Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith

review by Maryom

Isabel Dalhousie's Edinburgh is gentile, middle-class, cultured - as far away from Trainspotting as you can get in the same city - but that doesn't keep murder at bay. At the end of a concert in Usher Hall, she sees a young man fall to his death from the 'gods'. She doesn't know him but something about his accident disturbs her, and she's convinced that what she witnessed wasn't an accident but murder. Despite her reservations, and the advice of family and friends, Isabel's curiosity pushes her, for want of a better word, to investigate.
This isn't the first time I've read The Sunday Philosophy Club, and it was delightful to re-visit the beginning of Isabel's story; meeting her, her niece Cat,and Cat's ex-boyfriend Jamie as if for the first time. If anything I loved it more knowing how their personal lives would develop, perhaps feeling I was in on a secret not known to first-time readers (no spoilers, though, for those who haven't read the series).
Isabel is verging on middle-age, wealthy, and to a certain extent privileged. Hers seems to be an untroubled life, and her pondering over ethics and philosophy largely academic. As befits her role as editor of The Review of Applied Ethics, Isabel tries to live her life in accordance with her philosophical principles, but now she's found herself in a situation where they're actually being tested in a real-life situation. Is her interest in the death of this young man mere morbid curiosity, or, having doubts about it, is she morally obliged to do something? How much should she reveal of the secrets she uncovers, especially when aren't really related to the death? At times I felt Isabel could easily end up bogged down by her scruples, but fortunately she doesn't.

In many ways, Isabel's Edinburgh feels very akin to Miss Marple's St Mary Mead - there's no hint of the 'background' violence of an inner city instead a pleasant village-like atmosphere pervades the quiet streets, where everyone knows everyone else, at least by sight. But, as in St Mary Mead, behind this placid exterior lie secrets that someone might kill to protect. As I said above, I've really enjoyed re-reading this book and I'm now looking forward to re-reading more of the series, plus a newer book or two that I haven't caught up with.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Abacus
Genre - Adult Crime

Friday, 17 March 2017

Tilt by Mary Hoffman

review by Maryom

Netta is the last of a long family of master stonemasons and sculptors, but, despite the craft running in her blood, she isn't allowed to be involved - because she's a girl! Her father Giovanni has recently been appointed Head Mason of Santa Maria Maggiore in Pisa, in charge of all the buildings and monuments being constructed, and with a special task - to find out why the bell-tower leans and to fix it. Seeing it everyday as she goes about her domestic chores, Netta feels she has an instinctive understanding of the famous tower's problems and could help her father, if only she could be involved, instead of having to spend her days cooking and cleaning. 

Set at the end of the thirteenth century, Tilt is the story of a very famous tower, and of a girl who's not content with the traditionally acceptable female roles of housework and child-rearing. Instead she's determined to live a fuller, creative life, to be a part of her family's tradition of working with stone, to have a part, no matter how small, in the building projects going on in Pisa, and just perhaps to be able to help solve the Leaning Tower's problems. 
Everyone has probably heard of Pisa's famous tower but I have to admit I didn't know the history behind its construction or the reasons for its 'tilt', or that marble had to 'stand' before use, so I've learned something in the course of good read, even if it's really intended for a much younger readership!
There's a modern relevancy too, as female stereotypes still need to be challenged. No one should ever believe that girls are limited to certain careers or life choices; they're equally capable of being architects, sculptors, or engineers. 
Don't worry though,Mary Hoffman isn't aiming to lecture the reader on history or feminism, but to tell an engaging story of one girl's desire to do something more fulfilling with her life. It's filled with the noise of hammering, stone dust floating in the air and a feeling of Netta and her family being part of something important happening - the construction of buildings which today are historical monuments but were once no more than an architect's drawings.

As always with books from Barrington Stoke, Tilt is printed on cream paper, rather than harsh white, and in a font chosen as suitable for dyslexic readers

Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - 12+ historical fiction, feminism, 

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths

review by Maryom

Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway has been called in after bones are discovered during building works for an underground restaurant in Norwich. She's assuming that they'll be old bones of interest only to historians - but, as you'd expect as this is a crime novel, she's wrong. 

Meanwhile the police led by DCI Harry Nelson have 'underground' problems of their own - a man is reported having disappeared in the vicinity of a hole which suddenly appeared in a road, and, in a separate case, a local rough sleeper has gone missing, perhaps gone 'underground'. As they follow up on rumours, the network of tunnels left behind after chalk-mining under Norwich come to figure prominently in enquiries, and the bones discovered by Ruth take on a much more sinister interpretation.

This is the ninth 'outing' for Ruth Galloway and Harry Nelson, and it hasn't lost any of the pull of the earlier books - in fact, I think that helped along by their personal stories the series actually gets more gripping. I've come to the series late, and, despite my best intentions to start at Book 1(The Crossing Places) and read my way through sequentially, I'm darting about the ongoing story of Ruth and Harry in a rather higgledy-piggledy order. It doesn't really matter though - the 'crime' aspect of each book is self-contained, and I've found it nice to be able to jump ahead and find out where Ruth and Harry's relationship is heading before going back and reading how it developed. I'm not entirely sure how I want it to progress - Ruth I feel deserves a happy ending; Harry I'm less convinced about.

Meanwhile there are crimes to solve.This time, everything is pointing towards the tunnels under Norwich as the location of nefarious goings-on. Seemingly unconnected events join up in a way that is credible rather than far-fetched, and there's quite enough in the twists and turns department to keep the reader guessing. The tunnels seem fascinating but its one story location I shan't be hurrying to visit. Griffiths is excellent at capturing atmosphere but whereas I've previously loved her windswept marshes, I wasn't so happy about narrow tunnels. Like Ruth, I'm not happy with small, claustrophobic spaces or people who merrily talk about the tonnes of rock above one's head ... Fortunately most of the action takes place above ground in King's Lynn, in places I recognise from holiday visits there, and Norwich (which I must visit now) and there's a mention or two of lovely Wells next the Sea. I'm starting to think I should plan a little Galloway and Nelson-themed tour of Norfolk for summer, though preferably without any crime  :)

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher -
Genre - adult crime thriller

Friday, 10 March 2017

The Witch Finder's Sister by Beth Underdown

review by Maryom

Following her husband's death, Alice, left pregnant and without means of supporting herself, has to return home to Essex and the household of her younger half-brother Matthew. In the years she's been away things have changed. A tense atmosphere fills the air; children and animals have died, crops have failed, and the talk is of witchcraft being behind it all. Matthew sees himself as the man to track down these witches. He has a book, in which he is noting names, accusations, and the tell-tale signs that mark out a witch, and is determined that none escape punishment. As his scope widens beyond their town, Alice finds herself unwillingly becoming part of his scheme, and soon it seems like no one (or at least no woman) will be safe from accusations ...

Set in the mid-seventeenth century at the time of the English Civil War, this novel is based on the true story of the self-styled Witch-finder General, Matthew Hopkins, who scoured East Anglia rooting out what he believed were sources of witchcraft and putting the practitioners to death. The character of Alice is fictional but gives an excellent way of seeing behind the scenes, of witnessing Hopkins' growing obsession at close quarters, from the point of view of someone who disapproves of the course he is taking but is powerless, as an impoverished female dependant, to stop him. 
The author does a great job of building the tense atmosphere, cranking it up as Hopkins'  pursuit of these 'witches' continues. As in most cases of witchcraft the accused are women - generally old, un-educated, often disliked by their neighbours, and without relatives or friends willing to protect them - and an accusation has very little to do with any real occult practices. Whether the actions of men like Hopkins are down to deep-seated hatred of women, the working out of personal grudges or religious intolerance is something that can be argued over for ever.
Considering the story as fiction, I felt a little frustrated at times that Alice did nothing more practical to try and stop her brother's actions BUT of course a historical novel has to be bound by the facts, so, whatever she may have felt, Alice had to remain powerless. Also I think the story may work better if the reader is unaware of the general history of witchcraft trials and Matthew Hopkins' role in particular - it was knowing a little about him that made me want to read the book but that knowledge pre-empted much of what happened within its pages. I'd definitely recommend it though for fans of historical fiction, particularly those less aware of the period and characters involved.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Penguin Viking 
Genre - historical fiction, witchcraft

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch

translated by Jamie Bulloch

review by Maryom

Due to student unrest at St Petersburg university, the governor, Yegor von Rasimkara, has decided to close it indefinitely and spend the summer in the countryside with his family. Even so, he can't escape the threats that have been made against him. His wife believes he doesn't take them seriously enough and has arranged for him to employ a secretary who will also act as a bodyguard. Lyu is well-educated, cultured, fits in almost like a house-guest, and soon all the younger family members are drawn to him; the son Velya sees him as a role model; the daughters Jessika and Katya fall in love with this handsome outsider. Unfortunately, Lyu is hiding a secret - not only is he himself a supporter of the students and their demands, but he even has a plot of his own to kill the governor...

If a story has to be pinned down to fit a label, then The Last Summer, with its sense of violence and outrage about to erupt at any moment, is a psychological thriller. The tension is there from the start, with Lyu's arrival at the governor's house under false pretences, and steadily mounts as the reader sees how trusting and duped the family are.

The story evolves through the means of a series of letters - from Lyu to his revolutionary friend, between cousins, niece and aunt, brother and sister - which proves to be an excellent way of seeing 'behind the scenes' and listening in on private thoughts. The 'children' are, as might be expected, more progressive, and even revolutionary, in their outlook, representing various points along the line between acceptance of the status quo and outright rebellion. They act and talk like many a teenager with attitude but, despite their mother's view of them as still children, they're actually adults in their early twenties! I found Lyu himself to be the most enigmatic of the characters - even though he talks big, he seems at times to be trying to put things off. Maybe having got to know the detested 'figurehead' as a real person, he no longer feels so inclined to go ahead with his plans? While he prevaricates, the family continue totally unaware of his scheming ... and the tension rises ...

Although written in the early 20th century, and set in pre-revolutionary Russia, this story feels like it could fit almost anywhere, anytime; there are moments reminiscent of Chekhov (the whole Russian summer-in-the-country setting), others of the dilemma facing another secretary-cum-assassin in Sartre's Les Mains Sales written nearly 50 years later, and even of today's problems - with students and academics around the world being imprisoned and even executed for opposing their country's regime.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Peirene Press
Genre - Adult Literary Translated Fiction

Friday, 3 March 2017

A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume

review by Maryom

Frankie has reached crisis point. After finishing her art degree, she's got a temporary part-time job at a gallery, but fails to find a connection between what she's studied for so long and the adult world of work and bed-sits that she's now part of. She feels isolated, lost, and without purpose. One day, everything just proves too overwhelming so she does what she always does - phones her mum who understands without questioning and is ready to come to the rescue. Frankie is too old though to return to her childhood home and be 'mothered', so she persuades her parents to allow her to live in the old bungalow left empty since her grandmother's death three years before. There she tries to form a structure to her life - cycling, small shopping trips, a new art project, befriending her neighbour -  but she's still in a limbo-like state, and her future looks increasingly uncertain.

This second novel from Sara Baume again focuses on an outsider; Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither told the story of an elderly man and his equally outcast dog; this time the main character is a young woman, unable to move on from a childhood where everything was safe, secure and mapped out for her, to an uncertain, uncharted future. Frankie's dreamed of becoming an artist but now she's trained and should be heading out into the world to achieve this, she feels wrong-footed and at sea. Her thoughts (which I think all of us have shared on some point or other) are filled with a hankering after that simpler time of childhood, before adult realities - work, money and death - impacted on her, and she hopes, in retreating to her grandmother's bungalow, to regain that feeling of safety and well-being. She's still deeply troubled though and contentment seems hard to come by. Her thoughts continue to circle round death and decay, with her new art project focusing on dead creatures she finds by the roadside, and she's constantly testing her knowledge by recalling pieces of art and trying to find a relationship between them and the 'real' world.

The writing is beautiful but somewhat fragmentary, reflecting Frankie's disordered thoughts which flit from one subject to another, never staying anywhere for long, but it builds into an intimate account of someone gripped by depression, struggling against its pull, trying one step at a time to walk out of its depths, until those individual steps form a line. Emotionally and mentally it's a cautious, hesitant path though it's only looking back that I realise how much I was willing Frankie to stay on it, and how emotionally involved I'd become.

It's another truly remarkable read from Sara Baume, and marks her as a writer to watch out for.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - William Heinemann
Genre - Adult fiction, depression, 

Monday, 27 February 2017

The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer

Review by The Mole

"Gripping" is a word used to describe this and it is well worthy of that title. Fast moving from the off we meet Alex/Juliana/The Chemist - an agent who worked in an undocumented and highly secret department where she used her skills to get the truth from people who were suspected of security related crimes. She was the best until one day "they" decided to dispose of both her and her work colleague. Her colleague died but she escaped and has been running for three years and she intends remaining alive.

Alex, as we get to think of her, is a very resourceful individual who we very quickly grow to admire despite her efficiency in her job. The action is fast paced and captivating until... Well this is the first Stephenie Meyer I have read but I have heard of her reputation for "love" scenes in the Twilight series so when one presents itself it came as no surprise except perhaps that Alex's head could be turned so easily. And, surprisingly, while I felt this aspect was a bit overplayed for my taste, it didn't detract from the story line which was gripping to the last as Alex, single handedly, saves the day. And possibly the USA of course.

Gripping, fast paced but overall a fun read that is not likely to upset the squeamish, nor titillate anyone either come to that.

Publisher - Little, Brown Book Group
Genre - Crime, Thriller