Book Review: The Last of the Greenwoods by Clare Morrall

greenwoodsWho wouldn’t want to live in an English rural backwater where there’s a little branch railway-line long since mothballed just asking to be restored? You could join a small society of passionate enthusiasts and dedicate all your spare time to finding engines and carriages, refurbishing and reupholstering and essentially going back in time.

In The Last of the Greenwoods, Zohra Dasgupta is a young postal worker, whose best friend Crispin has roped her into a group of railway restoration buffs. She’s only 25 and lives with her parents over their corner shop so seems an unlikely candidate for a pastime you’d imagine to be enjoyed largely by male retirees. The railway runs through Crispin’s father’s land, what there is left of it, formerly an estate of some standing. Crispin lives here with his father in a crumbling ruin of a once splendid mansion, camping out in a still liveable corner. Continue reading “Book Review: The Last of the Greenwoods by Clare Morrall”

Series Round-up 2: To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear

 

9780749022341-to-die-but-once-pb-wb-2664I confess to a love-hate relationship with Maisie Dobbs. To Die But Once is her fourteenth and latest outing in Winspear’s post World War One mystery series which sees Maisie investigate the disappearance of a young apprentice painter. We are now into the early stages of World War Two, and young men have gone off to fight yet another war to end all wars, their loved ones biting their nails at home and fearing the worst. As Maisie makes her way to her office for the start of another day, she spots the local publican in the street and instantly recognises a troubled soul.

Maisie is an investigating psychologist, who helps the police from time to time, as well as the secret service, but her private work is her bread and butter. She pops into the pub for a chat and soon learns that Phil Coombes’s younger son has disappeared. His job painting air-craft hangars for the RAF should see him safely through the war, but he hasn’t been in touch for over a week and before that was complaining about headaches from paint fumes. Continue reading “Series Round-up 2: To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear”

Series Round-up 1: The Knowledge by Martha Grimes

Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury mysteries seem to have been going forever, and I recently caught up with the latest title, The Knowledge. I wanted to see if Grimes still had the knack with plotting and character that I’ve always enjoyed so much.

The Knowledge gets off to a cracking start – Grimes could probably write a how-to book on first pages that grab the reader. A London taxi-driver drops a beautiful young couple at a select casino, whereupon they are both shot dead. The killer jumps into the cab and tells the cabbie to drive. There’s some exciting stuff with other cabbies and secret signals before the shooter disappears into a train station.

Soon Jury is involved, along with a bunch of street kids who often help the cabbies (chasing down unpaid fares etc.) and one of them follows the shooter to Nairobi. There’s a touch of the Famous Five here. Children are often key witnesses in the Jury novels and Grimes has a knack for making them engaging and quirky. So of course, Jury’s friend and part-time sleuth, Melrose Plant, has to abandon his stately pile and the village of Long Piddleton to head off to Nairobi too. Plant’s job is to find little Patty and bring her back to London. This gives the author the opportunity to weave in a touch of the exotic as well as some background on gemstone mining in Africa. Continue reading “Series Round-up 1: The Knowledge by Martha Grimes”

Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

I was going to see the movie but wasn’t quite quick enough. Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci plus London – I always like London stories – seemed a winning combination. Then there was that nagging feeling I always get: You can’t watch the movie until you’ve read the book. And by the time I’d got hold of the book, the movie had moved on from our local cinema and that was that. But at least I still had the book.

And what a powerful read it is. Not that this was surprising – I’d read McEwan before (Atonement, Amsterdam, Sweet Tooth) and he’s a master craftsman. In a nutshell, The Children Act follows Fiona Maye, a judge who presides over family cases, many of them with complex moral issues at heart, and this causes problems with her marriage.

One case in particular, where she had to rule in favour of the separation of baby Siamese twins, leading to the death of one, but safeguarding the survival of the other, caused Fiona to draw away from her husband Jack. So at the start of the book, he is telling her he plans to have an affair unless they can somehow patch things up.ˇ

But Fiona is unable to talk to Jack, she has so much on her place, and his planned infidelity enrages her – surely he must have someone lined up already and this is infidelity in itself. When he packs a bag, it is easier for her to change the locks on the flat and then focus on her current case. Continue reading “Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan”

Christmas Reads 2: A Christmas Grace by Anne Perry

It rained here on Christmas Day. A lot. So no stroll around the village to work up an appetite or burn some calories or clear the head, depending on time of day. But I did have my Christmas book, picked up at the library on Christmas Eve.

There’s nothing like a Victorian story at Christmas. All those Christmas cards with Victorian looking Santas, sleighs pulled by horses and apple-cheeked children singing carols tell us this is so. Anne Perry has nailed Victorian England so it’s not surprising she’s written a few Christmas novellas which hit the spot at this time of the year.

A Christmas Grace features Inspector Pitt’s sister-in-law, Emily Radley. She’s Charlotte’s sister, in case you’ve forgotten, and as Christmas nears she’s looking forward to a round of social engagements where she can wear her new ballgown. Then she receives a letter. Her Aunt Susannah is very ill, probably dying, and she’s all alone. Charlotte has bronchitis so it’s left to Emily to abandon the invitations on the mantelpiece and trek to her aunt’s cottage in a remote town near Galway, Ireland. Continue reading “Christmas Reads 2: A Christmas Grace by Anne Perry”

Christmas Reads 1: Smoke and Mirrors by Elly Griffiths

smokeSmoke and Mirrors is the second novel in Griffiths’ Stephens and Mephisto mystery series. I’ve read all her books in the Ruth Galloway / DI Nelson series and I enjoy them for their wit, great characterisation and intelligent plotting. But what I love about them is the archaeological background she brings into each story and the Norfolk history and prehistory that bubbles through.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by how much I enjoyed Smoke and Mirrors for once again, you’ve got the characterisation and an engaging plot to draw you in. Instead of Norfolk and archaeology, you’ve got 1950s Brighton, it’s just before Christmas and there’s a pantomime on at the Pavillion, when two small children go missing.

Leading the investigation is DI Edgar Stephens, only thirty-one and quickly promoted to this role because of the effects of the war on the police workforce. This causes some resentment from his boss, and means he has a lot to prove. He’s also smart, well-educated and reasonably cultured. Interesting, in other words. He’s got a team of two sergeants who couldn’t be more different, and who should be starring in Alladin at the Pavillion but his old mate Mephisto.  

Why you should read it:

  • Backstage goings-on are just as interesting as the performances with actors rewriting their lines to the despair of the playwright, theatrical rivalry and witty back-handers. Meanwhile there is a curious link between the current crime and the murder of a young pantomime actress thirty odd years ago.
  • Elly Griffiths has a knack for pulling you into the story. There’s a lot going on with an assortment of suspects, red-herrings aplenty and the high emotional quotient you get with crimes against children.
  • Young Annie, one of the victims, was writing a play based on a Grimms fairy-tale, and ramping up the grim quotient. This adds a sinister quality and keeps poor Edgar guessing – is there a clue to be found in Annie’s script?
  • Snow. It’s coming up to Christmas and there’s a ton of the stuff, hampering the investigation and causing both the police and the reader to expect the worst. 
  • Tension builds in a satisfying way towards a dramatic ending – just as it should. Four out of five from me.


Book Review: Anyone for Seconds?

9781784297985Anyone for Seconds? is a follow-up book to Laurie Graham’s first novel about TV chef, Lizzie Partridge. Perfect Meringues came out twenty years ago, so it’s been a long wait, but worth it as Lizzie is a heap of fun.

As the story begins, Lizzie is feeling like she’s on the scrap-heap. Her former boyfriend Tom, such a nice chap, seems to have made domestic arrangements elsewhere and she’s never resurrected her TV career since that on-air food-fight in Perfect Meringues. Now Global magazine has just axed her What’s Cooking? column. It’s the last straw. In a desperate bid to be missed, Lizzie heads for the train station and on a whim lands up at a hotel in Aberystwyth.

It’s November, so the seaside town doesn’t have a lot of sightseers. There is a furry conference on, though, and before her return a week later, Lizzie hooks up with a racoon with connections to her past. Back in Birmingham, it’s as if she never left: her elderly mother still ignores her, obviously preferring her younger brother Philip; she has to make appointments just to talk to her high-flying lawyer daughter, Ellie; there’s a mouse in the kitchen and the bills are piling up.

Some chance encounters and a few random events shake up Lizzie’s life so that by the end of the book there’s a promise of new beginnings. Along the way, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Anyone for Seconds? is such a fun read and it reminded me of what I liked so much about Graham’s contemporary fiction. Here’s why you should read it:

  • Lizzie Partridge knows her grub, so there are plenty of interesting food references, if you like that kind of thing. I do.
  • Lizzie is sixty-four. How many heroines do you know who are that age? But she’s terrific in so many ways, which is just as it should be – being sixty-four doesn’t stop her from having a go at romance and taking advantage of new opportunities. Not that this should be surprising. If you read Graham’s Dog Days and Glen Miller Nights you’ll know what I mean.
  • There’s a real feel for the Midlands tone of voice. You can hear the characters speaking without any annoying dropped consonants or quaint expressions. It just seems to happen in your head.
  • Graham is really good at dialogue, which makes the story bounce along. There are numerous phone calls, family dinners, and other verbal to-ings and fro-ings, including a pilot for a TV chat show.
  • Like everything Graham writes, the prose is sparkling, sharp and witty – humour guaranteed.

Four out of five for me; oh, and I wouldn’t pass up a third helping, either.

Ripping Reads: Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee

9781911215158I love it when I discover a new series at its very beginning and enjoy it so much I read each book that follows as soon as it comes out. So it is with Abir Mukherjee’s mysteries set in Calcutta in the early 1920s. Featuring ex-pat British policeman, Capt. Sam Wyndham, the author throws you right into Calcutta during the British Raj era. Wyndham is still recovering (or not!) from his time in the trenches of WW1, and the loss of his much-loved wife during the flu epidemic,  self-medicating with opium. It’s just as well he’s so smart, energetic and won’t let the rules get in the way of his investigations or he’d never catch the perpetrators.

In Smoke and Ashes, Wyndam investigates a brutal killing which he discovers quite by chance when he has to make a hasty retreat from an evening visit to an opium den. Continue reading “Ripping Reads: Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee”

Quick Review: Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson

museumA novel based on letters can be instantly engaging, especially when the writers start out as strangers and through writing, become friends. One of my favourites is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Anne Shaffer, which is one of the most heart-warming books ever. And then there is 84 Charring Cross Road by Helene Hanff, which isn’t a novel, but the actual correspondence between the author and the staff at a second-hand bookshop. You wouldn’t think that could be interesting, but thanks to the wonderful personality of the author, has become a classic, especially for book lovers.

Now we have Meet Me at the Museum, a novel in letters which begins when farmer’s wife, Tina Hopgood, writes to the museum housing The Tollund Man, in Denmark. She writes to the author of a book she discovered as a child and regrets in the fifty years since that she has never been able to make the pilgrimage to the museum to see The Tollund Man or meet the author, Professor Glob. Continue reading “Quick Review: Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson”

Thursday’s Old Favourite: Martha Grimes’s Inspector Jury Novels

Martha Grimes is an American author who writes a mystery series featuring Scotland Yard detective, Richard Jury. She’s quite an old hand at it, has done her research, and each novel in this series (to date she’s up to No. 24) is named after a different English pub, while many feature a different part of England. They are a wonderful mix of cosy crime (English country life, quaint characters, charming locations) and grim murder. The crimes are varied and can be quite chilling – I’m not sure I would ever read The Lamorna Wink a second time – while the plots are inventive.

Here’s what I particularly like about the series: Continue reading “Thursday’s Old Favourite: Martha Grimes’s Inspector Jury Novels”