Remain Silent by Susie Steiner

‘The dead cannot speak. But they still have a story to tell.’

I’ve enjoyed two of Susie Steiner’s earlier books so I was keen to read her latest book, Remain Silent and once more I was totally immersed in the story. It’s the 3rd Manon Bradshaw book and I loved it.

Remain silent

The Borough Press | 28 May 2020 | 368 pages | review copy | 4*

‘By turns warm and witty, gripping and terrifying, heartbreaking and uplifting, Susie Steiner’s fourth book is both a literary tour de force and one of the finest crime novels of recent years.’ (extract from the publishers’ blurb)

My thoughts:

This is not just a police procedural and a gripping mystery it is a tragedy, a scathing look at modern life, centred on the exploitation of immigrant labour, racism and abuse that some of the foreign workers have to endure.

Manon Bradshaw is a Detective Inspector, a working mother with a young toddler, Teddy, her adopted teenage son, Fly and her partner, Mark Talbot who has recently been diagnosed with cancer. She is working in the Major Crime Unit on cold cases on a part-time basis and is not getting on well with her new boss, Detective Superintendent Gloria McBain. Despite that when she finds the body of Lukas Balsys hanging from a tree with a note attached saying ‘The dead cannot speak’,  McBain puts her in charge of the investigation into his death – did he commit suicide or was he murdered?

The story, as in the earlier books, has a complicated plot. This one revolves around the plight of a group of Lithuanian immigrants living and working in terrible conditions under a cruel gang master, Edikas. There is a large cast of characters –  as well as the Lithuanians and the police there is a local racist group leading a campaign of hatred with protest marches and the threat of violence.  All come over as incredibly real people, with the star characters being Manon, Lukas, his friend Matis and Elise who falls in love with Lukas, despite her racist father’s hatred of the immigrants.

This has all the ingredients of a successful crime novel for me. Although it starts off slowly building up a picture of the characters and their situation, it is gripping and intense, dealing with problems of prejudice and downright hatred and xenophobia – a most thought-provoking and shocking novel.

The Author

Susie Steiner is a novelist and freelance journalist. She began her writing career as a news reporter first on local papers, then on the Evening Standard, the Daily Telegraph and The Times. In 2001 she joined The Guardian, where she worked as a commissioning editor for 11 years. In May 2019 she was diagnosed with a brain tumour (Grade 4 Glioblastoma) and spent most of 2019 undergoing treatment: six hours of brain surgery, chemo radiation, and six cycles of chemotherapy. My best wishes for her recovery. For more information see her website, susiesteiner.co.uk

The Lost Lights of St Kilda by Elisabeth Gifford

the lost lights of st kilda

Atlantic Books Corvus| 05 Mar 2020| 288p| Review copy| 3*

Synopsis

1927: When Fred Lawson takes a summer job on St Kilda, little does he realise that he has joined the last community to ever live on that beautiful, isolated island. Only three years later, St Kilda will be evacuated, the islanders near dead from starvation. But for Fred, memories of that summer – and the island woman, Chrissie, with whom he falls in love – will never leave him.

1940: Fred has been captured behind enemy lines in France and finds himself in a prisoner-of-war camp. Beaten and exhausted, his thoughts return to the island of his youth and the woman he loved and lost. When Fred makes his daring escape, prompting a desperate journey across occupied territory, he is sustained by one thought only: finding his way back to Chrissie.

The Lost Lights of St Kilda is a sweeping love story that crosses oceans and decades. It is a moving and deeply vivid portrait of two lovers, a desolate island and the extraordinary power of hope in the face of darkness.

For those unaware, St Kilda is a Scottish island in the Atlantic Ocean which had been continuously inhabited from the Bronze Age up until 1930 when the island was evacuated due to an irretrievable population crash and the logistical difficulty of getting necessary supplies to an island essentially cut off during the Winter.

My thoughts:

The Lost Lights of St Kilda is historical fiction set mainly in two time periods, 1927 and the 1940s, following the story of Chrissy, a native of the island and Fred and Archie, visiting students from Cambridge University. At first I wasn’t really involved in the plot which is basically a romance, the story of a love triangle complete with all the misunderstandings and anguish that involved. I found it rather predictable, But the highlights of the book for me are the descriptions of St Kilda, its history, the importance to the islanders of the bird life, and their isolation and the poverty they endured. The account of the island’s evacuation is particularly moving.

After a slow start, the book picks up pace and I became more involved in the story. It’s a book of two halves really – the story of the last years of life on St Kilda and a war story. It’s very well researched and Elisabeth Gifford explains in her acknowledgements that the characters are loosely based on the people who lived on St Kilda whilst remaining fictional, although some of the characters featuring in the chapters about Fred’s wartime experience are based on real people. She lists the books she used for her research – books about the island, about Atlantic seabirds and journals and biographies of soldiers who were captured during the Second World War  and their escapes, all of which brought her novel to life for me.

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

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor

London, 1668 – A dangerous secret lies beneath Whitehall Palace…

The Last Protector

HarperCollins|2 April 2020|419 pages|ebook |Review copy via NetGalley|4*

The Last Protector is the fourth book in Andrew Taylor’s series featuring James Marwood, a government agent and Cat (Catherine) Lovett, set in Restoration England. The year is 1668 and the exiled Richard Cromwell, son of Oliver, heavily in debt, has returned in disguise to England.

Charles’ extravagant life style and licentious behaviour has now lost him the support of the people and many are hankering after the old days under Oliver Cromwell and then his son, Richard as Lord Protectors. He needs Parliament to vote him the funds to pay off his debts, maintain his court and fund the expansion of the navy and is relying on the Duke of Buckingham for support. However Marwood’s masters suspect that Buckingham is secretly conspiring against the King and assign him to spy on him. 

Cat, a regicide’s daughter, is married to Simon Hakesby, an elderly and ailing surveyor and architect. She knew Richard’s daughter Elizabeth as a child and finds herself drawn into the Cromwells’ plan to recover a package Richard’s mother had hidden in the Cockpit in the gardens of the Palace of Whitehall just before her death; a package Richard hopes would be sufficient to clear his debts. He turns to the Duke of Buckingham for support in gaining access to the Cockpit. Buckingham is keen to use Richard in his plans to gain power. Cat, who now is unhappy in her marriage, resentful of Simon’s demands on her, is reluctant to get involved but unfortunately for her Simon is eager to help, and they soon find themselves in great danger. She is reluctant to ask for Marwood’s help fearing they could be charged with treason.

Like the earlier books in the series this is a gripping story, full of historical detail, complications, intrigue and danger. The characterisation is brilliant with memorable characters such as Ferrus, a mazer-scourer’s labourer, who lives a terrible life, forced to sleep in a kennel with Windy, a vicious dog that guards the kitchen yard at the Cockpit. Treated brutally by his master, Ezra Reeves, his job is to clean the sewers. He is starved so he can squeeze himself down unto the foul stinking mess of the sewers, bending his long thin arms and legs. The stench of London comes across very vividly in this novel. Then there is Chloris, the kind-hearted prostitute, who helps Marwood. 

This is a book full of action too, with a swiftly moving plot and a climatic ending. It is full of suspense and surprises. Andrew Taylor is a supreme storyteller, combining fact and fiction – his novels are full of historical details that slot seamlessly into his stories.

I’ve read all  the earlier books and loved them too – The Ashes of London (set in 1666, six years after Charles II was reinstated as King) and The Fire Court (set in 1667, eight months after the Great Fire of London), and The King’s Evil (set seven months later). It is not necessary to read the earlier books as I think they all work well as standalones, but I think it really helps if you do.

Many thanks to the publishers, HarperCollins for my review copy.

Becoming Mrs Lewis by Patti Callahan

Becoming Mrs Lewis

3*

Blurb:

Poet, atheist and communist, New Yorker Joy Davidman is an unconventional woman – and an unlikely partner for an English academic and theologian.

And when she starts a correspondence with Narnia author C. S. Lewis, she isn’t looking for love. Her own marriage crumbling, she seeks refuge in her work, and guidance from a writer she admires.

But in Joy’s letters Lewis discovers a kindred spirit, and an intellect to equal his own. Bonding over a shared love of literature and ideas, a deep connection is forged between the two.

Embarking on the adventure of a lifetime, Joy travels from America to England and back again. Facing heartbreak and poverty, discovering friendship and faith, against all the odds, the couple struggle to secure a love that will endure forever.

My thoughts:

I was keen to read Becoming Mrs Lewis by Patti Callahan as I have read many of C S Lewis’ books and was enthralled watching Anthony Hopkins, Debra Winger, and Julian Fellowes in Shadowlands (not a dry eye in the cinema) some years ago. Shadowlands is  about his meeting with Helen Joy Davidman and about the events that led to their marriage. I think the blurb (see above) summarises the events that led to Jack and Joy’s marriage very well and it was what made me want to read the book. 

When I’d read part of the book I discovered that Patti Callahan was giving an online blog tour.  It was very helpful, as I had been wondering whether the correspondence between Jack (as C S Lewis was known to his family and friends) and Joy that she quoted in the book was taken from their actual letters. She clarified that their letters had been lost – Jack had destroyed Joy’s letters to him because they were personal, whilst Joy had kept his letters to her in a trunk, but later it was vandalised and all the letters had gone. So, she had read the letters they had written to other people and used those as a basis for the letters in her book. In other words the letters in the book are imagined but inspired by those letters. She also said that the bones of her book are based on the facts – the dates and times are correct the rest is fiction.

However when I went back to the book I became disappointed. Written as though Joy herself is telling their story it is intense, passionate and very personal and I felt very uncomfortable reading it – as though I was eavesdropping on the characters. If I had been reading romantic fiction I wouldn’t have felt that way – but then I probably wouldn’t have read it at all.

Joy’s marriage was portrayed as a nightmare, her boys were in fear of their father and what he wanted from Joy was not the independent woman she was, but the little wife at home, submissive and obedient to him. He was abusive, an alcoholic and subject to rages. She found acceptance and understanding from Jack both in his letters and in person when she met him in England. What I found difficult to read is the personal thoughts and feelings ascribed to Joy and her desire for a physical relationship with Jack. I couldn’t warm to her, which is a shame as Patti Callahan’s admiration of her came over very strongly in her talk and she said that she had written the book so that people would care about her. It appeared to me from this book that she was almost stalking Jack. I was surprised that she felt able to spend so much time in England, despite missing her sons. She had left them at home with her husband and her cousin who was so obviously the kind of woman her husband desired.  

I was in two minds several times about finishing the book, but I’m glad I persevered to the end as overall I did enjoy it even though I think it went into too much detail. It has inspired me to look back at the books I have by and about C S Lewis and  to find out more about Joy Davidman.

My thanks to Harper Collins Inspire for a review copy via NetGalley.

The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

A terrible secret lies buried at the heart of this house

Animals at Lockwood Manor

Mantle| 5 March 2020| 352 pages| e-book| review copy via NetGalley| 3*

I enjoyed The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey although I think is too long with some repetitions and so in places I felt it dragged a bit. It is historical fiction, part a love story and part a mystery, beginning in 1939 at the outbreak of World War Two. A taxidermy collection of mainly mammals is being evacuated from a natural history museum in London to Lockwood Manor in the countryside to save them from the threat of bombs. Owned by Major Lord Lockwood, the Lockwood estate is ancient, although most of the house had been built in the Jacobean style in the nineteenth century, with two round turrets and a pierce parapet with pinnacles. Most of its many rooms are empty as the only residents are the Major and his daughter, Lucy along with the servants, whose numbers are down as they enlist.

In charge of the collection is Hetty Cartwright, a young woman, who soon realises she had taken on more than she expected. And it’s not long before, one after another, some of the animals go missing or are mysteriously moved from their positions in the long gallery. The book begins well as the scene is set, and I could feel the tension and mystery surrounding the house and in particular surrounding Lucy and her mother, Heloise. Heloise died in a car crash not long before the book begins, but we see her in Lucy’s journal in which she writes down her nightmares, thoughts and memories.

The narration alternates between Lucy’s journal and the events as experienced by Hetty. The characters of Hetty and Lucy are well drawn as their relationship develops, and the house and the museum animals too are vividly described. I loved the details of the museum collection, and how the conditions at Lockwood affected their condition as insects invaded the stuffed creatures. 

After a good start the pace then slows down and not a lot really happens until the final dramatic ending. Some of the characters are caricatured – for example the Major who is portrayed as an overbearing lecherous man, a pantomime villain. There is a more than a touch of the supernatural in the book, and a lot in it that reminded me of Jane Eyre and The Woman in White, as Hetty fears she is descending into madness. It’s the type of story that would make an excellent film or TV drama and, this is not something I usually think, would probably be better than the book.

Many thanks to Mantle for a review copy via NetGalley.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Challenge, Calendar of Crime, Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Writing Wild by Kathryn Aalto

Writing Wild

3.5*

‘An exciting, expert, and invaluable group portrait of seminal women writers enriching a genre crucial to our future.’ —Booklist

Blurb:

In Writing Wild, Kathryn Aalto celebrates 25 women, both historical and current, whose influential writing helps deepen our connection to and understanding of the natural world. These inspiring wordsmiths are scholars, spiritual seekers, conservationists, scientists, novelists, and explorers. They defy easy categorization, yet they all share a bold authenticity that makes their work both distinct and universal.

Part travel essay, literary biography, and cultural history, Writing Wild ventures into the landscapes and lives of extraordinary writers and encourages a new generation of women to pick up their pens, head outdoors, and start writing wild.

My thoughts:

Writing Wild: Women Poets, Ramblers and Mavericks Who Shape How We See The Natural World is by Kathryn Aalto and illustrated by Gisela Goppel. Published by Timber Press it will be released in paperback on 1 April, with a Kindle edition to follow on 14 April 2020.

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but I do enjoy reading books about nature, so Writing Wild appealed to me. Kathryn Aalto’s reason for writing her book was to highlight what these 25 women writers have written, their historical significance and the barriers, biases and bullying they overcame to write. It covers two hundred years of women’s history through nature writing, including natural history, environmental philosophy, country life, scientific writing, garden arts, memoirs and meditations and does not aim to dismiss men’s contributions. Gisela Goppel’s portraits of each writer head each chapter. Aalto writes an introduction to each writer and includes excerpts of prose, poems and essays with added recommendations for further reading, plus a list of sources and an index.

Predominantly American and British, some of these women writers are familiar to me, such as Dorothy Wordsworth, Vita Sackville West, Nan Shepherd, Rachel Carson, Mary Oliver, Annie Dillard and Helen Macdonald. Others are new to me, but I would like to read several of their works, such as Andrea Wulf’s book The  Brother Gardeners in which  she explores how England became a nation of gardeners. Wulf, a design historian, writes horticultural and historical history through narrative nonfiction, borrowing techniques from fiction to make nonfiction come alive. Elena Passarello’s Animals Strike Curious Poses essay collection, which Aalto describes as written with  laugh-out-loud humour and depth of empathy, also particularly appeals to me.

One of the things I learned reading this book is the name ‘Cli-fi’. I hadn’t come across it before but of course, it is not a new genre. As Aalto points out it goes back at least to Jules Verne’s 1889 The Purchase of the North Pole. Contemporary examples including Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour. The writer she chooses to illustrate this genre is Saci Lloyd, an acclaimed writer of cli-fi, whose vivid and action packed books include The Carbon Diaries, about the effects of carbon reduction policies. They are gritty eco-thrillers featuring Laura Brown a 16 year old trying to manage life with a carbon deficit card.

Kathryn Aalto is a writer, designer, historian and lecturer. For the past twenty-five years, her focus has been on places where nature and culture intersect: teaching literature of nature and place, designing gardens, and writing about the natural world. Her work explores historic and horticultural themes with a contemporary twist. She is the author of The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood (2015) and Nature and Human Intervention (2011). Her website is kathrynaalto.com.

My thanks to Timber Press for a review copy via NetGalley.

The Sleepwalker by Joseph Knox

The Sleepwalker Knox

The Sleepwalker by Joseph Knox is the third Detective Aidan Waits novel. It has to be the most complicated book that I’ve read in a very long time. Two years ago I read the second book, The Smiling Man, even though I hadn’t read the first one, Sirens, and loved it, so I was keen to read the third one. It certainly didn’t disappoint me and although I think the books read well as stand-alones, it would probably be best to read them in order. To say that Waits has troubled background is an understatement. He 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. 

The Sleepwalker is dark, violent and absolutely brilliant. I just didn’t want it to end and at the same time I just had to know what happened next. There are so many strands that you have to keep in mind, so many characters to sort out where they fit into the story and it’s all so cleverly linked together. You think you have it sorted and then you realise there’s more to come. It’s perfectly paced throughout, culminating in an astounding and shocking conclusion that had me reeling.

Quite simply, I loved it.

My thanks to Transworld Publishers for a review copy via NetGalley.