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

Saturday 14 October 2023

The Low Road by Katharine Quarmby

Hannah Tyrell's childhood was a happy one. She and her mother lived and worked on a farm in the Waveney valley in Norfolk, and despite some villagers looking down on her mother for being unmarried, their lives were settled and content. Then tragedy struck - Hannah's mother is arrested for the suspected murder of her newborn child, and commits suicide, and, the village not wanting to support her, Hannah sent away to a Refuge for the Destitute in London.

The one instance of companionship and love she finds there is deemed 'unnatural' and 'vicious' , and an attempt to run away leads Hannah into further trouble. Moving from one bad situation to a worse, her life cycles downwards until eventfully she's transported to Australia. 

The Low Road is the moving story of a young girl caught up, through no fault of her own, in the early 19th century system of Refuges and Workhouses that took care of the destitute. If you've ever watched the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are? which traces family trees, you'll be aware that once part of that system there's very little chance of escape.

It's a gritty, realistic story - both depressingly familiar, and yet unique; focusing on one individual, Hannah, and bringing life and compassion to the 'statistics' of Refuges' drudgery and transportation. An interesting read based on real-life records which brings the injustices of the past vividly to life.

Thursday 5 October 2023

Upon a Frosted Star by M A Kuzniar

Once a year, as the snow begins to fall on London, invitations arrive to a fabulous party held in a remote manor house. Attending for the first time, Forster is amazed and bewitched, by the opulence and magic of the evening, not least by the ethereal, enigmatic ballet dancer who steals his heart. Determined to find out who she is, he returns at a later date but finds nothing but an abandoned house and a lake on which a solitary swan is swimming. He must wait till the next winter before he can see his beautiful dancer again.

Through his love for Odetta, Forster finds inspiration for, and success in, his art, but they cannot be together until he can unravel the spell that ballet impresario Rothbard has cast over her

A mix of fantasy and historical fiction, Upon A Frosted Star is a beautiful, heartbreaking re-telling of Swan Lake, with a sprinkle of Gatsby-inspired parties thrown in. The story is simple in some ways - we know who the good guys are, we want them to live happily ever after, and we know that Rothbard is undoubtedly evil despite the magical ballets that he produces - but the telling is captivating.

The only negative I could find was that at times things move along a little too slowly. Part of this is due to Forster and Odetta being only able to meet in winter, but I also thought there was a little too much unnecessary (in my opinion at least) detour into the relationship between Forster and his friends, Marvin and Daisy. I wanted the story to stay with Forster and Odetta, and their attempts to be free from Rothbart's evil designs