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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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The Quickening – Rhiannon Ward

Title – The Quickening

Author – Rhiannon Ward

Published – 20 August 2020

Genre – Historical crime fiction

While I’ve not suffered the lack of interest in reading that others found during lockdown I have found that the change to my routine has made my blogging even more sporadic than normal. Somehow over the last few years I’ve gone from 50 or 60 posts a year to only 12 so far in 2020 but the latest book from Rhiannon (Sarah) Ward has prompted me to get back to the keyboard.

I had intended getting my blog post out in time for the publication date but it’s taken longer to write than I planned as I’ve deleted around 400 words and started again.

So.

Not only is there a change of name for the author but also a change of publisher and genre (as Sarah Ward she is the author of four DC Childs novels) although keeping the crime/mystery element this is a move to an historical setting – the main part of the story being taking place in 1925.

Louisa is a photographer asked by her employer to travel to Clewer Hall in Sussex, where she is to photograph the contents of the house for auction before the family move to India. She is surprised by the commission but with a baby on the way she’s keen to take the opportunity to earn some extra money. When she arrives she finds that the house is literally falling apart and its inhabitants seemed to be damaged or weighed down with grief; it’s a dark and tense atmosphere that she’s not comfortable with. She discovers that during her stay at the house an event is planned to recreate an infamous seance that originally took place in 1896.

The setting is atmospheric and there is an underlying tension which builds through the story as the secrets of the house and family are revealed. There is a lot of grief and loss in the book, something which Louisa herself is no stranger to, and this is magnified by the decay of the surroundings and the limited cast of characters.

Louisa makes a great lead, she has some modern sensibilities but the author couches these within the constraints of the period. I was fascinated both by the details around the photographic process of the period as well as those around the everyday lives of the house’s occupants. I have to wonder how on earth you can research these tiny details – if they were made up then they were very convincing!

It’s one of those oddities of publishing that I was sitting in the garden in a heatwave reading this dark and chilling mystery – it will make a great read when the nights draw in. A gothic mystery set in a dilapidated country house with a strong female lead, a mysterious child and a cameo appearance by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – what more could you ask for?

Many thanks to the publisher for the NetGalley.

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Cold Malice – Quentin Bates

Title – Cold Malice

Author – Quentin Bates

Published – June 2020

Genre – Crime fiction

It’s been a while since the last instalment featuring Gunnhildur Gísladóttir and it’s great that Quentin Bates has found the time between his role as a translator of Icelandic crime fiction, to bring us up to date.

If you’re not familiar with her, Gunnhildur is a detective in Reykjavík, trying to balance her chaotic personal life with her dogged determination to get to the truth.

There are two main investigations which from the basis of the book. Gunnhildur is called to the apparent suicide of a successful but reclusive artist, as she tries to establish the circumstances leading up to his death she is drawn to the mystery of his wife’s death some years earlier.

Gunnhildur’s colleague, Helgi, spots a ‘ghost’ as he travels home from his holiday abroad, he sees the face of a man who was declared dead fifteen years previously.

As both detectives try to get to the bottom of their cases we also follow Helgi’s mysterious ghost as he returns to his home for the first time since 2004. Despite the fact that he was able to just turn his back on his family and walk away from them, he’s been following his children’s lives from afar and his return is prompted by his son’s incarceration in prison for murder.

As the detectives pursue their cases we move from the celebrity of the art world to low-life drug dealers, the ups and downs of contemporary Iceland.

The series owes a lot to the sub-genre of ‘Nordic Noir’ – it makes the most of the atmosphere and location of Iceland, and provides a commentary on topical, social issues but it also adds to this by bringing to life a cast of characters, especially Gunnhildur, who are well drawn, developing over the course of the series.

As a fan of police procedurals this series ticks all the boxes for me.

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This post is part of a blog tour to mark the publication of Cold Malice.

Dead to Her – Sarah Pinborough

Title – Dead to Her

Author – Sarah Pinborough

Published – 4 June 2020

Genre – Crime fiction

I’ve only read a few books by Sarah Pinborough but the differences between all three mark her out as a very versatile author, the settings, characters and plot couldn’t be more different but are all equally credible.

In Dead to Her we’re off to steamy Savannah, Georgia and the world of some seriously wealthy couples living the high life. Marcie knows how difficult it can be to fit in with the country club set when you’re the new, younger, second wife, so when her widowed husband’s boss brings a new wife, Keisha, home from his trip to London, a woman who is at least forty years younger than him, stunning and black, she’s quick to appraise her. But where there might have been sisterly solidarity Marcie can only see a threat to her own plans.

The story switches back and forth between Keisha and Marcie. We learn from Keisha of her less than ideal upbringing and background.  We know why she married a man old enough to be her grandfather and the price that she has to pay. Living in a house full of secrets with reminders of her predecessor all around while she is haunted by her own past.

From Marcie we find out what it takes to be part of the ‘set’ and the worries of the second wife – when you married a cheater can you ever trust them? Asked by her husband to make friends with Keisha he can’t have imagined how that request would pan out.

As the plot unfolds it moves with the slow, sultry heat of the deep south. The atmosphere is full of sex, money and black magic. And then there is an unexpected death – the plot takes off and the true nature of the members of the clique becomes clear.

A really enjoyable read with some twists and turns – perfect for fans of Big Little Lies. Thanks to the publisher for the NetGalley.

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Summerwater – Sarah Moss

Title – Summerwater

Author – Sarah Moss

Published – 20 August 2020 (at time of writing)

Genre – Fiction

About 95% of what I read falls into crime/mystery/thriller categories but there are exceptions to this rule. After reading Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss I’ve been keen to read some of her fiction and was lucky to be approved to read Summerwater on NetGalley.

It’s around midsummer on a dated Scottish holiday park and the occupants of the loch side cabins are trapped by the torrential (but perhaps not unexpected) rain in the isolated location. Over 24 hours we get an insight into the lives of the holiday makers – from the early morning runner to the retired doctor.

As the day progresses the point of view switches between many different occupants, with a diverse range of ages and points of view. These snapshots take the form of something akin to a ‘stream of consciousness’. Despite this format, which doesn’t particularly lend itself to a more literary style, the writing is spot on – funny, graphic, dark but all well-observed and with excellent insight – in these brief sections we really get an understanding of the characters. The inner monologues add a feeling of pace despite there being little action, although as I read crime fiction a lot I was perhaps more open to the darker undertones.

Woven into these lives are points of view that reflect the breadth of the political spectrum, giving a real reflection on the mix of people you could come across, I do wonder if this might feel dated quite quickly. Reading this during the early part of 2020, when we’re all isolated, I can see a number of parallels between real life and fiction – as we’re all trapped in our homes and keeping an eye on our neighbours!

This is short read at around 150 pages but without any preamble it packs in a wealth of variety and leads to a surprising climax. Well worth a read – I look forward to getting my hands on a hardcopy when it’s published.

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