Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Ask Again Yes

Penguin Michael Joseph|3 October 2019|384 pages|e-book |Review copy|2*

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

 I’ve enjoyed all of Tracy Chevalier‘s books that I’ve read so far, so it was no surprise to me. to find that I loved her latest book, A Single Thread

A single thread

This is historical fiction, a mix of fact and fiction, set mainly in Winchester in the 1930s. It is a a simple straightforward story, beautifully written, with the emphasis on everyday life. The main character is Violet Speedwell, a single woman of 38, regarded by society as a ‘surplus woman’ unlikely to marry  because her fiancé, Laurence was killed in the First World War. The 1921 census revealed that there were 1.75 million more women than men in the UK.  Surplus women were patronised and were expected to stay at home looking after their elderly relatives, but at the age of 38 in 1932 Violet decides to leave her overbearing mother and move on her own to Winchester. There is a lot of information about embroidering cushions and kneelers for the the Choir stalls and Presbytery seats in the Cathedral and about bell-ringing, both of which formed integral parts of the book.

Violet knew nobody in Winchester, but whilst looking round the Cathedral she came across a group of women, calling themselves the Winchester Cathedral Broderers, dedicated to embroidering hassocks and cushions for the seats and benches. She joins the group, led by Miss Louisa Pesel (a real person) and the stern Mrs Biggins and as well as learning to embroider, she makes new friends. One of these friends is Gilda, who introduces her to two of the bell-ringers, Arthur, a older married man and a younger, unmarried man, called Keith.

She is determined to be independent, not relying on her mother or her brother to support her. So she finds a job as a typist and takes a room in house shared with two other women and her landlady, Mrs Harvey, who discourages male visitors other than family. The difficulties of being independent are brought home to Violet as she struggles on her wages to pay for her lodgings, laundry and coal, let alone feed herself. And then her mother is admitted to hospital and she has to decide whether to return home to look after her.

The characters are drawn with fine detail and the descriptions of the settings, particularly in the Cathedral are so clear that I could easily visualise both the building and its interior. I particularly liked the details about the embroidery and the stitches used. As the Nazi Party and Hitler rise to power in Germany, the use of fylfots in the embroidery designs are mistaken for swastikas which are ancient symbols of light and life and good fortune.

The book gives an detailed look at life between the two World Wars. It has a slow gentle pace following Violet’s new life, but there is a sense of change on the horizon as her relationship with Arthur develops.  It gives a lively picture of the difficulties of life for unmarried women, including Gilda and Dorothy’s unconventional relationship that they have to keep secret to avoid the prejudice this would attract. And there is an indication of the sense of unease in society as the threat of another war loomed. 

It is obvious throughout the book that Tracy Chevalier has meticulously carried out her research and in the acknowledgements she lists a number of the many resources she has used, including details of Louisa Pesel’s embroidery work as well as the history of Winchester Cathedral, bell-ringing, 1930s women and life in Britain in the 1930s .

My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my copy of this book for review.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1382 KB
  • Print Length: 353 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0008153817
  • Publisher: The Borough Press (5 Sept. 2019)
  • Source: Review copy from the publishers via NetGalley
  • My Rating: 4*

Killing Me Gently by Hazel McHaffie

Killing me gently

VelvetEthics Press|1 July 2019|390 pages|Review copy|4*

I’ve read two of Hazel McHaffie’s books in the past – Over My Dead Body and Inside of Me. In both books I was impressed by the way she weaves facts into her fiction so seamlessly that it doesn’t detract from the story. So, I was pleased when she asked if I would like to read her latest book, Killing Me Gently, her 11th published novel set in the world of medical ethics.

The story begins with a dramatic scene – in the middle of the night, in February, in complete darkness as Anya, feeling desperate and close to breaking point, runs alongside a fast flowing river:

Mud sucked greedily at her boots, branches tangled in her hair, exposed roots snaked across her path. The vicious swirl of the river drew her like a magnet down into the thick darkness, the dank odour of slowly decomposing vegetation.

Anya had no notion of time, only all-consuming compulsion to get as far away as possible from her tormentor. Several times she skidded wildly, once finding herself at the very brink, one false move away from those unforgiving rocks.

I was immediately drawn in – what has happened to make her so desperate? Who is she running from and who is tormenting her? Will she fall in – or is she trying to kill herself? I had to know.

The blurb expands more on Anya’s situation without giving away any spoilers: 

Blurb:

Anya Morgan has it all – beauty, brains, dream home, handsome husband, and now to complete the picture, a new baby. But Gypsy Lysette doesn’t conform to Anya’s criteria for perfection. Sleep deprived and insecure, she searches for solace and reassurance.

Leon Morgan is torn between supporting his paranoid wife and the demands of his job. Increasingly stressed, he starts to make mistakes, big mistakes, threatening the future of the family firm, jeopardising their marriage.

Tiffany Corrigan to the rescue; qualified nurse, mother of three, a fount of practical wisdom. She’s a shoulder to lean on when the crises escalate … when Gypsy is admitted to hospital … when the fingers start pointing … when suspicion and jealousy widen the rift between Anya and Leon.

Then inexplicable things start to happen. Frightening things. Baby Gypsy’s life as well as Anya’s sanity are under threat. Who is responsible? And will the professionals act in time to save this family from devastating loss?

It is an intense, emotional and dramatic psychological thriller. Hazel McHaffie trained as a nurse and a midwife, gained a PhD in Social Sciences and was Deputy Director of Research in the Institute of Medical Ethics and her expertise is reflected in this book. Her writing successfully conveys the stress Anya was under and the damage to their relationship that Anya and Leon experienced as their baby became ill and was admitted to hospital. Right from the first page I was completely gripped by the mystery – what was the cause of Gypsy’s illness and was it Anya’s fault?

It is so tense and at first it was hard to decide who could be trusted. The tension rises, so much so that I was convinced of the danger of the situation and I feared the worst. And even when I thought I had worked out what was actually happening to Gypsy, my heart was in my mouth as I read on. 

Killing me Gently raises ethical and moral questions about childcare and the relationship between the medical practitioners, social workers and parents, looking at it on a personal level. It is by no means a comfortable read, because it is both emotional and disturbing. However I was completely absorbed by the drama of it all.

Hazel McHaffie’s other novels cover medical ethic issues such as Alzheimer’s and the right to die. Her non-fiction books are about life and death decisions. For more details see her website. She also writes a most interesting blog.

My thanks to Hazel McHaffie for a copy of her book for review.

Murder by Matchlight (British Library Crime Classics ) by E C R Lorac

A Golden Age Mystery

Murder by Matchlight

Poisoned Pen Press|5 March 2019|288 pages|e-book |Review copy|5*

The Lying Room by Nicci French

Lying Room

 

Simon and Schuster UK|3 October 2019|432 pages|e-book |Review copy|3.5*

The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis

Vanished Bride

Hodder & Stoughton|12 September 2019|352 pages|e-book|Review copy|5*

From the Sunday Times-bestselling author of The Memory Book, Rowan Coleman, comes a special new series featuring the Brontë sisters, written under the name Bella Ellis

Yorkshire, 1845

A young woman has gone missing from her home, Chester Grange, leaving no trace, save a large pool of blood in her bedroom and a slew of dark rumours about her marriage. A few miles away across the moors, the daughters of a humble parson, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë are horrified, yet intrigued.

Desperate to find out more, the sisters visit Chester Grange, where they notice several unsettling details about the crime scene: not least the absence of an investigation. Together, the young women realise that their resourcefulness, energy and boundless imaginations could help solve the mystery – and that if they don’t attempt to find out what happened to Elizabeth Chester, no one else will.

The path to the truth is not an easy one, especially in a society which believes a woman’s place to be in the home, not wandering the countryside looking for clues. But nothing will stop the sisters from discovering what happened to the vanished bride, even as they find their own lives are in great peril…

My thoughts:

When I first came across this book I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to read it, as I’m never very keen on books about famous authors solving crimes. However, the Brontë sisters books have been amongst my favourites for years and I was curious find out what this book was all about. So, I was delighted to find that I thoroughly enjoyed The Vanished Brideand that it is not all a flight of fancy, although of course the story of how they became ‘detectors’, or amateur sleuths, is pure imagination.

‘Bella Ellis’ is the Brontë inspired pen name for the author Rowan Coleman, who has been a Brontë devotee for most of her life. I haven’t read any of her other books but I’ll be looking out for them now. The Vanished Bride is historical fiction that brings the period (1845) and the setting vividly to life, Charlotte, Emily and Anne and their brother, Branwell becoming real people before my eyes in their home in the Parsonage at Howarth.

I think it helps that is not all pure fiction – in the Author’s Note she explains that it is based on biological facts or inspired by them. The book begins with a short passage in 1851 when Charlotte is alone in the Parsonage her sisters, brother and father had all died and she looks back to the year 1845 when they were all together. That is fact – and in the following September they began to consider writing for their living.

The mystery whilst it is well plotted is not to difficult to solve and I had predicted the basics of it quite early on in the book, although  I didn’t guess the full detail until much later on. But the real joy of the book is in the historical detail and the depiction of the characters and the insights given to their personalities through their conversation. The story is told through each of the sisters eyes, each one clearly distinctive, whilst Emily is the standout character. All three are clearly individuals, women caught in a society dominated by men and each wanting to lead independent lives. 

The book ends as a letter arrives for the sisters presenting a new case for them to investigate. Their curiosity is immediately ‘taking flight’ – and so is mine!

My thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for an e-book review copy via NetGalley

Nothing Ventured by Jeffrey Archer

‘This is not a detective story, this is a story about a detective’

Nothing ventured

Macmillan|5 September 2019|337 pages|e-book|Review copy|3*

Years ago I enjoyed reading a few of Jeffrey Archer’s books, including Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less and Kane and Able. Archer is a prolific author, but I haven’t read any of his later books or his diaries about his time in prison. But I was interested when I saw that he had started a new series about William Warwick – Nothing Ventured. It is the first in the series of books following William’s progress from detective constable to the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

It is indeed, a story about a detective, rather than a detective story and as such it is rather episodic, following William Warwick’s career.

William joins the Metropolitan Police force, against his father’s wishes. Sir Julian Warwick QC, had hoped his son would join him in chambers and train to be a barrister, like his sister Grace. He works on the beat in Lambeth before transferring to the Art and Antiques Squad at Scotland Yard, where he becomes involved in a number of cases of fraud and theft, including tracing the whereabouts of a phial of the moon dust brought back from the Apollo 11 mission by Neil Armstrong, and arresting an old man who had forges the signatures of famous authors in first editions. Whilst investigating the theft of a Rembrandt painting, the Syndics of the Cloth Makers Guild, from the Fitzmolean Museum in Kensington, he meets Beth Rainsford, a research assistant at the gallery and they fall in love almost at first sight – but Beth has a secret that she keeps from him. 

The premise is promising, but it’s written in a very straight-forward and factual style and my overall impression, despite the crime elements, is that this is a rather mundane and bland novel. William does this, does that, goes here, goes there, often at a break-neck pace that gives impetus. But the characters are drawn very sketchily with little depth – William is an intelligent young man, precocious and naive, eager to please and to learn, his father, Sir Julian, a suave, elegant and successful QC and Grace, his sister, an up and coming young barrister, and so on.

I suppose it is the base for the rest of the series but I found it too predictable. However, I thought the court scenes and the final little twist at the end enjoyable and I’m wondering if I want to go one to read the next book in the series which focuses on William’s time as a young detective sergeant in the elite drugs unit. I’m not sure that I do want to – there are so many more enticing books to read.

My thanks to Macmillan for an e-book review copy via NetGalley