Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2017, Book Review, Books I have read

What Remains Behind – Dorothy Fowler #20booksofsummer

Historical Fiction

A land sale in the family is the latest archaeological dig for Chloe Davis. As she returns to the site in the Kaipara, north of Auckland in New Zealand she is working to find the foundations of the place of worship for Kaipara Harbour community which had burnt in the 1880s.

Chloe has mixed emotions about the dig, she’s sad that the family land is being sold especially as her side of the family had fond memories of holidays spent in the house her sister Phaedra has inherited.

There are two distinct time lines to this novel both presented in the first person the current day narrative provided by Chloe on the dig with a mis-match of students and her old friend and colleague Bill. This time line follows not only the finds on the dig, but also the suspicion the small town inhabitants have towards the outsiders, some of whom have money tied up in the sale of the land. But rules are rules and the dig has been ordered and Chloe and Bill are determined to finish what they have started.

This present day timeline also takes in the mystery of a missing local farmer from some years before as well as the frankly odd relationship between the level-headed Chloe and her far more mercurial sister Phaedra.
For me far more fascinating were the pages of a diary written by Charity, a young girl, taken to the mission by her mother. There is something I find fascinating about cults; partly the amazement that a single charismatic man can make others believe what he says to the seeming exclusion of logic to the more mundane issues of adults living a communal lifestyle which for me, being fairly unsociable, has so far kept me inured to any charismatic man (or woman) bearing unlikely promises. However if I were a single mother forced to use her fading looks to make a living as a Housekeeper, back in the 1880s then maybe I would be as grateful as The problem faced by the cult, from the locals and more prosaically the lack of money as Brother Jack failed to gather a bigger flock to fund the mission.

This is a slow-paced mystery, quite unlike the crime fiction I normally read. The mysteries are there but the search for answers is nowhere near as frantic or all-consuming as these, the answers coming almost organically from the situation which is not only a novel approach, but also a deeply satisfying one. That’s not to say the book lacks action, it doesn’t there are a few hairy moments in both timelines. The mystery in the past was expected as we know from the beginning that the mission burnt down, what we don’t know is who did it, and why. The action in the present coming out of a fairly complex storyline which ensures that this book didn’t succumb to that perennial problem with dual timelines, the one story capturing my attention far more than the other.

What Remains Behind is the first read of my 20 Books of Summer Challenge 2017. I enjoyed this book featuring an archaeologist a real breath of fresh air away from the detectives that normally stalk the pages of my crime fiction. With the unusual, for me, setting in small town New Zealand easily imagined through the authors descriptions, both in the past and present, this one has got me off to a cracking start.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Woman on the Orient Express – Lindsay Jayne Ashford

Historical Fiction 4*s
Historical Fiction

The synopsis gives us a flavour of what The Woman on the Orient Express has in store for us, promising secrets not easy to unravel on a journey on the iconic train line. The subject, ‘The Woman’ is Agatha Christie, the reason for the trip is an escape from England after the end of her marriage to Archie, the secrets… well it would appear that more than one passenger has something to hide.

I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling a certain amount of discomfort when starting to read one of these factional tales, if for no other reason than it is not always clear where the lines between fact and fiction lie.

The plot is very much one of the time it is set in, being the 1928, a time when it was surely less usual for a single woman to be travelling to Baghdad but Agatha has that covered, she is travelling under the assumed name of Mary Miller. For her she wants to be well away from her home when Archie marries his second wife and with her daughter Rosalind at boarding school there is little to make her stay. Being a writer she can use the trip to come up with some plots for the books.

The chapters set on the train, are headed up with the legs of the journey, and it isn’t long before Agatha meets another young woman, Katherine Keeling who is a widow, making the journey to join the archaeological dig at Mesopotamia under the esteemed archaeologist Leonard Wooley. Later in the journey another young woman is introduced, one who is fleeing her abusive husband to stay with her cousin in Baghdad.

The book was far more evocative of both time and place than I expected, the descriptions of both the train and the destination of Baghdad giving this reader a flavour of what the trips that Agatha Christie did make, were like. The time period was underlined by the way the women conducted themselves with little interaction with others on the journey except those employed by the train company. Despite being in close quarters each of the women held key secrets back from each other which are only revealed once they arrive at their destination.

This isn’t a murder mystery tale, more like historical fiction with the three women at a crossroads in their life, all needing to face some truths from their past and then to find a way forward. That said, it is a very engaging story, with enough intrigue to keep this reader turning the pages to find out exactly what the outcome would be – reader be warned, this isn’t some saccharine sweet tale where everything turns out rosy! The book has a few scenes that are full of action which seem out of place in what at times feels like a woman’s fictional novel (and I don’t use that phrase in a derogatory manner), which indicates how hard it is to categorise this book. One of the jarring points was, as much as I love Poirot, the fictional Agatha hearing both the Belgium detective and her mother talking to her throughout the book was most off-putting, perhaps because I deem our heroine far too certain to have to listen to imaginary voices before taking any course of action.

Earlier on I mentioned the difficulty with identifying the artistic licence in this kind of writing so I’m pleased to report that at the end the author makes it clear which parts she took liberties with and which sources she used for the factual elements.

A surprisingly enjoyable read which gives a flavour of a key point in Agatha Christie’s life by weaving a story around her trip that felt reasonably credible.

I’d like to thank the publishers Lake Union Publishing, who allowed me to read an advance copy of The Woman on the Orient Express ahead of publication on 20 September 2016. This unbiased review is my thank you to them.

First Published UK: 20 September 2016
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
No of Pages: 330
Genre: Historical Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US