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 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 the Vanishment by Jonathan Aycliffe – 5 Stars

The VanishmentThe Vanishment by Jonathan Aycliffe

Genre: Horror

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book has been on my to-read pile for a long time and I don’t know what kept making me select others over it but boy do I regret that decision now. This book is brilliant. Such an enjoyable proper ghost story. Without all the gory bells and whistles that often fills this genre.

I had previously been advised to read “The Matrix” by Jonathan Aycliffe which was very good (dark, brooding, creepy) but “The Vanishment”, I think, is better.

The Vanishment tells the secret tales of two families. The story centres around the disturbing past of Petherick House and it’s the owners (past and present). Peter Clare, is the main character of the book who recounts his experience, he is a writer by profession which makes the book all the more intriguing as you question whether the events are the truth or a bit of writers flare. Peter Clare and his wife, Sarah, rent Petherick House for a couple of months to work on their writing and art, and to rebuild their strained marriage following a personal tragedy. After his wife Sarah disappears, and the police believe Peter is the culprit, Peter becomes consumed with trying to unravel the secrets of the house.

I always think it is useful to see an extract of an author’s writing and in this book there are loads of great bits to choose from but I thought this one is quite interesting as it captures a bit of the creepy brooding that appears throughout the book:

 

“That night I dreamed a very strange dream. I dreamed I was in the hallway, looking up the stairs. For some reason, I was afraid. There was something at the top of the stairs, something I did not want to see or meet. And the upper half of the staircase was in darkness. In spite of my fear, I felt myself being drawn, step by reluctant step, along the hall to the foot of the stairs.” …”

One of the things I loved about this book was the multi-timeline element. Parts of this story could be a dark historical fiction novel, Aycliffe does such a brilliant job of bringing that Victorian era through the pages.

I have been trying to think of a modern writer whose writing is similar to this, and the only one that really springs to mind is Sarah Rayne. Traditional mystery and macabre type of writing with a historic undertone. It also has a touch of Susan Hill about it.

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Review of This House is Haunted by John Boyne – 5 Stars

This House is HauntedThis House is Haunted by John Boyne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Genre: Horror

This book has been on my to-read pile for a long time and I don’t know what kept making me select others over it but boy do I regret that decision now. This book is brilliant. Such an enjoyable proper ghost story. Without all the gory bells and whistles that seem to fill this genre.

The story is pretty much as the blurb describes, the story follows that of Eliza Caine whose father has recently deceased. Following his death, Eliza accepts the role of governess at Gaudlin Hall. There she meets the remarkable children of Isabella and Eustace who appear to have no mother and no father present in the hall. All around her strange things are happening and Eliza is unsure if it is her own mourning playing on her mind, or the strange new environment or even the supposed orphans. No-one seems to give straight answers even when her life appears to be at risk. I will not give it away but the ending of this book is just superb. A proper old school eerie twist.

I always think it is useful to see an extract of an author’s writing and in this book, there are loads of great bits to choose from but I thought this one is quite interesting as a lot happens in a short space of time:

 

“…that I could stretch out as much as I wanted, and I did so, pleased to feel my aching limbs loosen up as they reached as far as they could, the toes dancing beneath the sheets, a sensation of the most delightful pleasure, until a pair of hands grabbed both my ankles tightly, the fingers pressing sharply against the bone, as they pulled me down into the bed…”

I just want to mention that I love historical fiction novels, this isn’t one but it is set in the past and Boyne does a brilliant job of bringing that Victorian-era world of trains, remote villages, Sunday church services and seaside day trips to life in a really enjoyable format.

John Boyne is probably most known for his book “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and it is important to note that this book is nothing like that. It is excellent in its own right and I love that the author has written a very different book.

I have been trying to think of a modern writer whose writing is similar to this, and the only one that really springs to mind is Sarah Rayne. Traditional mystery and macabre type writing with a historic undertone.
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Review of Eight Ghosts: The English Heritage Book of New Ghost Stories – 5 Stars

Eight Ghosts: The English Heritage Book of New Ghost StoriesEight Ghosts: The English Heritage Book of New Ghost Stories by Rowan Routh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is pretty much as the cover describes, eight authors were given after hours access to eight English Heritage sites to create this new series of ghost stories. The book immediately peaked my interest, I have been an English Heritage member for many years and I am always intrigued by the histories of the properties. I also enjoy a good ghost story, so this book seemed to offer the best of both worlds.

The collection of stories is really quite interesting. Some of the authors chose a historical slant, whilst others chose a more psychological approach, and some even chose alternative histories. All in all a great variety of ghosts. The actual mixture of properties is really interesting too. I would fully recommend York Cold War Bunker to those that haven’t been, this is an easily overly looked site but so interesting with a great guided tour.ghosts-gespenter-spooky-horror-40748.jpeg

The Authors and Locations are as follows:
• Kate Clanchy, Housesteads Roman Fort
• Stuart Evers, Dover Castle
• Mark Haddon, York Cold War Bunker
• Andrew Michael Hurley, Carlisle Castle
• Sarah Perry, Audley End
• Max Porter Eltham Palace
• Kamila Shamsie, Kenilworth Castle
• Jeanette Winterson, Pendennis Castle

There were two stories that really stuck out for me. Mark Haddon’s tale at the York Cold War Bunker was really eerie and so descriptive it felt a little too real (which is only a good thing I think when it comes to ghost stories). Stuart Evers tale from Dover Castle is brilliant and had such an unexpected twist I was kicking myself that I hadn’t seen it coming. There were a couple of stories I didn’t enjoy quite so much but that is the thing about a collection it means there is a bit of something for everyone.

I must say one of my favourite things about this book is the end section entitled “A GAZETTEER OF ENGLISH HERITAGE HAUNTINGS”. This is a collection of hauntings and sightings that have been reported to staff at various locations around the country and makes for a really interesting read. Poor staff! I’m not sure many people would want to continue closing up on a dark night after hearing some of these tales, but they do make for entertaining reading.

I thought this was a great concept and hope English Heritage choose to offer more of these collections. It would be brilliant if they actually opened up late night visits to English Heritage members and invited them to do their own creative writing based on the experience, (maybe with publication of the best entries in the magazine that they send to members). I am sure many would jump at the chance.

Overall a really intriguing collection, the fact that you can visit the locations written about is the cherry on the cake.

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Review of “Pirates” by Celia Rees – 5 Stars

Pirates!Pirates! by Celia Rees

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I know technically Celia Rees is classed as a YA author and after jumping over that thirty hurdle I probably don’t fit that bracket anymore *sigh*. However, that doesn’t stop me enjoying a good book. And Celia Rees certainly knows how to write those, regardless of your age group! Her writing style is just so-damn-readable, she keeps you turning page after page long after you have told yourself a dozen times “just one more page and then I will put it down”.

So, what is ‘Pirates’ all about (apart from Pirates of course)? For me, this book was about determination to decide your own destiny, no matter the obstacles. The story is told by Nancy Kington, a Georgian heiress to her father’s fortune (much aggrieved by her brothers). When her brothers plot against her to marry her off and keep their father’s business and fortune for themselves Nancy has to find a way out. When she finds Minerva, her friend and slave, being assaulted Nancy accidentally kills the attacker. So with many reasons to go and few to stay the girls make their way into the worlds of piracy.Pirates Cover

The easily forgettable and incredible thing about this tale is it is actually based on a true story. Minerva Sharpe and Nancy Kington were real people. I think the author portrays a real homage to them in this book and it is clear that they spent a lot of time learning and researching both the pirate’s lives and the time period.

As mentioned above, I really enjoyed the authors writing style. It is very clear, yet very emotive. I quite like the extract below:

 

“I’d be the one to decide what was, and was not, to do with me. I felt anger growing inside me, fuelled by all the things I’d seen since I came to this beautiful blighted country. I felt it bloom into fury as I brought the candle round to see what he had done. The scars on her back were not new. Fresh stripes glistened in long streaking criss-cross patterns across a back where the flesh was ruched into sharp ridged peaks so rucked and buckled that it no longer resembled flesh at all.”

This moment is one of my favourites in the book, it is an empowering moment for Nancy to find her inner strength and confront those that do her wrong. Although Nancy has peaks and troughs of confidence throughout the book, when she finds her moments of strength as the reader you think “Yes, go on girl, show them what you are made of!”

Pirates - internal image

Internal Pages from the book: Pirates

I really enjoyed this book and will certainly look out for more of this authors work. Empowering, engaging and entertaining story with swashbuckling thrown into the mix – what more could you want?!

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Review of Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman – 5 stars.

Orange Is the New BlackOrange Is the New Black by Piper Kerman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like everyone else that comes across this book these days, the main reason I was attracted to it is that I love the TV series. However, it is important to note this book is not like the show. The TV series primary function is entertainment mainly in the form of humour. This book is a memoir, therefore like life, there is some humour but a fair whack of heartbreak and struggle too.

I really wish I had read the book before I watched the series as I did find little bits distracting, my mind drifting off on its own wondering such things as I wonder if Pop is the character Red in the tv series (I am pretty sure the answer is yes btw, feel free to let me know otherwise XD). This being said – the book is brilliant.

So, what’s it about. Piper Kerman, at twenty-something, gets bored of her plain white life ends up shacking up with a woman who works as a drug runner. Naively she underestimates the seriousness of this until a time she is asked to carry cash for the drugs trade. Not long after Piper gets out of the relationship (and the business) but as is usually the case her past catches up with her many years later when she is living a quiet comfortable life with her devoted boyfriend Larry. When she ends up with a custodial sentence her world becomes a very different place and Kerman recalls the stories of the women who help her see her prison time through.

I often think it’s useful to see an extract of a book to get an idea of the writing style. Even more important for a memoir as you are committing to read someone’s life and if it’s droll you will soon lose interest. Kerman’s voice is very readable, here is a brief section which I think is a beauty:

“I never understood why laundry soup was the one free thing provided to us (other than toilet paper rations, which were passed out once a week, and the sanitary napkins and tampons stocked in the bathroom). Laundry soap was sold on commissary; some women would buy Tide and give away their eight free soap packets to others who had nothing. Why not soap to clean your body? Why not toothpaste? Somewhere within the monstrous bureaucracy of the Bureau of Prisons, this all made sense to someone.”

I learned a lot reading this book. For example; Kerman was sentenced on a US drug conspiracy charge so her sentence was based on the total amount of drugs involved in the operation, not her small role in it. A stark warning for anyone in the trade.

So, all in this is a pretty great book. Really it’s a story about staying strong and about appreciating the inner strengths of others too. Everyone has their own battles, strengths, weaknesses, secrets and successes. Kerman captures such a variety of those beautifully and writes about them with both empathy and respect.

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Review of The Fraud by Barbara Ewing – 5 Stars

The FraudThe Fraud by Barbara Ewing

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I actually finished this book a few weeks ago but hadn’t found the time to write the review. I am now really glad that I had that time for reflection as it has actually increased my liking of the book and appreciate some of the world captured in these pages the more. Let me explain…

The premise of this book primarily is about a brother (Phillip) and sister (Grace) who despite being from a noble family find themselves going through financial hardships at a very young age and decide to re-establish themselves. The family has a talent – art. Phillip being a young man is invited to join a merchant ship and tour Europe, whilst his younger sister Grace is sent to a workhouse. Several years pass when Phillip returns for Grace having cast aside the tainted English family name he has reinvented himself as Filipo an artist from Florence and invites Grace to join him by running his house in London disguised as his Italian sister Francesca. Francesca agrees, desperate to escape the workhouse but soon regrets her decision when her brother quashes her dreams of becoming an artist in her own right. How far will she go to see her own dreams fulfilled?

The settings of this book are primarily around London (although a slight inclusion of Bristol and Amsterdam are also featured). The author really does a great job to capture the hustle and bustle of the Georgian streets of London with the market, crowds, cockfighting, pickpockets and prostitution all woven cleverly into the storyline.

The Fraud Cover

The Cover of the Edition I purchased.

Whilst I wasn’t overjoyed with Grace/Francesca as a character during the reading of the novel. She certainly left an afterthought with me. Her single goal in life was to be recognised as an artist in her own right. After finishing the book this struck a chord with me. Despite (many) years ago studying Graphic Design which includes Art History as a module, I struggle to name many historic female artists. The author captured this lacking in society so well in the book, that inequality throughout life, that Grace’s fighting spirit almost becomes a shining example (despite the decisions and frauds she makes to try to achieve her dream).

It is worth mentioning here something which can appear a little confusing in the book is the writing style of the author. The story is told in the third person (e.g. Francesca does this, Fillip says that) but then in chapter six the author switches to first person (e.g. I did this, I said that) and zooms right into Grace’s storyline, this alternates to the end of the book. Whilst originally I found this switching slowed the pace of the book a little, I really enjoyed the ending which brings some of the reasoning behind this storytelling method to light, so I guess I am saying stick with it. Here is a brief extract of the author’s writing style.

“I took off all my clothes; I was shaking slightly and I told myself not to be so foolish and I looked in the mirror, at my naked body, never in my life had I looked at it in a mirror before and I could hardly bear to look at it now for the dirt and shame of what it had done – but it had arms and legs like the statue in Philip’s studio, and it was the body of a woman.
I took a deep breath, I picked up a piece of charcoal, and I began drawing myself.”

As a woman, I find this paragraph quite empowering.
One of the best things about this novel was that there was no obvious plotting. I did not know what would happen next and as an avid reader, it is rare that this is the case. Our heroine was certainly flawed and there were a fair few bad guys hanging about still I had no idea if and when they would get their comeuppance or if it was even viable for our heroine to get a happy ending. This more than encouraged me to keep turning those pages.
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