Review: The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

summerMany readers will remember Helen Simonson’s popular debut novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. It’s a contemporary story about a man recently widowed who rescues a golf-course from developers and has a second chance at love. The Summer Before the War is similarly set in rural England, but the war of the title is World War 1. Protagonist Beatrice Nash has recently lost her father but through a well-connected but disapproving aunt secures a position to teach Latin at a grammar school in Rye.

Beatrice aims to be self-supporting, to earn a living through teaching and writing, and to never marry. She’s a striking and interesting character, in a book full of interesting characters, including Agatha Kent, who takes Beatrice under her wing and helps her settle in. She sends her nephew, Hugh Grange, to collect Beatrice from the station and the two strike a slightly awkward friendship.

Hugh is in his last year of training as surgeon under the brilliant Sir Alex Ramsey, who has a lovely young daughter, Lucy. She has many admirers among Ramsey’s students, but Hugh rather hopes he could be the frontrunner in the race for her affections. He has a dream of taking over Ramsey’s busy London practice and Lucy would be the perfect wife. Continue reading “Review: The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson”

Book Review: The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

ashesHalf of London is watching as St Paul’s burns during the opening scene of The Ashes of London – Andrew Taylor’s first book in his historical mystery series featuring investigative clerk, James Marwood. We are there in the crowd as the rats scamper for their lives and the beloved cathedral begins to collapse. Out of the crowd, a boy runs towards the conflagration, and Marwood dashes to stop him. Only, he turns out to be a she and instead of explaining herself, the girl bites Marwood, making off with his cloak.

Yes, it’s 1666, the year that brought the Great Fire of London. You can feel the heat as Marwood views the scene he must report on to his bosses.  It’s not easy being the son of a Fifth Monarchist, a follower of a faith that believes the current monarch (Charles II) should die in order to bring about the second coming of Christ. Marwood senior has served time in the tower for his beliefs, and this has left him frail and suffering from dementia. Young James has to manage his father, keep his demanding job at Whitehall, and investigate a murder – in this case, a body discovered in the ruins of St Pauls, with distinctive wounds – expertly stabbed at the top of the spine, hands tied together by the thumbs. Continue reading “Book Review: The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor”

Book Review: The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell

distance

The Distance Between Us is the third novel I’ve read by this author – it’s an old one too, published in 2004.  Like her last two novels, this one has characters dashing about, jumping on planes and trains and rushing off to places new, or old. Possibly this is because O’Farrell throws them into difficult situations where the past has a way of catching up with them.

Jake is caught up in a crush during a Hong Kong parade for Chinese New Year and injured, the girl he’s dating almost killed. As she lies in hospital and everyone expects her to die, Jake agrees to a deathbed marriage. Somehow she pulls through and the two return to England, where Jake has never lived, and the pressure to start married life together scares him into a search for his missing dad. All he’s got to go by is his name – Kildoune, near Aviemore, the place where his transient, hippy dad came from.

Stella also makes a dash for Scotland, panicked by the sight of a tall, ginger-haired man on a London bridge. She leaves a good job in radio, her flat, everything. She doesn’t even tell Nina her sister, who is like a twin, but not. Nina seems like a stalker, the way she is always checking up on her sister, phoning at work, at home, asking questions about what she’s up to, what her plans are.  Continue reading “Book Review: The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell”

Book Review: The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman

the gunnersRebecca Kauffman’s second novel reminds me a little of Elizabeth Strout’s fiction (Olive Kitteridge, My Name Is Lucy Barton …). Perhaps it’s because The Gunners is set in a small town in the eastern US, and it’s characters are battlers. We are invited into their world when they are children, and then later as adults to see how they’re faring, and to look at the ongoing effects of the past on the present – something else Strout does.

The main character, young Mikey Hennesy, discovers at the age of six that he is blind in one eye. Well, he kind of knew that but thought it was normal. He lives alone with his dad, a quiet, unsmiling man who works at the local abattoir. Dad doesn’t take Mikey for an eye test, and the boy carries on as before.

Mikey is a lonely child but is rescued by Sally, who he meets on the school bus. Both children are a bit lost, and so begins a friendship. When feisty young Alice decides to set up a gang of kids meeting at an empty and decrepit house, she invites Mikey and Sally to join. They call themselves The Gunners after the name on the letter-box and stick together through most of their childhood. Continue reading “Book Review: The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman”

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”

I Must Go Down to the Sea Again…

It’s Sea Week – yes, we do this every year – and it made me think about some of the books I’ve enjoyed that are set on or near the sea. Here’s a small sampling:

C S Forester’s Hornblower books

When you start with Mr Midshipman Hornblower, the first book in the series, it’s hard to stop until you’ve read a good half-dozen of the novels. Maybe it’s because some of my ancestors were in the Navy at a similar time, (that is, the Napoleonic Wars and decades following), but I find Foresters’ accounts of sea battles and his main character’s tactical ingenuity really exciting. Forester also develops Hornblower’s character as a man, a husband, lover and father, revealing the difficulties of being away at sea for years at a time.  Apparently the real-life figure of Thomas Cochrane (later Lord Dundonald) inspired the Hornblower character. Continue reading “I Must Go Down to the Sea Again…”

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”

Review: The Detective’s Daughter by Lesley Thomson

The Detective’s Daughter is the first in a series by Lesley Thomson featuring Stella tddDarnell, a solitary forty-something who runs a cleaning company called Clean Slate. Her father, Terry Darnell, a career policeman, had always wanted her to join the force, but a messy divorce and Stella’s resentment that he’d always put his job before his daughter meant that she preferred to do her own thing. She likes things tidy, obsessively so, and being her own boss; Clean Slate is perfect – until Stella’s father dies.

Cleaning out her dad’s house, Stella comes across a file that fascinates her: the case Terry was working on when suddenly struck down by a heart attack. Even though he was retired, Terry couldn’t forget the murder of Kate Rokesmith, strangled in broad daylight while walking with her four-year-old son near the river at Hammersmith Bridge. Her husband Hugh carried the stigma of suspicion for the rest of his life, while little Jonathan was sent to a boarding school to be brought up by strangers. Continue reading “Review: The Detective’s Daughter by Lesley Thomson”

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”