‘Summerchill’ by Quentin Bates

When you murder someone, getting rid of the body can pose a problem.  So, even though you all finished work some hours ago, you ring two of your workmates (who you don’t know particularly well) and ask them to do it for you.  ‘Sure,’ they answer.

If you want to restrict your victim’s movements before you beat him up, force him to take his trousers down and wear them around his ankles.

Gullfloss Waterfall, Iceland

Gullfloss Waterfall, Iceland

Logi is a jobbing carpenter, working on building sites, alongside (mostly) migrant labourers.  Down on his luck, recently separated from his wife, he chances upon a revolver and hides it away.   Paid a call by a debt collector, whom, he presumes (wrongly) to be sent by his wife, he murders him (not with the revolver).  Logi is not an attractive character; he has no moral compass and rarely expresses any emotions or even likes or dislikes, no sense of humour, no affection for any other human being, or desire for creature comfort.  In fact, all the characters are like this.  The nearest one gets to a preference is when Polish Tadeusz abhors his pizza for being ‘pineapple yuck’.   It is impossible to feel sorry for any of the victims of the various murders and violent assaults, some of which are both graphic and unusual, because they all deserve everything they get.  An aficionado of cosy crime and someone who likes her characters to be proper characters, I almost gave up on this novel, several times, but I’m so glad I continued.   Logi has cunning.   He is inventive.   After the first few chapters, I’m on Logi’s side.  Go, Logi.

What brought me to this novel was its title, combined with the location.  Waiting for ‘the bus to the bus station’ in Reykjavik, early on a July morning two years ago, I too experienced, and relished, the summer chill – the cold, clean air of Iceland, amidst bright sunshine.   What I didn’t realise is that Summerchill is number 4.5 (work that out!) in a series featuring Reykjavik’s Officer Gunnhilder (generally known as Gunna).  However, the fact that the police – Gunna herself, and her colleague Helgi – come on to the pages of this book very late, about a third of the way in,  certainly influences the general tone of this book.

Quentin Bates (according to the biography on his blog) has lived in Iceland since the 1980s.  He displays excellent knowledge of his location (as you would expect), although the way he throws in references to street names, junctions between streets in Reykjavik, and even the names of Icelandic towns, is hard-going for an English reader.  I know that Keflavik is the name of Reykjavik’s international airport, because I’ve been there, but Quentin has to recognise that Iceland is not well-known to all his readership.  Nor do we have a mental map of Iceland in our heads.  I did enjoy the scene at Reykjavik bus station though.

I admired the way Quentin dealt with most of the dialogue being in translation. It is all in English; only very occasionally did he throw in Icelandic words, and at one point Gunna greets someone she is about to interrogate with ‘Good morning’.

Well, Dear Reader.  I think I’ve just read my first Scandi Crime.  Very different from what I’m used to, but… so far, so good.

Summerchill is available from Little Brown.

‘An Insubstantial Death’ by Hilary Creed

Beachy Head, Sussex - well-known place for committing suicide.

‘There is nothing so greedy as the grave’ reads the strapline.  This novel grabbed me on the first page and held my attention all the way through.  (OK, I’m a glutton for cosy crime.)

What makes a good cosy crime novel?  Good atmosphere, good plot and distinct and well-defined characters – in that order.  Apart from her detectives, which appeared repeatedly, Agatha Christie always faltered at the ‘well-defined characters’ point, although she mostly made you like the murderer.  Hilary Creed, on the other hand, got me wishing and hoping, that one particular character would be dispatched.  And so he/she (no spoilers here!) was.

Dame Emily Hatherley-Browne has recently, very reluctantly, had to sell Seascape House, her family home, an Elizabethan mansion on Beachy Head, Sussex, to bombastic James Wedderburn, of Wedderburn’s Pork Sausage Company.   Emily has just moved into the Lodge, but, as the electricity isn’t properly installed, she has been invited to take her meals in the main house.   (Do you already see conflict?  Yes, I do.  Brilliant.)

In classic cosy crime fashion, we meet James’s family as they travel to Sussex, to see his new acquisition: his wife; his son and wife; his daughter and husband; his brother.   Later, we meet the staff, secretary Martin, lawyer George, housekeeper Stella, gym supervisor Ian, cook Grace and her granddaughter assistant Jayne.  Although all family members played an active part in the story, the story concentrated on brother Edward and daughter-in-law Samantha; other family members were shadowy.  The staff were more distinct and had better documented histories.  However, the person we get to know better and better as the novel progresses is the dead man/woman.

Of course, what happened could’ve been an accident, or, bearing in mind that we’re at Beachy Head, suicide.  This is one of the conundrums.  And, if it was murder – something the family struggle with –  how did the murderer manage to move the body to the cliff at Beachy Head, so as to be able to throw it on to the beach?  Moreover, how did the murderer manage to move the body silently?   And, of course, there’s a will, and an unexpected beneficiary.  Cosy crime genre novels should ask many questions and this one did.

Dame Emily, a not-so-modern Miss Marple, beavers away at both these problems and, in the final denouement when all characters are gathered together, Chief Inspector Drummond allows her the floor.  The reveal took me by surprise (and I can usually guess most).  The book should’ve stopped there, but, unfortunately, we moved on to a chapter which suddenly brought in a lot of new characters.  I can see that it tidied up the thread about Emily’s feelings about her house, but the story lost umph at the end.

Dame Emily’s character is well-written and we are on her side throughout, but, although she’s clearly elderly, there are questions unanswered, particularly what she did as a career, and why she’s a dame.  Maybe we will discover this in sequel.

Descriptions, especially of Beachy Head, were excellent.  Her depictions of rooms were also very good, especially of where characters were positioned, where and how.  The story is written in the third person and past tense.

Thoroughly recommended.

An Insubstantial Death can be found through Instant Apostle.

‘Trying to Fly’ by Annie Try

Could an unpleasant childhood experience have an impact on the rest of your life?

At the age of six, Jenny Drake witnesses a man commit suicide by jumping off a cliff above a beach in Devon.  The manner in which he positioned himself on the edge of the cliff was unusual, hands outstretched, as if he is attempting to fly.  Despite following a successful career as a librarian, and nursing both her parents until their deaths, this picture remains in Jenny’s mind for five decades, affecting her mental health.  When the reader first meets her, she is a recovering agoraphobic, just about able to leave her house in London for her appointments with Mike Lewis, her psychotherapist.

Jenny travels back to the beach in Devon, in an attempt to confront her fears, but she ends up having a panic attack in a beachside cafe.  Here, she meets, Jim, the son of the cafe-owner at the time of the suicide, who remembers the incident well.  Together, Jenny and Jim begin an investigation.  One of the first things they discover is that another man committed suicide in a similar way at about the same time; also they realise that they are putting themselves in danger.   However, this is not true crime fiction, hardly crime fiction at all, even though the other parts of the plotline hang on the detective-story thread.

The author, herself a psychotherapist, managed, very effectively, to get into the mind of a recovering agoraphobic patient.  We read about how Jenny struggles to walk from her house to the local Tube station, managing to keep herself walking only by playing peek-a-boo with a toddler in a buggy who happened to be passing.  We learn about how she confuses her own anxieties with the prudery of a byegone age.  Should she, for instance, allow on ‘a man’ into her house?  Whatever would her mother think?  And can she trust Jim, seeing as he’s ‘a man’?

The style is gentle and easy going.  A Christian novel, published by a Christian publisher, the religious content is painted with a very light hand.  Jenny prays, but her prayers are never shared with the reader.  As is often the case, Christian fiction is characterised by how characters behave – and how they don’t behave.  Christians reading this (and non-Christians, for that matter) look up Matthew 7:16.

‘Trying to Fly’ can be ordered from Instant Apostle.  I have joined a Facebook group committed to reviewing Instant Apostle works and putting my reviews on to Amazon, so I will be writing quite a few posts like this one.  The Girl at the End of the Road and The Key to All Unknown, both by K A Hitchins, which I have reviewed recently, are also Instant Apostles.  Do I recommend Trying to Fly by Annie Try?  Yes, of course.

Now, I’m going to try and publish this post, without my ten month old computer protesting too much.  We had a fit of the vapours at the weekend, in which we refused even to load Windows, and my plea to Dell brought forth four pages of close-typed detailed instructions, which got us going again, but we’re still slow and clunky.  More instructions from Dell have ensued today, but I haven’t yet had the courage, or the time, to follow them through.

As the title-theme of this book is very serious, I leave you with an image of an ancient aeroplane, which is sort of on-topic, but not quite.

Ancient aeroplane

‘The Girl at the End of the Road’ by K A Hitchins

The Girl at the End of the Road - CoverVincent Stevens is no willing boomerang kid. Forced to return to his parents’ house in Suffolk when he is ‘let go’ from his high-flying job in the City, his whole life is on hold – flat, girlfriend, friends, expensive tastes – but he’ll find another high-earning job soon… won’t he?

His parents are clearly stick-in-the-Suffolk-muds. He can disregard their advice, and exorcate their tastes, can’t he? He definitely does not want to spend his Saturday evenings playing Scrabble with them and his friends, Simon and Liz Addington and Simon’s suggestion that Vince becomes a driving instructor is risible. However, he quickly becomes aware that his father is unwell, doesn’t want to worry his wife and needs Vince’s support. He’ll be back to London soon… although it is a bit worrying about his dad.

There’s no decent company in Suffolk, well, not of the sort Vince has become used to. He tried drinking with his old schoolfriend, Jimmy Hodges, but since when did Jimmy, who everybody used to be considered so cool, become such a yokel? Then there’s another old schoolmate, Sarah, who works in the library. Such a frump she’s become, in her old poncho. Nice dog, though. And how was it he came to be teaching Sarah to drive? She’s almost impossible to instruct, because she has this habit of taking everything he says literally. She has some strange friends, with whom she watches DVDs about The Highway Code; Vince feels he ought to keep a watch on these friends until one of them assaults him. Moreover, as Jimmy and his friend remember, Sarah has a habit of straight-talking, as refreshing as the cool Suffolk air and the wide East Anglian skies.

This is an informative and insightful novel about autism, everyday autism as it affects most everyday sufferers – and I should know, having taught many autistic and Asperger’s Syndrome students over twenty years. K A Hitchins wrote this book to raise money for The Mission Enfant Christ International which trains volunteers to work in a disability school in Togo, West Africa. She has donated all her royalties to The Mission.

The Girl at the End of the Road, the author’s first, published by Instant Apostle, is marketed as Christian novel. Like The Key to All Unknown, also by K A Hitchens, which I reviewed last month, the Christian content is understated, existing mostly in the mindset of the main character at the end of the book. I must say I enjoyed The Girl at the End of the Road better than The Key to All Unknown, as its setting and characters were more interesting and the setting more convivial than in The Key. However, I thoroughly recommend both.

I’m going to end by mentioning journalist, Peter Hitchens’ review of The Key to All Unknown in the Mail Online, at least what purported to be a review. He manages to fill most of his article, of about 200 words (I didn’t count), with a self-indulgent splurge about himself and how he and Kathryn have the same surname, mostly about himself though. It is unfair to reader and author alike.

‘Maharanis: The Lives and Times of Three Generations of Indian Princesses’ by Lucy Moore

Jit asked Indira why she looked so sad.  If she was about to be married, he said, she ‘should be over the moon’.
‘I’m miserable because I’m getting married,’ she replied.
‘Well, why don’t you marry me?’ came Jit’s reponse.

This Bollywood-type romance underpins Lucy Moore’s Maharanis:  The Lives and Times of Three Generations of Indian Princesses.  The year is 1911 and the location the Dehli ‘durbar’ to celebrate the coronation of George V.  Jit (or Jitendra) is the second son of the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, a small province in north east India, whose ruling family are easy-going, westernised and very friendly with the British Royal Family.  Indira is the only daughter of the Sayajirao Gaekwad, Maharaja of Baroda, who favours Indian independence and who has just insulted King George by bowing once, instead of three times – and turning his back on him – when paying homage at the durbar ceremony.  Although Sayajirao ran a well-ordered and liberal state in Baroda, he and his wife, Chimnabai, have arranged seventeen year old Indira’s marriage, to the rich, thirty-five year old Maharaja Madhavrao Scindia of Gwalior, in full knowledge that she would be the second wife and live her life behind the purdah curtain, in the zenana.

This feels like the stuff of romance and chick lit.  I can feel a lump forming in my throat already, but it was real, Dear Reader.  Shenanigan followed shenanigan, with Jit’s mother, Sunity Devi, a great friend of British Queen Mary and daily celebrity fodder for the British newspapers, egging the lovers on.  Meanwhile, the Indian princely families could not resist the high life in Europe: gambling, horse racing, balls, cricket, polo, motor cars and alcohol.  Particularly alcohol.  Jit would die of alcoholism, together with several of his own and Indira’s brothers.

Lucy Moore’s book Maharinis recounts the lives of three generations of princesses in Baroda and Cooch Behar.  Lucy describes life in purdah, in the zenana (the women’s quarters) where mothers, wives, daughters lived, unseen, only venturing out to visit their husbands for sex.  When Chimnabai, then aged fourteen, arrived in Baroda as a bride, her carriage was curtained, so she saw nothing and – more importantly, from a Hindu religious point of view – nobody saw her.    Many zenana women were never acquainted with the outside of the buildings where they would spend the rest of their lives.  They watched, intently, everything that went on in the palace, but their lives inevitably gravitated inward, taken up with squabbles amongst themselves.  This all changed during the course of the book, even in Chimnabai’s lifetime, and – without giving away any spoilers – Indira would never suffer purdah, although Indira’s daughter, Ayesha, chose to go into partial purdah when she became the third wife of Jai, Maharaja of Jaipur – because she was madly in love with him.

This book, although starting in 1911, at the height of the British Raj, covers the period in which Indians challenged British rule and eventually gained independence.  All the princes supported independence, but not realising how much Nehru, Gandhi and the other grandees in the Congress Party, who called themselves Socialist and, at various times, courted the USSR, were opposed to the idea of Indian aristocracy.  The Congress Party reduced them to nothing.  Ayesha, emerging from the zenana  (rapidly becoming an anachronism) becomes involves in politics, vigorously opposing Indira Gandhi.  Mrs Gandi, with whom Ayesha had been at school, throws her into jail.

As as a student at Cambridge in the 1930s, my father remarked to an Indian student friend that it was ridiculous that men and women in India got married in their early teens, and, surely, now that his friend had spent some time in England and observed the British way of life, he would never do such a thing.  The Indian friend replied, “‘No and yes.”

Rosemary doesn’t do non-fiction, does she?  Well, she did and she thoroughly recommends ‘Maharanis:  The Lives and Times of Three Generations of Indian Princesses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Sapphira and the Slave Girl’ by Willa Cather

slavegirlThis, Willa Cather’s last novel, published in 1940, is unique in that the action takes place in Virginia, the place of her birth and where she lived until ten years old, rather than in Nebraska which she regarded as her home.

Sapphira, a middle-aged white woman, has inherited black slaves from her father and sees nothing wrong in keeping them as domestic servants and as workers in the mill run by her husband, Henry Colbert.  This is despite Henry being uncomfortable about this arrangement and the intense opposition of her youngest daughter, Rachel.  Having suffered from dropsy for a number of years and now confined to a wheelchair, Sapphira has become increasingly bitter and has taken against Nancy, the young mulatto girl, working as a maid in her house.   Henry and Rachel are well aware of Sapphira’s tendency to be rude and sarcastic to those she doesn’t like, but Rachel is shocked when her mother invites a relative who is a known rake into their house, tells Nancy to see to his room and virtually invites him to rape her.  Nancy is distraught and the only person she can appeal to is Rachel.

If you enjoyed Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, you will enjoy ‘Sapphira and the Slave Girl’.  Even though the action in Mockingbird takes place some eighty years later and was written over a century later, the same sorts of characters appear and the same sorts of issues, because, as we are all familiar, the Civil War and freedom for slaves only resolved a few of the issues for black people in the South.   Preserving the southern ‘way of life’ (think ‘Gone with the Wind’) is mentioned repeatedly, even though, in the introduction to the book, we are told that Willa Cather found these sorts of attitudes sentimental.

Sapphira’s slaves are domestic servants, rather than cotton pickers driven into the ground, and, the way the book is written, their lot appears no worse than that of other domestic servants.  Till (the housekeeper and Nancy’s mother) is devoted to Sapphira, and views her relationship with her mistress as more important than her daughter.  Henry offers Samuel, his senior millhand manumission and a possible position in a Quaker mill in Pennsylvania (not a slave state), but Samuel refuses, implying that Henry is betraying and forsaking him.  The slaves love Sapphira because she is grand, and how they expect a mistress to be, whereas for liberal Rachel they have less respect.  Willa wrote from her own memories of Virginia in her childhood, of her family and of neighbours, and, in the last chapter, when Nancy returns, she interposes herself, as a sick child in bed.  It is difficult to work out how true a picture she is conjuring up, whether it has mellowed over the years or whether Willa, as a child, only saw one side.  I doubt if it is a white apology, because, in all her other books, Willa tells it as it is.  However, she frequently refers to the slaves as ‘darkies’; we in the twenty-first century would regard this as shockingly politically incorrect, but we have to accept that things were different in the 1930s when Willa was writing.

The uncluttered storyline moves gently, with frequent flashbacks, to Sapphira’s youth, to Till being in Winchester with her mentor, Mrs Meacham, to Jezebel being captured in Africa and taken on board a slave ship, and to Rachel’s brief sojourn in Washington.

This is great stuff.  Do read it.

Saffira and the Slave Girl can be obtained from various sources online, including antiquarian booksellers, The Brick Row Bookshop.

‘The Key to All Unknown’ by K A Hitchins

Dr Tilda Moss is a brilliant life scientist, working at the University of Newcastle. She is single, nerdish, and totally wrapped up in her work. When she meets Michael Cameron, a marketing manager for the company that supplies her instruments, she falls greedily in love, even though Michael is asking intrusive questions about her research, paying for their restaurant meals on his expenses account, and probing her virulent atheism.
For all except the prologue, Tilda is in hospital, in a persistent vegetative state, following a unexplained fall at her house. Everyone around her assumes that she is not conscious, but, even though she is unable to move, even an eyelid or a finger, she is fully aware of everything going on around her, her father and brother’s arguments, reports of the investigation into her death by Inspector Lake, visits by her flatmate, Kiki, and the mysterious Allegra, who claims to be a ‘friend’ and wants to try out new age therapies on her. Tilda cannot communicate. She is just an observer, as everyone around her tries to make sense of the last few weeks of her life. She hears that there has been financial fraud at her place of work and that she is supposed to be in involved, but of course she cannot defend herself.

Tilda is frustrated, angry and terrified. One of the strengths of this work is that the author manages to get inside the mind of someone in persistent vegetative state, the indignities, the boredom, the pain and discomfort which she cannot draw anyone’s attention to, insensitive and impersonal medical assessments, and occasional abuse, along the lines of you-shouldn’t-be-taking-up-a-bed-that-could-be-given-to-a-child-with-cancer. Then there’s the deluded, batty cleaner, Claude, who comes in singing Jesus songs and telling her he’s her guardian angel. As time goes on, she realises that he is.

The story unfolds. When it comes, the explanation for Tilda’s accident is perhaps a disappointment, or is it the book’s greatest strength? The storyline takes some unusual turns, which surprised me. Certainly, there were a few hooks which might have led me there, but they were perhaps a little too understated. The Christian theme is always in the background.

Characterisation is good, but, for me, the person who leaps off the page is gauche but well-intentioned Pauline, a minor character.

Some of verbal imagery is excellent, for instance, ‘The late afternoon – plump and golden as a pear – is swollen with pollen.’ This is taken from the first page, and, by itself, works well in conjuring up a splendid summer day, but some of the other prose in the prologue is too flowery for my liking, such as, ‘The shadow from the tree is creeping over me like a bruise, a dark longing, slow, inexorable.’ Thankfully, the literary stuff does not continue throughout the book. Why are we writers always made to feel we have to use literary style (or die)?

A main character who is in a persistent vegetative state is a bit of a shock to the system. I would understand readers who gave up after the first few thousand words, but it’s worth your while to continue, Dear Reader. ‘The Key to All Unknown’ is a compelling read.

I’m writing this post on the iPad, on the train from Delhi to Shimla, which set off an hour and a half late and has since crawled through a lot of fog. The train carriage is not the cleanest, the squat loo unspeakable, but very nice nice young men keep pressing upon me tea in ancient, bright red, plastic cups and hot vegetable croquettes (think Linda McCartney).

This book is published by Instant Apostle. I was asked to review by the author.