The 20 Books of Summer annual event, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books came to an end yesterday. I actually read just 10 of the 20 books I listed (I did swap some of the original list!) and still have 3 of the books to review. And over the summer I read a further 10 books – just not books that I’d originally listed! I’m not too good at sticking to reading lists.
First published in 1950 A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for years and now I have at last read it. It was not quite what I had imagined it to be, about Alice Springs in Australia. It is actually set in three parts, with just the third part set in Australia, not in Alice Springs but in Willstown, a fictional town in the outback.
Narrated by Noel Strachan, a solicitor, this is the story of Jean Paget. It begins a few years after the Second World War, when he tells her she has inherited a considerable sum of money from her uncle. But it is held in trust until she reaches the age of thirty five. Until then she will receive about £900 a year to spend. She wonders what to do with the money and eventually decides she wants to go back to Malaya, where she had been a prisoner of war, to dig a well. She tells Noel about what had happened to her in Malaya.
The second part is about that time in Malaya during the War at the time when the Japanese invaded the island. Jean and a group of European women and children were forced by the Japanese to walk for hundreds of miles from place to place before finally managing to stay in one village. Able to speak Malay and being courageous and resourceful, she takes on the role of the leader of their group. She met an Australian soldier, Sergeant Joe Harman, also a prisoner, who was driving a lorry for the Japanese and they became friends with disastrous consequences. This section is the best in the book to my mind.
On her return after the War she writes to Noel telling him how she set about organising the villagers to dig the well so that the women would have fresh water close to their houses and also build a washing-house. And it is here that she learns more about what had happened to Joe and decides to carry on travelling to Australia to find him and thank him for the help he had given her and the other women.
The third part is set in Australia. Jean is an organiser and on her arrival in Willstown she discovers that this is a place where the young women leave as soon as they are old enough. There are no jobs or entertainment to keep them there. So Jean decides she wants to make the town into a town just like Alice Springs. And she does this with remarkable success building a workshop for the girls to make shoes and handbags, providing an ice cream parlour and a public swimming pool and shops. At the same time her search for Joe is eventually successful. She continues writing to Noel about her life in the Australian outback, letters full of detail about her enterprises and the difficulties of cattle ranching in such isolated places – a bit too much detail for me really. But the episode where Jean helped in rescuing an injured stockman is full of drama.
This is really just the bare bones of the story – there is so much more to it than that. Others have commented on the casual racism in the book. It tells it as it was, how people lived at the time, and reflects the attitudes that people had. Jean is of course the main character, a woman somewhat ahead of her time with great strength of character, determination and entrepreneurial skills. The resourcefulness she showed in Malaya is developed in Australia.
In his Author’s Note Shute explains that the forced march during WW2 took place in Sumatra and not in Malaya and the women in the group were Dutch and not British. As in his novel, the local Japanese commander was reluctant to assume responsibility for these women and, to solve his problem, marched them out of his area and took them on a trek all around Sumatra that lasted for two and a half years.
Jean Paget was based on Mrs Geysel, whom Shute had met when he visited Sumatra in 1949. She had been one of the Dutch party, then aged 21, recently married and with a young baby she had carried for over twelve hundred miles around Sumatra. A remarkable story that I really enjoyed.
Inspector Morse isn’t sure what to make of the truncated body found dumped in the Oxford Canal, but he suspects it may be all that’s left of an elderly Oxford don last seen boarding the London train several days before. Whatever the truth, the inspector knows it won’t be simple — it never is. As he retraces Professor Browne-Smith’s route through a London netherworld of topless bars and fancy bordellos, his forebodings are fulfilled. The evidence mounts; so do the bodies. So Morse downs another pint, unleashes his pit bull instincts, and solves a mystery that defies all logic.
The Riddle of the Third Mile is Colin Dexter’s 6th book in his Inspector Morse series, first published in 1983. I remember watching the TV adaptation based on this book, The Last Enemy, but, as with most TV adaptations, it has several changes from the original. Like all of Dexter’s books this is a most complicated mystery, one of the ‘puzzle’ types. Dexter, himself, constructed crossword puzzles and made Morse a crossword aficionado. I agree with Sergeant Lewis when he asks Morse: ‘Aren’t you making it all a bit too complicated?‘ (page 145). I enjoyed trying to follow all the clues that Dexter planted in the mystery, although I had little idea about most of it. But I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The identity of the dismembered and headless corpse could have been that of Morse’s his old classics tutor, Browne-Smith or Browne-Smith’s hated rival, Westerby, or even one of the Gilbert twins who both harboured a grudge against Browne-Smith dating back to the Second World War. Or one of the twins could have been the murderer. Morse eventually works it out, by various means, including considering ‘the most improbable notions, in the sure certainty that by the law of averages some of them stood a more reasonable chance of being near to the truth than others.’ ( page 145) He’s also helped by his intuition, when a passage of scripture springs to his mind about forgiving one’s enemies: ‘ And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain (Matthew 14.1)’ which he checks in a Gideon Bible, and letting his mind ponder this he remembers a sermon he had heard on the ‘Religion of the Second Mile’:
And it was with the forty-watt bulb shedding its feeble light over the Gideon Bible that Morse smiled to himself in unspeakable joy, like one who has travelled on a longer journey still – that third and final mile …
At last he knew the truth. (page 220)
I can’t say I was also enlightened, and so I just had to read on to find out what Morse had managed to deduce.
Along with the mystery details of Morse’s earlier life when he was a student at St John’s College, Oxford are revealed. He had failed the classics degree, known as ‘Greats’, after his love affair with a postgraduate student at St Hilda’s, Wendy Spencer, came to an end. It had had a disastrous effect on his academic work.
… he departed from Oxford, a withdrawn and silent young man, bitterly belittled, yet not completely broken in spirit. It had been his sadly disappointed old father, a month or so before his death, who suggested that his only son might find a niche somewhere in the police force. (page 61)
The international-bestselling author answers readers’ questions and discusses the origins of the Oxford inspector with a penchant for classical music.
In 1975, Inspector Morse debuted, working to solve the case of a murdered hitchhiker in Colin Dexter’s Last Bus to Woodstock. The book led to a multimillion-bestselling mystery series and a television show that spawned a spinoff and a prequel. But how did the beloved DCI from Oxford come to be exactly?
In this quick read, Colin Dexter addresses some of the many questions posed to him by his readers. He reveals what motived him to break into crime writing and which authors and novels influenced him. He discusses Morse’s many traits and inner workings, as well as how he got his first Morse novel published. He also shares how he maintains a discipline with writing, how he deals with critics, and what it’s like to transform a series of novels into a television series.
Transworld Digital| 17 Jun. 2021| 433 pages| e-book Review copy| 2.5* rounded up to 3*
What happens to those girls who go missing? What happens to the Zoe Nolans of the world?’
In the early hours of Saturday 17 December 2011, Zoe Nolan, a nineteen-year-old Manchester University student, walked out of a party taking place in the shared accommodation where she had been living for three months.
She was never seen again.
Seven years after her disappearance, struggling writer Evelyn Mitchell finds herself drawn into the mystery. Through interviews with Zoe’s closest friends and family, she begins piecing together what really happened in 2011. But where some versions of events overlap, aligning perfectly with one another, others stand in stark contrast, giving rise to troubling inconsistencies.
Shaken by revelations of Zoe’s secret life, and stalked by a figure from the shadows, Evelyn turns to crime writer Joseph Knox to help make sense of a case where everyone has something to hide.
Zoe Nolan may be missing presumed dead, but her story is only just beginning
True Crime Storyis Joseph Knox’s fourth novel, his first standalone. Previously I’ve read two of his DetectiveAidan Waits novels, The Smiling Man and TheSleepwalker, which I loved – they’re both brilliant, dark and violent urban noir novels. They’re also amongst the most complicated books that I’ve ever read. So my expectations for True Crime Story were very high, but, I’m sorry to say, I was disappointed. In fact I almost abandoned it several times, until about the 50% mark when I realised that I had to read on because I wanted to know what had happened to Zoe.
Despite the title this is not a nonfiction true crime story, nor a mix of fact and fiction, it is a novel and it includes the author, Joseph Knox, as one of its characters. It has a story within the story – made up of emails to and from Knox and another writer (fictional) Evelyn Mitchell. Evelyn is writing a book about the disappearance of a student at Manchester University, Zoe Nolan. Her book is a collection of the interviews she carried out with Zoe’s family and friends seven years after Zoe’s disappearance, which she sends to Joseph Knox as she collates them, and asks for his advice.
Initially I found this rather confusing but I gradually worked out their relationships and characters, although it is repetitive and reads as a long session of interviews about the same events as seen through each character’s perspective. For me, this makes it fragmentary and in parts disjointed, slows down the action, and lessens the tension and suspense even as the facts about the mystery emerge, including what happens to Evelyn herself.
However, many other readers love this book, so I am in the minority. It has had rave reviews and was short listed for this year’s Theakston Old Peculiar Crime Fiction Novel of the Year, an award that celebrates excellence, originality, and the very best in crime fiction from UK and Irish authors. You may enjoy it more than I did!
My thanks to the publishers Transworld Digital for a review copy via NetGalley.
Penguin UK| 13 January 2022| 283 pages| e-book| Review copy/4*
Rating: 5 out of 5.
I still dream, every night, of Polneath on fire. Smoke unravelling from an upper window, and the terrace bathed in a hectic orange light…. Now I see that the decision I made at Polneath was the only decision of my life. Everything marred in that one dark minute.
By day, Ivy Boscawen mourns the loss of her son Tim in the Great War. But by night she mourns another boy – one whose death decades ago haunts her still.
For Ivy is sure that there is more to what happened all those years ago: the fire at the Great House, and the terrible events that came after. A truth she must uncover, if she is ever to be free.
From the award-winning author of The Witchfinder’s Sister comes a captivating story of burning secrets and buried shame, and of the loyalty and love that rises from the ashes.
The Key in the Lock is Beth Underdown’s second book. I read her first book The Witchfinder’s Sister (my review) and enjoyed it immensely, so I had high expectations that I’d enjoy this book too – and it fully met my expectations. It is historical fiction set between two periods 1888 and 1918 in Cornwall.
It captures both time periods, reflecting the society both before and after the First World War showing the changes that the war had made. I loved the slow pace of this book as the secrets surrounding the death of William, the seven year old son of Edward Tremain in 1888 in a fire at Polneath, and that of Ivy’s son, Tim, on the battlefields of France are gradually revealed.
Both stories are shrouded in mystery as the circumstances of how William and Tim died are by no means clear. Ivy is devastated by Tim’s death and is determined to discover what actually happened to him, the letter informing them of his death was not phrased in the normal form of words. She wondered why.
It brought back painful memories of little William’s death. The fire at Polneath had started at night when everyone had gone to bed. William had been in the maid’s room, not his own bedroom when he had died. The postmortem revealed that he had died from asphyxiation by inhaling the smoke. Found under the bed, with paint from the door under William’s fingernails and bruised hands, it appeared that he must have been locked in and yet when he was found the door was standing open. The conclusion was that at some point the door had been locked – and later unlocked by a person or persons unknown.
The events surrounding each death are gradually revealed and there are plenty of secrets that come to light. It is described as a ‘gothic’ novel, but apart from the setting in an old isolated house, that had once been an ancient manor house, I didn’t find it gothic at all. It is a complicated story and at times I had to go back to make sure I’d got the facts right. I really liked Ivy and I liked the way her character is shown to develop with the passage of time. I loved the details about the attitudes to the First World War and the change from the earlier period. This is a novel full of grief and the circumstances surrounding both deaths provide an element of mystery. I loved the way the two time periods were interlocked as the novel progressed. I was fully engaged in it and I’ll be looking out for Beth Underdown’s next book.
Zaffre/ 2016/ e-book/ Print length: 315 pages/ My own copy/ 4*
It’s that time of year ago when I’ve been reading and not reviewing – spending more time gardening as the grass grows so quickly and the weeds multiply. And I want to do some more family history . As it’s too hot to do much gardening today I’ve got some time to write a short review.
A Tapping At My Door is a crime thriller, the first in David Jackson’s DS Nathan Cody crime thriller series. I bought it not long after it had been published in 2016, but I’ve only just got round to reading it. I wrote about the opening in this post. Even though this book is more scary and, in parts more gruesome, than I like to read, I did finish it, and enjoyed it for the characters and the plot.
I liked Nathan immediately. He works in the Major Investigation Team in Liverpool, but was previously an undercover officer. It’s obvious that something had gone wrong whilst he was working undercover, which had affected him very badly. He can’t sleep, has a quick temper and flares up very easily, especially with the local reporter and he acts recklessly with little regard for his safety.
The mystery begins as Terri Latham is disturbed late one night by a ‘tapping, scratching, scrabbling noise at her back door’. When she goes outside to investigate she sees a large black bird trapped at her window and she is then struck with something hard and heavy, rammed into her skull. What follows is not a quick death and when the police find her, it is with the dead bird’s wings unfurled and spread across her where her eyes had been, and her cheeks. There is a note attached to the bird’s leg, with the message: ‘Nevermore‘, a reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, The Raven.
There are more bodies, each accompanied by a dead bird and a cyptic note, and it is soon obvious that the murderer is targeting the police. This book is full of tension, it’s very creepy and in places it is utterly gross. Although, I’m giving it 4 stars I am not at all sure I’ll read any more of the books in this series, but if you have a stronger stomach than me you’ll probably love them.
I have a backlog of reviews to write, so this is the first of several short reviews so that I can catch up!