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

Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood #20booksofsummer

Historical Fiction 5*s

The year is 1843, the place is Ontario, Canada and the victims are Thomas Kimner and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. Thomas had been shot whilst Nancy had been strangled.  James McDermott, Thomas Kimner’s stable hand and Grace Marks his maid were apprehended trying to escape to America and put on trial for murder. James McDermott was hanged whilst Grace was imprisoned for life. These are the facts that Margaret Atwood uses as the base of her multi-faceted novel to bring Grace’s story to life, whether her version comes close to the truth the reader will have to decide.

“I have of course fictionalized historical events (as did many commentators on this case who claimed to be writing history). I have not changed any known facts, although the written accounts are so contradictory that few facts emerge as unequivocally ‘known.’”

 By the time we meet her Grace has been imprisoned for quite some time. A model prisoner she is engaged as a maid to the Governor of the prison where she is being held. Petitions for her release have been a feature of those who protest her innocence but one man, the fictional Dr Simon Jordan wants to use her to explore her sanity, he has a goal to open a private clinic and a case study that gets attention could help him along this road. But is or was Grace ever insane? Why else would a young maid suddenly turn on her employers and become a notorious murderess? Or is there other elements to the story that the Victorian values of the day could not or would not see?

It is the conversation that Grace has with Dr Jordan that gives us her background, the long arduous journey from Dublin, the trials of living with a feckless father and younger siblings to care for and Grace’s ‘escape’ into working life as a maid, with friends who teach her the ways of the world. No one can say Grace’s story is anything but captivating and it’s bolstered by the picture of Grace recounting it whilst stitching at the table in the Governor’s house. Grace explains to Dr Jordan about the quilts that every young woman should have before she marries, the stories behind the different patterns these objects that were in every household having their own stories to tell. And of course the Doctor doesn’t know what is true and we are reminded of the uncertainty of the narrative by some fairly nifty switches from the first to the third person, denoting thoughts and words within the text itself. This gives the narrative a nebulous feel, the truth surely lies somewhere within the book, but it may be you have to decide where.

I was enchanted not only by Grace’s own story but the way that she uncovers the lives of many other women in the course of her conversations with the good Doctor. From her mother, to her friend and fellow maid Mary Whitney and Nancy the Housekeeper and mistress of Thomas Kimner then up the ranks to the daughters of the Governor who still covet a quilt for their own dowry but will have someone else carry out the minute stitching for them. Each is worthy of a story in their own right leaving me stuffed full of life-like characters by the time I turned the last page on Grace Marks and her story.

Alias Grace was my sixteenth read for my 20 Books of Summer 2017  challenge, a fine example of a true crime being used as inspiration for a novel, and a highly accomplished one at that.

First Published UK: 1996
Publisher: Virago
No of Pages: 560
Genre: Historical Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

 

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Boundary – Andrée A. Michaud

Crime Fiction
3*s

Set on the border between the US and Canada there is no doubt at all that this literary crime fiction is incredibly atmospheric. Not only is it evocative of the time it was set, 1967 Boundary combines this with a real sense of place, a holiday town populated mainly by women and children during the summer months with the men returning from work at the weekend.
So an idyllic setting with a lake and woods and sounds of the sixties running through two friend’s lives as Zaza and Sissy wield there charms on all around them. Andrée watches from the side-lines knowing that she is far too young for the ‘almost’ young women who laugh and swear and flirt their way through life.

But behind the summery scenes are the undying stories of a man, damaged by life as a solitary Canadian trapper. Pierre Landry had lived in a cabin in the woods. His tragic end and the crimes attributed to him, including the infatuation with a local woman, clinging to the town, unwanted and yet all-pervasive and the children tell stories about the ghost of Pierre Landry.

Barbeques are lit and children called in for food, dolls played with, dens made and the fairground welcomes its guests as every other summer’s day and then, Zaza goes missing. The nearby police are called, the older more experienced officer, Michaud, is haunted by a young girl’s murder, while the younger, Cusack gets worn down by the ensuing investigation into Zaza’s disappearance.

We are told the story from a number of the characters viewpoints including Andrée’s, the police and members of Boundary’s town. These different viewpoints paint a vivid picture of a town marred by events and the change of atmosphere is all-encompassing.

The story starts very slowly and although it isn’t a particularly long book, it took me a long time to finish. In part this was down to the small font which I’m sad to say I struggled to read after a full day working looking at a computer screen and I really needed daylight to see well. This in turn didn’t help the lack of forward momentum early on in the book as I was able to read so little. This may sound odd, and perhaps not entirely fair, particularly to those of you who have younger eyes than mine, but it did seriously hamper my enjoyment of what was clearly a book with lots to offer. I was reading a proof copy though so I’m not sure if the finished article will make for easier reading, but this was a book where I would have preferred an eBook. After the investigation starts the pace picks up and the various strands of the plot begin to draw together to create a convincing, if sad, story. I felt the characters acted in a consistent manner and I felt an affinity for Andrée, and not in the usual way that I feel for child narrators, she wasn’t like me as a child but her feelings felt particularly authentic.

This felt like a grown-up version of crime fiction with plenty of layers and issues to ponder which in many ways lends itself to a more contemplative reading experience than most crime fiction.

I’d like to thank the publishers No Exit Press who allowed me to read a copy of Boundary ahead of publication on 23 March 2017. This unbiased review is my thanks to them.

First Published UK: 23 March 2017
Publisher: No Exit Press
No of Pages:  320
Genre: Crime Fiction – Literary
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Missing One – Lucy Atkins

Contemporary Fiction 4*'s
Contemporary Fiction
4*’s

What would you do if you were given a window to a life your mother led that you’d never heard of? Could you ignore the scant information if your mother had just died and your father refuses to discuss the past? This is the situation Kali finds herself in as the eldest daughter to Elena she is sent to find her birth certificate by her younger sister, and in Kali’s eyes, her mother’s favourite daughter Alice. The birth certificate is elusive but in amongst her mother’s things she finds reference to a life spent in Canada and postcards from a woman called Susanna Gillespie.

Kali is suffering, the day before she received the phone call to say her mother was dying, she’d realised that her marriage to Doug was over, in a dark place with unresolved issues with her mother that rippled out to include her father and Alice she isn’t ready to return home to face her husband and on a whim travels from London to Vancouver on a search of her ancestors and Susanna Gillespie, a well-known artist. Kali’s visit to Vancouver throws up more questions than it answers and she moves onto the remote Spring Tide Island where she meets up with Susanna who knew her mother in the days when she was researching Orca’s by tracking them and listening to the way they communicate which lends a neat parallel to this story about families and the ties that bind them.

The description of the setting is amazing with beautiful and terrifying of a place where nature rules with storms and the sea giving a menacing background to the encounter with Susannah. The characters are realistic although not particularly likeable at times but understandably so, as the story gets darker and more terrifying. The book would have been more engaging if some of the repetition had been reduced which although I’m sure was written to underline the reluctance of everyone around Kali to give up their secrets just became a little annoying, especially in a book of 569 pages. The descriptions of the orcas, the excitement of finding and researching the pods was extremely well-researched but again could have been condensed especially as Elena’s character also suffered from repetitive thinking, however when the action kicks in you may well find yourself on the edge of your seat like I did.

If you like your mysteries to have a personal element then this book about family secrets certainly has a different, if quite scary, backdrop, which included some fascinating information about the amazing orcas that are designed to live in the sea and not tanks for entertainment.  Although quite sad in places on reflection this tale told illustrates the power of a mother’s love for her child as Kali goes to extraordinary lengths to protect her child.

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

The Lost Empress – Steve Robinson

Mystery (Genealogical) 5*'s
Mystery (Genealogical)
5*’s

On 29 May 1914 having left Quebec for Liverpool, the Empress of Ireland, an ocean liner sank following a collision with SS Storstad, a Norwegian collier. Of the 1,477 people on board that night 1,012 people died, the largest Canadian maritime loss of life in peacetime, one hundred years later Jefferson Tayte is trying to track down the true fate of Alice Stillwell a second class passenger on the liner.

Empress of Ireland

The Lost Empress is the fourth in the Jefferson Tayte series where the affable genealogist who is more prone to taking on more dangerous assignments than is surely normal for a profession, has an assignment that takes him across the Atlantic to England in search of the truth about the Admiral’s daughter. Armed with a locket in possession of a descendent of an Alice Dixon living in the US who has a strong suspicion that Alice didn’t die on 29 May 1914 as the records indicate but if not why does no-one know?

I have enjoyed all the stories featuring JT, he is a likeable man who has turned to making genealogy a business despite not knowing his own birth family, this story arc continues in this episode but otherwise each book can be read as a stand-alone with each book concerning a different period of history and its own dangerous adventure it finding the truth. This book is no different, within hours of landing in England, JT is turned away by the first name on his list, the descendent of Alice Stillwell, leaving only slightly perturbed, he is used to this kind of behaviour, he is nearly run off the road in a seemingly calculated move. When he gets to the next name on his list he finds that the man has been recently murdered but all is not lost the friendly policeman agrees to let JT help with the investigation in case it is related to the one hundred year old mystery.

JT’s investigation leads him into many areas including spies during WWI and those tasked to catch them, the Secret Service Bureau. Spying was dangerous, if caught it was a matter of high treason and the sentence was to be shot by firing squad at the Tower of London. Steve Robinson adds colour to JT’s tale by alternating chapters from Alice Stillwell with his present day investigation, a device that has worked well in all these books and lifts the subjects from pure research into a character that the reader can relate to.

Another fantastic episode and once again an informative and well-researched read especially as it details activities that were never mentioned as part of the history of WWI I learnt at school!

I’d like to thank the publishers Amazon Publishing for my copy of this book which I received in return for this honest review. The Lost Empress will be published on 21 October 2014

Previous books by Steve Robinson featuring Jefferson Tayte:

In The Blood
Two hundred years ago a loyalist family fled to England to escape the American War of Independence and seemingly vanished into thin air. American genealogist Jefferson Tayte is hired to find out what happened, but it soon becomes apparent that a calculated killer is out to stop him.
In the Blood combines a centuries-old mystery with a present-day thriller that brings two people from opposite sides of the Atlantic together to uncover a series of carefully hidden crimes. Tayte’s research centres around the tragic life of a young Cornish girl, a writing box, and the discovery of a dark secret that he believes will lead him to the family he is looking for. Trouble is, someone else is looking for the same answers and will stop at nothing to find them.

To The Grave
A curiously dated child’s suitcase arrives, unannounced and unexplained, in a modern-day Washington suburb. A week later, American genealogist Jefferson Tayte is sitting in an English hotel room, staring at the wrong end of a loaded gun.
In his latest journey into the past, Tayte lands in wartime Leicestershire, England. The genealogist had hoped simply to reunite his client with the birth mother she had never met, having no idea she had been adopted. Instead, he uncovers the tale of a young girl and an American serviceman from the US 82nd Airborne, and a stolen wartime love affair that went tragically wrong.

The Last Queen of England
While on a visit to London, American genealogist Jefferson Tayte’s old friend and colleague dies in his arms. Before long, Tayte and a truth-seeking historian, Professor Jean Summer, find themselves following a corpse-ridden trail that takes them to the Royal Society of London, circa 1708.
What to make of the story of five men of science, colleagues of Isaac Newton and Christopher Wren, who were mysteriously hanged for high treason?
As they edge closer to the truth, Tayte and the professor find that death is once again in season. A new killer, bent on restoring what he sees as the true, royal bloodline, is on the loose…as is a Machiavellian heir-hunter who senses that the latest round of murder, kidnapping, and scandal represents an unmissable business opportunity.

I wrote a post last year about the rise of a genre in response to those of us who are interested in genealogy which you can read here which includes brief reviews for the previous JT books.