Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Murder in Park Lane by Karen Charlton: Book Review

Murder in Park Lane (The Detective Lavender Mysteries Book 5) by [Charlton, Karen]I keep promising myself I’m going to kick my cosy mystery habit and move on to something edgier instead, but somehow I never do. My latest read, Karen Charlton’s Murder in Park Lane, did nothing to make me want to look elsewhere. 

The book is set in London in 1812 and it’s the fifth in a series featuring Inspector Lavender and his sidekick Ned Woods, but it worked very well as a standalone. So many series writers slip up here, but Charlton has it spot on — just the right amount of backstory, enough hints about past mysteries to nudge the reader towards them without leaving you feeling that you’ve missed out, and yet she manages to engage the reader with her recurring characters (though I would guess there are only two detectives, so there’s not a huge amount of room for confusion).

There’s murder afoot, in fashionable Mayfair, where a man has been found mysteriously dead inside a locked room with no murder weapon. This intriguing premise was perhaps solved rather earlier than I would have liked, but the mystery took off nicely, full of twists and turns as people’s secrets were revealed. Lavender and Woods are hot on the trail, though, relentlessly picking their way through the mysteries of the wealthy and the titled, the poor, the moneylenders and the fraudsters until they reach a satisfying conclusion.

For the most part I loved the characterisation, which was neat and anything but cliched, and I laughed out loud at some of the turns in the book (such as the nymphomaniac elderly ladies with an eye for handsome young men). I wasn’t so taken with the subplot of Woods deciding he was overweight and fasting to the detriment of his health, which was something that felt far more like the behaviour of a teenage girl than of a policeman with an adult child. It was so odd that I assumed it must have something to do with the plot, but it didn’t and rather petered out.

That one gripe aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will definitely be going back to read more in the series. 

Thanks to Amazon Publishing UK and Netgalley for a copy of this book in return for an honest review. 

Sunday, 10 March 2019

The Beginner's Guide to Beekeeping by Samantha Johnson and Daniel Johnson: Book Review

I’ve always had a bit of a fondness for bees, always wanted to keep them some day. I’m perhaps a little nearer to actually doing so than I ever have been before, but beekeeping is nevertheless an activity about which I know very little. Not nothing — I once went along to a couple of beekeeping trial sessions — but very little.

So of course what I need is a Beginner’s Guide to Beekeeping and Samantha Johnson and Daniel Johnson have written one. And, on the basis of my limited knowledge of the subject, very good it is too.

It isn’t exhaustive by any means, but it fulfils the function of an introduction — really readable, clearly illustrated and easy to understand. It covers all the questions I might have thought to ask and a whole lot of others that hadn’t occurred to me. And it covers everything from what type of bees there are and what they do, right the way through to how to build your own hive and how to produce and market your honey and beeswax.

It’s geared to the American beekeeper, so that a lot of it wasn’t relevant to me (I don’t need to worry about how to protect my hives from black bears, for example, or from temperatures of minus forty, and the regulations where I am will be different from those covered in the book). That didn’t matter. I still found it both interesting and enlightening.

I’ll have to wait a while before I get round to setting up as a beekeeper, if I ever do. But I feel a whole lot more confident about the project than I did before but if my dream becomes reality, this is the book I’ll turn to to start me off.

Thanks to Netgalley and Voyageur Press for a copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Monday, 4 March 2019

A Testament to Murder by Vivian Conroy: Book Review

A Testament to Murder: A 1920s murder mystery to keep you guessing until the final page (Murder Will Follow Book 1) by [Conroy, Vivian]Oh, thank goodness. The Golden Age of crime fiction is back.

Agatha Christie (people tell me) is passé in these days of gritty crime, but I have a fondness for the gentler, more cerebral crime fiction from the period between the wars. In Vivian Conroy’s A Testament to Murder, the first in a new series featuring retired London detective Jasper, the genre is back with a bang.

The premise upon which the plot rests is as clever and irresistible as any I’ve met. Billionaire Malcolm Bryce-Rutherford is dying and invites a selection of friends and family to spend his final days with him at his chateau on the Riviera. They include his secretary, his business partner and his wife (formerly married to Malcolm himself) and their son; his nephew and his wife. And when they’ve arrived he breaks the news ti them. Each day he will change his will in favour of one of them and that person — unknown — will be heir for twenty-four hours only. He dangles in front of them the temptation to murder. If they kill him on the day they’re the heir they inherit but if the murder is discovered they hang, and if they get it wrong someone else gets all the money.

It’s a fantastic setup, and as the story goes on the characters’ back stories are revelled and it becomes clear that not one of them has a guiltless past. As Malcolm and his lawyer pull the strings the tension begins to mount — and the guests themselves begin to die. Malcolm’s neighbour, retired Metropolitan Police detective Jasper, is enlisted by the local police to see what he can find out.

I thought this was a fabulous book, in the true tradition of the 1920s mystery, from the complicated set-up to the denouement in which Jasper exposes everybody’s secrets, their motives and opportunity, before revealing the killer. Twist after twist in the plot kept me guessing right the way through. I loved it.

Thanks to Canelo and Netgalley for a copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Monday, 25 February 2019

The Stone Circle by Elly Griffiths: Book Review

 Elly Griffiths’ The Stone Circle is the tenth in the series featuring forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson, and the first I’ve read. It’s written in the present tense, which is unusual for a crime novel and something I struggled with for the first part of the book, though when I got used to it it wasn’t a problem. 

The plot centres on the discovery of the remains of a missing girl on an archaeological site in Norfolk — a hangover from a previous unsolved case — and on a series of notes to the investigating team in the style of a previous character who’s now dead. I found myself more than a little confused by the references to what seems to be an earlier book in the series, which is probably what you expect if you come in quite late rather than beginning with book one, but I have a lurking fear that I may have missed a few things as I wasn’t entirely sure of the ins and outs of the previous investigation. 

Griffiths also has a lot of characters and several points of view and it took me a while to keep track of who was who and why they were there, especially given that several of the relationships were extremely complicated with partners and ex-partners, sibling and half-siblings and so on. There’s a short section at the back with mini-biographies of some of the characters and I would have found that really helpful up front (preferably with a few more characters included). 

All of the cast of characters were believable too, though I found Ruth and Nelson’s on-off romance (he’s married with a new baby) a little irritating. In fairness, I suspect that’s also my problem rather than the author’s, because coming in late to the series means I’ve missed a lot of the character development and the back story.

It’s a beautifully written book — at times introspective but I liked that — and its evocation of the landscape of North Norfolk is compelling. These two were the book’s great strengths for me, and I felt transported to the bleak coastal landscape. And although it wasn’t always pacy, the suspense at the end when a baby went missing left me on the edge of my seat.

My gut reaction was that this wasn’t an easy book to read. Is that really a problem? I don’t think so at all — I like a book that rewards effort and this one certainly did. It’s so well done that I would certainly persevere with future books and go back to catch up on earlier ones in the series.

Thanks to Netgalley and Quercus Books for an advance copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Friday, 15 February 2019

In the Night Wood by Dale Bailey: Book Review

I approached Dale Bailey’s gothic thriller, In the Night Wood, much as the protagonist, Charles, approaches the wood of the title — with curiosity and a little apprehension. I’m not normally a reader of gothic fiction but the book appealed and I was ready to take a punt so, like Charles, I stepped off my usual path. 

Unlike Charles I didn’t get lost, and nor was I disappointed. Charles is an American academic with an uncomfortable professional past, a tragic personal life and a guilty secret. He’s also obsessed with a peculiar literary piece from the past, a strange gothic fantasy, and his wife Erin happens to be the last surviving descendant of the author, Caedmon Hollow. When Erin inherits Hollow’s fantastical house and forbidding secret wood, it seems the perfect place to escape the loss of their daughter and the difficulties in their marriage. But of course it isn’t. 

It’s a beautifully-written book, with the descriptions of the tortured wood startling in their intensity. I enjoyed and believed in the characterisation, especially of Charles and Erin, though I couldn’t pretend to like either of them. I could feel for them, though, as they drift apart, tortured by guilt, he driven by his obsession with Caedmon Hollow and she increasingly dependent upon drink and opiates to get through the day. 

In places it slows down, but as they become draw into the strange complications of a past and a present life, the pace picks up as the race is on to save a child’s life and prevent history repeating itself yet again as tragedy. And because it’s gothic, and because it’s a fantasy, and because in places it’s totally weird, it kept me guessing to the very end. That’s a weakness as well as a strength because although the main part of the plot was concluded, I was left without an answer to what felt, to me, like the central theme in the book — Charles and Erin’s relationship. 

Early on the book is heavy with the phrase “once upon a time” and the emphasis on life as a story. But once upon a time implies an ending that tells us, at the very least, whether or not they lived happily ever after. This genre, of course, doesn’t require that, and Dale Bailey acknowledges it in so many words (“maybe if there weren’t really any happily ever afters to our once upon a times…”). But nevertheless I felt that the story was left incomplete. 

That apart, it was a fascinating, if dark, read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Thanks to HarperCollins and Netgalley for an advance copy of In The Night Wood in return for an honest review. 

Sunday, 27 January 2019

A Front Page Affair by Rhada Vatsal: Book Review

A Front Page Affair: A Kitty Weeks Mystery by [Vatsal, Radha]Anyone who knows me knows I love a cosy mystery. If they know me really well, they might know that the things I like most are complex, engaging characters, a believable setting and a good plot. In this respect, Rhada Vatsal’s A Front Page Affair, partly delivers.

Kitty (real name Capability) Weeks is a New York socialite in the early months of the First World War. Europe is getting deeper into conflagration and America is poised on the edge of war. Kitty, an aspiring journalist with the society pages of a New York newspaper, is sent to cover a party at an uptown country club, only to find herself witness to murder — and of course, she’s determined to track the killer down.

I very much wanted to like this book, and it does have a lot going for it. It has a clever setting and fictional events are cleverly woven in with actual historical ones. The plot was clever, focussing on the diplomatic manoeuvrings around America’s potential entry into the war, and there were twists and turns aplenty, although, if I’m honest, some of them stretched my credibility a little bit too far (no spoilers, but surely no FBI agents would allow a member of the public along on a mission to intercept a killer just because she happened to be interested in the case).

So far, so good, but the element of the book the rather disappointed me was the characterisation. For me, any book has to be driven by the characters. I want to feel engaged by them. I want to care about them. In this book, I didn’t, and the end result was that I felt the whole thing was rather superficial. Characters came and went. There was no depth to them, no complications. Kitty herself was a spoiled rich girl and never really stopped to think about anything, except in passing. The minor characters, too, weren’t clearly drawn in terms of character (describing someone’s external appearance is only part of it) and, for example, all the FBI agents tended to merge into one in my head as I read.

I realise I’m being fussy, here, and other people may look for different things from a book. It’s not a bad book, by any means, but just one that didn’t give me what I’m looking for from a cosy novel. If you want a pacy, light read with a few twists and  lot of fascinating (real-life) background about New York in 1915, then this is definitely your book, even if it wasn’t mine.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Book Review: Death at Hungerford Stairs by JC Briggs

Death at Hungerford Stairs: A serial killer is on the loose in Victorian London (Charles Dickens Investigations Book 2) by [Briggs, J. C.]This is the second in the series by JC Briggs with Charles Dickens (yes, that one) as the protagonist. In Death at Hungerford Stairs, Dickens and his friend, police superintendent Sam Jones, are searching for Scrap, a missing friend of theirs who lives on the streets. The body that’s discovered in the old blacking factory at Hungerford Stairs isn’t the boy they were searching for, but a stranger — and he’s been murdered. Later, another dead boy appears, killed in the same manner, and the chase is on to find the killer — and save Scrap.

I enjoyed this book very much, just as I did the first in the series, though I have to say the weaknesses are the same. On the plus side, I really loved the insight into Victorian London and the way the squalor of its poorer quarter sits side-by-side with (but overlooked by) areas of extreme wealth and opulence. Again, I think the author’s scene-setting is exceptional and felt that I was walking through London of the 1850s.

Like Dickens himself, Briggs seems to separate the minor characters, who are pretty much caricatures, from the major ones. Dickens, Sam Jones, Jones’s wife and some others feel very real, people with feelings and emotions and complex back stories (though we see a little less of them than we did in the first book, which is a bit of a shame).

The minor caricatures are all faintly comic, identifiable by street speech, odd appearance and strange names— Occy Graves, Zeb Scruggs and so on. They have back stories, too, but the telling of them, often in story form in the dialogue, doesn’t allow us the same kind of insight that we do when we’re allowed to live lives with them, as we are with Dickens and with Jones. The downside is that I couldn’t connect with them in the same way, and that was a pity because (no spoilers) even at the moment of highest drama, I was left largely unmoved by the fate of the characters involved.

I enjoyed the plot, too, though it was perhaps a little bit slender and didn’t really involve a huge amount of detecting. But it had a satisfactory ending and one which I didn’t guess.

I’d definitely read more by the same author, and this gets a solid four stars. But much as I love the description I do think less is more and I’d have sacrificed some of it for a little more plot and some deeper characterisation.

The things I don’t really like about this book are the things I don’t really like about Dickens’ works, which is something I hope the author will take as a compliment. Fans of the great man will love it, I suspect.

Thanks to Sapere Books and Netgalley for a copy of this book in return for an honest review.