Monday, 26 February 2018

The Woman Before Me - Ruth Dugdall

Seven years since this book was first published and the wonderful Legend Press have the foresight to  reissue this gripping thriller. It has already won several awards and with good reason. 

The story introduces the character of Cate Austin who features in subsequent novels of Ms. Dugdall. Cate is a probation officer who has to decide whether Rose Wilks convicted of child manslaughter should be considered for parole based on whether she is remorseful for the death of the child. I veer away from anything that might resemble a spoiler so I’ll say no more than that.

But what I will say is that this is an very well plotted story giving us parallel accounts; Cate’s is in familiar third person narrative and Rose’s true account is given in a first person narrative and in the  form of her ‘Black Book’ entries written for her partner, Jason, and allows the reader to witness with Rose the unfurling of what actually happened. It’s very much a ‘did she, didn’t she’, ‘will she,wont she’ type story but when that is well done it is delicious to read. And it’s well done here with a twist at the end which I found curiously subliminal in that I half suspected it but ultimately rejected it. 

The specific prison locations and protocols were authentic and believable, well researched but then I find that Ms. Dugdall was herself a probation officer. What was that they used to tell us in school? Write about what you know. Well, here is the perfect example and the more believable for it. 

It’s dark and disturbing but keeps the reader gripped throughout. I didn’t find any of the characters especially engaging or likeable, especially Rose but I’m not sure I was supposed to. I think it was necessary to remain dispassionate almost. But paradoxically there is a lot of emotion in the book especially for mothers and an all embracing sadness that speaks of things that should have been avoidable but never were, wrong places, wrong times, recipes for disaster.

It’s an easy read, undemanding in terms of a well paced, flowing narrative and a most pleasant way to while way a few hours. So if you’re finding yourself snowbound this week grab yourself a copy!!

Many thanks to Imogen Harris at Legend Press for the opportunity to read this novel.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Reservoir 13 - Jon McGregor

I remember the paradox of reading Even the Dogs; that such a grim, depressing theme and story could be so exquisitely written. Reservoir 13 was less painful to read on one level but no less beautiful and skilfully written. 

Initially a missing girl story, but if you’re looking for a flawed narrator, fast paced psycho thriller you’ll be disappointed. This is a beautifully, controlled piece of writing, as slow, rhythmic and as languorous as the unfolding seasons described over the course of the years since Rebecca Shaw went missing. Short sentences detailing the ebb and flow of the seasons and the ongoing rural activities nestle alongside the more detailed narration of the lives of those in the village.

McGregor renders the sometimes mundane, the ordinary, the routine, the prosaic into something more meaningful through his elegant prose. It is as if he has rendered his readers flies on the wall to the lives of those in this village who have all been subtly affected by the unresolved disappearance of the girl. As with Even the Dogs there is an all encompassing sense of loss, generally, and specifically with some of the characters. The characterisations are subtle, underplayed yet all the more powerful and poignant for it. 

Clever too, is the construction of the novel. Thirteen chapters, and to me, they represent the titular reservoir. Each chapter a reservoir of words and meanings. We can read what we like into that number. If you could imagine this story as an installation in an art exhibition people would be wandering round it for ages, looking at it from all angles, on tiptoes, on bended knee to try and extract every ounce of meaning from it.

I suppose, ultimately, it is a book about loss, how people deal with it and how the old adage, ‘life goes on’ is lived out with whatever consequences might ensue. That’s not a new theme, for sure, but rarely has it been expressed as beautifully as here. 

Friday, 16 February 2018

Oliver Loving - Stefan Merrill Block

Uncomfortably topical in the wake of this week’s Florida High School shootings this novel documents such an event and dissects all that happens before, during and after from the perspectives of those affected by the tragedy. 

At the risk of offering a spoiler, here is a wonderful  sentence that serves as a kind of leitmotiv throughout the book and I feel it pertinent to quote in full - ‘Once upon a time there was a boy who fell through a crack in time but he didn’t fall all the way.’ I don’t wish to give any more away although the cover blurb does allow us to understand that Oliver Loving does survive the shooting but ‘survive’ becomes a nebulous term. 

This is what I like to call an onion book. The writer peels off the layers chapter by chapter as he progress through his narrative. It’s not a fast paced book, it’s slow and ponderous, as the characters, and the readers too, try to make sense of what has happened. They deal with their thoughts and try to cope with their fragile emotions. It’s a cerebral work, beautifully and intelligently written with quite stunning prose that has a most pleasing flow to it.

You could actually remove the tragedy and still have a novel of some worth driven by the Loving family with all their quirks and hang ups. These characters, all flawed before tragedy struck, attempt to deal with their struggles and diverse ways of coming to terms with the tragedy. Given the world we live in today, how many of us ever stop to think about how we would behave and react if such a situation as this were to strike at our very heart? This book encourages us to consider such a situation in a very real way.

It’s not a book to lift your heart but it is a most worthwhile read to celebrate the art of novel writing when it is executed so almost perfectly here and to offer us food for thought about what drives people to such acts of violence and how those left in its wake continue with their lives. Thanks to Readers First for a copy of this book.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Bats in the Belfry - E.C.R.Lorac

The British Library Crime Classics series must be the best invention since sliced bread! Hot on the heels of Fire in the Thatch I’ve just read Bats in the Belfry which was equally entertaining. Thank you British Library from the bottom of my heart. There’s such a glorious sense of satisfaction as you turn the last page having thoroughly enjoyed a darn good crime yarn.  

This is another tale featuring Inspector MacDonald and boasts a fast paced, intricate plot set in London and conveying a suitably gothic and darkly eerie, foggy backdrop for a most perplexing and sinister crime. None of the characters are especially endearing but all play their parts thoroughly. It’s hard to like any of them but then I don’t think we’re supposed to and it allows us to remain as dispassionate and analytical as Inspector MacDonald has to be to unravel the sequence of events and arrive at a correct solution.

The plot develops in a tantalisingly ambiguous way and the reader is forced to question identities and possibilities in a relentless rollercoaster of cerebral gymnastics. Everyone, it seems, is under suspicion and the slightest action throws the incumbent into the spotlight. 

The story is of its time and in its time. It wouldn’t work within a contemporary setting, forensics and CCTV would see to that but somehow that’s what makes it all the more delicious to read. I suppose there are some turns of phrases and described observations that would not make it through the Politically Correct editing stage were it submitted today but it has to be viewed in context rather than allowing such things to offend. 

Some say hindsight is a wonderful thing and I wonder if Inspector MacDonald were endowed with more quirks and idiosyncrasies Lorac might have plumbed the heights that Christie enjoyed. He is rather staid but he works well within these stories though. 

Now I’m off to comb the British Library catalogue for more Lorac. Not a crime, is it?

Friday, 2 February 2018

Fire in the Thatch - E.C.R.Lorac

It’s always a treat to read one of the British Library Crime Classics. You know you’re in for a good read. I can’t think of a single volume that hasn’t delighted me and Fire in the Thatch is no exception. A shining example of all that is good about the Golden Age of Detective Fiction and written by a woman. I remember thinking Lorac was an unusual surname and quickly realised it was a palindrome of Carol which gave me my first clue. Google did the rest!!!

Something that stands out for me in these stories is how the meat of the mystery is so much more cerebral than contemporary crime stories. Little in the way of forensics, no digital devices, no criminal psychologists. It’s all bobbies on the beat, observation and deduction. This story features one of Lorac’s main series characters Chief Inspector MacDonald ( wondering if he is a role model for Denzil Meyrick’s  Jim Daley!?) a Scot whose logical and meticulous way of thinking and ordering information allows us to try and solve the crime with him. 

A deceptively quaint picture of Devon life on the cusp of WWII ending we get a little flavour of what life was like socially and geographically. With some defined, almost exaggerated, almost stereotypical characters the scene is set and created. You know from reading the blurb that there is a murder but it takes place with no whistles and bells and graphic descriptions. One minute the victim is alive the next the police and a naval official are discussing whether a supposed accident was, in fact, murder. It’s so matter of fact you find yourself flicking back to check you haven’t missed anything.

From then on it’s sheer, pure, unadulterated detection! Bliss. And I have to say that I did figure ‘whodunnit’ and I was pretty pleased with myself. I didn’t figure all the details that led to that conclusion which was well plotted and quite rationally intricate. 

There’s a cast of heroes and villains and you can almost hear yourself  hissing and booing when the baddies take the stage. It’s a hugely satisfying read for aficionados of the genre. 

Credit too must go to  Martin Edwards for another of his marvellous introductions which I now read before I begin the main fiction instead of after! I’m off to start Bats in the Belfry now and I can’t wait!