memoir

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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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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Spectacles – Sue Perkins

Title – Spectacles

Author – Sue Perkins

Published – 2015

Genre – Memoir

This is one of a few books I’ve read recently which falls outside my normal crime fiction reading. This was a book I had particularly fancied reading as I have a fondness for Sue (and Mel) and although I watch the ‘new’ Bakeoff I still miss their ability to lighten the tense and tearful moments for the contestants. She always appears to be one of those genuinely nice and positive people and having read Spectacles I can’t see anything to cast doubt on this.

Although it’s ‘A Memoir’ Sue manages the reader’s expectations from the start by offering a disclaimer that she has taken some liberties with the narrative to increase the comedy and “I have amplified my more positive characteristics in an effort to make you like me.”. Which probably makes for a more entertaining read – and in places it really is laugh out loud funny.

The book charts the time from her upbringing in Croydon to 2012 and her participation in World’s Most Dangerous Roads, with Liza Tarbuck, driving along the Ho Chi Minh Trail – something I must have missed at the time and now feel the need to find and watch.

As well as being funny, and gently humorous the book also has some very touching parts including her father’s diagnosis with cancer. And if you are in a public place you should skip over ‘A letter to Pickle’ until you are somewhere away from other people and have a box of tissues to hand…

Of course, as the book charts Sue’s childhood, time at Cambridge and career progression and there are less traumatic highs and lows – not all her decisions are good ones but that’s the benefit of hindsight. What I found slightly odd was the things that weren’t mentioned. I’m not sure if there was something self-effacing about this (others would have made more of being Footlights President) and more serious issues that are glossed over (an accident to an eye as a child) but it did feel a little odd.

Nevertheless, for all the liberties that the author took I do feel as if I was reading about the person I though I knew from her TV appearances, even though she is someone who tends to keep out of the spotlight rather than seek it.

18th October sees the publication of the next ‘instalment’ East of Croydon – I’ll definitely be adding a copy to my Christmas wishlist.

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Names for the Sea – Sarah Moss

41KqgPxPF9LTitle – Names for the Sea

Author – Sarah Moss

Published – 2012

Genre – Non-fiction/travel

It isn’t unusual for me to buy a book based purely on its cover, but I can’t recall buying a book before after seeing someone on the tube reading it. I guess that may partly be because I try to avoid the tube as much as possible but on this occasion the woman opposite was reading ‘Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland’. I have an interest in Iceland and I thought the book looked intriguing, so without any real clue what it was about (and some issues trying to remember what it was called) I ordered it from the internet.

I was surprised, and am still fascinated, by the cover when I saw it in the flesh – I thought the pinky spots were small flowers – but look closely! This has got be one of the most amazing photographs I’ve seen on a book cover. You can find the cover designer, Anna Green on twitter @SiulenDesign and the photographer is Sandro Santioli – also on twitter @santioli and there is a gallery of his stunning work on sandrosantioli.com.

So to the author and the book! Sarah Moss studied English at Oxford and developed research interests in the literature of the far north and in food and material culture in fiction, specializing in the Romantic and early Victorian periods. She lectured at the University of Kent during which time her first novel was published. She’d visited Iceland with a friend when she was 19 with the intention of returning and then ‘real life’ got in the way, but when a vacancy at the University of Iceland coincided with some events in her life that meant her husband and two young sons were amenable to a move, the perfect opportunity was too good to miss.

The book is the story of Sarah (and her family’s) time in Iceland. Her interview was in November 2008 and their move to Reykjavik began in July 2009. Anyone who has even a passing interest in the news will recognise that this is the height of the financial crisis that gripped Iceland and had consequences around the world. At the time they begin their stay the crisis had halted construction of blocks of flats in Garðabær, a wealthy suburb of Reykjavik but word of mouth finds them an apartment to use, although they are the only ones to occupy the block.

Garðabær

There are two main aspects to the book – one is Sarah’s own experience of her time and being an ‘immigrant’ and the other reflects her own interests and natural curiosity as she tries to find out more about the people and history of the country. Initially the issues are completely practical – where on earth do you get fresh fruit and veg from, what do Icelanders eat? How to get about when you don’t have a car and don’t speak enough of the language to by a bus ticket? Where can you buy second hand things for kids? What is the protocol for getting changed at a swimming pool?

The mix of practical issues and her inability to see the effect of the crash (kreppa) – how can there be no market for secondhand goods in a country in financial crisis? prompt her to find out more about an issue that most Icelanders seem unwilling to acknowledge or discuss but she does persevere to find those who are really suffering.

She shows a journalist’s knack for finding the right people to talk to and finds Icelanders who tell her about the wool and knitting industry (who knew ‘traditional’ Icelandis jumpers were a relatively new thing??), the surprising truth about Iceland’s (apparently low) crime rate, what it was like in Iceland in the mid part of the twentieth century – and of course the hidden people!

House buried by lava at Heimaey by jkbrooks85 on Flickr

Not all of the writing is investigative – the family want to make the most of their time and manage to travel to some of the popular and lesser knows sites, including a visit to Vestmannaeyjar (the Westman Islands) and the village of Heimaey where houses were buried under the ash during a volcanic eruption 1973 (and which features in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s book Ashes to Dust).

One aspect that it would be impossible to ignore is the environment; the climate, the landscape and the seasons which have such a dramatic impact on the length of the days. So how does a stranger survive and make this their home?

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Iceland twice and appreciate that I’ve only scratched the surface of what there is to see and experience but in such a small city there were bound to be places Sarah described with which I was familiar and one of the earliest ones in the book was the Nordic House – home to Iceland Noir! It was fascinating to see the place described through someone else’s eyes.

This is a fascinating insight into the country and its people as well as a (timely) exploration of what it’s like to be an immigrant who doesn’t fully appreciate all the cultural norms of their new home. I should also add that Sarah’s background as a lecturer in Creative Writing and as a novelist means that the book is beautifully written, humorous and absorbing. Whether you’ve only ever dreamed of going to Iceland or have already experienced its pleasures for yourself, this is a great read which I highly recommend.

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