Book Review: The Wych Elm by Tana French

elmA few pages into this book, you know you are in the hands of an Irish author. It’s got that chatty, let’s sit down and tell you a story manner that you often get with Irish authors. The first-person narration also helps, but most of all it’s that rambly, discursive but hugely entertaining style of writing that draws you in and won’t let go, even when the book is five hundred pages long, and could have been around 350. Maybe.

The Wych Elm is a stand-alone crime novel, by the author of the Dublin Murder Squad series. We are in the mind of Toby, a young man in his late twenties, who is telling us how lucky he is. He’s got some family money behind him, plenty of friends, Melissa, his gorgeous girlfriend, and a terrific job doing PR for an art gallery. He’s charming and good-looking and all set for success. Continue reading “Book Review: The Wych Elm by Tana French”

Book Review: Artistic Licence by Katie Fforde

artWhen my aunt died and we all met back at her house following the memorial service, of course, I prowled her bookshelves. She had quite a collection, having been for many years a speech and remedial reading teacher. In her living room were all the classics, in smart hard-cover editions, and I have no doubt she’d read them all, often. But in her bedroom was a whole shelf of Nora Roberts and another of Katie Fforde.

Now I have never been able to get into Nora Roberts, even if she is one of the world’s best selling authors. But the Katie Ffordes looked inviting with their pretty covers and whimsical titles so I always meant to read one.

Recently I picked up Artistic Licence, which is about thirty-something Thea, a former photo-journalist. A bad experience with her ex had sent her off to the Cotswolds, where she finds a part-time job in a one-hour photo shop and takes in student lodgers. She’s in a bit of a rut, when Molly, her bossy friend, whisks her off on an artists’ retreat in Provence where she meets gorgeous young painter, Rory. Continue reading “Book Review: Artistic Licence by Katie Fforde”

Cosy or Not-So-Cosy? That Is the Mystery

The cosy mystery novel has become one of the most popular trends in online publishing, probably pipped only by assorted romance genres. But what makes a murder mystery cosy? I’ve read a few over the years and have come up with a list of common features:

  • An amateur sleuth, often with no technical skills usually associated with solving crime other than a tendency to be nosy. A sharp mind also helps. The classic amateur sleuth in my book is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, who has seen the worst of what humanity is capable of through observing life in St Mary Mead. Today many cosy mysteries are set around handcrafts or food preparation. The amateur sleuth, Hannah Swensen, in Joanna Fluke’s popular novels runs a bakery with titles that couple murder with a bakery item (Double Fudge Brownie Murder, for example).
  • Cosy mysteries invite the reader to take part in the investigation. The reader is given random clues throughout the book, as well as red herrings, which make you pay attention and guess ‘who done it’. Even so, it is frustrating if the mystery is too obvious – a surprise revelation at the end is what keeps you reading.
  • A small group of suspects to choose from, usually presented early in the peace. The classic mysteries of yesteryear might have everyone holed up in a country manor house (think Dorothy L Sayers); or else they all live in the same village or small town. Village mysteries are still popular, hence the success of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache novels. Yes, I know Gamache is a senior policeman, but he gets help from the inhabitants of Three Pines, particularly from local artist, Clara Morrow. Louise Penny pops up regularly in the Agatha Awards nominations, which recognise authors of cosies, or as they put it ‘malice domestic’.
  • Cosies are usually written in series, often with story threads involving the personal life of the sleuth running through them. I’ve lost track of the number of husbands and boyfriends M C Beaton’s Agatha Raisin has had. It’s fun to see how the main character develops their skills, or runs up against the local constabulary as a regular feature. It’s also amazing how many suspicious deaths can occur in some small villages over a short space of time, no doubt keeping the local undertaker busy and opening up real estate opportunities for incomers.
  • As with any genre, you can find a range of novels lumped together that are hugely varied and might not seem cosy at all. It’s hard to keep the police force out of crime fiction entirely, so a regular detective might appear alongside the amateur sleuth. Darkly sinister motives can pop out of the woodwork making the story almost chilling. Deliciously chilling of course.

Quick Review: Remarkable Creatures by Tracey Chevalier

y648An author I’ve picked up fairly consistently over the years is Tracey Chevalier, who writes historical novels – you may remember The Girl with a Pearl Earring, which was made into a movie. Her books are usually a fairly light, engaging read, but she has a knack of digging out a very human story from an often overlooked corner of history.

Remarkable Creatures is a novel about two women who were instrumental in the discovery of fossilised remains of dinosaur-era animals at the coastal town of Lyme Regis. We are just after Waterloo, and the Origin of the Species has yet to be written so the Bible’s version of how God made the world holds sway. Continue reading “Quick Review: Remarkable Creatures by Tracey Chevalier”

Quick Review: The Summer After the Funeral by Jane Gardam

funeralWhen I went on holiday recently, I packed an assortment of books knowing I would have a few quiet hours away from the Internet and Netflix. I usually like to include an old favourite – you don’t want anything that will be too hard to get into on holiday – and that usually means Anne Tyler, one or two Agatha Christies or a Jane Gardam.

The Summer After the Funeral is a short novel about a family coming to terms with the death of their father, an elderly clergyman. Rev. Price had a kind of allure with women and fathered three children in his dotage, but unfortunately, Mrs Price and her family must leave the rectory to her husband’s replacement. She concocts a convoluted scheme of passing her children round to various acquaintances and family for the summer while she goes job hunting. Continue reading “Quick Review: The Summer After the Funeral by Jane Gardam”

Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

ehGosh, how do you begin to try and describe a book like this one? The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is like a cross between an Agatha Christie country-house murder mystery – say The Mysterious Affair at Styles or The Hollow – and a story from Dr Who. Or maybe one of those old computer games where you have to find your way out of a labyrinth, but keep losing your life and have to start again.

The book opens with the main character running through the woods by night, desperate to save Anna, whoever she may be, while there’s a killer on the loose. He’s lost, but worst of all, he doesn’t know who he is either. He looks down at his hands and they are the hands of a stranger. He eventually finds safety in a crumbling stately home called Blackheath, and learns his name is Dr Sebastian Bell.

The next time he wakes up he’s someone else again – a pattern that repeats itself over the following days. Continue reading “Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton”

Book Review: Restless by William Boyd

restlessWilliam Boyd is one of those rare writers you can trust to turn in a taut and thrilling plot while paying attention to the fine craft of writing. His sentences are thoughtful and elegant and his characters multi-faceted. So it is with Restless,  first published in 2006, and later dramatised by the BBC.

The story spans two eras, the most recent taking place during the heatwave of 1976 as  Ruth visits her mother, Sal, in the Cotswolds and finds cause for alarm. Sal is showing paranoid behaviour to the point of pretending she needs a wheelchair.  She hands her daughter a packet with the start of her memoir, detailing events going back to 1939 and her recruitment into Britain’s secret service.

I can see what the BBC saw in Restless. It’s got a lot going for it and not just pleasant locations which would look attractive on the small screen: Oxford in the heatwave of 1976; Scotland (where Eva has secret agent training and changes her name); London during the blitz; New York in winter; and New Mexico and even Paris get a look-in too. Continue reading “Book Review: Restless by William Boyd”

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.

Book Review: Into the Night by Sarah Bailey

 

9781760297480I reviewed The Dark Lake by this author not so long ago but actually, it was this book – her second Gemma Woodstock crime novel – that I picked up first. It just looked so interesting with its brooding Melbourne in winter setting; a damaged detective (Woodstock is hopeless at relationships, has more baggage than you can shake a stick at, including a young son she has left behind in the small town where she grew up); and everything’s new – new flat, new job, new city, new partner.

But you just have to read book one first. Into the Night begins with the murder of a homeless man and Sergeant Gemma Woodstock feels the pressure to close the case quickly so that other Melbourne homeless feel safe and the news media think the police care about those who slip below the radar. Continue reading “Book Review: Into the Night by Sarah Bailey”