Absent in the Spring by Mary Westmacott (Agatha Christie)

img_20180809_0727129331

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I love Agatha Christie’s crime fiction but I’ve held back from reading her other books written under the name of Mary Westmacott, not sure just what to expect. So, I was very glad to find that Absent in the Spring is just as good as her other books and I was thoroughly absorbed in the story of Joan Scudamore who was stranded in the desert, after visiting her daughter in Baghdad.

Agatha Christie managed to keep the true identity of Mary Westmacott a secret for fifteen years! Absent in the Spring is the one book she wrote that  satisfied her completely – and having now read it I can see why. She wrote the book in just three days in 1944. It had ‘grown inside‘ her for six or seven years. She had visualised all the characters and they were there ready for her to write about them and she just had to get it down on paper, writing in a ‘white heat‘, without interruptions until it was finished, leaving her exhausted. She slept for more or less twenty-four hours afterwards. She took the title from Shakespeare’s sonnet that begins ‘From you I have been absent in the spring.’ (Sonnet 98)

It is a great example of an unlikeable character that makes fascinating reading – you don’t have to like a character to love a book. In her Autobiography she wrote that it was:

… the picture of a woman with a complete image of herself, of what she was, but about which she was completely mistaken. Through her actions, her feelings and thoughts this would be revealed to the reader. She would be, as it were, continually meeting herself, not recognising herself, but becoming increasingly uneasy. What brought about this revelation would be the fact that for the first time in her life she was alone – completely alone – for four or five days. (page 516)

The novel is set in Mesopotamia (corresponding to today’s Iraq, mostly, but also parts of modern-day Iran, Syria and Turkey) in a railway rest-house at Tel Abu Hamid on the Turkish border, where Joan is stranded, delayed by floods – no trains or vehicles can get through to Mosul, her next stop on her journey home to London. There are no other travellers there, only an Arab boy and an Indian servant who brings her meals, but who speak little English and there is nowhere to go, except to walk in the desert.

At first she occupies herself writing letters and reading the two books she has with her, The Power House by John Buchan and Memoirs of Lady Catherine Dysart. Then she starts thinking about herself and gradually relives her past life, all the time with a growing feeling of unease and anxiety as she reinterprets her past. She wonders, for the first time in her life what she is really like and what other people think of her, with that unsettling, anxious feeling that she is not the person she thought she was. And she resolves to put things right when she returns home.

She is jolted out of her complacency  and self deception as she remembers how Rodney had looked as she watched him leave Victoria Station:

Suddenly, in the desert,with the sun pouring down on her, Joan gave a quick uncontrollable shiver.

She thought, No, no – I don’t want to go on – I don’t want to think about this …

Rodney, striding up the platform, his head thrown back, the tired sag of his shoulders all gone. A man who had been relieved of an intolerable burden …

Really, what was the matter with her? She was imagining things, inventing them. Her eyes had played a trick on her.

Why hadn’t he waited to see the train pull out?

She was imagining – Stop, that didn’t make it any better. If you imagined a thing like that, it meant that such an idea was already in your head.

And it couldn’t be true – the inference that she had drawn simply could not be true.

She was saying to herself (wasn’t she?) that Rodney was glad she was going away …

And that simply couldn’t be true! (pages 55-56)

It really is a most remarkable book. On the surface it is a simple story, but in fact it is a complex and in-depth character study, with a growing sense of tension. The setting adds to the uneasiness as Joan walks in the desert to get away from the rest-house, with its refuse dump of tins enclosed by a tangle of barbed wire,  and a space where skinny chickens run about squawking loudly and with clouds of flies surrounding the area. There is a twist at the end of the book, which I had begun to anticipate as I approached the final pages, which rounded it off very well. An excellent book.

Now, I really must get hold of her other Mary Westmacott books!

My copy is a paperback, published by Fontana, 2nd impression 1983, 192 pages. This is the 4th book for my 10 Books of Summer 2018 Challenge.

Catching Up: Darkside by Belinda Bauer & The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

Once more I’m behind with reviews of some of the books I’ve read in the past few weeks, so here are some brief notes on two of them that fall into the 10 Books of Summer Reading category.

Darkside by [Bauer, Belinda]

5*

Darkside  is Belinda Bauer’s second novel, set in Shipcott on Exmoor a few years after the events in her first novel, Blacklands. Some of the characters in Blacklands also appear in Darkside, but only in minor roles and I think that Darkside can easily be read as a standalone novel. Shipcott is an isolated village and young PC Jonas Holly is the only policeman in the area covering seven villages and a large part of Exmoor. When Margaret Priddy is killed his inexperience means that has to call in the Taunton Homicide team, led by DCI John Marvel.

Jonas and Marvel clash and Jonas, undermined by as number of anonymous notes accusing him of failing to do his job, tries to keep out of Marvel’s way. More murders follow as Jonas, whose wife Lucy has been diagnosed with MS, is struggling to hold everything together. I liked the characterisation, the description of the setting and the twisty, turning plot. Like Blacklands, Darkside is full of a dark, brooding atmosphere and suspense. I had my suspicions about the identity of the murderer but it was only as I was getting near to the end of the book that I began to think I could possibly be right.

The Woman in Cabin 10

3*

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware didn’t satisfy me as much as Darkside. I liked the beginning of the book. The main character, journalist Lo Blacklock takes the opportunity to fill in for her boss on a luxury press launch on a boutique cruise ship and hopes it will help her recover from a traumatic break-in at her flat. But woken in the night by a scream from cabin 10 next to hers she believes a woman was thrown over board, only to discover that the ship’s records show that cabin 10 was unoccupied. Lo is exhausted from lack of sleep, overwrought with anxiety and dependent on pills and alcohol to see her through. She fails to convince anyone that she is telling the truth.

So far so good. I thought the setting on a luxury cruise ship worked well for this type of locked room mystery. But then as I read on I felt the book was too drawn out, I wasn’t convinced by the plot and in places I found it hard to believe. I wanted to know how it would end  and it is easy reading, so I kept turning the pages. But the final chapter left me cold – tying up the ends in a facile way.

On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill

I’ve been doing quite well with reading books for my 10 Books of Summer Challenge – but not so well at writing reviews of them.

On Beulah Height (Dalziel & Pascoe, #17)

So here is a quick review of the first of my 10 Books. It’s also one of my TBRs, a book I’ve owned for a couple of years:

I loved On Beulah Height is Reginald Hill’s 17th Dalziel and Pascoe novel. He wrote 25 in this series and although it would probably make sense to get a picture of their development I’ve been reading them out of order. It doesn’t seem to matter much, but in this one there are a few references to something that had happened in an earlier case (told in The Wood Beyond) that had affected Pascoe personally. It had  filled him with anger and it is still affecting him, whilst investigating this case. But this book can easily be read as a standalone novel.

It is not just a crime fiction novel, it is also a book that raises many issues about parenthood, the relationship between families and their children and the devastation and anguish of parents and a community at the loss of a child.

I’d really like to re-read it some time as it is a complex book, that begins with a transcript written by Betsy Allgood, then aged seven, telling what had happened in the little village of Dendale in Yorkshire before the valley was flooded to provide a reservoir. That summer three little girls had gone missing. No bodies were ever found, and the best suspect, a strange lad named Benny Lightfoot, was held for a time, then released. Benny then disappeared from the area

Fifteen years later another little girl, Lorraine, also aged seven went out for a walk one morning with her dog before her parents got up and didn’t return home, reviving memories of the missing children from fifteen years earlier. It was a case that has haunted Dalziel – and the fears increase when a message appeared, sprayed on the walls: BENNY’S  BACK. It’s been a hot, dry summer and the buildings beneath the reservoir are gradually becoming visible and tensions are rising as memories of the missing children increase the fears for Lorraine’s safety.

This book is tightly plotted with many twists that made me change my mind so many times I gave up trying to work out who the murderer was and just read for the pleasure of reading. Hill’s descriptive writing is rich and full of imagery. The main characters are fully rounded people and the supporting cast are believable personalities, often described with wry humour.

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins (30 Jan. 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007313179
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007313174
  • Source: I bought the book
  • My rating: 5*

WWW Wednesday: 13 June 2018

IMG_1384-0

WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

I’m currently reading:

The Grapes of WrathOn Beulah Height (Dalziel & Pascoe, #17)

I’m making good progress with The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and I’m still loving it.The Joads have arrived in California and it’s not what they expected – too many homeless, hungry people desperate for work being moved on from place to place. Steinbeck’s writing is detailed and richly descriptive. I feel as though I’m on the road with the characters.

I’m also reading On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill, crime fiction about missing children in a Yorkshire village. A little girl took her dog out for a walk early one morning and didn’t come home. Three little girls had disappeared 15 years earlier and their bodies were never found. I’ve read nearly half the book and as usual with Hill’s books I love the characterisation, the humour and his use of dialect. It’s the first of my 10 Books of Summer.

Recently finished: Come a Little Closer by Rachel Abbott – definitely creepy and disturbing. It’s the first book of hers I’ve read, but the seventh one she’s written. It reads well as a standalone. It’s described as a psychological thriller and the characters are certainly unstable, stressed and in complex and dangerous relationships. I gave it three stars on Goodreads – maybe that’s being generous, as I’m not at all sure I did ‘like’ it.

Come A Little Closer (DCI Tom Douglas #7)

Synopsis:

They will be coming soon. They come every night. 
  
Snow is falling softly as a young woman takes her last breath. 
  
Fifteen miles away, two women sit silently in a dark kitchen. They don’t speak, because there is nothing left to be said. 
  
Another woman boards a plane to escape the man who is trying to steal her life. But she will have to return, sooner or later. 
  
These strangers have one thing in common. They each made one bad choice – and now they have no choices left. Soon they won’t be strangers, they’ll be family… 
  
When DCI Tom Douglas is called to the cold, lonely scene of a suspicious death, he is baffled. Who is she? Where did she come from? How did she get there? 
  
How many more must die? Who is controlling them, and how can they be stopped?

I may write more about this book once I’ve sorted out my thoughts about it.

Reading next: Stalker by Lisa Stone, due to be published tomorrow 14 June.

Synopsis:

Someone is always watching…

Derek Flint is a loner. He lives with his mother and spends his
evenings watching his clients on the CCTV cameras he has installed inside their homes. He likes their companionship – even if it’s through a screen.

When a series of crimes hits Derek’s neighbourhood, DC Beth Mayes begins to suspect he’s involved. How does he know so much about the victims’ lives? Why won’t he let anyone into his office? And what is his mother hiding in that strange, lonely house?

As the crimes become more violent, Beth must race against the clock to find out who is behind the attacks. Will she uncover the truth in time? And is Derek more dangerous than even she has guessed?

Have you read any of these books?  Do any of them tempt you? 

10 Books of Summer

Cathy at Cathy 746 Books has an annual challenge, 20 Books of Summer, to read twenty books over the summer months starting on 1 June 2018 and running until 3 September 2018. The aim is to read from your TBR books already on your shelves.

There are also the options to read 15 or 10 books and as I’m very good at listing the books I want to read and very bad at sticking to the list I’m going for the 10 book option. I’ve never managed to stick to my list before so here’s hoping this year I’ll manage it. But the beauty of this meme is that if you change your mind you can even change your list!

So for now here are my 10 books:

10 Bks Summer 18

  1. The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
  2. The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell
  3. Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor
  4. On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill
  5. Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole
  6. Darkside by Belinda Bauer
  7. Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner
  8. Coffin Road by Peter May
  9. Absent in the Spring by Agatha Christie
  10. End in Tears by Ruth Rendell

I’ve not listed them in any particular order but I shall start with reading On Beulah Height.

So, any thoughts on my choices? Have you read any of these books? Are you taking part too?

10 Books of Summer: Challenge Over

Cathy at Cathy 746 Books has an annual challenge, 20 Books of Summer, which ends today, 3 September 2017. I included e-books as well as paper books.

As I’m very good at listing the books I want to read and very bad at sticking to the list I went for the 10 book option, but even so I didn’t read all 10! I read 8 of the 10 books.

I read:

Here are my thoughts on the books I read. I enjoyed some more than others.

They’re all novels except for Long Road From Jarrow by Stuart Maconie, in which he describes how he retraced the route the Jarrow marchers took in 1936 and compared what Britain was like then compared to the Britain of today. It’s a mix of travel writing, social and cultural history and political commentary, with the main emphasis on the current social, cultural and political scene. I thought it was fascinating, thought-provoking and most entertaining.

The novels in A-Z order by author:

Beneath a Burning Sky by Jenny Ashcroft -a story of love, secrets and betrayal. I had mixed feelings about this book. I liked the historical setting – Alexandria at the end of the 19th century when Egypt was under British rule. Basically it’s romance and I’d hoped for more historical content. So, not a great success.

Miraculous Mysteries edited by Martin Edward – Locked-Room Murders And Impossible Crimes. There are sixteen stories in the collection. Martin Edwards has prefaced each one with a brief biographical note, which I found useful as some of the authors were new to me. I’m not a big fan of short stories, often finding them disappointing. So I’m glad to say that I enjoyed this anthology.

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig –  a story of love and loss and living in the moment. This book caught my imagination right from the start and I read it quite quickly, enjoying the trips through time. Tom Hazard’s condition means that he ages much slower than other people and he’s been alive for centuries. He tells his life story in flashbacks, switching back and forth in time between the present day and the past. I really enjoyed it.

Did You See Melody? by Sophie Hannah – a suspense novel, but not one I found particularly gripping. Melody was seven when she disappeared and although her body had not been discovered her parents were tried and found guilty of murdering her. Then people report seeing her and as the details of what happened to her are gradually revealed the book picked up and I was keen to find out the truth. But I thought it was far-fetched, contrived and over complicated. And then in the last few pages I found something that really did send a little shiver down my spine – and left me wondering just what had really happened to Melody, and what would happen next.

Present Tense by W H S McIntyre – crime fiction with an edge of dark humour. Criminal lawyer Robbie Munro is based in Linlithgow and deals mainly with Scottish Legal Aid cases. He gets caught up in the mystery of what was in the box Billy Paris, ex-military had left with him.  It’s a legal drama, a tense and complicated mystery, combined with details of Robbie’s personal life and another book that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

The One that Got Away by Annabel Kantaria, a story of loss and betrayal – I finished this a few days ago and haven’t reviewed it yet. It’s about Stella and George who meet at a school reunion. They last saw each other fifteen years – and they discover that there is still a spark between them. I’m still thinking about the book and will write about soon.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy – at once a love story and a provocation-a novel as inventive as it is emotionally engaging. Overall I found this a difficult book to read, good in parts only. In the middle section I was mainly bewildered. It is a heart breaking book about love and loss – and it doesn’t spare the details

The books I didn’t get round to reading are:

  • The King in the North by Max Adams – the life and times of Oswald of Northumbria in the 7th century
  • Mister Pip by Ernest Jones – a story within a story and a fable

Beneath a Burning Sky by Jenny Ashcroft

Publication Date: June 29th from Sphere

Source: Review Copy

When twenty-two-year-old Olivia is coerced into marriage by the cruel Alistair Sheldon she leaves England for Egypt, his home and the land of her own childhood. Reluctant as she is to go with Alistair, it’s in her new home that she finds happiness in surprising places: she is reunited with her long-estranged sister, Clara, and falls ‘“ impossibly and illicitly ‘“ in love with her husband’s boarder, Captain Edward Bertram.

Then Clara is abducted from one of the busiest streets in the city. Olivia is told it’s thieves after ransom money, but she’s convinced there’s more to it. As she sets out to discover what’s happened to the sister she’s only just begun to know, she falls deeper into the shadowy underworld of Alexandria, putting her own life, and her chance at a future with Edward, the only man she’s ever loved, at risk. Because, determined as Olivia is to find Clara, there are others who will stop at nothing to conceal what’s become of her . . .

Beneath a Burning Sky is a novel of secrets, betrayal and, above all else, love. Set against the heat and intrigue of colonial Alexandria, this beautiful and heart-wrenching story will take your breath away.

My Thoughts:

I have mixed feelings about Beneath a Burning Sky by Jenny Ashcroft. I liked the historical setting – Alexandria at the end of the 19th century when Egypt was under British rule. It is a complex book but it is not so much historical fiction but more of a romantic story. Overall I enjoyed it but thought the book was melodramatic and I was hoping for more historical content.

There is a large cast of characters and although the main character, Olivia is convincingly described, many of the other characters are rather flat stereotypes – Alistair the sadistic older husband, Millicent, the wicked grandmother, and Edward, the ‘good’ character, the handsome, romantic lover.

From the start of the novel there is a lot that is not explained and the action moves swiftly from location to location, switching between different sets of characters. Olivia, trapped in an appalling marriage, is reunited with her older sister Clara from whom she was separated at a very young age after the death of their parents. She has no memories of her parents or her early life in Egypt, but throughout the book has tantalising flashbacks. I would have liked to have discovered what had happened to her parents, but this was only hinted at. I also wondered why Millicent, the wicked grandmother, had hated Olivia’s mother so much. And I was not convinced about the plausibility of Olivia’s forced marriage to Alistair.

But this is not the main mystery – that concerns Clara, because shortly after Olivia arrives, Clara disappears. The police investigation is completely useless, mainly because the chief of police is corrupt. What follows is Olivia’s frantic search for Clara with multiple twists as various secrets and passions begin to surface.

An added complication is the story of Nailah, an Egyptian woman, and her family. This shows the contrast between the ruling British class and the local people and the conditions they experienced and I think Jenny Ashcroft’s portrayal is the best part of her book. But I floundered to understand Nailah’s role in the novel and it was only towards the end that that became clear.

It is easy reading, and I was keen to know what had happened to Clara and why she disappeared. But for me it was too long with too many episodes that I sometimes found confusing. However, other people enjoyed it more than I did -there are plenty of 5 and 4 star reviews both on Amazon and Goodreads.

With thanks to NetGalley and Sphere, the publisher for a review copy.

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Sphere (29 Jun. 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0751565032
  • ISBN-13: 978-0751565034
  • My Rating: 3˜…

This is the second book for my 10 Books of Summer Challenge.