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Innocence - Roald Dahl

Without making sweeping generalisations most people have childhood memories that contain Roald Dahl. Many of us will have read at least one of his books, seen one of the film adaptations. Some of us may have memories of devouring all of the books of his they could find, one after the other.

 

I had read Boy years ago and retained a blurred memory of having loved the tales of his childhood, though I wouldn’t have been able to tell you any of those stories. As I read, the memories came back, this time with them, the overwhelming sense of creative mastery. The stories foretell the inspiration behind those works of genius still to come. The testing of chocolate in boarding school sowing the seeds of inspiration for the iconic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or the mouse in the gobstobbers perhaps the idea behind The Witches.

 

What is clear from this collection is that the reader becomes aware they are reading work from a fine story teller, one who has indeed mastered the craft. Every part of Boy is fascinating, from the history of how his parents met to how he gained the opportunity to go to Africa through his work. He is quite open with how joyous some memories are, and how difficult other periods of his life were to endure.

 

The other stories in the collection are also interesting to read. The theme of innocence is threaded throughout. This could be the innocence of a bullying victim, the innocence judged on outward appearance or innocence assumed to be lacking in another. Having read Boy first, the inspiration for some of the short stories or indeed on one occasion the possible inspiration for Boy, is apparent. I’m sure there was some cathartic quality to some of the writing but also a lesson being told – ‘this happened to me, just like possibly did to you. I’m still ok, I’ve made a success of my life and you can too’.

 

There are hints of the darker tones that thread throughout his other novels. Adept at show not tell, undercurrents of threat and malice are generated by the reader, whist the story itself may on first appearance be innocent. This should come as no surprise to most readers familiar with Roald Dahl. He is famous not just for his children’s stories but also for his adult fiction such as Tales of the Unexpected and the memorable short story Lamb to the Slaughter. Even his children’s books feature threatening enemies, warnings of the results of being spoiled and situations that boarder on child neglect.

 

Innocence is part of a new collection being reissued by Penguin. Together with Fear, Trickery and War the quartet has been curated with further works by Dahl and by authors he admired and given covers featuring striking artwork by Charming Baker.

Reading Innocence reawakened in me the love of Roald Dahl’s work. Granted this wasn’t love that was very dormant as I am now at the stage of encouraging my children to read his work, or at least have it read to them. As I read more of Boy and the other short stories I realised just how important his stories were to my childhood and the millions of other children who have read his books over the years. The genius of storytelling is, to me, to be able to engage a diverse audience, to hold them rapt, whatever their background. To have your stories told for decades after they were written and for new audiences to fall in love with them. To be able to draw a reader completely into a world that they are immersed. I hate to use the word genius lightly but in Roald Dahl’s case it is a title to which is justly warranted. Innocence is a glimpse into that genius, one that made me want to re-read more of his tales. Highly recommended.

A Summer at Sea - Katie Fforde

Emily Bailey escapes her real life and heads up to Scotland to help on her friend’s puffer boat. The chance of running the galley seems to good to pass. All Emily hopes for is time to get away from the hassle of work. What she finds are new friends, old friends, beautiful scenery and possibly love. But holiday romances don’t last for ever – or do they?

 

I have read all of Katie Fforde’s other novels so I was looking forward to reading A Summer at Sea. I find her novels easy to read escapism and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. Sometimes we all need to escape from reality to a place where we don’t have to think and her novels have always provided me with a lovely escape route from time to time.

 

I loved the setting of the novel. The idea of spending the summer on boat in Scotland sounded wonderful, full of fresh air and a lovely rural community and knowing that Crinan is a real place just added to the appeal. There is the feeling of friendliness between both holiday makers, crew and residents that runs through the novel.

 

The characters all work well together. Emily is a little too self important times and working on the puffer boat seems to ironed these creases from her character. Becca and her family are lovely, working well together, softening Emily and provided moments of humour. Alasdair comes across as a nice but sometimes distant character, often I suppose reflecting how Emily would feels she should keep him, at that distance. There wasn’t however a character that didn’t fit in the story and all worked well together.

 

There were a couple of things that grated slightly. One was Emily’s almost militant stance on home births and that it seemed that all GPs were against them. In my limited experience this was not the case, with both midwives and GPs not seemingly at odds. Also there was the fact that most of the characters in the novel were trying to convince Emily she wanted children, that she shouldn’t leave it too late etc. This is perhaps more true to life – I still get asked if I’m having any more children and people often scoff when I say three’s enough. Whilst not major issues or enough to spoil the story, both of these parts of the story were mentioned enough to labour the point (pun definitely intended).

 

A Summer at Sea is a gently paced, warm, cosy novel that is lovely escapism for a few hours, be it on a wet June’s day or any time of year. It kept me entertained, didn’t challenge my world views and took me away from the current political strife for a few hours. And sometimes that’s all you need from a book.

A Dangerous Crossing - Rachel Rhys

Lily Shepherd is setting off on the trip of a lifetime – she is moving to Australia to enter into domestic service, and to hopefully leave behind the past that haunts her thoughts. She is soon caught up with life on board, making friends with siblings Helena and Edward and soon dazzled by Max and Eliza from the first class deck. She soon realises that things are not as they seem with her new friends, but is it too late for Lily to not be affected by them. Though Lily knew when she set off that her life would never be the same again, little did she think that it would change so irrevocably before she even arrived in Australia.

 

The book is wonderfully reminiscent of the old fashioned, golden age novels of the past. This is a story that soon draws the reader in, allowing them to be encompassed by a tale that appears to be glamorous and inviting but underneath is darker and more thought-provoking.

 

Whilst there is murder and mystery on board the Orentes, there is much more to the story than that. There is the mystery surrounding Lily’s reason for being on the ship and for the reasons the other passengers are travelling to the other side of the world. There is the potential love stories, and hate stories between the passengers and it is a commentary on the class structure of the time.

 

The characters are all extremely well drawn. There are a variety of characters, each one with individual traits and quirks that makes them easy to imagine. Lily is essentially a good character. She is reliable and moral and though resistant at first is seduced by life on board. This makes her more susceptible to others and the story follows her path, showing how she is changed as a person as the ship sails closer to its final destination. Eliza and Max are complex characters as in their own way are Helena and Edward, all of them battling their own demons. All are described in a way that the reader can easily imagine them, and given that this is a character driven story, this element is vital.

Setting the story on an ocean liner allows the tale to take a closer look at society. It puts the societal norms of the day under the microscope, class divisions are blurred and normal social lines crossed and briefly forgotten. It also highlights the anti-Semitism and xenophobia that was rife in the time leading up to the second world war, where people were open about their prejudices. Due to the current political and social climate this makes the story all the more impacting as a result.

 

The writing is evocative, the reader can easily conjure up images of the sleek ocean vessel and its inhabitants. The atmosphere of the ship is vividly portrayed, there is a sense of how the passengers feel, a mix of excitement, dread and fear for a war that may or may not break out. There is a hint of Agatha Christie about the novel, a closed room mystery feel despite the fact that the setting is the middle of the ocean.

 

Although there is murder and mystery there is so much more to this story. It is a story of life and death, of love and hate, understanding and intolerance and a study in society. A Dangerous Crossing is the debut novel written by Rachel Rhys, which is a pseudonym of a well established crime writer. I do hope that we have more books from Rachel Rhys soon.

The Museum of You - Carys Bray
Clover Quinn has been raised by her father Darren. Her mother, Becky, has been missing from her life since she was a baby. Darren has raised Clover by himself, floundering in the unknown world of caring for a baby and raising a girl. Now on the cusp of being a teenager, and trusted to look after herself for the holidays, Clover decides to tackle the spare room where her mother’s belongings are stored. She is going to sort through the items and present them to Darren, creating a museum of Becky Brookfield.
 
There is a shadow of sadness that runs through this novel. It hangs in the air of the house Clover inhabits with her father, hidden in between the items Darren keeps ‘just in case they ever need it’. It has always been present, shaping the absence of her mother so it’s almost palpable.
 
It’s a gently told story of living with the absence of someone, of how their memory, or lack thereof, can affect people differently and shape the course of their lives. For Clover, it is as if something is missing from herself, by not knowing Becky she is somehow incomplete. For Darren, he tries to protect Clover by not talking in great detail about her mother and in doing so, allows himself to be selfish in keeping Becky for himself.
This is however one of the few times he acts by putting his own feelings first, and it is done so unknowingly. Darren is portrayed as a patient man, bound by the losses in his life to care a little more for those that remain; his father, who rarely leaves the house, Becky’s brother, who suffers his own illnesses and of course Clover. Clover herself is beautifully portrayed. She is on the confusing cusp, walking the line between child and adult, seeing the world from the edges of both. She still has a child-like belief things, as she notes when she begins to clear the second bedroom and catalogue the ‘exhibits’, attaching histories to items that are contradicted when Darren’s memories of the same objects are revealed in his narratives.
 
Clover’s museum acts as a catalyst for Darren, allowing him to release feelings he hadn’t been overtly aware he was retaining, giving him the permission he needs to live again, rather than exist solely for Clover and others.  As for Clover, it allows her to find out part of her heritage, to see where her other half comes from. And to also find out more about her father, to view him in a new light.
 
The other characters all add layers to the tale, be it Darren’s dad, dealing with his own grief in his own way, Uncle Jimmy or Mrs Mackeral, who’s loud misquotes lend a comedic air to the novel. Dagmar adds another youthful edge to the story, allowing Clover the chance to see that everyone else’s lives aren’t always perfect and to open up the possibility of a peer friendship.
 
Moving and well told, this is a considered portrait of what make us who we are, how we are defined by the people around us but also by those who are absent.
White Lies and Wishes - Cathy Bramley

Jo, Carrie and Sarah meet at a friend's funeral and are struck by the fact that time could run out for any of them at a moment's notice. Driven by the idea to seize the day, and helped somewhat by the fact that they don't really know each other, they decide to make a 'wish list' of aims to be completed by September. But what they've said they want to do, and what they actually want to happen might not be the same thing after all...

This is a very easy to read book, in that I soon found myself a third of the way through it after trying to decide which book to read between two choices. The storyline involves the trials and tribulations of three women who all have different aims in life, who want to support each other to get those aims, but who might not have been completely truthful with the others. There are mishaps and misunderstandings along the way. But also there was a lot of self-denial, each of the protagonists were misleading themselves as to what they wanted, and as to how they had got in the position they found themselves before they made friends. Carrie used self-deprecating humour as a defence mechanism but also failed to see her role in why she felt so sad and alone in her marriage. Sarah's determination made her quite selfish when she was trying to please everyone and Jo failed to see what was in front of her, so driven was she to run the family business well.

I did like the characters in the book. Carrie who's shyness hides someone who does not love herself at all, blossoms as her friendship with Sarah and Jo develops. She begins to gain confidence, self-awareness that allows her bubbly demeanour and caring nature to emerge. Sarah likes to be the one to organise, to control aspects of her life. She is desperately trying to juggle life so she can do best by her family. As she gets to know the others it becomes apparent that she in not in control and learning to let go sometimes. Jo is determined and driven, putting her own life on the backburner as she contends with keeping her staff happy and employed and believing she doesn't need close friends but learning that there are benefits to having them after all. All three women before meeting were somewhat loners, with seemingly few friends to rely on they all blossomed as their relationships developed. There were some parts of me I recognised in each of them, Jo's romantic side, Sarah's guilt at returning to work after having a baby and Carrie's lack of self-confidence. I did feel however that sometimes it seemed that there was too much guilt and too much lack of self-esteem from the characters. I sometimes wanted to shake Sarah and Carrie and tell them to look properly at their situations, tell them to talk to their husbands, though that of course would have cut the story very short!

This is an enjoyable, gentle read, perfect for a spot of escapism. I like Cathy Bramley's novels and her writing style and luckily I have a couple of her earlier books to keep me going before her next one is published.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83ΒΌ Years Old - Hendrik Groen, Hester Velmans

Hendrik Groen is embarking on his 84th year. In order to keep boredom at bay he decides to keep a diary of his days in the care home he in which he now resides. His diary charts the ups and downs of the coming year and how he fights the boredom that threats his days. Who says you have to grow old gracefully?

I have to admit I’m not really looking forward getting older with the potential for loneliness, misunderstanding and my body letting me down. I am, however, looking forward to being curmudgeonly and have been happily practising that for years. I liked the sound of Hendrik Groen’s diary and so thought it would be interesting to read about aging from someone in the know.

The diary format makes the book easy to read, the justification for at least finishing the month meant that I soon found myself well into Hendrik’s year.

The care home houses a host of wonderful characters. The Old But Not Dead Club members are a lovely bunch of people determined to enjoy their twilight years rather than waiting for the end by sitting in their chairs. I looked forward to hearing about the latest trip organised by a member of the club. Hendrik’s new found freedom with his motorised scooter was lovely to read as was seeing his burgeoning friendships develop.

It was interesting to read about the dynamics of the care home, that bullies will emerge whatever the age, that some were only too happy to live in the past, rather than face a potential bleak future and that some fight aging in whatever way they can.

There are also touchingly sad moments. The health scares of Hendrik’s friends, the sad prospect of Alzheimer’s, the risk of falls and the waiting of the inevitable casts a pall over the end stages of life. The book also highlights how easy it is to forget that the elderly were once young. They once fell in love or had their hearts broken, raised families or suffered loss. They danced and sang and were happy and vibrant. And all of their experiences shaped them, made them who they are and remain with them until the end.

The book discusses a wide range of topics in a humorous and often moving way. The political landscape of The Netherlands is discussed, as are the arrangements and funding for elder care, race and religious issues and the question of euthanasia. All of this is told with gentle humour and occasional, understandable rancour.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen is a funny, moving, thought-provoking and poignant portrait of aging and society’s view of the elderly.

The Marsh King's Daughter - Karen Dionne

Helena was raised in the marshes. Away from other human contact, it was only ever her, her mother, who she distanced herself from and her father, who she loved and feared in equal measure. It is only when she finds out the truth about her unconventional family that her world is turned upside down. Fast forward and nearly 20 years later her father has escaped prison. The prison she helped put him in. Helena knows only she can find her father. For although he is a hunter, used to surviving in the marshes, he taught her everything he knows. And she is her father’s daughter….

 

I picked this novel up to have a quick look and soon found myself not wanting to put it down.

 

There is a darkness that runs through the novel, for obvious reasons given the subject matter. There is also sadness. The reader can’t help but feel for Helena, unaware as a child of her unique and tragic upbringing. Buffeted between love and cruelty the foundations for a regular life so taken for granted by most people are absent for her. Drawn towards her father who provides more obvious emotions of either love or violence, he is perhaps a clearer character to read than her mother. Unaware of the reason why her mother is with her father she simply sees someone who shows no emotions, not recognising until she is older, how her mother did show her affection.

The story draws the reader in. There is something compelling about the writing, the fascination of the violent situation the family revolves around. The narration moves between present day, when the true nature of Helena’s upbringing emerges and to the past, showing how she grew up in the marshes, being taught how to hunt and kill by her father. I looked forward to each viewpoint, finding a dark fascination with the younger Helena’s story. The alternating chapters lent themselves to the justification of ‘just one more chapter’ that saw me flying through the book.

 

There are limited characters in the book so the story is very much character driven, concentrating mainly on Helena and her father. Helena’s mother is there however, she is in the periphery, a constant presence but often not thought of by the father and daughter. Helena’s father a chilling character, a sociopath concerned only with his wants and needs, using Helena and her mother for those needs when required, discarding them at other times.

 

Helena is a more rounded character. The reader sees her as both an adult and a child and we can see how her character develops into the present day Helena. She is, to herself, more obviously her father’s daughter. A proficient hunter, though she has her family she still needs to escape them, to spend time alone. However, as she hunts for her father she comes to re-examine her relationship with her mother, coming to realise she has more of her character traits and that her mother did indeed love her.

Despite being set in the wilderness there is something claustrophobic about the story. The reader knows that Helena and her mother are effectively living in a prison, albeit one enclosed by rivers and forests.

 

This is a novel that is easy to see being adapted for the screen. Karen Dionne herself spent time living in the marshes with a small baby whilst her husband built a shack and the knowledge and experience is apparent in the writing.

 

This is a taut, gripping, well written story that enthrals and entertains in that unique way dark storylines can. I look forward to reading more from Karen Dionne in the future. Highly recommended.

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont - Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Bailey

Mrs Palfrey, newly widowed, moves into the Claremont Hotel. She expects that she will not check out again until her death. Chosen for it’s location, with all the sights and sounds of London on it’s doorstep, it’s cheap rates and the proximity to her grandson, she is determined to make the best of it. But things aren’t as expected and the monotony is only lifted when she meets Ludo by accident.

 

This book quietly works its magic on the reader. Gently, slowly, it worms its way into your heart. There are no big scenes, no fast paced dialogue. It has beautifully evocative prose that allows the reader to easily envisage everyone and everything.

 

Ludo is of course using Mrs Palfrey, though she is not always aware of it. Using her as inspiration for his writing, whilst he doesn’t always actively seek her out he does come to value her friendship. It could be taken that Ludo should be vilified for this but his actions are so considered and considerate that the reader does not find Ludo to be the enemy. Indeed Mrs Palfrey herself is using Ludo. She uses him to save her own embarrassment but also to stave off her loneliness. She needs a friend, a connection to life and Ludo provides that connection.

 

The writing is understated yet beautifully done. It is only a short novel at 208 pages yet it does not feel that it has been under written. Everything that is contained in those 208 pages is a necessary part of the story. Any more pages would detract, and less would likewise.

 

There is a tragic edge to the story. It is after all about aging and the inhabitants of the Claremont have little to do but wait for death. Elizabeth Taylor’s insightful novel examines society’s view of the elderly and shows that it has not much changed in the last half century. It is both of it’s time and yet also ageless.

 

It is not just a tale of aging. It is also a love story, showing that love can develop over time, can be lost, won or indeed never really be where it is expected.

 

This is the first novel by Elizabeth Taylor I have read, so engaging was it, I read it in a day. It won’t be my last. I’m looking forward to discovering more from her.

Only in Naples: Lessons in Food and Famiglia from My Italian Mother-in-Law - Katherine Wilson

Katherine Wilson heads to Naples for work experience in the US Consulate. Little does she realise she will fall in love, with Naples, with Italy and with Salvatore and his family.

 

Only in Naples is a love story. A true story. It is a book about finding a home and a family on the other side of the world.

 

The more I read, the more I fell under the spell of the Neapolitan culture. It was a pleasure to read about the lives and loves of Katherine, Salvatore and his family. It was also interesting to see how cultures compared, the differences often stark to a non native such as Katherine, who in turn often provoked incredulity with her Italian family when she told them of US customs.

 

The book is not only a memoir of a love affair but is in fact a tale of a love affair with a country and a society. And also a culinary love story. It becomes apparent that food plays a major role in the lives of Neapolitans. Emotions are expressed through what is made. The amount of love that goes into preparing a meal is seen in direct proportion to the love felt by those who make the food for those who consume it. Food is used as allegories, as tokens of affection and as non-verbal communication. It can show courtship, romance, customs, history, compassion or signal the break down in a relationship. It also means that you will inevitably be hungry when reading this book.

It also made me keen to visit Naples. Katherine Wilson’s obvious love for the city is evident in the book. The writing is engaging and animated. I could easily imagine the scenes depicted and the more I read, the more I wanted to visit.

 

Only in Naples is not just a travelogue or a memoir. It is a book about learning to live in another country, to speak another language and to find ways of bridging cultural barriers. It is told with gentle humour and an engaging style.

What's in a name.

Just a little note to say I've changed by Booklikes profile name to match my blog name. So goodbye from Written Gems, hello from From First Page to Last :-)

Death in the Tunnel - Miles Burton

Sir Wilfred Saxonby sits alone in his locked compartment as the train he  is travelling on enters a tunnel. When the train emerges from the other side of the tunnel, Sir Wilfred is dead. All evidence indicates suicide but Inspector Arnold and his friend Desmond Merrion believe that murder is more likely. Can they outwit the seemingly perfect perpetrators?

 

A traditional ‘locked room’ mystery, Death in the Tunnel was the first of the British Library crime series I have read. The series features re-issues of various Golden Age crime novels, popular at the time but forgotten by the reading public until recently.

There were parts of the story where I was silently shouting at Arnold, telling him to stop being an idiot and see what was blatantly obvious to the reader and to Merrion. Of course he did get to the same conclusion, just several pages later. I had figured out the main motives and spotted the red herrings before the reveals but this didn’t alter my enjoyment of the story.

 

There is something comforting about Golden Age crime novels. The murders are clean, no gore or unnecessary violence. Usually the victim was disagreeable, no justification for murder of course, but lends to lots of suspects (from a small cast of characters) and perhaps a little understanding of their actions. There is the clever detective, amateur or otherwise, and their not so on the ball sidekick. The scenery is idyllic, the stories threaded with a sort of romanticism for a bygone age where glamour and understated opulence were the mainstays.  The stories are clear cut, easy to read and the guilty parties revealed and dealt with accordingly, order therefore being restored. They gentle tax the ‘little grey cells’ to borrow from one of the era’s finest detectives. Death in the Tunnel was reminiscent of this, even the cover suggests a long lost glamour.

 

This was a pleasant, gently paced novel with an old world charm, reminiscent of Sunday evenings watch Poirot or Marple adaptations. Happily I have all of the other British Library crime series novels to work my way through.

Before Everything - Victoria Redel

Before cancer, before aging, before children, before marriage, before divorce they were friends. The Old Friends, forged before everything.

 

When Anna’s cancer returns the Old Friends gather at her house. Ostensibly to say goodbye, some are having a harder time accepting that Anna is no longer fighting the battle against the disease. As friends both old and ‘new’ come to visit we see how Anna has affected the lives of her many friends.

 

There is no doubt that this is a sad story, a book about dying is bound to be, but it is also filled with bright moments. Recalls of family holidays, dinner parties, kitchen gatherings with children running wild intersperse the darker memories. The reader is taken through the trials that each of the Old Friends has had to endure, trials which have solidified the relationship between the five friends.

 

There are no big moments in Before Everything. The story takes us back to occurrences that have stood out in the lives of the women, and bring us to the present day when they have to come to terms with the fact that the Old Friends are going to alter irrevocably.  It is an examination of grief. Helen, Ming, Caroline and Molly are all trying to come to terms with the impending loss of their friend. Their anger, despair, sadness and love is examined throughout. Some refuse to allow Anna to ‘give in’, willing her, almost begging her to fight, as she has before. There are those who have to deal with their jealousy of Anna’s friends, both old and new. Victoria Redel deals with all of these emotions in an understanding and real way. No one appears too unreasonable, too annoying or too selfish.

 

Whilst the story does inevitably focus on death it is also the study of life. Of how a person affects others, how incidents and interactions can change the course of a person’s live, or just brighten someone’s day.

 

A gently paced, reflective story about living and dying.

The Wages of Sin - Kaite Welsh

Sarah Gilchrist, sent to Edinburgh in disgrace, has fought for and won her right to study medicine. When not at university she helps in an infirmary for poor women and children. When she is faced with the body of one of her patients Sarah is sure that the woman died by someone else’s hand. Determined to find out the truth, and with no one to help her, will Sarah find herself out of her depths, and in the path of danger?

 

I was soon caught up in the story, eager to find out who had killed Lucy and why. I was also eager to see how Sarah would copy with all of the adversity in her way and for the reason for her being ostracised from society.

 

I spent most of the novel feeling angry. Angry at the way Sarah is treated. Angry at how society viewed women. Perhaps to be expected by men of the time, it was the treatment of her by other women that stung the most. Being ostracised from her family for something that was not her fault, to teeter on the edge of society and be beholden to her relatives meant she showed a great deal of moral fibre. Sarah comes across as feisty, ahead of her time. She is impetuous, her actions throughout the book show that. She acts first and thinks later but yet she is also well aware of her precarious position and has an internal struggle to balance what she wants, and what her family require of her.

Whilst this is a crime novel it is very much in essence a study on the role of women in the Victorian era and the tumultuous changes that were taking place at the end of the 19th Century.  I felt that Sarah was finding her feet as a detective in The Wages of Sin. Much was deduced by way of stumbling upon the answer, she often jumped to the wrong conclusion. However, the relationships she develops as the story progresses are interesting. She finds friendship with Elisabeth, who not only offers her respite from her studies and the contempt of her class mates, but also offers her a way back into society. Then there is her burgeoning friendship with Professor Gregory Merchiston. Starting off on very rocky ground it was a pleasure to follow the story as the relationship between Sarah and the unusual Merchiston developed.

 

Despite spending most of the book annoyed on behalf of Sarah, I did enjoy reading The Wages of Sin. I was transported to another time. I was soon caught up in the social structure of the day, of the hardships faced by all levels of society.  Whilst many of the issues facing women’s rights have now been dealt with it was interesting to compare their roles in society and see how far society has changed, and indeed how similar things still are. The mystery itself was intriguing and whilst I had determined the outcome before the reveal, it was fun to see the story unravel.

 

Intriguing, thought-provoking, engaging and entertaining. I am very much looking forward to the next book to feature Sarah Gilchrist and Gregory Merchiston. I just hope the next book is out soon.

Tin Man - Sarah Winman

Tin Man opens with Dora winning a painting in a raffle. That painting ignites something in her. Moving forward in time the narrative moves to Ellis, Dora’s son. The reader is led on a journey of loss and love and discovers how some people complement each other, much like the colours in the painting.

 

It’s been a while since I read a book in a day but Tin Man broke that run. It was a book I picked up whenever I had the opportunity, one I was soon absorbed in, reluctantly putting down when the real world called.

 

Not that the world beneath the yellow cover didn’t feel real. It did, at times all too real. The story does not contain too much action but that wasn’t necessary. Tin Man is a story about people, how what they do, and don’t do, can have long term ramifications.

Tin Man is a love story. It is a story of lasting love and fleeting love, love lost and found, of familial love, romantic love, unrequited love and secret love. It a story about clinging on to the happiness in our lives, learning from the sadness and how both can shape us.

It is a sad story but the sadness is interspersed with moments of joy, of real happiness. As Ellis remembers the loves of his past he works towards loving himself, something he stopped doing years ago. As he revisits old ghosts he becomes more aware of the present. He realises that people do see him, that he is not fated to wander alone through life until the end. By coming to terms with the loss of those he loved he finds his life beginning again.

 

Every character adds something to the story. There are those that love openly, without expectation. There are those who’s love is more hidden, Len, Ellis’ father appears to be heartless, yet his way of showing love is no less valid. Dora, Annie and Michael all show Ellis different ways to love and live.

 

This is only a short novel at only 208 pages but that doesn’t mean the reader is left feeling short of a complete story. It is just the right length. It is a book I realised I enjoyed a lot more once I had finished reading it.

 

An ode to love in all its forms. Beautifully written, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by it.

Earthly Remains  - Donna Leon

Commissario Brunetti’s rash actions in an interview lead to unforeseen consequences and the detective is left facing what he wants from work. Eager to escape the confines of the Questura he takes two weeks leave, escaping to the villa of a relative of his wife.

There he plans to row and to read. He befriends Davide Casasi, the caretaker of the villa and the two spend days out on the Laguna. But during a storm Davide goes missing and when tragedy strikes Brunetti is compelled to find out what happened.

 

There is something wonderful about reading the latest book in a beloved series. And sitting down to read Earthly Remains was a treat I savoured and devoured. Try as I might I couldn’t eek out reading the book and I soon found myself racing through it.

It is always a joy to return to Venice and to be again in the company of Brunetti and his family and colleagues. It feels like revisiting old friends, catching up with what they have been doing since the last novel.

 

Brunetti is the anti-thesis of the stereo-typical fictional detective. He is happily married, still in love with his wife after over 30 years together. He has a stable family and a network of friends. He likes his job but is aware of its pitfalls – in particular his boss, Patta and his sycophantic side-kick Scarpa. He is not afraid to bend the rules and is more than belligerent towards the state of the politics and bureaucracy rife in Italy. He is also well aware of the limits of the justice system and that some things don’t always work out for the best.

 

In Earthly Remains the story is much more focussed on Brunetti and indeed for the first third of the book the narrative is focussed on him away from his role as police officer. It is also a pleasant change to see him out of his comfort zone by not being surrounded by his family and friends. It was interesting to see him function without Paola, his support network and it was even interesting to see him fend for himself and cook meals, though not the grand affairs usually provided for by Paola and which may the reader wish they were invited for dinner.

 

The prose conjures up Calles and beautiful vistas. I could imagine the hoards of tourists wandering the bridges and canals and see the clear waters of the Laguna away from the city. Venice is very much a central character in these novels and so it is the case in Earthy Remains. The way of life, the battling with the heat and with the rising waters of the Aqua Alta. The beauty of the city is never far away, sometimes fading into the background then suddenly thrown into focus.

 

This is book 26 in the series though it can be read as a standalone. I love the series and would recommend that if you like this novel you go back and read the series from the beginning. The series is very much character based and part of the appeal of the books is watching the family and friends age and develop stronger ties. Much like real life there are not always happy endings, or endings that tie up nicely. There are what ifs and unsettling situations, conclusions and abruptness. But there are also points where truth does out and where love rules supreme, again, much like reality.

 

As is often the case with Donna Leon’s novels Earthly Remains is more than just a crime novel. It is a social commentary on the state of politics, of corruption, of human nature and in this instance a commentary on the environment. It examines what humans have done to the planet, their self-righteousness in doing so and also their despair.

 

Donna Leon’s novels reflect the true nature of life. There are not always happy endings, sometimes justice isn’t served. Don’t expect everything to be rounded off, to be completed. Because life isn’t always like that. But do expect to be transported to a beautiful city, to meet a variety of characters ranging from wonderful to exasperating, to read about crimes that are sometimes tragic, sometimes perhaps more well deserved and to be entertained. Because sometimes life is like that too.

The Dry - Jane Harper

Aaron Falk has returned to Kiewarra, his childhood town, after a 20 year absence. He is there for the funeral of his childhood friend, Luke Hadler, who killed his wife and child before turning a gun on himself. But questions are raised as to the true nature of the killings. As Aaron reluctantly investigates he finds himself faced with hostility. The events that led him to leave Kiewarra 20 years earlier, and the secret that he and Luke shared from that time threaten to surface as Aaron investigates what really happened to the Hadlers.

 

There is an excellent pace to this story. It opens with a tragedy and slowly, yet surely, progresses into something less clear cut. It soon becomes obvious that Aaron is not the only person to be keeping secrets and the longer he is in Kiewarra the more determined he is to uncover them, and the more the reader wills him on.

 

The characterisation is spot on. Falk is a complex mix of Federal Agent, grown used to city life, and the 16 year old he was when was forced to leave the town of his youth. He finds that though the people may be older the same prejudices are still around. He is still considered, as he appeared in his youth, but with age an impetuousness has seeped in. He is methodical and compelled to find out the truth of what happened to his friend, and what happened 20 years ago. Raco is another great character. An outsider, only having the job of police chief for a week before the killings, he has no preordained ideas about Falk. The belligerent Grant Dow and his uncle Mal are easy to imagine, their general malevolence casting a pall over the town. As for the town of Kiewarra, it is a contradiction. Whilst it is surrounded by wide open spaces, made up of farms, it has a stifling, claustrophobic, closed off feel. Outsiders are outsiders no matter how long they have lived there and people it seem are quick to judge but take longer to forget. The tension in town is heightened by the drought and the secrets of the town threaten to ignite more than tempers.

 

The narrative flits from Falk’s investigation to episodes in the recent and distant past, allowing the dead to become more rounded characters, which adds to the sense of loss their deaths have brought.

 

Jane Harper discreetly leaves clues as to what happened dotted in the narrative. I had worked out what had happened before the reveal but this did not lessen my enjoyment of the novel. I sped through the last hundred pages of it, so eager was I to find out what had happened.

 

This is a story about what happens when bullies grow up and grow old. When fear and prejudice and small minds take the place of sense and understanding. It is a tale of the lengths people will go to keep secrets and protect themselves.

 

The tension of Kiewarra is palpable, the story engaging, the characters all adding different facets to the story. Jane Harper has created a compelling story, one that transports the reader to the arid landscape of Australia. I look forward to reading more from her in the future.