Author Archives: David Proffitt

The Railway Detective (#1)

by Edward Marston

The Railway Detective

I picked this book up during a brief stop at Pickering Station on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. Travelling on an old steam train brought a sense of nostalgia and finding that they had a series of books set on the railways of the mid 19th century, I just couldn’t resist.

The Railway Detective is the first in a series to feature Detective Inspector Colbeck of the newly created Detective branch based at Scotland Yard. Colbeck himself is a bit of a dandy – a well dressed, well-educated man who gets a little more than he bargained for when he heads out of the city to investigate a violent robbery on the railway. 

The expansion of the railways throughout the 19th century changed almost every aspect of people’s lives. It was undoubtedly a revolution, but not everyone was in favour of these new locomotives traversing the English countryside. The railways had their fair share of detractors and it is one such opponent to steam train who is the mastermind behind the daring crimes that Inspector Colbeck is called to investigate. 

The scheme has been planned with military precision and Colbeck soon finds himself dealing not only with the robbery itself but also murder, blackmail and kidnap. And who would have suspected that along the way, this clinical and driven policeman would find himself emotionally involved in the case? 

Morton obviously has an interest in the railways and is able to weave into the tale plenty of information about the trains and the people who worked with them. But it is not in any way a book just for enthusiasts. All in all, The Railway Detective is a good period detective story which just happens to be centred around the railways.

The characters are all very interesting in their own ways and I really liked the narrative which I found easy and quick to read. 

The Book Thief

by Markus Zusak

I have put off reading this book having read widely varied reviews. It seems that the book’s critics fall into one of two camps: those who get it and those who don’t. And I have to say that I am very firmly in the former. I not only got it, I loved it. from the very first page, I was captivated by the unique narrative style and almost as quickly entranced by the character.

It is the story of a young girl – Liesel Meminger – growing up in Nazi Germany of the early 1940s. The twist is that the story is told by Death, based on Liesel’s own words. Death first comes across the nine-year-old Liesel as she heads towards Munich on board a train with her mother and her little brother. It is an encounter that will change her life forever.

I can appreciate that the style of the narration may put some people off, but for me, the unusual way in which the story unfolds adds to the attraction of the book as a whole.

Dealing as it does with life during war-time Germany, it inevitably deals with subjects like the Holocaust and the Nazi party’s domination of ordinary people’s lives. The book deals with these things through the eyes of Liesel and passes no judgement other than her sense of injustice at the things she sees and hears. But it is not all doom and gloom. Liesel becomes very close to her stepfather, Hans, who instils in her a sense of hope and a love for reading. And it’s reading and a love of books that get her through the worst of times.

Of course, there have been innumerable books covering Nazi activities during the war years. Life in Germany and occupied Europe has been well documented but never quite like this. I found the whole thing to be very moving and totally captivating. 

The Book Thief is a great book that I felt deserves the positive critical acclaim it received. 

A Man Called Ove

A Man Called Oveby Fredrik Backman

Every now and again you come across a book that really says something to you, and for me, A Man Called Ove is just such a book. From the very first page, I felt I understood Ove. To many of the people he meets he comes across as a grumpy old man, but, as is often the case, there is more to him than first meets the eye.

For Ove, life is simple and made up of two types of people: those who drive Saabs, and twits. And there are a lot of twits about! 

As the book progresses we learn more about Ove’s past and the events that shaped the man he became. The biggest single event being the day he met his wife-to-be Sonja. To everyone who knew them, Ove and Sonja were an odd couple, like chalk and cheese. But to Ove, Sonja was his world and without her, nothing makes sense any more.

But with the arrival of new neighbours, Ove’s life is about to take on a whole new meaning. 

A Man Called Ove is a delightful and very moving story. Fredrik Backman has a real gift for blending humour and pathos in a totally compelling way. There is a slapstick element to the story that makes the tragedy even more profound. For me, it is one of the best books I have read this year and one I can wholeheartedly recommend. 

Black Holes

Edited by Jerry Pournelle

Black Holes

I first read this book when I was a teenager. Jerry Pournelle himself wasn’t new to me but most of the other contributors were and I was impressed by the various approaches to the subject of Black Holes. Having re-read it again thirty years later I found myself still as impressed by the mix of stories and essays. You don’t often get fact and fiction sitting side-by-side and I find the concept both interesting and informative. Good science fiction (as this collection is) contains as much fact as fiction, but the addition of real ideas and discussions of concepts really opened my eyes as a teenager. 

Most of the pieces in the book were written in the mid to late 70s, with just one dating from 1968. Like all sci-fi of the time, it can seem a little dated with talk of tapes and such like, but the core concepts behind each story are as relevant today as they were then. Stephen Hawkins gets a mention in one of the articles, crediting him with being approaches to responsible for our notions of Black Holes and singularities. 

Revisiting a book from your past can often be disappointing, our memories often coated in that ever present rose coloured tint, but in this case I was far from disappointed. Black Holes is a great collection and a very enjoyable read. 

Authors included in this collection are Larry Niven, Poul Anderson, Charles Sheffield, Robert Forward, R Bretnor, Gail Kimberly, Grant Carrington, George Zebrowski, Mildred Downey Broxon, Dian Girard, Michael Bishop, Peter Dillinger and Greg Bear. 

Origin (Robert Langdon #5)

Origin

by Dan Brown

Once again, Harvard professor Robert Langdon finds himself at the epicentre of an event that could change the course of human history forever, or at the very least, kill him. You would think that by now after all that has happened in the previous four books, he would have learned to stay at home and keep the phone off the hook.

Mind you, while the action may be short-lived, for the duration of each of his extracurricular adventures he gets to spend the time with a new and always very attractive young lady. 

There is predictability to the Langdon series that tells me it is high time he retired from the lecturing and let Dan Brown move onto someone new. 

That aside though, Origin is the best of Professor Langdon’s adventures since his run-in with the Catholic Church in the Davinci Code. Once again it is the church that plays a big part in this very action-packed tale, but it is not the main focus of the story. Art, architecture and computer science takes centre stage this time around. 

For me, Origin is something of a return to the form that made Dan Brown and his favourite symbologist household names. There is plenty of action and more twists and turns than a motor racing circuit. The bulk of the action is split between Barcelona and Bilbao with a cast of characters that include the Spanish royal family, a former naval officer with his own personal agenda, a billionaire computer geek with a hatred of all religions and the mysterious Winston, without whose help Professor Langdon and his beautiful assistant would not have made it past page 125.

An immense amount of research has gone into writing this book and Dan Brown has made sure that none of it has been wasted. There are times when the text begins to read more like a history lecture, and I sometimes felt a little like the dunce at the back of the class who had to have everything spelt out for him. But having said that, I do felt I learnt a lot from the book, as well as being thoroughly entertained.

An really gripping and well plotted take that kept me hooked – and guessing – right too the very end. 

Something Borrowed (Brenda & Effie Mystery #2)

Something Brrowedby Paul Magrs

I picked up this particular little gem in a charity shop, not realising at the time that it is, in fact, the second in a series. I only realised this when I came to read it. Normally, I would have put it aside until I could get hold of the preceding book, but as I also realised it was set in the seaside town of Whitby, a place I was due to visit that very week, I decided to plough on regardless.

Something Borrowed mixes gothic horror, fantasy and comedy to produce a tale that is both ludicrous and compelling. Not having read the first book (soon to be rectified) I was a little behind with Brenda and Effie’s story, but Magrs (pronounced Mars apparently) very thoughtfully included enough references to the two ladies’ first adventure (Never The  Bride) that I was very soon fairly up to date. In Brenda and Effie Magrs has created two wonderfully idiosyncratic characters who manage to blunder their way through a plot full of overflowing with vampires, zombies, stray body parts and a set of possessed furniture, all set against the gothic spookiness of Whitby.

Thanks to Bram Stoker, this busy little seaside town has become something of a mecca for fans of the gothic tradition. The swirling mists that often shroud the imposing Abbey, its narrow alleys and steep, winding pathways, make it the perfect setting for tales of possession and devilment. In Something Borrowed the town itself is as much a character as Brenda and Effie and their assorted friends and foes.

Something Borrowed has all the elements of a good old fashioned horror story, told with a wonderful comic twist that makes it a very entertaining and unique read. At times I was reminded of watching those old black and white movies that are now more amusing than they are terrifying. 

Brenda is one of those characters who leap out of the page and demand your attention – and affection. I can almost picture myself enjoying coffee and a cake with her in the Walrus and Carpenter. Her straight talking honesty and her strength of character make her a compelling narrator as she and Effie face a demon from Brenda’s murky past. 

There is also the question of the poison pen letters that have been dropping through people’s letterboxes. Who would write such horrible things? And who, or what, is haunting Brenda every night with their incessant tappings and scrapings? And why has Henry Cleavis turned up here and now, dragging up long-forgotten memories and feelings?

Read and all will be revealed.

Something Borrowed has everything I could want from a book – captivating characters, recognisable setting, great plot and plenty of humour, all told with style and wit. I will definitely be reading Brenda and Effie’s debut, and am looking forward to the rest of their crazy adventures. 

 

Quartet in Autumn

Quartet in Autumnby Barbara Pym

A classic from the late 1970s, Quartet in Autumn is a light and amusing tale of four co-workers, drifting towards and into retirement. Edwin, Norman, Marcia and Letty share an office in an undisclosed London office block. Each is alone, either by choice or circumstances and none have any plans or ambitions for their futures. With retirement just around the corner, time is running out. 

The story meanders between the four characters, delving into their lives in a way the characters themselves seem unwilling or unable to do. There is no question of their friendships going beyond the confines of the office, yet surely, no one understands their situations better they each other?

I really enjoyed this gently and mildly amusing foray into the lives of these four over 60s. Each desperately hanging onto their independence and their pasts. But it is the shared sense of loneliness that makes the book so appealing. So often I wanted to reach out to them and point out that there is someone who cares and they are sitting right across from them. 

It is rather sad in a way, but I enjoyed their individual stories and the way Barbara Pym injected her subtle humour into even the most poignant and sad moments. Although there are some elements of the story that are very much of the time, the problem of loneliness in the heart of one of the world’s busiest cities is as true today as it was then. 

This is the first Pymnovelk that I have read and I am sure it won’t be the last.

The Cornish Coast Murder

The Cornish Coast Murder

The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude

by John Bude

There seems to be a lot of interest at the moment in period dramas, particularly on the TV and film. There may well be a similar fashion in books, but I can’t say I have noticed it if there is. Certainly, following a crime set in a previous era brings with it some interesting twists – the lack of DNA, changes in technology and policing methods makes the work of the hard-pressed detective even more difficult. I have to admit that I myself enjoy these period pieces which I why I have enjoyed reading books in the British Library Crime Classics series, of which this particular work is one.

I don’t think that any modern writer could recreate the pace, prejudices and innocence of the 1930s like those authors who actually lived then. John Bude’s debut crime novel lacks some of the expected elements of the genre, even for the time, most notable being giving the reader the opportunity to work it out ahead of the police. But even there I can see Bude’s reasoning – we are seeing the case and clues through the eyes of the characters themselves which, in this case, does not include the guilty party.

Set in the Cornish fishing village of Boscawen, the story follows the investigation into the mysterious death of local magistrate Julius Tregarthan. Tregarthen may not have been a popular man, but he was respected and his death comes as a shock to all concerned. But it is the manner of his death that leaves local police detective INspector Bigswell ore than a little baffled. 

He his aided – though he does not always see it that by – by local crime enthusiast and would-be amateur sleuth, the Reverand Dodd.

As suspicion move from one person to the next, our two detectives begin to uncover secrets, about not only Trgarthan himself, but also about those around him.

Although it lacks the pace and depth of a modern crime novel, The Cornish Coast Murder and in interesting and very enjoyable read. It is certainly a gem and typical of the period. Nostalgic certainly, but not in a bad way. 

The Oyster Catcher

 The Oyster Catcherby Jo Thomas

The story begins with young Fiona Clutterbuck emerging from a police station somewhere on the windswept Irish coast shortly after crashing her hired camper van into the sea wall. Not a very auspicious start to her honeymoon, particularly as she was alone at the time, her erstwhile husband having left her before the ink was dry on the marriage certificate. It is fair to say that this was not the way Fiona, or Fi as she prefers to be known, had planned to spend the first few days of her married life. So, here she is, stranded heaven-know-where with no money, no transport and no clothes. Could things get any worse?

The answer has to be yes, or there wouldn’t be a story to tell. Fi’s salvation comes in the shape of the local oyster farmer Sean Thornton. When he offers her a job as his “girl Friday” she leaps at the chance, seeing a way to put a roof over her head and earn the money she needs to move on from this back of beyond town. But it is not as simple as that. Life on an Irish oyster farm is not what she is used to at all and the locals aren’t the friendly bunch she might have hoped for. 

However, over time, attitudes change and she soon finds herself very much at the heart of the community, much to the annoyance of her new employer who’s relationship with the rest of the town is just one of the mysteries Fiona has to unravel.

The Oyster Catcher is a light and easy read. It has all the elements you expect of a modern romantic comedy – the initial animosity that slowly but surely becomes something much deeper; the misunderstandings and unspoken desires that lead to an inevitable separation before disaster strikes, bringing our two erstwhile lovers are thrust back into each other’s arms where they can at last open their hearts and come together at last. 

And whilst the formula is predictable, the story of Fiona and Sean is told with a gentle wit and skill that mark Jo Thomas as a writer to be watched.

The book is about more than just the budding romances of the characters involved, it is a journey of discovery, of facing fears and learning to trust in others. Through each other, they face their pasts and are able to shed some of the excess baggage that they have carried with them for far too long. The Oyster Catchers is an encouraging debut that introduces a promising storyteller. I look forward to reading more. 

The Tale of Halcyon Crane

The Tale of Halcyon Craneby Wendy Webb

Raised on America’s east coast by her devoted father, Hallie James has always known she had no other family, that her mother had died in a house fire thirty years ago, and that her life was never going to amount to anything special. With a failed marriage to her credit and her beloved father losing his fight with dementia, Hallie is in need of a new direction in her life, even if she doesn’t know it herself.

But when out of the blue, she receives a mysterious letter from celebrated photographer Madlyn Crane, Hallie is forced to question everything she thought she knew about herself and her father.

Her quest for answers takes her to the remote island on the Great Lakes that was home to the strange woman who claimed to be her mother. Once there she soon discovers that her own disappearance 30 years earlier is not the only mystery the strange island has to offer.

From the moment Hallie arrives inexplicable things begin to happen and as she begins to learn the truth about her family (and herself) the sense of danger becomes very real. 

From the tragedy of losing both her mother and her father in such quick succession leaves Hallie very much alone, but not for long. Her return to the island rekindles a friendship she had long forgotten and gives the grown-up Halycon something worth fighting for.

The Tale of Halcyon Crane is a wonderfully gothic tale that is both captivating and haunting. The subtle way the Wendy Webb tells the story gives the book a deceptively gentle feel. There is plenty of ghostly goings on, strange voices, witches and disturbing dreams, but it never gets gory or over the top. The light touch Webb gives the story is one of the reasons it works so well. 

Mrs Webb is a good storyteller with a real understanding of her chosen genre. This is the second of her book I have read and it has proven without a doubt that she is one to watch.