anxiety, isolation and insecurity felt by many during those difficult times. And also the obsessiveness: the bread baking and the sanitising of groceries.

You get the sense that everyone is battling themselves – to say nothing of social media shaming – doing the right thing on the one hand while desperate for some relief on the other. Some tiny treat. I remember that feeling well. Whether it’s just getting out of your house, playing computer games or eating cookies for dinner.

The Fell’s a short book, and you plough through the pages to see what happens next. I would have liked at least an epilogue to see if all that worry was justified and because I felt so invested in the characters I wanted a little bit of optimism for them. Something for them to look forward to. But this is a perfectly pared down story, and those focussed anxieties don’t let up until the end.

The Fell is also one of those books where there are no quotation marks, which kind of works, adding to that stream of consciousness narration, and I did get used to it. Eventually. The chapter headings are all lower case, which makes them oddly emphatic. But all this vanishes as you read, because of your connection with the characters. If it isn’t too soon for you to read a Covid novel, give this one a go. At the end of the day, it’s just a darn good story – and a four out of five read from me.

Book Review: 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!