Careless Love by Peter Robinson

I have been a huge fan of Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks novels, relishing each new arrival, reading them quickly and then being so disappointed when I finish and have to wait for another one. Careless Love was no different… to start with. I gulped it down but, rather than eagerly awaiting the next instalment, I am left feeling a wee bit short-changed.

Let me explain why.

The crime is set up early in the novel – a young student is found dead in an abandoned car. It becomes evident that her body has been deliberately placed here as she didn’t drive and certainly didn’t own the car. A bit further along, a successful businessman is found dead at the bottom of an incline, apparently from a fall. Pretty soon, the inconsistencies in the two cases start to show some commonalities, as does yet another death. Add to this information Zelda, Annie’s father’s new partner gives to Banks and Annie one night, about the man who tried to murder Banks a few books ago, and the team is on the case – all of them.

So, it starts off so promising and then…it isn’t so much. Don’t get me wrong, the writing is tight, as one would expect from someone so practiced in their craft. Banks and Annie are mostly true to form, except, in what appears to be a bit of self-indulgence, Robinson has Banks bang on and on and on about his music – and when it doesn’t really fit the narrative and most certainly holds it up. In the past, it was sort of funny and quirky, Banks’s ad hoc musical references and preferences for certain types of (to most of us) obscure jazz and other artists. In this book, it interferes with and interrupts the narrative to the point of distraction. Further, Banks has also taken it upon himself to become familiar with poetry. OK. Poetry can function as a great analogy to the action of the novel, as a metaphor, or prolepsis… only, no. Not here. All the references to it do nothing to serve the story. Music and poetry, both of which show Banks to be sophisticated, I guess, do nothing except become great ellipses in terms of the narrative and overall action. Then there’s the fact a great deal of the book is taken up with interviews that go absolutely nowhere. I was left wondering where my beloved, feisty and clever Banks had disappeared to. It doesn’t help that he develops what’s tantamount to a pervy, middle-aged crush on one of the suspects that is both grating and borders on inappropriate. As a consequence of all this, I found this instalment to fall well short of expectations.

So, sadly, unlike previous books, I cannot make a song and dance about this one – not when Banks does that in almost every scene he appears. Well, makes a song of it, anyhow.

Nonetheless, I am looking forward to the next book in the hope that what Zelda has uncovered is explored, sans the unnecessary poetry and most of the musical references.

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All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Why oh why did it take me so long to read the beautifully titled, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr? I bought it not long after it came out, started it about a year later but, for some reason (I think the genres I’d been reading or what was going on in my life meant it didn’t resonate at that moment) I put it aside, promising myself I would get to it later as it was well written and I could tell the story would drag me in. Well, later came and went, it seems. That was, until a friend tweeted me a few days ago asking me if I’d read it and reviewed it and saying how powerful he found the book…

Powerful hey? That was enough of a prompt to send me back to the novel – starting from the beginning again – and basically surrender myself to Doerr’s magnificent prose and war-torn Europe. The central characters Doerr so carefully and delicately constructs (like the miniature houses the locksmith lovingly creates) insinuate themselves from the pages and, little by little, into your heart. There’s blind, clever and sweet Marie-Laure, the ambitious, soul-crushed, orphan Werner and his strong sister, Jutta; gentle dreamer with unshakeable ethics, Frederick; Etienne, and the dangerous giant with a passion for classical music, Volkheimer – all of whom are swept up in the dark forces that tore Europe apart and forever transformed its people.

Beautifully and heart-wrenchingly told, using various communication devices – from radios and sound to art, books and music, as well as science (particularly studies of various fauna) and the works of Jules Verne – as metaphors to tell the painful story of what happens to the central characters as their families, communities, cities and countries fight for dominance and/or freedom from that. The greatest battles are the interior wars the characters fight with themselves. Blindness also functions as both a metaphor and a reality. There’s the actual physical loss of sight, as well as being blind – usually wilfully – to what is happening within and around one. How even good people can be complicit in terrible things. Innocence is both lost and found, people vanish and reappear, have their greatest strengths tested and their weaknesses exposed. Dreams are destroyed and rebuilt and hope shines its effervescent light even in the dimmest of places.

I have read a number of war narratives with mixed responses and found this to be one of the most original and haunting I have found. My friend (John) was right – it is powerful, but it’s also moving, heart-warming, dramatic and painful at the same time. Your heart is masterfully juggled as you read – thrown high in the air, before being held softly in a palm or simply dropped. Gut-wrenching doesn’t begin to describe it.

This book isn’t an easy read, but it is a transformative one that I am so glad I was eventually led back to – thank you, John. I cannot recommend it more highly.

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Pepy’s London: Everyday Life in London 1650-1703 by Stephen Porter

11987791Short, sharp and interesting, if sometimes a little dryer than the title might suggest, Porter’s brief history of London as it was immediately after the execution of Charles I, throughout the Interregnum and Oliver Cromwell’s reign, the leadership (!) of Richard Cromwell to the restoration of Charles II, James II’s time on the throne, the Glorious Revolution and the beginnings of the reign of William and Mary, is packed full of facts and observations.

Though the title suggests this is London as Samuel Pepys experienced and wrote about it, it’s more than that. It’s also a London on the brink of religious and political upheavals as suspicion and faith caused many tensions and riots. It’s a city enduring and moving with swiftly changing economic circumstances and robust and exciting scientific discoveries, as well as a place that was culturally enterprising and rich, as theatre, music, writing and art underwent another Renaissance.

Using Pepy’s life as a yardstick by which to measure the altering moods and landscape of the city, Porter offers a keen insight into the various people and events that helped to fashion London into what it is today. Whether it was intolerance for immigrants, appreciation and exploitation of other cultures, growing literacy, expanding borders as the Empire grew, trade, war, frosts, plague or fire, what is clear is that London was rarely if ever dull – whether you were gentry or from the lower classes.

The just over half a century covered really does encompass an amazing array of transformations  – and not just in terms of leaders and governing styles. Porter is such a good historian, my only beef with the book is that it is so dry at times and when you use the name Pepys in the title, I think it’s dryer than it has a right to be! Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this great overview. The illustrations are also terrific and really well explained.

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Murder at Hatfield House by Amanda Carmack

16101141Murder at Hatfield House by Amanda Carmack is, as the title suggests, an historical mystery featuring an amateur sleuth – a female musician, Kate, who is tasked with/takes it upon herself to solve the gruesome deaths occurring around Hatfield House. Hatfield House being the place where the young Princess Elizabeth was placed under house arrest by her sister, Queen Mary.

Set in 1558, in the months before Elizabeth ascends to the throne, suspicion between the Protestant Princess and her Catholic half-sister and the forces that align on either side of them are thick and plots abound. When the servant of an envoy of the queen’s, the obnoxious Lord Braceton, sent ostensibly to find heretics being shielded by Elizabeth, is killed, the envoy determines that the princess and her household must be guilty.

As other bodies appear and mistrust grows and the envoy’s bullying tactics to elicit confessions reach new heights, Elizabeth employs Kate to act as her spy and try and seek out those responsible for the horror. Aligning herself with her friend, the lawyer Matthew, a handsome actor, and various servants of the princess, Kate must risk life and limb to not only stop more of her friends dying and the princess being put at risk, but to protect the future of her country as well.

I had mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I really enjoyed the setting and timing of the novel and felt this was well done – the political and religious tension, the finger-pointing, and even the vulnerability of the young Elizabeth who, despite being feisty, was at the whim of her sister’s good grace. On the other, I found Kate, while clever and kind, was too modern for the era in the sense of what she was able to do (wander the countryside unescorted, disappear and roam all over houses, and even in her friendship with Matthew etc). Some of her actions also belied her intelligence and I wanted to shout at her not to be so stupid as to put herself at such obvious risk. I understand characters do have to do perilous things, build narrative tension and show their heroic stripes, but really, sometimes Kate was just a dolt.

The ending was also strange. When the big expose comes, the “who dunnit” if you will, though I half-expected it, the reasoning didn’t seem sound. I thought, somehow I’d misread something and went back to reread the part before – but no, it was as is and, for some reason, I found it didn’t sit as well as I’d hoped.

Overall, however, despite these misgivings, I did enjoy the book.

 

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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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