Category Archives: Review

Murder in the Village (DI Hillary Greene #4)

Murder in the Village

by Faith Martin

by Faith Martin

The ensemble cast is back for more murder and mystery in the picturesque Oxford suburbs. During the course of the first three books, the regular crew of the Thames Valley force have become well established. Their relationships and idiosyncrasies have woven themselves into the fabric of the books. But in this new adventure things begin to unravel in unexpected ways.

The arrival of new Superintendent, Jerome Raleigh. Raleigh is something of a high-flyer from the Met, but there is something about him that just doesn’t sit right with DI Greene. Why would an ambitious and driven man like him swap the Met for the leafy suburbs of Thames Valley?

Greene is a natural and instinctive detective with an uncanny ability to see when something isn’t right. In the new Super’s case, alarms bells are ringing loud and clear. And she is not alone in her suspicion that there is more to Jerome Raleigh’s move than meets the eye.

But before she can give any time to her thoughts about the new boss she has a murder to solve. Her investigation into the unexplained death of a would-be politician is going nowhere when an unexpected twist in another case leaves Greene with unplanned time on her hands.

With DI Greene’s forced absence from the station, DS Tyler takes over the murder investigation whilst trying to deal with a shocking upheaval in her personal life.

Murder in the Village sees our regular cast of characters thrown off-kilter by the plots interesting little twists. Whilst I have enjoyed the previous three books in the series, I felt there was a greater maturity to this one that indicates Faith Martin’s growing confidence in her characters and their stories.

I do enjoy the way she writes. The books are full of twists and turns, told with a directness and lack of unnecessary detail that makes them very easy to read. DI Greene herself is a character I find it easy to empathise with. She is good at her job and good with the people around her, but she isn’t perfect. She has her own secrets that continue to pull at her conscience like a broken thread.

I have to admit I have become a fan of the Hillary Green stories and look forward to reading the next instalment, already sat on the shelf awaiting my attention.

The First Bad Man

The First Bad Man

by Miranda July

by Miranda July

Picking up a book by a new-to-me author brings with it a mix of excitement and mystery. This is particularly true when all the chatter around it make the sort of claims this book has attracted. Judging by the quotes that emblazon the cover and leading pages, this is a novel that will leave an indelible mark on my soul. 

Mind you, if I have learned anything from a lifetime as a book addict, it is to be wary of such self-promotion. In fac, CanonGate has included so many glowing testimonials that they ran out of room to print even a brief synopsis.

For anyone who needs to know, the book follows a year in the life of Cheryl, a single woman in her forties, whose stable and routine life is just about to be turned upside down. There is no great tragedy, just the arrival of her boss’ daughter, Clee. 

It is difficult to describe what follows. As Cheryl tells her story in a frank and open way, we see the complex relationships that glue her life together become unstuck.

The characters we come across are all as mixed up as Cheryl herself, some more so. Whilst the book has its moments of both comedy and tragedy, for me, it just didn’t come together in the way I would have liked. For one thing, I never really felt much empathy for any of the characters. Even poor Cheryl, who tries so hard to do the right thing I found it hard to like.

One thing that does come across is the inherent instability of everyone in her life. Even her doctor and psychiatrist really need professional help.

I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the book. It is well written and at times very entertaining. For me though, it was over-hyped. I had been led to expect a book that would change my life. Instead I found a story I couldn’t fully relate to, populated with characters I didn’t understand.

The First Bad Man is an interesting read, just not one I would feel comfortable recommending to friends. 

Once Upon a River

Once Upon A River

Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield

by Diane Setterfield

Life on the Thames could be hard, but the people who lived by and along it learned to respect its mercurial nature.

Set in the early 1869s, a time of enlightenment and scientific progress, the old ways of the river folk compete with the new.

For the regulars of the Swan Inn, retelling old stories of the river is a way of life. These stories are often embellished in the retelling but the sense of awe and mystery always remains the same. Little did they suspect that on the wet solstice night they themselves would become part of one of the river’s strangest tales.

As they tell their tales a stranger bursts in, carrying the drowned corpse of a young girl. Hours later the child is very much alive, turning a simple tragedy into something much more intriguing and mysterious. Over the course of the following year, the true identity of the girl (who does not speak) remains in question. Everyone who meets her wants to protect her. Well, almost everyone. She seems to reach into the hearts of those with compassion, but in a small few, she becomes a commodity – a means to a villainous end.

At the heart of this compelling story are two families, each laying claim to the child. s she the baby kidnapped from her bed two years earlier or is she the little girl thought drowned by her distraught mother that very day?

For everyone involved, the child’s presence opens up doors and half-forgotten past events unearth secrets that will ultimately lead to new revelations. 

Almost as mysterious as the girl herself and the links that bind the characters. It is as if some unseen hand has brought them all to this place and time. Through the child they find not only their own salvation but also a reason to live and new hope for the future. 

Dark, Mysterious and beautifully told, Once Upon A River is a brooding mystery that kept me enthralled from the first line to the last. It has as many twists and turns as the river itself, and a comforting continuity that links all the different elements together.

A great book by a natural storyteller. Her stories may be dark, but there is a lightness to the telling and a sense of hope that make them easy to read and to believe.
She is a writer whose books I can thoroughly recommend.

 

Us Three

Us Three

Us Three by Ruth Jones

by Ruth Jones

Anyone who has seen Ruth Jones’ TV work on Stella and Gavin & Stacy will already be aware of her gentle but sharp observational comedy. She has a way of capturing the humour in everyday situations with her clever use of language and her eye for detail.

In Us Three she does this in spades. It is a touching story of three girl’s lifetime bond, sometimes stretched but never completely broken. Lana, Catrina and Judith are very different girls from diverse backgrounds, but they become the closest of friends through shared experiences and a bond that goes beyond the obvious. They support each other through family tragedies and the angst and turmoil of adolescence. They are inseparable, or so it seems.

Throughout their childhood, they have never been apart. Then comes university and things begin to change. There are new friendships and relationships that challenge the status quo. Their love for each other remains, but cracks begin to show.

For me, this is one of those books I couldn’t put down once I had started it. As Larna, Cat and Judith face love and heartbreak together I felt envious of their relationship with each other. One of the things I like about Ruth’s work is that she doesn’t sugarcoat things. The highs and lows of the three friends are realistic. Friendships are not always easy to maintain. Sometimes it takes work. And betrayal, whether it is real or imagined, hurts all the more because of it. 

It is an endearing story that examines the strengths and weaknesses of female friendship. It is warm, uplifting and brutally honest. This could be the story of any group of young women anywhere, but as always, Ruth Jone writes about the people she knows best – the Welsh. You can almost hear the comforting Welsh lilt in the dialogue. 

A great book.

White Teeth

White Teeth

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

by Zadie Smith

White Teeth is Zadie Smith’s acclaimed debut novel, and what a great debut it was. It was published to much critical acclaim and is as relevant today as it was back in 2000. It is not the first of her books I have read but is undoubtedly the best so far.

It tells the story of two unlikely friends and their dysfunctional families across three generations. Concentrating on three points during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, we are introduced to the most mixed-up set of characters outside of a TV soap. 

It is a chance meeting during the later stages of the Second World War that first bring Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal together. Thirty years later, and both with young wives, the pair are reunited. Their shared experience creates a bond that will last a lifetime, but it a friendship not without its problems. Struggling with the challenges of parenthood, the old friends follow very different paths.

Taking up the reigns of the story, the next generation of Jones’ and Iqbal’s face very different challenges.  

What I really liked about this book was the way that cultural clashes between the characters highlight the struggles within multicultural Britain through the decades but in a very amusing way. There is comedy in even the most serious of situations and in White Teeth, Zadie Smith captures it perfectly. There are plenty of laughs but also some touching insights into how the various prejudices and assumptions on every side impact our relations.

White Teeth is a compelling yet surprisingly easy read. The subjects tackled by Zadie are as serious and relevant today as they ever were, but the way she deals with them is more entertaining than preaching. 

As an introduction to Zadie Smith’s writing, this is as good as it gets. It is a book I would happily recommend to anyone. 

The Sussex Downs Murder

The Sussex Downs Murder

The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude

by John Bude

As part of the British Library Crime Classics series, The Sussex Downs Murder is an authentic and enjoyable example of pre-war crime writing. It is very much of its time in style and attitudes. The characters are stereotypical of their type and place in the social pecking order. Superintendent Meredith and his colleagues are first led by assumptions, but as the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that not everyone connected with the case is what they seem.

Meredith is called in to investigate when local businessman and landowner John Rother goes missing. His car is found abandoned just a few minutes from his home when he should have been miles away on holiday. There are signs of a struggle but no sign of the man himself. The police’s initial thoughts are that he has been kidnapped. But when no ransom is demanded, Meredith begins to suspect a more sinister crime has been committed. This seems to be confirmed several days later when human remains are discovered.

As superintendent Meredith pieces the clues together the case begins to take some unexpected turns. The trouble is that none of the pieces fit together as they should. Like a poorly made jigsaw, to make one piece fit, another needs to be abandoned.

The Sussex Downs Murder is a product of its time. It is cleverly plotted and well written, but lacks the fully developed characters, pace and scope you would expect from a modern crime story. This not a bad thing though. There is a certain naivety to the narrative that I found endearing.

My only frustration with it is the way the narrative jumps from one set scene tp the next.

The plot is cleverly laid out and I was as baffled as the police themselves until I top began to see that shape of the missing pieces. And I have to say that I really liked the little twist at the end, so unusual for the time.

 

 

The Thursday Murder Club (The Thursday Murder Club #1)

The Thursday Murder Club

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

by Richard Osman

Richard Osman is a well-known face on British TV, involved with several popular game shows. The Thursday Murder Club is his first novel and became an instant hit on its release. The question is though, would it have been so popular if its author wasn’t already a popular figure?

My first instinct is to say no. I don’t think it would have been such an instant hit. No doubt without his name on the top it would have got there, but much more slowly. As it is, Richard’s name has propelled it into the charts, but it is the quality of the story at the writing that has kept it there. 

The copy I have just read was read first by my wife (who loved it) and then my daughter before making its way to me. As I write this it is making its way to a family friend who is eagerly awaiting the opportunity to get stuck in.

I love a good mystery. I also love a good comedy. A book that combines the two is definitely going to arouse my interest and in The Thursday MurderClub, we get both in spades. Set in a peaceful retirement village, The Thursday Murder Club is a group of four friends who get together each week to investigate unsolved murders. They are a very unlikely bunch, lead by the enigmatic Elizabeth whose past is as mysterious as the events begin to unfold when they find themselves in the middle of a live murder case. 

The official investigation is being run by DCI Chris Hudson and PC Donna De Freitas. DCI Hudson is sceptical of the Club’s involvement at first but soon has to admit that Elizabeth’s unorthodox methods get results. For PC De Freitas, Elizabeth becomes something of a fairy godmother. 

As one crime leads to another, the intrepid sleuths, both official and unofficial, uncover more than one mystery. There are several strands to the story that the teams must try to unravel. Part of the narrative comes from Joyce’s diary entries which offer the best insights into the characters involved. 

The Thursday Murder Club is an excellent murder mystery neatly wrapped up with humour and compassion. In parts, it is extremely funny, with observational comedy reminiscent of the late great Tom Sharpe. From beginning to end, it is entertaining and compelling. It is one of the very few books that have made me laugh out loud recently. 

It was recommended to me and I can highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good laugh and a bit of a mystery.

 

Conjugal Rites (Brenda and Effie #3)

Conjugal Rites

Conjugal Rites by Paul Magrs

by Paul Magrs

Once again, Brenda and Effie find themselves at the centre of a supernatural mystery. The two friends also find themselves the focus of far more attention than either of them would like. 

in Conjugal Rites, all kinds of things come together in an adventure that takes the two ladies away from their beloved Whitby to, well, Whitby-in-Hell! 

As you might expect, if you have read any of the previous books (I, for some reason, seem to have missed out on book 1, something I intend to rectify very shortly), not everything is as it seems in the weird and wonderful world imagined by Paul Magrs. Brenda and Effie themselves appear, on the face of it, to be two ordinary, elderly ladies, muddling along and learning a quite living by the sea. But beneath that bumbling exterior lie some very dark and sinister secrets. But secrets have a habit of bubbling up the surface, particularly if you are the kind of people who enjoy nothing better than sticking your nose into other people’s business. 

In Conjugal Rites, it is Brenda’s past that has come to slap her in the face, in the form of her fiance Frank. The pair were literally made for each other by their “father”, Victor Frankenstein. But right from the start, Brenda has been very clear about not wanting anything to do with the human jigsaw puzzle, Frank. What Brenda can’t figure out is why Mrs Clause, owner of the Christmas Hotel and local crime magnate, has got to do with it. 

But then again, does anyone really know what Mrs Clause is up to? And why has she arranged to fill her total with a gathering of ancient costumed superheroes? 

Does any of this have anything to do with Mr Danby’s latest incarnation as a genial late-night radio host? And why is he using his phone-in to spread rumours about poor old Brenda?

All will be revealed in good time, but not before the ladies and their friends find themselves, quite literally, in Hell. 

A wonderful tour-de-force of a story. Great characters and an intriguing story, held together with penetrating wit and style. I found myself chuckling throughout the book. Why Paul is not yet a hero in Whitby I don’t know. For me, he has put the town back on the map with his wonderfully descriptive view of the streets and buildings of this beautiful location. 

All I need to do now is go back and find the first book so I can see how the whole thing started. I am looking forward to that. 

Murder of the Bride (DI Hillary Greene #3)

Murder of the Bride

Murder of the Bride by Faith Martin

by Faith Martin

Once again, DI Hillary Greene and her intrepid team find themselves investigating a suspicious death under rather unusual circumstances. The victim is young Julia Reynolds, a guest at an anniversary party who came to a somewhat sticky end in a cowshed, dressed as a bride.

The bride part is a bit of a red herring; it was a costume party and her choice of dress was intended as a jibe to her would-be fiance. 

There is no question about the fact she was murdered, but what was she doing in the cowshed and who would want to kill such a popular and lively young woman?

As with Hillary’s previous cases, nothing here is quite what it seems and she and her team soon uncover a web of jealousy and intrigue. Potential suspects begin to emerge out of the woodwork but all lack either motive or opportunity. None of it makes any sense and all avenues seem to be dead ends.

There are plot twists aplenty as Thames Valley’s finest inch ever closer to the truth, uncovering more than they bargained for along the way.

Faith Martin has created a likeable hero in Hillary Green, surrounding her with a supporting cast that is varied and colourful. Each has their unique idiosyncrasies and troubles. There is also the ongoing saga of Hillary’s now dead husband, Ronnie, and his nefarious exploits that continue to follow her like a bad smell. She may have been cleared of any wrong-doing herself, but there is still the question of Ronnie’s ill-gotten gains. One man at least, is determined to get his hands on the money, Sargeant Frant Ross. Frank is a permanent thorn in Hillary’s side, but one that has his uses which she is happy to exploit if it will help with a case.

The book also has a couple of interesting twists as part of the ongoing arc. 

Murder of the Bride is a well written, well-structured crime novel that is both challenging and easy to read. I like Faith’s almost simplistic style. There is a lot of plot and character development but all done in an easily accessible way. The narrative is clean and pacey with little padding.

This being the third on the series the characters and their backstories are already well developed so there is little time spent going over old ground.

I am enjoying these books and look forward to getting into number 4. 

The Left Hand of Darkness

How To Be Deadby Ursula Le Guin

Once again I take the risky journey into another “classic”. First published in 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness was Le Guin’s fifth novel and went on to win both Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel. No mean feat and an achievement that would make any book worthy of the “classic” status it has achieved.
One of the best features of science fiction is that as a genre it is quite hard to define and novels within the sphere range from all-out space operas and boys-own adventures, to the thought-provoking and visionary. Sometimes, all the same book.

So how does The Left Hand of Darkness fit into this?
Well, I do approach all “classics” with an open mind and some trepidation. I have only too often found myself disappointed. And I have to say that, at first, I thought that this was going to be one of those. It got off to a stuttering start and I struggled a little with the characters and the distant world they inhabited.

The main character, Genly Ai is a representative of the Ekumen, a collection of worlds linked only by their humanity. His role is to observe the people of the winter-world Gethen and to work towards bringing them into the fold. In this universe, mankind is spread throughout the galaxy but there is no explanation of the background to this, just an assumption the reader is happy to go along with it.

The Gethenians are unique amongst the known worlds as they are the only androgynous race whose lives are governed by a sexual cycle that can lead to them becoming male or female at the height of their cycle. To them, Genly’s permanent sexuality is a perversion.

The thurst of the novel’s narrative comes from Genly as he becomes inadvertently drawn into the complexities of the politics and national conflicts of this winter world.

When his only true friend and ally falls foul of the political intrigues of the court of King Argaven, Ai begins a journey across the continent that puts him in great personal danger. His escape and the challenges presented by his journey across the vast ice fields with his now-disgraced friend are the book’s most memorable moments.

Left Hand of Darkness is a slow burner of a book, but one worth the effort. The Gethenian’s androgynous nature allows Le Guin to question our own preoccupation with gender, something very relevant today. Although I would not list it as one of my “classics”, it is certainly a book worthy of its accolades. Le Guin’s easy style and driving narrative give the book real pace, even when there seems to be little happening. The swapping between narrators allows the reader to see events from two different perspectives that I found interesting and kept me on my toes.

So, a good book. One I would certainly recommend, but not to the more casual Sci-Fi reader. It is a book of its genre.