Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way (to quote Tolstoy)

Finding that I need to catch up with reviews (again) I realised that I have just read a group of books which all feature characters dealing with family issues. Some huge, some slightly daft and some rather more relatable but all very important to those they are affecting – the differences between these experiences led me to a quotation from Anna Karenina and, like summer following spring, onto another round-up post…

Black Water Sister – Zen Cho

Let’s start at the more surreal end of the range. I read and enjoyed a couple of Cho’s earlier books which were a glorious mix of magic and Regency school stories with a quick side trip into faeryland so I knew to expect something a little, um, arcane. What I got was a blend of contemporary family story, with our main character, Jess, hiding her sexuality from her parents, and a tale of hauntings, past betrayals and a vengeful goddess. Tolstoy never thought of that one!

9781447299998Jess and her family move back to Malaysia, the country of her birth, when her father’s illness has destroyed their finances. She thinks the worst she will have to deal with is separation from her girlfriend (and keeping her secret from the family) but then she starts hearing voices. Well, one voice. Who claims to be her recently deceased grandmother Ah Ma. Jess will need to help Ah Ma seek revenge on a gang lord trying to develop a piece of land sacred to a local spirit – although the spirit, the Black Water Sister, seems to be doing a good job of delaying work herself by causing a series of accidents which have the workers very worried. As if this wasn’t enough she will need to sort out her own relationships, decide where her future lies and try to help the poorly treated migrant workers she meets on the development site.

I really enjoyed the blend of Jess’s more Western sensibilities and the strange magical settings. There are plenty of amusing moments and, for Jess in particular, some rather frightening ones. Her main problem, in the end, boils down to trying to work out, for herself and for her wider family, who she really is and what her future life will be like.

Son of the Storm – Suyi Davies Okungbowa

I’ve been hearing a lot about Afrofuturism recently and while this book is more fantasy than sci-fi it is certainly based on African culture, history and mythology. (A quick Google tells me I should probably think of it as ‘afrocentric fantasy’ – either way, it is a cracking story with a cast of fascinating characters.) Whatever, I love mythologies, wherever they are from – I’ve always had a soft spot for the Silmarillion for example….

9780356515823Danso is a talented student – he is training to become a sort of druid/storyteller – but he is not accepted as a full member of the elite because his mother was an outsider, from far beyond the main city of Bassa. His mother is dead so his father and uncles have decided to marry him Esheme – also on the borders of society but the daughter of the city’s most powerful ‘fixer’ – to try and give him (and them) a secure future. Esheme is a student too, her plans are more geared towards the legal professions, but she is interested in her mother’s work too – this girl craves power. Add in a mysterious outsider – Lilong – whose very presence, and the strange power she wields, seems to strike fear into the city’s rulers. Danso must decide whether to side with his city (which he can see has huge flaws) or a potentially lethal stranger and powers he may not be able to control.  And, well, we already know that Danso is the sort of person who prefers to look beyond the rules.

This book has some really interesting characters (including a few you don’t like but you can’t look away from) and a well-built world. It is also the first in a series (planned as a trilogy, next book due Summer 2022) so I look forward to seeing just what happens next for Danso, Esheme and Lilong.

Hana Khan Carries On – Uzma Jalaluddin

Just to prove that not all family issues are centred around magic and murderous intentions let’s turn to a rom-com for a little light relief. Jalaluddin’s first book was a Muslim take on Pride and Prejudice: this time she has her sights on the film You’ve Got Mail…

57922223._SY475_Hana’s family runs a small halal restaurant in an area of Toronto known as the Golden Crescent. Like many girls of her generation Hana and her sister have been allowed to follow their dreams by their parents. No arranged marriages or enforced burqas – instead Hana is an intern at a local radio station, working towards her chosen career as a broadcaster, and her sister was a talented footballer who could easily have turned professional. Society, however, is not quite as liberal as the Khan family – the radio station seems to prefer Hana’s fellow (male) intern for the one permanent position and her sister’s career is brought to a sudden end by a government ban on head-coverings in sport (which seems to be based on real-life situations in the first decade or so of the C21st). The story itself centres on the arrival of a rival restaurant, with an owner Hana wants to hate but who she finds very attractive, a visit from Indian cousin Rashid (who Hana starts to believe must be part of the Indian mafia rather than a trainee accountant) and the arrival of a previously unknown aunt who turns out to be a complete rebel.

Full of action and some great characters (especially Rashid and devil-may-care Aunt Billi) this is a romance with a social message. It doesn’t shy away from the harsh facts of racism and hate-crime but it also shows how neighbourhoods can pull together to support all the communities contained there. And also, with help from Aunt Billi, Hana is able to decide what she really wants in life, how to be true to herself and who is worthy of her time, effort and heart.

Jane

Something to look forward to?

I’m someone who likes to enjoy life. If I can’t have the big things – like the holiday to Italy we had planned for 2020 – then I hope I will find something else to enjoy instead – the wonderful weather we had during the spring of 2020 and the fact that I live in a beautiful part of West Yorkshire with lots of excellent opportunities for walks and runs. My daily government-sanctioned exercise was something to look forward to (especially once I was allowed to sit with a book or a sketchpad too) and my garden is still feeling the benefits of my times on furlough. It sounds a bit ‘Pollyanna’, I know, but I’d rather be happy with what I have than miserable about what I’m not allowed to do. That said, there were things I did miss during lockdown – seeing friends and family in person mostly – and one of them was work. I love being on holiday from my job but an enforced absence of many, many weeks was tough. I missed the books, my colleagues and the customers. I especially missed talking about books with customers: recommending and being recommended to or just little metaphorical high-fives when we agree on how brilliant a particular book is. Family and friends I could phone or Zoom but I missed the customers, acquaintances and complete strangers… Let’s just say I’m really happy to be back at even modest levels of normality. Which leads me to the thing I’m looking forward to next – the return of Bradford Literature Festival! It isn’t going to be as big as previous years – there will be far fewer events and each of them will be much smaller to allow for social distancing so book early– but there will be authors, there will be books and there will be those wonderful, wonderful conversations with people I’ve never met before (but who will turn out to be kindred spirits as we bond over novels and poems or really, really beautiful book jackets). Even though it is a smaller event I haven’t read all the titles which will be featured but here are a few I have. The Khan – Saima Mir 31567976._SY475_I first came across Saima Mir when I read her piece in the fabulous It’s Not About the Burqa, writing about being an emancipated, divorced, Muslim woman. Although this book never mentions the Northern city it is set in the fact that Mir has lived in Bradford (and the fact that there is a Morley Street and a 620 bus – big clues!) means that it is easy to see this novel unfolding in our streets. It is also easy to see, in the strength of the main character, Jia Khan, an emancipated, modern Muslim woman. Jia’s family, however, owes more to a world of crime – her father is the head of a local organized crime syndicate – and it is this world which she is thrown into when her father is murdered. Her younger brother is hot-headed, and far too emotional, so it falls to Jian to take control of an organisation she had tried to escape from years before. This is a gripping novel with an incredibly strong female lead – in two worlds where the world assumes women either don’t belong or are naturally subservient. A heady mix of A.A. Dhand* and Martina Cole. Six Tudor Queens: Katharine Parr, The Sixth Wife – Alison Weir 57433693._SY475_This is, obviously, a complete change of mood from contemporary crime to a piece of biographical fiction. But there are also a lot of similarities if you look below the surface. Like Jia, Katherine Parr is shown to us to be a young woman with a past full of tragedy and a future full of hard decisions. Both women have to take up a role they didn’t really want, in order to achieve an end which means a huge amount to them. In the case of Katherine Parr we see her life prior to her involvement with Henry VIII – two marriages, two widowhoods and beloved step-children, and a new way of thinking about her relationship with religion – and then the marriage which brought her to the attention of history as the sixth, and final, wife of an aging king. What I particularly enjoy about Weir’s telling of the lives of Henry VIII’s wives is the fact that we are able to get an idea of what their marriages were like from their perspectives. Henry’s quite understandable obsession with fathering an heir is well known but, certainly after about the second wife, it can be hard to see why (beyond the sheer power of the Royal command) women were eager to wed him. In the case of Katherine Parr (in an echo of her predecessor, the tragic Katheryn Howard) she was poised to finally choose to marry for love when she caches the eye of the king. Through her eyes we see Henry as a sad figure, almost broken by Katheryn’s betrayal, who still has the ability to be kind and charming. His physical disabilities and despotic temperament are there but I also felt hugely sorry for him at time. And Katherine? She marries power in order to promote her religious convictions – a dangerous course to take in the circumstances but one which works for her, leaving her free to marry her true love. Part of the joy of reading good historical fiction is that you know how the stories will end. The pleasure of reading Alison Weir is that she almost makes you believe that Katherine Parr will have the happy ending she seems to so richly deserve…. Jane *Do not fear – the Bradford Literature Festival will be featuring a new book from A.A. Dhand. And, as soon as I finish reading it, I will be posting a review…

Back to proper grown-up reading again…

After my last post, rounding up children’s books, here are a few of the adult fiction novels I need to tell you about…

The Manningtree Witches – A K Blakemore

A few years ago I read, and loved, The Familiars by Stacey Halls – a story centred around the Pendle witch trials in the early Seventeenth Century – so I was interested to read this book, set a few decades later in my home county of Essex.

9781783786435This slightly later date means that we are now in the era of the English Civil war and, like so much of the country, the village of Manningtree has lost many of its men in the warring armies. Many of the women who remain are widows, old and poor – the least important people according to male society, but, in reality they were the ones who helped in times of illness, childbirth and death. When a young man called Matthew Hopkins buys one of the village’s inns he seems more interested in the ‘wise women’ of the area than in beer and the whole of the more ‘genteel’ segment of the area begin to turn against those they had previously turned to for assistance. We see the story unfold through the eyes of Rebecca West, whose mother would win any ‘most likely to be a witch’ contest in the area, and her growing feelings for a young clerk who is teaching her to read – so we consider the fate of maidens as well as that of crones and mothers.

As ever, this tale of witch-hunts and religious fervour shows the perils of being poor and female. The strong minded, intelligent and unattached seem to be in the greatest danger (or as seen as the greatest evil by jealous women and fearful men). The language used to describe the bleak Essex coastal landscape, the difficult lives of the villagers and the brutal treatment of the accused women is elegant and almost poetic – a glorious contrast to the lives described.

Bright Burning Things – Lisa Harding

9781526624468This is another tale of a woman struggling against a society she doesn’t quite fit into. Sonya used to be an actress living a life full of passion, glamour and attention. Now she is Tommy’s mother and she is afraid that she can’t do it. She drinks too much, even though she tries not to, never has enough money, and tries to recreate her past life by driving her beaten up old car too fast or swimming too far out from the beach. Other people’s attempts to make her calm down and conform, to send Tommy to school, seem like interference to Sonya – in many ways we can see that she is a terrible mother but she and Tommy, and their rescue dog Herbie, love each other so much we really want her to find a way out of her addictions. After an incident which hovers very near tragedy Sonya agrees to try rehab and also accepts help from a man she meets in a pizza takeaway. The descriptions of her time in the rehabilitation unit, run by nuns, and of her separation from Tommy are quite harrowing and her knight in shining armour also is not as good a man as he first appears: this is certainly no easy path to redemption for Sonya.

Not an easy read and you don’t always like Sonya but, by god, you are gripped by her story and, towards the end, you are cheering her on in the hope that, this time, she can get her life onto a sustainable course.

The Lamplighters – Emma Stonex

9781529047318Although this novel does look at the lives of three women whose lives are changed by the events at Maiden Rock lighthouse off the Cornish coast it also shows us the experiences of the lighthouse keepers themselves. But at the heart of the story is the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the three keepers in the early 1970s – when the boat arrives to deliver supplies and take one of the keepers for his turn ashore all three have gone, the doors are locked from the inside and there is no sign of any fight or altercation. The investigation can’t discover where the men went but we return to it when a journalist decides to try and uncover the truth twenty years later. His conversations with Helen, Jenny and Michelle give us more details about the lives they lived ashore and before becoming keepers and they are interspersed with episodes on Maiden Rock, which become more and more ominous as the fateful day looms.

This novel investigates the grief of the women who are left behind but also the complex psychology of the three keepers. The tragedies and family histories which led them to their careers and the secrets they keep from each other and their wives combine to create an atmosphere which becomes ever more oppressive. The story the journalist uncovers and the story we see developing are certainly not the same – part of the glory of reading Lamplighters is the fact that, at the end, you still have to wonder in your own mind about exactly what happened… Hugely enjoyable and kind of frustrating at the same time!

Jane

More lockdown reading: Children’s books…

Let’s just agree not to talk about how long it is taking between book posts, okay? Let’s just say there is stuff happening in life right now and many things are taking a back seat to the really important stuff (although, you’ll be pleased to hear that I’m still reading a lot….). Of course, some of the best things to read when life is getting a bit intense are books written for children. They don’t totally avoid the tricky issues but they can be rather more palatable than adult fiction – here are some I’ve read recently…

Rumaysa: A Fairytale – Radiya Hafiza

9781529038309Oh, this book was an utter joy to read! Amusing, linked stories with familiar sounding heroines – based on the traditional stories of Rapunzel, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty – but with a couple of fascinating quirks. The characters and settings are South Asian and Muslim and the girls are not passive princesses. These girls work out how to rescue themselves (and an Aladdinesque lad called Suleiman) without the help of adults, heroes or any of the usual suspects AND they support each other throughout. Lots of fabulous, positive messages here for girls and boys from any background. In fact, many of the copies I have sold since our shop reopened have been to young adults, mostly women, who have, perhaps, previously been denied a version of themselves in this kind of story. However, whatever your own heritage (or, indeed, age or gender) this book is an entertaining and exciting read.

Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Haunted House – Annabelle Sami

9781788953368Talking of excitement (and empowered Muslim girls) I have also been catching up with the latest adventures of Zaiba, Ali and Poppy as they investigate more mysteries. The girls have befriended the new girl at school, Olivia, and are delighted to be invited to visit her home, Oakwood Manor. But, as well as being an old, rambling building with lots of rooms to explore it seems that the Manor is also haunted! Ali, ever the voice of science and reason, doesn’t believe in ghosts but the children find themselves in a situation where they have a few hours to prove that there are only human forces at work when a housewarming party goes wrong.

Another lovely book with a great blend of (mild) peril, problem-solving and the power of co-operation. The returning characters continue to develop (young scientist Ali is still my favourite, I think) and new recruits are welcomed to the Snow Leopard Detective Agency (UK Branch). A great series for enquiring minds from about eight years old

Death Sets Sail – Robin Stevens

9780241419809Another series I have joined at the end of! This is the ninth, and last, book featuring the adventures of schoolgirl detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong (and their various friends and relations) and, this time, they are sailing down the Nile on a ship bristling with members of a strange cult who firmly believe themselves to be reincarnations of ancient Egyptian deities when a murderer strikes. The girls join forces with their old chums George and Alexander (the Junior Pinkertons) to try to solve the mystery before the police arrive and arrest the wrong person…

Great characters and lots of respectful Agatha Christie references made this a really good read (even for a grown up) and I am now going to have to make time to read the previous eight volumes! And for anyone who has read the whole series there are new adventures planned featuring Hazel’s irrepressible little sister May. I would recommend this book to readers from eight or nine upwards (there are, obviously, references to violent events as well as blossoming relationships but nothing graphic in either case). 

Dragon Legend – Katie & Kevin Tsang

9781471193095At least this time I am only joining the series at book two – and it was pretty easy to catch up with the events I missed in the first book. Billy and his friends, Ling-Fei and Charlotte, have to try and rescue his best friend Dylan from the Dragon of Death. In these efforts they are aided by the dragons they have bonded with, Dylan’s dragon, and, less helpfully, JJ. This is a big, sweeping adventure – full of peril, problems to solve and huge consequences – and, even better, it has dragons! It also lets the children explore the friendships, rivalries and, sometimes, enmities between them; to develop the qualities they need to defeat the forces they face. Strength, intelligence or courage will not be enough…

Speaking as one who devoured the Anne McCaffrey Pern books this was an excellent read and one where the dragons were as well-developed as the human characters. And, given where this episode ends, I will certainly need to continue on to the next book to discover how they complete their quest.

Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow – Benjamin Dean

The final book in my round-up is not one filled with dragons, murder, haunting or fairy-tale magic but it is no less full of drama (although of a more personal and family-based nature).

9781471199738Archie Albright’s parents obviously both love Archie but, he can see, they don’t get on well with each other. His dad has moved out, although even that hasn’t stopped the arguments, and there is definitely something going on neither his mum or dad will tell him about. When Archie, and his friends Bell and Seb, discover the secret – that his dad is gay – he is unsure what to do: he still loves his dad but it seems that none of the family know how to, well, be with each other. With a child’s innocent approach to life Archie decides that he needs to find answers and, after finding a leaflet his father drops, a Pride festival in London seems to be the best place to find them. The children set off to London (after much pooling of finances, fooling of parents and downright nerves) and, at Pride, meet up with the most amazing and colourful group of people who help them to understand that love can overcome all.

A fabulous book that introduces a diverse range of characters – gay, straight, trans, of all ages, races and backgrounds – who show Archie, and young readers, that kindness, support and honesty are more important than labels. Although being fabulous also helps….

Jane

What I read in my Lockdown – or, yet another roundup…

*Sigh* Once again I find myself with lots of finished books and no reviews. If I’m reading an e-book I move them into a folder marked ‘reviews’: the folder currently has nineteen items in it. I’m not sure if they will all get onto the blog but let’s see if I can at least chip away and tell you about a few of them. Because some of them were so good I think they will move onto a favourites list of some sort (either for 2021, lockdown or, maybe, even all-time….).

The Galaxy and the Ground Within – Becky Chambers

9781473647664This series of books (The Wayfarers) is definitely on my list of all-time favourites – thoughtful science fiction, more concerned with the people involved than with technology or space battles and full of ideas about tolerance and diversity without ramming their ‘wokeness’ down your throat. We have followed various characters through the universe which Chambers has created and seen them on spaceships, on vast artificial ship-based worlds and on small planets and it is on the latter that this book is set. Not much of a planet – Gora has no air or water, plants or creatures – but one very conveniently situated at a sort of intergalactic crossroads of the wormholes used to travel to the more habitable and cosmopolitan worlds. To avoid messy accidents travel through these wormholes has to be controlled so Gora has become a sort of motorway services where ships and their crews await their turn to move on. 

The book tells the story of one group of travellers, and their various spacecraft, who are stranded for an extended period during a freak technical crisis which knocks out most communications. The owner of the self-contained dome they are in and her adolescent child do everything they can to keep their guests happy and safe and the novel follows the backstories of the hosts, the three visitors, their interactions and, in the end, their potential futures. This is another of Chambers’ character-led tales where, through the lives of various alien races, we can explore questions which affect us as humans. 

The Paris Library – Janet Skeslien Charles

9781529335446A new author for me but a familiar theme – a Parisian romance with a book-filled setting. The story is partly set during World War II, where Odile gets her dream job in the American Library, and partly in a small Montana town, where a young girl called Lily is learning to cope with major changes in her life. The two stories intertwine, since Odile, having left France after the war, is Lily’s elderly and rather reclusive neighbour.

I loved Odile’s thread of the book – her joy at getting a job in the prestigious American Library and the friendships she forms there. Once war breaks out she sees how books can help in troubled times as they arrange to send reading materials out to the allied forces so far from home. When Paris is occupied by the German army this activity halts and, despite the fact that her father is a high ranking police officer, working alongside the invaders, Odile becomes part of the team providing books to those banned from using the library itself – mostly Jews. She hero worships Dorothy Reeder, the library’s director, and one of her colleagues falls in love with Odile’s beloved brother – both of these women help her to cope when her brother Remy joins the army – but she feels her life is complete when she finally falls in love with one of the many, many young police officers her father invites home to dinner. 

We learn of Odile’s story through her own words in the 1940s and also through Lily. Partly as Odile reveals details in conversations which she hopes will help the girl with her own problems but also through some rather shocking letters which the girl finds in the older woman’s house.  A reminder that historical fiction as always also about now, as well as then.

The Mystery of Henri Pick – David Foenkinos

9781782275824Like The Paris Library this is a mixture of two of my favourite things – a book about books and a quirky French love story. This is a much lighter story though, replacing a tragedy set in occupied Paris with a library in a small Breton town which contains a collection of manuscripts rejected by publishers. A young woman, making a name for herself at a Parisian publishing house, visits the library while on holiday with her author boyfriend, and discovers a manuscript which she is sure will be a bestseller. This book was written, it appears, by Henri Pick, a local pizza chef who is now dead and becomes a literary sensation. Although there is doubt, even from Pick’s widow and daughter, that he could have written such a book everyone who reads it is touched, and sees something of their own life reflected in its pages.

This was a pretty perfect lockdown read: a romance with no sugar-coating, a mystery with no murders, and a disreputable journalist searching for the truth. Very satisfying. 

Madame Burova – Ruth Hogan

Ruth Hogan is another favourite author – I think I’ve read all her books so far and thoroughly enjoyed them – so I was delighted to see she had another coming out. Her particular brand of fiction – involving a mix of sorrow and joy, a little romance, quite a few faithful dogs and a hint of the unexpected – is one that always seems to appeal to me. When you’ve always felt that enjoyment you do always get a twinge of fear when you start a new book: will this be the one that I just don’t like, quite as much? Luckily the answer, once again, is no. Still just my cup of tea.

9781529373318Madame Burova (Imelda to her friends and family) is a Tarot reader (also palms read and general clairvoyance) and has been since she took over her mother’s Brighton booth in the 1970s. Her job involves knowing a lot of other people’s secrets, and she has always kept them before, but this time she has been charged with revealing information which is going to change a young woman’s life forever. In the early 70s Imelda Burova joined the ranks of ‘entertainment’ at a local holiday camp and the story follows this motley crew – singers, pianists, a wall of death rider, a middle-aged contortionist and a trio of glamorous mermaids – and their romances, spats and jealousies. One of which leads to to the birth of a baby girl, abandoned on Imelda’s doorstep, who returns decades later to try and discover how she came to be. 

Nick – Michael Farris Smith 

9780857304544The Great Gatsby seems to be a lot of people’s favourite book. I didn’t read it at school and only got round to it a few years ago so maybe I wasn’t the right age to fall in love with it. It was good but was never going to replace the books which transformed my late teens (One Hundred Years of Solitude, maybe, or the Gormenghast trilogy). I was, however, interested to read Nick – a novel giving Nick Carraway the backstory which Fitzgerald never shared with us.

This story takes us from the mud, death and horrors of the Great War to the heat and passions of New Orleans on the brink of prohibition via a fleeting but doomed love affair while on leave in Paris. Carraway’s character in the Great Gatsby seems to be that of a practical, intelligent man of some integrity and we do have that confirmed to a large extent but he is also revealed to be so much more.  We see the details of his stifling Midwest upbringing, the tragedy of his Parisian love affair and the staggering brutality of war – these things all lead to the Fitzgerald Nick but it is the events in New Orleans which really fleshed him out for me. Heat, passion, booze all leading to pain, loss and, eventually, a future on Long Island…

Next post: I try to carry on the catching-up with some children’s books….

Jane

 

Unsettled Ground – Claire Fuller

Some authors write novels which follow a pattern – no bad thing. I like to think I’d always recognise Terry Pratchett’s style of novel but that doesn’t mean they aren’t something I love to read (ditto Georgette Heyer). I like an author who I know where I am with them but, just as much, I like to find writers who can branch out in unexpected directions. Claire Fuller is one such author – the first book of hers I read was a deeply disturbing tale of a child, living deep in the woods with her survivalist father, believing that they are the last people left alive and the second a love triangle set in the late 1960s. This, her latest, is a contemporary novel, set in rural England about a brother and sister left adrift by the death of their mother. The connection between the three? Great writing, characters you can believe in and a slight, but inescapable, sense of dread…

53341634._SX98_Julius and Jeannie have always lived in their rather dilapidated old cottage, on the edge of a farm. They lived with both parents until their father’s sudden death when they were barely in their teens and then with their mother. When she, too, dies the fifty-one year old twins have to work out how to cope with the world on their own. Jeannie still has her market garden and Julius does various odd jobs (but only within cycling range as he has near terminal travel sickness in any sort of motor vehicle) but neither has any qualifications and they have no money or bank account. They make plans – which all fall apart as they, and Jeannie in particular, discover the harsh realities of the modern world. They lose their home, their possessions and their livelihoods but, again, Jeannie is relentless in her efforts to find a way to carry on and find a way to continue you life they have always known. Julius is more eager to spread his wings, explore new relationships and new opportunities – including exploiting the siblings’ expertise as performers of traditional folk songs – but Jeannie is, after almost a whole lifetime being held back by health fears, the more practical and effective. 

This was a gripping story which touched on many issues – rural poverty, those who slip through safety nets in modern society and the lies told, with love, to keep families together. Jeannie is a wonderful character – full of life, humour, strength and hope – and I spent the whole book willing her on in the hope that she can find a way to survive her losses. The writing is wonderful but Jeannie goes beyond being ‘written’, she feels real…

Jane

 

The Crow Folk – Mark Stay

This was a fun book in a World War Two, witchcraft and demonic possession kind of way. I mean, why wouldn’t that be fun?

54203707._SY475_Faye Bright lives with her father, in a pub, in a small village called Woodville during the Second World War. Their position, in Kent, means that bombing is a constant threat and Faye does her bit by helping out as an air raid warden but she is devastated when she finds that her hobby of bell-ringing is to be suspended for the duration of the war.  Faye’s mother died when she was a very young girl and neither she or her father have really recovered from her loss – so Faye is angry and upset that the long peal the ringers were due to ring in honour of her mother will not now happen. It is with this sense of anger that she finds an old notebook of her mother’s which seems to suggest that she was a witch. And here is where the adventures begin. Armed only with her mother’s book (including its interesting sounding recipe for jam roly-poly as well as spells and arcane drawings) Faye finds herself pitted against walking scarecrows, a sinister pumpkin-headed man and every busy-body in the village. Luckily, two of latter turn out to be witches too and they begin to work together to save Woodville from something just as dangerous as the Luftwaffe. 

I absolutely adored this book – and am delighted to see it subtitled ‘Witches of Woodville #1. It made me think of Pratchett (NEVER a bad thing) but also of all kinds of other things. There’s a hint of St Mary Mead about the village, or maybe the villages of Midsomer, and the scarecrows and Pumpkinhead are an unsettling Oz/Doctor Who mash-up, Faye herself is a great character – funny, unhappy, feisty and brave – and I’m looking forward to seeing her develop. In fact, given the blend of some of my favourite things – folklore, a hint of the magical, a good coming of age story and a sense of place and history – I’m eagerly pacing the floor for the next in the series generally. I’d happily recommend this to readers of fantasy, horror and folktales from 12 upwards. 

Jane

Mrs Death Misses Death – Salena Godden

Apparently it was Benjamin Franklin who said ‘in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’ but I have very rarely read an interesting book about taxes. I mean, I realise that taxation can be fascinating for some, but not for me (although Lionel Shriver wrote a great book about the effects of a financial apocalypse so I’m not totally against books about money). I am, however, in a non-gloomy way quite into books about death. I adored Sophie Anderson’s House With Chicken Legs, which shows the Baba Yaga helping the dead to move on from their lives, and Death (and Mort and Susan Sto Helit) are among my favourite Pratchett characters. Death is a fact of life (I’m not a big fan of euphemisms like ‘passed’ or ‘lost’ – don’t get me started on the ‘rainbow bridge’) so novels which help us to think about death can also help us to learn how to live. 

52568660._SX98_In Godden’s book Death is someone who, for the whole of time, has basically facilitated humanity’s transition from life into death. These deaths are often sudden and unexpected so Death needs to be unobtrusive, unthreatening and someone who could be found just about anywhere – which certainly rules out the skeletal figure with robes and a scythe. Here Death is Mrs Death, a Black woman who, while she does shift her appearance, always seems to look like the kind of working-class woman who is sweeping, cleaning, or waiting somewhere in the background. We meet her through a young writer, Wolf Willeford, who has had brushes with Mrs Death’s work over the years – they survived a fire which is, at the very least, based on the Grenfell fire and they are obviously troubled – their experiences almost guarantee this. The purchase of a beautiful, if expensive, desk leads to Wolf writing Mrs Death’s memoirs, looking at the individual and more everyday deaths she has been present at as well as grimmer ones – murders, deaths in police custody, high profile serial killers, violence. Mrs Death is tired – listening to the final words, stories and regrets of countless people is physically and mentally exhausting – yet her conversations with Wolf help them to recall the reasons why life is worth living.

This book is often quite bleak – many of the dead are kind, loving people killed brutally – and frequently told in blunt and offensive language but is oddly uplifting. Maybe it is Wolf’s example – that someone with so much pain, loss and hardship in their life can express themselves so eloquently and find so much hope in the future is a powerful message. Wolf is a character who has suffered so much loss and copes with being bipolar (the impulsive desk purchase with money that should have been rent is classic….) yet exhibits so much life and energy. The author, Godden, is a poet and it shows in the way language is used – even a stream of C-words has a kind of angry music to it – so, as often happens, it is art which helps us to cope with both death and the fear of death. 

Jane

The Shape of Darkness – Laura Purcell

Back to one of my favourite genres – historical fiction – but with, it seems, a supernatural twist. Which I love because a) belief in the uncanny has been far more common through history than it is now and b) spookiness isn’t just for Halloween!

53814737._SX98_This novel is set in Bath, as so many good historical novels are, but it is set slightly later than most. Instead of its Regency heyday this is a slightly run-down Bath in the early years of the Victorian era – which is great, I love seeing things in a slightly new context – and the story centres around Agnes Darken, whose skills as a silhouette artists is being replaced by the spangly new Victorian art of photography. Agnes lives with her aged mother and nephew and tries to earn money through her increasingly unfashionable art-form but suffers with both ill-health and the loss of her sweetheart. When her few clients start to become murder victims Agnes starts to worry that she is being targeted but it is the death of an unknown naval officer which drives her to seek help from a medium – she needs to know if this officer is her missing sweetheart. This medium, a young girl called Pearl, and her forthright sister are what really crank up the level of mystery – the descriptions of the seances are quite thrilling (and give away quite a few trade secrets too).

This is a dark and disturbing tale with many, many twists. Agnes is a character full of mysteries and she is, in many ways, haunted by her own dead sister. Pearl, the eleven year old albino medium, is heart-breaking – her fears, her physical disabilities which prevent her from even looking out of the window in daylight, her love for her father who is slowly dying from the effects of phosphorus poisoning and her battles against her single-minded sister – and will haunt me for a long time. Honestly, this is so good and so spooky that you really should not wait until 31st October to dive into this one!

Jane

 

 

 

Two Crime Novels

It used to be that I would describe myself as ‘not really a crime reader’ – I watched all the crime series avidly but had never even read an Agatha Christie.  Mum had got me reading Dorothy L Sayers (and I had a huge crush on Peter Wimsey) but somehow I never read any other fiction featuring detectives, sleuths or other kinds of investigators. I’m not sure what got me started on reading this genre properly but it is now one of my favourites – in fact, in a week or so I’m going to be starting an online course on Classic Detective Fiction through Futurelearn. I’m really looking forward to it – who knows I may even end up finding some kind of liking for some of the sub-genres I’m still not keen on (like ‘courtroom drama’ – if the denouement happens in a courtroom I’m currently not interested).

The Survivors – Jane Harper

53305127._SX98_As in all Harper’s previous books the weather and the land play a big part in the story. The land, this time, is a small community in Tasmania and the weather was a huge storm, twelve years earlier, which led to two tragedies. Kieran Elliott and his girlfriend, Mia, have returned to their childhood hometown to help Kieran’s parents pack up to move – a move necessitated by his father’s descent into dementia – but, on their first night, they realise that Kieran’s role in the events that led to the death of two popular young men (one Kieran’s own brother) has not been forgotten, or forgiven, by some. When a young girl’s body is found on the beach the next morning, a waitress who they had seen and spoken to the previous evening  accusations and bad feeling starts to spread around the town – and memories of the other tragedy, the disappearance of a teenaged girl (Mia’s best friend), resurface too.

The investigations, led by an incomer from the big city since the local policeman (who had been part of the  earlier events) is about to close down the local station, dig deep into old memories and rekindle old accusations. Kieran and Mia also try to look, through adult eyes, at things which happened in their teens and are aided by a long-term visitor to the area – an author who had been running a writing course when the storm struck. Part of the joy of reading this book is to unravel the events which have brought sorrow and pain to a community for over a decade – the rest is from the development of the characters. I particularly enjoyed seeing Kieran work through his feeling of guilt at the death of his adored older brother, drowned trying to rescue the boy from the storm. I was also interested in the author character – I spent a long time trying to decide if he was a viable suspect or a potential lead for a new series….

The Night Hawks – Elly Griffiths

Griffiths is another author I have come to late but am enjoying enormously. I’m still hoping to find the time to catch up on the first eleven Ruth Galloway mysteries but, well, new books keep happening. I am adding her to the retirement reading plan (RRP) though.

51830272._SX98_For this outing Ruth has moved back to Norfolk, with her daughter, and has traded her position at Cambridge to be head of archaeology at a less prestigious local university. She is trying not to have too much to do with Nelson, her one-time lover and father of her child, but is called in when a group of metal detectorists find a modern-day body as well as what turns out to be a bronze-age burial on a local beach. Some of the same detectorists – who call themselves the Night Hawks since they mostly work at night – seem to be caught up in the discovery of an apparent murder-suicide at a remote farmhouse and soon Ruth and Nelson are working together to discover if these deaths are somehow linked. The bodies start to pile up and everything seems to centre on Black Dog Farm – are the deaths connected and is the legend of the Black Shuck (whose presence foretells a death in local folklore) true? As the two dig into the mysteries of both the past and the present they find themselves in danger themselves (and not just from officious colleagues and the threat of enforced retirement). As ever, a wonderfully convoluted plot and great characters. Cathbad the druid is already a favourite (even after only two books in the series), his wife Judy (Nelson’s sergeant) is a reliable back-up and Ruth new colleague, the incredibly annoying David Brown, keeps things lively. Another great mix of detection, archaeology and East Anglian folklore – and I’m living proof that this is a series good enough to dive into without starting from the beginning.

Jane