review

The House We Grew Up In – Lisa Jewell

Title – The House We Grew Up In

Author – Lisa Jewell

Published – 2014

Genre – Fiction

I’m still trying to clear a  backlog of book reviews that I should have written / published so this will be a shorter than normal review.

As this isn’t strictly crime fiction I might never have picked it up but it was in a goody bag I got from … somewhere which I opened on the train home and was gripped. Although billed as ‘fiction’ the heart of the story is a family secret and a tragedy that has shaped the lives of the Birds so it certainly shared some characteristics with crime fiction, particularly the desire for the reader to figure out what had taken place before the author revealed it.

The opening makes the book feel as if it will be a twee domestic drama; a mother and daughter returning to the mother’s childhood home to clear the house and discovering that her mother had developed into an extreme hoarder. While this is set in the present day there are two other threads to the story which are told in parallel – the first is an exchange of correspondence between the late Lorelei Bird and a man that she’s met through the internet. This has quite a poignant quality to it as it’s one sided, a bit like an Alan Bennett ‘Talking Head’ but it’s through these emails that we learn about how Lorelei sees her family. The second thread starts back in 1981 and tells the story of the Bird family through their annual Easter Egg hunt and gives the reader the opportunity to follow the family as it slowly disintegrates.

It soon becomes clear that in all times and all ways this family is pretty dysfunctional, it paints a dark picture of family life and the impact of unrecognised or untreated mental health issues. The fallout affects the different members of the family in different ways – I thought the characters were well written and even though I didn’t particularly like Lorelei I was still interested in her. The pressing reason for reading on, however, was the need to discover what the pivotal event was that was at the heart of the story.

If there was something that I wasn’t happy about it was actually the nature of the secret. When you’ve built a whole book around something shocking that has taken place you need it to really shock the reader, perhaps I read too much crime fiction where ‘anything goes’ but I did feel a little underwhelmed by the actual event.

Not a book I might normally choose for myself but nevertheless an enjoyable read.

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The Long Drop – Denise Mina

Title – The Long Drop

Author – Denise Mina

Published – March 2017

Genre – Historical crime

I’ve read a couple of books in succession which have made me feel inadequate as a reader and The Long Drop is one of them. Last month it won ‘The McIlvanney Prize’ which is Bloody Scotland’s annual prize awarded to the best Scottish Crime book of the year. It beat shortlisted books which included MurderabiliaThe Quiet Death of Thomas Quaid and Out of Bounds and I just can’t understand why this was the book to come out on top. So am I missing something?

I hadn’t realised when I started reading that the book was based on real events – the case of Peter Manuel https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Manuel (don’t read the article before reading the book) who was a notorious serial killer in the 1950s. The story is a fictionalised version of the case and tells in parallel both the events of the night of 2 December 1957 when Manuel went on a pub crawl with William Watt, alongside the story of Manuel’s trial for multiple murders. I was intrigued by the story but had I known anything in advance about the true crime aspect it might have taken away some of the mystery. It is, however, a very evocative story which really brought alive the dark side of Glasgow in the 1950s.

What I found quite odd, and jarring, was that even given the constraints of the two parts of the story the author went both backwards and, more puzzlingly, forwards in time. For example, referencing the future implementation of the Clean Air Act or how developments will prompt the eventual action of specific characters – all outside the timeframe of the story. This seemed like an odd approach but perhaps it’s this unusual style that made the book stand out for others.

During the trial there are intricate portraits of the cast of (mostly) disreputable characters that are called to appear but some of the courtroom details – the ins and outs of the origins of two guns – felt unnecessary and slowed the pace. I was also interested in the suggestion that Manuel couldn’t read people in the same way as most of us and he certainly exhibited some bizarre behaviour,  perhaps a suggestion of mental health issues at the root of his actions?

This wasn’t a book I enjoyed but as it is an award winner I feel that the shortcomings must be on my side. Thank you to the publisher for the review copy.

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Out of Bounds – Val McDermid

Title – Out of Bounds

Author – Val McDermid

Published – 26 Jan 2017 (paperback)

Genre – Crime fiction

Goodness – it’s been so long I may have forgotten how to do this! I’m only picking up with a short review anyway because I’m not sure that a writer like Val McDermid is desperately in need of one more blog review of one of her books. As such a huge name in crime writing and sales of over 15 million books I’m not sure that I can add anything new. In fact this leads to a question for publishers with ‘big name’ authors – if you are paying for huge advertising campaigns for your leading authors do you send review copies to bloggers because they are essential to the marketing plan or because to not do so would make people wonder why? Not one I expect to get an answer to!

Anyway – the book. This is the second of Val’s books that I have read. The first was in the Tony Jordan series and while I enjoyed it I couldn’t get past the mental images I had from the TV series. However the author wanted me to see the characters, my view was shaped by what I had already seen, so I don’t think it was a fair reflection of the books. This book, however, is in the ‘Karen Pirie’ series – number four if these things matter to you.

There are a few different stories and investigations that Karen (DCI Karen Pirie, head of Police Scotland’s Historic Crimes Unit) become involved in. The first is when the DNA from a teenage joyrider is linked to a murder twenty two years previously. It is an unusual angle to take the DNA and then unravel the story and I do enjoy a more ‘forensics led’ crime story.

Then a chance discussion about the death of a man that might or might not have been suicide intrigues Karen, especially when she finds out that the man’s mother was murdered years ago in a suspected terrorist explosion. As if she doesn’t have enough to keep her occupied Karen is drawn into trying to solve the cold case.

Karen makes for an interesting lead character – damaged, as seems to be a prerequisite, but also realistically drawn. We see a very positive and human side to her as she tries to help some Syrian refugees to improve their situation. If there is any way in which I felt at a disadvantage by coming in at the fourth book in the series it’s in having a better understanding of her, I think it would have liked to have know more of her backstory – in no way a criticism of the book.

I can see why Val McDermid is such a bestselling crime fiction author – the book is unpretentious but gives the reader a multi-thread plot line with a mix of forensic and character-led aspects. If you’re not a regular reader of the genre there is plenty to interest you and no gimmicks to put you off.

Thank you to the publisher for the review copy.

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In the Month of the Midnight Sun – Cecilia Ekbäck

Title – In the Month of the Midnight Sun

Author – Cecilia Ekbäck

Published – June 2016

Genre – Historical crime fiction

I was so taken with Wolf Winter that I treated myself to In the Month of the Midnight Sun when it came out in June last year (which shows you how far behind I am!).

Similar to some of the books by Anita Shreve, using the same location for a story in different times, Ekbäck returns to Blackåsen Mountain.  In this case we move from 1717 in Wolf Winter to 1856. On the mountain a Sami woman has left her tribe following the death of her husband, while the local settlers are puzzled by this but they have bigger worries as a Sami man has carried out a fatal attack in their rectory.

In Stockholm The State Minister of Justice instructs geologist Magnus to head to the area to investigate the attack. The Minster’s interest is purely bureaucratic, concerned that the sale of land in the area may be jeopardised. Magnus has some personal issues which he should deal with but perhaps prefers to avoid these by agreeing to the trip. The Minister is also Magnus’s adoptive father, so when at the last minute he is forced to have his sister-in-law, Lovisa, accompany him he is unable to argue against it. The two travellers set out for the long journey to Lulea with Lovisa withdrawn and uncommunicative and unprepared for what lies ahead.

The journey sees the relationship thaw a little and we find out more of the backstory of the two characters, and as the story switches between points of view (in the first person so you need to pay attention) we also learn more about those living in the shadow of the mountain. When eventually they reach Lulea and Magnus meets the man accused of the murders he doesn’t believe  he is the killer and knows that the only answer is to travel onwards to the Blackåsen Mountain.

Despite the broad, sweeping landscapes and the midnight sun this has a very claustrophobic feel and a very varied cast of characters with some unique voices. There is a hint of the supernatural in the lives of the Sami and the same battle with the elements that those in Wolf Winter faced. But essentially the story is about the people.

If you appreciate beautifully written, atmospheric crime fiction with a literary style then you really should try these books.

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The Templar’s Last Secret – Martin Walker

Title – The Templar’s Last Secret

Author – Martin Walker

Published – June 2017

Genre – Crime fiction

This is the tenth in the ‘Bruno, Chief of Police’ series of books and although I haven’t read all of the series it certainly seems to be the case that Walker isn’t losing his way as time moves on.

For me these books are a sort of ‘aspirational crime fiction’. Who wouldn’t want to be living in the countryside of the Périgord, riding horses, meeting up and cooking with friends – all accompanied by Balzac the basset hound. Despite the setting the situations do manage to echo the darkness of the ‘outside world’ which keeps the books topical but with the execution still keeping to the cosier side of crime fiction. All done without the getting the feeling that the circumstances are stretching credibility.

This latest title in the series is a great combination of the old and the new. The book opens with the discovery of the body of a woman outside a cave beneath the ruined Templar chateau of Commarque. The woman’s death re-opens debate over a centuries-old mystery concerning hidden treasure. This, as well as the forthcoming marriage of Bruno’s friends, two professional archaeologists, allows Walker to explore the history of the area and the Templars. (I have to confess that some of the background did feel a bit unnecessary.)

During the course of the investigation Bruno has a Ministry of Justice bureaucrat foisted on him who intends to carry out a time and motion study to better understand how he works with the locals and the gendarmes. The situation isn’t as bad as it may seem as Amélie has an exotic background, a dress style not often seen in the area and a singing voice that gains her more than a few admirers. Her character acts as a bit of a sidekick to Bruno and she becomes involved in his investigations, with the important task of demonstrating the power of social media.

Bruno’s investigations do, however, lead to a very modern problem. This involves a more traditional investigation which is eventually headed up by the mysterious Brigadier from Paris as well as a face from Bruno’s past.

Another enjoyable read in the series with the mix of domestic tranquility, police investigations, a race against time situation, historical background and very topical issues. And I can’t be the only person who has gone on to google the region to find out more about it after reading one of Walker’s books!

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

The Black Friar

Title – The Black Friar

Author – S. G. MacLean

Published – October 2016

Genre – Historical fiction

My intention is to crack on today and catch up on my reviews. Although I’ve been too busy to ‘blog’ I’ve been reading as much as ever so I have quite a stack of books to get through.

First up is The Black Friar, which came in the post from the publisher last year. This is the first book I’ve read in the series but the blurb tells me that this is the second in the Damian Seeker series and that the first book in the series (The Seeker) won the CWA Historical Dagger in 2015. In fact The Black Friar made it to this year’s Historical Dagger longest but sadly didn’t go through on the shortlist.

The book is set in London in 1655 – the time of Cromwell as Lord Protector. This is a time of unrest and there are many trying to challenge Cromwell; Seeker, as Captain of Cromwell’s Guard, has his hands full trying to stem this tide, so it’s surprising when he takes an interest in the body of a friar discovered in the walls of the Black Friar’s monastery. Behind the mystery of the dead friar, however, is a link to the spies in Cromwell’s service and as Seeker tries to find out more about the dead man he becomes involved in trying to find out why children have been disappearing. The story is told against the backdrop of the political machinations that are trying to uphold Cromwell’s authority against the undercurrent of dissent.

I really liked Seeker – he may be feared and have the power to make people cross the street, or even empty a coffee house, but he is still charming and has a sense of decency and justice that gives his character more depth. It was interesting to see the author drawing on real-life characters who walked the corridors of power (Samuel Pepys, Andrew Marvel) which did pique my interest in the period, probably more than just purely fictional characters would have done.

This was a gripping tale of espionage with a more conventional mystery to be solved too. There plotting was complex and pleasantly devious The historical detail felt well-researched and certainly provided an immersive experience of the period. The book definitely worked without having read the previous title but I shall make a point read more in the series.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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He Said/She Said

Title – He Said/She Said

Author – Erin Kelly

Published – April 2017

Genre – Psychological thriller

I occasionally start a book with preconceived ideas because I’ve heard other people talking about it or seen it being promoted but in this case I hadn’t come across many references – I requested the Netgalley on the strength of the author without reading the blurb. Which means it’s perhaps a little odd for me to say that the book wasn’t what I expected. Without any idea of what the story would be about, my assumptions kept catching me out; the opening made me think I was going to be reading a legal thriller and then it was more about crime and rape and perceptions and then it was about stalking and then … well it keeps you on your toes!

The opening of the book is sparse on background, leaving the reader to figure things out for themselves. Young couple Laura and Kit are appearing as witnesses at a trial after an incident that took place when they were watching the eclipse in 1999. The story hinges on a momentary outburst from Laura and what may have been an error of judgement haunts her and Kit. His obsession with chasing eclipses provides a framework for the story which spans 15 years to bring events up to date and is told from their two perspectives.  But enough said – it feels important not to give too much away though!

What I will say is that the story is cleverly crafted and there are plenty of moments when you kick yourself for not having spotted the clues, but Kelly’s writing ensures these are subtle and not ‘signposted’, the moments of revelation unexpected but plausible. The characters are realistically drawn, warts and all, most of them aren’t particularly likeable but this wasn’t a book where you felt you were being forced to hate them. In the moments of tension (and there are plenty) you root for them even though you might not always agree with their choices.

An unusual psychological thriller, smartly executed,  that will keep you intrigued as the plot unravels.

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