An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

12142746An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears is a book I resisted reading for a while for the simple reason I thought it a tad too long. There were other books I wanted and needed to read, so it kept being moved to the bottom of a very big pile. Even owning a Kindle was not reason enough to embark on such a journey. Well, more fool me.

An Instance of the Fingerpost (which is taken from a larger quote by Francis Bacon) refers to the way in which a fingerpost points in only one direction and how, when presented with “facts” and “truths” in relation to a situation, humans tend to only see one solution/suspect. So it is with this simply marvellous tale of murder and intrigue set in 1663, during the reign of Charles II, who was restored to the throne on the back of the Interregnum after the death of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell and the failure of his son, Richard, to hold power.

Set in Oxford, it basically tells the story about the murder of a university don, a Dr Grove, who appears to have been poisoned. Told in four parts from four different points of view (a Venetian medical student and traveler, Marco Da Cola; a passionate and angry young man, John Prescott who is trying desperately to prove his father isn’t the traitor to the crown he was believed to be; Dr Wallis, a stern and unbending cryptographer and, finally, Anthony Wood, an archivist and historian), the tale unfolds slowly, in detail, allowing time for the reader to understand not only the incredible narrative being told, but the person telling it. Rich in detail, philosophical insights and human observation, other characters become significant, such as the bold and assertive Sarah Blundy who earns the enmity and admiration of people in equal measure, and her injured mother, the so-called witch, Anne. Then, there are also the genuine historical figures who pepper the book such as the Earl of Clarendon, Cromwell’s former spymaster, John Thurloe, scientist Robert Boyle, architect Christopher Wren, Mr Lower, Bennett, the king, and other well-known names from a heady, culturally progressive and violent period.

When Dr Grove is found murdered, all sorts of reasons are given for his death and various suspects and their motives come to light, but without spoiling the story, it’s when someone the reader least suspects confesses, and shocking events follow, that the narrative (and the reader’s heart) quickens.

But Grove’s murder is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Bubbling away beneath the brutal death of this pompous man are plots and secrets aplenty as well as those who fear what the discovery of these might do to a kingdom fractured by religion, potential wars and the lascivious desires of a once deprived and exiled king.

Hidden documents, unfair accusations, half-truths, outright lies, deceptions, decoys, murder and betrayal all feature in this incredibly plotted, wonderfully detailed book that brings an era of suspicion, intrigue, distrust but also wonder to life. The accuracy of the portrayals of real and fictitious figures (though even the fictitious ones are based on real people and events) is breath-taking. I was filled with admiration and so much respect (as well as a healthy does of lexical envy) for Pears who has written a tour de force with this book. When I finally finished, I was tempted to start again so as to really appreciate the way traps were laid, truths and evasions set into place before the big and ultimate reveal.

What a magnificent tome this is. I highly recommend it for lovers of history, mystery and just damn fine writing and stories.

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The Patriot Threat by Steve Berry

24663810The Patriot Threat, by Steve Berry is the tenth in the Cotton Malone series and though it’s focussed very much on internal US matters and federal taxation, much of the action takes place in the Mediterranean.

It seems that there is a potential problem with the 16th Amendment, a problem that could bankrupt the entire government and impact severely on both the world economy and the US’s dominant position within it. With the proof of this problem about to be handed over to the enemy (in this instance, a fictitious North Korean scion of the Kim-Jong-Un dynasty), Malone is tasked with retrieving it before either a Kim uses it to bring down the US and the global economy or the Chinese do.

The usual suspects appear, Cotton, Luke and Danny Daniels and Stephanie Nelle and a new character is given a chance to show her chops, Isabelle Schaffer from the Treasury. Initially stuffy (and borrowing a wee bit from Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale), Isabelle soon finds her place and, possibly, an ongoing role in this series. Apart from the North Korean bad guys (including a niece whose back story is well told if harrowing) there are also some “accidental” villains in the form of US tax vigilantes who appear to dwell more in the realm of The X-Files and conspiracy theories than the real world and suffer as a consequence.

Mostly fast-paced, there is a tendency in this novel (and many of Berry’s books of late) to get bogged down in great tracts of quotes from “official” records from the past – some of which are actually documents that Berry quotes from, others which he makes up – as well as reams of history. I have noted in previous reviews how I find these direct quotes don’t add much to the narrative but seem to slow the pace to a snail’s crawl. I would rather a character paraphrases what they learn as, in the end, it’s the kernel of information within these historical manuscripts/certificates etc that drives the narrative forward and reconciles the plot. Berry is so concerned with “proving” his research and the lengths he goes to in order to tie his speculation to fact, that I think sometimes the fiction suffers as a consequence.

What is good about this novel is that while one relationship is in hiatus, another begins to grow, and if you’ve been following the series and the characters, that is gratifying in the extreme.

Overall, a good read. 3.5 stars.

 

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Hotel Du Barry by Lesley Truffle

27429443Urged to read Hotel Du Barry by Lesley Truffle by a dear friend, she began telling me a little about the book in order to persuade me. She had me sold when she described the opening scene (this isn’t a spoiler, either, because it’s part of the blurb) where a baby is found hanging on the clothesline of a chic hotel in London during the 1930s. What’s not to love about such a gloriously unusual beginning?

Just who the chortling baby’s mother might be is uncertain – never mind her father. Enchanted by the splendid little girl, the hotel staff determine to keep her. When the owner of the place, Daniel Du Barry, who is grieving the loss of his lover, discovers the child, he too falls under her spell.

Naming her Cat, after his favourite bottle of champagne, Daniel is captivated. Unfortunately his new wife, Eddie, sister of his lover is not, but she’s forced to tolerate this child everyone else adores – the clever little girl with violet eyes and the propensity to fall asleep at the most inopportune moments – or is it only in Eddie’s presence? Over the years, Cat grows into a charming and talented young woman, as comfortable with the luxury of the penthouse as she is with the maids and various staff below stairs. Raised on a diet of classic and modern art, music, great (and sometimes inappropriate for her age) literature, as well as gossip, the sexual high-jinks, drug-taking and alcoholism of her step-mother and dirty habits of too many hotel guests, Cat isn’t at all damaged by what she bears witness to – she has her insatiable curiosity piqued again and again and her zest for life and people grows.

When, however, tragedy strikes her rather charmed existence, Cat decides to get to the bottom of not only the mystery surrounding the death of loved ones, but to also find her mother. Drawing on the help of her all too eager hotel family, together they plumb the depths and scale the heights of the hotel and its associates searching for answers… answers that not only take her beyond English shores, but prove dangerous to find…

This is a delicious romp filled with such memorable characters, witty, snippy asides that had me laughing out loud, heartfelt scenes that make your soul ache, and characters you want to sit back and swill gin with. The tone is marvellous – light and yet not at the expense of beautiful writing or deeper meaning. It’s so very different to the kind of books I’ve been reading lately and utterly refreshing. What I also found really stimulating was the fact that not all threads are neatly tied together at the end of the story. Truffle (what a great name) allows the reader to make their own minds up about some of the characters’ pasts and, indeed, their futures beyond the pages of the book and I simply loved that.

This is a sizzler of a read that I cannot recommend highly enough for those who love to be emerged in a past they can smell, see, feel and taste, like a good mystery packed to the brim with three-dimensional characters with personalities you love and loathe, or for those who simply enjoy great writing.

Unexpected and simply delightful.

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Out of the Ice by Ann Turner

29372165There’s something about books set in the Antarctic that really appeal. I don’t know whether it’s the pristine environment, the abundant wildlife, the climatic conditions, the human isolation, desolation, horrific and courageous history and the potential all of this has as an incredible setting, but I find books that tackle all this hard to resist. My only condition, is these novels have to be really well written and maintain a pace as far from glacial as possible or, like the old huts and equipment left to rot down there, I forsake them…

Fortunately, Ann Turner’s Out of the Ice is a cracker of a read. Beautifully written, suspenseful, haunting and, at times, nail-biting, it tells the story of scientist, Laura Alvarado who, when the book opens is facing the end of her term at a remote Antarctic Station, that is, until she’s given a new role. Chosen to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment on a whaling station that was abandoned in the 1950s, she travels to the nearest outpost, a very male-dominated and British-owned station from which she must conduct her study.

From the moment she steps onto the British base, she finds herself marginalised and treated with hostility by the leaders. When she finally gets to the whaling station she’s to assess, something is amiss. If humans have been forbidden from this Norwegian outpost for decades, why are the penguins and seals so aggressive? And why is there evidence of both recent human habitation and interference?

When, after a dive into an underwater cave, Laura bears witness to strange and impossible things, she determines to get to the bottom of the mystery. Calling upon the help of colleagues and superiors from her former station, Laura dares to both question and investigate exactly what’s going on. But there are those who will stop at nothing, even murder, to keep their secrets from emerging out of the ice…

From Antarctica to Nantucket and Venice, the book is action-packed but without sacrificing lovely prose, superb descriptions of settings, or creating a wonderful back story for Laura and thus a hero that you champion. I also liked the ambivalence expressed around whaling (which I find utterly abhorrent); how we know it’s shocking, cruel and a complete travesty of which we should be ashamed, but historically, for those involved, it represented something different. Turner doesn’t steer away from presenting both sides and while some of the descriptions of what went on are gut-wrenchingly awful, that she didn’t steer away from depicting all sides is a credit to her – especially when it’s very clear on which side she stands.

My only slight misgivings were I thought Laura made some decisions and took some actions that didn’t seem to fit with her intellect and previous caution, that didn’t quite sit with her scientific mind and appeared narratively convenient rather than plausible. Likewise, I thought for a brief time the plot had gone off the rails, and I had to work a bit harder than I would of liked to suspend my disbelief. To my relief, it quickly found its firm feet again and the conclusion was gripping and heartfelt.

But these are simply small moments of disquiet in a book I found really hard to put down. In fact, I stayed up too late the night I started it and even read it while doing my morning exercise on a treadmill because I had to know how it ended.

A terrific read that I recommend for lovers of a good mystery, those interested in the Antarctic and what drives humans to do both great and terrible things.

Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for the opportunity to enjoy such a wonderful book.

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Falling in Love by Donna Leon

imgres-6In this 24th outing with the wonderfully calm and wise Commissario Guido Brunetti, Donna Leon reintroduces a familiar character – the glamorous opera singer, Flavia Petrelli who appeared in one of the very first books in this marvellous series. Back then, she was a suspect in a poisoning, this time, she is the victim of a stalker.

Starring in a revisioning of the opera, Tosca, Flavia is every bit the star, so she expects a certain degree of accolades and fandom. However, when dozens and dozens of yellow roses find their way into her dressing room and private living quarters and other strange and terrible things start to happen, including to those associated with her, Flavia understands this is no ordinary fan. So does Brunetti who, in his usual charming and languid manner, and with the support of his magnificent wife, comes to the singer’s aid.

Only, the stalker is ready for intervention by the authorities and is undaunted by what their presence suggests – on the contrary, if anything, Brunetti’s involvement raises the stakes and with that the danger to Flavia…

What I love about Leon’s work and this series is the way the characters are developed, especially the Commissario, his family and professional associates. Over the novels, regular readers know what makes Brunetti tick, his idiosyncrasies, his penchant for beautiful women, for intelligence and above all, kindness and how much bureaucracy and those who adhere to its tenets annoy him. These books are not fast-paced or compulsive in the sense of an air-port page–turner, but like a gourmet meal, they are to be savoured and enjoyed – every last word.

Leon captures the heart and soul of Venice and it’s declining population, their loyalty to each other Venice Gondola Burano Doge Palazzo December 16-17th 2007 074and attitudes to the rampant tourism and the Disneyfication of this gorgeous water-laced city as well as the realities of a professional family with older children, who, though they live under the one ancient roof, find the distances between them in this modern world almost insurmountable.

A treatise on love in all its forms, including the obsessive (in that regard it reminded me a little of Ian McEwan’s wonderful Enduring Love), the novel is certainly food for thought and a love-ly (sorry! couldn’t resist) addition to the Brunetti series.

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