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

No Way Out – Cara Hunter

Crime Fiction – Series
5*s

Having been blown away with the quality of the first two books featuring DI Adam Fawley I had high expectations of this, the third in this series set in Oxford. The expectations were completely met in this topical thriller.

The crime this time is arson, a particularly brutal means of killing and in this the victims appear to be a young boy Zachary Esmond who has been killed in his home in North Oxford. His elder brother Matty is desperately ill in hospital and their academic father and mother are nowhere to be found. Family annihilation is suspected but only time will tell if the facts fit the theory. First job is to find Michael Esmond and find out if he has deliberately sought to wipe his family off the earth and that is Adam Fawley’s job.

I particularly enjoy the style of Cara Hunter’s writing. All her crime fiction books have been pacey with the main story told in the first person present tense while the reader is treated to news extracts and on-line comments at regular intervals throughout. In this book we are provided with the storyline on what led to the fire, a story covering the best part of a year. The investigation is rapid and a master in police procedural while the on-line excerpts keep the storyline feeling exceptionally current given how most of us digest the news these days and I enjoy having a flavour of the crime being investigated alongside some more generic local news from the Oxford area.

The plotting was, as always, superb. The author manages to provide the reader with a whole host of red herrings without giving this reader the feeling that it is simply a complex puzzle to be solved. I need to feel the potential suspects are there because that’s how the investigation has unfolded rather than they are being conjured up just for the story’s sake.

One of the things I enjoy about this police procedural series is that the team get along with each other. There is little in the way of politics and they provide the reader with a solid team that although aren’t devoid of personality, this isn’t the defining part of the story. I will admit I often like the forays into personal lives of our detectives but I have to admire those writers who manage to keep the investigation itself in the frame through any personal ups and downs the team may encounter. Cara Hunter’s writing falls into the latter camp.

Of course in crime fiction it isn’t just the detectives that need to keep you entertained, we also need to feel something for the victims, the potential perpetrators and all the witnesses that we meet along the way. Cara Hunter has a real knack for bringing the whole cast together with a lightness of touch that certainly kept me turning the pages as the book worked its way towards an accomplished finale.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to the publishers Penguin Books UK who allowed me to read a copy of No Way Out which was an enormous honour. I’ve already put the fourth in the series (due out in December 2019) onto my wishlist.

Previous Books in the DI Fawley Series
Close to Home
In the Dark

First Published UK: 22 March 2019
Publisher: Penguin Books Uk
No of Pages: 367
Genre: Crime Fiction – Series
Amazon UK
Amazon US

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

In the Dark – Cara Hunter

Crime Fiction
5*s

This is the second in the series by Cara Hunter featuring DI Adam Fawley. It might be set in Oxford but we have quite a different type of detective, crimes and characters than those who featured in Inspector Morse.

DI Adam Fawley falls into the breed of likeable detective. As you’d expect, he has some baggage, but in his case his past is one that is only likely to illicit sympathy. We learn a little more about him following on from his first outing Close to Home but his story is very much in the background, the foreground is most definitely the crimes committed in the quiet Oxford street where a woman and a young child are found locked in a basement.

The woman Vicky and child are starved and thirsty and severely traumatised, Vicky not speaking at all at first and with the owner of the house, Dr William Harper, is denying all knowledge of them the police are up against it trying to work out who the prisoners are, and more importantly how long and why they’ve been locked up. In their search for clues they realise that the house backs onto the garden of the home of a missing woman called Hannah Gardiner.

There are lots of characters who all add rich detail to what becomes an investigation into the two women, and of course the child who is too young to be able to tell them anything. The police team of course consists of more than DI Fawley and the relationship between the officers is good with Detectives Quinn and Gislingham (Gis) providing a realistic view of how to survive working on such a harrowing investigation.

“Gis, who has always been exceptionally good at knowing when to stop digging, and Quinn who carries his own set of shovels“

The author has worked hard though to provide a reasonable complement of police, all with distinct personalities which is far more realistic that the older style police procedurals with just a couple of detectives involved in solving a case. Another example that gives this book an up-to-date feel is the full use of the female detectives and supporting police personnel throughout the story. As in real life they are no longer used just to pass hankies these women are involved from beginning to end.

With the use of news reports from BBC Midlands and the like, inserted into the story the author also moves away from the more traditional tale that is told just from one viewpoint, this element is built upon with transcribed interviews, including from those living in Frampton Road. These are brilliant, the author telling us so much about the area from both the content and the words used.

This, as was the first book, is a fast-paced police procedural with the author liberally sprinkling her story with red-herrings to keep her reader’s guessing and I for one lapped it all up and I’m eager for the next book by this author to see what dark mystery Oxford will serve up for us next.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to Penguin Books UK who allowed me to read an advance copy of In the Dark. This unbiased review is my thanks to them and of course Cara Hunter for keeping so thoroughly entertained if a little traumatised by what was waiting for me on this visit to Oxford!

First Published UK: 12 July 2018
Publisher: Penguin Books UK
No of Pages: 448
Genre: Crime Fiction – Series
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Lisa Jewell Novels

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

The Moving Toyshop – Edmund Crispin

Classic
5*s

Written in 1946 this is actually the third in the author’s series featuring the Oxford Professor of English Language and Literature Gervase Fen, but the first one that I have read and this one is featured in Martin Edwards’ brilliant book The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

In this book we meet famous poet Richard Cadogan who is seeking inspiration and so taps up his publisher for some money. That gets him just enough for a short holiday to Oxford. Clearly not very good on the organisational front after some hitch-hiking he finds himself on the deserted high street late at night and enters a toy shop, as you do, and finds a body of an elderly woman, clearly murdered. Poor old Richard is knocked out and locked in a cupboard by an unknown assailant. So it isn’t until the morning that he can alert anyone, by which time when he leads the finest of Oxfordshire’s constabulary to the high street, the toyshop has vanished.

Ultimately this is a locked room puzzle that needs a mind of a particular type to unlock the mystery and of course the local police aren’t terribly interested there being no body, no toyshop and therefore one has to assume no crime. Richard Cadogan isn’t to be thwarted though, he knows what he saw and so he calls on his old friend Gervase Fen to help. Gervase hops into his temperamental and somewhat erratically driven car, Lily Christine to investigate.

The unravelling of the mystery involves a legacy, one of the most often used device of the time but no less compelling for that, a sprinkling of limericks and a suitably complicated execution of a crime – fictional criminals of this era seemingly wanting to make things as difficult for themselves as those who may wind up investigating it.
Of course our duo don’t hand their suspicions over to the police, after all a poet and a university professor are quite entitled to work things out for themselves, even roping others into helping out

“I don’t think this is going to work,” Mr. Beavis remarked with some apprehension.
“It will work,” Fen responded confidently, “because no one expects this sort of trick outside a book”

The wonder of this novel is not so much the mystery, although that was well-executed, but the brilliant double-act that are Fen and Cadogan. While they are racing around in cars or sitting in bars stalking out various characters, they play silly games to pass the time such as unintentionally loathsome characters in literature, horrible classics and the most unreadable books of all time. All great fun although I have to admit that the use of unfamiliar phrases and words meant I am fully aware I didn’t quite get every humorous message, but I got enough to keep me fully entertained. Being set in Oxford even the local policeman is interested in literature..

Gervase, has it ever occurred to you that Measure for Measure is about the problem of Power?”
Don’t bother me with trivialities now” said Fen, annoyed, and rang off.

And even the lorry driver that gave Richard a lift at the start of the book reads from the circulating library citing “lady’s somebody’s lover” as an example of a recent read.

Most of all this book is fun with a capital F. I’ll be honest I wasn’t sure quite what to expect but I fell in love with the characters, the bizarreness and the rattling pace which was enhanced by the humour.

The Moving Toyshop is number 39 on The Classics Club list and the third of my fifty choices that I’ve read and reviewed. A great introduction into my Classic Crime Fiction.

 

First Published UK: 1946
Publisher: Penguin 
No of Pages: 245
Genre: Classic Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

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

Close to Home – Cara Hunter #BlogTour

I was delighted to be asked by Poppy from Penguin to be part of the blog tour for this debut crime novel which was published in December 2017. Close to Home introduces DI Adam Fawley in this nail-biting crime fiction novel. But before we get to my review I asked the author Cara Hunter why she chose Oxford as the scene of the crime.

Why is Oxford such a capital of crime?

It’s all Morse’s fault, of course. The books started it, but it was the TV series starring John Thaw that really sealed the city’s fate. And since then, of course, we’ve had Lewis and Endeavour too. If you believe even half of what you see there can’t be a (thinly disguised) college that hasn’t lost at least half a dozen dons to murderous revenge or professional rivalry. Don’t get me wrong, I am the most immense fan of the whole franchise, but it does make Oxford a mite crowded for anyone wanting to set their own crime series here. I could have chosen somewhere else, of course, but I live in Oxford, and whoever it was who said ‘write what you know’ is dead right. That was one important reason I wanted to set the Fawley books here; the other is because there’s a lot more to Oxford than ivy-clad quads.

Being a university town definitely shapes the sort of place this is: there’s a big student population, and a high proportion of academics, many of them from overseas, and some of them (like the students) only here for a few years. And surrounding the ancient beautiful centre you have a ring of very different communities, from the industrial area round the Cowley car plant, to the genteel suburb of Summertown, to areas like Osney and Jericho, which bear witness to the city’s industrial past (the two-up-two-down Victorian cottages in Jericho originally housed workers at the nearby Oxford University Press).

These different ‘satellites’ have their own distinctive atmosphere and appearance, but even if the geographical areas are clear and self-contained, the same doesn’t go for the people. I’ve always been intrigued how much intermingling there is here between very different groups of people – how many connections there are that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. It makes this beautiful city a rich and diverse place to live and work in, but it also makes it fertile ‘terroir’ (as the French say), for conflict, misunderstanding and tension. Everything you need, in fact, for the perfect crime….

Cara Hunter January 2018

My Review

Crime Fiction
5*s

Wow! This is one of the most nail-biting crime fiction novel I have read for quite some time. DI Adam Fawley presides over a police investigation into eight year old Daisy Mason’s disappearance one summer night while her family were holding a barbecue. No-one saw her go but how can a child disappear into thin air?

This was a compelling read, a real page-turner with twists and turns aplenty. These and many of the other well-worn phrases apply to Close to Home and once again I’m going to struggle to explain what exactly this book offers that makes it stand out from a crowded genre.

I really liked the use of different types of written material in the book, within pages of Daisy’s disappearance the news is out and the twitter feed, oh so realistically created is recreated on the page, just check out those twitter handles, the sentiments shared in the 140 characters and compare them to everything you see, even if you don’t want to, on your own social media feed. A few pages further on we have the transcript of a police interview with a suspect, we have bulletin’s from the media, a birthday message and a story written by a child, all of which adds to the texture of the book, it tells a story without needing to verbalise some of the conflicting views the reader themselves may have.

The characters are also well-formed. I have a feeling some will be universally disliked but Adam Fawley is a likeable detective, not an alcoholic although he does have a bit of baggage, but who doesn’t and it’s the kind of problem which is likely to produce a hefty amount of sympathy. He has a good team who are in the main supportive of each other, a fairly inoffensive bit of rivalry between a couple of officers but not the angst ridden teams with endless pressure piled on from above that is the normal crime fiction fare.

The plotting is meticulous, I actually went back to the beginning to check some facts and I’m convinced that this book has undergone some rigorous editing to make sure that all the strands line up perfectly. The reason why I mention this aspect is because the storyline switches direction a number of times with a piece of evidence turning everything about-face and yet the structure of the book means it has gaps. We see one part of the investigation while elsewhere another piece of evidence is being investigated and so the simultaneous actions taking place are partly told with the answers not necessarily being revealed for a few pages.

All of this gives a fresh feel to this crime fiction series because I am delighted to announce that DI Adam Fawley will be back in the summer in Cara Hunter’s second novel In The Dark, a book that I am really looking forward to reading.

I’d like to thank the publishers Penguin for providing me with a copy of Close to Home thereby allowing me to get hooked on another crime fiction series! This unbiased review is my thanks to them and Cara Hunter for presenting me with a puzzle to entertain me.

First Published UK: 14 December 2017
Publisher: Penguin 
No of Pages: 385
Genre: Crime Fiction – Series
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Cara Hunter is a writer who lives in Oxford, in a street not unlike those featured in her series of crime books. Her first book, Close to Home, was picked for the Richard and Judy Book Club, and this is her second featuring DI Adam Fawley and his team of detectives.

To find out more about Cara Hunter, follow her on twitter @CaraHunterBooks.

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

Anatomy of a Scandal – Sarah Vaughan

Psychological Thriller
5*s

Anatomy of a Scandal is being published at a time when both sides of rape trials are under enormous scrutiny in the press. While I was reading this book, two men were acquitted because full disclosure hadn’t taken place, some commentators believe this is partly caused by the drive to secure more convictions in rape trials. What no-one can deny that this crime is usually committed without witnesses and I don’t envy any jury having to sift fact from fiction or maybe hazy memories when so much is at stake for both alleged victim and perpetrator. Coupled with the rape are the many scandals that seem to provide a backdrop to our country from those who hold the highest offices in the land, at Westminster. So the combination of Ministers and rape, well this could come straight from the newspapers of today, except of course the book is very well written!

Over the years my love of courtroom drama has increased and so when I heard of this book back in the summer, I was desperate to get my hands on a copy; Dear Reader, this book did not disappoint in the slightest.

James Whitehouse is a loving father, an Oxford graduate and a Tory MP, in fact the Prime Minister is one of his oldest friends. James is married to Sophie and has been for many years when he is arrested for the rape of one of his assistants but Sophie is convinced it’s all a terrible mistake.

Kate is the prosecuting attorney, out to make a bigger name for herself she knows that if she can persuade a jury to find James guilty then she can ride high off the back of it. Sex crimes is her speciality although she is realistic about the low conviction rate, she’s determined to win this one.

The story unfolds through the three sets of eyes and ears: Sophie’s, Kate’s and James and as each one seeks to convince us of their truth, the shadows from the past are creeping back into their lives creating a complexity about the truth that is nebulous and yet not about to disappear anytime soon.

Sarah Vaughan is an accomplished writer, she had my feelings about the characters shifting almost imperceptibly as I struggled to work out what I should believe. The plot, just like a real trial, isn’t just about the truth, it also confronts our own moral stance from the obvious What were you wearing? Doing? Thinking? or in other words those questions aimed at the alleged victim by the defence team, to the more subtle question of privilege and the jury’s own prejudices.

The plotting was superb especially given that the story reaches back through time the author managed to keep a sense of place and time without causing confusion, which I’m sure is far harder than she made it look. I was also completely convinced by the characters they spoke and acted realistically given that this was a time of enormous stress for them all, albeit for different reasons.

Anatomy of a Scandal might be presented as a rape trial, and of course it is, but there is far more depth to this novel than I expected. The roller-coaster isn’t just about the verdict, it is also about marriage, friendship and moral dilemmas making for a highly satisfying read.

Anatomy for a Scandal
is obviously perfect reading for a book group, I can see that this book will generate much discussion and debate around the subject matter and the way the trial progresses.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to the publishers, Simon & Schuster UK, for allowing me to read an advance copy of this book. You really did the right thing in purchasing this brilliant, intelligent and thought-provoking book. This unbiased review is my thank you to the publishers and of course, Sarah Vaughan, who I sincerely hope is busy writing something new for me to enjoy.

First Published UK: 11 January 2018
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK
No of Pages: 400
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Amazon UK
Amazon US

 

 

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

The House of Birds – Morgan McCarthy

Historical Fiction 5*s
Historical Fiction
5*s

I’m a fan of dual time-line stories but suspect that these are far trickier to pull off than the big hits in the genre suggest, I have read my fill of poor imitations where the connections between past and present are weak or worse still, contrived. Books where all too often, one of the stories shores up the other to such an extent that you feel it was only invented to appeal to those of us who enjoy this form of storytelling. The House of Birds is not one of these poor imitations, better still the story in the present is about a man, Oliver who has walked out of his highly paid job and is ‘considering his options!’

Oliver met Kate when he was a twelve-year-old boy and together, one sunny day, finding themselves outside Kate’s Great-Aunt’s house decided as a bit of a dare to investigate. They made their way through the overgrown garden and Oliver climbed up to peer through one of the upstairs windows. What he saw in the room made a memory that he never quite shook off, coming as these vivid memories often do, just before his life changed, and he moved away from Oxford. Years later Oliver and Kate meet again and start to build a life together. Kate’s family has been split into two sides for years over an ongoing dispute of inheritance of the house in Oxford but now it has been passed to Kate. With the house in a poor state of repair and Oliver at a loose end, he decides to use his time organising the repairs and renovations. Once there he finds a story, written by a woman called Sophie.

Sophie’s story is set in the 1920s where she is trying to gain access to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, but not having anyone to write a letter to allow her entry she is turned away. So starts the beginning of my enormous sympathy for this young woman, one whose husband returned from the war a different man to the one who left. This is a woman who has a love of books, of language and of learning and yet she is tied to the house where her staff have not enough to keep them busy but go some way into bringing life into a house where husband and wife have little conversation and who sleep in separate rooms.

The link between past and present is far from clear, even to Oliver as Kate had never mentioned a Sophia, so the first mystery is how the document ended up in the house at all. But like me, he could not fail to be captivated by Sophia’s story and when the pages come to an end, he wants to know more and without Kate’s knowledge tries to find out more which means talking to the side of the family who believe the house belongs to them.

Already enthralled by the story I was especially thrilled later on when mentions of Crete, in particular, Knossos, and the renovation of the site by Arthur Evans in the early twentieth century because I visited the site on my holiday this year. We had a very knowledgeable guide Maria, and so I know that Morgan McCarthy has done her research well from the titbits that correlate perfectly to all that I learnt about the site. With many pieces of information that are lightly sprinkled throughout the book, from myths and legends to the difference between a labyrinth and a maze, battles and kings and queens, meant that this was a book that taught me some new things too without it ever feeling anything apart from the fabric of the book itself.

This book has some outstanding characters who run the gamut of emotions of humans around the world, and some of these are mirrored between past and present. Sophia has a sister, and there is sibling rivalry, there is love, there is duty and there is guilt and greed… I could go on. This isn’t a fast moving book but the language is beautiful and the writing evocative. I had one of those sad moments when I reached the very satisfying ending, where I genuinely missed the characters I’d come to know and love.

I was delighted to receive a copy of The House of Birds from the publishers Headline. This unbiased review is my thank you to them

First Published UK: 3 November 2016
Publisher: Headline
No of Pages: 448
Genre: Historical Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

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

After I Left You – Alison Mercer

Contemporary Fiction 5*'s
Contemporary Fiction
5*’s

Anna left Oxford University in the early nineties, cutting off all ties with her fellow students but why? Alison Mercer does a fantastic job right from the first page in drawing us into Anna’s world both now and in the past.

When we first meet Anna she is thrilled to be leaving home, she has outgrown her mother, her step-father Gareth and step-sister Tippy (nick-named because as a little child she kept tipping things over) and is eager to start a new life reading English at the famous university.

Moving in she soon meets up with some of the friends that she will be closest to through her years in Oxford but the underlying question is always, why did it all fall apart? The story is told alternating between the events in the present spliced with those that happened during her years as a student.

Alison Mercer has created a wide variety of characters from the beautiful confident Clarissa to the withdrawn Keith, from the earnest Meg to the brash bold Barnaby and of course Victor, someone we know was important in Anna’s life because bumping into him launches this very clever tale of betrayal. The author also manages to keep Anna’s character consistent through both timelines, although it is clear that whatever happened has changed her outlook, the core values are still there.

The setting was beautiful, I could easily imagine the fictional St Bart’s, the rooms, the courtyards and the pictures taken to commemorate an evening of intense conversation, which leads neatly onto a second point; the nineties were accurately portrayed including the emerging technologies such as email although the phone box was still the preferred method of keeping in touch with loved ones.

I enjoyed this book even more than I expected to and the characters walked out of the pages and into my life. With the snippets from the past giving hints to not only the main betrayal but also from some other secrets that had hindered Anna through her life since leaving Oxford, I began to join the dots and gratifyingly I was spot on in one aspect but wide of the mark in others. A brilliantly executed finale wrapped up this accomplished novel.
This is Alison Mercer’s second novel, her first Stop The Clock is now on my TBR, and reading her biography it is easy to see why the Oxford she describes is so believable, she attended Oxford and read English.

If you want a well-written novel, with secrets, lies along with realistic characters, you might well enjoy this book.

I received my copy ahead of the paperback publication of 31 July 2014 from the publishers Random House, in return for this honest review.