Book Review: The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing by Mary Paulson-Ellis

This is a very smart, quirky novel spanning two time periods, from the recent past and flipping back to tell a story from the final days of the First World War. Godfrey Farthing is a captain of a small group of men who stumble upon an abandoned farmhouse with cabbages stored in the larder, chickens in the yard. As November 1918 dawns, rumour has it that an armistice will soon be signed – all Godfrey has to do is keep his men safe until then. Godfrey grieves all the young boys who have died when he sent them over the top, especially young Beach – surely there can’t be any point in more fighting.

If only his raw, straight out of training second-in-command, Lieutenant Svenson, wasn’t so eager to get some action before it’s too late. He’s two things Godfrey wished he wasn’t: a keen gambler and a man who loves his Webley revolver. The men, sequestered in the barn, pass the time with trivial games of chance, betting with odd trifles: a spool of thread, a sixpence, a wishbone, a piece of ribbon. Against Godfrey’s orders, Svenson insists on joining the men, but his manner is teasing, creating edginess and discord. When a young soldier (they are mostly still in their teens) arrives with the orders Godfrey dreads, personality clashes and secrecy threaten to destabilise Godfrey’s plans with tragic results.

Woven in with this story is that of Godfrey’s grandson, Solomon Farthing, who, in Edinburgh decades later, is trying to work his way out of a run of bad luck. He owes a local criminal boss a load of money he doesn’t have, and to make matters worse he’s been caught breaking into a house for an oddly innocent reason. A police officer who owes Solomon a favour gets him off, but there’s a catch. He must track down the family of one recently departed elderly gent, Thomas Methven who has no obvious next of kin. Thomas had 50,000 pounds in used notes sewn into his burial suit, a tidy sum with the kind of commission that might see Solomon through his tight patch.

Solomon is an heir hunter, and with four days to come up with an answer, the story takes him on a roller-coaster through the past, connecting dots and in particular the odd objects left behind, some of which have their origins in his grandfather’s pawn shop – another trip down memory lane. It’s a problematic case in many ways, and Solomon will have to face down rival heir hunters and his own demons, charging about the country-side in his aunt’s borrowed mini, acquiring a dog and the help of a miscreant boy along the way.

Solomon’s character reminds me a bit of someone from a Restoration comedy – he is such an unlikely hero. But somehow he makes connections that others don’t and it all harks back to those days just before the Armistice, on an abandoned farm in France. The fragments come together that explain the fifty thousand pounds, but also the story of Solomon himself – his parentage, his life with his grandfather at the Edinburgh pawn shop, his love and loss. The war story that is the basis of all that follows is a tense counterpoint to the more madcap story of Solomon’s search, because we all know that many soldiers died in those final days of the war and there are sure to be losses. But who?

The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing takes some interesting turns and produces an unexpected ending and resolution. It is such an original story with a cast of memorable and odd-ball characters – that Restoration comedy thing again, maybe. The writing is crisp with a smartly sardonic undertone that makes it a pleasure to read. Overall it might read like two distinctly different stories woven into one and not everyone will agree that this works successfully. However, I found that the Solomon story made for pleasantly light relief from the war story, with its sense of impending tragedy. I enjoyed the book a lot and will definitely read more by Mary Paulson-Ellis. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Lost Lights of St Kilda by Elisabeth Gifford

The plot-line for The Lost Lights of St Kilda is fairly classic: boy meets girl; boy falls in love with girl and she with him; circumstances tear them apart and years later, boy tries to find girl again and wonders if it’s too late. Nothing very original here, but what makes this novel so very interesting are the settings.

The story opens with Fred, a prisoner of war courtesy of the Germans, following his capture at St Valery. It’s 1940, and while many British servicemen were evacuated at Dunkirk, he’s stuck in a dark, dank prison cell with others from the 51st Highland Division, dreaming of home. Fred’s in his thirties, has lived all around the world with his work as a geologist, but what he can’t stop thinking about is the girl he left behind a dozen years before when he was researching the rock strata on St Kilda.

St Kilda is a wild and rugged island group off the coast of Scotland. Quite a way off the coast of Scotland. Lewis and Harris are part of the Outer Hebrides, and are hardly within cooee. St Kilda’s home to thousands of seabirds, particularly gannets and fulmars which earn the islanders their livelihood. It’s pretty much subsistence living – it has to be as there’s no regular postal service, no radio communication, so the locals rely on visiting fishing boats and such for mail and supplies.

There’s also a bit of tourism in the summer – visitors make day trips to buy St Kilda handcrafts and to photograph ‘Britain’s last hunter-gatherers’. You can imagine what a smart St Kilda girl like Chrissie thinks of that. Chrissie’s story is woven in with Fred’s. She’s a plucky young girl when we meet her and her narrative describes among other things her fondness for the laird’s son. Archie Macleod is a charismatic but wayward young man who visits the island as a child and instantly causes trouble. Later during his final year at Cambridge, he turns up with Fred Lawson, the two of them settling in for a summer that will change their lives.

Through Fred’s eyes we see a dying way of life. The breathtakingly dangerous work the St Kilda men do each year to harvest fulmar chicks for their oil and meat, abseiling off the steep cliffs that border the main island of Hirta. Then there’s the evenings spent around the fire, the women weaving, the singing and storytelling. The intense devotion the families have for their children who are precious, because so many have died as infants.

Events conspire to have Fred making a new life for himself, though his story is mainly about his wartime bid for freedom, his survival through a terrible winter and his struggle to get back to his girl not knowing what he will find when he gets there. It’s a hymn to the sterling work of French Resistance and ordinary people, often at great cost, to get Allied escapees home.

I loved this book. There is plenty of dramatic tension among the characters, particularly Chrissie, Fred and Archie who are each sympathetic in their own way. Even Archie, who continues to cause trouble as an adult, is well fleshed out, battling his private demons. But mostly it’s the geography that steals the the show here, sending you to the Internet and the haunting images of a lost way of life. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting

I may be wrong, but The Sixteen Trees of the Somme could be the first Scandinavian book I have read that wasn’t a crime novel. Not that there aren’t some terrible events here: war, genocide, theft, a disputed legacy, blotted reputations and simmering feuds. Why throw in the police as well? There’s also a fairly mind-boggling mystery at the heart of the story.

Edvard has grown up on a remote potato farm in Norway under the care of his grandfather, Sverre. His parents died with he was three in mysterious circumstances while on holiday. The family of three were on a road trip to visit the birthplace of Edvard’s French grandmother, a farm adjacent to the battlefield of the Somme. Young Edvard went missing for several days before being left at a doctor’s surgery. Nobody knows who cared for him before Sverre arrived to take him home.

When his grandfather dies, a beautifully crafted coffin has been kept for him at the undertakers, which can only have been built by Sverre’s brother, Einar, a master cabinet maker. Edvard may have left it at that, buried his grandfather, and carried on with the farm. There’s Hanne, a high-school sweetheart back home from veterinary college, to hang out with. But the past nags at him and before long, Edvard is following a trail of clues to a tiny island off the Shetland coast called Haaf Gruney, in search of the uncle he hardly knew.

The Shetland Islands have a long Norwegian history, before becoming part of Scotland, and it is curious just how many place names and turns of phrase have a Norwegian ring to them. Edvard arrives off the car ferry from one remote spot on the atlas to an even remoter one with very little life experience. Soon he meets the much more savvy Gwen, a young woman the same age as Edvard, with a strong connection to her late grandfather, a wealthy timber merchant who owned Haaf Gruney. The two have a connected history it seems.

The story takes you through a maze of twists and turns as Edvard pieces together his uncle’s life. There’s his war – we’re up to World War II now, where Einar was involved in the French Resistance, and the importance of some trees that once grew in the Somme, and its link with Gwen’s grandfather’s experiences in the previous war. Then there’s the question of Einar’s feud with Sverre, attributed to the fact that Sverre fought for the Germans – or was there more to it than that? And then there’s Einar’s reverence for wood – you learn a lot about the craft of making fine things, the timber that makes it special.

Mytting builds the story beautifully, pulling you in as Edvard and Gwen make the discoveries that lead back to the terrible day when Edvard’s parents died. But this is so much more than an extremely satisfying mystery. Edvard has a lot of growing up to to do and some big decisions to make. The legacies of both Einar and Sverre pull him in two directions, as does his attraction to two women. And this a young man who until leaving Norway had never eaten anything remotely as exotic as an Indian meal served in restaurant on a Shetland island.

The revelations of the story will really tug at your heart as well – the events of two world wars have hammered both Gwen’s and Edvard’s families. It’s no wonder they form an attachment. As the past drags them into some terrible discoveries, you wonder how they will recover. It makes you ponder the way that people’s heritage is linked to who they are and how they build a future from that. How much can be forgotten? It all adds up to a powerful story, one that will haunt you well after finishing the book.

I’m happy to see there’s a new Lars Mytting book just out – The Bell in the Lake – the first in a trilogy no less and which promises more of the themes Mytting is drawn to. One for my To Read list for sure. This one scores a four and a half out five from me.

Book Review: The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Psychological thrillers aren’t my favourite genre but I do make time to read anything that comes along by Ruth Ware. She is such a master of atmospheric settings and unreliable narrators. In The Turn of the Key, the story is told in letters from Rowan Caine, a young woman in prison for murdering a child in her care. So potentially, this is about as unreliable as you can get.

Rowan is writing to a top barrister, hoping he will review her case and secure her release. She swears she is innocent. The best way to explain why she’s innocent is to tell him everything as it happened. The story begins with Rowan answering an ad for a live-in nanny for a family in a remote part of Scotland. Sandra and Bill are high-flying architects, their home, Heatherbrae, a modernised Victorian manor with electronics that run everything from the temperature in your shower to the fridge telling you when to buy more milk.

The couple have seen nanny after nanny abandon their four gorgeous girls. Perhaps it’s the remoteness of the house, far from the bright lights. Then again, the children can be a handful (wee Petra is a typical two-year-old, Maddie sullen and scheming, Ellen highly strung and Rhiannon a rebellious teen), but someone as experienced in childcare as Rowan should manage just fine. Is it the controlling and creepy Happy app, that allows Sandra and Bill to tune in to what’s going on at home wherever they are? Or is it something about the house?

The title of the book will soon have you thinking of the Henry James ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, where again we have a nanny killing a child. And there’s definitely something weird and supernatural going on here. Tragedy has struck Heatherbrae before – the ghost of a former owner, the one who planted the walled and locked poison garden, is said to haunt the house. Ware has everything set up for a tense and chilling read.

With the bulk of the story from Rowan’s point of view, we follow her difficulties, first with the children and the spiteful housekeeper – thank goodness she makes a friend in Jack, the hunky handyman – and then with eerie happenings at night. Surely the house can’t really be haunted, can it? Or worse, does it have a mind of its own. It starts to seem a little bit like The Twilight Zone.

Rowan is determined to get to the bottom of things. She’s not a quitter like those other nannies. And like the good-hearted person she is, she develops a fondness for her charges, even stroppy Rhiannon. But there are secrets here as well as creepy happenings and a few terrific twists before we turn the last page.

Ruth Ware has been dubbed ‘the queen of just-one-more-chapter’, and the title is never more fitting than with this novel. I dare you to pick it up and try to put it aside, even if you think you don’t really like psychological thrillers. The Turn of the Key shows Ware at the top of her game. (If you like this one, try The Woman in Cabin 10 which is another doozy.) This one gets a solid four out five from me.

Brodie No. 3: When Will There Be Good News?

For much of Kate Atkinson’s third novel in the wonderful Jackson Brodie series, our rugged hero is more like a victim than the white knight of earlier books. In the beginning of When Will There Be Good News?, we catch up with Jackson stalking the child he thinks might be his son. He manages to steal a hair from little Nathan’s head, ready for DNA testing.

Accidentally taking a train bound for Edinburgh instead of London and his love-nest with new wife, Tessa, Brodie is caught up in a train accident and badly injured. His life is saved by first-aid performed by the real hero of the story, sixteen-year-old Reggie, a little battler who is adjusting to living on her own since her mother’s sudden death on holiday.

Reggie is a terrific character. Her brother is a ne’er-do-well who always brings trouble. So she soldiers on alone, her meagre existence brightened by her job as nanny for Dr Joanne Hunter (Call me Jo) and baby Gabriel. Reggie is quite devoted to Dr H and Gabriel, but when the two disappear, Reggie suspects foul play, in spite of the husband’s assurances that everything is fine and his wife is just visiting a sick relative. So why did she not change out of her working clothes? And why is her car in the garage? And worst of all, why didn’t she pack the baby’s favourite comforter, the scrap of cloth he is never without.

Also in the mix is DCI Louise Monroe who is seeking the murderer of three people at a family party, his estranged wife and children now hiding in a safe house and in terror for their lives. Like Jackson, Louise is also newly married – to a wonderfully understanding surgeon she has no idea how to love. Instead of returning to her love-nest, Louise sits in her car outside the safe house, watching and tetchy.

Each character is on a trajectory that crashes into that of the other characters and eventually Brodie rouses himself from his hospital bed to save the day in his own unconventional way. It’s a brilliant ending on so many levels and events of Brodie’s past make interesting connections to the main plot-line.

Which is what I love so much about these novels. As well as the quirky characters, the witty dialogue, the snappy storytelling and the intriguing plots, Atkinson brings together divergent characters who often in more ways than one, have something in common. As Jackson says, ‘a coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.’ But maybe it’s also something to do with the human condition, and is why these are a grade or two above your standard crime novel. Four and a half out five from me.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller

nowI am so glad I read Miller’s latest as an ebook because such is the dramatic tension he maintains throughout, that if it had been a regular book, I would have been flipping to the end to see what happened. 

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free follows John Lacroix, a young English cavalry officer, sent home to recover from terrible events during the retreat from Portugal – we’re talking about the Peninsula Campaign in the Napoleonic Wars. He’s barely alive, but under the care of his housekeeper, recovers his health enough to plan a visit to Scotland in search of old folk songs, taking his violin, but also his pistol. He shouldn’t really be doing that – he’s supposed to report back to his regiment. The war is still going and they need all the men they can get.

Another cavalry officer comes looking for him to tell him this but gives him a bit of extended leave. Meanwhile, in Spain, there are reports of a horrific atrocity against a village – rape, pillage, murder, etc. during the retreat. Desperate men do desperate things but someone has to pay to appease the locals. Somehow Captain John Lacroix becomes their man. They send brutish Corporal Calley to deal to him and the infinitely more refined Spanish officer Medina to make sure he does. Continue reading “Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller”

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”

What’s So Special About Scottish Islands?

I’ve done it again – picked up a novel because it was set on a Scottish island. Not that I was disappointed. Keep the Midnight Out is a solid mystery novel featuring Alex Gray’s regular investigator, DI Lorimer. I enjoyed it so much I plan to read the rest of the series, even if I do have to cross the water to the mainland.

And while I do have ancestral connections to the Isle of Skye, I know I’m not the only one to really enjoy these Scottish island settings – the remoter the better. Once you’re on an island, cut off from super-fast broadband and other tricks of modernity, well, anything can happen and so often does. Continue reading “What’s So Special About Scottish Islands?”