Yes, I did manage to squeeze in a few books in March and April, though I must say time seems to be racketing past! So here they are in no particular order:
Ice Escape, Beatrice Hale: Here's a lovely little adventure story for about 7 - 10 year olds, based on real events. In 1932 the American Flying Family, the Hutchisons, decided to try to be the first family to fly around the world, but unfortunately this plan did not coincide with that of a Canada goose which hit one of the engines, and the plane came down on the coast of Greenland. Amazingly they were rescued by the crew of an Aberdeen fishing trawler, and the writer of this fictionalised account is the grand-daughter of one of the crew. Well-researched and very realistic!
Faith Martin, Murder on the Oxford Canal: I’d read one later in this series some time ago and enjoyed it, and decided to go back to what I think is the beginning. It’s an interesting set-up – promising police officer dealing with the fact that not only has her husband died, but he was a corrupt copper, too, and investigations will follow. In the midst of this a body is found in the canal, and off we go for a fairly entertaining read and the start to a long series. There’s a fair amount of jumping between points of view, but actually it sort of works, and the intertwining of the two kinds of investigation makes for a decent plot.
Faith Martin, Murder at the University: This begins to build nicely on the characters established in the first book of the series and is quite a satisfying read. I do like Hilary and her colleagues (some more than others) and these are entertaining books.
For Their Sins, Alex Walters: The fifth in the Alex McKay series set in the Black Isle, all of which I have very much enjoyed. One of the factors is the overhang of cases from one book to another, possibly making them less effective as standalones but definitely making them more convincing as a series (hints of Susan Hill here). The team in these police procedurals is appealing, including the elegant, athletic Ginny Horton and the controlled and private Helena Grant – it’s also refreshing to have a detective who is getting his marriage back together, rather than watching it fall apart. Other characters wander in from previous books and add to the sense of an actual community rather than an episodic history. This book was also written during the pandemic and has casual references to it, really occurring quite naturally as they now do in conversation in a changed world. It works rather well.
The Unwilling Heir, Cecilia Peartree: This traditional series, with a touch of romance, is becoming more and more accomplished, and I think, though this is the last official Brighton Heir, there might be a spin-off. We start here with a head injury and amnesia and two young ladies in trouble, and as usual things grow more complicated from there. I enjoyed the accuracy of the time setting and the usual romp with smugglers and their ilk along the south coast, and the general sense that though troubles may arise, good will prevail. Very enjoyable!
The Raven and the Reindeer, T. Kingfisher: A retelling of The Snow Queen, this is witty, as befits Kingfisher, but just as chilling as the original. There are some seriously bizarre moments here to do with reindeer, and the otters are wonderful, but mostly I’d like to take the raven home for company.
Ismail Kadare, The Concert: Set in Albania, this novel, darkly comic in places, tells the story from several perspectives of the breakdown in relations between Albania and China in the 1970s. It’s full of black humour and personal sorrows, and the minute interpretation of tiny variations in international protocol from which massive shifts in policy are derived, notably the accidental stepping, by an Albanian engineer, on a Chinese delegate’s toe. Particularly alarming or amusing, depending on your perspective, is the mad, manufactured world of Mao Zedong, trying simultaneously to manipulate and to ignore the countries around China and distrusting all of them. Points of view vary and switch, making you wonder who you can trust. Discredited officials are driven mad just by being ignored, or by thinking they are being ignored. Families try to beat the system, without ever quite understanding what the system is. There are some nice pithy observations on the situation in Albania and China. The plot culminates in a visit to China by one of the main characters, with stories derived from what he sees there and eventually a mysterious concert, attended by party leaders and foreign dignitaries, from which the party leaders leave unexpectedly early, because Mao is dying. The endgame, though, is a playful discussion of truth, historical account and warped narratives, and how regimes can distort, wilfully or not, the account of what really happened – assuming anybody knows.
The Wayward Alliance, J.R. Tomlin: An awkward start, with lots of repetitions of words – could have done with a bit of an edit. However, the pace picks up and the setting of mediaeval Perth is quite well done, more by portraying people than by describing the setting. There are a few Americanisms: in a book set around this date one cannot object to alternative spellings, but the use of the word ‘block’ in a mediaeval context is tricky to take. Even I found a bit of the mediaeval Scots a little heavy here and there, some scenes could have done with an edit to improve intelligibility, and beyond the main character it was hard to get to grips with the cast, but on the whole this was a good read.
Becca, Kath Middleton: As I began to read this book, I was often frustrated by the characters and their difficulties in recognising what was happening in their lives, much as I felt sorry for them. By halfway I’d got past the feeling of ‘Heavens, this is sad’ and reached an excited ‘Oh, this might turn out all right – but how?’ but still with a sense of dread because I know a Kath Middleton book can go almost anywhere! I’ll not say whether or not it does, and whether or not my frustrations were allayed. This is not an easy read by any means, but one that leaves you with plenty to think about and characters that live on in your head. It really played with the emotions. Another excellent read from Middleton.
Viking Ferry, Maressa Mortimer: This is an original set-up – a woman taking a late night cross-Channel ferry is kidnapped by a troop of Vikings. It’s not clear where she is, for once she sees a cruise ship from the Viking ‘castle’ and tries to attract its attention. Her relationship with her captors is, quite reasonably, confused – she tries to forgive them, but struggles with the men’s violence and the women’s complacency. Some very practical tips here on how to escape Vikings – or indeed any captivity – and how to face it with integrity.
EAntiques and Alibis, Wendy H. Jones: A lively, sarky, sharp start to a series with an ex-ballet dancer from a large and colourful family attempting to rescue her late uncle’s investigation business along with his antisocial dog and a mysterious but charming ex-con called Quill.
Front Page News, Sadie Gordon Richmond: I was a bit intrigued by this because I know a few Richmond Gordons but no Gordon Richmonds – and apparently she dreams of living on the east coast of Scotland, where many Gordons do indeed have their homes. Anyway, it was a free offer, and I thought I’d give it a go. Rather elegantly written, this is set around north-west London on my old stomping ground of the Edgware branch of the Northern Line. I found it a bit difficult to relate to either of the police officers – they were lightly sketched despite some elaborate back stories, but they might, if this is a series, develop into well-rounded characters. One slightly weird point where the police consult a recent census return in the local library to find out who was living at a particular address (not permitted, and electoral rolls would be better), but otherwise this was a pretty interesting book, until it finished abruptly without much of a resolution. Would I read the next one? At present, I’m not quite sure – I like a story to finish properly, not just tail off.
Death in Delft, Graham Brack: This has been coming up on my Amazon pages for a bit, and I thought I might as well try it. The setting is very appealing, winter in 17th century Delft with Vermeer among the characters. I was quickly drawn in: the main character is interesting and those he meets are cleverly drawn, and I felt I was really involved in the place. Thoroughly good read.
A Snowball’s Chance in Hell, J.D. Kirk: Vigilantes are in control here for a complicated plot where even the perpetrators, when caught, might or might not be guilty. Poor Olivia Maximuke is in trouble again, too, but the plots intertwine and no doubt she will surface again in future books. The team are as always hilarious, particularly the awful Bob Hoon, always there with the apposite turn of phrase just when you don’t expect him. I’d like to see him meet Roberta Steele from the Stuart MacBride books – and then I’d like to leave the room quite quickly and watch from a safe distance.
Ahead of the Game, J.D.Kirk: This series is becoming dangerous in the extreme – I can no longer eat or drink while reading for fear of choking with laughter. The fact that it is also exciting and poignant is masterful.
Will Harker, Killing Jericho: Great start to this with an unfamiliar (to me) setting of an ex-cop, ex-con fairground dweller drawn to look into a mysterious travellers’ legend, while fighting off flashbacks to one unsuccessful, traumatic case. It’s exciting, disturbing and mysterious, and one of those books where you’re not quite sure whom to trust – and you’d probably be right.
Murder at Christmas: A collection of short stories by some of the classic greats – Sayers, Ellis Peters, Michael Innes, Margery Allingham – which makes for an excellent seasonal read, just perfect for a winter’s evening. The fact that I read it in April is not the fault of the book. I had read the Sayers one before but still enjoyed its curious menace, and the others were all excellent.
Orkney, Amy Sackville: A curious, wistful book, the account (sort of from the professor’s point of view) of a honeymoon in a remote part of Orkney for a professor and his much younger, pale and distant student. In a series of vignettes the story of their relationship, brief though it has been, is told alongside their stay in a small cottage, their apparent devotion to each other, her secretive and odd behaviour, her nightmares. Gradually wistfulness turns to sorrow, to tragedy. You could say ‘He should have …’, ‘they should have …’, ‘if only …’ but no: this had to happen, in its lyrical language and wintry stormy stillness.
The Night Raids, Jim Kelly: This is the third book in the series about a Cambridge policeman, scarred by the First World War, operating during the Second. With his sight damaged in the desert, and chronic insomnia, he likes to move about the city by night and swim in the river, and both these things, along with his wife’s work as a nurse, give him a particular insight into wartime Cambridge. There’s a unique, sepia atmosphere about these books, and a steady and well-written pace about them. This one has to do with looting with violence and two missing people who might be connected with it, set against a background of exhausted anxiety as Cambridge undergoes air raids and family members are overseas.
Josephine Tey, Miss Pym Disposes: Is this a classic murder mystery, as the blurb describes it? I'm not sure it is - the 'murder' happens very close to the end. But it is a classic in terms of the way it builds suspense, examines situations and characters, develops relationships, even in a couple of weeks of book time. Remarkable writing. I’ve enjoyed several of Tey’s books before but for some reason missed this one.
Isabella Muir, The Tapestry Bag: Set in the 1960s this begins as a missing person mystery: Janie’s friend disappeared from her house after her boyfriend died in a road accident, and though the police seem to have heard something about what is becoming a cold case, they won’t tell Janie anything. Janie, in the midst of pregnancy, mobile library work and supporting her husband and her blind father, is desperate to find a woman that no one else seems much concerned about. Rather a sad book about underachievement, but in the end a satisfying plot.
Cecilia Peartree, Life and Death in the Woods: Max is a little like the delightful Christopher in the Pitkirtly books, but this has a more McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street feel to it – as well as ringing true of Edinburgh museum life. It’s a little darker, and the plot has more in the way of tragedy. Some of the characters Max has to deal with are unpleasant and difficult, though perhaps not the hand-knitted archivists! I liked Max very much, and I hope we might see more of him in the future.
The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic, Sophie Kinsella: I had no sympathy for Rebecca, the shopaholic of the title, but I thought I could perhaps see the way the book was going, deliberately aiming her for redemption. She is feckless, spendthrift, selfish and superficial. By a quarter of the way through I wanted to slap her, and accompany her through the day so that she managed to control her lunatic spending and unrealistic lies. There is a bit of a subtext on the easiness of credit and the willingness of some financial bodies to let people get into debt, but it seemed a little understated. She has one redeeming moment, but then ruins it and careers along her own particular path to self-destruction – she needs help, and all she gets is money. Not a very satisfactory book for me.
David J. Gatward, Grimm up North: When I started this I wasn’t at all sure it was the book I was expecting – the beginning is brutal. But in connexion with this brutality Grimm is sent to Yorkshire, and despite his conviction that nothing happens there, he is soon involved in a complicated crime. It’s funny, and clever, and slips stunning snippets of landscape (and food) into the narrative so we can see how Grimm is subtly entranced by his new surroundings. Think I’ll enjoy this series!
Alison O’Leary, Country Cat Blues: The follow up to the not-as-cosy-as-it-sounds Street Cat Blues, this is similarly slightly edgy with some dry humour, mostly directed at the awful inner city Sir Frank’s school. O’Leary skilfully blends this humour with some dark reflections on children in care, emotional dependency and fear of losing one’s home, all in a satisfying plot.
Peter Boon, Who Killed Miss Finch?: I was in the mood for this, and the title gives nothing away you can’t guess in the first three or four pages. Indeed by then you are rather looking forward to the murder of Miss Finch (and you could throw in Gracie too), and you might even sit on the sidelines and cheer. This is a cosy set in an East Sussex coastal village, with an investigating team of the school librarian and his pupil assistant, both of them with their challenges in life. – rather touching and the set-up for a good series.If you've made it this far, well done!