The Vanishing Box by Elly Griffiths

Publication date: 2 November, 2017, Quercus Books

Source: review copy via NetGalley

My rating: 3*

Blurb:

Christmas 1953. Max Mephisto and his daughter Ruby are headlining Brighton Hippodrome, an achievement only slightly marred by the less-than-savoury support act: a tableau show of naked ‘living statues’. This might appear to have nothing in common with DI Edgar Stephens’ investigation into the death of a quiet flowerseller, but if there’s one thing the old comrades have learned it’s that, in Brighton, the line between art and life – and death – is all too easily blurred…

My thoughts:

This is the fourth book in the DI Stephens and Max Mephisto series. Known as the ‘Magic Men’ they had been part of a top-secret espionage unit during the War.

It is set in 1953 at Christmas just a few months after the previous book in the series, The Blood Card and magician Max Mephisto is still sceptical about performing magic on TV with his daughter Ruby in a show called Magician and Daughter. Meanwhile his old friend, DI Edgar Stephens and his team are faced with solving the murder of Lily Burtenshaw, who had been strangled and found in her room tied to a chair, leaning forward and pointing to an empty crate with ‘King Edward Potatoes’ written on the side.

Max and Ruby are performing at the Brighton Hippodrome using a human sized version of the Vanishing Box in their act. The variety show also includes an act called the Living Tableaux, showing scenes from famous paintings or classical statutory, posed by a troupe of showgirls, naked apart from skimpy flesh coloured pants. Two of the showgirls, Betty and Janette, have become friends with Lily and are lodging at the same boarding house, but Edgar wonders if there is another connection between Lily and the Living Tableau? There is something so theatrical about the way the body was posed. Edgar and his two sergeants, Emma Homes and Bob Willis, begin their search for the killer, looking for motives and suspects. Then more murders are discovered and it becomes a desperate hunt to find the killer before he/she strikes again.

I enjoyed this book but for me there is too much focus on the main characters and their relationships. Edgar is engaged to Ruby, although Max is still not too happy about it.  However, his work means he isn’t able to spend much time with her. Meanwhile Emma’s feelings for him are getting stronger and their relationship deepens as she is drawn into deadly danger. Max’s relationship with Mrs M, his landlady in Brighton, is winding down and he is attracted to Florence, another one of the showgirls.

I liked the insight into the 1950s, particularly the theatre life. Illusion and misdirection play a large part – from the acts in the variety show to the murders, and all is not what it seems. The misdirection in the form of several twists and turns threw me off course.The clues are there, if you can but see them, yet I still had little idea who the killer could be until very near the end.

My thanks to Quercus Books and Netgalley for an advance review copy of this book ahead of publication on 2nd November.

My Week in Books: 18 October 2017

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

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A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Now: I’m currently reading Days Without End by Sebastian Barry, a book I’ve borrowed from the library. It was awarded the Costa Book Award 2016 and won the 2017 Walter Scott Prize. It was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017.

Days Without End

Blurb:

After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. Having both fled terrible hardships, their days are now vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in. Then when a young Indian girl crosses their path, the possibility of lasting happiness seems within reach, if only they can survive.

I’m enjoying this book, narrated by Thomas McNulty in his own style of speech, grammatically incorrect and in Irish and American slang – surprisingly easy to read.

Then: I’ve recently finished reading The Last Hours by Minette Walters, which will be published on 2 November in hardback and as en e-book. My review will follow soon.

The Last Hours

Blurb:

June, 1348: the Black Death enters England through the port of Melcombe in the county of Dorsetshire. Unprepared for the virulence of the disease, and the speed with which it spreads, the people of the county start to die in their thousands.

In the estate of Develish, Lady Anne takes control of her people’s future – including the lives of two hundred bonded serfs. Strong, compassionate and resourceful, Lady Anne chooses a bastard slave, Thaddeus Thurkell, to act as her steward. Together, they decide to quarantine Develish by bringing the serfs inside the walls. With this sudden overturning of the accepted social order, where serfs exist only to serve their lords, conflicts soon arise. Ignorant of what is happening in the world outside, they wrestle with themselves, with God and with the terrible uncertainty of their futures.

Lady Anne’s people fear starvation but they fear the pestilence more. Who amongst them has the courage to leave the security of the walls?

And how safe is anyone in Develish when a dreadful event threatens the uneasy status quo..?

Next: I think I’ll read The Fear Index by Robert Harris. This is another book I’ve borrowed from the library and having dipped into it I’m itching to read it.

The Fear Index

Blurb:

His name is carefully guarded from the general public but within the secretive inner circles of the ultra-rich Dr Alex Hoffmann is a legend – a visionary scientist whose computer software turns everything it touches into gold.

Together with his partner, an investment banker, Hoffmann has developed a revolutionary form of artificial intelligence that tracks human emotions, enabling it to predict movements in the financial markets with uncanny accuracy. His hedge fund, based in Geneva, makes billions.

But then in the early hours of the morning, while he lies asleep with his wife, a sinister intruder breaches the elaborate security of their lakeside house. So begins a waking nightmare of paranoia and violence as Hoffmann attempts, with increasing desperation, to discover who is trying to destroy him.

His quest forces him to confront the deepest questions of what it is to be human. By the time night falls over Geneva, the financial markets will be in turmoil and Hoffmann’s world – and ours – transformed forever.

Have you read any of these books?  Do any of them tempt you? And what have you been reading this week?

Katharina: Deliverance by Margaret Skea

‘It is very shameful that children, especially defenceless young girls, are pushed into the nunneries. Shame on the unmerciful parents who treat their own so cruelly.’ Martin Luther

Katharina: Deliverance (Katharina #1)

Publication: Sanderling Books, 18 October 2017

Source: review copy from the author

My rating: 4*

Summary from Goodreads:

Germany 1505

Following the death of her mother and her father’s remarriage, five-year-old Katharina is placed in the convent at Brehna. She will never see her father again. 
Sixty-five miles away, at Erfurt in Thuringia, Martin Luder, a promising young law student, turns his back on a lucrative career in order to become a monk. 

The consequences of their meeting in Wittenberg, on Easter Sunday 1523, will reverberate down the centuries and throughout the Christian world.

A compelling portrayal of Katharina von Bora, set against the turmoil of the Peasant’s War and the German Reformation … and the controversial priest at its heart.

My thoughts:

I love historical fiction and Margaret Skea’s books about the Munro family, Turn of the Tide and A House Divided set in 16th century Scotland are two of the best I’ve read over the last few years. Her latest novel, Katharina: Deliverance is just as fascinating, also set in the 16th century, but this time in Germany. Katharina was the wife of Martin Luther and the book is written in the present tense from Katharina’s viewpoint and from two time periods. I like the dual aspect time line giving a glimpse of what is to come.

2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, which was set in motion when Martin Luther, a doctor of theology at the University of Wittenberg published his 95 theses, attacking papal abuses and the sale of indulgences. I remembered this from school history but it was only reading Katharina: Deliverance that the period and both Katharina and Martin really came to life for me.

It’s a most moving story that transported me back in time to the 16th century and I felt as though I was inside Katharina’s mind and could feel what she was feeling.  It covers the early years of her life from 1505 up to her wedding to Martin Luther in 1525 and includes, at intervals, scenes from the end of Katharina’s life in 1552. I was fascinated and so anxious for her right from the start when as a small child, she was taken from her home and unwillingly enters the convent at Brehna. Four years later, at the age of ten, she was transferred to the Marienthron convent at  Nimbschen where her aunt was the abbess. It was a difficult change for Katherina – to a silent order where communication was by sign language. She was consecrated as a nun in 1515.

Although isolated from the outside world news of Martin Luther’s teaching reached the nuns as the abbess says:

The wind of change is blowing in the outside world and will buffet us in due time. And perhaps sooner than we think, for it is our own provincial vicar, the Reverend Dr Martin Luther, who makes the challenge, and I find myself tempted to agree with his sentiment, if not his rhetoric.

Although the Church denounced Luther and his writings and ordered his books to be burnt some of the nuns, including Katharina, were inspired by his ideas and beliefs. They escaped from the convent at Easter 1523 and arrived at Wittenburg where several families helped them settle into life outside the convent. It was here that Katharina met Luther and the next phase of her life began.

Although written in the present tense, which can often be a stumbling block for me, I love Margaret Skea’s beautifully descriptive writing in passages such as this:

The year turns, the darkness of December giving way to the brilliance of a landscape cloaked in snow. The hollows on the hill behind us are smoothed out, the river below sluggish, swollen with slush. Wind blows through the valley, piling the snow in drifts, obliterating the track, neither workers nor visitors able to reach us. Within our walls, ice hangs in long fingers from roofs and windowsills, and crusts the tops of fences. Paths turn to glass and stray stems of plants snap like kindling when trodden on. In the orchard, branches bow under the weight of snow, sweeping the ground, so that we fear for their survival, and the root vegetables we would normally harvest as we needed them are set into ground so hard they are impossible to shift. Outside, the water in the troughs freezes solid, so that fresh supplies from the well must be drawn daily for the animals, and indoors, standing water forms a thick skin overnight.

In her Author’s Note Margaret Skea states that her ‘book is a work of fiction, and though based on extensive research, the Katharina depicted here is my own interpretation’. I think it works very well weaving the historical facts into this dramatic and emotional story.  I loved it and am looking forward to the next book, Katharina: Fortitude which will be published in 2018!

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 529 KB
  • Print Length: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Sanderling Books (18 Oct. 2017)

Conclave by Robert Harris

 

Conclave

I really didn’t expect to enjoy Conclave as much as I did, but then I’ve enjoyed all of his books that I’ve read, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. Conclave is about an election of a Pope and I found it absolutely fascinating as the process of the election unfolded. Harris describes the procedure as Cardinal Lomeli, the Dean of the College of Cardinals leads the 118 Cardinals through the voting stages. I felt as though I was a fly on the wall watching it throughout as the Cardinals are locked inside the Sistine Chapel, isolated from contact with the outside world.

There are quite a lot of characters involved, which at first was a bit confusing but soon their personalities became clearer and I began to have my favourites and hope that one of them would be elected. It’s all seen from Lomeli’s point of view, so my thoughts were coloured by what he reveals about each of the main candidates. As they progress through the stages of the election, whittling down the candidates to just a few, lots of secrets, scandals and disagreements are revealed. It becomes increasingly tense with each stage and Lomeli, who had been wanting to retire before the last Pope had died, finds that he too is one of the contenders – most reluctantly:

All he had ever desired in this contest was to be neutral. Neutrality had been the leitmotif of his career. (page 98)

And he realised that, whoever was elected Pope would never be able to wander around the city at will, could never browse in a bookstore or sit outside a café, but would remain a prisoner here! (page 142)

It’s also dramatic as events in the outside world impact on the Conclave.  I was completely engrossed and hoping that my favourite would be elected. Harris has thoroughly researched the subject and seamlessly woven the facts into the novel. He visited the locations used during a Conclave that are permanently closed to the public and interviewed a number of prominent Catholics including a cardinal who had taken part in a Conclave, as well as consulting many reports and books.

There is one point that I found hard to accept (I think that to say any more would spoil the book), although it is something I’d thought might happen but I’d dismissed as rather fanciful. Nevertheless I still think this is a 5* book as I enjoyed it so much – one of the best books I’ve read this year.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 3282 KB
  • Print Length: 287 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0091959179
  • Publisher: Cornerstone Digital; 01 edition (22 Sept. 2016)
  • Source: I bought it
  • My rating: 5*

New Books

Over the last few months I’ve been lucky enough to receive copies of these books for review. I’ve finished some of them and am currently reading a few, with more yet to start:

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore – first published 2 March 2017 – set in 1792, Europe is seized by political turmoil and violence. Lizzie Fawkes has grown up in Radical circles where each step of the French Revolution is followed with eager idealism. Weaving a deeply personal and moving story with a historical moment of critical and complex importance, Birdcage Walk is an unsettling and brilliantly tense drama of public and private violence, resistance and terror.

The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power by Niall Ferguson – publication date 5 October 2017 – non fiction. Most history is hierarchical: it’s about popes, presidents, and prime ministers. But what if that’s simply because they create the historical archives? What if we are missing equally powerful but less visible networks – leaving them to the conspiracy theorists, with their dreams of all-powerful Illuminati? I’m currently reading this book.

Fair of Face by Christina James – publication 15 October 2017. This is set in the Fenlands of South Lincolnshire, where a double murder is discovered in Spalding. The victims are Tina Brackenbury and her baby daughter. Her 10 year-old foster daughter, Grace has escaped the killer because she was staying at her friend, Chloe Hebblethwaith’s house at the time. Four years earlier Chloe had escaped the massacre of her family. DI Yates and his team face a series of apparently impossible conundrums.

Katharina: Deliverance by Margaret Skea – publication 18 October 2017.   A compelling portrayal of Katharina von Bora, set against the turmoil of the Peasant’s War and the German Reformation … and of Martin Luther, the controversial priest at its heart. The consequences of their meeting in Wittenberg, on Easter Sunday 1523, has reverberated down the centuries and throughout the Christian world. I have finished reading this book – my review will follow in the next few days.

The Last Hours by Minette Walters – publication date 2 November 2017. Historical fiction set in 1348 about the Black Death. In the estate of Develish in Dorsetshire, Lady Anne quarantines the people, including two hundred bonded serfs, by bringing them with the walls.  Ignorant of what is happening in the world outside they fear starvation but they fear the pestilence more. Who amongst them has the courage to leave the security of the walls? I’m currently reading this book.

The Vanishing Box by Elly Griffiths – publication date 2 November 2017. The fourth book in the Stephens and Mephisto mystery series. It’s Christmas 1953, Max Mephisto and his daughter Ruby are headlining Brighton Hippodrome, an achievement only slightly marred by the less-than-savoury support act: a tableau show of naked ‘living statues’. This might appear to have nothing in common with DI Edgar Stephens’ investigation into the death of a quiet flowerseller, but if there’s one thing the old comrades have learned it’s that, in Brighton, the line between art and life – and death – is all too easily blurred… I have finished reading this book – my review will follow.

The Hanged Man by Simon Kernick – publication date 16 November 2017. This is the  second in The Bone Field series, featuring DI Ray Mason and PI Tina Boyd. A house deep in the countryside where the remains of seven unidentified women have just been discovered. A cop ready to risk everything in the hunt for their killers. A man who has seen the murders and is now on the run in fear of his life. So begins the race to track down this witness before the killers do.

First Chapter First Paragraph: An Artist of the Floating World

eca8f-fistchapEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros to share the first paragraph sometimes two, of a book that she’s reading or is planning to read soon.

This week’s first paragraph is from An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro, who has been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

An Artist of the Floating World (Faber Fiction Classics) by [Ishiguro, Kazuo]

It begins:

If on a sunny day you climb the steep path leading from the little wooden bridge still referred to around here as ‘the Bridge of Hesitation’ you will not have  to walk far before the roof of my house becomes visible between the tops of two gingko trees. Even if it did not occupy such a commanding position on the hill, the house would still stand out from all others nearby, so that as you come up the path, you may find yourself wondering what sort of wealthy man owns it.

Blurb (from Amazon):

It is 1948. Japan is rebuilding her cities after the calamity of World War Two, her people putting defeat behind them and looking to the future. The celebrated artist, Masuji Ono, fills his days attending to his garden, his house repairs, his two grown daughters and his grandson; his evenings drinking with old associates in quiet lantern-lit bars. His should be a tranquil retirement. But as his memories continually return to the past – to a life and career deeply touched by the rise of Japanese militarism – a dark shadow begins to grow over his serenity.

There are some books that draw me in right from the beginning – and this is one of them. I’m hoping it lives up to its promise. I like the way Ishiguro paints a picture setting the scene in my mind as though I’m standing there looking at the view.

What do you think?  Would you continue reading?

 

A Darker Domain by Val McDermid

A Darker Domain (Karen Pirie, #2)

This is the second book in Val McDermid’s Kate Pirie series, a series that really should be read in order as A Darker Domain reveals one of the outcomes of the first book, The Distant Echo.

Description from Amazon:

Twenty-five years ago, the daughter of the richest man in Scotland and her baby son were kidnapped and held to ransom. But Catriona Grant ended up dead and little Adam’s fate has remained a mystery ever since. When a new clue is discovered in a deserted Tuscan villa – along with grisly evidence of a recent murder – cold case expert DI Karen Pirie is assigned to follow the trail.

She’s already working a case from the same year. During the Miners’ Strike of 1984, pit worker Mick Prentice vanished. He was presumed to have broken ranks and fled south with other ‘scabs’… but Karen finds that the reported events of that night don’t add up. Where did he really go? And is there a link to the Grant mystery?

The truth is stranger – and far darker – than fiction.

My thoughts:

The first thing that struck me when I began reading this book is that is not divided into chapters. Instead the text is divided by date and place, which initially is a bit confusing, moving between the two cases Karen is investigating. However, I soon got the hang of it.

I like the mix of fact and fiction in A Darker Domain, using the Miners’ Strike as the backdrop to the mystery of Mick Prentice’s disappearance. It is intricately plotted, with a large cast of characters and it’s deceptively easy to read – it’s easy to pass over significant facts that you realise later are of importance.

I like Karen Pirie, who had been a Detective Constable in the second part of the first book, The Distant Echo. Now she is a Detective Inspector in charge of the Cold Case Review Team in Fife. She describes herself as

a wee fat woman crammed into a Marks and Spencer suit, mid-brown hair needing a visit to he hairdresser, might be pretty if you could see the definition of her bones under the flesh. (page 6)

In the tradition of fictional detectives she’s an independent character, who takes little notice of her ineffectual boss, who she nicknames the ‘Macaroon’, undermining his authority. But she is hard-working and tenacious.

I like the contrasts Val McDermid portrays, such as the ‘darker domain‘ of the miners’ lives, the rich landowner wanting to find his grandson, and the beautiful setting in Tuscany where the members of a troupe of puppeteers, are squatting in a ruined villa.

I also like the mix of the two cases, which, as this is crime fiction, I fully expected would at some point interlink. The question is how do they interlink? Val McDermid has a neat way of leading you along the wrong lines with her twists and turns, culminating in the final paragraph. But the ending seemed rushed, tacked on, almost as an afterthought, which left me bemused and feeling rather flat. So, not as good as The Distant Echo but still an entertaining book.

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; First Thus edition (2 April 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007243316
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007243310
  • Source: a library book
  • My rating: 3.5* (rounded up to 4* on Goodreads)

Reading Challenges: my 4th book for R.I.P. XII

I hope to read the next book in the series, The Skeleton Road, before the end of the year.