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

Verdict of Twelve – Raymond Postgate

Crime Fiction
5*s

I can’t believe that I hadn’t heard of this book before it was included as one of the wonderful British Library Crime Classics. This unusual tale follows the deliberation of a crime as recounted in court to a jury of the traditional twelve.

The book is split into three parts – we have the introduction to the jury in the first part some of whom have led colourful lives, especially one who committed a serious crime, but on the whole they are what we can assume are a fairly typical mix of society at the time the book was published, in 1940. We have a travelling salesman, a domestic servant, a publican and the university professor who imagines his superior intellect will be needed to help the other members reach the right decision. The question is will he and will they? Raymond Postgate uses this first section to not only give us the jurors social standing but also to comment, albeit lightly, on the politics of the time so we get to understand the havoc caused by WWI and the rise of anti-Semitism in the UK at the time he wrote the book, which I would hazard a guess at being prior to the start of WWII as this doesn’t get a mention. This opener can also be seen as a way of asking the readers to predict how the jurors will decide whether or not to convict the defendant, although at this stage we have no idea what crime has been committed let alone who the defendant is. This is because we get some details of their lives, those who have lived the life they expected to those who have felt thwarted, those who have known great love to those who have felt deep loss, the religious and the abused sit side by side, again providing us with a range of experiences that could be common to any random group of strangers.

In part two we learn about the charges levied against the defendant told in a fairly straightforward narrative format with little of the dramatics that we may associate with a courtroom drama. The story is a sad one and the evidence far from conclusive, more than that I won’t say because I don’t want to take anything away from the sheer delight I felt at trying to determine what the truth of the matter might be.

The final section is where we sit amongst the jurors and see what they decide, and why. Some are decisive, and those that are were not necessarily the ones that I predicted would be in the first part. Raymond Postgate seems to have a good handle on seemingly lightly skimming the surface and thereby making this book intensely readable but punctuating his words from truths that are as pertinent now as they obviously were then, that is why people tend to act the way they do.

I can’t leave this review by stating that the postscript is phenomenal, sheer genius and one that ensures that this is one of those books that I will remember for a long time to come.

I’d like to say a big thank you to the publishers of Verdict of Twelve, British Library Publishing, for allowing me to read a copy of this book. This review is my unbiased thank you to them for such a memorable read.

First Published UK: 1940
Publisher: British Library Publishing
No of Pages: 256
Genre: Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

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

The Other Mrs Walker – Mary Paulson-Ellis

Historical Fiction
5*s

It’s lovely to read a book that offers up something fresh and Mary Paulson Ellis resoundingly met that brief for me with this tale that weaves a mystery from the past with family secrets. I got the feeling that many families although not having the exact same story, there are many that have similar skeletons lurking in cupboards which share some of the same elements.

Somehow she’d always known that she would end like this. In a small square room, in a small square flat. In a small square box, perhaps. Cardboard, with a sticker on the outside. And a name…

Margaret Penny returns to Edinburgh after some thirty years away and returns to her mother’s home. She is not given a warm welcome, or even a proper bed but given that she feels she has no choice except to leave London, she has to take the scant comfort on offer

Margaret’s mother is part of a circle of women who attend funerals for those who have no-one else. This idea in itself can’t help but warm your heart although I may prefer to go it alone than to have some sour-hearted old woman turning up because she’s on a rota! Through this circle Margaret gets a temporary job locating family for those who are deceased, an odd job, but one that will ultimately save the council money as someone has to pay for the funeral.
Margaret’s first job is to locate a name for an elderly woman who died alone in a flat. In the cold flat with whisky pooling on the floor are a few belongings, including a beautiful green dress. With little in the way of paperwork Margaret embarks on a treasure hunt to find a name, and family for the deceased.

I loved the way this story was constructed. The story flips backwards and forwards with dates that range from 1930s to the present day, this is historical story-telling at its best; those small details so beautifully drawn, delighted me. Possessions are important to the Walker family and the handling of these often insignificant objects pervades their storyline. The descriptions of war-time London were outstanding and easily transported me to the era and the magical gift of an orange, its peel being one of the objects which links the episodes within this complex tale.

The characters were brilliantly drawn, three-dimensional with quirks that differentiate them easily but best of all we see many determined women who do not dwell on the past, or rail against the present, no, they are forever picking themselves up and forging onwards.

If you want a book to savour, one that is full of imagery despite being so dark that it is no wonder that the Walker family treasured their few flashes of colour with their oranges and jade green dresses, then you will enjoy this read. That said, because of the many themes along with the moving backwards and forwards in time, further complicated by the gaps in the timeline left to be filled by the reader’s imagination, it is a book to read when you can concentrate. I was lucky enough to read this in one hit and so got swept along in the storyline from London to snowy Edinburgh and from one claustrophobic household to another, and I loved every minute of it.

First Published UK: 10 March 2016
Publisher: Picador
No. of Pages: 448
Genre: Historical Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US (currently unavailable)

Posted in 20 Books of Summer 2015!, Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Night Watch – Sarah Waters

Historical Fiction 5*s
Historical Fiction
5*s

I’m really not quite sure why I didn’t read this book when it was first published in 2006, an error I only realised when I read the fabulous The Paying Guests last year, as I had read and enjoyed all of her previous books. This was her first departure to a more modern setting, that being the 40s with all the details of London life during the war.

Part One starts in 1947 where we meet the lonely Kay, Viv and Helen who both work in a dating agency, and Viv’s brother Duncan who we find out was imprisoned but what for, we don’t find out until much later. The characters are fantastically painted, I felt that I was on the roof with Viv and Helen exchanging the very edges of their secrets whilst having a cigarette during their lunch break. Likewise the scenes of Duncan working at a factory joining in the banter as best as he can, then returning home to Uncle Horace, gave a real insight into his character. As in all of Sarah Waters novels, there are plenty of homosexual characters, but I wouldn’t say that the book is ‘about’ that, rather it deals with the human emotions of desire, guilt, betrayal and regret, the sexuality of the participants matters little although in this novel we do get a sense of the secrecy and deception that was a necessary part of life at this time.

Part Two then takes us back in time to 1944, with rationing and bombs at their peak we see Kay as a practical ambulance driver whilst Vivian works as a secretary at the Ministry of War and Helen works at the town hall. The changes that have been made in Kay’s life in the intervening years is particularly shocking; in three years she has gone from playing an important role to being reduced to sitting at home watching the world go by from her window.

Part Three takes us further back again to 1941 where we finally learn why Duncan was imprisoned and how the lives of the main characters became intertwined. The three parts as a whole show us the consequences of actions in the past impacting lives in the present in a heart-breaking way.

Knowing the ending, or at least part of it, before you get to the beginning of a story lent this book a peculiar feeling of poignancy, as well as inevitably giving the reader a few ‘ahh’ moments as the actions of our main characters begin to make a little more sense once we know what had happened in the past. This way of revealing the story also meant that I wanted to go back to the beginning, willing the 1947 part to go just that little bit further, to give me some sense of completeness to the character’s lives that hold the promise of a future never to be told.

This isn’t a fast moving book and nor does it have any great mystery, the delight is in the assured writing style, the everyday nuggets that in lesser books I would term padding, but for some reason for this author each scene adds something to the atmosphere that unfolds and so despite being a fairly long book, I certainly didn’t feel it was too long – I was left wanting more. The depiction of a ruined London was so evocative, I could easily imagine myself hearing the bombs and seeing, and smelling the fires that came in their wake. The London streets seen through the eyes of someone walking in the darkness of the blackout had a truly eerie feel to them. As always Sarah Waters has done her research, and for anyone with an interest in this period of history her acknowledgement page contains a huge list of books that she used to make sure the scenes that she so wonderfully bought to life were based on fact.

I still feel that The Paying Guests is my favourite of this author’s books to date, but this is definitely a book that I can quite easily see myself re-reading in the future to further explore the beautiful and often tragic narrative. This isn’t a book for readers who want plenty of action and I did find it got off to a bit of a slow start, but as a whole this is one that I will remember and ponder over for some time to come.