Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free

4*

Hodder and Stoughton|23 August 2018|432 pages|Review copy

The opening chapters of Now Well Shall Be Entirely Free drew me in immediately as I read about Captain John Lacroix’s return to England from Spain in 1809, close to death after the battle of Corunna, during the Peninsular War. Miller’s descriptive writing, lyrical and poetic, vividly sets the scene as Lacroix is nursed back to health by Nell, his servant. But it is clear that he is on the edge of a breakdown, mentally and emotionally, saying little about the battle and indeed, unable to face the memories of the horrors he experienced. When another officer arrives ordering him to report back to duty, he decides instead to leave for the Highlands to recuperate.

This is followed by an account of the investigation of the atrocities carried out  in the village of Los Morales during the army’s retreat to Corunna.  The village was burned down, men were lynched and women raped. Two men, a vicious Englishman, Corporal Calley is ordered to track down and kill the officer responsible and a Spaniard, Lieutenant Medina, a liaison officer with the British army, is assigned to accompany him and report back that the execution has been carried out. It is soon obvious that the officer is Captain John Lacroix and so the hunt is on, as Calley and Medina follow his trail from Somerset to Bristol and Glasgow and then on to the Hebrides, leaving a trail of violence and death behind them.

The pace is brisk, until Lacroix reaches the isles, where he meets the Frend family, a brother and sisters, living as part of an isolated community. Jane is pregnant and Emily is slowly losing her sight. At this point in the novel the pace dropped partly because of the vagueness in describing the location of the island (somewhere in the Outer Hebrides beyond Mingulay) and Lacroix’s own mental and physical slowing down on the island – after being attacked and robbed in Glasgow, he began taking opium to relieve his pain. My attention began to wander until he and Emily returned to Glasgow for an operation to improve her eyesight. The pace picked up and I was fascinated by the medical details, with intriguing insights into new discoveries in medical treatment.

But then the ending came all too quickly and left me feeling uncertain about what actually happened – the ambiguity surrounding their ‘freedom’. Freedom is a theme throughout the novel – its definition and how it differs for men and women. The relentless brutality of war, of course is another theme, demonstrated through the inhumanity of Calley’s actions and its effects on Lacroix as he finally reveals what had happened in Spain.

I enjoyed the historical details, the medical techniques as well as the effects of industrialisation, and in particular the conditions in the cotton mills, where Calley laboured as a child. He had worked as a ‘piecer’ mending the cotton threads and cleaning the machines, in danger of losing a limb, deafened by the noise in the hot machine room where the air was thick with little bits of cotton filling up your nose and lungs.

But most of all I enjoyed the writing. Miller’s ability to write in such a lyrical style, to convey emotions and create such complex characters that are so believable that you can empathise, to a limited extent, even with a thug like Calley, make this book remarkable.

Thanks go to Hodder and Stoughton and NetGalley for my copy of this book for review.

A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale

A Perfectly Good Man

5*

Having read Notes from an Exhibition earlier this year I expected to like Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man, so I’m delighted to say that I loved it.

I have read plenty of books that move backwards and forwards in time and move from one character to another, but not one like A Perfectly Good Man, that does it so successfully that you don’t experience any confusion or struggle to remember who is who – at least that was my experience with this book. It’s set in Cornwall, in particular in Pendeen and Morvah, north-west of Penzance, the setting for Notes from an Exhibition.

The ‘perfectly good man‘ is Barnaby Johnson, a parish priest, a man who always tries to do the right thing; needless to say he doesn’t always manage it. There’s his wife, Dorothy, who becomes known, not appropriately as ‘Dot’, his daughter, Carrie, his adopted Vietnamese son ‘Jim’, who, in the course of the book, reverts to his native name ‘Phuc’, pronounced to rhyme with ‘foot’ and not ‘luck’, and a particularly nasty character who calls himself ‘Modest Carlsson’.

But the novel begins with Lenny, aged 20, who is paralysed after an accident playing rugby and is in a wheelchair. He is unable to cope with the prospect of a life never being able to run or  walk again, a life of people making allowances for him, of charity; he had lived for nights out with his girlfriend,and for rugby. He asks Barnaby to be with him as a witness to his suicide and to pray for him.

I got to know these people very well over the course of the book and eventually understand their individual stories and how their lives interconnect. The significance of their actions not only on themselves but on the others around them became so real as I read on – for example, Dot’s anguish over her miscarriages and the consequences, not just on her and the boy, but on the whole family and community, of adopting a Vietnamese orphan is agonisingly plain. I was pleased to see glimpses of some characters from Notes from an Exhibition as they made fleeting appearances, and a return of Morwenna Middleton to the area, which explained what had happened to her after the events of Notes from an Exhibition. Modest Carlsson is the antithesis of Father Barnaby in his cruel and heartless behaviour in destroying what is a treasured possession and in revealing a devastating secret that he should have kept to himself.

A Perfectly Good Man is a beautifully written book about faith and the loss of faith, about love and cruelty and deception, about ordinary life and about everyday tragedies, and also sublime moments. It’s a quiet novel that left me feeling I must read more of Patrick Gale’s books. Fortunately I already have one more on my shelves, A Place Called Winter historical fiction described as a novel of forbidden love, secrets and escape and in The Times as a novel ‘written with intelligence and warmth’.

My copy:

  • Paperback: 406 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate 2012
  • ISBN-13: 9780007465088
  • Source: Library book
  • My rating: 5*

 

Down to the Woods by M J Arlidge

If you go down to the woods today, you’d better not go alone …

Down to the Woods (Helen Grace #8)

Penguin UK – Michael Joseph|20 September 2018|480 pages|Review copy

Synopsis – Amazon UK:

There is a sickness in the forest. First, it was the wild horses. Now it’s innocent men and women, hunted down and murdered by a faceless figure. Lost in the darkness, they try to flee, they try to hide. In desperation, they call out for help. But there is no-one to hear their cries here…

DI Helen Grace must face down a new nightmare. The arrow-ridden victims hang from the New Forest’s ancient oaks, like pieces of strange fruit. Why are helpless holidaymakers being targeted in peak camping season? And what do their murders signify? Is a psychopath stalking the forest? Is there an occult element to the killings? Could the murders even be an offering to the Forest itself? Helen must walk into the darkness to discover the truth behind her most challenging, most macabre case yet.

My thoughts:

Down to the Woods is the 8th DI Helen Grace thriller by M J Arlidge. I haven’t read any of the earlier books and it’s obvious that Helen has a particularly dramatic and traumatic backstory, but enough explanation is given for me to read this book as a stand-alone. It’s tense and dark with several twists and turns and red herrings, that seemed obviously so to me. It’s on the grisly side of gruesome with graphic descriptions of violence and death and details of information on the dark web, all of which I find off-putting.

I don’t intend to retell the plot as I think the synopsis gives as much detail as you need to know to begin the book. It’s fast-paced in parts, but in others it’s slowed down considerably by the amount of description of the location and characters. Having said that I did like the description of the New Forest, with its ancient woodland, beautiful glades and of course the New Forest ponies.

However, I think the characters aren’t very credible, with maybe the exception of DS Charlie Brooke who has her own problems at home. DS Joseph Hudson is a new character to the series and there are several questions to be answered about his background that seemed rather dubious to me. The reporter Emilia Garanita is the stereotypical journalist with all the unlikable journalistic traits rolled into her character and you’re meant to dislike her. I expected Helen to be the main character but for most of the book she on the sidelines until the final section when she ends up close to death. The chapters are very short with cliff-hanger endings, designed to keep you turning the pages. I did want to know the outcome, but I got rather tired of all the violence and chase scenes throughout the book and was relieved to finish it.

2.5 stars rounded up to 3 stars on Goodreads. Other people liked it more than me – there are many 5 and 4 star reviews on Goodreads.

Thank you to Penguin UK – Michael Joseph and NetGalley for my copy of this book for review.

The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton

Mantle|20 September 2018|592 pages|Review copy|3*

Synopsis:

My real name, no one remembers.
The truth about that summer, no one else knows.

In the summer of 1862, a group of young artists led by the passionate and talented Edward Radcliffe descends upon Birchwood Manor in rural Berkshire. Their plan: to spend a secluded summer month in a haze of inspiration and creativity. But by the time their stay is over, one woman has been shot dead while another has disappeared; a priceless heirloom is missing; and Edward Radcliffe’s life is in ruins.

Over one hundred and fifty years later, Elodie Winslow, a young archivist in London, uncovers a leather satchel containing two seemingly unrelated items: a sepia photograph of an arresting-looking woman in Victorian clothing, and an artist’s sketchbook containing a drawing of a twin-gabled house on the bend of a river.

Why does Birchwood Manor feel so familiar to Elodie? And who is the beautiful woman in the photograph? Will she ever give up her secrets?

Told by multiple voices across time, The Clockmaker’s Daughter is a story of murder, mystery and thievery, of art, love and loss. And flowing through its pages like a river, is the voice of a woman who stands outside time, whose name has been forgotten by history, but who has watched it all unfold: Birdie Bell, the clockmaker’s daughter.

My thoughts:

I was looking forward to reading The Clockmaker’s Daughter as Kate Morton’s The House at Riverton and The Secret Keeper are two of my favourite books, but I’m in two minds about it. Whilst I loved parts of it I struggled to read other parts, bogged down by the many changes of time, places and characters, even though I like complicated plots and dual time-lines. It could easily have been made into several books.

I found it difficult to separate the various strands and to create a coherent whole – and it is so long and drawn out. And then there is the supernatural element, which intrigued and delighted me. So, all in all, my reaction is confused and mixed, so much so that at times I wanted to give it 5 stars and then plummeted right down to 2 stars – hence the 3 stars!

It’s richly descriptive and I loved the descriptions of the locations, and of Birchwood Manor, the house on the bend of the river and the story of how Elodie searches to find the history and connections between the satchel, the photograph of a beautiful Victorian woman and an artist’s sketchbook certainly caught my imagination. I also loved the story of Birdie, the clockmaker’s daughter, who is the catalyst for the disaster that befell Edward’s life.

There are multiple narrators very gradually building up a history of Birchwood Manor and the people who lived there over the years up to 2016. But it’s hard to keep track of them all as the narrative jumps backwards and forwards so disjointedly. The connections between what seem to be separate stories eventually become clear – but you have to keep all the separate strands in your head and remember who is related and how their paths meet and diverge.

As the synopsis says it is a story of murder, mystery and thievery, of art, love and loss – all of which appeals to me. And I’m sure plenty of other readers will love this book. It’s a book that I really needed to concentrate on, which is not a bad thing, but for most of its 592 pages it moves at a snail’s pace and I found it an effort. But once you have got to the end and can see the whole picture it really is a good story; very cleverly plotted, maybe too cleverly for me.

Thank you to Mantle and NetGalley for my copy of this book for review.

Macbeth by Jo Nesbo

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth retold

5*

He’s the best cop they’ve got. 

When a drug bust turns into a bloodbath it’s up to Inspector Macbeth and his team to clean up the mess.

He’s also an ex-drug addict with a troubled past. 

He’s rewarded for his success. Power. Money. Respect. They’re all within reach. 

But a man like him won’t get to the top.

Plagued by hallucinations and paranoia, Macbeth starts to unravel. He’s convinced he won’t get what is rightfully his.

Unless he kills for it.

I haven’t read any of Jo Nesbo’s books so I wasn’t sure what to expect from his version of Macbeth, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett. And it’s been a long time since I read or saw a performance of Macbeth, one of my favourite plays, but it seems to me that Jo Nesbo’s retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth sticks well to Shakespeare’s version (which itself wasn’t original!) – it has the same themes and plot lines.

I loved the opening of Nesbo’s version describing the rain falling on an industrial town, the second largest after Capitol. The setting is rather vague – it is somewhere in the 1970s in a fictional Scotland in a lawless town full of drug addicts, where there is a titanic struggle for control between the police force, corrupt politicians, motorbike gangs and  drug dealers.

All the characters are here, including Duncan, the new police Chief Commissioner after Kenneth was killed, Malcolm his deputy, Banquo, Macbeth’s friend and his son, Fleance, Inspector Duff (Shakespeare’s Macduff, Thane of Fife), head of the Narcotics Unit, Caithness, the three witches, Lennox and so on. And watch out for Nesbo’s version of Great Birnam Wood – I don’t want to give any spoilers here!

It’s a tragedy, like Shakespeare’s, a tale of political ambition and the destructive power it wields, a tale of love and guilt, and of enormous greed of all kinds. Inspector Macbeth, an ex-drug addict is the head of the SWAT team, ruled by his passions, violent and paranoid. He is manipulated by Hecate, Shakespeare’s chief witch, here one of the drug lords, a man with a friendly smile and cold eyes, called by some the Invisible Hand; his ‘brew’ has made him one of the town’s richest men. Macbeth is corrupted by his renewed dependency on brew and fuelled by his passion for his wife, Lady, a tall, beautiful woman with flame-red hair who whispers seductively to Macbeth that he has to kill Duncan. And there’s a mole in their midst.

This is a dark, gritty and violent tale that had me completely enthralled and I loved it. It is the first book by Jo Nesbo that I’ve read – but it won’t be the last.

Thank you to Random UK/Vintage and NetGalley for my copy of this book for review.

  • Paperback: 624 pages (also available on Kindle and in Hardcover)
  • Publisher: Vintage (20 Sept. 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 009959806X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099598060
  • Review Copy
Note: Macbeth was first published  March 15th 2018 by Hogarth as part of  the Hogarth Shakespeare project that sees Shakespeare’s works retold by acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today. The series launched in October 2015 and to date will be published in twenty countries.

 

The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin by Georges Simenon

The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin (Maigret #10)

Penguin is publishing the entire series of Maigret novels in new translations. This novel has been published in a previous translation as Maigret at the “Gai-Moulin”.

The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin by Georges Simenon, translated by Siân Reynolds is one of the early Maigret books, first published in 1931. Two teenage boys, Delfosse and Chabot, attempt to burgle Le Gai-Moulin, a nightclub in Liege in Belgium, but on finding a body they panic and leave, fearing they’ll be suspected of murder. The next day, to the boys’ amazement, the corpse is found in the Botanical Gardens in a large laundry basket in the middle of a lawn. Who was he, who killed him, why was he killed and who had moved the body from the nightclub to the Botanical Gardens?

This short book is mainly concerned with Delfosse and Chabot and their subsequent actions that set them at odds with each other and land them in police custody. It’s an unusual Maigret book in that Detective Chief Inspector Maigret is not immediately involved in the police investigation – that is carried out by Chief Inspector Delvigne of the Belgian police and part of the mystery is why Maigret is even in Liege. Adèle is the dancer referred to in the title but she doesn’t play a major role in the book, although the two teenagers are obsessed with her. It’s quite a puzzle and Maigret doesn’t reveal his thoughts, or his reasoning until the end, much to the annoyance of Delvigne.

The plot is unconvincing and Maigret’s actions seem quite implausible, but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this book. It’s not really the crime that is in focus, as Simenon is skilled at setting the scene and drawing convincing characters in a few paragraphs. In this novel the two boys and Adèle stand out:

She wasn’t beautiful, especially now, lounging about in her mules and shabby peignoir. But perhaps, in the familiarity of this intimacy, she held even more allure for him.

How old was she, twenty five, thirty? She’d certainly seen life. She often talked about Paris, Berlin, Ostend. She mentioned the names of famous nightclubs.

But without any excitement or pride, without showing off. On the contrary. Her main characteristic seemed to be weariness, as could be guessed from the expression in her green eyes, from the casual way she held a cigarette in her mouth, from all her movements and smiles. Weariness with a smile. (page 28)

I knew that Simenon was a prolific author, writing seventy five novels and twenty eight short stories featuring Maigret, but I was surprised to find that The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin was the 10th book that he published in 1931. By the end of 1931 his books had been translated into 18 languages.

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics (7 Aug. 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141393521
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141393520
  • Source: my own copy – thanks to Sarah’s Giveaway at Crimepieces blog
  • My rating: 3.5*

This book slots into the only reading challenge I’m doing this year – What’s in a Name 2018. It fits into the category of a book with the word ‘the‘ used twice in the title. It is also one of my TBR books (a book I’ve owned prior to 1 January 2018) and also a book on my Classics Club list.

Appleby’s End by Michael Innes

3*

Appleby’s End was first published in 1945.

Description