The Gentleman of Holly Street by Lotte R. James – A story of a self made man and a determined woman

The Gentleman of Holly Street by Lotte R. James

Many romance novels set in the early nineteenth century involve lords and ladies, dukes and aristocrats generally. This book by Lotte James is different, more difficult to predict, because it involves people who have had to build themselves, and their businesses, institutions, from nothing, or at least very little. This is a novel in which the main characters, the determined Freddie Walton and the mysterious Philomena Nichols, work hard and try hard to ensure what they do contributes to the greater good. For Freddie it is a business that not only succeeds and grows, but also recognises the need for moral standards in not exploiting the workers and suppliers. This is almost a contemporary concern for readers, in my opinion, in the twenty first century; luxurious and desirable goods should not mean that those who work hard on them should suffer. Mena – Philomena – is also incredibly aware that there are those denied the basics of life, even though they have worked hard or shown bravery in many ways.

Both Freddie and Mena have pasts that are filled with difficult memories, that if given full reign would stop them in their tracks. They have come together to work hard along parallel lines, living in the same building, coming together to make a business that will support not only themselves but all those willing to work with them. They are friends, but not lovers, partners only in a complementary working and living sense. Both are frightened that if they take a step too far, express their feelings, they will lose the other forever. Thus, a delicate tension is established between them and as they begin to achieve their goals either with or without the other’s knowledge and support, they both know that they must let the other know what is going on, but know that in doing so they run the risk of effectively letting the other go forever. When danger threatens it may be a release, but it may also wreck the delicate balance that they have achieved.

From Freddie’s discovery of Mena at the beginning of the novel throughout their parallel thoughts and concerns, James manages to construct a lovely and convincing picture of their lives, of the approach of Christmas which may mean mutual revelations, of how they work so hard to make a difference, of how they quietly work to achieve their aims. James’ descriptions of how they are interested in small details, Freddie’s of his successful business, Mena of the books that will spread knowledge and joy for others, shows a great depth of research and understanding which is never too obvious. There is also a genuine attraction which is brilliantly expressed. The plot is well constructed, with the careful hints of what both protagonists have endured, and the power of the past to affect the future. While Mena fears that she has needed and continues to want Freddie’s protection, she has nevertheless achieved so much both known and unknown.

I really enjoyed getting to know Freddie as a gentleman of Holly Street, of Mena as a strong person in her own right, and the romance that goes far beyond the normal story of the success of the Season or orthodox relationships. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book, and I recommend it as a seasonal romance with a twist.

Three Novels by Christina James – The Sandringham Mystery, The Canal Murders and The Heritage Murders – contemporary crime in a semi- rural Britain – The Fen Murder Mystery Series

The Sandringham Mystery, The Canal Murders and The Heritage Murders by Christina James

These three novels form a series of crime mysteries in which two police officers – Detective Tim Yates and Detective Juliet Armstrong – must pit their considerable wits against a varied and often dangerous range of criminals and crimes that beset South Lincolnshire. In a mixture of rural and town life there are unexpected challenges and difficulties to be confronted, often concealed motives and mysteries, as there are those whose ambitions and obsessions demand that the law is flouted in so many ways. In fraud and deception, greed and ill treatment, murder and theft, Yates, Armstrong and supporting cast of other officers and pathologists, forensics and other experts must find answers in difficult circumstances. Not that they solely exist to work; their partners and families will get drawn in to supply details and support or present challenges that are difficult to cope with for the busy officers. These are three novels which show so much – the development of careers that demand so much against a background of puzzling crimes. There is a huge cast of characters in each novel, realistic people with their own motivations and personalities however big or small their contributions prove to be in the progress of each story. These are intense and compelling stories, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review all three.

The Sandringham Mystery.

This novel opens with a narration from a strong-minded businessman Kevan de Vries. He is staying with his wife in his exclusive holiday home on St Lucia when he is disturbed by a request, indeed demand, to return to England. A discovery has been made in his large family home as the result of a break in which can not been explained. As this novel continues, we see how complicated Kevan’s life is – his wife is seriously ill, his son Archie, his business interests and his fears of what might be discovered. He has a difficult, to say the least, relationship with Tony Sentence, who appears to run his businesses daily, and who seems desperate to ingratiate himself with his boss despite the rather testy reaction he gets. Yates’ superior, Superintendent Thornton, has a keen eye for Kevan’s social standing, and as a result Yates and Armstrong are told to treat him with care. The situation becomes more complex as they make more discoveries at Laurieston about which Thornton has severe doubts. When a body is found in local woodlands everything becomes more urgent, and yet it is at this moment Armstrong is taken ill. With Yates having to depend on other officers and his partner, things become more complicated in so many ways. This is a carefully written novel that explores characters, even seemingly minor ones, with skilful attention. I found it an absorbing read which I recommend as the beginning of an engaging series.

The Canal Murders.

This second novel represents a change of gear for DI Tim Yates. He has spent a while trying to solve a series of crimes that are only linked by the fact that it is all agricultural machinery being taken. The area of operation is huge, and some very valuable machines have disappeared, including combine harvesters which crucial for a relatively short time each year, as well as quad bikes which are so ubiquitous in the rural area of South Lincolnshire. When wealthy and influential farmers start to put pressure on Thornton to act, he in turn orders Yates to get results.

Meanwhile in various parts of Lincolnshire women and girls are disappearing, and eventually bodies are discovered in a local canal. As Yates is drafted in to assist a beleaguered colleague in a nearby force, he recalls how this man has always been an irritant who has not changed his ways. Before long, however, there are developments which seen to suggest an uncomfortable pattern is emerging, and it seems to suggest that crimes are being copied from a previous killer. Some of the bodies are mutilated, and even a entire body is difficult to identify. As Yates, Armstrong and other officers desperately try to discover what is truly going on, the rural thefts must be investigated, and a new attack seems to break with the pattern. This novel is faster paced than the first, and seems to involve a more brutal killer, but James maintains her steady hold on her characters who are forced to operate on more fronts, at a potential risk to themselves in many ways. I found this book even more engaging than the first, as the victims of the killer are chosen, and two police forces seem baffled. Yates’ frustration over the rural crimes is understandable and the rural setting is well explored.

The Heritage Murders.

This third novel in the series features characters who appeared in the first book, most of whom have unresolved issues with events that occurred in and around Laurieston. As a fugitive hides in a place which has called him back, several people are concerned with trying to discover what really happened. A dissatisfied sister wants answers and pursues every avenue for information. She insists on seeing Yates early in the novel, and it seems that she will stop at nothing to get answers and indeed a potential financial windfall as it will change her life. Her involvement in the criminal activities which shaped much of the narrative in the first novel is perhaps indicative of what the police suspect, that something untoward continue. Armstrong discovers from sources closer to home that at least one old mystery has never been solved, and that it may have implications for a present situation.

Meanwhile a primary school teacher has concerns about a Traveller child in her class, alongside her remaining fear of a man who intruded on her previous life. As the stakes are raised in linked obsessions, Yates and Armstrong must try to find out what is truly going on behind the locked doors and closed curtains at Laurieston – and what has happened to another vanished woman. This book is a thoughtful examination of the aftermath of serious crimes, as well as current threats, and as such is a fascinating read that I enjoyed.

The author is going from strength to strength in these three novels, and I relished the development of the characters as they responded to new and often challenging events and situations. It has been a privilege to read all three books in a relatively short period of time and recommend this series to all who enjoy contemporary crime with well developed characters including police officers who emerge as real people in the face of challenges, as well as responding to the workplace conditions of today’s semi-rural settings.

Them Roper Girls by David G Bailey – four sisters live full lives with complex links between each and others

Them Roper Girls by David G Bailey

Families can be complicated, and the family depicted in this fictional joint autobiography of four sisters is certainly more complex than most. Angela, Janet, Lucy and Karen were born in the 1950s to Grace Roper, but there is some doubt whether they were all the offspring of her husband Eric; especially Karen. They have a younger brother, Billy, and this book tells of their life in the fifties and sixties, growing up with an assortment of their parents and other relatives jointly and separately. It is a book that has a simplified family tree which is useful for checking as the girls contribute their stories and observations over four sections, as their life stories continue into the seventies, the eighties and nineties and finally the nineties through tweenies.

This is a novel that certainly kept me reading as the siblings, their grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins revolve around the edges and occasionally the central role of their lives, before the acquisition of husbands and lovers and children. As with many large families there is almost an intergenerational overlap between various individuals, and the relationships become even more complex.  Only Karen would have any literary pretensions; it is not always clear why each of the girls is setting down their account, unless it is simply to record their version of family events and the truth of their own understanding. This is a vivid, sometimes visceral story of the inside of a family, through the eyes of “unreliable narrators” as Karen calls them, pictures of a family over events, holidays and times of pressure which gives the opportunity to observe feelings when heightened. A cast of those outside the central family shifts and changes, but are always referred to, even if only in contrast. This is a fascinating collection of stories which shows the complexity of relationships and expectations in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond for women and the unorthodox links between a group of sisters. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this memorable novel.

One of the main drivers of the sisters’ complex lives is the unreliability of their parents Grace and Eric. Eric has short term jobs at best, and often works as a long-distance lorry driver who spends a variable amount of time at home. Not that the girls are settled in one place; they are moved on as work and affordable accommodation presents themselves, and Grace’s mental state allows between births. They live in a small town, then there is a big move to live with grandparents, except that at least one of the sisters stays with an aunt. Angela and Janet are sometimes referred to as “Irish twins” not just because they were born within the same year, but also because of the family’s supposed links with Ireland. This separation creates some tension in the relationships, as Angela sees herself as having to care for the younger siblings, whereas they have other views. There are petty jealousies and obsessions, disagreements and disappointments as the girls grow up and test the waters of adult and complex relationships, get married, have children and deal with the loss of older family members.

This book revolves around the idea that these for girls, as they grow, are known as the Roper girls, vivacious, attractive and strong characters each in their own way. As the story is narrated in the first person the girls’ stories are not only revealing of their own lives and thoughts, but also of a world and communities of change, confusion and challenges interpreted through their eyes. A memorable and fascinating read, full of the detail of lives that are fully lived, revealing so much in their individual and vivid ways. It is a fascinating and enjoyable book which I found entertaining and full of insight into realistic lives.

Dawnlands by Philippa Gregory – A rich novel of loyalty, love and ambition against a background of uncertainty and fear

Dawnlands by Philippa Gregory

This is an historical novel infused with tales and images of beliefs and traditions, while being absolutely full of the actual historical and economic realities of the time. A family has been fighting to survive the pressures of poverty, a man returns to London after a traumatic time in America, and most significantly for the fate of a country only recently riven by civil war, a queen is frightened for her faith and fate.

Set in 1685, this book reveals the role of women in the political history of the country, in particular how the scheming of one woman can influence a queen, Mary of Modena, as she comes to terms with her challenging marriage to James II. It continues the story of Alinor, whose past is full of difficult memories, but who has a sort of contentment in a family who have found relative financial security in the merchant society of London. Into this country scarred by civil war which resulted in the death of a king and the rule of Protector Cromwell, where religion and politics motivated so many, a man returns with a notion of righteous rebellion. Ned Ferryman does not return alone however; he brings with him a companion whose family and community have been forcibly removed. That companion’s status and identity provide a vivid illustration of the line between slave and servant, condemned and free, and will show a unique version of loyalty. As the ambitious Duke of Monmouth plans to threaten the insecure king and royal court, many are drawn into a battle for political and religious power and freedom. The political is made personal, the threat of insecurity affects large parts of the land, and families seek the security and peace once known in other places and times.

This book, in common with so many of Gregory’s books which have featured the excesses of the Tudor court, the confusion of the Cousins’ or Wars of the Roses, the realities of life in various historical periods and times are seen through the eyes of women. In this novel Livia has a past, a marriage to a wealthy and influential man, and now an ambition to influence a nervous and uncertain queen. The second wife of a openly Catholic monarch, many people can remember the devastation that was caused to much of the country in earlier times, and Mary trembles that the throne is threatened once more. She fears for her safely as rebellious forces approach the capital as her husband seems so uncertain of what to do. Her role is to provide a healthy male heir, but all has been disappointment. Seeking reassurance and the promise of safety, she becomes attached to Livia who wishes to encourage this dependence for her own ends. Livia has a special link with Alinor’s family; she knows what Alinor wants above all things, a return to her beloved Fowlmire and Tidelands. She also knows that a young man, and those who have become his family, is also a connection that can be used to her advantage in a worse case.

This is a complex novel that has various themes and stories contained within it. It is the third book in series featuring a family shaped by war, inequality and the fear of poverty and vulnerability, yet works as a stand alone  novel in a period which brings its own challenges. As always with Gregory’s books, I enjoyed the insight she builds into the narrative of what being a woman was like in this time, in the huge questions of political and economic uncertainty, and the small questions of daily life in terms of family, love and loyalty. The women in this book emerge as vibrant, lively individuals, motivated by the past, concerned for the present, and uneasy about the future. The research behind the novel is immense as Gregory looks at the differences in dress, and the constrictions of expectations against a background of political uncertainty and religious motivations. I recommend this book as a big, satisfying read which shows a keen insight into the actual lives of women in a disturbed historical period beautifully expressed.

The Cornish Cream Tea Bookshop by Cressida McLaughlin – Ollie moves to Cornwall for a bookshop – but is she aiming too high?

The Cornish Cream Tea Bookshop by Cressida McLaughlin

At this time of year, a Christmas themed book is a good read – and this book does include Christmas scenes – but it could be read at any point with enjoyment. Those people who have been fortunate enough to read some of this author’s other novels set in the fictional Cornish village of Port
Karadow will recognise some of the places referred to in this novel, but it is definitely a standalone book. The characters make it stand out as an extremely enjoyable read, and as they reflect on the setting of beautiful views and places it is a lovely book in so many ways. The element of mysterious legends adds an extra dimensional to a tale of a newcomer trying to settle into a village where people are not always easy to read. This is a book about a young woman who has a lot going on, and has had recent struggles, so while she presents an optimistic front she is not so sure in her own mind about what she is doing. It is a lively and exciting book that I found an impressive read, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

Ollie Spencer has had a rough time when this book begins. She has had an injury, found it impossible to continue with her job and her best friend is moving away. It is a time for a new start, and fortunately she has now got the means to make it. A relative of her best friend would like her to go and type up his memoirs, so accommodation could be arranged in a small Cornish village. There is a new independent bookshop opening in the village which may need an events organiser, and to top it all, a well-trained labrador dog is included to keep her company. There are many reasons to move out of London, and it seems fortunate that she has a positive place to go. This being a well written novel nothing turns out to be straightforward. Ollie finds that there are challenges to be met even in the most welcoming of villages; there are those who seem to think she has taken on too much, expects everything to fall into place, and possibly a small village is not the same when it comes to attracting celebrity writers. Certainly, Ollie is to find that she needs to get used to a lot in a place where gossip travels fast and her issues are well known in the community. Not everything goes to plan in the bookshop either, or there is always the possibility that she will not live up to her promises. She knows that despite all her efforts to embrace a new way of life she may still be alone at a significant time. There is an attractive man who seems charming, but when he seems to charm everyone he encounters, how can she hope to be special?

This is a very special book which I greatly enjoyed reading. Ollie’s problems and challenges are many and significant, yet the author writes so warmly of the place and the legends associated with it, it is so easy to be drawn in and feel that her progress is completely relatable. This is a lovely book in which handles her characters and situations with great skill, and I recommend it as a lovely book to read, especially in the festive season.

Murder Most Royal by S.J.Bennett – an enjoyable investigation by Her Majesty the Queen

Murder Most Royal by S.J. Bennett

This is a book which features the most famous woman in Britain and was published just after her death. Set in the Christmas and New Year stay 2016 – 2017 at Sandringham, this is Queen Elizabeth at her (fictional) best, ninety years old but still keen to discover what is going on in the area. This is the third book in the series, and while it would work perfectly well as a standalone, it does pick up on the characters, style and ideas of the previous two novels, which are very much worth seeking out. Again, there is a humour that runs throughout the novel, of a Queen who people try to shield but who really knows exactly what is going on, of her adult children who resolve to distract her but like everyone else are keen to speculate on a gruesome local discovery, and those who have their own agendas.

In this book the Queen is drawn into the investigation by the simple of fact that she recognises to whom the severed hand discovered on the beach belongs to instantly. The beach is very local to the Sandringham estate, and the hand belongs to a man who was well known to the royal family throughout his life. The implications of a hand appearing in this gruesome way are not slow to dawn on an interested Queen, and knowing his family are nearby and involved in the local community means that clues and possibilities are close to hand. As previously, the Queen’s Assistant Private Secretary Rozie Oshodie is drafted into help with the secret cogitations of the best-connected sleuth in the world and is once more charged with the tracking down of the potential witnesses to what seems a baffling crime – of a potential murder without a body.

Edward St Cyr was quite a character, who had been an unconventional person even in the 1960s, having had many relationships, including previous marriages and a pending wedding to a much younger woman, who is also known to the Queen. The entanglements of inheritance and confusions of “Ned’s” past attracts local and royal gossip and speculation, and the Queen and Rozie must sift through the threads to see the truth. It is obviously difficult for such a public figure to investigate or even show too much interest in the matter; quite early on a unpremeditated visit by a top police officer leads to unfavourable headlines. The Queen nevertheless encounters some unorthodox local information in the course of a visit to her stables, and a local problem presents itself. Rozie is challenged to return to a predecessor who picks up some local gossip and news of a hit and run which may have a bearing on the case. The challenge to take part in a local sport dismays even the military trained woman, but the discovery of a body locally gives her little option. As the Queen quietly puts together all the information she has, she cannot consult anyone else or openly make accusations, and who will listen to an inquisitive Queen?

This book may well come under the genre of “cosy” crime, and certainly it is not gory or indeed violent in most senses. Its central premise of a Queen who wants to see justice is subtly handled, and with a lightness of touch that is respectful and shows a deep knowledge of how things are, or were, done in the Queen’s circle. Indeed, the author has conducted a lot of research and has a lot of personal knowledge to enable her to draw a convincing setting of palaces and grand houses, and the way that people react in the presence of royalty and the complex ties of aristocracy. This is a well written book which deals with some interesting themes and provides a relatable view of the late Queen albeit it on a fictional basis. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book and recommend it as an enjoyable read.

One Woman’s War by Christine Wells – the contribution of a woman to an operation that may change the course of the Second World War

One Woman’s War by Christine Wells

Set in the Second World War, this is a novel of women’s contributions to the secret world of espionage. Despite the title, it features two women who found themselves at the heart of the secret activities that had a bearing not only on their fates, but also on the chances of thousands of others, and arguably the outcome of the war itself. They are different women in some ways, from Austria and Britain, having varying experiences and lives. Their perspectives on their roles differ; is it self-interest, the greater good or sheer survival? This is a clever, deeply felt book which focuses rather brilliantly on the thoughts and feelings of Victorie “Paddy” Bennett and Friedl Stottinger as they face challenges of various kinds. They are attracted to various men in different ways, they put their lives on hold for different reasons, and there may be real danger in what they do. This book is obviously based on a lot of research in various areas, ranging from the treatment of “enemy aliens”, how government department worked and the rarefied work of the secret services to what women actually wore when foreign clothes were difficult to import, and shortages began to bite. The author skilfully blends this information into the story in a natural way. It also mentions real people, particularly Ian Fleming before he created James Bond and was working on elaborate schemes to try to turn the tide of the war. This is a carefully written novel which is based on real events and solid evidence as seen and experienced by two women. I found it an intense and vivid read that I greatly enjoyed, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

The novel opens in Bordeux, France on 18th June, 1940. It is fairly early in the war, but German forces are moving towards the occupation of France, meaning that many British people are desperately trying to escape across the channel. As desperate people scan the horizon for ships to escape on, many with their possessions, Paddy is taking a keen interest on who may be able to help her and others. Called on to help an older woman in distress, she meets Jean who will become an important friend. She takes charge of the situation with commendable organisation and gives a good impression to many. She resolves to play her part in the war effort by nursing but being untrained she is landed with the very worst of tasks. Accordingly, she does not take much persuading to leave that role and enter the Admiralty, and not merely as a typist but becoming involved in a vital role working with the charismatic Fleming. As her situation changes, she wonders if she is doing the right thing.

Meanwhile, singer Friedl is performing in Portugal when she is approached to undertake espionage work for Germany in Britain, where her sister has married well and will have excellent contacts in the upper reaches of society. Despite her family’s adoption of fascism, she is very reluctant to do so. Once in Britain she is approached from another source and is keen to avoid internment. However hard she tries, there seems to be danger in every shadow, and she must show extraordinary fortitude and resourcefulness to cope.

This is an enthralling read which I thoroughly enjoyed. The characters are strong and well-drawn, and the settings, which encompass London in the Blitz and other places yet untouched by war. I am very interested in the part played by women in the War, and this book really emphasises that nothing was straightforward and that many had to make difficult decisions. I recommend this as a vibrant and well written book.    

The Accidental Detective by Melvyn Small – An enjoyable resetting of the Sherlock Holmes stories to contemporary Middlesbrough!

The Accidental Detective by Melvyn Small

Holmes is a sort of a detective – in a very different way. This is a novel that takes the Sherlock Holmes conventions and views them in a completely different way. The stories are narrated by a Doctor John Watson, but the setting is Middlesbrough in the present day. They are full of local colour, dialogue and characters that seem to fit into the area. Holmes’ accommodation is a flat above Martha’s vintage clothes shop, he is often to be found in a pub on Baker Street, and he has a healthy disrespect for authority. He has superb powers of observation even though he can joke about his findings as he works through someone’s appearance and what it implies. This is a very funny, fascinating reinterpretation of the Holmes story without the London gloss and hi tech twists. The dialogue is terrific, full of the phrases and fulsome language of the area, and the cases are firmly based in the streets of Middlesbrough, as Holmes admits he has never actually been anywhere else. This is a novel which introduces Holmes through the eyes of a caring if confused new friend, who is often baffled and bewildered by what is happening and why. As someone who has read the original Holmes stories and many versions of the tales updated, reimagined and reset, I found a lot to enjoy in this vibrant and exciting novel. I found the writing really revelled in the setting, the characters and the plot as there were surprises to be found here. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this enjoyable book.

This is a Holmes who is known to the police for the wrong reasons, indeed he has a criminal record and first encounters his sort of partner Watson when the latter is appointed as his court appointed psychologist. Not that Watson understands his patient, but they manage a series of sessions in which Holmes gives the correct responses. When he is faced with a sudden demand to track down Holmes after their official sessions have finished, he is more than willing to encounter his intriguing client once more, perhaps already having some understanding that adventures and excitement beckon despite Holmes’ less than effusive greeting. As he meets some of his contacts, discovers Holmes’ idiosyncratic way of working, his laid back but clear sighted view of life and the world, he becomes more intrigued and determined to follow his unique friend even when he is deliberately confusing. As with most good novels, it is the relationship between the two main characters which is the most fascinating, as well as the plot which works out in each of the six stories.

This is an enjoyable story with includes some mysteries which are far from straightforward as well as the overall narrative arc of Holmes and Watson getting to know each other in the light of the linked investigations which they undertake. As the stories go on new settings and characters emerge, and new sides to Holmes and his skills become clear to the reader via Watson, which I found fascinating and enjoyable. Overall this is a book which I enjoyed partly because of its realism and its irreverence to the Sherlock Holmes canon in its in jokes, reforming of the stories to a new setting and relatable characters in the twenty first century, and the underlying humour of the situations.  

My First Popsicle – An Anthology of Food and Feelings by Zosia Mamet – how the sensory experience of food can be life defining and bring back memories

My First Popsicle – An Anthology of Food and Feelings Edited by Zosia Mamet

This is a book that reveals and depends on the idea that certain foods and drinks are indelibly associated with certain feelings and memories. This is the true idea that eating certain things, or even smelling them, can bring back the sense of when we first encounter them, the memories of childhood associations, the type of food we grew up eating. This applies to the sort of food we associate with our parents, grandparents and other people who are important to us.  We may have come from the sort of home where most food is out of packets and tins or delivered, or equally where everything was healthy and cooked from scratch, but perhaps lacking in taste or excitement. Food can remind us of relationships, food we cooked with or for a partner, or group of friends. We remember buying it, how it was served, whether we enjoyed it or even hated it. The smell, taste and texture of food can recall someone who is important in our lives, such as making sweet treats with a beloved grandmother, or remind us of a largely absent parent. Obviously, there is special occasion food, the traditional foods for Christmas, or birthday cakes which were basic but elaborately decorated with care and imagination. Food can dominate our senses, smell, sight, taste, texture, even the sounds which we associate with its preparation, or what was happening on certain occasions.

In this book Zosia Mamet, an American actor, has gathered contributions from forty-nine people which expand on their most important, life defining or changing foods and sometimes drinks in short pieces. Some pieces are very short, just a few paragraphs about a certain food or in Kaley Cuocu’s case, a drink that recalls a certain time or person in their lives. Some are longer, amounting to essays on relationships with parents or whole childhoods which are summed up by particular foods, styles of cooking, birthday or Christmas traditions. All the contributors are well known, especially in America, many being involved in the arts, television or films, or are professional chefs or food writers. Some reveal a lot about their childhoods, possibly spent with single parents for whom meatballs were the only thing affordable, or where carers either did the minimum of cooking or made it a special feature of family life. Many of the contributions are accompanied by recipes, idiosyncratic, elaborate with side items, or sketchy. Some are simply how to create the perfect coffee or fast-food snack, others are professionally produced and detailed. They are often in American measurements, or feature items that are not so freely available in the UK at least by that brand name.

I am not an elaborate or particularly skilled cook, and I have not got the sometimes traumatic associations with certain food or eating patterns that are sometimes featured in this book, but I enjoy reading about family traditions and styles. For some of these contributors’ food symbolises a part of their lives, like independence from family cooking, complete ignorance of even basic cooking or trying to cook in inadequate circumstances. I found many of the pieces fascinating, revealing, sometimes funny and sometimes touching. Food can be an expression of love and care for others, self-care and particular emotions, and all these elements are reflected here. This book would appeal to anyone with an interest in what other people eat and why, accounts of other lives, and food in all its wonderful variety and combinations. It is a book which mentions the importance and almost obsession with food in lockdown and challenging recent times. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading about the lives of others in contemporary times.

The Will by Rebecca Reid – a clever, brilliantly written family thriller set in a huge family home

The Will by Rebecca Reid

This is an unusual and absolutely enthralling novel which I found difficult to put down. Set in a family stately home, Roxborough Hall, over several days one summer, this is a book that could so easily have diverted into a murder mystery as all the characters manifest some intense feelings during their stay. All the characters are related to each other, with one exception; Violet, the lifelong companion of Cecily, the most recent owner. The Mordaunt family have lived in this special, huge, beautiful house for generations, since Tudor times at least. It has descended to its successive owners, along with the bulk of a considerable sum of money for its upkeep, not by predictable but sometimes disastrous primogeniture, the eldest son inheriting however feckless or unsuitable he be, but by a quaint and symbolic process. It is that system which provides the narrative drive of this well written novel, with its surprises and twists, and its entirely relatable characters. Each family member has their own motives and backstory revealed, but not in a straightforward manner as significant events reveal their attitude to a house, a charge for life, an undertaking that will transform their lives whatever they choose to do.  As each character is revealed, in the light of a system that almost forces honesty at whatever the cost, the mystery of who will inherit the house runs throughout, a mystery that I found tantalising. I found this such an enjoyable book, so well written and carefully plotted that I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

The practice or entail which arranges who will receive the house is that the previous owner will write letters to each member of the family individually, either stating that they are the new owner, or explaining why they are not. The ceremony of the letters takes place after the funeral in the dining room of the house at a meal at which all the potential legatees must attend. Cecily had died with only Violet in attendance, so her children and grandchildren are summoned to the house for the funeral and the revelation of who was to inherit. David, the eldest son with his second wife Bryony and their son Lucca, Grant with his latest much younger girlfriend and his son Jonty who lives locally. David’s two adult daughters from his first marriage, the troubled Willa and free spirit Lizzie, are also summoned, while Cecily’s daughter Elspeth has been contacted but has not replied. Each of those arriving in the family home where they have each spent school holidays, Christmas and Easter for most of their lives, reacquaint themselves with the house and its glorious countryside setting, for most their only real home after tumultuous lives in other places. Each know that they stand to inherit at least on paper, and they each have various attitudes to that. For one or two it would represent a new start, for others a means to an end – a source of money, a venue for a project, a steadying influence in a difficult life. Each wonder about their chances, the chances that another member of this dysfunctional family will have been the preferred heir of the unpredictable, quixotic Cecily. Only Violet, who has been Cecily’s confidante for so long, has an idea, but is genuinely confused by the events that transpire in this enclosed community over a short space of time.

I really enjoyed the interaction between the characters that feature in this novel, and the tension that the author has managed to continue to virtually the final pages. While some characters are unlikable or elusive, their back stories go some way to explain their current actions and attitudes. This is a nonviolent thriller of the best kind, with superb dialogue, twists and surprises that I thoroughly enjoyed, and I recommend it as a really good, immersive read.