The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd

Year without summer

Two Roads| 6 February 2020| 416 pages| e-book| review copy via NetGalley| 5 stars

The Year Without Summer: 1816 – one event, six lives, a world changed by Guinevere Glasfurd is a most remarkable book, telling 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, which became known as The Year Without Summer and in North America as Eighteen hundred and froze to death. But it wasn’t until the mid twentieth century that volcanic eruptions were shown to affect climate change.

Guinevere Glasfurd’s novel illustrates how the impact of the extreme weather conditions affected the lives of six people. They never meet, or know each other, but their stories are intertwined throughout the book in short chapters, giving what I think is a unique look at the events of 1816. I enjoyed all the stories.

Henry Hogg was the ship’s surgeon on the Benares, the ship sent to investigate the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. He discovered the sea full of floating pumice and charred bodies, whilst the decks of the ship were covered a foot thick with ashes. The immediate effects of the eruption were simply tremendous and horrific, within a hundred miles forests, towns were covered, deep valleys were filled in and the contours of the coast were changed.

In 1816 Mary Shelley travelled to Switzerland with Percy Shelley and her son Willmouse, her step-sister, Claire and Lord Byron and Dr Polidori and after a month of rain, Byron suggests that they should each write a ghost story and that led to her writing Frankenstein.

John Constable’s love of landscapes is deeply unfashionable and his hopes to marry Maria Rebow depend upon him gaining a commission from her parents. His father is near to death and as he has passed his business to Abram, John’s younger brother, John has few prospects other than to make a living from his painting.

Farmworker Sarah Hobbs in the Fens is finding work hard to get and has to settle for shovelling shit in the stables in her bare feet for a penny a day.  Always hungry and with work getting even more scarce she gets involved in the Littleport hunger riots. Her story is based loosely on a real person who was condemned to hang for her part in the riots, but her sentence was eventually commuted to transportation. The suppression of these riots was repeated in the 1819 Peterloo Massacre when protesters had gathered in Manchester demanding political reform

The other two people are fictional – preacher Charles Whitlock in Vermont is struggling, having persuaded his flock not to travel to Ohio to escape the draught, only to find that this is followed by periods of hard frost and snow in August. Their prospects are very bleak and death soon follows.

The other fictional character is Hope Peter, a soldier returned from the Napoleonic wars, who finds his mother has died, his family home demolished and a fence has gone up in its place, enclosing the land. He too ends up taking part in a riot – this one at Spa Fields at Islington.

 I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s more like a collection of short stories than a novel, but it works very well for me, highlighting the global connections. It is of course about climate change, showing the far-reaching effects of the Tambora eruption, which weren’t limited to 1815 and 1816. It led to hardships in 1817 and 1818 with the outbreak of cholera and typhoid epidemics triggered by the failure of monsoons. As Guinevere Glasfurd explains in her afterword the eruption is ‘credited with social change throughout the nineteenth century and with the pressure for social reform.’

This was the first book by Guinevere Glasfurd  that I’ve read, but it’s not her first book – that was The Words in My Hand, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award and was also longlisted in France for the Prix du Roman FNAC. She is currently working on her third novel, a story of the Enlightenment, set in eighteenth century England and France. I’ll be reading more of her work.

Many thanks to Two Roads for a review copy via NetGalley.

Saving Missy by Beth Morrey

Saving Missey

Harper Collins| 6 February 2020| 384 pages| e-book| review copy via NetGalley| 5+ stars

I absolutely loved Saving Missy, Beth Morrey’s debut novel. It is 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.

And then one morning as she is walking in the park she meets Angela and her young son Otis and their friend Sylvie. From that point on Missy’s life begins to change in a good way as she finds new friends, including a wonderful dog, Bobby. But can she let go of the past and the guilt that is crippling her emotions?

As the story follows Missy’s life in the present (told from Missy’s perspective) events from the past are also revealed – about her parents and grandparents, how she met Leo, and her struggles as a mother unable to follow the academic career she had thought was hers.

This really is a special book, full of wonderful characters, ordinary people drawn from life, about everyday events, pleasures and difficulties. I don’t want to write anymore about the book as that would reveal Missy’s secrets – for there is more than one. It conveys the misery of loneliness, and depths of despair of being stuck in memories (not all of them happy) and of the joys that friendship can bring.  It’s also about reconciliation and forgiving yourself – and last but not least, the love and companionship that a dog can give you.

Beth Morrey (from Goodreads)

Beth Morrey was inspired to write her debut novel, Saving Missy, while pushing a pram around her local park during maternity leave. Getting to know the community of dog owners, joggers, neighbours and families, she began to sow the seeds of a novel about a woman saved by the people around her, strangers who became friends. Previously Creative Director at RDF Television, Beth now writes full time. She was previously shortlisted for the Grazia-Orange First Chapter award, and had her work published in the Cambridge and Oxford May Anthologies while at university. Beth lives in London with her husband, two sons and a dog named Polly.

Many thanks to Harper Collins for a review copy via NetGalley.

The Winker by Andrew Martin

The Winker

Corsair| 6 June 2019| 272 pages| e-book| review copy via NetGalley|4 stars

I haven’t read anything by Andrew Martin before and as I began reading The Winker I found it decidedly odd and a bit creepy. I don’t like the cover at all and the title didn’t appeal to me either. But the description interested me:

London, 1976.

In Belgravia in the heat of summer, Lee Jones, a faded and embittered rock star, is checking out a group of women through the heavy cigarette smoke in a crowded pub. He makes eye contact with one, and winks. After allowing glances to linger for a while longer, he finally moves towards her.

In that moment, his programme of terror – years in the making – has begun.

Months later, the first of the many chilling headlines to come appears: ‘Police hunting winking killer.’

Meanwhile in France.

Charles Underhill, a wealthy Englishman living in Paris, has good reason to be interested in the activities of the so-called Winking Killer. With a past to hide and his future precarious, Charles is determined to discover the Winker’s identity.

In the overheating cities of London, Oxford, Paris and Nice, a game of cat and mouse develops, and catching someone’s eye becomes increasingly perilous. But if no one dares look, a killer can hide in plain sight . . .

From ‘a master of historical crime fiction’ (The Guardian), The Winker is a gripping thriller that won’t let you look away.

My thoughts:

I like the structure of this book. It is set in 1976 with flashbacks to 1951, in several locations, mainly London and Nice and sometimes in Paris and Oxford. Each time and place is clearly highlighted. The book is largely character-led. Lee Jones, a failed pop singer and psychopath is working on a ‘project’, nothing to do with music, aiming to achieve world-wide fame. He calls it a ‘programme’ and involves something he calls a ‘folder’ and his ‘trademark’. He is living in a fantasy world, accompanied by Abigail a journalist who intermittently interviews Lee. It was all a bit ambiguous at first and it took me a few pages to decide what I thought about Abigail and her role in the book. 

Then there is Charles Underhill, a man of about fifty,  living a self-imposed exile in France, because of an event in Oxford whilst he was a student there. He lives a very routine life in Paris with his mother Syl, except for his annual holiday in Nice. His routine is upset when he receives a postcard with a picture of the river at Oxford showing a boat full of university rowers, but no message on the back. When more unsigned postcards arrive he is worried that they are from Pat Price who was at the university with him in 1951.

In Nice Charles meets Howard Miller, a crime fiction writer. His first novel wasn’t a great success and he is looking for inspiration for his next novel, to prove to his father he wasn’t wasting his time. These three men are now set on a collision course as Charles offers to pay Howard for a couple of days work in Oxford to find out who had sent him the anonymous postcards. From that point onwards everything fell into place for me and I was hooked.

This is psychological crime fiction, you know right from the beginning who the ‘Winker’ is, but the precise method of the murders is not clear (at least not to me) until later in the book. And Charles’ secret is revealed quite early in the book. Neither Lee nor Charles are pleasant characters and this is decidedly a creepy tale, but it’s also a compelling one. Howard, on the other hand, is rather a naive character, who nevertheless gets to the bottom of the mystery. I loved the settings – they are so vivid and evocative of the 1970s; the places, the intense heat of the summer  of 1976, the people, their clothes, the hairstyles, sunglasses, cars, exotic cigarettes, and especially the music of the 70s, bring it all to life in technicolour. I think this is ripe for being made into a film.

Andrew Martin, a former Spectator Young Writer of the Year, grew up in Yorkshire. He has written for the Evening Standard, the Sunday Times, the Independent on Sunday and the Daily Telegraph, among others. His weekly column appears in the New Statesman and he is the author of numerous articles and books – of both fiction and non-fiction. For more information see his website.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley, for review.

The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

A thriller set in a world which has spun to a halt, bringing civilisation to the brink of collapse

The last day

Cornerstone| 6 February 2020| 432 pages| e-book| review copy via NetGalley| 5 stars

It’s not often I read dystopian fiction, a bit wary that I won’t like it, but I’m glad to say that I was fascinated by The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray. I’m not sure about the plausibility of the concept but I was gripped by the story of a world coming to an end and the effects that had on the planet and the population.

A white dwarf star, the size of earth but two hundred thousand times as dense had barrelled through space, and travelling at two thousand kilometres a second its trajectory and gravity had dragged the earth backwards. The earth’s rotation had gradually slowed and eventually came to a full stop. Chaos followed, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and gales swept the earth’s surface, but gravity still functioned as the planet was still the same mass and exerted gravitational force. As the planet stopped on the dawning of the last day in 2029 the boundaries of day and night were locked in place, with a slender ring of borderlands that varied between total darkness and a fractional glimpse of light. Europe was in the constant light of the sun with an isolationist Britain on the warm side far enough in to raise crops but far enough out to still be habitable.

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.  I warmed to Ellen Hopper, a scientist working on a rig two hundred miles off the south-west coast of England in the North Atlantic, where it is always dawn, as she studies the ocean’s currents. She receives a letter from Dr Edward Thorne her old college tutor at Oxford who is dying. He has something important to tell her, information that would ruin the British government and that they would do anything to keep hidden. Prior to his appointment at Oxford he had  been a scientist and an adviser to the British Prime Minister, Richard Davenport, until he had been ignominiously sacked. 

What follows is Hopper’s search to discover the details of this secret, interspersed with flashbacks to her past and her family history, in particular about what happened to her parents, her relationship with her brother, who works in security, her fears that she shouldn’t trust him, and her ex-husband David. It is full of political intrigue and danger with a high body count and builds to a dramatic conclusion. I thoroughly enjoyed it, was glued to the pages and by the end of the book I was convinced of the reality of this implausible world (at least I hope it is). 

Andrew Hunter Murray, is a writer and journalist from London. The Last Day is his first novel. when he’s not writing fiction he works for the TV show QI, as one of the ‘Elves’ finding out Quite Interesting facts about everything under the sun. He also co-hosts the podcast No Such Thing As A Fish, and write jokes and journalism for Private Eye, the UK’s leading satirical magazine. No Such Thing As A Fish has also led to a spin-off TV series, No Such Thing As The News, and three books co-written with his colleagues on the show – the Book Of The Year, The Book Of The Year 2018, and the Book Of The Year 2019.

He is already working on his next novel idea. I definitely want to read it when he’s finished it!

Many thanks to Cornerstone for a review copy via NetGalley.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens oliver twist etc

5*

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens was my latest Classics Club Spin book. I finished reading it on 16th January well before the finish date for the Spin, 31st January. It’s a well known story, although I realised that I only knew the beginning – Oliver’s birth in the workhouse and his early years, that famous scene where he has the audacity to ask for more, and then his escape from the workhouse only to end up in Fagin’s clutches – a den of thieves and pickpockets.

Oliver Twist
‘Please, sir, I want some more.’

I don’t intended to go into any more detail about the story, other than to say that whilst out with the Artful Dodger, attempting to steal handkerchiefs Oliver is caught by the police and rescued by Mr Brownlow. After that the story was new to me, although I knew the names of the other main characters, Nancy and the villain Bill Sykes, with his vicious dog, Bull’s Eye. But other characters in the later parts of the book, such as the Maylie family, Rose, adopted by Mrs Maylie, and her son, Harry and the mysterious man, Monks were new to me. 

Oliver Twist was first published as a serial from 1837-1839, under Charles Dickens’ pseudonym, ‘Boz’. It was 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. Despite everything that happens to Oliver he remains a good boy, pure and innocent, whereas the villains are evil personified; whilst living with Fagin and his gang he existed in a state of both fascination and terror. Dickens was merciless in the satire he used in this book.

And yet in the middle of the book there is a romantic interlude full of sentimentality and melodrama. Rose Maylie is really a very pale character, being both virtuous and self-sacrificing but she contrasts well with the prostitute Nancy, who pities Oliver and tries to protect him from Fagin and Sykes. As the mystery surrounding Monks’ identity is revealed, Oliver is in more danger than anything he has faced before in his life.

My copy also contains Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities (both of which I read as a teenager) and was a birthday present as long ago as 1981, so this is one of my TBRs as well as a Classics Club Spin book. In the introduction to this volume Oliver Twist is described as follows:

The story of Oliver … has become an immortal one. Hitherto Dickens had been content to entertain … with Oliver he tried to reach the deeper passions of his audience, rouse their indignation at the harsh injustice of the Poor Law and open their eyes to the horror of the London slums, while at the same time show that there is  a certain innocence in humanity (personified by Oliver) that can never be sullied. There have been some critics who have found that the two themes make uneasy bedfellows and certain contemporaries of Dickens complained that he was being purely sensational in his horrific descriptions of life in the criminal underworld. Most of his readership, however, have been both fascinated and moved.

And I can say that I too found it shocking, fascinating and moving.

Death Has Deep Roots by Michael Gilbert (British Library Crime Classics)

 

Death has deep roots

Poisoned Pen Press| 5 November 2019| 288 pages|reprint edition| 4.5*

Death Has Deep Roots: a Second World War Mystery by Michael Gilbert was first published in 1951. This edition, published in association with the British Library, has an introduction by Martin Edwards.

I thoroughly enjoyed Death Has Deep Roots. Set in 1950 it’s a mix of courtroom drama, spy novel and an adventure thriller. Victoria Lamartine, a hotel worker, and an ex-French Resistance fighter is on trial for the murder of Major Eric Thoseby, her supposed lover, and alleged father of her dead child. The story alternates between the courtroom scenes, where QC Hargest Macrea is in charge of Vicky’s defence, and the investigations of solicitor Nap Rumbold in France, and his friend Major Angus McCann, who now keeps a pub in Shepherd Market.

Vicky is the obvious suspect – she was found standing over Thoseby’s dead body in his room at the Family Hotel in Soho, a room that was only accessed by one staircase – making this a variation on a locked room murder mystery. In evidence was also against her as Thoseby had been stabbed using the same method that the Resistance fighters had been taught. But she insists that she is not guilty.  Macrea and Nap believe her and Nap sets out to find the Englishman, Julian West, who Vicky says is the father of her dead child, whilst McCann investigates events in London.

I always like courtroom dramas and I think the courtroom scenes are impressive and persuasive as Macrea questions the prosecutions witnesses and manages to stall proceedings whilst Nap is away in France. It is, of course, much more complicated than I’ve described – there is a lot of information about the war in France and the work of the French Resistance, and the dangers that confront Nap as he digs deeper into what had happened to Wells. And I enjoyed the thrill of the chase as he travels through France with only a week to discover the truth.

I think what makes this book so good is not just the murder mystery, which I couldn’t solve, but also the setting and the characters. It was written not long after the end of the Second World War and it conveys a vivid impression of what life was like in both France and England, with memories of the war still fresh on people’s minds. Whilst Vicky is maybe a stereotypical character Nap, in particular, comes across as a more developed character – and a very likeable one too. It’s described as a book in the Inspector Hazelrigg series, but he only makes a brief appearance, with Nap, Macrea and McCann doing the main investigations.

Michael Gilbert was a British lawyer who wrote police procedurals, spy novels and many short stories, courtroom dramas, classical mysteries, adventure thrillers, and crime novels. I have another one of his to read, Smallbone Deceased and I hope to get round to it soon.

Many thanks to Poisoned Pen Press for a review copy via NetGalley.

Hitler’s Secret by Rory Clements

Hitler's secret

Bonnier Zaffre| 23 January 2020| 339 pages| e-book| review copy via NetGalley| 4 stars

Description from the author’s website:

In late autumn 1941, Nazi Germany has conquered most of western Europe and is now laying waste to the Soviet Union with a relentless drive towards the East. But a secret from Hitler’s past life threatens to destabilise the Nazi regime – and there are men who will stop at nothing to prevent it coming out. 

My thoughts

I enjoyed Rory Clements’ first book in his Tom Wilde series, Corpus so much that I decided to look out for more of his books. But somehow I missed the next two books as Hitler’s Secret is the fourth book in the series. Luckily for me, it reads perfectly as a standalone, although at some point I would like to read the books I missed.

This is a complicated novel and I am not going to attempt to describe all the details.  Just before the USA’s entry into the Second World War, Cambridge professor Tom Wilde, an American, is smuggled into Nazi Germany at the instigation of an American intelligence officer to collect a mysterious package from Berlin. He isn’t told what is in the package, but I thought it was obvious from quite early in the book what it was.  I think that increased the tension and suspense throughout the book and at several points in the story, I just couldn’t imagine how Tom would succeed in his mission as he is pursued by numerous people including the powerful Nazi, Martin Borman and his agents. Hermann Goering and his wife Emmy also play an important role in the story as does the internal struggle for power under Hitler, whereas Hitler himself does not appear.

I enjoyed all of it – the somewhat predictable plot, the amazing coincidences, the chase across Germany and the Baltic, the doubtful characters, as well as all the twists and turns and seemingly impossible situations that they encounter. It’s fast paced, full of action, danger, violence and double-cross – a most satisfying and compelling thriller. The ending in England is also intriguing, full of heart stopping moments in scenes that had my head whirling. Needless to say really, but I was gripped by this book and I just had to find out what happened. I think the last final twist about Hitler’s secret was very well done.