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

The Other Mrs Walker – Mary Paulson-Ellis

Historical Fiction
5*s

It’s lovely to read a book that offers up something fresh and Mary Paulson Ellis resoundingly met that brief for me with this tale that weaves a mystery from the past with family secrets. I got the feeling that many families although not having the exact same story, there are many that have similar skeletons lurking in cupboards which share some of the same elements.

Somehow she’d always known that she would end like this. In a small square room, in a small square flat. In a small square box, perhaps. Cardboard, with a sticker on the outside. And a name…

Margaret Penny returns to Edinburgh after some thirty years away and returns to her mother’s home. She is not given a warm welcome, or even a proper bed but given that she feels she has no choice except to leave London, she has to take the scant comfort on offer

Margaret’s mother is part of a circle of women who attend funerals for those who have no-one else. This idea in itself can’t help but warm your heart although I may prefer to go it alone than to have some sour-hearted old woman turning up because she’s on a rota! Through this circle Margaret gets a temporary job locating family for those who are deceased, an odd job, but one that will ultimately save the council money as someone has to pay for the funeral.
Margaret’s first job is to locate a name for an elderly woman who died alone in a flat. In the cold flat with whisky pooling on the floor are a few belongings, including a beautiful green dress. With little in the way of paperwork Margaret embarks on a treasure hunt to find a name, and family for the deceased.

I loved the way this story was constructed. The story flips backwards and forwards with dates that range from 1930s to the present day, this is historical story-telling at its best; those small details so beautifully drawn, delighted me. Possessions are important to the Walker family and the handling of these often insignificant objects pervades their storyline. The descriptions of war-time London were outstanding and easily transported me to the era and the magical gift of an orange, its peel being one of the objects which links the episodes within this complex tale.

The characters were brilliantly drawn, three-dimensional with quirks that differentiate them easily but best of all we see many determined women who do not dwell on the past, or rail against the present, no, they are forever picking themselves up and forging onwards.

If you want a book to savour, one that is full of imagery despite being so dark that it is no wonder that the Walker family treasured their few flashes of colour with their oranges and jade green dresses, then you will enjoy this read. That said, because of the many themes along with the moving backwards and forwards in time, further complicated by the gaps in the timeline left to be filled by the reader’s imagination, it is a book to read when you can concentrate. I was lucky enough to read this in one hit and so got swept along in the storyline from London to snowy Edinburgh and from one claustrophobic household to another, and I loved every minute of it.

First Published UK: 10 March 2016
Publisher: Picador
No. of Pages: 448
Genre: Historical Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US (currently unavailable)

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

Dear Mr. M – Herman Koch #20booksofsummer

Contemporary Fiction
4*s

The words that come to my mind when I think about Herman Koch’s writing are despicable characters, sardonic humour and very, very dark. Dear Mr. M without a doubt, lived up to this assessment, easily matching these ingredients first met in The Dinner and Summer House with Swimming Pool.

In this book we have a neighbour obsessed with a writer, aging M who lives in the same block of apartments as he does in Amsterdam.

Dear Mr. M,
I’d like to start by telling you that I’m doing better now. I do so because you probably have no idea that I was ever doing worse. Much worse, in fact, but I’ll get to that later on….

Yes, I have certain plans for you, Mr. M  You may think you’re alone, but as of today I’m here too…

Right from the off, even if you have picked this book up blind, there is a real sense of creepiness, and this persists right through the novel.

Our narrator, the neighbour gives us a full picture of just the kind of man is; a writer who had one hit book, Payback, a writer who although he has written other books now has his greatest hit quite far in the past. He is pompous and scathing of everyone he knows and seemingly incapable without his young wife to tend to him. We don’t however have a name for the narrator, or what he does, but we do know he stalks the author in the most insidious manner, and we have a feeling that there is a purpose, just what, is the mystery.

“By using the word ‘tolerance,’ you’re simply placing yourself on a higher plane than those you tolerate. Tolerance is only possible when one fosters a deep rooted sense of superiority.”

The subject matter for Mr. M’s best-seller was based on the mysterious disappearance forty years before of a trendy school-teacher. The last known sighting of the teacher, Mr Landzaat, was at the holiday home of his pupil Laura who was staying for the Christmas holiday with her classmate Herman. Laura had been the teacher’s lover, but by the time he disappeared their liaison was over and Mr Landzaat was on his way to Paris to welcome in the New Year with friends, but he disappeared one snowy day never to be seen again.

This book is, as might be expected, full of contradictions and spikiness. We attend literary events courtesy of our famous author and see his take on the behind the scenes one-upmanship which it’s only too easy to believe might just exist between literary authors. We also have a sense that his younger wife has been chosen just to get up the nose of those authors who are somewhat higher up the bestseller list than our subject, who churns out war stories, Payback being a one-off foray into a different kind of writing. The signings and the publisher events are marred not just by the lack of his current success but the belt-tightening of the industry with lavish dinners of the past giving way to buffets in the present day.

The seemingly unrelated storylines that make up this book are cleverly combined as the book progresses but even when I was unsure quite how this was going to work, each individual strand is a delight in itself, an insight into the most unattractive people you would probably wish to spend time with. Please don’t read this book if you need to like at least one of the characters, I can guarantee you won’t enjoy this bunch at all! But if like me, you enjoy a clever book, one that is quite unlike anything else you are likely to read, Dear Mr. M will both delight and horrify you in equal measure.

Dear Mr. M was my nineteenth read in my 20 Books of Summer Challenge.

First Published UK: 25 August 2016
Publisher: Picador
No of Pages: 416
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

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

Little Deaths – Emma Flint

Crime Fiction
5*s

Little Deaths is inspired by the true story of Alice Crimmins who was tried for the murder of her two young children in Queens, New York in 1965, and oh my, what a compelling story this is!

We are introduced to the mother, now Ruth Malone, who lives in an apartment in Queens whose two children Frankie and Cindy went missing from their bedroom. With little Cindy found strangled in a nearby parking lot a day later, Frankie remained missing for a further ten days, and then he too was found murdered. Despite the horrible crime as the book unfolds we see that Ruth was tried, not as much on hard evidence but because the former cocktail waitress did not behave as the public expects a bereaved mother to act.

I was instantly drawn into the tale, the world that Ruth lived in is one that is relatively easy to sympathise with. Her life hadn’t turned out as she expected, her dreams stunted by the birth of her two children and then she separated from her husband Frank. At the time the children went missing the two were locked in a custody battle with Ruth determined not to relinquish her children but at the same time nor was she going to live like a nun.  Contrary to the working class values that was Queens at that time, her neighbours disapproved of her association with a number of other men,added to which she cared about her appearance, drank and smoked. The hard truth is that Ruth wanted more from her life but did that mean she was the one who killed the children?  The countless crimes against Ruth mount throughout the book as the police, certain of her guilt, have her under almost constant surveillance so when she buys a new dress soon after Cindy’s body was found, her guilt was almost confirmed.

Emma Flint has provided us with one of the most complex of female characters and each incident can be viewed from differing angles and the conclusions made will depend on which angle you consider to be most realistic. This creation really takes the book way beyond a simple rehash of the crime itself. I felt I knew Ruth, I could both identify with some of her thoughts whilst at other times wonder why she made life quite so hard for herself, after all she was far from stupid – perhaps that was her downfall?

In the mix of characters we have Ruth’s mother, her ex Frank, a couple of male friends, the police and the crime reporter determined to make a name for himself, Pete Wonicke, whose obsession with the case added a whole other layer of interest to the story. On the sidelines are the former babysitter and other neighbours all who are pertinent, maybe not to the main mystery but in building the picture of the time and place. The atmosphere of this book was really spot on for both and part of what I loved so much was the feeling of being transported to a different world. The third person narrative was entirely appropriate for the book which is an exploration of values of the time as much as a murder mystery.

I know it is a cliché but once I started this book I simply couldn’t put it down, and as a result of how wrapped up in Ruth’s story I became, have spent my time since with an obsession with Alice Crimmins. From my research I can confirm that the author has clearly done hers although I’m sure the book had far more impact because I read it before learning about the case that inspired it.

I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of this book from the publishers Picador and this review is my unbiased thanks to them.

First Published UK: 12 January 2017
Publisher: Picador
No of Pages:  320
Genre: Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

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

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

Historical Fiction 5*s
Historical Fiction
5*s

Well this was a devastating read!!

Telling the tale, as it does of Agnes Magnúsdóttir:

‘Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, convicted for her role in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson on the night between the 13th and 14th of March 1828, at Illugastadir, on the Vatnsnes Peninsula, North Iceland.’

There were no surprises as to the ending, but the further I read through, right up until the last page I was willing history to be changed, for Agnes to pardoned and her life to be saved. Why was I rooting so hard for a murderess? Well Hannah Kent has in her words to:

‘This novel has been written to supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman’

She does this by recounting the run-up to the murders, partly in the first person narrative that Agnes gives to her chosen priest, Assistant Reverand Tóti Jónsson who is to prepare her spiritually for her death and later to Magrét Jónsson whose farm she was sent to while awaiting her execution. We also have an omnipresent third person narrator who lends a wider view of the crime committed, and of Agnes herself. From this we get an alternative view of how and why Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson came to be slayed with a knife and a hammer one night. It would take the hardest of hearts not to feel some sympathy for Agnes, not because the author tells us so, oh no, far cleverer than that Hannah Kent paints a captivating picture of the coldness, darkness and sheer bleakness of life in nineteenth century Iceland alongside the more common tale of a woman deceived by her lover. For Natan and Agnes were lovers; it was for Natan she’d left the comparatively well-populated life in the valley farms as a workmaid to follow him to more or less entire seclusion in Illugastadir.

‘All my life people have thought I was too clever. Too clever by half, they’d say. And you know what Reverend? That’s exactly why they don’t pity me. Because they think I’m too smart, too knowing to get caught up in this by accident.’

Hannah Kent has used the Icelandic sagas as a base to weave the story around, many of the characters we meet prefer these sagas to the Christian teaching of the church. Through this we have the subtle yet powerful lyrical narrative that had me drawn into Agnes’s tale.

‘My tongue feels so tired; it slumps in my mouth like a dead bird, all damp feathers, in between the stones of my teeth.’

With its references to the superstitions of the day frequently referencing the ravens I came to dread their appearance fearing what horrors they may be about to foretell despite being in a nice warm cosy home not a home where the boards hiding the dung used to build the walls had been sold to enable the family of Jón Jónsson to eat.  The feelings of the household to the newly billeted prisoner are also deftly drawn with a light touch. It is a supposed honour which comes with compensation but one that can’t be refused despite the concerns of both Jón and Magrét about the spiritual and moral welfare of both their daughter.

I can’t praise the author for the haunting simplicity of the writing in this book, although as the story worked its way towards its tragic ending, I was heartbroken.

‘They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men and now they must steal mine.’

If you, like me, didn’t get around to reading this when it was first published, I urge you to, this book which does not flinch from the realities of Agnes’s life and death should not be missed.