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

Flying Shoes – Lisa Howorth #20BooksofSummer

Contemporary Fiction
3*s

Mary Byrd Thornton is minding her own business in Mississippi when a call comes through from a detective that is revisiting the murder of her step-brother over thirty years before. So far so good, exploring what an unpunished crime of this magnitude does to a family, how they deal with the impossible emotions that must come from such an awful event sounded ideal.

So Mary Byrd Thornton is summoned back to her home town in Virginia, to her mother, leaving her husband and their two children behind. A journalist is sniffing around the story too and poor Mary is struggling with being propelled back into that time when she was a teenager and some of the police were less than sympathetic dealing with the family. The thing is she has always believed they know who snatched Stevie from them.

Unfortunately for this reader the solving of this long ago murder is a mere bit part in what is on the whole a stream of consciousness about Mary Byrd Thornton’s life. Her friends, the truck journey she takes to Virginia, the alcohol she drinks, the affair she consider and her housekeeper Evagreen and this woman’s own troubles which are of a massive magnitude. The problem I have with this type of writing is that it never seems to get to the point, and quite frankly I get frustrated with the style fairly quickly.

There are a lot of interesting characters and I feel that for once I was able to understand a part of the world where although we speak the same language, the whole ‘feel’ of the place is quite unlike any that I know. There is insight into the plantation past and racial issues that were still firmly in place at the time the book was set in the 1990s. We get to look inside different types of houses, visit different families and even get a flavour of the local news. This is a book about a community with a defined culture and if that was what I thought I was reading about, then maybe my frustration wouldn’t have been quite so great.

One big positive is Mary’s approach to life so although I didn’t really get to know her despite the endless thoughts on breakable china, the mixed emotions of child-rearing, her inquisitiveness about her friend’s lives and her somewhat chaotic approach to housekeeping, it was clear that she isn’t a woman to take herself too seriously. She may pay lip-service to caring about other’s views of her but it doesn’t cause her to want to put too much effort into conforming. Her view of the loss of Stevie was also far more realistic than endless weeping and wailing that many novels offer of prolonged grief. There is a sense of guilt but again, not overwhelmingly so. This made sense when I got to the end and realised that in part the author has written the book about the unsolved murder of her own step-brother which seemed to give the book more context than I had previously given it credit for.

Despite being written in a style that doesn’t really appeal to me, there was a lot to enjoy in Flying Shoes and a book that has more impact in retrospect than perhaps it did while I was reading it.

Flying Shoes is my thirteenth read in my 20 Books for Summer 2018 Challenge

First Published UK: 2014
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
No of Pages: 337
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – Stuart Turton

Crime Fiction
4*s

I finished this book having realised fairly early on that I had approached what I was about to read from totally the wrong angle. This is one fiendish puzzle with complexities that are beyond devilish.

The premise of the book is seemingly one of a Golden Age mystery where our chief protagonist has to solve the puzzle of who killed Evelyn Hardcastle. He has eight days to do so. So far so simple the clock is ticking and the clues are presented and you put them together and try to get there before he does. Oh, you are sadly mistaken if you think that is all there is to it!

The problem is far more complex in that our man inhabits different characters for each of these eight days and the same day keeps repeating. So he starts of as a doctor and he sees some stuff going on from that character’s perspective but when he wakes up again he is someone totally different and finds some new clues but also sees different aspects to the stuff he learnt the day before. All the while he is trying to keep hold of his true self whilst inhabiting what are mostly a disagreeable bunch of people.

Thrown into the mix is a nineteen year old mystery, linked to the return of Evelyn Hardcastle from her stay in Paris. There are also plenty of other dastardly goings on from blackmail to murder all to be kept on top of. Allies are formed but whether they are wise ones or not remain to be seen.

So it’s complex and ideally, to have any hope of keeping track of what’s going on, I would have needed an entire wall of notes to keep track of various characters and their actions because sometimes the chief protagonist jumps back in time. This means that character is for example unhappily at midday on day four or rather in his fourth host, anticipating where they need to go next to find a missing piece of the puzzle and then it’s back to the second host to pick up where he last left off. To be fair the author gives the reader pointers and reminders but it is a book to throw yourself into and hope that you can keep manage to hold enough information in your head to keep pace.

Now I’ve reached the end I’d ideally go back and savour just how clever the whole book is, but if I’m honest my brain hurts from the effort. Which has left me with a problem on how to rate the book. I really admired both the premise and the execution (of the book not Evelyn Hardcastle) and I did nearly work out one strand of the mystery proving that I wasn’t completely confused by it all, but I’m not used to a book being such hard work. Ideally this would have been better as a holiday read, it’s not a book to escape a hard day’s work with, it is a fiendish puzzle that won’t let you go! If all that isn’t enough this tale told in the first person present tense, which is entirely fitting, also poses philosophical questions which soon become apparent. Now I have the answer to the mystery I can ponder those at my leisure.

I take my hat off to Stuart Turton for the most original read I have read for a long time.

I’d like to thank Bloomsbury Publishing plc for the chance to read The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle prior to publication on 8 February 2018. This review is my unbiased thanks to them.

First Published UK: 8 February 2018
Publisher: Raven
No of Pages: 528
Genre: Crime Fiction 
Amazon UK
Amazon US

 

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady – Kate Summerscale

Non Fiction 4*s
Non Fiction
4*s

I have to admit that I enjoy a good Victorian scandal, one that ended up in court, made headline news and left reputation tattered and torn, so I settled down to enjoy. What I didn’t bank on was my growing sympathy for poor Isabella’s plight.

The author reveals the background to the story first and we know that Isabella Robinson, a widow with a young son, married Henry Robinson in 1844. A fiercely intelligent and well-read woman it didn’t take her long to realise that perhaps she should have held out for a better match:

He was an ‘uncongenial man’ she wrote in her diary: uneducated, narrow-minded, harsh-tempered, selfish, proud.’ While she yearned to talk about literature and politics, to write poetry, learn languages and read the latest essays on science and philosophy, he was ‘a man who had only a commercial life’

We hear how the couple moved around but the real action starts once they moved to Edinburgh, where with young children in tow they made the acquaintance of Elizabeth Drysdale, a fantastic host who shared her splendid home with her daughter Mary and her son-in-law Edward Lane. Edward Lane had studied to be a lawyer but was now training to be a doctor (these upper middle class men seemed to be eternally switching careers!) With Henry often away on business which was to design and build ships and mills for sugar cane it is clear that Isabella craved company, what she soon commits in writing is that she particularly craved a particular type of company from Mr Edward Lane.

I’m not going to lie, although by the end I had a lot of sympathy for Isabella, she led a life at that time which many could only have wondered at; she enjoyed her children’s company, was forever being entertained, going on holiday and able to read and contemplate her navel and commit those thoughts to her diary, whilst being waited upon hand and foot. But, and here is where things get far more complex, she had nothing to call her own. Indeed her fateful marriage to Henry had been partly bought about that she wasn’t an attractive prospect, a widow with a child, especially as her deceased husband had settled most of his money on the offspring from his first wife. Henry was no saint, he had offspring by an unmarried woman and was clearly after the money Isabella was given by her family, an amount settled yearly to avoid the fact that otherwise she had nothing under the law of the land at that time. Isabella was one of the many unlucky women who had no outlet for her intelligence, although I have to say at times her ‘poor me’ attitude grated. But she was stuck, divorce was practically impossible until the summer of 1858. In the end it was Henry that applied to divorce Isabella using the evidence from he own diary as proof.

This book is teaming with social history particularly that of the richer members of society at this time, and it is this that really made this book so fascinating for me and kept me reading, especially at the beginning when at times I tired at times of Isabella, although all that changed when we got to court! During the unfolding of the story as told in main, through the words of Isabella, although I was surprised to hear that the original diary no longer exists, there are snapshots of contemporary Victorian life infused with the story of Isabella’s disgrace at her own hand. A woman who is judged not only in the court room but by her peers across the land as snippets of her diary make their way into the newspapers.

I love the style of writing, there is no emphasising certain facts in this books just a clear and neutral retelling of a woman’s life, her choices and the consequences. The additional historical details all of which are impeccably researched include atheism, phrenology, water treatments, insanity and of course divorce law which make this one of the most educational books of the Victorian period and far more readily digested than dry facts.

There is no-one who quite manages to keep their voice so neutral and yet deliver such a well-researched and compelling story as Kate Summerscale and although I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as the Suspicions of Mr Whicher this was a personal choice of subject rather than delivery. I am however delighted to hear from dear Fiction Fan that Kate Summerscale has a new Victorian crime to delight us with in May; The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer is on pre-order!

 

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Before We Met – Lucie Whitehouse

Psychological Thriller  4*'s
Psychological Thriller
4*’s

Hannah sits at Heathrow airport ready to greet her husband of eight months, realising he is not on the flight she expected she waits for the next one to arrive from JFK.  In the early hours of the morning she returns home worried and alone.  Instantly I was able to imagine myself in a similar situation and measure Hannah’s behaviour to how I believe I would behave, in short sympathise with her.  When she finally receives word from Mark, it is to tell her that he will be away for the weekend without a phone. At this point Hannah begins to question her marriage and how much she actually knows about Mark.

Hannah is not a particular complex character but she has a dread of turning into her mother; a wife who drove her husband mad with her constant snooping and accusations of adultery until he left.  Her brother Tom is a good secondary character with a much more balanced view of life.

I enjoyed this read, travelling in Hannah’s footsteps as she turns up clue after clue, desperately wanting to believe that she is being paranoid, just like her mother was. With the tension heightened, as mad as an angry fishwife I was as keen as Hannah to hear Mark’s explanation. Unfortunately for Hannah her mind is not put completely at ease and she continues to question her marriage.

As this book hurtles towards its denouement you could be forgiven that you have finished by reading a different type of book than the one you started as things take a turn of the thriller variety.  For once I had worked out the twist before it happened which is highly unusual but instead of disappointing me I gave myself a pat on the back!

A well-paced plot and although I was left feeling that there were some unanswered questions it was an enjoyable read and one that I would recommend to other lovers of psychological thrillers.

Due to be published on 6 January 2014, by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. who gave me a free copy of this book in return for my honest review.