Saturday 30 March 2024

The Rockpool Murders by Emylia Hall


Rock legend Baz Carson has assembled a party of close family and friends to celebrate his 70th birthday, and publication of his 'tell all' memoir, in his cliff-top Cornish house, but the morning after their arrival, his dead body is found floating in the swimming pool. It seems to be just an accident, perhaps exacerbated by health issues or partying the night before, and the police seem ready to dismiss it as such though at least one of the guests, Tallulah, Baz's first love from California, isn't convinced. Hearing of the Shell House Detectives, she hires them to uncover the truth, but this time Ally and Jayden may have got themselves into something a little too dangerous ...

And then a second body is found; very definitely murdered.

I really like this crime series from Emylia Hall, and this latest is no exception. There's a little change of pace from the previous two, with what is effectively a 'closed room' murder as if there is a murderer, they have to be one of those invited to Baz's party. There's an array of suspects - his ex-wife, their grown-up children, folks who knew Baz back in the old days - any of whom could have had motivation to murder, especially after reading Baz's memoir, and there's a series of twists, turns, and revelations before the murderer is pinned down.

There are changes afoot in the lives of the Shell House 'regulars' - after years of just considering her art as a hobby Ally has her first exhibition, and Jayden's former police boss turns up reminding him of the challenges and rewards of 'real' police work. Are things about to alter completely for the Shell House Detectives? I hope not.

There's everything here that I look for in cosy crime - a relatable cast of characters, an intriguing mystery, and a gorgeous setting. 

Friday 23 February 2024

Miss Austen Investigates by Jessica Bull

While Jane Austen is surreptitiously meeting her admirer Tom Lefroy at Lord and Lady Harcourt's ball, other guests are discovering a woman's dead body hidden away in a linen closet. Shocked to find this is a women she's met, although only briefly, Jane decides to investigate.

Official suspicion moves from an unknown itinerant worker to Jane's brother George, but really fails to investigate. Jane on the other hand sets about learning more about the deceased woman, and finds her suspicions landing on a variety of local gentlefolk.

The story weaves details of Jane Austen's life - her family and circumstances, and her romance with Tom Lefroy - with an intriguing murder mystery, and I must admit I found the murder side of things more engrossing. In part, I suppose, this is due to having seen the film Becoming Jane with Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy  and being aware of the romance between Jane and Tom Lefroy. The murder mystery though was gripping and satisfying. As Jane's investigations progress the suspects seem to multiply rather than reduce, until it seems like almost everyone outside of Jane's immediate family might have had a motive for murder. A book that I'm sure will appeal to lovers of cosy crime

Friday 19 January 2024

Emily Wilde's Map of the Otherlands by Heather Fawcett

 Having published her Encyclopedia of Faeries, Emily Wilde is deep in research for her next project - a Map of the Otherlands - but the scholarly peace of Cambridge is disrupted when Emily's fellow scholar and would-be-lover (and incidentally an exiled faerie king), Wendell Bambleby, is attacked by faeries sent by his step mother - having claimed his throne as her own isn't enough; she needs to destroy him. To save himself, Bambleby needs to confront his step-mother, but he can't do this without rediscovering the lost door back to his faery realm.

For Emily this is an opportunity to pursue two, or perhaps, three things at once - to find the door, to add to her knowledge of the Otherworld (particularly with reference to her map project), and, maybe along the way, find a long lost scholar believed to have disappeared into the faery realm many years before.

So, with Bambleby still suffering from the latest assault, they head off to the Austrian Alps, to encounter more hostile faery folk and put themselves in not a little danger. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the first in this series of faery adventures, and its successor didn't disappoint. It isn't a dark academia style of story, full of brooding passion and handsome untrustworthy men/angels/demons but something far more cosy; a grown up fairy tale, or maybe an adult Alice in Wonderland. It isn't all sweetness and light though - danger seems to be stalking at every turn. In search of a cure for Bambleby's continuing illness, Emily must enter the Faery realm, facing down his step-mother in the heart of her own kingdom.
As a little piece of escapism from real world problems and the current freezing weather I'd highly recommend it.

Tuesday 5 December 2023

Held by Anne Michaels

The book (I'm not sure whether to refer to it as story) begins on the battlefields of WW1 where a soldier, John, lies injured, with his thoughts drifting back to childhood, to his first meeting with his lover, to times since then spent with her. Three years later, he's home, reunited with Helena, trying to pick up the life that was interrupted by war, but still carrying the physical and mental scars of battle, and still searching for that place and time when he felt 'held' and surrounded by love.

At this point it feels like the story might follow their life - but it doesn't. There's no linear plot, not even an overall story arc or a darting backwards and forwards to reveal something buried in the past. Instead the book is comprised of vignettes capturing a moment in time, highlighting important moments in the lives of John's family over four generations,with a linking theme of their search for that feeling of love and safety.

Overall I found this an odd book, maybe because I was expecting something more straightforward. The writing is beautiful and poetic, but the flitting from one generation to the next is confusing at first, and takes some getting used to. Having finished the book and being able to see it as a whole, I feel I can appreciate it more, and would like to reread it.

Tuesday 21 November 2023

This Plague of Souls by Mike McCormack

A man, Nealon, returns home to find his house empty; not just empty but seemingly abandoned. No heating. No lights. No inhabitants. The only welcome (as such) is from an unknown man on the telephone. A man who seems to know all about Nealon, and certainly more than the reader does.. 

As days pass more of Nealon's life is revealed - his childhood in rural Ireland, his career as an artist, his relationship with his wife and son, and, crucially, where he's been for the past few months - but he himself remains an enigma. He may, or may not, have been behind an enormous insurance fraud. He may be the person behind an ongoing security alert ... but, then again, he may not

This is definitely a difficult book to describe, but for its length (under 200 pages) it gives the reader a lot to think about. It's a strange book, weird but absorbing, enigmatic like its protagonist, which raises more questions about characters and events than get answered. (I once read that a lack of resolution was the mark of a literary novel - in which case this must be the most literary of them all). For me, it's a book that I'd go back to and mull over; I feel like there are hints and details along the way that didn't register with me on a first read-through but which would help clarify the ending. 

I haven't read anything previously by Mike McCormack but knew he'd been long-listed for the Booker, so was intrigued when I saw this come up on Netgalley. I'm not certain if this is typical of McCormack's style but to me it seemed reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's work, with that feeling of a character creating the world around him as he names things and people.


Tuesday 31 October 2023

The Harbour Lights Mystery by Emylia Hall

"As The Shell House Detectives try to solve a family mystery, their investigation runs dangerously close to a murder case. Are the two linked?"

 The Shell House Detectives are back. Thrown together over the solving of a murder case, unlikely couple Ally, the widow of a retired country policeman, and Jayden a much younger ex-city cop have set up the Shell House Detective Agency. Over summer they've solved some low key cases but the approach of Christmas finds them on the fringes of another murder.

Ally Bright is in Mousehole for a fun evening of carols and Christmas lights when the evening's festivities are cut short by the discovery of a dead body. Her friend Gus, despite being a budding crime writer, wants to head home immediately, but Ally is eager to find out more. This time, though, she really does have to leave things to the police.

 The dead man is quickly identified as J P Sharpe, a chef at a local restaurant, and someone with a string of enemies. An added complication is an unposted letter found in his coat pocket, which might be the solution to a local family mystery. This is something Ali and Jayden can get involved in, especially as they know those involved, but their inquiries lead them back to the killer and a dangerous situation they may not be able to get out of. 

 I really enjoyed the first in this cosy crime series, The Shell House Detectives, and if anything this return to Porthpella is better. I felt there was more opportunity this time for Hall's ability to create atmosphere and location.  The real Cornish fishing village of Mousehole, setting for the murder; with its jolly festive lights sharply contrasting with the empty dunes and lonely out-of-season vibes of Porthpella.

There's also opportunity to get to know the characters better. To explore Ally's unsettled relationship with Gus, Jayden's absorption with fatherhood and misgivings about leaving the police force, plus the lives and backstories of the 'supporting cast' of Saffron, the cafe-owning surfer, and Mullins, the inexperienced and slightly immature local policeman. 

If you're looking for a Christmassy cosy crime adventure this is perfect, but if you're looking for a snow-filled coming-of-age mystery I'd also add a suggestion to track down one of Emylia Hall's earlier novels - A Heart Bent Out of Shape 

Thursday 19 October 2023

Julia by Sandra Newman

 "London, chief city of Airstrip One, the third most populous province of Oceania. It's 1984 and Julia Worthing works as a mechanic fixing the novel-writing machines in the Fiction Department at the Ministry of Truth. Under the ideology of IngSoc and the rule of the Party and its leader Big Brother, Julia is a model citizen - cheerfully cynical, believing in nothing and caring not at all about politics. She knows how to survive in a world of constant surveillance, Thought Police, Newspeak, Doublethink, child spies and the black markets of the prole neighbourhoods. She's very good at staying alive."

To be honest, when I first heard about 'Julia' I wondered if we really needed a re-telling of "!984" -  it's a dystopian classic after all - but I was intrigued enough to read it, and I'm glad I did.The story is told this time from the point of view of Winston Smith's lover Julia, and their relationship given a new twist. 

While outwardly following the rules laid down by Big Brother and the Party, following the dull, regimented life expected of lower Party members, Julia has found ways to sidestep the regulations and live a slightly fuller life - or so she thinks. Big Brother has eyes everywhere, Julia's activities have been noted, and she finds herself drawn into a plot against Smith. 

Newman has managed to catch Orwell's writing style, cleverly twining a new story around the original, and incorporating much of his dialogue. If anything the dreariness of existence under Big Brother's regime seems more overwhelming - perhaps because Julia desires more from life than Winston does. Unqualified support of the Party is necessary, sex and marriage are frowned on, and entertainment consists mainly of meetings given over to Party propaganda and the occasional game of table tennis. Being selected as part of a conspiracy plays into Julia's craving for excitement, but she isn't as essential as she feels; in fact she's merely being manipulated along with everyone else.

To say I 'enjoyed' this is maybe not the accurate word - hard hitting and brutal, it's a story about living without hope and with no real prospect of any in the future - but it's a powerful read. A word of warning - there are disturbing torture scenes, and explicit sex scenes.

Out of curiosity, I decided to reread "1984" immediately afterward, and actually found "Julia" the better of the two. Maybe it speaks more directly to me as a woman, but it benefits, I feel, from losing the long chapters of Goldstein's subversive text and the torture scenes which go on for far too long. In Julia they're short and sharp, but lose none of their terror. 

Also, when your lover has betrayed you rather than face a couple of rats, what do you do? Julia's way is gruesome, if not sickening, but definitely effective. Proving once again that the female of her species is more deadly than the male