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BOOK REVIEW: Inspector Morse: Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Beautiful Sylvia Kaye and another young woman had been seen hitching a ride not long before Sylvia's bludgeoned body is found outside a pub in Woodstock, near Oxford. Morse is sure the other hitchhiker can tell him much of what he needs to know. But his confidence is shaken by the cool inscrutability of the girl he's certain was Sylvia's companion on that ill-fated September evening. Shrewd as Morse is, he's also distracted by the complex scenarios that the murder set in motion among Sylvia's girlfriends and their Oxford playmates. To grasp the painful truth, and act upon it, requires from Morse the last atom of his professional discipline.


My Thoughts:

I am a big fan of the ‘Inspector Morse’ TV series, and its spin-off ‘Lewis’, and yet I had never read any of the novels by Colin Dexter which inspired the shows. I had heard that they were good old-fashioned murder mysteries with clever plots, which is something I am always hunting for, and so I thought I’d give them a go.

The first book in the series, Last Bus to Woodstock, was published in 1975, and so it reads like historical fiction now. The plot depends on a warning letter being hand-delivered because of the slowness of the English postal system; there are no mobile phones, or internet, or traffic cameras, or DNA testing. Inspector Morse has old-fashioned tastes in music (Wagner) and hobbies (cryptic crosswords) and very old-fashioned attitudes to women, who are all pretty typists with good legs. The casual misogyny can be a little hard to take (the conclusion that the murdered girl must have been promiscuous because she didn’t wear a bra, for example). However, the mystery itself is really clever and surprising, and I happen to love classical music and cryptic clues, and so I quite enjoyed the character of Inspector Morse, who is much lazier and bumbling in the novel than he is in the TV show.

For another great read written by an author who also works on British TV scripts, check out my review of The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz.

Please leave a comment, I love to know your thoughts!

BOOK REVIEW: Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

Friday, November 24, 2017


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Into the Water is the incredible new standalone thriller from Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train. Published in over forty languages and now a No. 1 box office hit film starring Emily Blunt, The Girl on the Train is a global phenomenon.

With the same propulsion that captivated millions of readers worldwide in The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins unfurls a gripping, twisting, layered story set in a small riverside town. Once again Hawkins demonstrates her powerful understanding of human instincts and the damage they can inflict.

Into the Water is an addictive novel of psychological suspense about the slipperiness of the truth, and a family drowning in secrets.'


My Thoughts:

Paula Hawkins made her name with her debut contemporary suspense novel The Girl on the Train, which helped spark a new reading craze about ordinary people in dangerous situations that has been dubbed ‘domestic noir’. I was looking for a book to read on a long car journey and I had about three seconds to choose one while my husband drove around the block. I grabbed this one, confident I’d get a strong, dynamic, fast-moving story with a tricky mystery at its heart.

I was not disappointed.

Into the Water
centres on the death of Nel Abbott, who was writing a book about the Drowning Pool, a place where witches had once been dunked and unhappy women had long sought escape from unhappy lives. Before Nel died, she had rung her sister Jules. Her sister, however, did not pick up. She had not spoken to her sister in many years. Now Jules has to deal with her own guilt and remorse, as well as a grieving teenage niece and the growing conviction that Nel had not killed herself.

Books like Into the Water hinge on long-buried secrets and misunderstandings. Part of the pleasure in reading is trying to negotiate through the lies and half-truths told by the characters. Into the Water has a great many points-of-view, which means the reader really has to concentrate to follow the story, and so it’s not an easy read. Neither is it a gnaw-your-fingernails-to-the-bone kind of suspense. It is, however, a dark, twisty, and surprising mystery that I read in a single sitting. Even better, I did not manage to guess the murderer (which I had done with The Girl on the Train). I really enjoyed it and will be most interested in what Paula Hawkins does next.

You can read my review of The Girl on the Train here. 

Please let me know what you think by leaving a comment below. 

BOOK REVIEW: The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg

Sunday, October 01, 2017

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Returning to her hometown of Fjallbacka after the funeral of her parents, writer Erica Falck finds a community on the brink of tragedy. The death of her childhood friend, Alex, is just the beginning. Her wrists slashed, her body frozen in an ice-cold bath, it seems that she has taken her own life.

Erica conceives a book about the beautiful but remote Alex, one that will answer questions about their own shared past. While her interest grows into an obsession, local detective Patrik Hedstrom is following his own suspicions about the case. But it is only when they start working together that the truth begins to emerge about a small town with a deeply disturbing past.

My Thoughts:

I haven’t really been swept up into the craze for Nordic-noir (ie hard-boiled contemporary crime set in Finland or Norway or Denmark), but I do love a good atmospheric mystery and so I grabbed The Ice Princess on my e-reader when I saw it on sale.

First published in Sweden in 2003 and translated into English in 2007, The Ice Princess is Camilla Lackberg’s first novel and is the beginning of a series set in the small fishing village of Fjallbacka, which has since been made into a hugely popular television drama in Sweden. Camilla Lackberg is Sweden’s top-selling author, with sales of more than 20 million books in 60 countries.

The story begins when the writer Erica Falck is one of the first people to find the body of a woman frozen in a bath. The corpse is one of her childhood friends, Alexandra Wijkner, and at first it seems as if she had slashed her own wrists. However, there are a few unexplained mysteries about her death and Erica begins to hunt for the truth. Meanwhile, another old friend – local detective Patrik Hedstrom – has his own suspicions. When the two join forces, they uncover a long-hidden secret that will have tragic ramifications for the whole town.

The great strengths of this novel are the depths of characterisation, unusual for a murder mystery, and the ice-bound setting which adds so much tension and atmosphere. The book is not a thriller by any means; its suspense builds slowly but surely, and the growing relationship between Erica and Patrik adds warmth and charm. I really enjoyed it, and look forward to the next in the series.



If you would like to read more books about 'dark happenings in cold places', please take a look at my review of Hannah Kent's wonderful novel, The Good People.

Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.

BOOK REVIEW: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Wednesday, September 06, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

In this riveting debut novel, See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt recasts one of the most fascinating murder cases of all time into an intimate story of a volatile household and a family devoid of love.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell—of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.

As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories of that morning flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? When did she last speak to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Shifting among the perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, the events of that fateful day are slowly revealed through a high-wire feat of storytelling.

My Thoughts:


"Lizzie Borden took an axe,
and gave her mother forty whacks;
when she saw what she had done,
she gave her father forty-one."


This chilling children’s playground rhyme was inspired by the true-life story of Lizzie Borden, who was – in 1892 - tried but then acquitted for murdering her father and stepmother with an axe. The case was never solved, and still continues to interest more than a hundred years after the event.

Sarah Schmidt says that she was inspired to write Look What I Have Done after Lizzie Borden came to her in a dream. I’m always fascinated by novels inspired by dreams, as so many of my own books begin in this way, and so I was eager to read her take on the well-known story.

The novel is told in alternating first-person accounts by Lizzie, her sister Emma, the Irish housemaid Bridget, and a loutish young man who seems to have been hired by the sisters’ maternal uncle to hurt or attack their father in some way. None of the voices seem particularly reliable, and so it is hard to ascertain the truth of what has happened. The atmosphere in the house is claustrophobic and cloying, with many descriptions of the stench of rotting meat and over-ripe pears. Lizzie’s voice is awkward and childish and gleeful in turns, and – although Sarah Schmidt does not attempt to answer the question of who was truly the murderer – by the end of the book, I felt sure that it was Lizzie and that her acquittal was a miscarriage of justice.

For another wonderfully eerie, historical mystery check out my review of Wolf Winter by Cecila Ekback.

Please leave a comment - I love to know your thoughts!


BOOK REVIEW: The Traitor's Girl by Christine Wells

Friday, August 25, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

'I think I'm in danger. It's a matter of some urgency. You must please come at once.'

After receiving a mysterious summons from her long-lost grandmother, Australian teacher Annabel Logan agrees to visit her home in the Cotswolds. But when she arrives at the magnificent Beechwood Hall, it appears abandoned and the local villagers have no idea where the reclusive Caroline Banks might be.

The one person who might know something is enigmatic journalist Simon Colepeper. He reveals that Carrie became a spy and agent provocateur for MI5 during the Second World War. But when British intelligence failed to investigate a dangerous traitor, she decided to take matters into her own hands.

Concerned that her grandmother's secret past has caught up with her, Annabel stays on to investigate. But the more she uncovers, the more difficult it becomes to know who to trust. There are strange incidents occurring at Beechwood and Annabel must use all her ingenuity and daring to find Carrie before it's too late.

From the streets of Seville, Paris and London in the thirties and forties, to the modern English countryside, The Traitor's Girl is a captivating story of passion, intrigue and betrayal.

My Thoughts:

Another gorgeous cover & intriguing title made me very keen to read Christine Wells’s new book, The Traitor’s Girl, which moves between contemporary times and war-torn London in the 30s. I love novels with dual timelines, and really enjoyed Christine Wells’s earlier book, The Wife’s Tale. I also love books about female spies and resistance fighters, so this was always going to appeal to me.

Annabel Logan thinks she has no family, but one day hears from her long-lost grandmother begging for her help as she fears she is in danger. Annabel drops everything and rushes to Beechwood Manor, her grandmother’s old manor house in the Cotswolds. However, her grandmother is nowhere to be found and there are signs of a violent break-in. With the help of a handsome journalist, Simon, Annabel sets out to discover what has happened. She discovers that her grandmother was once a spy for MI5 during the Second World War, but that she was somehow betrayed and imprisoned.

Suspecting that the grandmother’s past may have something to do with her disappearance, Annabel races against time to learn her secrets and try and solve the mystery. Lots of intrigue, passion and betrayals made for a riveting read. The pages just seemed to turn themselves!

You can see my review of The Wife's Tale here. 

And to read my 2016 interview with Christine Wells, click here.

Don't forget to leave a comment with your thoughts!

BOOK REVIEW: The Dying Season (The Patriarch) By Martin Walker

Monday, August 14, 2017



The Dying Season (Bruno, Chief of Police #8), AKA The Patriarch
by Martin Walker

The Blurb (from GoodReads):

When Bruno is invited to the lavish birthday celebration of World War II flying ace and national icon Marco “the Patriarch” Desaix, it’s the fulfillment of a boyhood dream. But when the party ends in the death of Gilbert, Marco’s longtime friend, it’s another day on the job for the chef de police. All signs point to a tragic accident, but Bruno isn’t so sure. There is more to the Desaix family’s lives and loyalties than meets the eye. There is Victor, the Patriarch’s son, Gilbert’s old comrade-in-arms and sometime rival; Victor’s seductive wife, Madeleine, whose roving eye intrigues Bruno even more than her fierce political ambitions; Yevgeny, another son, an artist whose paintings seem to hold keys to the past; and the Patriarch himself, whose postwar Soviet ties may have intersected all too closely with Gilbert’s career in Cold War intelligence.

Bruno is diverted by a dangerous conflict between a local animal rights activist and outraged hunters—as well as meals to cook, wine to share, and an ever more complicated romantic situation. But as his entanglement with the Desaix family grows and his suspicions heighten, Bruno’s inquiries into Gilbert’s life become a deadly threat to his own.

My Thoughts:

I really enjoy this series of contemporary crime novels by Martin Walker, partly because of its setting in the picturesque Dordogne and partly because of its hero, the gentle and good-natured police chief, Bruno. He is kind to dogs and children, cooks amazing French feasts, and falls into bed with various beautiful women, sometimes rather to his dismay.

Despite the emphasis on food and love, and the slow pace of the books, these mysteries cannot be described as ‘cosy’ as they always illuminate some dark aspect of French life. In this book – the eighth in the series – there are confrontations between environmentalists and hunters protecting their age-old traditions, and a powerful man with links to Russia and Israel. A great, light read.

You might be interested in my review of the previous book in this series, Children of War, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment - I love to know your thoughts!

BOOK REVIEW: Lost by Michael Robotham

Sunday, April 02, 2017

BLURB:

Detective Inspector Vincent Ruiz doesn't know who wants him dead. He has no recollection of the firefight that landed him in the Thames, covered in his own blood and that of at least two other people. A photo of missing child Mickey Carlyle is found in his pocket--but Carlyle's killer is already in jail. And Ruiz is the detective who put him there.

Accused of faking amnesia, Ruiz reaches out to psychologist Joe O'Loughlin to help him unearth his memory and clear his name. Together they battle against an internal affairs investigator convinced Ruiz is hiding the truth, and a ruthless criminal who claims Ruiz has something of his that can't be replaced. As Ruiz's memories begin to resurface, they offer tantalizing glimpses at a shocking discovery.



MY THOUGHTS:


Lost is the second in a series of taut contemporary psychological thrillers written by Australian writer Michael Robotham and set in London. The first in the series, The Suspect, was told from the point of view of psychologist Joseph O’Loughlin. Lost picks up the viewpoint of Detective Inspector Vincent Ruiz, who was a minor character in the first book, and tells his story as he battles amnesia to try and discover the truth behind a lost child. It’s a really intriguing premise and works brilliantly well, because Michael Robotham is as much interested in the psychology of the viewpoint character as he is in the mystery they are trying to solve. I’m planning to read my way through the whole series (though I may bite my nails down to the last knuckle – the books I’ve read so far are seriously creepy and utterly compelling.)

BOOK REVIEW: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

BLURB:

In the latest masterpiece by Emma Donoghue, bestselling author of Room, an English nurse brought to a small Irish village to observe what appears to be a miracle-a girl said to have survived without food for months-soon finds herself fighting to save the child's life.

Tourists flock to the cabin of eleven-year-old Anna O'Donnell, who believes herself to be living off manna from heaven, and a journalist is sent to cover the sensation. Lib Wright, a veteran of Florence Nightingale's Crimean campaign, is hired to keep watch over the girl.

Written with all the propulsive tension that made Room a huge bestseller, THE WONDER works beautifully on many levels--a tale of two strangers who transform each other's lives, a powerful psychological thriller, and a story of love pitted against evil.


MY THOUGHTS:

I have read Emma Donogue’s brilliant collection of fairy-tale retellings Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins but have not yet read any of her novels. I have heard such high praise of her writing, however, and I was so interested in the premise of her new novel, The Wonder, that I bought it as soon as it hit the bookshops.

The story begins with an English nurse, who had trained with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, arriving in a tiny Irish village to watch over a little girl whose family claims can survive without food. She lives on ‘manna from heaven’, and so is thought of as a kind of miracle. People come to her to be blessed, and leave the family gifts in return. The nurse, Mrs Wright, thinks it is all a sham, and determines to reveal the truth. However, slowly, all her preconceptions and prejudices are turned upside-down, and she discovers a very different truth to what she had expected.

I first read about cases like this in Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s brilliant history of Anorexia Nervosa, Fasting Girls. She shows how food-refusal by girls and young women stretches all the way back to medieval times, when saints and martyrs refused food or purged themselves of food as a sign of their religious devotion. In the nineteenth century, there were many cases of so-called ‘fasting girls’ including the famous case of Sarah Jacob, the ‘Welsh Fasting Girl’ who eventually died of starvation at the age of twelve after a watch was set over her by the local doctor. 

The Wonder is inspired by such real-life stories but, in the true art of fiction, transforms it into something much greater. The Wonder is a story about faith, about love, about secrets, and about the mysterious ways in which human lives intersect and impact on each other. I loved it.

BOOK REVIEW: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Wednesday, March 22, 2017



BLURB:


In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, the clock in its stable yard permanently fixed at twenty to nine. Its owners – mother, son and daughter – are struggling to keep pace with a changing society, as well as with conflicts of their own.


But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his. 


MY THOUGHTS:


I have been steadily reading my way through Sarah Waters’s backlist after discovering her a year or so ago with the brilliant, unputdownable Affinity. She’s one of those writers that always makes me sigh and wish that I could write as well. 


The three books of hers that I have read to date are all set during the Victorian era. The Little Stranger, however, is set in the difficult years after World War II, when the known world has been shaken loose from its moorings. Its topography is familiar to me from dozens of books by Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers and Patricia Wentworth. Even though The Little Stranger is not a who-dunnit by any means, it shares a great deal with books by these classic crime writers – a grand English country house, class snobbery, mysteries and misdirection, unexpected twists, and a series of unexplained deaths and tragedies.


The Little Stranger also differs from Sarah Water’s earlier books by having a male narrator. Dr Faraday is the local doctor who finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into affairs at Hundreds House. It soon becomes clear that he is a not-entirely-reliable narrator, which really heightens the tension and suspense, and reminded me of Agatha Christie’s great masterpiece Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? It also reminded me of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca in the way the slowly building suspense becomes almost unbearable.


Yet The Little Stranger is at heart a creepy Gothic ghost story, with a malevolent poltergeist driving the inhabitants towards the house towards the book’s grand tragic finale. 


Or is it? 


Is the ghost real? Is it a strange kind of madness? A manifestation of intense psychic distress? Or is it a kind of malicious manipulation by someone in the house? Perhaps even the doctor himself?


This mystery and ambiguity is part of the genius of The Little Stranger. Since I finished reading it, I’ve discussed it with dozens of people who all believe something different. I think it is just brilliant. 


BOOK REVIEW: On The Blue Train by Kristel Thornell

Sunday, March 12, 2017



BLURB:

What really did happen to Agatha Christie during her mysterious eleven-day disappearance just as she was on the cusp of fame? An entrancing novel of creativity and grief.

Yes, she said, finally. Breaks are important. There are times when it's wiser to get away. From it all.

It was the work of a moment, on 4 December 1926, Agatha Christie of London became Teresa Neele, resident of the spa hotel, the Harrogate Hydro. With her wedding ring left behind her, and her minimal belongings unpacked, Agatha's lost days begin.

Lying to her fellow guests about the death of a husband and child, Teresa settles in to the anonymity she so fiercely desires. Until, Harry McKenna, bruised from the end of his own marriage, asks her to dance.


MY THOUGHTS:

This novel by Kristel Thornell, who won the Vogel award with her first book, was inspired by the true-life story of how Agatha Christie disappeared for eleven days in 1926. Her car was found at the edge of a quarry, its hood up and lights on. Inside the police found her fur coat, her old driver’s license, and a bag of clothes. There was no sign of Agatha Christie herself. Murder was suspected, and thousands of police and volunteers combed the countryside, looking for her body. Eventually she was found staying at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, booked in under the same surname as her husband’s mistress. 

I’ve long been interested in this story myself and have on my bookshelf an earlier novel inspired by the same incident entitled Agatha: A Novel of Mystery, by Kathleen Tynan, which I read years ago. I also have nearly every book Agatha Christie ever wrote, including her autobiography (in which there is no mention of her Harrogate adventure.) 

So I was really looking forward to On the Blue Train

My feelings on finishing the book are mixed. I think I was hoping for a book that brought Agatha to life, giving insights into her character and her creative processes, as well as illuminating the impulse which led her to run away from her life. Agatha Christie’s books are clever, witty, and very carefully constructed, and I had always imagined her as being acerbically funny and acutely observant. I was also, of course, interested in the relationship between her and her husband, who was at the time suspected of being her murderer. Was that her intention? Was she punishing him?

The heroine of Kristin Thornell’s book is something quite different. Clearly unhappy, she drifts around, buying herself new clothes and eating rather a lot of cake. She falls into company with another drifter, a man named Harry, and they remember past failed love affairs and contemplate the possibility of running away together. The pace of the book is slow and dreamy with little sense of tension or drama; and the heroine seems quiet, timid, and indecisive, which is not how I imagine her at all. 

On reflection, I probably would have liked On the Blue Train better if I was not so familiar with Agatha Christie’s own voice. Compare this:

I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.

(Agatha’s own words) 

She sat and then stretched out, her head by the base of a tree, the coat like a silky languorous animal she was entwined with. She was also entwined with the possibility of death. 

That nacreous eye, watching over her. If she chose to, she could stare into it again, drift towards the magnet of a watery end. The end would come about by her own hand. In her own hand she would write a carnal full stop. 


(Kristel Thornell writing from Agatha’s point-of-view in On The Blue Train, page 295)


The two voices are so very different. I cannot imagine Agatha Christie describing a moonlit pool as a ‘nacreous eye’, or – a little earlier on the same page – ‘on a dim arboreal path she was taken by an imperious desire to lie down.’ 

So, as an act of ventriloquism, On The Blue Train does not succeed for me. 

It is, nonetheless, a slow, melancholy, and beautiful meditation on failed love. 


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