Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2018, Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads, Mount TBR 2018

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson #20BooksofSummer

Contemporary Fiction
5*s

 

What a delightful book, well-written, engaging and most importantly one that made me think and is without doubt one of my favourite reads of this year.

Ursula Todd was born on a snowy night in 1910 in England, a country which is on the edge of the huge change we know will follow. In the first version of Ursula’s life, she doesn’t make it through and dies before she takes her very first breath. but this is not the end, we get another version where Ursula lives. This unusual structure gives us so many versions of Ursula’s life, or lives, and boy when she’s not dying in various different ways, she does know how to live!

“Yes, Mrs Todd, a bonny bouncing baby girl.” Sylvie thought Dr Fellows might be over-egging the pudding with his alliteration. He was not one for bonhomie at the best of times. The health of his patients, particularly their exits and entrances, seemed designed to annoy him.”

Ursula is just my type of character, down to earth, funny in a ‘quiet’ way.

He was born a politician.
No, Ursula thought, he was born a baby, like everyone else. And this is what he has chosen to become.”

Even at the worst of times Ursula is never a moaner despite having echoes in her life of those times she has fallen into the black hole of death. As the reader of her life we understand what those echoes are memories of even if Ursula just has a vague feeling of unease.

“Ursula craved solitude but she hated loneliness, a conundrum that she couldn’t even begin to solve.”

Despite the unusual structure and the many deaths this book is a reflection of life for a child born into what could be viewed as idyllic family. A house called Fox Corner, a mother and father who love and laugh, siblings and opportunities for a life ahead. Of course there is also war on the horizon, not once but twice, the loves and losses and relationships with parents, siblings and friends which will wax and wane. In short Ursula’s life is a full one.

The setting for Ursula’s childhood is Buckinghamshire and even here we see progression from a a house which was once Ursula’s world, in the countryside will not remain that way for the duration of the story, or of course in this case stories. This is a book about how life never stands still. There is one character in particular who I loved but became far less sympathetically drawn as life progresses, where another more flamboyant one becomes softened by the turns her life takes. This quality of growing the characters, especially when their scenes are not set in chronological order is just one element of how exceptional Kate Atkinson’s writing is.

Ursula’s life during World War II is portrayed in vivid scenes, no reader will be able to forget the technicolour images that these imprint on your mind. In one of her lives Ursula lives in Berlin, so we also get to see the challenges how her counterpart in Germany faced too. The period set during the war, both in London and Germany made the book a special read, but on reflection it is the contrast between the cosy life at Fox Corner and the horror that she witnesses at this time of her life which makes the book feel so real. These contrasting scenes, as we follow Ursula as she faces hardships as well as happiness is what makes this book such a rich read.

Kate Atkinson doesn’t make it easy for herself, we have a whole cast of characters that have to keep up with the many deaths that befall Ursula too… even down to the dog who is drawn in detailed perfection to delight the reader. I said in my opening paragraph that it made me think, it did. As we all profound reads we all take our own experiences into the book and this reflection on life gave me an opportunity to look at my own life in a slightly different way.

“Life wasn’t about becoming, was it? It was about being.”

I was alternately delighted and amazed by this book, so if like me, you somehow didn’t get around to reading this book when it was published, I recommend you do so now. I’m off to buy A God in Ruins which features Ursula’s younger brother Teddy, a would-be  poet.

Life After Life was my fifth read in my 20 Books for Summer 2018 Challenge; a sumptuous read that means that Ursula and those wonderfully drawn characters that accompany her through her lives are now part of my life too.

First Published UK: 2013
Publisher: Reagan Arthur Books
No of Pages: 544
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

 

 

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2018, Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2018

Wedlock – Wendy Moore #20BooksofSummer

Non-Fiction
4*s

Wedlock has an extended title How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met His Match caught my eye back in 2009 when this book was first published but it wasn’t until August 2017 when I actually purchased a copy for myself.

Now regular readers have probably worked out I’m a big fan of the Victorian and Edwardian periods of history but I don’t tend to venture back as far as the eighteenth century too often so Wendy Moore was always going to educate me on the social mores of the time, and she did that in spades.

Mary Eleanor Bowes, who became Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne on her first marriage, was one of the richest heiresses of the time when she inherited her father’s fortune on his death when she was just eleven-years old. When she was sixteen she became engaged to John Lyon and because her father’s will stipulated that her husband should assume his family name, the Earl addressed parliament with a request to change his name from John Lyon to John Bowes, which was granted. They married on her eighteenth birthday on 24 February 1767. Over time through their children the name was combined with a hyphen and the Queen Mother was a direct descendent of this union.

The couple lived an extravagant life, Mary often left alone whilst John concentrated on restoring the family seat, Glamis Castle, found amusement with other men but she was proud to announce that all five of their children were legitimate. Sadly, or perhaps not that sadly from Mary’s point of view as she wasn’t well-treated by John, he caught TB and died in 1776.

What happens next absolutely proves the saying fact is stranger than fiction with the “worst husband” being Mary’s second foray into marriage. We go from illegal abortions to duels to imprisonment and all manner of horrible happenings which I’m not going to recount at length because that would spoil the revelations of the book itself, if you haven’t already read it.

This book is billed as reading like fiction, and for a book that is so jam-packed with information which has clearly been meticulously researched (there are pages and pages of references at the end), it does. It’s always hard to fully put yourself in the shoes of someone whose life is of a different style to your own, and Mary Bowes was incredibly rich, she originally inherited over a million pounds and that was in 1760! It is even harder when society was so very different and I’ll be honest, when she was young Mary played to her strengths and whilst I wouldn’t suggest that she deserved all that happened next, she didn’t treat potential suitors well and so it’s not altogether surprising that she didn’t come up smelling of roses. She also wasn’t a maternal woman, and even given the times I was shocked that she openly wrote how much she despised her eldest son. But what I couldn’t help but admire was her tenacity in making sure her second husband John Stoney didn’t get away with his dastardly deed, and she did it! John Stoney was a cad, he spent money that he didn’t have and one of the more random facts I learnt while reading Wedlock was that his name is the reason where the saying ‘Stoney broke’ originated. As often happens when you learn something like that the next three, yes three, books used the phrase and each time I had a little smile about it.

This really is a remarkable piece of writing, the book is long, but so entertaining and let’s be honest shocking; I wasn’t being overly dramatic with my fact is stranger than fiction assertion. If I didn’t know this was a true account, I wouldn’t have believed some of the things that were revealed.

Wedlock was my third read in my 20 Books for Summer 2018 Challenge and this exploration of the life of albeit one very rich wife and mother in the eighteenth century made me very glad to have been born much later when society no longer saw the woman as property of a man, either her father or her husband.

First Published UK: 2009
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
No of Pages: 521
Genre: Non-Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads, Mount TBR 2018

The Killing of Georgie Moore – Colin Evans

Non-Fiction
5*s

Another Victorian true crime this time entirely factual using evidence from the trial of Esther Pay who stood trial for the murder of seven-year old Georgie Moore.

I’m not going to rehash the entire sequence of events, or the outcome of the trial, if you want to know you should really read this for yourself. Instead, having read a fair few of this type of non-fiction reads I’m going to explain quite why this one was awarded the full five stars.

To understand the trial the reader needs to have some idea of the setting, the prime players in the crime, and their circumstances. The setting of course when dealing with historical crimes needs to accurately reconstruct the time period. And Colin Evans did this so well. In short Georgie’s father Stephen is a cad. He has seduced women up and down the country and the author explains how, contrary to our view of the Victorians this was entirely feasible with one in three marriages in the lower classes being undertaken while the woman was pregnant. Esther Pay,the accused by contrast had no children but she did have a husband who was fond of drink and routinely beat her, again not so uncommon for the times. We learn about the multiple dwellings of the key players and their interactions and pastimes. We are also treated to the background of the Police at the time, the difference between those in plain clothes and those in uniform along with their recent humiliation at the hands of the press. All of this is, in my view, essential to the reader to fully understand the crime and investigation in full.

The author has clearly done his research into this little known crime and all through the book he gives us the touchstone in the way of this to aid the reader’s understanding and in a tone that makes for appealing reading, always using his pen to paint the scene.

“Labourers who’d finished their work on this Saturday midday had slaked their thirsts and fuelled their tempers in the local inn before joining the crush. A few made the sign of the cross as the cortege edged past. Others were more concerned with pulling their raggedy clothes more tightly about their malnourished bodies in an effort to ward off shivers induced by the twin assaults of sub-zero temperatures and infectious mob sentiment.”

Of course the really interesting stuff is the trial itself and this one is a doozy with many adjournments at the pre-trial hearings as the police, led by Scotland Yard’s Inspector Marshall, and the defence go off to find their evidence building their respective cases brick by brick. Even to get this far had been a feat as little Georgie’s body had been found in Yalding in Kent but she had disappeared from near her school gates in Pimlico London. Of course by rights the local Kent Constabulary thought the trial should be there whereas Inspector Marshall thought otherwise…

“But Marshall was already displaying the heavy-handed insensitivity towards provincial forces that Scotland Yard would elevate to an art form over the next half century. He saw no reason to cede control of a high-profile murder investigation to a bunch of apple-munching yokels who would probably only foul up the case. No, this was his collar, his case, his glory, and he didn’t intend sharing it with anyone.”

The trial was engaging and even the outcome wasn’t really a surprise, you can never be sure with these historical crimes! I’m exceptionally pleased to say that this author didn’t sit on the fence, after all the evidence he has sifted through, he’s come up with his own theory. I’m not convinced that it covers all the unanswered questions, but it certainly hangs together well enough for me to feel that this was a piece of research well rounded-off.

This book is my 23rd read in my Mount TBR challenge 2018 having been purchased on 29 December 2017 and one that has prompted me to seek out more work by this author of 17 books dealing with forensics and true crime.

First Published UK: 2013
Publisher: Colin Evans
No of Pages: 495
Genre: Non-Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2018, Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads, Mount TBR 2018

Sanctum – Denise Mina #20BooksofSummer

Psychological Thriller
5*s

My 20 Books of Summer 2018 challenge is a great opportunity to catch up with the back catalogue of some of my favourite authors and so this book, which I found at the local book sale last November was guaranteed a place on the list. As the book was originally published in 2002 I was amazed to see when writing this review that it is now being published as an eBook on 5 July 2018.

Susie Harriot, a forensic psychologist has just been found guilty of murdering a serial killer in her care, Andrew Gow. Susie’s husband Lachlan (Lachie) believes her when she says she is innocent. What we read is Lachie’s recently discovered diary or notes on the case. Lachie having been convinced that she would be found innocent now becomes obsessive, trying to understand his wife’s relationship with Andrew Gow and he is in his element when he finds the notes she wrote about Andrew Gow when she was treating him along with a mountain of other documentation hidden away in her study. I couldn’t help feeling that some of this effort should have been made before, rather than after, the trial. As Lachie digs he begins to realise that the life he thought they were living as a family, wasn’t quite what it seemed.

In the aftermath of the trial Lachie’s parents visit along with an Aunt of Susie’s and he retreats to her previously private study to try to make sense of what has happened. He doesn’t sleep but he has a daughter to care for which causes a stir amongst the staff and other mothers at the nursery she attends – more psychological studies as we observe their behaviour! Denise Mina has a keen eye for observation made all the more delicious because we get to observe the reactions whilst taking a different message from some of the encounters than the Lachie does.

The real beauty of this book is the fact that each of the characters, and the relationships they have, is an individual psychological study. The plot is an original one and I couldn’t wait to see what Lachie would find next, and more intriguingly, what he would make of the information. Let’s just say Lachie is not perhaps as clear-sighted as he might be. There are elements of dark humour as well for instance his dismay when seeing his photo is in the paper, not just because the media are on to him but mainly because it isn’t a flattering picture. As the story progressed I became involved not only in his discoveries but his motivation and ‘take’ on what had happened.

The style of the book begins with a preface explaining the provenance of the document and the ending is in a similar style, ramming home the ‘true-crime’ feel that the book has, for instance the mini exploration around women who are attracted to and become romantically involved with murderers, their motivation and expectations, this device just increased the books appeal as far as I was concerned.
Whilst the characters are on the whole not too pleasant, the exploration of their lives was absolutely fascinating and I was completely hooked. It’s true this isn’t quite like the Paddy Meehan series, nor is it the exploration that I read most recently about Peter Manuel called The Long Drop but it has what I’d call a true psychological base which I love.

An absolute winner of a read and one that absolutely convinced me that I really must read the other books by Denise Mina that I missed when they were first published.

First Published UK: 2002
Publisher: Bantam Press
No of Pages: 304
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2018, The Classic Club

Off With His Head – Ngaio Marsh

Classic
2*s

Well before I picked this book as one of my Classics Club Reads, I noted that I did so because although she’s widely acclaimed, she is not an author I’ve actually read which is shocking considering that I consider myself quite widely read in this genre having been a fan since discovering Maigret and Agatha Christie in my childhood. I have to confess on the whole I found this a difficult read which I will attempt to explain.

The setting of the early scene was really well done when we met Mrs Bunz a German woman with an academic interest in folklore visiting the village of South Mardian in order to witness the “Dance of the Five Sons,” a mixture between a mummers play and a sword dance which has been performed in the village for generations at the time of the winter solstice. Fortunately for the time when we met the performers there were five sons all alive to accompany their father, even older, to give the villagers a show. Sadly the snow has kept the audience to a minimum, but no matter, Mrs Bunz is determined to document a rare example of an ancient tradition.

After lots, and lots, and lots, of build-up, through rehearsals and arguments, the dance is performed only for the father to be found with his head cut off at the finale. Shocking stuff indeed!

The villagers on the whole are a strange bunch, characterised by low education and an odd dialect. In short the five sons are portrayed as buffoons, particularly the youngest who has epilepsy causing the other four to endlessly chorus soothing noises whenever he gets agitated. Their father is the blacksmith, William Anderson, known to all as the “Guiser,” an unpleasant fellow who is prone to shouting and who cut off his daughter when she chose to marry someone from a different class to them. I know that this was written in a different time when attitudes were very different, but I found it distasteful because the family were at the heart of the action and even by the end we knew little more about them.

So I already had a problem with the ordinary folk but when you combine that with the way the wealthy of the village both acted and were deferred to by everyone, including our esteemed detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn who was bought in when the local bobbies were unable to decide who, out of the entire village (as they all had a motive for murder) had committed the act. With everyone loudly telling each other to keep quiet or disappearing because they don’t like visitors my main source of tension was created by the very real sense that Inspector Alleyn would don his wellington boots and leave without solving the crime because he seemed a little reluctant to ask the questions that seemed blindingly obvious. Consequently by the time we had the reveal, and the solution to a few more of the little mysteries that had occurred, I’d either worked it out for myself, or I was pretty much past caring.

For all that, I did like the parallels with King Lear, the murder itself was well plotted and the isolation of such a village in winter is one I could easily imagine. Sadly I wasn’t anywhere near as fond of the class obsession the writer enforced on her readers.

Off With His Head is number 30 on The Classics Club challenge list and the sixth of my fifty choices that I’ve read and reviewed.

 

First Published UK: 1957
Publisher: HarperCollins
No of Pages: 288
Genre: Classic Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2018

Cry for Help – Steve Mosby

Crime Fiction
4*s

A woman’s body is found. She hasn’t been stabbed or shot, instead she has been tied up and left to die of dehydration. Somehow seems far more brutal, and what on earth is the motive?

Dave Lewis is a man with plenty of baggage, his brother died as a child and his parents were consumed with grief. He works a magician and denounces those mediums who he feels preys on those like his parents, desperate to have some contact with their loved ones. Dave narrates his part of this story in the first person and we soon learn that tragically one of victims is known to him. He’s consumed with guilt that he didn’t try to find out how she was. How in this day and age where we are connected electronically to each other can people in your life fade so quickly into the background?

The detective is Sam Currie who has his own baggage to deal with. He has to put all of that to one side though and try and work out who the killer is and what they are trying to achieve. When a woman gets in contact pointing the finger at a suspect, he follows the lead, but is it the right one?

With the bulk of the book told from the third person covering the investigation and the other aspects to the case, it is fair to say this is a complex, and dark story. This multi-threaded story has a reoccurring theme of responsibility. Obviously our detective has responsibility for finding the killer, particularly one as twisted as this individual seems to be. But was Dave responsible for the death of his brother? Is it really up to him to stop the charlatans profiting from the grief-stricken, or should he allow those who want to believe so desperately to find solace where they can? On the much broader note, are we as a society less connected to each other than we were before the massive advancement of technology. Perhaps actually seeing your friends with your own eyes is more reliable than receiving a text message and assuming all is well. What happens though if that message isn’t sent by your friend and actually they are far from well? How do we know? This theme is meticulously carried through the book, and I do like books that make me reflect in this type of way.

That’s not to say Cry for Help isn’t a satisfying crime fiction novel in its own right, it is with plenty of action, twists and turns and red-herrings and expert plotting to hold this reader’s attention. I have to admit it did take me a while to settle into the style and work out what on earth is happening. I’m not particularly squeamish normally but I did find the descriptions of the girl’s deaths disturbing to say the least. I’m not always entirely sure where the line is between being inventive and going too far but I’d say this was on that very line!

This is the second book I’ve read by this author, the first being Black Flowers, another disturbing and memorable read and I bought Cry for Help after reading that one back in 2011. So you’ve guessed it, this is also a read for my Mount TBR Challenge 2018 being the 20th book I’ve read since 1 January 2018 from my own bookshelves purchased before 31 December 2017.

First Published UK: 2008
Publisher: Orion
No of Pages: 288
Genre: Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2018

The Perfect Affair – Claire Dyer

Contemporary Fiction
4*s

I actually purchased this book way back in March 2014 but like so many other great books, it sat unread until I read The Last Day earlier this year which urged me to find out more about this author.

We meet the elderly Rose serving tea to Eve in a flat, renovated from the home that she’d shared with her parents. Her father’s coat still hangs on the back door. As Rose leaves to retire upstairs, she knows what is going to happen, it has been foreshadowed for a year when Eve and the man who rents part of her home, Myles first met. Rose knows that look…

This is a beautifully written novel, full of emotion but also accurately capturing the essence of an affair, or two.

The two stories, that of Rose and Henry in the past, and the one that is being conducted in the here and now between Eve and author Myles are both engaging. In case you are mislead neither affair is full of heaving bodies, the beauty is in their snatched moments of forbidden love of (for the most part) more cerebral kind.

In the 60s Rose shared a flat with Eve’s Grandmother Verity and relishing her single life meets Henry at work. The description of dresses, that Rose keeps into her old age along with a box full of memories are for the future, now life is for living but will her love of Henry win the day?

In the present Eve’s marriage to Andrew has become distant and to make matters worse she is facing their daughter leaving home to start her life as an independent adult. In short, in common with many women of her age, life is changing and Eve begins to examine what she has. When she meets crime writer Myles on a visit to see her old friend Rose, a spark is lit. But, the same question is raised, will the pair end up together, or apart? What was particularly enjoyable about this story is that the past was seamlessly woven with the present as Rose looked back on her life while watching over Eve in the present. This avoided the sometimes jarring quality of switching between time periods that can occur in the hands of a lesser writer.

The scenes where Myles struggles with his detective series lifted the book. It’s just how I imagine it – shall we have a dog walker finding the body? What will forensics turn up? All interspersed with Myles, not thinking fondly about his controlled wife Celeste, or his two sons but about the woman who he is falling in love with. As is inevitable if the reader is going to fully engage with the affairs, their marriages are not painted in a particularly flattering light, but nor are they painted so blackly that the reader is left thinking that no one would have remained in such a marriage.

The writing is brilliant and almost lyrical without being too ‘poncy.’ With a realistic look at two very different affairs, separated by years and circumstances, this book had me entranced. So even though romantic novels are far from my usual kind of reading fare, there was more than enough depth to this one to entirely hold my attention. I have to admit in many ways I found Rose’s story the more poignant of the two because there is the realisation of what discovery would mean for a young woman in that era and what it could mean for her future. As for Eve I will just say that my views were in accordance with Rose’s.

This is the 19th book I’ve read and reviewed as part of my Mount TBR Challenge for 2018. I am aiming to read 36 books across the year from those purchased before 1 January 2018. The Perfect Affair was purchased on 29 March 2014 and so fully qualifies.

First Published UK: 28 February 2014
Publisher: Quercus
No of Pages: 400
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2018

Sweet William – Iain Maitland

Crime Fiction
4*s

Sometimes when you have quite a few books on your TBR, many of which I have added because of the wonderful reviews my fellow bloggers have written, I don’t remember any of the details of quite why I bought them. In my defence I read many books and even more reviews of books so I can’t be expected to remember the finer details. So in short it isn’t that unusual for me to dive into a book with only a faint idea of what to expect. I can safely say, I didn’t expect what I got with this book, one that is anything other than forgettable.

Raymond Orrey has a plan. He is going to escape from the psychiatric unit, his current home to find his son William and take him away to the South of France to live a blissful life. Orrey is not mad, not like his fellow guests at the Nottinghamshire hospital, he doesn’t dribble or rock himself, he’s planned his escape, as well as he possibly can and he knows where he needs to get to. To the house in Aldeburgh where his son William is visiting with his ‘new’ parents, to attend the parade for Halloween and maybe to have a ride at the funfair. Raymond is going to take William away to a better life, with him, his father.

William is really quite small but he’s had a hell of a disrupted life in that short time and although the short break in the holiday home isn’t friction free – after all, families all have their tensions especially when more than one generation gathers at a time and his ‘grandparents’ are part of the treat. William is also diabetic and not a fan of having his blood tested for sugars.

What follows is mad. Not a politically correct word I’ll admit but the most suitable one. Reading Sweet William is a bizarre experience. Raymond Orrey gives us a blow by blow account of his escape and his thoughts. We are drawn into his world when he seems to ask advice when his plans go awry. Seeing as he didn’t really have any beyond escaping and travelling to his son, this happens frequently. Should this man run or try to blend in with the crowd? Would the police be looking for him or does he have time before they are alerted? We have the questions and then see what he chose in the next chapter – this goes on for 48 hours and is exhausting. Why? Because it pulled this reader entirely into a world where it is hard to keep reminding yourself that Raymond is mad, most likely very dangerous and it doesn’t matter how many times he tries to convince you otherwise. Of course we are never convinced by those who need to repeatedly tell us they aren’t mad but this author has written this so well that sometimes despite this, you get drawn into Raymond Orrey’s chaotic world so that when he weighs up his options you find yourself predicting which, if any, will be the most successful whilst keeping in mind the careful care needed to keep William safe and well, care I wasn’t sure his father would manage.

This is an unusual piece of crime fiction, I’m so glad I took Fiction Fan’s advice, the skill of the writer is abundantly apparent even if the title is entirely misleading, this is the darkest read I’ve unexpectedly fallen into in a long, long time! That said I can’t wait to see what this author produces next.

This is the 18th book I’ve read and reviewed as part of my Mount TBR Challenge for 2018. I am aiming to read 36 books across the year from those purchased before 1 January 2018. Sweet William was purchased on 28 December 2017 thereby qualifying by the skin of its teeth!

First Published UK: 19 October 2017
Publisher: Saraband
No of Pages: 251
Genre: Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2018

Who Killed Little Johnny Gill? – Kathryn McMaster

Historical Crime Fiction
4*s

Who Killed Little Johnny Gill? is a piece of fiction heavily based on a true crime committed in Manningham, a town to the north of Bradford in West Yorkshire in December 1888.

Johnny Gill was eager to help the local milkman out on his rounds, at just seven years old his mother insisted that he wear his warm coat as protection against the cold December morning. She expected him back as usual for his breakfast but he didn’t turn up. His mother first sent his older sister to look for him, then when she couldn’t find him went running up and down the nearby lanes looking for her eldest son, with his fair hair and sweet face. When his father Tom returned home and day turned to nigh and with still no clue as to where their son was, they went and reported him missing.

I’m not going to lie, the descriptions of the scenes when the small boy’s body was found in a nearby stable are hard to stomach. The crime may have been committed well over a hundred years ago but in some cases, the distance of time makes no difference to the horror felt.

Kathryn McMaster recreates the time and place using meticulous research as well as that of the crime investigations, including the speculation that Jack the Ripper had travelled to this northern town to commit a further atrocity.

The chief suspect wasn’t Jack the Ripper though, it was the milkman, William Barrett, a married man with a baby, who had recently moved to the town and who Johnny had joined on the milk round the morning he disappeared. William Barrett insisted he dropped the boy off before he returned to pick up more milk and start the second half of the morning round but no-one had seen the boy since. Due to the lack of concrete proof all the police had was a whole heap of circumstantial evidence, you will need to read the book to see if this was enough to convict anyone for the crime.

                5 January 1889

Fictional books of real crimes are tricky to get right, especially when the time period is so very far in the past, but both this book and Blackmail, Sex, Lies and Lies by the same author, concentrates the fiction to bring the personalities, and emotions, of those involved to life, thereby hitting exactly the right spot. We witness the terror and grief of both Johnny’s parents. The bewilderment of the locals that someone, possibly from within their community had carried out such an act and the support the milkman had from his boss and his wife. Intriguingly there was a fund set up to help pay for the twenty-eight year old’s court costs at the time, something that says such a lot about the sympathy and support that this young man garnered at the time.

Who Killed Little Johnny Gill? was an absolutely compelling read although not for the faint-hearted. The fictionalisation is subtlety and expertly woven between the known facts and documents from the time.

This is the 17th book I’ve read and reviewed as part of my Mount TBR Challenge for 2018. I am aiming to read 36 books across the year from those purchased before 1 January 2018. Who Killed Little Johnny Gill was purchased on 16 December 2017 thereby qualifying.

First Published UK: 9 February 2016
Publisher: Drama Llama Press
No of Pages: 305
Genre: Historical True Crime
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2018

The Arsenic Labyrinth – Martin Edwards

Crime Fiction
4*s

This is the third of the Lake District Mysteries and for once I am working my way through in strict order, something I’m glad I chose to do as the back story of how historian Daniel Kind left his teaching post at Oxford and his television career to live in a cottage there, while not key to the individual mysteries themselves, does of course work better when you the story arc plays out in the correct order.

I have to mention how thrilled I was to open the book to two family trees one for the Clough family and one for the Ichmore family. I love touches like this in books and although the significance of these families isn’t apparent for a while, once it was you can be sure I turned back to the beginning to acquaint myself with the details. After that we have an excerpt from a journal – something neither the police or Daniel have seen. Don’t you just love that feeling that we know something the investigators don’t?

Chillingly the journal starts with the words:

You’d never know it to look at me now, but once upon a time I killed a man.

So on to the mystery which starts with DCI Hannah Scarlett opening an old case file because local journalist Tony di Venuto, chooses the tenth anniversary to campaign for an investigation into the disappearance of Emma Beswick. For publicity reasons it seems like a good time to re-evaluate what Cumbria’s Cold Case Review Team know, and where they should look to see if any new information comes to light. This is a case that DI Hannah Scarlett knows well, she was part of the original investigation team working for Daniel’s father.

Along the way she visits the Museum of Myth and Legend run by local man Alban Clough and managed by his daughter Alexandra because Emma used to work there, and she had a relationship with Alexandra. What she learns isn’t so much about Emma though, but about the local folklore and the arsenic labyrinth, set in a remote spot of the lakes.

Part of what I love about this series is the well-researched information that that the author carefully weaves into the storyline. Nothing as clumsy as an information drop for this accomplished author, rather key information in direct relation to the mystery which is fascinating.

With the professional detective and an amateur side-kick both involved in the investigation, although not in any formal way, the reader is offered an insight into the different ways key bits of information can be found, and used to unravel the different questions that need answers. For light relief we watch a con-artist weave his artful magic on an unsuspecting, desperate and gullible B&B Landlady to get a more comfortable bed for a few nights.

For a book that I would classify as at the more comfortable end of crime fiction it is jam-packed with literary references, historical information, an ancient feud and of course a solid mystery. Because there are so many strands to these books it can seem as though it takes longer to get to the heart of the puzzle than you expect but it really is well worth the wait.

This series really is a satisfying read, a beautiful location bought to life against the backdrop of the flip-side which investigates the darker side of human nature. It certainly won’t be long before I read the next in the series, The Serpent Pool.

This is the 16th book I’ve read and reviewed as part of my Mount TBR Challenge for 2018. I am aiming to read 36 books across the year from those purchased before 1 January 2018. The Arsenic Labyrinth was purchased on 6 November 2017 thereby qualifying.

First Published UK: 2007
Publisher: Allison & Busby
No of Pages: 305
Genre: Crime Fiction – Series
Amazon UK
Amazon US

 

The Lake District Mystery Series

The Coffin Trail (2004)
The Cipher Garden (2005)
The Arsenic Labyrinth (2007)
The Serpent Pool (2010)
The Hanging Wood (2011)
The Frozen Shroud (2013)
The Dungeon House (2015)