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

The Facts of Life and Death – Belinda Bauer

Crime Fiction 5*s
Crime Fiction
5*s

For some reason I didn’t get around to reading this book by Belinda Bauer despite being a big fan, and having bought a copy of Blacklands in 2010 I’ve read my way through her books pretty much as soon as they’ve been published. No matter, The Facts of Life and Death was well worth the wait, in fact, it is decidedly my favourite of Belinda Bauer’s entire work.

The book is told by the viewpoint of ten-year old Ruby Trick who lives in Limeburn, Devon where she lives with her Mummy who works at the posh hotel and her Daddy a lover of all things Cowboy. He no longer has a job since the industry he was trained for has dissolved. The summer that the killer came to the area was one of those wet, dank summers that we do so well in the UK. Occasionally the sun managed to make a half-hearted appearance but for the rest of the time, it was damp and dismal.

Limeburn is sandwiched between the forest on one side, Ruby is to go no further than the stile, and the sea on the other, the sea where Ruby’s father fishes for their dinner and occasionally to sell. The few children in the village stick together, they have to if they want any companions at all, because it is a way to the larger town and so Ruby spends time in the ‘haunted house’ with her friend Adam throwing sticks into the sea and the rest of her time living for her weekly copy of Pony & Rider and her Mars bar that take up the entirety of her pocket money which she takes back home to The Retreat.

It was owned by a family in London who had bought it and named it and then found it was too distant, too dreary, too damp to retreat to – even just once a summer – and had rented it out until they could sell at a profit.

Meanwhile a twisted man is taking young women off the streets and getting them to strip and call their mothers to say goodbye. The mothers then get to watch and listen as the life is snuffed out of their daughters. Absolutely horrific, need I say more?

The absolute beauty of this book is that although much of what is happening is seen through Ruby’s eyes, with a childhood that is recognisable to many I should imagine, with petty jealousies, nasty boys, priggish girls and a fair smattering of boredom, Ruby is also worried about her Daddy leaving. Daddy is so much more fun than Mummy who is boring but there are rows which Ruby tries to remove herself from:

Whenever the row started, it always ended up at the job. It got there without her.

Then there is school where Ruby’s problems are magnified, not the most attractive of children with red hair and a fondness for sweets, which Daddy often indulges, she has a teacher Miss Sharpe who tells them all to write a diary daily. As any self-respecting child would, this meant that Ruby spent one day a week filling in her entries in her ‘Dairy’ Seriously I could have been Ruby and I adored Miss Sharpe’s character:

A couple of the other teachers tittered nervously. Not Miss Sharpe. If Miss Sharpe ever caught herself tittering, she’d give herself a good smack.

So it is a story of childhood, a world interpreted without the context to fully understand, it is also funny which makes it a real joy to read… and scary – I don’t want to think about the terror of those women, particularly those caught later on, who knew all about the murderer, or their poor mothers. The juxtaposition of childhood innocence with depravity makes for an incredibly powerful story and the outstanding plotting, the steady pace where there is not one scene too many, nor a single word seemingly without importance.

An outstanding read which was truly exceptional. If you haven’t read any of Belinda Bauer’s books, all of which I highly recommend, The Facts of Life and Death is up there with my favourite crime novels of all time, because it is about so much more than just crime; it is a reflection of a type of household, a type of community, a type of school and a type of man – all of which could be just around the corner from you or me.

First Published UK: 27 March 2014
Publisher: Bantam Press
No of Pages: 336
Genre: Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Belinda Bauer’s Books – NB these are all standalone books, so no need to read them in order

Blacklands (2010)
Darkside (2011)
Finders Keepers (2012)
Rubbernecker (2013)
The Facts of Life and Death (2014)
The Shut Eye (2015)
The Beautiful Dead (2016)

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

And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie

Crime Fiction 5*s
Crime Fiction
5*s

Well what can I say? I first read this book many, many years ago and it has always stayed in my mind as my favourite of all Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries, and after this re-read, it still is.

Although there is no Poirot or Miss Marple detecting, in fact there is practically no detection at all, there have to be more murders in this book than in any other of her novels!

For those of you who haven’t read this book the basic plot is a simple one: Ten people are invited to Soldier Island off the coast of Devon, by someone they believe they know some for work and some for pleasure. Only the very slow will not realise that the most common name seems to be one Mr or Miss U.N. Owen (Unknown). We meet the various guests as they travel down and they range from the old General to the young(ish) schoolmistress. In each of the bedrooms hangs a copy of the verse:

Ten little Soldier Boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.

Nine little Soldier Boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.

Eight little Soldier Boys travelling in Devon;
One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.

Seven little Soldier Boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.

Six little Soldier Boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.

Five little Soldier Boys going in for law;
One got in Chancery and then there were four.

Four little Soldier Boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.

Three little Soldier Boys walking in the zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.

Two little Soldier Boys sitting in the sun;
One got frizzled up and then there was one

One little Soldier Boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.

In total seven men and three women are in the dining room when a disembodied voice accuses the guests of wrongdoings in the past. Before the night is out there is one dead guest and one missing china soldier figure from the original set of ten… And so the mystery begins and what a terrific one it is. Not only does the reader have the pleasure of trying to identify who the killer might be from the clues given but this particular reader got great enjoyment of working out how the next death would fit with the rhyme.

In the beginning of my copy there is a quote from Agatha Christie’s biography which states that it took a tremendous amount of planning to avoid becoming ridiculous. The prologue goes on to say that she was delighted that it was so well received but the person who was really pleased with it was herself.  I can understand why!

Again being a book of its time, first published in 1939 it isn’t without some racism, in fact part of why it took me such a long time to find a good second-hand copy was because I only wanted one with this, the most modern of its titles, the others too unacceptable for my bookshelf. Even with the new title you can’t get away with some stereotyping about Jews but this wouldn’t have made the nation wince at the time it was written, as it did me. Indeed one of the reasons I like re-reading Agatha Christie’s novels are for the contemporary views at the time they were written, and in this one, although there are fewer examples we do have a few, such as those about the spinster Emily Blunt.

If you are one of those people who haven’t read any of Agatha Christie’s books, this is still my favourite and a great place to experience the Queen of Crime’s ability not only to think up a great plot but to execute it with aplomb!

 

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

A Game For All The Family – Sophie Hannah

Psychological Thriller 5*s
Psychological Thriller
5*s

This is a stand-alone book from Sophie Hannah, a woman who creates stories using the most unlikely but not, unbelievable, disturbances of the mind.

On the way to their new home in Devon, the Merrison family; Justine, Alex and Ellen spot a house that resonates inside Justine for no apparent meaning. Justine has just left the world of TV drama and is determined to spend her days doing nothing. Ellen is enrolled into a quirky private school and Alex will continue to sing in Operas around the world.

All goes well, the ugly house is more or less forgotten and for the first couple of months the move out of London to Devon proves to be a good one. But then Ellen becomes withdrawn and secretive. Ah but she’s fourteen, so nothing too out of the ordinary! Ellen is spending all of her time working on a story she’s writing for an English assignment and when Justine finds the first couple of pages she’s alarmed. It is very well-written, set in their new house and has more than one murder! Around the same time Ellen becomes distressed about her friend George Donbavand who has been expelled from school for a crime he hasn’t committed. Justine visits the school and is told that George never existed!

This book had me totally confused but in an enthralled way. It is a puzzle where you have to decide who, and what to believe, and the author does a good job of making that path as murky as possible with each possible scenario being equally unlikely: if George doesn’t exist does that mean Ellen has invented him? Why? If he does exist why would the head-teacher deny his existence? And this is just the beginning!

Ellen’s writing assignment forms a story within a story, featuring a peculiar family, the Bascom’s, with their oddly named children, is well-written and entertaining (it is rare for a psychological thriller that has me sniggering in places) and although the reason for its inclusion isn’t immediately apparent (or for quite some time) I promise it all eventually does become clear.

I think it is essential that you read this book with the mind-set that you will go with the flow! I was slightly concerned when I got half-way through and was absolutely loving the ride but still had absolutely no idea what was going on, let alone where the solution to the puzzle was hiding. Fortunately Sophie Hannah weaves a wonderful tale, with interesting, if not likeable characters to stem my impatience. This is a book that raises more questions than it answers, has you believing, unbelievable events, and is populated by the most untrustworthy bunch of characters that you are ever likely to meet.

I loved it! It is a clever book, but not too complex (it didn’t make my brain hurt too much), the clues are there and this little detective actually managed to provide at least part of the solution once I’d found the question!

For readers who like their psychological mysteries to be something different, who don’t mind reading a story where you have to put your trust in the author that you will, once you’ve finished, be able to work out what all those entertaining words added up to, this is a fantastic read. This is a book of extreme psychological disorders, both in Ellen’s assignment and in Justine’s life. Justine’s life of doing nothing is punctuated with threatening phone calls, anonymous notes and graves being dug for her and her family causing distress and causing Justine to spend her days investigating who is out to get her, but much more importantly why?

I’d like to say a huge thank you to Lovereading who provided me with a copy of this book to review prior to its publication on 13 August 2015, another definite entry into the best reads of 2015, quirky, inventive and original. I was already a fan of Sophie Hannah’s and this is definitely her best book to date.

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

The Burning Air – Erin Kelly

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

Lydia opens her diary, picks up her pen and prepares to commit her sins to its pages. Overwhelmed by her illness she finishes her entry by stating ‘A good mother loves fiercely but ultimately brings up her children to thrive without her. They must be the most important thing in her life, but if she is the most important thing in theirs, she has failed.’ These words underpin the rest of one of the darkest stories I have read.

Set over a weekend from 1st to 3rd November 2013 Lydia’s family get together at Far Barn in Saxby, Devon to spread her ashes. Lydia’s husband Rowan, her adult children Sophie, Tara and Felix gather together along with an assortment of partners and offspring. Without a television or mobile signal and only a tape deck and record player for music being at Far Barn is like going back in time and that is without the family memories of former holidays. The scene is set for a claustrophobic weekend where the consequences of the past make themselves known. When Felix’s new girlfriend disappears with Sophie’s baby on bonfire night the secrets of the past come tumbling out with each character having a part to play in this well-crafted story.

This was a riveting read with carefully presented twists along the way. Erin Kelly showcases her talents as a master of plotting. The characters that inhabit the pages of this book were distinct and when revelations were made about them these assimilated with previous knowledge with no jarring at all.

This is right up there as one of the best books I have read this year; I’d go as far as to say Barbara Vine has a rival.

Erin Kelly is the author of two other books both of which I thoroughly enjoyed

The Poison Tree
The Sick Rose

Her next book, The Ties That Bind, is due to be published by Hodder next May, which I  am really looking forward to.

Learn more about Erin Kelly  and her books on her website.