A Maigret Christmas by Georges Simenon

A Christmas Mystery

Publication date 2 November 2017, Penguin Books (UK). Newly translated by David Coward

Review copy from the publishers, via NetGalley

My rating: 4 stars

The review copy of A Maigret Christmas and Other Stories by Georges Simenon I received contains just one of the three stories in this collection, A Maigret Christmas which was first published in 1950 as Un Noël de Maigret.

It’s set in Paris on Christmas Day. Inspector Maigret has the day off and Madame Maigret, hoping to bring him croissants for his breakfast in bed, as she usually does on Sundays and public holidays, is disappointed to find that he had got up before she returned from the corner shop. Both Maigret and his wife are feeling not exactly depressed but rather melancholy, with no family to visit at Christmas.

Their plan to spend a quiet morning cocooned in their apartment is disrupted by the arrival of two ladies, Madame Martin and Mademoiselle Doncoeur, who live in the apartment opposite in the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir. Colette, a little girl staying with her aunt and uncle, Madame Martin and her husband, had woken in the night and seen Father Christmas in her room, making a hole in the floor. He gave her a present, a big doll and then held up his finger to his lips as he left. But who was he and why was he trying to take up the floorboards?

Maigret, concerned about Colette, decides to help and, phoning his colleagues at the Quai des Orfevres for information, he spends the rest of the day solving the mystery. As the mystery is unravelled it turns out to be anything but simple. I enjoyed this story for the mystery itself, but I also liked the light it throws on Maigret and his wife, their relationship and the sadness they feel at being childless, particularly so at Christmas.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy via NetGalley.

Amazon UK link

Of Women by Shami Chakrabarti

A global perspective on gender injustice

Publication date 26 October 2017, Penguin, 229p. 

Review copy from the publishers via NetGalley

My rating: 3 stars

Shami Chakrabarti is passionate, and indeed angry, about the need for gender equality in her book Of Women: in the 21 Century.  She examines the effects of gender injustice on a wide variety of issues in many parts of the world. In parts it reads like a dry academic textbook, packed full of statistics and wide ranging examples of gender injustice on a global scale. It becomes more personal however, when she writes about her own experiences her family and her background.

She covers a broad overview of many issues, rather than an in depth study, including violence against women, abortion, sanitary products, childcare and sex education and topics such as faith, the concept of home and displaced persons, health, wealth, education, representation, opportunity and insecurity in the 21st century. There are so many issues for just one book of just 229 pages and it is depressing reading for the most part, even though she suggests a number of initiatives to improve matters.

However, she remains optimistic, concluding that she believes that ‘far greater equality for women and men is realistically within our reach and well worth the stretch.’ I don’t think it is that easy and will need more than a ‘stretch’.

There is an extensive list (for each chapter heading) of ‘Further Reading and Viewing’ at the end of the book, but I think it would also be helpful to have an index to the wide ranging issues covered in this book.

Shami Chakrabarti is a former director of Liberty (2003-16), is Labour’s Shadow Attorney General, a member of the House of Lords, and the author of On Liberty, a book about human rights violations published in 2014.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy via NetGalley.

Amazon UK

The Corpse in the Snowman by Nicholas Blake

A Golden Age Mystery

Publication date 2017, Ipso Books, 305p. First published as The Case of the Abominable Snowman in 1941 by Collins UK (The Crime Club)

Review copy from the publishers, Ipso Books, via NetGalley

My rating: 3 stars

I enjoyed The Corpse in the Snowman by Nicholas Blake* a vintage murder mystery with a complicated plot. There’s a death and a body hidden in a snowman that is only discovered when a thaw sets in. It is set in 1940 in an isolated country house with a closed cast of characters and an amateur detective, Nigel Strangeways, helping the police and eventually solving the mystery. There are numerous twists and turns and red herrings before the murderer is revealed.

Easterham Manor in Essex, the home of the Restorick family is cut off from the neighbouring village by snow. Strange things have been going on. On Christmas Eve the family and their guests had gathered in what was said to be a haunted room waiting to see if the ghost would appear when  Scribbles, the family cat  sprang at a corner of the room and repeatedly struck her head against the wall and turned herself into a whirling dervish.

Some weeks later Nigel Strangeways and his wife Georgia  have been invited by Georgia’s cousin, Clarissa to stay at the Manor’s Dower House to investigate the cat incident. The next morning Elizabeth Restorick is found hanged and naked in her room, a hint of a smile playing on her painted lips. Was it suicide, or a murder made to look like suicide? Nigel is convinced it was murder and finds there are plenty of suspects. Elizabeth was a drug addict – so, was she killed by the doctor who was treating her addiction, or by Will Dykes, a romantic novelist in love with Elizabeth, or her friend Miss Ainsley, described as a ‘nondescript sort of fribble‘ -a frivolous or foolish person – or by one of the family?

The title and the first chapter give away a vital element of the plot – the snowman, built by the Restorick children, twins John and Priscilla, melts to reveal a corpse hidden inside. But at this point the identity of the corpse is unknown and as I was reading the rest of the book I kept trying to work out who it could be. It wasn’t too difficult, but it did detract a little from the mystery and I didn’t enjoy it as much as his earlier book Malice in Wonderland.

*Nicholas Blake was the pseudonym of Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis (1904 – 1972), one of the leading British poets of the 1930s. He began writing mysteries in 1935 to supplement his income from poetry and published his first Nigel Strangeways detective novel, A Question of Proof in 1935. The Corpse in the Snowman aka The Case of the Abominable Snowman is the 2nd in the series.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy via NetGalley.

The Hanged Man by Simon Kernick

Expected publication date 16 November 2017

Review copy from the publishers, Random House, Century, via NetGalley

My rating: 2.5 stars

In December 2016 I read the first book in this series The Bone Field by Simon Kernick. It ended on a cliff-hanger in the last sentence (just when you thought it was all over). The Hanged Man is the second book in the series and refers back to events in The Bone Field, but in enough detail so it probably doesn’t matter much if you haven’t read the first book. It’s packed full of action right from the opening chapter as Hugh Manning and his wife are on the run from some very dangerous and violent people who are out to kill them. The police are also looking for Hugh as he is the only witness to what had happened at the farmhouse (dubbed ‘The Bone Field‘) where the bodies of seven women had been found.

Ray Mason, suspended from the police after the events told in The Bone Field, and now exonerated, is back on the case, working with Dan Watts in the National Crime Agency. The main suspects are the Kalamans,  brother and sister, Alastair and Lola Sheridan and a mysterious character called Mr Bone. It’s  told through different characters’ viewpoints, including Ray’s partner, ex-cop and now a PI, Tina Boyd. With so many characters acting as narrator it’s useful that Kernick uses the first person when telling what happens as seen through Ray’s eyes, whereas the rest are told in the third person.

It’s complicated, maybe over-complicated and I found myself racing through it. There are too many characters and sub-plots. Some characters are like cardboard cut-outs, the ‘baddies’ really bad and the ‘goodies’, particularly Ray Mason, who breaks all the rules, not much better. It’s a world full of corruption and secrets, where life is of little account and murder commonplace, and nobody is safe. But because I knew the identities of the criminals from the start there is no mystery – it’s just a matter of who will get to Manning first, the police or the villains and will the villains be caught? There’s climatic ending – but is this really the end …?

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy via NetGalley.

Amazon UK
Amazon US

 

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

Birdcage Walk

Blurb:

It is 1792 and Europe is seized by political turmoil and violence. Lizzie Fawkes has grown up in Radical circles where each step of the French Revolution is followed with eager idealism. But she has recently married John Diner Tredevant, a property developer who is heavily invested in Bristol’s housing boom, and he has everything to lose from social upheaval and the prospect of war. Soon his plans for a magnificent terrace built above the two-hundred-foot drop of the Gorge come under threat. Tormented and striving Diner believes that Lizzie’s independent, questioning spirit must be coerced and subdued. She belongs to him: law and custom confirm it, and she must live as he wants—his passion for Lizzie darkening until she finds herself dangerously alone.

Weaving a deeply personal and moving story with a historical moment of critical and complex importance, Birdcage Walk is an unsettling and brilliantly tense drama of public and private violence, resistance and terror from one of our greatest storytellers.

My thoughts:

This is Helen Dunmore’s last book, but the first one of hers I’ve read, although Exposure is sitting in my Kindle waiting to be read. It’s historical fiction, although I think it’s mainly a meditation on death and the legacy we leave behind. And that is most poignant as although at the time she was writing the book Helen Dunmore didn’t know it she was seriously ill and she died earlier this year. She was the author of 12 novels, three books of short stories, numerous books for young adults and children and 11 collections of poetry.

As she wrote in the Afterword:

I suppose that a writer’s creative self must have access to knowledge of which the conscious mind and the emotions are still ignorant, and that a novel written at such a time, under such a growing shadow, cannot help being full of a sharper light, rather as a landscape becomes brilliantly distinct in the last sunlight before a storm. I have rarely felt the existence of characters more clearly, or understood them more deeply – or enjoyed writing about them more.

I was completely absorbed in this book as I read it. It’s written beautifully and poetically, moving slowly as the details of Lizzie and Diner’s marriage come sharply into focus. Birdcage Walk was first published in March 2017, so I’m coming a bit late to reading it and the drawbacks of that are that I’ve seen several reviews and have realised that (like many books) there are mixed opinions about it. I’ve seen criticisms that the pace is too slow, and that much of the plot is given away in the opening chapters. But I felt the pace was just right for the story and the subject matter, and I think the opening chapters set the scene and the theme of the book – that is, that life is transitory, that the individual vanishes, as it were, that no record is left of the lives of many of past generations, despite the effect they had on the lives of their contemporaries.

The Prelude reveals that Birdcage Walk in the present day is a paved path between railings with pleached lime trees arching overhead on their cast-iron frame. But back at the end of the 18th century it was where Diner had started to build a terrace of houses with fantastic views over the Avon Gorge (before the building of the Clifton Suspension Bridge). When war was declared between Britain and France in 1793 this had a disastrous effect and like many builders and developers, Diner’s building work slowed and then ceased as he went bankrupt.

The novel shows the effect of the French Revolution on England through newspaper reports and letters, which I thought was effective casting light on the contemporary scene and showing the horror of what was happening across the Channel. The main focus, however, is on Lizzie. Diner’s repressive and jealous nature comes increasingly to the fore as his building work decreases, and the tension between him and Lizzie soars, accelerated when she discovers what had happened to Lucie, his first wife. The sense of foreboding and menace present in their marriage pervades the whole novel.

Many thanks to Grove Atlantic for providing me with an ARC copy through NetGalley.

My rating: 4*

Amazon UK
Amazon US

Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

Publication: 19 October 2017, Harper Collins

Source: Review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 5*

Fair of Face by Christina James

Tina Brackenbury and her baby daughter Bluebell are dead …

Fair of Face

Fair of Face is the sixth novel in the DI Yates series and  I think it stands well on its own. It is not a book you can read quickly as there are plenty of characters and several plot threads that need to be kept in mind. It is an intricately plotted mystery, re-assessing a crime from the past whilst investigating a present day murder, set in Spalding in Lincolnshire. I  didn’t find it an easy book to review.

The book begins with Tristram Arkwright, a prisoner in HMP Wakefield. He works in the prison library and is secretly in correspondence with Jennifer Dove, a bookseller who regularly supplies the prison. Jennifer is bored and finds Tristram a welcome diversion. He, meanwhile, is planning an appeal against his sentence insisting he is innocent.

Tina’s 10 year old foster daughter, Grace Winter was staying with a friend, Chloe and arrives home as DI Tim Yates and DS Juliet Armstrong are beginning their investigations into the deaths of Tina and Bluebelle. Grace acts strangely and doesn’t seem very upset by the murders and asks to see the bodies. But Grace has had a difficult life as this isn’t the first murder that she has encountered. Four years earlier her mother, sister and grandparents had been killed at their farmhouse and Grace had escaped by hiding in a cupboard. Grace was then adopted by Amy Winter, and only later sent to live with Tina. Her friend, Chloe, also has a troubled background, with brothers who are regularly in trouble with the police. She is noticeably intimated by them and by Grace. As both girls are only 10 years old the police work with Social Services in order to question them

I struggled for a while to sort out the relationships between all the characters and the relationship between the opening chapters and Tina and Bluebell’s murders. The narrative switches between the first person present tense (Juliet) and the third person past tense, which I found a bit awkward until I got used to it. And I was confused by characters with similar names – Tom and Tim for example – regularly having to check who was who. I also failed to see relevance of Jennifer Dove’s character in the opening chapters. But despite these drawbacks I enjoyed the book and was eager to solve the mysteries.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy of the book.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Salt Publishing (15 Oct. 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1784631086
  • ISBN-13: 978-1784631086
  • My rating: 3*