Review of A Dreadful Murder by Minette Walters – 5 Stars

A Dreadful Murder: The Mysterious Death of Caroline LuardA Dreadful Murder: The Mysterious Death of Caroline Luard by Minette Walters

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Genre: Historical Fiction

Introduction: I really enjoyed this little book it is part of the quick-reads collection. The idea of this collection is exactly as it says on the tin (or should that be cover), a shorter than normal book by world leading authors. One of the things I quite like about these books is that they force the authors to cut out a lot of the waffle that sometimes goes on in books. This keeps the stories quite fast paced with a lot happening in less time. This seems to be what has jarred other readers (the use of simpler language) but I didn’t find it detracted from the novel at all. I’m proud of authors who take on the challenge of writing these books so that they can be enjoyed by all even those who aren’t keen readers.

Premise: Based on the true story of the shocking murder of Mrs Caroline Luard, which took place in Kent in August 1908. Caroline Luard is shot dead in broad daylight in the grounds of a large country estate. With few clues available, her husband soon becomes the suspect…But is he guilty?
Minette Walters tells the story of Caroline and her husband’s stroll through the grounds of the estate on the morning of the murder and then branches out to the story of Superintendent Albert Taylor. Albert Taylor follows the clues but is shocked to see how quickly the town turns on Caroline’s husband Charles as the prime suspect. Soon Charles is receiving threatening notes from an anonymous writer. Yet, Taylor is becoming more and more convinced that Charles is innocent. Will proving his innocence matter if the entire town has turned against him?

Reason for the 5 Stars:

Minette Walters writes this book very cleverly. You follow the steps of the inspector but whilst you are keeping track of one thing another happens (e.g. a note arrives). You do find yourself trying to figure out the truth and coming to your own conclusions. Would Charles have had time to kill his wife and sprint back to the house (with the dog)?

I thought it was interesting that this was based on a true story and I really enjoyed the author’s foreword giving the facts of the actual case.

I am a big fan of these quick reads collections and think they are great for giving you a taster of an author’s writing style without the invested time of much larger books. I had heard really good things about Minette Walters, it was nice to enjoy a shorter snapshot of her writing in this novella before going on to read one of her larger thicker novels (which I most certainly will be doing now).

I often think it is useful for readers to see a brief extract as they would in a bookshop so here is a little passage from the novel:

‘It’s a public event. Anyone has the right to attend.’
‘Not if it’s to revel in a lady’s death, the don’t. I wouldn’t mind so much if they’d listened to what was said instead of making up so-called evidence afterwards. A man can’t be in two places at the same time…though you wouldn’t think it to hear the nonsense that’s being talked in the village.’
‘What sort of nonsense?’
‘Every sort,’ she said crossly. ‘It makes me so mad. They whisper behind their hands when they see me coming. But not one of them has ever asked me what I think.’
‘And what’s that, Jane?’
She glanced towards the drawing-room door. ‘The Major-General’s lost without his wife. He’d have died in her place if he could.’

I would have liked it more if the foreword had been an afterword instead. Although I really enjoyed reading this, it would have been nicer to have read the fictional account finished with the factual account. It being a foreword it almost felt like a spoiler to the actual story. I fully acknowledge this is a personal preference but my advice to readers would be to skip this and then go back to it.

Summary: A brilliant little book. Highly recommended and a great taster to get you started with this author if you have not read her works before. I will definitely be picking up more of her books in the near future.

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Review of The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore – 3.5 Stars

The GreatcoatThe Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Set in 1954, newlywed Isabel Carey arrives in a Yorkshire town with her husband Philip. As a GP he spends much of his time working, while Isabel tries hard to adjust to the realities of married life. Life is not easy: she feels out-of-place and constantly judged by the people around her, so she spends much of her time alone.

One cold winter night, Isabel finds an old RAF greatcoat in the back of a cupboard that she uses to help keep warm. Once wrapped in the coat she is beset by dreams. Soon after Isabel is startled to hear a knock at her window by a young Air Force pilot, named Alec. His haunting presence both disturbs and excites Isabel. Her initial alarm soon fades, and they begin a delicious affair. As she learns more about Alec (and herself in the process) she seems to be uncovering a past secret that has lain dormant for many years.

I didn’t hate this book but I didn’t love it either. I think that is partly due to all the reviews and hype around it “A terrifyingly atmospheric ghost story by the Orange-prize-winning Helen Dunmore”, “A perfect ghost story”, “The most elegant flesh-creeper since The Woman in Black” was what I had heard/read about this book. For me it just didn’t really live up to the hype.

So, trying to figure out why I didn’t love this story, I think there were a couple of reasons:
• The novel was full of melancholy and there were very few areas of light to be found in the pages. I understand that the job of a novel in this genre is to make it dark and brooding but there is very little contrast.
• There was no wow factor. I kept waiting for something unpredictable, some kind of plot twist, something I’d overlooked to come back to light, but it never arrived. That very thing that keeps you reading just never happened so it left me feeling a little deflated and unrewarded as I had ploughed my way through the book to the end.
• Isabel the main character is really uninteresting. It felt like she spent most of her time wallowing in self-pity, then we are supposed to turn a blind eye as she willingly starts an affair with a stranger whilst her (kind, sweet, hard-working) husband is out at work.

I didn’t give this a 1 star, so here is what I liked about the book.
• I like the concept of this book. Not only the storyline of the RAF and how the next generation grew up in the shadow of the war. There was a definite interest there for me and I am disappointed that I did not enjoy it more.
• The location and setting of the Yorkshire villages and lanes are very easy to visualise (possibly more so as I lived in Yorkshire for a number of years). I think the author captured this very well.
• I actually enjoyed how the dual-timelines met. In some novels that have multiple timelines, the protagonist often has to fall asleep or read diaries etc to discover the events of the past. However, the overlap in these two stories is handled very smoothly.

 

Overall, not great but not bad either. I don’t know, maybe I missed something? Others seem to love this book but it just didn’t live up to what I was hoping for from the description.

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Review of A Cruel Fate by Lindsay Davis – 5 Stars

A Cruel FateA Cruel Fate by Lindsey Davis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Genre: Historical Fiction

Premise: Martin Watt’s is a bookseller who has never stepped foot out of line, is captured for being on the wrong side of a war he didn’t care much about. This short novel follows his story as a prisoner of war and the treatment and brutality received. The novel also contains the story of Jan Afton whose brother has also been captured during the turmoil. Jane being regarded as a spinster to her family is sent to find out what has happened to her brother and retrieve him.

I really enjoyed this short story and was pleased to find a historical fiction novel within the quick reads series. the “quick reads” collection which I have begun looking through lately. The idea of this collection is exactly as it says on the tin (or should that be cover), a shorter than normal book by world leading authors. One of the things I quite like about these books is that they force the authors to cut out a lot of the waffle that sometimes goes on in books. This keeps the stories quite fast paced with a lot happening in less time. This seems to be what has jarred other readers (the use of simpler language) but I didn’t find it detracted from the novel at all. I’m proud of authors who take on the challenge of writing these books so that they can be enjoyed by all even those who aren’t keen readers.

Here is a brief extract so that you can see a sample of the writing yourself:

Men of humble birth will sometimes become officers, but Nat Afton will never be a captain. He will not aspire to it. He wants to lie low. It is a great surprise to Jane that he has even been taken prisoner.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed about this novel was that multiple viewpoints were captured in its short number of pages and all the characters were really engaging (you liked who you were supposed to like and hated who you were supposed to hate). Not an easy task I imagine with so few words. I particularly liked the ending.

This novel is set during the second English Civil War when Royalist and Roundhead butted heads, pikes, cavalry and cannon across the Country for supremacy. Mostly describing the situation inside Oxford Castle Prison. I think the author did a really good job of describing both this time period and the setting. The descriptions of the treatment of the Royalist prisoners (I suppose any prisoners from the time), has actually intrigued me and I would be interested in reading more about the period.

A fantastic novelist! Cannot wait to read many more of her works.

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Review of Queen of Subtleties by Suzannah Dunn – 5 Stars

The Queen of Subtleties: A Novel of Anne BoleynThe Queen of Subtleties: A Novel of Anne Boleyn by Suzannah Dunn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Genre: Historical Fiction

I am very surprised by the number of low ratings this book received. Can an author provide a fresh approach to a part of history known by everyone and told to death? Actually yes, I think Dunn made a really good job of it. This book has several stories concealed within its pages all delicately woven together to make the reader turn the pages.

This story as you will probably already have gathered is a story of two halves. Strong-willed, stubborn Anne Boleyn prior to her imminent execution tells her story of her time at the court in the format of a letter to her daughter. The format of the story is quite fun and fiery and I think the author does a good job of getting the reader on Anne’s side. The author then turns the reader’s attention to the second storyline of that of the subtle subdued Lucy Cornwallis, confectionary chef to the king. Polar opposite of Anne, Lucy is quiet, humble and dedicated to her crafts.

The women’s stories are very loosely connected by their involvement with the lovely Mark Smeaton, wunderkind musician—the innocent on whom, ultimately, Anne’s downfall hinges.

I must say this is the first Suzannah Dunn book I have read and it pulled me in hook, line and sinker. Her writing style is superb, it’s easy to read, not boringly over-descriptive like some historical fiction novels are (although it captures plenty of historical contexts) and it keeps the story moving at a great pace. Obviously, Anne’s story is the most exciting (which I think is to be expected).

The main reason others seem to be upset with this novel is the modern tone of language used. Granted there are probably some better wording or phrasing that the author could have used here (Henry telling courtiers to skedaddle) and there but overall I found the tone very readable and if it had been told in the language of the Tudor times this would ultimately have made it far less enjoyable for me. So, I guess it is something to be aware of but don’t let it put you off.

Here is a brief extract so that you can see a sample of the writing yourself:

“My uncle never read a book, and he’s proud of the fact. Ruthlessness and efficiency; that’s what matters. He’ll clap you on the back, one day; stab you in it, the next. No hard feelings, just business as usual. Never trust a Howard, Elizabeth, not even if you are one. Look where it got me, sent here to the Tower by my own uncle.”

I think Dunn has done a great job of capturing the period, the courts, all the moving and touring, and of course the feasts. Fun and interesting concepts that make this book a delight to read.

A fantastic novelist! Cannot wait to read many more of her works.

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Review of Blackout by Emily Barr – 5 Stars

BlackoutBlackout by Emily Barr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Genre: Crime Thriller

Premise: Sophie should have a perfect life. she has the perfect man, Rob, a hard-working school teacher, and now a new-born baby son called Arthur. When she wakes up in Paris, in a strange house, on her own and recognising no-one she panics. No passport, no money, she needs to get back to London back to her family and figure out what on earth has happened to her.

I liked this book. It is part of the “quick reads” collection which I have begun looking through lately. The idea of this collection is exactly as it says on the tin (or should that be cover), a shorter than normal book by world leading authors. One of the things I quite like about these books are that they force the authors to cut out a lot of the waffle that sometimes goes on in books. This keeps the stories quite fast paced with a lot happening in less time. Blackout is no exception, with a clear-cut and fast-paced plot it meets the quick read criteria perfectly.

I always think it is useful to see an extract of an author’s writing and in this book, there are quite a few action-focussed parts to choose from but I thought this one is quite interesting as its intriguing without giving too much plot away:

“It is Thursday. The day that should be Monday is actually Thursday. Even at my worst I never lost three whole days. Nobody loses three days. It is not possible. Days come one after the other, from the day you’re born until the day you die. If you stay in bed for a day, the day still happens. If you black out in a coma or something, you wake up in hospital. You do not wake up in a mysterious room in Paris.

I went back and forth on whether to give this book 4 or 5 stars but I settled on 5 as despite the books small size it captured quite a few themes; relationships, trusts, childhood memories, post-partum depression, estrangement (to name a few), and I think that is an amazement achievement for an author.

I also liked the character Sophie, she was an interesting mix of vulnerable and strong and I think she came across as very likeable.

I had never read any of Emily Barr’s work before, but I will certainly look forward to reading more of her works.

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Review of House of Shadows by Pamela Hartshorne – 5 Stars

House of ShadowsHouse of Shadows by Pamela Hartshorne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Genre: Historical Fiction

Premise: When Kate Vavasour wakes up in the hospital, she can remember nothing about the family gathered around her bed, or of her life before the accident. The doctors diagnose post-traumatic amnesia, following a terrible fall from the roof of her home, Askerby Hall. The doctors say the memories should start returning. Which they do . . . but these memories are not her own. They belong to Isabel Vavasour, who lived and died at Askerby Hall over four hundred years earlier . . .

Returning to her supposed home, Kate finds herself in a house full of shadows and suspicions. Unable to recognise her family, her friends or even her small son, she struggles to piece together her life. However, the memories of Isabel fight their way to the surface and demand to be known. Was Kate’s fall really an accident? Can she trust her own mind? Can she trust those around her?

Kate as a character is fine. Not someone you instantly fall in love with but not someone too irritable either. I really liked Isabel as a character, fiery and insolent in a time period when woman were not allowed to be either.

A few reviewers have commented on the fact the author does little in the way to disguise who the “bad guy” is (for want of a better term). I think this is a deliberate move by the author and don’t really think it detracts from the story. If anything, it gives Isabel a vulnerability in her otherwise strong-willed nature. If she didn’t have this, I think as a reader you would potentially find her too arrogant. What I am trying to get at is, in some ways, this story is predictable, but for me, that didn’t stop it being a really enjoyable story.

The settings of this book are primarily around York/ remote villages of Yorkshire. The author really does a great job to capture the slower paced country lifestyle, the visitors to a grand country hall and weave cleverly into the storyline how formidable that home could be to someone not born into the family.

I often think it’s useful to see an extract of a book to get an idea of the writing style. I think in historical fiction this is particularly helpful to get an understanding of the language tone the author has chosen to write in.

I don’t recognize either of them.
My eyes dart back to the nurse. I want to say, They’re not my family, but I can’t speak past the tube in my throat.
‘Hello, Kate,’ says the man, trying a jovial smile that doesn’t quite work. ‘What a fright you gave us!’

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Review of Clouded Vision by Linwood Barclay – 4 Stars

Clouded VisionClouded Vision by Linwood Barclay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Crime Thriller

Premise: Keisha Ceylon is a fraudulent psychic who passes herself off as possessing real powers in order to extort money from vulnerable families with missing family members, in return fpr psychic predictions regarding their disappearance. When Keisha spots Wendell Garfield on tv pleading for information regarding his wife’s disappearance she decides to pay him a visit. However, the man might not be quite as innocent as he looked on camera.

I am a Linwood Barclay fan. His books are all quite similar and if you have read one of the books, the others are quite predictable. That said I do enjoy his style of writing, easy to read, quick-paced and not overly gory. This book is part of the “quick reads” collection, which I have begun looking through lately. The idea of this collection is exactly as it says on the tin (or should that be cover), a shorter than normal book by world leading authors. One of the things I quite like about these books are that they force the authors to cut out a lot of the waffle that sometimes goes on in books. This keeps the stories quite fast paced with a lot happening in less time. This shorter novel suits Linwood Barclay’s writing style.

The only downside to this book (and I realise it is a personal taste thing) but this is one of the reasons I haven’t given it 5 stars, is that in this book there are actually no likeable characters. Keisha who seems to be the main character/hero of the book, you are told from the outset is a fraud and is there to pray on vulnerable people. The grieving husband is covering something so already you like and distrust him, even the vanished wife is a constant nag and in some ways, you think the family are better without her.

I always think it is useful to see an extract of an author’s writing and in this book there are quite a few action focussed parts to choose from but I thought this one is quite interesting as its intriguing without giving too much plot away:

You started off vaguely, with something like, ‘I see a house… a white house with a fence out front…’
And they’d say, ‘A White house? Wait, wait, didn’t Aunt Gwen live in a white house?’
Someone else would say, ‘That’s right, she did!’
Then picking up the past tense, you said, ‘And this Aunt Gwen, I’m sensing… I’m sensing she’s passed on.’
And they said, ‘Oh my god, that’s right, she has!’

I did enjoy this book. As I said, it was predictable especially if you are familiar with Barclay’s previous work but it was still a good read.
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