Review Round-Up

Next week we are going away on holiday, and I seem to have a pile of books I haven’t reviewed. What have I been talking about here lately? Anyway, I must get through them because I’ll forget them otherwise, and I fully intend to spend a good part of my holiday stuck in a book, thus clocking up yet another backlog.

First up, two very different thrillers. River of Darkness by Rennie Airth is set in 1921, under the long shadow of the First World War. It opens with the discovery of a massacre at a manor house in Surrey, the victims all stabbed apart from the lady of the house who has been killed in a strange and disturbing manner. It’s a gruesome crime and a seemingly motiveless one, as the family was highly respectable and much loved in the area. Airth’s novel features Detective Inspector John Madden, a man haunted by the horrors of the trenches who is using his job as a shield against his own despair. For some time the collected police forces, both local and metropolitan are stumped, and Madden and his boss, Chief Inspector Sinclair, know they need results before the case is taken from them and placed in the hands of Chief Superintendent Sampson, a man who puts his own PR before procedure and who they are convinced will take an unimaginative line on the case. But a few breakthroughs put them on the trail of a very damaged man, and their unorthodox use of the new science of psychoanalysis starts to uncover a picture of a criminal who will stop at nothing to satisfy his desires.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It creates a strong sense of place and beautifully reproduces the atmosphere of the early 1920s. It’s also extremely well plotted, inexorably drawing its strings together and then winding them tight as the climax is approached. Yet for all its pace, it’s a spacious book with plenty of time to present and develop characters. John Madden gets himself a love interest in the feisty local doctor, Helen Blackwell, and the emerging portrait of the criminal is so cleverly and delicately done. I loved it; very superior crime fiction.

The second thriller was a most unusual one. Bluethroat Morning by Jacqui Lofthouse is the story of Harry Bliss, a man who cannot get over his wife’s suicide and who, six years later, decides to return to the lonely beach in Norfolk where she took her life to solve the mystery surrounding her death. He’s aided in this by a new love interest, Helen, the 19-year-old daughter of his best friend, a girl who really ought to be out of bounds, but who joins forces with him in part because she’s as obsessed by his wife as he is. The enigmatic center of the novel is Alison Oakley, a once-famous model who left the profession dangerously emaciated. Rebuilding her life, she meets Harry, marries him and writes a bestselling novel about anorexia. So far so good, but faced with the obstacle of the second novel, her self-esteem tumbles again and Harry fears for her state of mind. And then, she comes across an old family photo that shows Harry’s great-grandfather and his second wife, the lovely Arabella who committed suicide by walking into the sea. Alison determines to find out as much as she can about the woman and travels alone to Norfolk to work on her novel, only to end up in, a surprising twist of fate, burning the pages she wrote and re-enacting Arabella’s tragic death.

So as you can begin to see, this is a novel of recurrent patterns, of obsession and of recreating stories from the past. Harry falls in love with Helen because she looks so similar to Arabella, and Helen has read the newspaper reports about Harry that unjustly claimed he caused Alison’s death by neglecting her in her depression and failing to support her in her work. Their edgy relationship, a strange mix of passion and antagonism, propels them on a headlong dash to Norfolk to the cottage where Alison lived and the strange local character, the 98-year-old Ern Higham, who seems to hold all the answers. There’s a great list of secondary characters including a journalist with a grudge against Harry and an American academic seeking to write the biography of Alison’s life. This is a beautifully written novel that moves at a slow, dreamy pace, building up layers of suspense. It makes you wait for the answers, but they are worth it when they come –  it’s a sophisticated, intense read.

Finally, a word about Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones. This novel really does deserve all the accolades it’s been given. What a classy, clever story this is, but you do have to keep your wits about you reading it. It opens with Polly, aged 19, staring at the painting on her wall (of ‘Fire and Hemlock’) and finding a door open in her mind onto a second, hidden set of memories. These take her nine years back in time to a difficult period in her life when her two self-centred parents are divorcing and she is spending most of her time at her grandmother’s house. Playing with her friend, Nina, they gate crash a funeral at the somewhat forbidding manor house at the end of the lane, where Polly is befriended by Thomas Lynne, a man who seems as out of place as she is. Tom, a grown-up, a cellist and possibly the most unlikely but charming hero of fiction, joins Polly in her favourite activity of story-weaving, harmless enough until it seems that the stories they create are coming true. And the more Polly gets to know Tom, the more she realizes that he is bound by curious and worrying ties to the owners of the grand house where they first met, Morton and Laurel Leroy. They seem to have a magical hold over him, and Tom’s safety depends on Polly giving him up as a friend.

This is a covert love story that delights in inserting fantastic elements into recognizable reality. It’s funny and completely engaging and transports the reader effortlessly into a plausible, supernatural world. The ending is complicated, however, and Wynne Jones just loves the art of subtle suggestion. I think I understood about 75% of it, but the effect of this was only to make me want to read the novel over again. It was such a pleasant journey. If you enjoy YA fiction, this is a must, and if you’ve never read any, it’s a great place to start.

Phew! I’ll do some more reviews on Sunday – as you can appreciate, it’s been a great stretch lately.

20 thoughts on “Review Round-Up

  1. Yes, do have a lovely holiday, even if as here you’ll only return to further gorge my tbr pile, as ever. I have been reading if not commenting along, and I did think to comment on the Beethoven-Britney and mothering image pages, but alas I couldn’t get my thoughts out in time in a way I would like. Student excuses! Enjoy the holiday and the books.

  2. I read the Airth book when it first came out (which has been some time ago now, I think?) and remember liking it very much (though sadly once again all the details have faded and all I recall was the bloody murders). I was so impressed that I couldn’t wait for his next book, which took ages and ages to arrive, so much time that when it finally had I had sort of forgotten my thrill with his first book and bypassed the second. I believe there is now a third book coming out, which I Do want to read, but your review makes me want to reread the first and start from the beginning. I must look up the Lofthouse, too (it seems I saw that one on one of my meanderings through some small UK presses). And now this second mention of the Wynne Jones book means I am going to have to look for this one as well. See, you do as much damage to my pocket book as I do to yours! 🙂

  3. Lilian – thank you! You’ll have to put up with me for a few more days before we leave mid-week. But all those reviews fooled you – I do in fact have even more books to talk about before I’ve caught up! 🙂

    Bookboxed – I’m very used to student excuses and I accept them all, y’know. 😉 I have some good books planned for holiday – you have been warned! And if those thoughts on Beethoven and Britney come together, you can drop by with them any time and be welcome.

    Danielle – ah! I should have known you’d have and like Airth. You’re quite right, there have been huge gaps between his books and the third one is only recently out, and is possibly still in hardback. I did see the second in the bookshop though, and you can imagine I was sorely tempted. I would love to know what you think of Jacqui Lofthouse or Diana Wynne Jones. Now the question is are we really good for each other or really bad? I think we’re really good. 🙂

  4. I love love love Fire and Hemlock; I’m always so thrilled when new people read and enjoy it. It gets better and better on subsequent rereadings – especially for me, since I read it first when I was in eighth or ninth grade. As I’ve gotten older and older, I feel like I’ve grown into the book’s (many!) layers of meaning.

    Also, the Airth mystery sounds wonderful. I am addicted to manor house stories between the Wars. I wish I’d checked Google Reader before I went to the library today; I’d have gotten this in a hot second. Thanks for the recommendation!

  5. Enjoy theholiday, and thanks for the reviews. I’m sort of at a lull in my reading so at least I have some books to put on my “to read” list. I’m afraid that I get pretty frustrated by our local library, though. They usually only have about 25% of the books you mention, and I really can’t buy all the books I want to read. I’d be so broke.

  6. Jenny – I’m looking forward to my first reread already! 🙂 I am a big fan of stories about the interwar period too – if you can recommend any you particularly enjoyed, I’d be glad to know about them.

    Healingmagichands – hmmm, I’ll have to think about that availability problem. I haven’t read and reviewed any classics here lately, or any of the better known books that get out. I’ll have to remember to incorporate those into my reading lists regularly. I don’t like the idea that people can’t easily get hold of the books I read.

  7. All three of these books sound good! I’m curious about the Diana Wynne Jones, in particular — it’s interesting that YA fiction would be so challenging and require such an effort to keep things straight. But why not? The thrillers sound good too — thanks for introducing me to two new authors!

  8. Just when I think I’m not really interested in a certain genre, along comes some reviews like yours that intrigue me and wham, I’m checking out shelves in the library and bookstore that I’d not bothered much with. Add to that the fact that NEWSWEEK magazine recently came out with a “reading” issue and my son, the new journalism student, read the list and pooh-poohed me for not being more interested in non-fiction.

    I’m thinking about a sabbatical where I would do nothing but read, but then write a short paper (for my company, as proof of my sabbatical’s value) on how it made me not only a better reader and potentially, person, but also how I would then be a better employee, contributor and world citizen. Nah, probaby won’t work.

    Anyway, thanks for opening my eyes to books I would totally have overlooked, and have a wonderful (and undoubtedly) well deserved vacation!!!

  9. Hope you have a lovely and relaxing holiday. I think the Lofthouse and the Diana Wynne Jones appeal to me the most. I usually enjoy the YA stuff I read so will look out for this one.

  10. River of Darkness sounds delectable–right to the top of the list it goes! Have a wonderful holiday; I fully expect to be scribbling down more authors and titles when you return…Enjoy, enjoy!

  11. All three sound good but I am particulary intrigued by Fire and Hemlock. I must add it to my list. I’m afriad to find out about all the other books you promise to review for fear of adding them to my list too!

  12. I just recently began reading some YA novels, not knowing if I’d like them or not. So far, I’m very impressed. I had heard of Fire and Hemlock – all good, I might add – but your review really makes me want to put it on my list. Have a wonderful vacation! I wish I could take one soon.

  13. I sympathize. I have a pile of books to review as well but lately I just can’t seem to get motivated. Anyway hope you have a wonderful holiday! Now, I must go add that Fire & Hemlock book to my list 🙂

  14. Dorothy – you know I’d love to know what you make of any of them! Diana Wynne Jones is interesting – for a close and attentive reader like you, I’d think you’d enjoy the sophistication of the ending!

    Oh – I do love the idea of a reading sabbatical undertaken with the thought of broadening the mind – there’s probably a non-fiction book waiting to be written about that that would interest you, too! 🙂 It’s a perfectly compelling argument as far as I can see… And I sympathise – you have NO idea how many books blogging has brought into my house. Rarely does a day go by without my coming across a handful of new titles or authors I really have to check out. It’s the sort of richness I could do with being richer for! Still, I’d love to know what you think of any of these, and I’ll look forward to you moving into new genres and trying new authors and undoubtedly growing with every book.

    Pete – yes, both of those would interest you for the psychological dimension. I didn’t know you liked YA – I’ll bear that in mind!

    ds – I would love to know what you think of it if you read it. I rarely visit you these days without coming away choc-full of new recommendations!

    Stefanie – know the feeling well, my friend! I do think you’d like Wynne Jones, in a way I’m sort of surprised that you haven’t read her already, but then, when I think of all the authors out there, I’m astonished any of us has ever read the same thing, ever! 🙂

    Grad – would love to know what you think of it. And if I could put you in my pocket to stowaway on holiday, I promise I’d do it.

    Iliana – I’m so glad it’s not just me! I think that you’d like Fire and Hemlock a lot; like Stefanie, it seems just up your alley. Thank you for the kind wishes – I have everything crossed that we have a nice time.

  15. [smugly] I knew you’d like Fire and Hemlock. I am very curious about what you think of Bel Canto as I didn’t get on with it at all. Have a wonderful trip!

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