Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2018, The Classic Club

Off With His Head – Ngaio Marsh

Classic
2*s

Well before I picked this book as one of my Classics Club Reads, I noted that I did so because although she’s widely acclaimed, she is not an author I’ve actually read which is shocking considering that I consider myself quite widely read in this genre having been a fan since discovering Maigret and Agatha Christie in my childhood. I have to confess on the whole I found this a difficult read which I will attempt to explain.

The setting of the early scene was really well done when we met Mrs Bunz a German woman with an academic interest in folklore visiting the village of South Mardian in order to witness the “Dance of the Five Sons,” a mixture between a mummers play and a sword dance which has been performed in the village for generations at the time of the winter solstice. Fortunately for the time when we met the performers there were five sons all alive to accompany their father, even older, to give the villagers a show. Sadly the snow has kept the audience to a minimum, but no matter, Mrs Bunz is determined to document a rare example of an ancient tradition.

After lots, and lots, and lots, of build-up, through rehearsals and arguments, the dance is performed only for the father to be found with his head cut off at the finale. Shocking stuff indeed!

The villagers on the whole are a strange bunch, characterised by low education and an odd dialect. In short the five sons are portrayed as buffoons, particularly the youngest who has epilepsy causing the other four to endlessly chorus soothing noises whenever he gets agitated. Their father is the blacksmith, William Anderson, known to all as the “Guiser,” an unpleasant fellow who is prone to shouting and who cut off his daughter when she chose to marry someone from a different class to them. I know that this was written in a different time when attitudes were very different, but I found it distasteful because the family were at the heart of the action and even by the end we knew little more about them.

So I already had a problem with the ordinary folk but when you combine that with the way the wealthy of the village both acted and were deferred to by everyone, including our esteemed detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn who was bought in when the local bobbies were unable to decide who, out of the entire village (as they all had a motive for murder) had committed the act. With everyone loudly telling each other to keep quiet or disappearing because they don’t like visitors my main source of tension was created by the very real sense that Inspector Alleyn would don his wellington boots and leave without solving the crime because he seemed a little reluctant to ask the questions that seemed blindingly obvious. Consequently by the time we had the reveal, and the solution to a few more of the little mysteries that had occurred, I’d either worked it out for myself, or I was pretty much past caring.

For all that, I did like the parallels with King Lear, the murder itself was well plotted and the isolation of such a village in winter is one I could easily imagine. Sadly I wasn’t anywhere near as fond of the class obsession the writer enforced on her readers.

Off With His Head is number 30 on The Classics Club challenge list and the sixth of my fifty choices that I’ve read and reviewed.

 

First Published UK: 1957
Publisher: HarperCollins
No of Pages: 288
Genre: Classic Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2017

Redemption – Jill McGown

Crime Fiction 4*s
Crime Fiction
4*s

Book number two in the Hill and Lloyd series was just as enjoyable as I hoped with a good honest proper mystery, complete with a limited number of suspects and a solid investigation. As much as I am a fan of the newer types of crime fiction there is something incredibly appealing about a straightforward murder mystery, told in a sequential timeline with a single (reliable) narrator.

Redemption
is set in the Christmas period with snow on the ground, which was credible in 1988 when this book was first published, and in the Vicar’s home. George Wheeler, said Vicar, has a lack of faith which surely is a pre-requisite of the job, is ably supported with the lack of faith firmly disguised and ignored by his wife, Marian. They are both understandably distressed when their young daughter (a mere twenty-one) is visited by her husband in the small village outside Stansfield. Joanne, has been previously been beaten by Graham Elstow and returned to the bosom of her family after a particularly serious incident, and then on Christmas Eve night, he is found beaten to death in bed at the Vicarage. Acting Chief Inspector Lloyd (it seems Jill McGown went with her former Latin teacher, Colin Dexter’s naming preference for the chief protagonist and declined to give him a first name until much later in the series) and Sergeant Judy Hill are hopeful that this is going to be a case they can swiftly solve, after all surely young Joanne has retaliated with the handy murder weapon of a poker? It’s not to be, because it isn’t long before the alibis for the entire household come rolling in and the occupants insist that he must have been attacked by an intruder.

It was the skilful misdirection employed throughout this novel that really had me gripped. There are some convoluted relationships to dazzle the reader, including that of the young playgroup attendee Eleanor Langton who lives in the castle grounds as a single mother while working as an archivist. She has caught the Vicar’s eye and he is having very unholy thoughts about her. For Lloyd and Hill things are no less complex as there are some confessions, time lines which simply don’t fit with the time of death and locked doors that are usually left open, as I presume was the habit in a small village in the 1980s. Fortunately the reader doesn’t need to spare any sympathy for the wife-beating victim all of which ensures this book falls into the gentler half of crime fiction but far away from the cosy variety. I will grant you that we don’t get too far beneath the surface of the characters in the way more modern crime fiction tends to, but what is lacking here is made up for with a story with a puzzle that is told in a mere 246 pages.

Of course Christmas is a great setting for a murder mystery because you have all the angst and families, which often amount to one and the same thing, competing with the forced merriment. Jill McGown uses this aspect to breathe a contemporary feel into her mystery which has tendrils reaching back to the Golden Era. Lloyd and Hill are having an affair the beginnings of which stretch back through time but with Judy Hill moving back to the area, it has reignited, and we all know with those families hanging around that for those involved, Christmas is a tricky time to conduct any secret assignations. There have been strenuous efforts made by the author to remove the sordidness from this relationship with Judy’s marriage (almost) being one of convenience and the way both professionals keep their two worlds separate, meaning that the investigation isn’t sullied by bedroom antics.

All of this made for a very satisfying read, my first of the Mount TBR challenge which may not be succeeding in actually reducing the TBR as I now want the next book in the series which fortunately for me have been republished by Bello. Redemption has since been released by Pan as part of their Christmas series under the title Murder at the Old Vicarage. mount-tbr-2017

 

First Published UK: 1988
Publisher: Bello
No of Pages:  246
Genre: Crime Fiction Series – Police Procedural
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Lloyd and Hill Series

A Perfect Match (1983)
Redemption (aka Murder At the Old Vicarage) (1988)
Death of a Dancer (aka Gone to Her Death) (1989)
The Murders of Mrs Austin And Mrs Beale (1991)
The Other Woman (1992)
Murder… Now And Then (1993)
A Shred of Evidence (1995)
Verdict Unsafe (1997)
Picture of Innocence (1998)
Plots And Errors (1999)
Scene of Crime (2001)
Births, Deaths and Marriages (aka Death in the Family) (2002)
Unlucky for Some (2004)

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Dying For Christmas – Tammy Cohen

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

I’m a big fan of Tamar (now known as Tammy) Cohen’s writing having really enjoyed the sharp observations in The Mistresses Revenge and I was thrilled when she ventured into the psychological thriller genre with The Broken. In Dying for Christmas we meet Jessica Gold, a young woman with a long-term boyfriend out shopping for Christmas in London. She visits a department store café and meets Dominic Lacey a charming and good-looking man who flatters her and by the time she has finished her drink she agrees to go home with him. Yes not the wisest move! Jessica soon finds out what a big mistake she has made.

And there it was. The thing that had lurked beneath the perfect glass surface of our encounter. The thing I’d been trying not to face. The thing my mother had warned me against.
And it was all my own fault.

Right from the start this book is totally gripping and the tension rises as Dominic presents Jessica with a present each day, but these aren’t your conventional gifts of jewellery, underwear and toiletries. Dominic is a truly scary man and over the course of the book, the stories he tells partly explain why, but they also tell us how his mind works, and what he is capable of.

Although Jessica is harder to categorise from her own narrative although she does divulge her problems connecting with others that seem to stem back to early childhood. Travis her trainee doctor boyfriend gives her a veneer of normalness which she would be lost without but his interest in her has recently waned.

Along with Jessica and Dominic’s story the police investigation is told from the perspective of Kim a tenacious and ambitious officer whose personal life is in a state of flux. Kim’s investigation gives the background to Jessica’s life through her parent’s brother’s and colleague’s and psychotherapist’s statements adding another dimension.

The psychotherapist’s smile remained fixed on her face as if it had been thrown there and stuck, like not quite-cooked spaghetti against the wall.
‘It would be uncharacteristic for her to act in that way,’ she said eventually. ‘But I wouldn’t rule it out. Jessica is a highly unusual person. I wouldn’t want to risk predicting her behaviour.’

As always I enormously enjoyed Tammy Cohen’s writing style, her dry wit appeals to my sense of humour and the momentary lightness these bring gave me some relief from this chilling Christmas tale.

She was well aware how the family would be judged on how much emotion they showed. Too much and it could all be deemed a show. Too little and they were hiding something. When did people start judging real life like the X Factor.

Books that have a wide range of characters are ones that I enjoy the most and this book is made up of a great collection all with varying flaws but not so much so that they become unrealistic and their actions fit the pace of the plot which is a twists and turns enough to make the reader giddy.

This is a great anti-Christmas tale, one to curl up with when the relatives really have over-stayed their welcome and you want to remind yourself that it could be worse! For all of that I finished up knowing that I’d suspended belief and shut down the questioning part of my brain in order to get the maximum enjoyment out of this one and it is an accolade to the author that the more unrealistic section occurred after a brilliant set-up to make this possible.

I’d like to thank the publishers, Random House UK, for allowing me to revel in my favourite kind of villain ahead of publication date of 20 November 2014 in return for my honest opinion.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Hello From The Gillespies – Monica McInerney

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

I think we’ve all had the misfortune at some time to receive one of those cheery Christmas missives which inform us what a successful, enviable life their writer has enjoyed over the last year, often appended by photographs of the family looking suitably satisfied with themselves. Angela had written such a missive for each of the thirty-three years of her marriage, proclaiming her love of the Australian outback to those she left behind in England, her blissfully happy marriage and of course information regarding her four children’s equally happy and successful lives, to her neighbours, friends, doctor and a myriad of other recipients from near and far.

All those bright, happy letters, putting the best possible spin on their lives, making it sound as though the Gillespies were the luckiest, loveliest, most successful, well-balanced, supportive family in all Australia, and possibly even the world. She had always skipped over any troubles. Avoided mention of any tensions. Edited out any sticky subjects. It had felt like the right thing to do, even if she knew they sometimes sounded too good to be true.

This year Angela sits down at the family computer and can’t think of a word to say beyond the subject line ‘Hello From The Gillespies’ and instead writes a stream of consciousness about her children’s faults which include the delights of an affair, living a fake life, weight problems, over-dramatic and plain weird. She then moves onto her husband Nick who no longer talks to her, has become obsessed with family research and is planning a trip to meet Gillespies from all over the world in Ireland without her. With these details plus a toe-curling fantasy of another life in London, the path she might have taken if she hadn’t met Nick Gillespie, Angela has to abandon the letter to deal with a medical crisis. Little did she know that Nick having seen the Christmas letter had decided to be helpful and forward it to the 100 people on the distribution list.

At over 600 pages long I did wonder how the author was going to spin the fall-out of the letter laced with truth-serum, but she has cleverly added a twist that keeps the momentum moving and adding more warm-hearted details of a family under all kinds pressure. Monica McInereny manages to avoid the saccharine sweetness by keeping her characters real, especially those of her elder daughters who although pretty immature for their ages (early thirties) all come across as individuals with their own personalities, problems and sometimes novel solutions. The story spans the best part of a year in the life of the Gillespie family and although the ending was somewhat predictable it kept my spirits up as I battled the first virus of the winter season.

I received my copy of Hello From The Gillespies from the publishers Penguin Books (UK) ahead of the publication date of 6 November 2014 in return for this honest review.

Posted in Books I have read, Challenge

The Sleeper – Gillian White

Psychological Thriller 5*'s
Psychological Thriller
5*’s

If ever there was an antidote to a Merry Christmas, this book is it! Set during a wintry Christmas, in the middle of a storm the electricity goes off while Violet Moon is visiting her son and daughter-in-law at the farm she owned and ran with her now dead husband William.  Away from her cosy house and her séances she holds Violet Moon is dreading Christmas on the farm which once meant so much to her…

This is a fantastic study of human life, but don’t expect to find fluffy nice characters within the pages of this book. The Sleeper has a collection of people trapped in lives they don’t want to be in, those looking for others to provide their happiness, those who want to turn back time, and too many who think they can orchestrate a different future. Jealousy, suspicion and dastardly deeds are the presents for Christmas this year.

At the same time at The Happy Haven Hotel in Torquay one of the elderly residents is missing. No family is known of and no clue to where she may have gone to, her roommate is concerned and the police are called…

With the roots to this unhappy Christmas originating in some part in the past the reader is let in on events involving Violet and the loss of her mother over fifty years previously. The narrative to this book is unusual using a narrator viewing events as a whole inviting the reader to question each person’s actions, thoughts and adding pertinent information to enrich those tales being told in the present.

I really enjoyed this most claustrophobic of novels, the isolated farmhouse with its aga, candles and a pervading darkness hiding more than anyone would have expected.

This book, reminiscent of those written by Barbara Vine, was first published in the 1990’s. Open Road Media has re-published this book, and others by Gillian White, for the kindle. Excellent news for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of this talented writer before, or those of us who missed some titles the first time around.

I received a free copy of this book from Netgalley for my honest review.
The Sleeper: A Novel

This is my third read in the COYER challenge

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