The Reluctant Detective by Martha Ockley

17742272I had little idea what to expect from Martha Ockley’s first Faith Morgan mysteryThe Reluctant Detective as I hadn’t come across the author before and all I had to go on was the description on LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers page last month:

‘Former cop Faith Morgan may have quit the world of crime, but crime has not let her go. Now a priest in the Church of England, she is assigned to the improbably named village of Little Worthy, and within an hour of her arrival she witnesses the sudden, shocking death of a fellow priest. To her distress, the detective assigned to the case is Ben, her former partner and former boyfriend.

As she meets her parishioners she learns some surprising details about her apparently well-loved predecessor, and starts to suspect a motive for his death. The cop may have donned a clerical collar, but the questions keep coming. How will she reconcile her present calling with her past instincts? Is she in danger herself? What should she do about Ben?’

I thought a detective who  was a priest and who used to be a policewoman sounded interesting. So, I am very pleased that The Reluctant Detective turned out to be a good read. Faith Morgan is a well-rounded character; she’s very likeable, observant, compassionate and the sort of person that people feel comfortable talking to – a bit like a young Miss Marple. Indeed, the book has an Agatha Christie feel to it – set in an apparently idyllic country village, with interesting and somewhat quirky characters and although there is one rather gruesome death, it’s not a gory thriller. In short it’s the type of murder mystery that I like, with plenty of complications that kept me guessing about the identity of the murderer for most of the book.

The church and village location are convincing. The parish church of St John is an old building dating from Saxon times, with a tower and church bells, set in the English countryside:

Faith avoided the main approach and followed a gravel path around the back of the church. A creamy cloud of ivory clematis cascaded over a grey stone wall. Beyond a solitary pony raised its chestnut head to gaze mournfully at her from a field of weeds. Some way off squatted a group of ramshackle farm buildings. (page 9)

Faith’s ex – Detective Inspector Ben Shorter, reluctantly allows Faith to contribute to the search for the murderer and the chemistry between the two of them is clearly evident even though he can’t understand why she left the police force for the church. Indeed, Faith herself wonders if she has done the right thing, cutting herself off from her old life and her old self as she realises that she likes investigating, and analyzing people, their expressions and body language and working out what makes them tick. But these are assets for a priest as well as for a police officer. And as for death:

It struck Faith how death is always startling, facing us with the greatest mystery: how the particular and the individual can vanish from this world so completely in a moment. (page 17)

The back cover reveals that Martha Ockley lives in the North East of England and has close links with the church, having grown up as the daughter of a minister. She is a full-time writer of both fiction and non-fiction. I was curious about Martha Ockley and wondered why she had given ‘special thanks to Rebecca Jenkins’ on the title page, so I searched online and discovered that ‘Martha Ockley’ is actually a pseudonym of Rebecca Jenkins, the daughter of the Rev David Jenkins, formerly the Bishop of Durham.

Thanks to LibraryThing and Lion Fiction/Kregel Publications for providing a copy for review. Based on my reading of The Reluctant Detective I shall certainly seek out more books by Martha Ockley/Rebecca Jenkins. There are two more Faith Morgan books:

  • The Advent of Murder
  • A Saintly Killing (to be published in October 2014)

And writing as Rebecca Jenkins:

The R F Jarrett books (the Regency Detective)

  • The Duke’s Agent (1997)
  • Death of a Radical (2010)

also Non Fiction:

  • Free to Believe (David Jenkins and Rebecca Jenkins (1991)
  • Fanny Kemble: a reluctant celebrity (2005)
  • The First London Olympics 1908 (2008)

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris: a Book Review

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris is a cleverly told story, narrated by Harriet Baxter, alternating between events in 1888-90 (in Glasgow) and those in 1933 (in London). In 1888 Harriet moved to Glasgow where she got to know the painter, Ned Gillespie and his family. At first I liked Harriet but as I read on I became increasingly doubtful about her character, even though she comes across as an honest, reliable person. But, as she relates what her life is like in 1933 my impression of her began to change.

All is well at first but than a tragedy occurs which forms the major part of the book. It’s signalled in advance, when Harriet refers to the ‘horrible events’ that lay in the future. To say any more would be too much of a spoiler.

The setting of the book in Glasgow of the late 19th century is well described, helped by plans in the front of the book. The characters are also convincing, even some of the minor ones and her portrayal of Ned’s disturbed daughter, Sybil is quite chilling. This is a very detailed book, both about the place, artists and, through the account of a trial, the Scottish legal system of that period. It’s a book that lingered in my mind after I finished reading and if it wasn’t so long I’d like to re-read it in the light of what I now know.

  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber (5 May 2011)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 0571275168
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571275168
  • Source:an uncorrected proof from the publishers (via LibraryThing Early Reviewers)
  • My rating 3.5/5

I haven’t read Jane Harris first book, The Observations, although I’ve owned it for a while. It’s probably time I read that one too.

More Books

Two books were in my postbox yesterday. I’m very lucky because after deciding not to buy any more books until I’ve read 6 of my unread books these two are gifts, so I don’t have to count them, and I’m very grateful for them too.

The first is Out of Africa by Karen Blixen, which I won from Gaskella’s blog. The back cover says that it is ‘the story of a remarkable and unconventional woman, and of a way of life that has vanished for ever.’ Karen arrived in Kenya in 1914 to manage a coffee plantation and spent the happiest years of her life on the farm. I love the cover of this book.

The other is Gillespie and I by Jane Harris, an uncorrected proof, which I won on LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Programme. This is a big book. It sounded so good from the publishers’ information – I just hope it lives up to my expectations.

As she sits in her Bloomsbury home, with her two birds for company, elderly Harriet Baxter sets out to relate the story of her acquaintance, nearly four decades previously, with Ned Gillespie, a talented artist who never achieved the fame she maintains he deserved. Back in 1888, the young, art-loving, Harriet arrives in Glasgow at the time of the International Exhibition. After a chance encounter she befriends the Gillespie family and soon becomes a fixture in all of their lives. But when tragedy strikes – leading to a notorious criminal trial – the promise and certainties of this world all too rapidly disorientate into mystery and deception. Featuring a memorable cast of characters, infused with atmosphere and period detail, and shot through with wicked humour, Gillespie and I is a tour de force from one of the emerging names of British fiction.

I love the cover of this one too.

Now I just need a few more hours in the day – I want to start reading these straight away. Actually I couldn’t resist and I have read the opening pages! They’re both looking good, but I have The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann to read first.

Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty: Book Review

Whatever You Love, set in a coastal English town is, as it says in the blurb, an ‘astonishing and emotionally-charged novel’, about Laura whose nine-year old daughter, Betty has been killed by a hit and run driver.  Laura tells her story alternating between events before Betty’s death – how she met and married David, Betty’s father, their subsequent divorce after his affair with Chloe – and after Betty’s death. Laura’s grief is palpable, which makes this a harrowing book to read. It is also startling and shocking in parts.

The ‘after’ chapters are written in the first person narrative, which I’m never completely happy about, but it works quite well in this book, and it does add some clarity to the sequence of events. I think I endured rather than enjoyed this book; ‘enjoy’ is not the right word to described reading it, but it is well written, and the characters, for the most part are well drawn. There is an emphasis on relationships, not only between Laura and David but also between Laura and Chloe, David’s new wife, between Laura and the Sally, whose daughter Willow was also killed in the accident, and between the local people and the immigrant community. As Laura, fraught with grief, tracks down the driver of the car she spirals more and more out of control. 

I found the ending of the book inconclusive and there are some questions left hanging.  It seemed to me a book of two halves – the first dwelling on Laura’s grief and her inability to cope, with the second concentrating on her instability. Just how reliable was Laura, a woman who was pushed to the edge of sanity? Overall, I was impressed by the writing and will look for more by Louise Doughty.

My copy was sent to me by the publishers, Faber and Faber via Library Thing’s Early Reviewers’ Programme.

The Holly-Tree Inn by Charles Dickens

The Holly-Tree Inn by Charles Dickens and others is a lovely little book, both to hold and to read. It’s a Hesperus Press publication, smooth paper and a softback cover with flaps you can use as bookmarks. I received my copy via Library Thing Early Reviewers Programme. I enjoyed reading it.

This was originally published in 1855, being the Christmas number of Dickens’s periodical Household Words. It was so popular that it was then adapted for the stage. It’s a collection of short stories by Dickens, Wilkie Collins, William Howitt, Adelaide Anne Procter and Harriet Parr, around the theme of travellers and  inns. I liked Collins’s and Howlitt’s stories the most.

It begins with a story by Dickens, The Guest in which a gentleman on his way to Liverpool is snowed in at the Holly-Tree Inn in Yorkshire. To keep himself entertained he reminisces about inns he has visited, giving glimpses into travel and inns in the 19th century. Having exhausted his own memories, this story ends with the idea of asking the inmates of the inn for their own stories.

So, the next stories are from:

The Ostler by Wilkie Collins. In this the landlord tell’s the ostler’s tale of his dread of his wife after dreaming that she is about to murder him, a tale of impending doom:

His eyes opened owards the left hand side of the bed, and there stood – The woman of the dream again? – No! His wife; the living reality, with the dream spectre’s face – in the dream-spectre’s attitude; the fair arm up – the knife clasped in the delicate, white hand. (page 53)

The Boots by Charles Dickens – according to Melisa Klimaszewski’s Introduction this tale was such a favourite that Dickens included it in his later public readings. It’s not quite to my taste, a sentimental tale about two young children determined to elope, staying at the Holly- Tree inn:

Boots could assure me that it was better than a picter (sic) and equal to a play, to see them babies with their long bright curling hair, their sparkling eyes, and their beautiful light tread, a rambling in the garden, deep in love.

The Landlord by William Howitt. An entertaining tale of the landlord’s brother who emigrated to Australia in order to better himself. But when they get there they wished they’d stayed in England. It seems they arrived just at the wrong time. Howitt, himself had travelled to Australia in search of gold and his experience is reflected in his tale. 

The Barmaid by Adelaide Anne Procter – a sad story told in verse by the landlord’s niece of Maurice and his love for ‘the loveliest little damsel his eyes had ever seen.’  Not the most challenging of tales.

The Poor Pensioner by Harriet Parr. Hester lives at the inn on ‘broken victuals’, now a poor demented creature refusing to believe that her son was guilty of murder. She waits in vain for his sentence to be reversed. This tale reveals how her wild and wilful ways as a young woman led her to seek for change and excitement with disastrous results. 

The Bill by Charles Dickens. This story completes the cycle. A week has gone by, the Guest’s route is now clear of snow and he can leave.He then discovers that his enforced stay at the inn has changed his life!

Reading this book has made a welcome break in reading modern fiction and has made me keen to read more of Dickens’s and Collins’s books.  I knew nothing about the other authors but fortunately there is a short section at the end with biographical notes about the contributors.

The Widow’s Tale by Mick Jackson:Book Review

 The Widow’s Tale by Mick Jackson is his third novel, published this month.  I didn’t know of him and hadn’t read anything by him before, but when I saw this book on offer through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers’ Programme I thought it looked interesting.  His earlier novels are The Underground Man, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1997 and Five Boys, published in 2001.

The Widow’s Tale is a sad tale – she is certainly not a Merry Widow, but then again she is not the Widow of Windsor (Queen Victoria) even though she does leave her house in London and live in seclusion in Norfolk.

Like Rebecca she doesn’t have a name and written in the first person singular the narrative is all from her perspective and rather rambling as befits a woman in her sixties on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I was a bit put off at the beginning when she comes out with the phrase, so often used by my mother-in-law: “By the time you get to my age …”. But there the similarity ended.

Her husband has died, she’s taken it badly, and goes to live in a rented cottage on the bleak Norfolk coast, shunning other people. She drinks to forget herself, sits in pubs alone, doing the crossword and reading a book to pass the time. She drives out to places she once knew, goes for solitary walks,  gets stuck in the saltmarshes, and is definitely quirky and obsessional.

But there is something in her past life that is haunting her, an episode that John, her husband didn’t know anything about and that has coloured her life ever since. I think it it was this rather than losing  John that caused her such distress. I was wondering how this book would end and in a way it is inevitable and I thought it rather disappointing.

I don’t often think this about a book – it was OK. The writing is fluent and it’s a quick read. It’s episodic rather than linear as she recollects events and thoughts from the past and I would have said it’s really good but for the fact that I couldn’t really believe the narrator is a woman. But it has made me want to read more by Mick Jackson and I see from his website that as well as his three novels he’s also written two book of short stories, Ten Sorry Tales and Bears of England, both of which look interesting.

Poetic Lives:Shelley by Daniel Hahn

I didn’t know much about Shelley before I read Poetic Lives: Shelley by Daniel Hahn. This biography gives brief details of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s short but extraordinary life, from his birth in 1792 to his early death in 1822, shortly before his thirtieth birthday.

The opening paragraph caught my immediate attention in pointing out that Shelley was not that far away from the present day. Although he was born during the reign of mad King George III when there were struggles for independence in Europe – the French Revolution and then Napoleon’s rise to power, his granddaughter saw the sinking of the Titanic, the First World War and the Great Depression.

Shelley was an unhappy child, an unconventional teenager, an atheist and a radical reformer. He was expelled from Oxford University before he could complete his degree and was at odds with his father. He eloped with the daughter of a coffee-shop owner in 1811 but after three years the marriage was over when he met Mary Godwin. He was constantly in poor health and for much of the rest of his life they lived a nomadic existence travelling around Italy and France.

Hahn also quotes extracts from Shelley’s poems and prose. He also uses various sources such as Shelley’s friend Thomas Hogg, who wrote his Life of Shelley in 1857, Shelley’s cousin Tom Medwin who published a memoir of Shelley and a two-volume Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1847 and another friend, Edward Trelawney who wrote Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron in 1858.

I found parts of the book moving, Shelley’s  reaction to John Keats’s death for example and the events of his own death, but on the whole it is a prosaic account of Shelley’s life. Hahn’s repetitive use of the word “would” was irritating. It has interested me enough to want to read more about Shelley and his poems. I have started reading  Ann Wroe’s book Being Shelley: the Poet’s Search for Himself, which promises to be a much fuller account and also more about him as a poet. More about that book another time.

I received Poetic Lives:Shelley from the publishers via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers’ Programme.

The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk: a Book Review

I expected  The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk to be much better than it is. It begins well, and every now and then I thought this is really good, but at times it seems to get lost in itself. It’s about the life of a family – the Bradshaws, mainly concentrating on Thomas and his wife Tonie – over the course of a year. Not a lot happens on the surface but underneath everyone’s life is in turmoil and change.

Thomas is the middle brother. Howard is his older brother, married to Claudia; Leo, is his younger brother married to Susie. We also meet his parents and Tonie’s parents. The book is a series of episodes in their lives, both individually and collectively. It’s a mixture of straight forward narrative about their daily lives, interspersed with interesting reflections on such themes as what is real/unreal/artificial, what is the value and nature of success, what is art, the duality of character, the question of work/home balance, women going out to work versus staying at home, progress, the impossibility of perfection, the nature of love, the importance of wanting what you have and of avoiding not wanting what you have and so on and so forth.

 Thomas, the house-husband, is learning to play the piano whilst he is at home looking after Alexa, their eight-year old daughter, and much of the description of him has a musical theme – he is a “symphony” crashing about. Tonie, getting on with her career, seems a very negative character, usually dressed all in black and uncertain of what she wants from life. The crisis comes when Alexa falls ill and Thomas has to cope on his own. Howard and Claudia are muddling along with their three children and Skittle, their little dog and their crisis comes as they are preparing to go away on holiday – I found this chapter one of the most “real” in the book, describing the “ordeal” of it all.

My overall impression of it is that although it’s intense, it’s also emotionally detached; the characters are well drawn for the most part, but just as I was getting involved with them, the narrative moved away.

(The Bradshaw Variations – an Uncorrected Proof copy supplied by LibraryThing Early Reviewer Programme)

Turbulence by Giles Foden: Book Review

turbulence001

I received an uncorrected proof of Turbulence from the publishers Faber and Faber through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program. I should have found it boring because most of the characters are scientists – meteorologists, to be precise – and a lot of the dialogue is scientific concerning the theory of weather forecasting and mathematical forecasting in particular. Maths is not my strong subject and a lot of this was beyond me. There was just too much detailed information. Yet, strangely this book gripped me and once I’d got through the first chapter, which was very technical and odd, about making a ship out of ice to transport water to Saudia Arabia, it was compelling reading.

The main action takes place during 1944 in the run up to D-Day. The narrator is Henry Meadows a young meteorologist working for the Met Office. He is sent up to Scotland to find out about the “Ryman number”  from Wallace Ryman, a pacifist and former meteorologist who devised the formula that will make forecasting the weather over a longer period more accurate. This is just what the Allies need to know in preparing for the invasion of Normandy. Ryman is based on Lewis Fry Richardson, who devised the Richardson number, which enables the turbulence of different weather systems to be measured (hence the title of the book). I don’t have a clear picture from the novel of what this actually is or how it works, but it was his work in forecasting a  break in the bad weather conditions in the Channel that fixed the date of D-Day as 6 June 1944.

Ryman is the most interesting character in the  book. He is opposed to war, now  pursuing peace studies and is known as a difficult, stubborn character. Henry finds him awkward, uncooperative and reluctant to talk about his work at first. The book began to come to life for me in this section when Henry and Ryman and his wife Gill start to get to know each other, made more interesting by the tensions in the Rymans’ marriage. At this stage Henry’s own fragility becomes obvious from passages where he recalls his childhood in Africa and the death of his parents.

The action moved back to London and began to drag a little, but picked up as Henry became more involved in the disagreements between the meteorologists from different countries, brought together over the phone to pool their resources about methods and interpretation. Henry is assigned to go with the invasion forces as Met liaison between the British and Americans. This provides a dramatic ending to the book as he is injured on landing in France.

Turbulence is a combination of theoretical and scientific information, philosophical musings (which were more meaningful to me), and a portrayal of complex and emotional characters. In the end I thought it was well worth the effort of reading it.

When the Lights Went Out by Andy Beckett: Book Review

I saw When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies by Andy Beckett on LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Programme and the publishers’ description made me think maybe it would be interesting:

Over five years in the making, this book is not an academic history but something for the general reader, written with the vividness of a novel or the best works of American New Journalism. No such treatment of the seventies has been previously attempted. Hopefully the book will bring the decade back to life in its all its drama and complexity.

And it did bring that decade back to life. It’s a very detailed book, using original material such as diaries, letters, personal memoirs as well as books written about the period. I particularly liked the personal, face-to-face interviews with some of the key figures such as Ted Heath,  and his assessments of politicians such as this one of Margaret Thatcher in 1975 when she was a contender for the leadership of the Conservative Party:

 She was a fast learner, a holder of fierce convictions and a highly distinctive speaker and political presence. (page 261)

Margaret Thatcher was, essentially not easy to be around: ‘Thatcher was always tiresome,’ remembers the political journalist Michael White who spent a lot of time with her in the seventies. ‘There was no romance, no self-analysis, no self-consciously epic qaulity like you would have got with Churchill. (page 262)

When Beckett describes the strikes of the decade, and there were so many, the changes in the balance of power, the three-day week and the Winter of Discontent, I was back there living it all over again. My only criticism is a personal one – when he writes about the economic and financial situations with all the statistics he quotes I was a bit bored and have to admit that I skim read those sections. It was the personalities, the personal touches and the cultural and social scenes that I liked – for example during his interview with Denis Healey, who was Harold Wilson’s Chancellor of the Exchequer in the seventies Healey talked about Wilson’s lack of ambition:

‘In his second term he told many people that he planned only to stay a few months. He told me in the lavatory at No. 10 just before a Cabinet meeting.’ Healey giggled, characteristically delighting in the black comedy. Then, equally characteristically, he looked out of the window of his Sussex study and kicked Wilson’s reputation in the shins. ‘I thought, “About bloody time!” He was a terrible prime minister, actually.’ (page 162)

 Andy Beckett is a journalist and this book is very readable. As well as the personalities I also liked his descriptions of places, comparing how they are today with how they were in the seventies and his comparisons of the crises that faced Britain then with those facing us today:

At the least, a very seventies dread has seeped back into how people in Britain and other rich countries see the world. Economic crises, floods, food shortages, terrorism, the destruction of the environment: these spectres, so looming in the seventies did not go away during the eighties and nineties; yet they faded – they were often quite easy to forget about. Now that they have returned to haunt newspaper front pages almost daily, it is possible to wonder how many of Britain’s seventies problems were ever really solved. (page 522)