Jack and Bet by Sarah Butler – life, love and living in cities in a gentle novel

 

This is the story of four people who are changed and challenged by a marriage that has lasted for seventy years, and a London that is changing on a daily basis. As they move through this beautifully written story together, other people and the places in which they live have a huge impact. This is about the places people inhabit, the destruction of homes, and how the impact of rooms and memories affect people’s expectations. With characters of a great age there is always some sadness for past choices and limited futures, but there is still a lot here of hope, humour and opportunities. This story is written with  keen insight into the lives of those on the edge; the elderly couple, the immigrant and the much married man trying to do his best in his opinion. I found it a lovely engaging read, full of genuine feeling for an elderly couple who are close yet each with their own views. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this gentle yet powerful book. 

 

“Jack Chalmers was a man of few words, married to a woman of many”. He takes a daily walk to the Elephant and Castle shopping centre, leaving his wife Bet in their “new” flat  in which they have lived for five years since their estate has been demolished. While Jack had fought against the destruction, he has been forced to accept it, like he did being in the army during the latter part of the Second World War, and other  aspects of his life which will emerge later. Bet waits at home, having difficulty with the basics of life, but set on having a party to celebrate their seventieth wedding anniversary. Jack meets a young woman, Marinela, a student from Romania who is studying photography, and she happily offers to take photographsat the party.  Meanwhile Tommy, their son, is keen to make changes in his parents’ lives. He wants them to go into a home where they could have continuous care, but they are reluctant to give up their flat and independence, even though they miss their old home with its views and memories. When Bet’s secret is revealed, Marinela has the opportunity to move from her uncomfortable room into a more spacious flat. She has a secret life working to support herself, and many memories of her family in Romania. When an old love surprises her, she has to rethink a lot about her life.

 

The characters that Butler has created in this contemporary novel are genuine and sincere. Jack and Bet have so many memories, and so many of them together, yet Bet in particular has a significant alternative story of choices made and roads not travelled. This is a book of kindness, but also the realities  of contemporary life in London, with all of the squeeze on housing. It is about people making the best of what life offers them, and finding true love against the odds. Although tinged with sadness, I truly enjoyed this book and would recommend it as a gentle read that reveals life in our cities with real impact. 

 

This book is a real celebration of the lives of older people, and is such a lovely story. The cover of the edition that I read is so clever, with lots of little hints about the story. Great design!

 

A Messy Affair by Elizabeth Mundy – multicultural London, reality TV and murder with humour

 

“The Only Way is Murder” is a subtitle to this book, which itself neatly encapsulates what this book is all about. The suspicious death of reality TV star Terry is soon seen as being far more like murder to Lena the Hungarian super cleaner and unofficial detective. She has started her own business cleaning and catering for clients in her part of contemporary London, and she employs friends and relatives who have also arrived from European countries. In two previous novels she has become unwillingly involved in the detection of cases which have involved her friends, and she is seriously attracted to PC Cartwright, an ambitious young police officer. This is a standalone book which can definitely be read alone, as Mundy does a good job of introducing the characters and snippets about their past. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this super quirky book. 

 

Lena is frustrated by her cousin Sarika who has met and started an impassioned  relationship with Terry, a star of a reality based tv show similar to “Made in Chelsea”. Despite the programme depicting an on and off romance in which Terry is involved with Marsela, Sarika is so convinced that she and Terry have a future that she arranges a date for Lena with one of Terry’s co stars, Raz. Everything would be manageable, except that both Sarika and Terry have received threatening notes. As Lena begins to learn about the series “N1 Angels” from one of her favourite clients, Mrs Kingston, reports of Terry’s death begin to circulate. Lena is convinced that his murderer is not only connected to Terry’s exciting romantic and complicated life, but also fears for her cousin’s safety. Quickly she is plunged into a complex world of troublesome clients, well known criminals and television celebrities. While she cleans and tries to spend time with the attractive Cartwright, while keeping an eye on her excitable cousin, she tries out various theories which can get very confusing. 

   

This is an extremely well written murder mystery set amongst a convincing contemporary world of women who are trying to survive and thrive by whatever means available. The men are not always the quickest on the uptake, and it is often up to Lena to sort out their problems. There is a very strong element of humour as Lena tries to sort out the possible interconnections between her cleaning jobs, her love life and the celebrities who seem to pop up around her. The narrative is well written with a complex plot which draws in the many characters. The dialogue and indeed Lena’s speech is distinctive as she struggles to cope with the English idioms and phrases. Her near compulsion to clean and tidy is a strong plot device as it means that she discovers many significant things about her suspects as she sorts out their homes and businesses. I really enjoyed the mixture of black humour, thriller and murder mystery, whether it is a set piece like a meeting at a skating rink, or a funeral reception with ambitious young women. I recommend this as an entertaining read with an underlying theme of the multicultural nature of London, the nature of instant celebrity, and the truth of those who clean and sort out the lives of others. 

Nothing to Hide by James Oswald – a Constance Fairchild novel of contemporary London

 

This is a story narrated by the “posh cop” Constance Fairchild. The second in a series, it works perfectly well as a standalone book, describing a traumatic time for the young police officer. This is London life in the raw, with small and smelly flats, the effects of drugs on people, and the everyday trials of living in largely anonymous housing estates. Con has a past reason for her current suspension on full pay as a detective police constable, and it’s a complex one. As she was instrumental in putting one of the country’s richest businessmen in prison, as well as witnessing at least one messy death, she has become a person of interest to press reporters and photographers who always seen to be camped outside her front door.  

 

The clever idea of this book is the contrast with her childhood spent in a manor house and a privileged family background. The fact that she has rejected her family and has become a dedicated police officer despite her relationship with the wealthy and famous is very well handled. A tragic discovery near her flat marks the beginning of a case which will test her to the very limits. This tense and well written story is a gripping read, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.  

 

Within minutes of calling for help when she finds a young man in a terrible state, Con discovers that she must reenter the station from where she is suspended until the trial of those allegedly involved in corruption. She suddenly becomes involved with Detective Chief Inspector Bain, working for the National Crime Agency, and realises that she is increasingly drawn into an investigation that is far reaching. Retreating back to Edinburgh where she was a student, she is offered shelter by a family friend with seemingly strange powers. There is much to disturb her even away from London and the constant presence of the press means that she is still seeking a disguise. As family matters draw her back into the thinly disguised conflict with her mother, she realises how difficult it is to separate her private life and work challenges. There are some desperate scenes as the reader, along with Con, realise that both her professional life and her actual life are in peril.

 

The narration of this novel is well paced, with moments of high drama and more placid soul searching mixed well. The description of place is especially good, with all the dirt of city streets and well known pubs and other buildings. These places are contrasted with the formalised and opulent beauty of the family home. There are some fascinating passages describing the rebuilding of Edinburgh and the cranes on the skyline. Some of the characters are also memorable, Rose, for example, almost brings a mythical element to the book with her kind insight into what Con really needs. This is not a helpless woman in peril novel, as Con reveals in her narration the way she is drawn into the investigation and taking risks. There is violence and some very frightening scenes, but essentially this is the story of a life developing in difficult circumstances. Con Fairchild is a memorable and engaging character, and this is an unusual and well written novel.    

The Love Detective – Next Level by Angela Dyson – Clarry P and positive female characters

 

This is the second novel to feature Clarry Pennhaligan working as a private detective; as it was the first book I had read from Angela Dyson I had read so  I can definitely say it works as a standalone novel. A contemporary view of London life and in particular the varied experiences of some women, with some dangerous moments, perilous situations and a dash of romance, Clarry gets to grips with her case as she investigates a young woman’s secrets. It also has large doses of humour and realism as Clarry realises and relates to the reader that she is hardly a glamorous detective, and her clothes choices are sometimes a little haphazard. I really enjoyed this fast paced, exciting and genuinely funny book, and was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

 

Clarry is capable of getting herself into some complicated situations as she accepts the seemingly straightforward job of checking on the friendships of a difficult daughter, as the narrative switches from situation comedy moments to gentle thriller with pursuit across the more interesting parts of London. To add to the challenge her worthy assistant is a seventy year old friend whose lovelife is far more exciting than Clarry’s own, which is fortunate as Fran can call on the expertise of a variety of gentlemen who offer computer skills and driving a memorable vehicle on a search for the truth of some interesting people. 

 

The pace rarely lets up as Clarry tries to navigate the etiquette of escaping an anniversary party, deals with drunken rugby players, climbs ever higher in a mysterious building and investigates a group of unusual women. Some comic set pieces includes an outing in a hearse and a visit to a new age shop for notelets and information. As financial irregularities come to light, Clarry looks further into a group with interesting motivations, and finds out more family secrets. The tone turns a little darker as a midnight meeting exposes a threat which will become very real. Lots of interesting characters flit across the story as Clarry tries to follow the convoluted mystery that surrounds Vanessa. 

 

This is a well written and well paced novel which maintains interest throughout and includes so much. Clarry as the main character is an essentially interesting person as she navigates part time work and being an amateur detective, without any great trauma in her past life and a positive collection of friends. This essentially a light hearted read with genuinely funny dialogue, which handles the dark side of the investigation well. I liked the range of characters as older women are seen as capable, funny and attractive, while the main character is seen as having insecurities and doubts as she pursues the truth. An elderly couple who help with the detecting are realistically depicted, as is the landscape of a small bit of London which the author obviously knows well. For me this book achieves a good balance of humour, mild peril, gracious living and positive female characters who take the lead in a very readable novel. I shall definitely look out for more books by this author, and I recommend it as an unusual contemporary detective novel. 

Geraldine by John Mead – a contemporary police procedural with personal elements

 

One day a body is found drowned in the Thames. Spotted by Sergeant Hunter, It is quickly retrieved, and it is then that the questions begin. Fortunately Inspector Matthew Merry is on route and he soon has many questions about this body. Sergeant Julie Lukula, his partner, will work in parallel to discover some of the truth behind what transpires to be a complex web of relationships and identity. In the process they and other well described people will discover much about themselves and others. Expectations are confounded as Geradine is far from what she seems to be, even when identification is made and the family contacted. 

 

The world of theatrical agents and complex criminality is explored in a novel that cleverly combines the personal and procedural in the world of London policing. Matthew is seen in the context not only as an instinctive detective, following up on the less technical but more dramatic side of the investigation, but also as a man with a family facing its own terrible challenges. He follows up on a contact who in turn is receiving information that proves to be significant; he also remembers his childhood friends and manages to subtly exploit their mutual history. Julie, meanwhile, uses the data and technical information discovered on what proves to have been a shockingly brutal murder to try to ascertain if there is indeed a link with a series of hate crimes which have affected the small bars and theatres of London’s secret world. Her own relationship has reached a significant moment, and she is seeking a promotion which will change her responses to those she has worked with, especially Matthew. This well written novel with its clearly delineated characters works well on so many levels, raising questions of suspicion, prejudice and fear in a network of people who have all been shaped by difficult pasts. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this excellent book in all its vivid and well placed action.

 

The book opens with the discovery that Geraldine is a unique character, who has been influential in unexpected ways. The questions about whether Driver has  created hatred and passion personally or whether the motive for murder is part of a pattern of hatred which comes to puzzle not only Matthew and Julie but also the higher ranks of police officers who are forced to test the limits of their power and position. As Julie and Matthew, together with their team which includes the young and enthusiastic Harry, investigate the world of security guards and small theatres, they have to look at the small pieces of information which may link crimes. While Julie involves herself with the minute pieces of information which may obtain results in line with her ambitions, Matthew suspects that bigger forces are at work. His memories of a small group of friends at school means that he secures contact with an infamous character whose lifestyle has attracted attention from other police departments. While he gets information which may prove relevant to more than one case, he pushes the rules to the edge. It is only when he falls foul of those with positions to protect that he has time to consider his wife Kathy, and discovers that she has a vital problem that has severe implications for her life.

 

This book, which brilliant revisits characters introduced in “The Fourth Victim”, is of itself a complex and clever read which deals realistically with many who are marginalised and meet with prejudice. It is well paced with moments of well handled tension. In this book there is little doubt of which character is speaking fresh dialogue and taking meaningful action. The research is careful and the plot well constructed; it hangs together well as a framework for exploring fascinating and consistently written characters. I recommend this as a good read for fans of contemporary crime and policing.        

Walden of Bermondsey by Peter Murphy – the first of a series of fictional legal encounters in London

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Walden of Bermondsey by Peter Murphy

 

This is the first book of a series of books concerning the fictional accounts of life in Bermondsey Crown Court. Full of gentle humour, some revelations and non technical facts concerning the law, this book records several cases dealt with by Charlie Walden, Resident Judge. Married to the local vicar, the Reverend Mrs Walden, who sometimes weighs in with advice and a greater world experience, Charlie is an amiable and able judge who tries to find and keep the middle line, which is not always easy with all of human life which appears before him. Furthermore, he is plagued by the constant interruptions of the “Grey Smoothies”, more correctly known as the supervisory administrators from the civil service who are seemingly ignorant of the work actually carried out in the court, with their cost cutting and streamlining of the operations of the courts. He also has to supervise and sometimes restrain the activities of the other three judges, although he admires Judge Marjorie Jenkins, whose knowledge of the law and procedure frequently silence him. With Judge “Legless” whose particular skills and abilities are sometimes especially remarked on, and Judge Hubert Drake of uncertain vintage and Garrick club membership, the judicial crew are aided and abetted by several court functionaries. With frequent mention of those who supply daily food and newspapers, this community is able to withstand the various trials and tribulations that come its way, hoping always not to make the front page of the tabloid press in a negative way. This early collection of stories from the court introduces not only the characters in the building, but those who appear before them in every sense. It is well worth a read, not only for fans of Rumpole but also those who enjoy a somewhat sideways view of contemporary life.

 

The book opens with a surprising case of arson which rapidly assumes all the excitement of a mini soap opera. Meanwhile, Marjorie must deal with a fight in a rugby match, dismissed by the knowledgeable Legless. We learn that the defendent is always referred to as “Chummy” by the judges, a fact which later confuses a civil servant. Political punch ups later emerge, as do the risks of pretending to be a solicitor. “Artistic Differences” deals with the perils of portraiture, while matters of a recently formed state confuse everyone in another case. The final case in the book concerns the keeping of an unusual business above an otherwise respectable restaurant. Always in the background the community of the courts keeps throwing in challenges big and small, and it is only by good luck and literally good judgement that the show is kept on the road.

 

I have already read and reviewed the third book in this series, and my enjoyment of both suggests that they can be enjoyed as standalone reads. The humour is sometimes robust, always gentle, and small victories are duly celebrated in a satisfactory way. I recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the workings of the law in Britain, the complications of daily life, and enjoys a fictional memoir written in a humourous way. 

 

With today’s focus on legal judgements this is a very timely read, as well as being a gently amusing one.

The Garden of Lost and Found by Harriet Evans – an immense of book of historical and contemporary fiction

 

 

A painting which captures so much, a house which is an escape and a challenge, a book of desperate situations; there is so much going on this novel that the reader must really concentrate but is greatly rewarded for the effort. Taking place in several times and in several places, it is held together by a painting of a garden and a house which is emblematic of so much for the characters. At least two casts of characters, at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century and the twenty first century, which look backward and forward, are linked by art and the concept of art. There is also tragedy, the importance of friendship, and the insidious effect of bullying whether physically or through the medium of the internet. There are characters which truly leap off the page, vivid descriptions of settings that they discover or rediscover, and the little incidents which fill a rich and complex text which cannot be hurried. A substantial book on many levels, I was so grateful to be given the opportunity to read and review this novel for the tour.

 

The book opens with an otherwise idyllic scene, a garden and a special house in June 1918, but immediately Lydia Dysart Horner realises that she could have perhaps acted earlier to try to save the immensely famous picture called “The Garden of Lost and Found”.  This immensely famous painting seemed to have had an almost mystical power on everyone who looked at it, revealing much about the glorious garden so lovingly described, but also focused on the figures of two children to be discovered in the foreground who seem to sum up enormous sentiment. Lydia or Liddy desperately realises that whatever compels her husband at this point is not simple; that he is suffering from the loss of people, of talent, of honour.

 

The scene shifts to the situation of a young woman, Juliet, in a London house, as she realise that her marriage to Matt is in trouble, her eldest daughter is suffering, and she is struggling to hold everything together.This particular day is significant as a sketch, the only remnant known of Horner’s famous painting, is to be auctioned by the company which she works for, and that she is a direct descendant of the painter. She is bitterly unhappy at work, where her misogynist boss is eager to get rid of her when she makes her feelings known about the sale and his attitude to her. A mysterious discovery gives her an alternative, as she suddenly realises that she can return to a house which dominated her otherwise unhappy childhood.

 

The slips between times are perhaps difficult to follow at times, but can be moving as we see the difficulties of life in Victorian times, when unutterably tragic situations mean that the very survival of women is uncertain, where children and young people are imperilled by attitudes, greed and lack of medical help. There is immense research behind this book, a great feeling for time and space, and a fantastic, almost visual eye for detail. This is a mature and complex novel which has so much weight in terms of handling complicated historical material, as well as contemporary pressures, especially on women, when they feel compelled to fight for the wellbeing of their children as well as themselves. This book has so much emotional weight to offer, but also the presence of hope as symbolised by a house and garden which has dominated the lives of generations. This is a book that is to be embarked on with readiness for discoveries, historical fiction at its best, and suspense tinged with sadness for those who lose much. A terrific read, recommended for so many reasons, and an experience not to be missed.    

 

 

We have been to see an extremely energetic production of Evita in a local theatre. With an incredible actor playing Eva Peron, marvellous dancing and amazing singing, this was certainly not to be missed in Long Eaton, Nottinghamshire. Having seen this in its original run in London many years ago, it remains a firm favourite, and also forms part of my proposed conference paper in June as I look at the legacy of Eva Peron. Wish me luck; it’s a huge subject.

Unlawful Things by Anna Sayburn Lane – A thriller based on a historical hunt for the truth

A thriller with an academic twist, this is a unique book dominated by some serious historical research, both as part of the plot and the knowledge that was needed to create it. Sayburn Lane has created a trail of academic discovery which gives a real challenge to the characters to discover a radical explanation for a contemporary obsession, against a very real danger to today’s British society. With some brutal episodes, this is not merely an intellectual puzzle; real danger and violence follow the main characters as some seek to profit from fear of the different. I soon realised that this is a fascinating and compelling book which held my interest throughout a dense plot, and I was very grateful to receive a copy to read and review.

The book opens with a narrative of a stabbing attack in Deptford, and the realisation that it is an ironic place to be stabbed. The action then goes back by two weeks, to show Helen Oddfellow, leader of historical walking tours in London, Phd student and friend of Crispin, a retired actor with a past. She is contacted by Richard, who has unearthed a reference to the playwright Kit Marlowe, and has seen an article in a local paper which mentions Helen as a Marlowe expert. Younger and more interesting than she had expected, she joins in his research to clear the name of an ancestor of the Cobham family, visiting the archives of Dulwich College and the Parker library at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. Their investigations do seem to be getting close to a dangerous discovery however, and there are threats. Meanwhile a young reporter called Nick who wrote the original article about Helen witnesses an attack on a new mosque by a far right group. He is injured, and soon realises that this is but the tip of a very dangerous anti Muslim force. As he investigates, he too finds himself in some danger, and he overlaps with the hunt for Marlowe references. This is not a gentle academic tiff; there are some fairly brutal scenes and some violent and sudden twists as the two investigations become more complex.

This is a book which I read quickly, as I was so keen to find out what happened next. I found the historical research fascinating, but can see that it may be a little confusing for someone not so interested in Elizabethan politics. Having said that, the author is very competent at anchoring the plot in the sort of twenty first century politics that means that certain groups in society struggle. There are some points at which the narrative gets very convoluted, but the character of Helen grounds it well in a sort of bewildered yet determined way. This is a densely written book, full of incidental details of a contemporary London that seems real. I really enjoyed this book, found the characters well drawn and generally fascinating, and was very intrigued by the puzzle at the heart of the book. I recommend it to those who like their thrillers based in a detailed story with some elegant twists and turns, some of which are shocking and memorable.

 

Last night we had a Pancake Party in honour of Shrove Tuesday, the last day before the beginning of Lent. Many scrumptious pancakes were consumed, people came along and enjoyed meeting old and new friends, and a good time was had by all. Then straight into a choir practice! It’s a great life provided you don’t weaken! We are now looking forward to another day in London, and are trying to find things to do. Having been to Persephone Books a few weeks ago, I am fighting the urge to look out other lovely bookshops, but finding time to read my haul is a little tricky if I am honest…