The Hidden Girl – Louise Millar

HiddenGirlTitle – The Hidden Girl

Author - Louise Millar

Published - May 2014

Genre – Psychological thriller

Louise Millar isn’t an author that I have come across before, a journalist for publications such as Marie Claire and Red,  this is her third psychological thriller.

The story centres around Will and Hannah, a young couple who have left London to make a new start in a rundown house in a remote area of Suffolk. Pretty standard fare for a thriller.

The couple have underlying relationship problems, some are the reason for their move and some seem to be caused by it. The situation isn’t helped when Will is stuck back at his work in London leaving Hannah to stress about the house on her own. The forced separation has a divisive effect and leads Hannah to rely on some of the locals for support.

Hannah has had an unusual and demanding job but seems to crumble when faced with a more domestic setting. Part of the plot, which is only alluded to in the early part of the book, explains the importance of the move to her and is the explanation for this sudden loss of confidence.  She seems unable to make the right decision for any and every situation, despite having a well-developed sense of right and wrong.

There are mysterious goings on and I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that there are some recognisable scenes – mobile phones with no signal, inexplicable footprints in the snow and sinister locals. The plot built to quite an action packed climax and it did keep me guessing.

For me the thriller aspect didn’t really work and the tension never quite ramped up in the way that I thought it would. This left the book feeling more like a story about the couple and their relationship where the mystery was less central to the plot.

Millar’s background shows through in her writing style which is easy to read and on the popular rather than literary end of the scale, and in some places it made me think of chick-lit but without the laughs (which is meant to be in no way derogatory!).

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for the review copy.

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Bitter Remedy – Conor Fitzgerald

BitterRemedyTitle – Bitter Remedy

Author - Conor Fitzgerald

Published – August 2014

Genre – Crime fiction

I’m obviously a little late to this series as this is the fifth in the books featuring Commissario Alec Blume.  He is heading for a retreat in the Italian countryside, partly as he has some health issues and partly, it seems, to escape from his partner and their small daughter. When he arrives at the villa for his break he discovers that the course he planned to attend has been cancelled, but while in the villa’s garden he manages to be taken ill. So severe is his sudden illness that he wakes up in hospital, and any chance of anonymity is lost thanks to a busybody doctor. Once the local people find out that he is a police officer there is an assumption that he is there to find a missing girl and eventually Blume’s interest is piqued and he begins to investigate the disappearance.

Alongside the plot featuring Blume we also follow a thread about two girls from Romania who have been the subject of trafficking. This follows them from their home to periods of prostitution as they’re moved across Europe. I found the female characters difficult to like and to sympathise or empathise with, which made these passages less engaging for me.

Blume is quite an irascible character, although it’s hard to know if that’s normally the case or if this side of his personality comes to the fore because of his personal issues in this book. His cantankerous nature does lead to some more humorous moments in the book.

The book a very easy read, especially once the plotlines came together around halfway through and the investigation by Blume got underway. Did I feel I’d missed out by starting in the middle of a series? While there was some background that I felt I was missing out on I don’t think that there was anything that really detracted from my enjoyment of the book. Although Fitgerald isn’t Italian himself (and in fact it seems Blume was born in the US) the book would sit comfortably alongside the likes of Camilleri.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy of this book.

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Two reviews and a trip to Paris

July saw us take a weekend break in Paris, so with this in mind I had tried to find some suitable reading before our trip. The first book that sprang to mind was Ernest  Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast”. I really enjoyed Naomi Wood’s book featuring the lives of his wives and there had been a few references in that to his time in Paris. A Moveable Feast is a memoir (of sorts) of Hemingway’s time in Paris in the 1920’s. This was a period when authors and artists such as Gertrude Stein, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and of course Hemingway, migrated to Paris. The book is lots of short stories which paint brief sketches of Hemingway’s time there and his relationship with some of the other notable names that were part of his circle, as well as some about his life with Hadley, his first wife.

Shakespeare & Co - current location

Shakespeare & Co – current location

 The book is certainly an easy read and evokes the time and the place. The stories varied in length and some were more, well, straightforward, than others. Let’s just say that a few of the stories are extremely odd.

You can Google for some renowned quotes from the book but the line that I will take away is, speaking of Ralph Cheever Dunning, “For a poet he threw a very accurate milk bottle.”

The book was put together after Hemingway’s death by his last wife and it was based on a manuscript that he had been working on.  I’m sure that there is a great deal to interest scholars in the book and the version I have makes much of the fact that it includes some unfinished sketches which weren’t previously published.  All of which leaves me with the niggling feeling that what I’ve been presented with as Hemingway’s work isn’t necessarily something that he thought was ready for publication. There are some quotes at the end which are described as fragments of handwritten drafts and these show the different spin on just a few short sections that Hemingway was both writing and discarding.

We didn’t manage to see very much of the Paris Hemingway talks about but we did squeeze in a visit to the current incarnation of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop.

My other Paris-related read was a new title – The Lying Down Room by Anna Jaquiery, published in April this year. This is the debut novel by Jaquiery, a journalist of French-Malaysian descent. The book has a contemporary Parisian setting, with a backstory set in Russia. The book introduces us to Chief Inspector Serge Morel, who reminded me of both Commandant Camille Verhœven (from the Pierre Lemaitre books) and Camilleri’s Montalbano.

The mystery concerns an elderly woman who is discovered dead in her bed, which on the face of it is not particularly mysterious, however she has been carefully dressed and made-up. The police are keen to interview a man and a mute boy who have been approaching other elderly women, and for a long time this is their only lead. While progress is slow the sad and dark backstory provides some tantalising clues that may lead to an explanation of the murder, and a story which draws Morel and his team out of Paris and into the French countryside.

This is one of those murder mysteries where the characters are as important as the plot and Morel certainly delivers what you would expect of a detective – he has a troubled personal life (an obsession with an old flame), concerns about his father’s health, and an unusual release for his stress in origami. He is paired with an intelligent and feisty young female detective, Lila, who acts as a good foil.

The book provided some of the flavour of Paris that I was looking for, as well a being a thoughtful crime novel. Morel is definitely a detective that I want to read more about (how fortunate that this is the first of a series!). Thank you to the publisher for a review copy.

Tour Eiffel

Tour Eiffel

So Paris – how was that? The first word that springs to mind is hot! It was well above he average for the time of year and as we only had a few days we needed to crack on and fit a lot in – no time for lounging about in the shade! We managed to see many of the sights, walked around 8 – 10 miles each day and had a mixed experience of the food and drink. Surprisingly I did manage to miss out on one item on my ‘To Do’ list – I didn’t have a glass of champagne! I guess I need to go back…

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August 9, 2014 · 10:48 pm

World of Trouble – Ben H Winters

Title – World of TroubleWorldOfTrouble

Author - Ben H Winters

Published - 15 July 2014 (but not until 15 August in the UK)

Genre – Crime fiction / apocalyptic fiction / pre-apocalyptic crime fiction

So this is it – the final instalment. Any feelings of anticipation I had for this third and final book in the Last Policeman trilogy have been tinged with dread as I know that, whatever the outcome, I must say goodbye to Hank and Horatio.

When the book opens there are just 14 days left until asteroid Maia is due to hit the Earth. Hank has left the safety of the group at the Police House and is on the road for his final case – to find out what has happened to his sister Nico.  I know that it’s this search that keeps him going, gives him some purpose in the final days, but it’s also clear that this coping strategy is really the equivalent of sticking your head under a pillow and hoping the whole asteroid thing will go away.

The crime thread of the story centres around Hank’s efforts to locate Nico and his attempts to explain the situation he finds at the Ohio police station that is the rendezvous point at which he hoped to find her. As less and less technology and resources become available to him he has to draw on every (brief) moment of training he had to collect and analyse evidence, administer first aid, negotiate with armed opponents. Despite the ‘race against time’ dimension that the meteor provides there’s still a mystery to solve, moments of peril for our hero and a few ‘aha!’ moments for those who read the preceding books.

This is a book (and series) where first person, present tense, really works, drawing you into Hank’s life and the immediacy of the problem he faces. Winters’ writing is, as ever, excellent – despite his sparse prose you really get a picture of the environment that Hank and Horatio encounter. Although Winters still manages to inject some humour into the story it remains both poignant and thought-provoking (pretty much true for the whole series). What would you do, what would you care about? There is one particular quote about death and loss that will stay with me.

For once I can safely say that this is not a book that can stand on its own. There is too much you would miss out on, too many subtleties which would be lost. In another universe this was probably published as one long book, and part of the charm for this reader has been the anticipation, the wait for another year to find out what happens next. Anyway – would you read The Return of the King without reading the preceding two volumes? No? Well the same is true here – read the series.

I hope that I won’t give anything away by saying that the book brought a tear to my eye (a couple of times) and I think that Winters gave Hank the ending that he deserved. Whilst I can’t help but be disappointed that this is the end  – I do look forward to whatever venture Winters undertakes next.

Thank you to the publisher for the review copy. You can see another point of view over at Eamo the Geek.

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Original Skin – David Mark

????????Title – Original Skin

Author - David Mark

Published - 2013

Genre – Crime fiction

Having enjoyed Mark’s debut ‘The Dark Winter‘ I couldn’t pass up the opportunity when the publisher offered me a review copy of the sequel.

The opening of the book feels a little disjointed – the death of a young man, the arrival of a group of travellers, a Police Authority meeting, some particularly violent drug-related attacks … and it goes on. It takes a while before the different plotlines become clearer and you can get a better idea of where the story is heading. Despite the slow start, once the book hits its stride, Mark builds on the various plotlines and eventually, skilfully draws them together.

Whilst this may be a police procedural the real attraction of the series is McAvoy. He’s the gentle giant of the team, with a strong sense of justice but often suffering a crisis in confidence as to what lengths he might be prepared to go to get the result he wants. In this second novel he finds that he has been left to his own devices when his boss is temporarily out of the picture, allowing him to pursue his own lines of enquiry – not always to everyone’s satisfaction!

The story is told from multiple points of view and the main character, aside from McAvoy, is Suzie, a young woman who gets her thrills from sexual encounters with strangers. This is a risky enough enterprise at the best of times but for reasons that aren’t immediately clear Suzie finds herself the target of someone with more sinister intentions. The subject matter won’t be something that everyone will be comfortable reading but Mark has an eye for when to lighten the mood with the injection of some humour.

While McAvoy doesn’t have any of the typical vices found in crime fiction he does have his own set of problems. He is enjoying family life to the full, with his small son and new baby girl, but the demands of trying to maintain a ‘normal’ life are putting a strain on both McAvoy and his wife. There is also some unwelcome crossover between his homelife and his work as his wife’s traveller past seems to be something that they are unable to escape.

Present tense isn’t to everyone’s liking and Mark’s writing has a lot of clipped sentences which can give quite a stylised feel – but who can resist Aector McAvoy!

You can see another review of this title at Raven Crime Reads.

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Bloody Scotland

BloodyScotlandThere are a plethora crime fiction events but one that looks too good to miss is Bloody Scotland, taking place over 19 – 21 September in Stirling. Only in its third year this is quickly becoming one of the key events for fans of crime fiction.

Scotland seems to produce a higher ratio of top notch crime writers than seems fair (perhaps it’s something in the water) – think Ian Rankin, Quintin Jardine, Peter May, Denise Mina – and they’re all participating this year. Generously the list of authors also includes a few interlopers including Kathy Reichs, Mark Billingham and a contingent from Iceland including Yrsa Sigurðardóttir.

Part of the appeal of the festival has to be the location – Stirling has a wealth of historic venues and the organisers are making the most of this, with events taking place in the Old Town Jail, Stirling Sheriff Court and even Stirling Castle itself. And not all of the events are sedate authors on panels, there’s a crime writer’s football match, a recreation of a real-life medieval murder mystery and a true-crime dramatisation.

For those who would rather appear on a panel than watch one, the Friday features a Crime Writing Masterclass in conjunction with the University of Stirling and will include a masterclass with author Christopher Brookmyre.

The timing of the festival is particularly interesting as the results of the Scottish Independence Referendum will be announced on 19th September – what better time to be in Scotland…?

For more information about the programme see the Bloody Scotland website.

 

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More Bloody Foreigners

More Bloodt ForeignersI’m usually drawn to events because there is a particular author that I’m interested in hearing speak, but in this case I was intrigued by an event where I knew nothing of any of the authors.

The panel consisted of Mariusz Czubaj from Poland, Marco Malvaldi and Ben Pastor of Italy and Montenegrin Andrej Nikolaidis, who were interviewed by Jake Kerridge, journalist and crime fiction critic for The Telegraph.

Although connected by the crime theme it soon became apparent that the four authors had quite different approaches to the genre. Discussions ranged from the importance of place for the novels, which also took in some of the cultural differences between the countries, to their own diverse backgrounds.

Marco Malvaldi  has an interesting background and told a very amusing story about his reports when he was studying chemistry at university. It sounds like he has quite a strong interest in food, with his crime fiction series featuring Massimo, the “barrista”, as well as an historical mystery featuring the real-life character of Pellegrino Artusi, a world-renowned author of the cookbook “La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene”. Malvadi shared some interesting insights on life in Tuscany, much to the amusement of the audience.

Mariusz Czubaj unfortunately struggled more with the language barrier than the other authors, which is by no means a criticism as I’m sure most of the us would have struggled to speak any Polish. However, it did mean that he was less able to express his thoughts about his current book and on the setting, culture etc. What did come across was his sense of humour (although the less said about his Jimmy Page reference the better). He is a real-life cultural anthropologist and his first crime novel, 21:37 (at the moment around £2 on the Kindle), features profiler Rudolf Heinz. What we did miss out on were his views on the relationship between his own role as an anthropologist and that of his protagonist as a profiler – I think that if you could speak Polish he had some really interesting things to say!

Andrej Nikolaidis is a journalist and novelist, who spoke about his book ‘The Coming’. His detective has a quite unusual position on investigation – wanting to give the customer what he wants rather than pursuing the crime to uncover things which they would rather leave hidden. I can think of a few books which would have come to an early end taking this approach! The book itself is more of a novella and deals with some intellectual issues – finding favour with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. He also mentioned that the book is accompanied by a Spotify playlist (I’m now trying to remember is this is how we got on to the subject of Jimmy Page…).

Of the four I was probably most drawn to Ben Pastor (Ben is short for Verbena) who has a series of books set during the Second World War and whose main protagonist is Martin Bora, a Wehrmacht officer. She was very engaging, her opinions made a lot of sense and she has a ‘thing’ for men in uniform.

This was a very entertaining evening attended by around 100 people – no mean feat in the London Review Bookshop! In truth I would be interested to try the books by any of the authors. Many thanks for all who organised the event and sponsored it, allowing us all to have an illuminating event for free.

You may also be interested to read the Stu’s account on his WinstonsDad blog about the related lunch the following day.

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