Monday, 26 November 2018

The Secret Life of the Krays - John Dickson

Quite a departure from my usual choice of book. Even when I read non fiction it’s very unlikely to be a true crime based tome. But sometimes you need to drag yourself kicking and screaming out of your comfort zone and read something different.

This is a straightforward account from one of the Krays’ gang members. One can only presume he is telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It is convincing and it served to confirm that everything you’d heard or read about the infamous twins is absolutely true. 

You wouldn’t expect it to be an uplifting read. It’s peppered with violence, cold, unfeeling and premeditated violence.  In fact I was conscious of feeling a bit like a voyeur; seeing and hearing things I shouldn’t and don’t actually want to, really.

I suppose that what gives this book an edge over some others about the Krays is the fact that it is written by someone who not only knew them but worked very closely with them. Mr. Dickson drove the Krays to their nefarious destinations on numerous occasions and appeared to be a trusted member of their entourage.

Something that does come through is how difficult it became to extract oneself from the inner sanctum of the ‘Firm’. It seems that Mr. Dickson was never free to pursue his own life. He was at the beck and call of the Krays 24/7, and he was just one gang member. 

It’s a short book, quick and easy to read. It’s not particularly well written, overall there’s a stilted feel to the narrative. But, hey, I wasn’t expecting a Man Booker contender. I ended up feeling quite sad at the lives lost and the fruitless existence of these people who seemed to achieve nothing save notoriety?

I must thank Readers First for the opportunity to read this little book.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

The Christmas Card Crime and other stories - Ed. Martin Edwards

Timely piece of marketing and this deserves to find its way into the Christmas stockings of any self respecting Golden Age of Crime aficionado. You’ve plenty of time to add it to your Christmas list, folks!!

Ably edited by the incomparable Martin Edwards who offers succinct yet relevant introductions to each writer and their story that serves only to enhance the pleasure of reading them. No work in this series would feel complete without Mr. Edward’s contributions! (And to think I used to bypass them when I first started!)

This seasonal volume offers the reader eleven short crime stories from some of the celebrated authors who already occupy a favoured place in my Crime Classic library. I’m always impressed that a crime writer can create an impeccable crime story in so relatively few words! Delightful, too, is the number of them that deliver an unexpected twist at the conclusion . Sheer delight! The short story is oft times an under rated genre but there is something deeply satisfying in being able to read an entire story in one ’sitting’ with all the ends tied up. 

Whilst there isn’t a ‘duff’ tale in the whole book invariably one has one’s favourites. I loved Julian Symons’ contribution ‘Twixt the Cup and the Lip’ for the simple yet effective denouement after an expansive build up and execution. Sheer short story mastery. E.C.R.Lorac’s ‘A Bit of Wire Pulling’ with the clue in the title but would the characters in the story figure it out?! ‘Blind Man’s Hood’ a lovely locked room mystery from Carter Dickson. I could go on!! It’s a treasure trove of crime. John Bude, Francis Durbridge, Baroness Orczy but hey, just offering the names of these writers could be seen as a spoiler!!

And as ever a pertinent eye catching cover. If ever I have to eat my ‘You can’t tell a book by looking at the cover’ words it is with this series of books!

My thanks as ever to the wonderful British Library Publishing for trusting me with a copy of this book! 

Thursday, 22 November 2018

A Hollow Sky - M. Sean Coleman

I read this second Alex Ripley mystery hot on the heels of The Cuckoo Wood and whilst I had firmly dispelled all visual images of Sigourney Weaver and visualised Alex Ripley, Miracle Detective,  in her own right I wonder if my response to the book would have been different had I left a longer gap between reading the two? 

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy A Hollow Sky for I did but the similarities in theme and characters were all too obvious. It seemed that each character in one book had their counterpart in the other almost. The setting was another village, this time in Wales and the antithesis of Kirkdale, from The Cuckoo Wood, in terms of the inhabitants’ demeanour. They were almost falling over themselves here to make Ripley welcome!

The basic premise is that some disgruntled, disappointed and devastated customers of a faith healing regime find their complaints are ……… unwelcome to put it mildly ! When the police are involved and one of the complainants contacts Alex Ripley a whole web of intrigue and missing persons are unravelled. 

The scepticism towards faith healing and spiritual matters continues in this book.  I did wonder whether the author has an axe to grind toward the charlatans out there who do prey on the vulnerable. But sometimes I felt the balance needed to be redressed in favour of those people whose desire to help is genuine, whose belief is strong and who seek no remuneration whatsoever.

Where this novel does differ from the first is in the exposition of the main plot. Where The Cuckoo Wood allowed the mystery to unfold as secrets were discovered here we can see what’s going on to a degree but it’s not always clear who the real villains are and how they are operating . We know it can’t be Megan, who is the healer, because she is in a coma!! 

The character of Ripley and her story is developed well in this second book and her situation at the end clearly indicates at least another Ripley mystery, (Hope you’re busy at work on it, Mr. Coleman!). Thus cementing our desire for the third story.

It’s a tidy piece of work, well plotted and structured, some hairy moments very visually written that made me think this might translate well to the screen. And there was enough to make me curious about what might happen to Ripley in the third book.

This review was originally part of the Nudge Books slot on the Blog Tour organised by Rachel's Random Resources. My thanks to both for the opportunity to participate.  

Friday, 16 November 2018

The Madonna of the Mountains - Elise Valmorbida

I was attracted to this book purely because of the title which reminded me of the Giovanni Bellini painting Madonna of the Meadow. Is that a good enough reason to choose a book? I don’t know. But I’m glad I did!

 This novel tells the story of Maria starting from her pre war cusp of potential spinsterhood in the 1920’s through her ultimate marriage, WW2 and beyond to the 1950’s and tells of her struggles to keep herself and her family alive and well though adversities that go beyond the horror of war. 

The story unfolds through Maria’s perspective and the author skilfully develops the character through younger naivety to an older wisdom. Maria dominates the narrative throughout but that’s not to say that the other characters do not impose themselves within the story - her husband Achille and her children, especially Primo, Amelia and Bruna. One might also say that Italy is a subliminal character in this book. The writer paints a wonderful picture of an almost idyllic pre war Italy. The atmosphere of the villages in the Veneto region of Italy is palpable. The frequent recourse to Italian phrases with their musical cadences only serve to emphasise the location. The descriptions of food, the ways of life, the sounds and smells of Italy are almost tangible.

The opening sections of the book have a gentle, lyrical feel to the language and the atmosphere that contrast effectively with the more urgent and tense sections later in the book. Whilst not an overtly political book it does offer an insight into the rise and progression of fascism in Italy under Mussolini’s rule and how it was for ordinary people at that time. There is a very real sense of a country disappearing under a yoke of impossibility. 

It’s a genre defiant novel in many ways; it’s not a war story although WW2 plays a large part, it’s not a political novel although fascism imposes its unwelcome presence. In many ways it’s a love story; maternal love, filial love, familial love, patriotism, maybe it could be called  a family saga but it seemed to go beyond these somehow. The reader is encouraged to consider aspects of motherhood and being a woman in Italy during the decades covered by the book, dealing with expectations, aspirations and attitudes. There is no real criticism, like the characters who seem to accept their lot and devise coping strategies it’s as if the writer is saying this is how it was. this is what happened. There is a morality within the book which is where the titular Madonna plays her part. It’s an effective device and we learn much about Maria’s state of mind though the ‘Madonna monologues’. 

There’s something slow and contemplative about the narrative. It isn’t a book of action even though plenty happens. The language is rich and vibrant like the country it is describing. There’s a paradoxical simplicity to the whole book for the events it describes are anything but simple but ultimately there’s a sense of calm and redemption as we reach the conclusion.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. I learnt a great deal about the production of silk! And I was left with a satisfaction of having vicariously enjoyed Italy in the earlier decades of the twentieth century.

My thanks to Nudge Books for the opportunity to read this elegant story. 

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Still Lives - Maria Hummel SOCIAL MEDIA TOUR

Delighted to be part of the Social Media Tour for this intriguing book.

Although Maria Hummel is a new writer to me she has an impressive back catalogue that I hope to explore in the fullness of time. That would not be the case if I hadn’t really enjoyed Still Lives. It’s an LA chic thriller with plenty to keep the reader guessing. But unlike many thrillers it seemed to me that there was an attempt to dig a little deeper and say something about the nature of art and the perceptions of its patrons, taking place within that city of contradictions that is Los Angeles. 

It’s a clever book. Purely by implication the book’s blurb urges its readers to follow a certain line of thought. But it’s not a line of thought that the characters of the book are privy to in the opening chapters. So the reader is empowered early on with this potential explosion of an event that almost guarantees a complete and utter absorption in all that follows. Impressive!! 

As with most thrillers summaries of the action are a no go area if spoilers are to be avoided. So, briefly, Maggie Richter is our narrator, having followed in part the nebulous LA/Hollywood dream only to find it sometimes resembling a nightmare. Whilst viewing the construction of a parking garage she observes,
 ‘When this is finished, two hundred people will come every day to slide their cars into these spots, and I will never know a single person by name or what troubles them, and they will not know me, and if two hundred more take their place, I wont know that either.’ 
It’s as if she is seeing the car park as a metaphor for the city. She works at the Rocque Museum and the story begins on the eve of a pivotal, tantalising, new exhibition, Still Lives, embracing homicide as its theme, by a potentially controversial artist, Kim Lord. When the artist fails to show up for her own exhibition, a chain of events is set into motion

The tensions in the story are subtly maintained by a series of smaller incidents that build up into the crescendo that is the conclusion of the story. It’s not a hard hitting action packed thriller. The tensions and twists are implicit and cerebral, which can often elicit a subtler, more refined response in the reader. Ms. Hummel sustains the mood throughout the book, even at the end where Maggie is given to some introspection there remains the suggestion of something more around the corner.

There are numerous characters, the majority working in some capacity or other at the Museum, a deceptively homogenous bunch, whose personalities develop and unfold as the book progresses. All believable, all vulnerable, all under suspicion? Or not? I won’t say!!

The book has much to say about art and its ability to comment on life. The description of one of the exhibitions on capital punishment is quite chilling. That impact may be better realised by US readers but nevertheless it’s a powerful commentary. Another theme running alongside the thriller story is the place of women in the workplace and beyond. Inevitably now one thinks of the #metoo movement. There’s few direct allusions; again it’s implicit for the reader to extract should they wish to do so. There are many cultural references that help put the art scene into context, how it develops not just as a creative force but as an economic one as well.

The title’s ambiguity was delicious!! Just two words to make your reader think!! This device is used again with good effect later in the book causing Maggie to opine, 
There’s something provocative about the message. It’s deliberately unclear. Like a work of art, it invites you to interpret it.’

Still Lives is an accomplished work from a competent author. An evenly paced narrative, descriptive without being flowery and chilling without being gratuitous, I can understand why this was a Reese Witherspoon Book Club choice. It deserves to be read.

(I learnt a new word too - ‘gallerina’! The Urban Dictionary defines it thus - The waif-like girls in opaque tights who rule the art galleries in Chelsea and other art districts. Like ballerinas, they are generally delicate-looking, coiffed, and can come off as cold.’)

My thanks to Ella Patel at Quercus Books for the opportunity to experience this exciting story and participate in the Social Media Tour. 

Although I am the last slot on the tour do check out what other bloggers have had to say about this book.

Friday, 9 November 2018

The Cuckoo Wood - M.Sean Coleman

This review originally formed part  of Nudge Book's slot on Rachel's Random Resources Blog Tour Blitz - 
Unsure what to expect, as this author was unfamiliar to me, I sat down with an open mind and the lovely anticipation of starting a new book. Underneath the main title of The Cuckoo Wood was the subtitle ‘An Alex Ripley Mystery’. I wrongly presumed that Alex was male, but once I discovered she wasn’t, I will admit I couldn’t get the image of Sigourney Weaver from my head!! If that sounds ‘Alien’ to you – ha – it is!
Alex Ripley is a learned lady dubbed the Miracle Detective and known for her scepticism where matters of the psychic, angelic interventions and miracle healing are concerned. Her curiosity piqued by her forensic officer friend, Emma, who believes she has a case that could use Ripley’s expertise, Ripley hot foots it to the village of Kirkdale. Two girls have apparently independently committed suicide after claiming to have seen an angel.
What follows is a tightly plotted, tense and atmospheric thriller that I think it is unlikely you will second guess!! The village and all its inhabitants are creepy and a dark past seems to be at the root of what follows. Its a Royston Vasey kind of village – for local people – but without the humour. The characters are solid, well drawn. They all seem to have a secret of some kind or give that impression. I suspected nearly everyone at one point or another, apart from Ripley and Emma! It’s that uncertainty and the sinister undertones that urge you to read on and on. It’s an evenly paced narrative that doesn’t look to make you jump with the unexpected. It’s more like a spring that slowly uncoils. The tension is palpable at times. The titular Cuckoo Wood is eerie and reading late into the night I had to stop because I was getting spooked!!
The suggestion that there are psychic or angelic forces at play is well sustained throughout and there is a subtle, on the fence kind of sense that maybe, just maybe, this will be the occasion when Ripley has to concede there there is ‘something out there’. And whether that turns out to be the case or not is just one reason why you might want to go and read this book!
I have to admit that the final denouement required some intense concentration to slot everything into place and it was here that I thought I might come up against a plot hole or two. But I didn’t! No, sir. Not one. Very satisfying.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Help the Witch - Tom Cox

Tom Cox probably won’t realise how honoured he is that I read a copy of this book. Why, you may ask in bewildered surprise? The thing is I really don’t do ghosts or horror or spooky or witches. I have much too wild an imagination and from past experience with the genre the effects can be disconcerting. And this was billed as ghostly and supernatural. But there are some writers you make exceptions for and Tom Cox is one of them. As it happens I needn’t have worried. Yes, this is a book pertaining to ghosts and witchy type happenings but it’s not scary at all. It looks at it all from a positive perspective. It’s a book to entertain and make you think, sure, but Tom isn’t trying to creep the bejesus out of you, unsettle you a little maybe, it's certainly not without atmosphere. I enjoyed it very much.

This is Mr. Cox’s first foray into fiction and I’m sure and hope that it won’t be his last. I found it very interesting to see how a writer makes the transition from one form to another. And having read several of Tom’s other books I was familiar with his style and was pleased to see that his quirky, easy, sociable mode of expression was present in this collection of stories. It was unmistakably Tom Cox.

The short story is an underrated genre. And yet it’s a very satisfying one to read. Seldom are you left with a cliffhanger to deal with as the conclusion of one story allows you a pause or stopping point without reading that little bit too long into the night, before you begin another. Several of these stories end on an almost whimsical note leaving you wondering, not unsatisfied, but wondering. On his social media platforms Tom referenced the excellence of Annie Proulx in this genre and I think there’s evidence of her influence in this work.

The stories are diverse in theme and structure. Refreshing, as like Forrest Gumps’ ubiquitous box of chocolates you never knew what you were going to get other than a supernaturally, unexplainedly flavour with maybe a soft or a hard centre. There’s more than a passing celebration of the art of folk lore. 

I see no point in detailing each individual story. I have my favourites, more on that later, but what did strike me was that running through them all was Tom Cox’s passion for the natural world , both flora and fauna, it’s infectious and can have you looking at things in a different way. If having read Tom’s previous books you think you might miss cats fear not you’ll find some here!! You’ll also find Tom’s wit and sense of humour present throughout. 

My particular favourites were Just Good Friends and An Oral History of Margaret and the Village by Matthew and Five Others. I enjoyed the former as it was a well structured tale with empathic characters and the spiritual nuances were subtle becoming more obvious as the story gathered momentum. I’d like to quote this in full as it resonated with me - 

‘Human character was more subject to geography than was generally acknowledged.Yet there was a pressure to be the same person people had come to expect everywhere you went . It was one of the small.untold difficulties of life.’

The latter reminds me, stylistically, of Bill Naughton’s The Goalkeeper’s Revenge and Other Stories, a book of short stories for children, i think it was the vernacular of the protagonist, very authentic and believable. I liked the fusion of past and present. I also liked the inferences posed in Seance about the nature of reincarnation. 

Although perfect for this time of year and complimenting the season it can be enjoyed at any time. I also think it will stand up to re-reading too. Don’t be fooled by the apparent simplicity; it’s deceptive and there’s much beneath the surface to make you ponder.

Tom Cox is a paradox; he is unique as a person and a writer and I remember wistfully opining at the end of my review for 21st century Yokel - The world needs people like Tom Cox. If there were more Tom Coxs I doubt the world would be in such a mess’  but that wouldn’t work for if there were more Tom Cox’s this one Tom Cox wouldn’t have half the impact and the impact is what we need!!

I pledged to Unbound to assist in the publication of this book and I’d do it again and again and again. 

Friday, 2 November 2018

The Stranger Diaries - Elly Griffiths

It’s eight years since I read an Elly Griffiths book! The last one was The Crossing Places, the first Ruth Galloway story. I finished it on 14th February 2010. There was no romantic association with the book I hasten to add, it just happened to be the date I finished it! But leaving such a gap in between books does enable a reader to sit back and be impressed at how a writer has progressed and developed in that time.

The Stranger Diaries is a corker!! You can play Crime Thriller Cluedo with it. Crime Thriller Cluedo? It’s where you think you’ve guessed the perpetrator. You’re convinced. You are so sure. You make the accusation out loud with a fist pump of triumph. Then something happens. And you’re so wrong you feel silly. But you move on. Again you’re doubly convinced you know who it is etc etc.  But you’re wrong. And so it continues until eventually you might surmise correctly and you win. Another fist pump. Or you fail miserably and the author wins. But that gets a fist pump from me too because I love it when a writer is that clever. So it’s actually a win-win!!  And I didn’t come close here until nearly the end. Bookphace 0 - Elly Griffiths 1. 

It’s a perfect book for this time of year. The seasonal atmosphere enhances the ghostly aspects of the novel. The inclusion of a Gothic story from the past running parallel with the contemporary story is well sustained. The unease is perpetuated. There are some tense and spooky moments that have you looking over your shoulder form time to time. 

As with many books of this genre it is hard to precis the plot adequately without giving too much away and offering spoilers which is probably one of the worst things I could do for this story!! So I’ll tread carefully. Clare Cassidy is a teacher of English and Creative writing. Her current post is in a school, the building of which used to be the home of a writer, R.M.Holland. Holland’s life poses some mysteries and unanswered questions that Clare is keen to research. The pivot on which the story spins is the death of one of Clare’s colleagues. 

The story is structured into parts narrated by the various, female characters, or specifically, Clare herself, her daughter Georgie and the policewoman investigating, Harbinder. There are also extracts from Clare’s revealing diaries and the past story from R.M.Holland. Aside from the central mystery these women have their own stories to tell which are gradually unravelled as the story develops.  But we are hearing the whole thing from these people’s perspectives and inasmuch as we enjoy the mystery that unravels before us we also enjoy the human unravelling that the interplay between the characters provokes. In addition the novel is populated with some other well drawn characters many of who you end up suspecting at some time or another. As well as being functional they are also well drawn from Clare’s ex husband, Simon, to Harbinder’s colleague, Neil. The relationship between Clare and Harbinder is fascinating and well developed, very real. Harbinder is a gritty, edgy interesting character and I wanted to know her a little better. Another series, Elly?

The narrative is a comfortable, easy read, there’s no self indulgent deviations or attempts to overwrite or over complicate. It’s a solid plot and if there were any holes they have been so well filled as to be unnoticeable. It’s the work of a competent writer who strikes that all important balance between pleasing her readers and pleasing her characters!! And when it works it’s a pleasure to read.

I did smart slightly at the incorrect assumption of a teachers hours!! I never finished at 3 in all the years I taught. But I do realise it was one character’s opinion!! 

My thanks to Quercus books and their Quercus2019 Best Seller event where I procured a copy of this entertaining thriller. 

Thursday, 1 November 2018

A Different Drummer - William Melvin Kelley

I dunno what to say. I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again! But for a start I’m finding it hard to comprehend why this book has been ‘lost’. It makes no sense. How in tarnation do you lose a book?! It’s not like, whoops, where’d it go? Surely? However, it’s not lost any more thanks to Quercus Books and riverrun. 

But how do you begin to review a book of this stature? To offer a synopsis seems futile, you cannot summarise what this book accomplishes. And the mere facts of the story telling belie the undercurrent of tension running throughout the entire narrative. It’s an astonishing achievement. A debut novel? It’s like a ‘Pandora’s Book’. It’s lost, it’s found and then it’s opened and a story detailing all kinds of evils and miseries are released. The ending is truly shocking and not because there are any graphic descriptions but because the outcome and intent are implicit.

I enjoyed the book’s structure which was very contemporary, I thought. I had to keep reminding myself that this novel was originally published in the 1960’s. But the individual telling of events by the relevant individuals both historically and within the current time frame of the story worked very well. A set of events told in one chapter was expanded on or recounted from a different perspective and made sense of in another. How ready the reader can be to denigrate a character until they read another chapter and get to the core of what is really happening here. The bewildered astonishment of a community facing something that they cannot comprehend is quietly savage in its satire.What I also found astounding is that the narrators are all white ……….. how supremely innovative for a black writer to be so audacious in his concept!  Am I over exaggerating to call it a stroke of genius? 

It’s a marvellous allegory about the civil rights movement and racial tensions in the US seeking maybe to place it all in context from the Civil War to the present (1960’s) day. In part it does illustrate how complex a conflict the American Civil War was when so many believe it to have been a simple matter of abolishing slavery. The South were fighting to preserve a way of life,  a culture, generations old and the book doesn’t make a song and dance about it; it’s there subliminally. 

In fact the book doesn’t make a song and dance about anything ! And therein lies its absolute strength and immediacy, in spite of the titular suggestion of a percussive or rhythmic mien! Perhaps we should say a word about the title which derives from US abolitionist Thoreau, known for his views on civil disobedience, from this quotation ‘If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drum, Let him step to the music which he hears however measured or far away.’ The book echoes many of Thoreau’s philosophies. 

The characters are keenly drawn, believable, especially the children. How my heart warmed to Mister Leland and his attempt to make sense of everything, his desire for a better world.And it made me ponder how much of racism is a learned behaviour. It made me think about zeal and enthusiasm and belief in younger minds. It made me think of so many things!! And is it that which gives a book its power? A book that goes beyond the telling of a story? This book insists you read it, insists you consider all its implications.

And Tucker Caliban? A genetic blueprint for a quiet, non violent revolutionary. Revenge for the injustice meted to his forefather? This discreet man who never wavered from his ideals and beliefs, following his instincts and setting in motion an exodus of almost biblical proportions in concept if not numbers. Oh ho, the world needs some Tucker Calibans right now, all hearing and beating different drums……….. How relevant this book is right here, right now, gut wrenchingly so, and then you remember ………it was written in the 1960’s. 

I thank Ana McLaughlin, Quercus books and riverrun, via Bookbridgr, for a copy of this pivotal work. May it never, ever be lost again. It insists YOU read it! I insist you read it!!