Saturday, 8 December 2018

Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield: Book Review

If I’ve taken my time to get round to reviewing Once Upon A River, it’s because I don’t know quite how to approach what must be up there with the best books I’ve read this year. 

These days I don’t read much literary fiction and haven’t read anything by Diane Setterfield, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The story begins at some point in the late nineteenth century, in the Swan Inn on the River Thames. It’s winter and the regulars are sitting telling stories when and injured man staggers in and collapses — and he’s carrying a drowned child. 

The man survives and the little girl turns out not to be drowned but that’s the beginning of the mystery. The child can’t be identified and there are three families who are, or claim to be, missing a daughter of that age. The wealthy Vaughans lost their daughter, Amelia, to a kidnapper and she was never returned. Little Alice went missing when her mother committed suicide, and housekeeper Lily is improbably convinced that the girl is her little sister, Anne. That’s the plot, but it’s so much more complicated than that. And it’s a tale made wonderful by the telling. 

I’m a sucker for a proper setting, for a book that’s bedded into its landscape, and this book follows the river. All the families are tied to it. It gives and it takes away, a constant presence and a constant risk. The book is peopled by a multitude of characters, far too many to mention individually, but every one of them is believable and their lives are woven together.

Diane Setterfield tells a tale that twists and turns like the river itself, revealing secrets and surprises at every turn and leading to a satisfying conclusion. The real lives are woven with the folklore of the river and the ever-present spectre of Quietly, the boatman who appears to those who fall into the river, taking those whose time has come to the darkness of the river and returning those who aren’t ready to die to the safety of the bank. 

Once Upon A River is a compelling, moving book, and I absolutely loved it. 

Thanks to Netgalley and Random House UK for an advance copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Death of a Radical by Rebecca Jenkins: Book Review

Death of a Radical is the second book in Rebecca Jenkins’s series of historical crime novels featuring Raif Jarrett, agent to the Duke of Penrith and veteran of the Peninsular War. I read and (on the whole) enjoyed the first one, certainly enough to want to persist with more of the same.

The second book has pretty much the same flaws as the first, plus an additional weakness and an additional strength, which leaves me ready to give a third book in the series a try though I won't be putting publication date in my diary. Jenkins writes well (overlooking the short sentences and head hopping, which are my pet peeves but not necessarily bad in themselves) and I think she knows it. The problem is that she doesn’t have the balance right. The book feels more about the writing than anything else and as a result, the action is obscured.

In a mystery the plot is crucial and the writing should enhance it, not obscure it. In this book there there were several occasions when I had to go back and reread a scene because I wasn’t sure exactly what happened — something I occasionally do if I’m tired and reading late at night, but don’t expect to do repeatedly when I’m reading of an afternoon. For me that blunted the excitement that the book ought to have, and made it quite a slow read — something that was amplified by the unnecessarily detailed descriptions of everything from the weather down to the colour of a lady’s ribbons. It was a nice enough read, I suppose — but I wanted more action from a book that sets itself out as a mystery.

Stripping away the writing leaves the plot a little bit exposed and this is the weakness that the first book didn’t have. The whole thing never quite held up for me: I would give examples, but can’t because of the risk of spoilers, though I can say that the connection between the various murders was never quite strong enough for me, and nor did I really understand exactly what the killings were all about. Again, it may be in there but I couldn’t find it under the elegant prose. (Sometimes there’s a value in plain speaking.) There seemed to be a lot of scenes which didn’t pull their weight in terms of advancing the story — something else which slowed the pace and made the book drag — although when Raif finally decided to take action, he did so dramatically and the conclusion was satisfying.

This feels a slightly mean-spirited review, so I’ll redress the balance with what I did like — the characters. I love the way Jenkins has set up the whole series. Raif is complex and fascinating, ideal protagonist material (even if he does spend rather too much time standing around not doing a lot) and his relationships with Charles, the Duke’s son and with Henrietta Lonsdale are nicely drawn. All the minor characters are fascinating, too, although perhaps we don’t need to see quite as much of all of them as we do in the book.

I don’t like giving stars and this book illustrates why. Do I rate it for its obvious qualities, or do I rate it for how I felt about it? I did like it, but at the same time I struggled to get through. Jenkins has created a wonderful set of characters who seem desperate to be set free from the weight of her description and allowed to act. It’s a good book, and well-written. As literary fiction it would be terrific, but somehow, as a mystery, it doesn’t quite deliver.

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

Monday, 26 November 2018

Dear Laura by Jean Stubbs: Book review

Time for another book review, time for another classic mystery. Though actually I’m not sure that merely reissuing a detective novel, in this case from the 1970s, necessarily makes it a classic and to be honest some of the oldies have lasted better than others.

Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh on Dear Laura by Jean Stubbs, because it does have a lot to commend it. It’s a historical mystery set in late Victorian times. Wealthy but emotionally cold businessman Theodore Crozier is dead and his death wasn’t the result of natural causes — but was the overdose of morphine in his system accident or murder? Theodore’s relationship with his wife, Laura, is cold, distant and unemotional, and her relationship with his wayward younger brother, Titus, is anything but. The servants are divided and Inspector Lintott of Scotland Yard is there to unravel the mystery.

As I say, there’s a lot going for this book. It’s well-written and the characters are cleverly-drawn. The author paints a terrific picture of a society whose conventions force those of all classes to accept what is expected of them and illustrates that the rich can be as miserable as the poor. The plot is clever, with plenty of twists and turns, although for me it had a less than satisfactory conclusion, and I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, which can make a book a hard read.

Where it fell down for me is in the solving of the mystery. The book is the first in a series featuring Inspector Lintott but apart from whisking across the narrative very fleetingly early on, the detective doesn’t make an appearance until almost half way through. The rest of the book is scene-setting which, while necessary up to a point, seemed rather out of balance. And the investigation itself consisted of Lintott talking to everyone involved and coming to a conclusion — no spoilers but…

Perhaps it’s down to the expectation we have detective fiction but, for me, if the investigating officer is the main protagonist (and he or she has his name on the cover) then he or she needs to be at the heart of the book from the beginning. I thought there was too much back story and not enough detecting and, as a result, I couldn’t really engage with Inspector Lintott in the way I feel I was meant to.

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

Thursday, 22 November 2018

The Belting Inheritance by Julian Symons: Book Review

The Belting Inheritance by Julian SymonsIt isn’t often I laugh out loud on the first page of a book, still less when it’s a detective story, but I did just that when I began reading The Belting Inheritance by Julian Symons. It’s a slightly unusual read for me, a rerelease of a book first published in 1965, which isn’t exactly the Golden Age of detective fiction. It’s set in Kent, where the Wainwright family is much-depleted by the war, and the narrator is Christopher, a poor relation taken in by the family after the death of his parents.

As with all detective fiction I can’t say too much about the plot for fear of spoilers, but it’s based around the appearance of a man claiming to be David, one of two brothers thought to have been killed in the war. His two surviving younger brothers are disbelieving and downright hostile, but their dying mother welcomes him with open arms. And, this being detective fiction, there’s a murder.

I really loved this book. It wasn’t just the plot, which was clever but perhaps not as twisty as the modern reader looks for. It was the characters. Symons captures the idiosyncrasies of family life, and the part where I laughed was where there’s a family joke that caught my attention — and engaged me immediately. The book’s  huge strength is its characterisation, not just of Christopher himself but of its whole cast of fallible individuals, some of them more likeable than others but all of them human. And as the plot goes on Christopher, a somewhat pretentious would-be writer, grows up and becomes an altogether more mature human being.

Interestingly, there’s an introductory note which reveals the author’s concerns that he hung the plot too heavily on a coincidence for it to be a good book, but I didn’t find that. Yes, there was a coincidence, but it wasn’t too crushingly incredible, and it led off on a slightly mad section of the book where everything became very different to the first half. But that didn’t affect my enjoyment in any way — rather the opposite.

The cast of characters was diverse and all were handled well. I particularly liked Christopher’s Uncle Miles, the youngest of the brothers, with his fondness for jokes (especially bad and complicated puns), his genuine care for young Christopher and his tendency to slope off to watch cricket whenever things got difficult (which, of course, they often did).

It’s not a modern detective story, but it was a thoughtful and engaging read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

The Fifty State Fossils by Yinan Wang (illustrations by Jane Levy): Book Review

Okay, so The Fifty State Fossils by Yinan Wang, with illustrations by Jane Levy isn’t the kind of book I’d normally pick up and read, let alone review. It’s a children’s book, and I’m way past that state just now. But it did catch my attention because I’m a geoscientist (though not a palaeontologist, of fossil specialist) and because it struck me as the kind of book from which I could learn something.

For a start, I didn’t know that states had state fossils. They don’t all — some have state dinosaurs and some don’t have anything at all, but for those not blessed in this particular way there’s a recommendation, so every state has a page. The author has even managed to come up with something for Hawaii, which is way younger, geologically, than most of the fossils described in the book. 

I was surprised, in  good way, by the amount of information the author and illustrator managed to pack into such a small space. Each page has a section on the appropriate fossil, with a description, some basic information (remember this is a children’s book, so nothing too complicated) and a note on it’s relevance to the state. Alone with this, illustrator Jane Levy has produced a drawing of each fossil as it might have been when alive, and there’s a map showing where in the state it has been found and, for good measure, a photograph of it in its fossil state. 

There’s also an impressive amount of ancillary information. The early part of the book has some simple definitions of the geological context, explaining taxonomy and the geological timescale, while the back includes some really useful listings of places to go fossil hunting and a glossary of terms.

All in all I found it a fascinating read and can imagine it would go down extremely well with the next generation of budding fossil-hunters. 

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

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Book Review: The Duke's Agent by Rebecca Jenkins

My regular book reviews have tailed off in the last couple of weeks, for which I offer my apologies. It always happens at the beginning of November, when I take on the challenge of National Novel Writing Month and flog myself to a standstill in an attempt to write 50,000 words and the first draft of a novel. 

The 50,000 are done, now, though the draft has still to be completed, but it does mean I can take the foot of the pedal a bit and get back to reading and reviewing. So here's a review of the first of two books I've read recently on long train journeys. 

The Duke’s Agent, by Rebecca Jenkins, is a good book. It isn’t perfect, but it kept me reading all the way to London and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s set somewhere in the north/north east of England during the Napoleonic Wars, among towns and villages that hint at reality — it’s a landscape of deep dales and woods and towns and villages with rushing rivers and the rough and unforgiving lead mining industry behind it.

Into this scene comes a veteran of Wellington’s Peninsular Army, Raif Jarret, land agent to the Duke of Penrith, come to oversee the running of the Duke’s estate. Raif stumbles on an abandoned house where a man has recently died and there are signs of theft. In his attempt to pursue justice, and the interests of his employer, Raif soon finds himself on the wrong side of the local crooked magistrate and when someone else dies — an apparent murder — his life is at stake. 

There’s a lot to like about this book. The characterisation is excellent throughout, with Raif a strong and fascinating protagonist; the dialogue is almost flawless; the setting is tremendous; and the historical detail sets a fascinating background. Writing-wise I thought it was a bit overwritten and there was a bit of head-hopping that kept taking me out of the characters, but these aren’t serious issues.  

The problem for me was that, though it started off so well, the second half of the book felt weaker than the first. I can’t really say too much without giving away spoilers, so you’ll have to bear with me, but the stakes build early until, at about half way, they can’t get any higher. It’s far too soon. And after that, the pace slows, the tension slips off a bit and the whole thing feels as if it’s dragging on. This is the point at which the writing held it back a bit, too, as if the balance between writing and action wasn’t quite right in the second half. 

I also felt that the conclusion of the mystery was a little bit tame, though again I can’t tell you why without giving away the plot. Let’s just say that I thought Jarrett should have had more of a hand in it than he did. 

There are one or two things left unresolved — we learn early that Raif is some kind of relative to the Duke, and we don’t find out the story behind the bracelet of plaited blonde hair that he wears around his wrist — but these don’t matter. They’re stories for another day, and I’ll be reading on to find out.

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

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Book Review: The Bloomsbury Affair by Anita Davison

So, once more I’ve stumbled late into a series of cosy historical mysteries, and once more I’m left vowing to go back and catch up with the treasures I’ve missed early on in the series. The Bloomsbury Affair is the fifth in the Flora Maguire series by Anita Davison (though, a little confusingly, Flora is now Mrs Harrington rather than Miss Maguire, but that’s a minor detail).

In Edwardian England, former governess Flora Harrington is settled with her solicitor husband Bunny and they’re doing very nicely, thank you. Affluent, well-looked after by the staff, socially well-connected and with the delightful addition of a new baby, everything is going fine — until the arrival of Edward, Viscount Trent, a young man to whom Flora was formerly governess. Ed was on a train with a young man who was found murdered, and he’s the main suspect. Convinced that he can’t be guilty, Flora and Bunny, hampered by Ed and to the exasperation of the detective on the case, set out to prove his innocence.

What follows is a romp through Edwardian London involving the aristocracy, a mysterious interloper and a plot to inherit, all against the background of exiled Russian revolutionaries, including Lenin himself. The plot was twisty yet credible and kept me guessing all the way through. The historical background was cleverly done but not overdone, and somehow Davison manages to subsume her readers without them noticing, so that I felt I was sitting in the lobby of the Dahlia Hotel, or in the doctor’s waiting room in Cheltenham or wherever else she happened to take us.

The book’s greatest strength, however, is its characterisation. All of the main characters are well-drawn and entirely believable. Flora is slightly uncomfortable with the gulf she sees in social class yet human enough to enjoy her advantages, and the relationships between the main characters are wonderfully done. Flora’s interactions with chirpy maid Sally and aristocratic Ed both respect their individuality and yet keep within the social requirements of the times. And Flora’s relationship with Bunny is humorous and touching.

I’m a harsh critic and no book is ever perfect, but the only criticism I have with this one is minor. It’s part of a series and the author seemed to want to make sure we knew it, though actually it worked fine as a standalone. Early on in the book there were plenty of references to Flora’s previous adventures, which added nothing to the plot and served only to spoil a little of the mystery for me for when I go back and catch up with the others. But that’s a minor gripe. I’m looking forward to books one to four in the series — and I’m certainly looking forward to book six.

I received this book from Aria Fiction and Netgalley in return for an honest review.