Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2016, Book Review, Books I have read

Standing in the Shadows – Jon Stasiak

Crime Fiction 3*s
Crime Fiction
3*s

Tom Nowak is a photographer for the Jersey Evening Post, the local newspaper, but he does freelance work too and is planning his first exhibition of his work. He lives with his girlfriend, a nurse and life is certainly better than it was now that the break-up with his wife is in the past and on the mainland, Tom is free to appreciate the different way of life offered in Jersey.

When his oldest childhood friend comes for a visit a walk is planned in the local woods. Nothing odd there, a perfectly normal Sunday activity. Tom as always takes his camera and when viewing the photos back later, can see shadowy figures that weren’t visible to the group at the time they were posing. The next day a body is found, in the same spot that the group of friends stood and Tom is dispatched in his role of press photographer back to the scene. By the time he arrives it is common knowledge that this is a murder enquiry, the dead woman a Polish woman who’d moved to Jersey for a better way of life.

Now before I go any further with this review, I need to restate that I am not a fan of the paranormal, at all. Rarely do I keep reading when this phenomenon rears its head, but I kept going for two reasons: This book is set where I live and I rarely get an opportunity to read a crime novel set on an island with very little crime, and secondly, this is my last of my 20 books of summer 2016 – yes I know summer is long over but I was determined to make my way through the books I selected before the end of the year!

In short it appears that Tom is receiving predictions of murders through his photographs and he becomes more and more obsessed with the idea that he can help prevent more murders (the bodies keep coming) and give comfort to the grieving families. Although as I kept reading I got annoyed with Tom, as does his girlfriend, and friends as endless pages are taken up with his feelings, endless justification of letting his life slide as he reviews and re-reviews his photos which for me was fortunately broken up with accurate descriptions of an island that has been my home for over a quarter of a century.

Although the author doesn’t even attempt to describe the local politics in this book he covers many other truisms about Jersey like the fact that one of the private boy’s schools looks more like Hogwarts, than Hogwarts; when we have visitors arriving by plane, we all leave town at the expected landing time because the time to drive there is usually a perfect match to how long it takes for people to disembark and pick up their bags; we all have Jersey airport arrivals as a favourite webpage not least because of the fog which disrupts life constantly!  For those of us who live here for real, we’re lucky and don’t have a vast number of crime but the drunks in the beautiful park opposite the hospital are a permanent fixture, when I came to the island their predecessors were glue sniffers and the couple that won’t, or are unable to abide by the shelter rules sleep behind cars in the car-park around the corner, these truisms are deftly worked into the plot. However, because the story is local some of the author’s beliefs feel a bit too personal, as Tom remarks early on, you have to check that who you are speaking to, is not related to or friends with, the person you are making snide remarks about here. I definitely found it harder to be objective about details which would probably wash over me if the setting wasn’t one I know so intimately.

So although the plot dragged for reasons which I will put down to my antipathy for the paranormal aspects I was pleased I persevered because the ending was both a surprise and made some of my complaints about earlier sections of the book irrelevant thus boosting my overall enjoyment. Those of you who don’t have issues with ghosts and Ghoulies may enjoy this atmospheric read even more than I did.

First Published UK: 20 December2015
Publisher: Independent publishing
No of Pages: 322
Genre: Crime Fiction – Paranormal
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2016, Book Review, Books I have read

Reconstructing Amelia – Kimberly McCreight

Psychological Thriller 4*s
Psychological Thriller
4*s

Kate Baron is a successful litigation lawyer and single mother to Amelia. Despite her hectic life Kate has made a success of their small family with time put aside to concentrate on Amelia to make up for the hours spent working late. Amelia used to have the company of her nanny who had looked after her since she was a small child but at fifteen Kate was persuaded by Amelia who argued she was too old.

One day Kate gets a call from Amelia’s school while she is in one of the most important meetings of her career, Amelia has been suspended, the matter to be discussed in person with the Headmaster. Later that day Amelia is found dead; soon classified as suicide but then Kate gets a text that claims that her daughter’s death wasn’t suicide at all. Kate sets about what really happened to Amelia and the texts, emails and social media pages, including a blog will make the most hardened adult wince.

This book quickly drew me in to the heart of the tale which is Kate’s belief that she knew her daughter but as soon as she starts investigating, she finds out that Amelia had secrets, lots and not just from Kate but from her best friend too. Female teenage friendships are complicated at the best of times but in the progressive American High School that Amelia attended there were also secret societies complete with initiation tasks and a complete stink, rather than a mere whiff, of bullying about them. Could membership, or not, really be behind the loss of life, of all that potential?

As the gap between mother and daughter is laid bare, the tension mounts as Kate is determined to uncover the truth and it would seem that there is more than one person who is determined to obfuscate what really happened that day. And the author manages that tension superbly with only too realistic text exchanges between Amelia and Ben, a friend from out of town, revealing one version of events whilst an anonymous blog is busy revealing the secrets of many of the pupils to all and sundry telling a slightly different one. We also get Amelia’s perspective of her life in the lead up to the fateful day as well as Kate’s in the present, and in the past – be warned, keep your eye on the dates that head up each narration to be sure where you are on the timeline!

This was a far more engaging read than I expected and there were plenty of secrets to discover but this is one of those reads where I think you have to go with the flow and not question some decisions and actions too closely, if you do you may find yourself wondering quite how likely some of the scenarios posed really are. This is a dramatic read, one that could make parents of teenage girls get into a spin and worry themselves stupid about the dangers of social media, but in many ways, although the book uses social media as a vehicle to illustrate Amelia’s life, at the heart of the book is a young girl’s loneliness and her need to be accepted by her peers, and that story definitely pre-dates facebook, mobile phones and emails. One thing is for sure Kimberly McCreight has created a haunting story which won’t be forgotten in a hurry!

First Published UK: 20 June 2013
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
No of Pages: 400
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2016

3 Poisoners, 2 Doctors and a Nursery Maid – My #20booksofsummer Roundup

20 Books of Summer 2016

Cathy at Cathy 746 has a yearly challenge to read twenty books over the summer months starting on 1 June 2015 and finishing on 5 September 2016.

I’ll start by saying I didn’t finish all 20 books this year due to bad planning, a wedding and far too much work, but looking at the positives, I read some fantastic books and made some much-needed room on my bookshelf! The count of physical books on my shelf reducing from 94 to a mere 83 books.

Cathy’s rules are flexible but I challenged myself to read 20 books that I already owned as physical books before the challenge started – no review copies were included.

Did I stick to the rules? Well nearly the only exception was Did She Kill Him? by Kate Colquhoun which was a birthday present delivered in July! So that was just being polite, wasn’t it?

Of the 15 books I did read and review, I had just one DNF, with the Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton, with me concluding that this author’s style isn’t for me, 5 were non-fiction books – I only read 8 non-fiction books in the whole of 2015 but my interest in poisoners this year has definitely fuelled a surge this year.

The 3 suspected poisoners I read about this summer were:

Dr Adams who appeared in Jane Robins’s book The Curious Habits of Dr Adams. Dr Adams was arrested in 1956 under suspicion of killing a number of his patients in return for cars & money but his alleged crimes started many years previously. A fascinating five star read.

Gail Bell’s book The Poison Principle the subject matter was her paternal grandfather who was suspected of poisoning his two young sons in 1927. Gail Bell’s book took in real-life infamous poisoners and those in literature; who can forget the wicked witch and her poisoned apple in Snow White? in a wide-ranging and interesting read.

Florence Maybrick is one of the alleged poisoners that features frequently in lists of those women who poison – a real worry for Victorian society when a few fly-papers legally bought could see the demise of unwanted husbands and relatives. Kate Colquhoun’s book Did She Kill Him? was an immensely readable book which covered the entirety of Florence Maybrick’s life and was another five star read.

picmonkey-collage-poisoners

My greatest achievement was finishing the entire 640 pages of Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain which is the author’s memoir of the First World War as a VAD and beyond. This was more of a mixed bag with some of the book incredibly interesting and sadly, parts which my lack of knowledge rendered a bit of a slog. I actually started this read in mid-July and finally turned the last page at the end of September, proving once again that reading more than one book at a time just doesn’t work for me!

Noel Streatfeild’s book about life as an Edwardian Nanny, Tea by the Nursery Fire, was a bit of a mixed-bag, my conclusion being that this favourite children’s author had passed her best by the time she wrote this in 1976.

picmonkey-collage-non-fiction

I had 2 books on my list that were a catch-up of series that I love – Sophie Hannah’s The Narrow Bed didn’t disappoint at all with an off-the-wall mystery with a literary base and gained five stars from me. Meanwhile Camilla Läckberg’s Swedish series featuring Patrik Hedström and Erica Falck often links past crimes with the present and Buried Angels was a superb mystery whose roots spread back to the beginning of the twentieth century.

Another series which I love and have read was written by the talented Reginald Hill and features Dalziel and Pascoe and Pictures of Perfection was book 13 in this series. Once again this author proved what a brilliant writer he was. An absorbing, clever and well-plotted read originally written in the early 1990s looking at a way of life that was dying out.

picmonkey-collage-series

I also took in two older books by authors that I’ve discovered more recently;

L.P. Hartley’s The Shrimp and the Anemone is a dark look at two siblings in the inter-war period, frail Eustace and his bossy elder sister Hilda – this is the first in a trilogy and based on this read the following two will appear here before too long.

Beryl Bainbridge is slightly more contemporary and An Awfully Big Adventure is set in 1950s Liverpool with theatre life under the microscope of this sharp author. Another author who I will be reading more from in the near future this book also being awarded five stars.

picmonkey-collage-favourite-author

And it wouldn’t be a summer list without one book entry from Agatha Christie and this year I chose The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The second doctor on my list narrates this novel about his patient who has been stabbed in the back. I concur that this is one of the best of Christie’s novels.

I stayed in the past with Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger which could be read as a ghost story, unless you are me, as I’m not a fan of ghosts in books (or anywhere else for that matter), who couldn’t resist this fantastic author’s work and read it at a slightly different level!

1900s-picmonkey

With the contemporary fiction on my list taking in the strange tale of two sets of twins in the aptly named The Twins by Saskia Sarginson, a couple recovering from the loss of their son set in Italy in Other People’s Secrets by Louise Candlish and a psychological thriller that is quite frankly still haunting me with You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, all in all it was a varied summer reading wise.

picmonkey-conemp-fic

My aim is to keep the page devoted to 20 Books of Summer updated with the last 4 reads ready to beat this challenge in 2017 if Cathy is good enough to hold it again.

Top Read of 20 Books of Summer 2016

The question is how do you choose the best read when the subjects are as wide-ranging as the style of writing employed – the answer is it’s tough but in the end exceptionally easy based on the impact this book made – forever now linked to a pool in Crete where I sat and became absorbed by village life in Enscombe in Yorkshire.

The Top Read of 20 Books of Summer 2016 is Pictures of Perfection by Reginald Hill!

 

Pictures of perfection.jxr

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2016, Book Review, Books I have read

Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain #20Booksofsummer

Book 15

Non-Fiction 3*s
Non-Fiction
3*s

An alternately moving and exasperating memoir written by a woman who moved from childhood to adulthood during the lead up to World War I, this book published in 1933 uses her diaries and letters from that time to give us a picture of what the realities of war meant for a young woman of her generation.

The book opens with Vera’s desperation to go to Oxford despite her family’s, particularly her father’s objection to this course at odds with the opportunity to study being freely offered to her brother, Edward. It is exceptionally hard to picture a life of the fairly privileged, intelligent and inquisitive Edwardian young lady whose life was still mapped out by the strictures of the Victorian Era. Funny also to read her comparison to the young people of the day when she was writing this memoir who she viewed with envy for the freedom offered to them. Of course from my perspective the generation she envied for the easiness of their lives; the freedom to court without chaperones, to receive degrees even as women and to be employed despite being married, appears to be wildly exaggerated compared to the freedoms we have nowadays. This is just one example of why I’m glad I finally made time to read this book as it demonstrates how feminism wasn’t one wild gallop to get the vote, the struggle was long and incremental and yet women like Vera appreciated the progress made towards a better future.

The book covers Vera’s coming down from Oxford to join the VADs nursing in England, Malta and France throughout the war whilst she simultaneously worried about her brother and her friends fighting in the conflict which as the war progressed she began to hate with a vengeance for its waste of life at the behest of political masters. She saw through the treaties for the young to become heroes to give up their futures for egos. She also records one of the rarely recorded views of the older generation, those who had to live without servants for the first time in their lives, the men and women who had given their children to the fight both on the battlefields and to other war-work thereby forgoing the previous right to call on their unmarried daughters when required.

Following the end of the War Vera retakes her position at Oxford this time to study History rather than English becoming ever more interested in international politics which I’m regretful to report I found in the main a struggle to read as they referenced matters that my knowledge simply wasn’t great enough for me to fully appreciate. With my interest far more keen on the politics relating to women’s lives, this section wasn’t a complete right-off as the considerations proposed for women during the War were under attack following the conclusion of it – to have these put into wider context was enlightening.

My exasperation with the book was in part with her condescending tone which covered whole swaths of the population; the locals from her teens, those women who wanted to seize life rather than study or grieve, those who hadn’t worked through the war because they were too young, men, in general who weren’t her brother or her friend etc. etc. and whilst some of the earlier sections can be considered a faithful recording of her younger self, this continual holding herself up as a paragon of one whose life has been more meaningful than those that didn’t share her experiences, her political ambitions or her daily preoccupation with being taken seriously by everyone got a little wearing.

This is a huge book at over 600 wordy pages with parts, such as the experiences of nursing during the war that I found exceptionally interesting and poignant and those latter pages which detail her work with the League of Nations that frankly I found less so. That said, with a book full of detailed accounts of life before, during and after the war I felt that I truly put flesh on the bones of what I understood life to be like in the UK during this time and even more when right at the end of the book Vera and her friend Winifred take a tour of Europe to have a taste of what those nations lives looked like a decade after the war started compelling reading.

A worthwhile book to read and one that although this short review merely highlights a small proportion of its content, has broadened my knowledge of the time period, albeit for one section of society in particular. At times desperately sad and a reminder of quite what an entire generation went through in the hopes of forging a better future at others I was cheering Vera on with her ambition to make the world a better place. Sadly my overall feeling when I reached the end was discomfort as I couldn’t help but consider Vera’s hopes for peace were to be dashed with the Second World War already looming on the horizon at the time of publication.

First Published UK: August 1933
Publisher: Virago
No of Pages 640
Genre: Non-Fiction (Memoir)
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2016, Book Review, Books I have read

The Twins – Saskia Sarginson #20booksofsummer

Book 14

Contemporary Fiction 3*s
Contemporary Fiction
3*s

This is a tale spanning from the early 1970s to the late 1980s told through the eyes of identical twins Isolte and Viola. Their mother Rose is a free spirit their father is a mystery. Rose has bought her girls up in line with her free and wild lifestyle, but on their move from a commune in Wales to the Suffolk countryside she decides to stop home schooling the twins and send them to the local school. Their home-made clothes and unconventional education don’t help the twins to fit in with their classmates, something not helped by them being kept down a year and therefore attending the local primary school instead of the secondary along with their peers. With no friends the girls roam wild in the local woods and meet up with another set of identical twins, Michael and John.

The author has structured the book so that the narrative not only switches between Isolte and Viola but also in time periods too at times it takes a while to work out which twin is narrating, however I did enjoy the patchwork style of building up what happened in the girl’s past against their lives in the present. This naturally lends a feeling of tension to the storyline as pieces of information are revealed and explains why the twins are haunted by events in 1972 before they left Suffolk to start another new life in London with their aunt.

This is a haunting tale and there is no doubting the writing ability of Saskia Sarginson which led to this book being chosen as one of Richard and Judy’s  Book Club in the Autumn list of 2013, but if I’m honest although I wanted to know more, the gaps in the timeline caused far too many questions for my liking which combined by the slow pace meant that I was not as enthralled by this book as her later novel The Other Me.

I am a big fan of dual timeline stories but in this instance the story set in the 1970s was of far more interest than that of the 1980s where one works as a fashion editor for a magazine whist the other is hospitalised through anorexia. Part of the problem with the present tale was there simply wasn’t much action as both girls in different ways, ruminated on the past which led to the unravelling of their childhood. What was interesting in this section was to see how the two reacted to these same events in different ways and how the long buried secrets still effected them both fifteen years later.

What Saskia Sarginson managed exceptionally well was the time period. The occasional, mention of brands and attitudes of the two time periods, caused sparks of nostalgia which worked particularly well with the author using these references sparingly to evoke the time without it becoming a book about ‘Do you remember when x happened?’ or ‘Do you remember when we used to do y and eat z?’ The scenes set in the Sussex countryside in a cottage with an outside privy was also exceptionally well done; I had no problems at all visualising the two girls with in a dank cottage eating foraged produce whilst their mother rustled up another misshapen dress for them to wear.

This is book had an original feel to it and will definitely appeal to those who are interested in twin stories with not one but two sets to examine in this wide-ranging story.

First Published UK : March 2013
Publisher: Piatkus
No of Pages: 368
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

 

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2016, Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Narrow Bed – Sophie Hannah #20booksofsummer

Book 13

Crime Thriller 5*s
Crime Thriller
5*s

The one thing that can’t be disputed about Sophie Hannah’s books is that they are all a unique reading experience; The Narrow Bed does not break this tradition. So much so that it is often hard to articulate exactly what the book is about but I’ll give it my best shot!

Two pairs of best friends have been killed and the Culver Valley are investigating alongside other police forces to identify the perpetrator. So far so simple, the police have helpfully provided the press with a catchy name to keep the crimes in the news and to gain intelligence from the public ‘Billy Dead Mates’ makes his way into everyone’s homes especially when ardent feminist Sondra Halliday choses this subject to rail against misogyny, despite one of the victims being male. Sophie Hannah is a genius at picking out the nonsense that seems to prevail and takes it one infinitesimal step further to allow us to laugh at ourselves and each other with the absurd truth of on-line news forums for one.

This book, like a few of the others in this series, has a strong literary leaning most obviously with the little white books delivered to each victim a few weeks before they are killed. These books all contain a single line of poetry but no-one can fit the puzzle together and work out what it means. Well of course readers of this series know that Simon Waterhouse, the genius detective will, at some point, but will he be quick enough to prevent any further murders? The biggest mystery of all as usual though, is whether Simon will let his detective wife, Charley Zailer in on any of his mental gymnastics.

The difference in this series is that the personal details are kept to a minimum so each of the books will work perfectly well as a stand-alone read although we do get a snapshot into the current state of affairs through her sister’s Charley’s eyes of Livvy’s ongoing complex life.

This really is a proper murder mystery albeit with extremely obscure clues and broken up by newspaper articles and letters, and of course the literary references including excerpts from the book, Origami, written by one of the main players, the stand-up comedian Kim Tribbeck. All of this adds to the sheer enjoyment in reading the book which at times diverts into blind-alley’s without ever losing the overall plotline. I never think for a second that I am going to work out who the killer is in Sophie Hannah’s books but in this instance I formed an opinion, that was right but I was way off with the motive which was an absolute delight.

If you haven’t already guessed, I’m a fan of Sophie Hannah’s for a number of reasons but none of those would count if she didn’t have the dexterity of language, the well thought out plots and her characterisation which despite bordering on the bizarre, are such a pleasure to learn about. The numerous sub-plots and backstories all lend texture and contrast to the story.

Culver Valley Series
1. Little Face
2. Hurting Distance
3. The Point of Rescue
4. The Other Half Lives
5. A Room Swept White
6. Lasting Damage
7. A Kind of Cruel
8. The Carrier
9. The Telling Error

Standalone Books

A Game for all the Family

First Published UK: 11 February 2016
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
No of Pages 416
Genre: Crime Thriller (series)
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2016, Book Review, Books I have read

Tea by the Nursery Fire – Noel Streatfeild #20booksofsummer

Book 12

Non-Fiction 3*s
Non-Fiction
3*s

Having read practically every children’s novel written by Noel Streatfeild as a child I then had mixed emotions last year on reading the original adult novel The Whicharts which was later reworked for children as Ballet Shoes. This year I decided to try another book by this author, a biography of a nanny in Victorian Britain which was the last book the author wrote in 1976 at the age of 80. When reading the below review, this should be borne in mind as if I can write anything comprehensible at that age, I’ll be exceptionally proud of myself.

Tea by the Nursery Fire purports to tell the tale of the nanny who started work at Longton Place as a nanny to the children, Noel’s father and his siblings in the 1890s, although of course this was not long before Noel herself was born. Despite this unnerving discrepancies and having devoured the author’s autobiographical trilogy which began with The Vicarage Family, I was fully aware that the setting should have been that of a clergyman and Longton Place was not, the first two thirds of the book was an interesting view of life as a servant at a time when it was still possible to become a family retainer.

The last third was quite an abrupt end to Emily’s story with whole decades passing by in a flash as the first family of children grew up and produced offspring to care for on high days and holidays only.

The tale itself walked a line between the hard life of a girl of twelve, sent away to become a servant to make room for the ever growing brood of children her parents produced, and the enjoyment a servant could gain from taking a post that allowed her to use the skills of mothering she had learnt at her mother’s knee.

I have to confess the writing was fairly consistently clumsy and depended greatly on this reader’s nostalgia for her children’s books, partly because it isn’t clear whether this book was aimed at those child readers themselves, or those of us who are slightly older although I’m glad to say it steers well clear of being patronising.

As a snapshot of social history, it works well enough but the tone being told through family stories passed down when Emily was in old age, lacks any real insight into the subject herself which is a great shame as the story without it feels as though it has been painted with very light brush-strokes.

Not my favourite of Noel Streatfeild’s books by a long way but not a bad little book for some insight into the tales those who worked across the turn of the century told to those they loved.

First Published UK: 1976
Publisher: Virago
No of Pages 224
Genre: Non-Fiction (Social History)
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2016, Book Review, Books I have read

You Should Have Known – Jean Hanff Korelitz #20booksofsummer

Book 11

Psychological Thriller 4*s
Psychological Thriller
4*s

Grace Sachs, a marriage counsellor has written a book to warn women to pay attention to the clues the men they meet give them. She loftily imagines that this book will change the lives of those women who read her book, far more than the most popular book on the self-help shelf labelled relationships. Grace’s book isn’t about keeping a man, it is about not choosing the wrong one. Written during her spare time from her work, the book has been bidded upon and Grace is appearing in magazines and been invited for a TV interview when one week, she isn’t able to get hold of her husband, Jonathan, a renowned pediatric oncologist.

As readers we don’t hear from Jonathan himself, all that we know about him is filtered through Grace’s eyes, and we know, because we’ve been told that she is an excellent judge of character. She needs to be, it’s her job to get to the root of the problem and point out to the warring couples in front of her that he told you that he didn’t respect women, or he showed you that he drank too much so there isn’t much point complaining five years down the road. In short Grace is a little bit full of herself.

Grace is busy, not only does she have her practice, she has a twelve-year-old son Henry, who she mollycoddles, a book to promote and a school fund-raising committee for the best private school in New York. She also has her weekly visits to her father and step-mother Eve, a woman who she’s never taken to and she certainly doesn’t like Eve’s two grown-up children. Having fallen out with her best friend soon after her wedding Grace and Jonathan don’t have an awful lot of friends and so when one week she isn’t sure exactly where Jonathan is when she can’t get hold of him, she doesn’t have anyone to lean on.

The book is quite a wordy one, but one of those books where the description of rooms, clothes and people do matter, we are being immersed in Grace’s life which is at times uncomfortable, because she does have fixed ideas and we all know that she’s going to get her comeuppance for being quite so judgemental about others!

When one of Grace’s fundraising committee members dies the community goes into overdrive from the moment the headmaster sends the first email hinting at a tragedy. The section where we watch the news spread through the parents is so accurate, if the subject matter wasn’t so serious it would be funny. The book scores highly at taking a look at a certain ‘type’ of parent, well mother, and whilst not actually parodying them, it comes close – again only funny while you forget that there really are people like this walking the earth, and you may well have met a local variation of them, worse still, you may have actually had to have a conversation with them.

Although the tension builds at a steady pace, this is by no means a thriller in the conventional sense. This is a book about a woman coming to terms with the fact that she ‘made a mistake’ and the resultant shame that she experiences because of that particularly because she stuck her head above the parapet and proclaimed that she knew best! Funnily enough I had a lot of sympathy for Grace, whilst not liking her particularly.

This book kept me interested, there were enough things to wonder about as Grace retraced her steps, and the decisions she’d made, during her life and if the end was a little too neatly sewn up, well that’s ok, sometimes we do want the character’s to be ok following a trauma, we can accept that in real-life scars would linger but hey this is fiction!

Published UK: 6 March 2014
Publisher: Faber & Faber
No of Pages: 448
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2016, Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

Did She Kill Him? – Kate Colquhoun #20booksofsummer

Book 10

Non-Fiction 5*s
Non-Fiction
5*s

Florence Maybrick is fast becoming the specialist subject I  would choose for Mastermind as she has popped up in several of the books I’ve read about poisoners, during my current fascination with this method of murder, as well as on her own in Mrs Maybrick written by Victoria Blake.

For those who are less familiar with this Victorian lady living in Liverpool and tried for murder in August 1889, in fact I was reading this 127 years to the day the verdict was passed. Florence had publicly argued with her husband in the spring of 1889 and then almost immediately afterwards he fell ill, seemingly rallied and then died. Shortly before his death the first hint of poisoning being the cause of his malaise were whispered in the well-upholstered corridors of Battlecrease House in suburban Aigburth, the house the family rented in order to keep up a suitable presence amongst their peers.

Battlecrease house

Battlecrease House

With arsenic being the suspected poison much was made of a dish of fly-papers found soaking by the maid Bessie in Florence’s bedroom and this added to whispers about the appearance and smell of the food sent to the sick room altering whipped up a hotbed of suspicion in the household. When the nursery nurse the fabulously named Alice Yapp, on opening a letter written by Florence to another man decided to hand it to a family friend, the die was cast for Florence and James’s elder brother Michael was summoned home to take control in the last days of James’s life.

I really enjoyed Kate Coluhoun’s book about this interesting crime the mystery of whether Florence did kill James, something which I think is still in question today. She starts the book by building up Florence with a more sympathetic characterisation than some authors have treated her to, but more than that, by using her imagination against a backdrop of superb research, treats the reader to a version of what life was like for the twenty-six year old American woman living the life as a wife to a cotton trader.

In a while she would call Bessie to take it to the post. For the present her tapering fingers remained idle in the lap from which one of her three cats had lately jumped, bored by her failure to show it affection.

Today, the twenty-six year old was wonderfully put together her clothes painstakingly considered if a little over-fussed. Loose curls, dark blonde with a hint of auburn, were bundled up at the back of her head and fashionably frizzed across her full forehead.

Of course Kate Colquhoun can’t know for sure how Florence felt for sure but her account seemed as likely as any other to me, and by writing in this style the book is far more readable than one where we are just presented with the known facts. The backing up of her attestations with historical accuracy especially in respect to the change of heart that the nation had as the trial proceeded was fascinating. Many commentators were convinced of Florence’s guilt at the start of the trial but opinion in some quarters at least turned, and the talking point became less about Florence’s transgressions and more about the facts. To help the reader understand these fluctuations the change in attitudes is painted using the arts as a barometer with regular notes on the type of romantic fiction Florence herself read, as well as the still well-known contemporary fiction. Paintings of the time are also looked at with an eye on how women were viewed at this time and the hints of how things were changing. This after all was at the start of the suffragette movement and this caused alarm for those who held the ‘old’ social mores in high regard.

After starting in such a sympathetic manner to Florence the end of the book, by contrast then almost re-examines the evidence from another perspective, re-examining the questions that had been given a plausible answer earlier in the book. I found this intriguing and of course underlines the fact that no-one really knows whether the pretty young woman tried to kill off her husband or whether circumstances conspired against her to make it look as though she might have.

This was altogether an interesting and thoughtful look at the life of a middle-class wife in late Victorian England where times were just beginning to change but too late for those who were stuck with a role that didn’t provide them satisfaction in the narrow role they were forced to live.

I’ve heard great things about Kate Colquhoun’s previous book Mr Briggs’s Hat so you can expect to see that one appear on my bookshelf to read and review soon.

Published UK: 15 October 2014
Publisher: Overlook Press
No of Pages: 419
Genre: Historical True Crime
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2016, Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie #20booksofsummer

Book 9

Classic Crime Fiction 5*s
Classic Crime Fiction
5*s

Well this is fairly widely regarded to be the best of all Agatha Christie’s books and having just finished it I can definitely see why.

Why You Should Read This Book

1. It features Monsieur Poirot and if you aren’t taken with the little Belgium with his little grey cells, I don’t think you should read any further!

“You should employ your little grey cells”

2. The story includes a butler and a parlour maid and either of them might have killed Roger Ackroyd.

“It is well at any price to have peace in the home.”

3. Instead of Poirot’s faithful narrator we have Dr James Sheppard who was called to the locked room of Roger Ackroyd by means of a telephone call to find the victim with a sword in his back and the window opened.

“You are like the little child who wants to know the way the engine works. You wish to see the affair, not as the family doctor sees it, but with the eye of a detective who knows and cares for no one-to whom they are all strangers and all equally liable to suspicion.”

4. Agatha Christie came up with a most ingenious solution to what is almost a closed house mystery

“You will find, M. le docteur, if you have much to do with cases of this kind, that they all resemble reach other in one thing… everyone concerned in them has something to hide,”

5. If you haven’t read it already you’ll be exceptionally hard pushed to come up with the villain from the cast of suspects

“Men have been known to do that-act guilty when they’re perfectly innocent.”

The basic plot is that in a small town named Kings Abbott where our narrator, Doctor Sheppard announces:

“Our hobbies and recreations can be summed up in the one word: ‘gossip’.”

The Doctor is called by an urgent telephone call telling him his friend, and patient, Roger Ackroyd has been murdered. When he reaches the hall this proves to be true and his dear friend has been stabbed, quite literally in the back.

Then the victim’s niece then outs Poirot, who had coincidently chosen Kings Abbott as a place to retire and grow marrows. Flora Ackroyd is fearful that her soon to be husband, the adopted son of Roger Ackroyd, is being accused by the local police investigating the murder so she entreats Poirot to take up the case and to find the truth. Poirot in turn ropes in Dr Sheppard to carry out his investigations which includes a lot of checking of scenarios and examining the actions of each and every member of the household as well as tracking down a mystery visitor near the hall on the night in question.

Doctor Shepard carries out his tasks willingly, keen to learn from Poirot although equally as eager not to incude his elder sister Caroline, who he lives with, because much of the gossip and intrigue come from her very lips.
I love the language in these books, the formal way in which everyone behaves (when they are not bumping each other off of course) is a delight to read and of course I adore dear old Poirot, but in this book, the best is left until the end when the cast gathers in true Christie style to hear Poirot unveil the murderer. Who is it? Read the book and find out for yourself, you really won’t be disappointed.

First Published UK: 1926
No of Pages 260
Genre: Mystery
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Now for a quick poll – which of the following is your favourite Agatha Christie novel? If you have an alternative answer please let me know in the comments box below.