Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

A Snapshot of Murder – Frances Brody

Crime Fiction

Despite coming to this historical crime series relatively late they have become a firm fixture in my autumnal reading with something so appealing in going back to seemingly less complicated times but of course not neglecting the fact that some people are always going to be bumped off! The bonus with this series is that the murder is more or less of page and the reader can enjoy the mystery without needing to get themselves overly anxious about the killing bit. And so it is for A Snapshot of Murder, the tenth in the Kate Shackleton series.

The year is 1928 and the Brontës are becoming big business, so much so that a museum is opening in Haworth and it’s big news. Back at home Kate is indulging in her other passion than sleuthing as a member of The Headingley Photographic Society. The young lad Derek proposes a group outing and although, as always when a committee is involved, there is plenty of huffing and puffing about the donation to be made and the location to be visited they eventually set off for the opening of the museum with the hope that they will capture some fantastic pictures in the bargain. One thing to say for these novels is that Frances Brody really knows how to lay the groundwork for book and luring you into a time and place.

As might be expected no sooner have they arrived in the picturesque location than there is a murder! As it happens the victim happens to be the most disagreeable male character so we can swiftly move on with nary a tear shed. Even better there is an instant mystery as his wife Carine, also a member of the photographic society, has just discovered that her fiancé a man she believed to have died in WWI is actually alive and well and returned ‘home.’ It also hasn’t escaped anyone’s notice that while Tobias Murchison was busy being disagreeable and boorish, young Derek had provided a bit of solace to Carine. The motives are stacked up, the opportunities catalogued and the local police predictably a little bit confused and so our intrepid sleuth Kate Shackleton is roped into the investigation.

As always with these books the chief protagonist comes over as a very capable woman. The setting may be many years ago but she is fairly modern in her outlook and not inclined to faints or vapours, or to be fair constantly underlining how difficult it is for women in society at the time. In fact I think I’d get on very well with Kate Shackleton who seems to have an abundance of intelligence and a fairly bright outlook on life when you take into consideration that she investigates the worst humanity can do to each other.

The settings are brilliantly done, with the link to the Brontë family and Wuthering Heights in particular the photographic theme lends itself so well to really setting the scene thereby conjuring up the much-loved book as well as setting the scene for murder in 1928!

As this is a series we meet some past characters including Kate’s bubbly niece Harriet but somehow unlike many other crime fiction series all the characters except those that take centre stage are more or less backdrops, so while it is nice to meet them the book really is focussed on the main players in the mystery itself.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to the publishers Little Brown Book Group, and the author Frances Brody for a thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable trip to Brontë land in A Snapshot of Murder!

First Published UK: 25 October 2018
Publisher: Little Brown
No of Pages: 448
Genre: Crime Fiction – Series
Amazon UK
Amazon US

The Kate Shackleton Series

Dying In The Wool: 2009
A Medal For Murder: 2009
Murder In The Afternoon: 2012
A Woman Unknown: 2013
Murder on a Summer’s Day 2013
Death of an Avid Reader 2014
A Death in the Dales 2015
Death at the Seaside 2016
Death in the Stars 2017


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

The House of Birds – Morgan McCarthy

Historical Fiction 5*s
Historical Fiction

I’m a fan of dual time-line stories but suspect that these are far trickier to pull off than the big hits in the genre suggest, I have read my fill of poor imitations where the connections between past and present are weak or worse still, contrived. Books where all too often, one of the stories shores up the other to such an extent that you feel it was only invented to appeal to those of us who enjoy this form of storytelling. The House of Birds is not one of these poor imitations, better still the story in the present is about a man, Oliver who has walked out of his highly paid job and is ‘considering his options!’

Oliver met Kate when he was a twelve-year-old boy and together, one sunny day, finding themselves outside Kate’s Great-Aunt’s house decided as a bit of a dare to investigate. They made their way through the overgrown garden and Oliver climbed up to peer through one of the upstairs windows. What he saw in the room made a memory that he never quite shook off, coming as these vivid memories often do, just before his life changed, and he moved away from Oxford. Years later Oliver and Kate meet again and start to build a life together. Kate’s family has been split into two sides for years over an ongoing dispute of inheritance of the house in Oxford but now it has been passed to Kate. With the house in a poor state of repair and Oliver at a loose end, he decides to use his time organising the repairs and renovations. Once there he finds a story, written by a woman called Sophie.

Sophie’s story is set in the 1920s where she is trying to gain access to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, but not having anyone to write a letter to allow her entry she is turned away. So starts the beginning of my enormous sympathy for this young woman, one whose husband returned from the war a different man to the one who left. This is a woman who has a love of books, of language and of learning and yet she is tied to the house where her staff have not enough to keep them busy but go some way into bringing life into a house where husband and wife have little conversation and who sleep in separate rooms.

The link between past and present is far from clear, even to Oliver as Kate had never mentioned a Sophia, so the first mystery is how the document ended up in the house at all. But like me, he could not fail to be captivated by Sophia’s story and when the pages come to an end, he wants to know more and without Kate’s knowledge tries to find out more which means talking to the side of the family who believe the house belongs to them.

Already enthralled by the story I was especially thrilled later on when mentions of Crete, in particular, Knossos, and the renovation of the site by Arthur Evans in the early twentieth century because I visited the site on my holiday this year. We had a very knowledgeable guide Maria, and so I know that Morgan McCarthy has done her research well from the titbits that correlate perfectly to all that I learnt about the site. With many pieces of information that are lightly sprinkled throughout the book, from myths and legends to the difference between a labyrinth and a maze, battles and kings and queens, meant that this was a book that taught me some new things too without it ever feeling anything apart from the fabric of the book itself.

This book has some outstanding characters who run the gamut of emotions of humans around the world, and some of these are mirrored between past and present. Sophia has a sister, and there is sibling rivalry, there is love, there is duty and there is guilt and greed… I could go on. This isn’t a fast moving book but the language is beautiful and the writing evocative. I had one of those sad moments when I reached the very satisfying ending, where I genuinely missed the characters I’d come to know and love.

I was delighted to receive a copy of The House of Birds from the publishers Headline. This unbiased review is my thank you to them

First Published UK: 3 November 2016
Publisher: Headline
No of Pages: 448
Genre: Historical Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Death at the Seaside – Frances Brody

Historical Crime Fiction 4*s
Historical Crime Fiction

Well I came a little bit late to this party as this is the eighth of Frances Brody’s novels set in the 1920s featuring private investigator Kate Shackleton. I’m delighted to say it didn’t matter and I thoroughly enjoyed the character without needing the background from the previous books.

In this book Kate Shackleton is on holiday. She’s travelled to Whitby to visit an old school friend Alma, a woman she hasn’t seen for some time although she has met up with her daughter Felicity who is Kate’s god-daughter. The holiday begins well with Kate co-ordinating her plans with her assistant Jim Sykes and housekeeper Mrs Sugdon staying close by. Oh for the days when everyone was on holiday together and life was so much simpler!

Sadly Kate’s visit takes her past the jeweller’s shop where her husband proposed to her, sadly he lost his life during the war and there is a moment of poignancy before Kate decides to enter the shop to buy Felicity a present. What she finds instead of a gift is a dead body. In the 1920s phones were rare so Kate is forced to leave the jeweller’s shop and raise the alarm, this action, plus her being an outsider leads her to being suspected of committing the murder. Added to that Felicity has gone missing and Alma is frantic.

This is a solid mystery novel, in a wonderful setting at one of my favourite times in recent history, a time that lends itself to secrets required to maintain respectability to others, and we all know where secrets lead, especially in crime fiction! When Kate catches up with her friend Alma she finds her living in the most peculiar of houses, a grand place which is literally disintegrating around her and the man who owns the other half of the house! She also finds out that Alma rents a space on the pier and acts as the local fortune-teller, abiding by strict regulations about hours of occupancy to keep this position while a more genuine spiritualist can be found. All of which lends itself to a varied and colourful mystery, where any violence is ‘off-page’ and yet the strong character of Kate gives the book real structure and stops it slipping into fluff.

For the most part the book is narrated by Kate herself, she is a practical woman, but a ‘real’ woman, she misses her husband but doesn’t dwell too much on her loss, she is also open it would appear to another husband, but only if the right man makes the offer, she isn’t going to accept a life that won’t make her happy. And it appears that being a private investigator does make her happy, we get the feeling that she is better able to carry out her sleuthing when she is part of the community rather than in Whitby where she is an outsider but I’d need to read the other books to be certain. Because Kate is a practical woman, and one loyal to her friends, some of which lead to mini-adventures such as tracking down Alma who is busy ‘communing with the moon’ leading the local police to wonder if Kate knows about the local smuggling of whisky that they are trying to clamp down on but at least we have a woman who will climb a steep and unfamiliar hill in the dark with no wailing for a man to come and rescue her. The remaining parts of the book are narrated by Alma with very short sections by Felicity whose entries are much darker and more mysterious tone.

A very enjoyable read which despite the title made the perfect autumnal read. I was given my copy of this book by Little Brown Books, and I reciprocate with this honest review.

First Published UK: 6 October 2016
Publisher: Little Brown Book Group
No of Pages: 400
Genre: Historical Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Shadow Hour – Kate Riordan

Historical Fiction 4*s
Historical Fiction

I do like a good historical time-split novel and so when I saw Kate Riordan had written a tale set in both 1878 and 1922 telling the tale of two governesses both whose charges at Fenix House high on the hills of Cheltenham.
This story starts in an intriguing way, reminding us that:

It is not always as simple as beginnings, middles and ends Not all stories should be regarded as a straight line, with the past at a distance and the present close at hand. Some, like this one, are formed in a circle, with something terrible and secret at the core, and everything else radiating out, ripples from a raindrop on water.

And so begins a gothic tale, set as far as Grace in 1922 is concerned in a dilapidated house which is nothing like her grandmother, Harriet’s memories of the house, which were much grander when she was the governess back in 1878.

The gravel was thin and patchy, showing the earth beneath, like a balding carpet; weeds and grass had taken hold in patches.

I looked through the bars at Fenix House and then glanced quickly away, as one averts their gaze from a stranger with a damaged face.

You see Grace had grown up hearing about the wonders of Fenix House of her Grandmothers fondness for her charges Helen and Victoria, and her affinity with their elder brother Bertie, but she didn’t tell Grace anything, and what she failed to divulge reverberated through the years.

There is no doubt that Kate Riordan is a marvellous storyteller with a fantastically plotted book which indeed, as promised in the beginning works in a circle taking in a myriad of lives from the lowly servant Agnes to a man high up in the Great Western Railway, from a woman who was forced to take the job of a governess to have a living, to Louisa Pembridge whose life is spent swallowing strange and dangerous potions to hold onto her youthful beauty all perfectly drawn to create a cast of characters both rich and varied.

Although the author touches on some of the key historical elements this book is not really about what is going on in the wider world and has an almost claustrophobic feel where the action is shrunk to one house, one family and their servants with few outside distractions. A world where unless it was read in a newspaper the world outside the house and its grounds, complete with the ruins and ice house, may not even exist.

I really can’t say too much else about the book except to state that the secret is much darker than the normal type in this genre, the romances perhaps even more doomed and with at least one of the characters having premonitions about future events, more spooky too. I’m not usually a fan of supernatural devices but in this book, with the setting and the secrets that are uncovered piece by piece, it did work – I am perhaps more forgiving of these in historical novels where these types of ‘gifts’ were more commonly accepted.

This is a brilliant second novel from Kate Riordan who is the author of The Girl in the Photograph, will be published on 25 February 2016. I’d like to say a huge thank you to Penguin UK who kindly gave me a copy of this novel and in return I write this honest review.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Jazz Files – Fiona Veitch Smith

Crime Fiction 4*s
Crime Fiction

Being interested in women’s rights throughout history, this book which harks back to the 1920s and features Poppy Denby who works for The Daily Globe, initially as an office assistant, this book caught my eye. Unsurprisingly as it has a beautiful cover!

Poppy Denby moves from the north of England to stay with her aunt in London, a militant suffragette, and gets a job working at The Daily Globe. She has only just started when one of the other reporters dies in mysterious circumstances. With the other reporters following their own stories Poppy starts to investigate the story he was working on and to the archives to unearth the treasures in the jazz files

“It’s what we call any story that has a whiff of high society scandal but can’t yet be proven… you never know when a skeleton in the closet might prove useful.”

The leads see Poppy visiting  an asylum, meeting a despicable Lord and his son and a information about her aunt and her fellow militant suffragettes back when the campaigning done was at its fiercest.

There is lots to love about this book, despite it being crime fiction and detailing what the suffragettes went through in order to get the vote, it also has quite a light feel to it – Poppy following the leads to write her first piece of journalism felt like a romp mirroring the mood of the day in 1920s London. There is also a small bit of a frothy romance to ensure that the storyline doesn’t get too morose.

It is great to read a book where the majority of the major characters are women who for the most part are supportive of each other, devoid of jealousy or malice. As well as her aunt, Poppy makes friends with an actress, Delilah who introduces Poppy to the jazz clubs and the latest fashions.

The Jazz Files dress

Click on the dress to see more about fashion in the 1920s on a website all about Poppy Denby

As well as a bunch of great characters this book is also solidly based on research although the author does point out at the end where she has taken a rare liberty with time-lines or real people and why she has done so. I certainly got the feeling that I had been transported back in time where horses still featured on the roads more often than cars and where men dismissed women’s abilities to work, make decisions or in fact much at all! At the same time we have Poppy who although not political, realises that there is more to life than working at the Methodist mission, as she did while living with her parents. Although of course that work didn’t put her life in danger the way her investigation does.

I’d like to thank the publishers Lion Hudson PLC for allowing me to read a copy of this book. When Poppy Denby takes on her next investigation, I will be there.

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

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

Historical Fiction 5*'s
1920 Historical Fiction

The most apt word I can think of to describe this book is sumptuous! This is a book to delight the reader with the layers of detail which build a picture of a household in London in the 1920’s. Mrs Wray and her daughter Frances found themselves struggling to make ends meet after the loss of the men during World War I and the solution is to take in some paying guests, their gentrified term for lodgers. With the household rejigged to make space for a couple of rooms the day arrives for Leonard and Lillian Barber to move in. Lily sets about decorating her rooms in her own style while Leonard works away at his job at an insurance company and the household begins to adapt to the new routine. The Wrays meanwhile remain suspended in the disagreeable place between accepting and despising the changes the new occupants bring to the house.

As you would expect from a Sarah Waters novel there is a sapphic element to this tale which has far reaching consequences for a number of the characters so much so that the household becomes embroiled in a court case. The scenes during the investigation made for fascinating reading especially as it was underpinned by research which was used to give a feeling of authenticity and at times my heart was in my mouth as the wheels of justice turned.

The other area of research which shone through although without ever overpowering the story line was the role of women during this age. With those men that had returned from the war often destitute the role of women was at a turning point but for most the freedom to make their own decisions was a long way into the future. Lilian has little to do with her days except to put fripperies up around her rooms while Frances fills her days with the housework that only a few years before would have been performed by servants. Her free time sees her walking to London to visit her old friend who has more independence, having rented some rooms and making money by typing for money. Mrs Wray still makes visits to friends and her worthy causes, showing her determination to carry on as before, but these interactions are marked of earlier times, whereas the younger characters are forging ahead uncertainly and with differing degrees of success into the new age.

All of that is underpinned by the brilliant characters, all from the most minor, to those who hold the spotlight, are exquisitely drawn, the nuances betray a depth makes this a book to savour and I found my reading speed slowing to immerse myself in these details. With no character being all bad, or all good, this book is one that will make you question what you have learnt through Frances’ telling of the tale from her point of view; who really drove the action? What secrets were bought into the unsuspecting Wray household? And maybe most importantly what on earth happened after the book ended. Yes there is an open(ish) ending, not a device I often agree with but this one is clever, it doesn’t smack of laziness or a wish to give each reader the ending they want but mirrors the content of this rich and luxurious book, one of those books which you know will give up even more details on a second read, a definite ‘keeper.’