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The Undiscovered Deaths of Grace McGill – Craig Robertson

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Title – The Undiscovered Deaths of Grace McGill

Author – C. S. Robertson

Published – 20 Jan 2022

Genre – Crime

I’d like to remind people who’ve read my blog previously that Craig Robertson is one of my favourite contemporary authors, however as this book is published under the name C S Robertson and I’ve seen it referred to as a debut I wonder if that could be construed as a spoiler…

So – different name, different publisher but same excellent crime vibes!

Grace McGill is an unusual young woman with an unusual job – she’s the person that’s called in to clean a property when someone has died, but Grace specialises in deaths where the person hasn’t been discovered for weeks or months. Not a job for the faint hearted! She takes her job very seriously and even though the body will have been removed from the property before she starts her work she still feels a connection to the person who has died, she’s even been known to go to their funeral.

Grace lives a very solitary and insular life. She carries out her work alone, lives alone and her only relationship seems to be with her alcoholic father who is needy, demanding and generally unpleasant. Grace admits that she can find herself obsessed with things and as a way of ‘decompressing’ from her work she’s been making miniature dioramas of the homes she has cleaned. Something in the style of Frances Glessner Lee, called the ‘mother of forensic science’, who created dollhouse-size true crime scenes. But these are unexplained deaths not crimes…

Grace’s obsessive personality comes in to play when she cleans the home of an elderly man and is intrigued by some of the things that he’s left behind, stacks of old newspapers and a group photograph of five young men from the 1960s. In an effort to find out more about the man’s past she attends his funeral and even hosts his wake … and uncovers the beginnings of a mystery that stretches back decades. And Grace can’t leave it alone, her obsession sees her behave out of character – stepping out of her comfort zone to follow in the footsteps of another young woman who disappeared more than fifty years ago. This then takes the reader on a more traditional crime fiction arc with Grace as an amateur sleuth who gets herself into deep water. But Grace has hidden depths herself!

There are some unexplained actions by Grace but she’s such an odd and complex character that what doesn’t seem logical to the reader may well make complete sense to her! It’s tempting to say that she’s an unreliable narrator but she’s perhaps more of a deluded narrator.

Although we learn a lot about Grace’s backstory, I was still curious to know more about her and how she became the person in the book. The disadvantage of a first-person narrative is the reader’s inability to see the character as others see them and I’d have been interested to see Grace from someone else’s perspective – to see how strange (or not) she seemed to others.

An unusual lead character, an unusual perspective and a disturbing story with some twist and turns. I did enjoy the book and can recommend it as something different (but without appearing to be trying hard to be different) however I have to say that I probably get more pleasure from reading the Narey and Winter series.

Many thanks to the publisher for the NetGalley.

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The Commandments – Óskar Gudmundsson

Screenshot 2021-11-30 at 21.22.23Title – The Commandments

Author – Óskar Gudmundsson (translated by Quentin Bates)

Published – October 2021 (in English translation)

Genre – Crime fiction

The Commandments is Guðmundsson’s third book, published in his native Icelandic in 2019, and the English translation is brought to us by the partnership of new publisher Corylus Books and author/translator Quentin Bates. Guðmundsson is also part of the current team organising the Iceland Noir crime fiction festival.

The opening of the book felt quite disjointed with some scene-setting from 1995, tense and graphic scenes that will make much more sense when the rest of the story has unfolded. Persevere!

Then we meet Salka Steinsdótti, standing in the middle of a stream in northern Iceland. Fishing aside, she has returned to Iceland from London and is in the midst of a divorce from her husband. After a murder which is connected to a case she investigated before she left Iceland she is co-opted by the local police to lead the investigation. This is where the story really takes off as it becomes a police procedural – albeit a dark and gruesome one.

The murder victim is a former priest who was investigated by Salka in 2010 following allegations of sexual abuse. Although he walked free at the time it appears that someone has waited to take their revenge. In order to succeed in leading the investigation Salka must deal with the resentment of the local police at her appointment, the inexperience of the young officer who is helping her and her own emotional baggage. In the course of the investigation – and a race to save other potential victims – she comes across the case of a missing teenager who was last seen with the dead priest in 1995; adding another layer of complexity as she tries to unpick the original, half-hearted, investigation into the boy’s disappearance. This is a small place and everyone seems to be connected – what a tangled web!

The theme – the sexual abuse of young boys by members of the Church – is obviously a disturbing one but despite the graphic scenes at the beginning of the book there is more left to the imagination of the reader than is described, however this isn’t at the expense of tension in the plot.

What the author doesn’t give us, though, is a feeling for the location. The book is a character study with Salka as the contemporary heroine but what you won’t get is a picture of the Icelandic setting.

I knew that the translation would be in safe hands – Quentin Bates is, first and foremost, a an author in his own right – which means that the English version the book is seamlessly translated.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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Resilience – Bogdan Hrib

thumbnail-2Title – Resilience

Author – Bogdan Hrib (translated by Marina Sofia)

Published – August 2021 (in English translation)

Genre – Crime fiction

I met Bogdan when he was appearing at Iceland Noir in 2014. A Romanian author, he took part in a panel on translating crime fiction across cultures – slightly frustrating for those of us who only read in English as there was  nothing available to us on our language. Step in Corylus Books, a new publisher specialising in translating European crime fiction.

Bogdan Hrib’s books are a crime fiction series featuring Stelian Munteanu, a book-editor with a sideline doing international police work, and Resilience is the sixth book in the series. The plot is both crime fiction and political thriller – so often the best crime fiction really connects with readers by reflecting the current broader state of affairs and prompts the reader to think about issues and not just focus on the ‘whodunnit’.

Stelian Munteanu has had enough of fixing other people’s problems: all he wants to do is make the long-distance relationship with his wife Sofia work.

But when a notorious Romanian businessman asks him to investigate the death of his daughter in the north of England, he reluctantly gets involved once more. This time it turns into a tangled web of shady business dealings and international politics.

Moving rapidly between London, Newcastle, Bucharest and Iasi, Resilience shows just how easy and dangerous it is to fall prey to fake news and social media manipulation.

The story makes the most of contemporary themes of nationalism, how this manifests itself in division, and how the masses can be influenced by those who have the power (or money) to create fake news and exploit social media followers.

The translation by Marina Sofia is seamless – in fact it wouldn’t be something that I would comment on unless I was considering the book for a review, if you read a book and the language flows perfectly it’s probably something that wouldn’t register.

This is the sixth book in the series and if did feel like I was missing some of the background / backstory. There is obviously a history between the main characters and I did feel, on occasion, that there was something in their past that was relevant but I wasn’t privy to it.

One of the advantages of reading translated fiction is that it can provide you with a feel for the author’s home country. While there was definite insights into the political landscape I didn’t really get a feel for the more physical one. Obviously an author writes the story he wants to tell and I’m not suggesting that they should include a travelogue in between the action but I would have liked to have found out more about Romania.

So ‘Resilience’ – can the characters adapt in order to survive – well you’ll need to read the book to find out!

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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A few (more) short reviews

I used to read a lot on my Kindle when I was commuting but since I stopped working in London in 2018 I’ve read more physical books than electronic ones. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an occasional title on NetGalley that I can’t resist. Of course my problem then becomes the fact that once read there’s no physical pile of unreviewed books to remind me I need to get on. So this is a ‘quick fix’ to share some of the great books I’ve read in the last *cough* year or two…

Title – The Search Party

Author – Simon Lelic

Published – August 2020

Genre – Crime fiction/thriller

The description of this book feels quite familiar “16-year-old Sadie Saunders is missing. Five friends set out into the woods to find her … not everyone will make it home alive” but to think this follows a well-trodden path would be a mistake. 

After Sadie goes missing her friends fall under suspicion and in an effort to find out the truth they go back to the woods believing that they know better than the police who are searching the local river . The events that unfold are told from the friends’ various points of view through interviews with the police after they are discovered in grim circumstances. What appears from the outside to be a solid group of friends displays fractures when put under pressure, all of the group have secrets and they’re not exactly ‘reliable narrators’. 

The police investigation, led by DI Robin Fleet and supported by DS Nicole Collins, brings its own interest as Fleet is put under increasing pressure to solve the mystery and find Sadie. To add to the intrigue Fleet has only recently returned to his home town and there are rumours and stories about his past that he needs to face up to. 

Twisty, thrilling and compelling – this was a great, atmospheric read. 

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Title – Shooter in the Shadows

Author – David Hewson

Published – July 2020

Genre – Crime fiction

Tom Honeyman is a best selling author but a ‘one hit wonder’. A former journalist, he made his name cracking a horrific double murder in his hometown of Prosper, New York and wrote an international best seller on the back of it. Times have been tough since the book was published and both his personal and professional lives leave a lot to be desired.

Honeyman has a ritual – every July he maroons himself at his villa on Maldetto, an uninhabited island in the lagoon at Venice.  By the third weekend of the month, when the Redentore fireworks begin on the Saturday night, he hopes to have either finished a new book or found the start of one. This year seems to be no different… but then he finds that there is a visitor on his island – one that’s taken his daughter hostage and casts doubt on the story that made him. In fact the stranger wants Honeyman to tell the truth about the crimes in a new book and he has just four days to do it. 

Honeyman works though the events of the original crimes in a series of flashbacks and the timeline switches between the present in Venice and the past in Prosper; to meet the demands of his daughter’s captor he has to face up to some unpleasant memories. 

This feels like a really unusual plot when it can be hard to read anything in the crime/thriller genre that feels different. It’s captured the atmosphere of Venice in the heat, great characterisation, a few twists and turns and a real feeling of jeopardy. 

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Title – A Rush of Blood

Author – David Mark

Published – September 2019

Genre – Crime fiction

I love the Aector McAvoy series and also enjoyed Mark’s standalone ‘The Mausoleum’, so was keen to read another book by him. I have to confess, however, that I struggled with this one. It’s a really odd reason that I found it a difficult read and I’m sure it may ‘just be me’.

The book centres around the disappearance of the friend of 10-year-old Hilda – Hilda wants someone to help find her friend and her first port of call is her Mum, who runs the Jolly Bonnet, a sort of theme-pub in Whitechapel and is the meeting place for Molly’s friends. 

The book has a real gothic feel and a quirky Victorian atmosphere. The problem I had was that all of a sudden the characters would be jumping into a car and racing off somewhere and I had to remind myself it was set in the present day and not in the days of Jack the Ripper. I know – my problem. 

It has a very dark and sinister plot with a real touch of gothic horror contrasting with a modern day setting and a very modern set of strong female characters. 

Despite all of this the quirkiness was a bit too much and too distracting for me. 

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A few short reviews

I’m not quite sure how it has happened that I’ve not posted on my blog for so long. You’d think that the months of lockdown restrictions would have given me more time not less! In a way to catch up on some of my outstanding reviews I thought I’d try and cram a few into the same post.

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First up – one of the few books that I’ve been sent by a publisher this year.

Title – Lost Souls

Author – Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman

Published – 2021

Genre – Crime fiction

While I’m a big fan of Jonathan Kellerman, I don’t feel quite the same about his son Jesse, so if I’d been offered a review copy of this book I may well have turned it down. As it happens this just arrived in the post – and I’m very pleased it did.

This is the third in the ‘Clay Edison’ series but it wasn’t spoiled by not having read the preceding books. 

Clay Edison is the Deputy Coroner working the graveyard shift in a Californian suburb when he’s called out to the discovery of a dead infant uncovered by developers working in a local park. It will be Edison’s job to find the cause of death and determine the child’s identity. This is a particularly poignant case as Edison and his wife are just coming to terms with the arrival of their own small daughter. 

Prompted by news of the discovery Edison is approached by a man who is trying discover what happened to his sister who went missing as a small child some fifty years previously. Touched by the man’s situation Edison embarks on a private investigation.

Despite the similarities of the stories the investigations complement each other and I found this a quick and enjoyable read. I do wish, however, that I’d had a better idea of what a coroner’s role was in the US. 

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Next – a book that’s been on my shelves for a while. 

Title – The Stars are Fire

Author – Anita Shreve

Published – 2017

Genre – Fiction

This was the last of Anita Shreve’s books to be published before she died in 2018 and I’ve been saving it for a while.

Set in 1947 on the Maine coast, Grace and her husband a struggling in an unhappy marriage with their two young children. When Grace is pregnant with their third child fires sweep along the coast and Gene volunteers to help in a neighbouring town, leaving Grace to look after their home and their children. Gene hasn’t returned when the fire reaches their own home and Grace must draw on a strength and practicality she didn’t know she had to make sure that she and her children survive. 

In the aftermath of the fire and the decimation of their town she has to find a way to manage when Gene still doesn’t return to them. Grace turns out to be resourceful and is supported by a small cast of people who do their best to help her but ultimately her future will be determined by the fate of her husband. 

An atmospheric book with a period setting and an insight into the everyday lives of women and the hardship they faced, especially how difficult it could be to be single. 

Not my favourite of Shreve’s books but a story with a memorable main character. It also makes a change to read a book that’s told in an uncomplicated way with a single point of view and a chronological timeline. 

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Third – a sort of memoir. 

Title – Hemingway in Love

Author – A E Hotchner

Published – 2015

Genre – Memoir

I chose this book as I’ve developed a bit of an interest in Hemingway after reading Mrs. Hemingway: A Novel in 2014. 

Hotchner first met Hemingway when he was sent to commission him in Havana in 1948 for Cosmopolitan. They struck up a friendship and frequently travelled together until Hemingway’s death in 1961, in 1966 he published ‘Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir’. 

This is a slim book that provides an insight into Hemingway’s own thoughts on the affair that destroyed his first marriage (and led to his second). The dilemma he faced as he was ‘torn between two women’ and how he let Pauline Pfeiffer gain the upper hand. 

This gave an interesting perspective but like many books on this subject it remains difficult to see what is the truth of the relationships versus what people want you to think. Although it does provide a nice, potted, biography of the big man. 

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Finally –  review of a book that’s been sitting on my TBR shelf for 6 years!

Title – The Widow’s Confession 

Author – Sophia Tobin

Published – 2015

Genre – Historical fiction

This is the second book by Sophia Tobin (her debut was The Silversmith’s Wife) and is an atmospheric drama set in 1851. Broadstairs in Kent is the summer destination for people wanting to take the air or keep a low profile; a number of chance encounters amongst these visitors creates a small group of acquaintances who enjoy a few excursions together around the town. An eclectic group where a widow, a priest, and a painter can all find themselves having a picnic and shell collecting together. 

The necessities of Victorian life mean that there are conventions to be followed and woe betide those who don’t toe the line. In this upright and uptight atmosphere it’s easy to keep secrets buried but there is a price to pay when they are uncovered. There is also an ‘outsider’ element to the story – with a division between the ‘locals’ and the ‘visitors’.  

There is a mystery, a number of young women who are found dead on the shore, but that’s more of an aside to the way the relationships develop between the disparate group, it’s the feelings that the deaths bring to the surface within the group that are more prominent than the search for the person responsible.  

I enjoyed this with its historical details, atmospheric setting and well-drawn characters and I was particularly a fan of Delphine Beck. 

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Sidney Chambers and The Forgiveness of Sins – James Runcie

Title – Sidney Chambers and The Forgiveness of Sins

Author – James Runcie

Published – 2016

Genre – Historical crime fiction

This is a book that has been sitting on my TBR pile for quite some time and part of the reason is that I have the hardback and it’s a VERY pretty book.

I’m familiar with Grantchester because I’ve watched all 5 of the TV series based on the books, consequently my review is more a comparison with the ITV drama than just a review of the stories.

If you haven’t seen or read anything of Grantchester then as a brief overview this is quite gentle period (1950s/60s) crime fiction set around Cambridgeshire with a sleuthing Anglican priest at the centre of the stories.

I was surprised to find that the book was actually a series of short stories but that fits in well with the way that it was adapted for the small screen. Other surprises followed as, although I suspect the two started in the same way, Sidney’s life in print has diverged somewhat on the TV – in the book we’re in the 1960s and he’s married with a small daughter. In one of the late stories in the book, when he was actually moving away from Grantchester, there is a reference to him being in his forties. The supporting characters bear some similarities to the ones I was familiar with but with the exception of Amanda they are more passing caricatures.

The stories themselves are quite gentle, not the death and violence of the TV series (although they aren’t actually very gory or graphic). The plots in this book (no. 4 in the print series) featured a missing painting, a falling piano, an exploding school science lab and poison pen letters. There is also a gentle pace in the telling of the stories and the religious aspects of Sidney’s life play a larger part with more focus on the Right (with an intentional capital) of the situations.

Nostalgic and gentle crime fiction, similar, but not the same as, the TV series.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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A Tomb With A View – Peter Ross

Title – A Tomb With A View: The Stories and Glories of Graveyards

Author – Peter Ross

Published – 2020

Genre – Non-Fiction

It’s unusual for me to read a non-fiction book but this is one of two I’ve read so far in 2021 – strange times indeed!

I heard about this book purely through social media although I’m sure the cover would have been enough to seal the deal if I’d been able to browse in a bookshop. It went on my Christmas list and duly appeared under the tree.

I’m quite the taphophile as it happens and already have plenty of reading material about graves and graveyards. This book is a little different to most of those because it’s packed with unusual facts, interesting anecdotes and conversations with those intimately involved in the featured locations. Some of the stories were very personal and touched on aspects surrounding death and burial that aren’t normally talked about.

The short chapters cover the length and breadth of the country and even beyond and a range of cultures and faiths. Those whose graves feature include the well-known, the forgotten, the celebrated and the unknown.

The writing style made this an easy book to read (not something I always feel about non-fiction) and the author captured the sense of place, bringing to life the diverse locations that were featured. He has a deft turn of phrase and treated those sharing their personal stories with great respect – giving an insight into what is still very much a taboo subject.  The people who shared their stories were just as important to the book as the stones.

I do have some quibbles with the book. My first is that there are some notable gaps, it’s surprising not to see Brookwood (London Necropolis) get more than a passing mention – the largest cemetery in the UK, destination of the London Necropolis Railway and the site of the first crematorium in Britain (amongst other notable facts). For me the other omission was a mention of Lutyens – one of three principal architects for the Imperial War Graves Commission, who designed 140 cemeteries in the countryside of Flanders and northern France for soldiers killed in the First World War, whose best know memorials are the Cenotaph in Whitehall and the Thiepval Memorial.

I was also felt that there was more about the political divisions in Northern Ireland than was appropriate – but I have learned something, so perhaps it wasn’t there in vain.

An unusual book and a great choice for anyone who has paused in a graveyard to read an inscription.

Now to find a space on my shelf.

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The Museum of Desire – Jonathan Kellerman


Title
– The Museum of Desire

Author – Jonathan Kellerman

Published – 2020

Genre – Crime fiction

I think the last book in the Alex Delaware series that I reviewed was Breakdown (#31). During the first lockdown (as the early part of 2020 is now known) I treated myself to The Wedding Guest (#34) but I must have shelved it without writing a review. I’m still figuring out the gap in the middle…

So here we are at #35 in the series – ‘The Museum of Desire’. The book opens with the discovery of a bizarre display of murder victims in the aftermath of a Beverly Hills party. So it’s no stretch to think that Milo Sturgis is going to ask for the help of Alex Delaware.  And then we’re off!

The investigation moves quite slowly as the pair have very little in the way of clues, no obvious connection between the murder victims and a variety of murder weapons. Despite what felt like slow progress I was still engrossed and cracked through the book. There are a few red herrings thrown in along the way but these felt like less of a distraction than in some earlier titles.

One of the things I always enjoy is the LA setting and one day I will get a map out to trace their movements as they drive backwards and forwards. There was a bit less eating out than there’s perhaps been in other books – always a bit of an insight into the LA life.

A while back I felt disappointed that Delaware had moved from being directly involved in cases through the child psychology angle but as the years have passed it feels more credible that he would perhaps spend less time on those cases and have more ‘free’ time to help Milo. And while he’s called on ostensibly for his psychological expertise I think Milo actually involves him for his abilities with a search engine and his tendency to ‘just drive past’ a location critical to the case – often at just the right moment!

The set up of the murders, although grotesque, also holds the key to their solution and while the usual team is involved in the investigation it’s actually Delaware’s partner, Robin, who finds the essential piece of information. I was surprised by the direction the plot took towards the end and the climax was intense!

I think (after reading 30+ books in the series) that Kellerman has a very individual writing style, something that feels familiar and comforting to me and I still look forward to a new Kellerman more than any other author’s books.

Thank you to the publisher for the review copy.

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Dying Fall – Elly Griffiths

51MiSv+h+IL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_Title – Dying Fall

Author – Elly Griffiths

Published – 2013

Genre – Crime fiction / Mystery

Another book that’s been sitting on my TBR shelves for a while is the fifth in the Ruth Galloway series. I suspect that as this copy is a hardback it may have spent some of the time since we moved to Cirencester in a box and that would certainly explain both why I’ve left it so long to read and how I’ve managed to read the series so completely out of order.

So stepping back in time, after Ruth finds out that Dan, an old friend from college, has died in a house fire she receives a letter from him telling her he has made a huge archaeological discovery. He also tells her that he’s afraid. Ruth accepts an invitation from Dan’s boss to review the discovery and despite some sinister messages directed at her, she heads to Lancashire accompanied by Kate (eighteen months old in this book) with Cathbad as babysitter.

At the same time DCI Nelson has decided to revisit his Blackpool roots for a holiday with Michelle. Of course this has something to do with the fact that Ruth has mentioned Dan’s death and Nelson’s old colleague, Sandy, has suggested that there is something suspicious about it.

The pace feels quite slow but I enjoyed the investigative angle (Ruth seems to become a confidante for some of Dan’s former colleagues) with both the archaeological discover and Dan’s death. Slightly less of a police procedural because Nelson is on the outside of the investigation. The close connection with Pendle allows for some slighty spookier moments and then there is a more prosaic neo-Nazi group.

It’s interesting to look back on this stage of Ruth/Nelson’s relationship and I had a huge revelation at the end of the book that would have been meaningless to anyone reading the books in order. The insight into Nelson, his background and family filled in some gaps for me. There were some exciting scenes towards the climax of the story but knowing the future for the characters meant it lacked the tension I would have got from reading on order.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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Scott & Bailey: Bleed Like Me – Cath Staincliffe

Title – Scott & Bailey: Bleed Like Me

Author – Cath Staincliffe

Published – 2013

Genre – Crime fiction

My reading is pretty consistent at the moment but I’m moving between new books (mainly birthday gifts), review copies via NetGalley and older physical review copies of books which have been sitting on my TBR for some time. This book is one of the latter – a signed hardcopy that I picked up at a publishing event in March 2013.

I think when I went to the event I had yet to watch any of the Scott and Bailey TV series, so perhaps the delay in reading this book worked out for the best.

As soon as I started reading I was transported straight back to the TV series and its characters. The book is set as a prequel to the second ITV Scott and Bailey series (I had to look that up) but I know that it was somewhere within the series timeline as there were references to incidents I remembered.

The story is more of a thriller than a police procedural – three bodies have been found, stabbed to death in their beds, at The Journey’s Inn, Lark’s Estate, Manchester. The husband and father of two of the victims has fled and his two young sons are missing. There seems little doubt over what may have taken place, the challenge for the team is to find the desperate man but, more importantly, his small sons.

The characters are just as I remembered them but the format of a book over a TV series gives you a bit more insight into the characters and their motivations. It must be a challenge for a writer to mould their work to fit something that already exists but nothing felt out of place and there was a visual quality to the writing that helped support the feeling that this was an extension of what I’d seen on the small screen.

The story itself was a good ‘race against time’ with some red herrings and action but within the confines of a police team in Manchester. The investigation is only part of the story, though, as this is also a story of the three very different, strong women who take the lead.

I really enjoyed this – it took me back to a very watchable TV series, not only reminded me of the characters but added to it by providing a more intimate connection with them.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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