Exit by Belinda Bauer

Random House UK, Cornerstone| 21 January 2021| 336 pages| Kindle review copy| 4*

I wasn’t at all sure about Exit by Belinda Bauer when I first started to read it a few months ago, so put it to one side and only picked it up again a few days ago. What initially put me off was the opening chapter, which sets the scene for the work of the Exiteers, a group of people who provide support for people with a terminal illness to end their lives. Their role is ostensibly passive, just to be there to keep the dying company as they take their final breaths. But they do provide the means! And one assignment for John (real name Felix Pink) and Amanda goes wrong when they discover they have ‘helped’ the wrong man.

But I read on and what at first looks like a novel considering the ethics of assisted suicide turns into crime fiction as Felix and Amanda realise they have become murder suspects. It’s all mayhem after that as Felix, overcome with remorse, tries to put things right and to discover how and why the wrong man had died.

Far from being a ‘thriller’ it becomes a borderline ‘cosy’ murder mystery, verging on farce in places and I was amused by the wry humour and surreal scenes. It’s a comedy of errors, interspersed with poignant scenes as we learn about Felix’s grief over the deaths of his wife, Margaret and son James. His thoughts always end up with wondering what Margaret would do in the same situation.

It gets off to a slow start, the pace only gradually picking up in the later chapters, when the multiple twists kept me engaged and keen to know how it would end. There are quite a lot of characters in the book, which I found a bit confusing at first, although the main characters, Felix and Acting DC Calvin Bridges are clearly defined and distinctive characters. Some of the minor characters, such as old Greybeard and other clients in the betting shop, are clearly quirky and their actions absurd. And I particularly liked old Skipper, Albert’s father. But underneath the comedy there is a tragedy, as Felix discovers how he has been deceived all along. And the ending is bitter sweet. I began not sure I really wanted to read Exit and ended it feeling I’m glad I did. It’s unlike anything else I’ve read!

Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my proof copy.

My Friday Post: The One I Was by Eliza Graham

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This morning I started to read The One I Was by Eliza Graham. I’ve read a couple of her books before and I’m hoping this one will be just as good.

It begins:

Every bone in my body screamed at me to run away from the elegant and classical white house at whose door I stood.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

‘Sometimes people think it is strange to try so hard,’ he said.

‘The world depends on some of us refusing to be the same as everyone else.’

~~~

My first thought was, of course, to wonder why this person wanted to run away from the house so desperately.

Measure of Malice: Scientific Detection Stories edited by Martin Edwards

The Measure of Malice edited by Martin Edwards is one of the more enjoyable short story collections that I’ve read. It contains 14 stories in which scientific/technological methods are used in the detection of crime. There is an excellent introduction by Martin Edwards with information about the authors, five of whom were doctors, two were engineers and one was an academic chemist.

As always with short story collections some stories are better than others. I’m highlighting a few of the better ones here:

The Boscombe Valley Mystery by A Conan Doyle was originally published in the Strand Magazine in October 1891, and is the first short story to feature Inspector Lestrade. It’s a solid story, solved by Sherlock Holmes by inspecting and analysing the footprints and signs at the scene of the crime.

The Horror of Studley Grange by L T Meade and Clifford Halifax (1894), from Stories for the Diary of a Doctor, originally published in the Strand Magazine. I enjoyed this one although it was pretty easy to predict. Ostensibly a ghost story, the solution involves the use of a laryngoscope.

After Death the Doctor by J J Connington, a Scottish professor of chemistry. This one was first published in 1934, involving a contemporary scientific gadget. The doctor in question is Doctor Shefford who together with Sergeant Longridge, investigate the murder of old Barnaby Leadburn, found dead with his throat cut.

The next two are the ones I enjoyed the most:

The Broken Toad by H C Bailey, first published in 1934, featuring the surgeon and Home Office Consultant, Reggie Fortune as he considers the death of a police constable from poisoning. I enjoyed all the detailed complications and Bailey’s literary mannered style of storytelling.

In the Teeth of the Evidence by Dorothy L Sayers, first published in 1939, about forensic dentistry, which starts as Lord Peter Wimsey is sitting in his dentist’s chair. The police had just visited the surgery, wanting to see his predecessor’s records to identify the victim of a burnt out garage. An upper right incisor crown and the filling in a molar provided the clues to his death. Gory if you actually visualise what is involved!

  • Publisher : Poisoned Pen Press (4 Feb. 2020)
  • Language: : English
  • Paperback : 336 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 1492699624
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1492699620
  • Source: The Poisoned Pen Press via NetGalley
  • My Rating: 3.5*

V2 by Robert Harris

Random House UK, Cornerstone| 17 September 2020| 314 pages| Kindle review copy| 5*

Description

Victory is close. Vengeance is closer.

On the brink of defeat, Hitler commissioned 10,000 V2s – ballistic rockets that carried a one-ton warhead at three times the speed of sound, which he believed would win the war.

Dr Rudi Graf who, along with his friend Werner von Braun, had once dreamt of sending a rocket to the moon, now finds himself in November 1944 in a bleak seaside town in Occupied Holland, launching V2s against London. No one understands the volatile, deadly machine better than Graf, but his disillusionment with the war leads to him being investigated for sabotage.

Kay Caton-Walsh, an officer in the WAAF, has experienced first-hand the horror of a V2 strike. When 160 Londoners, mostly women and children, are killed by a single missile, the government decides to send a team of WAAFs to newly-liberated Belgium in the hope of discovering the location of the launch sites. But not all the Germans have left and Kay finds herself in mortal danger.

As the war reaches its desperate end, their twin stories play out, interlocked and separate, until their destinies are finally forced together.

My thoughts:

V2 is historical fiction with a solid factual framework. I like to know when I’m reading historical fiction how much is history and how much is fact. So, I was pleased to find that at the end of the book Harris has included a list of the sources he consulted on the history of the V2 and how it worked, including the work of the photographic reconnaissance interpreters, before writing V2. In particular he acknowledges Eileen Younghusband’s two volumes of memoirs – Not an Ordinary Life and One Woman’s War. She had worked as a WAAF officer on the Mechelen operation, working on detecting the location of the V2 launch sites, and her memoirs had provided him with a vivid insight into her wartime life. Without them he would not have written V2.

It’s set over five days at the end of November 1944 as the Germans fired V2 missiles on London from the woods around Scheveningen on the Dutch coast. The British response was a counter-operation, including a team of WAAFs. The cast includes some historical figures such as Werner von Braun, the real-life head of the Nazi rocket programme, and SS-General Hans Kammler. It’s told in alternating chapters from two of the fictional characters’ perspectives – Dr Rudi Graf, a rocket engineer on the V2 team and Kay Caton-Walsh of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Kay was part of the team based at Mechelen using radar to try to locate the V2 firing sites. Harris emphasises that his fictional character, Kay, bore no resemblance to Mrs Younghusband, apart from the fact that she worked on the Mechelen project.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel, learning a lot about that period of the Second World War and about the V2. It is detailed and tense, and very readable, describing the intricate details of the launching of the V2s and Kay’s work, which became increasingly dangerous as their location became known to the Germans.

Many thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my digital proof copy.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

In December I read 12 books, most of them short ones, and because I was reading them one after the other I hardly paused to write about them. Before they slip out of my memory I want to write about some of them at least. –

I particularly want to write about The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler as it is one of those books that I’ve always heard about but have never read. It’s been on my Kindle for the last three years. It was first published in 1939 and is an excellent example of what is known as ‘hardboiled’ crime fiction, which generally featured a private eye with a whisky bottle in a filing cabinet, a femme fatale, and rich and usually corrupt clients. Female sexuality is a snare in a dangerous society where manipulative politicians and corrupt police thrive.

About the book:

Best-known as the creator of the original private eye, Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888 and died in 1959. Many of his books have been adapted for the screen, and he is widely regarded as one of the very greatest writers of detective fiction. His books include The Big SleepThe Little SisterFarewell, My LovelyThe Long Good-byeThe Lady in the LakePlaybackKiller in the RainThe High Window and Trouble is My Business.

The Big Sleep has been adapted for film twice, in 1946 with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgely, Martha Vickers, and again in 1978, with Robert Mitchum, Sarah Miles, Richard Boone, Candy Clark.

My thoughts:

The novel is narrated by Philip Marlow, who describes himself as a ‘lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich.’ He’s been in jail more than once, likes liqour and women and the cops don’t like him much, although he does get on with a couple of them.

It’s not really the type of crime fiction that I like, but I did enjoy it. There are damsels in distress, gangsters, corrupt officials, and plenty of dark, violent and bloody situations. And of course there are murders – the ‘big sleep’ is death, after all. It’s fast-paced, violent, complicated and in times I found it a bit difficult to follow.

Reading the book took me back in time and place to Los Angeles in the late 1930s, a baking hot LA in which Private Investigator Marlow is hired by the paralysed millionaire General Stallwood, who is being blackmailed. His investigations are hampered by the General’s two daughters, one of whom proves to be a femme fatale, out to entrap Marlow and vindictive when her efforts fail. Chandler’s writing is sharp, snappy and richly descriptive with witty one-liners.

Throwback Thursday: The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson

I’m linking up today with Davida @ The Chocolate Lady’s Book Review Blog for Throwback Thursday. It takes place on the Thursday before the first Saturday of every month (i.e., the Thursday before the monthly #6Degrees post). The idea is to highlight one of your previously published book reviews and then link back to Davida’s blog.

I’ve been looking at the books I reviewed in 2007 for my Throwback Thursday posts. Today I’ve chosen to highlight The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson, which I wrote about on 13 December 2007.

From the opening paragraph:

I started it with great enthusiasm and found it a compelling book to read. It is a psychological mystery concerning the nature of belief, faith, and truth. It starts with an account of the disappearance and death of Gideon Mack and the discovery of a manuscript written by him shortly before he was last seen. It is clear right from the start that there is mystery and uncertainty surrounding his disappearance, death and the discovery of his body. The book centres on the manuscript with an epilogue containing ‘notes’ written by a journalist investigating the mystery, considering whether the manuscript was ‘anything other than the ramblings of a mind terminally damaged by a cheerless upbringing, an unfulfilled marriage, unrequited love, religious confusion and the stress and injury of a near-fatal accident?’

It’s a macabre story and it left me with several questions – mainly about what was real, what was imagined and what was illusion!

Click here to read the rest of my review

~~~

James Robertson (born 1958) is a Scottish writer who grew up in Bridge of Allan, Stirlingshire. He is the author of several short story and poetry collections, and has published four novels: The Fanatic, Joseph Knight, The Testament of Gideon Mack, and And the Land Lay Still. Joseph Knight was named both the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year and the Saltire Society Book of the Year in 2003/04. The Testament of Gideon Mack was long-listed for the 2006 Man Booker Prize. And the Land Lay Still was awarded the Saltire Society Book of the Year Award in 2010. Robertson has also established an independent publishing imprint called Kettillonia, which produces occasional pamphlets and books of poetry and short prose, and he is a co-founder and the general editor of the Scots language imprint Itchy Coo, which produces books in Scots for children and young people. He lives in rural Angus. (Goodreads)

You can find more about the book at scotgeog.com, a website authored by James Robertson

Movalwar by Benjamin Cornelius

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Benjamin Cornelius is 11 years old. He’s my friend’s great-nephew, and I was delighted to read his book Movalwar. He wrote it during the pandemic when he was in lockdown with his family. I was most impressed with it – his storytelling, his imagination and his command of language. It gripped me right from the first start and I just had to read on. It’s about two eleven year-old boys, Alfie and Ben and their exciting and dangerous journey to save the fate of two worlds.

With no school because of the pandemic, the boys’ adventure begins when Alfie has a dream demanding that he goes to Movalwar through a secret lake to return a mysterious possession that controls that evil kingdom. Then he finds a box in his grandparents’ attic, containing a multi-coloured gemstone that reveals a map showing mountains, islands, seas and jungles. And so their adventure begins as he and Bobby set out to find the entrance to the evil kingdom.

Meanwhile the pandemic has reached a peak, no cure has been found, the rate of infection is rising and a vaccine has yet to be created. London has been plunged into chaos. And in Movalwar Alfie’s and Bobby’s lives are in increasing danger. Will they succeed?

I liked the mix of fantasy and real life in this tense, fast-paced book that kept me absorbed in the story all the way through. Ben also designed the lovely cover for his book. I hope Ben will continue to write more stories – he says he is currently enjoying thinking of new ideas for another story.

  • Publisher : Eklegein (11 Sept. 2020)
  • Language: : English
  • Paperback : 116 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 1907971653
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1907971655
  • Source: I bought the book
  • My rating: 5 stars

The Diabolical Bones by Bella Ellis

It’s Christmas 1845 and Haworth is in the grip of a freezing winter.

Hodder and Stoughton|5 November 2020| 309 pages| e-book| Review copy|4*

The Diabolical Bones is the second novel by Bella Ellis about the Brontë sisters. It’s historical fiction that brings the period (1845) and the setting vividly to life. It begins with Charlotte in 1852 looking back to that December of 1845 when her brother and sisters had still been alive and they had faced the hidden horror that lay within Top Withins Hall. This is a dark story, as the four Brontës discover – it involves not only murder, but also the occult and child exploitation. It highlights what life was like in the mid nineteenth century, the living conditions and the inequalities between the well-to-do and the poor.

Charlotte, Emily and Anne and their brother, Branwell became real people before my eyes, seeing them in their home in the Parsonage at Howarth. And together they make a formidable team as they set about discovering the truth about the bones of a child hidden in a chimney in the oldest part of Top Withins Hall, an ancient house high up on the moors above Howarth.

The Hall is the home of the Bradshaw family, known by Tabby, the Brontes’ housekeeper as a ‘bad lot’. She is steeped in the local superstitions and folklore and believes the land where the Bradshaws live is where the ‘hidden folk’ live. It fills her with horror as she tells the sisters about the children of Adam and Eve who live among the rocks and woodland, moors and rivers, unseen. In the past people would leave out offerings for them to keep away ill fortune. She warns them that now that there is a heavy price to be paid – and that the discovery of the bones is just the start of it.

There are links to other Brontë books in the names of some of the characters – for example, imagine finding Mrs Grace Poole, the guardian of the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre in charge of an orphanage. And I was delighted to find Emily in particular was inspired by Top Withins Hall and the events that took place there to write a novel, because its resemblance to Wuthering Heights struck me immediately. The more I read the more I could believe that the Brontë family were just as Bella Ellis has described them.

Bella Ellis’ is the Brontë inspired pen name for the author Rowan Coleman, who has been a Brontë devotee for most of her life – and it shows so well in this book. The setting is superb, the characters are ‘real’ and the book is well plotted. It was only towards the end that I suspected the identity of the main culprit and the danger that the four siblings had to face. I do hope there will be a third Brontë book.

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

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten of My Favourite Books of 2020

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish and now hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl. For the rules see her blog.

The topic this week is My Favourite Books of 2020. This is difficult as I’ve read so many good books this year. So these are just 10 of them that came to mind when I was deciding which ones are my favourites. I’ve listed them in a-z author order:

A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry – his second book continuing the story of Thomas McNulty and John Cole, and Winona, the young Indian girl they had adopted. This is beautifully written, poetically and lyrically describing the landscape and with convincing characters from the American West of the 1870s. They are living and working on a farm in Tennessee, but then things go disastrously wrong. First racism rears its ugly head and then Winona is brutally attacked.

‘Please, sir, I want some more.’

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens his second novel, published in three volumes in November 1839. It’s full of terrific descriptions of the state of society at the time – the grim conditions that the poor suffered, the shocking revelations of what went on in the workhouse, and the depiction of the criminal underworld – the contrast of good and evil. 

The Searcher by Tana French, a novel full of suspense and tension. After twenty five years in the Chicago police force, Cal has recently moved to a village in Ireland, wanting to build a new life after his divorce. He wants a quiet life in which nothing much happens. But he gets involved in the search for Brendan, a missing 19 year-old.

The Year Without a Summer: One Event, Six Lives, a World Changed by Guinevere Glasford – a novel about how the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora on Sumbawa Island in Indonesia in 1815 had a profound and far reaching impact on the world. It led to sudden cooling across the northern hemisphere, crop failures, famine and social unrest in the following year.

The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson, historical fiction about the early years of Henry VII’s reign as seen through the eyes of Joan Vaux She was a lady in waiting to Elizabeth of York, whose marriage in 1486 to Henry united the Houses of Lancaster and York after the end of the Wars of the Roses. The fictional element is in the story of Joan’s fascination for and care of the ravens of the Tower of London firmly believing in the legend that should the ravens leave the Tower for good then the crown will fall and ruin will return to the nation. 

The Sleepwalker by Joseph Knox, the third Detective Aidan Waits novel, crime fiction that is dark, violent and absolutely brilliant.  Waits is a disturbed and complex character, other police officers don’t trust him or want to work with him.  He plays very close to the edge and has little regard for his own safety. 

Saving Missy by Beth Morey – a novel about love and loss,  family relationships, friendship, loneliness, and guilt but also about the power of kindness. It moved me to tears (not many books do that) but it is not in the least sentimental. Missy (Millicent) Carmichael is seventy nine, living on her own in a large house, left with sad memories of what her life used to be, a wife, mother and grandmother, but now she is alone. Her husband, Leo is no longer with her, her son and his family are in Australia and she and her daughter are estranged after a big row. And there is something else too, for Missy has a guilty secret that is gnawing away at her.

The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray – dystopian fiction. I was gripped by the story of a world coming to an end and the effects that had on the planet and the population. Set in 2059, thirty years after the earth had finally stopped spinning The Last Day presents a totalitarian world, and gives such a vivid picture of what life has become for the people who live on the burning sun side of the planet. There is, of course, no night, but there is a curfew during the ‘night’ hours.

Fresh Water for Flowers by by Valérie Perrin, translated from the French by Hildegarde Serle. An emotional and moving story about the caretaker at a cemetery in a small town in Bourgogne, Violette, her estranged husband, Phillippe, his miserable parents and their young daughter, Leonine. What happened to Leonine is especially tragic. This is a story of love and loss – and hope.

The Birdwatcher by William Shaw – a character-driven murder mystery, with a dramatic climax. Sergeant William South is a birdwatcher, a methodical and quiet man. A loner, South is not a detective and has always avoided being involved in investigating murder. But he is assigned to investigate the murder of a fellow birdwatcher. Alternating with the present day story is the story of Billy, a thirteen year old living in Northern Ireland during the ‘Troubles’.

The Shortest Day by Colm Toibin

Today is the shortest day of the year, so it’s the best day to write about The Shortest Day by Colm Toibin, a novella of just 31 pages, one of the shortest books I’ve read. I loved it. It appealed to me on several levels – first of all it’s about the mythical past, about the strange carvings I’ve found on certain stones, about archaeology, and about the unknown customs and rituals of our ancient past, and secondly because it’s storytelling at its best – a tale of wonder and mystery.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Amazon Original Stories|3 November 2020|31 pages

Professor O’Kelly is writing notes about Newgrange, also called Bru na Boinne, a circular mound with a retaining wall that had a narrow passageway leading into a vaulted central chamber. There are spirals and diamond shaped designs cut into some of the stones both inside the chamber itself and outside the entrance to the passageway. It’s a burial chamber, a prehistoric monument in County Meath in Ireland, that was built around 3200 BC – older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. It’s ringed by a stone circle, stones brought from the Mournes and Wicklow Mountains.

He speculates about the people who created the burial chamber, who they were, where they came from and what they believed in. He wonders about their burial rituals, what language they spoke and what they believed about the spirit. It all remains a mystery. He would dearly love to find something to open up its secrets to him. He has visited it several times in the past and plans to spend the days before Christmas visiting Newgrange, to make fresh drawings of the carvings on the stones and do a small amount of excavation in the passageway.

Meanwhile deep within the chamber there were whispers among the dead that the professor was coming again. They are concerned that he would discover the secret of the light penetrating the chamber on the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year. Some of the local inhabitants know of the secret but they never talk about it, except in whispers between themselves. When he arrives they put up a number of obstacles to prevent him from entering the chamber.

This is a wonderful story full of atmosphere, of dread and of anticipation. My heart was in my mouth as I read this story, wondering and hoping that the professor would succeed. Would he witness the secret of Newgrange – the secret of those who had lived thousands of years before?