So I finished the 20 Books of Summer Challenge, one that started on 1 June with the finishing line being 3 September and I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on the books I read.
As Cathy of 746 Books is so good, she sets no rules for this challenge but I chose to select my twenty books from my own bookshelves, ones that I’d bought, or been given as presents.
In line with previous years the selection was mixed but featured Agatha Christie and Reginald Hill who are obligatory entrants, although technically re-reads from years ago.
Bones and Silence by the fantastically talented Reginald Hill was based around medieval play with Dalziel holding centre stage by playing God. As always the mystery was inventive, the author ensuring that all the emotions well and truly ridden, with the whole book emphasising a real sense of being in the hands of a master of the English language. I love the Dalziel and Pascoe series and very few police procedural writers manage to weave so many strands of a story so satisfyingly into a story.
Although I find it hard to believe I hadn’t read Agatha Christie’s Murder is Easy before, if I had, I didn’tremember one iota of this story. I’m surprised not to see this one featured more often on lists of her best books, although neither Poirot or Miss Marple feature there are a whole bunch of brilliant (and inventive) murders to entertain – murder by hat paint being the top of my own personal list. This was the first book referenced in my earlier read A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup – if you are an Agatha Christie fan I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
This year has been the year I have explored the different ways of presenting true crime and my journey has taken me back to the Victorian times to crimes committed far more recently – my remit being to confirm that the best examples are not about sensationalism but far more often in a bid to understand the criminal mind.
The Ripper of Waterloo Road by Jan Bondeson tells the tale of an unfortunate high class prostitute in the earliest years of Victoria’s Reign with Eliza Grimwood meeting her death following a night at the theatre in London. This is an unsolved murder where the author proposes a credible suspect and puts Eliza, and later murders, fully in the context of the times they lived in. With Eliza apparently being the inspiration for Charles Dickens’ Nancy in Oliver Twist. Jan Bondeson proposes that this unknown serial murderer terrified London’s population 50 years before the notorious Jack the Ripper acquired his moniker
Just a few years later in 1849 in County Tipperary is the setting for The Doctor’s Wife is Dead by Andrew Tierney tells a quite different type of crime. Andrew Tierney makes the case that Ellen Langley, the doctor’s wife, is killed (possibly poisoned but certainly ill-treated) because her husband wanted a younger model. This story told is a court room drama with secrets and lies exposed. Ultimately though this is the story of the life and death of a woman who has been lost in the midst of time but sheds light upon many women who would have endured a similar life, even if the end result wasn’t an untimely death.
Midnight in Peking by Paul French has a very different feel to it, not unexpectedly, with the setting being the more unfamiliar setting of Peking, just before the occupation by the Japanese. In 1937 Pamela Werner was found brutally murdered. Her killers were never identified although the author presents a compelling case with suspects. Although the author takes us through the known facts and investigation, this is as much a story of the time and place and I have to say, a victim who seems to be a mystery all of her own.
Truman Capote is of course widely acknowledged to be the father of the true-crime genre and In Cold Blood is the book that many true-crime writers aspire to. Here for the first time we get to know the murderers outside the narrow confines of the crime committed, in far more detail than the other books I’ve read; this is their story of the awful night when the four members of the Clutter family are slain in their Kansas home in 1959. Perhaps because the crime is solved we don’t only hear about the perpetrators but the victims, the investigators and the wider circle in the community who were touched by the murders.
The Spider and the Fly by Claudia Rowe is a different type of read again. This is her story about writing, and meeting a murderer as a journalist. Kendall Francoise lived in Poughkeepsie, New York and he murdered eight women between 1996 and 1998. When he was arrested, a search of his home discovered his parents and sister living amongst the empty larvae casings in a home that was at odds with their public personas. Claudia freely admits she was drawn to the darkness of Kendall (and his family’s) story to try and make sense of her own life. A fascinating mix of memoir and true crime.
Another theme in my reading this year is seeking out those writers who use true crime to inspire a fictional novel; think Burial Rites by Hannah Kent or Little Deaths by Emma Flint to name just two.
The main and probably true entrant to this section (the other two are more loosely linked) is Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood with her amazing story of Grace Marks who was tried for the murder of Thomas Kimner and his housekeeper cum mistress Nancy Montgomery in 1843. This story is very much set in the place and time but has the introduction of a doctor using experimental psychological methods to find the truth to the many conflicting statements attributed to Grace Marks. Using the backdrop of quilting patterns there is so much depth to this superb book.
Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch explores a fictional author who uses the disappearance of a man in the 1970s in his most successful novel to date. But forty years on his neighbour from the upstairs apartment becomes obsessed with the author. As the reader we explore the link between the presumed dead high school teacher, and the fact that he was having an affair with one of his pupils, and the success the resulting novel gave the author especially as his many war novels have not hit anywhere near such dizzy heights. While this book is full of themes, mainly of the dark variety the true crime is where it all seems to start, or is it?
Before the Poison by Peter Robinson features a grief-stricken composer who buys the house of a murderess; the fictional Grace Elizabeth Fox (I know to be wary of women bearing the name Grace now!) was hanged for the murder of her husband, Dr Fox by means of poison on New Year’s Day in 1953. Our protagonist Chris Lowndes becomes somewhat obsessed with the murder and more crucially of the guilt or innocence of Grace. His investigation into the crime mirrors those actions taken by the true crime writers featured earlier and it took a while for me to convince myself that this was in fact a work of pure fiction.
In no way is this section intended to be sexist but the following four books are marketed for women. I used to read far more ‘women’s fiction’ than I do now and this was a foray into the wide variety on offer.
The Island by Victoria Hislop tells the story of the island of Spinalonga, an island in Crete which was a leper colony until surprisingly recently. Leprosy obviously is the backdrop for a story which is in part saga of a woman growing up in the shadow of the island, one the encompasses all those raw human emotions of jealousy, grief and loneliness but doesn’t forget to take in the most important counterbalance of hope. This is far from some slushy story and the historical research that backs up the novel shines through taking this beyond the romance and family story to something that says more about humanity itself.
The Judge’s Wife by Ann O’Loughlin is set in 1950s and 1980s Ireland with a foray to India. The book tells of a young woman married under sufferance to an older Judge who ends up committed to an asylum following the birth of her daughter Emma. Grace Moran (again – what are the chances of three of my reads featuring a woman called Grace?) mourns the loss of her child and her life at the asylum is far from easy, especially given her fall from grace (pun fully intended) There are themes of inter-racial love along with the injustice of a life stunted by fear of judgement from the community. A beautiful tale told without resorting to cheap tricks to raise the emotions.
In contrast The Summer House by Santa Montefiore is a lighter read, the subjects being the family of Lord Frampton who are confronted by the arrival of an illegitimate daughter at his funeral. With an odious lawyer, a sour-puss dowager along with the quiet restraint of Antoinette Frampton, wife of the Lord and mother to his three surviving sons all complete with an almost invisible butler this story is entertainment with no obvious message to impart. An ideal summer read to while away the hours sat in the curiously absent British summer this year.
The Girl from Nowhere by Dorothy Koomson has an ‘issue’ right at the centre and to the forefront of this novel. Clemency Smittson is adopted, raised in white family where her heritage is at odds with that of her adoptive parents. Her father is more open to celebrating her difference whereas her mother tries to ignore it and is fearful that if Clemency were to be introduced to her birth family then she would become redundant. If this all sounds a like a hard read, think again; Dorothy Koomson is an incredibly talented writer with a real gift for creating appealing characters with a strong sense of realism.
The World Wars had such a lasting impact on the lives of everyone who lived through them it is unsurprising that such a large body of writing features these times. For the challenge this year I read a novel and a non-fiction book, both of which brought something new to this period of history.
Starting in Berlin and finishing at Autwitz Concentration Camp nine year old Bruno tells his story in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. Uprooted by his father’s job Bruno misses his house and his friends when the family moves to the place he calls ‘Out With.’ Set in the distance from the new, and in Bruno’s view, inferior new house Bruno spots a barbed wire fence and many people walking around in striped pyjamas. When he investigates he meets Shmuel a Jewish boy and the two become friends. Moving and a great way to introduce the realities of World War II to younger readers.
Stranger in the House is a compilation of the memories of women at the close of World War II. Many women were welcoming home men that had been fundamentally changed by their experience as well as physically damaged. Julie Summers provides the reader with a wide range of recollections from mothers, daughters, widows and mothers to the change in their own lives when the men returned. I was very impressed that the book touched on the more complex subjects of adultery and illegitimate children as well as the familiar rationing and lack of housing in this very difficult time.
Of course I widely read crime fiction and I didn’t deprive myself of catching up with some of those that had been sat patiently on my bookshelves.
An archaeological dig is the setting in New Zealand for a two-stranded mystery in What Remains Behind by Dorothy Fowler. With the archaeologists exploring the worship place for Kaipara Harbour community which had burnt in the 1880s and coming up with some theories in the more recent past the chief protagonist and archaeologist becomes embroiled in the mystery of a farmer who went missing in the more recent past. This slower paced crime fiction was unlike that which I usually read as although far from lacking in action, it has a less frantic need to find answers than a modern police investigation.
I read a lot of series books which probably partly explains my huge TBR and the Nicci French series featuring the psychotherapist Frieda Klein is on my list of must-read books. The books started on Monday and Saturday Requiem is the sixth and Frieda, after a difficult investigation has sworn-off working with the police any longer. This book was full of the trademark brilliant characters who I love and had a complex mystery at its heart with the story arc that has been running from the start surely nearing its conclusion?
Broken Heart is the seventh book in the David Raker series written by Tim Weaver. This crime fiction series of books starts with the premise of missing people rather than dead ones. This book, like the others in the series is a complex mystery which involves a woman entering a car-park in Somerset and disappearing, seemingly into thin air. The woman was married to a talented film director who on being expelled from America uses his talents to produce horror movies in Spain. There is a lot of detail about film making and I fear that the difficult circumstances I was in whilst reading this book meant I was unable to fully appreciate it.
In Beryl Bainbridge’s novel The Winter Garden we go on a wonderfully airplane journey to Russia with Douglas Ashburner and Nina who he is having a clandestine affair with. The couple aren’t alone though they are with a party of peculiar characters. Once they arrive in Russia all sorts of illogical regulations are imposed on the group and Nina goes mysteriously missing for a large portion of the action. A novel illustrating the Kafkaesque nature of the country in the 1980s perhaps missed its mark a little with this reader.
For someone who often feels far too much of her reading is set in the UK I travelled far and wide to:
I also managed to read three books where a chief protagonist was named Grace and bizarrely two books which featured the name Phaedra!
So with 20 physical books read and reviewed from my bookshelves the total outstanding should have dropped by 20 too? End of May count was 107 and today I have 100 – something hasn’t quite worked out here!! I guess I have to keep my fingers crossed that Cathy will organise this challenge next year as I appear to have lots of books still to read.
I hope you enjoyed my whistle-stop tour of my 20 Books of Summer Challenge as much as I enjoyed reading them all – the original reviews can be found by clicking on the book covers.
I want to finish by saying a huge thank you to Cathy who organises this challenge and to the other participants who have entertained me throughout the summer with their excellent reviews and updates on their progress. Goodbye Summer 2017.