Book Review: Black Out by John Lawton – noirish wartime thriller

I couldn’t remember why I’d put Black Out on my Must Read list. It must have been recommended in glowing tones somewhere as it doesn’t have the look of the kind of book I normally read. But when I eventually picked it up, I was soon hooked. And that’s in spite of it beginning with a grisly discovery – a severed arm on a bomb site.

We’re in London, 1944, and the Blitz has turned whole blocks into rubble. You’d think it would be easy to pass off a killing as death by explosion and get away with it. Fortunately, Sergeant Troy of Scotland Yard knows murder when he sees it. Soon he’s connected it to another death and a disappearance, men who have recently turned up in Britain from Germany. Why would anyone bring them across in the middle of a war just to kill them in this cloak and dagger way?

The plot will involve the American secret service (Office of Strategic Services – which will soon be the CIA) as well as an underground group of Communist sympathisers. There is not one femme fatale , but two, one of them rather short and the other rather tall.

Sergeant Freddie Troy is himself an interesting character. The son of Russian emigré parents, his father made his fortune in newspapers. So Troy went to Harrow, but eschewed university for the police. At twenty-eight, he has decided to stick with the police rather than enlisting in one of the services. Why should he fight for a country that interned his older brother and his uncle? But London in the Blitz is no picnic. Here’s Troy getting a bit of a lecture from older brother, Rod.

‘…The war was, as you put it, good to me. I rather think I enjoyed it. But you didn’t did you?’ You got shot – “
‘Twice.”
‘Stabbed.’
‘Four times.’
‘Bombed.’
‘Twice again.’
‘Beaten up.’
‘More times than I can count. Look, Rod, what’s the point you’re tying to make? You’re not telling me all this tosh just to let me know I missed a trick by not volunteering.’

While I tired a little of the women in Troy’s life, the tall and the short, and even Troy is a cold fish at times, I did enjoy other characters immensely. The pathologist, Kolankievicz, is a wonderful creation with his wild ear hair and colourful language; you don’t want to mess with Superintendent Onions who is bluntly North of England and bull-headed, and then there’s Troy’s side-kick, DC Wildeve who has a gift for intuition and general smarts. Troy and Wildeve are known at the Yard as ‘the tearaway toffs’. Even the scruffy kids who find the arm in scene one are each interesting in their own way, while there’s an eccentric Russian uncle who holds forth on Speaker’s Corner.

Troy’s kind of interesting too, trying to manage all the people in his life and failing miserably. He’s a loner at heart and often his own worst enemy. The story bounces along with a good mix of action, police deduction and Troy getting things wrong, with short, sharp chapters that make for an easy read. But most of all, I enjoyed the smart writing. The dialogue is crisp and a bombed-out London evocatively described.

Black Out is the first book in the series and with the war coming to a close and a peace that will be challenging once the Iron Curtain comes down, there is plenty of potential character development for Troy in the books that follow – although the books seem to jump around a bit chronologically. There’s lots to enjoy here and I shall certainly check in with Troy again. Black Out gets a three and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

There’s nothing like a good psychological thriller to while away a wet weekend. The Silent Patient ticks all the boxes, combining a troubled narrator who in this case is a psychotherapist, an even more troubled patient and the mystery surrounding the death of her husband.

Theo Faber has recently taken a post at The Grove, a care facility for troubled minds and is particularly interested in one patient. Alicia is a former artist of some note who has remained unable to talk since supposedly murdering her husband, the famous photographer Gabriel Berenson. The media have made a lot of their story which has done heaps to push up the value of Gabriel’s work.

If Theo can persuade Alicia to speak about the night her husband died, Alicia may begin to heal. But because of her suicide attempts, Alicia is highly medicated at The Grove, doesn’t interact with other staff or patients, nor does she respond to any kind of therapy. The story is told mostly through the voice of Theo, himself a survivor of a terrible childhood and for whom psychotherapy has changed his life. He is convinced he can help Alicia and manages to persuade his boss, the avuncular Dr Diomedes and Christian, Alicia’s surly psychologist, to reduce her meds and let him try.

As well as tensions at The Grove, which is under threat of closure, not to mention volatile patients who do violent things, Theo gets into trouble by breaking rules. He interviews Alicia’s friends and relatives – the brother-in-law solicitor, Max, who has a bit of a temper; Alicia’s cousin Paul who still lives in the ramshackle house they grew up in with his monstrous mother; and Alicia’s old friend and art curator, Jean-Felix, who like pretty much everyone else is holding something back. Michaelides also allows Alicia’s own voice to tell the story through a hidden diary, which throws up some interesting questions. Then there’s Alicia’s symbolic and dramatic art. Her last picture is titled Alcestis after the Ancient Greek story popularised by Euripides about another wife driven to silence by love.

We have all the ingredients for a suspenseful and nuanced thriller, drawing you in through the thoughts of the therapist/patient combo of Theo and Alicia. In the background there are dangers lurking and a sense of impending doom. But it wouldn’t be a good thriller without a few interesting plot twists and Michaelides is a master at this. Already known for his work as a screenwriter, this is his first novel and it would be easy to see the book as a movie. But I also really enjoyed the writing and am happy to learn he’s sticking with fiction for now and has a new book on the horizon. For me the pages whizzed by as I raced to find out what really happened to Alicia and Gabriel. A four out of five read 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 Spies of Shilling Lane by Jennifer Ryan

The Spies of Shilling Lane by is another wartime story by Jennifer Ryan, the author that brought us the hugely popular novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. As before we have a mix of unlikely heroes and heroines thrown into the maelstrom of World War II, with outcomes to surprise both the reader and themselves.

With her second novel, we meet the loud, bossy and unlovable Mrs Braithwaite on her way to London to find her daughter, Betty. It is 1941, and London is being hammered by the blitz, so why would Betty want to leave the comforts of home and the small town of Ashcombe? To make matters worse, Mrs B has been dropped by the Aschombe Women’s Voluntary Service where she was Queen Bee, a role taken on by former friend Mrs Metcalf. The ladies aren’t happy with Mrs B because of her divorce and general bossiness.

No wonder Betty escaped to work for Bexley Sewage Works – who wouldn’t? When Betty seems to have disappeared, Mrs B inserts herself at Betty’s address, number 3 Shilling Lane, also home to landlord, Mr Norris, a quiet unassuming accounts clerk, and two girls: vague and messy Florrie, and coolly beautiful Cassandra, neither of whom were particular friends of Betty’s.

Mrs B discovers that Betty has never been an employee at the sewage works, but a series of clues lead her to a butcher shop in Clapham. Suddenly Mrs B is thrown into the dangerous world of MI5 and an undercover operation to infiltrate a Nazi spy ring. She may have over-focussed on social standing at the expense of her daughter in the past but she’s brave enough to get to the bottom of things, determined to make amends.

Mrs B drags Mr Norris into her plans – a reluctant hero if ever there was one. But while Mrs B is learning what it means to be a caring parent, Mr Norris is developing the courage he’d always thought he’d lacked. In the meantime, London is repeatedly under siege, and our team of reluctant heroes are completely confounded by not knowing who they can trust, Ryan throwing in a few plot twists before the final page.

Jennifer Ryan has created a humorous story about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, with a cast of colourful characters and believable settings. It is also at times an emotional book, the carnage of the blitz creating a relentless backdrop to events, out of which appear small moments of hope. However, I struggled not see Mrs B as a kind of wartime Hyacinth Bucket (tv’s Keeping Up Appearances), and yes, I did find my credulity stretched a little at times. So while I found it competently written and engrossing enough, it’s a three out of four from me this time.

Book Review: Reading in Bed by Sue Gee

Such a treat to discover a Sue Gee novel I hadn’t read. At first glance Reading in Bed looks like a chick lit novel (it has that kind of cover), perhaps aimed at readers not dissimilar to the two main characters: Dido and Georgia, old friends now just hitting their sixties. We meet them on the way home from a week-long literary festival in Hay.

Georgia lives in London and a year or so ago lost her husband to cancer. She still misses Henry immensely, and is just a bit jealous of Dido whose husband Jeffrey is fit, still cycling to work – he’s an academic at a university in York. Then there are Dido’s children: Kate is a doctor married to fellow medic, Leo, and the pair have produced two adored grandchildren; Nick is a history lecturer doing a PhD with long-term partner, Paula, also an academic. A family of achievers, no less.

By comparison, Georgia’s unmarried daughter Chloe is dyslexic, having struggled at school and now works on photographic shoots as a ‘stylist’, whatever that means. Chloe’s track-record with men is disastrous, one heart-breaker after another, and having hit thirty-one, is still single and not very well off.

This is where the book gets interesting. Chloe is bright and really good at what she does, but she comes across as lightweight compared to her parents and their friends who all met at university. As you might imagine, Chloe finds her mother demanding and at times interfering. And then there’s Henry’s batty old cousin, Maud, going to rack and ruin in a crumbling farmhouse with only an old dog for company. Poor Georgia has to look out for her as well.

But back in York, things aren’t going so well for Dido either: she worries about Nick – can he really be happy with the acerbic Paula whose offhand comments can so destroy the mood at family dinners? And why is Jeffrey so reluctant to come up to bed each evening, puddling in the study over his computer? Then there are Dido’s dizzy spells.

Sue Gee sets these various plot threads in motion to create a rich story around the workings of friendship, marriage, retirement and being accepted for who you are, no matter what – even batty Maud. The characters each have a lot to learn before the last page, and Gee carries the reader along with them nicely, creating empathy, even when they mess up, sometimes badly. She does this by getting inside their heads, the style adapting to each character’s way of thinking, though probably it was Chloe whose head I liked best.

The story puts everyone through a tough time of it, but the pleasantly optimistic ending will have you cheering. Bookworms will enjoy the references to literature, Henry, a civil servant, still kept his intellectual game up with his reading and was particularly fond of Dovstoyevsky, while T S Eliot and Gorky also get a look in. It’s much more than the chick lit cover would suggest, but then this is Sue Gee after all. Anyone who enjoys the fiction of authors like Joanna Trollope or Patrick Gale will relish this. A four and a half star read from me.

Book Review: Ghost Girl by Lesley Thomson

The Detective’s Daughter series is a wonderfully atmospheric collection of mysteries, with two quirky sleuths: Clean Slate cleaning business proprietor, Stella Darnell and her co-worker, Jack. Stella’s father, the recently deceased DCI Terry Darnell, has left Stella his house and one or two interesting cold cases. Terry may have been absent from a large part of his daughter’s growing up but his legacy has Stella hooked on detection.

In Ghost Girl, Stella discovers a small collection of old photographs of street scenes, spanning several decades. Terry documented cases, clues and crime scenes with his own photo records, something to mull over in the evening perhaps. The oldest from the folder goes back to 1966, the year Moors Murderers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady were sent to prison for life. Stella slowly uncovers what took place in each scene and what linked them, helped by Jack, a train driver, night walker and all-round odd-bod.

Jack’s most alarming habit, of which Stella is trying to cure him, is to sneak into the homes of people he refers to as ‘hosts’, people who are likely to kill. Jack keeps a well-thumbed London A-Z, covered in his own notes as he tracks his hosts down. When a woman comes across his A-Z and decides to keep it, he has no choice but to follow her, breaking into an old school, apparently her home, and taking up residence.

Plot threads detailing Stella’s investigation and Jack’s obsession are woven around flashbacks to the story of Mary, a young girl whose family has moved to a new house and the sudden death of her little brother in 1966. Stella has a new customer, too, David Bowie look-alike, David Barlow, who needs his house cleaned of the bad memories associated with his late wife. Stella finds him charming, but a little strange as well.

Here are all the ingredients for a twisty and complex mystery. Thompson gives out just enough to engage the reader in the usual guessing game of analysing suspects and dodging red herrings. A big fan of London stories, I enjoy the Hammersmith that Thompson creates on the page – both in 1966 and present day. And then there are the characters, made interesting by what drives them and the secrets they hide, not just the suspects and victims, but our amateur sleuths too.

It has always seemed obvious to me that cleaning houses is a great way to snoop in people’s affairs – I’m sure commercial cleaners learn a lot more about their clients than the police might imagine possible. So I’m sure Stella and Jack will find many more crimes to investigate. I’m glad as there is a lot to enjoy in this series. Ghost Girl gets a solid four out of five from me.

Expectation by Anna Hope and Other Novels about Friendship

I loved Emma Hope’s last book, The Ballroom, so had high hopes for her new novel. Expectation follows the lives of three friends. Hannah and Cate met at school and share a competitiveness during English classes. At Manchester University, grungy, kohl-eyed Hannah, meets beautiful Lissa, who has a lot of bad habits, and the two become friends over a shared assignment and eventually all three share a gorgeous flat in London on the edge of a park.

The story is mostly set years later as the women, now in their thirties, struggle to achieve what they most want in life. For Hannah, it’s a baby with husband Nath – they’re onto their third go at IVF and things are tense. For Lissa, it’s success as an actress. We follow her battle to keep an agent, to pay the bills, to find the enthusiasm for auditions for adverts. Cate has the baby Hannah wants, an unplanned pregnancy that led to a hasty marriage with chef, Sam, who makes beautiful food, but is he the right husband for her?

Lissa’s painter/former activist mum says it all when she tells her daughter:

“You’ve had everything. The fruits of our labour. The fruits of our activism. Good God, we got out there and we changed the world for you. For our daughters. And what have you done with it?”

Expectations are high indeed. The book slips between characters, between time zones, creating three varied women lost in the miasma of disappointment and unhappiness, behaving badly and eventually learning to start again. Anna Hope writes with great empathy and creates visual and dramatic scenes with terrific dialogue. Perhaps this is because Hope is also an actor – I’ve enjoyed books by actors before (something for another post, maybe). And who doesn’t love stories about friends, the early promise of their youth, the slow unfolding of their later lives. The wax and wane of their relationships. Expectation didn’t disappoint, scoring a four out of five from me.

You might also like these novels about friendship:

The Group by Mary McCarthy is the classic novel about friends, in this case there are eight of them, all students together at Vassar. Their experiences finding fulfilment in work, relationships and as mothers in 1930s America are described with a realism the reading public wasn’t quite ready for – it was published in 1963 and panned at the time, but highly thought of now.

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood is a powerful novel about the ugly side of friendship, the difficulty of fitting in, bullying and how cruel and competitive groups of friends can be. Fortunately, Elaine, who bears the brunt of it all eventually finds closure.

The Flight of the Maidens is by one of my all-time favourite authors, Jane Gardam. It concerns three friends at the end of World War II, all having won scholarships to university. The summer between leaving school and going away to college is full of dramatic events described with wit and quirky characters, drama and surprises, with glimpses of a forgotten England.

Invincible Summer by Alice Adams follows four friends from college – Eva, Benedict, Sylvie and Lucien who graduate on the brink of the new millennium and their lives, loves and disappointments beyond into adulthood. It’s a great snap-shot of the time, has terrific characters and is a satisfying read.

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”