Monday, 15 October 2018

Review: The Drowned Village by Kathleen McGurl

I’ve told you before that I’m a binge reader, and I’m finally getting round to addressing my new year's resolution, which was to read a book a week for a year. Whether I shall fulfil that resolution is open to some doubt, since I haven’t kept a note of every book I’ve read and have had to try and cobble something together.

This is inevitably problematic, because looking at my Amazon account will tell me that when I downloaded a book but it doesn’t tell me when I read it. As anyone with the dreaded to-be-read pile knows, a book can sit waiting its turn for a long time. My current (honest) list stands at only thirty, though I must have read more than that. I think I can reasonably add the full-length unpublished manuscripts I’ve read for friends, which gives it a healthy boost, but still leaves me 16 books short of my target.

I can do 16 books in two and a half months. Easy.

The long and the short of it is, it’s book review time again. This time I won’t be posting my review on Amazon or Goodreads because I’m reviewing a friend’s book, but I will say I loved Kath McGurl’s The Drowned Village. It’s one of those what’s-not-to-like books that could have been written to my own specifications for a contemporary romance.

Best of all, Kath has set the book in one of my favourite places, Haweswater in the Lake District (it appears thinly veiled as Bereswater, but I wasn’t fooled).

It’s a dual timeline story, about a mystery in the village of Brackendale Green (real life Mardale Green) which was flooded in the 1930s to create a reservoir. In the present day, Laura goes to the Lakes to recover from a broken relationship and visit the dale which her grandmother left as a child. An unusually hot summer has revealed the village and her grandmother, Stella, begs her to retrieve a mysterious package from one of the old cottages, to solve a decades-old mystery. The origins of the mystery form the second timeline.

i’ll give away no spoilers, but I will say that what Laura and new friend Tom discovered was the key to a terrific mystery. Kath kept me guessing to the very end as to how it would be solved, and there were a couple of gut-wrenching twists as the truth of an old injustice was revealed.

In the story the village re-emerges during a drought, just as it did this summer, and I walked every step of the way with Laura and Tom. The plot is great and the descriptions terrific. If I was very picky I would say that the bit where Laura’s ex turned up drunk wasn’t really necessary for the story and felt a bit cliched, as well as begging the question of what she’d ever seen in him in the first place. But that’s a minor thing, and the only criticism I have.

I loved it.

The Drowned Village by Kath McGurl. Published by HQ

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Review: A Snapshot of Murder by Frances Brody

Cosy historical mysteries are back in fashion, and my goodness, does that make me happy. I love the classics of 1930s crime — Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh are my favourites — and I went into raptures a couple of years back when publishers began reprinting other books of that era. 

The cosy historical was, I suppose, the next logical step, and I can’t get too many of them. A Snapshot of Murder is the tenth in the Kate Shackleton series by Frances Brody, and it’s the second I’ve read. (You don’t need to read them in order, which is fine by me.) Set in the 1920s, the books feature war widow Kate Shackleton, who runs an investigative agency.

In A Snapshot of Murder, members of the local camera club (Kate lives in Leeds) set off to Haworth, for the opening of the Bronte Parsonage Museum…but one of them doesn’t make it home alive. It’s difficult to review crime novels without giving spoilers, so I won’t say any more, other than that there were twists and turns aplenty and a satisfying conclusion (though there was one loose end left untied, which still troubles me a little).

There was a huge amount to love about the book. In particular, I adored the settings and the historical detail. I don’t know the Haworth area well, I’ve been there recently enough to recognise many of the places, but even if I hadn’t the description would have given me a clear idea of what it’s like. And the author used real locations, too, so that I could follow the action on the map. (Yes, I like to do that when I’m reading.)

I mostly liked the characterisation, though I did have a problem wth Kate herself — odd, because although there are several points of view, she’s the only one in first person. This ought to make her more accessible, but somehow it doesn’t. As in the previous book I read, I found myself failing to warm to her, or sense any emotional engagement, even when she looked at photographs of her late husband, or came face-to-face with the man whose marriage proposal she had previously turned down. 

I like to live the story with my protagonist, especially if they’re written in first person, and I felt that I was always looking at Kate from the outside. I suspect that may be what the author intends, because scenes from the point of view of others — unhappy wife Carine, for example, and Kate’s uber-enthusiastic niece Harriet — were much more engaging. But I wish I’d warmed to Kate rather more than I did.

I think it was this, together with the short sentences which gave the whole book a slightly clipped tone, that hold me back from raving about it. That’s a personal view, of course, and in all other ways it was a terrific, clever and engaging book. I’ll certainly be reading more of the series.  

I received this book from Netgalley/Little, Brown in return for an honest review.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

In Focus Tarot: Your Personal Guide by Stephen Bright

I’ve recently developed an interest in tarot reading, so I’m pretty much an absolute beginner. The tarot, as I discovered early on, can be beyond baffling — so many different decks, so many different interpretations — so I turned to Stephen Bright’s guide with particular interest.

It’s difficult to give a complete assessment, because — by the author’s own acknowledgment —  it’s a book to dip in and out of rather than read from beginning to end, which is what I did. Nevertheless, I found it both valuable and fascinating.

It’s very clearly set out in three sections. The first is a general introduction to what tarot is, what it isn’t (that’s important) and introduces the suits. It’s not long, but it’s clear and unfussy. The second section goes through the pack and explains every single one of the cards, and how they might be interpreted in general, in relation to a situation, and with regard to the individual doing the reading. The third covers some ways of setting out the cards (spreads) and how a reader might interpret them.

I’ve dipped into a couple of other books of this nature, and this is by far the most accessible of them. It also avoids the trap of giving so much information, in particular on the different spreads, that it becomes confusing. There’s detail where we need it — on the cards themselves — and useful and relevant examples elsewhere.

All in all, a book I can see myself going back to time and time again.

In Focus Tarot: Your Personal Guide by Stephen Bright

I received a copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Murder at Hawthorn Cottage, by Betty Rowlands: book review

The people who know me probably know what a simple soul I am. I love the idea of living a sheltered life. I don’t like nastiness or unpleasantness of any kind. I cover my ears when there’s anything distressing on the news, and I don’t have a strong enough stomach to watch Casualty.

It follows, therefore, that I love a cosy mystery, and Murder at Hawthorn Cottage, by Betty Rowlands, certainly fitted that bill. I’d never heard of the book, nor the author, and I picked it because I liked the cover. (I’m shallow like that.) And off I went. 

In truth, I found it a slow start. Crime writer Melissa Craig has just moved into a Cotswold village and for the first 20% or so of the book, not a lot happens. Apart from repeated agitated phone calls from a man begging a woman to meet him, the author spends a lot of time introducing Melissa, the village, her next-door neighbour and the vicar, covering her trials and tribulations with the removal men and so on.

If it hadn’t been for those mysterious phone calls, so obviously the hook for the plot, I probably wouldn’t have bothered reading on, but I hung in there, if only to see if there was a reason why Melissa didn’t dial 1471 and call the man back to tell him it was a wrong number. I’m glad I did keep going, though, because with the discovery of a woman’s body in the woods, the pace picked up. 

You can never say too much about the plot of a crime novel for fear of spoilers, so I shall keep this bit brief. Melissa and her partner in crime, local journalist Bruce, find their way through murders and drugs, not to mention a bit of porn, as the story runs in parallel with the plot of Melissa’s latest book. 

I get frustrated by amateur crime, because there’s almost always a point where the sleuth should turn the matter in to the police and doesn’t. So it was here, but at least Rowlands had a nod towards that as Melissa got a ticking off from the investigating officer for it. And there were some lovely touches in the characterisation which lifted the whole thing slightly above the run-of-the-mill and made up for that slow start, so I certainly will consider reading more in this series.  

The reason Melissa didn’t call 1471, by the way, wasn’t obvious until much later. Although the book was released this year, it’s a rerelease and was originally published way back in 1990 — hence the lack of computers, mobile phones and so on. It didn’t undermine my enjoyment of the book in any way, but I think I’d have liked some clue a little earlier on. 

Saturday, 6 October 2018

A Crime Update

Grave matter in the Lake District...
Time for an update, though if you follow me on any of my social media you probably won’t need it. It was on 24 September last year that I announced my decision to switch genres and write crime and it was on 18 September this year that I had confirmation that Aria Fiction wanted to publish the first three in my crime series.

What a year that’s been.

I’m not going to repeat the story of how I began to write crime. It’s up on the blog and you can scroll back through if you’re interested. But I wanted to use this blog entry to encourage anyone else never to give up.

The reason I didn’t write crime was that I thought I wasn’t good enough. I thought it was too difficult. I thought the plotting was too complex and it would be impossible to keep readers interested in so many characters, that handling several points of view was beyond my capability.

And here’s the thing. It was almost certainly true.

I’ve been writing for ever. When I first started I almost certainly couldn’t have handled the crime genre. Let’s face it, when I first started writing I couldn’t handle any other genre. I had too much to learn. I did have a couple of stabs at thrillers but they were woeful, so woeful that even in my naive innocence I knew it. So I wrote romance, not because I thought it was easier — anything but —  but because the structure of it is simpler.

I liked writing romance. I still do, and it was the genre in which I was first published. But I couldn’t help myself and I shifted to romantic suspense, which involved a crime alongside a love story. And that’s how I became a crime writer. Without realising it.

But the message is this. It took me years to develop the skills to tackle writing a publishable novel, in any genre. I have a cupboard full of unfinished (or finished but unreadable) manuscripts to prove it, the carcases of good ideas that died on the long march to my dream.

There was no instant revelation, no stepping into crime and suddenly realising that I’d found my genre. The truth is that once I’d assembled my writer’s toolkit I could apply it to anything. Because the fundamentals of writing a good story are the same in any genre. I didn’t become a crime writer overnight. I became a crime writer because I practised and practised and practised. 

My advice to any aspiring writer is to do write and to keep writing. The chances are that most of your early work will fall way short of being publishable (there are exceptions). But writing is a craft. Give it everything. You won’t regret it.

Friday, 17 August 2018

The Women Friends: a Book Review

The Women Friends
I know, I know. I’m a binge reader. I can go for months without reading anything, but if I’m on holiday and the mood takes me I can read half a dozen books in as many days. So it is just now: oh, the joys of holidaying at home when the cloud is down and there’s a chill wind blowing. 

I won’t bore you with every book I’ve read since my last blog, partly because some of them are quite samey, and also I’ve always vowed not to review books I don’t think are very good. (There have been some of those, too.) But I tore through a novella last night that was both good and different. 

The Women Friends: Selina is by a Facebook friend of mine, Miriam Drori, and her co-author Emma Millar, and I bought it (as I so often do) to support an author who writes for a small independent publisher, in this case, Crooked Cat. It’s a novella set in Vienna between the wars and it’s the story of Selina, who (briefly) models for artist Gustav Klimt and falls in love with one of his other models with whom she sits for his famous painting, The Women Friends.

It’s not a period of history I’m particularly familiar with, and I know nothing about art, but that really didn’t matter. The two authors set the scene wonderfully, and they cover a range of characters in what’s almost a cartoon of a louche, hedonistic society that’s sleepwalking towards its nightmarish end. 

Selina’s sexual awakening comes from the Jewish woman Janika, and she goes on to have another affair with a woman called Anja. The story got considerably darker, as Anja became drawn into the unsavoury politics of the far right with what appear to be the best of intentions, but we know the course of history. It was only going to end one way. It’s a credit to the authors that I was desperately hoping that somehow Selina would be able to save all her friends who fell on the wrong side of the nazi party for their race or their sexuality. (No spoilers, though.)

It’s a beautifully written story, and highly evocative. For me the relationship with Janika, clearly the love of Selina’s life, petered out a little: I never like it when a main character disappears from the story. Klimt died very early on, too, and the story moved away from the artistic circles not long after that point, which was a little odd given that the whole premise of the books appeared to be the painting and the two women in it. That said, the blurb implies there will be more in a series and if there are, I’ll be looking out for them.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

1930s Crime Revisited: The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes

I yearn for the golden era of crime writing — so much so that I’m thinking of writing a series myself, though that will have to wait until I’ve got rather further with the ongoing contemporary series. I’ve always been a fan of Christie, Sayers, Marsh and the like, and the current trend for reprints of some of the less well-known of that genre is a positive pleasure to me, and has given me many hours of pleasant reading. 

With that in mind, I turned to a contemporary take on the 1930s genre with relish — a cosy historical, if you like to call it that. It’s called The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes, and if the name Fellowes rings a bell in connection with the upper-class Mitfords then so it should. Jessica is a scion of the (Downton Abbey) Fellowes dynasty, and has written the companions to the tv series. 

With that in mind, I was expecting sumptuous detail on the lives of the minor aristocracy, and I wasn’t disappointed. Nurserymaid Louisa fetches up with the Mitfords as she attempts to escape from her unfortunate background (dead father, weak mother, exploitative uncle) and becomes confidante to sixteen-year old Nancy. When Nancy gets a bee in her bonnet about the murder of a war nurse on a train (on which Louisa was a passenger), the plot is born. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I loved the detail and the story, with plenty of twists that I didn’t see coming. If I have a grouch it’s that some of the investigation seemed a little bit simplistic, and that Nancy didn’t come across as the precocious, brittle and not particularly pleasant person she seems to have been from other books I’ve read. 

The book was nicely written and flowed well enough, though the pace slowed at a few points so that I put it down and went off to do something else. That said, I did keep picking it up again, though it wasn’t what I’d call a page-turner. I particularly loved the way that Louisa’s rather innocent romance with hapless railway policeman Guy runs alongside Nancy’s determination to find a man, regardless of whether or not he’s a crook. 

The concept of putting a fictional character in the heart of real events isn’t original — Laurie Graham, in particular, does it wonderfully well in both The Importance of Being Kennedy and Gone With The Windsors — but it works. That said, the book is billed as the first of a series and I’m not quite sure how long this can be spun out. The tagline is ‘six sisters, a lifetime of mystery’ but with the younger sister not born when the series begins and the oldest close to leaving home on a lifetime of adventure, I’m not quite sure how it will work as a series. 

I’ll just have to read the next book and find out…