Mystery of Three Quarters – Sophie Hannah

Two things I have problems with: authors writing sequels/homages to famous authors and turning them into something which their original author would have hated and feeling obliged to read the whole of a series. Let’s deal with the second one first – in terms of tv and films I’m definitely a commitment-phobe. I don’t do box sets and while I will happily settle in on an otherwise unoccupied Sunday evening with an episode of Poldark I’m not bothered if I miss one or two. I’m pretty much the same with books – if you have to read all of the books in a series to ‘get it’ then it has to be special. Certainly since my reading habit got quite so bad (or possibly good…) I’ve found very few that I’ve stuck with. Harry Potter. Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books. The odd trilogy (Wool, for example) but generally I stop at the first book in a series. Nothing wrong with the writing, storytelling or world-building but my motto is ‘so many books, so little time’. I do need something really special in an author before I’ll read anything they write – and I will do it, believe me. I currently have custody of the entire collection of Georgette Heyer Regency romances which Mum and I have amassed over the years. My second problem – tone-deaf sequels – is something else which has made me wary over the years. Talking of Regency romance my Mum does tell of a terrible one where a young lady settles down for tea at White’s – we both hate rubbish historical research – but my personal worst sin is trying to put gratuitous sex into Jane Austen sequels. Unless you are writing for a themed erotica collection, just no.

Sophie Hannah has managed to avoid adding any historical wrongness (that I can see – I don’t claim any expertise on the middle years of the Twentieth century) to her Hercule Poirot novels but, more than that, she continues to create interesting and compelling adventures for Christie’s Belgian detective. Because they are not a series I find myself able to dip in and out without feeling like I’ve made a commitment: because they are so good I have read all three books produced so far!

40114576In The Mystery of Three Quarters Poirot finds himself confronted by the rather formidable Sylvia Rule for sending her a letter accusing her of murder. The problem is that he didn’t send the letter. Or the ones making the same accusation towards three others – John McCrodden, son of a judge who is a firm supporter of the death penalty, Hugo Dockerill, a teacher at a boy’s school, and Miss Annabel Treadway, who is the grand-daughter of the deceased man. Of course the little grey cells are propelled into action and we soon begin to learn of a web of connections between the four. It begins to appear that the dead man, Barnabas Pandy, did have connections to a number of them and that all four are, if only tangentially, linked. Was Pandy murdered? Was one of the accused guilty of his death? Why did the letter-writer want to involve Poirot? These questions all need to be answered and Poirot attempts to find the answers with the help of Scotland Yard detective Edward Catchpool, the friends and family of all the accused and a small slice of cake…

Another excellent outing for Poirot – deftly plotted, a blend of humour and bloodshed which Christie would have been proud of, and believable characters. The Belgian continues to have a future in Sophie Hannah’s capable hands.



Now We Shall Be Entirely Free – Andrew Miller

After a brief run of science fiction books I found myself, a week or so ago, sitting in a field in Oxfordshire enjoying interesting music, supping the odd glass of wine and going back to one of my other literary loves: historical fiction. Since I was, at the time, making my annual pilgrimage to Cropredy for a folk festival it is probably a very Good Thing that I remembered a drawer at work which contained a supply of clear plastic rain ponchos (intended for the possibility of rain during queuing for Harry Potter midnight launch events). I can happily report that it is perfectly possible to read through a clear plastic rain poncho so long as the daylight lasts. I was frequently distracted by some of the music (even I wouldn’t read through Brian Wilson performing the whole of Pet Sounds and I wasn’t going to miss two of Barnsley’s finest gifts, Kate Rusby and the Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican…) but I did manage to spare the time to read most of Andrew Miller’s novel set during the Napoleonic Wars, mostly in the Hebrides. Like I said – my kind of book.

9781444784695The book centres on John Lacroix, a young man who joined the army to help defeat the forces of Napoleon. He left as an officer, in all his finery, thinking war would be an adventure – he returns a broken man, virtually in rags. Although he regains his physical health he is haunted by his memories of war and its brutalities – we are not told at this point what these events are – and when a fellow officer calls to remind him of his duty to rejoin his regiment he instead flees his home. He travels northwards, from his Somerset home, via his sister’s home in Bristol and on to Glasgow. He eventually arrives on a Hebridean island, on the back of a cow, and falls in with a family of free-thinkers. A future of island life, wild landscape and haunting local music beckons but Lacroix’s past is following him in the form of Calley, an amoral and vicious corporal sent by a shadowy but powerful figure in the British Peninsular Army to kill him. The war and, in particular, a shameful incident in the village of Morales during the army’s retreat to Corunna, will not let Lacroix, or any of those near to him, escape unscathed.

This book gives us a blend of a remote, bleak but beautiful Scottish island landscape and the brutality of war. Lacroix carries this horror within him, deeply affected by his own small part in the conflict, but it also stalks him in the form of Calley (and Medina, the Spanish officer accompanying him). The fact that these horrors can touch the lives of civilians, both in Spain and hundreds of miles away in Scotland, makes us aware that no-one is immune to their effects. This is tempered by the bleak grandeur of the Scottish landscape and also the developing relationship between Lacroix and Emily, one of the group of siblings he ends up living with on the islands. War is seen as an inevitable factor of most lives but love is also possible.


The Stars Now Unclaimed – Drew Williams

In terms of science fiction I tend to prefer books which are character led, like Becky Chambers’ sublime Wayfarers series, or blur the lines between sci-fi and fantasy, like Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books. What I don’t think I’ve ever read is pure space opera, complete with space battles. I’ve never read Iain M Banks, Anne Leckie or even Isaac Asimov, I have watched Star Wars/Trek but I’ve never felt the need to call myself a really committed fan of either and (hangs head in shame) I’ve never seen Firefly. There’s nothing wrong with this as a genre, it just isn’t one I particularly enjoy (no matter how many Asimov and Clarke novels Rob has to tempt me with). So I’m not sure what attracted me to Drew Williams novel – but I’m glad I gave it a try.

39345241The novel follows the work of an, at first, unnamed member of a group known as The Justified. Her job is to travel the galaxy, ravaged by something called The Pulse which has destroyed – to a greater or lesser extent depending on which planet you are on – modern machinery and computing, to find children with special powers. Space itself is unaffected but all planets, moons have been returned to a variety of states from pre-spaceflight to unable to sustain internal combustion engines. Space flight is possible – on ships operating with sophisticated artificial intelligence – but trying to land on a planet can result in all the ship’s electronics being totally ruined. The only race in the galaxy whose home planets were largely unaffected is the Pax: a race who are now trying to assimilate everyone they encounter into their sect. That sect is single-minded and has a total belief in ‘might is right’ – fascist is probably the best word to describe them.

From the moment that the Justified (later revealed to be called Jane Kamali – an ex-soldier who has been around since before the Pulse over a century earlier. I did a little cheer when her name was revealed, obviously) finds her latest gifted child, a young woman called Esa, the action comes thick and fast. Jane has to return to Sanctum, the Justified’s secret home world, with Esa but on the way manages to pick up some colleagues (including one who is running from a death penalty for treason), and a Barious (a race of robot-like beings who are, somehow, very snobbish about AI ships like the one she is now on). As they run the Pax keep following them: are they just unlucky or have the usually rather stupid Pax found out some very important information?

I didn’t mind all the fighting, bombs and blowing things to bits with extreme prejudice – I actually enjoyed the fact that the person doing most of the fighting was a female (or even two females as Barious are usually referred to as ‘she’). There was a lot more than I usually find in my choice of reading but it was mixed in with some nice characterisation. Jane, because of all the trouble she has getting Esa back to Sanctum, spends more time than usual with the girl – she’s usually a ‘pick ’em up, drop ’em off and don’t make friends’ kind of woman – and we see Esa having to learn a lot in a short time. Jane can cope with teaching her to use weapons but coping with the emotional needs (and rather black and white world view) of a teenager is more challenging. I’d complain that we don’t see that much of the girl, or her powers, which are stronger than usual, but this is the first book of a series so there is time. I’m hoping we also find out more about Jane’s past, find out where the Barious came from and whether the Pulse is coming back to do even more damage. Which means, damn it, I’m going to have get into space opera because now I need to know…


The Story Keeper – Anna Mazzola

Rob and I had a lovely holiday, back at the end of May, in Scotland. We had a few days in the Outer Hebrides (where I failed to read any Peter May but Rob finished a book by Janina Ramirez) and then a couple of days on Skye. We love Scotland but always have to visit in the spring or the autumn as I’m a bit of a midge-magnet which means I wasn’t scheduled to read Anna Mazzola’s Skye-based novel, The Story Keepers, until very recently. Still, at least the trip was recent enough that the places, buildings and landscape were still fresh in my mind – and the island itself is, in many parts, so untouched that I can imagine them being the same back in the 1850s when the novel is set.

9781472234780Audrey Hart has left her home in London to work on Skye as a collector of folk stories. Her background is, from the outside, comfortable and middle-class which is not such a bad thing to be in Victorian England but it not what Audrey wants. Her mother died when she was young and her father and his second wife wish for Audrey to marry, settle down and be normal – she, however, feels a strong connection to her mother’s past in Scotland. She is also running from work she was doing in London, helping young orphan girls, and from the discovery she made there that one of the orphanage trustees was abusing the girls in his care. She throws herself into her work, collecting folk tales, for Miss Buchanan – the sister of a local landowner – but finds that the locals are reluctant to speak out. Girls have gone missing and they fear that speaking of the faery folk will lead to more disappearances. As Audrey delves deeper into these mysteries she faces resistance, danger and the secrets of her own past. And it seems that it is not just in London that young women are seen as fair game to men who should be their protectors. The reality of their lives is the darkest fairy tale of all…




Bitter Orange – Claire Fuller

As I sit here thinking what to write I’ve been having a conversation with Rob about how many 1960s songs got covered in the 80s (or at least how many 60s sounding songs there were – Tracey Ullman’s Breakaway, Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin’s It’s My Party, even the Flying Lizards). We decided that the teens and young adults of that period had an interest because it was the decade they (and we) were born in. How well, however, did we know the 1960s? For us it was all Mary Quant dresses, blocky bobs and Lulu singing Shout but reality was somewhat different. I asked my Mum once what the swinging 60s were like – she pointed out that by that point she was a single mum of three living in Essex. Carnaby Street was a world away. As is the world of Claire Fuller’s 1969-set Bitter Orange.

9780241341827Frances Jellico is not very ’60s’. She is 39 and has lived all her life with her mother: in the last few years she has been her mother’s sole carer. Freed by her mother’s death Frances takes a job at Lyntons, a dilapidated yet grand house, cataloguing the garden buildings and statuary and there she meets Peter, doing a similar job in the house itself, and his fascinating Irish wife Cara. Frances could have stayed her staid, studious self (she even meets a vicar who seems to take an interest in her, perfect) but she becomes drawn into the younger couple’s glamorous and thrilling orbit. It soon becomes obvious that Cara is a rather troubled young woman, prone to emotional outbursts (often in Italian), and she gradually tells her story to Frances. Or what she wants to be or thinks is her story: Peter also tells the tale of how they met, fell in love and made their way to Lyntons and the two stories only match up in parts. The novel moves from the summer of 1969 to twenty years later where Frances lays, on her deathbed, in an institution which is not fully described until towards the end of the novel. In the later sections it becomes clear that not only does something terrible happen in the heady atmosphere of Lyntons but also that this is not Frances’ first brush with tragedy.

This is a lush and overheated novel, evoking the decay and overgrown nature of the house and grounds Frances and Peter are meant to be cataloguing. The writing is sensuous – lots of descriptions of luscious food, overblown emotions and traumatic self-doubt – and yet claustrophobic. A darkly beautiful tale perfect for reading during heatwaves and summer storms.




Rules of Seeing – Joe Heap

I love it when I find a new author – somebody’s first novel (or first published novel) – and especially if I get an advanced reading copy. I know smugness isn’t attractive but getting to read books early is one of the best perks of my job. When it is a new writer it’s even better – I’m one of small group of people who know that something good is about to hit the shelves. As you can see, I’m a person of simple pleasures. And recently a book turned up which fits these criteria and, as a bonus, is by a Bradford author (even if he now lives in That London…). If the far-reaching promotion does the trick then soon Joe Heap will be being talked about well beyond this corner of West Yorkshire.

40383557Rules of Seeing focusses on Nova (a shortening of Safinova, her surname). She is an interpreter for the Metropolitan Police, a live wire, a force of nature. I mean, she’s blind, and has been from birth, but she has never let that hold her back – she speaks five languages and convinced her local deli to name a sandwich after her (pepperoni, pickles and peach slices, mmmm). Her story begins as her brother convinces her to undergo pioneering surgery which gives her the ability to see. This isn’t as simple as it sounds, however, because so much of our vision is in the brain not the eyes – Nova has to learn how to deal with the images she sees, with depth of vision, colour, interpreting movement and facial expressions. She meets Kate, an architect and the wife of a police officer, at a hospital and a friendship develops between the two women. The relationship changes, deepens, as Kate tries to escape from her controlling and sometimes violent partner until things come to a dramatic conclusion (in a hotel room in Bradford!)

I really enjoyed this debut novel. Nova is a great character – vivid, bold and yet vulnerable – and I was fascinated by her journey into the world of the seeing. I used to work at Bradford University bookshop selling books on optometry and know people who specialise in the psychology of vision but I still feel I learned a lot from Nova’s ‘rules of seeing’ which are dotted through the book. Although I’m not sure if I could face a Safinova Surprise sandwich…


Early Riser – Jasper Fforde

I’m a big fan of Jasper Fforde’s particular brand of imagination. I like puns (the worse the better), footnotes and over-the-top weirdness and his books certainly fit the bill for me (although Rob tried them and couldn’t ‘get it’). Like most people I started with the Thursday Next books – a series about a woman who can jump between the real world (or rather, real-ish – this is Jasper Fforde after all…) and the world of fiction – and then moved on to the Nursery Crimes series. Set wholly in the world of fiction these books answers burning questions: who killed Humpty Dumpty? was Goldilocks guilty? was the Gingerbread Man a cake or a biscuit…? I haven’t yet read his children’s series, the Last Dragonslayer, but I also really enjoyed a book he wrote in a completely different world, one where Something Happened and people now see colour in a totally different way. These books were all great and, like many people, I have been eagerly awaiting Thursday Next book 8, Shades of Grey 2 or even a new Nursery Crime (I definitely have questions about Incy-Wincy Spider…) but, it seems, the wait continues. Until that happy day, however, we do have a new Fforde to keep us amused.

9781473650220Early Riser is set in Wales, but not Wales as we know it. For a start Fforde has a thing about Wales – he obviously loves it , I believe he lives there, but he loves to mess with it. In the Thursday Next series Wales is a Socialist Republic; in this book it is a wild country, possibly filled with creatures from myth and folklore, but is part of a world where the vast majority of mankind hibernates through long and brutal winters. The main character is Charlie Worthing, an orphan who decides that taking a job as a Winter Consul – one of the few who don’t hibernate but protect the sleepers from Villains, Nightwalkers and WinterVolk – is better than continuing to live as an Assistant House Manager in St Granata’s Pooled Parentage Station. Of course, he was expecting to spend his first winter awake safely behind a desk, learning the role, rather than being trapped in the notorious Sector Twelve. Any amount of paperwork is better than having to deal with Aurora, the head of security at the HiberTech research facility, or her twin sister Toccata, marauding Villains (Upper-Class English, using theft and pillage to maintain their traditional lifestyle – always on the lookout for stamp collections and potential ‘servants’) and deadly viral dreams…

This may not be TN8 or SoG2 but it is still a wild and wonderful ride through Jasper Fforde’s fertile imagination. I once saw him speak about his work and he said that all his books start with a ‘what if….’ question popping into his brain – his books seem to prove that his brain produces some very entertaining (if slightly odd) ‘what ifs’. Tonight I’m off to see him again – maybe we’ll find out when the books we are waiting for coming – but I hope the audience also joins me in congratulating him on another entertaining story.