The Lantern Men by Elly Griffiths

I just adore this series featuring academic forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway and the curmudgeonly but attractive DCI Nelson, by Ellly Griffiths. Each book just gets better and better and that’s saying something because the very first book was superb!

In this instalment, no.12, Ruth, and her daughter with Nelson, Katie, have moved from their beloved marshes. Ruth is no longer working with the Norfolk police, but is in a much more prestigious institution. She also has a lovely live-in boyfriend. 

When a convicted serial killer demands that Ruth be the one to dig up the grounds of a home he once lived in to locate the bodies of women he claims have killed, Nelson tracks her down to ask if she will comply. Ruth, despite potential danger, of course, agrees. The murderer reveals to Ruth that not only did he kill four more women, but tells her a story embedded in local folklore, about the Lantern Men, terrifying figures who would light paths for unsuspecting victims to follow to their deaths. 

It’s assumed that the serial killer regards himself as a Lantern Man, but when more bodies are discovered, Nelson and Ruth are forced to face the fact that not only might there be more than one person behind these gruesome deaths, but a killer is once more at large…

Not only is the crime plot well-executed in these books, making them gripping and well-paced, but the characters and their narrative arcs are so superbly rendered. From the first book, Ruth is a woman readers’ love and champion; likewise with grumpy Nelson. Exposed to their weaknesses and strengths, we understand them, their relationships and those they form with others. Their motivations are real and apparent and while we might judge some of their decisions and find them wanting, we always understand them. In this book, the personal lives of the main characters especially are really put under an emotional microscope and, parallel to the main case, we’re keen to see how the issues that surface are resolved. 

Altogether, a fabulous novel and I cannot wait to see where Griffiths takes Ruth, Nelson and the gang next – not just geographically, but emotionally as well. 

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The River Wife by Heather Rose

After reading Heather Rose’s magnificent, Bruny, I was very keen to discover more of her work, feeling terrible that I hadn’t years ago. And so I came to read the sublime The River Wife.

A short novel, this is more like a fable, a beautifully rendered, languid, heart-aching story of love, nature, trust, belonging and longing. It tells the story of a woman who is also part fish, what we would call a mermaid, who falls in love with a human man. Responsible for the river, for the ebb and flow of the waters, the creatures that dwell within and in complete accord with nature, the river wife is a mysterious eternal and maternal figure. Already the product herself of a love affair between species, she doesn’t question her feelings for the man who, unlike others, enters her realm, but cautiously allows them to envelop her. 

But the love between a mortal and a mystical being is something that cannot really exist, since both are beholden to different temporal and corporeal expectations. And so, in the seeds of love are sewn the means of its inevitable demise. 

This is just an exquisite tale. I became caught up in the magic of the narrative, of the way Rose uses language, like poetry, to sweep you gently into the world and time she creates and take you with her on this remarkable, beautiful journey. 

I loved it and felt crushed when it finished. I will read it again soon.

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Grown Ups by Marian Keyes

I adore Marian Keyes’ books. They are the perfect holiday escape which is exactly why the release of this novel was such terrific timing. I devoured it while flying overseas (luckily when Covid-19 was still in its early stages – little did we know what lay ahead or what solace books would offer – something readers have always known and I hope others learn too through these really difficult times). 

This is the tale of the Casey family. A large sprawling Irish family who are constantly brought together through the largesse of the most successful of their siblings: Jessie. Re-married after the death of her beloved first husband, to his best friend, Jessie has since been estranged from her first husband’s family – a family she bonded with and adored. The wound of their rejection, of their assumption she had his best friend on the “side”, hurts deeply. But Jessie has other secrets and worries that she keeps from those she loves best.

She is not alone. There is infidelity, debt, obligation, control, passion, hatred, depths and shallows, and so much more. When the popular daughter-in-law, Cara, gets serious concussion and starts to spill family secrets at one of their big get togethers, things start to unravel swiftly. But is this what’s needed or the worst thing that could have happened to the Caseys?

Fast-moving, loads of characters who are alternately utterly believable and then only convincing within the world Keyes has created (which is fine), the dialogue crackles, you laugh, cringe, and, as the title suggests, wish they’d either all grow up or that the grown-ups would step up and start adulting.

Another great snapshot of family life that makes literary strengths out of weaknesses, that I thoroughly enjoyed.

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You Had Me at Hola: In Search of Love and Truth in South America by Leigh Robshaw

This very personal story tells the tale of Leigh Robshaw when, as a twenty-something, she sets out from Australia in the 1990s to South America in search of adventure, but above-all, love. On her third day in Buenos Aires, she meets Gabriel, a beautiful and exotic young artist who makes jewellery to sell to tourists on the beaches. Even though they have no shared language, they communicate using the universal language of love.

What follows is a madcap time, where committed to her journey around South America, but longing to remain with the man she believes is her soul-mate, Leigh reluctantly heads off, convinced she’s left her heart in Buenos Aires. 

The adventures she has, the dangers and illness that befall her as she travels will leave your heart in your mouth! All the time, she longs for Gabriel. When they’re finally reunited, she discovers the love she’s sometimes questioned is returned. Instead of heading to England with her friend as per long-laid plans, Leigh stays in South America and, with Gabriel, makes a life for herself, traveling all over, selling jewellery, getting into incredible scrapes, behaving sometimes recklessly and meeting a range of fascinating, kind, but also wicked and exploitative people. 

In the end, however, Leigh is forced to question what’s she’s doing and confront the reality of the huge cultural differences between her and Gabriel – cultural and personal. But they’d already overcome so much, surely, their love, which is undoubted, would conquer all?

This is a book that will sweep you along in its narrative. Extremely personal, raw and honest, Leigh doesn’t hesitate to question her decisions, expose her choices for what they sometimes were, and plumb the depths of her own psyche as she takes the reader on this passionate, wild adventure – of love, of culture and of people.

I thoroughly enjoyed this, and am looking forward to the sequel. What a ride! What a life.

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A Silent Death by Peter May

I have adored many of Peter May’s books, especially his Lewis trilogy where his descriptions of place and character are utterly transportative. This novel, A Silent Death, is similar in that the primary characters – the taciturn and blunt-to-a-fault, Scottish cop, John McKenzie and Spanish police officer, Cristina – are totally believable and wholly developed people for whom you root. Likewise, the wonderful Spanish setting is easy to imagine – the heat, the architecture, the rolling hills and coastline are realistically drawn. 

It is in this setting that McKenzie, a man whose marriage has disintegrated and who has just quit his former job to move into a new one, is brought back to work early to escort a British criminal expatriate from Spain. Fluent in a few languages and well-educated, McKenzie doesn’t suffer fools nor win many friends, but it’s his skills that see him deployed in what he thinks is a job that is basically beneath his considerable talents. But when he arrives in Spain to find his prisoner has escaped and has not only committed a string of murders but threatened death to many more, he understands what he thought would be an easy task is a hell of a lot more complicated. Add to that cultural difference and personality clashes, and the stage is set for an intense search and a race to prevent more murders. 

In many ways, the plot takes second place to the characters and their personal journeys. This doesn’t make it weak or uninteresting – it is strong and keeps you riveted. But it does make it a novel about the way people behave in a crisis or interact in normal and extreme situations and how their actions and choices define them (thinking about that, it seems so pertinent for what the world is going through now as Covid-19 has us in its grip. How we behave when the chips are down is what defines us as humans. It’s easy, after all, to be fabulous when things go well). Both McKenzie and Cristina and the people around them, particularly Cristina’s deaf and blind aunt, are extraordinary in their very ordinariness and this makes them eminently relatable. We care about them, their relationships, and what the outcome of the crisis in which they’re unwittingly embroiled will be.

An excellent read.

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Jane in Love by Rachel Givney

I didn’t expect to love this book so much! I know that’s a strange way to start a review, but bear with me. I really love Jane Austen’s work and tend to be a bit of a purist. There are so many books (and TV shows and films) that draw on her world, the characters she created and the plots she crafted to launch spin-offs and, while some are very good, many are not. I mostly resist them – and likely to my own detriment (an early disappointment warned me away). But it was reading a glowing review, that lead me to buy this book. 

I am so glad I did.

It opens in Jane Austen’s time and with Jane at the centre of the story, being courted by a young man when, all she really wants to do is write. When her heart is – not broken, shaken might be a better description – Jane takes an extraordinary step and, in doing so, finds herself catapulted into Bath in the Twenty-First Century and onto a film set where, believe it or not, the crew and actors are filming a Jane Austen adaptation. 

When Jane left her time, she’d never been published – in our time, she is a literary heroine. As she learns to navigate our world, befriending a fading film star and her rather unfriendly brother, she not only discovers how popular she is, but learns to follow her heart. 

The more she immerses herself in our time, the less impact she starts to make as her works fade from history and thus the here and now, rendering her work and their profound impact immaterial. Which raises the question the book poses: if Jane Austen had the choice between heart and pen, what do you think she would do?

Givney answers this, and allows the reader to ask and seek their own answer as well – what would they do in Jane’s shoes? What would they want her to do? It’s this part of the book that I simultaneously enjoyed, but as a feminist and writer, also found frustrating – which, let me tell you, I loved as well! I so appreciate books that make me really ponder, question my ideals, the impositions and roles imposed upon the sexes – now and then – and how we navigate these. As a writer, I struggled with the idea there had to be a choice between heart and head. Why writers are perceived as having to emotionally suffer (the starving artist in the garret trope jumps to mind) to produce worthwhile work. That whole, ‘no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’ mantra – or the fact the best art comes from pain. But I think Givney pays tribute to these notions and explores them in a believable way.

Overall, this is a book that I’m still thinking about and recommend for lovers of Austen, all things “Jane”, and who like to be both frustrated and challenged and enjoy a damn fine read. 

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