Book review · Fiction

Book review: “A capital union” by Victoria Hendry

“A capital union” takes place in Edinburgh in the 1940s, and for that reason alone (as one born and bred there) it was of interest to me. Although the colours and design of the cover didn’t initially appeal to me, the Edinburgh landmarks were familiar and I was intrigued to know what might lie inside.

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The story follows the challenges faced by Agnes Thorne, 17 years old and newly married to Jeff McCaffrey. As part of his work on a new Scots dictionary, Jeff has been interviewing native speakers from across Scotland. When he comes across Agnes at her home in Ayrshire, he falls for her dialect and beauty and persuades her to marry him and set up home with him in Edinburgh.

Agnes’s troubles begin shortly after her arrival in the city, when she discovers the pitfalls of being married to a man who refuses to sign up for military service during the Second World War. As well as being a conscientious objector, Jeff is a staunch supporter of the Scottish independence movement and believes the British government has no right to enforce conscription on Scottish nationals.

As Jeff becomes more involved with nationalist politics and his views on independence become more extreme, Agnes feels a chasm growing between them. While this is going on, a German airman called Hannes, who has survived being shot down over Edinburgh, finds sanctuary in the empty flat above them. Initially, he’s helped by Mrs MacDougall, a cantankerous neighbour of Agnes’s, but Mrs MacDougall is keen to get Agnes to take over the responsibility of looking after Hannes. Agnes does her best to look after him, without admitting to her husband that she’s aiding the enemy.

The secret of Hannes is revealed, however, when he bursts into the McCaffreys’ flat after hearing Agnes scream. Jeff has been attempting to rape his wife and only Hannes’s timely intervention saves her. For Agnes, this behaviour by her husband is the final nail in the coffin of their marriage, but it isn’t until Jeff is jailed for refusing to sign up for military service that husband and wife are physically separated. Left alone, Agnes has to find a new life for herself, and vows to do whatever she can to help Hannes escape.

After all the foregoing drama, the novel could easily have fallen flat at this point in the story, but Victoria Hendry did a top notch job of keeping my attention and gripping me to the final page. She made me care about what happened to Agnes, and I found her characterisations strong throughout the book.

An unusual feature of this novel, and something I initially thought might irritate me, was the number of Scots words included in the dialogue. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the mixture of English and Scots, and interested that some of the Scots words were words I’ve only ever heard spoken, never seen written down. There are also quite a few German words and phrases, and I would have understood more of the conversations involving Hannes if I’d realised at the beginning that every Scots and German word used is translated at the back of the book. The German translations were helpful for me and I daresay the Scots translations would be much appreciated by non-Scottish readers.

Rating this book in my 4Ps rating system, I gave it 18/20, with extra credit for what I call ‘poetry‘.

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Book review · Fiction

Book review: “The body on the beach” by Simon Brett

This is the first novel in Simon Brett’s series featuring Carole and Jude, neighbours in the fictional English village of Fethering.

I hadn’t read this book before, but having got to know the central characters from later stories I was interested to find out how they first met.

The body on the beach
“The body on the beach” by Simon Brett (2000)

While walking her dog, Gulliver, early one morning, Carole comes across the dead body of a middle-aged man lying on the beach. While Carole’s looking at the body, Gulliver runs off into the sea and comes out soaked in sea water and smelling of something unsavoury. When she gets home, keen to prioritise giving the dog a bath, Carole does that before attending to anything else. It’s only once Gulliver is clean and snoozing in the kitchen that Carole gets round to phoning the police.

While she’s waiting for the police to come and interview her, Carole notices her new neighbour beating the dust out of a rug in her front garden. Shocked that someone should carry out such a domestic chore at the front of the house, Carole makes negative assumptions about her new neighbour. Taking a brief rest from her beating, Jude turns and sees Carole looking out of the window. Carole is horrified by to have been caught watching but feels compelled to go out and introduce herself.

After a short chat that leaves Carole frustratingly bereft of answers to the many questions she has about Jude, the police call round and Carole turns her attention to telling them about her find on the beach. The police immediately rub her up the wrong way by appearing to doubt her tale. Carole prides herself on being eminently sensible and reliable and to have the police question her truthfulness is a dreadful slight. At the end of the interview they tell her that they went to the beach before calling in to see her, following her clear instructions about where she had seen the body. There was, they said, only one problem with her version of events: there was no dead body on the beach.

Later in the day, still upset about not being believed by the police, Carole opens her front door to a rough-looking woman who wants to know if she, Carole, found a body on the beach that morning. Curious to know who this woman might be, Carole invites her in. The woman, who seems a bit hysterical, demands to know if Carole saw anyone move the body. Carole does her best to stay calm, but when the woman pulls a gun out of her jacket pocket and starts raving at her, she concludes the woman is far from sane. She tells the woman she’s going to phone the police, but the woman threatens to shoot her if she does. Carole is wondering what to do when she’s saved by the doorbell.

When she opens the door she finds her new neighbour, Jude, standing there. Needing a break from unpacking, Jude has called round round to see if Carole fancies going for a drink at the local pub. While Carole’s busy at the front door the gun-toting woman disappears out of the back door, leaving Carole perplexed and needing very much to get things off her chest. She goes to the pub with Jude and, uncharacteristically, unburdens herself. Her neighbour proves to be a good listener and, unlike the police, she believes Carole’s tale.

While reading later books in the Fethering series, I had grown curious about how Carole and Jude had first got together to solve crimes, and why it was that they took things into their own hands rather than reporting things to the police. ‘The body on the beach’ answered my questions, and I very much enjoyed this story. Using my 4Ps rating system, I gave this book 17/20.

Book review · Fiction

Book review: “The murder at the vicarage” by Agatha Christie

This is one of Agatha Christie’s detective novels featuring the brilliant elderly spinster, Miss Jane Marple. The story takes place in Miss Marple’s home village of St Mary Mead and centres round the murder of Colonel Protheroe, a prominent but not very likeable local magistrate.

One Wednesday lunchtime, irritated by Colonel Protheroe’s interferences in church affairs, the local vicar declares to his wife and nephew that anyone who murdered the Colonel would be doing the world a favour. On the following day, Protheroe is found shot dead sitting in the vicar’s study, waiting to see him for a pre-arranged meeting.

Agatha Christie The murder at the vicarage
“The murder at the vicarage” by Agatha Christie (1930)

The book has all the ingredients of an enjoyable murder mystery: an attractive setting, a number of possible suspects, various motives, a didactic police detective and an unassuming but astute observer on the sidelines who ends up solving the crime.

The novel is told from the point of view of the vicar, Len Clement, one of the few characters in the story who respects and appreciates Miss Marple’s skills from the outset. Each intent on getting to the bottom of things, Clement and Marple team up to solve the mystery.

Len Clement’s position at the centre of the drama gives him unique access to the investigation. People feel able to confide in him and several of the suspects unburden themselves to him throughout the story. Alongside this, Miss Marple’s shrewdness and understanding of human nature allow her to form theories that completely escape the police and help the vicar to make sense of what people tell him.

The setting, a vicarage in a small English village, is the perfect place to stage a murder mystery, with its old-fashioned appeal and restricted cast of characters. In her masterly way, Agatha Christie keeps the reader guessing whodunnit till the end, revealing the solution in a typically unexpected and satisfying manner.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read this novel in the past, but I look forward to reading it again some time in the future. Using my 4Ps rating system, I gave it 18/20.

Book review · England · Fiction

Book review: “Death on the downs” by Simon Brett

“Death on the downs” is the second of Simon Brett’s murder mysteries, based in the fictional English village of Fethering and featuring middle-aged amateur sleuths, Carole and Jude. I was pleased to find a copy of it going very cheap in a second-hand bookshop recently.

Neighbours in Fethering, Carole and Jude are similar in age but vastly different in personality and life experience. As with other literary detective duos, the contrast between them is what makes their partnership work.

Simon Brett Death on the downs
“Death on the downs” by Simon Brett (2001)

The story begins when Carole accidentally happens upon human remains. While out for a walk in the countryside one morning, she takes refuge in an old barn when it starts to rain. Inside the barn she accidentally tips over some fertiliser bags and a human bone falls out of one of them. When she gets back to her car she drives into the nearby village of Weldisham and phones the police from a call box to report her find. The police ask her to stay where she is until two of their officers arrive to speak to her and investigate her discovery.

One of the police officers, Detective Sergeant Baylis, takes her to the local pub for a chat. The pub hasn’t yet opened for the day but the manager lets them in. Baylis asks the manager to provide drinks, despite it being out of licensing hours, and tells him to put the cost on his tab, with a wink that makes the manager look distinctly uncomfortable. Ever observant and curious, Carole wonders what sort of a hold Baylis has over the publican.

A little later, when the pub opens up to customers, Baylis leaves and Carole stays there on her own, having been provided with another drink on Baylis’s tab. Sitting in the pub nursing her brandy, Carole observes several local characters who turn up and start chatting to the manager and each other. To her great surprise, one of them mentions the human bones found in the barn. Wondering how her discovery has become known about so quickly, she takes a particular interest in the man who makes the comment. Discussions amongst her fellow customers lead to the suggestion that the bones belong to a girl who went missing from the village some time ago.

When Carole gets back home she discusses her experiences with Jude, who by chance knows the girl the customers in the pub were talking about. From then on, Carole and Jude do their utmost to find out more about the mysterious bag of bones, but the more involved they become the more they have to watch their backs. Certain people are not pleased to find Carole asking questions in the village, but she feels she’s getting closer to solving the mystery and refuses to curb her investigating. Meanwhile, Jude is looking into the circumstances surrounding the girl who went missing and beginning to draw disturbing conclusions. When Carole fails to return home after a visit to Weldisham, and her car is found parked outside the pub with the keys on the ground beside it, Jude realises her friend’s life may be in danger.

Although some of the conversations and situations in this book were a bit far-fetched, I found it an easy and entertaining read, and possibly the most enjoyable of the Fethering books I’ve read so far. Having been reading the novels out of chronological order, I’ve now ordered the first in the series from my local library to find out how Carole and Jude started out on their detective partnership. Using my 4Ps rating system, I gave this novel 16/20.

Book review · Fiction · Writing

Book review: “Border Line” by Hilary Custance Green

I recently re-read this novel, having first read it about two years ago. On the first reading, my initial impressions were of a well-written and interesting story featuring a good mixture of nicely drawn characters. I felt the same on reading it the second time.

Border Line by Hilary Custance Green
‘Border Line’ by Hilary Custance Green (2014)

The story follows a group of people who have been brought together by a mutual desire to commit suicide. This might seem a morbid premise for a book, but I didn’t find it depressing. The story is told from the point of view of one of the group, a 35 year old geographer called Grace.

The group’s leader, a drama tutor called Daniel, has organised a trip for them all to Slovenia. The excursion lasts for three weeks, during which they take part in various games and activities designed to help them learn about themselves and others. At the end of the three weeks they have the opportunity to either end their lives or change their minds and choose life instead.

I particularly enjoyed the way the relationships between characters developed over time. That is, indeed, one of the main threads of the story, and I found it convincing.

The author, Hilary Custance Green, has asked for honest reviews of this book and so I’m going to mention a few things I might not otherwise include in a review. As I was reading, I tried to be critical and take note of anything that stood out for me in any way.

The main thing I noticed was how well written the text was, and how refreshing it was to read a book with section headings rather than chapters. As far as I can recall, I have never read another novel laid out in this way but I found it a satisfying and enjoyable approach. For example, on page one there is the heading ‘Devon – Day nought‘ and on page six the next heading appears: ‘Trieste – Day one‘, followed on page ten by ‘Divača – Party game‘ and on page 14 by ‘Lunch – Questions. Presenting the book in this way created the impression of a diary or itinerary, and gave the book a sort of forward momentum that made me want to keep reading.

To my mind, there was very little to criticise about the book, but I have a few small points to mention. Firstly, some of the games the characters took part in were hard for me to visualise and I suppose that was slightly frustrating at the time, although it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story.

Secondly, it surprised me that each character had a specific historical reason for wanting to do away with themselves. In normal life I think a lot of people reach the decision not because they’ve done something awful in the past, but because they feel hopeless and can’t see any point in living. However, this issue was perhaps addressed in Daniel’s admission that each individual in the group was selected from a larger pool of people who contacted him about their suicidal wishes. It was implied that he had deliberately chosen those who cited particular events in their lives.

The only other thing I wasn’t sure about was the way in which group members reacted when each person gave their reason for wanting to commit suicide. It seemed to me that some of their responses were unlikely, although this was perhaps a deliberate ploy by the author to put across different points of view.

None of the above criticisms in any way spoiled the book for me, and I only include them in an attempt to give a balanced review.

To end on another couple of positives, I was impressed by the quality of the book’s print and paper. I was also very pleased with the bookmark that came with it, which gives a list of the story’s characters, alongside their ages and professions. Since there are 11 main characters, I found the bookmark especially useful in the early stages of the story.

Back cover of Border Line by Hilary Custance Green
Back cover of ‘Border Line’ with helpful bookmark giving names, ages and professions of characters.

I would highly recommend this book to other readers who are intrigued by the story idea. Using my ‘4 Ps’ rating system I’ve scored it 18/20.

Book review · Fiction

Book review: “The monogram murders” by Sophie Hannah

There seems to be quite a fashion for modern novelists to take classic characters created by earlier writers and feature them in new novels. I tend to be a bit wary of this, because each writer has their own writing style. I’ve read more than one modern story featuring Sherlock Holmes, for example, that has fallen far short of Conan Doyle’s brilliance.

It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I picked up ‘The monogram murders’  by Sophie Hannah, since it stars one of the great classics of crime fiction, Hercule Poirot.

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“The monogram murders” by Sophie Hannah (2014)

The story opens with Poirot as the sole customer dining at a London coffee house, when a harassed-looking woman bursts through the door. She asks one of the waitresses for her ‘usual’ and sits down at a table with her back to the door.

As Poirot watches her, he is intrigued to see her keep twisting round in her seat in order to look at the door. Aware of her distress he gets up, goes over to her table, and asks if he can join her. She agrees, distractedly, still intent on watching the door. He introduces himself as a retired policeman and asks if he can be of any assistance to her.

She reveals to him that she is about to be killed and, in her opinion, when she is dead justice will have been done. The words are barely out of her mouth before she declares she has said too much and beseeches Poirot to leave the crime of her murder unavenged. Before he can stop her, she gets up and runs out of the coffee house, leaving Poirot’s curiosity aroused and his appetite gone.

On the same evening of this curious event, Poirot learns that three people have been murdered at the prestigious Bloxham Hotel. The crime is being investigated by his friend, Scotland Yard detective, Edward Catchpool. For reasons Catchpool is at a loss to understand, Poirot is convinced that the murders are somehow related to the young woman he met in the coffee house.

The novel is written from the point of view of Edward Catchpool (a new character invented by Sophie Hannah), much as Captain Hastings narrated many of Agatha Christie’s original Poirot stories. This struck me as a clever plan by the author, allowing her to present the Hercule Poirot known and loved by millions of readers, without having to copy Agatha Christie’s writing style.

Poirot’s character is reassuringly well reproduced, and his speech and mannerisms nicely in keeping with the character created by Agatha Christie. The voice of the narrator is noticeably different from the original novels, but I didn’t find this detracted at all from the story. In fact, if anything, it added authenticity, because Catchpool and Hastings are quite different characters.

I was so gripped by this book that I found it hard to put down. The plot is ingenious, and very well worked out. I sometimes get a bit lost in the detail when reading murder mysteries but, despite its complexity, I found the plot of ‘The monogram murders’ relatively easy to follow. This, I think, demonstrates the skill of the author, and I take my hat off to her.

I scored this novel 19/20, using my 4 Ps rating system.

Book review · Fiction

Book review: “The maintenance of headway” by Magnus Mills

Magnus Mills seems to me to be a one-off. He somehow manages to convey uneventful tales in a gently comedic, at times slightly unsettling, manner. ‘The maintenance of headway’ is a classic example of his talent.

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“The maintenance of headway” by Magnus Mills (2009)

Ignoring the conventions of novel writing, rather than setting his stories in a specified location, he uses vague language that’s suggestive rather than definite. The novel is set in an unnamed metropolis with a ‘bejewelled thoroughfare’. The description is highly suggestive of London.

Likewise, his characters are never described in anything but the barest of details. The story is written from the point of view of a bus driver, whose interactions with fellow bus drivers and bus inspectors provide the meat of the novel.

Everything about the book is so subtle it’s almost as if there is no plot, and yet there is a story to tell. Although the book isn’t set in a stated year or era, it involves red double-decker buses with automatic doors, and mentions the trialling of a new articulated bus, which gives the reader some sort of reference.

From start to finish, the characters are entertainingly obsessed with the minutiae of operating a bus service. The many acute observations they make provide a fascinating insight into what might be going on behind the scenes of Britain’s transport network. I found ‘The maintenance of headway’ to be a highly engaging novel and have scored it 19/20, using my 4 Ps system.

You can find out more about my scoring method on ‘The 4 Ps’ page, or by clicking here),