Category Archives: Review

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.

 

The Silence

The Silenceby Tim Lebbon

Every now and again I pick up a book by someone I have never read before and Know almost straight away that I have found something special. What attracted me to the book I do not know – it was probably recommended – but I am so glad it did.

From the very first page, I was totally gripped by the intriguing plot, engaging characters and the wonderful storytelling. Told in both first and third person, the readers’ viewpoint switches rapidly as the apocalyptic events unfold. 

Telling the story from her own point of view is young Alley, a deaf teenager. Used to a world of silence, Alley is almost uniquely skilled to help her family survive when their world is threatened by the emergence of what become commonly known as vesps, creatures that have evolved in the darkness of a vast cave system and hunt by sound. 

I have read plenty of end-of-the-world type books over the years, with humanity coming close to extinction more times than I can remember. So the premise of the book is nothing new as such, but the way it is told and the form of the threat very different from anything I have come across before. 

At the heart of the story are Alley and her family. Alley’s deafness gives them a distinct advantage over their peers. They have developed their own family sign language that allows them to communicate in a world when the smallest of sounds can bring death in the form of these ravenous batlike creatures. Death is never far away and sacrifice often the only means of escape. 

As the family move from their home and make their way north, they have to deal with not only their own fears but also the outward effects of fear on the people they meet. As mankind fights for its survival Alley sees first hand just how far others are willing to go to save the ones they love. And in the figure of the Reverand, one of the creepiest characters I have read for a while.

From beginning to end, The Silence is a great mix of horror and thriller. The characters are as well formed as any and the story itself compelling. A great book.

Ten Little Herrings

by L C Tyler

Ten Little HerringsWith more red herrings and plot twists than a box full of Agatha Christie’s, our bumbling duo find themselves once again at the heart of a murder mystery. 

For this, their second outing, crime writer Ethelred Tressider and his pushy agent Elsie Thirkettle, are temporarily relocated to the Loir Valley. Which is rather unexpected really as Ethelred was last seen boarding a plane that exploded mid-flight. Elsie has been doing all she can to settle his affairs when, out of the blue, she receives a phone call from the said deceased author asking for her help. The pair are reunited at a rather shabby little French hotel, just in time to become suspects in a murder. Who would have thought that stamp collecting could be so dangerous? 

Ten Little Herrings combines great comedy with a serious crime story. L C Tyler’s clever wit and talent for slapstick make this a very enjoyable read. This is the second book of the series and the characters of Ethelred – the serious and rather lazy writer – and Elsie – bombastic chocoholic – are now firmly established. I can’t wait to read more of their adventures.

 

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon is a Harsh Mistressby Robert A Heinlein

It is 2075 and the Moon (Luna) is a former penal colony. Now the citizens want their independence and are prepared to fight for it. 

I suppose that in 1966 when the book was first published, the idea of a permanent colony on the Mohon seemed not just possible, but probably. With the space race in full swing and the first Moon landings on the horizon, all was to play for. It’s a shame the reality didn’t quite live up to the promise of those pioneering days. 

But putting that aside, what we have here is a tale of political intrigue, revolution and sociological change. In Heinlein’s Luna colonies, relationships are both free and complicated in a world where men outnumber women several-fold. But as always, writers are limited by their own experiences, even Sci-Fi writers like Heinlein. It seems that in 1966 even the most fantastic plots did not envisage a world where men and women could expect equal opportunities. The female lead, Wyoming Knott, is n the face of it a strong and independent character, but in fact, she is no more than a hook to hang the books romantic thread onto.

Luna’s struggle for independence from Earth draws a great deal from history and comparisons between it and America’s fight against Imperialism are easy to draw. 

If I sound overly critical of the book, I don’t mean to. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is an excellent example of how good science fiction can be. The science is believable and grounded. The problems faced by those having to adjust to the Moon’s lower gravity adds a level of believability so often overlooked. 

Heinlein is undoubtedly a mast of the genre, but he is also an excellent storyteller. The characters and plot are well structured and the pace consistent and relentless. And whilst there is a dated feel about some elements of the book, it stands up pretty well in my opinion. 

 

The Bletchley Girls

The Bletchley Girlsby Tessa Dunlop

Bletchley Park’s role during the second world war has been well documented in recent years. This once highly secret hub of the Allies’ intelligence gathering activities has been the subject of numerous books, films and TV programmes, But it is fair to say that by and large, the central characters in these tales have been the big hitters such as Alan Turing whose genius paved the way for the computer revolution. 

This book is a little different. IN The Bletchley Girls, journalist Tessa Dunlop looks not at the code breakers themselves – although they do get a mention – but instead focuses on some of the girls who found themselves, for one reason or another, essential components in the Park’s code-breaking activities. 

Talking candidly about their experiences both before and during the war, the fifteen women whose tales are told here give very different accounts of Bletchley and their roles there. For some, it was an exciting adventure, their first time away from home. For others, it was something a little less glamorous, a period that had to be endured rather than enjoyed. But for all of them it was a time that helped to shape them and whether their memories are fond or otherwise, they can at least be assured that the work that they did at Bletchley Park really did matter, even if they could not see this at the time.

The work at Bletchley Park was intensely secretive and compartmentalised. Staff were forbidden to speak to anyone, including those who worked in other sections (or huts) about the work they did. And whilst all were aware that what they were doing was vital to the war effort, for most it was tedious and repetitive, with no idea of how their labours contributed to anything else. Some of these lively and interesting nonagenarians have never spoken to anyone about their experiences. The need for secrecy was made only too clear to all of the Park’s staff and the consequences for breaching it very severe.

The Bletchley Girls shows a very different side of life, not only for those women working for Bletchley but for women in general. There is no agenda to the telling of these stories but focusing as it does on the role played by these amazing women, it does highlight the prejudice and condescending attitude they all faced from the male establishment.

Tessa Dunlop has captured the highs and lows of these young girls who were, until recently, the often overlooked but essential part of the system that broke the enemy codes. Her book paints a warts-and-all picture of life, not only at the Park itself but also at its outlying stations and offices throughout the UK. The stories put a human face on the most secret of British establishments. Her easy style is well-suited to the subject and she manages to get the best out of her sometimes reluctant interviewees.

The conversational style of the book makes it very easy to read and the open and honest observation of the “girls” themselves a real eye-opener. 

Right on Time

by Pauline McLynn

Right On TimeBack for her third adventure, Dublin’s most unconventional private detective, Leo Street and her eccentric team. Taking on a simple missing person case, Leo soon finds herself staring at the dark underbelly of Dublin’s less salubrious side.

Full of the usual wit and charm I have come to expect from Paulin McLynn, there is also a darker side of the story, embracing the seedy world of addiction and prostitution. Alongside this, Leo is facing some difficult decisions in her private life. But as with her previous outings, the lines between home and work become very blurred. There is a distinctly Irish charm about McLynn’s writing, even when her hero finds herself face to face with some of the city’s seedier characters. I witty aside or slapstick moment is never far away.

The reader is reminded ther9ught the book that every city has its dark side, hidden away from tourists and locals alike. Once again Pauline McLynn has produced a book that combines good plot, wonderful characters and a natural and subtle wit. I really do enjoy journeying into the worlds that she creates.

Right on Time in an uncomplicated read, but one that does challenge preconceptions about Dubin and its culture. A very enjoyable book.

First Frost

by James Henry

First FrostR D Wingfield’s loveable detective DI “Jack” Frost has long been a favourite of mine, both the books and their TV adaptation. The irascible, bumbling and totally politically incorrect detective’s original appearances are a great example of how this kind of stories should be. For me, Frost’s irreverent ways, his disinclination for completing paperwork and his constant battles with authority present a character I can relate to. In this, the first prequel written by the team of James Gurbutt and Henry Sutton, we are transported back to 1981. Frost is a Detective Sergeant and already has a reputation as a good detective, even if his ways are sometimes unorthodox and his matter makes him difficult to work with. Superintendent Mullet has recently arrived at the Denton station and is determined to stamp his authority on the place. For him, Frost epitomises all that is worst about the place.

Keeping with the format that made Wingfield’s original series so popular and successful, in First Frost, DS Frost has to deal with several unrelated crimes, including terrorists, murder, bank robberies and a missing young girl. Trying to keep track of all the separate cases, whilst covering for absent inspectors and missing paperwork, Frost and Mullet clash from the very start.

The interweaving plots ensure the pace is consistent and at times as messy as the belligerent detective trying to unravel it all. The character of Frost os maintained throughout and this peek into his pre-Inspector days is a very clever way for the two writers to resurrect the grumpy old so-and-so.

I really enjoyed the story, the characters and the uncompromising way Gurbutt and Sutton kept faith with R D Wingfield’s creation. First Frost is an excellent novel in its own right, but as part of the Frost series, it is indistinguishable from the originals. A great piece of fiction very well written.