Author Archives: Rosemary Reader and Writer

About Rosemary Reader and Writer

Loves to write. Would love to write to live.

The Great Crime Read: The Day of The Three Reviews

Sherlock Holmes with magnifying glass - cartoon.You’ve heard of the Year of the Four Emperors?  This is the Day of the Three Reviews of three crime novels by three different authors.

‘Last Seen Alive’ by Claire Douglas

The title is apt and intriguing.  This psychological thriller starts with mc murdering her husband.

Libby and her lovely, cuddly husband, Jamie, have taken a holiday cottage in Cornwall in an informal house-swap arrangement.  Libby, a teacher, has recently achieved fame in the press by rescuing children from a fire and the Cornish holiday is to aid her recovery.  But they can’t understand why the Heywoods would why anyone would want to exchange the Hideaway, their beautiful Cornish holiday home in Cornwall, for their poky little flat in Bath.  Strange things happen, such as their finding a taxidermy workshop in the cellar, but surely this is because Libby is overwrought after the fire incident and a miscarriage shortly afterwards?

This novel has one of the most complex and complicated plots I have ever read, with several twists and changes of pov.  Congratulations to author Claire Douglas for devising such an intricate storyline and keeping it together.  The action alternates between Cornwall, Bath and Thailand and she writes with confidence about all three settings.

***  So why am I awarding it only three stars?  It’s a strong three stars, I’ll grant, but I couldn’t take a liking to any of the major characters and the crime story-line was slow to get going.

‘Beware the Past’ by Joy Ellis

By one of my favourite crime authors, and with a draw-me-in title if ever there was on, Amazon cites this as a Noir thriller, so this must be right.

The story starts in the 1990s with Matt Ballard as a rookie police officer discovering the body of an eleven year old boy in the Fens, the last murder by a serial killer, whose identity the police think they know but who was never charged because he died in a motor accident.  What Matt sees will haunt him for ever.  Move on several decades, to him being Detective Chief Inspector Matt Ballard, in charge of a team and on the point of retirement, and another eleven year old boy is murdered… and a further one kidnapped.  The case has not waited for Matt Ballard.  In fact, the killer seems to be pulling all the strings, leaving messages for the police and having Matt and his team running around and getting nowhere.   Moreover, the killer seems to possess a lot of information about Matt and his team, where Matt took a respite break in Greece many years ago, for instance, and the names of Jason, his assistant’s, children.  Matt is a troubled man;  his wife died and his only other serious girlfriend disappeared in mysterious circumstances.  The killer knows all this and is probing deep into police lives.

Joy Ellis has two series on the go, both police procedural and set in the Fens (the Nikki Galena series and the DI Jackman and DS Marie Evans series), this book is a stand-alone, and, seeing as Matt Ballard is about to retire, will probably remain so.   Any novel which features murder and torture of eleven year old boys is going to be gruesome and there were elements that made me gulp, although Joy Ellis knows when to back off and move on to content more readable.   A very complex plot – again – and a very exciting read, with characters I could like and emphasise with.   One of Joy Ellis’s best.

**** Four stars.

‘PorterGirl:  First Lady of the Keys’ by Lucy Brazier

A non-police-procedural crime story at last.  Bliss?  Maybe.

This novel arose out of a blog which, in itself, arose out of the author’s private diary of her career as a porter at an illustrious Cambridge college.  We are invited into the archaic world of Oxbridge, to admire its quaintness and laugh at the foibles of academics, and so we do, but the main thrust of the crime plot begins very very late in, at about 50% on my Kindle.  The reader gets the feeling that the detective bit is secondary to depicting a word photograph of college life.

The author’s tone is sardonic, bringing up some useful turns of phrase.  My favourite is:

‘Not quite a pregnant pause, but certainly a pause that is “late” and is considering weeing on a stick.’

Some threads were left unresolved, such as the progress of the Committee for the Prevention of Drunken Behaviour.

‘Portergirl’ is written in the first person, present tense.  Most characters are referred to, in the narrative, by their office (Deputy Head Porter, Head Porter, Junior Bursar, Head of Housekeeping) and also in conversation, when characters are addressing each other.   Professors and other academics are identified by initials, as in Professor K.  Towards the end of the book, mc (Deputy Head Porter herself) invites Head Porter to call her by her first name, but he declines.  At the very end, Professor Fox (the only person given his full name) does ask her what her real name is:  it turns out to be Lucy, the same as the author.

Characters are well-drawn and distinct, although Head Porter wobbles precariously between goody and baddy, without any real substantiation.   Mc herself has two unladylike traits:  a voracious appetite (She’s greedy!) and a liking for the bottle, both easily accommodated in a college environment.  To my mind Professor Horatio Fox, supposedly Amercian, was an enigma;  his manner of speech was very stilted and certainly did not belong on the other side of the pond and the attraction between him and mc fades into nothing, despite her being all over him like a rash in the first chapters.

*** An enjoyable read, definitely, but rambling, even for cosy crime.

So where is that nice reviewer who will only give good reviews, and pass over what she can’t review nicely?  The truth is many books are curates’ eggs, good in parts, and, as writers, we learn by looking at ‘all kinds of everything’ (to quote Dana inappropriately).  What is very evident is that all three of these books were written out of love and for the enjoyment of the reader – and that is the way I like it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘The Gardener’s Daughter’ by Kathryn Hitchins

‘Plants watered too regularly have shallow roots, Ava-Claire.  A short dry spell will force them to push deeper…  A little adversity brings resilience,” so says the famous horticulturalist, Theo Gage.

Ava is Theo’s daughter and, despite what he says about his plants, Theo has cleared the troubles from Ava’s path and watered her with his love throughout her twenty years.  Although her mother died when she was a baby, Ava has been nurtured by Theo himself, by Paloma (your carer), by your Godfather, Colin Hildreth, even by Marcus (Theo’s business partner).  Then one day, after a trivial argument with Marcus, Ava finds out that Theo is not her natural father and her whole life discombobulates.

Ava seeks the help of private investigator, Zavier Marshall, to find out about her real father. She spirals downwards, stealing money and stashing it away in insecure places.  In the attempt to find out more about her mother, she joins the staff, as a cleaner, at her mother’s former employer, Fun World Holiday Camp, a seedy place where staff are worked to the bone and paid very little, and the security guard is demanding protection money, but, as Zavier comes to realise, it’s worst than that.  This is a thriller, with a strong storyline, lurching from incident to incident.  At first, it’s about Ava trying to find out what she needs to know for herself, but, as the story progresses, it becomes about Ava and Zavier trying to work things through together.

Instant Apostle is, of course, a Christian publishing company, but nowhere is God mentioned.  (This is not uncommon in Instant Apostle books.  The religious hand is normally very light.)   The Gardener’s Daughter is a clever reworking of the parable of The Prodigal Son and the conclusions drawn at the end, by Ava, reflect Christian teaching on love and redemption, but applied to the storyline, not as a sermon.

The Gardener’s Daughter can be purchased from Instant Apostle.

Celebrating International Women’s Day 2018!

Thank you, Bronte’s Page Turners, for pin-pointing such wonderful source material for us hopeful historical novelists.

Brontë's Page Turners

Following our posts to celebrate International Women’s Day in 2016 and 2017, we’re back again for #IWD2018 with a bounty of books to explore woman’s place in the world.

Set in Rosenau, an isolated alpine farming community in Austria, Homestead by Rosina Lippi begins with a mysterious love letter – its intended recipient potentially being any one of a number of local ladies – and proceeds to recount the life of several village women, through short stories set between 1909 and 1977. These h(er)stories of ordinary women and their relationships, passions, conflicts, aspirations, frustrations et al, powerfully demonstrate how much women’s lives changed during the 20th century and how the darker side of its history crept into the most remote of their communities and lives, in particular through the impact of war (the story of a betrayal that brings the horror of the Nazi extermination camps to Rosenau broke…

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‘Regeneration’ by Pat Barker

World War 1 Poster. "Women Say Go".

Attrib Wikipedia

I am quite the wrong sort of reader for this book, and therefore the wrong person to be reviewing it.  War and soldiers are not my thing at all.  Poetry, I don’t get on with, either.   I read it because it was the St Andrew’s Book Club book.  Last month it was Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie, which I found charming and thought-provoking at the same time, but you join a book club to expand and develop your reading.  When I realised what Redemption was about, my face fell.  Maybe I was prejudiced against it before I started, although, taking this attitude, sometimes you can pleasantly surprise yourself.

Regeneration, the first book in the Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker, is based on a true story.  This must be one of my unfavourite expressions.  Over the last few years, every film and every television programme (as well as books) tends to be based on a true story.

Poet Siegfried Sassoon

attrib Wikimedia Commons

This particular true story concerns Siegfried Sassoon’s incarceration in Craiglockhart War Hospital, Scotland, in 1917, following his publication of Finished With the War, A Soldier’s Declaration, in which he called for World War 1 to be ended.  Sassoon was sent to army psychiatrist William Rivers at Craiglockhart, following intervention by his friend Robert Graves, as an alternative to a court martial.  The idea was that Sassoon must be suffering from a mental disorder to write such things, whereas the premise of the book is that Sassoon was sane and everyone else at that time deluded.

Sassoon himself is not portrayed as an attractive character: smug, self-satisfied and arrogant.  Wilfred Owen gushes.  Graves is indecisive and allows himself to be belittled by Sassoon.  We follow the fortunes of other patients – Burns, Prior, Willard, Anderson – but there is no feeling of moving forward which comes with a plot.  The only ‘good’ character is Dr William Rivers (who is called ‘Rivers’ throughout) but he has no story arc.  He carries on trying to do his best for his patients, using gentle techniques, as compared with the cruelty of Dr Yealland in London.  Rivers becomes ill.  He gets better.  He carries on.

I’m not criticising the literary quality.  Pat Barker’s depictions of civilian life during war time were well researched and understood and her civilian characters (Sarah and her mother, Ada) believable.  Her written style is excellent, her descriptions of scenes and how people moved and acted excellent, but this was a novel of unleavened grimness, without a glimmer of humour.  Not a very funny subject, you might think.  However, people in grim situations tend to develop their own black humour (but not here).

That the conduct of the First World War was reckless and caused needless carnage is something we’ve known for many decades.  Yes, Sassoon was right, and I appreciate that people in government, and many of the general public in 1917 didn’t see it that way, but a century later Regeneration is not telling us anything new.

‘The Diary of a (Trying to Be Holy) Mum by Fiona Lloyd

Cover art for Diary of a (Trying to Be Holy) Mum

Attrib Instant Apostle

You wanted to do something big for God since you became a Christian, but it’s difficult when you have three primary aged children.  Your life tends to be taken up with toddler group, Mum’s group at church, potties, creche, taking children to school and parties.  Becky is married to teacher Dave and has three children, Jennifer (aged nine and already anticipating teenager-dom), Adam (six) and Ellie (two).  When she tries to take a quiet time in the bathroom, she is interrupted after five minutes, because her six year old needs the loo.  She notes that this never happened when Jesus in the Bible when he went up a mountain to pray.

The story opens on Becky’s thirty-ninth birthday, feeling that she’s never going to have the opportunity to do anything significant.  For the first part of the book, which is written as a diary, there is an air of resignation in her entries, as household crisis follows household crisis.  She makes new year resolutions which fall flat.  Becky compares herself unfavourably with other members of her circle of friends, especially Helen, who is a perfect housewife and mother and a perfect Christian too.  When Becky looks after missionaries, Rupert and Liz, as a favour for the minister, she is impressed by their commitment to their project in Guatemala, and feels she herself could never do anything like that.  When she’s asked to stand at the front in church and talk about it, she nearly dies of fright.  As a reader, I’m starting to believe that Becky’s mission is to the world around her, to her family and friends, especially Annie with the non-sleeping baby, to whom Becky is extremely kind, but, suddenly, two-thirds into the story, we lurch forward.

The Diary of a (Trying to Be Holy) Mum concerns a largish group of ordinary people who attend one church, plus Becky’s unhelpful in-laws.  The same characters, well drawn and realistic, appear consistently, so we get to know them all well.  Fiona is, I know, drawing hugely from her own experience, of church and of motherhood.   Having been part of the toddler-group scene myself once, I know that there’s a whole soap opera going on there, but Fiona is the only writer I’m aware of who has written it.

The Diary of a (Trying to Be Holy) Mum is Fiona Lloyd’s first book.  I happen to know that its title was going to be ‘The Jesus on the Bus’.  If you want to know why, read it.  Instant Apostle is, of course, a Christian publishing group, and the Christian theme in this book is more overt than in any other Instant Apostle book I’ve read, but other people should be charmed by this honest attempt ‘to be a pilgrim’ (part-quote from John Donne).

The Diary of a (Trying to Be Holy) Mum is available from Instant Apostle.

‘Katharina Luther: Nun, Rebel, Wife’ by Anne Boileau

nun_300At nine years old, Katharina Von Bora was in the way.  A tomboy, and not prepared to flatter her new stepmother, she is sent away to the school attached to the Marienthron Convent at Nimbschen.  From that point onwards, she was being shoehorned into joining the order as a nun and, accordingly, she becomes a novice at the age of fifteen.  What a convenient way to get rid of a troublesome child.

However, by 1523, when she is in her early twenties, Katharina, and several other younger nuns, are restless.  They’ve heard about Martin Luther’s revolutionary preaching in Wittenberg and they’re fascinated by their – illegal – copy of the Bible in German.  More than anything else, though, they want out.  They can’t bear the thought of being stuck in the convent for the rest of their lives.  So, they write to Luther himself and he replies, concocting a plan for them to be smuggled from the Marienthron Convent in empty herring barrels.  They arrive in his house in Wittenberg and then they have to reconnect with the real world.  Luther doesn’t know what to do with them.  He expects the girls to return to their families, but for Katharina, and her friend, Ave, there’s no chance of that.  Eventually, Luther and Katharina marry.. and I’m not giving away a spoiler as the book starts with Katharina married and pregnant.

The book is written as Katharina’s diary during the last weeks of her pregnancy.   It’s not just ‘based on a true story’.  It’s a biography, faultlessly researched .  Anne truly got into the hearts and minds of the people living in that part of Germany during the first part of the sixteenth century, their fears of disorder and chaos, that sometimes only Latin prayers would do and the very real social disorder caused by Luther’s preaching.

Katharina herself was an interesting main character, plucky, resourceful, resilient, yet consistent with her time.  Luther himself is also well-drawn, earthy, a man who makes jokes about farts and bowel movements, yet whose thunderous voice can fill a church and the hearts of those waiting outside.

Anne Boileau lives in Essex.  I know her under her real name, although I haven’t met her recently and she has no idea that I’m reviewing her book.  The last time I saw her she was delivering staff development on lesson planning.  A month ago, however, Anne came to talk to the St Andrew’s Church Book Club about Katharina Luther, although unfortunately I was too snowed under with work to attend.  Really sorry to have missed her.  An unputdownable book, about one of my favourite periods in history.

Rating:  4/5

Buy Katharine Luther:  Nun. Rebel. Wife. here.

‘American Notes For General Circulation’ by Charles Dickens

Dickens wrote fifteen novels over the course of thirty-four years and double the number of ‘other works’ (see Charles Dickens Info). I wanted to read the American Notes because I was aware that Martin Chuzzlewit was based upon his trip to the North American continent in 1842 and I managed to identify Martin’s swamp, where he bought land – an area outside the town of Cairo, Illinois, near the river Mississippi.

Dickens didn’t like the United States or Americans.  He found most of them to be bombastic, shifty and lacking in the personal hygiene department, or, in the case of the Shakers, dull as ditch-water.  Through writing American Notes, Dickens lost most of his American readership.  (What nation enjoys being roundly criticised by one of the most celebrated writers of the day (except the Brits)? )  No author can allow that to happen, so he returned to the United States  a couple of years later and – what do you know? – he found things much improved the other side of the pond.

What Dickens most disliked about the United States was slavery.  In fact, I believe that knowing slavery was being carried on in the southern states probably prejudiced him against the country before he arrived.  He dreaded arriving in Maryland and Baltimore because he was aware that these were slave states, and was embarrassed at being served in a hotel by black waiters whom, he suspected, were slaves.  In a way no other writers were doing at that time, he described slaves and their condition in great detail;  he conjured up pictures of misery, for instance, of a mother and daughter travelling in the train after having been sold, and expecting never to see their husband/father again.  Much of his last chapter (Chapter XVIII Concluding Remarks) concerned the evils of slavery and the dichotomy with the American founding fathers’ concepts of liberty.  He held all white Americans responsible, from the President downwards.

Dickens, of course, cared passionately about injustice of all kinds.  Whilst in America, he visited prisons, hospitals and mental health institutions in every town he visited, and reported on them in detail.  He disapproved of the conditions in most of them, in many cases, vehemently, especially where men and women were kept in solitary confinement.  He travelled huge distances by rail and by river steamer, and described them as squalid and not quite so squalid.

Another remarkable point about Dickens’ trip to the US was that he was accompanied by his wife, Catherine.  They did very little together, except create ten children.

American Notes is your best possible Lonely Planet/ Rough Guide the United States in 1842, detailed, descriptive and insightful, but I didn’t enjoy as much as Dickens’ novels.  Maybe, it’s because I’m such a fiction person.

Get your copy of American Notes here (not an Amazon link).